a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Storm Breaks Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203131h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2012 Date most recently updated: August 2012 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy and Colin Choat Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
An attractive and aristocratic-looking girl of apparently quite ordinary origin has always had good reason to believe she was not the daughter of her mother's husband. Losing both her parents, she seeks her fortune in London, makes her way into the social world and marries into a titled family. Then, through no fault of her own, she becomes involved in the death of a scoundrel who was attempting to blackmail her. Thanks to the help of the one-time great detective, Gilbert Larose, she at first eludes the law, though Scotland Yard is quite certain that she is the guilty woman.
Move and counter move follow in rapid succession right up to the thrilling and dramatic climax of one of Arthur Gask's most notable novels.
CHAPTER II.—THE GREAT ADVENTURE
CHAPTER III.—BIRDS OF PREY
CHAPTER IV.—THE PRECIPICE SIDE
CHAPTER V.—THE FIRST STEP ON THE LADDER
CHAPTER VI.—THE TURN OF THE WHEEL
CHAPTER VIII.—THE MISSING KERCHIEF
CHAPTER IX.—THE HOUNDS UPON THE TRAIL
CHAPTER X.—THE MAJESTY OF THE LAW
"Mr. Larose," said the aristocratic-looking young woman, with a choke in her voice, "I have come to you for advice. Two days ago I killed a man. He attacked me and had been intending to blackmail me. His body lies hidden in a pond. Should I give myself up to the police, or say nothing in the hope that I may not be found out? You remember me, don't you? We met at Blackston Manor a little while ago."
It would be difficult for the generation of to-day, or even, perhaps, for middle-aged people, to realise the social conditions prevailing in England sixty to seventy years ago. It was an age of class-distinctions appalling in their bitterness and stupidity.
The so-called upper classes regarded all who were not born to lives of idleness and pleasure as being of different flesh and blood from those who had to work for their living; and, looking back now, it seems almost incredible that their snobbery and exclusiveness could have been of such a silly and childish nature.
Those engaged in trade in any form were never admitted to society or considered eligible to be presented at Court. The disadvantage, too, of their father's calling was passed down to the children, and boys whose fathers owned businesses were automatically debarred from many of our best public schools, with their social inferiority being rubbed into them during all their adolescent years.
In country towns this prevailing snobbishness was even worse than in the big towns, but it was not without its humorous side. There—families high up in the social scale might be deeply in debt to the local tradespeople, but it was considered to be quite all right to pretend not to see them, or cut them dead when they were met out in the street. Recognition, it was believed, would have been lowering to the dignity of those who possessed birth and breeding.
As for the labouring classes, the contempt in which so many held them was exemplified by a story current then of a titled young lady of extremely ancient lineage who took to herself a husband of an equally exalted birth and, gratified with the privileges of married life, is said to have remarked to her husband, "And is marriage the same for the common people, Adolphus, because, if so, it is much too good for them!"
With the nation divided into the historic upper, middle and lower classes, the snobbery of the upper one in turn affected the middle one, now, however, taking on an entirely different form, as it was the possession of money there which so lifted a man above his fellows. Anyone with a shilling in his pocket regarded himself as greatly superior to one with only sixpence. So it followed therefore that the gulf between the well-to-do and poorer middle class was every bit as wide and deep as that between the people of society and those engaged in commerce. In middle-class circles it was a man's income, every time, which determined his position in his social world.
Mary Hinks's father was a £4-a-week clerk in a firm of wholesale clothiers in the city, and, though his salary was considered quite a good one, he mixed neither with those who were earning more nor with those earning less.
With a wife and six children, the family lived in Manor Park, an East End suburb of London close to Wanstead Flats, and enjoyed, or rather endured, the usual drab monotonous lives common to those in their position in the comparatively speaking uneventful years from the late 'seventies almost to the coming of the first Great War.
There were no pictures in those days; theatres were far too much a luxury for families with small means, and music-halls were considered as improper for young people. In consequence, a concert arranged by the church the Hinkses attended, a very occasional jaunt by tram to Epping Forest, or a rare visit to the Zoo, were the main highlights of their existence, and, with so few outside interests for the parents, it was not to be wondered at that the Hinks children were so generously begotten.
The Hinks family, as with the great majority of their class, was eminently respectable, conforming religiously to all the conventions of the day. Neatly, though it might have been poorly, dressed, and with clean hands and faces and hair nicely brushed, all who were old enough to go attended church twice every Sunday. Mr. Hinks did not swear or bet or frequent public houses, and his only luxuries were his pipe and morning and evening papers.
The Sunday paper was read exclusively by Mrs. Hinks and himself. It was invariably kept out of the way of the younger members of the family.
At that time divorce cases were fully reported, and when the divorce courts were sitting the Sunday papers vied with one another in providing full and spicy details for their readers. So, with divorce almost wholly the privilege of the wealthy classes, "What the footman saw through the crack in the blinds," and "What the butler heard through the keyhole," often constituted the general type of headlines.
The intense interest the middle classes always showed in the doings of the classes above them was also catered for by a very lively red-covered mid-weekly journal known as Modern Society, and within reach of everyone at the price of one penny. It had a very wide circulation and, from backstairs information and kitchen tittle-tattle undoubtedly supplied by the domestic staff of certain of 'the great houses', it was notorious for its scandal and innuendoes about many society people.
Now it cannot be too strongly insisted that, with all their smug respectability and narrow-mindedness, right down from the Victorian era the middle classes had been the very backbone of the country's morality. Their eldest born did not arrive until the proper time, their marriage vows were rarely broken, and their daughters, in course of time, entered matrimony in the virgin state.
It is true that in their days of adolescence the male scions of the family often set their feet upon unlawful and forbidden ways, but it seemed to be a point of honour with them never to bring misfortune upon a girl of their own class. In the main it was the servant girl who was their target, she being held to be good hunting, and materfamilias with a pretty one in her service had to keep a vigilant and unclosing eye upon the youthful males of the family.
Mrs. Hinks, however, was spared all anxiety there, as she was never well enough off to keep a maid. Always in poor health, she kept Mary, the eldest of the children, at home to be the family help. A girl of gentle disposition and uncomplaining nature, though she would certainly have much preferred to go out and earn her own living, Mary did not grumble and accepted the conditions as a matter of course.
Her father was as generous with her as he could afford to be and, when eighteen years of age, she was receiving the weekly wage of five shillings. With this she had to dress herself and provide all luxuries such as sweets, papers and books. With books she did not trouble much, but she always bought two weekly papers, one, the Family Herald, a weekly fiction magazine of twenty-four pages which could be purchased for a penny, and another, Bow Bells Novelette, at the same price. This latter magazine was not high-class, but for all that was most satisfying for those sentimentally inclined. A monotonous life Mary's might certainly have been, but it was one endured by many hundreds of thousands such as she, and never having known anything different they did not complain.
Of medium height and decidedly pretty, with her perfect little figure, she was undoubtedly an attractive girl. She always looked fresh and clean and had a nice colouring, a good complexion and frank, clear blue eyes.
Her father, however, was very strict and never allowed her out at night. Added to that, he insisted they were not well enough off to entertain and, moreover, the house was not large enough for company. Accordingly, Mary had no opportunities of making friends.
Of course she had her dreams and hoped that one day she would make a good marriage and perhaps—oh, how beautiful the thought was—live in the country among the trees and flowers. Then she would keep fowls and ducks and might even have a pony and trap!
When she was approaching her twentieth birthday it seemed to her that her chance had come at last, though there was certainly not much romance about it. A man nearly as old as her father fell violently in love with her, and being in a good position with a good salary, her parents also backing him up, had little difficulty in persuading her to become his wife.
By name of Birtle Dane, he was quite ordinary-looking, with a long and rather solemn face and grave, unsmiling eyes. She made his acquaintance one August Bank Holiday when her father, in a burst of extravagance, had taken the whole family down to Southend for the day.
They first noticed him when, after their picnic meal, the children and Mary were building castles upon the sands. He was seated upon the promenade above them and seemed interested in watching all they were doing. Presently he walked down to them and, raising his hat politely, asked if Mr. Hinks would kindly tell him the time, as he did not think his own watch was correct.
A conversation ensued, he admired the children and remarked how healthy they all looked, and expressed surprise to learn that they did not always live by the sea, but, as with himself, were only excursionists down for the day. It was remembered afterwards that, though it was mostly about the children he talked, his eyes never left Mary for very long. And certainly she was worth looking at, with her blue eyes sparkling in animation, her face so delicately flushed by her exertions and her pretty hair looking its best under the bright sun.
Presently, this agreeable stranger suggested that he and Mr. Hinks should stroll away in search of some liquid refreshment, and in the bar of the Grand Hotel more conversation ensued, names and addresses were exchanged in the most friendly way, and to his astonishment Mr. Hinks learnt that his new acquaintance was staying not a mile away from Manor Park, indeed quite near in Forest Gate.
At length returning to the family, Mr. Dane passed the rest of the afternoon with them, and finally returned to town in the same railway carriage.
He told them quite a lot about himself, how he was only upon a holiday in England, how his work lay with a big firm of wine merchants in the wonderful city of Bordeaux and how, as a bachelor, he lived in a big house upon the bank of the beautiful Garonne river, and was looked after by a housekeeper with a maid under her. Life in France, he said, was much brighter and gayer than in England.
In parting he asked if he might call one evening at Manor Park and continue the conversation; he knew no one but his mother with whom he was staying in Forest Gate and he was very lonely.
Permission being readily given—Mr. Hinks had been greatly impressed with his prosperous appearance—he called the following evening, and from the very first there was no doubt that it was Mary who was his main attraction. He took her and Mrs. Hinks to see his mother, and later Mary went alone with him to Madame Tussaud's and several theatres. The young girl was thrilled at the attention she was receiving, and when one night they had the three-and-sixpenny dinner at the Holborn Restaurant, and she sat listening to the soft and gentle strains of the orchestra, she was sure that at last she was indeed seeing life.
It was a whirlwind courtship, with the climax coming one evening only ten days after she had first come to know her ardent admirer. With the connivance of her parents, she found herself alone with Dane, and in their shabby little parlour, with his voice choking in his eagerness, he asked her to become his wife.
She had been warned by her mother what was coming and, demurely turning down her eyes in the fashion approved of in the Bow Bells Novelette, whispered that she would.
She knew quite well she was not in love with him, as she was experiencing none of those exquisite feelings which, again according to the Bow Bells Novelette, should have been running up and down her spine at such a thrilling moment. She was just consenting to marry him to get away from the drab and dull monotony of her life at Manor Park.
In the joyful excitement of buying new clothes she gave practically no thought to the sex side of marriage.
As Dane's holiday was quickly running out, they were married by special licence at the church in Manor Park. When the ceremony was over, as there was no reception following, they were driven straightway to the Regent Palace Hotel where they were to stay until the morrow when they would take the boat-train to Southampton and sail for Bordeaux.
For Mary Dane, ignorant and all unprepared, the victim of her parents' reticence and prudery, the beginning of her wedded life was a great shock to her, when what marriage really meant burst like a clap of thunder upon her.
She had sold her young body, with all its possibilities of ecstasy and passion, for the sixteen thousand francs a year which was her husband's salary, the big house upon the banks of the Garonne and the servants who went with it! All romance for her was finished, and she would never know the fulfilment of those fierce hopes and longings which, she had so often read, were the heaven-sent gifts to all young life!
An angry resentment surged through her. Her father and mother should never have encouraged her to marry such a husband. They had sold her like a slave, just as if their only thought had been to get rid of her as quickly as they could.
The next day they boarded the boat for Bordeaux, and to her great delight Mary found herself to be a good sailor, quite unaffected by the rough sea they encountered directly they reached open water. Everything was most enjoyable for her and she was able to go down to all the meals. Not so her husband, however, as he started being sick at once and, during the whole crossing, lay moaning and groaning in their cabin. A dreadful green colour, with his face all sunken in without his dental plates, he looked a horrible, unsavoury old man, and poor Mary shuddered as she thought that now he was always going to be her bedfellow.
When eventually they arrived at Bordeaux, Dane was so exhausted that he had almost to be carried off the boat, and Mary realised only too well that a time of tribulation for her had begun.
Then followed three very unhappy years for her when she never ceased to regret her foolish and hasty marriage. Certainly at first her husband had made a great fuss over her and shown himself thrilled in her possession. However, it had not lasted very long, and very soon his middle-aged passion had begun to flag, within a few months manifesting itself in only very occasional short and sharp flares-up which were never anything but most distressing to her.
With his interest in his wife waning, his character was soon to show itself in a very different light from the courteous and so charming suitor of Manor Park. His temper was exceedingly irritable and he was mean and petty in many ways, expecting Mary to account for every sou he gave her. Also, in a surly and bullying fashion, he expected her to fall in line with all his confirmed bachelor habits.
Meals must never be one minute late, and the food was monotonous in its lack of variety and only consisted of what he himself fancied. Mary vexed him greatly, too, by showing no appreciation of good wine and always preferred, as he styled them, horrible cups of tea, taken at all hours of the day whenever she could obtain them.
A hypochondriac of long standing, he was always imagining he was upon the verge of some serious illness and for ever dosing himself with different drugs. Upon the slightest cold in the head, Mary had to put poultice after poultice upon his chest to prevent, as he said, things getting worse. He had a horror of draughts of fresh air of any kind, and wherever he was, both night and day, the doors and windows had to be kept shut.
The house and domestic arrangements, too, were disappointing to Mary, not being upon anything like so grand a scale as her husband had made out. It was true he lived in a large house of three stories, but the whole of the ground floor was occupied by the business part of the firm. Then, the housekeeper and maid he had spoken of were really nothing more than two general servants. They were two sisters, the elder of them only about seven and twenty, and as well as attending to the residential part they acted as cleaners to the offices. They were hard workers, doing much more, Mary thought, than any English servants would have done, getting up at five every morning and at work down below again every evening after the clerks had gone.
Dane had no friends, and no strangers were ever brought in to meals. He hardly ever went out, and expected Mary to lead the same uninteresting and monotonous life. Even when he had apparently lost all interest in her, he was yet extremely jealous, introducing her to as few people as possible, and after she had returned from her daily walk, never failing to ask where she had been, to whom she had spoken and whom she had seen.
From the very first the two maids, Jeanne and Lucille, had been most kind to her and anxious to do anything they could for her. They smiled all over their bright red faces whenever they saw her, and, even before she had picked up enough French words to hold any conversation with them, she realised from their manner how sorry they were for her. When Dane was not upstairs it was a great joke with them to bring her many cups of the so discredited and almost forbidden cups of tea. She knew it was a wonder to them how she had ever come to marry their master.
Another sorrow for Mary was that Dane was deliberately attempting to cut her away from her family. He would not allow her to return to England for the briefest of holidays, and when she once timidly suggested he should invite her father or two of the older children to visit her, he refused so disagreeably that she never dared ask him again.
So was Mary, after three years of married life, a sad and dispirited woman, her vivacity and brightness all gone, living a dull and monotonous life with apparently no hopes whatever of any happiness in the future. Sometimes she used to look in the mirror and think how old and worn she was growing. No wonder, she would sigh, for she had nothing worth living for, and to put a crown upon her misery her conscience told her she had come to positively hate her husband. She loathed the very sight of him.
Then, suddenly, and as if at last in pity for her, Fate opened a window in the clouds and romance came into her life, real romance such as she had read of in those far-off days in the Bow Bells Novelette.
She first met him one sunny afternoon in the public gardens. She was sitting upon one of the seats there, idly watching the ducks swimming in the ornamental water, when she noticed a young fellow passing by and it struck her at once how handsome he was. She judged him to be a little older than herself. He was refined and distinguished looking, with his expression, however, quite a boyish one. He was walking slowly and she noted he gave her a quick appraising glance as he passed.
He did not go very far away, but, turning to retrace his steps and drawing level with her, raised his hat politely and asked if she would very kindly tell him the time. He spoke in French and she replied in the same language, though her words were halting and she knew her accent was not good.
"Oh, you're English!" he exclaimed with a bright smile. "I thought so when I passed just now. I'm English, too. Do you mind if I have a little chat with you? It's so nice to speak in one's own language for a change."
He seated himself down and quite an animated little conversation followed, or rather the animation was at first almost entirely upon his side. Mary was shy and confused, though greatly thrilled he should have thought her attractive enough to want to speak to her. Still, gradually, she lost her shyness and could look him straight in the face without getting hot.
He told her he had come from London upon a holiday, but he knew no one in Bordeaux and didn't find it so much fun as he had thought it would be, being all by himself. He never had been a great one for sight-seeing. In return, Mary told him she, too, was a Londoner, and in many ways would rather be living there now, but then, she added with a blush, she was married, and her husband having his work here, of course there was no help for it.
The conversation lasted only a few minutes, and then he left her with the smiling hope that perhaps he might be seeing her again in the next day or two, as he generally came to the gardens in the afternoon.
Of course he did see her again. Mary had lain awake half the night thinking of him, and the following afternoon had seated herself upon the same seat, almost exactly at the same time. She learnt afterwards that he had been watching from among the trees, and he came up to her within a couple of minutes of her arrival.
Their conversation was more personal this time. They exchanged names, and she thought how well his unusual Christian name of Athol suited him. It had such a distinguished sound. He told her he had just come down from Cambridge where he had taken his degree. He had not yet made up his mind what occupation to follow.
In return, Mary told him something of herself, how she had come to Bordeaux as a bride three years ago, and had seen none of her relations since. She had no real friends in France and often felt very lonely. She had no little ones and it was something of a grief to her she was so far from home. She often felt very lonely.
They met again the next day, and after a few minutes' talk Athol suggested they go for a little walk. For a few moments Mary hesitated, but then replied with a certain tremor in her voice, "All right, but up the other end of the gardens, please." She laughed a little nervously. "You see, my husband is much older than I and might be annoyed if he came to know about it. He is rather old-fashioned in his ways."
"Oh, you'll be quite safe with me," laughed back Athol, "I wouldn't eat you, though the prospect there"—he gave her an admiring glance—"might be by no means an unpleasant one."
They had their little walk among the trees, exchanging more confidences as they went along. Mary was thrilled at being alone with him and certain now that no inquisitive eyes were watching them. Their conduct, however, could not have been more correct, as Athol treated her with the greatest respect and never ventured upon the slightest familiarity. Even when once he took her hand to help her over a stile, he did not hold it for the fraction of a second longer than was necessary. Mary was very sorry when at length she had to hurry away to be home before half-past five. Beyond that time things might be awkward, as, if her husband came upstairs, and found her away, he might become curious and start questioning her. She knew only too well how easily she gave herself away.
So things went on for a fortnight. They met every afternoon somewhere, but with no apparent warming up of their relations. Of course, by now she had told him all about her unhappy marriage, but to all appearances he had only the deepest sympathy for her loveless life.
As for Mary—she had apparently no deeper feelings for him than he had for her. It had just been a relief to her to tell her troubles to someone who she was sure would feel sorry for her. She knew it must be that he would quickly pass out of her life again, but it would remain for ever an abiding and cherished memory that someone had once been so kind and understanding.
Thus was everything upon the surface, but underneath and in their reality things were very different. In no way a philanderer and never having had much to do with the other sex, for this lonely and unhappy little woman Athol had come to conceive a deep and passionate regard, and he longed to take her in his arms and comfort her in the way only a lover could.
As for Mary, she made no pretence to herself that she was not deeply in love with this good-looking and kindly-natured boy. Regardless of all conventions and her marriage vows, she would have given herself to him with no care of any consequences. He was in her thoughts night and day, and she was dreading the time that must so soon come when he would be leaving her. She felt as she imagined a condemned criminal would feel when awaiting the morning of his execution. Back she would go to misery and loneliness, and her unhappiness, she was sure, would now be the more poignant as she had at last learnt what love really meant for such a few short hours before it was going to be snatched from her.
One afternoon a fierce thunderstorm came over the city and, as they were near a big church at the time, they took refuge in it until the rain was over. The light was very dim inside and they appeared to be the only persons present. They seated themselves in one of the pews and started whispering together.
Presently a verger appeared from the direction of the vestry, and as he passed by several times Athol thought he eyed them curiously. So slipping a couple of francs into his hand, he asked him what time evensong was held. The man told him and then, with a pleasant smile, suggested they should go and sit in the lady chapel. "You will be out of the draughts there, Monsieur," he said, "and can whisper as much as you want to without disturbing anybody."
So they moved their seats to where he led them behind a big pillar, and directly he had gone Athol remarked carelessly, "A very understanding man that"—his voice shook ever so little—"and at last I've got you all to myself." He gave a quick glance round to make sure that no one could see them and then, without a moment's hesitation, put his arm round Mary and, drawing her to him, gave her a long and lingering kiss full upon the lips.
There was no drawing back on Mary's side, and she was as ready with her kiss as he was with his. For many minutes no words passed between them. Time stood still and they were just man and woman in the first ecstasies of the avowal of their passion.
All about them so lent itself to their mood. The dark church was so hushed and still that they might almost have been alone in the world together. They had no thoughts except about each other. Past and future meant nothing to them and they lived only in the present.
Soon the soft notes of the organ broke through their dreams, and hand in hand they sat through the evening service. When it was over they left the building with the friendly verger giving them a farewell beaming smile.
The next morning Dane announced he had caught a chill. His temperature was slightly up and he stayed in bed. Mary had a hurried meeting with Athol, which she snatched upon going out to the chemist's.
Athol had bad news for her and she thought her heart would stop beating when she heard it. He had received a telegram and would have to leave for home by the early morning's boat on the morrow.
"But I must say good-bye to you, darling," he pleaded. "Couldn't you get out and meet me to-night? I have such a lot of things I want to say to you."
For a long moment Mary hesitated. "I might," she replied, feeling very frightened at the thought, "but it'll have to be very late. He's always ringing his bell for me, and I can't come until he's well asleep. I shall have to wait, too, until the maids are in bed. Then it mustn't be far away, as I can't be out for more than ten minutes."
So it was arranged they should meet on one of the quays only about three hundred yards distant from the house, at eleven o'clock, and he was to wait for her until one. If she were not there by then he'd know something had prevented her getting out.
She had a terribly anxious time all the evening, and thought her husband would never drop off to sleep, but at last, after well doping himself with his tablets, he did, and at nearly half-past eleven, muffling her head in a shawl lest she might be recognised, she slipped out, leaving the catch of the street door up so that she could get in again.
Then it seemed as if all possible ill-fortune was dogging the lovers, for a boat was coming up the river and there were a lot of people about. Added to that a heavy rain storm set in and there was no place where they could take shelter and be alone. Their clothes were soon wet through.
So, very reluctantly and in great disappointment, Mary decided she could not stay out any longer and must return home. Athol insisted upon accompanying her to the door so that he might be able to snatch a last kiss.
At the very moment, however, when they reached the door, they saw two men coming up the street from the opposite direction and Mary exclaimed in great fright, "Oh, I'm sure that big one there is our porter! Quick, come inside! He mustn't see us standing here," and, hurriedly opening the door, she dragged Athol in and closed the door behind him.
For a few moments they stood in the darkness with bent heads and holding their breath, listening. The footsteps and voices passed and Athol whispered gleefully, "Just what we wanted! It couldn't be better," and he made to take Mary in his arms.
"No, not here," she whispered back. Her voice shook. "Wait—let me think."
Her thinking, however, was very short, and she felt for his hand in the darkness and pulled at it to lead him up the passage. "I know it's very wicked," she choked, "but I don't care what happens now you're leaving me. But oh, do tread so carefully on the stairs. We'll have to pass his room—and the door's open—to get to mine."
It was a fearsome journey and both their hearts were in their mouths, but at length they reached the safety of Mary's room. She pushed the door to very quietly. "I dare not shut it," she whispered, "in case his bell rings. But reach up and take out that globe. Then we shall feel safer," and with hands that trembled violently, she began stripping off her wet clothes.
Mary awoke with a start. The faint glow of dawn was stealing through the window. She flung Athol's arm from her. "Oh, darling," she exclaimed in terrified tones, "we've slept much too long. Look—it's nearly five o'clock! Quick, quick, you haven't a second to spare. The girls will be about any moment now. No, don't stop to kiss me. Quick, put on your clothes. I'll help you."
It was a merciful ending to those wonderful hours. Not a moment of time given them to grieve that they were parting, and no harrowing agony in a last long lingering embrace. Just action, quick decisive action, every moment.
She bustled him into his clothes, stuffed his tie and collar in his pocket and laced up one shoe while he laced up the other. Then, throwing a dressing-gown over her night-dress and still in her bare feet, she preceded him out of the room.
They passed down the stairs meeting no one, but then at the bottom and just as they were both drawing in deep breaths of relief—Jeanne came into the passage and caught them.
"N'ayez-pas peur, ma cherie," she exclaimed emphatically. "Je ne sais rien. N'ayez-pas peur," and then, for the benefit of Athol whom she realised at first glance was not a countryman of hers and therefore probably English, she added beamingly, "No, I say nussing, Monsieur. I not speak a word."
Athol beamed back at her. "Good girl!" he exclaimed fervently in fluent French, and he was putting his hand in his breast pocket to feel for his wallet when the indignant look upon the girl's face stopped him.
"No, Monsieur," she said, drawing herself up with dignity, "nothing of that." Her face was at once all smiles again. "I rejoice that Madame is having a little happiness"—she pointed with her thumb to the floor above—"away from that old ogre up there."
A hurried kiss, and Athol had gone.
Strangely enough in the succeeding days Mary was not nearly so depressed as it might have been thought she would have been. She had experienced a great happiness, and the memory of it she determined should last her all her life. In some strange way, however, she was sure she would one day meet her lover again. She had no fear that she was now going to have a baby by him, as nothing had happened before from her husband and she felt sure she must be a woman who was never intended to have a family.
Still, in the week which followed she had good cause to be worried, and then, all suddenly, her fears that her husband would learn she had not been true to him were swept away. He was ordered by his firm to go to Bayonne on business and, though he had long since ceased to be interested in her, his jealous temperament made him take her with him.
They were away a fortnight, and, the change seeming to do him good, he was much more agreeable to her, with one of his old moods of tenderness actually taking possession of him again. His attentions were a great trial to Mary, but she realised sadly they had their good side, and shortly after their return home she told him she was sure she was going to have a baby.
He received the news with something of an incredulous frown and at first was obviously more annoyed than pleased. However, upon consideration it was evident he realised there would be some recompense for him in his coming fatherhood.
When those three years back he had returned with a wife, he had been made the butt of many sly jokes among his acquaintances, and in his hearing they had talked about the foolishness of people buying good books which their sight was not good enough for them to read. Also, there had been casual mention of the undesirability of mating old roosters with young hens.
Now, however, he had the laugh of them and, throwing out his chest, he strutted about as if he had suddenly become a clever and very important man.
Jeanne and her sister were kinder than ever to Mary, with the former never referring to the meeting that morning with the handsome stranger upon the stairs.
So in due time was born Dora Jacqueline Dane, as lovely a baby as anyone could have wished, and who will say it was not sent by heaven as some recompense for the tragic marriage of her poor little mother?
For the first time since her wedding day Mary was supremely happy.
At eighteen years of age, Dora was undoubtedly one of the prettiest girls in Bordeaux. With her mother's perfect colouring, she had aristocratic clear-cut features and beautiful serene grey eyes. She carried herself proudly, and from early childhood days there had been a certain dignity about her which discouraged patronage from anyone.
Of a much stronger character than her mother, she had plenty of courage and a determined will. Afraid of no one, upon occasions she did not hesitate to speak her mind, never, however, in any argument losing her temper. With a general contempt for authority and convention, she complied with rules and regulations only because it profited her to do so.
Outwardly of a cold and reserved nature, and making few friends at the convent school where she was a weekly boarder, her outspoken opinions nevertheless carried not a little weight with the other girls, often rather to the distress of the Sisters in charge.
"You know sometimes I am rather afraid for Dora," said one of the teaching Sisters one day to a colleague. "She has great influence with the other girls, but is not always the best example for them. For one thing, she hasn't the reverence she should have for the Fathers, and last week after Monseigneur Herblay's address she said openly in class that he made her feel tired. She asked, too, what could an old and unmarried man like Monseigneur know about the feelings and hopes of young girls. I was very sharp with her, because I could see the others in the class were smiling and giving one another sly nods."
The other Sister sighed deeply. "And she's so pretty," she said, "that if Monseigneur came to learn what she had said he'd probably only smile, too." She sighed again. "I notice all the Fathers who come here take more notice of her than of anyone else."
"But you shouldn't have allowed yourself to imagine you had noticed such things," reproved the first Sister sharply. "Your conscience and your training must have told you you were wrong. To the Fathers, all our girls here are only souls to be guided in the right way. All earthly thoughts about them, however pretty they may be, have no existence at all."
The second Sister sighed again, but, had her vows permitted, it might have been she would have smiled as she had just been told the girls in class had done.
Now if Dora were so admired and looked up to by the other convent girls, she was simply idolised by her mother. From babyhood to childhood and on to girlhood, down all the years she had filled Mary's life, giving to her a happiness she had never thought she would ever experience.
She would gaze and gaze at her for long minutes at a time, thinking fondly what a little aristocrat she was and what a beautiful woman she would one day be. And was it not natural, she told herself, for had not she the best of English blood in her veins? Had not Athol told her that his mother was a daughter of a peer of the realm, with the barony going back for hundreds and hundreds of years?
So Mary's dreams for her daughter's future were full and ambitious ones. When Dane was dead—and, a quickly ageing man with many ailments, she was sure he could not live for very long, she would take her to England, and search out her father so that he could help her to make a good marriage and take a rightful position among his own class of people.
She had never heard from Athol since that morning when he had so hurriedly gone away, but she had hardly expected she would. They had agreed it would be far too dangerous for him to write or attempt to get in touch with her in any way. Still, she often sighed to herself that she was sure had he only become aware that she had borne a child of whom he was the father he would have wanted to risk everything to set eyes upon his own flesh and blood.
Her faith in him had never wavered, and she knew he would never have forgotten her. What a surprise it would be for him when she brought him face to face with Dora! He would know instantly that she was his daughter, as she was very like him, with the same profile, the same eyes and the same beautifully-shaped hands. Why, even that slight crook in one of her little fingers was exactly like the crook in one of his!
Of course, she would sigh again, Athol would have married long ago. She must expect that, but she consoled herself with thinking that no wife, however highly born, could have given him a daughter anything like as beautiful as was Dora.
Then, unbeknown to Dane and paying for them out of the housekeeping money, she began to take in some of the best illustrated English society journals, hoping that one day she might read in them something about Athol or his mother, and perhaps even see their photographs.
She and Dora used to pore over these journals at week-ends, and whisper animatedly together of the wonderful times they would one day have when they went home together and would see, and perhaps speak to, some of these great people. Dora, of course, had no idea how it would come about, but in time the expectation came to form not a small part of her day-dreams.
All along Dora had had a great affection for her mother and never given her any of those cold and distant looks which so often she bestowed upon others. As she had grown older, too, it was as if in her much stronger nature she had thrown a mantle of protection over her, for when she was present it seemed to Mary as if Dane never dared to be quite so unpleasant as when they were by themselves. Undoubtedly he was always a little bit afraid of Dora with her sharp words and contemptuous looks.
Dane had not improved with the passing of the years and, now approaching sixty, was more bad-tempered and crotchety than ever. He never showed the slightest affection or consideration for Mary and, taking as little notice of her as possible, seemed to regard her as only one of the servants to manage the affairs of his house.
Mary hated him with as deep a hate as her weak nature would allow. She had never forgiven him for his treatment of her family. Of them she had never seen anything since her wedding day, as they had all been killed in one of the few bad bombing raids the Germans had made upon London in the first Great War. They had moved from their house in Manor Park to one in a part of East Ham, newly built ones, and one night only a few weeks later a bomb had fallen there and wiped out nearly the whole of the little terrace.
It had been many weeks before Mary had been able to find out what had happened to them, and then only upon writing to the Superintendent of Police in East Ham. He had replied that hers was one of nine families that had been completely wiped out, either by the bomb or the fierce conflagration which had followed. No trace of any of them had ever been found.
Dane's attitude towards Dora had been always a peculiar one. In a way, as his supposed daughter, he could not help feeling proud of her good looks and forceful character, but of real affection for her he had never had any. As a baby, she had always been a source of irritation and annoyance to him, and as she had grown older he had taken little interest in her—it may have been because even as a little child she had never liked him to touch her and had kept as far away from him as possible.
From the earliest days of her coming, too, Mary had been different towards him. Motherhood had given her a little courage, and no longer had she put up with his bullying in the old-time meek and uncomplaining ways. Upon occasions she would answer him back sharply, especially in anything affecting the child, when she put her foot down firmly and took her own line of action.
It was she who had insisted that Dora should go as a weekly boarder to the convent, not because she was of their religious persuasion, but for the purpose of getting her out of the atmosphere of her home where Dane's presence was always a depressing one.
Dora's dislike of Dane had become intensified as the years had gone by, and it was a great but unspoken sorrow for her to think that she should have come from such a father. Often, as she looked at him with his frowning and ill-tempered face and noted how invariably curt and off-hand he was with her mother, she used to wonder whatever the latter could have seen in him to induce her to marry him.
Naturally of an ambitious disposition and with this trait in her character so encouraged by the confident assurance of her mother that a bright future lay before her, a chilling doubt so often took possession of Dora's mind. Herself of a keen intelligence, when she considered both her parents she doubted how any child of theirs could make a success of her life. With all her deep affection for her mother, she knew the latter was anything but clever and with a character that was both yielding and weak. As for her father—with what good and outstanding qualities could he have possibly endowed her? Shallow-minded and of a childish and querulous disposition, outside his own particular work he was most ignorant and ill-informed. Just a very ordinary and common old man!
Every time she looked at him she hated the thought that his blood ran in her veins.
Then one day suddenly a great weight was lifted from her mind, and her hopes for the future went up with a bound. Wishful thinking became a probability, and probability passed quickly into certainty. Dane was not her father, and indeed he was no relation of hers at all.
Under his selfish ruling, no school friends were ever invited to the house. He would not be bothered, he said, by noisy giggling girls, and so few of them had ever set eyes upon him or had any idea what he was like. Her mother, however, many of them knew, as they had seen her when out walking in the streets with Dora and also when she had been present at the breaking-up parties when Dora had received not a few prizes.
Then, one afternoon in mid-week, when Dora and the girl with whom she was probably the most friendly at the convent had been sent upon an errand by the Reverend Mother to a stationer's shop, they ran into Dane, who was inside talking to one of the assistants.
"What are you doing here?" he asked frowningly of Dora, in great surprise.
"Oh, I've come for something for the Reverend Mother," replied Dora in a tone as off-hand as she could make it, not liking the curt way in which he had addressed her in the hearing of her friend.
"But I thought you were never let out alone," went on Dane sharply, as if he only half believed what she had told him.
"I'm not alone," said Dora, equally as sharply. "I have my friend here with me."
"Oh," grunted Dane, "then get back to the convent directly you've got what you've been sent for." He glared nastily. "Mind, no hanging about the streets," and without another word he turned and left the shop, quite ignoring the polite "Good afternoon, Mr. Dane," of the assistant who had been serving him.
"Oh, Dora," exclaimed her friend when a minute or two later they were out in the street again, "is that old man really your father?"
"I suppose so," replied Dora casually, intensely mortified, however, that a fellow pupil had been a witness of his rudeness.
"But are you sure," went on her friend most interestedly, "because," she added emphatically, "you're not a bit like him?"
"Don't be so silly, Marie!" snapped Dora. "Of course I'm sure!" She spoke angrily. "Do you think I would have allowed anyone else to try to order me about like he was doing—without saying anything?"
"So you're sure, are you?" laughed her friend. "Well, I'm not. In fact I'm sure he can't be." She dropped her voice to an excited whisper. "Oh, Dora, dear, can't you see your mother must have had a lover before you were born? That man couldn't be the father of a girl like you. Why—anyone can see the breeding in you, but he's as common as can be. No, your father was an aristocrat, I'm certain of it."
Dora's heart almost stood still. Although, with the precocity of the Latin races, sex matters were freely discussed among the convent girls, and passion and illicit love were the most favoured themes of their whispered conversations, the idea had never for one moment come to her that anything of an unlawful nature would ever touch her or anyone to do with her. Now—the very suggestion that perhaps it might have already done so burst like a thunderclap into her mind.
It might be, oh yes, it surely might be, for had not her mother, as far back as she could remember, always brought her up as if her father were some sort of stranger to her? Had she not all along let her have as little as possible to do with him, and spoken of him to her, the few times she did mention him, in a cold and unsmiling way? Had it not always seemed, too, that there was a barrier between her parents, on her mother's side far greater than could be accounted for by her being tied to a bad-tempered and selfish old man?
Dora's thoughts raced on. A-ah, and another revelation avalanched into her mind! Now she could understand her mother's absorbed interest in those society journals coming from England! Of course she was always on the look-out to read something about her old lover and perhaps even see a photograph of him! If he were an aristocrat, as Marie had suggested, he would be moving in English society circles and——
Her friend's voice broke into her reverie. "Yes, Dora, depend upon it that old man's not your father, and your mother had a lover once."
Dora steadied her voice and spoke casually, as if the matter were of small importance. "And would anyone blame her if she had?" she asked coldly. "Would you?"
"Certainly not!" exclaimed Marie emphatically, and, a true daughter of that country where, in the minds of most people, affairs of sex have always taken precedence over everything else, she went on with all the wisdom of her sixteen years, "Everyone knows there are millions of loveless marriages in the world, and if any woman finds she has made one of course she'll look for love somewhere else."
Dora spoke fiercely. "All the same, Marie, my mother's affairs are no business of yours, and I think I'll almost kill you if you ever say a word of this to the other girls."
"Oh, I won't say anything," returned her friend instantly. "I'll never breathe a word." She laughed meaningly. "But I'm quite certain I'm right."
Deep down in her heart Dora believed it, and a mighty thrill surged through her. Indeed, she could have cried in her relief that the dreadful taint of the Dane blood would no longer haunt her. She was freed for ever of the fear of the horrible qualities he might have passed down to her.
When she went home that week-end she was more affectionate than ever towards her mother and, strange to say considering the strict moral precepts inculcated at the convent, with an added respect for her. To have dared to take a lover, as she now was certain she had, her mother must have had more courage than she had hitherto believed, and she must have been cleverer than she had thought, too, to have succeeded in keeping all knowledge of it from her husband.
Dora was quite certain Dane had never discovered anything, for had he done so he would have been the very man to throw his wife out into the streets, glad in his mean and selfish nature to rid himself of the expense of keeping her.
She would have dearly loved to have brought the matter up and questioned her mother point-blank, but, she told herself, she would never do that, as her mother, notwithstanding her one undoubted moral lapse, was by nature a clean-minded and chaste woman, conventionally inclined.
Still, with a greatly increased interest now in the London periodicals, she did go as far one Sunday as to suggest in all innocence that the photograph of one of the great people she saw there was not unlike her, and, as she made the remark, she noticed her mother's face had gone a little pink.
"But that Lord Hindhead, Mother," she had said, "might be some relation of mine, mightn't he? His nose is something like mine."
"But he's much too dark, darling," had laughed her mother, "and his eyes are quite different, too." She shook her head as if greatly amused. "No, we'll have to look another day for someone else who resembles you."
Approaching eighteen, Dora left the convent, smilingly giving no encouragement to the suggestion of the Reverend Mother that she should become a religious.
"No, Reverend Mother," she said decidedly, "I have not been made that way. I'm much too selfish and, besides, I want to have babies one day."
The Reverend Mother made no attempt to persuade her. "Then the good God be with you, my child," she said, "and be sure and remember all you have learnt while with us here," and Dora, mindful of the many things which, unbeknown to the Reverend Mother, she had learnt, smiled covertly to herself.
Her education over, Dane wanted Dora to take up secretarial work, but neither the latter nor her mother were of his opinion.
"You're going to be a hospital nurse, darling," had said her mother, with her grand ideas for Dora's future. "That is a profession which will provide you with work anywhere, and when we go to England it will bring you in contact with the class of people I intend you shall get to know. A nurse in the sick room is the equal of everyone."
Dora smiled at her mother's eagerness, but the nursing profession appealed to her, too, and so, disregarding all Dane's attempts to prevent her, she was entered as a probationer at a small private hospital, chosen mainly because it was not far from where the Danes lived.
From the very first she was a success. Sharp and thorough in all she did, with her attractive appearance she stood out from among the other girls and soon became a favourite with the matron and sisters. Some of the doctors, too, who came to the hospital, had she in any way encouraged them, would have been most willing to show their interest in her, but with no prudery she yet managed to keep them all at a distance, declining all association with them except when carrying out her nursing duties.
Not that she was not interested in men, for beneath her cold and reserved manner, as a perfectly normal and healthy young woman, she had been endowed with warm and strong feelings. However, in her later years at the convent it had been well drilled into her by the older girls where a woman's power lay and that she would be a foolish creature to part with her treasures lightly, or indeed allow them to be tarnished before she had been safeguarded by the marriage vows.
"After that, dear," had summed up the sophisticated Marie, "it all depends upon the man you marry whether or not you remain what they call a good woman. If he makes you happy you'll probably be content with him, but if he neglects you"—she laughed slyly—"you may, in time, have secrets to hide."
So, accepting these views of life as being probably the correct ones and her ambitions to get on in the world strengthening her resolution, she had determined there should be no weakness upon her part. She had set a price upon herself and, moreover, when the time came would accept payment only from the man she had come to love. With her mother's sad experience before her, she would make no loveless marriage, however tempting the prospects might appear to be.
With Dora's training only partly completed, Birtle Dane died suddenly from an apoplectic seizure, and neither Mary nor Dora, when by themselves, made any pretence of grief. Unmindful of anyone's interest but his own, he had been careless to the last and left no will. The estate was estimated to be worth about seven thousand pounds, and Mary was delighted to think they would be so well-off when she returned to England. Still, to her great disappointment, the lawyer who had always had charge of Dane's affairs stated that as the latter had died intestate there would be some little delay in winding everything up.
So Mary removed into apartments to wait with what patience she could, while Dora continued at the hospital, with the intention that when she did get to London she would finish the training there.
Then, to Dora's dreadful consternation and unutterable grief, two months after Dane's death her mother was stricken down with pneumonia and passed away within the week. She had been nursed at home, Dora hardly ever leaving her side and being with her in her last moments.
It was truly a dreadful position for such a young girl as Dora to find herself in. She had no relations and had practically no friends either. Also, knowing nothing of business matters, she was completely in the hands of Dane's lawyer, whom she speedily came to dislike intensely. A good-looking man about forty, he started to make advances by wanting to hold her hand. Letting him see sharply there was going to be none of that, his manner became at once disagreeable and it seemed to her that of set purpose he was in no hurry to wind up the estate.
Pressing him continually, he kept putting her off, however, with one excuse and another, until at length she became suspicious that everything was not right and, knowing no one else to whom she could go for advice, finally approached the manager of the bank where Dane had had his account and told him the trouble she was in, asking what she had better do.
A grave and quiet man of middle age, the bank manager was touched by her helplessness and promised to go and interview the lawyer with no delay. He told her to call again the following morning. When she did he had the worst of news for her.
"My interview was most unsatisfactory," he said, "and you had better put everything in the hands of another lawyer at once. If you give me a power of attorney I'll have the whole matter gone into thoroughly."
A week later the horrifying news was communicated to Dora that she would get practically nothing from Dane's estate, as the lawyer had all along been gambling unsuccessfully with the securities he had held and now had no assets.
"Of course he'll be punished," said the banker, "but that is all we can do. I am afraid the money is lost irretrievably."
And so, it proved, it was, and Dora found herself in London a month later with just over fifty pounds, all the money she had in the world.
The bank manager had been kindness itself, but, getting to know him better, she had been greatly embarrassed by his attentions. He had taken to expressing his admiration for her and, finally, had wanted to kiss her. Also, he had intimated very delicately that if she would like to remain on in Bordeaux he would be quite agreeable to lend her all the money she needed until she had obtained her certificate and was finally launched into her profession. It had been very unpleasant for her to repulse his advances as, apart from his capable and business-like ways, he had shown himself a charming and most sympathetic man.
"But it is only as Marie said," Dora reflected sadly. "All the men are after the same thing, but once a woman has sold it, if she has sold it badly, she may be poor as a church mouse."
So Dora had realised early that while so much of a woman's happiness in life depended upon how she used her sex, sex was a weapon with a blade of the finest temper and very easily blunted.
Putting up at a women's hostel in King's Cross to which she had been recommended, she lost no time in applying to be taken on at St. Jude's Hospital. Though it was smaller than several of the other hospitals, she had chosen that one in particular because she had remembered reading that Lord Avon's daughter had had her training there.
The matron was very polite to her and said that, while she had no vacancy for the moment, she would certainly be able to take her eventually, though it might not be for two or even three months. However, Dora, liking the look of her and also of what she saw of the hospital, decided she would wait.
In the meantime, with her small reserve of money, she had no intention of remaining idle and so started to find something to do at once.
Then, in the advertisement columns of almost the very first newspaper she looked into, she saw there was a vacancy for a female receptionist at a health institute and, to her great delight, it stated, 'one with some experience of nursing preferred'. Applicants for the position were to call that evening between five and six.
So, well before the time specified, full of high hopes, Dora set out to interview the principal of the institute whose premises were situated in Shaftesbury Avenue.
The proprietress of the Institute of Perfect Health, Madame Bertha de Roche, was a tall woman of commanding presence. As a girl she had been decidedly pretty and, now, approaching her forty-third year, was considered by no means ill-favoured by those who were admirers of her type of coarse and rather masculine beauty. She had big blue eyes which seared you through and through, a well-developed nose, a big mouth which a physiognomist would have described as being both ruthless and cruel, and a strong, determined chin. Altogether she was not a woman whom a timid person would care to cross.
To her patients—she would never call them clients—she made out she was of Swiss nationality and came from Zurich, but in truth she was of German-Jewish birth, born in Stuttgart and baptised Griselda Haffman.
Her father had been a veterinary surgeon attached to the Zoological Gardens in Berlin, but admitted with his family into the United States some ten years before the first Great War, he had taken out papers of naturalisation and they had all enjoyed the rights and privileges of American citizenship.
She had been married to a Chicago druggist, but when he died three years previously had come to London with a small capital and with the assistance of her brother, Leopold Haffman, who had been a French polisher by trade and who for reasons best known to himself kept very much in the background, had started the Institute of Perfect Health. A cousin of Madame's, Anna Barl, helped in the work of the Institute, too.
At first the Institute had confined itself to perfectly legitimate business, advising as to diet to suit various ailments, giving massage and carrying out ray treatments.
In time, however, building up quite a good connection, it began gradually to enlarge its activities, with Madame giving scope to her by no means inconsiderable medical knowledge by performing a certain operation, a proceeding which would have been highly interesting to the authorities had they come to learn what was going on.
She was, however, most wary there, only taking on these operations in most carefully selected cases and then only when the attendant risk was made well worth her while by a substantial fee. Generally speaking, all the ordinary treatments given by the Institute were expensive ones which could be afforded only by the well-to-do, and so when it came to these extraordinary and unsocial treatments, as can be well imagined, it meant good money changing hands.
Knowing her appearance was an unusual one and would be easily called to mind by any third party who had once seen her, she was always adamant in declining to wait upon anyone in their own house. For whatever they wanted done they must come to the Institute and come alone. No friend was ever allowed to accompany them, and the fee had invariably to be paid before anything was started. Also, the names of these particular patients were never entered in the appointment book of the Institute, so that, if occasion should arise, there should be no proof that she had ever come there.
All things considered propitious, the procedure carried out appeared to be a very simple one lasting only two or three minutes, and then the woman would be sent home in a taxi to wait events. If she became ill, with her temperature rising, she had the strictest orders on no account to approach Madame again. Instead, she was enjoined at once to call in a certain medical man, with whose name and address she was provided. This practitioner was a Dr. Chalda Simeon with consulting-rooms in Wimpole Street, and Madame would then pay him a big fee to cover her by attending the patient and dealing with anything which might happen.
Madame had a most wholesome fear of the police, and elaborate precautions were taken in case they should send decoys as wolves in sheep's clothing to consult her. Two friends who came together were always suspect from the very moment they entered the waiting-room. A hidden microphone had been installed there and, if need be, every word they spoke could be listened into by Madame in another room. Also, her cousin, this Anna Barl who was entirely in her confidence, after ushering into the consulting-room any two callers who had come together, never left Madame's side unless by a prearranged signal—the moving of the inkstand upon the desk—she understood she was to go away.
Madame had only had one brush with the police and, though nothing had come of it, it had not been a pleasant happening.
A young girl art-student living in West Kensington had been suddenly taken gravely ill following upon a visit to the Institute, and, contrary to Madame's instructions, a local doctor had been hastily summoned by the girl's mother. He had at once given it as his opinion that the patient's condition was due to the very recent performance of an illegal operation. She had been rushed to hospital, but had passed away that same night before she had given any explanation of what had happened to her.
Then a friend remembered that only a few days previously she had talked of having some electric treatment for her neuritis and was going for it to someone who practised near Shaftesbury Avenue. That was the only information the police could obtain, but they had visited all likely places in the neighbourhood mentioned and, among several other practitioners, had interviewed Madame de Roche.
Of course, when they appeared at the Institute Madame was all innocence, and denied ever having heard of the girl, with her appointment book being produced as evidence. Added to that, she assumed a great indignation that the police should now be coming to question her about such a disgraceful matter. However, the inspector, Inspector Hatherleigh, had not seemed at all satisfied and had sharply questioned the cousin, too, even then appearing very reluctant to take his departure.
When, however, he had at last disappeared, Madame, with a sigh of great relief, wiped the perspiration from her forehead and, taking out a five-pound note from her desk, handed it to her cousin.
"And that's for you for not losing your head, Anna," she said. "You were splendid in the way you answered all his questions. I can't for the life of me see why, but the beast is evidently very suspicious about us."
So she doubled all her precautions and indeed for several months declined to take on any more such cases at all. It was well she was so wary, for she soon found out the police were continuing to be interested in her.
One afternoon, after having rung up for an appointment to consult her about continual bouts of dreadful indigestion, a woman of about thirty arrived at the Institute accompanied by a friend. Madame was immediately suspicious, as when in the waiting-room they conversed together in such low whispers that nothing could be picked up by the microphone. Shown into the consulting-room, Madame's suspicions that they had come from the police were at once strengthened by their appearance. They were both strong, muscular-looking women and the patient, who said the friend who was accompanying her was her sister, gave no appearance of having anything the matter with her.
She started off describing her symptoms, but Madame at once interrupted by intimating it was her invariable rule that the consultation fee of one guinea should be paid in advance. The woman complied, and Anna, who was seated at a small desk in a corner of the room, proceeded to make out the receipt.
Madame listened patiently to the woman's symptoms, asked a few questions, and then made out a diet sheet.
"But do you think," asked the woman hesitatingly, "that my indigestion can be due to anything else?" She looked embarrassed. "Could it be that I am expecting?"
Madame choked down her fury that the police should be so intent on catching her, and replied with something of a grim smile, "But I'm afraid I can't tell you that. It is altogether out of my line. You must consult a gynaecologist."
"But if I should be in that condition," went on the woman plaintively, "I am quite prepared to pay almost anything to be put right." Her voice seemed to choke. "Remember, I am an unmarried woman."
For a few moments Madame regarded her with blazing eyes and then, anger getting the better of discretion, she burst out, "No, you are not expecting——" and, taking in the woman's homely, spotted face, she added witheringly, "—and you can go back to Inspector Hatherleigh and tell him it is not likely you ever will be."
The woman coloured up. "I don't know what you mean," she said sharply, "except that you are intending to be insulting. I have nothing to do with any inspectors."
Madame laughed scornfully. "I was a policewoman myself once," she lied, "and you can't take me in. I knew you were police the very moment you entered the room." She flung the diet sheet at her. "Here, take this," she went on sharply. "If you follow the directions there you'll benefit by them and get rid of those disgusting-looking pimples on your face. You are a gross feeder and guzzle too much fat," and the two women, scowling angrily, were ushered out by Anna, who appeared to be enjoying herself immensely.
And so this was the high-class Institute of Perfect Health to which Dora so hopefully made her way upon that afternoon at five o'clock!
There were three other girls in the waiting-room when Anna, after a hard and long stare, ushered her in. Dora was impressed with the appointments. The waiting-room was well and tastefully furnished with comfortable chairs, a settee and a very good carpet. Everything looked prosperous and as if the Institute were doing well.
The three girls before her were fetched away, one by one, but, as none of them were gone for very long, Dora was hopeful they were not suitable. Then her turn came and Anna led her in to see Madame, remarking quite audibly in German as she ushered her into the room, "And here's a stuck-up bit of goods if ever I saw one. She thinks a lot of herself, she does!"
Now Dora had always been good at languages and, as two of the teaching Sisters at the convent had come from Berlin, she had more than a fair knowledge of German. So she understood perfectly well what Anna had said and with some difficulty suppressed a smile when she heard herself described as looking stuck-up.
Madame eyed her suspiciously, being very annoyed that an outsider should have had to be called into the Institute. However, there was no help for it, as Anna might be leaving any time now to be married, and in consequence another receptionist had to be obtained as quickly as possible to pick up the routine of her duties.
"And where have you had your training?" asked Madame. "In a private hospital at Bordeaux! Then how is it that if you have lived all your life in France, you speak English as well as any English girl?"
Dora explained that both her parents had been English and she had been brought up to speak that language in her home.
A thought seemed suddenly to strike Madame, and remembering what Anna had remarked upon bringing Dora into the room, she asked sharply, "And you speak German, too?"
Dora fibbed boldly. After the rude remark that had been made about her she thought it would be awkward for both of them if she admitted she had understood it. So she shook her head and replied she had no knowledge of German.
Madame was impressed with the look of her and was thinking quickly that with her prettiness and innocent appearance she would be quite an asset to the Institute. However, she was determined no police spy should be planted near her, and accordingly the questioning of Dora was both sharp and searching.
She wanted to know everything about her, who her parents had been, what had been her reason for coming to London and what relatives and friends she had in England.
"Then if you know no one over here," she frowned, "you can give me no English references?"
"No, these are the only references I have," replied Dora, and she handed over to her those from the convent and the hospital, along with a letter from the Bordeaux banker, vouching for her respectability.
"Then are you a girl who can be trusted?" snapped Madame. "Because I won't have anyone here who will gossip about the affairs of the Institute. My patients are all high-class and it will do me a lot of harm if their ailments are discussed outside."
"But I can hold my tongue," said Dora warmly. "I have never been one to make many friends, and I don't give away confidences."
"Very well, then," said Madame after a long pause, "I'll give you a trial. I'll supply you with a uniform and you can start here to-morrow. If I find you don't suit me, you'll go without any notice. I'll pay you two guineas a week."
Dora coloured up. "But that's not enough," she said instantly. "I can't come to you under three," and then, as Madame glared fiercely at her as if very astonished she did not at once accept the terms offered her, she added, "I couldn't live on two guineas. I have to pay thirty-five shillings for my weekly board and lodging at the hostel, and that would leave only seven shillings for my fares, clothing and other expenses."
In a way, Madame was not displeased at her demanding the extra guinea, as it suggested at once that Dora had nothing to do with the police. Were that so, she thought, she would have taken any salary offered. So it was finally agreed Dora should be paid the three guineas, and the next morning she started upon her duties.
She liked the work at once. The patients interested her, and she was always speculating as to what their ailments were. However, she never came to like Madame, as the latter's manner was always rude and bullying. She disliked Anna, too, and she felt she was being watched by her as a cat would watch a mouse.
She was sure, too, it was Anna who had been making enquiries to find out if she were really living at the hostel, as one evening when she returned home the girl at the desk, with some amusement, told her a stranger had rung up that afternoon and enquired if a Miss Dank were staying there and, if so, if she was in. The girl had said they had no Miss Dank, but there was a Miss Dane. Whereupon, the stranger had asked how long she had been staying there and, upon being told only a week, had at once said that was not the lady she wanted, and had rung off.
Dora had asked the girl what the stranger had seemed like to talk to, and, when the girl had replied that she spoke in a quick and jerky tone, was sure it had been Anna, as that was exactly the way in which she always spoke. Dora was disgusted the Institute was so distrustful of her.
To Leopold Haffman, Madame's brother, who had charge of the ray treatments, she took no liking either, though he amused her in a mild sort of way as he was always making fun of the patients behind their backs. She summed him up as a dissipated roue whom no girl could trust. She kept him well at a distance, though he was always most polite and respectful to her and never attempted the slightest familiarity.
She saw the West End doctor a few times, and used to wonder what brought him in to the Institute, as she knew it would not be considered ethical by the medical profession to have dealings with Madame, who in their eyes must be considered as an unqualified practitioner, trespassing upon their preserves. The doctor was a well-dressed and good-looking man, with something of a distinguished air. He never spoke to her, but eyed her inquisitively, and an instinct told her that, if she gave him the slightest opening, he would not be averse to starting up an acquaintance with her. She never learnt his name, as Madame never called him anything except 'Doctor'.
When she had been at the Institute for a very little while the idea began gradually to come to her that more was going on than it was intended she should know. She was not quite certain, either, that it was believed she did not understand German, as though all the time Madame and Anna invariably used that language when speaking together, they would often abruptly stop talking when she came into the room.
Several times, too, at first she was certain Madame had tried to catch her by rapping out a sharp order in German. However, she had always been prepared for that and it gave her not a little amusement to stare blankly and wait until the order was repeated in English.
Her suspicions that certain activities of the Institute were being deliberately kept from her, once aroused, became strengthened in many little ways, and then, to her disgust and fright, it burst suddenly upon her that she was now in the employ of a woman who was carrying on illegal operations. The almost absolute conviction came to her in this way.
Every now and then she would be sent out to buy certain medicaments, such as creams and oils needed in the massaging of the patients, but the suspicious thing about these errands was that the purchases had always to be made a good way distant from the Institute, when what was required could just as well have been bought at shops close at hand. It meant her being away much longer than she need have been, and, another thing, she was always sent out at exactly the same time of day, about ten minutes before two o'clock. It had often puzzled her, as these longer journeys had always seemed such a waste of time.
Another thing, too; she began to associate these peculiar errands with Madame having arrived that morning with a certain little black bag which was at once bustled away into a cupboard and not seen again until she took it off with her in the evening.
Then one day, immediately upon having returned from one of these errands, going into Madame's consulting-room when no one was about and placing what she had been sent out to buy upon the desk, she happened to notice the surgical couch had been recently used, as the sheet upon it was disarranged. Also, she distinctly smelt the smell of some antiseptic.
Sniffing hard, she looked round with a puzzled frown. Antiseptics meant to her some kind of operation, and yet she had never seen a surgical instrument of any kind in the place! A great light came suddenly into her mind! Could it be that Madame was in the habit of performing those dreadful operations which, if it were known, would bring upon her the punishment of the law? Of course, that was it, and why, too, she had been sent out once again, so that she should not see the patient when she arrived, and guess what she had come for!
She tiptoed quickly round the desk and opened the appointment book which Madame was accustomed to use also as a rough sort of day-book and pencil down against the name of each patient what had been done. No, according to the book no one had been while she had been away and the next appointment was for half-past two.
That afternoon the work at the Institute went on as usual, with Madame, however, being perhaps a trifle quieter when she spoke. When the telephone bell went, too, as it did several times, she dropped everything she was doing at once to answer it herself, instead of, as at other times, leaving it either to her cousin or Dora to find out first for what it was being rung. She was anxious, thought Dora, and wondering how the patient was getting on.
By now Dora had worked herself up into a most uneasy state of mind, for, quite certain at last of what was going on, she was very frightened that, with any scandal falling upon the Institute, as one working there she would certainly be involved, too. Then, with the terrible publicity which would ensue, it would mean good-bye to her chances of being taken on at a hospital like St. Jude's, and her whole professional career might be ruined.
Back at the hostel that evening she was half minded not to return to the Institute again and would probably not have done so had it not been for the question of money. There, she was in something of a quandary, as she had been spending every penny of her weekly salary and more out of her quickly dwindling little nest-egg, in fitting herself out with badly needed new clothes. Indeed, she had only a very few pounds of ready money left.
Finally, she resolved to continue on at the Institute, as, with two months having passed now since her interview with the matron of St. Jude's, she should be hearing from her any day now. She had promised to write to her at any rate within three months, and she had appeared emphatically to be a woman who would keep to her word.
So the following morning Dora turned up at the Institute as usual, hating Madame now not only for her rude and overbearing manner but also for the vile work she was carrying on.
Her feelings towards Madame would certainly not have been improved had she overheard a conversation that took place between her and her brother one afternoon in the former's room.
"You know that Dane girl could be very useful to us," Madame remarked thoughtfully. "She's quick and intelligent, and patients like her. Besides, if ever we happen to get another visit from that insolent blackguard, the inspector, her appearance would help to disarm any suspicions he had. He would see at once that she is of good class and looks an innocent, too." She paused thoughtfully. "Still, I think I shall have to get rid of her."
"Get rid of her!" exclaimed the brother. "What on earth for?" He leered. "I'm not without hopes of one day having a good time with her." He nodded. "She wants a lot of angling for, but she'd be worth it, every time."
Madame frowned. "Then it's a pity you haven't brought it off already," she said slowly. "If she was your sweetheart it would bind her to us and it wouldn't matter then what she found out." She added reluctantly, "Still, as I say, I'm getting a bit afraid of her."
"Why," asked Leopold, "what's she done?"
"Nothing that I'm certain of," replied Madame, "but it's in my mind that lately she's becoming too curious. She's all eyes and ears, and I strongly suspect she's been going through my papers and things here. Yesterday I'm sure she meddled with my cheque book, as it wasn't exactly where I'd left it." She nodded. "Yes, I'm sorry, but I think I'll have to get rid of her. At any rate, I'll watch her for a little while longer."
"And you say she has no friends or relations in England?" asked Leopold.
"Not a single one. She's not well off, either, and hasn't a penny to live on except what she earns here. When I first interviewed her she told me she had been robbed by a thieving French lawyer of all the money her mother had left her."
"And she's such a pretty girl," sighed Leopold, "as pretty as any lover could want."
Madame spoke sharply. "Then why don't you get busy with her at once? Shut her mouth by becoming her lover."
Leopold grinned. "I'm quite willing, but do you think she would be, too?"
"Of course she would be," snapped Madame. "A girl of her age is hungry for all the pleasures she can get, and you've only got to approach her properly."
Leopold shook his head. "We're on quite good terms, certainly, but the moment I attempt to get a bit more friendly"—he pursed up his lips—"it's keep off the grass every time. Why, she'd slap my face if I even stroked her arm!"
"Well, manage somehow to make her take a couple of nembutal capsules one evening," said Madame brutally, "and she'll be so sleepy she'll be completely off her guard. I've got some in one of my drawers." She considered for a moment and then added, "I'll arrange she has to stop here late after Anna and I have gone, and it'll be up to you to do the rest."
Leopold's eyes gloated. The prospect was quite a pleasing one and he would have no compunction in trying to bring it to fruition.
So it followed that a cup of coffee about half-past four in the afternoon became an established form of refreshment at the Institute, with Dora, rather to her surprise, being always offered one.
Madame had provided a dainty little percolator, but it was always her brother who made the coffee and he made it very well, too. It was stimulating towards the end of the day's work and Dora was always pleased to see it appear.
In the meantime, in the pursuance of an intention of finding out all she could about Madame's unlawful acts, Dora neglected no opportunity of prying into her affairs. In fact she became what Madame had so dreaded—a real spy in the citadel.
Whenever she got the chance, when Madame was out of her room, she scanned through her correspondence, turned over the butts of her cheque book and occasionally even got a glimpse of the transactions in her bank book. Also, she methodically examined the contents of any drawers she found unlocked. In some ways Madame was careless and occasionally left her keys lying on the desk.
Dora saw nothing at all dishonourable in her prying. They didn't trust her and she was only repaying them in their own coin. Madame was a bad woman. She was preying upon the public, and it would be interesting to find out all her methods.
Some things which she found out made her more certain than ever about what Madame was doing, and she was astonished at the money she was making. She saw from her pass book that from time to time quite substantial sums in cash had been paid in; fifty, sixty-three and one of eighty-four pounds. She observed grimly that the two last sums had been payments in guineas, sixty and eighty guineas.
Then one Monday morning Anna had been sent hurriedly to the bank, and later in the week Dora saw from the butt in the cheque book that a hundred pounds had been drawn out. She cudgelled her brains, speculating as to what the hundred pounds had been so suddenly wanted for, and then it came back to her that the West End doctor had arrived very soon after Anna had returned with the money and had been closeted with Madame for a few minutes. Then they had come out together, with the doctor cool and professional and Madame rather flushed in the face. She had remarked to herself that Madame had been very quiet and subdued that day.
One thing Dora had come upon when searching through the drawers had been a small bottle of nembutal capsules and, knowing the drug to be a most powerful hypnotic, she had wondered smilingly to herself if Madame were accustomed to take them at night to quieten her guilty conscience. She could not imagine her giving them to a patient for sleeplessness, as a much milder and much less dangerous hypnotic would be quite effective.
As it happened, Dora had learnt something about nembutal when at the hospital in Bordeaux as, not only was it used there as a pre-anaesthetic sedative, but also it had an evil reputation outside as it was not infrequently given to seamen from ships calling in at the port. It was known then as 'knock-out drops' and, put in their drinks, would quickly render them so doped that they could be robbed with impunity. She had heard of not a few drugged sailors who had been picked up unconscious in dark and lonely streets and taken off in an ambulance to some hospital for treatment.
One day, to her astonishment, Madame was most polite and nice to her, giving her when she first arrived in the morning quite a warm and friendly smile instead of the usual curt and cold nod. She continued to be agreeable all that day, which seemed to amuse Anna not a little, as if she were enjoying a good joke to herself all the time.
Somewhat late in the afternoon Madame announced that she must be leaving a little earlier than usual and asked Dora very sweetly if she would kindly type out some diet sheets for her, so that they would be all ready for the first patient the next morning. Then she went off and, taking Anna with her, Dora was consequently left alone in the Institute with Leopold. Dora was not in the least concerned with the latter's presence and, never even giving him a thought, started upon the typing which she reckoned would take her about three-quarters of an hour.
Presently Leopold brought in the now customary coffee, and put the cup down upon the table near where she was typing. Subconsciously, she recalled afterwards she had noticed his hand was shaking, but had put it down to his having had too much to drink the previous night. It was well known that upon occasions he indulged in that way. She thanked him and went on typing. For the moment the coffee looked too hot to drink.
A minute or two later the bell of the Institute rang sharply and, getting up to answer it, to her surprise Dora found Leopold upon her heels as she arrived at the door. She had never before known him attend to any ring, as he was of the type who thought themselves much too grand to do any menial jobs. He was an expert in the rays, he used to say, and expected both Anna and Dora to wait upon him.
Two workmen were waiting in the corridor, and one announced they had come to attend to one of the electric fires which had gone wrong.
Leopold appeared furious. "But you are too late," he snarled. "We are just closing up. Come to-morrow."
However, the man persisted. "But we were told it would be all right if we came any afternoon before five, and it's only just gone half-past four." He frowned and seemed annoyed in his turn. "We're very busy, and if we don't do it now it may be a week before we can come this way again," and he added, "It may only take us a few minutes."
With evident reluctance Leopold let them come in and led the way into Madame's consulting-room. Dora went back to her typing, but, before starting again, took a sip of the coffee. Immediately she made a wry face. The coffee tasted strange!
She took another very small sip to make sure she was not mistaken. No, there certainly was a peculiar taste, though it was not a strong one, and as she moved her tongue about to get its full flavour it struck her suddenly that it was not altogether an unfamiliar one.
Why, it tasted like phenobarbital, tablets of which were often given to the patients in the hospital at Bordeaux to make them sleep!
Phenobarbital! What was phenobarbital doing in her coffee? And then suddenly a horrible feeling came over her and her mouth went dry in fright. Phenobarbital was one of the barbitone group and so was that nembutal she had seen in Madame's drawer! And they would both taste much the same!
Her thoughts coursed like lightning through her. She remembered Madame's peculiar and ingratiating manner that day, Anna's covert smiles and, only such a few minutes ago, Leopold Haffman's shaking hands! Why, too, had she been asked so late in the afternoon to do that typing when it could just as well have been given her earlier in the day? Had it been done for some particular purpose, and—oh, God!—was it intended she should be drugged when she would be alone with this man?
Madame, with her operations, was a vile creature, and both Anna and Leopold knowing, of course, all that was going on would be just as bad!
But why want to drug her? Why—but her face crimsoned up in shame and she gave rein to her speculation no longer. She became a woman of action, quick action, and prepared to think of everything.
Springing up from her seat with the cup in her hand, she darted over to the wash-basin, at first minded to tip all the coffee away. However, with a nervous smile, she first put a little in the saucer. Then, with the rest emptied away, she tipped what was in the saucer back into the cup.
"That'll puzzle him," she breathed. "He'll think I've suspected nothing and drunk the lot."
Snapping the portable typewriter into its case, she collected her papers and, quickly putting on her hat and coat, with the typewriter in her hand, tiptoed softly down the passage to Madame's door. The door was ajar and, putting her head into the room, she saw the two men working on the electric fire, with Leopold standing watching them.
"I'm going, Mr. Haffman," she called out loudly. "I'll take the typewriter with me and finish the typing at home."
Leopold looked round in a flash, with his face the study of amazement. "But—but you can't do that," he said sharply. "I'm going to use the typewriter myself when you've finished."
"Very well, then," she said calmly, "I'll leave it here and borrow one at the hostel." She put down the typewriter upon the floor.
"You can't go like this, I say," went on Leopold angrily. "I want to see that the diet sheets are all right."
"But I am going," she retorted curtly. "I've got a headache coming on and it won't get better until I've had my tea," and as he made a move towards the door as if he were going to try to stop her, she pulled it to in his face and darted out of the Institute.
In her short ride home in the omnibus her thoughts were terrified ones. She was sure she was not imagining everything! With her drugged and helpless, the man might have been intending to do anything to her, and it would have been done with Madame's connivance! What the latter's motive was she could not imagine, but it might have been that in her vile nature she was willing her brother should have his pleasure of her, regardless of all consequences that might follow.
At any rate, she told herself, she had done with the Institute and would never go near it again. She frowned here. It was certainly unfortunate that everything had happened on the evening it had, as, with Madame paying her salary only on alternate Fridays, six guineas was due on the morrow. She sighed. Well, she would have to lose the money, that was all!
She arrived at the hostel in a very depressed state of mind. All her depression, however, was at once dispelled when she found waiting for her a letter from the matron of St. Jude's saying that she could take her now and would like her to come as soon as possible.
Dora was overjoyed and at once phoned St. Jude's that she would arrive some time on the morrow. Her spirits rising at the prospect, her courage rose also, and she decided to go to the Institute for a last day so that she could collect the six guineas owing to her. Besides, she wanted to see the expression upon the faces of the conspirators when she turned up the next morning, because if she were right and there had been a vile plot against her—and she was sure there was—they would not be able to meet her in the ordinary, casual way. She would be able to tell at once by their manner towards her whether or not they were guilty, and she was quite confident what the verdict would be.
So, borrowing a typewriter from the office, she typed out the diet sheets, and she typed them out faultlessly and with no mistakes, so that Madame should have no excuse for reproof.
The next morning, her trunk and everything packed, she paid her bill at the hostel and told them she would be calling for her luggage later in the day.
She reached the Institute purposely a few minutes late, so that Leopold would have had the opportunity of telling his sister all that had happened the previous afternoon.
Madame glared hard at her, with her fierce eyes, Dora thought, one big note of interrogation before snatching the diet sheets from her without a word of thanks. Leopold looked irritable, and just gave her a curt nod instead of his usual ingratiating smile, while Anna looked so positively venomous that Dora would have liked to shut herself up in the toilet room and have a good giggle.
Now Dora had been quite right in her surmise that the conspirators would have talked things over before she arrived. They had, and Madame had slated her brother caustically and called him a fool who had bungled things badly. He must have frightened the girl somehow and made her suspicious.
"But I hadn't," had snarled back Leopold. "She was as quiet and composed as she always is when I brought in the cup of coffee, and she thanked me nicely for it."
However, his sister had been unconvinced, and gave him more of her tongue after she had seen Dora upon the latter's arrival at the Institute.
"You big fool," she jeered, "that girl never had those three grains of nembutal. If she'd taken half of them she couldn't come here this morning looking so fresh as she does now." She glared at him angrily. "You didn't put in enough sugar as I told you to, and she probably took one sip and threw the rest away."
"But I tell you she didn't throw it away," insisted Leopold hotly. "When she had gone I found her cup where she had left it on the table, and it had got about a tablespoonful of the coffee still left at the bottom. If she had emptied it at the sink she would have emptied all of it and not left any in the cup."
"Well, I don't understand it," growled Madame. "It acts very quickly and she ought to have been getting on for being aware of nothing in a quarter of an hour."
Everything at the Institute went on as usual that morning, and when Anna returned from her usual Friday visit to the bank, Dora received her six guineas. The latter, seeing she had been paid for them, was intending to work for the remaining hours of that day and then slip off without a word and never come back again. If she told Madame her intentions she thought it quite possible that the latter, in her rage, might resort to actual physical violence.
Upon her return from lunch just before two o'clock, Madame sent Dora off with a grunt to buy some massaging oil at a chemist's in Knightsbridge. "Exactly," thought Dora, "another of those operations," and, determined to get a glimpse of the patient this time, she took a taxi both ways, so that she would return long before she was expected.
Arriving back nearly half an hour earlier than she would have done if she had come by the bus, and meeting no one in the corridor, she slipped into the little cloak-room to take off her hat, but then was brought to a sudden halt by hearing Madame's excited voice upon the telephone, and her heart almost stopped beating at what she heard. Madame was so agitated that she had not even noticed that the consulting-room door was only pushed to and not properly shut.
"But, doctor, you must come," wailed Madame. "I tell you she's dead, and what can I do with a dead body here? . . . Yes, yes, I had just finished and she went off in a faint. . . . I knew it was shock and we did everything we could. . . . But you could give a certificate saying it was heart failure from the shock of the galvanic battery. . . . Oh, you must come. . . . But what am I to do? ... How can I get it away? . . . But every minute's delay is dangerous. . . . She may have told friends, and if she doesn't return soon they may come to see what's happened. . . . No, I can't wait until it's dark. . . . Then where could I drop it in the country? . . . Oh, you must come. . . . Remember all the money I've paid you, and you'll get another hundred pounds now! I'll——"
But Dora, with a face as white as death, did not stop to listen to any more. Her only thought now was to get off the premises as quickly as she could.
As she had been expecting, another illegal operation had been done! The woman had died under it from shock, and the body was lying in the consulting-room! Of course, the police would have to learn about it now and everyone found in the Institute would be arrested!
Again, to her intense relief, meeting neither Anna nor Leopold, she snatched up the bottle of oil she had been sent for so that Madame should not learn she had returned and might have overheard something of the phone conversation, and fled down the stairs and was out of the building in barely a minute.
Hailing a taxi, she ordered the driver to take her to the hostel and, calming down during the short journey, was soon able to think clearly.
Of course, it had been that doctor Madame had been speaking to, and without a doubt she was accustomed to bribe him heavily to 'cover' her when anything went wrong with her patients. That was where that hundred pounds had gone! But the doctor had evidently been refusing to help her now, and that was why she had been so terrified at what was now going to happen.
For certainly Madame would not be able to get rid of the body! How could she? No, she would have to call in the nearest doctor, and it wasn't likely any bribe would induce him to take the risk of giving a death certificate. So the police would have to be told, and, oh, God! if her, Dora's, name came to be in the newspapers——!
It would be good-bye to all hopes of a career at St. Jude's and, all apart from that, the stigma of having once been in the employ of a convicted abortionist might cling to her all her life.
However, she drew in a deep breath and took a little hope here. If she could get away from the hostel before the police came to the Institute, it was just possible they might never find her. She had made no friends at the hostel and no one had any idea of where she was going.
However, she had qualms of doubt as it came home to her how slender was the chance that she would not be drawn into a horrible publicity. Of course the police would learn at once that there had been a fourth person at the Institute, and, if only out of spite, Madame would tell them who she was. Then, if her name were advertised along with her description, how could she remain undiscovered?
The one chance was—and she took hope again—that having caught Madame and the others red-handed, as they certainly would do now, the police would have all the evidence they wanted and perhaps not trouble to find her.
Arriving at the hostel, to her great dismay there was quite a long delay before her trunk was brought down, as the porter was out upon an errand and it was too heavy for the girls to handle. So, a good half-hour was wasted before, finally, she was at last able to get off, and then, in a loud voice so that everyone could hear, she ordered the taxi-driver to take her to Waterloo Station.
Suddenly, as she was being driven along, the disconcerting thought came to her that after all Madame might manage to escape from the dreadful position in which she now found herself and not fall into the hands of the police. She was a bold and resolute woman, and when night came might smuggle the body away in her car, adopting the suggestion made to her over the phone and carry it to some lonely place in the country.
Why, even in Epping Forest not a dozen miles out of town there were plenty of such places where a body might lie under the thick carpet of leaves for many months before it was discovered.
Another thing, too, in Madame's favour. The poor creature who had come to her for the operation in all probability had told no one where she was going, so when she failed to return, her relations would be able to furnish no clue as to what had happened to her.
Then Dora's thoughts harking back to the vile attempt which she was sure had been made the previous evening to ruin her, and which she was equally sure, too, had been made with Madame's connivance, she was filled with such loathing for the woman that the sudden resolution came to her that at all risks to herself Madame should not escape.
So, arriving at Waterloo, she had her luggage taken to the cloak-room and then, with shaking legs and quickly beating heart, went into a telephone-box and rang up Scotland Yard.
Not wasting a moment when her call was answered, she began breathlessly, "Go at once to the Institute of Perfect Health in——" but a voice interrupted her by asking sharply, "Who's speaking?"
"Never mind that," she countered, "but you do as I say. The Institute is upon the fourth floor of Alma Chambers in Shaftesbury Avenue. There's the dead body of a woman there. She had just died from shock. Go instantly, for they may try to remove it. The matter's very urgent," and giving the voice at the other end no opportunity of asking any further questions, she hung up the receiver and darted from the telephone-box.
Engaging another taxi, she was driven with her luggage to St. Jude's Hospital and heaved a sigh of deep relief when she was deposited there and the taxi had gone off. For the moment, at any rate, she was safe.
In the meantime her message had been passed on to Inspector Hatherleigh, who happened to be on duty at the Yard, and he frowned heavily. "May be only a hoax," he scowled, "but I'll have to chance that. We'll go at once. That Madame woman was so insolent that I'd almost give my right hand to catch her."
So less than a quarter of an hour later the inspector, accompanied by two plainclothes officers, and a member of the Women Police, arrived very quietly at the door of the Institute. The door was shut, but with his ear pressed hard against the crack, the inspector could distinctly hear the hum of low voices.
He pressed upon the bell and the voices at once stopped, though the door still remained closed. His eyes gleamed. So the message had been no hoax and there was a good kill coming.
He pushed the bell again, and still getting no answer, proceeded to rap loudly with his knuckles upon the door. "The London Express Delivery here," he called out with a wink round at his subordinates. "I've got a parcel for Madame de Roche."
A few moments' waiting and the door was at last opened by Anna. She gasped and her face went a dreadful colour when she recognised the inspector, but he pushed by her and strode across to where he knew from his previous visit was Madame's room.
His heart gave a mighty bound of triumph.
Madame and her brother were busy cording up an ottoman.
In the ensuing weeks, as can be well imagined, Dora went through a terribly anxious time. She was always expecting a sudden summons to the matron's room and to find herself confronted there by stern-faced detectives from Scotland Yard with a warrant for her arrest.
The day following upon her arrival at the hospital, in the nurses' recreation-room, she had seen in an evening newspaper that Madame, her brother and Anna had all been up before a magistrate and committed for trial, and she wondered pitifully if she herself were being traced and in a few hours would be arrested, too.
Still, as day upon day passed with nothing happening, her peace of mind returned, and she began to think that perhaps the police had never even come to know of her existence.
However, she was wrong there, as the police had learnt from the porter at Alma Chambers that there had been a fourth person, a young girl who had not been very long there, associated with the others at the Institute.
When questioned about her by the inspector, Madame remarked scoffingly, "Don't waste your breath, Inspector. You know all about her." She nodded viciously. "You haven't been pulling the wool over my eyes quite as much as you imagine you have, as I was suspicious from the very first that she was your spy." She jeered mockingly. "She's an attractive girl, isn't she, Inspector? No doubt she is one of your lights of love?"
The inspector was very puzzled. Still, he succeeded in finding out from Anna that Dora had come from the Women's Hostel near King's Cross, and, accordingly, sent two men there to make enquiries. When, however, the men came back, all the information they could give was that a Miss Dane had stayed there for nine weeks, but had left suddenly upon the afternoon when the Institute had been raided, and it was not known where she had gone.
The inspector considered. After all, he was not very keen about finding her, as he had caught Madame with all the evidence he wanted. Besides, he shrewdly suspected that it was this missing girl who had rung up the Yard that fatal afternoon. Added to that, the porter at Alma Chambers had described her as being a superior type, and not likely to have been aware of the unlawful work which had been going on, as upon two occasions he had heard Madame being most abusive to her.
So, all things taken into account, no further efforts were made to trace Dora, and some six weeks later, when the trial came on, she felt quite confident she need no longer fear any trouble.
All the three accused were found guilty upon certain specified counts. Madame was sentenced to seven years' hard labour, and Leopold and Anna each to three. The presiding judge congratulated the police upon the celerity with which they had brought the criminals to book.
Within a very few days of her arrival at St. Jude's Dora was quite sure there could not be a nicer lot of girls anywhere than those among whom she was now destined to work, and that was smilingly impressed upon her by her colleagues themselves. She was told how particular Matron Paridy was about whom she accepted as probationers, as it was generally believed that, to satisfy her as to their fitness, not only must applicants be of irreproachable character, well educated and come from a good-class family, but also they must have the appearance of being of a pleasant disposition and possess more than just passable good looks.
From the very first Dora had been most favourably impressed by the matron and, as time went on, she realised more and more how right her judgment had been. Built rather on the small side, Matron Paridy had a kind and gentle face, with nothing haughty and pompous about it. She liked to regard those working under her as all children of a large family, but for all that she ruled them with a rod of iron, and woe betide any among them who was brought before her for a deserved reproof.
"I must have efficiency," she would say to the offender. "We pride ourselves here that we have the best hospital in London, and you must do your part so that we can continue to think so. You've been careless, and I can't have careless girls here. You mustn't become slack and allow yourself to make mistakes. So, if you are brought before me again I shall have to think seriously of telling you you must leave us," and she would dismiss the girl with a kindly pat upon the shoulder.
When Dora had first arrived the matron had asked Elsie Waring, a senior probationer, to put her in the way of everything. "Elsie Waring's not only a clever girl," she told her, "but a very charming one as well, and you won't find her quite so formidable as you might a sister."
Certainly Elsie was clever. For a year she had been at Girton College, Cambridge, intending to take her degree in arts and make teaching her profession. However, changing her mind, she had suddenly determined to take up nursing and nearly three years previously had started at St. Jude's. Undeniably very attractive, with big blue eyes and rich auburn hair, she was of a bright and merry disposition. Always witty and amusing, she was not only capable in her work at the hospital, but was also, she would aver laughingly, wise in the ways of the world. She was three years older than Dora.
"And I suppose Matron has told you," she laughed, "that St. Jude's is by far the best hospital in all the world. Well, we certainly couldn't have more distinguished doctors than we've got here. They are all of them the aristocrats of the profession and three or four of them have royalty among their patients. So, sometimes they'll come straight from attending the highest in the land to palpate the tummy of a costermonger's girl."
"Are they very stuck-up?" asked Dora, a little awed.
"Not exactly," replied Elsie. "I'd rather call them aloof. You see—a doctor on the staff of any hospital knows all the sisters and nurses have been taught to look upon him as a little god. They have to wait upon him as if they were inferior beings, or slaves who'd get their heads chopped off if they did anything wrong. So that makes them think they're tremendously important people."
"I know that," laughed Dora. "Don't forget I was two years in a hospital in Bordeaux, though it was certainly a rather small one."
"And how did you find the doctors when you met them outside the hospital?" asked Elsie.
Dora shook her head. "I never had anything to do with them."
"Innocent!" laughed Elsie. "Well, I've met some of ours outside," she went on, "and found, as I might have expected, that meeting us away from the hospital they forget we're nurses and, if at all pretty, regard us at once as desirable females. If they're over thirty and getting on towards middle-age, as of course most of them are before they can get taken on the staff here, directly they get us alone they start at first being fatherly"—she laughed merrily—"but very soon want to become husbandly, and need telling when they must stop." She lowered her voice mysteriously. "Why, do you know at the Nurses' Ball last year, when I had a dance with the cold and haughty Sir Miles Braddock—Sir Miles is one of our senior surgeons here"—she threw out her hands dramatically—"what do you think he started to do when he'd taken me out into the grounds to get, as he put it, a breath of fresh air—to me, one of the despised nurses at whom he had so often scowled when he was doing an op. in the theatre?"
"Put his arm round your waist, I suppose?" suggested Dora, very amused.
"Poof! That was only a beginning," scoffed Elsie, "and a very short one, too. No, he started to try to kiss me as if we'd been old pals for ever so long."
"And did you let him?" asked Dora with a smile.
Elsie looked modestly down her nose. "I might have let him for just a few moments," she admitted, "for it was so funny with his prim old missus tucking in to strawberries and cream in the hall not fifty yards away." She nodded. "Besides, I thought it might be good for business, and that I should be a marked girl in future and he'd push my interests here with Matron."
"And did he?" asked Dora.
"Did he!" laughed Elsie merrily. "No, not a bit of it! In fact I thought he scowled at me more nastily than ever the next time he saw me. The ungrateful old wretch!"
Dora turned the conversation. "I suppose there are a lot of great specialists here?" she asked.
Elsie nodded. "The best in the kingdom, with the cream of all special knowledge from heads down to toes." She frowned. "But my dear old dad's rather taught me to be afraid of specialists. He's a doctor, too, an ordinary general practitioner in the Midlands, and believes so much of the treatments they give are unnecessary. If you go to one of these big bugs he may make a tremendous hullabaloo about whatever you've got the matter with you and run up big bills with cultures and injections and all sorts of expensive things. Whereas if you go to an ordinary doctor it's just as likely he'll put you right with something quick and cheap."
She laughed. "You see—if you're a specialist you're naturally inclined to welcome opportunities to give your speciality a run. Your special knowledge seems to take possession of your whole mind. Look at our Dr. Bankes Boulter here, for example. He's a great authority on syphilis, and his brother medical men say he's so keen on it that he's come to look at everybody through a syphilitic haze. He's sure nearly all of us have either acquired it ourselves or else inherited traces of it from our dads and mums, or their parents before them."
"If I were a great doctor," commented Dora, "I'd like to be a great surgeon. The operating theatre always gives me a big thrill."
"Of course it does," agreed Elsie, "and it does nearly everybody else, too. There's real drama there, with the hushed silence, the white-gowned sisters standing round, and the surgeon the arbiter of life and death." She held up her hand warningly. "And there's a great danger to the public, if they only knew, in all this theatrical effect, as, with the glamour about operations, nearly every young doctor, directly he gets his diploma, wants to take to the knife at once. So I'm sure thousands and thousands of operations are done which needn't have been, with the wretched patient never getting the benefit of the doubt.
"I'll tell you something else you probably don't know," she went on. "It's much harder to find a good physician than a good surgeon. My dad says lots of doctors can do a splendid operation and yet be duds outside their surgical work. He swears it takes a far better man to be a great consulting physician than to be a good surgeon, as the physician has to deal with the minds of the patients as well as with their bodies."
Dora laughed. "But I suppose, after being nearly three years at a big hospital like this," she said, "all doctors are heroes in your eyes?"
Elsie considered. "Well, not exactly," she replied, "though I always regard theirs as the most noble of all callings."
"Is your father clever?" asked Dora, and she added smilingly, "But, of course, he must be to have a daughter like you."
"Flatterer!" laughed Elsie. "Yes, he is clever and one of the best-read men I ever knew, which only goes to prove what I always say—that you can't have a clever doctor unless he's a clever man outside his profession as well. Find a man who's got no breadth of outlook on life, who has no imagination and doesn't read books—and if he's a doctor, he's never a good one. That doesn't apply so much to surgeons as to physicians, for a surgeon's work is to some extent mechanical." She nodded again. "Keep your eyes open as you go along and see if I'm not right."
Dora was longer than four years at St. Jude's, and in the course of that time her whole nature seemed to undergo a great change for the better. Thoroughly happy in her surroundings, she became much less bitter against the world generally and threw off not a little of her studied reserve. Taking part in the social life of the hospital in the dances and conversaziones, she was brought in contact with many of the other sex and speedily got rid of the idea that every man who was polite to her was intending to seduce her.
Developing, as her mother had so fondly anticipated, into a beautiful and aristocratic-looking woman, she had yet more than her good looks to recommend her, with her poise and natural dignity always demanding respect. Of course she had many admirers, but, save for a few mild flirtations, she kept them all well at a distance.
Though, as we have seen, of a much deeper character than her mother, strangely enough, the latter's influence over her was stronger now than it had ever been when she was alive, with the dead hand reaching out beyond the grave and holding her in a vice-like grip. To find her father was the secret legacy which had been left her, and to do so was the greatest incentive in her life.
She was quite certain that one day she would learn who he was and, with the abiding obsession that she would then find him in a high social circle, she was determined when she did make herself known to him that they should both be meeting on equal terms. Otherwise, she told herself, if a nonentity and a woman of no standing, when she came to call him to account for the way he had dealt with her mother—and she most resolutely intended to do that—the judgment she would pass upon him would lose much of its force. She would be able to sting far deeper, she was sure, if by her own effort, and with no help from him, she had raised herself to be his equal in the social scale.
Often, however, when she considered in cold blood the likelihood of her ever learning who he was, she would sigh deeply. The world was so very wide and chance played so great a part in the ordering of people's lives. Still—and she would at once take heart again—the improbable and the seemingly impossible did sometimes happen, and she was sure it was going to with her.
At any rate, she had two clues to help her. She knew her father's Christian name must be the unusual one of Athol, as in her dying hours her mother had many times called upon that name. Another thing, too, she remembered, looking back to her childhood and girlhood days, and that was how interested her mother had always been in the crooked little finger of her, Dora's, left hand. She would smilingly draw her attention to it, never seeming to regard it as a deformity, but rather as if it were something to be proud of. Occasionally she would kiss it, and so for a long time now it had been in Dora's mind that it must be something unusual that she had inherited from her father.
Dora often laughed mockingly here. A man who had a crooked little finger and whose Christian name was Athol! How easy he would be to find!
Dora's work at the hospital could not have been better, and in most ways she was an ideal nurse. Most capable, and with infinite patience, she was always sympathetic towards anyone in suffering, and her nature never hardened by its familiarity with pain, as is unhappily the case with so many of her calling. The patients loved her, and many a fretful child would at once cease its crying only with her, as she held its little hand or stroked the fevered little forehead with her cool white fingers.
Once, when the matron was ill, she picked upon Dora, of all the other nurses, to attend to her. "I feel safe with you, dear," she smiled. "You've got something of the healing presence, and I should always be happy if it were you who were nursing anyone I loved."
The medical staff, too, never had anything but good words for her, and it was said by the nurses that it was only to her Sir Robert Griffin, one of the senior physicians and a cold stern man, gave his rare smile.
"Of course he's in love with you, Dora," laughed Elsie. "He follows you about with his eyes. If it weren't for old Lady Griffin I'm sure he'd be wanting to marry you."
"Thank you," laughed back Dora. "But if or when I do marry, it'll be someone not old enough to be my father."
Dora had had two offers of marriage, one from an assistant surgeon, on the staff, and the other, of all people, from the middle-aged chaplain of the hospital. The young surgeon she certainly liked well enough. He was very much in love with her, good-looking, and everyone prophesied for him a brilliant career. However, Dora did not think he would ever be able to give her the social position she wanted, and so she turned him down quite nicely, but with a definite refusal.
With the chaplain she had a lot of difficulty in convincing him she could never be his wife. A high churchman approaching forty years of age, he had been proof against all the attractions of the other sex until he had been introduced to Dora, and then, with all the madness of the middle-aged man who was experiencing passion for the fest time, all his power of resistance seemed to have left him.
He started his courtship by suggesting she should attend the services at his church. Next, he wrote her a special invitation to come to one of his parish concerts, and then asked if he should get the matron to allow her a day off so that she could help with his annual fete.
At last, finding these advances of no avail, he boldly proposed to her when he met her one afternoon in the street. She was most embarrassed, but told him flatly she could never be a clergyman's wife and, apart from that, did not intend to marry at all, as her profession was her only interest in life.
It ended in her disconsolate suitor resigning his chaplaincy at St. Jude's so that he should not have the unhappiness of seeing her after her refusal of his offer to marry him.
"And that's another heart you've broken, Dora," reproved Elsie in affected sadness, "but with those eyes of yours I am sure there are other tragedies to come."
Shortly afterwards, Dora had yet a third proposal and, though she was furious at the condition imposed upon it, she could never think of it without laughing.
Elsie and she had continued to be great friends, and one summer along with her and another nurse she spent a three weeks' holiday at a hydropathic in Harrogate. All three were good-looking girls and attracted a lot of interest. Among their joint admirers was an elderly Scotchman from Glasgow, by name of Angus Charles McRob.
He was a widower, in obviously well-to-do circumstances, and though he had already been married twice he made no secret that he was now looking for number three. He was greatly attracted by all the three nurses and to their great amusement told them quite seriously that one or other of them might soon become the next Mrs. McRob.
Regarding his attentions as a good joke, they rather encouraged him and let him take them about, always, however, all three together, upon motor excursions, to theatres and concerts and the other amusements of the spa.
Then, one evening after dinner when they were all sitting together upon a seat in the grounds of the hydro, he patted Dora upon the knee and announced suddenly he had made up his mind at last, and that she was the chosen one.
Dora reddened uncomfortably at the realisation of the awkward position to which their foolish encouragement of him had led her, while her two friends giggled delightedly.
Then Mr. McRob went on to tell them with a crafty smile that he had been 'a canny mon' all his life and was quite aware of what sort of girls so many nurses were. So there was a condition, he said, attached to his proposal before it was 'offeecial' and could be made public.
The three girls held their breaths, all agog in curiosity as to what the condition might be. Then it came out.
On the morrow, he said, "to make su-ure she was a gude girrl," Dora was to go across to a doctor friend of his for "a wee bit examination."
For a moment there was a dead silence, while Mr. McRob looked smilingly at one and the other of them as if waiting for their admiration of his cleverness. Then Elsie burst into a shriek of laughter, while Dora was so furious that she gave him a resounding smack on the face.
None of the three became the third Mrs. McRob.
Not very long before Dora ultimately came to leave St. Jude's, a great happening occurred in her life, and for a time, at any rate, it seemed as if all her ambitious dreaming was to be thrown to the winds.
She fell in love and with a man who in no way fulfilled the requirements she had so often insisted to herself were necessary for the end she had in view.
By name of Eric Dalton Chalmers, undeniably handsome and of an attractive appearance, he was fifteen years older than Dora. Certainly he was well-educated and came of a good family, but his relations had long since cast him off and, as Dora was to learn later, he was a man of loose and bad character, and it was even said he had been in prison. He had no money and with his careless and irresponsible disposition had made every occupation he followed—and he had followed many in his time—an unsuccessful one.
Strangely enough, nearly everyone liked him and was ready to find excuses for him. Merry and light-hearted, he was good company wherever he went, and through all his bad social lapses yet continued to carry something of the gentleman about him. With all things favourable, he might indeed cheat at cards, with no pangs of conscience let down every tradesman who was foolish enough to trust him, but he regarded a gambling debt as a debt of honour and would go to great lengths to discharge it.
Dora was introduced to him at a Chelsea Arts Ball, and as he led her out on to the floor, for no reason that she could understand her heart began to beat a little faster. With his bold eyes looking down possessively, he smiled at her with what she thought was a most fascinating smile. "So you're a nurse, are you?" he said. "Well, you're much too pretty to be one, as with you nursing me I'm sure I should never want to get well."
He was a good dancer, and Dora sighed deeply in a strange delight at his close proximity to her in the glorious melody of the beautiful Blue Danube waltz. Later, they sat out two dances and were soon chatting interestedly as if they were quite old friends. Indeed, afterwards Dora was in the way of being rather ashamed that she had told him so much about herself. However, his own confidences had led her on and he spoke so candidly there that she could not help becoming immediately interested in him.
As a rolling stone, he said, he had knocked about in many parts of the world, but had never done much good anywhere. He was a thorough bad egg, he laughed, and always had been. He thought, however, that he had been happiest when serving in France during the First Great War. Then, with all its horrors, life had been carefree and exhilarating, with the fighting coming like continued deep draughts of the best champagne. His return to civil life had been a great flop and taken all his moral strength from him.
"No, I am not married," he smiled, "but don't you go building any hopes there, as I'm not a marrying man. For one thing I'm much too fickle and want to make a fuss of every pretty girl I see. I shouldn't have asked to be introduced to you if you were the least bit plain."
"Then I'm not safe with you," laughed back Dora, quite thrilled to think that she was running into danger.
"No, I'm a bomb to all young and attractive females," he grinned cheerfully. "So you look out and remember I have warned you." He pretended to sigh. "Just now my wings are clipped a bit, as I'm pretty hard up. I'm only scratching along as a black-and-white artist."
Later, in bidding her good-bye, he gave her hand a gentle squeeze and whispered, without going through the formality of asking for any permission, that he'd ring her up one day and take her out to dinner somewhere to see a bit of life. "When I've sold some of my sketches," he added, "and am in funds again."
Dora laughed happily that she wasn't sure whether she'd come, but for all that she knew she would.
There was no doubt he had made a great impression upon her, and that night before she went to sleep her thoughts were full of him. He had struck some chord in her woman's nature which no man had ever vibrated before, not because he was good-looking, but for some other quality he possessed, a quality which, however, she could not analyse.
In the days which followed, when no message from him came through, she took to wondering if she would ever meet him again, each time, however, dismissing the idea as impossible. He was not that kind of man, she told herself, for, with all the bad character he had so candidly given himself, she was sure he was one who would always keep a promise if he could.
So she was not at all surprised when one evening she found herself called to the phone and heard his voice speaking. As once before, the beatings of her heart quickened.
"Thought I'd forgotten you?" he asked, and she was about to reply she hadn't thought about the matter at all when she suddenly changed her mind and replied, "No, I thought you'd ring some day," and she added laughingly, "Then you're in funds again?"
"Just for a little while," he laughed, "but it won't last long; money never does with me. Now what about me calling for you and giving you that dinner I promised? Can you manage, say, to-morrow night?"
He wanted to call for her at the hospital, but she wouldn't have that, and so it was arranged they should meet at the tube station in Piccadilly. Though she was early at the rendezvous, he was earlier still, and the moment he saw her he exclaimed fervently, "My word, but you're a little beauty, aren't you?" and she thrilled at the admiration she saw in his eyes.
He took her to Claridge's, and it was well he had booked a table as the place was thronged. Dora looked round with a flushed face and widely-opened eyes. The suggestion of wealth was everywhere. Superbly-gowned women seemed to occupy every table, and never before, except in a jeweller's window, had she seen such beautiful precious stones. Most of the men, too, looked distinguished and as if, even if they were not among the best-born, they had at least made their mark in some important walk of life.
Dora's feelings were almost overwhelming ones, for here at last, she thought, she was getting a glimpse of that greater world in which one day, she had always dreamed, she would move herself.
Noting her unmistakable appreciation of her surroundings, Chalmers was delighted at the pleasure she was so obviously experiencing. "Plenty of money here," he remarked, and he smiled whimsically. "It's a sure thing that everybody has got more money than you or I."
"But you shouldn't have brought me," reproved Dora warmly. "It'll cost you far too much of the little you say you have."
"Nonsense," laughed Chalmers, "I've always lived in the present, and to-night, with you as my companion, I'm having a little stroll through Paradise." He made a grimace. "Of course, I know I'll be turned out to-morrow, but no one will be able to take the memory from me." He looked tenderly at her. "So enjoy yourself, little one, while we are walking in this garden of bright flowers."
For a few fleeting seconds Dora's happiness was chilled by the way he was regarding her. He was giving her all he could, and in return would get little out of her. She ought not to have come out with him! She was leading him on!
However, these uneasy moments passed quickly, and she took interest again in the people around her. "What a lovely, aristocratic-looking girl," she exclaimed, "that one at the table over there with the carnations. The old man with her might be her grandfather."
Chalmers looked round and then laughed scoffingly. "Grandfather—not a bit of it!" he exclaimed. "I happen to know who they are. They're husband and wife, Sir Guy and Lady Beeming, and she's twenty and he's sixty-five. Their wedding, not six months ago, was a wonderful society affair." He looked round again. "Yes, she does look an aristocrat. I'm sure everyone would say that."
"But I wonder why she ever came to marry him?" frowned Dora.
"No wonder at all," retorted Chalmers instantly. "He's as rich as Croesus and two years before she married him, before she'd gone into the chorus at Sadler's Wells, she was helping in her parents' shop in Hoxton. They were little greengrocers there in a small by-street and——But oh, see that tall gaunt man there, who's as hideous as the woman seated opposite him is lovely?"
"Yes, I see him," replied Dora. "He looks a full brother to Satan to me."
"But he's a most distinguished man," frowned Chalmers. "He's Sir Charles Carrion, one of the world's greatest surgeons, and they say his fee was fifty thousand guineas when he went to India last year to operate upon a fabulously wealthy Rajah there."
"I've heard of him," exclaimed Dora in some excitement. "We've got his Abdominal Viscera in the hospital library, but fancy such a great man being so ugly!"
"And there's another great man," went on Chalmers, "and neither would he take a prize in a beauty show now. He's Lord Rabbin, the painter, the President of the Royal Academy, and I'd get no change out of five thousand guineas if I got him to paint you."
"Then it's a good thing you haven't got it to throw away," laughed Dora. She indicated the woman with Lord Rabbin. "And I suppose she's his wife."
Chalmers nodded. "What do you think of her?"
Dora considered. "Well, she looks rather like a vulture now, but I should say she wasn't bad-looking once."
"Bad-looking!" exclaimed Chalmers. "Not if what I've heard is true." He spoke emphatically. "Do you know, Dora, that forty and more years ago theirs was a romantic love-story that stirred society to its very depths. I've heard my mother speak about it. Young Rabbin was a struggling artist then, without a penny, and that woman whom you say is like a vulture now was the only daughter of the Marquis of Rivington, and one of the loveliest girls of her year. Now she's blue blood, if you like, with ancestors going back for a thousand years and more—and she just eloped with him before she was nineteen."
"And they've been happy?" asked Dora.
"Undoubtedly," replied Chalmers. He smiled. "At any rate they've had seven or eight children, and there's a granddaughter now who's said to be even more lovely than her grandmother was."
"But how do you come to know so much about these people?" asked Dora curiously.
Chalmers frowned. "Before I disgraced my family I was friendly with some of them." He added bitterly, "As we came in here I noticed a man I used to know well, years ago, but he pretended not to see me."
A short silence followed and then Dora asked hesitatingly, and with a little catch in her breath, "Do you happen—do you happen to have ever heard of a man whose Christian name is Athol?"
"Athol! Athol!" repeated Chalmers slowly and as if searching his memory. He nodded. "Yes, I believe I've heard of several. But who's the particular one you want to know about?"
Dora laughed nervously. "I don't know. I want to find out. He's someone, I should think, in good society. But what ones have you heard of with that Christian name?"
Chalmers shook his head. "I can't remember, though it's in my mind somehow that I've heard of one in particular." He nodded. "However, it'll certainly come back before long."
"Then be sure and tell me," said Dora earnestly, and he promised he would.
The meal over, they went into St. James's Park, and for an hour and longer sat talking upon one of the seats before he took her back to the hospital in a taxi. He was most circumspect and, in parting, gave her no more than a squeeze of the hand.
On two more evenings he took her out again, with Dora realising with some fright that she was getting really fond of him. He was so natural and boyish, and she was sure that at bottom there was little wrong with him. It was only, she thought, that during all his life he had met no one who had an influence for good with him. Married happily, he would have turned out to be a man very different from what he was always impressing her he was now.
Excusing herself for her growing friendship with him by insisting it was more maternal than anything else, she gave little real thought, however, to how it was going to end. It was just, she sighed, that they were both enjoying the present, with no regard to the future, and she kept on assuring herself that she would definitely refuse to marry him if ever it happened that he came to ask her.
Still, one thing was disquieting to her. The unexpected and passionate kiss he had given her in parting upon the third night she had been out with him had not been without its aftermath, for, when thinking about it later, she had trembled many times at the memory of the ecstasy it had given her. However, she assured herself that never, never would she allow him to go further than a kiss.
Then for three weeks she heard nothing of him, until he rang up, making another appointment for dinner and a picture afterwards. This time it was to no magnificent Claridge's he took her, but to a small foreign restaurant in Soho. He was rather silent during the meal, and several times she thought he was regarding her curiously.
Out in the street again, and walking towards where they were going to see the picture, he stopped suddenly and said, "Oh, damn the pictures! I don't feel inclined to go to one to-night. Instead, I'll take you to my studio and you shall see some of my sketches," and without waiting for her assent he hailed a taxi and handed her into it.
Now Dora was no fool and her knees shook under her in the privacy of the taxi when he put his arm round her waist and gently pulled her to him to kiss her. What was now going to happen to her, she asked herself fearfully? Up to then she had never been alone with him in any building, and the very thought frightened her, while at the same time she knew she was not going unwillingly.
What did it mean? she asked herself. What—but his kisses seemed to benumb all her powers of reasoning, and the rapture of lying limp in his arms and returning his caresses made her oblivious of everything else.
The drive was a short one, and pulling up at a small house in a little street off Sloan Square he opened the door with his key and led her up to his studio on the first floor.
"I share this with a friend," he said, speaking a little huskily, "but he's away this week and so"—he turned away his eyes—"we shall be all alone. Take off your hat dear, and make yourself at home."
With shaking hands, she did as she was told and laid the hat upon a chair. Then, with her breath coming quickly, she turned to face him.
He was looking at her with all the ecstasy of an accepted lover and, with his eyes shining and his lips parted, moved towards her to take her in his arms.
Suddenly, however, and as if in a flash of startled discovery, he stopped dead. He dropped his widely-opened arms, he stood hesitating and then, all in an instant, from a great tenderness the whole expression of his face became hard and stern.
"Sit there," he ordered harshly, pointing to a settee. "I'm going to talk to you," and, turning a chair round, he sat down facing her, with his arms folded upon the chair back.
Dora was thunderstruck, and if her limbs now shook under her it was from sheer fright because he was looking at her so furiously.
"You damned little fool," he burst out; "you've got no more sense than the rest of them. You women tempt us men beyond all endurance and then, when you've raised the devil in us, you whine at the consequences." He raised his voice angrily. "Why did you allow yourself to come here alone with me? Didn't your instinct, let alone your common sense, tell you I wasn't the kind of man to stop at kisses once you had let me start taking them?" He gritted his teeth savagely. "Oh, yes, you were guessing right enough what I had brought you here for, and don't you pretend you didn't know quite well the danger you were running into."
He spoke scoffingly. "And now can you make another guess, Miss Dane, and ask yourself why what you were in such danger of is not going to happen, why you are being saved from your own damned stupidity."
Dora had gone as white as death at so extraordinary and bitter an outburst from the man whom, in spite of all her grand resolutions, she had come to love, and she was so overwhelmed that she was in no condition to utter even a single word. She sat on, with her heart beating painfully.
Chalmers, as if not expecting any answer to his questions, went on much more quietly and almost in conversational tones now. "Well, I'll tell you." He drew in a deep breath. "You know, young woman, you've always been a bit of a puzzle to me. You puzzled me almost from that first moment when I was introduced to you. To begin with, I thought you were a good girl, a young lady as yet untouched by the coarseness of any of us wicked men, but soon"—he frowned—"I began to take you to be something of an old stager, with perhaps not a little of experience behind you. That idea grew upon me and so"—he shrugged his shoulders—"I just brought you here to gain a little more experience still."
He paused a few moments and then went on sharply, "I believed this worst of you until about three minutes ago and by now, if I hadn't suddenly altered my opinion"—he smiled grimly—"you wouldn't have been what you are any more." He held her eyes with his. "Do you know what saved you from both yourself and me? No, of course you don't, but I'll tell you."
He took out a cigarette and lighted it quite leisurely. "I told you once that I am not married, and it is quite true. But I was married once"—he shrugged his shoulders—"until my wife, quite deservedly, divorced me. She was a good girl and had been all she should have been until her wedding night." He made a grimace. "Her mother was a shrewd woman and had left no chances for me lying about." He spoke gently. "Well, when I took my wife upstairs in the hotel that night, as we entered the room I saw a nervous frightened look upon her face." He raised one long forefinger in emphasis. "She was frightened at what she knew was going to happen to her, as she had had no experience of it before."
He lifted up his hand and spoke very slowly and emphatically. "And, to your good fortune, I saw that same scared look on your face just now when you had taken off your hat. You were frightened as she had been because you are what people call good, too." He nodded. "Yes, that look saved you"—he bowed ironically—"and so I am going to leave you to make that last gift of yours one day to some decent man."
He sprang abruptly to his feet and pointed to her hat. "Put it on," he ordered sharply, "and get out quick, as I'm only human and may change my mind. Go on—get away quick! I've finished with you and never want to see you again. Go on! You can get home by yourself, and if you've no money on you to pay the bus fare so much the better. You can walk, and you'll have plenty of time then to realise what a damned little fool you've been," and, almost pushing her out of the studio, he slammed the door viciously behind her.
With his head bent down, he listened to her retreating footsteps until they had died away, and then darted over to a cupboard and took out a bottle of whisky. "A damned fool myself," he growled, "and I'll never get such a chance again." He sighed deeply. "Still, I've done the right thing for once, though I'm not sure I won't regret it all my life."
And Dora? Dora was in the depths of a most bitter humiliation as she walked along. He had been right! He had seen through her! She had known quite well what was going to happen and she had fallen for it like the veriest drab of a little servant girl who had gone out for a walk in the dark for the first time with her lover!
She crimsoned up in shame. And he had almost called her by a bad name and thrown her out as if she had not been worth the taking! Oh, God, as he had said, what a little fool she had been! Yet—in his upbraiding her he had not plumbed to half the depths of her folly. Entangled with him, what would have become of her high resolve to climb to a position where she could meet her father—when she found him—on equal terms?
She shed many tears that night before sleep at last came to her, but in her weeping there were no bitter thoughts for the man who had so reviled her. Bad he might be, but, for all that, he had saved her from herself, and she was grateful.
The next day she made up her mind that she would leave St. Jude's. She did not wholly trust herself if Eric Chalmers should try to get in touch with her again. Added to that, she wanted now to mix with the class of people among whom she was sure her father was to be found.
She told herself it would not be as difficult there as it might seem, for she would try to get her cases from among the patients of the highest of the hospital medical staff.
Once having made up her mind, she acted quickly and that same afternoon spoke to the matron. The latter was sympathetic. "Yes, Sister," she said, "I quite understand. Of course, I shall be very sorry to lose you, but I won't try to dissuade you, for I know you'll make an ideal private nurse and will get plenty to do." She looked thoughtful. "In fact I rather think I can put you on to something straightaway. Just wait a day or two and I'll speak to you again."
So it came about that a few days later Dora was sent for to the matron's room. Rather to her embarrassment, Sir Robert Griffin, the senior physician of the hospital, was there. The matron was all smiles. "Sister," she said, "Sir Robert has a proposition to put to you, and I think it will please you." She laughed. "I know it would me if I were you."
"It's like this, Sister Dane," said the great man pleasantly. "I want a nurse for my consulting-rooms"—he smiled his rare smile—"and from what I know of you, you are just the one I'd like to have. It's nice interesting work and I would pay you eight guineas a week. I must tell you, however, that the position would not be a permanent one, as I should only want you for about six months. My present nurse is going to have a serious operation and afterwards will have to go away for at least a three months' holiday. Now does the proposition appeal to you?"
Did it appeal to Dora? Why, it was an opportunity, the magnificence of which almost took her breath away! Sir Robert attended royalty and, as a consulting physician, everybody knew his practice lay among the wealthiest society people.
She stammered her thanks at his asking her and accepted at once.
So the following week saw Dora starting upon her duties in Cavendish Square, and she was so thrilled with everything that the wound caused by her break with Eric Chalmers seemed to heal almost at once. It was an unpleasant adventure, she told herself, from which, however, most undeservedly, she had escaped very lightly.
For the agreed six months Dora was in attendance upon Sir Robert at his consulting-rooms, but there was no doubt she was disappointed with the result, as she had soon come to realise what a priceless little fool she had been to have ever imagined that it might bring her the opportunity, upon which she had set her heart, of making a good marriage.
Certainly she was working among the very class she had wanted to, as hardly a day passed without her being brought in contact with some of the best of titled society people, many of whose names were so often mentioned in the social columns of the newspapers. Still, they were nearly all either old or elderly and, apart from that, she met them only as Sir Robert's nurse, and, their attendance at his consulting-room finished, her association with them was over and done with.
It is true some of the men patients were quite agreeable to paying her plenty of attention, bringing her flowers and boxes of chocolates and even on the quiet suggesting they should meet her outside and take her out to dinner. The older they were, too, the more gallant some of these latter were inclined to be. Indeed, one old lord of an historic name and well into the seventies, who was being treated by Sir Robert for arthritis, was so insistent she should meet him one evening that she had to tell him off sharply, even at the risk of giving offence. That he was married to an old lady seemingly as ancient as himself had not in any way damped his ardour, and Dora had had several grim laughs to herself at the thought of what people would think of her if they saw her in public with this tottery old gentleman as her cavalier.
In another way, too, she had suffered a great disillusionment, for it had come to her of late that the idea she would ever learn who was her father was altogether a fantastic one, and she grew hot in shame at the thought of what a silly, foolish girl she had been. Probably it had been a dream on her poor mother's part that her lover had been of the upper classes!
Of such humble birth as she knew her mother had been, and, with such scant education and no experience or knowledge of the world, no young girl could have been more easily imposed upon than she. With a sigh of pity, she, Dora, could visualise it all so clearly now. A young and pretty neglected wife, with the background of a most unhappy home—a boy out upon a holiday and eager as all young men always are for a love adventure—why, what would have been more natural than that the boy should have pitched her a tale, got all he wanted out of her and then faded back into the millions and millions of young fellows like him.
Then another thing was beginning to worry Dora quite a lot. She was marking time, or, worse than that, was actually losing ground in her endeavour to make a good marriage. At twenty-five the best years of her life were slipping dangerously by, and with every year that passed her chances would get less and less. Why should she not marry well? she kept on asking herself. Countless other girls with fewer advantages than hers had done it. She knew she had good looks and, in the main, that was what men most wanted. She had intelligence, too, and some knowledge of the world. Surely they should help her! Yes, it was just opportunity she wanted, and she must find that opportunity somehow.
So things were up to the Monday of her last week at Cavendish Square, and then, arriving at the consulting-rooms as usual at half-past nine, the secretary told her Sir Robert had been called into the country and, in consequence, would not be seeing patients until about one o'clock.
"He's gone to a place near Tunbridge Wells," she said, "to a Mrs. Britton-Fox who's got chunks of money," and, having once spent a holiday not far from there, she went on to expatiate upon the grandeur of Marden Court where the patient lived.
Dora listened with some interest to a description of the beautiful park, with its large ornamental lake, the herd of deer, the great house with its more than forty rooms and the many pictures and art treasures it contained. "It's a show place," the secretary said, "and, when Mrs. Britton-Fox's husband was alive, scores of important people used to be entertained there."
That afternoon when Sir Robert had finished with his patients he called Dora back into his consulting-room and to her great delight suggested that she could go down to the Court to look after this Mrs. Britton-Fox.
"She's got a shocking heart," he said, "and though at the moment she is not actually ill, she's liable to become so any day. So I want someone with her who is capable of furnishing me with an adequate report twice a week. It may not be at all a hard case for you to look after, as she is not being confined to her bed, but, for all that, you may find her difficult to manage, as I particularly want you to be very strict about her diet. You will receive your present salary."
Dora was thrilled. It might turn out to be the very chance she had been looking for, a chance which after all had come to her without her looking for it! She would be among the best-class people and surely anything might come of it!
So at the end of the week she was driven with Sir Robert to Marden Court, and on the way down he told her chattily quite a lot about her patient-to-be.
The childless widow of Marcus Britton-Fox who had had large commercial interests in India, she was a proud and wealthy old woman. During her husband's lifetime, and for a short time following his death, she had been an important person in the society world, entertaining lavishly among the best society people.
Her chef had been an artist, her cellar one of the best in the kingdom, and money had been poured out like water to provide amusement for her guests. She had kept on in this way, too, for the first couple of years or so of her widowhood, and then had been brought up sharply by a bad heart attack.
"That was a little over a year ago," went on Sir Robert, "and then I made her drop all this senseless entertaining and insisted she should live the very quietest of lives. She didn't want to, but I frightened her into it, and now she has settled down very ungraciously to a semi-chronic invalidism. I understand she has shut up most of the rooms of the Court and keeps only a butler and four maids."
He laughed. "I'm afraid you won't find her a very good-tempered old lady, but, from what I've seen of you, if anyone can manage her you will."
Arriving at the Court and introduced to her patient, Dora was rather surprised the latter showed little outward sign of being in the precarious condition Sir Robert had described. She looked active and full of life.
"So you're the very capable young woman," she greeted Dora frowningly, "who's going to make sure I don't do anything I want to? Well, you're much too pretty to be a nurse——" and she added spitefully, "you'll find no men here to use your charms upon, except Bevan, my butler, whom you've just seen. I don't have visitors."
Dora's heart sank into her shoes. So she was going to meet no nice and eligible young men, no knights in shining armour and no fairy prince with a golden shoe for the poor lonely Cinderella! She had run into another blind alley!
However, she dissembled her disappointment with a bright smile, and when shown into her room by a smartly uniformed parlourmaid was to some extent mollified by the speedy realisation that if life were indeed going to be monotonous at the Court, at any rate there was going to be no lack of creature comforts. Her room was spacious, a bright fire was burning in the grate, and all the appointments were luxurious. Lights could be switched on wherever you wanted them, and there was a beautiful-looking little mantel wireless set. Added to all these there was a private bathroom.
At the luncheon, too, which followed, it was evident that if the old glories of the Court had in the main departed, something of their splendour and ceremony still lingered. The food was the best one could have wished, there was the choice of several wines, and they were waited upon by two parlourmaids as well as the butler.
Mrs. Britton-Fox had specifically asked Dora not as yet to change into her uniform, and so Sir Robert, who stayed for the meal, for the first time saw Dora other than as a nursing sister or consulting-room attendant. She was a very beautiful young woman, he told himself, and he was particularly pleased to see she was neither shy nor awkward in her surroundings. Later, in saying good-bye to her, she was quite thrilled he so far departed from his usual severe professional manner as to give her hand a gentle squeeze while he held it much longer than he need have done.
Dora very quickly settled down to her duties and found that for the time being there was nothing onerous about them. Her patient was living an almost normal life, and all Dora had to do was to look after her generally, record her pulse twice a day, see that she took her medicine and restrain her from eating more than she should or what was not allowed.
Simple as were these duties, carrying them out conscientiously, however, speedily made her something of an enemy to her patient. Never at any time of a particularly agreeable disposition, Mrs. Britton-Fox's state of health had made her most bad-tempered, and in many ways she was now childishly spiteful. Accustomed all her life to having her own way, she hated to have to obey orders. So, standing in great awe of Sir Robert and afraid to offend him, she began instead to visit her spite, as much as she dared, upon Dora.
She was rude and overbearing, too, to all her servants, and at first Dora could not understand how it was they had stayed so long with her. However, she was to learn later they were being very highly paid, getting almost double the wages they would have obtained anywhere else and having everything they wanted in the way of comfort.
It was very amusing to Dora to watch the behaviour of the butler when she was abusing him for something he had done or not done. A quiet and intelligent-looking man, he took not the slightest notice of anything she said, except to listen respectfully. Then he would leave her presence with the most deferential of bows.
Dora liked Bevan very much. He was always anxious to do anything he could for her in a quiet and unobtrusive way, and she could sense his sympathy when things were particularly trying. Still, he had been too well trained to ever discuss his mistress with her in any way.
However, it was very different with Mrs. Humphreys, the cook, and from her Dora learnt quite a lot about Mrs. Britton-Fox. She told her she had quarrelled with nearly all her relations and indeed behaved so offensively that only two of them now ever visited the Court. These were her two nephews, Ernest Wynwood, a well-to-do stockbroker of middle age, and Richard Paris Stroud, a young fellow of six and twenty, who, when his uncle, the childless baronet Sir Warwick, died, would become Sir Richard Stroud.
"He is the mistress's favourite," said the cook, "and it's no secret he'll come into most of her money. She's always telling him he ought to marry some girl high up in society, too. She's very ambitious about him and wants him to bring back the great reputation the Court once had."
Both of these nephews, she went on, paid occasional visits to the Court, but never stayed very long, as their aunt was always nagging at them, Mr. Wynwood because he had married a woman she didn't like, and Mr. Stroud because he had not married at all.
"Is this Mr. Stroud well off?" asked Dora a little curiously.
"Oh, no! Both his parents are dead and they left him no money. He works with some big chemical firm, but Mistress makes him an allowance and he has a small flat in Earl's Court and runs a little car. He's such a nice gentleman and so polite to everyone."
"But he'll have money, won't he," asked Dora, "when he comes into the baronetcy?"
The cook shook her head. "No, there's not a penny there. Sir Warwick has just his pension from the Army and it'll die with him. He lives in an inexpensive hotel in Harrogate."
"But why doesn't Mr. Stroud marry?" asked Dora, her curiosity now beginning to be stirred more strongly.
"He says he's not interested in young ladies," smiled the cook, "and never has anything to do with them."
Dora was a little thoughtful after what the cook had told her. Notwithstanding her comfortable surroundings, she had been wanting badly to throw up the case, and had only been prevented from doing so because she did not want to displease Sir Robert.
Now she felt rather more disposed to stay on for at least a little longer. It would be interesting to see what this young man who had no interest in girls was like, and rather amusing, too, to try to lead him on. Certainly she had not the confidence in her powers that an old campaigner would have had, but her years of hospital life had taught her that no man, unless he were physically wanting and deformed in some way, could ever be actually dead to the attractions of the opposite sex. The urge must be there and it was only lying dormant for some particular woman to awaken it.
A few days after this conversation, the stockbroker nephew came down for a long week-end, and Dora was not too much taken with him. He was a big, red-faced, smiling man of free and easy manners. He ogled her quite a lot and evidently wanted to get very friendly all at once. Happening to be alone in the lounge, he started to put his arm round her waist. She pushed him away sharply, but he did not take the snub and a moment or two later chucked her under the chin. By now she was really angry and gave him so hard a box on the ear that his eyes watered. "You little she-cat," he snarled; "it'd serve you right if I gave you one back."
He left her alone after that and took no more notice of her. She was relieved when he had gone.
Then, to her delight, only about a fortnight later, Mrs. Britton-Fox announced that the other nephew would be coming down on the Saturday and would be staying at the Court for all the following week.
"But you needn't plume yourself up," and she went on with something of a sneer, "and think you're going to make a fine catch, for if you do you'll only have all your trouble for nothing. It happens our sex has never interested him." She looked very scornful. "Besides, if he ever does marry it'll be someone in his own class."
Dora looked amused. "Well, I'm certainly not likely to lose any sleep over him," she said smiling, "as his sex no more interests me than you say ours does him," but then, knowing by now how shrewd the old lady was, she added quickly, "At least, men interest me so little that I never expect to meet the one who will make me want to give up my independence for him."
"Then you're a cold woman, are you?" queried Mrs. Britton-Fox, regarding Dora's bright and piquant face very doubtfully.
"I suppose so," fibbed Dora, "as men never trouble me."
Young Richard Stroud arrived on the Saturday morning, and Dora's heart gave something of a bump as she was introduced to him. He was of the very type that she knew appealed to her most. Tall and undeniably handsome, with a grave and thoughtful face, he smiled pleasantly as they shook hands.
"You needn't be afraid of her, Richard," said his aunt disdainfully, "as she tells me men never interest her."
"Very sensible!" nodded her nephew. "We men are always a cause of trouble, and are never worth it."
Sitting opposite to him at lunch, Dora proceeded to take good stock of him at her leisure and, as he seldom looked in her direction, had plenty of opportunities. "In every way a gentleman," ran her thoughts, "and he'd never do anything mean. Very conscientious and a dreamer. No girl has wakened him up as yet."
During the course of the meal the old lady took charge of the conversation and purposely never once brought Dora into it. However, the talk was apparently not very interesting to her nephew, as he looked obviously bored, though politely, Dora saw, he did his best not to show it.
"He didn't seem very taken with you, Sister, did he?" remarked her employer spitefully to Dora, when later they were alone. She laughed unpleasantly. "You haven't made much impression yet."
"No, because you didn't give me any chance," returned Dora in mock reproach. "You never once gave me the chance of speaking to him."
"Oh, then you think it is only opportunity you want," said Mrs. Britton-Fox with a contemptuous look. "Very well, then, I'll give you plenty"—she sneered—"and when he's proposed to you I'll help you choose the ring."
So that afternoon when they had finished tea in the lounge, with a sweetness and consideration that was quite foreign to her nature, his aunt suggested to Richard that he should take Dora for a little walk in the grounds. "She doesn't get enough fresh air," she said, and quite ignoring Dora's perfectly healthy appearance, added, "She wants more roses in her cheeks."
"Delighted!" exclaimed Richard with a smiling inclination of his head towards Dora.
"And you be sure, Sister," went on Mrs. Britton-Fox with pretended animation, "that you show Mr. Stroud my Gloires de Dijon in the rose garden." She gave Dora an impish look. "You'll be out of sight, too, of the windows of the house there."
Dora at once became furiously red, but Richard, with a ready sympathy in her so-obvious embarrassment, touched her in a friendly way on the arm. "Come on, Sister," he said briskly, "we'll go and see if these roses are really worth looking at."
With still heightened colour, Dora followed him into the grounds, and then he looked down at her and said with a smile, "I suppose my aunt was intending to be facetious."
"Offensive would be a better word," snapped Dora angrily, "but she's often spiteful towards me like that. I have to see she obeys her doctor's orders, and she detests me in consequence."
"But it was only her fun," said Richard. "She didn't mean anything."
"Oh, didn't she?" retorted Dora scornfully. "She did right enough. She intended to make me uncomfortable by sort of warning you to be on your guard when you were alone with me."
Richard laughed merrily. "But strangers might think it was the other way round, with you being in any danger there was—not me."
"You," queried Dora with some amusement in spite of her anger, "with your reputation of a woman-hater?"
"My dear aunt again, I suppose," frowned Richard. "No, I'm nothing so foolish as that. It's only that Aunt is always wanting to push me into matrimony and I'm not that way inclined. I've never had much to do with girls and they don't enter into my life at present. I work in the laboratory of a metallurgical chemist and there are no women there."
The unpleasantness of Mrs. Britton-Fox forgotten, they talked friendlily together, principally about music, and Dora found him an agreeable companion. Every time she looked at him she thought how handsome he was. He was so boyish and frank, too, about his life, though he said nothing about being heir to a title.
Their walk almost over and passing through the rose-garden again, Dora suddenly got a fly in her eye. Blinking ineffectively to dislodge it, the water began to trickle down her cheek.
"Here, let me see what I can do," said Richard briskly and, accepting his attention, Dora felt herself get hot as, steadying her head with one hand under her chin, he lifted up her eyelid by the long lashes and tried to locate the offending insect.
Certainly it was a rather embarrassing moment for both of them and particularly so to Richard, for as far as he could remember his face had never been so close to that of a woman before. Still, as he noted the softness of her skin and smelt the fragrance of her hair, he found the experience was not by any means an unpleasant one. He could feel his own face had got rather hot, too.
"I see it," he said after a few moments. "Let's have your handkerchief now," and after she had moistened it, between what he noticed for the first time were a very pretty pair of lips, the fly was quickly removed.
She thanked him gratefully, and then, as they resumed their walk, a silence fell between them and continued until they were back in the house. Dora was thrilling with the memory of his close contact with her, and he, rather to his annoyance, was not undisturbed, either. He had not given much notice to her appearance when his aunt had introduced her, but now that he had realised how really good-looking she was, his thoughts were directed into a most unusual channel and he was surprised at himself.
Dora was much relieved they did not meet Mrs. Britton-Fox as they were going through the lounge, but in the privacy of her own room she felt her legs wobbling under her.
Here was the very man, she breathed, she had been hoping would one day come into her life, of a charming disposition, good-looking, likely to be well-off in the future and the possessor of a title. With all her ambitions, it was to her credit that she put his personal qualifications first.
The three of them met again at dinner, and Mrs. Britton-Fox was maliciously pleased to see that Dora was so quiet and subdued. She noted, too, that Richard during the whole course of the meal hardly once seemed to glance Dora's way.
"Poof, of course the walk was not interesting to him," she told herself viciously, "and the girl's disappointed in consequence! With all his politeness, he's as cold as ice with girls, and when he does marry he'll choose with his head and not be led away by any sentimental nonsense." She frowned with just a trace of uneasiness. "Still, the girl looks very pretty to-night."
Richard thought so, too, and that was why he avoided as much as he could looking in her direction. However, he had well taken in her appearance in one quick glance as they had sat down to the meal, and it had been even more disturbing than the first revelation in the rose-garden.
Her face was so delicately flushed, her eyes were as pretty as any he'd ever seen, she had a beautifully shaped mouth, and her uniform could not have shown up to more advantage her perfect little figure.
He had another reason, too, for purposely taking such little open notice of Dora. Quite aware of his aunt's disposition, he knew any attention he paid to her nurse would make his relative more spitefully inclined than ever. Still, fearing that Dora, after their pleasant conversation that afternoon, might feel a little hurt by his apparent neglect, once, when Mrs. Britton-Fox was occupied in giving an order to the butler, he managed to flash across the table a smile of faint amusement.
Dora lowered her eyes quickly to hide the exultation that was surging through her. So already there had come between them a secret understanding of which his aunt was to know nothing, and surely it might be the beginning of an intimacy that could lead them anywhere!
Then in the ensuing week which followed was enacted as interesting a little comedy as would have delighted the most hardened playgoer.
First, there was the woman, Dora, who, with no pretence to herself that she had suddenly fallen head over heels in love with Richard, was yet by no means unstirred by his physical attractions. In other ways, too, she was intensely interested in him, regarding him as possessing practically all the qualifications she so desired in a husband. Added to that, as was only natural, she would have been greatly pleased to bring home to the spiteful Mrs. Britton-Fox how mistaken she had been in her sneering statement that she, Dora, would never succeed in making Richard interested in her.
So, to attain her ends, she was now using every wile and artifice with which her sex had been endowed. She was playing her cards well, too, being in no way forward or bold, but letting Richard see in many little ways that she was not wholly indifferent to him.
Next there was Richard, a man for the first time interested in one of the opposite sex, and with that interest coming so long after his adolescent days it was surging through him with a violence he would certainly not have felt had he had any such experience before. He would have liked to have feasted his eyes upon Dora whenever she was by, to note how her face lit up and her eyes sparkled when she was amused, and to watch the play of her pretty lips as she spoke. The peculiar thing was that, though he knew he was falling in love with her, he yet fought feebly against it, because it had always been a proud obsession with him that he would never fall for any girl, however pretty she might be.
In two minds, he did not know whether he was awakening from some unsatisfying and unnatural sleep or else—sinking into a delicious and opiate dream. He felt something like a man who all his adult life had been walking between two high and forbidding walls, and now the walls had suddenly fallen down, and before his startled and wondering eyes was stretching a pathway leading into a garden of bright and lovely flowers.
Then there was Mrs. Britton-Fox, watchful, very watchful, but for a while quite unsuspicious. Notwithstanding that Dora made out to her she was not interested in men, an instinct had told the old lady that the pretty Sister would not be averse from receiving any attentions Richard might care to give. However, her very malice made her quite confident he would never give them. She was sure he was immune to the attractions of the most pretty girls, and so Dora would get nothing but disappointment for her pains! It would serve her right and be a good punishment for her!
Still, towards the end of Richard's intended stay at the Court something of a disturbing thought began to come gradually into her mind. She had caught a few of his stolen glances at Dora, and several times had noticed him looking hard at her undoubtedly very pretty hands.
So on the Friday—Richard was leaving on the Sunday night—she kept Dora hanging about her all day, that there might be no opportunity for her to have the now customary walk with him. In the evening, too, just before dinner and before Dora had come down and she and her nephew were alone in the lounge, she said sharply, "I hope you are not putting ideas in that girl's head, Richard, by paying her too much attention?" and, giving him no time to reply to her question, she added rather viciously, "I think now it was a mistake my suggesting you taking her for that daily walk. I believe it has encouraged her to think she has made some headway in leading you on."
Richard had just been in the act of lighting a cigarette when she put her question, and apparently it was drawing badly as it was a few seconds before he replied. "Is it my habit, my dear Aunt," he asked, looking very amused, "to pay any young woman any undue attention? Have you ever known me to do it?"
"No, I haven't," she snapped, "but I've noticed you've been looking a good lot at this girl lately."
He nodded. "She's rather pretty," he said lightly, "and I like pretty things. No harm in that, is there?"
"Not if you stop at just looking," agreed his aunt with a frown, "but if ever"—her voice hardened viciously—"you had anything more to do with her than that, then it would be good-bye to all my interest in you and you'd never get another penny from me, alive or dead."
"Then you don't like her?" he queried as if rather surprised.
"Oh, I suppose she's all right as a nurse," was the grudging reply, "but she's too masterful, just like all women of her common class who're given a little authority. They always abuse it."
"Well, don't you worry about me, Aunt," laughed Richard. "I haven't got to nearly twenty-seven without learning how to take care of myself."
So his aunt appeared satisfied. She would have been aghast, however, had she but known exactly what was passing in his mind. He would have liked to have slapped her for her malice, for if there was one thing no one would have ever said about Dora it would have been that she was common. Everything about her spoke of breeding, and both in looks and manners she was a perfect little aristocrat. So it followed that his aunt's disparagement of her made Dora the more and more to fill his thoughts.
The climax came the following evening, on the Saturday, the day before he was intending to leave the Court.
It was just before dinner and, happening to go into the library, he saw Dora upon a ladder there putting back a book on one of the high shelves. When she started to come down he noticed the ladder was shaking, and so he steadied it with his hands. Then when Dora was half-way down he said jokingly, "Jump, I'll catch you," and as she turned round he held out his arms.
Smiling a little nervously, she hesitated just a few seconds and then jumped. It was a very small jump and there was certainly no occasion for it, but it had flashed through her like lightning how thrilling it would be to find herself in his arms.
He caught her, and with her hands upon his shoulders, their eyes held each other's. Hers were sparkling, and her face, he thought, could not have been more divinely flushed. His heart was beating painfully. "You little beauty," he exclaimed hoarsely and, pulling her to him, his lips were pressed ardently upon hers. To his delight, Dora kissed him back. Certainly it was a great thrill for them both, and, though their mutual rapture had lasted for a very short time, its intensity had left them weak and trembling.
"Dora, my darling——" he began, but Mrs. Britton-Fox's voice was heard in the corridor and they sprang guiltily apart.
Fortunately, for neither of them at that moment could have faced her without showing most obvious signs of embarrassment, she passed by the library door which was not shut but only ajar. However, they could still hear her voice in the distance, and with an arch and roguish smile Dora blew Richard a kiss and, tiptoeing out of the room, hurried away.
At the meal which followed a few minutes afterwards, the mistress of the Court became suddenly suspicious again. Not only was Dora, with her sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks, looking prettier than she had ever seen her before, but Richard also looked extremely happy and pleased with himself. There was the same atmosphere of content about them both.
She eyed them narrowly, and her suspicions grew. Richard was bringing in the girl much more often into the conversation than it was usual for him to do, and she seemed more confident in herself and altogether less demure.
"The little minx!" thought the old lady viciously. "She's losing her place and getting more familiar. I was a fool to throw them together. Richard's weaker than I thought. He's become interested in her. I'm glad he's leaving to-morrow, and I'll see she's not here when he comes again. I'll tell Sir Robert she doesn't suit me and I don't need a nurse any more."
To give Dora no chance of being alone with Richard that evening, upon one pretext or another she kept her by her the whole time, and it was nearly half-past eleven, much later than was usual, before they both got ready for bed.
Because of the condition of her heart, Mrs. Britton-Fox's bedroom was on the ground floor. Once having been the music-room, it had been made into a bedroom so that she should have no stairs to climb. Dora's room, also on the ground floor, was in the same corridor, but separated by two other rooms from that of her patient. However, there was a bell operating between the two rooms so that Dora could be summoned at any moment if she were needed.
Though it was still August, the evening had turned out chilly and there was a bright fire burning in Dora's room. She sat looking into the flames and her thoughts were not unpleasant ones.
So one part of her day-dreaming looked like coming true! She was sure Richard would ask her to marry him, for kissing with him would mean far more than any casual flirtation. He took life seriously and was in every way an honourable and conscientious man—too honourable and conscientious in fact, as he might want to go straight to his aunt and tell her everything, with perhaps an open quarrel ensuing.
No, the old lady must be kept quite in the dark! One thing, she was not likely to live very long, and who would be sorry when she was gone? She was an unpleasant and unlovable old woman!
Her meditations were interrupted by a gentle tapping Upon the door and her heart leapt into her mouth at the thought that it could only be Richard. She opened the door very gently and, as she had expected, it was he who tiptoed into the room. Delight and consternation were mingled in the look with which she regarded him.
He looked uneasy, too, and put his finger upon his lips to impress upon her—if indeed that were necessary—to be as quiet as possible.
He realised quite well how unwise, if not wholly wrong, it was of him to come to her bedroom at that time of night, but compounded with his conscience by telling himself there was no help for it. His aunt, no doubt deliberately, had made it impossible for him to get a word alone with her all the evening, and leaving the Court as he was the next afternoon he knew there would be little chance of speaking to her before he went away.
Yet, he had told himself, he must see her. After what had happened in the library earlier in the evening he could not possibly let matters rest where they were. He must tell her his kisses meant that he loved her and wanted her to be his wife. Then they must consider, too, how they should tell his aunt. All his life a dreamer, and deeply in love as he now was, the possibility of losing his inheritance seemed a small thing in comparison with his possession of Dora.
In the meantime Mrs. Britton-Fox had been much too restless to drop off to sleep. She was certain Dora had been trying to lead her nephew on and, from both their demeanours at dinner, was greatly afraid not without some success. She wondered uneasily what they both were doing now.
Very soon her misgivings as to exactly what might now be going on making it impossible for her to compose her mind for sleep, she slipped out of bed, and, putting on her dressing-gown and slippers, opened the door very quietly. The long corridor was not in complete darkness, as faint moonlight was coming through a window at the far end and she could just distinguish where the door of Dora's bedroom was.
Not a sound was to be heard anywhere, and it seemed to her that everyone but herself in the Court was now fast asleep. For a few moments she stood hesitating and then, as her feet were feeling cold, was about to withdraw back into her own room when she saw a shadow detach itself from the darkness and heard the unmistakable sound of someone tapping very gently—it could only be—on Dora's door.
Holding her breath in amazement, she waited for what would happen next. A fleeting shaft of light fell across the corridor as the door was opened, just long enough, however, before it was very softly closed again, to give a glimpse of a figure, which even at that distance she recognised as that of her nephew, slipping into the room.
Fury and delight struggled for the mastery in her face; fury at the deceit of her nephew, and delight that she had caught out the so hated Dora.
She crept down the corridor and for a long moment stood listening at Dora's door. A light showed from the crack underneath, but not a sound came from inside the room.
Slowly and very softly she turned the handle of the door and to her amazement, as she had expected to find it locked, the door opened. She flung it wide to see her nephew and Dora standing motionless in the middle of the room, she with her head upon his shoulder and he with his face bent down low over hers.
"Oh, you slut!" she shouted at the very top of her voice. "Just as I expected; you're no better than a woman of the streets. Oh, you——"
"Aunt, Aunt, please don't!" cried Richard, recovering instantly from the shock of her appearance. "We were doing nothing wrong, and Sister Dane has consented to be my wife."
"Consented to be your wife!" shrieked his aunt. "Oh, you young fool, she's been jumping at you all the time you've been here, throwing herself at your head for my money she thought you were going to have!" She almost stuttered in her rage. "But you won't get another penny from me now, alive or dead! Not another penny!" She shouted louder than ever. "Do you hear what I say?"
"I hear," replied Richard calmly, "and I don't want it, I can——"
"Liar as well as fool," shouted his aunt. "You'll be a pauper on the few shillings you earn a week and this woman here will turn on you and sell herself to somebody else. I tell you she's nothing but a——"
"Stop it, Aunt," ordered Richard sternly. "I won't hear another word from you, and——"
"You won't get any more opportunities," she snarled, suddenly calming down, "for you'll be out of this house in ten minutes, you"—she put all the mockery she could in her voice—"and the young lady who has so obligingly"—she mimicked—"consented to be your wife."
She stepped back into the passage and shouted, "Bevan, Bevan, come here at once. I want you instantly."
The butler was not far away. As with everyone else in the house who was already asleep, he had been awakened by his mistress's shouting. Now he came running up with jacket and trousers over his pyjamas.
"Bevan," she said, speaking jerkily and in sharp gasps, "run out Mr. Richard's car, please. He's leaving at once, and Sister is going with him," and, as if she had now finished with the whole matter, she turned up the corridor to her own room, and with the door ajar, stood listening there.
A couple or so of minutes had passed when she heard Richard come out of Dora's room and walk away in the other direction. Evidently he was going to his own room to get his things together with no delay! With a spiteful smile she walked quietly up to the door of Dora's room, and flinging it wide open once again, ordered her sharply to take nothing with her which was not her own.
Dora's only answer was to bang the door in her face and lock it.
Within a quarter of an hour at most Richard and Dora were passing through the lounge to the hall door, with Bevan behind them carrying the latter's two suit-cases. Mrs. Britton-Fox was waiting there to see the last of them.
"Good-bye, Aunt," said Richard smilingly, "and thank you so much for all you have done for me," but "You blackguard!" was all the answer he got from her.
Not to be outdone in politeness, Dora said sweetly, "Good-bye, Mrs. Britton-Fox, and you go off to bed at once, or you'll be a perfect wreck in the morning," but the answer was a vile word which made Richard scowl.
Then as they were driving out of the grounds, Dora said chokingly, "Oh, Richard, dear, I'm so sorry I've brought all this upon you."
"But you didn't bring it on me, sweetheart," he replied. "I brought it on myself. It was stupid of me to come to your room, but I didn't realise it at the time."
"And it will cost you a fortune!" choked Dora.
He laughed lightly. "I don't mind if you don't. Don't worry, I'll soon make another one, or, at any rate, enough so that we can live happily together. I needed something like this to shake me up. I've been far too much of a dreamer and never tackled things earnestly." He squeezed her hand tightly. "To-night I'm the happiest man in all the world!"
Dora was touched by his words. Here was one who had just lost a fortune regarding his loss as nothing in the light of his possession of her. She nestled up close to him.
"Where are we going now?" asked Dora.
"Why, to my flat, of course," said Richard. "I can't drop an unattended young lady at a hotel at this time of night"—he glanced at the watch upon his wrist—"getting on for one o'clock in the morning."
"But——" began Dora. However, she did not finish what she was going to say and was glad the darkness hid the blushes in her cheeks.
Then it was as if Richard had read her thoughts, for he went on laughingly, "Don't you be afraid, sweetheart, for there are two bedrooms in my little flat, and you'll be quite all right."
When at length they reached the big building in which was situated Richard's flat, though it was now past two o'clock, there were several cars parked outside. When Richard had garaged his own, upon entering the building they ran into a noisy party of men just coming out, and, to their intense vexation, saw that Richard's cousin was among them. The stockbroker's eyes fell upon Richard at once. "Hullo," he called out with alcoholic joviality, "you're a late bird, aren't you? Come, come, I never thought that of an old sobersides like you!" and then, taking in who Richard's companion was, he whistled in great surprise.
"What!" he exclaimed, his face now one big grin, "the pretty little Sister from the Court. Well, I'm damned," and he was most annoyed when Richard shook him off sharply and started to go up the stairs.
"Unfortunate, meeting him of all people," frowned Richard, "for now, of course, he'll down to my aunt straight away to find out what it means." His frown changed into a beaming smile. "Still it doesn't matter, darling, does it? Nothing matters now we're going to be married on Monday."
Then followed some very embarrassing moments for them both. Richard was palpably nervous, as, now alone with Dora in the middle of the night, the temptation was very strong to start caressing her again, with the result which he felt certain would follow. However, with no experience at all of the other sex until Dora had swept like a tornado into his life, he did not know how she would take it and was terribly afraid of doing something for which she would be reproaching him all his life.
Dora's ideas, however, of their position were slightly different. A healthy, normal young woman with the experience of the attentions of many men in her life, the sex urge had often been stirred in her, with the result that, greatly interested in Richard as she now was, her warmest emotions were dangerously near the surface. She made no secret of it, either, to herself, and knew she would be as wax in his hands, whatever he wished.
So in a way she was disappointed when, while preparing to go to their different rooms, he hardly looked at her, and a quick and hurried kiss was all he gave her as they said good night. Indeed, he almost pushed her into the room she was going to occupy and closed the door at once.
"Dear boy," she sighed wistfully, as she began to undress, "it'll be better to have a man like him for a husband than one who'll take every opportunity he can get. At any rate I shall know that he'll be faithful to me."
As she had expected, it was a long time before sleep would come to her, but, as she lay staring wide-eyed into the darkness, her thoughts were happy ones.
Naturally, with her ambitious longings, she was disappointed she would not be marrying the wealthy man she had been scheming for. To her credit, however, she judged that to be a small matter compared with her having won the kind of man she had, and, against the loss of his aunt's money, she consoled herself that she would at any rate be marrying into a prospective title.
When at length she fell asleep, her sleep was a deep and dreamless one, to be broken only when Richard came into the room fully dressed and carrying a cup of tea.
"Nine o'clock, sweetheart," he laughed, "and you've had a good refreshing sleep." He bent down and gave her a not overlong but very tender kiss. "I vote we drive down to Eastbourne for lunch and then come back to town for a nice little dinner somewhere." He tickled her under the chin. "To-morrow, Dora, Lady Stroud-to-be, we will commence our honeymoon," and these words made clear to her exactly on what lines their pre-nuptial conduct was going to be.
They had a happy day at the seaside, an excellent dinner at a good restaurant, where they shared only a small bottle of wine between them. They lingered until quite late over the meal and then followed a hurried and almost furtive retiring to their respective rooms directly they got back to the flat.
The next day they were married by special licence, and when later as man and wife they were clasped in each other's arms certainly neither of them could in any way have complained of the other's coldness. Eros, the god of all lovers, gave them his blessing and they were in the seventh heaven of happiness.
So entered Dora Laura Stroud into her wedded life.
Having seen her nephew and Dora off the premises so late upon that eventful Saturday night, Mrs. Britton-Fox tottered to her bed, with very little sleep coming to her before the morning. Then, as Dora had warned her, she felt a dreadful wreck.
However, her very vindictiveness seemed to give her strength, and before eight o'clock Bevan was ringing up Mr. Litchfield, her London solicitor, at his private house in Belsize Park, to instruct him to come down at once to Marden Court and draw up a new will for its mistress. To her intense disappointment, she learnt he was away for the week-end and would not be back until the Tuesday.
Still, determined to vent her spite upon Richard and make certain he should get none of her money, as according to her present will he would if she were to die suddenly, propped up with pillows in her bed, she proceeded to draw up a new one upon a sheet of the Court notepaper.
It was only a few words, as a feeling of horrible weakness warned her she would not be able to write much, but for all that her malice made it longer than it need have been merely to express her wishes.
Intending to be as insulting as possible she wrote, "To my imbecile nephew Richard Paris Stroud, because to my intense displeasure he has shown himself so depraved as to promise marriage to the woman known as Sister Dora Dane, I leave the sum of one shilling only, this money to help towards the education of his first child, whom by now is most probably well upon the way. All else, personal and real, I bequeath to my other nephew Ernest Charles Wynwood."
Summoning Bevan and Mrs. Humphreys, the cook, to act as witnesses, the will was signed, enclosed in an envelope, and sent off to her solicitor, Bevan taking it into the head post office to get the letter registered.
With what she considered her duty done, she sank back exhausted upon the pillows, going so dreadful a colour that the frightened cook at once rang up the local doctor, Dr. Wood, before Bevan had been gone even ten minutes from the house.
The doctor did not at all like the look of her either and, administering a strong restorative, at once had a nurse sent in to look after her. During the day her condition seemed to improve a little, with the improvement continuing on the Monday. She would have liked to have sent for Sir Robert Griffin, but knew from what Dora had told her that he was away on holiday.
Then, very early upon the Tuesday morning, when attempting to sit up in bed, she went off into a dead faint, and without recovering consciousness passed away within the hour.
Bevan at once rang up Richard, the latter learning the news as he and Dora were just about to sit down to breakfast. "And I think, sir, you ought to know," went on the butler very solemnly, "that on the Sunday morning she made another will and, from what she told us, has left you out of it. The will was posted at once to Mr. Litchfield, so he will be in possession of it now."
Naturally feeling most upset, Richard told Dora what had happened and what Bevan had said about the new will, being greatly heartened, however, at the calm and unruffled way in which she received the news.
"But this new will was only what we expected, darling, isn't it?" she said. "So it's no disappointment," and she was so bright and undisturbed that the absolute realisation now that nothing would be coming to him from his aunt's estate lost a lot of its sting for Richard.
Dora was certainly a good actress, and though for her husband's sake might indeed have appeared to be in no way upset by learning that his aunt's money was now definitely lost and by such a narrow margin of time, too, for all that she could have burst into tears when once out of his sight.
Oh, if the horrid woman had only died a few hours earlier—what a difference it would have made to them! Better off than in her wildest dreams she had ever hoped to be, all the world would then have been at her feet! Now—but she choked back her tears, remembering she could not have won a better husband. Whatever happened, she was determined to make him happy and, after all, with their health, and their affection for each other, surely they would have many joys to come in their lives.
Later that same morning Mr. Litchfield rang Richard up asking him to call round at his chambers as soon as he could. Upon Richard duly presenting himself, with some reluctance, the solicitor showed him the notepaper will.
"Very different from the last one I hold," he sighed, "in which nearly everything was left to you. A nasty, spiteful will, but one which there is no doubt will hold good in law," and he went on to ask what had so suddenly changed Mrs. Britton-Fox's intentions.
He listened sympathetically to the story. "A bad-tempered woman," he commented, "but then she always has been a bit queer that way." He hesitated a moment and continued, "I saw your cousin a few minutes ago and put out the suggestion that, under the circumstances, he should give something to you. He didn't absolutely refuse, but said he would do nothing unless you approached him yourself."
Richard shook his head. "Not I! We've never been friends, mainly perhaps because he knew my aunt favoured me." He frowned. "Besides, when he went up to the Court a few weeks ago my wife slapped his face for him. He wanted to get too fresh. No, I'd never ask him for a farthing."
So Richard and Dora reconciled themselves to expect nothing, and accordingly were very surprised when one evening about a week later Charlie Jackson, a young solicitor acquaintance of Richard's, called at the flat to suggest the will should be contested.
Young Jackson practised in Tunbridge Wells and Richard knew him only from meeting him a few times at tennis. Jackson was most apologetic for having come to see him now.
"I know it's hardly ethical," he said, "but, of course, we've all heard about the will and, myself, I think you have a good chance of upsetting it."
"Upon what grounds?" asked Richard sharply.
"That when she drew it up," he replied, "she was not in a fit state of mind to deal with so important a matter."
"But Mr. Litchfield, her London solicitor," protested Richard, "for whose opinion I have the greatest respect, tells me I haven't a hope in the world."
"For all that," said Jackson, "there can be no harm done if you authorise me to approach him and see the exact terms of the will."
Richard shook his head. "No, I won't bother about it, thank you. To be quite frank, I haven't the money to risk. I'm quite poor at present."
"But that doesn't enter into the matter at all," exclaimed Jackson quickly, "or I wouldn't have dared to come to you. It shan't cost you a penny." He smiled. "I know again that I am being unethical, but I'm quite prepared to take up the case on spec."
At that moment Dora entered the room and the young solicitor was introduced to her. With quite a catch in his breath, he thought how lovely she was and, romance stirring in him, was of opinion she was worth all the money her husband had lost by marrying her. Dora was not unimpressed with him, too. She liked his frank and open face.
Richard explained the position to her. "Mr. Jackson wants me to contest the will, as he says Aunt made it when she was not in a fit state of mind."
"Of course she wasn't," agreed Dora instantly. "No sane person of her breeding would have called me the names she did that night." She looked troubled. "But it'll cost a lot of money, won't it?"
"Not a penny if we don't win our case," said Jackson quickly. "I've told Mr. Stroud I'm prepared to pay all the expenses, court fees and everything, if we don't win our case."
"And how will you benefit if we lose it?" asked Dora doubtfully.
Jackson threw out his hands. "By the advertisement I'll get. Win or lose, the publicity will be so good that I'll be a made man at once. I've got some small private means and shall be delighted to risk some of it."
"But what about the publicity for us?" frowned Richard. "It won't be very pleasant for us to have to appear in court."
"You won't have to," returned Jackson instantly. "As I look at it now, you will not be wanted."
A short silence followed, and then Richard turned to Dora and asked, "Well, young lady, what do you say to it?"
"Why, accept Mr. Jackson's offer, of course," she replied, "and be grateful to him for making it."
Accordingly notice was at once served upon Mr. Litchfield that the will was going to be contested, and when the day for the hearing arrived, most people present in court seemed to be rather amused at so boyish-looking a solicitor as young Jackson being about to pit himself against the mighty Jarvis Romilly, one of the most eminent King's Counsels practising in the Court of Probate. They were intensely curious as to what line of action Jackson was going to take.
Lord Royston was presiding over the proceedings, and when, after its contents had been read out to the court by Jarvis Romilly, the will was handed up to him to peruse, it was noticed that he frowned heavily. However, he passed back the document with no comment.
After a few preliminary remarks by the K.C., Mrs. Humphreys, the one-time cook at Marden Court, was ushered into the witness-box. The will was handed up to her and, with no hesitation, she testified to her signature.
"And you had seen your mistress put her signature," asked Jarvis Romilly, "in the presence of your fellow-servant, Mr. Bevan, and then both you and he affixed your signatures in the presence of each other."
"Yes, sir, that is so," replied the cook, and the K.C. at once turned to Mr. Jackson and remarked with the politest of bows, "Your witness, sir."
Young Jackson rose slowly from his seat. He did not seem at all nervous and for a few seconds regarded the cook thoughtfully before he spoke.
"And did Mrs. Britton-Fox seem quite all right to you that morning?" he asked.
"She looked very ill, sir," replied the cook, "and her face was twitching quite a lot."
"But I don't mean that," said Jackson. "I want to know did it seem to you that she was any different from what she usually was—in her state of mind, I mean?"
The cook considered. "She wasn't quite certain what she wanted, sir, from one moment to another. Anyone could see she was rather confused."
"What do you mean by rather confused?" asked Jackson with a frown.
"Well, sir," smiled the cook, "when I came into the room she told me to shut the door, and then hardly a moment afterwards she called me a fool because I hadn't left it open."
"Why was that?" queried Jackson.
"Because Mr. Bevan hadn't come in yet. She was waiting for him."
Jackson sat down, and Jarvis Romilly rose lazily to his feet. "But after all, Mrs. Humphreys," he said with a pleasant smile, "if your mistress did not look in the best of health that morning and was irritable and impatient in her manner, all the same she was the shrewd and very capable old lady you had always known." Then, as the cook hesitated, he asked with some amusement, "Come, she wasn't confused enough to mistake you for Mr. Bevan or him for you—now was she?"
"Oh, no," said the cook instantly. "She was nothing like as bad as that."
"Of course not," nodded the K.C. "She was just what any old lady of her age might have been who had had an upset the previous night and not got over it. She was nervy and irritable." He smiled a most friendly and persuasive smile. "Now is that not so, Mrs. Humphreys?"
The cook smiled back, and upon her admission that it might have been so Jarvis Romilly did not question her further.
The butler was then called and he stepped jauntily into the box. He was asked by Jarvis Romilly if he, too, had witnessed his mistress's signature in the presence of the cook, and then if each of them had seen the other sign as witness to that signature. Upon his replying to these questions in the affirmative, the K.C. sat down.
Young Jackson rose up to cross-examine. "Now, Mr. Bevan," he asked in a quiet and conversational tone, "do you think Mrs. Britton-Fox was quite alive to the importance of the document she was signing that morning?"
"Oh, I think so, sir," replied Bevan. "She certainly did look very ill and her face was twitching badly, but she was most determined to get the paper signed."
"But from the shakiness of her handwriting," went on Jackson, "she must have been very agitated when she was affixing her signature?"
The butler considered. "Well, at any rate, sir," he said, "she was so very shortly before she signed, but as I did not see her actually write her name I cannot say what was exactly her condition at that very moment."
A gasp so loud that it was distinctly audible ran round the court, mouths were opened with astonishment, and upon everyone's face was a look of startled and incredulous surprise. Young Jackson recovered first.
"What!" he almost shouted. "You now tell us you did not see your mistress sign the will?"
The butler seemed to sense something unusual was happening and lost something of his jaunty look. "Well, not actually, sir," he said quickly, "because after she had covered up what she had written on that paper and was just picking up her pen to sign, I thought I heard the front-door bell ring and went out to see who it was. I couldn't have been gone a minute, but when I came back mistress had signed and cook had just finished putting her signature. That's how it was cook came to sign before me. I was to have signed first."
Jarvis Romilly sprang to his feet. "I don't see, my lord," he cried, "that the previous witness is now sitting where she was. If she has gone out, I ask that she be detained before she has had time to leave the precincts of the court," and, upon a sign from the judge, an usher hurried away.
With difficulty restraining the exultation that he felt, Jackson proceeded with his cross-examination. "Now, Mr. Bevan," he said very solemnly, "this is a most important matter." He spoke slowly and impressively. "After having stated upon oath that you saw both your mistress and your fellow servant sign the paper—you now go back upon your word and tell us you were not present when either of them put their signatures."
The butler looked frightened. "I am very sorry, sir," he said with a choke in his voice. "I didn't mean to swear an untruth. It was just a mistake. I knew they had both signed it and I thought it was quite all right to say I had seen them do it."
"You say you knew they had both signed it," said Jackson with the utmost sternness. "How did you know that?"
"I didn't know it, sir," said the butler feebly, "but I only realise that now."
"Did you even see your mistress's signature at all," asked Jackson, "after she had signed the paper?"
Bevan hesitated for a few moments and then shook his head. "No, sir, I didn't. She had covered up everything with the blotting paper again and just pointed to me where I was to sign."
"Then, for all you know," persisted Jackson, "you might have been putting your signature to a blank sheet of paper?"
"Yes, sir," nodded the butler miserably, "that is so."
Jackson sat down and Jarvis Romilly sprang to his feet.
"Then you admit, Bevan," he thundered fiercely, "that you have lied to the court—that when upon your solemn oath you have deliberately told us an untruth?"
"Not deliberately, sir," choked the butler. "I have said it was a mistake."
The K.C. spoke more quietly now. "And I suppose," he said silkily, "you went at once to Mr. Stroud and told him what had happened, how you had not actually seen the will signed?"
"No, no, sir," replied Bevan quickly. "I never said anything about it to him. I have not seen or spoken to Mr. Stroud since that night he left the Court," and, though Jarvis Romilly badgered him in every way possible, no amount of questioning could make him contradict himself.
Mrs. Humphreys was recalled and Jarvis Romilly addressed her with the same pleasant, friendly smile which he had used before. "Now, madam," he said, "you told us just now that your mistress signed this paper in your presence and that of Mr. Bevan as well."
"Yes, sir," agreed the cook. "I did."
"And Mr. Bevan was actually standing by your side," went on Jarvis Romilly, and the court was so still that the dropping of the proverbial pin would have been heard quite distinctly.
"Yes, sir," nodded the cook, "he was."
"You are quite sure of that?" asked the K.C. "Quite sure that he was actually standing by your side during the whole time that the three signatures were affixed?"
"Yes, sir, quite sure," smiled the cook. "Mistress signed first, I came next and Mr. Bevan last." Then suddenly a startled look came into her face and she added quickly, "No, sir, I remember now that Mr. Bevan was not in the room all the time. He went out to answer the front-door bell."
"Before your mistress signed?" asked Jarvis Romilly, and the court was as hushed and silent as the grave.
"Yes, sir," said the cook, "and before I signed, too. I remember he came back just as Mistress was blotting my signature."
Decidedly non-plussed at her corroboration of the butler's story, the K.C. tried in every way to shake her testimony, indeed hectoring her so much that at last the judge interfered. "I am sure, Mr. Romilly," he said, "that you will not be doing any good by further questioning the witness. She is obviously speaking the truth." Then, when the cook had left the witness-box, he announced curtly, "The will was not properly attested and I decline to admit it for probate."
"But, my lord," protested Jarvis Romilly warmly, "the intentions of the testatrix are so clear and it is not justice if——"
"How often, Mr. Romilly," broke in his lordship wearily, "have I not had to explain in this court that it is law I have to dispense here and not necessarily justice. No, the will is invalid, and I cannot admit it for probate."
The young Tunbridge Wells solicitor felt as thrilled as he was sure he would ever feel in all his life, and rushed to the telephone to give Richard the exciting news. However, upon getting speech with him, he calmed down his voice to ordinary business-like tones.
"It's all finished, Mr. Stroud," he said quietly, "and his lordship has refused to admit the will for probate."
"What, what, why?" exclaimed Richard incredulously.
"Because it wasn't properly attested," laughed Jackson. "I got it out of the butler in cross-examination that he was out of the room when the old lady signed. He didn't actually see her make her signature and that damned everything at once." They spoke very briefly together and then Jackson said, "I can't tell you more now, but, if convenient for you, I'll come round to your flat this evening at five o'clock."
When Richard in turn rang up Dora to give her the good news she was speechless for so long that for a moment he thought she could not have heard what he said. Then she burst out chokingly, "Oh, darling, it can't be true!"
"But it is, Dora," he said hoarsely. "I couldn't believe it, either, at first—it seemed so wonderful. Anyhow, Mr. Jackson's coming round to the flat at five and then we'll hear all about it. He says it'll be in the evening papers."
And certainly it was in the evening papers, with some of them making quite a splash of the happening that morning in the Probate Court. One of them featured the case with quite good-sized headlines, "Great Triumph for Young Country Solicitor", and it went on to picture for its readers a boyish-looking young lawyer standing up to the great Jarvis Romilly and scoring a most signal victory within minutes of the hearing opening before Lord Royston.
Later, when Charles Jackson arrived at the flat, his audience were thrilled with the story he was able to tell them.
"So far," he went on, "things couldn't be going better. We have won the first round and now, at any rate, you are certain to get something very substantial out of the estate. The stake is too big for them to dare risking everything upon an appeal before they have tried to come to terms with you."
"Then they'll try to buy us off?" asked Richard.
"No," laughed Jackson, "they'll be expecting us to try to buy them off, as we are in the better position for bargaining. Lord Royston is a very sound jurist and he wouldn't have given his judgment so quickly if he had not felt himself on very sure ground. Of course the will was so malicious in its abuse of both you and Mrs. Stroud that it was a strong indication of your aunt being in a state of unsound mind when she drew it up, but that had nothing to do with his judgment to-day. His lordship decided on a cold point of law, and I believe, from the expression upon his face, he was quite pleased at being able to do so."
"And what will happen next?" asked Dora, rather troubled.
"Oh, it'll resolve itself into a case of bluff," said Jackson. "They'll approach us with an offer of so much of the value of the estate if they don't appeal. We'll say it isn't good enough and then we'll argue and wrangle until some agreement is reached."
"But what are they likely to offer?" asked Richard.
"Perhaps a fifth portion at first, and then, when we don't accept, they gradually raise their offer. I expect a half share of everything will be their utmost limit."
"But must we compromise at all?" asked Richard.
Jackson nodded emphatically. "Oh, yes, it would be very foolish not to. You see, as Jarvis Romilly said, the intentions of your aunt were so perfectly clear, and it's very uncertain what the appeal judges would decide. They're only human and at times just love to give a colleague a rap on the knuckles and put him in his place. So they might waive the faulty attestation in favour of your aunt's wishes being carried out. Then—we should have to fall back upon the plea that she was of unsound mind."
"Have we any chance there?" asked Dora gloomily.
The young lawyer was quite enthusiastic. "Oh, yes, a very good one, a much stronger one than they think." He took a paper out of his pocket with something of a triumphant grin. "See, I got this out of Dr. Wood a week ago. It's an affidavit in which he swears that when called in to see your aunt upon that Sunday morning—within a few minutes, mind you, of her having drawn up and signed that will—he was at once of opinion that her mind was wandering. In proof of which, when he at once rang up the local Nurses' Association in Tunbridge Wells, he asked them to send a nurse who had had some mental training." He snapped his fingers together. "What better evidence could you want than that?"
He turned smilingly to Dora. "And if, Mrs. Stroud, they do appeal and you go into the witness-box, when their lordships see you"—he laughed merrily—"what price the depravity of Mr. Stroud in wanting to marry you?"
Things happened very much as Jackson had said, for a few days later Mr. Litchfield rang him up with the information that of course they were intending to appeal, but at the same time suggesting it might perhaps be possible to avoid further proceedings in the courts by a just and reasonable compromise. He added that he would like Jackson to come up to Town upon the following Thursday when he would be free to have a talk with him.
Jackson, however, did not appear to be too anxious to make the journey and said he certainly could not manage Thursday as he was occupied in the local court upon that day. Upon some consideration he suggested Sunday instead and Mr. Litchfield reluctantly agreed.
Accordingly, upon the Sunday morning the two lawyers met at Mr. Litchfield's private house in Belsize Park, and the latter, with his large and long-established practice among the best-class people, was inclined to be a little off-hand in his manner towards his very youthful-looking professional brother from the country.
"I had some difficulty in persuading my client to let me approach you," he said with a frown, "but having acted for the family for very many years, I thought it best if things could be settled in a friendly way."
However, Jackson was not to be taken in so easily and frowned, too. "I had the same difficulty with Mr. Stroud," he said. "He's very bitter about the wording of the will and wants to clear his wife of the aspersions cast upon her. Mr. Wynwood has been very tactless in broadcasting exactly what his aunt wrote, and it has got about all over Tunbridge Wells."
Mr. Litchfield looked annoyed. "He shouldn't have done so. It makes for bad blood." He cleared his throat. "Well, Mr. Jackson, it will be in every way better for your client if we come to some compromise. Your client has a poor case and that judgment of last week is bound to be upset upon appeal."
Young Jackson smiled. "I don't think so," he said emphatically, "and I am advising Mr. Stroud to agree to only the smallest of concessions." He nodded. "Apart altogether from that judgment, we have a very strong case."
Mr. Litchfield seemed most sorry for the inexperience of this so confident young man. "But, Mr. Jackson," he said in a pained tone of voice, "in dealing with testaments brought before it, the main consideration of the Court of Probate is always to determine the wishes of the deceased and see that they are carried out."
"Exactly," nodded Jackson pleasantly, "but that is, of course, when the party signing the testament has not been proved to be in an unsound state of mind." His voice hardened sharply. "In this case we contend the testatrix was not in a condition to realise exactly what she was doing in those few minutes when she drew up and signed that will."
Mr. Litchfield pursed up his lips. "You will have some difficulty in bringing the court to accept that view, won't you?"
"I don't think so," snapped Jackson. He raised his hand. "See here, Mr. Litchfield, I am quite willing to lay my cards upon the table." He spoke slowly and emphatically. "This is how I regard the position. Mrs. Britton-Fox, a lady of breeding and refinement who all her sixty-odd years had been living the traditional life of her class, had a deep affection for her nephew, Richard Stroud, dating back to the time when he was quite a little child. She paid for most of his education, gave him an allowance when he was twenty-one and was continually assuring him he would be well provided for at her death."
He threw out his hands. "Suddenly, and without a moment's warning—no matter why—she turned upon him and the young lady he was intending to make his wife, abused them in coarse and violent terms used only by the lowest of the low, and was so lost to all the self-respect and conventions of her class that she called in the servants to let them hear what she was saying."
Mr. Litchfield made no comment and Jackson went on, "A few hours later she drew up this precious will—certainly not so much as to make known her wishes as to the disposal of her property as to inflict further abuse upon the offending couple. Then, at that moment her mind was so confused with the bout of her mad fury that, a shrewd and clever business woman and accustomed to all forms of procedure in the handling of her affairs as she was—she yet so far forgot herself as to sign her will in the presence of only one witness."
He paused for a few moments, and Mr. Litchfield, with some sarcasm, asked, "Is that all?"
"No, it isn't," was the sharp reply, and the young solicitor spoke very deliberately. "Not half an hour after she had signed that will, Mr. Litchfield, she was mistaking the local Tunbridge Wells doctor, Dr. Wood, whom she has known intimately for twenty years, for the eminent London consultant, Sir Robert Griffin, and addressed him as such."
A short silence followed, and then as Mr. Litchfield made no comment, young Jackson asked dryly, "A most satisfactory mental condition for her to be in, wasn't it, Mr. Litchfield, just after she had drawn up what was undoubtedly the most important document in all her life?" He raised his voice. "But still, that is not all, sir," and quickly abstracting a paper from his breast pocket, he handed it across to Mr. Litchfield. "See—an affidavit from this Dr. Woods in which he states that after being called in to Mrs. Britton-Fox upon that Sunday morning he was feeling most uneasy as to her mental condition, so much so that when he rang up the Tunbridge Wells Nursing Association immediately afterwards he told them it was particularly a nurse with some experience of nursing mental patients that he required."
Jackson spoke scornfully. "And in the face of all this, have you the hardihood to tell me we have no case that the testatrix was of unsound mind when she drew up this will?"
For an hour and longer the matter was discussed by the two solicitors, and that evening Jackson reported to Richard the result.
"They want badly to come to some arrangement," he said, "and we should want it, too. In fact we must come to an arrangement. Think how awful it would be if the case did go to an appeal and we lost it. We should be grieving all our lives. There's plenty to divide if we only get half, the Marden Court property and all the house contains, the house in Cadogan Square, which brings in £450 a year rent, and about £275,000 in liquid assets, stocks and shares. I went through everything with Mr. Litchfield this morning and was astounded at the amount at stake. I had no idea it was so big."
"Well, do get it over quickly," said Dora with a choke in her voice. "The worry of it is terrible."
"Of course it is," agreed Jackson. "One thing—the worry of it must be just as bad for Mr. Wynwood, indeed perhaps worse for him than for you, as I heard a rumour in the city last week that things have not been going too well with him lately. It was said he'd been speculating and lost heavily." He spoke reassuringly. "So, worry as little as you can, Mrs. Stroud, as it should be all settled pretty soon now. I've suggested a meeting between your husband and his cousin next week, and I expect it'll come off."
It did come off right enough, and one morning Jackson and Richard arrived at Mr. Litchfield's chambers in Gray's Inn Road to find the lawyer and Wynwood waiting for them. For the moment the two cousins eyed each other warily like fighting dogs and then Wynwood burst into a loud laugh and held out his hand.
"Come on, Richard," he called out jovially, "don't let a mere matter of half a million make us unpleasant with each other. After all, it's only a temporary affair, for in fifty years' time, both of us'll probably be dead," and, very pleased with his joke, he shook Richard warmly by the hand.
Jackson flashed a quick look at Richard. It was evident the burly stockbroker had been having some refreshment to buoy himself up.
The four men sat down at a big table in a comfortably furnished room and Mr. Litchfield opened the proceedings by remarking it would be best in every way that an agreement should be reached between the cousins as then there would be no occasion for any reflections on their dead relative to be broadcast about.
"Oh, dammit all, Litchfield," broke in the stockbroker rudely, "everyone knew what the old woman was like. Besides, nothing that comes out can do her any harm now." He addressed himself to Richard. "The only question now is what terms are you prepared to offer me if I don't appeal against that decision given the other week?"
Richard hesitated to reply, and Jackson at once spoke up for him. "We have very carefully considered everything," he began, "and——"
"Excuse me," interrupted Wynwood, waving him aside, "but I'd rather talk directly to my cousin. Then I'm sure we'll be able to settle the matter in a few minutes." He turned abruptly to Mr. Litchfield. "Look here. Haven't you got a room somewhere where we could be alone together?"
"But I don't advise that," said Mr. Litchfield sharply. "This is a matter for trained legal minds to be at your elbows to advise you both. No, I don't advise that."
"Nor I, either," said young Jackson, equally as sharply. "I agree with Mr. Litchfield that——"
Wynwood ignored them both and, turning again to his cousin, asked, "What do you say, Richard? I am sure we shall get on better alone."
Richard hesitated. Strangely enough, though he had never liked his cousin, at that moment he was disliking him less than he had ever done before. There was something very human about him, and he liked the straightforward way in which he was evidently prepared to try to settle the matter.
"Well, I don't see any harm in it," he began, "and——"
"No, of course you don't," broke in his cousin, rising at once to his feet. "Come on, we'll go out and take a couple of turns round the square and come back with the whole thing cut and dried in a very few minutes," and, waving his hand to the two very annoyed-looking men of law, he led Richard out of the room.
Once out in the square, he remarked dryly, "A good thing to get away from those jaw-breakers. They'd talk for hours and get nothing settled." He guffawed heartily. "Old Litchfield thinks I'm half tight, but I'm not by any means. I've only had one brandy and soda, and, by Jove, I could do with another. There's a nice little pub just round the corner and we'll go in there and I'll stand you a drink."
So, a couple of minutes later, they were seated in the deserted lounge of a small hotel and Wynwood opened the ball with no delay.
"Now, I know we've never liked each other," he said briskly, "but that's been mostly because of jealousy. I've always been jealous of you. As small boys, Aunt used to give you a quid and me a lousy five bob, and I didn't think it fair even then. Lately, she's been making you a good allowance and never given me a penny. She got her dander up, too, because I married a bar-maid, but I've got a damned fine missis and we're very happy."
He took out a case and, giving Richard a cigarette, lighted one himself. "Now, Richard," he went on, "let's be quite frank with one another. We were the only two relations Aunt had and I think it devilish unfair one of us should have more than the other of what she's left. We ought to share equally."
"You didn't think so the other day," remarked Richard dryly, "when Mr. Litchfield suggested you should give something to me."
"I did think it," said Wynwood emphatically, "but it rankled in me that your wife had slapped my face—and a damned hard slap, too. Oh yes, I know I deserved it, but I didn't know she was anybody else's property then, and I just slipped my arm round her waist on the spur of the moment." He regarded Richard intently. "Believe it or not, I'd have come down with something handsome if you had asked me for it yourself. But you're such a damned proud fellow and you never suggested my giving you anything."
"Am I to believe that?" asked Richard with some sarcasm.
"Yes," came the answer instantly. "I felt very sorry for you, and so did my wife. Damn it all, couldn't we see Aunt was only spiting you for the same reason she had spited me—because we had both chosen girls she didn't approve of for our wives?"
"And you say you'd have given me half?" asked Richard with a grim smile.
Wynwood shook his head emphatically. "No, I don't say that for a moment. I don't pretend my nature's as noble as that." He spoke conversationally. "You see, Richard, in my work it's the smart one who gets all the plums and there's never any encouragement for fine feelings. Upon the Exchange we're all birds of prey on the look-out to get the better of the other fellow. For example, suppose I get hold of a bit of information that no one else has heard of and, in consequence, have good reason to believe certain shares will go up in value. Well, I set out quietly to buy a packet of them on the cheap, and so a few days later some poor devil is cursing because he's been taken down." He shook his head again. "No, I certainly shouldn't have offered you half. A fifth would probably have been about the limit."
"And yet you suggest you should have half now?"
Wynwood laughed. "Yes, things have become different and very tricky for us both. Everything hangs upon a razor's edge, and the cleverest and most experienced man of law cannot tell which way the balance will go."
"The odds are in my favour," said Richard.
The other shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? Who can say that? Litchfield has told me, and I'll bet any money Jackson has told you the same, too, that it's all a toss up." He clenched his fingers together. "And here are we, two damned fools, with more than £270,000 in liquid assets, money that could be cash in our pockets, within half an hour of probate going through, trying to bluff each other to get a few quid more." He spoke frowningly. "You want a settlement, don't you?"
"Of course I do," declared Richard. "The whole business is a terrible worry."
"Worry!" exclaimed the stockbroker, and with the deepest of sighs. He leant over towards Richard and almost whispered, "Why, it's such a worry to my poor little wife that I shall not dare to go back this morning and tell her nothing's been done. Poor little woman, she can't eat, she can't sleep and she pipes her eye every time she looks at the children." He nodded. "I've got two of the nicest little nippers you ever saw." He spoke confidingly. "You know—I don't mind admitting things are not too good with me just at present, and a few thousand now will make all the difference in the world. I'm hard up."
Now there can be no doubt that had Mr. Litchfield been present to hear his client's last remark, his very hair would have stood on end. In a single sentence, he would have argued, the stockbroker had given away his whole case and exposed his willingness to accept even the hardest settlement—as long as he got something.
However, upon Richard the confidence had a startling and very different effect. All in a moment he saw his cousin in a new light and no longer as the wily and rather swaggering schemer, bluffing to get the last penny he could. Instead, he appeared a very human and rather to be pitied family man with a profound affection for his wife and very troubled because of the anxiety she was in.
Also, in a flash Richard's mind harked back to his own wife, how worried she was and what an overwhelming relief it would be to her if he could return home and tell her all was settled.
He took a sudden resolution and regarded his cousin with an amused and friendly smile. "You're a clever chap, Ernest," he said, "and, perhaps, not half the bad sort I've always thought you. Yes, I'll make you an offer and you'd better accept it quickly before those jawbreakers, as you call them, upset our minds again."
His cousin looked most relieved, but for all that there was a note of anxiety in his voice as he said hoarsely, "Good for you, Richard! I knew we could do better by ourselves. Now what do you propose?"
"Divide the money evenly between us," said Richard. "Then I'll take Marden Court with all it contains, and you'll have the house in Cadogan Square, also with all its contents intact. An interim document to be prepared straightaway and signed by us both before we leave Mr. Litchfield's chambers."
For the moment the expression upon the stockbroker's face was a blank one and then it changed into one of delighted surprise. The offer was more generous than he hoped and his face showed it. He shook Richard warmly by the hand.
"Yes, I think it quite fair," he said. "You've got rather the better bargain in the matter of the houses, but in a way that's only fair as you are the man in possession and in the better position for bargaining. Come on now. We'll go and give those two johnnies the surprise of their lives."
And certainly it was a surprise for the solicitors, though, when the surprise had passed, they both agreed it was a just settlement. In his own mind Mr. Litchfield was inclined to be annoyed that his client had parted with the many art treasures in the Court so easily, but he wisely kept his opinion to himself. As for young Jackson, he was delighted, for, in private, he had been just as worried as any of the other parties concerned as to what might have happened had the matter gone to an appeal.
In due time the previous will was admitted to probate and shortly afterwards Dora and Richard went to live at the Court. A few weeks later Bevan came to see them and, Dora happening to be out, Richard received him alone. Richard shook hands warmly and said, "I'm glad you've come. I couldn't find out where you had gone and I want to do something for you."
The butler smiled. "I kept away on purpose, sir, so that you shouldn't offer me anything." He shook his head. "No thank you, sir. I have all I need. Under my late master's will I came into £2,000 when my mistress died. I've only come to see you now because I'm leaving for Australia the day after to-morrow, and I thought I'd like to say good-bye." He hesitated a moment and then added: "Besides, I've something I want to tell you."
"Well, I've a lot to thank you for," said Richard. He laughed happily. "But for your accidentally being out of the room when that will was being signed all I would have come in for would have been that shilling."
The butler spoke very seriously. "It was no accident, sir. I went out on purpose to invalidate the will. I only pretended to think I'd heard the bell, as, knowing Mistress's impatience, I felt quite sure she would sign without waiting for me to come back."
Richard was aghast. "But—but have you told that to anyone besides me?" he asked. A sudden light dawned upon him, and his arm shot out accusingly. "A-ah, I know you have. You told Mr. Jackson."
Bevan nodded. "Yes, sir, I did, but we both thought it was wisest not to mention it to you then, so that the other side should not be able to suggest there was any conspiracy between us."
"Conspiracy between us!" exclaimed the astonished Richard. "Why, what on earth do you mean? You had no interest in the will or in me."
"Well, not exactly, sir," replied Bevan slowly. "Still, all my sympathies were with you and I thought it really terrible the things Mistress called Mrs. Stroud." He regarded Richard steadily.
Richard could hardly get his breath. "Then that business in the witness-box," he asked in a shocked tone of voice, "was all arranged between you and Mr. Jackson? It was a trumped-up piece of acting by both of you?"
Bevan's expression was as near a grin as his solemn and impassive face could get. "Yes, sir, and we had to rehearse it a good many times before Mr. Jackson was satisfied with me," and then, noting the frown of disapproval on Richard's face, he added quickly, "You see, sir, Mr. Jackson said that what we did was quite justified. It was only an act of justice, because Mistress was not in her right mind when she made that last will. Oh no, sir, no one but you will ever know, and if you don't mind, sir, I'd rather you never mention to Mr. Jackson that I've been to see you. For my own sake I shall never speak of it again to another soul."
"You're going to Australia, you say?" asked Richard.
"Yes, sir, and I shall never come back to England," replied Bevan. "I'm over seventy, and going to a younger brother in Queensland who's been settled on the land there for nearly forty years. Good-bye, sir, and good luck to you both." He put his finger upon his lips and smiled slyly. "Better not say anything about it to Mrs. Stroud, sir. Secrets are never good for the ladies. I know I should feel dreadfully worried if cook knew."
And when alone by himself again Richard did not quite know whether he ought to feel intensely angry with young Jackson or—most grateful to him for the trick he had played.
Only A few months after his aunt's death, his uncle died, too, and Richard came into the baronetcy. Then followed four years of almost unalloyed happiness for Dora. Two children were born to her and she was worshipped by her husband. With her good looks and her poise and dignity as if she came from among the highest in the land, he was immensely proud of her.
As had always been her dream, she moved now among the best society people, and she often smiled to herself as she compared her present state with that when she lived in those drab and ill-furnished rooms above the wine offices in Bordeaux. She sighed a little, however, thinking how thrilled her poor mother would have been had she only lived to see how she had got on.
She hardly ever thought of her father now, dismissing as foolishness the idea that she would ever find him, and realising now that if, by some miraculous chance, she actually did come to learn who he was, she would never dare to disclose herself to him. So she had long ceased to make any enquiries for anyone who possessed the unusual Christian name of Athol.
She had grown to love her husband dearly, and there was an almost perfect confidence between them. She had told him of most of the happenings of her life, and among other things how she came to work for three months for Madame de Roche at the Institute of Perfect Health. Afterwards, she had rather regretted she had told him that, as he had been horrified to think his so beautiful and stately wife had had anything to do with a woman who had been sentenced to seven years' penal servitude for the carrying out of illegal operations. Wide as the world was, he was uneasy that one day she might run up against one of the patients she had attended there.
Though she had not told him so, Dora was always a little bit uneasy about that, too, with the vague fear always at the back of her mind that a warrant had once been actually issued for her. Common sense told her no charge could ever have been brought home to her, but for all that the scandal of being brought before a magistrate would have been terrible. She had often read in the newspapers about the long arm of the law, and though so many years had gone by she was never wholly free of the fear that one day she might yet be called upon to explain her association with Madame.
This fear had almost died down when one day it was suddenly revived again by coming face to face with Madame's cousin, the hated Anna Barl, in Regent Street. Dora had got her eldest child with her, a little boy of a few months over three, and had come out of a shop and was just stepping into her car when she felt rather than saw someone staring hard at her. Turning casually to see who it was, on the instant she recognised Anna. The latter's mouth was gaping wide and her eyes almost popping out of her head as she took in Dora, the little boy and the beautiful big car with its liveried chauffeur.
It was all over in less than a minute, and Dora was driven swiftly away, with her heart beating painfully. Of course, she told herself, Anna had completed her years of imprisonment, but what a mercy it was they had met when she, Dora, was not on foot in the street. Then it would have been just like the woman's impudence to have stopped to question her, and she might even have attempted to follow her to find out where she was living now.
Altogether the encounter had been a very disconcerting one for Dora, and, without saying anything to Richard, she brooded over it quite a lot, wondering fearfully if the pages of that unpleasant chapter in her life were ever going to be turned again.
It was altogether a most depressing time for England just then, as everyone was talking about the war which most of them thought must inevitably come. The baleful shadow of Adolf Hitler was looming large and menacingly over the world, and prospects of peace looked very small. Richard, with his training in metallurgical chemistry, had already given his service to the Government, and as his work lay in London, he was only free at week-ends.
In the late spring of 1939 when Dora had just passed her twenty-ninth birthday, she went down, accompanied by her little ones and their nurse, to stay with a Mrs. Bentick Rayneham at Blackston Manor a few miles out of East Dereham in Norfolk. She had recently become very friendly with her, a charming girl about her own age, with one little boy. Her husband was very well-to-do and the squire of Blackston village. A so-called gentleman farmer, his great hobby was a stud of Jersey cows, with the Blackston strain taking many prizes at the agricultural shows.
Knowing there were nearly always visitors at the Manor, a large old-world house standing in extensive grounds, Dora was expecting cheerful company for her visit, and she was certainly not disappointed there. Upon her arrival she found several other visitors, all of them, however, except one, being either middle-aged or elderly.
Still, they were most of them interesting, particularly so Milton-Byles, an eminent King's Counsel, Lord Merrildon, a well-known judge, and Lieutenant Harry Jocelyn, a nephew of Mrs. Rayneham, a breezy, manly young fellow in the early twenties.
She took to the lieutenant as readily as he seemed to take to her. Of the fine type the British Navy nearly always makes of those who serve her, he was light-hearted, full of spirit and the love of adventure. As she learnt later, he had already seen active service and been in several brushes with pirates in the China seas.
The judge's wife, too, at once took a great fancy to her and, being a childless woman herself, was always most interested in the children. Very ordinary-looking, but coming from one of the best county families, she had been plain Mrs. Vaughan until a few years previously, when, upon his elevation to the Bench, her husband had been made a peer. One evening in the lounge, a few days after her arrival, she made Dora most uneasy by announcing suddenly that she was sure she had seen her somewhere before.
"You know, you've puzzled me ever since I came here," she said. "Your face seems so familiar to me somehow." She called across the lounge to her husband. "James, where have we seen Lady Stroud before. You think, too, that we have met her, don't you?"
His lordship, a very handsome and distinguished-looking man, came over at once. "Certainly, I believe we have," he replied smilingly, "or, at any rate, you've made me think so"—he bowed gallantly—"though how, once seen, we can't place a face like hers, I really cannot understand."
Now Richard had never made any secret that Dora had once been a sister at St. Jude's. Indeed it was his proud boast that they had never needed a doctor for any of the children's little ailments because she knew so much about them. So Dora said at once, "Well, for six months I was with Sir Robert Griffin, the consultant in Harley Street, and——"
"Oh, but I've never been to him," broke in Lady Merrildon, "though, goodness knows, in my time I've been to plenty of doctors for my headaches."
"And now she's stopped going to them," nodded her husband, "she's better than ever she has been before." He laughed. "And she's consulted many other people besides doctors. Indeed, I should say half the quacks in London have had money out of her for massage, different coloured rays and all sorts of weird treatments." He looked very amused. "She won't tell me half the dreadful places she's been to."
His wife smilingly brushed aside his accusations. "Never mind," she nodded confidently to Dora, "sooner or later it'll come back to me where we've met. My memory always helps me out in the end."
Dora felt a horrid feeling at the pit of her stomach. What if Lady Merrildon had been one of Madame's patients? Certainly she had no recollection of her, but then she was so very ordinary looking that she mightn't have noticed her. As for not remembering the name—she mightn't have been Lady Merrildon then. Oh, how dreadful if it came back into her mind that she had seen her, Dora, at the Institute! She was sure to have read in the newspapers that Madame had been put in prison!
Unhappily that was not the only shock poor Dora was going to have at the Manor, as the very next morning, walking along one of the paths in a part of the large garden some little distance from the house, to her amazement and consternation she recognised in one of the gardeners working there her old admirer, the artist, Eric Chalmers. He was bending down, weeding, when she was about to pass him, but, looking up and apparently at once realising who it was, he rose to his feet and stood facing her.
She stopped and regarded him with frightened eyes.
It was he, sure enough, but he had greatly altered in the five years since she had last seen him. His hair had greyed, his face was thin and weather-beaten, there were deep lines about his eyes and he looked altogether an old man. His clothes were soiled and ragged and all out of shape, and instead of a collar he had a scarf twisted round his neck.
"Yes, it's me," he grinned with his old devil-may-care, impish air, "but a bit worse for wear and tear, and I'm called Henry Wood now. Oh, yes, I knew you were staying here. I recognised you the other day as you were getting out of your car and I've heard all about you since. So you're Lady Stroud, are you, with pots of money and all that? You've gone up and I've gone down. Serves us both right. We've each got our deserts."
Dora found her voice. "Oh, Eric, I'm so sorry——" she began.
"Don't you pity me," he interrupted sharply. "I don't want it. I'm quite happy. I've got a cottage in the village and I get roaring drunk every Saturday night. A gentleman's life at the end of the week and I don't complain." He fumbled in one of his pockets and produced a folded piece of paper. "Here, take this, I've been on the lookout to give it to you. It's some information you wanted."
He touched his cap ironically with his finger. "Good morning, Lady Stroud, and don't you ever attempt to speak to me again." He almost snarled his next words. "Get off with you, quick. I've finished with you in this life and any other life, too," and turning his back on her, he bent down and resumed his weeding.
Dora was very quiet that night at dinner; so much so that the judge rallied her about it and wanted to know if she had a headache. Later, he had quite a long conversation with her in the lounge, telling her something of his work in the criminal courts and how great was his responsibility sometimes to hold the scales of justice evenly.
"And when a man is being tried, say for murder," asked Dora curiously, "are you always certain in your own mind whether he is innocent or guilty?"
He shook his head. "No, I am not, and then I often feel most sorry for the poor jurymen and women who have to make the decision." He smiled. "You see—so much of the really important evidence is like water on a duck's back to them and I am afraid they are always more influenced than they should be by the appearance of the accused person. Then when a clever gentleman like Mr. Milton-Byles gets hold of them they get all muddled up and don't know what to think."
"But you always have the last word in your summing-up, haven't you?" said Dora.
"And that's when the responsibility comes in," he nodded. "Often upon what I tell them depends whether the life of the poor creature before me is cut short—or he goes free." He smiled. "Yes, a judge's life, like that of the humble policeman in the song, is not always a happy one."
The following day, a Sunday, quite a large party sat down to lunch, as two extra visitors, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Larose, had arrived for the meal. Dora had been told a lot beforehand by Mrs. Rayneham about this Mr. Larose and how before his marriage to the wealthy widow of Sir Charles Ardane he had been only a detective-inspector at Scotland Yard.
"But there's nothing common about him, Dora," she said, "for he's one of nature's gentlemen and such a kind and charming man. Everybody likes him. The marriage, about fifteen or sixteen years ago, was quite a romance, and they do say it was Lady Ardane, as she was then, who proposed to him. He didn't dare to, as she was a very wealthy woman."
"And he was only a policeman?" asked Dora wonderingly.
"Not exactly, as he was the star detective of Scotland Yard, and the very best one they've ever had. He was a genius in his way and they used to say laughingly that when a murder had been committed he could even see the shadow that the murderer had left upon the wall."
"And has the marriage to this rich woman turned out all right?" asked Dora.
"Oh, yes, you couldn't find a happier couple. They've got three children and Mrs. Larose is as delightful a woman as her husband is a nice man."
The lunch was a very happy meal and, in particular, Dora was greatly impressed with Larose. He seemed such a happy man, and, so full of fun, he kept everyone in smiles and laughter the whole time. With some prompting he related some of the reminiscences of his detective days and something of a few of the cases he had handled.
"But you must admit, Mr. Larose," remarked the K.C. with a grim smile, "that when you were working in the Criminal Investigation Department you were regarded as the bad boy of the Yard. Wasn't it common knowledge that sometimes when you had run a criminal to earth, before handing him over for punishment, you would first try him yourself and then, if you found extenuating circumstances, suppress vital evidence and let him go free?"
"No, no," laughed Larose merrily, "I was not quite as bad as that." He looked amused. "It might have been that at times I did turn a blind eye to something I had found out, but certainly never when it was against the interests of the community to do so. No, I never let an evil man escape the consequences of his wrong-doing."
"But you were always a sentimentalist, weren't you?" persisted the K.C.
Larose hesitated. "Not exactly," he said, "but upon some occasions I admit I have turned aside the harshness of the Law. Now I'll give you an example. Many years ago I was investigating a case of murder where a man had been found shot in a lonely road some miles from his house. We found out he had been of a most evil character, a brute and a blackguard in almost every way. Not married two years to a good and gentle woman of a gentle disposition, he had treated her with the utmost brutality and made her life a misery. Not only did he flaunt his other loves before her, but to strike her was nothing to him. It was common knowledge all over their little town that a week before he was shot he had cut her lip open and given her a black eye."
"Ah, now we have the inevitable woman," exclaimed the K.C. gleefully, "and, of course, the sentiment will follow!"
"The only excuse for him," went on Larose, ignoring the interruption, "was that he'd once been in a mental asylum for two years. It had been kept very secret, however, and he had even married without telling his poor wife. Well, of course, when he was murdered the suffering wife was the first suspect, but fortunately she had an unassailable alibi. Still, for all that, as a matter of routine the house and all her possessions were gone through thoroughly."
He smiled. "I was glad that, as I had expected, nothing incriminating was found. However, in a drawer in her desk I came upon a dance programme of a hospital subscription ball. It was about three months old and, scanning down it, I saw she had had three dances with someone whose initials were—well, we'll call them A.B.C. I was interested at once and scouted round to find everyone she knew whose surname commenced with a C."
He nodded. "I soon found a Mr. C. whose Christian names commenced with A.B. No, he wasn't her lover. I made certain of that. When I questioned her about him the only feeling she showed was curiosity why I should be interested in him."
"But the gentle sex can be very subtle and evasive," remarked the K.C., shaking his head doubtfully.
"I know that," agreed Larose, "and I was well upon my guard not to be taken in. However, all my life's training told me she was perfectly innocent there. He was only a passing acquaintance and she had not seen him since that dance. Still, I went to call upon the man himself and, telling him who I was, asked him point blank what dealings he had ever had with the murdered man. Then I was pretty certain at once that the long shot I had made had hit bang in the very middle of the target. Taken entirely by surprise, he was the very picture of consternation and guilt. In his amazement at my coming to him he looked as if he were going to faint. The whole thing had been as easy as shooting at a sitting rabbit."
Larose paused for a few moments and then shrugged his shoulders. "Now what, in the best interests of the community, was I to do? An unknown person had rid the world of a thoroughly bad man and I thought I knew who the killer was. He was a nice, manly-looking and clean-living young fellow who had done good service in the war, and I was certain that if he had committed the murder the only motive for his crime would have been a quixotic sympathy for the tortured woman. So I ask you, what was I to do? Should I have hounded him down or kept my suspicions to myself and let others find out if they could?"
"You should have hounded him down, as you call it," growled the K.C. "You were being paid to do it and your duty was quite clear."
Larose sighed. "Well, I didn't do it. I got from him a most unsatisfactory alibi, had a little chat with him and bade him good-bye. In parting, I told him that as a matter of routine his rooms would probably be searched and advised him laughingly that if he'd got a pistol he'd better get rid of it before the searchers came."
"You did quite right, Mr. Larose," exclaimed Mrs. Rayneham approvingly. "After all, you had only suspicions about him and you might have been quite wrong."
"Exactly," nodded Larose, "only suspicions and, as you say, I might have been quite wrong."
Lord Merrildon, who had listened most interestedly to Larose's story, now asked curiously, "And did you ever happen to see this young man again?"
"Oh, yes," nodded Larose, "about two years afterwards, one Sunday afternoon upon the Parade at Brighton. He was pushing a perambulator and"—he smiled all over his face—"the lady who was walking beside him had been the wife of the man who was shot. They looked very happy."
A moment's silence followed and then a ripple of laughter went round the table, in which they all joined.
The next morning the visit of Lord and Lady Merrildon came to an end and, in parting, both expressed to Dora the hope that they would be seeing her again. "You must come and stay with us, dear," said the wife. "We'll send you a special invitation, and be sure you don't make any excuse. Our Saffron Waldon house always seems so lonely without children's voices."
The following Friday Mr. Rayneham brought two friends down with him for the week-end and by great good fortune it happened that Dora was in the lounge with young Lieutenant Jocelyn when they arrived and through one of the windows saw them getting out of their car.
To her horror she recognised one of them as being the West End doctor who was called in by Madame to help her out when any of her patients were in danger because of what she had done to them.
She always thought afterwards that it was one of the most terrible moments of her life. What she had always been so dreading was actually coming to pass! She was meeting someone who had known her when she was associated with Madame de Roche and she was sure, from his helping the woman, that he would be a thoroughly bad character himself, just the very type who would resort to blackmailing if ever he had any hold over anyone.
One hope, however, leapt like lightning into her mind, and that was he would not recognise her. After all, he had only set eyes upon her a few times—the last being nine to ten years ago.
Mr. Rayneham, bringing the two men into the lounge, introduced them. "Lady Stroud," he said smilingly, "this is Dr. Chalda Simeon, and this is Mr. Beverley—both old friends of mine."
With a great effort Dora pulled herself together and bowed distantly, her hopes leaping high when the doctor returned her bow conventionally, with no sign of any recognition in his face. She thought he had altered very little and looked, just as he used to, the suave well-mannered professional man.
All went well that evening, and when it happened he was brought in contact with her he could not have been more respectful and polite. Drawn once as her partner at bridge, she noted, as she had done in the old days, how good-looking he was—all except for his eyes, which were set too close together and had, she thought, an unpleasant, cunning look. She went to bed that night quite happy and reassured. No, he had not recognised her! She was quite safe!
The next morning, however, she got a horrid shock. Seated on the terrace, she was watching her two children at play upon the lawn just below her when Dr. Simeon came up and with no ceremony plumped himself down beside her. His very first words almost froze her blood in her consternation.
"Well, little Miss Dane that was," he said, with what she thought was a horrid, evil smile, "you've done very well for yourself, haven't you? From assisting in illegal operations with that unfortunate Madame de Roche to becoming Lady Stroud with any amount of money is a great lift up, isn't it?" He bowed ironically. "I congratulate you."
Dora was absolutely astounded. Her mouth went dry, she swallowed hard and was afraid she was going to faint.
Dr. Simeon went on conversationally, "Yes, you were very clever, weren't you? How you managed to evade the police I cannot for the life of me understand. They were looking everywhere for you with a fine comb."
Dora knew it would be useless to deny her identity, and, drawing a long breath, found her speech. "That's an untruth," she said shakily. "They didn't want me. I had done nothing wrong. I had had nothing to do with that vile woman's horrid work."
"Nothing to do with it!" exclaimed the doctor as if in great surprise. He lied glibly. "Why—she confessed everything and told the police you were her right hand and brought her in lots of cases. They issued a warrant to arrest you at once, and as far as I know it is still out to bring you in." He shook his head warningly. "Remember the police have long memories. They never forget."
Dora found her courage. "I don't believe a word you say," she retorted firmly. "That woman had no reason to tell such lies about me and I am sure she didn't. If she had turned against anyone it would have been against you because of the hundreds of pounds she had paid you and your refusing to help her when she had most need of you."
"A-ah!" exclaimed the doctor instantly. "And for you to know that shows how thick you were with her. You must have been or she wouldn't have told you anything about me." He looked amused. "But that gives you no hold upon me, young lady, for of course I should always deny it and no one has any proof."
He regarded her strained and white face. "But there, there, don't look so troubled," he went on ingratiatingly. "I shall never give you away. You can depend upon that." He looked amused. "However, it will be nice for me to have a wealthy friend like you. Besides, I've always admired you and I see you've lost none of your good looks." He broke off suddenly. "But where's your husband? Don't you get on well with him? How is it he's not here with you? I should have thought——" but at that moment one of the other guests appeared upon the terrace and he stopped speaking.
Dora passed a horrible day. Verily, she was in the toils, with all her happy little world tumbling about her! Richard was not coming down that week-end and she felt she had no one to protect her.
However, she pulled herself resolutely together again, and tried hard to believe they were all untruths that Dr. Simeon had told her. Madame had never lied to the police about her, no warrant had been issued and they had never been looking for her! Still, at the back of her mind lurked the dreadful fear that something of what Dr. Simeon said might be true, that the police had issued a warrant and that it had never been withdrawn. Then if that were so she was completely in his power, and the thought of what he might do next terrified her.
All that day she avoided him as much as possible, taking good care never to be caught alone with him. However, in the evening, shortly before dinner, he outmanoeuvred her. She was alone in the dining-room arranging the flowers upon the table and did not hear him enter the room. Approaching on tiptoe behind her, the first thing she knew of his presence was when, pulling her close to him and pinioning her arms to her sides, with his free hand he pulled her face round and began kissing her ardently upon the lips.
Struggling furiously, she succeeded in freeing herself and pushed him violently away. Looking very amused, he asked smilingly, "In which part of the house is your room? Do you have any of the children sleeping with you?"
"You beast! You coward!" she panted. "I'd like to kill you!"
He laughed merrily, but as she looked as if she were going to spit at him, he added warningly, "Steady, steady now, and remember that unexecuted warrant." He shook his head. "I'm never too good-tempered at any time."
But whatever retort Dora would have given was cut short by the entrance of one of the maids, and with a wave of his hand to Dora, as if they were upon the best of terms, the doctor made his exit from the room.
It was a long time before Dora could get to sleep that night. Strange to say, she was no longer frightened at what Dr. Simeon would do, her only thought now being how to outwit him. In a clever sort of way he had shown his hand a bit more after dinner and she had a pretty good idea that his next move would be to attempt to extort money. Playing at the same table with him at bridge, though this time not as his partner, he had remarked jokingly to the company generally that he must have a good win that night as he happened to be short of money.
"A thousand pounds is my minimum," he had laughed, "but how I'm going to win it with points at half a crown a hundred I can hardly see," and the others present had thought it a good joke.
As Dora lay wide awake in bed she clenched her teeth viciously. She was not going to be blackmailed! She would not pay him a penny! Rather she would tell her husband everything, or, better still, perhaps, she would go to Lord Merrildon and lay everything before him. She thought of the kind yet strong face of the judge, and was sure he would help her. So high up in his calling, too, it was certain he would have influence with the authorities and a word from him to the Chief Commissioner of Police, if indeed it were needed, might put everything right at once. After all, she was no guilty party to be shielded.
The next day she never allowed herself to be alone anywhere about the house, and if she had not been feeling so upset Dr. Simeon's many attempts to get speech with her would have been amusing. Then, to her dreadful consternation, she heard it mentioned casually at lunch that he was not going away on the morrow, but instead was prolonging his stay until the following week-end.
She was so distressed at the thought of being followed about for a whole week by her persecutor that she was half minded to cut short her stay. However, she could think of no adequate excuse, and in the end resolved to ring Richard up and ask him to come down on the morrow. Then she would tell him everything and he would know what best to do. Most likely, she thought, he would go and lay everything before the Chief Commissioner of Police himself.
So much relieved in mind at what she was intending to do, after they had all had afternoon tea in the lounge, she said to her hostess that she would like to go for a quick sharp walk to get rid of a headache she had got. It was to the post office in the little village about a mile away she was meaning to go. She knew where she would be able to catch Richard about that time and preferred to phone away from the Manor, so that by no chance should anyone overhear her telling him the matter was most urgent.
"Yes, dear, by all means go," said Mrs. Rayneham, "and while you are about it, you might as well take the letters down to the village. It will save anyone going down in the car."
So making sure Dr. Simeon was nowhere about to see her leave the house, Dora started off in a short cut by a path through a small wood near the house, which would bring her out upon the high road only about half a mile from the village.
Congratulating herself upon having so successfully evaded the doctor, she would have been terrified had she been aware she was now running into the very danger she so feared, for only a few minutes previously Mrs. Rayneham had sent Dr. Simeon along the same lonely little path she was now traversing.
Two hawks had of late been playing havoc with the Manor chickens and it was known they were often to be seen near a small pond round which the path circled toward the end of the wood. They were very wary birds and no one as yet had been able to get near them with a shot gun. Dr. Simeon, however, was reputed to be very good with a rifle and, now armed with a small rook one, he had come to the pond to see if he could get a shot at the marauders.
Arriving there only just before Dora, the doctor laid down his rifle to light a cigarette and then proceeded to scout round to locate a suitable place where he could sit comfortably to await the coming of the hawks who were supposed to visit the pond about that time of the afternoon. He was expecting to have to wait about an hour.
Suddenly he caught sight of someone moving between the trees and to his great delight saw it was Dora coming up the path. Throwing away his cigarette he placed his rifle upon the ground, and, slipping behind a big tree, waited until she had drawn level with him before springing out to catch hold of her.
However, he was just the fraction of a second too late, as Dora had become aware of some movement behind her and turned just in time to see him not half a dozen feet away. With a startled cry she sprang forward and started to run for dear life. A few lightning moments' thoughts, however, convinced her she had no hope of escaping, and that therefore it would be better to face her pursuer and do her best in the struggle that she was sure would ensue.
So she stopped dead in her tracks and, in turning sharply, her eyes fell upon the little rook rifle on the ground. She snatched it up and pointed it at the doctor who had stopped also only a few paces from her.
"You come nearer," she panted, "and I'll shoot you," and, without taking her eyes off him, she felt for and pulled up the trigger.
Dr. Simeon smiled a craftily vicious smile. "You daren't, my charmer," he said confidently. "Murder would mean hanging and not just perhaps a couple of years' imprisonment if the police now find out where you are." He took out a cigarette and lighted it. "Come—let's have a little talk together. Don't be afraid. I won't touch you again. I know I oughtn't to have kissed you last night, but you looked so pretty I couldn't help it. No, I don't really want anything from you. It was only my fun last night when I spoke of that thousand pounds. I make plenty of money and——" but, thinking he had thrown her off her guard, he darted forward and grabbed hold of the rifle.
For a few seconds a fierce struggle ensued, but, freeing his grip upon the rifle, Dora thrust the muzzle into his chest and pulled the trigger. Instantly his hands dropped from her, and with a deep groan he crashed on to the ground. The front of his light flannel jacket became crimsoned over in blood.
Panting hard and as white as death herself, Dora stood over him. Then from behind her came a shout, "Bravo! Well done!" and Lieutenant Jocelyn came running up. "I came as quick as I could," he panted, "but I was just too late." He bent down and turned the body over. "But, by Jove, you've killed him. You've shot him over the heart."
"He attacked me," choked Dora, her voice heavy with tears. "I was only defending myself."
"Of course you were!" exclaimed the lieutenant. "I saw it all. It wasn't your fault."
"But, my God," wailed Dora, "I shall be tried for murder! The police will take me up."
"But my evidence will prove it was an accident," comforted Jocelyn at once. "You won't get any punishment for it. No jury would find you guilty."
"But the scandal," went on Dora. The tears rolled down her cheeks. "It will kill me."
"He must have been mad to molest you as he did," said the lieutenant. "Why—he didn't know you until the day before yesterday!"
She shook her head. "He did, Mr. Jocelyn," she choked. "He met me years ago and made out he'd got hold of some discreditable secret in my life. He was going to blackmail me."
"Whew!" whistled the lieutenant. "Then I'm glad you killed him." He frowned. "You were meeting him here by appointment?"
"Oh, no," replied Dora, "it was only by chance that I came upon him here. I was going down into the village. Last night he seized hold of me and kissed me by force. All to-day I've been keeping out of his way as much as possible." Her tears came again. "Oh, the publicity and scandal of it will kill me."
The lieutenant was thinking hard. "I say," he asked, "did anyone see you come on to this path?"
Dora shook her head. "Not that I know of. There was no one about."
Young Jocelyn's eyes glistened. "Then why let anybody know you met him? Keep the whole thing dark." He pointed to the pond. "I'll throw him in there, with the rifle just near him. Then if the body's ever found—perhaps it'll be thought he fell over that high bank and shot himself accidentally. Come, it's worth trying, anyhow."
"Oh, but will it be safe?" asked Dora tremulously.
"I don't see why it shouldn't be," was the reply. "Then no one need ever know you met him here. Now don't you be afraid. I'm sure it'll be the best way out of all your worry."
Always of a hasty and impetuous disposition, not arguing the matter any further, he laid hold of the body by the heels and, dragging it over the rather high bank, rolled it into the pond. The rifle he dropped into the water, close to the body.
Then, linking his arm in Dora's, as her legs were trembling so violently, he proceeded to walk her quickly up the path towards the main road.
"Now no one must know you came by this path," he enjoined sharply. "See? You came by way of the drive and you're going back the same way. If we're ever asked any questions about anything we'll say I met you in the drive and we went for a little walk together. We'll go along it now for a little way in the hope that somebody may see us."
"I was going to the post office," faltered Dora. "Mrs. Rayneham gave me these letters here in my jacket pocket to post."
"Then we'll go there together," said Jocelyn, "just as if nothing had happened. We have got to act all along as if nothing has happened."
"But when he doesn't come back," choked Dora, "they'll search everywhere and are bound to find his body."
"And what does it matter if they do," asked the lieutenant confidently, "as long as there is no evidence to link it up with you? No one here need ever know you had met the blackguard before." He frowned. "By the by, what was the hold he made out he had over you?"
Dora told him, and he scoffed contemptuously. "A thousand to one it was all a lie. There was no warrant out for you! If there had been, your name would have been published in the newspapers and the police would have soon got hold of you."
They walked down to the post office and posted the letters, Dora now giving no further thought to phoning up Richard. Sauntering back leisurely, the whole countryside was so steeped in the peace and quietness of an ordinary Sunday evening that it seemed altogether impossible to her that she could have been so lately involved in such a dreadful tragedy. Her agitation died down, her nerves no longer troubled her and she was able to look up at her companion with a smile.
"No, we shan't be found out," she said quite calmly. "As you say, we've only got to sit tight and we shall be all right."
"That's it!" exclaimed Jocelyn enthusiastically. "I knew you were a girl with plenty of courage or I shouldn't have let myself in for what I have." He frowned. "I'm awfully sorry I shan't be with you to buck you up during the early part of the week, but I must be up in Town to give my evidence in that collision case I told you about." A thought struck him and he asked, "When does your husband come down?"
"Next week-end," replied Dora, "unless, of course, I send to him before."
"And you won't send for him," he said firmly. "Don't worry him, at any rate until things have settled down a bit. I'd better be here when he comes and break the news to him."
"No, I'll tell him," said Dora quickly. "I'll tell him everything."
"Then let me be present when you do," urged Jocelyn. "I can put things in a good light. After all, I saw it was an accident."
"It wasn't," sighed Dora. "I knew what I was doing well enough."
"You didn't," retorted the lieutenant. "You were far too strung-up to think of any consequences." He frowned. "But I say—what sort of man is your husband?"
Dora sighed again. "He's very conscientious, and that makes me afraid he'll think we're doing wrong."
"Hum!" remarked Jocelyn. "Then it is certainly I who must talk to him, because, as I've told you, I'm up to the neck in it as much as you."
A few minutes before dinner when most of the guests were having cocktails in the lounge, Mrs. Rayneham remarked upon how late Dr. Simeon was in getting back. "I sent him," she said, "along the path through the home wood to try to get those hawks which have been coming after my chickens." She turned to Dora. "You didn't see anything of him, did you, when you went to the post office?"
Young Jocelyn answered quickly for her. "I went with Lady Stroud to post those letters. I overtook her in the drive. No, we didn't see anything of the doctor."
"How tiresome of him," exclaimed Mrs. Rayneham. "He knows how punctual we always are."
Her cheerful mood continuing, Dora had shaken off all of her nervousness. The confidence of the young lieutenant was infectious and he seemed so sure that everything would be all right. Still, if the truth did become known, she told herself, she would not be blamed as after all she was only defending herself and, as Lieutenant Jocelyn had said, the shooting must have been an accident. No one would accuse her of killing Dr. Simeon deliberately.
Dinner over with no appearance of the doctor, Mr. Rayneham with some of the men visitors, including the lieutenant, made up a search party and went out to see if they could find anything of the missing man. It was a bright moonlight night and, taking no lanterns with them, they traversed the whole length of the path through the wood as far as the main road. Of course, however, they found no sign of him, and returning home, Mr. Rayneham rang up the village policeman, but the latter agreed with him nothing more could be done until the morning.
The next day the search was resumed, now under the direction of the police sergeant from the little town of East Dereham, but no trace of the doctor was found. His flat in Earl's Court was rung up, but his housekeeper—he was a bachelor and she managed the flat for him—could give no information. She did, however, say he was a rather forgetful and eccentric man and occasionally had absented himself from home without giving her any notice.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Jocelyn having gone up to Town, Dora was losing something of her confidence and beginning to think she had made a great mistake in having allowed herself to be induced to hush the matter up. She ought to have made out to them that she had come upon Dr. Simeon lying dead by the path in the wood, or she ought to have returned to the Manor and not said a word to anyone about having seen him.
On the whole, she had begun to feel a little angry with Lieutenant Jocelyn for having swept her off her feet and acted so hastily upon the spur of the moment. She began to worry herself upon the Monday night, and by the following morning felt positively ill. Her hostess noticed it and asked if anything were the matter with her. She replied smilingly that all she had got was a bad headache.
"Well, what about going for a nice ride in my little sport's car?" said Mrs. Rayneham. "With the hood down, you'd get a good blow of fresh air. You could drive over to Carmel Abbey. Mrs. Larose left her gloves here the other day and I promised to post them on to her, but with all this worry about Dr. Simeon I forgot all about it. Yes, you can take the gloves and tell Mr. Larose about the trouble we are in. I'm sure he'll be greatly interested."
Dora's heart gave a big bound. Go to see Mr. Larose! Why—why hadn't she thought of it? He would be the very man to help her! Oh, what a heaven-sent help he would be! Instinct told her he was a man anyone could trust implicitly.
"I'm sorry I can't come with you," went on Mrs. Rayneham, "but with this dreadful mystery about Dr. Simeon I must be here if the police come from Norwich. You wouldn't mind going by yourself, would you?"
Dora felt better at once. "No, of course not," she said. "Besides, I'll take Nurse and the children with me for company. They love motoring."
"Well, you go and get ready," said Mrs. Rayneham, "and I'll have the car brought out and see if it's quite all right for the journey. In the meantime I'll ring up Mrs. Larose to tell her you're coming."
In less than a quarter of an hour the greatly relieved Dora was down again in the lounge with her two children and the nurse. "I rang up the Abbey," said Mrs. Rayneham, "but couldn't get either Mr. or Mrs. Larose. The butler said Mrs. Larose was away, in Town, but that Mr. Larose would be in any minute and at home for the rest of the day." She laughed. "I didn't say you were coming, so you'll be able to have a nice little flirtation with him all on your own."
It was only a twenty-mile drive to Carmel Abbey and Dora's heart beat tremulously when she pulled up the car by the huge and massive door, hundreds of years old. "From Mrs. Rayneham," she explained when, in answer to her ring, the butler appeared.
Leaving the nurse and children in the car, she followed him into the study where Larose was seated at a desk. The latter at once came forward smilingly to meet her and they shook hands.
Then, with the door closed behind them, cutting short Larose's words of greeting, she burst out chokingly, "Mr. Larose, I have come to you for advice. Two days ago I killed a man. He attacked me and had been intending to blackmail me. His body lies hidden in a pond. Should I give myself up to the police, or say nothing in the hope that I may not be found out? You remember me, don't you? We met at Blackston Manor a little while ago."
All on the instant the face of Larose had become the very picture of amazement. His jaw had dropped and his eyes had opened wide. For the moment he did not seem to be able to take in this extraordinary announcement from the beautiful and aristocratic-looking young woman standing before him.
"Yes," went on Dora tremulously, "he attacked me on the path through a lonely wood and I shot him with his own rifle. I think it was partly an accident." Tears filled her eyes. "I've come to you to know what I ought to do."
Larose had recovered very quickly. "Now don't cry," he said kindly. "Just sit down and tell me all about it," and, taking her arm, he led her to a chair in front of his desk. "Ah, one moment," he said glancing out of the window. "I see you've brought your little ones with you."
"Yes, and that's their nurse with them," said Dora faintly.
"Well, I'll take them to my housekeeper," he said, "and she'll amuse them in the play-room. I'm sorry my wife's away."
He was gone about two minutes and then bustled back into the room. "Now we can have our little talk," he said briskly, seating himself again behind his desk. "Take your time. We shall not be interrupted. Let me hear how it all began."
So Dora told her story, beginning with her work at the Institute, going on to her marriage and the happy years she had spent with her husband, the coming of Dr. Simeon to Blackston Manor the previous Friday, his kissing of her by force the next evening, her unfortunate meeting with him in the wood the following day and all that happened afterwards.
"I'm sure now that I did very wrong," she went on, "in deciding to try to keep myself out of everything, but I was terrified that any publicity would draw attention to myself, with the police learning that I was the Dora Dane for whom that warrant had perhaps been issued all those years ago. Young Mr. Jocelyn was most sympathetic. His reason for advising me to act as I did was because he was afraid it would be bound to come out that I had known Dr. Simeon before."
"And I think the lieutenant was right there," nodded Larose judicially, "for you mustn't forget you have those three enemies, that horrible Madame, her cousin and her brother. It is hardly probable that if you had admitted you had shot him accidentally one or the other of them would not have read about it in the newspapers and, as likely as not, some pressman would have got hold of a photograph of yours and published it. Then where would you have been if, out of spite, one of these people had written to the police?"
"But we ought to have left the body lying where it was," said Dora, "for someone else to find."
Larose shook his head. "What about the fingermarks on the rifle?" he asked. "There were sure to have been some of yours on it."
"We might have wiped them off," said Dora. "Mr. Jocelyn would certainly have thought of that."
Larose smiled. "Worse still! No fingermarks on the rifle would have pointed to murder at once, and would have intensified the interest and publicity in every newspaper in the kingdom. Then all the guests at the Manor would have come into the limelight, and their fingerprints taken at once. Don't forget your Christian name is not a very common one, and remember, too, what you have just told me about that cousin of Madame's seeing you getting into your car that day in Regent Street." He smiled. "A fine and expensive-looking car, I am sure, and you as elegantly dressed as you are now! So she would be pretty sure you were living in good circumstances. Then the two names Dora, Lady Stroud, and Dr. Simeon together might have made her think and, just on the chance and out of spite, as I say, she might have written to the police."
"And what do you advise me to do?" asked Dora piteously.
Larose looked troubled. "Well, it's a little late in the day to ask me that now, isn't it, seeing that you seem to have already decided for yourself? If you were going to speak up you ought to have done so at once."
"But I'll do whatever you tell me to," choked Dora. "What do you think is best?"
Larose regarded her very gravely. "If you come to me to ask me that in my capacity as a Justice of the Peace, most people would unhesitatingly say that of course I ought to tell you to give yourself up at once to the police and make a clean breast of everything."
Dora's face went white as death. "Then you hold out no hope for me?" she asked tremblingly. Her voice firmed a little. "But need I bring in Lieutenant Jocelyn? It will ruin his whole career."
Larose held up his hand. "Wait a minute," he said. "Don't be so quick." He smiled his pleasant, friendly smile. "I said if you came to me as a Justice of the Peace, but you don't come to me as such, do you? You come to me privately, as a friend?"
Dora nodded. "I didn't know you were a magistrate. I came to you because that story you told us at lunch the other day showed how sympathetic you could be."
"Exactly!" commented Larose. He made a grimace. "I only brought up that I was a Justice of the Peace because if I tell you to keep silence and say nothing I want you to realise I am joining you in a conspiracy against the law and that"—he shook his head—"would be rather a serious matter for a magistrate if it became known."
"Oh, I'll never say anything," broke in Dora quickly. "I promise you I'll——"
"I know that," said Larose. "I feel I can trust you. There's any amount of courage in those so well-spaced eyes of yours." He spoke briskly. "No, under the circumstances I think the best course for you now is to go on saying nothing, for if you speak now after these two days of silence, it will rather suggest guilt in some way. The police will argue you must have had some very strong reason for hiding the body—a much stronger reason than that by an accident you had caused his death. If you made out you were struggling in self-defence when the rifle went off they would not be likely to credit that Dr. Simeon made such a vicious and unprovoked attack upon you after less than a two days' acquaintanceship."
"Then you think they'd guess I knew him before?" asked Dora shakily.
"Most certainly!" nodded Larose. "So they'd probe back into your past life and I'm afraid there's little they wouldn't be able to find out. Once started upon a trail, you have no idea how patient and thorough Scotland Yard can be."
Dora looked upon the verge of tears and he went on quickly. "That's the dark side of things, but the bright side is—if you continue to keep silent you may never come into their suspicions at all. I don't for a moment see why you should, and from all you tell me his death may be put down to an accident, with the shooting self-inflicted."
"Then you think they'll find the body?" asked Dora.
"Yes, and within the next day or two—directly his disappearance is considered mysterious enough for the Norwich detectives to be put on the case. With Mrs. Rayneham informing them he was going near that pond after those hawks they're bound to go there almost at once."
After they talked for a long while, Dora calmed down and was beginning to feel much more hopeful again.
"Now you go back to the Manor," said Larose in conclusion, "and carry on as if you are not unduly interested in the matter. Steel yourself to be all prepared for the body being found. Summon up all your courage and say to yourself, 'Well, if the worse comes to the worst, and I have to tell everything, it will only be the scandal I shall have to face, for, with my tale told, no jury will convict me of anything more wrong than trying to hide the body.'"
He patted her kindly upon the shoulder. "Another thing. I'll keep well in touch with Mrs. Rayneham to learn everything that is going on and come over at once and take a hand if I think you are in any danger." He laughed. "It's well known in Norfolk that I'm always butting in on any mystery that is interesting."
It was well that Dora had been so well buoyed up with hope by her interview with Larose, as upon her return to the Manor just in time for lunch she was to realise that the curtain was indeed being rung up for the presentation of the drama in which she might unhappily be cast for a most dreadful part.
Mrs. Rayneham had had several visitors, reporters who had come down from two London newspapers to work up an interesting story for their readers about the missing doctor, and a police sergeant from Norwich, accompanied by two plain-clothes detectives.
"The newspaper men were most inquisitive," she said, "and I had to choke them off when they asked what I considered a lot of unnecessary questions. They actually wanted to know the name of all the visitors staying here, and without asking my permission took photographs of the house."
"But you didn't give them our names?" asked Dora, with an uncomfortable feeling at the pit of her stomach.
"Certainly not," replied Mrs. Rayneham, "and I took care they didn't get any chance of pumping the servants. I thought they were altogether much too pushing, quite different from the detectives from Norwich. They came with Constable Wicks from the village and were most polite and so sympathetic. When I had told them everything they said that in the circumstances the doctor was not likely to be missing for long and that they would soon have news of him."
Sure enough news came through that same afternoon, and it was of a terrible nature. The doctor's body had been found in the very pond to which he had been directed to go to get a shot at the hawks.
It appeared that the detectives had started straight away to search along the path through the wood and, coming to the pond, one of them had looked over the bank and at once called out that there was a body there. Throwing themselves down prone to get their eyes as close as possible to the surface of the water, they could see that it was that of a man. The pond was so shallow that the body was only just covered over. The face looked a dreadful colour, with its eyes closed and a wisp of hair trailing across its forehead.
"God!" exclaimed the sergeant. "It's the man we want right enough!" and becoming brisk and business-like, he issued quick orders to one of the detectives. "Go back into the village and get in touch with Norwich at once. Tell the superintendent that of course we're not touching anything until he comes. You wait in the village and bring him along here."
A police posse arrived within the hour and, while awaiting the arrival of the surgeon, some preliminary photographs were taken from the bank. With the appearance of the surgeon, the local constable took off his boots and socks and waded into the pond to help lift up the body with as little disturbance as possible.
Immediately, however, one of his feet trod on something hard and, groping down, he brought into view a mud-covered little rifle.
"Careful!" ordered the sergeant sharply. "It's a repeating one! Keep, your fingers away from the trigger."
The rifle being handed over, the body was lifted out with the utmost care and laid upon a sheet of tarpaulin. Covered with mud and slime, it was not pleasant to look at.
Pointing to a charred hole in the centre of the jacket, the police surgeon remarked grimly, "Bullet wound there! Probably he slipped and fell upon the rifle and it went off! That's all I can say until I've done the autopsy. I mayn't be able to do it to-day, but I will, at least, to-morrow morning."
"Very good, doctor," said the superintendent, "then we'll make the inquest for the day after to-morrow."
Mr. Rayneham being one of the magistrates of the district, the local constable came up to the Manor that evening with the full story. Dora heard it later and was greatly relieved to learn that the constable took it for granted that the doctor's death had been the result of an accident.
"It's quite easy, sir," he had explained to Mr. Rayneham, "to see how it happened. He must have slipped on the bank and fallen on to the rifle, as we can see from his clothes that the muzzle was pressed tight against his chest. He would have died instantaneously."
The inquest was held in a small hall adjacent to the East Dereham Police Station, with all the coroner's jury, however, being chosen from the village of Blackston. They unanimously picked upon Harry Wood, the under-gardener at the Manor, to be their foreman, because from their Saturday night disputations at the village inn they knew him to be the best educated of them all. By occupation, the coroner was the proprietor of a livery stable in East Dereham. A Justice of the Peace and a shrewd and capable man, he was well versed in his duties.
As the dead man was unknown locally, not much interest was taken in the inquest, and only a few spectators were gathered in the hall. Mrs. Hunt, Dr. Simeon's housekeeper, and Mr. Rayneham identified the body. The sergeant from Norwich, who was representing the police, detailed where and how it had been found, and then the police surgeon stepped on to the stand.
He was sharp and quick and did not waste a word in what he told the court. In brief, he stated he had duly conducted the autopsy upon the deceased and found he had met his death by drowning. Then, after a short pause, he added that just previous to his being immersed in the water of the pond in which the body had been found the deceased had received a bullet wound in the chest.
The spectators gasped, a thrill of startled amazement ran through them and then a hard tense silence filled the court.
"Then deceased was alive," asked the coroner, "when he fell, or was placed in that pond?"
"Undoubtedly," replied the police surgeon, "as I found water in both the stomach and the lungs, indicating vital acts and that as a living being he had swallowed and breathed in the water. I found, too, that the water taken in contained algae, a minute form of vegetable growth found in all inland ponds. They were in plenty in that pond from which the body was taken."
"Would he have been conscious when he became immersed in that pond?" asked the coroner.
"From his being found drowned in such shallow water," was the reply, "I should say not. The shock of the bullet in the sternum or breast-bone, as we know it, probably produced a state of instantaneous unconsciousness."
"Would the wound in the breast-bone have been a fatal one?" asked the coroner.
"By no means. Comparatively speaking, the injury was a trivial one, as the bullet had penetrated no vital organ."
"And from what kind of weapon had the bullet, in your opinion, been fired?"
"From one similar to the rifle which was found lying by his side—a small .22 rifle."
A short silence followed and the coroner asked, "And, in your opinion, how was the wound inflicted?"
The answer was prompt. "To all appearances deceased slipped and fell upon the rifle and it went off. From the charred condition of the cloth of the jacket where the bullet went in the muzzle must have been pressed up tight against the body of deceased."
"Then you would say the wound was accidental?"
"Yes, and that the deceased fell into the pond and was drowned."
The coroner paused again. "Anything else to tell us, doctor?" he asked.
"Only that I found a long scratch upon the back of the right hand of deceased," was the reply, "a scratch that must have been received very shortly before he died."
"What sort of scratch?" asked the coroner. "What is likely to have caused it?"
The doctor shrugged his shoulder. "Anything almost, a sharp thorn, the trigger of the rifle or a finger-nail."
"His own finger-nail?" queried the coroner.
"Quite likely," nodded the doctor. "I noticed they were by no means short."
The coroner looked first towards the sergeant and then towards the jury, obviously inviting questions, but, no one responding, he thanked the doctor for his evidence and the latter at once left the witness stand. The jury were now whispering together.
The coroner turned towards the jury again. "No questions then?" he asked, and immediately the Manor under-gardener, shaking his head, rose to his feet. "We are quite satisfied, sir," he said, "and ready to record our verdict. We . . ."
But the sergeant had jumped up, too. "I ask for an adjournment, sir," he said, "an adjournment until further notice."
Everyone, including the coroner, looked surprised. The whole case seemed so straightforward that they could not understand the sergeant's attitude.
However, the foreman was still standing his ground. "The evidence of the police surgeon——" he began, but the coroner cut him short with a smile.
"If the police ask for an adjournment," he said, "I must grant it." And he rapped out, "Adjourned for a day to be fixed later."
Dora was most uneasy when Mr. Rayneham had returned with the news. Young Jocelyn, who had got back earlier than he had expected, was with her in the lounge.
"I think the real inner reason for the action of the police," explained Mr. Rayneham, "is that they picked up a button which had apparently been torn with some violence from the doctor's jacket. Also, I fancy the doctor's housekeeper must have told them something, as I saw her and the sergeant having a long whispering together just before the inquest opened." He smiled. "Harry Wood, our under-gardener here who had been made foreman of the jury, was all ready with his verdict of accidental death and looked quite annoyed when the police asked for an adjournment."
"And what do the police think they are going to do now?" asked the lieutenant.
"Well, it's no secret," replied Mr. Rayneham, "and I expect everyone will soon know. So there's no harm in my mentioning it. Colonel Mayne told me it happens they've got two of the star detectives from Scotland Yard at present in Norwich upon another case, and they're putting them in a day or two on this one, as well. They are Inspectors Stone and Mendel, and supposed to be very shrewd fellows. As Chief Constable, it happens the colonel has met them before."
"Never mind, Lady Stroud," assured Jocelyn when Mr. Rayneham had gone. "They can't find out anything and we're quite safe."
The next morning, however, Dora button-holed him with a very anxious look upon her face. "I'm very worried now about something else," she said. "I've lost one of my silk head-kerchiefs, and I only remembered a few minutes ago when I couldn't find the particular one I wanted that I was wearing it on Sunday afternoon when I went for that walk through the wood." Her voice quavered. "I'm afraid it must have come off when I was struggling with that dreadful man. I was too worried then to notice anything."
"But someone would have picked it up if you had," comforted Jocelyn, "and they wouldn't have known it was yours if they had."
Dora shook her head. "But it had my monogram worked on it," she said most uneasily, "D.L.S. I'm thinking the wind may have blown it into the bushes. Remember it was very windy that afternoon?"
Jocelyn whistled. "That's awkward. I'll go and look for it at once."
"Oh, I do so wish you would," said Dora. "It will relieve my mind such a lot if you find it. It's one of the brown ones I generally wear. I daren't be seen near the place myself."
So the lieutenant set off with no delay, and was soon going over every yard of the wood round by the pond. Not finding the kerchief anywhere there, and by no means disheartened, he proceeded to go over an adjoining field just outside the wood.
Engrossed in his search, he did not notice that three men, driving up in a car, had entered the wood. One was Wicks, the village constable, and his companions were Chief Detective-Inspector Stone and Inspector Isaac Mendel, the two detectives whom Mr. Rayneham had just been talking about.
In the early fifties, Charles Stone was one of the Big Four at Scotland Yard and for many years had been recognised as one of the smartest men in the Criminal Investigation Department. Big and stout, with the real bull-dog type of face, he was nevertheless at heart of a very kindly nature, with a humorous twinkle always ready to light up the shrewd big eyes which looked out from under his big and bushy brows. Very little ever escaped Charlie Stone, and though there was nothing of the bully about him, woe betide the evil-doer who thought he could deceive him with trickery and lies. Then his face would harden and he would rap out his questions like bullets from a gun.
His colleague, Isaac Mendel, a son of Israel as his name implied was one of the youngest inspectors at the Yard, being only thirty-two, and had been cast in a very different mould. Born in an East End London slum, he was nevertheless refined-looking, with the eyes and forehead of a dreamer. He owed his high position for one so young to his lively imagination and remarkable powers of deduction. Well read, too, in the annals of crime, he was continually drawing upon that knowledge for inspiration, and not a few of his successes had been achieved in that way.
Such were the two detectives who, arriving at the pond to start upon their investigations, suddenly caught sight of young Jocelyn through the trees, pacing to and fro, looking for the missing kerchief.
"Who's that man?" asked Stone sharply of the village constable. "Do you know him?"
"I'm not sure," was the hesitating reply, "but I think I've seen him somewhere before. Oh, yes, I remember. He's staying up at the Manor. I don't know his name, but sometimes he uses Mr. Rayneham's car. I've heard he's an officer in the navy."
"Well, what's he doing here?" frowned Stone.
"Don't know," replied the constable, "but he's evidently looking for something."
For a couple of minutes or so the three men stood watching Jocelyn, and then, his search bringing him nearer to the edge of the wood and happening to look up, he caught sight of them.
He swore under his breath, for he knew the constable by sight and guessed at once that his companions would be detectives. It was certainly an awkward moment, but always quick in his decisions—the Navy had taught him that—he was minded to make the best of it, and so, walking boldly nearer to them, called out, "Seen a pheasant trailing a broken wing? I saw one come in here from the road."
Receiving the reply from Stone that they had not, he nonchalantly resumed his search, giving it up, however, in a few minutes and taking himself off. He was very disappointed he had not found the kerchief, but intended to come back again later when the coast was clear.
Dora was naturally most distressed at his want of success, but things became much worse when the conspirators heard the next morning at breakfast that the kerchief had been found.
Only a few minutes before, Mrs. Rayneham had been told casually by her cook that the latter's sister who lived on the outskirts of Blackston village had picked up a beautiful silk kerchief with a monogram on it, among some bushes at the side of the road skirting the small wood in which was situated the pond which was now uppermost in everybody's mind. She had found it on the Monday morning, but had said nothing about it to anyone.
Then two days later, upon the Wednesday, she had washed it and, along with two good tea-clothes which she had just bought, had hung it upon the line in the garden just before going out. Upon her return home, however, she had found all the three articles gone. She suspected some gypsies as being the thieves, because shortly after leaving home she had met a one-horse gypsy caravan on the road going in the direction of her cottage, and it was well-known how dishonest so many gypsies were.
"But having found it not far from that pond," concluded Mrs. Rayneham, "I think she should have mentioned it."
"Of course she ought to have done so," said her husband. "I don't suppose it's of any importance, but still she ought to have told the police. However, I'm going into Norwich to-day and shall probably see Colonel Mayne at lunch at the club. So I'll tell him about it."
"But if those gypsies have taken it, sir," said Jocelyn steadying his voice, "they'll hardly catch them now three days have gone by."
"Oh, won't they?" laughed Mr. Rayneham. "When they're on the job they'll learn where that caravan is within an hour. With only one horse they won't have gone very far, and going in the direction the van was they'll probably find it up Sheringham or Cromer way. Every little police station all round will be phoned up at once and someone is sure to have seen it pass."
"Splendid!" whispered Jocelyn to Dora when they got up from the table. "I'll go off on my motor-bike at once and be back with the kerchief before tea. Don't you worry. I'll get to those gypsies before the police do. They'll be quite easy to find."
Sure enough, at the cost of three beers at different public houses he found them with no difficulty, though not altogether in the direction Mr. Rayneham had indicated, as arriving at the small town of Holt the caravan had taken the road directly opposite to that leading to Sheringham and Cromer.
Giving the same explanation every time he made his enquiry—that he wanted to find the gypsies because he had heard they had some good fox-terrier pups for sale—he was lucky to learn from a publican in Holt that the latter had happened to see the caravan turning in the road leading towards Wells the previous evening.
"There were a man and his wife and two children on board," said the publican, "and if ever I met a rogue that gypsy is one. He came in here, wanting to sell me a rush basket they'd made and asked six bob for it. It was not a bad basket, and I offered two bob. After he'd had a couple of beers I got it for that." He grinned. "He had some sort of young dog with him outside, but it was certainly nothing like a fox terrier. It looked a mongrel to me, a real poacher's lurcher. It was only a puppy."
Greatly elated with the thought that the gypsies could not be very far away, Jocelyn proceeded up the Wells road and, sure enough, a bare half mile before reaching the little town, came upon a shabby-looking caravan parked upon a stretch of turf just off the side of the road, with a rather dense wood just behind it. A horse was tethered nearby, a woman was plaiting rushes on the steps of the van, and two young children, a boy and a girl, were playing round with a half-grown puppy.
Jocelyn's heart almost leapt into his mouth as he saw the girl had got her head covered with what looked like the very kerchief he had come after. It was exactly like the one he had seen Dora wearing.
Pulling up his motor-cycle, he lit a cigarette and strolled over to the caravan. Now for it, he thought, with his heart beating quickly; a little tact and, if they'd got it, the kerchief would be his!
"Good afternoon!" he exclaimed smilingly to the woman. "Can you tell me how far I am from the sea? Oh, about two miles! No, don't stop working. I'd like to watch you."
Leaning up against the caravan, he watched the progress of the making of a basket, with the children eyeing him shyly, and the dog capering around.
Suddenly a movement from the direction of the wood behind the caravan caught his eye and he saw a man step furtively out from among the trees and peer up and down the road. From one hand dangled quite a large catapult and, from the other, the carcass of a lordly cock-pheasant. Not noticing Jocelyn, and apparently satisfied that the coast was clear, the man began walking towards his wife on the steps of the van. Then, for the first time catching sight of a stranger, he looked scared, and with a quick movement put the hand holding the pheasant behind him.
"Too late, old chap," laughed Jocelyn merrily. "I saw it, and a nice big long-tail it is. No, don't worry about me I'm always game for a bit of poaching myself when I get the chance."
Reassured by the young lieutenant's words, the man came forward with a sheepish grin and allowed Jocelyn to take the pheasant from him. "And do you mean to say," asked Jocelyn, "that you killed it with that catapult you've got there?"
"Not exactly killed it, guv'nor," laughed the man, "but I smashed one of his wings with it, so that he couldn't run fast, and then caught him and broke his neck." He took a handful of round stones out of his pocket. "These are wot I use and anything that keeps still is an easy mark for me. A bunny rabbit doesn't often get away."
"A real good bird this," remarked Jocelyn, "fat and heavy and all ready for the pot. Come—I'll give you five bob for it. Well, then, six! No, not a penny more and that's all it's worth! All right! Then I'll put it in the box upon my carrier before anyone comes along to see."
The lid of the box was lifted, disclosing a small camera and a nearly full bottle of whisky. Seeing the whisky, the man's eyes gleamed and Jocelyn laughed. "What about a little tot to clinch the bargain?" he asked. "All right, then! You get a glass and you shall have one."
Apparently the caravan did not run to glasses, however, and a cup without a handle was produced instead. Jocelyn poured out a generous dose and then took notice of the children.
"And what about a photograph of them?" he asked. "All right, and I'll give them sixpence each for letting me take it! Now children, stand quite still, with the dog between you."
He posed them in the right position and then said it would be better if the girl took off her kerchief and let her pretty curls be seen. Her face all grins and excitement at the promised sixpence, the girl snatched off the kerchief and dropped it on to the ground. The puppy at once made a dart for it, but Jocelyn was too quick for him, and picking it up, threw it over his arm.
He took several snaps, dawdling over the business so that they should all forget about the kerchief, which without their noticing he had crumpled up and thrust into his pocket. The taking of the snaps finished, he took some small change, including some silver coins as well as pennies, from his pocket, and announced he would scramble everything among them.
First, he flipped over some pennies, and the children had great fun in searching for them among the grass, with the puppy joining in with much barking and excitement and continually getting in their way and tripping them up.
Finally, thinking the game had gone on quite long enough, he threw all the rest of the coins at the same time, and the gypsy and his wife roared with laughter at the fierce scramble which ensued.
Suddenly, in the middle of all the noise and when the children were fully occupied searching in the grass, Jocelyn looked at his wrist-watch and exclaimed in consternation, "Goodness, gracious, I'm due in Hunstanton in twenty minutes. Shan't I catch it for being late?" and running over to his motor-cycle, he jumped into the saddle and with a smiling wave of his hand, was off like the wind.
For about half a minute or so he was expecting every moment to hear a harsh voice calling upon him to stop and asking where the kerchief was, but, had he only known it, the gypsy was every bit as anxious for him to get away as was he himself. For a very good reason, too, as during the excitement of scrambling for the coins, upon a whispered injunction from her husband, the woman had sneaked over to the motor-cycle and abstracted the bottle of whisky from the box on the carrier.
Oh, the thankfulness in the young lieutenant's heart when, out of sight of the van by a turn in the road, he took the kerchief out of his pocket and saw upon it the monogram of D.L.S.
It was a most thankful Dora, too, who met him when he arrived back at the Manor by a roundabout way so that he would not have to pass the gypsy's van again. There were others present when he came into the lounge, but she saw from the expression upon his face that he had been successful, and when later they were by themselves and he returned the kerchief to her and told her the whole story, she said she could not be grateful enough.
"Nonsense!" he said. He made a wry smile. "Don't you forget I'm deeper in it than you are, as it was I who according to what that doctor said, drowned the man. So there's no need for you to be grateful. I'm working now as much to save myself as you. It'll be the devil of a business for me if everything is found out."
Dora had told him about her visit to Larose, and he had quite approved of her having gone to him. "But about telling your husband," he frowned. "I admit I'm rather uneasy about that. Why bring him into it at all? He can't help us in any way and it would only worry him. Besides, if it should ever come to a show-down, which happily is not likely now, it would look much better if he had known nothing about it. Then he wouldn't be able to be dragged in for conspiracy against the law. Yes," he said reflectively, "I should think hard before telling him anything about it."
Dora fully realised the sense of his argument, but for all that she hated the idea of keeping such an important matter from Richard. There had always been such perfect trust between them, and she did not want to start deceiving him now. At any rate, she told herself, she would think it over and decide later what to do.
The lieutenant broke in upon her thoughts. "And I got such a lovely pheasant from the poaching gypsy," he grinned. "I've hung it up behind the door in one of the potting sheds. I daren't bring it into the house until I've spoken to Aunt first. She mayn't like to have a bird taken out of season put upon the table."
"But how are you going to tell her you obtained it?" asked Dora.
Jocelyn frowned. "I'd better keep up the story I told those detectives and say it was in that field near the pond. It has got a broken wing right enough." He nodded. "Yes, I'll go and tell Aunt at once."
"Well, you've been a darling boy to me," exclaimed Dora fervently, "for with the police getting hold of that kerchief I should have been utterly lost. I couldn't have denied it was mine, and when they started questioning me they would have seen there was something guilty about me at once." Her voice choked. "Yes, Harry, I'm so grateful to you," and upon the impulse of the moment she put her arms round his neck and kissed him.
Then just at that very moment Mrs. Rayneham came into the room and her eyes went wide as saucers in their amazement. "What on earth are you doing, Dora?" she asked sharply. Her voice took on a pained note. "Oh, I didn't think that of you! What do you mean by it?"
Dora, with her face as red as fire, was speechless in her embarrassment, and though to all appearances as embarrassed as she was, it was young Jocelyn who answered for her. "It's all right, Aunt," he said frowningly. "It wasn't a flirtatious kiss. Lady Stroud was just thanking me for something I'd done for her."
"And you, too, Harry!" went on Mrs. Rayneham, looking very distressed. "I didn't think you capable of it either. Do you forget you're engaged to that nice Elsie Sherbourne girl?"
"Oh, damn it all," exclaimed Jocelyn with intense irritation, "I've said there was no flirtation business about it." He turned to Dora with a huge sigh. "There's no help for it, Lady Stroud. We'll have to tell her everything." He spoke sharply. "No, don't you interrupt. I'll make her understand better than you," and into the horrified ears of his aunt he proceeded to pour out the whole dreadful story.
Mrs. Rayneham listened with a face as white as death, her first thoughts, naturally, being only of the scandal that would fall upon her house. Then, seeing Dora's terrible distress, her better feelings took possession of her, and choking back her own consternation, she put her arms round her friend to comfort her.
"You poor dear little woman!" she exclaimed. "But don't lose heart, for, as Harry says, the police may never find out what happened."
"I told everything to Mr. Larose that day I went to Carmel Abbey," said Dora chokingly, "and he said the only thing now was to say nothing. He was very kind and nice and said I was to let him know if Scotland Yard came bothering me."
Mrs. Rayneham was thrilled to learn Larose was in the secret, too, and began to calm down immediately. Always a good organiser, she began to take charge of things at once, and brightened up considerably in doing so.
"We are playing for high stakes," she said, "and we must have our defence all cut and dried, and be ready to answer any questions they put to us. First, give me that kerchief and I'll burn it at once. As Cook's sister washed and ironed it, there may be something about it she would recognise at once, a frayed thread somewhere or something small like that. Besides, you've got plenty of others, haven't you?"
"Six or seven," nodded Dora, "but they are of different colours, as you've seen."
"All with your monogram on them? Well, that doesn't matter. Two or three of mine have got my monogram on them, but I've always been too busy to work it on them all."
"Now what about an alibi for Lady Stroud?" asked Jocelyn, looking most relieved at the way things were going. He grinned. "Now you are in with us, you can say you saw us start on that walk together."
"Of course I did," smiled his aunt. "Didn't I suggest you went down to the post office with her?" She became grave. "Now we mustn't tell our husbands. They'd worry themselves to pieces and, as Harry says, it's much better not to bring them into it."
"Oh, Nina, dear, you are sweet!" exclaimed Dora. "I shan't feel half so worried with you helping us."
"And I'm helping myself, too," smiled Mrs. Rayneham. "Goodness knows I don't want any scandal here." She looked quite animated. "Come, we three of us pulling together ought to be quite a match for any clumsy detectives. We've all got courage, and if we play our parts carefully no one should be able to get behind our defences."
"And now what about that pheasant?" asked the lieutenant. "It's such a beauty and, though out of season, it would be a great pity to waste it. What about it coming on at dinner to-morrow night? It would be a great surprise for Uncle."
Mrs. Rayneham shook her head. "It would certainly be a great surprise for him," she said dryly, "but he would be furiously angry. Just think, too, of what they'd say in the kitchen with the chairman of the Bench of Magistrates eating a pheasant in close time. It might get all round the neighbourhood. No, you leave it where it is until you go up to Town and then you can give it to your mother."
"Good," grinned Jocelyn; "she won't be so particular. It's a lovely bird."
In the meantime Mr. Rayneham, as he had said he would, had passed on the information to the Chief Constable of a monogrammed head-kerchief having been picked up upon the bushes near the pond, and the detectives at once got busy.
They interviewed the cook's sister in the village and, with no delay, went after the gypsy caravan. Phoning up the country police-stations, as Mr. Rayneham had surmised they would, they soon learnt where it had been last seen, and almost within an hour had come upon it parked by the side of the road where the lieutenant had found it.
The two children had gone into the town to spend the money which had been given them, and only the father and mother were now with the caravan. Of course the kerchief had been missed, but the thought had never for one moment entered any of their minds that the generous donor of the pennies and threepences had taken it. After a thorough search all round, the disappearance was put down to the puppy having taken it off and dropped it somewhere in the wood. Accordingly he had been well smacked for having done so.
So when a car pulled up and a police sergeant and two detectives jumped out of it, there were only the gypsy and his wife to be dealt with.
"Now then," said the sergeant brusquely, "we've come about those things you stole off that clothes-line in Blackston three days ago."
By this time the man and his good lady had between them drunk all the whisky they had acquired from the lieutenant, and in consequence were in quite a jocular and happy state of mind. With their well-seasoned stomachs, there had not been enough of the good spirit to make them well drunk, but they were full of the joy of life and afraid of nothing and nobody. So neither of them appeared to be in any way put out by the arrival of their visitors.
The man cupped his ear as if he were rather deaf. "Stolen a clothes-line!" he exclaimed in great indignation. "What should I want a clothes-line for? It'd be no good to me."
"You stole things off a clothes-line," shouted the sergeant truculently, "and it'll be best for you if you own up. You stole a silk handkerchief and two tea-cloths."
The man laughed derisively. He felt quite safe. The handkerchief had gone and the tea-cloths, being large and of good quality, had already been made into underpants for the children and they were now wearing them.
"Prove it," he retorted. His voice rose in anger. "I'm an honest man, I am. You ask my missis."
"Yes, he's honest enough," hiccuped the wife. "He'd no more steal off a clothes-line than rob a church."
"And I certainly wouldn't trust him there," snarled the sergeant. "From the look of you both I wouldn't trust either of you anywhere with a sixpence." He spoke menacingly. "You passed through Blackston village on Wednesday?"
"What of it?" demanded the gypsy with some heat. "That wasn't a crime, was it?"
The sergeant ignored his question and scowled nastily. "Well, we're going to search your van, anyhow," he said, and he made a motion with his arm to the two accompanying detectives.
"Search away," grinned the gypsy; "and any diamonds or clothes-lines you find you can keep for yourselves. I don't want them."
The caravan was small and soon gone through, but of course nothing of what was being looked for was found. The gypsy and his wife were most willing, if not indeed anxious, for their persons to be searched, too, generously discarding garment after garment until the disgusted sergeant ordered them to stop. He eyed the empty whisky bottle with evident suspicion.
"How did you get that?" he asked.
"Why, I bought it, of course, in the same way as I suppose you buy what you want to drink," returned the gypsy, apparently in some surprise at the question being asked. He grinned. "You don't find bottles of whisky growing on trees, do you?"
"But you stole that handkerchief off the clothes-line," snapped the sergeant angrily. "We are certain of it."
"Not I," retorted the gypsy. "I never use one." He grinned again. "I blow my nose in the natural way," and he made an upward movement with his thumb and finger which made the detectives grin, too, and the sergeant inclined to retch.
"But I don't trust you," the sergeant snarled.
"Nor I you," shouted back the gypsy, "and I'm ruddy glad I was here to look after my poor missis when you blokes came. I know darned well what you police are with the girls," and the three minions of the law, regarding with loathing the now scantily-attired and filthy-looking gypsy woman, hurried back quickly to their car and proceeded to drive away, followed by the derisive laughter of the gypsy and his wife. Had there been more whisky in the bottle the two last might even have been quite agreeable to starting a fight.
Three mornings later Inspector Stone and Mendel, who had motored down from Town, were closeted with the Chief Constable of Norwich and the superintendent of the Norwich police to report upon their progress in the matter of the investigation into the death of Dr. Simeon.
"And we tell you frankly, sir," said Stone, "that we are by no means satisfied that his death was accidental. Indeed, my colleague and I think there are good reasons to believe to the contrary." He shook his head. "No, we are not in any way influenced to this conclusion by the fact that a valuable gold wrist-watch, which his housekeeper states he always wore, is missing. We don't believe that that had anything to do with the murder."
"Quite so," agreed the Chief Constable, "for if his death were a criminal act the motive could not have been that of robbery, since nearly thirty pounds in notes was found in his hip pocket." He frowned heavily. "But what on earth makes you think he was murdered?"
"Our suspicions were roused at once," replied Stone, very gravely, "directly we read over the police recording of the inquest, and when we saw that button which had been torn off his jacket, things looked very serious to us."
"But our men here," said the Chief Constable rather testily, "were of the opinion it might easily have been, and probably was, torn off if the doctor had been among those bushes close to where it was found."
"Yes, but torn off so violently as it had been," said Stone, "with a piece of the cloth of the jacket adhering to the threads, he must have known it had happened, and surely then he would have picked it up at once and put it in his pocket?"
"But he might have been too intent when getting those hawks," frowned the Chief Constable. "At that moment one of the birds might have been right in front of the sights of his rifle."
Stone noted the frown and, not wanting to annoy the Chief Constable by any apparent reflection upon his own men, at once spoke with less assurance. "Certainly, sir, it might possibly have been as you say," he admitted. He shrugged his shoulders. "Still, it struck us he might have been engaged in some sort of struggle with someone, and we mustn't altogether rule that out."
The Chief Constable smiled a dry smile. "Well, what else have you found out?"
"You may think nothing much," smiled back Stone, "but then little things sometimes mount up to make a big one, don't they?" He continued, "Now first to consider the man himself in the light of some very searching enquiries we have been making about him in Town." He spoke slowly and impressively. "Dr. Simeon was forty-seven years of age and had a large practice in Harley Street where he had had his consulting-rooms for from twelve to thirteen years. His speciality was supposed to be diseases of women, but he treated nerve cases as well and had quite a fair proportion of men among the patients who came to consult him." The stout inspector frowned. "Though we police have never had anything definite against him, I find now that his name was not altogether unknown to some of us up at Scotland Yard. It was rumoured he was by no means averse to operating illegally, provided the fees were big enough to induce him to take the risk."
"And from where did the rumours come?" asked the Chief Constable with obvious scepticism in his tones.
Stone shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? In the end you can't keep these things altogether dark. At any rate it appears to have been well known that he ran a small private hospital in St. John's Wood where female patients went for operations, and it was remarked a good proportion of them were out and suspiciously well again in a few days. You know nurses and servants will talk."
The Chief Constable made no comment and the inspector went on, "Then another thing. His reputation with other doctors was by no means a good one, as it was believed it was very easy for well-to-do drug addicts to get a prescription for morphia out of him, at a very good fee, of course."
"But as a successful professional man," remarked the Chief Constable sharply, "he is sure to have made enemies, and so most probably these rumours, like the others, were only pure scandal."
Stone shook his head. "I hardly think so, as medical men generally size up their professional brethren pretty accurately, and shady customers among them soon become known."
"But if there were the slightest suspicion of any bad reputation about him," frowned the Chief Constable, "I am sure Mr. Rayneham would have had nothing to do with him. Mr. Rayneham is one of the straightest of men I know, and is always most particular about the friends he chooses."
"That may be," said Stone, "but he might have known nothing about the doctor's later life. The friendship between them went back to nearly thirty years, to their undergraduate days at Cambridge. Certainly, on the surface, Dr. Simeon was a very likeable man, and particularly a great favourite with the ladies." He smiled a grim smile. "It was common knowledge he was continually to be seen about with different ones at theatres, cinemas, and expensive restaurants, and I expect Mrs. Hunt, the housekeeper at the flat in Earl's Court, could tell us some interesting tales if only she would open out."
He went on. "Well, here we have a very busy professional man going down to Blackston Manor on the Friday afternoon, under the distinct understanding with his host that he was to be put on the London Express at the Norwich Railway Station on the following Sunday evening. He had impressed upon Mr. Rayneham that he must go back to Town upon the Sunday, because he had a heavy week's work before him. We have verified he was speaking the truth there by the appointments book at his consulting-rooms. He had four operations during the week, and every hour almost seemed booked up with an appointment."
Stone shrugged his shoulders. "Then what followed? Suddenly upon the Sunday morning just before lunch, saying he thought a little rest would do him good, he announced to his host that he would like to prolong his stay for a few days. Mr. Rayneham told the superintendent here that he was much surprised, as he knew his friend never spared himself by shirking any of his work. But there it was—all in a moment, as it were, gone was all his concern for the many patients who would have been consulting him the following week, and gone also was all his interest in the four operations which would be awaiting him." He eyed the Chief Constable intently. "So we must ask ourselves what was the reason for this sudden change of plans? What had happened in the preceding forty-eight hours to cause him to alter his mind and no longer think it necessary for him to return to Town on the Sunday evening? Surely it must have been something very important! Then what was it?"
He looked smilingly towards his young colleague. "Well, Inspector Mendel thinks he can tell us and I do believe he's right."
Mendel turned to the Chief Constable with a grave, unsmiling face. "My opinion, sir," he said with some decision, "is that it could only have been the presence at the Manor of some member of the other sex which had made him change his mind. He had suddenly become interested in some girl or woman there."
For the moment the Chief Constable looked most astonished, and then he burst into a hearty laugh.
"That's a long shot, isn't it," he asked, "if ever there was one?"
"But not such a long one, sir," said Mendel gravely, "as it may first appear." He spoke impressively. "Dr. Simeon was in his forty-eighth year and, going back for many years through the records of Scotland Yard, we see that, in crimes of passion, far more often than not it is the man of middle age who is the central figure." He spoke interestedly. "It would seem, sir, that when well into middle age, just when with most men the normal and natural interest in the other sex is beginning to grow less—in others it starts to take on a new and unnatural lease of life. Then it becomes an obsession far more absorbing and overwhelming even than that of a young man in his first love affair. The middle-aged lover will sacrifice everything to his passion. So if the doctor was intensely interested in some woman, neglecting his practice for a week or so might have been to him a matter of no importance at all."
"But—but," protested the frowning Chief Constable, "surely there is nothing to suggest that any woman had anything to do with his being drowned in that pond?"
"We think there is, sir," said Mendel firmly. "We believe that head-kerchief which was picked up came from some woman who had been with him in the wood that afternoon. There may have been a struggle, with the kerchief being torn off and blown away. The struggle, too, would explain the torn-off button and the scratch upon the back of the doctor's hand."
"But you're building up a lot upon a very little, aren't you?" asked the bewildered Chief Constable.
"Not more than we have good reason to think we are entitled to," said Mendel, "particularly so, as by a strange chance we believe now we were actual eye-witnesses of a search being made for that kerchief," and he proceeded to tell them about the young fellow they had seen who had pretended he was looking for a wounded pheasant.
"And the village constable who was with us," he concluded, "recognised him as one of the visitors then staying up at the Manor. So what could be more certain than that, if someone from the Manor were looking for the kerchief, then someone from the Manor had lost it? Of course, we didn't know then a kerchief had been lost."
"But who was the man," asked the Chief Constable sharply, "whom the village constable said he recognised?"
"He didn't know his name," replied Mendel, "but he'd seen him driving through the village in Mr. Rayneham's car, and he was then in naval uniform."
The Chief Constable burst into a hearty laugh. "Lieutenant Jocelyn!" he exclaimed. "I know him well. He's Mrs. Rayneham's nephew, and as fine a young fellow as ever wore His Majesty's uniform." He looked scornful. "Oh, what a mare's nest you've got hold of!" He spoke sharply. "But what is exactly your idea of what happened in the wood that afternoon?"
"We think, sir," said Stone gravely, "that by arrangement Dr. Simeon met some woman there. They quarrelled. Perhaps he started to get too fresh with her and——"
"Got too fresh with her!" exclaimed the Chief Constable, with obvious irritation. "And you say the whole affair had started since he arrived at the Manor less than forty-eight hours before! Do you mean to make out that, even if he had become so infatuated with this unknown female, she would have so fallen for him in that time as to be willing to make a secret appointment in that wood?"
"We don't say that, sir," said Stone sharply. "We don't think for a moment that the two had only known each other for those few hours. We say that they had met before, that they were old acquaintances—it might be of years ago. As for the woman having fallen for him—-it might have been that she hated him, and had kept the appointment only because he had some hold upon her and she dared not refuse."
"I think it all nonsense," commented the Chief Constable crossly, "but I suppose you'll have to have your way and go up to the Manor and annoy them with your questioning."
"But there'll be no harm done, sir," Stone assured him, "if our suspicions are groundless, and that's where you can help us. I understand you are very friendly with Mr. and Mrs. Rayneham and were actually lunching at the Manor on the day before Dr. Simeon disappeared. So you can tell us who was there for the week-end, particularly ladies of an attractive age."
"The only ones at all young," replied the Chief Constable, unwillingly, "were Mrs. Rayneham herself and Lady Stroud. Mrs. Rayneham has been married eight years and I think Lady Stroud about five. Both of them are certainly very good-looking."
The superintendent spoke for the first time. "Lady Stroud is a very beautiful woman," he said, "and I understand she was a nurse at some hospital in London before she married Sir Richard Stroud."
Stone lowered his eyes. A London medical man and a nurse from a London hospital! Then what was more probable than that they had met before? He did not dare to look at his colleague. He rose at once to his feet. "Then we'll go up to the Manor straight away and put those few little questions we would like to." He saw the Chief Constable's eyes turn to the telephone upon his desk. "No, sir," he went on quickly, "if you don't mind, I'd rather you didn't let them know we were coming. We'll take a chance at finding them at home."
The Chief Constable flushed that his thoughts were being read. "All right," he said at once, "and I'll come up with you." He spoke grimly. "The unpleasantness of being suspected will not perhaps be as great if I am present at the questioning."
Stone cursed under his breath, but, hiding all signs of annoyance, he merely expressed his pleasure at the Chief Constable's company, and accordingly the three set off together in the last named's car.
Now it happened Lieutenant Jocelyn had driven Dora, the two children and their nurse to Cromer for the day, and so Mrs. Rayneham herself was the only victim for the two inspectors that morning. She was in the drive with her little son, who had not gone to Cromer with the others because he had a slight cold. When the car appeared, to her horror the boy ran across the drive after a butterfly he had seen, right in front of the car, and only escaped being run over by the Chief Constable ramming hard on his brakes. She went white as death, and with her child clasped in her arms, it was a very shaky woman who faced her visitors.
"No, it wasn't your fault," she said chokingly. "It was mine for not keeping hold of him as I should have done. It was wonderful the way you pulled up so quickly."
"Damn!" swore Stone softly. "Now we shan't be able to tell how much of her fright is due to the boy's escape and how much to our coming here."
The inspectors were introduced, and Mrs. Rayneham led them into a little room just off the lounge. Both Stone and Mendel were impressed by her appearance. Though most attractive-looking, she certainly did not seem the type of woman whose conduct would ever lay her open to the chance of being blackmailed. The Chief Constable in part explained the reason for their coming and then Inspector Stone at once took on the tale.
"You must understand, Mrs. Rayneham," he said respectfully, "that we are not quite sure in our own minds that the death of Dr. Simeon was just the simple accident it appears. Certainly it may have been an accident, but we rather believe there were two persons involved in it, and the other one was a woman."
Mrs. Rayneham's heart beat unpleasantly, but the expression upon her face was one only of a great surprise. "What woman?" she asked incredulously.
"Who she was we do not know yet," replied Stone very gravely, "but we think that head-kerchief which was found upon those bushes belonged to her." His eyes gripped hers intently. "You heard about that kerchief, of course?"
Mrs. Rayneham smiled. "It was I who heard about it first," she said. "My cook told me her sister in the village had found one, and I happened to speak about it at breakfast." She turned to the Chief Constable. "Then my husband told you the same day, didn't he?"
The Chief Constable nodded. "And I passed on the information to the superintendent here at once."
"And you thought the matter important, Mrs. Rayneham?" asked Stone very softly.
Mrs. Rayneham shook her head. "No, I didn't. Our interest in it was only because cook's sister thought those gypsies had stolen it off her line. Gypsies are very annoying to us and we have caught them poaching quite close to the house. The pheasants in that wood where the pond is are very tame and will allow you to approach to within a few yards."
"But Mrs. Rayneham," persisted Stone, "if that kerchief had come off the head of some woman who had been talking to Dr. Simeon in that wood—then that woman must have been someone staying here at the Manor."
"How do you make that out?" from Mrs. Rayneham.
"Well, it was known only to people in this house that he was going there," said Stone. "I expect all here had heard you had asked him to go after those hawks, and so we think someone met him at that pond by arrangement."
"But what for?" demanded Mrs. Rayneham, looking very puzzled.
Stone hesitated. "That's what we want to know. We've got to find that out."
"But I think your idea is all nonsense," said Mrs. Rayneham. "Why, he'd not met any of the other visitors until he arrived here on that Friday evening. So is it likely he had had time to become so friendly with one of them that she'd have been willing to make a secret appointment with him in that wood?" She laughed merrily. "Besides, as it happens all we women have got unshakable alibis. Lady Stroud was the only one of us to leave the house after Dr. Simeon went out and she went down to the post office with Lieutenant Jocelyn to post some letters."
Stone was all smiles and amiability. "Still, if only purely as a matter of form we shall have to go on making a few enquiries. Now please tell me who among you are in the habit of wearing head-kerchiefs?"
"I am, for one," replied Mrs. Rayneham at once. "Then there are old Mrs. Henson and Lady Stroud, too." She held up her hand warningly. "Oh, you won't be able to talk to Lady Stroud this morning, as my nephew, Lieutenant Jocelyn, has motored her down with the children to Cromer for the day and they won't be home until nearly dinner-time."
Stone hid his disappointment with a smile. "Never mind. Perhaps I'll have a little talk with her another day. Now, about those kerchiefs. Have they all got a monogram upon them?"
"A few of mine have," said Mrs. Rayneham, "and I think two or three of Lady Stroud's."
"Oh, then you ladies have several kerchiefs!" exclaimed Stone.
"Of course we have," laughed Mrs. Rayneham, "to match the colours of the different blouses we wear. Kerchiefs take the place of hats when we are out in the country."
"Then would you very kindly let me see one of yours," said Stone, "and of Lady Stroud's, too—a brown one preferred, like the colour of the one that girl in the village found."
Mrs. Rayneham at once left the room to get them, and the Chief Constable smiled at Stone. "Not much to fit in with your great idea, Inspector, is there?" he asked. "Those alibis knock the bottom out of everything."
Stone smiled back. "It looks like it, certainly." He shook his head. "Still, you never know."
Mrs. Rayneham returned with the kerchiefs in a minute or two and the two inspectors handled them interestedly. "The letters are not very clear, are they?" remarked Stone. "Which are yours and which are Lady Stroud's."
Mrs. Rayneham pointed them out, and Stone asked if he might borrow one belonging to each of them.
"To show to the girl in the village?" smiled Mrs. Rayneham.
Stone nodded. "To see if the monograms are anything like that on the one she found. However, I don't expect she'll be able to tell us, as she's rather stupid, with not much intelligence. I'll bring them back tomorrow morning when I'll just have a word or two with Lady Stroud and Lieutenant Jocelyn." He smiled ironically. "You see, we have to do something to earn the big salaries the Government pay us."
The inspectors were introduced casually to the other visitors, but did not appear much interested in them, and soon took their leave. On their way back to Norwich they stopped in the village to show the kerchiefs to the girl who had found the one in the bushes, but she was not much help to them. Certainly she said the kerchiefs they had now brought with them were very like the one which had been stolen from her, and both the monograms upon them looked very similar. However, she could not definitely pick out from the two monograms which one most resembled hers.
"A fool," remarked Stone later with a frown, "and there's no help there."
When Dora and the lieutenant returned home that evening the former was certainly not too pleased to hear of the visit of the two detectives from Scotland Yard and to learn they were coming again on the morrow.
"But they were not very formidable, dear," reassured Mrs. Rayneham, "and you've only got to stick bravely to your story of not having met Dr. Simeon before and they can't get behind it."
"Besides," said the lieutenant confidently, "you can say truthfully that you've never met him. Meeting a man means that you've spoken to him and not just seen him passing by, it might be in the street."
Still, upon Mrs. Rayneham's advice, Dora rang up Larose and told him the two inspectors from Scotland Yard had been and were coming again on the morrow. It was well for Dora that she did not see the uneasy frown upon Larose's face when he learnt who the detectives had been. However, he made light of the whole matter and comforted her a lot by stating he'd drive over to the Manor early in the morning and give her some advice as to how to deal with any questions they might be asked.
"I know them both quite well," he said, "and Inspector Stone is an old friend of mine." He laughed. "He won't try any tricks with you if he sees I'm there with you."
However, as he hung up the receiver, he remarked to himself, "Poor little woman, it couldn't be worse with old Charlie Stone happening to be on the case! He's as wily as a fox and as wise as any serpent."
The next morning Larose arrived at the Manor just as they had finished breakfast and had a good talk with the three conspirators. He was delighted to see Dora was looking quite calm and collected.
"Now, don't you be too meek and too obliging, Lady Stroud," he advised. "Be a bit haughty with them, as if you were annoyed at being questioned at all, and, if it seems to you they're beginning to get dangerous, just refuse point-blank to answer any more questions at all. Remember, they can't make you."
"What do you mean about their getting dangerous?" asked Dora with a frown.
"Well, if they want you to go back year by year as to what your life has been, stop them long before they get near the three months you spent at that Institute. Don't wait until they're right on top of it and have to pull yourself up then. Stop them when you see the red light going up."
"She will be all right," said Jocelyn confidently. "Now that she's got over the first shock she's got the courage of a lioness."
"And you, young man," smiled Larose, "take it as a joke. Look amused, but don't talk too much, for remember Inspector Stone is a very dangerous man and never more dangerous than when he is speaking in a fatherly and kindly way." He paused and then added, "One more bit of advice to both you and Lady Stroud. Take care what you do with your hands when he is questioning you, as he'll watch them quite as closely as he does your faces. So many people give themselves away then, for when they're being asked awkward questions or are telling a fib they're apt to clench their hands together tightly. You remember that."
To the relief of everyone, the butler came in to announce that the two inspectors had arrived and, at a nod from Larose, Mrs. Rayneham told him to bring them into the room. Stone scowled to himself when he saw his old colleague of the Yard was among those present.
"We are all here, Inspector," said Mrs. Rayneham quietly. She introduced Dora and young Jocelyn and added smilingly, "Mr. Larose, of course, you know. I rang him last night and told him you were coming, and, as he knows us all well and is very interested about poor Dr. Simeon, he said he'd like to drive over and hear all the news."
"Of course he would," said Stone. He fibbed gracefully. "Still, I'm glad he's come as he's often helped me when I've been at a dead end."
They all sat down and the two detectives eyed Dora most intently. Stone thought she was of the very type to have had secrets in her life and to be well able to guard them, too. She was no weakling, and it was going to be hard to make her admit anything she didn't want to. As for Inspector Mendel's thoughts—his opinion was she was beautiful enough to have inspired any crime of passion. Always sentimentally inclined, he hoped, however, she had not anything to hide.
Stone turned at once to Dora. "Of course," he said with his nice, fatherly smile, "Mrs. Rayneham has told you what our ideas are and so there is no need for me to go over the ground there." His voice hardened ever so little. "You understand we are looking for some lady who was in the woods with Dr. Simeon when he met with his death?"
Dora was cold and unruffled. "And you have picked upon me?" she queried scornfully.
Stone looked horrified. "Oh dear no," he exclaimed at once, "we have picked upon no one." He pretended to look uncomfortable. "It is only that you fill so many of our requirements that we are bound to be curious about you. You are in the habit of wearing a head-kerchief and——" but he broke off abruptly, and taking out of his pocket the two kerchiefs Mrs. Rayneham had lent him, he handed them back to her with a bow. "That village girl," he said, "is quite sure neither of them is the actual one she found, though she thinks the one with Lady Stroud's monogram upon it is exactly like it, except that it is not frayed at one corner as was the one she washed and ironed." He laughed. "So, we really got nothing to help us there."
He turned to Dora again. "Yes, the points that interest us are—you wear a kerchief and were probably wearing one that afternoon as it was a windy day. That is so, is it not?"
Dora nodded casually and he went on, "Then you are certainly attractive enough to have interested a man of Dr. Simeon's type, whom we learn was notoriously fond of the ladies, and the third thing—you were absent from the house at the same time as he was."
"But I was with her all the time," broke in the lieutenant sharply.
Stone regarded him smilingly. "Of course, of course, but I hadn't forgotten that." He turned back to Dora.
"Now the first thing that strikes us, Lady Stroud, is why, if you were going to the post office, you did not take the easier and shorter way by the path through the wood, instead of going so much farther through the drive and round by the road."
"The path isn't the easier way," said Dora a little tartly, "for a woman wearing ordinary shoes. It is rough and uneven and you have to pick your steps in many places. Also, my purpose in going out that afternoon was not to post those letters. Mrs. Rayneham suggested I should take them when I told her I was going for a walk. It was quite an afterthought."
"And you carried the letters in your hand?" suggested Stone.
"No, Lieutenant Jocelyn put them in his jacket pocket."
Stone went on another track. "Now we understand you were a hospital nurse before you married? Then in what hospital were you? Oh, St. Jude's! And how long were you there? A little longer than four years! Any private nursing?"
"Very little," replied Dora, "only about seven or eight months."
"And how long have you been married, may I ask."
"About four years and a half," replied Dora.
Stone considered. "Then it is getting on for ten years since you started upon your nursing career! Where were you living before then?"
"In France, in Bordeaux. I was born there."
Stone's eyebrows went up. "Oh, then you are French."
"No, my parents were both English."
"You say were," commented Stone. "Then they are dead?"
"Yes, they died suddenly within a few months of each other," replied Dora.
"And then you came here to England?" queried Stone.
Dora flared up. "What do you want to know all this for?" she asked sharply. "It can have nothing to do with Dr. Simeon's death."
The inspector was very patient. "Well, what was your father's name"—he paused a few moments—"and his occupation?"
Dora spoke quite calmly. "I shall not tell you," she said. "That is my own private affair."
A short silence followed, which, however, was broken suddenly, by Inspector Mendel addressing Dora in quite good French. "Better tell him, Lady Stroud," he said smilingly, "as we can so easily find out from your marriage certificate. Besides, I am sure you have no reason for making a mystery of anything."
Dora regarded him in great surprise. "Fancy an English detective speaking French!" she exclaimed. "I am astonished."
The young inspector laughed. "Why should you be?" he asked. "I studied French so as to be able to read their records of crime, and I have spent several holidays in France. Why, I have even visited your beautiful city of Bordeaux!"
Dora turned at once to Inspector Stone. "My father's name was Dane," she said. "Birtle Dane. He was in the wine trade and his place of business was upon the quai des Etoiles in Bordeaux."
"Thank you, Lady Stroud," said Stone most politely, "and now I'll go back to the time you were at St. Jude's." He spoke casually. "I suppose you met plenty of different doctors when you were there?"
"Come to the point at once, Mr. Inspector," said Dora sharply, "and ask me, if among them I had met Dr. Simeon." She spoke emphatically. "No, I had not, and I'd never even heard his name until he arrived here as a fellow visitor that Friday evening. It was quite a new one to me."
"But come, Lady Stroud," said Stone rather sceptically, "he was a well-known practitioner in the West End, wasn't he?"
"But I was in the East End," retorted Dora sharply, "and unless he had written some standard book and it was in the hospital library it is not likely I nor any of the other nurses either would have been likely to have heard of him."
A long silence followed and then Stone asked finally, "Then you state definitely that you had had no acquaintance with the doctor before he came here and you didn't lose a head-kerchief upon that Sunday afternoon?"
"My answer to both questions," replied Dora emphatically, "is no."
Stone turned to Lieutenant Jocelyn, and he was as smiling and polite as ever. "You are a great friend of Lady Stroud's, are you not?"
Young Jocelyn grinned. "As far as one can be after knowing her for about a fortnight." He regarded Dora admiringly. "I should say she is a lady every man would like to be on good terms with."
"Exactly," nodded Stone. "I quite agree with you there." He frowned. "By the by, you didn't find that wounded pheasant you were looking for, did you?"
"Oh, didn't I?" laughed Jocelyn. "I went back later with Toby, the fox terrier here, and got him at once."
For a moment it might have been the inspector showed his disappointment. "Then what did you do with it?" he asked. "I suppose it's eaten by now."
"No, by Jove it isn't," said Jocelyn. He grinned again. "A pheasant out of season is very much of a white elephant in a house like this where the master is a magistrate sworn to uphold the game laws. My aunt, Mrs. Rayneham, wouldn't allow it to be cooked, and so I'm waiting to take it with me when I go back to Town where they're not so particular."
"Show it to them, Harry," said Dora rather spitefully. "Of course, they think it was a lost kerchief of mine I'd sent you to look for in that field"—her lips curved scornfully—"four days after I was supposed to have lost it."
"All right," said Jocelyn. He turned to the inspectors. "I'll take you to where I've got it hidden when you're finished here."
Apparently they had finished already, as with smiles and polite bows all round the two inspectors took their leave, followed outside the house by young Jocelyn and Larose.
"But do you really want to see that pheasant?" asked the lieutenant with a frown. "Can't you take my word for it?"
It was Mendel who replied. "We never take anybody's word, sir," he smiled. "Our calling makes us most suspicious men."
"And if I can't produce it," asked Jocelyn, "what then?"
Mendel was still smiling. "We shall think you put up a good bluff," he said, "and we shall look further then for the reason for your untruth."
Jocelyn grinned. "Come on then. I'll show it to you," and he led them some hundred yards away to one of the potting sheds in the garden. From underneath the coat hanging up behind the door he produced the bird which the younger inspector proceeded to handle curiously.
"A broken wing, certainly," he remarked with a frown, "but as there's no puffiness or swelling round the break, it must have received the injury very shortly before you caught it."
"Probably it had," commented Jocelyn carelessly, a little bit uneasy, however, at the shrewdness of the detective. "I reckon it had banged into those telegraph wires on the other side of the road."
Walking back to the police car, Larose lagged a little bit behind with Inspector Stone. "Well, are you satisfied, Charlie?" he asked.
"No, I damned well am not," replied the inspector sharply. "Instinct tells me there's much more in it than we've found out." He nodded towards Jocelyn's back. "I reckon there was a well-thought-out conspiracy between that boy and those two women"—he glared at Larose—"and I wouldn't like to swear you had not put them up to a trick or two."
Larose grinned. "Good Lord, Charlie, you're always suspicious about me. What's biting you now?"
"Nothing much," grunted Stone, "but that Lady Stroud had got her fingers stretched out stiffly the whole time I was questioning her. No, by Jove, there was going to be no clenching of those pretty hands for her."
The three conspirators were quite relieved when the inspectors had gone, feeling the latter had found out nothing more to justify their suspicions. However, the very next morning poor Dora, to her great distress, was to learn that yet another person was sharing the secret of how Dr. Simeon had met his death.
Going into the garden to pick some flowers for Mrs. Rayneham, she suddenly became aware that the under-gardener was walking up towards her. His gait was rather unsteady, and when he touched his cap and stopped to speak to her, she knew at once that he had been drinking.
"Good for you, little Dora," he hiccuped in a hoarse whisper. "I'm damned glad you shot that old devil. I wasn't far from you that afternoon, but saw you'd got all the help you wanted in that young lieutenant, and so kept out of sight." He hiccuped again. "I knew that Simeon well and would have killed him myself if I could! Good luck to you, old sweetheart, you're quite safe with me. I'd hang rather than give you away."
Dora was speechless in her consternation. Her heart beat painfully and she felt she could not breathe. However, there was no occasion for her to say anything, as Chalmers, touching his cap with a grin, took himself off at once.
Dora sat down on a nearby seat to compose herself. Oh, God, was her trouble never to end? How awful to think that one word from Eric and the police would be coming for her at once! Certainly she knew he would never say a word if he were sober, but when he had had too much to drink it was quite possible he might boast of what he knew. Then if it reached the ears of the detectives it might start all their enquiries over again!
Still, she realised she could do nothing and must bear all this anxiety herself. Of course she couldn't tell either Mrs. Rayneham or Jocelyn. It would only add to their worries and could not possibly do any good. Certainly she might confide in Larose, but he would not be able to do anything, either. She sighed heavily. No, she must just wait and see what would happen. Time alone would tell her whether she was safe.
Then suddenly all her courage seemed to come back. She would be brave about it! She wouldn't let it worry her! After all, the chances of Eric Chalmers saying nothing were greatly in her favour, and if he did say anything when he was drunk, she was certain he would deny it all when he was sober. No, she would put the whole thing out of her mind and not give it another thought! She would not anticipate that misfortune was going to come to her, and would not worry until it had actually come.
So in the last few days of her stay at the Manor no one appeared brighter and in better spirits than she, and when the following week she said good-bye to them all, her hostess remarked regretfully that it was like a ray of sunshine going out of the house.
When she had been home about a week the adjourned inquest upon Dr. Simeon's death was held and Mrs. Rayneham wrote her a long account about it. It appeared the police had wanted a verdict of 'found drowned' to be brought in, but to their annoyance the jury had unanimously and with no hesitation brought in one of 'accidental death'.
"And that under-gardener of ours, Henry Wood, was splendid," wrote Mrs. Rayneham. "Of course, the verdict was all due to him. As foreman of the jury he exerted a great influence over the others, and he told us afterwards that he wasn't going to let the slur of any mystery as to the doctor's death hang over us here at the Manor. Mr. Rayneham was so pleased with him that he raised his wages at once. A rather mysterious man, that Wood! I am quite sure he puts on his rough way of talking and, if he chose, could speak like a gentleman. It's only drink that has brought him down. There's no doubt about that."
Dora had been home only a couple of weeks when the storm which had been so long threatening broke over the world and the Second World War started. The terrible danger in which the whole British Empire stood was not generally realised, but for all that with those who were 'in the know' prospects were not considered too bright. Sir Richard and Dora threw themselves whole-heartedly into helping in every way they could, Sir Richard at once offering nearly the whole of Marden Court to the authorities for turning into a military hospital, with Dora to help with the nursing of the patients.
With every moment of her day fully occupied Dora no longer gave any thought to her private troubles, confidently regarding the whole matter of Dr. Simeon's death as a closed chapter in her life. Corresponding often with Mrs. Rayneham, she learnt from her that Lieutenant Jocelyn had disappeared into the blue upon active service, and it was believed he was upon a destroyer in the Mediterranean.
Then one morning, greatly to her uneasiness, Mrs. Rayneham rang up, saying she must see her at once about something which had happened.
"I can't tell you over the phone, dear," she said, "but the matter is really very urgent. I'll go up to Town tonight, and so can you meet me at the Belvedere Hotel, say at eleven to-morrow morning? Yes, you must put off everything to come."
So it was with a rather palpitating heart that Dora met her friend as arranged and was at once taken up to the latter's room.
"I have some very disquieting news for you, Dora, dear," she said breathlessly. Her voice choked. "That under-gardener of ours, Henry Wood, was caught on Tuesday night, red-handed, burgling Colonel Benson's house. He had come after the silver. There was another man with him, but he got away."
"Oh, Nina," exclaimed Dora incredulously, "what a dreadful thing!"
"The following day he was brought before the magistrates in Norwich," went on Mrs. Rayneham, "and remanded until next week." She could hardly get out her words. "Then my husband has heard they are going to bring another charge against him—oh, Dora, what shall we do?" she wailed. "The police are going to charge him with having murdered Dr. Simeon."
Dora's knees trembled under her and she sank down into a chair. "But, but——" she began.
"Oh, the evidence is very black against him," exclaimed Mrs. Rayneham fearfully. "In his cottage in the mattress of his bed they discovered the wrist-watch Dr. Simeon had been wearing and, worse than that, they'd found out he'd known the doctor for a long time and once had attacked him and would have badly injured him if the doctor's friends hadn't pulled him off. Then he wrote the doctor a letter saying he'd kill him one day if he had to wait twenty years, and they've got the letter."
She spoke much more calmly now and went on, "You remember at the adjourned inquest how angry the police were because the jury had brought in a verdict of accidental death when they wanted one of found drowned. We know why that was now. The doctor's sister had found among his papers the threatening letter and handed it over to them. So they knew the doctor had an enemy and were trying to find out who he was. There was no address upon the letter, but it was signed boldly, 'Eric Chalmers'."
She drew in a deep breath and went on, "Then this week the housekeeper of Dr. Simeon's flat went to the detectives at Scotland Yard and gave them the very information they wanted. She told them that when she had attended the first inquest she was sure she had recognised the foreman of the jury as someone she had seen before, but she couldn't remember who he was. Then suddenly, she said, after all these weeks it had come back to her. He was an artist, Eric Chalmers, and he and the doctor had once been very friendly. He had come to the flat two or three times, but one night there had been a violent quarrel, about some woman, she thinks, and this Chalmers had seized the doctor by the throat and would have strangled him if the others hadn't pulled him off. Then, while the others were struggling with him, the doctor had kicked him and broken some of his ribs and he had to be taken to a hospital. That's what she told the detectives, and of course they came down to the village at once, to find that, only a few hours before, our Henry Wood had come into the hands of the local police for burgling." She was almost upon the verge of tears. "Oh, what a dreadful thing it all is!"
Dora herself felt sick with apprehension, but with Mrs. Rayneham's distress so apparent and mindful that she, Dora, was the cause of it all, she pulled herself resolutely together and even forced a smile.
"Don't worry, Nina," she said. "There's no chance of him being found guilty of murder simply because he made the threat. They'll have to prove he killed him and they'll never be able to do that."
"No, of course not," said Mrs. Rayneham, brightening up, "and perhaps he'll have a complete alibi."
"I expect he will," agreed Dora, "and he'll almost certainly say he picked the watch up somewhere the next morning."
"Well, what are we to do?" asked Mrs. Rayneham. "He must have a good lawyer to defend him."
"Of course he must," agreed Dora, "and I'll speak to Mr. Larose at once about him. Oh, what a mercy it is Mr. Larose came to lunch that day and I got to know him!"
Ringing up Carmel Abbey at once, to her great relief Dora learnt Larose would be in Town on the morrow, and it was arranged she should meet him at his hotel at twelve o'clock. Mrs. Rayneham returned home greatly comforted by the thought that they had him behind them.
The following morning Dora was in the lounge waiting for Larose and directly he arrived they seated themselves there in a secluded corner. "Of course I know what you want me for," smiled Larose at once. "I've heard all about it from Colonel Mayne, the Chief Constable, who's a great friend of mine as well as of Mrs. Rayneham, and first of all we shall have to see that this chap has a good lawyer to defend him."
"But you don't know everything," exclaimed Dora plaintively. "You don't know half." She spoke very solemnly. "Years ago, Mr. Larose, I knew this Eric Chalmers, before drink had made him the sodden man he is now, and for a time we fancied we were in love with each other. Not only that—but he was in the wood that Sunday afternoon and saw everything which happened. He saw me shoot Dr. Simeon."
Larose's eyes opened very wide. "Goodness gracious!" he exclaimed in obvious consternation. "What a dreadful complication!"
"But not so dreadful in the way you think," said Dora instantly, "as at bottom all his instincts are those of a gentleman and I know he'd never give me away. He knows his life is ruined, and I believe his only feeling would be one of relief if he knew he were going to be hanged."
She told Larose the whole story of her one-time friendship with Chalmers and how, since it was broken off, she had not seen him again until their meeting in the Manor garden.
Larose listened attentively, and when she had finished her story a long minute elapsed before he spoke. "And you have told no one," he asked, "what you have just told me, not even Mrs. Rayneham or Lieutenant Jocelyn?"
She shook her head. "The lieutenant is upon active service and no one knows where he is. Thank goodness he's out of it. As for Mrs. Rayneham, poor soul, she's worried enough as it is by befriending me, and I'm not going to pile on the agony there. No, no one knows but you that I had ever met Eric Chalmers before or that he was present in the wood that afternoon."
"And your husband knows nothing of the matter," said Larose, "from first to last?"
"Nothing at all," said Dora, looking very worried. "I hate deceiving him because, as I've told you, we have such a perfect trust in each other, but now it has gone so far I think it kinder to say nothing until he has to know."
Larose nodded in agreement. "And that time may never come." He smiled his kind and reassuring smile. "At any rate, we'll hope it won't." He considered for a few moments. "Now I think I'll go at once and have a talk with this Chalmers. I'll make out to the Chief Constable that I was a friend of his in his prosperous days, and I'm sure he'll let me see him." He frowned. "You say Chalmers comes of a good family."
Dora nodded. "Yes, and though they've long since thrown him off I'm sure everything will come as a terrible shock to them."
"Of course, he'll get penal servitude for this burglary," said Larose, "but he'll be tried on the capital charge first and that's all that concerns us." He became brisk and business-like. "Now can you provide the money for his defence without your husband knowing? It'll cost a good bit, you know."
"Oh, yes," replied Dora. "Soon after we were married my husband settled £40,000 upon me, so there'll be no difficulty about that."
"Good," said Larose, "then everything can be done through me and my lawyers, and we'll brief the very best man we can to defend him. We'll have to get a good man, because of course he'll be tried at the Norwich Assize and in all probability Angus-Forbes will be the prosecutor for the Crown there." He shook his head. "He's a clever and dangerous man is Angus-Forbes, one of the most relentless King's Counsels practising in the criminal courts."
Dora sighed heavily. "What sort of a man is he?"
"Not much to look at," replied Larose, "and somewhere about fifty I should say. But he's got a voice like a church bell and, rightly or wrongly, can sway juries a lot by the very force of an impelling personality."
Dora made no comment. She looked down so that Larose should not see the expression upon her face. She dared not, however, let her thoughts wander and looked up quickly again. She knew she had still the most important thing to say to Larose, and she tried to make her voice steady when she spoke.
"Of course, Mr. Larose," she said, "I should not let him hang. If he is found guilty I shall own up at once." Her voice shook ever so little. "The consequences will be terrible, but I should have to face them."
Larose took it as a matter of course. "Only what I expected of you, Lady Stroud," he smiled, "but we won't talk of it now." He took out his watch. "The most important thing for the moment is that we're going to have lunch."
The meal was quite a bright one and, by an unspoken agreement, no further mention was made of the matter which had brought them together. In parting, with tears in her eyes, Dora thanked Larose for his great kindness to her. "You've been so good," she whispered, "that I feel I'd like to give you a good hug."
Larose smiled all over his face. "Well, there would be no objection on my part," he said. He squeezed her hand, and his smile became something of a frown. "The trouble with all us men," he went on, "is that however strong may be our admiration and affection for one particular woman, when another desirable one comes along we always seem to be able to squeeze out a little more admiration and affection for her," and Dora gave him a roguish smile, as if she quite understood.
Thanks to the influence of the Chief Constable, Larose was allowed to have his conversation with Eric Chalmers just out of earshot of the attendant warder, and, gaining his confidence with no difficulty, found him very much as he had expected from Dora's description he would, casual, bored and very tired of life, not worrying at all as to what might be going to happen to him. Indeed, he appeared to be deriving such satisfaction from the way the so detested doctor had come to his end that he admitted frankly that he was half-minded not to put up any defence and allow himself to be hanged for a murder he had not committed.
However, when Larose pulled him up very sharply and told him with the utmost sternness that there must be no nonsense like that, as, if he were found guilty, Dora was intending to come forward and confess everything, he changed his tune at once.
"What I was afraid of," he scowled. "I thought she might be wanting to do something like that, though it's damned silliness to ruin her life to save a rotten one like mine. She's got everything to live for, and I've got nothing. Several times lately I've thought of finishing myself off."
"Well, you can please yourself and do as you like about that," said Larose grimly, "when this affair is over, but until then you've got to fight your hardest to protect Lady Stroud."
"All right," he said. "I'll give them a good run for their money, and I don't see how they'll be able to get a conviction." He made a grimace. "I suppose Lady Stroud is going to waste a lot of money on my defence."
"She's not going to waste it," said Larose, "but you're going to have the best lawyers and best counsel we can get. We're briefing Bernard Harcourt. You couldn't get a better man, and——"
"I know him," said Chalmers with a grin. "We used to get tight together at the Varsity, but he knocked it off while I let it get a hold of me." A thought came to him, and he asked sharply, "But how did the damned police come to connect me with Simeon at all? Oh, that housekeeper at his flat! I saw her staring devilish hard at me at the inquest, but, nothing happening, I thought she couldn't place me and so felt quite safe."
"And they've got that letter you wrote, too," said Larose, "threatening you'd murder the doctor if you have to wait twenty years for the chance."
Chalmers's jaw dropped. "The devil!" he exclaimed ruefully. "Fancy his keeping it all this time. It must be quite four years since we had that row." He clenched his teeth together. "He was a devil, that Simeon. When his pals were holding me tight so that I couldn't get at him he broke two of my ribs with his cowardly kicks, and I've never really recovered from the injury. Do you wonder I threatened him?"
The ensuing weeks were dreadful for Dora, and she had difficulty in keeping from her husband the low spirits she was in. With the war news filling the papers, there was little mention in them of the forthcoming trial, and she had to depend upon Mrs. Rayneham and Larose for every scrap of information there.
Counsel was very hopeful there would be an acquittal, said Mrs. Rayneham, but agreed such a lot depended upon who the presiding judge happened to be. They would not know that, however, until almost the last moment. Poor Dora lost a lot of her pretty colour under the strain, but, happily for her peace of mind, her husband put it down to her war work and was always urging her to take things more easily. Engaged as he was upon some 'hush-hush' business for the Government, she saw very little of him; sometimes he did not come home for longer than a week at a time.
The day for the trial came close at last. It was to open on a Tuesday, and on the preceding Saturday morning Larose rang up with the startling news that Lord Merrildon was going to be the presiding judge.
"Bernard Harcourt is quite cheerful about it," he said, "and so am I. There's nothing hard or harsh about his lordship and he'll pull Angus-Forbes up very sharply if he tries to bully or intimidate the jury."
"From what I saw of him at Mrs. Rayneham's," sighed Dora, "I thought him very kind and sympathetic."
"But he's rather a peculiar man," said Larose. "In private life, as you say, no one could be more kind than he, but upon the Bench he's very strict and stern and a great upholder of the sanctity of the law. In his final address to the jury there is never any appeal to sentiment, just an impartial weighing up of all the facts that have been presented to them."
Larose's summing up of Lord Merrildon's character left Dora very uneasy in her mind. If only she dare lay everything before him, what a difference it might make in how he advised the jury in his last words to them.
That night it was many hours before she could get to sleep and she was devoutly thankful her husband was not with her, as he would have undoubtedly noticed how upset she was. Towards morning, however, she fell into a troubled and unrestful sleep, waking up then to a sudden resolution.
She would go and see Lord Merrildon, and tell him everything, no matter how angry she was sure she would make him by attempting to influence him in a case he was about to try.
Fortunately, her husband was not coming home that week-end and she had the whole day free to do exactly as she wanted to.
Ringing up his lordship very early at his house in Saffron Walden, as she had expected he would be upon a Sunday, she found he was at home. Telling him she wanted his advice upon a very important matter, he was most kind and said she could come any time she like. As it happened, his wife was away and he would be alone and free all day.
It was only a seventy-mile journey, and shortly after eleven she was shown in to him in his study. Her spirits rose as he greeted her with such obvious pleasure.
"No, don't apologise," he smiled. "I shall be very pleased to do anything I can for you," he laughed. "Both my wife and I took a great fancy to you when we met at Mrs. Rayneham's and we've often talked about you, but we still can't remember of whom you remind us, though we've puzzled over it quite a lot."
"Lord Merrildon," began Dora, with a great effort steadying her voice, "it's a very sad story I have to tell you, and it begins about eleven years ago. A young girl friend of mine, losing both her parents very suddenly when she was only nineteen, went to London to find work. For three months she was employed as an attendant at a so-called Health Institute run by a woman I will call Madame, who was assisted in the work by a brother and a cousin. Massage and diet were supposed to be what the Institute was run for, but in reality a great part of the money was earned by performing illegal operations. This girl had no part in them, for whenever they were going to be done she was sent out upon some errand so that she should not know what was taking place. However, she soon began to have her suspicions and in time became certain she knew what was going on."
Dora paused to draw in a deep breath, and went on. "I must mention here that a very well-dressed, professional-looking man used to come to the Institute from time to time to have private talk with Madame. His name was never mentioned, but Madame called him Doctor, and the girl suspected he went to the private homes of her patients when anything went wrong. She knew for certain that Madame had once paid him a hundred pounds. This doctor never actually spoke to my girl-friend, but he used to stare at her hard when he came and she took him to be a man whom any decent girl who was even passably good-looking would not care to know."
"Go on, Lady Stroud," said his lordship kindly, as Dora had stopped speaking and was biting hard upon her lip to control her emotion. "Don't distress yourself. I am taking it all in."
"Well, now I come to something terrible," said Dora. "One day returning unexpectedly early from one of these errands upon which she had been sent, my friend heard Madame wailing over the phone to someone that a patient she had just been attending had collapsed and died, and asking this someone to come at once. From the conversation which went on it was evident, however, that this someone wouldn't come and was advising Madame to wait until night and then take the body to somewhere in the country and leave it there. Then, if the patient had never told anyone she was coming to the Institute, nothing might ever be found out."
"What a dreadful position for your friend," commented his lordship frowningly, "to have become mixed up with people like that."
"Yes, and she realised it," went on Dora, "and was terrified that, as an attendant at the Institute, she might be drawn into it. So she rushed out straight away, intending never to return again. However, she was so furious with the wicked woman for another reason that she at once went into a telephone booth and rang up the police, telling them what had happened and that there was a dead patient at the Institute."
"A good action," nodded Lord Merrildon, "and of course the police went at once?"
"Yes, for it appears they had had their suspicions of this Madame for some time," said Dora. "They went and caught her and her brother and cousin red-handed putting the body into an ottoman to take it away. All three were sent to penal servitude."
"And your girl-friend?" asked his lordship with a peculiar expression upon his face.
"That same afternoon," said Dora, "she moved from where she had been living and the police never found her; indeed, she never knew whether they had looked for her." She went on slowly and with some difficulty. "Longer than ten years went by. This girl had made a good marriage and was very happy. Then one afternoon when she was staying at a friend's house in the country another visitor arrived, and to her horror she recognised him as the doctor who used to come occasionally to that dreadful Institute and stare at her so hard every time he came. She thought at first that he had not recognised her, but he had, and the next day, catching her alone, he seized hold of her, and, in spite of her struggling hard, kissed her forcibly. He dared her to complain to anyone, as he said there was still a warrant out for her arrest for having helped Madame in those operations, and if she did he would tell the police where she was. Believing what he told her, she realised she was completely in his power and that he was intending to blackmail her in every way he could."
Dora was almost choking here, and for a few moments could not go on. The judge was now frowning hard, but made no comment, and the silence in the room was hard and tense. At length she went on.
"The next day a dreadful thing happened, for this doctor caught her, unexpectedly alone again, but this time outdoors in a wood not very far from the house. He had gone there to shoot some birds and had a small rifle with him. He seized hold of her, but in the struggle which followed she turned his rifle on him and shot him dead."
She spoke very quietly now with a rush of words. "She told no one what had happened, and at first it was thought he had accidentally shot himself, but later a servant of the house became suspected and now he's going to be tried for murder." Her voice broke and she added falteringly: "That is my story, my lord, and——"
"The servant is the man I am going to try next week," said Lord Merrildon, very sternly, "and the woman who shot that doctor is you."
Dora made no attempt at any denial and, covering her face with her hands, broke into quiet and gentle sobs.
"You have done very wrong," went on the judge in cold and solemn tones. "When you had shot that wretch, at all costs to yourself, you should have had the courage to tell what had happened. Now look at the position you yourself are in and the dreadful one in which you have placed that unfortunate man, accused of a crime he did not commit."
"But I shall not let him be hanged," said Dora fiercely. "If he is found guilty I shall own up to everything."
"But you must consider," went on the judge, with a deep frown, "the mental anguish he must be in, facing as he does the prospect of a dreadful death. Does not your conscience distress you there?"
"No, it does not," retorted Dora instantly, "as he knows quite well he will not be hanged. I have sent him word what I am going to do if he's found guilty. He knows, too, that it is I who killed Dr. Simeon, as he was in that wood at the time and saw everything that happened."
"Then why hasn't he told anyone?" demanded the judge in some astonishment.
Dora's tear-stained face flushed. "Because, my lord," she said very quietly, "he and I were sweethearts once. No, no, although he was only a gardener at the Manor he is not of that class. His father was the Archdeacon of Barchester Cathedral and he himself is a graduate of Oxford. When I knew him years ago he was an artist, and it's only drink which has ruined his life and brought him so low."
The judge eyed her very solemnly. "But do you not realise, young lady, into what contempt you are bringing the majesty of the law. By coming here to me as you have done you are making of it a farce by the trying of a known innocent man, and of me a puppet in having to preside over the trial." He shook his head. "I know you yourself have been placed in a horrible predicament, but"—he smiled sadly—"great as is my admiration and respect for you I can but censure you most strongly."
Dora was drying her eyes. "But have you yourself never made an error of judgment," she asked, "or worse than that, failed in your duty when what you should have done was most clearly before you? Does your conscience never prick you, Lord Merrildon?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, looking very puzzled.
For a long moment Dora hesitated. Then she burst out, "Tell me, you were in France, were you not—in the late spring of 1909, in Bordeaux?"
The judge looked more puzzled than ever, but after a few moments of consideration, nodded, "Yes, I was."
"And to be exact, the month of June, was it not?" asked Dora. "The early part of June?"
He considered again. "Yes, I think it was." He stared hard at her. "But why do you ask? Is it of any interest to you?"
Dora's voice trembled now. "Yes, of great interest," she replied. She spoke very slowly as if weighing every word. "Because it happens I was born in the following year upon the twelfth of March." She held his eyes with hers. "Yes, born in Bordeaux in a house upon the quai des Etoiles. The ground floor of the building was occupied by a firm of wine merchants, with my mother and her husband occupying the floors above." Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. "My mother's name, my lord, was Mary Dane."
The judge stared incredulously at her. Bereft of speech, he drew in a long deep breath and his face went a deathlike colour. His eyes were wide and staring, his lips were parted, and little beads of sweat began to form upon his forehead. All his poise and dignity gone, he slumped back into his chair the very picture of a guilty man. He looked at Dora as if she were an apparition risen from the dead.
Dora moved up close to him. "Give me your hand, please," she said imperatively. "No, your left one," and she laid hers beside it. "See our little fingers," she went on. "They're both crooked in the same way." She spoke very sadly. "My mother used often to kiss mine! I realise now because it reminded her of yours."
The judge spoke hoarsely. "Did she tell you all about me?" he asked.
Dora shook her head. "No, she never said a word, but all my life long as far back as I remember she brought me up as if I were not her husband's child. There was no affection between them. He was a horrid man. Mentally and physically, too, there was nothing in common between him and me, and from many, many things I grew to realise he could not possibly be my father. He died only a few weeks before my mother and then as she was dying she kept on asking for Athol. It was all 'Athol, Athol', and so I knew that must have been the name of the lover she had once had."
Tears welled up into the judge's eyes, and all her intended reproaches dying away at the sight of his distress, Dora, her own eyes wet too, put her arms around his neck and nestled her cheek close up against his. He clasped one of her hands so tightly that she almost called out with the pain.
"And I ruined her life," he choked. "I brought a great unhappiness upon her."
"No, no, you didn't," protested Dora quickly. "On the contrary you gave her the only happiness she ever had in all her married life. She was always full of hope, too, that one day she would be free to return to England and, as I realise now, perhaps meet you again."
The judge was much calmer now, and something of his old self again. "And how long is it," he asked, "since you first thought you had found out I was your father?"
"Only when I met you at the Raynehams'," replied Dora, "and one morning in the garden there this Eric Chalmers slipped me a piece of paper with James Athol Vaughan, Lord Merrildon, written upon it," and she went on to explain why he had done so. "Then when I saw your crooked little finger," she concluded, "I was certain I had found you."
They talked on for a long while and then the judge said sadly, "Oh, how proud of you I should be if I could only acknowledge you openly!"
"And I of you, too," smiled Dora. "I was always so sure my father would turn out to be a handsome and distinguished man." She nodded. "At any rate we can be proud of each other in secret."
The judge sighed deeply. "But in what a dreadful predicament we are now. Things could hardly be worse."
"Of course they could be," said Dora sharply. "What you have to do is very simple. You must step down from your high pedestal for once and forget all about the sanctity of the law. You must get Eric Chalmers off. Your summing-up to the jury must wipe out everything that Angus-Forbes has said." She frowned. "But what a strange thing, is it not, that you have dropped the name of Athol. Why are you not known by it now?"
"I dropped it when I was admitted to the practice of the law," replied the judge. "I thought it sounded too theatrical."
Seated close together and with him holding one of her hands, for an hour and longer, putting aside for the moment what had brought Dora there, as father and daughter they told each other a lot about the happenings of their lives.
"And I never forgot your mother," said the judge, "but we had agreed it was best I should not approach again." He coloured up uncomfortably and added with a sad smile, "Of course I blame myself now beyond all words I can think of that it never seemed to enter my mind that you could have eventuated from the few short hours I spent with your mother. I was young and unthinking and——"
"Don't talk about it," said Dora sharply. She smiled. "No wonder both you and your Lady Merrildon thought you had seen me before. You saw in me my resemblance to my mother and she—my resemblance to you."
Harking back to the matter of the forthcoming trial, the judge asked thoughtfully, "Have they anything of a case against this Eric Chalmers?"
"Mr. Larose thinks not," said Dora. "He has been advising me all along," and she went on to relate how Chalmers had come to be suspected, after she herself had had to run the gauntlet of the two detectives from Scotland Yard.
"Ah, those two inspectors are very clever men," frowned the judge, "and it is remarkable how you came to outwit them." He made a grimace. "Now you have dragged me into the conspiracy, too."
Dora returned home in quite a hopeful state of mind. She was thrilled that she had dared to make herself known to her father, and for the moment her only anxiety was that something might prevent him at the last moment from presiding at the trial. On the Tuesday morning, therefore, she was greatly relieved when Larose rang her up early to tell her Lord Merrildon had arrived in Norwich.
With the war news taking up so much space in the newspapers, she knew it would be very briefly reported and that she would have to depend upon Larose. The trial was quite a short one, lasting only three days, and upon each of the two first evenings he rang her up and gave her a good resume of the procedure. Still it was only when the trial was over and he came down to Tunbridge Wells to see her that she was able to grasp to the full everything which had happened.
When Lord Merrildon took his seat upon the bench it was remarked by many in the court that he was paler than usual. Still, he looked, as he always did, a calm, unruffled embodiment of the majesty of the law.
Angus-Forbes, who was to open for the Crown, at first sight appeared anything but the great pleader he really was. His head was bullet-shaped, his eyes were small and pig-like and his nose snub and insignificant. His well-developed chin, however, spoke of a forceful and determined character, and his mouth was that of an orator. His voice could boom like a harsh-sounding bell and he could work himself up to a passion of denunciation which, upon occasions, was most effective with a jury.
Bernard Harcourt, also a King's Counsel, was cast in a very different mould and he looked the aristocrat that he was. Tall and distinguished, with something of the appearance of a university professor about him, he spoke always in well-modulated tones, rarely rousing himself to invective or anger. Rather, it was said, he would wheedle himself into the confidence of a jury, almost making them believe he was one of them and just the spokesman for the mutual opinions they all held. If needed, however, he could unleash a wealth of sarcasm that would make everyone in the court smile.
Eric Chalmers, stepping slowly up into the dock, made quite a good impression upon the court generally. Though greatly benefited by his six weeks' forced abstention from alcohol, he looked frail and in a poor state of health. However, he carried himself with something of a jaunty air, and there was certainly no sign of cringing fear about him. He smiled as he sat down.
Opening very quietly, as was his wont, Angus-Forbes told the jury the prisoner in the dock was being charged with the wilful and deliberate murder of Chandra Simeon, a doctor of medicine, and, though the evidence against him was mainly of a circumstantial nature, it was none the less convincing. Indeed, in this particular case, it would only be following the usual course of nearly all homicidal trials, for, unless a murder was committed upon the spur of the moment and in the heat of passion in front of witnesses, as a general rule it could only be brought home to the perpetrator by evidence which was circumstantial. Circumstantial, he would remind the gentlemen of the jury, was the bringing together of small happenings to make up one solid and coherent whole.
Now it must be taken in straight away, he went on, that the accused was no common and uneducated man such as his recent lowly occupation might suggest. He had not always been of the so-called working-man class, for he was a graduate of Oxford University and his training had been such that it would enable him to reason and calculate well. So, if he were intending to carry out any undertaking he would not plunge into it headlong and without thought, but would consider everything, step by step, in a most careful manner.
"I would impress all this upon you," he cried, raising his voice, "because this crime was carried out with a considerable degree of cunning, with the accused confident he had left no trails behind which could be followed up. Now to find the undoubted motive for it we must go back to nearly four years ago. The accused was making his living as an artist then and, becoming acquainted with the deceased, upon a few occasions went to his flat in Earl's Court for cards. One night, there was a violent quarrel between them. It does not concern us what the quarrel was about, but the accused attacked Dr. Simeon in his fierce outburst of temper and we are told would have done serious injury to him had not the latter's friends interfered and held him down. Then it appears the doctor took an unfair advantage of the accused and, kicking him with great violence, broke several of his ribs. At any rate no doubt the accused was badly injured, as he was in hospital for longer than a month."
The K.C. paused here to look among his papers. Finding what he wanted, he went on, "Now we come to a most damning piece of evidence—a letter which the accused wrote during his convalescence and to which he recklessly signed his name in full. It is short, but very much to the point. I will read it to you.
"'You cowardly devil! Don't think I have forgotten you, for I have not, and never shall. I'll pay you out one day if I have to wait twenty years to get my chance. I'll kill you as I would a mad dog, you brute! Eric Chalmers.'"
Angus-Forbes paused again here. "Now, gentlemen of the jury, because nearly four years elapsed before the accused carried out his threat and then only obtained his opportunity by sheer chance, it must not be imagined that he had in any way abandoned his intention of obtaining his revenge. We can understand the reason for the delay when we realise that in these years the accused had fallen into evil habits and became an habitual drunkard. Intemperance would not have sapped his resolution, but it would have made him slothful in attempting to carry it out.
"Well, this sheer chance of which I am speaking all at once played into his hands when the accused was working as a gardener at Blackston Manor. Dr. Simeon came to stay as a guest there for a week-end. I shall prove to you that he learnt of the doctor's presence and was unduly interested at once. I shall prove also that he became aware that the deceased would be found that evening, most probably alone, by the pond in that lonely wood where he was subsequently found drowned."
He spoke slowly and dramatically. "What exactly happened there upon that quiet and peaceful Sunday evening we shall probably never know, unless in due time the accused makes a full confession, but with no great stress of imagination we can determine something of what took place." He raised one long forefinger significantly. "The accused was probably in waiting, secreted behind a tree. He sprang out upon his unsuspecting victim, and twisting round the barrel of the rifle the latter was carrying, thrust it into his chest and pulled the trigger. Then, without a moment's delay, he dragged the body into the pond, threw the rifle in beside him and made off home as quickly as possible, no doubt full of gloating over what he had done and supremely confident that he would never be found out."
A breathless silence filled the court, with all eyes now turned upon the prisoner in the dock. It might perhaps have been thought he would be looking shamed and frightened. But no—he appeared quite calm and confident and was even smiling.
The eyes of the great King's Counsel blazed and he made a contemptuous gesture towards him before he went on menacingly. "Now how can we be so certain the accused was in the wood that afternoon, and carrying out his vengeful and evil purpose?" he asked in vibrant tones. "I'll tell you why." He dropped his voice abruptly and answered his own query, slowly and impressively. "Because in his cottage, secreted in the mattress of his bed, was found the wrist-watch which it was known the dead man had been wearing that afternoon."
A plainly audible gasp went round the court and again all eyes were turned towards the dock. The accused, however, appeared still unperturbed. Angus-Forbes continued. "Then what follows?—and I will ask you as men of common sense to consider whether the actions of the accused were those of an innocent man!"
He raised his long forefinger again to emphasise what he was going to say. "Now we have no knowledge of exactly at what hour the accused had left his cottage that afternoon, but we are certain he did leave it for he was seen to return by the woman in the cottage next door at the very moment when the church clock was striking five, striking five, mind you, only such a short time after we know the deceased would have arrived by that pond to meet his dreadful death."
Again he waited a long moment, with his eyes passing from one to the other of the jurymen before he asked very quietly, "And how did he return? Did he do so as an honest man would have done, as one innocent of all recent wrong-doing, or did he come back as a haunted, guilty creature who had just committed a dreadful crime, as one who had taken another man's life and was exposed to the danger of being found out?"
The K.C. spoke with the utmost solemnity. "Gentlemen of the jury, the accused did not come home in the ordinary way by the front gate of his cottage, but instead he climbed over the back fence of his little garden in a secretive and furtive manner, with his eyes roaming round and round to see if anyone were watching him." His voice rose in strident and declamatory tones. "And not only that, but so anxious was he to establish an alibi, that at the village public house, the same evening, he twice made the statement to those assembled there that he had been feeling so sleepy all day that after his midday meal he had thrown himself down upon the bed and slept heavily for longer than four hours."
Angus-Forbes drew in a deep breath. "So now we have the full picture of everything before us. The accused nursing a deadly spite against this doctor and, as evidenced by the threatening letter he wrote him, only awaiting his opportunity to obtain his revenge, his obtaining that opportunity at last and taking full advantage of it, as evidenced here by his being found in possession of the dead man's watch, and finally his determined efforts to establish an alibi so that nothing should be brought home to him."
He struck his fist viciously upon the table before him. "Could we have more convincing evidence of the guilt of the wretched man now before us in the dock? From all I have brought up to you is it not sealed once and for all? Does not everything point to it?"
Finally the K.C. introduced the matter of the inquest, when, by an ironic stroke of fate, the accused had been the foreman of the coroner's jury inquiring into the death of the man he himself had killed. Then he had tried to get the enquiry closed in indecent haste by resisting an adjournment. Later, no doubt it had been he who had persuaded his fellow jurymen to bring in a verdict of accidental death—against the advice of the police.
With the opening address for the Crown finished, a procession of witnesses proceeded to file into the witness-box. The first was the doctor's sister who testified to finding the threatening letter among his effects. She had not come across it until some weeks after his death and that accounted for the delay in handing it over to the police.
Next came the housekeeper at the flat. She said the accused had only come there a very few times and that was why she had not recognised him at first. It happened she had actually been an eye-witness of the attack upon her master, as it had occurred just when she was bringing some glasses into the room. Chalmers had sprung upon him, and, taking him unawares, when he was sitting down, had seized him violently by the throat. She had heard nothing about the threatening letter, but did not think it would have worried her master much, as he was a very self-confident man, strong and athletic, and in ordinary circumstances would have been well able to take care of himself.
Bernard Harcourt, for the defence, did not question either of these witnesses.
The third witness was the Manor cook, and it was obvious that she gave her evidence with some reluctance. She said the accused, whom they all knew as Harry Wood, had been the under-gardener for about a year, and the only complaint she had heard about him was that he drank too much. He never came to work actually drunk, but he often looked as if he had taken too much, and then was surly and morose when spoken to. At other times, however, he was of a bright disposition and well liked by all the servants. He never appeared to be in good health, but always looked rather white and ailing.
She remembered very distinctly a happening upon the morning after Dr. Simeon had arrived at the Manor as a guest. Wood came into the kitchen with some vegetables and remarked he had got a bad headache, and she had said jokingly he had better see the doctor they had staying with them now and get a prescription out of him. However, he had shown no interest until she had gone on to say the doctor was a crack West End one, called Simeon. Then he had asked instantly what he was like and she had replied he was dark and good-looking, adding laughingly that he would make two of him and could take him by the neck and shake him like a terrier with a rat. Wood had made no comment and gone off without a word.
Asked if the accused had known the doctor was going to try to shoot those hawks upon the Sunday evening, she had admitted with some hesitation that she thought he must have done so, as, bringing in some grapes upon the Sunday morning, she had told him four more of the prize Orpington chickens were missing and that her mistress had asked the doctor to see what he could do to get the hawks then at the pond in the wood, near where it was thought they had their nest.
Bernard Harcourt rose up briskly here to cross-examine her.
"Now how does it happen, Mrs. Smith," he asked smilingly, "that you remember so well the trivial and casual conversation you had with the accused that morning about Dr. Simeon?"
The answer was prompt and ready. "Because, sir, it was so unusual for Wood to take any interest at all in our guests. Indeed, he used always to avoid them as much as possible, and we noticed he pulled his cap down well over his face whenever any of them happened to come near where he was working in the garden. So it made an impression upon me at once when he asked what the doctor was like." She went on volubly, "You see, sir, Wood was always a mystery to us, and we were always interested in him. We all knew he had been a gentleman once and we often thought he was afraid of being recognised by some of the many visitors we had."
"Then you went on to say, Mrs. Smith," said Bernard Harcourt, "that from a conversation you had with the accused the next morning, the Sunday morning, that you thought the accused knew Dr. Simeon had been asked by your mistress to try to shoot those hawks. Now what do you mean by saying you only thought?"
The cook hesitated. "Because he didn't make any remark about it, but just went off without a word. Of course, it might have been possible he didn't take in what I said, as he was never too bright on Sunday mornings after his heavy drinking every Saturday as long as the inn kept open."
The next witness was the woman from the cottage adjoining Chalmers's and she came in for some rough handling from Bernard Harcourt in the cross-examination he gave her.
He drew out she was not friendly with Chalmers and had not spoken to him for several weeks, as she believed he had destroyed her cat because it had been scratching up the seeds in his garden. At any rate it had disappeared and Chalmers had only laughed when she taxed him with having got rid of it.
Asked what she meant when she had told the police he had got over his back fence in a furtive way, all she could explain was that he had stared hard at all windows of her cottage as he was getting over, and she thought he looked rather frightened about something.
She admitted, however, she had not at the time thought the matter of sufficient interest to mention it to anyone. She had said nothing about it until questioned by the police.
The last witness was a man who had been in the village inn upon that Sunday evening and he testified the accused, who had been yawning a lot, excused himself with the explanation that he had been feeling terribly sleepy all day, so much so that after his midday meal he had lain down for a short nap, as he thought, but had slept all through the afternoon. There was no cross-examination of this witness, and that closed the case for the Crown.
A rustle of thrilled and excited interest stirred round the court and it was generally conceded Angus-Forbes had made things look very black for the accused and that the defence would have a hard task to stave off a verdict of guilty.
However, the accused had lost none of his confident air and was smiling when Bernard Harcourt opened his address.
Speaking very quietly and in a rather sarcastic tone, Harcourt remarked that his learned friend had given them early warning that most of the evidence he would put forward would be of a circumstantial nature, and he might well have added it would take on a most shadowy and unsubstantial form. Indeed, guess-work would have been a better word than evidence, for it was by guess-work only anyone could imagine the accused had been anywhere in the vicinity of that wood where deceased had come to his death that Sunday afternoon.
He raised his voice in a declamation here—yet, the whole case for the prosecution depended absolutely upon that. No matter how many threatening letters the accused might have written in those years ago and no matter what evil thoughts he might have been entertaining for the dead man—unless it could be absolutely proved, or implied by reasoning that was water-tight that he had been there—then the charge against him must inevitably collapse like a bubble that had been pricked.
He spoke in crisp and business-like tones. "Now I shall call no witnesses, for there can be no one to prove anything on the accused's behalf, but I shall put him straightway into the witness-box and he will tell you his tale in his own way, on oath. Much that the prosecution has gone to such pains to prove he will admit at once. He did write that threatening letter, he did harbour the bitterest feelings towards the deceased and he did know he had come to the Manor as a visitor. However, he will swear that he was not aware deceased had been going to that pond that afternoon, for if the cook had mentioned it to him, he had not taken it in. As you have gathered from her demeanour in the witness-box, she is a garrulous and gossiping woman and he never paid much attention to what she said."
He paused here for a moment to look down at his notes, and went on, "As for his not wanting to be seen that afternoon when he was returning to his cottage—this is quite true, too. He had been out poaching upon a neighbouring estate, and fearing he had been seen, if taxed with it, was wanting to make out he had not left home after his midday meal. One last thing—his possession of the dead man's watch. The explanation is very simple." He looked down with some amusement at Angus-Forbes. "Every morning he bicycled through that wood upon his way to work, and on the Monday he saw it lying under a bush just off the path and picked it up." He spoke with the utmost sternness to the jury. "Remember, gentlemen, this man in the dock is not being tried for larceny"—his voice was very low and solemn—"but for murder, wilful murder."
Eric Chalmers stepped briskly into the box and took the oath with a steady voice. He looked quite confident. His counsel took him quickly through all he had outlined in his speech and the replies were quick and ready. Handed over to Angus-Forbes for cross-examination, he appeared in no way nervous at the latter's threatening tones, and it was generally agreed by all present in the court that the stout K.C. had not scored a single point until he came to the matter of Chalmers getting into his garden over the back fence, and there undoubtedly he got the latter into something of a tight corner.
"And you tell us," he said with a steely glint in his eyes, "you were so anxious not to be seen because you say you were returning from a poaching expedition. Then to where had you been?"
"To a wood upon Major Henniker's property, about two miles away," was the reply.
"But what could you have been expecting to get," asked the K.C. with some sarcasm, "poaching in broad daylight in the middle of the afternoon?"
"A pheasant or a rabbit," replied Chalmers. "I had a big catapult with me and a pocketful of marbles."
"And you had got nothing?" asked Angus-Forbes.
Chalmers shook his head. "No. As I have said, there were other people in the wood and I almost ran into them. I was afraid they had seen me and might have recognised who I was. That made me bolt away."
"But even if you had been more than recognised," went on the K.C., "if you had been actually caught, with nothing upon you, you know quite well no charge could have been laid against you."
"That wasn't frightening me," said Chalmers, "but Major Henniker is a friend of my employer, Mr. Rayneham, and, if the people who saw me thought they had recognised me, they would certainly have complained to him and I might have lost my job."
Angus-Forbes looked mockingly round the court. "And do you really want to make us believe," he asked, "that you were expecting a sort of enquiry might be held by your employer, with witnesses, for and against, you being called—in fact a regular trial such as we are holding here now?"
Chalmers looked sullen. "Yes, I did," he replied. "At any rate, something of the sort."
"And you considered the matter so important," went on Angus-Forbes with intense sarcasm, "this matter of deciding whether you had been upon this Major Henniker's property or not, that you had to make elaborate preparations for an alibi by first creeping into your cottage over the back fence and, later, trumpeting it about in the village public-house that you had been sleeping all the afternoon. Come now—weren't you overdoing it?"
"I don't thing so," snapped Chalmers.
Angus-Forbes's voice was low and threatening. "Why—you couldn't have been taking more precautions, could you, even if you had just returned from committing a murder?"
Chalmers, for the first time looking uneasy and embarrassed, made no answer, and after a long and significant pause the King's Counsel shrugged his shoulders contemptuously and went on.
"Now about this watch which you had hidden in your mattress, you say you found it the next morning as you were bicycling to work under a bush a few feet off the path! Then how is it you came to see it when the search party of seven gentlemen had not noticed it?"
"I suppose because they were out late in the afternoon," replied Chalmers, "whereas I was going by in daylight. Also, I have always looked well about when going by that pond because I know a pair of stoats have got their hole somewhere there."
Angus-Forbes raised his arm with a lightning gesture. "Ah, that's a bad slip, a very bad one! Stoats are nocturnal animals and never to be seen about in the day!"
Chalmers got very red. "But I've seen them," he said stubbornly, "and I know what I'm talking about."
The King's Counsel dismissed his comment with a contemptuous gesture and went on, "Now, when, as you say, you picked up that watch, the path being a private one, you must have realised at once that it belonged to someone staying at the Manor?"
"I suppose so," admitted Chalmers after a moment's hesitation, and then he added quickly, "Yes, of course I did."
Angus-Forbes went on another track. "Now when was it," he asked, "you want to make out you first heard that Dr. Simeon had mysteriously disappeared?"
"Ted Blake, the other gardener, told me," replied Chalmers, "directly I arrived for work that morning."
"And you make out, too, that it was only then that you heard the doctor had been asked to try to shoot those hawks who were generally to be seen in the vicinity of the pond in the early evening?"
"That is so," agreed Chalmers.
"Then it must have struck you at once," asked Angus-Forbes, "that finding the watch where you say you did it must have belonged to him?"
"It did," admitted Chalmers.
"And of course it at once entered into your mind," went on the King's Counsel, "that if any accident had happened to him it would have occurred in the vicinity of the pond close to where you had found the watch?"
"No, it didn't," replied Chalmers sharply. "I just thought he might have been swinging his arm as he walked along and the watch had fallen off. The catch on the chain was not bent in any way. It was just weak and appeared to have sprung open of its own accord." He shrugged his shoulders. "As for an accident having happened to him, I didn't think one had. I remembered him as an eccentric and impulsive man who could never be relied upon in private life, and thought it quite possible the whim to go off had suddenly come into his mind and he had followed it with no consideration for anybody else. He was always a selfish man."
Ringing up Dora that evening, Larose spoke much more hopefully than he really felt. "I think everything is going fairly well and it will soon be over now," he said. "Counsel have finished their address and to-morrow his lordship will sum up." He spoke with some enthusiasm. "Oh, Lady Stroud, I do wish you could see Lord Merrildon on the bench. He looks so majestic and distinguished, and it is undoubtedly his personality which dominates the whole court. He makes even the great King's Counsel look second-rate, and, though he intervenes very little, when he does speak everyone seems to hang upon his words. Yes, I think Chalmers will get off. I'll ring up the moment the verdict has been given."
With Mrs. Rayneham, however, whom he also rang up, he was not quite so confident. "Things are really not going too badly," he said, "but Angus-Forbes was in great form, and in that impelling and almost hypnotic way of his, as I was afraid he would do, he fastened his teeth like a bulldog into Chalmers's attempt to establish an alibi, and I could see he was making no little impression upon the jury. But there is still his lordship's summing-up and I think in that we have a very good chance. For one thing, I'm certain he'll damp down Angus-Forbes's fireworks quite a lot and, as far as he can, allow only the bare facts to influence the jury."
The following morning when Lord Merrildon took his seat upon the bench it was thought by many in the court that he looked rather pale and as if he had not slept well the previous night. However, his beautifully modulated voice was strong and vibrant, and, even though he spoke very quietly, every word he uttered could be distinctly heard everywhere in the court. All eyes were fastened intently upon him.
Warning the jury as Angus-Forbes had done that the whole case against the accused was built up on evidence that was circumstantial, he considered quickly and briefly all the points that had been put forward by the Crown.
He agreed that the motive for a homicidal attack upon the part of the accused was there, and that it had lain dormant for nearly four years must not altogether rule out the possibility of the attack having at last been carried out. As Counsel had pointed out, the intemperate life the accused had been leading would have gone far to sap all his energy to make an opportunity for himself to obtain his revenge, but chance having at last, as he thought, thrown that opportunity in his way, he might possibly have risen to the occasion and seized it.
Still, it must not be taken for granted he had done so. He had denied he knew this opportunity was there, and his denial must not be idly cast away until all subsequent happenings went to prove that he was not speaking the truth.
His lordship paused here for a few moments to look at his notes and then went on slowly and impressively. "Now the first thing that suggests itself to me here is that if the accused did realise that he had now the chance of obtaining his revenge, if he did know his enemy was going to be alone that evening in that lonely wood, did he make adequate preparations to deal with him? Put yourselves in his place. Himself of small physique, and admittedly in a poor state of health and weakened by years of intemperance—how did he intend to pit himself against the strong, athletic man he knew the deceased to be? Had not the cook of the Manor told him only the previous day that this West End doctor looked robust and strong enough to take him by the scruff of the neck and shake him like a terrier would a rat? So, with the odds so heavily against him, with what weapon did he provide himself? Surely at least he would have had a heavy stick?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Yet there has been no suggestion put forward by the Crown that he was in any way armed, and there were no wounds or bruises found upon the deceased to suggest it, either."
A hushed silence filled the court. All present seemed to be hanging upon the judge's every word. He went on.
"Of course, too, everything would depend upon his taking his victim by surprise, and there he must have realised his chances would be very poor. Surely the deceased, arriving in the vicinity of that pond, would have been very much upon the alert? He was a hunter pitting his wits against creatures of the wild and his eyes would have been here, there and everywhere! Then how did accused manage to get near enough to him to engage in that hand-to-hand struggle, as evidenced by the torn-off button, which is the crux of the whole case for the Crown? Then, if this struggle did take place, how is it deceased showed no marks or bruises upon him, and, again, how was it he was worsted so easily by his much weaker opponent?"
Larose was thrilled and would have dearly loved to clap his hands. His lordship was actually putting up a stronger case for Chalmers than had the counsel for the defence. Angus-Forbes was frowning hard.
The judge continued, "And now I come to another matter, that of the alibi the accused had been at such pains to prepare to make out he had not left his cottage that afternoon, and it may have seemed to many of you, as it did to me at first, that the accused did not come out of it too well."
A rustle of excitement went round the court and Angus-Forbes dropped his troubled, frowning look.
The judge went on. "Then I asked myself—why, if he were so wanting to safeguard himself from the charge of having killed the deceased, should he have thought it necessary to prepare any alibi at all? As no witness has been brought forward, apparently he knew no one had seen him come out of the wood. So, if and when the body of deceased were found in the pond, why should he have been fearing anyone would in any way associate it with him? Even if he had given a thought to that threatening letter he had written four years back being still in existence, he would have been confident it meant no danger to him, as the identity of Eric Chalmers, the artist, had been lost in that of Henry Wood, the gardener. So, who would be aware he had ever known the dead Dr. Simeon, ever met him, ever even heard of him?"
The judge raised his hand warningly. "Remember he did not know then that his real identity was to be uncovered later by the deceased's housekeeper recognising him at the inquest. So with all this in his mind, why should he not have walked boldly up to the front entrance of his cottage, indifferent to everyone who might see him enter?"
In conclusion, his lordship warned the jury with the utmost gravity that unless they had no doubt at all as to the guilt of the accused they must acquit him of the charge now brought against him. For a man arraigned upon the capital charge, with the dreadful consequences which would ensue if he were found guilty, it must not be merely that certain of his actions were inclining them to the belief that he had committed the crime. Far more than that was needed, for the chain of evidence must be whole and complete in every way. Were even one small link missing, then it must be taken as if there were no chain at all, and then their verdict must be that the case against the accused had not been sustained.
The summing-up over, the judge left the bench, the jury filed out and a buzz of subdued excitement filled the court. There was no doubt in the minds of most of those present that his lordship had summed up dead in favour of an acquittal; indeed, it was agreed he had torpedoed the whole case of the Crown.
Angus-Forbes was frowning angrily, and there could be no doubt the summing-up had not been to his liking. He conversed whisperingly with his junior and was seen to shrug his shoulders, as if in great annoyance. His junior was looking displeased, too, and it was evident he was of the same opinion as his leader.
Less than a half-hour passed, and the usher called for silence, the judge resumed his seat upon the bench and the jury filed back into court. At once, from the expression of their faces, it was evident what the verdict was going to be, and a great sigh of relief rolled round when "Not Guilty" was announced and Eric Chalmers stepped down from the dock.
It was a very happy moment for Larose when he rang up Dora and told her all that had happened. Tears streamed down her face, and it was some moments before she could speak.
"But we owe it all to Lord Merrildon," said Larose, "for never have I heard a summing-up more strongly in favour of an accused. I can tell you now that at one time things were looking very black for Chalmers, and but for his lordship he would almost certainly have been convicted. But the summing-up altered everything. It seemed exactly as if his lordship knew everything that had happened in that wood and he was determined not to allow the jury to have the very slightest reason for bringing in a verdict of guilty."
"And did he seem pleased when the verdict had been given?" asked Dora in trembling tones.
"By Jove, he did," replied Larose, "and, for some reason which appeared to me rather unusual, most relieved, too. It was evident the trial had been rather a strain for him and I even thought there was a trace of nervousness in his voice when he thanked the jury for their services. Oh, but his summing-up was grand!"
"And Eric Chalmers," asked Dora, "what about him?"
"Oh, he," laughed Larose, "seemed more unconcerned than anyone in the court. He kept up his devil-may-care expression right up to the very last and was even grinning when he stepped down from the dock. Of course he was re-arrested again at once for that burglary, and I expect he'll be punished for it."
Lord and Lady Merrildon became great friends with the Strouds and, as can be well understood, Dora arranged that her father should see a lot of his grandchildren, with frequent visits being exchanged between the two houses.
In the following year, however, Lady Merrildon died of pneumonia and Lord Merrildon, disposing of his estate in Saffron Walden, took a small flat in Town. At weekends and whenever his judicial duties would allow he was invited down to Marden Court, but was always under the restraint of having continually to be guarding against letting his affection for Dora and his grandchildren become noticeable, not only to outsiders, but to Dora's husband as well.
For all that, people did notice it, and one morning Sir Richard received an anonymous letter from some spiteful person warning him that the judge was well on the way to becoming his wife's lover. Not for one moment giving credence to the idea, the letter, however, annoyed Sir Richard not a little, and a happening that same week in a way added to his discomfiture.
His duties having unexpectedly taken him north to preside at some assizes when it had been arranged he should spend the week-end with the Strouds, his lordship wrote a warm letter of apology to Dora, at the same time adding that he was sending her a box of orchids with his kindest regards.
The following morning the orchids duly arrived, with apparently no message in the box, but a little later, going into the room where they had been unpacked, Sir Richard picked a small slip of paper off the floor and he frowned heavily when he read what was written on it.
He said nothing during the day, but that evening after dinner, when he and Dora were alone in the library, he remarked suddenly, "Dora, I want to speak to you about something rather important."
Dora looked up at once from the book she was reading and asked curiously, "What is it, darling? Are you worrying about anything?"
"Not exactly worrying," he replied slowly, "but I'm wondering if we're not getting a little too friendly with Lord Merrildon."
"Too friendly!" exclaimed Dora sharply. "What on earth do you mean? You like him, don't you?"
"Yes, very much," said Richard. "In fact I regard him as one of the finest men I have ever known." He hesitated. "But it's really that I'm thinking about you."
Dora felt her face flushing and turned her eyes down again upon her book. "Thinking about me?" she asked carelessly. "Why in particular about me?"
"About you in this way," he replied slowly and as if with some effort. "I want to know, has Lord Merrildon——" but he suddenly raised his voice and spoke sharply. "Don't move! Don't look up! Keep still, exactly as you are."
A few moments' intense silence followed, with Dora's heart beating uncomfortably.
"That'll do," said Richard. "You can look up now." He passed his hand over his forehead. "Now what was I going to ask you? Ah! I know." His voice was not accusing, only curious, as he went on. "Dora," he asked, "has Lord Merrildon ever kissed you?"
Dora's face was now as red as fire, and she had to steady her voice to speak. "Yes, he has," she replied as casually as she could; "often upon my forehead, but never upon my lips." She drew in a deep breath and went on in a torrent of words, "Oh, Richard, I've so hated having a great secret from you and I'm so glad you asked me now about Lord Merrildon, as it compels me to tell you something which I thought I should never dare to." She sprang up from her chair and, moving up close to him, knelt down and buried her face against him. "Darling," she went on in a choking voice, "Lord Merrildon is my father."
To her amazement her husband laughed, but laughed very softly. "Of course, it is quite impossible, sweetheart," he said, "but when I told you to keep perfectly still just now it was because I had suddenly seen a great likeness between him and you. As you were casting your eyes down, your expression was exactly the same as his when he is looking very thoughtful. I can tell you it startled me."
"Then you are not ashamed or hurt," asked Dora pleadingly, "to learn of my mother's fault?"
"Ashamed or hurt!" exclaimed Richard with a laugh. "Why, I should be delighted if it were true. I should be thinking how clever our children might turn out with a grandfather of the eminence of his lordship."
"It is true, Richard," said Dora earnestly. "I'll tell you everything," and into her husband's astonished ears she poured the whole story of the tragedy of her mother's life, and how, after these many years, she had at last come to learn the secret of her birth.
During its recital, Richard never said a word, and gradually, only very gradually, the sceptical and doubtful expression faded from his face. In the end it was evident he realised what she had told him was all true, and it seemed he was quite happy about it.
"But we must not tell him you know," said Dora finally. "He must never learn that I have told you."
"Nonsense," laughed Richard. "Of course we'll tell him, and the poor old chap will have the happiness of being able to show his love for you and the children—openly. You shall call him Dad and the children Grandpapa. He shall make this his home, too."
"But what will people think and say?" asked Dora, rather aghast.
"Let them think and say what they like," declared Richard. "It won't hurt us. Besides, we'll give out your father died before you were born and you can say you've adopted him."
Dora threw her arms round her husband's neck and kissed him fondly. "You are a good man, Richard, darling," she said, "but then I always knew that. I never minded your seeing how friendly I was with my father, because I always knew you'd never think anything wrong about me."
At that moment one of the children's nurses knocked at the door and told Dora the youngest was crying for her and would not be pacified. "All right, I'll come," said Dora, and she followed the nurse out of the room.
Alone by himself, Richard smiled a slow, inscrutable Mona Lisa smile and, taking a small piece of paper out of his pocket, crumpled it up and threw it in the fire. Upon the paper had been written in the judge's handwriting, "To my darling Dora, with all the love in the world."
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia