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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. XVII Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301101h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
WHEN Tommy Allnatt, the famous comedian, arrived at the studio of the equally famous painter, Alonzo Paradine, there was no sign of the lunch to which Tommy had been invited; in fact, there was no sign of anybody, not even a servant to answer the bell. Therefore, Tommy was pardonably annoyed.
None the less because the front door gave to a turn of the lock and Tommy found himself free to enter the studio proper. Just like Paradine to forget all about the lunch and give his domestic staff a holiday for the day.
Left to himself. London's leading low comedian—and the greatest practical joker since J. L. Toole—prowled about the studio where the immortal Paradine painted his pictures and entertained the salt of the earth.
But Tommy was not concerned with Paradine's greatness at the moment. He was torn between wolfish hunger and humorous irritability. None the less so because this was not the first time Paradine had played the same trick on his friends. Time he had a lesson. Time to teach him that his absentmindedness was not a paying game. Perhaps an epoch-making practical joke—
The idea shaped as Tommy sat eating caviare and biscuits looted from a Tudor buffet and washed down with a whisky and soda imbibed from a priceless goblet of Venetian glass. As the inner man swung to equilibrium the grin on Tommy's face broadened. The great idea was burgeoning like a flower.
"It would serve him right," he muttered. "Hang me if I don't do it!"
From a huge wardrobe in ebony and ivory inlay Tommy produced certain sartorial properties such as artists keep for their models. A wig and a beard and a pair of spectacles; a suit of rags, complete with rusty boots; and in these Tommy proceeded to array himself. An impromptu make-up completed the picture of honest poverty under a cloud of financial depression. Hastily gathering together half-a-dozen or so of canvasses from a corner of the studio, Tommy crept into the street until he reached the spot he had in mind, and there on a stretch of pavement in view of Chelsea's best and brightest, sat down to do business with all and sundry in search of masterpieces at jumble sale prices. Not that he would sell a single one, and thus, cover the great Paradine with confusion and ridicule.
For some time he had the cold, hard world to himself. In a harsh, commercial age, art seemed to be a drug on the market. Then presently there shuffled into sight a snuffy man whose beady eyes lighted on the array of pictures displayed on the pavement. The little man checked and for some moments stood contemplating the show with his head on one side, like a thrush gloating over a particularly fat snail.
"Dear me!" he piped. "Your own work? What?"
"And for sale, sir," Tommy said meekly.
"Very sad, very sad!" the little man declared. "Clever, very clever. Distinct touches of originality. The later French school. You have studied in Paris?"
"Never had a lesson in my life," Tommy said, truthfully.
"Amazing!" the little man cried. "Amazing! you haven't stolen those sketches by any chance?"
Tommy contrived a sad, disarming smile. The little man hopped around excitedly.
"I apologise!" he wheezed. "I am in a humble way a collector. But my means are limited, very limited. If you care to take fifteen shillings each for those—What, what?"
Tommy shuffled uneasily. The great joke was not developing according to plan. His scheme had been to sit there the best part of the afternoon peddling choice Paradines and being able to boast afterwards that he never secured an offer for one. It was imperative that he should hedge.
"Sir," he said, grandly, "I may be poor, but I have my pride. And the laborer is worthy of his hire. A fiver a head all round and call it a deal."
If Tommy was under the impression that this appreciation of stock would choke off the snuffy old gentleman he was speedily disillusioned. He merely smiled a crafty smile.
"My friend," he wheezed, "before you took up your stand here did it occur to you that a hawker's license was requisite—indeed, imperative?"
"Is that a fact, old bean?" Tommy asked, forgetting himself in face of this startling riposte. "Mean to say—"
"Quite," the little man chuckled. "Show me your license, or the policeman on point duty yonder—"
"All right," Tommy said recklessly. "Take the bally lot at your own price. A quid a piece. Come!"
The snuffy little man produced a roll of notes and counted out six of them into Tommy's shrinking palm. A few moments later the purchaser was rolling away in a taxi and Tommy was after him in another. There was a little delay in getting away, for the driver of the second cab shied openly at Tommy's rags until the sight of a Treasury note calmed his fears.
"I'm fly, gov'nor," he grinned. "Not the first time as I've 'ad a copper in disguise in my keb."
Exactly seventeen minutes later the first cab pulled up in front of a palatial mansion in Park-street, where the little man alighted, and let himself in with a latchkey.
"Well, I'm done!" Tommy groaned dismally.
* * * * *
It was well into the marrow of the afternoon when Tommy, divested of his rags, crept into the smoking room of his club and ordered a whisky and soda. He was grateful to find the room comparatively deserted, save for a group of three discussing art in the big bay window. The big boom of Lucius Farmiloe laying down the law came mistily to Tommy's ears. The great editor of 'Thought' holding his audience in thrall like the Ancient Mariner. It was a way that majestic art critic had.
"These amateur collectors are all alike," he said. "A man like Grimstein thinks he knows everything, because he possesses the money-making instinct. Oh, I grant you his collection of modern art is a fine one, but when those chaps come to rely on their own judgment—well, there!"
"Go on—we'll buy it," a listener said wearily.
"Well, it's like this," Farmiloe went on, "Grimstein 'phoned me about three o'clock to give him a call as he had just got hold of a lot of early Paradines. Bought 'em from a marine store dealer or something like that. All rot, because there are no early Paradines knocking about. I ought to know."
"Course," Gregory of the 'Daily Messenger' agreed. "Paradine was invented and patented by you. Did you go?"
"What do you think? I knew what I was going to find, my boy. Forgeries. Still, if Grimstein was anxious to pay my fee as a professional expert, I was agreeable. So round to Park-street I went without delay."
Tommy Allnatt started. The words 'Park-street' struck on his ears like a bomb. Beyond a doubt Farmiloe was speaking of the snuffy little man who had brought the great joke tumbling in ruins about the comedian's head.
"Well, go on," Gregory said. "The plot intrigues me."
"So I went," Farmiloe resumed. "There were six of those things altogether and it didn't take me long to tell my man just what my opinion of the rubbish was."
"Then they weren't Paradines at all?"
"Naw," Farmiloe snarled in deep contempt. "Not altogether bad stuff and not devoid of feeling, but palpable forgeries. The old chap was mad with me because I refused to be bullied, and we paraded on terms of armed neutrality. Just as if Paradine ever painted a picture I couldn't trace, you chaps."
All of which was pleasant hearing for the unhappy Tommy. He sat there apparently absorbed in a paper whilst he was drinking in every word that the eminent critic was saying. The great Joke had not only fizzled out, but the aftermath promised to make Tommy a figure of fun for many a day to come. And suppose that Grimstein chose to appeal to Caesar himself, represented in this case by Paradine? If he did, what then? The whole story would trickle into the popular press—just the kind of thing the master of pungent paragraphs, one Hannibal Barr, would love to handle in one of his social columns.
And then, as fate would have it. Barr himself appeared just in time to gather what Farmiloe was saying.
"Let's have that all over again," he demanded.
Tommy smothered a groan. Unless some miracle happened, he could see himself the victim of every little street boy in London. But what could he do? Go to Paradine and make a clean breast of it and invoke his aid. But then he had always regarded Paradine as little better than a child in arms in worldly matters, which in point of fact, he was. Or perhaps Farmiloe himself would help. But he didn't want to go to that superior person with his patronising pomposity if there was any other way out. And he didn't want to be laughed at—it is the one thing your practical Joker all over the world most dreads.
Meanwhile the paragraphist was gleaning what promised to be a rich harvest of copy from Farmiloe's story. Tommy could almost see the pungent narrative in print.
"Mean to say the stuff was all junk?" Barr asked when at length Farmiloe had finished. "Impudent forgeries?"
"Looks like it," Farmiloe said. "Lots of that sort of thing going on. Traps to catch flats like Grimstein."
"But I thought he was a connoisseur, Farmiloe."
"My dear fellow, they an are. Or think so. But when they start out buying on their own without consulting experts like myself they usually come a cropper as Grimstein did today. He was infernally cocksure, but I think I shook him up a bit. If he gives out to the world that he has bought a lot of early Paradines on his own judgment and exhibits them, as he threatened to do, he is asking for it, my boy. Fancy trying to bluff me into agreeing that that junk is Paradine's work!"
Hannibal Barr's dry chuckle irritated Tommy to the verge of manslaughter. Here was a rich field for the paragraphist and one on which Tommy Allnatt would figure as leading character. Nothing else would be discussed in the club for months.
"Funny chap, Paradine," Barr remarked. "Thorpe of 'The Bacon,' was chasing him yesterday and ran him to earth in some poisonous eating house in Soho where he was entertaining a tramp in filthy rags. Picturesque, murderous-looking bloke, Thorpe said. Picked up in the gutter by Paradine who was mad to paint him on his native heath, so to speak. 'Pears that the chap lives in some sort of wood in Surrey and subsists on roots and mushrooms. So nothing would do but that Paradine must rush off at once and sketch the unsavory hermit outside his cave. Last thing Thorpe saw was the two setting out for the wilds."
"The deuce!" Farmiloe exclaimed. "I happen to know that Paradine had an appointment this very morning with no less a personage than the King of Asturia."
"In other words, a royal command, what?"
"You've said it. It's like this. About a week ago Paradine was down at Hurlingham watching the polo and made a sketch of the King in action. One of Paradine's best, I'm told, though I have not seen it as yet. The King happened to hear about it and asked to see the drawing. He was so pleased that he asked Paradine to finish it in pastel for another royal potentate as a birthday present and the great man was going to the studio this morning for a final look at the work."
"And Paradine clean forgot it," Barr grinned. "Make a topping story out of that, what?"
"You'd make a story out of your grandmother's coffin." said Farmiloe nastily. "Surely you'd never have the cheek—"
"'Fraid not," Barr sighed. "It doesn't pay to bring royalty into tabloid journalism—editors shy at it. And, anyway, King Pedro is a topping good sportsman. But I'd like to have seen him this morning being received by the kitchen maid with the information that Paradine was off indefinitely in company with a lousy tramp. Bet His Majesty was amused."
A hollow groan rumbled in Tommy's throat. It had come to him with stunning force that a picture he had sold to the snuffy old gentleman was one showing a handsome, manly figure in polo kit, A gentle dew bespangled Tommy's brow.
* * * * *
It was a good half-hour later before Tommy contrived to get Farmiloe into a quiet corner with a view to enlisting the powerful aid of the distinguished critic in saving the stricken field. But would the arbiter of art do it?
On the whole Tommy thought that he would. The greatest practical joker of his time was rarely at a loss to escape the dire consequences of a miscarried jape, and now that things were at their blackest. Tommy began to see his way.
"Well, of all the infernal cheek!" Farmiloe cried when at length the tale was told. "What the deuce—"
"Just a rag," Tommy went on hastily. "Besides, I was a bit biffed at being done out of my lunch. So I decided to give Paradine a lesson. My idea was to sit on the pavement trying to sell genuine Paradines at break up prices, if you get me. But never expectin' to sell one. See the joke? Set the clubs laughin' like blazes for months, eh?"
"Rotten bad taste," Farmiloe sniffed. "I must decline to interfere. If it hadn't been for the King of Asturia, perhaps I might... You are not seriously suggesting that I should go to Grimstein and bully those drawings out of him?"
"Well, something like that," Tommy grinned.
The maker of reputations shook his head vigorously.
"Forget it," he snapped. "With a name like mine, my dear Allnatt, with the great British public depending—"
"I'm not the British public," Tommy smiled, "but a poor devil of a comedian in a deuced tight place. And doesn't it strike you, pompous ass, that you are as deep in the soup as I am. If not, then let me enlighten you."
"Is this a threat?" Farmiloe demanded.
"Something like it, old bird. You are a great man in your own line and thousands of would-be-intellectuals sit at your feet and eat the literary oysters peddled monthly by your Review. From your edict one may judge that Paradine has the half nelson on John, and Orpen on the mat for the count. And, yet with all your wonderful flair and intuition for genius, you scoffed at a set of genuine Paradines when Grimstein showed them to you."
"What precisely do you mean?" Farmiloe stammered.
"Well, haven't I proved it? You, who can feel a Paradine in the dark actually handled a batch of his work in Grimstein's Park-street house and laughed them to scorn. Lord, if I wasn't a kind-hearted bloke, I could bust your wonderful critical reputation sky high in 24 hours."
Farmiloe winced, he saw the red light plainly now.
"What sort of a critic do you call yourself?" Tommy went on pushing his advantage home. "Granted, you made Paradine, but only to spite Inigo Chrome. One of the finest bits of logrolling ever put across the public. And with all your intimate knowledge of the great man's work, you fail to recognise it when it is actually shoved under your nose. What will your disciples say when they discover that fact?"
Tommy was feeling on firm ground now. He was the brilliant general who sees defeat turned to victory.
"But surely," Farmiloe stammered, "you wouldn't—"
"Oh, wouldn't I," Tommy cried viciously. "I don't propose to be laughed out of London if I can help it. If that is to be my fate then you will share it, old scout."
Farmiloe was beginning to see the point of the argument. Tommy lost no time in ramming it home.
"You laughed in old Grimstein's face. You insulted his judgment and touched his pocket. Then you came here to boast about it. Before Hannibal Barr, mind. London's premier paragraph gossip. If only he realises the real truth! My boy, you will never hear the last of it unless you manage to bluff Grimstein and get hold of those pictures before Paradine gets back to his studio. Make Grimstein realise that he has been had by some practical joker who laid a plant to catch him. Say that you have been making exhaustive inquiries, and, by a lucky chance, hit on the authors of the jape. Say you forced the truth out of the rascals and managed to get the money paid for the sketches back. If you fail to do that, then we are both up to our necks in it. And here's the notes Grimstein gave me this morning."
"You think it would work?" the unhappy Farmiloe gulped.
"Of course," Tommy said. "You have been a bluffer all your life, and it will come easy. Pose as the saviour of Grimstein's reputation as a judge of paintings. Condole with him, kiss him if you like. But, for heaven's sake, get those pictures back. And get them back now."
Farmiloe was moved at last.
"You little blighter," he snarled, speaking, for once, like an ordinary human being. "You little blighter, this stunt of yours has landed me in a nice mess. Not that I am entirely blameless in the matter."
"Blameless!" Tommy laughed. "Hoist with your own petard, as Bill Shakespeare says. Now get on with it."
"At once," Farmiloe said, quite meekly. "Stay here till I get back. Hi, waiter, call me up a taxi."
* * * * *
An hour later Farmiloe was back in the club with a bulky parcel under his arm, and, without a word, dragged Tommy into his waiting taxi and thence to Paradine's studio. And that was how a great scandal was averted, and Tommy Allnatt's face saved.
A BITTER twist of Gunfort's lips and an almost murderous expression on his thin, saturnine features marked the intensity of his dark mood as he read the letter which he held in his hand. Otherwise, he was a handsome man carrying his profession in every line of him, and that profession the stage. A fine figure, slender, but athletic, and that of one who has cared for himself well and looking nothing like his close on fifty years.
The letter he was reading was short and to the point.
"Dear Gunfort (it ran), Barton tells me that you are at a loose end for a month or so and has given me your address. We are at Barchester for a fortnight's run in Shakespeare, and Melville is laid up in hospital here pending an operation. Can you see your way to take his place? Our leading line is 'Romeo and Juliet.' Will you come and play 'Tybalt' for me—Forrest as 'Mercutio.' Wire me on receipt.—Yours,
Again the twisted bitterness on Gunfort's lips and the sinister smile on his face. Then a long sigh as if some conflict had come to a successful end. Gunfort rose, and crossing the room took from a locked desk another letter the writing on which seemed to have faded with the passage of years.
"My dearest George (Gunfort read). By the time you get this I shall be beyond all pain and suffering. I am writing this in St. Agatha's Hospital in Melbourne, where I am well cared for and happy—that is so far as one in my condition can be happy. It has been a hard struggle since the man who promised before God to love and cherish me left me penniless and starving all these miles from home. Nobody will ever know how I have suffered and I struggled to starvation point until a good Samaritan sent me here to die. Perhaps I was wrong to keep all this from you, but a sort of pride sustained me. But so it was, and to this day the man who so wronged his wife is still in ignorance of the fact that I have a brother who is also on the stage and playing under the name of 'Gunfort.' My one prayer is that you will never meet."
There was much more in the letter, but Gunfort read no further—he knew every word of it by heart. He locked the sheet up again and went out to send a wire confirming to Barchester. The grim twisted smile was still on his lips.
Barchester prided itself on being more or less of a cultivated centre and especially on its appreciation of the finer points of the drama. They had a saying that what Barchester thought to-day on matters theatrical England thought to-morrow. Therefore, a longish visit from the Barry Openshaw Repertory Company in Shakespeare was an event in the social calendar.
As an old hand in legitimate drama, Gunfort was pretty well known to the rest of the company. Not that he appeared on the stage too often because he was a man with private means and thus in a position to choose his own parts. Despite his talents and that picturesque appearance, he was not popular, being prone to nurse grievances and quick in quarrel.
All the same, he seemed almost to go out of his way to show attention to George Forrest, who played what the profession calls 'opposite' to him, more especially in the favorite 'Romeo and Juliet,' where Forrest's 'Mercutio' was greatly admired.
"Rather strange that we have never played together before," Forrest remarked during one rehearsal of the great love tragedy.
"Oh, I don't know," Gunfort replied. "You see I have never been out of the country in the course of my work, whereas you seem to have played all over the world."
"That's true," Forrest admitted. "Europe and Africa, also America and Australia. Fine country, that."
"So I believe," Gunfort said. "I seem to have some sort of hazy recollection that you married out there. An actress who went out with some English company and stayed there."
Forrest shrugged his shoulders, indifferently.
"True enough," he declared. "Pretty little girl but could not act for nuts. Finally went off on her own, and from that day to this I have never set eyes on her."
"Then you don't know whether she is alive or dead?"
"Quite so, Gunfort. But that's years ago, dear boy. Only hope she doesn't bob up serenely one of these days."
Gunfort's thoughts reverted to a certain yellow and faded letter which reposed in a locked drawer at his lodgings. But the friendly smile on his face did not relax as he turned the subject aside and began to talk of other things.
* * * * *
It was towards the end of the tour and Barchester was looking forward to the second performance of 'Romeo and Juliet' which was to take place on the Saturday night. The house was packed from floor to roof when the curtain went up and the play began. A famous young actress had been imported for the occasion and Barchester had risen in its might to welcome her. And so for a time the play proceeded in almost breathless silence whilst those on-stage waited for their calls. In the wings, Forrest, looking wonderfully fine in the dashing attire of 'Mercutio,' was passing the time with Gunfort as 'Tybalt' previous to the duel scene and exchanging what appeared to be amusing confidences with him.
"This ought to go big to-night," Forrest was saying in the hearing of a group of scene-shifters. "I never saw an audience more keyed up. A little more fire, I think, Gunfort, old man. A few more minutes of 'business,' what."
Gunfort was playing with his rapier and apparently looking to the button on the point. It was as if he was making sure that everything was on the safe side.
"Righto," he said, casually. "I never much liked these real business rapiers. There'll be a nasty accident with them one of these days, and so I told Openshaw this afternoon. But he wouldn't hear a word of it. When the old man gets worried over one of the big shows, it's better to give him a wide berth."
"Worrying about me or yourself?" Forrest smiled.
"Both," Gunfort smiled. "But not really. Goodness knows what put the matter in my head."
A few minutes later the two were on the stage together with 'Romeo' and the rest of the followers and the scene began. In the theatre the proverbial pin might have been heard to drop as 'Tybalt' flashed out his rapier and the duel began. It was acting—acting of the highest type. A fight to the death with a breathless audience hanging on every thrust and parry. Then a small object seemed to rise from the stage and go flying into the wings. And the fight went on.
A slight stumble by 'Tybalt' and a quick recovery; and then a vicious thrust under 'Mercutio's' guard and the rapiers were knocked up as directed just as the blade was withdrawn and 'Mercutio' fell to the ground.
But not to utter what was in effect his dying speech, for he lay there whilst 'Tybalt' gazed in a sort of dazed horror at the point of his rapier. Almost in a flash the wild roar of applause was hushed as the house sensed that something was wrong. For 'Mercutio' lay there as if dead to the world. A thin stream began to trickle across the stage.
"My God, he's killed!" A voice broke the silence.
Shrieks and groans broke out all over the house. Then someone more long-sighted than usual noted the sinister fact that the button on 'Tybalt's' foil was missing and proclaimed the discovery in a voice harsh with emotion. Openshaw came dashing on to the stage and gave a signal that brought the curtain down with a rush. A babble of voices behind it and more wild bursts amongst the audience. After a pause that seemed to last for ages there was a whisper for a doctor, and immediately three men rose in the stalls and were dragged over the footlights.
Behind the curtain a small group of actors and stage hands gathered about the still form of the man lying there as silent as the grave. There had been no motion since he fell.
The first medical man bent over the body as if to listen for any sign of life. He shook his head gravely.
"Dead, poor fellow," he whispered. "Pierced to the heart, if I am not mistaken. What do you say, Clift?"
He turned to his colleague, and the other stooped only to give the same verdict. Then the gaudy trappings were torn away and the bare chest exposed.
"Beyond a doubt," came the decision. "The heart has been pricked—not deeply, but enough. Just as the real 'Mercutio' would have said a few seconds later. How did it happen?"
For the first time all eyes were turned to Gunfort. He stood there like one in a nightmare dream, a look of frozen horror on his face. His eyes fascinated seemed to be glued on the red point of his rapier. Three times Openshaw spoke to him ere any reply came. And then almost a whisper.
"I didn't know," he gasped. "I seemed to slip. Fell forward. Then the button must have been broken off."
"It was," a stage hand interrupted. "I seen it myself. There it is. Flew, it did, like a bird. Yonder."
Gunfort seemed to be fighting for breath.
"I tried to make it safe," he muttered. "I thought it was safe. That was just before my entrance."
"That's right," the same stage hand went on. "I see Mr. Gunfort adoing of it. Making safe, thinks I."
"Lamentable, most lamentable," the manager, Openshaw, almost wailed. "But clearly an accident. A fortunate thing that the poor chap had nobody depending on him."
"Or on me," Gunfort said. "Not that I matter much at the moment. When you are friendly with a man—"
His voice broke and he turned away like a man who is suddenly stricken with an overwhelming grief. It was Openshaw who first of all seemed to realise that there were things to be done.
"There will be an inquest, of course," he said. "Now I must go and dismiss the audience."
The theatre was cleared at length though what the real tragedy was would be learnt later. A most unfortunate accident, Openshaw explained. But one that prevented the performance from proceeding. And so on and so on.
There was nothing more to be done but to convey the body to the mortuary and notify the police. And then the stricken body of players wended their way home.
* * * * *
Naturally enough, the tragedy created a wide sensation in the town, and when the district coroner opened the inquest proceedings in the Town Hall the rush to find seats was sufficient to fill the building. No relation of the dead man came forward to identify him, as it was generally believed that he was colonial born and had no status in England. Indeed, Openshaw had a sort of impression that Forrest was merely a stage name. As everybody knew, there was nothing uncommon about this, and, for the purpose of the inquest it mattered little.
The first witness called was the stage hand who had noticed the flying of the button off the rapier which Gunfort had used.
"No, sir; I didn't think much of it at the time," he said, in answer to the question. "They both seemed to be clever with the weapons, and the fight was merely a stage one."
"I find in my notes that there was some suggestion of a slip on the part of Mr. Gunfort," the coroner said. "Did you happen to notice anything of the sort?"
"I did that, sir," the witness replied. "And it's my opinion that but for a stumble the accident would never have happened. It were a most realistic fight, and I were watching it closely, never having seen anything to touch it before. Just thrilling, it were. Then Mr. Gunfort he seemed to slip, and it looked as if he would have fallen. But he recovered himself, and, as he did so, lurched forward, and the point of his blade caught Mr. Forrest full in chest."
"That was shortly after the button flew off?"
"That's right, sir. Then Mr. Forrest, he falls forward and drops on the stage all of a heap like. That's all I know."
"Is there anybody connected with the theatre who can give me any information as to whether it was possible some person or persons to handle those two foils? They appear to me to be formidable weapons with the buttons off."
One, Speechly, the baggage man, entered the witness box.
"It was part of my business, sir, to see to all that sort of thing," he testifled. "I always made it a point to see that such things were kept under lock and key. I have seen more than one nasty accident happen in my trade when actors begin to lark about with such things."
"Quite so," the coroner assented. "And in the present case you followed your usual custom, I presume?"
"That I did, sir," the witness went on. "The rapiers were in my possession until the dresser of the two gentlemen came to me for them."
"But during rehearsals, perhaps—"
"Walking sticks, or light canes, sir. No occasion for anything more dangerous than that."
Gunfort came into the witness stand presently, and a deep hush held the listeners spellbound. His face was white and drawn, and he had about him the air of one who felt his position keenly. Just a pallid picture of remorse and suffering. He spoke clearly and quietly though his voice shook as he spoke.
"I am greatly to blame," he began, "though I did my best to guard against any accident. I was particularly careful at the last moment to see that the button on the point of the foil was secure. Moreover, I am more or less an expert with the rapier. In addition, some days ago I suggested to my manager that dummy weapons might be used."
"Quite true," Openshaw interrupted. "You see, sir, I am a confirmed realist with regard to stage effects, and I much preferred the use of real weapons."
"If I had not stumbled," Gunfort continued, "I feel quite sure that the tragedy would never have happened. You see, I could not recover my poise in time, and, had I fallen, the whole thrilling illusion of the duel would have been lost. I lurched forward to regain my balance, at the same time making a thrust and, as the button on my foil was off, my weapon struck the deceased heavily on the left breast. If I could do anything—"
The witness stopped and buried his face in his hands. A wave of emotion swept the room. Above it came the voice of the coroner addressing the jury.
"A most distressing accident, gentlemen," he concluded, "and one that could not be avoided. It seems to me that some at least of our sympathy may go out to the last witness in his distress. I suggest a verdict of 'Death by misadventure.'"
"And that," said the foreman of the jury a few minutes later in a formal voice, "is the verdict of us all."
* * * * *
Gunfort slowly and dejectedly made his way from the court to his lodgings. He was quite alone. Once under cover he took out the faded letter and burnt it to the last cinder. The thin, bitter smile was on his lips once more.
"Death by misadventure," he murmured. "Yes, the misadventure of meeting me. Little sister, you are avenged at last. That is a story that will die with me."
MALCOLM ANDERSON had worked out the whole thing deliberately. Just as he worked out those weird short stories of his in the seclusion of his cottage in the fens where he lived with his aged mother who had never quite understood the peculiar bent of her son's genius. For genius it undoubtedly was.
A man of moods, without friends, and living inside himself to the exclusion of the outside world, though compelled by force of circumstances to work for his living in urban surroundings. That is, before a distant relative had left him enough in the way of an income to enable him to retire from the strenuous life and free to live where he chose. And that had been a lonely house in the fens some three miles from Luckmere. And there he would have been content to pass the rest of his life had it not been for the fact that George Leverson was blackmailing him.
Leverson had been his only friend—if the word 'friend' is applicable—in London. The one person in the world who knew of his solitary slip from the straight path.
And now Leverson was holding him to ransom. Very carefully and cunningly in the shape of borrowed money without a single hint at a threat, nothing that could be used in evidence in a court of justice. But blackmail all the same, and getting more weighty with every letter asking for a loan until Anderson was beginning to feel the weight of financial pressure.
Physically Anderson was a fine figure of a man, one who lived a hard, frugal life by choice and one who took a deal of outdoor exercise. Whereas Leverson was a typical town product with a natural bent towards dissipation.
Leverson must be got rid of, and that speedily if Anderson was not to be bled to death slowly—in plain English, murdered. Nor was the project particularly hazardous. Anderson lived with his mother in that lonely house on the fens with no outside help save an elderly woman who came in daily for a few hours. What more easy, then than to write a note to Leverson asking down for a night, having previously arranged that his mother should not be present, since she had relations in the next county, friends whom she frequently visited.
So the stage was set in conditions that were quite normal and the friendly note to Leverson was written. Would he come down by a late train one evening and walk the three miles from the station to the house in the fens? It was quite a friendly note for, so far, there was no sign that Anderson in any way resented the constant appeals to his purse.
And so Leverson, being in sore need of cash, as usual, came in reply to the invitation. But he never reached the lonely house in the fens for the simple reason that Anderson stole out of his abode under cover of the darkness and met his victim half-way and murdered him.
A smashing blow with a cudgel, and then the unconscious body was dragged from the deserted highway and plunged into a deep boghole, selected beforehand for the purpose, and the crime was hidden for ever. But not before Leverson had put up some sort of a fight and had grappled with his assassin. Half an hour later Anderson was back in his house, satisfied that his coming and going had been entirely unobserved, and that the menace which had been so long hanging over him was removed.
But there was one thing the troubled him greatly. In the brief struggle he had lost a dozen links or more in a platinum chain to which his old verge watch was attached. There was one end holding on to the watch and the other secured to a silver sovereign purse, but the middle of the chain was gone.
What had become of it? Was it lying on the road for some curious person to pick up or was it still in Leverson's grasp at the bottom of the boghole? A clue, perhaps a vital clue pointing directly to the scaffold. And, if it fell into the hands of the police...
Of course inquiries would be made by Leverson's relations, though he had no wife to raise the alarm. Even if the letter asking him down to the house in the fens was still intact, it would be an easy matter to say that Leverson had not turned up although he, Anderson, had expected him. Nor was there a single soul in the world who had the remotest idea that the two men were anything but the best of friends.
But the missing links in the watch chain worried Anderson terribly. A number of people knew about it; his mother to begin with, and the other clerks in the office where he had worked in London before that small fortune came his way. There was Carter, the cashier, for instance, who had under estimated its value, only to be told that it was platinum, and therefore worth far more than a gold chain would have been—and others.
Anderson sat brooding over his loss long after he got home, sitting before the dead fire in the grate, thankful that he was alone in the house. Company then would have been unbearable. It would be futile to set out in search of those missing links, and, perhaps, a danger if he did so. He cursed his perfervid imagination and dragged himself unwillingly to bed.
But not to sleep. He tossed wearily from side to side until the dawn broke and the haunting ghosts fled before the sunshine. He knew that his moody taciturnity spelt nothing to the village woman who came presently to see to his creature comforts, for she had seen him in no other temperament. And so the day passed and the next with a thankfulness of sorts that his mother was still away. She would have sensed the subtle change.
He craved for company and yet dreaded the chance. And so three dreadful days followed with no human voice other than those that came over his wireless. It was only the voice he wanted for aught else jangled on his nerves in discord. And then, on the third night, a sort of call from the grave.
"We are asked by the police to broadcast the following: 'Missing from his home since Wednesday last. George Leverson, of 16 Martindale - terrace, Amber - street, Bloombsbury...'"
Anderson switched off, hurriedly. So the hunt was afoot. Listen further, he had not dared. Yet from the start he had felt that police investigation must follow the crime. Once more that vivid imagination began to work though he strove to stifle it. What if suspicion fell on him? What if Leverson's body were found with that letter of invitation on him?
And what if the police kept silence on the point whilst they made inquiries elsewhere? Clever men, those detectives, and quick in deduction.
It would not take them long to find out that Leverson's moral character would not stand investigation. Suppose they obtained an order from the Secretary of State to examine Leverson's bank transactions? If that were done, then there would be found a score of instances when Leverson paid in drafts with Anderson's name as drawer upon them.
What a fool he had been not to have thought of that before. Those transactions would fairly reek with blackmail. How was he going to explain all that away? He might have to do that even if the body of the murdered man was not found. Leverson was a bit of a boaster in his cups, which were many and he might have told a score of people that he was going to see Anderson.
And so the self-torturing went on. He could see himself in the dock, and then in the witness-box facing a deadly cross-examination at the hands of Crown counsel. Perhaps the fiercest ordeal sinful man is ever called on to face.
He saw more than that—he saw himself standing on a scaffold with the prison chaplain intoning the burial service and his spineless self swinging grotesquely at the end of a rope. Once they hanged murderers in chains—perhaps it might be a fragment of chain that would hang him.
It was not until the fifth night that Anderson slept. And then only to dream the tragedy all over again. He was back once more on the lonely high road leading from Luckmere to the house in the fens seeking the lost portion of the platinum chain. He was hunting to the verge of the bog pool in which he had placed the body. It was fairly dry underfoot now though on the night of the crime there had been some heavy rain. And it seemed to Anderson, looking down, that the dead man's face was turned up to him with accusation in the sightless eyes.
Then next day it rained fairly hard so that Anderson, wandering far and wide for distraction and physical exhaustion, so that he might sleep again, arrived home at length with boots and clothing more or less saturated though he was too distrait to notice it. And once more that awful dream again. There seemed no way of getting rid of it.
Meanwhile nothing further so far as regarded the missing man. No doubt the police were active enough in their search, but not in the direction of Luckmere. Perhaps, after all, Leverson had destroyed the letter—there was no particular object in keeping it. If it had been found surely some sort of inquiry would have reached Luckmere by this time.
Then, once again that dreadful dream, this time more poignant than ever, and much more vivid. An overwhelming desire to revert once more to the scene of the tragedy, as if he had risen in the dead of night and tramped the deserted road as far as the boghole. Horribly conscious he was of his body, too, and of a certain weariness impossible to shake off.
Here he was by the edge of the pool at last looking down at the clear imprint of his boots, a double track leading to the pool and back again. No mistaking the impression of those rubber soles with the maker's pattern so clearly marked on them. And, so far no sign of disturbance in the water. And then a change. Voices in the distance followed by the tramp of feet and then four men unmistakably officers of the law despite the fact that they were in mufti. One of them carried a coil of rope with a stout triangular hook at the end of it.
These strangers advanced to the edge of the pool and paused whilst one of them pointed down to those damning footprints.
"Been here twice," he said. "Perhaps oftener before the rain came. Before the rain came."
"Stupid thing to do," the man with the drag muttered. "Almost like signing a confession, sir."
The man who had spoken first, nodded. He was evidently in authority over the other three, an inspector perhaps.
"Something like that, Symonds," he said. "But many murderers are taken that way. It's the mad streak that infests their blood. And they do say that this man Anderson is given to self-torture. Writes stories of the most gruesome kind. I have read one or two of them in magazines. Sort of Edgar Poe stuff. It was quite a brain-wave that sent you searching for Leverson here, Cox."
"Seemed natural, sir," the man addressed as Cox replied. "Especially after you had examined those two banking accounts. Blackmail, I said to myself, and blackmail it was. Then there was the letter found at Leverson's lodgings. And the discovery that Anderson was alone in his house on the night he had invited Leverson down here. Thinks I, Leverson was met on his way from Luckmere station by Anderson and murdered. If I was right, then he was killed somewhere here and the body hidden. And no better place with all these deep bogholes about. But I did not expect to discover the marks of Anderson's rubber-soled boots crying out to be investigated. We'll have the body in half an hour, sir, with any luck."
All this was passing in Anderson's dream. It seemed to him that he was crouched behind a fringe of tall grass and rushes listening to every word that was passing. Through the green screen he saw all that was going on. And in the same dream he knew that his worst fears were realised. It would be only a few hours before the prison gates would close on him. But as to those telltale footprints. How on earth had they got there? But for them, that peat-pool might never have been searched. They were definite enough to point a damning finger at the author of the crime. And they were his footprints made by the rubber-soled shoes he always wore. By what black magic had they got there?
Meanwhile, in his land of dreams, Anderson watched the dread work going on. He saw the drag lowered into the pool and presently a tightening of the rope.
"Got something here, sir," one of the men said. "Gently does it. Easy, a bit to the right. That's better."
Something rose to the surface—a mass of matter much as if a carcase in a bag had been raised to the light of those flashlights. Something half hidden in a mass of waterweed. And out of it projecting something in the shape of an arm. An arm with a hand attached to it. And a hand, moreover, that had an object firmly in its grip.
"Ah—what's this?" the leader of the group demanded.
"Looks like a bit of watch-chain, sir," the man called Symonds replied, "Gunmetal I should say."
The man in command took the links from his officer and wiped them dry. Then held them close to one of the flash-lamps.
"Nothing of the sort!" he said. "These broken links are platinum. I have a similar chain myself."
"So has Anderson," Symonds cried. "Don't you remember, sir, that we got that information from the office where he once worked? The other clerks used to chaff him about it."
The chief smiled on his subordinate before proceeding to examine the sinister bundle which had been brought to the surface by means of the drag. The clinging weeds were carefully swept away, and a white sodden face revealed. All part of the dream that held Anderson in a grip like a vice.
Subconsciously he was struggling with all his strength to shake it off. He wanted to wake up and know that this horror was bred of conscience and the haunting knowledge of his crime. It seemed to him that he slowly rose from his hiding-place and advanced in the direction of the officers. Then they saw him and gazed at him in amazement. He stepped to the side of the corpse and looked down at the dead face.
A great cry broke from him—a cry that rang out into the stillness of the night like that of some tortured animal, loud as a trumpet call. The binding spell was broken and the reality of life came back to Anderson sweating at every pore.
"Anderson himself," Symonds cried. "Our man—"
"Yes—Anderson beyond the shadow of doubt," the officer in charge assented, "and walking in his sleep!"
MRS. WESTBROOKE, with a few well-chosen words of apology, dropped into her chair at the dining-room table and unfolded her napkin. It was the usual Wednesday night dinner-party for which Sir John and Lady Cardwell were noted, and the usual brilliant knot of men and women had gathered there. Mrs. Westbrooke had been late, but she certainly did not convey the impression that she had, within the last hour, returned to London from the Continent, after a long and trying journey. She was serene and calm as usual, perfectly dressed, and beautiful in her stately way. She did not look anything like her thirty-five years, and those who knew her wondered what her secret was. Hers had been a stormy life, and it was only recently that she had found her way into a harbour of peace and serenity. Now she was rich, and had all the world before her.
She glanced casually round the table, with its flowers and ferns and shaded lights, the last person in the world whom anyone might associate with care or strife or tragedy. Despite her serenity, she was here looking for someone, and presently she found him.
He was on the other side of the table, discussing some passing topic with his dinner partner. Edgar Remington was a man who would have attracted attention anywhere, not so much from his good looks or striking personality as by his peculiar and forceful magnetism. As a matter of fact, he was plain in feature, coarse cut, and rugged—the bulldog type; deep of voice and tenacious of purpose. The men at the Bar, who ought to know, prophesied that Remington would go a long way. He was quite a modern product—extension schools' scholarship, university and Bar prizeman, son of a Noncomformist minister, with a strong leaning towards politics. His chance had come now, and he was going to make the best of it. He knew perfectly well that if he succeeded in getting a verdict of acquittal for Julius Maxwell on the morrow the rest of the way along the path would be easy. Everybody was talking about the case; it was one of those criminal romances that gripped the popular imagination in the club and cottage alike. It was even being discussed fitfully round Lady Cardwell's dinner-table.
At first everything had pointed to a verdict of guilty. Nobody doubted that Maxwell had deliberately murdered the man who had been his greatest benefactor, and whose money he had expected to inherit. The prisoner had been a bad lot from the first. He had been expelled from school, he had left Oxford under a heavy cloud, and a few years later he had been forced to resign the membership of his clubs. There was more than one of Lady Cardwell's guests who had know Mrs. Maxwell, the pretty, pathetic little woman whose heart had been broken by her rascally husband's cruelty. She was supposed to have died abroad somewhere, leaving a daughter behind her, but on this latter point nobody seemed to be quite sure. Certainly no self-respecting girl would be likely to come forward and own Julius Maxwell as her father. One quidnunc declared that Maxwell's daughter had come into money and changed her name. At any rate, the only person in the world that Julius Maxwell could turn to at the finish was his Uncle John—the man who had been found murdered in the library three months before, in circumstances that pointed to the guilt of his scapegrace nephew.
The dead man had been found in his house in Portman Square when the servants had come down one morning early in October. The old man had been murdered, without a doubt, but no clue had been left behind, and nothing apparently was missing until it was discovered, a few days later, that the murdered man had withdrawn from his bank five hundred pounds in notes on the eve of the crime, and of these there was no trace whatever. For three months the police had searched for them in vain, but up to now not one of them had been put in circulation.
Still, gradually and surely, the authorities worked up a strong case against the accused. For three days now the counsel for the Crown had been unfolding his story, and when he finally sat down there was not a single person in the court who would have given sixpence for the life of the prisoner.
Then had come Remington's chance. For two days he fought for the life of his client as if it had been his own. He was the most-talked of man in England now, and he knew it. He stood there quiet and calm, with the air of one who felt himself to be a victor, and unfolded a marvellous and ingenious defence. Apparently he was going to rely entirely upon an alibi—a dangerous thing in any but the most skilful hands. And yet, so well had he worked it that, when the court rose at five o'clock that afternoon, the betting on the verdict was even.
It was not that a single listener to that battle of wits entertained the slightest doubt as to the guilt of the prisoner. Everybody knew that he was guilty. He carried it in his face and his furtive eye and nervous twitching of his hands. And yet Remington had established the doubt, and as he sat there placidly eating his dinner he knew that, with the coming out of the evening papers, tomorrow he would be famous.
The dinner dragged its slow length along, the coffee and liqueur stage reached at length, and the cigarettes were handed round.
Mrs. Westbrooke changed her chair, and, with a skilful move, found herself seated next to Remington. The two were acquainted of course, but they were not in the feast intimate.
Remington welcomed Mrs. Westbrooke with a proper shade of deference, for he was not insensible to her popularity and influence; but he would willingly have changed the conversation.
"Really," he said, "I think we've discussed my client long enough. Besides, it is hardly the sort of topic for a dinner where ladies are present. What do you say, Mrs. Westbrooke?"
"Well, I am interested enough," Mary Westbrooke said. "But I am not so much interested in your client as yourself."
"That is very nice and flattering."
"I don't think so. Now, I don't understand the aspect of the legal mind in the least. I am going to be frightfully rude, Mr Remington. I am going to exercise the privilege of my sex and ask an impertinent question. Do you honestly believe that your client is innocent?"
Remington shrugged his shoulders.
"Has that anything to do with the case?" he asked. "I am merely an instrument—what the criminal classes call a 'mouthpiece.' A certain solicitor comes to me with a brief to defend Maxwell, and I undertake the defence."
"Do you think that Maxwell is innocent?"
"My dear lady," Remington said patiently, "it is not for me to say. I want you to understand that the man is my client. He has assured me and his solicitor that he is the victim of circumstances, and, after discussing all the points, we decided to set up a certain line of defence."
"And a very brilliant line of defence, too," Mrs Westbrooke smiled. "That is what everybody says. I understand that the prisoner is likely to be acquitted tomorrow. But you have not yet answered my question. Do you think Maxwell is guilty?"
Remington protested politely. Really, this sort of thing was not fair. He was doing no more than his duty; he was acting entirely according to precedent laid down in the long and glorious traditions of the English Bar. He could not discuss his client's guilt or innocence with anyone. Could not Mrs. Westbrooke see that it was not a personal matter?
"It would be awkward for you," she said, "if by some chance the missing bank-notes suddenly appeared. If one of them could be traced to your client, what would you have to say then?"
Remington shrugged his shoulders.
"There would be an end to the case as far as I am concerned," he said. "Of course, you mean if the fact were brought to my personal knowledge. Then I should be robbed of my triumph, and you would say it served me right. I am trying to see your point of view, Mrs. Westbrooke. According to you, none of us are sportsmen. If you had your way, no noted criminal would ever be represented in the courts. Once a man was taken to be guilty, then every barrister would turn his back upon him. Now, that is not my view at all. If I were briefed to defend a murderer, I would do my best for him, even if his victim were my own brother. It is entirely a matter of the point of view. In your eyes I am no sportsman, and in my eyes you are arguing from an entirely false perspective. You won't mind my saying that you speak as if you had a personal bias against Maxwell."
Mrs. Westbrooke's eyes flashed ominously.
"I have," she said. "Maxwell's unhappy wife was one of my dearest friends. I will make you a present of that."
Remington looked just a little relieved. He was not displeased that the argument should take on a personal aspect. Anybody listening—and most of the guests were—would attribute Mrs. Westbrooke's anger entirely to her loyalty towards her dead friend. Remington smiled in a tolerant way.
"I thought you didn't mean quite all that you said," he remarked. "Of course, I am not going to defend my client as a model of virtue. I would not be seen in the street with him, for instance. But at the same time I am not admitting that he was responsible for the death of his uncle. We don't want to go into details."
"Julius Maxwell is an abandoned scoundrel," Mrs. Westbrooke said. "He started life with a great advantage. He had money, and when he had dissipated that he married a fortune. He spent every penny of his wife's money, and ill-treated her into the bargain. He behaved so badly that his only daughter left him, and was so ashamed of her father's record that she changed her name. She got her own living as a typist and shorthand clerk in the city. She thought she was safe; but, unfortunately, she also had a large amount left her. That man found it out, and followed her everywhere. For eighteen months he made the poor girl's life a burden. From her he had all her income; she could not touch her principal because she was not of age. She lived in the meanest lodgings on the Continent, and frequently was short of food. I found her not long ago playing a violin in a Viennese restaurant. She told me her story, and I managed to get her away to a place where her father could not find her. For the last three or four months Julius Maxwell has been living on his wits. I have seen him once or twice. And I firmly believe that he called upon his uncle on the night of the crime and murdered him for the sake of that money."
"Which has not been traced to him," Remington suggested.
"No; but I am sure it will be," Mrs. Westbrooke went on. "Of course, you will say assumption is not evidence."
"Julius Maxwell was forbidden his uncle's house, remember," Remington smiled. "He never called there; indeed, we have the evidence of the servants to prove that."
"I suggest that he had a latch key," Mrs. Westbrooke said. "He used to live with his uncle at one time. He waited till late at night, and let himself in with the old latch key, having no doubt discovered that the butler had leave of absence till the small hours to attend a servants' dance. We know, therefore, that the front door was only on the latch, which you will admit is a point in favour of my argument. I don't say that Julius Maxwell intended to kill his uncle, but I am sure that he did it, probably tempted by the sight of those notes. And I am quite sure that you will agree with me."
Remington protested vigorously. All the same, he was not altogether at ease in his mind. To begin with, there was a good deal in what Mrs. Westbrooke had said. Why should a man use his talents and mental qualities to achieve the liberty of another man whom he knew to be a danger to society? And yet every ambitious member of the Bar was only too anxious for the opportunity. He had worked out an ingenious defence for Maxwell, and everybody was talking about it. If he could get the man off, then his reputation and fortune were made. He would be able to go to Grace Eversfield, and declare his love for her without anybody being able to say that his affections were inspired by her money.
But deep down in his heart he knew that his client was guilty. He could see it in the shifty eye and the quivering lip, could hear it in the hoarse voice and the throaty question. He knew that he was about to release on society a scoundrel who ought to have been destroyed like a mad dog years ago. It was all very well to advance his sophistries and quote his list of precepts to Mrs. Westbrooke, but he winced under her flashing eye and the cold contempt of her tongue.
She turned from him presently as if the argument was finished, and for the rest of the evening seemed to avoid him. It was only when her car was announced that she approached him again, with an offer of a lift.
"I hope you don't think I have been too horrible to you?" she said. "But it is a point upon which I feel very strongly, and I should have said just as much even if I had not known Julius Maxwell and that poor girl of his. May I give you a lift in my car? I think you go my way; and, besides, there is something I want to say to you."
"I am quite at your disposal," Remington said.
A little later, and he found himself seated in the cosy drawing-room of Mrs. Westbrooke's luxurious flat. She pressed him into a chair, and with her own dainty hands waited upon him. She gave him cigarettes, she poured out his whisky and soda and placed it on a little table at his elbow. Remington might have been some invalid waited upon by a loving nurse. It was all very flattering and pleasant, but there was a sympathy and a shade of pity in Mrs. Westbrooke's eyes that made him feel a little anxious and uncomfortable.
"You are too good to me," he murmured. "What have I done that you should be so kind to a mere barrister?"
"We are just coming to that," Mrs. Westbrooke said. "My dear boy, I am going to give you a shock. I have watched you a great many years; I am always interested in the career of brilliant young men, even if they happen to be barristers, which is a profession that I hate. You have done exceedingly well, and I always admired the way in which you kept up your friendship with Grace Eversfield, even though she remained in an office and you were beginning to make a mark at the Bar. I think there was some sort of an understanding between you even before Grace came in to her money and went abroad."
"That's true enough," Remington said simply. "I never cared for anybody but Grace. I could not marry her because marriage is a terrible handicap to a young man just starting life. Grace knew that, of course. We understood one another perfectly, though no word of love had ever passed between us. I dare say you will think that this sounds very sordid and calculating, but it is nothing of the sort. Then Grace came into her money, and I—well, I persuaded her to have six months' holiday on the Continent. You can call it pride, if you like. I wanted her to see something of the world, to see other men, to mix with good people. And then, if she was still of the same mind—Oh, you know what I mean. I played the game, though I am only a barrister who is defending a rascal for the sake of fame and money. And if I get him off I am a made man. Then, Mrs. Westbrooke, I shall go straight to Grace——"
Remington's voice trailed off in a whisper. Mrs. Westbrooke was regarding him with infinite pity in her eyes.
"I do understand," she said. "I understand far better than you imagine. Did Grace Eversfield ever tell you the story of her life? Did she ever speak of her parents?"
"Only that she was unhappy at home. I know that she lost her mother years ago, and that her father is a mauvais sujet. She has not seen him for a long time. And she was anxious that he should not know of her good fortune. What——"
Remington broke off suddenly. He could see swift illumination in Mrs. Westbrooke's sorrowful eyes.
"Good God!" he cried. "You don't mean to say—you don't mean to say that Grace is the daughter of that abandoned scoundrel on whom all my hopes are based?"
He rose to his feet and paced up and down the floor agitatedly. The thing was impossible, incredible. Yet he could see no denial in Mrs. Westbrooke's eyes.
"I knew it would be a great shock to you," she said. "But it is true, all the same. That is why I brought you here tonight. I had to tell you. A part of the pitiful story you already know. Grace's mother was my greatest friend. Many a time have I sheltered her here when her husband's violence had driven her into the street. There was nothing of that horrible story that I did not know. When the poor woman died I helped Grace to get her situation. I encouraged her to hide her identity, and advised her to betray it to no one unless she was compelled to do so. I did not see that anyone should know, except, perhaps, the man that she was going to marry. I should not tell you this now if you had not been so candid. And, besides, there are urgent reasons why you should be informed. At any rate, you are defending Grace's father, and, if you succeed, then the poor child will never rest till he has the last penny she possesses. And everybody, sooner or later, must know the sordid story. I suppose what I have said makes no difference?"
"How can it?" Remington groaned. "Don't you see that my whole professional career is at stake? I must go on. I cannot recognise a personal side of this business. It is very terrible, of course; but you see how helpless I am. I must assume that my client is innocent until he is proved to be guilty. The defence I have prepared——"
"Is in your opinion impregnable," Mrs. Westbrooke interrupted.
"I don't see how anything could shake it. So long as those notes cannot be traced, Maxwell is safe."
"And if the notes could be traced? If even one of them could be shown to have been in Maxwell's possession?"
"Then the whole thing collapses like a house of cards. But for goodness sake don't tell me that it is in your power? It would be as good as ruin! I should have to tell my client's solicitor, and withdraw from the case; that is, unless Maxwell would plead guilty. Why, if I dared to go on, knowing the ghastly truth, I should be driven from the Bar in disgrace. Please tell me nothing. If you want to appear as a witness——"
"Ah! there spoke the special pleader," Mrs. Westbrooke cried. "But I am going to speak, though your future career at the Bar depended upon my silence. I am only concerned with the happiness of that dear child—yes, and your happiness, too. She must not be dragged into this business; the scandal must not be made public. No, I cannot permit you to pass. I knew that I was going to meet you tonight, and I made up my mind to bring you here—because I wanted to show you this."
As Mrs. Westbrooke spoke she took an oblong piece of paper from the desk and handed it to Remington.
"This is a five-pound note," she said. "Will you please look at the number. If you do, you will see that it is one of the notes which the police are seeking for in connexion with the Maxwell murder case."
"That is quite right," Remington murmured. "I know the numbers of the missing notes by heart."
"Will you kindly turn it over?" Mrs. Westbrooke went on. "On the back of it you will see Julius Maxwell's signature and the date. Now, I dare say you will wonder how this came into my possession. On the night of the crime I was passing through London on my way to Paris, only staying here one evening. I did not return from a dance till two o'clock to the morning, when I found Julius Maxwell awaiting me. He was wild and excited, and anything but sober.
"He told me that he had been arrested shortly after midnight in some low gambling-den, and that some equally low associates had gone bail for him. He had given a false name to the police, and was quite sure he would get off before the magistrate with a fine. There was some pressing reason why no one should know that he was in London. He tried to borrow money from me, but I refused to lend him a penny. He went away, and then returned a few moments later with the note you have in your hand. Knowing my man, and feeling sure he had stolen the note, I made him endorse it. No doubt he paid his fine and got away without recognition. The next morning I left for Paris; and I never heard a word of the tragedy till I got back here yesterday. And now, what are you going to do about it? I have placed in your hands enough evidence to hang Maxwell twice over. I am only doing my duty. I might have come into court and given my evidence without saying a word to you. But Grace is a second daughter to me, and I want, if possible, to preserve her from the terrible scandal. It seems to me that the rest is entirely in your discretion."
Remington sat there for a few moments with his head in his hands. Here was a situation entirely without precedent; here was his ambition in ruins at his feet.
"I shall thank you later on," he said. "Meanwhile, may I use your telephone? Thanks very much..."
"Is that you, Gregory?... Yes, I want to see you at once. Maxwell will have to plead guilty... Yes, I'll come round at once."
SHE stood in the dock, barely conscious of her environment, clinging to the rail in front of her as if it were some sort of Rock of Ages cleft between her and the sea of troubles that overwhelmed her.
A thief—that was what they said—a thief. Shoplifter? A mean pilferer of unguarded trifles! Not that a compact gold manicure set was by any means a trifle.
She had come up from Shepperton for an afternoon's shopping. She, a young married woman with money in her purse, and in a social position which should have rendered her impervious to temptation. The mistress of a delightful home, with a mate occupying a sound position in the City. Holding her head high as she entered the mammoth store of Bronsons, intent upon the purchase of some expensive trifle—a wedding present for a friend who had been her bridesmaid less than a year ago. Happy and wholly care free.
What followed was like some evil dream. A long glass counter strewn with tempting objects in silver and gold, half a dozen women hanging over them in patent admiration—women, like herself, adumbrating prosperity. Then, like the flashing change of a kaleidoscope, a different and more terrible picture. A sudden stir, a commotion, the arm of a policeman grabbing a vanity bag (hers), and producing therefrom, like some grim conjuror, a gold manicure set which only a few moments before had been lying on the crystal surface of the table.
The kaleidoscope flashed once more on a prison cell, with a widely protesting woman passionately proclaiming her innocence. A long, distracting night in the cell, and now another and no less trying ordeal in the shabby police court whilst a trim, self-assured young woman from Bronsons was giving her evidence.
"No, your Worship," she said in answer to a question from the bench, "I did not actually see the theft committed. But my suspicions were aroused. Being one of the firm's lady detectives, it is my duty to keep a sharp look-out on certain counters. But I did see a hand move, and immediately I noticed that a certain article was no longer on the counter. I also saw a woman's open bag on the counter, and came to the conclusion that the missing article was inside it. I stopped the accused as she was leaving the shop without making a purchase and told her she would be detained. When the policeman came to examine the bag, the manicure set was discovered inside. Whereupon, acting on instructions, I gave accused into custody."
Very terse and to the point, but none the less damning for all that. Hopelessly, Elsie Squire lifted her eyes and glanced round the court. She met the glance of a man sitting behind the solicitors' table and forced a smile. She could see no condemnation in her husband's eyes, only a world of sympathy and suffering. It was good to know that one man in the world believed in her innocence, though all the rest of creation was against her. But here was the policeman giving his evidence.
"When called in," he said, "I found the prisoner detained in the office. In her bag I found the article which is the subject of the charge, and produce it in evidence."
"Is the prisoner represented?" the magistrate asked.
A little man in glasses bobbed up from his seat.
"She is, your Worship," he said. "I represent her. I hope to have an answer to the charge, however black appearances are against her. I ask for a remand for a week, bail being fixed as your Worship desires."
"Very well," the Bench decided. "The prisoner in £50 with a further surety in £100. Next case."
Outside in the sunshine a large saloon car was waiting. Into it Evan Squire handed his wife tenderly.
"You poor darling," he whispered passionately. "God, how much you must have suffered!"
"Then you don't believe, Evan?"
"That you would even dream of such a thing? Of course not. There is some diabolical trick of fate here. But, darling, how came your bag to be open on the counter?"
"I was taking out my handkerchief," Elsie explained. "Do you think it possible that, in replacing it, I swept the gold set into my bag? It was quite a bijou set."
It was possible, Squire admitted to himself. But all the theory in the world was so much beating of the wind.
"Are we going—home?" Elsie asked.
Impossible to face that, she was telling herself. Yet sooner or later such would have to be done, The home she loved so well! All those artistic treasures. The rose garden in the sun, the velvet tennis lawn. Never again could she see life from the same perspective. And the neighbors? The tennis club, the golf and badminton? She would have to resign, all these social amenities.
"I—I can't go back, Evan," she said piteously.
"Not until this ordeal is over, darling," Evan reassured her. "I have arranged all that. Last night and early this morning. I packed everything you need, all of which is in the luggage carrier behind us. We are on our way to Brighton now, where we shall stay until you... And I am taking a week off from the office. Garden has got a theory—"
"Garden? Who is he, Evan?"
"The little lawyer man who has your case in hand," Evan explained. "The thieves lawyer they call him. He knows the underworld better than anyone in London. Enormous practice in police courts. Recommended to me. And he's got a theory. He wouldn't say more than that. Cheer up, dear heart."
* * * * *
MONTAGU GARDEN, attorney at law, sat in his office interviewing a client. A youngish-looking woman in the early thirties with a personality all her own. Attractive undoubtedly, and dressed with that subtle mixture of simplicity and smartness one associates with one to the manner born. A cigarette was in her scarlet mouth, her legs crossed with easy abandon.
"In trouble again, Lil?" Garden asked with easy familiarity.
"You said it, Monty," the woman, known as Liverpool Lil in certain circles, replied. "Returning to my flat just now I smelt police. And there were the blighters. Search warrant probably. They didn't pipe me so I got out whilst the going was good."
"Expecting to be arrested any moment?"
"And here I am."
"You can put your shirt on that, Monty. And there's lots of stuff in the flat lifted from half the leading stores in the West End. Oh, I'm for it all right."
"Now how many times have I warned you... ."
"Oh? cut it out. Monty, I knew I was spotted last week in Savages, only the lady tec was not dead sure, funking a possible action for damages. You know the game."
Mr. Garden nodded. He most certainly knew the game.
"So they dropped the Yard a hint, and the Yard, knowing your record, has been shadowing you."
"The boy guessed right the very first time. I'll be for it any old time now, so the rest is up to you, Monty. Guilty, my Lord, and all that. Six months' hard, I expect—what?"
Mr. Garden shook his head doubtfully.
"Don't forget that this will be the third time of asking, so to speak," he said. "When they trace all that stuff in your flat there will be a dozen charges to meet. Of course we can plead guilty to the lot before they get their oar in and fight for summary jurisdiction. If his Worship is in one of his melting moods, we might get off lightly. By the way, is there anything of Bronsons in that little—er—collection of yours? Have you been a 'customer' there?"
"Only casually, Monty. The day before yesterday I did drop in there, and a jolly narrow squeak I had. When you have been at the game as long as I have, you learn to spot the lady tecs, by instinct, and keep your eyes skinned accordingly. I guess I gave that young woman something to think about."
Mr. Garden helped himself to a cigarette.
"Something original, eh?" he asked. "If you don't mind I should like to hear that story."
Liverpool Lil proceeded to tell it. There was a queer light in the eyes of the little attorney, though his fascinating client was unaware of that. When, at length, she had finished, he turned to her with a smile on his lips.
"How often have I told you—all your gang for the matter of that—how important it is to tell me everything? You are keeping something back. Something you are ashamed of, I am sure. Now, listen to me carefully. In the circumstances, I can't save you, because this will be the third time you have stood in the dock. But I might be able to get you away with six month in the second division if you will tell me everything—mind, everything, just as it happened when you dropped in at Bronson's the day before yesterday."
"You are a devil," the fascinating Lil exclaimed. "You spotted it at once, did you?"
"My dear girl, that's what I am here for. Half you people get into trouble and suffer because you won't even tell your own solicitor the whole truth about anything. Now, to begin with, how did you know that the police had a search warrant?"
"Oh, as to that," Lil said lightly. "I have friends in the force."
"Yes, I suppose you have, only we need not go into that side of the question now. What you have to do is to play the penitent. When you leave here, go straight to Scotland Yard and make a clean breast of it. I suppose I can take it that in your flat is more than one article that Savage's people can identify? In other words, you have not disposed of the whole of the loot you picked up during your visit to that establishment. Careless, careless, just like the rest of them. Are you never going to learn the necessity of getting rid of the stuff at once?"
"Guilty, my lord," Liverpool Lil laughed. "There were one or two things that I couldn't bear to part with. Well, there they are in my flat, or rather, there they were when I got the office about the search warrant. All that splosh is in the hands of Scotland Yard by this time, you bet."
"Yes," Garden grunted. "You can see it now, can't you? And you can see why I have got a bit of a task before me. And you can see why, when you get to Scotland Yard, you must disguise nothing. Why, the thing that you are ashamed to tell me is the very thing that is going to get you out of trouble. At least, I hope it will have its effect when we come before the Bench. You are a bit of an actress, aren't you, Lil? Play the penitent and shed tears without any special effort?"
"I can do all that," Lil boasted.
"Ah, that's what I want. Now we are getting on. You have to go to Scotland Yard with tears in your eyes, not dancing. Quite the humble transgressor seeking grace. But take care not to let whoever examines you know that you were put wise as to the raid on your flat. What you told me just now is going to help us both. Can't you see that?"
"Since you put it in that way, I can, but I should never have thought of it myself."
"Of course you wouldn't. If you and your kind always thought of those little things, It would be a poor look out for lawyers like myself. Now be off. Don't stand about here any longer. I am not in the least anxious to have my office visited by detectives. You are not supposed to have seen me at all, so far. You've got to assume that I know nothing until I am called in on your behalf and visit you in your cell. And, if I were you, I shouldn't take much trouble to avoid arrest."
* * * * *
FOR some time after his engaging client had left. Garden sat at his desk busy writing. Then he called up one or two people on the telephone and, locking his roll-topped desk, informed his confidential clerk that he was going off on business for the day, and would not be back before the following morning.
Half an hour later, he was on his way to Brighton. In the seclusion of a private hotel there, Evan Squire and his wife were passing the days dreading the hour when Elsie would once more stand in the dock with a certainty of shame and disgrace before her. So far, they had heard no more of the defence at which Garden had hinted, and were miserably speaking of it when the attorney himself walked into the room. There was a quiet smile on his face, at the sight of which Elsie's heart began to beat a little faster. Evan jumped on his feet.
"Any news?" he asked anxiously.
"News in plenty," Garden said. "For all I say it myself as shouldn't, it was one of the best day's work you ever did, Mr. Squire, when you decided to place your wife's case in my hands. I think I can say, without boasting, that practically all the swell mob in London have passed through my hands at one time or another. And a certain young woman of fascinating appearance and most beautifully dressed happens to be one of them. I assure you, Mr. Squire, if you met her in the street, or in a private house, you would be sure that she was to the manner born. As a matter of fact, she first saw the light in a Liverpool slub, though, to-day, you couldn't pick a flaw in her equipment."
"What's all this to do with us?" Evan asked.
"Well, the young woman in question is a client of mine, as I told you, and, at the present moment, is probably enjoying the hospitality of Scotland Yard. When you came to me, Mr. Squire, and told me the story of the gold manicure set, my mind at once jumped to a certain conclusion. Not a coincidence, because I know the underworld so well, and I know their ways so intimately that in 99 cases out of 100 I could put my finger upon the real delinquent without much trouble. That happens in the present instance. I have to be careful what I say, because the woman in the case is a client of mine as well as your wife, who, of course, is quite innocent."
"If we could only prove it," Evan sighed.
"That is exactly what I came down here to do. Now, this Liverpool expert, knowing that she is for it, and having had her flat searched for valuables lifted from various big stores, has by this time, told the authorities everything. I wonder if you can cast your mind back a little, Mrs. Squire. When you were standing by the jewellery counter at Bronsons, were there other women about you? Did you notice, for instance, one in an expensive sable coat who stood very close to you?"
"Oh, so I did," Elsie said. "A very distinguished looking woman—quite the aristocrat, in fact."
"Otherwise—well, you can guess. I mean, somebody who hailed from Liverpool. It was she who was the cause of all the mischief. Being very nearly caught by one of Bronson's lady detectives, she slipped the manicure set out of the palm of her hand into your bag. It was her one chance of getting away in safety. I got that out of her, because, indirectly, it is going to lead to a lighter sentence for her than she would have had otherwise. The conscience-stricken girl who read all about your case in the paper and has come forward, regardless of consequence to herself, because she could not bear to see another suffer for the crime she had committed herself. That you will hear from her own lips when your case comes up for hearing on the adjournment. Only never even think of this again."
"Oh, what a relief," Elsie sighed. "But do I really have to go to that dreadful court again?"
"Why, of course you do," Garden smiled. "I can arrange for Liverpool Lil's case to be taken just in front of yours. Then, the woman in the dock, with—ah—tears running down her face, will vindicate you completely. My dear lady, you will be news! Every daily paper in London will have a column about it. And, because my client has behaved so magnanimously. I am hoping that the magistrate will put her on probation, although she has been before him more than once. But the great point, Mrs. Squire, is that you will be entirely vindicated, and not even the most evil-minded person will be able to throw a stone at you. I think, in the circumstances, you won't mind facing a police court again. Instead of a criminal, everybody will be making a heroine of you."
"I don't want to be a heroine," Elsie wept happily. "All I want is to have this dreadful stain removed from my character, so that I can go home once more and face my friends, without any feeling of shame. I cannot quite understand how you managed it, Mr. Garden, but that does not make to feel any the less grateful. Oh, what it is to feel free once again!"
IT was a very fine establishment indeed, and, when he had time to think, John Harness was very proud of it. And when he asked his wife what she meant by calling it a doll's house, she merely smiled, and told him that he would not understand, though she had hopes that he might find illumination some day.
Three years ago, and the house at Stanhope Gate had not been thought of. Three years ago Jack Harness and his wife lived in the country, and the city and its ways was a sealed book to him. Then somebody came along with a wonderful formula in the shape of a new dye, and Harness was invited to put a thousand pounds into it, and incidentally make a huge fortune wthout interference with his present employment, which in his case generally meant shooting partridges or playing golf. Within a year Harness was passing most of his time in the City, where his money was now involved. He had known the rack of anxious days and sleepless nights; he had stood more than once on the verge of ruin. And so gradually his fortunes had gone one step back and two forward till now he was spoken of as one of the coming men, and the doll's house in Stanhope Gate was the envy of all Kitty's friends.
"What a pity you let the old place," Kitty said more than once. "I should just love to go back to it again. Sometimes I wish you would come to me and tell me that you had lost everything, and that there was just about enough to keep up the old Grange."
"What a funny girl you are," Harness said irritably. "There are thousands of women who would only be too glad to change places with you. And yet you laugh and call this a doll's house. Why?"
He lay back in his chair wearily, for he had had a long and trying day, and the shadow of the coming trouble was haunting him.
"Well, I will tell you," Kitty said. "It is so dreadfully cold and formal and artificial. It's all make believe, Jack, just like it used to be in the old nursery at home when I was giving a doll's tea-party. Now confess it, my dear old boy, don't you feel horribly lonely sometimes in this big house? Out of the men that come here can you reckon on one real friend?"
Harness shrugged his shoulders irritably.
"Do you mean that you are not happy here?" he asked.
"Ah, that is the pathetic part of it," Kitty cried. "You, the new man created in the City and grown up in three years have taken my other self—yourself—by the throat and strangled him. I was proud of your success once, I never realised that you were forging chains that grow stronger and heavier year by year. Before long you will not have the strength to break them. And not once since we came here have we been away together."
"Yes, I could do with a holiday," Harness said thoughtfully. "But I can't see my way to it just yet. I've got over a hundred thousand pounds sunk in a new valve. Three months ago I expected to make a million out of it. I knocked old Carton's concern end-ways. He came to me and asked me to compromise, but I wouldn't listen to him except on my own terms. He is a grasping old money grubber and boasts that he hasn't a friend in the world."
"I am sorry for him," Kitty said. "I wonder if in time to come people will ever speak of you as Harness the old money grubber?"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Harness muttered. "There's no room for sentiment in the City. What was I saying? I stood out for good terms and Carton refused them. I wish to goodness I hadn't been quite so firm now. I met young Edgar Ellis a day or two ago, and he was full of his latest invention. When I asked him what it was he said it was an improved valve, and that he was thinking of showing it to Carton. I managed to get a look at the blue prints, and I saw quite enough to know that if Carton gets hold of that invention my valve will be a drug on the market. The old man will fight me to a standstill. Once he gets the whip hand of me, I am done, Kitty."
Harness' voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, his face was pale now, and a little bead of moisture had gathered on his forehead.
"Is it as bad as that?" Kitty asked. "But surely, my dear boy, your course is quite obvious. Edgar Ellis is a most delightful young man, so clever and straightforward. Now, if I were in your place, I should tell him exactly how things stand and offer to take him into partnership. Like most inventors, he is poor, and will jump at the chance."
Harness smiled more or less pityingly.
"My dear child, we don't do things like that in the City. If we did we should be bankrupt in a week. Of course, my game is to pretend that I saw nothing in it, and suggest that I might possibly find some way of using it if we came to terms. I asked Ellis to come round here this evening, and he may turn up at any moment now. No, I don't mean it to be exactly a business interview, so there's no reason why you shouldn't sit here while we talk. Then you'll get some idea of how things are done."
Kitty made no reply. Her thoughts were far enough away, away in the heart of a pleasant country amongst green fields and shady woodlands, and in the background a low, rambling house, all white, with black cross beams and latticed windows peeping out from overhanging eaves. She could see the sunk rose garden with its grass paths and the battered old sundial athwart the cedar, where a work-table was laid out and a girl curiously like herself, was waiting for a man who bore an odd evasive likeness to that older man who was sitting opposite her in the doll's house. And everywhere was the air of good health and sweetness and content and the laughter that seems honour in small things and is content with the joy of today and the promise of tomorrow. Ah, well! this was all so different to the cold, artificiality of the doll's house, with the music of the birds and the bleating of the lambs in distant pastures was changed for the hoot of the horn and the sullen roar and rush of the traffic.
To get back to it; oh, to get back to it! Surely there was some way. There was no lack of money in those days, for the simple reason that so little was sought for or required. All was peace, contentment, and happiness, and life was blithe and full as the carol of the blackbird in the early mornings. They might get back to this, perhaps, someday, but nothing less than a blessed catastrophe could bring it about. A little time now and the tenants of the Grange would be on their way to India again, so that it would be possible to return there and find every stick and stone as Kitty had tearfully left it. From the bottom of her heart she was hoping that the proposed combination between greedy old age and sanguine youth would come about. "How great a fool a clever man can be sometimes," she said. "When you trusted your fellows you were happy. And they never played you false. And now you are utterly miserable because you can trust nobody. You tell me you stand on the verge of ruin. And even then you are afraid to tell Edgar Ellis the truth, because you are obsessed with the idea that he will take advantage of you. Now I should go to him and tell him the truth. I should offer him fair and liberal terms in the assurance that he will accept them eagerly. Oh, you laugh at me, but I am only speaking for your sake. If you came to me tomorrow and told me that you were insolvent, I should be glad. All I ask is enough saved from the wreck to enble us to go back to the Grange and knit up the threads of the old life once more. But that I fear will never be."
The library door opened at that moment and a young man came in. He looked eagerly from one to the other and smiled.
"Well, you two," he said cheerfully. "I always envy you when I come here. You always look so happy and comfortable—as if there was no such thing as the City and its worries."
Harness smiled in spite of himself. He was wondering what Ellis would say if he only knew the truth and if he could understand why the colour had flamed into Kitty's cheeks. For this young man held the fortunes of the doll's house in his hands, and if diplomacy failed, then the whole structure must collapse like a house of cards. Leaning back in her chair, with half-closed eyes and a strange fluttering in her heart, Kitty watched the progress of the fray. Very cleverly and skilfully Harness led up to that which was foremost in his mind, and Kitty caught herself wondering if this was the man she had promised to love and obey.
Kitty sat up presently, for down in the hall the telephone bell rang, and Harness with a gesture, intimated to his wife that she had better answer the call. A harsh voice asked if Mr. Ellis was there.
"He is in the drawing-room," Kitty said. "Shall I fetch him?"
"No occasion to do that," the harsh voice said. "A message will be quite sufficient. It is Mr. Carton speaking."
The receiver trembled in Kitty's hand. It was with an effort that she kept her voice steady. She would give Mr. Ellis a message, of course, and if Mr. Carton would kindly give it her, she would do her best to convey it correctly.
The harsh voice cut in without ceremony.
"Much obliged, I am sure. Tell Mr. Ellis I have been away all day and have only just got back. Say I have gone into the contract and accept the terms. I have just posted the cheque to the engineers in Manchester, and if Mr. Ellis will call at my offices tomorrow, at ten o'clock, I shall be obliged."
There was no more, not even a word of thanks or a good-night. And all the time that Nero had been fiddling there in the drawing-room, the doll's house had been fiercely ablaze. No doubt Carton had found out in some way where Edgar Ellis was, and had taken steps to strengthen his own position without a moment's delay. Was it too late to save the situation? Was there yet a last desperate chance of relieving the garrison? Would anything be gained by the suppression of that pregnant message?
But Kitty was by no means sure that she wanted to hold the pass. What she needed more than anything else was her husband back again as she had known him three years ago. And in any case Ellis was certain to find out. If there had been any temptation, she put it from her and went back to the drawing-room. She repeated the message word for word; she seemed to know it by heart. She saw the light of triumph flash into Ellis's eyes, and then the shade of regret on his face as he turned to Harness.
"This is a big triumph for me," he said. "I never really expected that Carton would accept my forms. When I saw him a day or two ago he seemed disposed to throw cold water on the whole thing. I suppose he heard I was here this evening and made up his mind to rush it through. Well, it's done now, and there's an end to it, but I would much rather that it had been you, Harness. To tell you the truth, I had been hoping for weeks that you would make me an offer. Your business and mine combined would have defied the world, especially as your position is so strong in the United States. But there are some men who like to work alone, and I feel that you are one of them."
"Is it too late now?" Harness asked.
"You are joking of course. I made Carton a definite offer which he has not only accepted, but has also backed it with a very large sum of money. We're going to be rivals now, but I hope we shall be none the less good friends for that."
Ellis had gone at length, leaving husband and wife facing one another across the dead ashes of the grate. Harness sat there moodily looking into the future. He glanced up presently to see that his wife's eyes were filled with tears.
"Well go on," he said bitterly; "I deserve all your reproaches. You are a better judge of Ellis than I am, and if I had followed your advice two hours ago Carton would have been standing in my place at this moment. I suppose you understand that he means to ruin me. Not that I am going to take it lying down. I'll put up as big a fight as possible, and I may come out with any luck with a few pounds to the good. But it won't be any more."
"Why should I reproach you?" Kitty asked. "I know nothing of your City ways. But I do know that there are good and honest men in the world, though you have ceased to think so. And I'm not in the least frightened, Jack. It will cause me no regret or humiliation to leave this house. Oh, if you could only understand! And, please God, some day I hope you will."
It is not to be supposed that the man in the doll's house turned his face to the wall or shrank from the fray. But the months that followed were drab and dreary ones, and night by night Harness came back with a shadow on his face that deepened day by day. There were strange stories and rumours in the City, and gradually those other women who had come eagerly at one time to help Kitty to play in the doll's house gradually relaxed their visits until they came no more. And there was one black and bitter night when Harness reeled home and collapsed in a chair, asking weakly for brandy, a thing he had never been known to touch before. There was no dinner that evening, and no longer was it possible to conceal from the curious eyes of the domestic staff the fact that disaster darkened the air.
"It's all over, Kitty," Harness explained. "Those people have beaten me to a standstill. They are having a certain amount of trouble with the United States over their patent because there is something in my specification that blocks the way. I believe that I could have compromised over that, but Ellis has been in America for months now, and I can't get at him. I swallowed my pride sufficiently to call on Carton this morning, but they told me that he had been laid up for days. I was ready to make pretty well any terms, but my lawyers said that something must be done today. So I have made an assignment of everything except the old place in the country. And there will be just enough to pay everybody. For the next few months we shall have to live on the rent for the Manor House, and even that will only last till those people go back to India. Oh, Kitty, Kitty, what a fool I've been."
He stretched out his hands to her and she laid her head upon his breast and comforted him. The thought of ruin troubled her not at all. The doll's house had crumbled in the dust, and before long all the pretty costly toys therein would go to other children of a larger growth who were eagerly making doll's houses of their own. But it mattered nothing to Kitty, for the City man was no more, and she had got her husband back at last.
She shed no tear and no blush of shame rose to her cheek as strange men pushed their way into the house without ceremony, and proceeded to label the pictures and the china and tear the velvet-pile carpets from the floors. It mattered nothing to her that the servants left in a body, and that she had to get her own simple meals. After all, there was no shadow of disgrace, and nothing that the gossips in the city could point to. Then there came another day when the house in Stanhope Street knew them no more, and they found themselves in dingy lodgings in Bloomsbury. There was no more than a hideous little sitting-room looking out on a dreary street, and for the first time in her married life Kitty thanked heaven that she had no children. It was necessary to look carefully at every sixpence, for the man who had recently controlled a big business was thankful now to draw three pounds a week from a house in the City. And when you've been accustomed to every luxury, it is a terribly difficult matter to face the problem of existence on sixty shillings every seven days. But then the cloud had lifted from Harness' brow, the stoop had gone from his shoulders, and he had learned to laugh again as he had done in the days which apparently had gone for ever. There were small pleasures and enjoyments, now at the cost of some rigid economy, but enjoyed with a wholeheartedness and zest that Kitty had never known in the gilded hours in Stanhope Street.
And so winter passed away and the spring came round, and down in the country the primroses and violets were blooming and the commons were ablaze with the golden glory of the gorse. The Manor House had been empty a few days now, and it was necessary that the place should be let without delay. Whether to let it furnished or sell all that beautiful old furniture was a problem discussed over many hours. Kitty would have preferred a little house of her own somewhere in the suburbs, but it was impossible to furnish without money, and so the important problem was left in abeyance for a moment and then something happened.
"I heard a bit of news today," Harness said as he came home tired and weary, yet smiling, from the City. "Old Carton is dead. He died at Monte Carlo over a week ago. I only heard it this morning. His general manager told me. He said they had cabled to Edgar Ellis, and that he might be back at any moment. When he comes back I am going to see him, and perhaps he will give me a good post in his firm. He owes me something, after all, seeing that his valve was inspired by mine. Ellis was always a good fellow, and without building up any great hopes, I am sanguine——"
The grimy maid of all work opened the sitting-room door and brought in a letter with an American postmark. It had been readdreased more than once, and Harness was interested to see that it was in the handwriting of the very man he was talking about. Kitty had noticed it, too, and together they read the letter.
"My Dear Harness,—I shall be home almost as soon as you get this, but I feel that I must write to you at once. I have just heard of the death of Carton by cable, and what is more to the point, I have discovered that the old man never carried out the promise he made me months ago. When I got out here I found that your patent was in my way. You claim certain things in your specification, and until the matter is settled I can do nothing here, at least I can do nothing definite for years. I proposed to Carton that we should jointly buy you out with an offer equivalent to a one quarter holding in our company. He promised me that he would see to it, and I understand that he has done nothing of the kind. He always hated you, as you know, and I suppose that was his revenge.
"Well, you have gone down unfortunately, but at the same time we cannot do without you if we are to reap anything like the volume of business which is open to us here. I renew the offer with the greatest possible pleasure. It means a very handsome income now and a large fortune in the future. With kind regards, and hoping to see you very soon, yours very sincerely,
The letter fluttered to the ground. There was silence for a moment, then Harness caught his wife in his arms and kissed her long and tenderly on her quivering lips. There was a smile on his face and an eager gleam in his eye.
"We'll go back to the old place, Kitty," he said. "We'll go back to the Manor House tomorrow, and never leave it again. Never mind about the big fortune in future so long as we can have the wholesome country and get the old friends we could trust and love round us once again. I have had my lesson, Kit; you were right and I was wrong. And I can see that it was a mistake for us to come to London at all. Honestly, I've been a happier man on an office stool than ever I was in Stanhope Street. And if you can ever find it in your heart to forgive me——"
"Forgive you," Kitty laughed. "Haven't you given me that which I prize above everything—my husband back again?"
THE man lay there dead and stiff and cold; he might have been beyond all surgery for hours. Ayres had some surgical knowledge, and he recognised at a glance that the dead man's neck was broken. His legs were curiously twisted as if he had met with some tremendous accident, possibly in connexion with a motor. He was well dressed, his clothes were smartly cut, and the overcoat collar was turned up. A grey cloth cap lay a little distance off, but obviously formed no usual part of the unfortunate man's dress. He might have been a professional man, a successful lawyer, perhaps, who found himself staying in that remote and lonely part; he might have borrowed the cap with the intention of replacing a more correct form of head-gear.
Ayres could come to no other conclusion than that murder had been done. No man intent on suicide could have inflicted those terrible injuries on himself. And the theory that he had been killed by a passing car would not hold water. No car could have climbed up the slippery side of the moor, and, besides, the spot where Ayres had made the discovery was a kind of meadow surrounded by a stone wall. At one corner was a clump of larches, under which Ayres had been camping out for the last few days. He was absolutely alone there, nothing but a small bell tent, a supply of provisions and a spirit stove, together with his naturalist outfit. He had come to that lonely moor with the intention of securing a specimen of one of the rarer Hawk moths.
It was past ten on the previous evening before he had finished his 'sugaring' and other lures for the elusive stranger, and a little later he had put out his light and lay smoking in his tent with the flap thrown back. At that time there had not been a soul in the meadow besides himself. He had lain awake the whole of the night listening intently for the jar of the wings which would tell him that the rare feathered creature was in the trap. The brief night had spent itself, and the first saffron flush was creeping up from the east before Ayres rose and stretched himself, conscious that his had been a wasted vigil. He had not heard a sound except once or twice the lour churning of a nightjar. He was prepared to swear that he had not closed his eyes the whole of the night, and yet within fifty yards of where he had lain a brutal murder had been committed. He was not blind to his own position. He was a stranger here, and no doubt awkward questions would be asked. He knew the story that he would have to tell would sound a strange one, but it would have to be told and the sooner the better. It was broad daylight now, and a little way below Ayres could see a cowman driving his flock towards the milking acre.
Ayres yelled again and again until he attracted attention. Presently the peasant came lumbering up.
"What's the matter, gaffer?" he asked.
"That," Ayres said curtly, as he pointed to the dead body. "I have been camping out here in search of rare moths. At ten o'clock last night there was not a soul in the field but me. At daybreak I found this unfortunate gentleman lying dead. I wonder if by any chance you might happen to know him?"
The cowman backed away, palpably frightened. It was with considerable difficulty that Ayres at length induced him to examine the dead man's face.
"Never seen him before," he declared. "I knows everybody for miles around, and that poor chap, 'e never lived about here. And you mean to say, sir, as how you never heard nothing at all?"
"No, I didn't," Ayres replied. "The whole thing's an absolute mystery to me. I cannot think how such a terrible crime could have been committed without my hearing something of the struggle. And yet there was not one sound except the churning of a nightjar."
The cowman shook his red head obstinately.
"That you didn't, sir," he exclaimed. "I've been a woodsman and a shepherd and a cowman for forty odd year, and there's nothing about anything that flies or creeps in these parts as you can teach me. And I tell you this, sir, no living soul ever heard a nightjar nearer than Felton, and that's fifteen miles away."
"Do you mean to tell me," Ayres demanded, "that I don't know the note of a nightjar when I hear it? My good man, I have been a naturalist always. It is my living. I heard that nightjar as plainly as possible, and, what is more, I heard it three times at intervals. But all this is rather callous, my friend. What we've got to think of now is the poor fellow lying here and what to do with him. I am bound to stay here till the police come, and I must ask you to go and look for them. Is there anybody in the village who possesses a telephone!"
"Squire, at the Grange, 'e have," the cowman explained.
"Then go down to the Grange at once and explain to the squire exactly what has happened. Ask him to telephone to Ixyridge and tell the superintendent of the police there to come over here as soon as possible and bring a doctor with him."
It was a long, dragging half-hour that followed before a figure on a stout moorland pony came slowly up the hillside and approached Ayres. The newcomer was evidently the squire of the parish. He introduced himself as Thornton, and inquired somewhat abruptly to know what all this trouble was about. Evidently he had gleaned something from the cowman, and it was equally evident that what he had gathered had not prejudiced him in Ayres' favour.
"It seems almost incredible, sir," he said stiffly. "You are asking me to believe that this tragedy——"
"I am not asking you to believe anything," Ayres said curtly. "Your views on the subject are nothing to me. I have no more to say. We must await the police."
A full hour elapsed before the arrival of the superintendent, who was accompanied by a doctor. A brief examination confirmed the fact that the unfortunate man's neck was broken, and that both his legs were injured. There was nothing about him to lead to his identity.
"I can't find anything," the doctor said at length. "There is nothing but this sheet of tracing paper, which would not help us much. As far as I can make out, it represents the skeleton of a bird and various sections of the same fowl."
"I know," Ayres said. "It is that of a nightjar. Very strange."
He took the thin paper in his hand and unfolded it. The sheet was practically covered with a series of drawings from a sketch of the bird in its natural state down to the skeleton and the bones of the wings. As a naturalist Ayres was profoundly interested. But there was another side to the matter which puzzled him: Why had his brother naturalist gone to all this trouble, and why were there so many drawings of the wings of this bird? It was very strange that nothing else but this should have been found on the dead man's body.
"The mystery deepens," Thornton said. "It looks very much as if this unfortunate man was a rival of yours, Mr. Ayres. Do you suppose by any chance that he also was looking for the Striped Hawk?"
"I neither like your question nor the way that you ask it," Ayres snapped. "Here is my card, by which you will see that I am Professor Ayres, of University College. Several of my friends knew that I was coming here and—well, it does not in the least matter. When we can find out who this poor fellow is it will be fine enough to draw deductions. We are neither of us detectives."
It might have been assumed that it was an easy matter to discover the identity of the murdered man. The whole thing was a mystery which appealed to the popular imagination, and was largely mentioned in the Press. But nothing came out at the inquest, which was adjourned for a fortnight, and during that time there appeared to be no inquiry whatever for any missing individual. The cap found by the body had been identified by a Plymouth hosier as one he had sold two or three days before, to a casual customer, who had come into his shop just on closing time with a story of having lost his hat on a quay, and had expressed the desire to buy a cap as he was leaving hurriedly by a train. The shopkeeper viewed the dead body and identified the man as the person who had purchased the cap. This was the only piece of definite evidence, and there was, therefore, nothing for it but to adjourn the inquiry for a fortnight. At first there had been a certain amount of feeling antagonistic to Ayres. Local gossip quite openly attributed the crime to him, and the county police seemed to share the same opinion, but all this was considerably discounted by the appearance of Sir James Silver, the eminent entomologist, who came down to prove that he and several of his colleagues knew all about Ayres' moth hunting holiday, and listened scornfully to the suggestion that he had had a hand in the mysterious crime. Ayres was loth to leave the neighbourhood; he had no intention of running away, and, besides, he had not yet discovered the origin of his search.
"You stay where you are," Sir James suggested. "These local police are past praying for. I had a great mind to remain in the village for a day or two and help you in your search. No, I am just a bit too old to sleep under canvas or I would accept your offer of a shake-down in the tent. Oh, yes, I will come up and lunch with you now if you like. I think I have made a discovery which is likely to interest you."
The two scientists partook of a modest lunch, then Sir James sat down under the shadow of the larches and filled his pipe.
"I know you have made a closer study of the hawks than I have," he said, "but I do not quite agree with you that this is the only spot in England where the Striped Hawk is to be found."
"Produce one from somewhere else," Ayres smiled.
"Am I to accept that as a challenge?" Sir James asked.
"If you put it in that way, yes. But I am absolutely certain that you won't find the moth anywhere else."
"Really I shall be obliged if you'll examine the contents of a little case which I have in my pocket; and here it is."
As he spoke Sir James handed over to his companion a small deal box, such as collectors use for the safe carriage of specimens. Inside, neatly pinned to the strip of cork, was a gorgeous moth, the sight of which caused Ayres to give a gasp and a cry of surprise. He turned eagerly to Sir James.
"The Striped Hawk beyond a doubt," he cried. "But this conveys nothing to me. For all I know to the contrary, this may be a cultivated specimen, or, perhaps, imported from Holland. It is rather a poor specimen too, and I should say, had been somewhere where there was a lot of grease about. At any rate, it was not taken in a net or with the aid of syrup."
"It was not cultivated, neither was it imported from Holland. It was caught, if I may put it that way, by myself——"
"But not here," Ayres interrupted.
"Which is precisely my point, my dear fellow. Now, as you know, before I came on here, I was staying with Girton near Salisbury Plain. I was on the Plain a day or two ago, and there I found the Striped Hawk which you have at the present moment in your hand."
"If any other man had told me that I would have refused to believe it," Ayres cried. "Now, perhaps, you can tell me how a moth, short-flighted and practically indigenous to this locality, found itself so far away from its natural food. Why, on Salisbury Plain a hawk could derive no sustenance whatever. Somebody must have carried the creature there. But you have not told me yet how you caught it. If you were on the Plain at night——"
"I didn't say I was on the Plain at night," Sir James said, dryly. "We were crossing the Plain when a monoplane appeared over our heads and came to the ground within half a mile of where we were standing. Naturally we hurried to the spot, curious to see what had happened and ready to render assistance if necessary. Nothing really had happened, the pilot of the monoplane had descended of his own accord and was merely out on an experimental flight. That plane was not a bit like any I have ever seen before. It was exactly like a bird. It had no propeller, motion being established by the vibration of the wings. As I was examining the plane I noticed a tiny object adhering to some part of the machinery, which was dripping with oil. When I came to examine the object closely I found that it was nothing more or less than a specimen of the Striped Hawk Moth, and you have that specimen in your hand at the present moment."
Ayres sat silent for a little time.
"Very, very singular," he said presently. "Of course, what you say disposes of the suggestion that the Striped Moth is to be found in ordinary circumstances on Salisbury Plains. This specimen must have come in contact with that strange aeroplane in the darkness. I should very much like to see the pilot of that aeroplane. Did you find out his name? Is he likely to be there for any time?"
"I think so," Sir James said. "At any rate, he told us that he was conducting a series of experiments, and that there was no place like the Plain for his purpose. I didn't ask what his name was, but I dare say—here, where are you going?"
"To send a telegram to Girton," said Ayres. "A telegram asking him if he can put us up for the next two or three days."
Sir James knew Ayres well enough to be sure that there was something more than idle curiosity behind the suggestion. Two days later the scientists were quartered in Girton's house a few miles from Stonehenge. There was a good deal of flying going on as usual, but most of the attention of the visitors was concentrated upon the Angus August monoplane, which had caused quite a sensation. The owner and inventor, who called himself Angus August, had appeared apparently out of nowhere; indeed, he had not a mechanic of his own.
The invention itself was a remarkable one, and seemed to indicate quite a departure in aerial navigation. In the main it had devolved from the ordinary methods, inasmuch as it was not propelled in the usual manner, but was worked with wings precisely as a bird flies. In a wind its behaviour was remarkable. It appeared to defy all the laws of gravity, and could move with dazzling rapidity at practically any angle.
For the best part of two days Ayres watched these flights in silent admiration. He was waiting his opportunity for a quiet chat with Angus August.
Ayres dispatched a telegram or two and half a dozen letters. The replies to these seemed to satisfy him. It was late on Saturday afternoon before he found the opportunity which he was seeking. He caught the airman alone on his way back to the roadside inn, where he was putting up for the moment. The man called Angus August looked just a trifle annoyed at the intrusion.
"I am afraid I must detain you for a moment or two," Ayres said. "Here is my card. I am an entomologist, as you may know, and most of my friends are scientists. Do take a cigarette. Shall we sit on the stile for a few minutes?"
The airman signified an ungracious assent. His dark eyes regarded Ayres almost menacingly.
"What do you want with me!" he demanded. His English was good but slightly guttural.
"Merely a little information. I want you to tell me where you got your idea for that remarkable monoplane. I am interested, because two years ago a man named Miller applied to me for sectional drawings, if I may so phrase it, of the bird which is called the nightjar. This Miller had an idea for an aeroplane. The request was somewhat out of my line, so I turned Mr. Miller over to a fellow professor who is a well known ornithologist. I believe he supplied all the drawings; in fact, I know he did. By the way, have you ever heard of this Miller? Did you get your idea from him? I am not asking out of curiosity."
For quite a long time no reply came from the famous airman. He appeared to be turning over some problem in his mind. He smiled as if he were about to give Ayres his confidence.
"I suppose you think you have got some sort of a claim," he said. "Now let me ask you a question. What do you know personally as to the man you are speaking of?"
"Nothing," Ayres admitted frankly. "I have never seen the man in my life. But I have my own reasons for being deeply interested in his welfare. He was your partner——"
"You seem to be very sure of your ground."
"Are you going to deny it!" Ayres asked. "If so, I will apologise for detaining you, and at once."
"Oh, not so fast," August muttered. "As a matter of fact, Miller and myself worked out the scheme together; I don't mind admitting that his was the finer brain of the two, and that without him the monoplane would never have been the success that it is today. He had the brains and I the small necessary capital. In addition, he was the finest mechanic I have ever seen. We worked on the models for a long time in London, and as soon as we were satisfied that we were sure of success, we went off to a place called High Tor, which is Devonshire way. We found a deserted hut on the moor miles away from the nearest house, and this we provisioned. We managed to get all our materials up there without arousing curiosity, and there we worked for months at the machine. From the start everything went well, we had practically no disappointment, and at the end of nine months we were actually flying. As you know, the monoplane is practically silent, so it is quite easy for us to take quite long flights in the dusk without anybody being at all the wiser. If anybody did hear they would take it for a nightjar; indeed, for all practical purposes the machine is one. You see, Miller and myself——"
"Yes, but where is Miller?" Ayres asked. "You can carry a passenger, but you came here quite alone."
"I was coming to that," August explained. "I am on delicate ground now, but I know that you will respect my confidence. Miller got into trouble some time ago in Paris. Something to do with forgery, I believe. The night before we started he was in Plymouth, where he received an intimation that the police were after him. There was nothing else for it but for him to get out of the country without delay. I believe he reached New York in safety, en route for the West. I am afraid he will never be able to return to this country again, but, of course, it will be up to me to see that he gets his share of the fortune which we have in this monoplane of ours. I have told you this——"
"That was very good of you," Ayres said dryly. "And now let me tell you a little story which I think you will find quite as interesting as the one which you have just related to me. Did you ever hear of a rare specimen of a moth called the Striped Hawk."
"I don't know anything about moths."
"No. Well, you are going to. Let me tell you that when my friend Sir James Silver saw your monoplane for the first time he found a Striped Hawk attached to some part of your machinery. Now, from my point of view, that is a most remarkable discovery. I knew for a cold scientific fact that the Striped Hawk could not possibly exist on Salisbury Plain. Again, the insect only flies after dusk, and therefore must have become attached to your machinery during your night flight from High Tor here."
"It doesn't sound very interesting."
"My dear sir, I am just coming to the interesting part. Look at this map. Here is High Tor and here is the Plain. Now just where my finger is lies some high ground where for some days I was camping out, hunting the Striped Hawk. On the night of your flight here I was on duty and did not close my eyes. I saw nothing and heard nothing beyond a loud noise which I took to be the note of a startled nightjar. But I was mistaken, for it was proved to me on the highest local authority that no nightjars had ever been seen within miles of the place. What I heard beyond a doubt was the churning of your monoplane's machinery. You must have passed just overhead; indeed, this is proved by the Striped Hawk which Sir James found attached to your machinery. Now do you begin to understand?"
August's eyes were blazing.
"Go on," he said hoarsely. "Go on, curse you."
"You know just what I found the next morning," Ayres proceeded. "You must have seen it in the papers. I discovered a man lying dead not more than fifty yards from my tent. Directly I knew about that moth and heard the peculiar noise your monoplane makes, I knew exactly what had happened. As you passed over my tent you threw your companion out."
"Prove that it is Miller," August cried.
"That can safely be left in the hands of the police," Ayres said. "Miller had no friends, and you gambled on the certainty of his not being identified. You were working in secret together and nobody, so far as you know, had seen you with the murdered man."
"A fairy tale," August sneered. "Of course, I have read all about that business the papers. There was absolutely nothing on the body of the dead man likely to lead to his identification."
"There was," Ayres said quietly. "Something you had overlooked. You were just a trifle careless. For obvious reasons the police made no mention of their discovery, but in the dead man's pocket they discovered the original drawings of the nightjar which I had procured for the unfortunate Miller through my friend. And now if you have any questions to ask me——"
August had no questions to ask. He turned away with a snarl and a curse, something gleamed dully blue in the sunshine. There was a whip-like crack, a flash, and August lay white and silent on the grass with a bullet in his brain.
LAWRENCE BRAYTON lay back in his chair luxuriously. This was the kind of thing that appealed to him—he liked the silken luxury of it all, the flowers, the shaded lights, the statues, the suggestion of aloofness all around him. There was no vulgar chatter or merry laughter in the dining-room of the Wellesley, no startling display of the 'human form divine' as interpreted by the last audacities from Paris—they did not encourage powdered shoulders at the Wellesley. It was all in the very best of taste, quite subdued, with lights shaded and just an occasional flash from a tiara or a coronet, in the purple, flower-laden lamplight. The coffee was excellent, the cigarette a dream, the liqueur a poem. Brayton was quite glad to be alone in the quiet enjoyment of the picture.
"I ought to have been born a rich man," he muttered as he glanced across the tangle of purple orchids on the table. "Every poet should have money. I wonder if I am a poet really. Anyway, I am blest, or cursed, with the artistic temperament. All the same, I've got to work in the city for my living. A commission agent! If I could only have foreseen it in the old Eton days! Lord! to have money, and cut the city. To be able to say to Gertrude Mallison—Lawrence, my boy, you are a greater fool than I took you for. Still, I suppose I have something to be thankful for. I can put my bands on a thousand pounds, and I've had a good dinner at Harrison Syme's expense without having to put up with the company of that brilliant bounder himself."
As a matter of fact, Harrison Syme had been called away before the soup was finished. Somebody wanted to speak to him on the telephone. He had gone off in his insolent, swaggering way; he had come back looking white and uneasy, quite unlike the financier who was supposed to have made over a million of money in the past four years.
"Beastly nuisance, but I've got to go, Brayton," he muttered. "Most important matter. I'll do my best to get back in an hour. You get on with your dinner; I've ordered it, and I shall have to pay for the same in any case. If I don't get back I'll ask you to call on me tomorrow. You may have made something of the cipher by that time."
Brayton expressed himself quite correctly and conventionally. As a matter of fact, he was not disposed to quarrel with the turn of events.
"Let it go at that," he said. "It looks to me like a variation of the Four-Ace Code. It's the code I've been using for years."
Brayton smiled to himself. He was fond of mysteries and puzzles, and on more than one occasion had been of considerable assistance to Scotland Yard. But then, at the Yard, they knew what Syme was not aware of—that the Four Ace Code was Brayton's own invention. He had sold it some years ago for a trifle, not realising its value, and now the code was one of the most popular amongst business men. The key-card could be changed at pleasure. If the diamond ace was the key letter, then anybody familiar with the clue could decipher. But say a man distrusted his confidential clerk and elected to take hearts instead, the clerk in question was reduced to impotence. All the most precious secrets entrusted to the cable came by the Four-Ace Code.
Syme gulped down a large glass of brandy and departed. Quite content to be alone, Brayton sat there puffing an other cigarette. On one side of him was an ambassador, at the table on his left a personage was dining. It was all very pleasant and very soothing to a well bred, ambitious young city man possessed of the artistic temperament. He longed to have the money to do this kind of thing regularly. And perhaps Gertrude——
Well, why should he not think of her? He knew that she liked him, and she generally chose him as her partner at tennis and in the mixed foursomes at Ranelagh; she had told him once that his step suited her to perfection. But then she was so beastly rich and he was so beastly poor! She wasn't an ordinary type of girl either—she had something besides money and beauty.
One night, up the river—yes, he had seen the glint in her eyes, the faint, unsteady smile. He had been very near speaking that night. To have her for his wife, to order out the motor and drop in here to a little dinner, they two together. And to sit opposite that exquisite face and watch the smile in those glorious eyes.
"I am the biggest fool in England." Brayton told himself. "Well, what is it?"
A telegraph-boy stood by his side, a pert little messenger absolutely at home there.
"My Syme, sir?" he suggested. "Thank you, sir; good night, sir."
The orange envelope was dropped carelessly on the table, and the boy had vanished. Evidently a telegram of importance, and one that Syme had expected, for the sender of the message had known exactly where to find Syme and where he could get him without delay. Very strange. It did not seem quite so strange when Brayton recalled the fact that Syme dined at the Wellesley most nights. Possibly Syme did not want the cable to go to his office.
"Wonder if I'd better open it," Brayton said. "It may be very important. His own man has orders to open any telegram, I know. If it is important he'll pitch into me afterwards for not taking steps to get in touch with him. I think I will."
The envelope was barely fastened down. There were only two words in it, and they were in cipher. In an idle way Brayton spelt them over. What did 'jigshawspi lemonnutsnoseben' mean? Brayton stuck the envelope down again and called one of the waiters.
"Here's a shilling for you," he said. "Try and get Mr Syme on the phone. Try his clubs. When you get him, tell him to hold the wire as I want to speak to him."
The waiter departed on his errand. Brayton could see the queer jumble of words no longer, but he could have repeated them by heart all the same. He had the sort of memory necessary to the solution of cipher. And, in fact, two or three letters in the jumble were oddly familiar. He wondered where he had seen them before. Suddenly the answer flashed upon him.
"By Jove," he muttered, "it's the Four-Ace Code. And the cipher ace is clubs. I don't want to pry into any man's secrets, but I'd like to see if I could work it out."
He took a pencil from his pocket and jotted the sequence of letters down with absolute correctness on the back of the menu card. Then he proceeded to place the consonants in two parallel lines. Now that he had got the start, the rest was child's play. He wrote the answer to the sum in his neat handwriting, so that the words stood out like little letters of flame.
"Agricola main reef forty ounces. Blind. Eighty years. Over a thousand."
To the lay mind even now it looked cryptic to a degree. But not to a man who had spent five of the best years of his life in the city.
"So Agricola is a really big thing," Brayton muttered.
"The Agricola mine that everybody says is a swindle turns out to be a big thing in a main reef, showing forty ounces of gold to the ton.
"Nobody knew but the man who sent this cable, and he has seen that the rest are absolutely 'Blind.' The life of the mine is eighty years, and the dividend should pan out at over a thousand per cent. Well, Syme is a greater rascal than I took him for. It was only today that I read that Agricola was going in for liquidation. Shares a drug in the market at two for three-halfpence. By Jove, if I can get into the market before Syme I shall be——I've got a thousand pounds to play with. And shares to be had for nothing. Oh, Gertrude, Gertrude——"
Brayton stretched out a shaky hand in the direction of the cablegram.
"No, I won't," he said between his teeth. "I'll not suppress it. I'll play the game. Syme shall have his cable if I can possibly find him, but there is no occasion to tell him what I have discovered. He couldn't know that any form of the Four-Ace Code is like an open book to me. He'll probably go quietly to work some time tomorrow, but he'll be too late. By lunch time Agricola will be all mine."
Brayton helped himself to another liqueur and lighted a cigarette with a perfectly steady hand. The whole thing was deliciously simple. He had only to divide his thousand pounds between two brokers, and give them instructions to buy Agricola so long as the money lasted. They could be had for practically nothing. By this time tomorrow Brayton would be rich. People would no doubt say a good many hard things about him, but it was all in the way of business. Let them do it. And Gertrude——
The waiter was some time away. He came back presently with the information that he had got Mr. Syme on the phone at his club. Mr. Syme regretted that he was unable to return to the Wellesley that night, as he was detained on business of the utmost importance, and that he had just gone home.
"You told him about the cable message?" Brayton asked.
"He never gave me a chance, sir," the waiter exclaimed. "He was in a desperate hurry. He cut me off and hung up the receiver. I did all I could, sir."
"I daresay it will be all right," Brayton responded. "I'll take the message myself on my way home. If a man is so foolish as to——That will do, waiter, thank you."
The waiter vanished, and Brayton leisurely donned his hat and coat. Things were going to be very different with him from this night on. By this time tomorrow——He walked as far as his club, the one extravagance he indulged in, feeling on the best of terms with the world. It is not every night that a man strolls down Pall Mall with a secret in the back of his mind worth two hundred thousand pounds. And this was quite a moderate estimate, Brayton thought.
It was not very late as yet and the club was full. Brayton dropped into his accustomed seat in the smoking room and blandly inquired if there was any news. Three or four men were discussing something eagerly by the fireplace. It seemed to Brayton that he caught Syme's name.
"What's that you are saying, Doctor?" he asked. "What about Syme?"
"Dead," Doctor Gladstone said crisply. "I've just come from Syme's room. I'm his man, you know. They fetched me from here by motor half-an-hour ago. Dead before I got there."
A little odd feeling played up and down Brayton's spinal column.
"A sudden trouble with the heart?" he gasped.
"Suicide," Gladstone went on with pseudo-cynical indifference. "Shot himself through the head with a revolver. Walked in quite coolly and took off his hat. Called for a drink and took every drop of it. Then he handed the glass back to his man, took a revolver from his hip-pocket, and shot himself. Mad! Not a bit of it—man was as sane as you or I. Another financial bubble pricked. They say the Agricola smash finished him off."
Brayton called for a drink himself; he felt that he needed it. The cablegram had come too late; perhaps things had gone too far for even the news from South America to save him. And Brayton was the one man in the world, with the exception of the sender of the message, who knew that Agricola was the best thing on the market at the present time.
"It's a bad smash," another man said. "I met poor old Stannard this afternoon nearly out of his mind. He's been advising his clients to put money into Agricola. He began to tell me what one client of his, a girl——"
"Is that Stannard, of Lincoln's Inn, the lawyer?" Brayton asked. "Mr. Mallison used to be his partner. If it's the same man."
"Oh, it's the same man," the other said. "What, are you going already, Brayton?"
Brayton muttered something to the effect that he had work to do. He wanted to be alone to think this matter over. The floating kaleidoscope of events bewildered him. An hour or two ago and he had sat humbly in the Wellesley envying Syme his money and position, and now Syme was dead and Lazarus had a fortune in his pocket.
Not a soul in the world knew except the sender of the cablegram. There would be a great deal of poverty and distress, for the Agricola had been a strong tip with the public, who, a little while back, had rushed for everything that Syme fathered. Scores of these people would be ruined, but Brayton did not allow his mind to dwell on that point. People of that class always lost their money—if one fraudulent scheme didn't have it another would. Why couldn't they be content with a safe interest?
"Oh, yes, a lot of people would suffer. But people like old Stannard! It seemed incredible that he should have been caught. And that he should invest clients' money. Gertrude Mallison was a client of his; in fact, he was her trustee. Suppose he had lost all Gertrude's money. Suppose she had to turn out and get her own living. And suppose Brayton was rich, as he would be soon. Gertrude, Gertrude, those eyes of yours have made a fool of me," he murmured. "Your father was not the man to give his trustee much latitude in the way of investments. Still——"
The papers were full of it next day. It was a tremendous smash. Scotland Yard had been after Syme; they had been looking for him the evening before with a warrant. He had played a desperate game at the finish, but fortune was against him. It was one of the inspectors of the Yard who told Brayton all this. Syme could not afford to wait for that cablegram from South America. Doubtless, he had lingered on till the last possible minute. The authorities had taken possession of Symes' papers, and already a hopeless state of affairs had been divulged. Everything had been disposed of—Syme did not appear to have a share worth keeping left. There was no occasion to hold on to the Agricola, seeing that in the ordinary course of events they could have been bought back for two for three halfpence. Special meetings of the various shareholders would be called at once, but the chance of saving anything out of the wreck was very remote.
Brayton stood impassively. The game was absolutely in his own hands. There was no occasion for any hurry. He took his way leisurely into the city and commenced operations. He was a buyer for cash. His broker was frank to the verge of rudeness.
"My dear fellow, you will lose every penny," he said. "What on earth——"
"Never mind that," Brayton said. "What can you buy the shares for?"
"Well, certainly for sixpence each. Perhaps less."
"Then buy all you can for cash and the account. I'll give you a cheque for £1,000 now. That should secure 40,000 of the ordinaries. Oh, I'm not saying there is anything in Agricolas, but Agricolas may counteract another thing that I shall get 5 per cent out of. It's a pure spec, on my part, but I've had a bit of luck lately, and I'm backing it."
"Come into a fortune?" the broker asked.
"No, I haven't," Brayton said crisply. "But all that you can get for that amount. Good-bye."
He strolled off quietly, and patiently awaited his game. He had parted with all his available capital, and in return he possessed forty thousand Agricola ordinary shares, with a possibility of as many more. Within ten days he would have to find a further thousand pounds or carry over. But the carrying-over would be easy enough, as Brayton very well knew. Within ten days those shares would be standing at a premium of at least five pounds, and he was pretty certain to make half a million of money. A couple of days drifted by, and Brayton was satisfied. There were no more Agricolas to be had. On Thursday morning they were asked for, on Thursday, at closing time, as much as eight shillings were bid. By midday on Friday the stock stood at par, and then the secret leaked out. Whence it came nobody seemed to know or care. Syme's co-directors, harassed out of their lives, cabled to the mine asking pertinent questions of their engineer. His little conspiracy had failed; Syme's tragic death had pricked the bubble, and it behoved the engineer to save his face. He was shocked to find that Syme had suppressed his code message, or perhaps Syme had not received it. At any rate, he begged to repeat his cable, and did so. The directors sighed with relief. At any rate, their holdings were intact; the Agricola was a good thing, and they prepared without delay to call the shareholders together and tell them so. The city rang with the story.
On the day of the extraordinary general meeting Agricolas stood at £4 10s. Brayton turned into the Cannon Street Hotel with the easy mind and placid assurance of one who feels himself in the possession of half a million of money. There were shareholders there who were not shareholders at all. They had parted with their holdings and they came sadly curious to know how the swindle had been worked. Syme was dead and done with, but assuredly he had confederates who had engineered the swindle, and who was going to benefit by it. Possibly the chairman of directors would be able to tell them something.
Brayton glanced curiously around him. He began to wish that he had stayed away. Some of those faces were by no means pleasant to look at. There was an old clergyman with frayed coat and a collar evidently trimmed at the edges, a half-blind working man led by a little girl. And there was a tall lady in deep black with two children by her side. And there was Mr. Stannard with a white, anxious face and a twitching of the lips that told its own tale. And last, there was Gertrude Mallison, grey lipped and forlorn, with an expression in her eyes that brought Brayton to her side.
"I—I did not expect to see you here," he stammered. "I sincerely hope——"
"Oh, we are all in the same boat," Gertrude smiled wistfully. "Only, don't say anything to Mr. Stannard. He is heartbroken about it. Oh, yes, all my money. He says that he must have been mad. You see, my father gave him absolute discretion. And he meant to make me very rich—he——"
What was going on? Oh, yes, the chairman was speaking. But the chairman had very little to say. He and his colleagues had not sold for various reasons. They had lost nothing. But they were quite prepared to pool their shares for the benefit of the company generally. At the huge premium at which the shares stood today, something substantial would be done to mitigate the distress. There had been some dirty, underhand work, and certain people had benefited. Those people were strangers, and the chairman understood that one of them was in the room at the moment. Perhaps he would like to say a few words. If not, then there was very little to be said. Perhaps the Board of Trade——
"You are alluding to me," Brayton said. "To be quite frank, I hold four-fifth of the shares. I bought them for very little on exclusive information. Your engineer betrayed you, and the exclusive information dispatched for Syme's benefit came unexpectedly into my hands. Why I kept the information to myself I need not say. I could not give it to Mr. Syme, because he had gone to his account elsewhere. Neither am I going to explain why I bought those shares. If I had not done so sooner or later, there would have been a rush on the part of the shrewd city speculator, and instead of one man to contend with you would have had a hundred. As a matter of sheer business my position is unassailable. You cannot touch me. But there is another way in which you can touch me and you have. I am touched by the appearance of certain people here. Their silence is more eloquent then words. If I like to leave the room with my hands in my pockets I can do so, and no process, legal or otherwise, can stop me. But I am not going to do it. And I am not going to have my motive questioned either. Call it a tardy repentance on my part, call it what you like, say that I did this to save you from the city sharks, say I did it because a lady shareholder is a great friend of mine, and I wanted above all things to stand well in her eyes. But I'm going to give all those shares back to the people who sold them to me, and the price is exactly what I gave for them. And—and that's all."
The greatest fool in the City of London walked out into Cannon Street feeling at peace with all the world. A hand was laid on his shoulder. He turned round to meet Gertrude's eyes.
"My cab is here," she said. "Please get in. I am going to take you as far as my flat. Did you suppose that I was going to let you run off in that fashion? Oh, I know something about business. My father was a business man, remember. We shall be quite alone there. Please get in."
Brayton obeyed mechanically enough. Right away to Kensington, Gertrude kept her face averted from him. She said no word till the flat was reached. The tears were in her eyes still.
"Sit down in that chair," she commanded. "And tell me everything. Everything, mind!"
Brayton told the story. He omitted nothing. It seemed strange that he should be baring his soul to this girl in so free a fashion. He spoke of his hopes and fears, of the artistic temperament, of his loathing for the city.
"And there it was, thrown at me, Miss Mallison," he said. "Especially——"
"Gertrude," the girl said. "Call me Gertrude, please."
"Well, Gertrude, darling. I could be rich. Why should I consider other people? I—I could ask the girl I love to marry me without any chance of being called a fortune-hunter."
"Is—is the girl rich?" Gertrude whispered. "I mean was she rich this morning?"
"Well, she wasn't," Brayton said. "But she is now, and I am poor, and there is an end of the matter. But, thank God, she knows my story now, and if she thinks none the worse of me——"
"Worse of you, Lawrence! Worse of you! Oh, the boy is clearly mad. Why, you acted splendidly. You acted as few people would have done. You gave everything back to those poor people, you were going to give up the girl you loved so that——What nonsense, what delicious, romantic nonsense! And what does it matter who has the money so long as it belongs to one of the two?"
"I—I don't know what you mean," Brayton stammered.
"Yes, you do, Lawrence. Look at me. Come here. Now put your arms round me like that—and kiss me. And I'll put my arms round you—like this—and I'll kiss you. Oh, my dearest boy, have not you seen for a long time that there was nobody but you? I thought that I should have to ask you. But now that you have given me back my fortune I must offer you something in return. Well, I do, dear! Let me hide my face on your breast and so save my blushes——"
"I don't believe you're blushing a bit, Gertrude."
"Well, then, I'm not. I'm not a bit ashamed of myself. Lawrence, what can I do for you?"
He bent down and kissed her long and passionately.
"Take me to the Wellesley to dinner tonight," he said. "With you opposite me with that love-light in your glorious eyes, even the artistic temperament would have no more to ask for."
OVERTON crept a little nearer towards the neat little parcel in the clean table napkin, and sniffed as a hungry dog might have done. The muscles of his mouth quivered--he passed his tongue over his dry lips. In the language of his bygone youth--and, Heavens! how far away that seemed--he was up against it. Not for worlds would he have confessed the fact that no food had passed his lips for 20 hours. He was willing enough to work and strong enough withal. But the whole world seemed to be full up, perspiring dockers were passing in a constant stream, he could hear the roar of traffic as the laden lorries passed over the cobble stones in High Street. And yet in all this world of activity they told him that things were slack and that most of the casual hands there were working for a bare wage.
Overton was realising bitterly enough that this thing was true. He had made a sixpence yesterday by holding horses, but so far as the docks were concerned nothing for the best part of a week. He was angrily conscious that the strength in which he prided himself was feeling the strain. But at any rate he was a better man than the thin reed over there sweating amongst the bales of wool. He was a clean-shaven, respectable-looking man and bore the unmistakeable stamp of better times. Overton studied him half curiously. He saw the little man stagger towards one of the bales and drop on it, shaking from head to foot like a leaf. His head and hands jerked as if invisible strings were pulling them.
"Anything wrong?" Overton asked.
"Malaria," the little man gasped. "It's a legacy I brought back with me from India. Catches me cruelly at times. When I get a bad dose I'm good for nothing for a week. And the devil of it is that cursed foreman's got an eye on me. Next time he comes round and finds I haven't shifted this little parcel I'll get fired. They've got no use for malaria here. Do you happen to be looking for a job yourself!"
"Well, that's about it," Overton said briefly.
"Well, turn in and shift this wool for me. If you get it done in half-an-hour I'm good for a shilling. If I get a stiff dose of quinine down me I may be better presently. On the other hand, I may be worse. Point is, are you game?"
Overton turned to the work fiercely. He ripped off his coat and vest and rolled up his shirtsleeves. The shaky little man sitting there had a stammering word or two of praise for those magnificent muscles.
"My word, you ought not to be put off a job," he said. "Done a deal of rowing in your time, haven't you?"
"I was in my college boat," Overton said absently. He reddened slightly as he spoke. "But that's another story."
"That's all right," the little man said. "I was in my college boat, too, though you wouldn't think it to look at me."
He rose to his feet and staggered away. When he returned half-an-hour later the whole of the work was done and Overton was sitting on a capstan wiping his heated forehead.
"Here's your money," the little man said. "Oh, you needn't hesitate to take it. I've got a bit put away. And I should have a bit more but for these cursed strikes. To blast with your leaders, I say. No, I've got no Federation ticket and I don't want one. And thousands more would tear up theirs if they only dared. And there's thousands, too, who regard Mat Herring as a god and just do anything he asks when he holds up his little finger. Look at him now talking to those lightermen. Not a day's work has he done for the last ten years. Just twig his fine clothes and his big watch chain and his cigar. And there's nothing to him except the gift of the gab and a certain infernal cheek that fairly hypnotised 'em. There are mothers and children down our way who would put a knife into him if they dared. We've had mine strikes in the last five years, and there's not a docker here who could tell you what they were about if you gave him a sovereign. Here, you haven't taken your shilling yet. It seems a pity that a workman like you should be doing nothing. You come along here tomorrow morning at the same time, and I'll see if I can't find a job for you."
Overton walked over to the nearest public house and spent a few coppers of his precious shilling in a cheap, substantial meal. In reckless mood he treated himself to a glass of beer and a penny packet of cigarettes. The close and stuffy little bar was full of dockers more or less unemployed, the air reeked with the smell of sweating humanity. And Overton did not fail to notice the suggestion of unrest and discontent on the face of those about him. He could hear certain threats and grumbling; he caught from time to time the revered name of Mat Herring. There was a commotion in the bar presently, and the big agitator himself came in. He spoke loudly and stridently--his coarse red face bore a certain suggestion of strength and power. From Overton's point of view he was merely a repulsive bully using these deluded men as a means to an end. Overton itched with a desire to get his hands upon the man, and he would have quarrelled with him at the slightest opportunity. But discretion was certainly the better part of valour now. He had only a small handful of coppers between himself and starvation, and the docker who made an enemy of Mat Herring lived to regret it and that speedily.
The agitator boomed on in his big voice, eloquent on imaginary grievances and leaving sullen discontent behind him wherever he went. There was some fresh trouble in the air, some childish controversy which might at any moment burst into a flame that would involve all the labour in the East.
"You've got 'im in your own 'ands," Herring roared. "'Ere, wot are yer talking about? Ain't I speaking?"
"There's a gal outside wot wants to speak ter yer, Mister 'Erring," one of the audience said ingratiatingly.
"Daresay it's that niece o' mine," the great man said. "If she wants to see me, she can come inside."
There entered a tall, slim figure of a girl clad in rusty black. Over her head and shoulders was a shawl of some fleecy material which did not serve to disguise the marvellous colour and texture of her hair or the sensitive beauty of her face. She was no better dressed than most women round there and yet she stood out from them a thing apart. Something like a bitter smile trembled on Overton's lips. He was wondering by what extraordinary freak of nature this girl could be Herring's niece. The man turned and brutally demanded what the girl was doing there.
"It's the child," the girl stammered painfully. Overton noticed that her voice was as refined as her face. "She's worse. You must send for a doctor."
"No doctors in my house," Herring declared. "Bloodsucking set of murderers I call 'em. And don't you come bothering me again like this when I'm in the middle of my work."
He raised his am threateningly and Overton jumped to his feet. Just for a moment the joy and pride of the militant dockers was within an ace of receiving the thrashing which he had so richly deserved for years. But Overton checked himself in time. Commonsense told him that he would only make matters worse for the girl afterwards. He did not take his seat again, but followed the girl out into the street.
"You'll excuse me," he said. "I have no right to speak to you, of course, but you are in trouble, and I fancy I can help you. I have no money, but I am not without influence, though it may sound amusing for me to say so."
"You are very good," the girl said gratefully. "And it is a pleasure to speak to a gentleman again. And anybody can see you are that. In a way we are companions in misfortune. You see Mr. Herring married my sister. And she died. It is just as well that she did, and she left a little girl, whom I promised to look after. That is why I am down here instead of--but I need not go into that. Ada is a poor, weakly little thing. And she will never live to be grown up. And he doesn't care, he has no heart or feeling of affection for anything. All the money he makes he spends on himself. Can't you see how cruelly I am placed? And what he said just now about the doctor is all lies. He grudges the expense where his own flesh and blood is concerned."
Who on earth was this girl, Overton wondered. And what was she doing here in this God-forsaken spot? And how on earth had that sister of hers come to give her heart to a cold-blooded brute like Herring? But he was destined to learn all these things in time. Providentially Herring was away for a day or two, stirring up strife and discontent at Bristol, and Overton's doctor friend was doing his best for the pale, white fragment of humanity which would never blossom into robust youth. It was only a question of time, and Helen Macgregor heard the verdict with tears in her eyes. After the clumsy methods of manhood Overton consoled her. He had been seeing a good deal of the girl lately, for the little man with the malaria had been as good as his word, and Overton was in regular employment now.
"I wonder if I'm really sorry," Helen said. "It will be a blessed relief when the time comes, and then I can get away from here altogether."
"You want to go all that badly?"
"I am aching to turn my back upon it. It has been two years of penal servitude for me. I offered to take the child elsewhere, but my brother-in-law would not hear of it. If it were not for her I could go back tomorrow to the family I left. When my father died I became governess to some children in the most delightful household in the world. I was more one of the family than a governess. My father had been vicar of the parish. We might have all been happy if my sister had not met Mr. Herring. She was always strangely romantic, she took a vivid interest in social questions, and she made up her mind that Mathew Herring was a great man. Even to the very last she regarded him as a kind of Napoleon of labour. She was absolutely blind to his coarseness and selfishness. She never saw that he was a dissipated, vulgar, dishonest loafer, whose only qualities were impudence and brag, and she never realised that he would not have married her at all but for the fact that she had inherited a few hundred pounds from a distant relative. And he dragged her from the sweetness and refinement of a country home to this dreadful spot. He had never been accustomed to anything different--any slum-dwelling was good enough for him so long as he could spend his evenings in some low public-house over his beer and politics. He never even let me know when my sister was dying. I found her here, and she made me promise to look after the child. A sordid little story, is it not? But all I can do now is to wait for the inevitable end. Then I can go back again to the sunshine and the sweetness of the country. But before I go I should like--you won't think me vindictive?"
"Oh, I know what you would like," Overton said. "And I like you all the better for that touch of humanity. It makes me feel that I am not altogether in contact with a saint. You would like to see Herring exposed and disgraced. You would like to see him made the laughing stock of these poor deluded fools whose proudest ambition it is to pay for his beer. Well, I will try and manege it for you if I can. It was very nearly being an accomplished fact the day I first saw you in that dirty little public-house. There's going to be trouble here. I feel quite sure that these men will be all out again within the fortnight. And, mind you, they don't want to come. If I could only get them to listen to me I'd break Herring in a week. And there's only one way to do it."
Helen Macgregor's eyes gleamed. There was a deep flush on her face. She laid her hand on Overton's arm.
"Oh, if you only could," she whispered. "My heart bleeds for the women and children. Mind you, these people have a case. I have lived with them long enough to see that. And they would win what they are entitled to if they could get rid of the bitter blight that parasites like Herring smother them with. And you could do it for them. They have come to like you. And, strangely enough, one of the reasons is because you are a gentleman."
"Do I look like one?" Overton smiled.
"Yes, you do," the girl said. "In spite of your docker's dress and the dirt on your hands and face, there is no mistaking it. I knew it the first time we ever met."
"And you asked yourself no questions, Helen?"
"Of course I did. I am full of curiosity. And I don't care if you've done something wrong. At any rate, you have not been used to the horrors of a place like this, and it is fine and noble of you to be getting your own living whilst, I daresay, your friends would be ready to help you. Perhaps you will tell me some day."
"Oh, I will that. There's nothing against me. I could walk down Piccadilly with my face to the sunshine. Only I've been a fool. Heavens, what a fool!"
He might have told her more, but the whistles began to hoot and bellow, and the grimy, dingy bees were stirring in the hive. They were very discontented bees just now, sullen and unwilling, and Overton scented the trouble from afar off. He marked Herring as he strolled about the docks with the air of a dissipated conqueror, he noted the angry gleam in the foremen's eyes and the clenching of their fists as Herring swaggered past them. But they were utterly powerless, and they knew it. Had the men any sort of feeling? Overton asked himself. This sort of thing had been going on for days now, and Herring's child lay dying. It was that same evening that Helen came to him, quiet and subdued, with the information that the little one's sufferings were over.
"She died an hour ago," she explained, "and Matthew Herring grumbled because he would have to find the money for the funeral. Oh, he is a dreadful creature! Don't think it hard of me, but I can think of nothing but my release from this awful place.. .. Within a day--within an hour----"
"Oh, I know what you mean. But don't go alone. Let us go together. Will you call me presumptuous if I tell you that there is a dear old aunt of mine who writes to me regularly and who takes the warmest interest in my welfare. And I have taken the liberty of telling her all about you. I told her of your noble heroism and self-sacrifice. And when you've finished here she wants you to go and stay with her for a time."
"I shall be very glad," Helen said simply. "With the exception of the people I used to be with, I have not a friend in the world. And they are abroad and will not be back for several weeks. I will wait and go with you, Geoffrey."
The last word dropped quite unconsciously from the girl's lips, and Overton smiled.
"Then let it be Saturday," he said. "When did you say the funeral was to be--Thursday afternoon? Oh, yes, I shall be quite ready for you by Saturday morning."
Overton went back to his work with his head high in the air and a set determination on his lips. There was going to be trouble by Saturday, of that he felt certain. It was late on the Friday afternoon before the smoke gave way to the flame, it was one of those silly disputes between capital and labour, a touch of harshness on the one side and mistaken pride on the other. A sullen murmur ran through the dock and almost before anyone knew what had happened a thousand angry men were standing with their hands by their sides, and the foreman, almost beside himself with rage, was yelling hoarse commands lurid with profanity. Out of the welter of dogged, perspiring humanity came Herring, red of face, strident and overbearing.
"Down tools, lads," he cried. "Outside every one of you. You've got right on your side and you will have all the country with you over this job. Within a week there won't be a single workman in a single dockyard in Great Britain."
Overton stepped quietly forward.
"Wait a minute," he said. "You might give the foreman a chance. You might wait to hear what he's got to say anyhow. Don't tell me that you are going to be influenced by that drunken, swaggering loafer any more."
He pointed contemptuously at Herring. The latter darted forward, his course, red face aflame.
"Meaning me?" he demanded hoarsely.
"Meaning you, you common, dissipated beer-swiller. You're a liar and a thief. You've been robbing these poor fools for years. Yes, and I'm in a position to prove it if you like. Regular work and contentment for the lads means starvation for you. Here, come, there must be at least five hundred of you chaps who have known Matthew Herring for years. But I'll wager a sovereign that the oldest-hand here cannot recollect when Herring did an honest day's work. Is it a bet."
He held up the glittering coin between his fingers, and something like a sigh went up from the dockers. There was not one of them there who had not felt the pinch of hunger at least four times during the past twelve months, and very few of them who could not have recollected the loss of a wife or child, and all owing to the blighting influence of Matthew Herring. Something like a laugh went up, and more then one man in the crowd reached down for his tools.
"Here, drop it," Herring yelled. "Who do you think's speaking to yer? Why this chap's a blackleg 'imself."
"They're going back to work," Overton said quietly.
Indeed, they looked very much like doing it. Their eyes, were averted from Herring: he would, perhaps, have been astonished could he have known the deep-rooted hatred that he had inspired in every breast there. In reality it seemed to him that this impudent blackleg was defying him on his own ground. Well, he would show the dockers what he was made of. He stripped off his coat and strode across to where Overton was standing. The latter's heart leapt with pure joy. He had but little fear of the conflict. And it pleased him to see that Herring had some knowledge of boxing. It was all absolutely irregular, not to say idiotic, for the crowd had gathered round, and even the strident foreman had forgotten his torrid blasphemy. Herring came on with a head-long rush intent upon carrying all before him. Something seemed to move something jolted him on the jaw, and, to his own intense surprise, he found himself rolling over in the dust. A deep sarcastic cheer rose from the crowd and the red danced before his eyes. From that moment there could only be one possible result of the fight. The turning agitator was blind with rage, he was dead out of condition, and Overton hit him just where and when he pleased. The blood was streaming down his face, his left eye was half blind, and still Overton refrained from the knock-out blow. He took a particular pleasure in punishing this ruffian, a certain savage delight which relieved the pent-up feelings of many weeks, and Herring needed no knockout blow. He dropped to his knees at length and blubbered like a child.
"Better get back to work lads," Overton said quietly. "Nice specimen of a leader you're got, haven't you? Try a man next time. Here, get up and go home."
He kicked Herring to his feet, and the vanquished orator slunk off without another word. There came a harsh command from the ready-witted foreman, and in a moment every hand was at work again. All but Overton. He put on his coat and left the dock.
"'Ere, you're not going?" the foreman asked. "I can find you a better job if you need it. You're the stuff we want."
"Oh, I've got a job," Overton smiled. "It's not in the docks. It's down at a place in Sussex."
He met Helen next morning. He no longer wore his suit of moleskins; he was attired in a neat, well-cut flannel suit and straw hat. Half a dozen women gave him a cheer as he stood by the side of the taxicab waiting for Helen. She, too, was changed almost beyond recognition. Her eyes were moist and her smile unsteady as she put her hand into Overton's.
"Where are we going now?" she whispered.
"We are going straight away into Sussex," Overton explained. "Down to the house I told you about. Extravagant? Oh, I don't know. I have not spent much for the last 12 months, and I want to have you all to myself."
"I heard all about yesterday afternoon," Helen said. "Oh, it was splendid, splendid! I loathe violence, but I should like to have been there? Are you very shocked?"
They whirled along away from the misery and humiliation out into the country and the sunshine. Then they came at length to a fair old house nestling amongst the trees, and here on the balcony, looking across a garden so fair and sweet that the tears rose to Helen's eyes, Overton placed her in a seat and told his story.
"I have a confession to make," he said. "This house and small estate belongs to me. For the last year my aunt has been looking after it. You will see her presently and fall in love with her, as everybody does. But I have something to tell you first. Now, do you know that 18 months ago I was one of the most selfish, indolent idlers who ever disgraced a good education? My father used to say that I had no heart at all, and when he died, somewhere about a year ago, he left a strange will. He said I was young and strong enough for anything, and that for a whole 12 months I must go away with nothing in my pockets and earn my own living. I was not to borrow a penny from anyone, and if I failed by a single day, everything was to go to a single relation. My word, this last year has been a revelation to me! It took the conceit out of me to find how useless I was. I had chances and lost them one after another. I knew what it was to be downright hungry. I've slept on the Embankment, and the day I first went to the docks I hadn't tasted food for 20 hours. Well, I got a job there, and I was only too glad to stick to it, and I did stick to it till the year was up, and nearly six weeks more and I am a man at last."
"It was very fine," Helen cried. "But why did you go on after the year was up?"
"You don't know that? Can you look me in the face and tell me you cannot guess? Do you think I could part with you now, you who came like a crown to my salvation. I brought you here to remain always after we are married, and my aunt is looking forward to welcoming you as a daughter. She will be here at any moment now. You won't disappoint her, Helen?"
The girl held out her hand and smiled at Overton through her happy tears.
"Oh," she whispered, "Oh, what a world it is!"
THOUGH there was a smile on the girl's face, there was something like despair in her heart. It was not the kind of setting either, that one associates with misery or unhappiness, for on every side was evidence of wealth and luxury and extravagance. As a matter of fact, Evelyn Drayton reproached herself with being there at all. Why had she consented, she wondered, to give the light of her countenance to people of this class? Perhaps it was because she was good-natured; perhaps it was because she had not liked to say no. At the same time, she knew perfectly well why she had come. She had not seen Cecil Burt lately, and besides, she had heard certain strange rumours as to the financial status of himself, and his partner, George Lester. They were known to be a somewhat audacious firm. They were quite up-to-date in their methods, and prepared to take risks at which a more old-fashioned house would have held up its hands in horror. But, then, they were both well-known sportsmen, and the commercial world generally was getting accustomed to their dashing habits.
It did not matter so much so far as Lester was concerned, for he had a rich old father behind him who would have seen that his son came to no harm. With Cecil Burt, however, the case was different. If anything happened to him he would have to stand or fall on the merits of the case. There was no one likely to come forward and give him a helping hand in case of disaster. There was one, but Cecil Burt did not dream that she was interested in his welfare, and, for her own reason, Mrs. Cranleigh did not want him to know. The lady in question was a widow of considerable means, unconventional enough, and a thorough Bohemian in her ways and habits. She was rich and fond enough of Cecil Burt, to whom she had decided upon leaving her entire wealth when she had done with it. But this was a secret known only to herself and Evelyn Drayton, and to the man who had made the volatile old lady's will. As a matter of fact, this man was George Lester, for Lester and Burt were partners as solicitors, and Lester's father was by way of being one of Mrs. Cranleigh's oldest friends. The matter was a profound secret, and Mrs. Cranleigh had extracted a promise from Lester that his partner should never know how Mrs. Cranleigh's money was to be disposed of.
This is exactly how matters stood as Evelyn Drayton sat there at that interminable evening party, waiting and hoping for a chance to see Burt. The rumours had been more persistent the last day or two; they assumed ominous form now, and Evelyn was terribly anxious. She might not have cared to confess it to herself, but she was very deeply in love with Cecil Burt, and it only needed this trouble on his part to disclose the girl's feelings to herself. Cecil Burt might have been rash and foolish, he might even have been mad enough to speculate with clients' money, but what difference would a fact like that make to a girl where her affections were concerned? She had nothing or little of her own, but she was none the less desirous of finding some way to save Cecil Burt from the disaster which was hanging over him.
Perhaps she was all the more keen on this because she profoundly disliked and distrusted George Lester. She knew perfectly well that the man cared for her; in fact, he made no attempt to disguise his feelings. He knew also that Burt was a successful rival, and Evelyn had a vague uncanny impression that he would not have scruples as to the means of getting Cecil Burt out of the way. And Burt was so rash and headstrong too. He was just the kind of man to carry on the reckless and hazardous game to the last moment, to run his head into the deadly noose, and then, if things failed, to take his own life without a moment's hesitation. More than once, in a half jesting way, he discussed this matter with Evelyn; but there was no jesting about him when he spoke of possible failure. His jaws stiffened then, his eyes had become sombre and serious. Perhaps, to a certain extent, the spirit of prophecy was upon him. At any rate, Evelyn could not shake off the impression of those words. She felt sure enough that Burt had been in deadly earnest.
The matter was with her now as she sat there listening to the frivolous conversation going on about her. Her eyes ached with the glittering gaudiness of it all. Besides, it was getting late now, and it did not look as if Cecil Burt was going to put in an appearance. Evelyn turned away a little sore and disappointed, for she had written an argent note to Cecil Burt saying where she should be that evening and expressing a desire to see him. She would have passed from the drawing room now, only George Lester came in at the same moment and took a seat by her side. There was no mistaking the look of admiration in his eyes and the girl coloured now as she noticed it. She half rose.
"I am just going," she said coldly.
"You wouldn't have been in such a hurry if Burt had been here," Lester replied. "Sit down a moment."
"Perhaps not." The girl took up the challenge boldly and coolly enough. "But then, you see, Cecil is not here. I wrote most particularly to him and asked him to meet me, but I suppose he is otherwise engaged, or he does not think it worth while."
"He always was a fool," Lester said cynically.
"Do you really think so?" the girl asked. "Well, perhaps that is better than being a knave. On second thoughts I won't go just yet. There are one or two things you can tell me. I am going to ask you plain questions, because I am fond of Cecil Burt, and I take a great interest in his welfare. I think you ought to know strange rumours are going about as to your firm. I have heard them freely mentioned lately. People say that you are in trouble, and that--well--that you are using money which is not altogether your own. I give it you for what it is worth, and I sincerely hope that there is no truth in the scandal."
Lester laughed unconcernedly.
"Not so far as I am concerned," he said. "Besides, even if there were, I have my father behind me. Still, one never knows, even in an office like ours. You see, we both have our separate departments, and if Burt were doing anything wrong I should probably be the last to know. Had you not better ask him yourself!"
There was a sneer underlying the question, and Evelyn Drayton resented it accordingly. She checked the impulse which rose to the tip of her tongue, and smiled bravely.
"That is exactly what I am going to do," she said. "But hasn't Cecil Burt any friends at all, no expectations?"
It was Lester's turn now to hesitate. He did so for the fraction of a second, but it was not lost upon the girl by his side.
"So far as I know, none," he said.
There was something in the reply which excited all the girl's worst fears. Professional caution was all very well, but Lester was carrying it a little too far. He might, at any rate, have given her a hint, so Evelyn thought, as to Mrs. Cranleigh's will in Cecil's favour. There was no need to mention any name, but it seemed ominous, to the girl who knew everything, that he was concealing this fact so carefully. And again, he had listened with no sort of anger or impatience to the suggestion that there was anything wrong with his firm. Men of integrity did not usually accept such slander so calmly. In an illogical kind of way it occurred to Evelyn that Lester might be laying a deliberate trap for his partner. The consequences to Lester would be slight, for the simple reason that he had his father behind him. But for Burt they might be very serious indeed. It might mean disgrace, the loss of all social position, and perhaps dishonour in a gaol. There was not the slightest reason why Evelyn should come to these conclusions, but they were gradually being forced upon her. She rose now, almost afraid to continue the conversation, and moved across the room, with Lester by her side. A newcomer, with a face which betrayed excitement, accosted Lester.
"Is it true?" he asked. "I mean is it true what I heard just now about Mrs. Cranleigh? I am told she is dead."
Lester started uneasily. Evelyn Drayton's heart gave a great leap. She checked a sudden feeling of hopelessness of which she was ashamed. But she was only thinking about Burt now. At the same time, she was thinking about Lester, too and the sudden, unexpected embarrassment in his manner.
"How should I know!" he stammered.
"How should you know?" the other man echoed. "Why, you came away from the house with Dr. Bryant. I heard him say so. Of course, if you like to make a mystery about it, I am sorry I spoke." The speaker passed on, apparently in a huff. There was a red flush on Lester's face, and a furtive look in his eyes as he turned to Evelyn. Her manner was cold and self-contained, though inwardly she was burning. All she wanted now was to be alone to think this matter out. If she understood the thing at all Cecil Burt would be free now, there would be nothing to prevent him meeting his engagements. But why did Lester want to keep it secret? Why should he try and disguise from Burt the knowledge that his benefactress was dead. Was it possible that things had reached such an acute state--but Evelyn did not care to think of that.
She would go home at once. She would telegraph Burt to come and see her without delay. It was just possible that she might be able to reach him by means of the telephone. At any rate, she would not rest an evening until she had met the man who was everything to her.
She reached her own rooms at length. She dismissed her maid and drew the curtains close, for it was a chilly evening, and an inviting fire burnt on the hearth. There was a pile of letters on the table, and Evelyn turned them over carelessly. They might keep for the present, she told herself.
She was in no mood now for idle gossip and frivolous feminine correspondence. She turned the letters over contemptuously with her hand, then the colour came into her cheeks and the sparkle to her eyes again.
Here was a letter from Cecil Burt. She wondered what excuse he had to make for not replying to her urgent messages. Her heart beat more joyfully as she tore open the envelope.
But as she read the few words, hastily scrawled upon the sheet of paper, the colour left her cheeks and her heart seemed to stand still. There was no heading or signature. The wild words were quite enough and pregnant with meaning without that.
"You will never see me again," the message ran. "This is the last message I shall write to you or anybody else; for, my dear child, I am ruined beyond hope of recovery, I am dishonoured beyond despair. I have been playing with money belonging to other people, and my speculations have ended in disaster. Lester knows little or nothing about this. I doubt if he would care if he did. He will be all right, for his father will see to him, and Lester knows by this time; in fact, I saw him tonight. Think the best you can of me, and do not forget that with all my faults I loved you with a sincerity and passion beyond all words. I can say no more than this. It is my last word and thought."
THE next hour or two passed for Evelyn Drayton like a dream. There was only one thought uppermost in her mind, and that was that Cecil Burt must be saved. For all her thoughts were in a whirl. She saw one thing steadily and clearly. She was satisfied now that George Lester had been in a position to save this disgrace, to save the loss of life. He had deliberately held his tongue. To all practical purposes he would be guilty of Cecil Burt's murder. And why had he done this? To Evelyn's mind there was no doubt whatever. He had remained silent, knowing that a few hours would see Burt out of the way, and the path rendered smooth and easy for himself. It was a horrible idea, so horrible that Evelyn could have cried aloud when she thought of this black treachery.
But it was useless to sit there brooding and grieving. There was work to be done, and that without delay. Half an hour later Evelyn, closely cloaked and veiled, was making her way towards Burt's lodgings in the faint hope of finding him there. She had heeded nothing of the fact that the streets were now almost deserted, and that more than one belated wayfarer regarded her curiously. What did anything matter so long as the life of the man she loved was in danger. She came presently to her destination, only to be met with disappointment. Burt's discreet manservant raised his eyebrows significantly as he saw his visitor, but he was respectful enough. He had not seen Mr. Burt all day. The latter had said that he was not coming back, but that if anybody wanted him he would be at the office at 10 o'clock tomorrow.
"Are you sure!" Evelyn asked anxiously.
"I think so, miss," the manservant said. "The master promised to do a little thing for me. I don't mind telling you that it is in connexion with an almshouse which my mother is looking for. I have never known master neglect a promise of that kind."
Evelyn thanked the man and went away. After all it was a slender chance, but there was just a certain amount of hope in it. For Cecil Burt was just the kind of man to recollect a promise like that, even in the moment of his darkest despair. Where he was and what he was doing in the meantime Evelyn would have given much to know. It only remained for her now to pass the time as best she could to kill the laden hours till the morning, and then to make her way to Lincoln's Inn, where the offices of Lester and Burt were situated. There was hope yet.
Ten o'clock in the morning found Evelyn in Lincoln's Inn. She walked boldly into the clerk's room and asked for Mr. Burt. At the same moment Lester came out of his own office. He was immaculately dressed, as usual, and self-possessed, but he obviously started at the beautiful vision standing there in his clerk's office. He had evidently caught the question, for he replied to it himself without the slightest hesitation.
"Burt is not here," he said. "Is there any message I can give him? Perhaps you would like to come into my office."
Evelyn glanced at the clerk to whom she had put the question. She saw there was a colour in his face, and that his manner was confused. Evidently it was not in the direction of the office, on the ground-glass door of which the name of Burt was inscribed in black letters. It seemed to her that she could see the shadow of someone looming behind the opaque panels. Then she changed her mind and followed Lester. He waved her to a chair. He sat at his own desk with the tips of his well-manicured fingers pressed together.
"This is all unexpected pleasure," he murmured.
"Is it a pleasure?" Evelyn asked coldly. "I doubt it. You are wondering why I am here, and I will tell you. Last night I had a strange, unaccountable dream which impressed me very much. I thought that some friend of mine had been convicted of a crime of which he was innocent, and that he was going to be hanged this morning. It seemed to me that the proofs of his innocence came into my hands just in time for me to save him. This was a most extraordinary dream, because I found out that the governor of the gaol, who was responsible for the execution, was himself the guilty party. It was my duty to go down to the prison with a reprieve. But when I showed it to the governor in his private office he locked me in there so that I was powerless to do anything till that judicial murder was accomplished. It was a most vivid dream, for I could hear the funeral service being read, and the tolling of the bell. Then I battered my hands upon the door till they were raw and bleeding, and the clamour I was making awoke me. Now, don't you think that was a strange dream for a girl to have?"
"And you came here to tell me this?" Lester asked.
"Amongst other things, yes," Evelyn went on. "But I don't think I should have dreamt that dream but for the fact that I knew that the man I love was in danger. I came here to save Cecil Burt from his own folly and from your treachery."
"Treachery?" Lester said hoarsely; "what do you mean?"
"Oh, don't palter with me," Evelyn cried. "You know what I mean as well as if I had made a deliberate accusation against you. A pretty compliment you paid me. It is, indeed, good to think that a man should care for me so much that he should deliberately murder his own friend so as to clear the ground for himself. I did not think I should ever like to speak to a man in this shameless fashion, but this is no time to play with words and hide oneself behind a false femininity. Why do you shake your head and smile like that? I tell you I know everything, and you know everything, too. You have known for days the desperate position in which Cecil Burt stands. You knew that there was only one thing that could save him. But you never told him what that one thing was--you kept that assiduously to yourself. If you had told him that Mrs. Cranleigh was dying----"
"Mrs. Cranleigh?" Lester echoed. "What has she to do with it?"
"Oh, you seem to forget the fact that she was a great friend of mine, and she told me what you have known for months. Then sooner or later, every penny she possessed would find its way into Cecil Burt's possession. She bound you to secrecy as she bound me, and that secret you had a right to respect. But when Cecil Burt came to you last night and told you how things were, why did you not tell him that there was a means whereby he could have escaped the consequences of his folly and lead a better life in future? You could have informed him that Mrs. Cranleigh was dying, that it was only a question of hours. You could have found him late last night, and let him know that he had come into a fortune which would place him beyond the reach of the law. Oh, it is a horrible thing to speculate thus on a poor woman's death, to rejoice, as it were, that her loss has been another's gain! But, then, we are all human, and such thoughts as these will not be denied. At ten o'clock last night you knew everything. It was after ten when you saw your partner, and he went away with the avowed intention of taking his own life, what time a single word from you would have saved him."
"I didn't know," Lester stammered. "I give you my word----"
"Your word!" Evelyn echoed scornfully. "And what is that worth? A little less than nothing. Ring the bell, and tell your clerk to ask Mr. Burt to come in here at once! And don't let him know that I am here. Oh, I would have spared you this humiliation if I could; but moments are precious, and I am wasting valuable time. You will have to sit there and listen to all that I have to say. You will have to drink the cup to the dregs. How strange it seems! How different is the realisation to one's expectations! At one time I would have scorned the idea of giving my affections to a man who was not the pink of honour and integrity. And here am I prepared to commit something which is not much less than a crime to save a man for whose sake I would gladly die. Perhaps, after all, I am no better than either of you. Perhaps----"
The door opened and the clerk came in. A moment later he disappeared and Burt walked into the room. He staggered back at the sight of Evelyn. He would have retreated had she not darted forward and laid her hand upon his arm. The whole room was spinning round the girl now, a red mist floated before her eyes. But her voice was firm and steady enough as she spoke again presently.
"You wonder why I am here," she said. "I have been looking for you since last night, ever since I received your letter. Let me tell you that our dear old friend Mrs. Cranleigh is dead, and that she has left you the whole of her fortune. Before you wrote me that letter last night you saw Mr. Lester here and told him what you were going to do. He might have informed you then of what he already knew--that you were a rich man, and beyond the reach of all pecuniary troubles. But he had his own peculiar reasons for remaining silent, and I leave you to guess what they were. Heaven knows, I have been through humiliation enough already!"
"For my sake?" Burt asked, with white lips.
"For your sake. Yes, and perhaps for my own also. Why is it that women should never think the less of a man because he has made a false step like this? And yet if, on the other hand, the crime was the woman's--but this is no time for moralising. Ask Mr. Lester if what I say is not strictly true. But there is no occasion to do that because you can read his guilt on his face. Months ago Mrs. Cranleigh told me what she was going to do with her money, but she bound me to secrecy, and I have always respected her wishes. But I knew that your partner knew, because he made the will. At first, for professional reasons, he did not tell you. Later on he concealed his knowledge for reasons which I prefer not to go into. At any rate, he will tell you now that you are free, and that it is only a question of time before you are rid of this hateful business altogether. And now, will you kindly call a cab for me? I have taxed my strength a little more than I can bear."
Lester sat at his desk in moody silence, whilst Burt procured the cab. His face was white and set, but no more so than Evelyn Drayton's features. She held out her hand, which Burt barely touched.
"Come and see me this evening," she said; "I cannot bear to talk of it now, in a detestable atmosphere like this. Oh, you need not be afraid--you are quite forgiven. When a woman passes her heart over to a man she overlooks crime on his part, while she would turn with loathing from another whose indiscretions were far more trivial. And try and recollect that you belong to me now, and that all I have done is for your sake alone. Call me selfish, if you like; perhaps, after all, it is nothing else."
It was about nine o'clock the same evening that Burt called round at Evelyn's rooms. She was seated thoughtfully by the firelight. But for its flickering glow the rest of the room was in darkness. She held out a long, slim hand to her lover. There was an unsteady smile upon her face. He knelt by the side of the low armchair and placed his arms about her shoulders.
"Am I quite forgiven?" he whispered.
"Oh, yes," the girl smiled through her tears. "It is all very weak on my part, and I am not a bit like the heroine I took myself to be. But then, you see, I happen to love you, and that makes all the difference. Still, there is something to be wiped out, something which will take time to forget. It is in your hands, Cecil, and the punishment will be yours if you do not teach me to forget."
"I will try, my dear," the man said, "I will try."
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).
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