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Title: The Lonely Bride
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
Date first posted:  Jun 2013
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Lonely Bride
Author: Fred M. White


*



THE LONELY BRIDE.
By
FRED M. WHITE.

*

Author of 'The Corner House,' 'The Cardinal Moth,' 'The Weight of the
Crown,' &c.

*

Published in serial form in the following newspapers:
--The Chronicle, Adelaide, S.A., commencing Saturday 28 March, 1908,
--The Evening News, Sydney, N.S.W. commencing 5 February, 1909,
--The New Zealand Herald, commencing 27 June, 1908,
And also in book form by Ward Loch & Co., London, 1907(?).


*


CHAPTER I.--'TWIXT LOVE AND DUTY.

It was peaceful and quiet now under the trees by the brookside, a
typical English landscape, reminding one of Tennyson's "Haunt of
Ancient Peace." From the far side of the fields came the call of the
birds and the bleating of lambs. The woods hardly moved, they seemed
to be sleeping under the perfect arch of the summer sky. And yet the
two young people lingering there did not seem so perfectly attuned to
the spot as one might have expected. It did not demand a keen eye to
see that they were lovers, or that something had come between them. Not
that there was any suggestion of a quarrel in the air, for the girl
lay back against the young man's shoulder, and his arm was caressingly
wound about her waist. There was a shadow of some haunting trouble
lurking in Grace Anstey's clear grey eyes, a somewhat moody frown
knitted Max Graham's brows. They were absolutely alone there, little
chance was there of any interruption, so that it was possible to speak
freely.

"I cannot understand it at all," Max Graham was saying. "Ever since
I have known you--and that is a great many years now--it has always
seemed to me that I was a favorite with your father rather than
otherwise. What has he got against me, Grace? It is not that I have
done anything wrong, it is not as if there was anything against my
moral character. And yet of late I feel as if I were an intruder every
time that I come to the bank house. And since my uncle died and left
me that legacy I have looked forward to the time when I could see your
father and ask his consent to our marriage. Am I not justified in
resenting this treatment? It is only a year since your father told mine
that he would like nothing better than to see a match arranged between
ourselves. And now----"

"Do not ask me," Grace replied. "I am as much puzzled as yourself. I
would not tell anybody but you, my dearest Max, but my father is a
changed man lately. You know how sunny-tempered he always has been,
and how kind he has ever proved himself to be. And yet now he hardly
speaks; he has strange fits of irritability. I am quite sure that he is
seriously frightened about something."

"Does he ever mention me?" Max asked.

"Yes," Grace said. "He speaks of you as one might mention a child who
is in disgrace. I am quite certain that if you went to him now he would
refuse his consent to our marriage."

There was silence for a moment or two before Graham spoke again. He
looked tenderly down into the eyes of his companion.

"Heaven grant that I may be wrong," he said, "but there is something
strange here. It may be said that your father is merely the head of
Anstey's Bank, which is a small thing as such concerns go nowadays,
but it must not be forgotten that the Ansteys have been people of
importance for the past three hundred years. There is no family of
distinction in the county into which the Ansteys have not at some
time or other married. Everybody knows your father's reputation for
geniality and kindness, and yet there is no prouder man living. I
confess it was a great shock to me, when I found that your father was
encouraging Stephen Rice to visit the bank house. Of course, Rice is a
rich man, and all that, but----"

Max shrugged his shoulders significantly. He was not given to
slandering other men, and he did not wish to speak too freely of
Stephen Rice, the son of a rich manufacturer at Leverton, some ten
miles away.

"I detest him," Grace said with a shudder. "That hard, bulldog face
of his frightens me. He is not a gentleman, Max; he is cruel to his
horses, and he bullies his servants. I have heard whispers, too, that
he drinks frightfully, though I am bound to say that whenever he comes
to the bank house he is very moderate."

"He has not dared," Max asked, "to suggest to you----"

Grace colored slightly, and shook her head. So far there had not
been much the matter with Stephen Rice's conduct, so far as she was
concerned. But deep in her heart of hearts she knew that the man loved
her in his dogged way, and she felt certain that he had her father's
encouragement. This was the first time that any cloud had settled
upon the young girl's happiness, and it troubled her sorely. It was
uppermost in her mind now as she walked homewards, with the afternoon
sunset in her face, in the direction of the bank house.

The residence of Mr. Mark Anstey was something more than the ordinary
house attached to a provincial bank. In the first place, the Ansteys
had been people of considerable importance for some generations. They
were county people in the best sense of the word; indeed, Mark Anstey
was a public institution. Reputed to be rich, charitable, benevolent,
and handsome, no gathering was complete without his cheery presence.
Troubled and worried as she was, Grace could not but admire her
father as he stood before the fireplace in the grand old oak-panelled
drawing-room awaiting his guests. He might have been some great magnate
instead of a private banker. And yet the handsome face was lined and
seamed with care; there was a furtive look in the grey eyes which Grace
had noticed several times lately. She floated into the room attired
in some soft white gown that suited her slim figure to perfection.
Usually she would have gone to her father and kissed him, but there was
something about him now that repelled her.

"You have been out this afternoon?" he asked. "I saw you going across
the fields with Max Graham. Don't you think it is time to put an end to
that nonsense, Grace?"

Anstey did not look at his daughter as he spoke. It occurred to her
that he seemed just a little ashamed of himself. The hot blood mounted
to her face. The time had come to speak plainly. Mark Anstey recognised
at last that his daughter was no longer a child. The girl spoke slowly
and deliberately.

"I am glad you mentioned Max," she said. "We have been talking about
you this afternoon. What is it that has come between us, father? Why
do you so suddenly take this violent dislike to Max? I have heard you
say more than once that Max was your beau ideal of all a young man
should be. You know perfectly well that Max and myself have regarded
each other with affection ever since we were children. You have always
given me my own way before, and I have always endeavored to repay your
kindness with all my heart and soul. And now, when the whole of my
life's happiness is concerned, you deliberately----"

"Stop," Mark Anstey cried. "I cannot permit you to speak to me like
this, Grace. I have my own reasons for declining to regard Max Graham
in the light of a prospective son-in-law. I have already told his
father, General Graham, so."

For the first time Mark Anstey looked fixedly at his daughter. It
startled him to see how steadily that gaze was returned. It was a bit
of a shock to this keen man of the world to find that his pet and
plaything had suddenly become a resolute woman.

"The subject cannot be dropped here," Grace said. "I love Max, and
I have promised to be his wife. I can never care for anybody else;
nothing will induce me to change my mind. Father, I am going to speak
plainly to you. I am not altogether blind to the reason that brings
Stephen Rice here. I do not mean to pry into your private matters,
but I feel certain, that six months ago you would have laughed at the
suggestion of Stephen Rice being a guest of yours."

Anstey made no reply for a moment. He seemed to be struggling with some
inward emotion. Grace could see that there was the shadow of some great
trouble upon his face.

"I have my own reasons," he said hoarsely. "Grace, did it ever occur
to you that things are not exactly what they seem? We live in this big
house here, we have our horses and carriages and servants, you have
your dresses from Paris--in fact, we ruffle it with the best of them.
And yet even greater concerns than mine have failed from time to time.
Have you so soon forgotten the Swepstones? Yet they were bankers like
myself, who failed, and failed so disgracefully that the head of the
firm died in prison. I suppose it never occurred to you that the same
thing is likely to happen to me?"

Grace looked up swiftly; all the blood had left her face. Was her
father making confession, or was he only drawing a parallel? The girl
could see now that Anstey's face was as pale as her own and that his
lips were twitching.

"I--have--to justify myself," he said hoarsely. "I have borne this
thing so long that I cannot keep it to myself; but we won't go into
that. Anything better than disgrace the name of Anstey."

"It must not be disgraced," Grace whispered. "Anything that I could do,
any sacrifice in my power----"

Anstey bent and gripped his daughter by the arm. The grasp was so
powerful that the girl winced before it.

"You can do everything," Anstey said. "You can be my salvation. What
I must have now is twenty thousand pounds. Unless that is procured
soon, the name of Anstey will fairly reek in the nostrils of the whole
countryside. Oh, I know I have been rash and foolish, but if you knew
what I have gone through you would pity me. But for you, I should have
ended it long ago--it only meant a pistol shot or a few grains of some
deadly poison. But you can save me if you will. By holding up your
right hand----"

"But how?" Grace asked. "If you mean Stephen Rice----"

"I do mean Stephen Rice," Anstey cried. "His father is a millionaire,
an old man who practically leaves the business to his son. And Stephen
Rice has fallen in love with you. He is a sullen, obstinate man, who
will have his own way at any cost. For your sake he is prepared to do
anything I ask him. We have already talked the matter over, and on the
day that you promise to become his wife Rice will advance more than
sufficient money to put the old concern on its legs again and float it
into the harbor of prosperity."

Grace made no reply for a moment; she felt as if all the blood had left
her body; as if some icy hand was clutching at her heart. It seemed
impossible to realise that the shadows of disgrace lay so close. In
a dreamy kind of way she looked about her, she took in the priceless
pictures on the walls, the old silver and statuary, the thousand and
one odds and ends that go to make up a luxurious and refined home.
And yet here was the honored master of it all no better than a felon.
It all rested in the hands of one weak woman, she had only to say one
small word and the folded wings of disgrace would flutter from the
house-hold. But the perjury of herself to Max, yes and the perjury of
herself to Rice also, was a thought not to be endured.

"Mr. Stephen Rice," said the butler with a startling suddenness, or so
it seemed to Grace.

Rice came forward, a square, heavily-built young man, with small eyes
and clean-shaven mouth, as cruel and hard as a steel trap. He did not
look Grace in the face as he shook hands with her; in fact, he rarely
looked anyone in the face. All the same, there was an air of quiet
triumph about him that Grace secretly resented. Anstey's manner had
changed entirely, he had forced a smile to his lips, he did not look in
the least now like a man with the shadow of disgrace hanging over him.

"We were just talking about you, Rice," he said smoothly. "I was
telling my daughter that there was a chance of your coming into the
firm as a kind of partner."

Grace felt the hot blood mounting to her face. She was almost grateful
to the young man for not looking at her at that moment. Rice smiled a
slow, cruel smile.

"I suppose you have told Miss Grace everything?" he said.

"I think so," Grace forced herself to say. She was inwardly wondering
at her own calmness. "So far as I can gather, it seems to be a
partnership all round."

The girl turned away to greet another guest who had just entered the
room. Other guests followed in rapid succession until there were a
dozen people in the drawing-room. It seemed to Grace that she was in
the midst of some dreadful dream, from which she would wake presently.
She wondered if she had not acquired the mind and brain of somebody
else, so cool and collected was she. And yet this was the first sorrow
that had ever troubled her young life.

But she must be an Anstey, she told herself. She must carry this thing
through till the end of the long evening, and then she would have time
to break down and be a very woman. She prayed for strength to endure it
all; she wondered vaguely what Max would say if he knew everything.

Yes, she was getting on very well indeed. In the same calm judicial
manner she paired off her dinner guests and took her place at the
bottom of the table. There was no sign of care or suffering there,
nothing but laughter and cheerfulness and the din of animated
conversation. The well-trained servants waited softly and silently as
usual, the old wine sparkled in the crystal decanters, the soft, shaded
lights fell upon the banks of flowers. It seemed impossible to believe
that the founder of this cheerful feast was in measurable distance
of the grip of the law. Grace watched her father anxiously, she saw
his gay face change to the whiteness of a table cloth, as a footman
went up to him with a card on a silver salver, and information to the
effect that its owner desired to see Mr. Anstey, just for a moment, on
important business.

Anstey swayed, and would have fallen from his chair if Grace had not
slipped from her place and caught him by the arm. Strange as it may
seem, none of the guests appeared to notice that anything was wrong.
Grace whispered to her father; he looked up dully.

"Go down and see this man," he whispered hoarsely. "Tell him I will
come as soon as possible. Amuse him, chatter to him, anything to give
me five minutes to pull myself together. My God, to think that this
blow should fall just now!"

Grace walked down the stairs of the library where the stranger awaited
her. She saw a tall, thin man, with dark eyes and beard, a man in
evening dress, evidently a gentleman.

"Mr. George Cattley, at your service," he said quietly. "And you, of
course, are Miss Grace Anstey."




CHAPTER II.--THE MESSAGE.

Grace looked at the stranger with some confused idea that she had
seen him before. He seemed to bring back to her recollections of her
early childhood, which were in some strange way mixed up with trouble.
Perhaps the man Cattley saw something of this, for there was just the
suggestion of a smile on his face.

"You do not recollect me," he said. "Have you forgotten that time some
sixteen years ago when I came----"

The speaker broke off abruptly, as if conscious that he was about to
betray himself. Grace waited for him to say more, but he turned the
conversation adroitly and began to speak of other things. He seemed
perfectly at home there; evidently the man was accustomed to good
society; he seemed to wear his evening clothes with the air of a man
who is accustomed to that kind of thing.

"My father will be down in a few moments," Grace said. "We have friends
to dinner to-night."

"I am exceedingly sorry to intrude," the stranger said, "but my
business is of the most pressing importance. I presume your father was
somewhat surprised to get my card."

The speaker asked the question as if something amused him. There was
just the ghost of cynical smile on his face. It was foolish, perhaps,
but Grace had a kind of feeling that the coming of this man was the
beginning of some fresh trouble. She had never felt more utterly
foolish and self-conscious than she did at that moment. Usually the
girl was not short of conversation. Five minutes dragged slowly along
before Mark Anstey came into the room. At that moment the stranger was
bending over a great bowl of roses on the library table and seemed
quite lost in the contemplation of their beauty. He did not appear
to heed Anstey's presence, so that Grace was in a position to watch
her father's face. Its malignant expression startled her. Just for
an instant there passed across Anstey's face a perfectly murderous
expression; his hands went out instinctively in the direction of his
visitor. It was all gone like a flash, but it served to deepen the
bad impression that was already forming in Grace's mind. She had
never dreamt that her father could look like that; she almost felt a
hesitation in leaving the two men together. Anstey advanced now with
outstretched hand and smiling face, and patted the stranger almost
affectionately on the back. His manner was genial in the extreme.

"Ah, this is indeed a pleasant surprise, Cattley," he said. "Fancy you
turning up after all these years."

The stranger smiled in turn, but there was the same dry cynicism on his
dark features.

"I felt quite sure you would be delighted to see me," he said. "It is
indeed a long 'time since we last met. I am very loth to make myself a
nuisance to you, but my business is pressing, and I am afraid I shall
have to detain you some little time."

Just for an instant the hard expression came into Anstey's face again.
Grace would have lingered there, only her father made her a sign to go.
His voice was hard and dry.

"You had better go back to our guests," he said. "You must get them to
excuse me for a little while. Tell them that I have been called away on
a pressing matter."

Grace crept away up the stairs, striving in vain to throw off the
feeling that some great disaster was impending. It seemed to her as
if she had lost her father and that some strange sinister being had
stepped into his place. It was a great shock to the girl--perhaps the
greatest shock she had ever had in her short, sunny life. Hitherto she
had regarded Mark Anstey as one of the most perfect of men. And here on
his own confession he was within measurable reach of the felon's dock,
he was prepared to barter his daughter's happiness to save his tainted
reputation.

With a great effort Grace managed to put her emotion on one side.
She must play her part in the game of life with a smile on her face,
though her heart ached ever so sadly. Besides, there was always a
chance that the calamity might be averted. She could hear the chatter
of her guests now, those unconscious guests who knew nothing, and she
knew that she would have to hide from them all signs of misery and
distress. Here were the servants, respectful as ever; here were all
the art treasures which generations of Ansteys had gathered together.
Was it all to be a sham and a delusion, or could the whole situation
be saved by pluck and courage? Grace forced a smile to her lips as
she entered the drawing-room. She could see her face in the mirror
opposite; she was surprised to notice that her features gave no index
of her disturbing emotions. She plunged into the conversation gaily
and almost desperately; probably she was answering her questioners all
right, for they did not seem to notice anything. She dropped into a
seat presently, and Stephen Rice crossed the room and took his place by
her side. There was an air of possession about him that fairly maddened
Grace, though she could not resent it.

"Our conversation before dinner was interrupted at a most interesting
point," he said. "From what your father told me, he has been talking to
you about me. I don't think I need say any more."

There was no mistaking the meaning of the speaker's words.

"I perfectly understand you," Grace said quietly. "It is perhaps just
as well that you should have mentioned the matter now. Living so close
to us as you do, you must be aware of the fact that I am engaged to Mr.
Max Graham. You see I am speaking as plainly as yourself. It is just as
well to be candid."

Rice smiled by way of reply. He liked Grace none the less for this
display of spirit, but he felt that he had all the winning cards in
his hand; he had only to play them and the game would be his. He rose
from his chair and strolled across the room, leaving Grace with an
unpleasant impression that she had a strong man to deal with. She would
have given much to have known exactly what Rice knew as to the state
of her father's private affairs. But she had no time to think of this
now; one of the lady guests fluttered up to her with a request that she
would sing.

"'The Message,'" somebody cried. "Please sing 'The Message,' Miss
Anstey. It is one of your songs."

It was all the same to Grace what she sang--anything so long as she
could get away from those haunting thoughts. She turned over her music
rapidly, but the song in question was not to be found. Then Grace
recollected that she left it in the morning-room. She would go down and
fetch it; she would not be a moment, she explained.

It was very quiet down in the hall now; most of the servants had
retired, and the dining-room was deserted. Grace found the song at
length and was about to return to the drawing-room when the sound of
voices broke on her ear. Almost before she was aware of it, Grace was
playing the part of the eavesdropper. The voices were quite clear and
distinct; they came from the library, and the speakers were her father
and the stranger, George Cattley. Just for the moment Anstey seemed to
be speaking in pleading tones, for Grace could hear him ask a question
almost humbly and the stranger's curt refusal. Then Anstey seemed to
burst out into sudden passion, for his voice vibrated with anger.

"I tell you I can't do it, and I won't," he said. "What you ask me is
utterly impossible. If you give me time----"

"You have already had sixteen years," the stranger said. "Come, you
can't say that you have not expected this moment. You must do as I ask
you, and you must do it to-night."

"Impossible!" Anstey cried. "In any case, I could not do it by myself.
I must have the assistance of my cashier, James Holder."

The name of Holder was quite familiar to Grace. For nearly thirty years
James Holder had been the cashier at the bank. Not even the name of
Anstey itself was more respected than that of Holder. If there was any
rascality going on here, Grace felt confident that Holder had nothing
whatever to do with it.

"That is quite an easy matter," said the stranger. "We can send a
message to Holder; in fact, I have a messenger close by."

Grace had hardly time to step back before Cattley came out of the
library and walked across the hall in the direction of the front door.
This he opened and made a sign to somebody outside. Then there came
into the light a ragged tattered figure which was quite familiar to
Grace. She had no difficulty in recognising the village idiot who was
generally known as "Poor Billy," a deaf mute who lived on the charity
of the neighbours. A moment later and the poor creature was outside
again, and Cattley had returned to the library.

What more Grace might have heard was prevented by a shrill cry at the
top of the stairs. Her guests were getting impatient to hear the song,
and already several of Grace's girl friends were half-way down the
stairs with a view to helping her in the search. There was no help for
it now; it was impossible to stand there and listen any longer. Grace
waved the sheets of music above her head and declared that she had just
found it.

The long evening was coming to an end at length, although it was not
yet eleven o'clock. Mark Anstey had been back in the drawing-room for
some little time. Closely as Grace scrutinised his face she could read
no signs of his peril and trouble there. One by one the guests dropped
away, until daughter and father were alone together. Grace's head was
aching terribly, her one desire was to be alone now. She felt that she
could not stand and endure the conversation that she had had with her
father earlier in the evening. She rose as if to go; in the usual way
she lifted up her face to kiss her father good-night. She was surprised
to see that his features were absolutely bright and smiling. Perhaps
Anstey read something of the surprise in his child's eyes, for he bent
and kissed her tenderly. He held her in his arms just a moment.

"Perhaps things will come an right after all," he said. "At any rate,
we will postpone further trouble for the present."

"And that man?" Grace asked. "Has he gone? Why did he say that he knew
me years ago? I do not recollect him at all."

"I met him in business," Anstey said hastily. "I had to be civil to the
man; it really is not worth talking about, and you are not in the least
likely to see him again. He has been gone the last hour and now you had
better go to bed."

Grace crept up the stairs, feeling in some way that her father was
lying to her. It was a most uncomfortable impression, but the girl
could not shake it off. She was too restless and anxious to think of
sleep; she felt a desire for food without the appetite of enjoying it.
Trouble was so great a novelty to her that she felt the keenness of it
more than most people. She half undressed herself, she combed put the
long masses of her shining hair, and slipped into a dressing-jacket.
The idea of sleep was out of the question; she would get a book and try
to lose herself in it for an hour or so.

The old house seemed full of noises to-night--strange, creeping noises
that suggested mystery. It was a common tradition in Pearlborough
that the bank house was haunted, but Grace had always declared that
the ghosts had been most considerate to her. Yet to-night she felt as
nervous and frightened as the most ignorant gossip in the village.
It seemed to her that she could hear stealthy footsteps stealing
cautiously down the stairs. The footsteps came from the direction of
her father's bedroom. Grace tried to restrain herself, she fought down
her unworthy suspicions, but some impulse she could not control dragged
her to her feet and forced her into the corridor. One or two dim lights
had not been extinguished yet, and in the half-gloom Grace could
plainly see her father stealing down the stairs carrying some short
object in his hand. He was in his stockinged feet, and in shirtsleeves
and trousers. Of course, he might have gone downstairs for something
that he had forgotten, but there was a furtive air about him that made
him look like a burglar in his own house. A speck of light fell upon
his face and picked out the ghastly whiteness of it. With a fresh
terror gripping at her heart Grace watched the receding figure, almost
powerless to move. She saw Anstey vanish down the passage which led
to the bank premises proper; it seemed to her that she could hear the
click of a lock and the dull slamming of a door.

Grace hesitated as to whether she should follow her father or not.
She did not care to play the spy upon him, but she was determined on
one point--she would wait there till Anstey returned. As she stood
shivering there a quick, broken cry rang through the house. There was
no mistaking this--it was no figment of an overheated imagination. The
cry had been too clear and sharp for that, the cry of an old man who is
taken by surprise and who struggles with an unscrupulous foe.

Grace stood there almost petrified by fear. How long she remained
standing in that one spot she could not have told. It seemed an
age before she heard the click of the lock again, and her father
reappeared. He was no longer carrying the short object in his hand, his
nervous fingers were pressing to his forehead, as if to crush out some
overwhelming pain, he staggered up the stairs like a man overcome with
wine. Grace could see now that there were dull red spots on his shirt
front, and that the tips of his fingers were stained with crimson.
Anstey stumbled into his bedroom and closed the door behind him, then
all was still.

How Grace got back to her room she hardly knew. Probably the strain had
been too much for her, and she had lost consciousness, for when she
came to herself it was broad daylight, and her maid Helen was bending
anxiously over her. There was an expression of horror on Helen's face
which could not have been altogether due to the fact that she had
discovered her mistress on the bed still partially dressed. Grace's
mind was clear now, and the events of the previous night flashed into
her brain with startling suddenness.

"What has happened?" she asked. "Helen, I have a curious feeling that
something dreadful has taken place."

The maid affected not to hear; she appeared to be busying herself at
the toilet table, but Grace could see that her hands were trembling
strangely.

"What is it?" Grace repeated. "I insist upon being told. What is all
that noise I can hear in the house? They are strange voices, too; don't
say that my father----"

"It is not your father, miss," Helen replied in a shaky voice. "It's
poor Mr. Holder. They found him an hour ago----"

"Not on the bank premises," Grace cried. "You don't mean to say that he
came here and was murdered at the time----"

"He is not dead yet," Helen said. She did not appear to notice Grace's
significant pause. "Not dead yet, miss, but the doctor says it is only
a question of hours."




CHAPTER III.--THE PEARL STUD.

All the blood seemed slowly to recede from Grace's heart, her breath
came quickly; just for a moment the whole room swam round her, and the
stars danced before her eyes. It was a new sensation for the girl who
had never known illness or fear before. Then with a great effort she
rose from the bed, and sat facing her maid. It was fortunate, perhaps,
that the latter had seen nothing of her mistress's terrible agitation.
Everything was coming back to Grace now with blinding force. She saw
in her mind's eye the figure of her father coming up the stairs, she
noticed the blood stains on his shirt, and the terrible anguish of his
face. If Helen had stood up there and roundly denounced Mark Anstey as
the murderer of his cashier, Grace could not have been more frightened.
It seemed almost impossible to believe that her father, above all men,
had committed this dreadful crime; but circumstances certainly pointed
that way. Grace forced herself to speak.

"But what brought Mr. Holder in the bank last night?" she asked. She
was surprised at the evenness of her own voice. "Mr. Holder has always
been so methodical a man."

"No one quite seems to know, miss," Helen replied. "When Mr. Walters
came this morning and opened the bank he found Mr. Holder lying
there in front of the counter apparently dead. There was a wound
in his forehead, and he had been bleeding freely. Possibly he had
been attacked from behind, though that is uncertain. The skull was
fractured, but that might have been caused by a fall after the wound
was inflicted by his assailant. Again, it was possible that the poor
gentleman attempted to commit suicide. That is all I can tell you,
miss; but they say that there is very little hope of the poor old man's
recovery."

Grace shuddered as she listened. It seemed to her that she must cry
aloud and tell the world all she knew of this terrible crime. She did
not for a moment doubt that she could lay her finger on the culprit. In
the light of last night's happenings there could be no question as to
where the blame lay. And yet Grace had read of things as bad as this;
her newspaper reading told her that it was possible for men and women
to lead long and honorable lives, and then commit some dastardly act at
the finish.

But for her father's sake she must be silent. She would have to go
downstairs presently and face him at the breakfast table, she would
have to discuss this awful thing as if she were entirely ignorant of
the past few hours.

"Was anything missing?" Grace asked. "Was robbery the motive of this
shocking business? I am sure that Mr. Holder----"

"Nothing was missing at all," Helen explained. "There was no sign of
a struggle, nothing had been disturbed, and none of the safes had
been opened. I am told that the only thing is missing is Mr. Holder's
duplicate key. They tell me it is impossible to open a safe unless
master and Mr. Holder were there together. If this is so, it is very
strange that the key should be missing."

Grace felt that she could discuss this thing no longer. She allowed
herself passively to be dressed, and then went down to breakfast
to face her father and play the sorry part that she had cast for
herself. What a difference the last few hours had made. Here was
the old house she loved so well looking just the same, and yet so
strangely different. Anything would have been preferable to this gilded
splendour, any broken-down ruin, so long as peace and contentment went
with it. The mere sight of the well-appointed breakfast table filled
Grace with a sense of nausea. The sight of food was distasteful. Before
the empty grate stood Mark Anstey. He said nothing as Grace entered, he
expressed no opinion and gave no sign of surprise as Grace proceeded to
her place without the morning kiss she had given him ever since either
of them could remember. Then there was a long and painful silence
between them, so that Grace was forced to speak at length.

"I have heard everything," she murmured. "How is that poor man?"

It was some time before Anstey replied, indeed, he did not appear to
hear Grace's question. He looked up with a guilty kind of start, his
face was terribly old and grey in the strong morning light.

"I can't tell you," he stammered. "The shock has been so great that
I have not recovered myself yet. I have just seen both the doctors,
and they have considered it advisable to take poor Holder to Leverton
Infirmary. It is the only chance they have of saving our old friend's
life."

"There is no clue," Grace asked. "Nothing has been found I suppose to
identify the culprit?"

"There is no clue whatever," Anstey replied. "We shall never discover
who did that awful business."

"Oh, I am glad of that," Grace said hoarsely. "I am glad of that."

Anstey started as if something had stung him. He had taken in the
full significance of Grace's strange speech. Anybody else might have
wondered what she meant, but Anstey knew. For a full minute father
and daughter sat looking into each other's eyes as if searching to
peer into the depths of their own souls. There was a greyer tinge on
Anstey's face as he forced himself to speak.

"What do you mean?" he whispered. "Why should you be glad to know that
there is no chance----?"

"Oh, you know, you know," Grace said wildly. She crossed the room
and closed the door gently. "Why should this shameful secret be made
a mystery between you and me? During the last few hours I have lost
everything that makes life dear. I have lost my lover, I have lost my
father, though I am pledged to a life of misery for his sake. But I
cannot play the hypocrite; I cannot sit opposite you day by day and
carry out the miserable pretence of ignorance."

Anstey's face bent lower and lower over his plate. He had given up the
farce of pretending to eat, the mere sight of food filled him with
loathing.

"I must ask you to explain yourself," he whispered hoarsely.

"Is there any reason for explanation?" Grace asked. "You told me last
night that you were on the verge of ruin, you told me that I should
have to marry a man whom we both dislike and despise, so that the old
name and the old house should be saved from disgrace. That was bad
enough, but there is worse to come. When we parted a few hours ago you
said that it was possible that I might be spared the sacrifice yet. But
I was not easy in my mind; I could not shake off the impression that
Mr. Cattley made upon me. When I saw him standing in the library he
aroused vague memories. I could not forget that I had seen somewhere
before the quaint pearl stud he was wearing in his shirt. Heaven knows
why so small a thing made a great impression upon me, but there it was.
It seemed to revive some unpleasant memories of my childhood----"

"For goodness sake, get to the point," Anstey cried irritably.

"That is the starting point of it all," Grace said. "I was worried
and distressed, I could not sleep. I could not get that man out of my
mind, and then it seemed to me that I heard footsteps. I watched and
waited--I saw you go downstairs into the bank premises, and presently I
saw you return. Your face was that--but I dare not describe your face.
And on your hands and on the front of your shirt were spots--hideous
spots--of blood."

But no reply came from Anstey, he seemed to have suddenly shrunk to the
similitude of an old, old man. What reply he might possibly have made
was prevented by the entrance of a young man who half apologised for
his intrusion.

"You can come in, Mr. Walters," Grace said, with a faint smile. "Have
you any fresh news to tell us?"

"I think we have found something, at any rate, Miss Anstey," Walters
said. "I have just been to see poor Mr. Holder's landlady. I was
desirous to find out if she happened to know what time he left the
house last night. So far as Mrs. Pearson could tell she had not the
remotest idea that he had left the house at all. As you may possibly
be aware, Mr. Holder's rooms are exceedingly good ones; in fact, he
has the best sitting-room at Pearson's Farm. There are two French
windows in the room leading out on the lawn. Mr. Holder was a man of
exceedingly regular habits, and invariably he spent the evening after
dinner in reading. Being a student, he did not go to bed particularly
early; indeed, not till long after the Pearsons as a rule. Pearson had
gone into Leverton market yesterday; he did not return till late, so
his wife was sitting up for him. As the night was warm Mr. Holder had
the door open as well as the window, so that if anybody had been in the
room besides himself Mrs. Pearson must have known it. She says that
just after eleven she heard Mr. Holder talking to somebody, though she
took little notice of the incident, thinking perhaps that Mr. Holder's
visitor had entered by means of the window. He could not have come in
by the front door, for the reason that the chain was up. So far as Mrs.
Pearson could gather, the conversation was all one-sided, for she never
heard the voice of the visitor at all. But she is prepared to swear to
the fact that Mr. Holder said something to the effect that it was all
right, and that he would see to the matter at once. Moreover, she heard
him distinctly tear open an envelope as if somebody had brought him a
letter. I could not find any more out than that, nor was there any sign
of a note to be seen."

Grace did not dare to glance at her father during the recital of this
story. It was not till Walters had left the room again that she spoke,
and then in a whisper.

"That note must be found," she said. "Oh, it is no use your looking at
me in that stupid way. I know what that note was--it was sent by you to
Mr. Holder at the suggestion of Mr. Cattley, and 'Poor Billy' took it
to Pearson's Farm."

Anstey looked at his daughter with an almost pitiful expression on his
face. Grace proceeded in low and rapid tones.

"I overheard your quarrel. I came down for a piece of music, and
certain words came to my ears. It is not for me to advise you what to
do, it is enough that I am your daughter, and that I wish to save you
from the consequences of this terrible crime. That note must be found,
at any hazards you must get possession of it."

Anstey shook his head with the air of a man who finds fate too strong
for him. His trembling hands sought Grace's, his touch was cold and
clammy. She suffered it for a moment.

"I am prepared to swear to you," Anstey said in a voice scarce above a
whisper. "In the presence of my Maker I am prepared to swear that if
Holder dies the guilt will not lie on my soul. I want you to believe
this, my child. I want you to feel that this disgrace is none of mine.
Won't you believe me?"

Grace hesitated just for a moment, then she hardened her heart again.
It seemed impossible in the light of common sense to doubt that Anstey
was at the bottom of this thing.

"If you are innocent," she said, "then prove it. Surely it is easily
done. Oh to think that I should sit here and judge the actions of my
own father. I would give ten years of my life to undo the past few
hours; but if you are guiltless, then tell me who the criminal is. Tell
me what you were doing downstairs last night; tell me why your hands
were stained with blood."

But Mark Anstey had no reply. He walked aimlessly about the room,
he started at every sound outside. A servant came in presently with
a message to the effect that the inspector of police from Leverton
desired to see Mr. Anstey. As her father left the room Grace crossed
over to the window and walked on to the lawn. She had absolutely no
breakfast, she felt as if she would never want to eat again. As she
stood there, with the fresh air of the morning blowing about her aching
head she could see that Max Graham was coming up the drive. No words
passed between them for a moment. Indeed Max was too shocked by Grace's
white strained face to say anything. He could only hold her hand in his
and look down into her grey eyes. For a time they walked up and down
the terrace in silence. It was Max who spoke at length.

"This is a very sad business," he said. "I only heard it an hour ago.
As I was riding along I met the ambulance going into Leverton, and they
told me that poor Holder was in an exceedingly bad way. What has your
father got to say about it?"

Grace controlled herself with a great effort. She felt a wild desire to
tell Max everything. It seemed impossible to go on like this with no
one to confide in. But even with Max such an act would be impossible.
She replied in a dull, mechanical way that her father was greatly
distressed by the extraordinary incidents of the night before.

A crowd had gathered round the outside of the bank premises proper, a
policeman's helmet or two stood out from the group. Inside the bank
were Inspector Baines, from Leverton, and a detective or two in plain
clothes. Baines was talking earnestly to Anstey as Max Graham entered
the bank. He said something to Anstey, but the latter did not appear
to heed. There was no sign of the tragedy now, all that had been
removed as soon as the body of the unfortunate man had been conveyed to
Leverton.

"I hope you have a clue, inspector," Max asked. "This is a really
terrible affair. Had you not better keep away, Grace?"

Grace had followed her lover into the bank, and was looking about her
as if trying to reconstruct the dramatic scene of the night before.
Inspector Baines turned from Anstey and shook his head. He was frankly
and candidly puzzled.

"Not a trace of a clue, sir," he said. "A more mysterious affair I
never tackled. And Mr. Holder of all persons in the world, too. He
comes down to the bank at a most extraordinary hour, he finds somebody
here who very nearly murders him, and yet so far as I can see there
is not the slightest motive for crime. There is nothing missing,
nothing has been tampered with, and if we could only find Mr. Holder's
duplicate key, I should not be able to place my finger on any cause for
this brutal crime. If you will excuse me gentlemen, I think I'll take
a step over in the direction of Pearson's farm. I may find something
there."

So saying Inspector Baines went off, followed by his satellites. Anstey
walked out of the bank as if he saw nothing, and Graham followed him.
One or two of the junior clerks were behind the counter by this time,
attending to the routine business of the day, a few customers were
there waiting to be attended to. Grace glanced about her, looking from
the polished mahogany counters down to the plain brown linoleum with
which the floor was covered. There was an ugly patch in the centre of
it, and Grace shuddered as she averted her eyes. A tiny shining disc
lay close to the bottom ledge of one of the counters. In some vague
way it seemed familiar to Grace. She stooped and picked it up and held
it to the light. She gave a sudden gasp; her heart was beating to
suffocation. She clasped the tiny object in her hand, and made rapidly
for the house.

For the thing that she held in her hand was the pearl stud she had
noticed in Cattley's shirt-front the night before.




CHAPTER IV.--THE SCARLET LETTER.

With a feeling of thankfulness that she had not met anybody on the
way, Grace went up to her own bedroom. Not till she had locked the
door behind her did she feel safe. Then she placed the pearl stud on
the dressing-table and examined it carefully. She was quite sure that
there was no mistake. There was the stud right enough, or, at least,
so much of it as was needful for the purposes of identification.
The gold part of it was missing, or probably it had remained firmly
fixed in Cattley's shirt-front; but here was the jewel right enough.
It was a black pearl of peculiar shape, and Grace felt no hesitation
in believing it to be the one she had seen Cattley wearing the night
before.

But this discovery only added to the mystery. Her father had told her
that Cattley had left the premises at least an hour before it would
have been possible for Mr. Holder to respond to the letter of his
employer and reach the bank. According to what Walters said it was
fully eleven o'clock before Mrs. Pearson had heard Holder talking to
some visitor in his private sitting-room. The farmer's wife could have
made no mistake, because she was sitting up for her husband, and had
one eye on the clock all the time. The only explanation possible for
the moment that Grace could think of was that her father was deceiving
her. According to his account, Mr. Cattley had left the bank house an
hour before Holder received that letter. On the face of it this could
not be possibly true, or if it was true, then the evidence of the pearl
stud went for nothing. That her father had sent a letter to Holder,
Grace felt certain. She had overheard Cattley suggest this course;
indeed she had seen the messenger produced who was going to take the
note. In choosing his messenger, Cattley had displayed considerable
cunning. "Poor Billy," being a deaf mute, was not in the least likely
to be in the position to tell anybody that he had visited Mr. Holder
the night before. More than this, Cattley betrayed a knowledge of the
people of the neighborhood, or he would not have picked out "Poor
Billy" to act as his tool in the matter.

The more Grace thought over the matter, the more puzzled did she
become. It was quite evident to her that Cattley had not left the bank
house at the time stated by her father. On the contrary, he must have
been placed in the bank proper for some good reason. Indeed, he could
not have got into the business premises without Anstey's consent and
the use of his keys. Therefore, he must have been concealed there at
the time of Holder's arrival.

It was a dreadful problem for a girl to have to work out unaided;
and Grace's head ached now to such an extent that she could think
no longer. She carefully locked the stud away, for there would be
plenty of time to decide upon her course of action, and then she went
downstairs once more. By this time the crowd had cleared away, and
the business of the bank was proceeding as if nothing unexpected had
taken place. To Grace's great relief her father was no longer in the
house; evidently he had gone into the bank on business bent. Max had
disappeared also, but he had left a message to say that he was coming
back as soon as he had been to Pearson's Farm. Grace crossed the
meadows in the direction of the river, vaguely hoping that she would
meet Max there as usual. She waited some little time before she heard
the familiar footstep at length, and Max's familiar figure came in
sight. It was very quiet there, with no chance of interruption. Max's
face was somewhat grave as he took his seat by Grace's side. Neither of
them spoke for a moment; it was evident to Grace that Max had a weight
upon his mind almost as great as her's.

"I am going to speak very plainly to you, dearest," he said. "It seems
to me that I have made a discovery. I was dining with the Brookses last
night--you know Brooke, the London banker, who has taken Lord Fernley's
place?"

"I have not yet called upon them," Grace said, abruptly.

"Well, old Brooks is a great friend of my father's, and he let
something out last night which rather opened my eyes to the reason why
your father has so greatly changed his manner to me of late. My dearest
girl, did it ever strike you that possibly your father is short of
money? But such things do happen, you know."

Grace looked up at her lover with a startled expression on her face.
She let her head fall wearily against his shoulder; it was good to
feel the pressure of that strong arm about her waist. Here was the one
man she loved best of all in the world, and to him she could confide,
feeling that her confidence would not be violated. But not everything,
Grace told herself. She could not tell even Max everything. The
dreadful secret must remain.

"It is strange that you should mention that," she said. "Max, I am
going to tell you all I dare. My father wants me to marry Stephen Rice.
A few weeks ago and he would have scorned the suggestion of even asking
that man to the house. He cannot defend himself when I mention you; he
has nothing to say against you, and how he is going to account for his
conduct when he meets the general, I cannot possibly tell."

"I hope it won't be when my father is suffering from one of his attacks
of neuralgia," Max said. "But this is too serious a subject for jest,
darling. I suppose the long and short of it is that your father has
been speculating. Did he not tell you as much when you spoke to him
last night?"

"I am afraid there is something more than mere lack of money," Grace
said. "My father hinted at dishonor and a scandal which would be talked
over for years. I don't know how Stephen Rice got to know of this, but
I am perfectly sure that he is fully acquainted which the real position
of affairs."

"I know," Max said between his teeth. "I know what that scoundrel means
to do. You must not marry him, little girl; much as I love you I would
see you in your grave first. It is not for me to say anything of that
man's vices. But I know what an abandoned scoundrel he is. A greater
ruffian never lived. So he would come in and buy your father's freedom,
and your poor white body will be the price of the sacrifice. Before
God, this thing must not be, it shall not be. I would kill Stephen Rice
with my own hand first. I would shoot him like a dog."

Max had risen to his feet in his passion, his voice rang out loud and
clear. A passing keeper paused and looked towards the speaker, and then
passed on wondering what young Mr. Graham was quarrelling with his
sweetheart about. Grace had risen too and laid her hand timidly on her
lover's arm. The touch seemed to soothe him, for he grew quiet again.

"I feel like a slave in the market," Grace said. "Oh, it is horrible to
think that a father should sell his child like this. For it is exactly
as you say, Max. Twenty thousand pounds stands in the one scale and
myself in the other. That man professes to love me--possibly he does
love me in his own dogged way--and yet I cannot bear the touch of his
fingers."

But Max did not appear to be listening. Evidently he was turning over
some deep project in his mind.

"I think I can see a way out of the difficulty," he said. "At any
rate, I can show your father that my affection for you is pure and
disinterested. As you know, I am entitled to a little more than that
amount of money when I reach the age of twenty-five. I will go to
London to-morrow and make arrangements with my trustees to advance me
the whole of the money. Then I can go to your father and tell him
boldly that I have learnt everything and offer to free him from Rice
altogether. Badly as your father is behaving to you, I cannot bring
myself to believe that he favors Rice from any feelings of friendship."

Grace looked up with a grateful smile; the tremendous sacrifice that
Max was prepared to make filled her with an overpowering sense of love
and gratitude. It was good to know that a man so noble as this loved
her so deeply for her own sake.

"But I could not let you do it," she protested. "I could not allow you
to beggar yourself like that for me."

"But I should not suffer," Max said. "I should place the money,
implicitly, in your father's hands and should get just as much interest
on it as I do now. Let us look upon it as a business transaction,
Gracie. And now that your troubles are as good as over, just give me a
kiss and let us talk about more pleasant things."

Grace tried to smile, but the effort cost her more than Max imagined.
It was true that there was a prospect now of for ever getting rid of
the hateful attentions of Stephen Rice, but that was not all. Try as
she would, Grace could not get out of her mind the picture of her
father as she saw him stealing upstairs last night, or the conversation
that she had overheard in the library. She never felt such a gush
of love and tenderness as filled her at this moment, and yet at the
same time she had a wild, overwhelming desire to be alone. They rose
and walked presently to the edge of the wood and there they parted.
Max would go to London to-morrow, he declared, and get the business
finished without delay. Then he would call at the bank house, free
Mark Anstey from his difficulties, and have the pleasure of knowing
that Stephen Rice was not likely to intrude his hateful presence
upon Grace again. Grace stood there till Max had disappeared in the
distance before she turned to pass through the wood again on her way
home. She was torn by conflicting emotions. If there could only be some
satisfactory explanation of the dreadful events of the night before
then her lost happiness was likely to be restored to her. She was still
brooding over this painful problem when a shadow crossed her path and
looking up she saw Stephen Rice standing there before her.

There was something grim and saturnine about the man; he smiled with
an air of possession. There was something almost mocking in the way in
which he removed his hat and held out a hand that Grace coldly ignored.

"I would like a few words with you," he said. "The sooner we come to an
understanding with each other the better."

Grace felt all her courage returning to her. She took her seat upon the
fallen trunk of a tree and motioned Rice to occupy a place by her side.

"I quite agree with you," she said. "There can be no fitter opportunity
for an understanding between us. My father has mentioned the matter to
me. It will be no news to you, I suppose, that he is embarrassed for
the want of a large sum of money."

"Which sum of money I am prepared to advance under certain conditions,"
Rice said significantly. "To be quite plain with you, your father is on
the verge of disgraceful bankruptcy. I discovered that in the course
of business, and I made your father what I consider to be a very fair
offer. On the day that you publicly proclaim your engagement to me, I
shall pay over to your father the sum of twenty thousand pounds. I am
not a demonstrative man, but I love you with a power and passion that
you little dream of. I would go through heaven and hell for you, to
call you my wife for an hour I would live ten years of torment."

The man spoke with a vibrating intensity that made Grace fairly shiver.

"No, no," she cried. "Once for all there must be an end to this. I
tell you it can never be. I have only heard during the last hour that
my father can obtain the money he needs from quite another source.
Therefore there is no occasion that I should be sold like a slave to
save the honor of my house."

"Yes, I know all about that," Rice said coolly. "To be perfectly frank
with you, I have been listening to all you had to say to Max Graham.
Oh, I dare say it is very dishonorable and all that kind of thing,
but when I want anything I do not scruple as to the way I get it. In
ordinary circumstances young Max Graham's programme would have put me
out of court. But I have another card up my sleeve, and one that I
shall play if you force me to do so."

"A threat," Grace cried. "Do you mean to threaten me?"

"Well, we won't quite put it in that way," Rice went on in his slow,
dogged manner. "When a man needs money--especially a man like your
father--he does not usually hesitate as to how he gets it. If you don't
believe me ask George Cattley. And if you don't believe George Cattley,
ask. 'Poor Billy' where he got the note from last night that he took
to Holder's rooms. Now I think you'll agree with me, my haughty Grace,
that if it could be proved that your father, for instance, sent the
note that brought Holder to the bank, he would have a strong chance of
being hanged. Don't you agree with me? Ah, so I touch you there!"

Grace felt as though the whole world were reeling beneath her feet. She
rose and swayed unsteadily.

"It would be a dreadful thing," she stammered. "A dreadful thing for my
father, or anybody else. We know that there was such a note, but there
is no evidence to prove who it came from."

Rice laughed hoarsely. There was a sneering triumph upon his dogged
face. He placed his hand in his breast pocket and produced therefrom an
envelope. From the envelope he drew a sheet of notepaper and proceeded
to flatten it on the palm of his hand.

"What do you think of this?" he asked. "Here we have a note on the
bank paper, written late last night, and dispatched by 'Poor Billy'
to Mr. Holder's rooms. Perhaps you would like to see the letter for
yourself? If so, I will show it to you--I don't think you will have
much difficulty in recognising the handwriting."

Quite forgetting herself, Grace snatched for the letter. For a moment
the words ran into one another in a kind of watery mist; then gradually
the ink resolved itself into bold and resolute character. There was no
longer room for doubt.

"It is as you say," Grace said in a frozen whisper. "The letter is in
my father's handwriting."




CHAPTER V.--A BROKEN REED.

The letter fluttered from Grace's hand and lay on the mossy turf at her
feet. She could only stare helplessly at Rice, who watched her with a
smile on his face that contained no suggestion of pity for her. The
man seemed to be so absolutely sure of his triumph, so certain that he
had won the game, that he did not even show a trace of exultation. The
blow was so utterly unexpected that Grace had no words to express her
feelings. It came to her mind vaguely that in some way Rice must have
been responsible for the outrage on James Holder, or how could he have
possibly obtained possession of that damning letter? It had only been
written so short a time before, and yet here it was in the possession
of the one man who was in a position to do Grace and her father such a
deadly mischief. And yet during the time that Cattley had been closeted
with Anstey, Rice had been a guest in the latter's house, and had not
left the drawing-room for a moment. Grace found words to speak at
length. She lifted the letter from the ground.

"I suppose it is no use asking you where you got this from?" she said.
"You will not tell me."

"I shall tell you nothing," Rice replied. "It does not matter in the
least how the letter came into my possession. It is sufficient to say
that it is your father's handwriting, and if it is produced in court
will most assuredly mean the conviction of your father. It is for you
to say whether I shall use it or not."

Grace's mind went rapidly back to the scene of the night before. She
recollected with vivid force the picture of her father as he mounted
the stairs with the bloody stains on his shirt. This Rice would
never know, but the memory of it filled Grace with a sure and bitter
knowledge of her father's danger.

"Destroy it," she whispered. "Give it to me to destroy. Here is a
chance to prove to me that you can play a noble part without an eye to
sordid advantage."

"I do not play the game like that," Rice sneered. "You want me to trust
you, and yet you would not trust me for a moment. I love you, Grace; I
love you more than you can possibly imagine. And yet if fortune had not
placed that letter in my way you would have slipped through my fingers.
Still, it lies in your power to render that letter utterly harmless. On
our marriage day I will hand the letter over to you and you can destroy
it. If you decline to accept the inevitable, then I will disclose the
letter to Baines before the day is out. Now decide for yourself."

Grace stood there white and helpless. It was a long time before she
spoke again, though in her inmost heart she knew exactly what the
answer must be. It would mean the loss of her own self-respect, the
wrecking of her own happiness, the building up of a lifelong misery.
She would have to appear false to Max, she would have to incur his
anger, but her father's honor must be saved at any cost. She forced her
trembling lips to speak.

"You have gone out of your way to make me hate and despise you," she
said. "Your very presence fills me with disgust. And yet, because you
hold in your hand my father's very existence and the honor of our
house, I am forced to sacrifice myself to save them both. I will be
false to my promise; I will send away the only man I ever cared for, so
that I may become your wife. What Max will think of me I do not know, I
hardly dare to think. But that will matter little to you so long as you
have your own way. You are going to marry a woman who cannot but hate
you from the bottom of her heart; in a year's time from now you will
regret the step you have taken and be heartily sorry you ever forced me
into this loveless alliance. But I have passed my word, and there is my
hand upon it. You do not want me to say more."

Rice grasped eagerly at Grace's cold and lifeless fingers. He would
have drawn her to him and kissed her lips, but she repelled him; her
iciness quenched his fire.

"Not yet," she said. "That may come later, when you have won the right.
Never till I am your wife will I endure a caress of yours. You may come
in after dinner, and meanwhile I will tell my father what has happened.
Now go, or I may change my mind, and forget everything save my own
misery."

Rice hesitated for a moment, then turned away. Despite his victory,
he had none of the air of a happy lover about him. For Grace had
penetrated the armor of his selfishness, and the wound rankled. He told
himself what manner of revenge would be his when once Grace had become
his wife. Had the girl only dreamt of the hell of raging passion that
filled Rice's heart she would have flung everything to the winds and
taken back her promise.

But she had yet to plumb the depths of this man's depraved nature.
She walked along now almost without sense or feeling. This terrible
trouble and disgrace seemed to have numbed her heart and deprived her
of all emotion. All through the day the same icy sensation held her in
a merciful grip. As she sat opposite her father at dinner she found
herself discoursing on most ordinary topics as if nothing had happened.
Anstey appeared to be immersed in his own painful thoughts too deeply
to notice the fearful change in Grace's appearance. Coffee had been
served at length and the servants had departed before Grace approached
the subject of Rice and Max. Anstey looked up as Grace mentioned their
names.

"I have been talking to Max this afternoon," said Grace. "It may be
disquieting to you to know, that your affairs are being talked about.
It was Max Graham who told me and he heard the thing mentioned when he
was dining with the Brooks last night."

"So it has got as far as this," Anstey said bitterly. "Well?"

"It explained a good deal to Max," Grace went on. "Naturally he saw
at once the reason why you were discouraging his visits here and why
you had become so friendly with Stephen Rice. You have been greatly
mistaken in Max, who would have been your good friend had you only
let him. He is going to London to-morrow, and when he comes back he
hopes to provide you with the 20,000 that you so sorely need. It is
practically all that Max possesses. Nevertheless, he is prepared to
entrust it implicitly in your hands to do as you like with. I hardly
think Mr. Stephen Rice would show a nobility of disposition like that."

"Is this really a fact?" Anstey cried. His whole manner had changed, he
had become quite another man. "What a fool I have been--why did I not
think of this before? Grace, we are saved. We can send Rice about his
business and then you and your lover----"

"Max Graham is no longer a lover of mine," Grace said. "It was cruel,
perhaps, to test you like this, but I wanted to know your real feelings
before I went any further. You little know Stephen Rice, you little
dream of the power that he holds over you. For your sake I have this
afternoon consented to be his wife."

"In the face of what Max has promised to do?" Anstey protested. "The
girl is absolutely mad."

"The madness of despair," Grace said. "We know that last night a letter
was written to poor Mr. Holder asking him to visit the bank. That
letter by some strange means had fallen into the hands of Stephen Rice,
who showed it me this very afternoon. I read the letter--do you want me
to say whose handwriting it was?"

A deep groan broke from Anstey; he buried his face in his hands, and
Grace could see that his whole frame was shaking with uncontrollable
emotion. She went on in the same dull, even tone.

"I am going to ask you nothing," she said. "I do not seek to pry into
your secrets. But you know as well as I do that I am making this
hateful marriage for your sake, and for the sake of the good name we
bear. When I am Stephen Rice's wife----"

"When you are Stephen Rice's wife?" A startled voice came from behind
Grace's shoulder. "My dearest girl, what do you mean?"

Grace turned suddenly to find that Max's eyes were bent upon her
reproachfully. Evidently Max had stolen in whilst father and daughter
were discussing the matter too earnestly to notice him. He held a
telegram in his hand and this he dropped carelessly on the table as
if it were now of no further importance. Grace rose from her chair, a
white, frozen figure of misery and despair.

"I am glad you have heard that," she murmured, "because it saves me
painful explanations. When I left you this afternoon I was the happiest
girl in England, and now my misery is almost more than I can bear. Max,
as you love me, and as you are strong, be merciful to me and force me
to no explanation. The happiness of a lifetime can be wrecked in a few
moments, as I know from bitter experience. A few words have wrecked
mine--it is no longer possible for me to be your wife. I am going to
marry Stephen Rice."

"This is no doing of your own," Max cried. "Besides, did I not tell
you that the source of trouble was removed. I presume you mentioned
the matter of our conversation to your father. I have just had this
telegram from my trustees, and the money will be available at any
moment."

"Too late," Grace said in the same dull, passionate tones. "If you
don't believe me, ask my father."

Anstey looked up and echoed Grace's words feebly. He struck Max with
painful force as being utterly changed and broken down during the last
few hours. There was a furtive, pleading sort of look in his eyes, so
different to the clear, commanding gaze that most men associated with
Mark Anstey.

"There is something here that I cannot understand," Max said. "Are you
not going to give me an explanation, Grace?"

"I cannot," Grace cried passionately. "It concern the honor of our
house; it is no matter of mere money. I love you still; I shall love
you so long as life remains to me; I hate and despise the man to whom
I have given my promise, but that promise must be fulfilled if I die
for it. I want you to take back your ring, Max; I want you to try and
forget me, forgive me, and think as kindly of me as you can. If you
have the slightest pity in your heart for the miserable girl who stands
before you, no angry word----"

"Not one," Max said. "You are too good and pure to cause me pain unless
there was some dreadful reason for it. I love you too well to reproach
you; I can almost find it in my mind to honor you for the terrible
sacrifice that you are making. But there are other ways of preventing a
hateful marriage like this than by the use of force and violence. I was
going on from here to-night to spend an hour or so with the Brooks, who
asked me to take a hand at bridge. I know that Rice is dining there,
and I shall have an opportunity of speaking to him afterwards. And if
he does not come to you to-morrow and give you back your freedom I
shall be greatly mistaken. And as to you Mr. Anstey----"

Anstey raised his hand as if to ward off a blow. It seemed an
extraordinary thing that a man so strong and self-reliant should have
fallen so low in so short a time.

"Don't blame me," he said, hoarsely. "Circumstances have been too
strong for me; my misfortunes have deprived me of my strength. If you
only knew everything, you would pity rather than despise me."

Hot words rose to Max's lips, but he restrained them in time. He took
up his hat and moved towards the door, Grace followed him. Once alone
in the hall he placed his hands upon her shoulders and looked down into
her eyes. There was a tender smile upon his face and no signs of anger
to be detected there.

"You love me still?" he said. "We love each other, and always shall.
What the meaning of this cruel misfortune is I shall not ask. But
I feel sure of one thing--you are making this tremendous sacrifice
to save a man who is proving himself to be utterly unworthy of your
devotion. If the worst comes to the worst I shall know how to act. But
you will never be Mrs. Stephen Rice."

Max stooped and kissed the quivering lips of his companion--a gentle
kiss, full of love and pity. For the first time since the full weight
of the blow had fallen upon Grace the tears rushed into her eyes. She
clung to Max for a moment.

"How good and kind you are," she said. "And yet how you make it harder
to lose you. Oh, Max, if I could only speak, if I could only tell you
everything. And yet----"

With a sudden impulse, Grace freed herself from the strong arms of her
lover and vanished up the stairs in the direction of her room. Then
very quietly, Max let himself out of the house, and walked slowly down
the drive into the darkness.

"Poor little girl," he murmured to himself. "And to think that she is
prepared to make this sacrifice for one so unworthy. Well, we shall
see. It is you or I, Stephen Rice."




CHAPTER VI.--LOST.

The morrow came, but with it no explanation of the mystery surrounding
the extraordinary attack on the life of James Holder. It had not been
proved as yet that the worthy old cashier had received any definite
message to attend the bank on that fateful evening. A careful search
had elicited the information that nothing whatever was missing except
the duplicate key of the safe. And as this duplicate key was of no
use without the counterpart in the possession of Mark Anstey, it was
difficult to see why the thief had taken it away. It was still more
difficult to understand why Holder had visited the bank at all. Such
an act was absolutely contrary to his usual routine, for he was a
man of regular habits, he could always be relied upon to do the same
thing exactly at the same time. Enquiries at Leverton Hospital had
resulted in the information that the injured man was still absolutely
unconscious, and that his life hung on a thread. So it was just
possible that he might recover, for he had a regular life and good
constitution on his side, but even if he did shake off the illness that
bound him he was never likely to be the same man again. Expert opinion
held it that the injury to the brain would mean something like idiocy
in future.

All this Anstey told Grace over breakfast.

"I have just ridden back from Leverton," he said. "I am afraid it is a
very bad case."

"A deplorable case," Grace murmured. "It would be deplorable in any
event, but, when I realise that you had such a hand in bringing it
about I can hardly contain myself. If you had not written that letter,
poor Holder would never have visited the bank, and there would be one
less crime for you and me to carry between us."

"But there is no crime, so far as I am concerned," Anstey cried. "My
dear child, you do not understand."

"I can understand the evidence of my own eyesight," Grace said coldly.
"You will not perjure yourself by denying that you wrote that letter to
your poor servant."

"I did write it," Anstey muttered. "But under the strongest possible
compulsion. Grace, there is a trouble hanging over me that I dare not
mention even to you. In waking up in the night I sweat and tremble
and shiver over it. It is under the pressure of this vile thing that
I wrote the letter. And when I did write that letter I had not the
faintest idea what would come of it. If I had known I would have cut my
right hand off before a word of that note was penned; I never dreamt of
such vile uses----"

"But you must have known something of it," Grace protested. "And you
were not alone in the matter, either. What has become of the man who
was here on that fateful night? Could he tell a story?"

"Aye, many," Anstey said bitterly. "If I heard now that he was dead I
should be glad, but I must do the fellow justice. He had no more to do
with the attack on poor Holder than I had myself."

"But how am I to be sure of that?" Grace asked. "You protest your
innocence, and yet I saw you coming away from the bank premises in the
dead of the night, with the face of a criminal and the marks of blood
upon your clothing. You told me also that Mr. Cattley left the house an
hour or more before Mr. Holder came down here. And you did not tell me
the truth."

"But I have," Anstey protested. "I saw Cattley leave the house; in
fact, I let him out myself not a moment after half-past ten. I heard
the stable clock strike."

"Oh, why palter with me in this way?" Grace cried passionately. "Did I
not tell you that that man's face was familiar to me. In fact, when I
saw him he made allusions to his past, then stopped, as if conscious of
the fact that he was betraying himself. If you will recollect, I spoke
about that pearl shirt stud of his, and how it seemed to recall faded
childish recollections. Now, I was in the bank myself soon after Mr.
Holder's body was removed to Leverton, and on the floor I found the
head of Mr. Cattley's pearl shirt stud. It had evidently broken off in
a struggle. If the man had departed at the time you said he did, how
came his shirt stud on the bank floor, and how could he have passed
those massive doors without a key? These are questions to which I think
I have a right to an answer. What have you to say to them?"

Grace glanced keenly at her father as she spoke. But to her great
surprise there was no suggestion of guilt about his face, he only
looked utterly surprised and bewildered.

"In this matter I am telling you nothing but the truth," he protested.
"I swear to you that I saw Cattley off the premises at the time I
mentioned; I fastened the door behind him so that it was impossible for
him to return. And even if he had returned he could not have made his
way from here into the bank without my keys or those of Holder. Now my
keys have never been out of my possession, and Holder's bank keys were
found yesterday in his desk at his lodgings. Only the key of the safe
is missing and that would be no use to anybody without my key as well,
and even both of them would have been useless had the thief failed to
get in the bank premises at all. It is a maddening mystery to me."

"Well, anyway I found the stud there," Grace said. "Indeed, I have it
in my possession at the present moment."

Anstey rose wearily from the table as if the thing were too much
for him, and turned his footsteps in the direction of the bank.
Mechanically Grace went about her duties; she had others to think
about besides herself. There was to be a tennis party in the charming
old grounds that afternoon, and the guests would have to be received
just as if nothing out of the common had taken place. Grace was in the
garden superintending the laying out of the tables when Rice put in
an appearance. Grace was not alone, for she had enlisted the willing
services of young Walters who was not at all averse to get away from
his routine duties for an hour or so. Cyril Walters was not the
ordinary type of bank clerk, he had only been sent into the house by
an exceedingly rich father with an eye to learning business likely to
enable him to manage a large estate later on. The boy did not appear to
notice Grace's preoccupation. He looked up presently and scowled as he
saw Rice approaching.

"Here is the beast again," he said. "It is no business of mine, of
course, Miss Grace. But why does your father encourage him here? Shall
I go away or shall I stay?"

"Stay by all means," Grace said. She forced herself to smile as Rice
came up and extended her hand.

"You have come over early," she went on. "You are more or less behind
the scenes. But what have you been doing to your face?"

Rice's dogged features looked a little more repellent than usual,
for his upper lip was cut and twisted and there were the marks of
deep discoloration round his right eye. He flushed suddenly and
savagely--there was something very brutal about him, Grace thought. He
appeared to glance in a furtive kind of way at Walters, whose features
suggested amusement.

"Poachers," Rice explained. "A gang of them after the rabbits. I
happened to be out very late and came upon our keepers in the thick of
the fray. It wasn't bad fun while is lasted, but I am likely to keep
the marks my man gave me for some time. Walters, just run into the bank
and tell Mr. Anstey I want him."

"Go and carry your messages yourself," Walters replied somewhat rudely.
"Can't you see that I am busy here helping Miss Grace? Besides I am not
an office boy."

Rice turned away with something that sounded like a muttered threat.
He walked across the grass in the direction of the bank and Walters
chuckled.

"I like to take a rise out of that bounder," he said. "He is such a
liar, too, and as for poachers, I don't believe a word of the story. He
seemed to forget that his father is one of the men who is dead against
all kinds of field sports, indeed old Mr. Rice hasn't a keeper on his
estate."

"Then why should he tell us that story?" Grace asked.

"Because he doesn't want the truth to be known," Walters said. "It is
just as likely as not that the thing happened in some public-house
brawl. As a matter of fact, I can tell you exactly where Rice got those
marks from. I don't think our bullying friend is likely to forget Max
Graham in a hurry."

"Max," Grace cried. "Do you mean to say that Max----"

"Indeed I do," Walters laughed. "I was dining at Brooks' last night and
so was Rice. Old Max came in late and for once in his life appeared
to be thoroughly put out about something. He refused to play bridge
and moped about all the evening till it was time to go. Just as Rice
was ready to take his departure Max went up to him and said he would
walk part of the way down the drive, as he had something to say to
Rice. I did not take any notice of it at the time. But I overtook them
presently just outside the lodge gates. I was on my bicycle, so they
did not hear me coming. As Rice was driving his own motor nobody was
present but myself to see the fun. I heard a few high words, then I saw
blows struck. My word, it was pretty one-sided. Rice is the bigger man,
but he is puffy and out of condition, and Max is as fit as a fiddle.
Mind you, I don't mind confessing that I enjoyed it. I didn't let them
know I saw them, but came back by the side road. I wouldn't mention it
to Max if I were you unless he alludes to it himself."

Grace listened uneasily. She did not like the idea of this vulgar
brawling into which her name might be dragged at any moment. She turned
coldly away from Rice, who was now coming back across the lawn.

"Did you see anything last night of Mr. Graham?" she asked.

"No, I didn't," Rice lied readily. "He was at the Brooks' house last
night, but he left before me. I was driving my own motor. But why do
you ask me this?"

Grace might have replied hotly, only just at that moment she caught
sight of another figure crossing the lawn. This was a tall well-set-up
man with grey hair and moustache, who carried himself with a soldierly
bearing. Grace had always been fond of Max's father and she advanced to
meet him now with one of her sunniest smiles.

"I thought you never went to garden parties," she cried.

"I don't," General Graham explained. "I came here to-day because I was
exceedingly uneasy about that boy of mine. It seems to me that young
people in love are not responsible for their own actions. But I have
always regarded Max as a rather level-headed fellow. Did he stay late
serenading you last night?"

"He didn't stay late at all," Grace said. "Max was not here more than
half-an-hour altogether. He said he had promised to go to the Brookses
and left us quite early."

General Graham's bronzed face paled a little under his healthy tan. He
tugged his moustache nervously.

"God bless my soul! what can have become of the boy?" he cried. "My
dear Grace, do you know that he has not been home all night?"

"Not all night?" Grace faltered. She suddenly saw the force and the
inner meaning of the quarrel between Max and Stephen Rice. And the
latter had denied that he had seen Max at all. "My dear general, this
matter must be looked into. I think----"

"Foul play," the general said hoarsely. "Something terrible has
happened to my lad."




CHAPTER VII.--A LESSON IN DRAWING.

A strange calmness came over Grace; she did not feel as if she were
in the presence of catastrophe at all. It seemed almost impossible
to believe that anything could have happened to one so strong and
self-reliant and courageous as Max. He had evidently gone off on some
unexpected errand, and she intimated to the general that he would
probably be heard of in the course of the day.

"I am quite sure Max is able to take care of himself," she said.
"Probably by the time you get home he will have turned up again. Why
should you be so anxious?"

"I cannot but feel anxious," General Graham replied. "I know that Max
had a most important appointment in London this morning, and at first
I thought he had gone off there last night. But his trustees have seen
nothing of him, indeed, they have just telegraphed me to that effect.
We have searched everywhere, but so far entirely without result. You
may call me an old fool, Grace, and say that I am not behaving in the
least like a soldier, but I am terribly anxious about my boy. Still, I
am wasting time here."

Grace colored up as if the general's last words were a reproach to
her. She inwardly wondered at her own calmness, considering that the
general's manner was beginning to infect her with his own uneasiness.
After all, things of this kind had happened before to men quite as
strong and able to take care of themselves as Max Graham. Other people
had disappeared before now and never been heard of again. Involuntarily
Grace cast a side glance at Rice, who did not appear to be listening.
The general had taken no notice whatever of the latter, for Rice was
not the class of visitor likely to find a welcome at Water Park, where
the Grahams had held sway for the last 300 years. Rice looked up from
the grass and caught Grace's eye with a question in it. He felt bound
to say something. He enquired of General Graham if the latter really
meant that there had been foul play here.

"Of course I do so," the general said stiffly. "My boy has never caused
me a moment's anxiety in his life--that he has got into trouble on
his own account I utterly refuse to believe. Why should he stay out
all night? And even if he did, he would have certainly come back to
breakfast this morning."

By this time other guests had arrived, and the story had gone round
that Max Graham had met with some misfortune. As Grace stood there
racking her brain to think of some sensible suggestion, Cyril Walter's
story flashed into her mind.

Surely here was the solution of the mystery, she thought. Rice must
have had a hand in the business. Indeed, at this moment it was clearly
to his interest to get Max Graham out of the way. On his own confession
Rice knew that Max was going to put his hands in his pocket and rid
Mr. Anstey of all suggestion of disgrace. Rice had overheard Max make
this promise, which would have gone a long way to rid Grace for ever
of Rice's persecutions. On the other hand, with that fateful letter
in his possession, Rice was more or less master of the situation, and
therefore the production of the sum of money required by Mr. Ansley was
a minor consideration.

Still, Grace could not forget Max's intimation that he had yet another
weapon to use against Rice. Indeed, he had gone so far as to hint that
once he had seen Rice, the latter would have to withdraw and leave a
clear field for his favored rival. This it was, of course, that had led
to the scene last night between the two men. Grace turned suddenly to
Rice.

"Did you not see Mr. Max Graham last night?" she asked. "Did he not
come to Mr. Brooks' house after dinner?"

"He certainly did come in," Rice admitted. He appeared to be just a
little restless and uneasy. "But how does that affect the question? I
don't see what it has to do----"

"Perhaps not," Grace said. "Did you leave first, or did Mr. Graham? Did
you go away together?"

"Hardly likely," Rice sneered. "Mr. Max Graham is no friend of mine,
indeed we barely speak when we meet."

"Then you did not see him after he left Mr. Brooks' house?" Grace
asked. "You are certain of that."

"I have already answered your question," Rice said sullenly. "I know
nothing whatever about Mr. Graham, and I care less."

Nobody appeared to notice the savage rudeness of the speech. A hush
had fallen on the little party gathered there for the simple purpose
of enjoyment; everybody seemed to feel that there was tragedy in the
air. Men in flannels and ladies in white dresses had thrown down their
rackets and croquet mallets to join the group standing round the tall,
soldierly figure, and speculate on what had happened to Max Graham.
The sun shone down from the cloudless sky, a gentle breeze stirred the
trees. It all seemed so out of keeping with the crime and tragedy, and
Grace shuddered as she thought of the dreadful secret that the verdure
of the distant woods might hold. But there was more to be thought of
than that; she began to feel the strain of it now. She touched the
general on the arm.

"Are we not wasting time here?" she asked. "Surely it is time we
organised something in the shape of a search party. I am certain that
all the gentlemen here will be willing to give their services."

A murmur of assent followed. A few moments later and the men of the
party were scattered, making their way in the direction of the house
where Max was last seen the night before. It was a heavily wooded
country, the ground rising here and there, and filled with deep lanes
and coppices where at one time a deal of desperate poaching had taken
place. There was no cause to think of poachers at this time of the
year, and most assuredly Max had not come to grief that way. Still, it
would have been possible for the body of a man to lie in those deep
woods for days without being found.

Grace watched the figures in their gay flannels until they disappeared
in the distance. As other men came over they learnt of the history of
the case and started out in pursuit like the rest until only Stephen
Rice remained. Grace had almost forgotten his presence, she had almost
forgotten everything in the anxiety of the moment. Now she turned her
eyes on him hotly.

"Why do you not go along?" the protested.

"Why should I go?"' Rice asked coolly. "Graham is nothing to me, indeed
the longer he keeps out of the way the better I shall be pleased.
After all said and done, it is no pleasant thing to know that the girl
you are going to marry is in love with somebody else. I think you
understand what I mean?"

"I understand you perfectly," Grace said. "Any honorable man would see
his way quite clear. Why did you lie to me just now?"

Rice started and bit his lip savagely.

"You give me credit for all the vices," he said. "What do you mean by
asking that question? How did I lie to you?"

"You lied to me when you said you had seen nothing of Max last night,"
Grace said. "I know more than you imagine. You walked down the drive
together and had a discussion in the road. You thought you were free
from observation because you were driving your own motor-car. And then
you quarrelled--possibly because Mr. Graham had shown you that he
could prevent any further attentions of yours to me. It was a violent
quarrel, and you bear the traces of it in your face at the present
moment."

"I say it is false," Rice cried. "I am prepared to swear to you that I
never saw Graham last night."

"And I can prove that you did," Grace replied. "If you could only see
your face at the present moment you would know that I had found you
out. And this is the class of man I have promised to marry. Oh, my
degradation is deeper than I thought."

Rice shuffled about uneasily, but said nothing for a moment. Grace had
turned away from him with a gesture of indignation and contempt; she
was half-way to the house before he could overtake her.

"Look here," he said angrily. "This thing has got to stop. Graham or
no Graham, the time will come when you will be my wife. Once that is
accomplished I shall teach you prettier manners than you possess at
present. Do you mean to insinuate that I have had anything to do with
this escapade of Graham's? Cherchez la femme!"

The cruel insinuation brought the hot blood flaming to Grace's cheeks.
She turned and faced Rice angrily.

"Yes, I do," she almost whispered. "I believe that he knows something
of your disgraceful past that would have made it impossible for you to
raise your eyes to any good and virtuous woman. It was the allusion to
that episode in your past that brought about your quarrel. It would
have been easier for you to bow to the inevitable and acknowledge
defeat. But you are not the man to accept defeat, if you can turn it
into victory by any means, however questionable. It would have been
easier for you to leave your car by the roadside and follow your victim
through the woods, which was the shortest way home. A treacherous blow
dealt from behind, and the thing was done. In my mind's eye I can see
it as plainly as if I had been there. Oh, you may laugh."

For a forced laugh had come from Rice's lips. Despite his dogged
courage and resolution, his face was pale and he could not meet Grace's
eye. He strode away in the direction of the house without further
words. Grace stood there looking out across the fields until her eyes
grew dim and the tears began to run down her cheeks. It was almost
maddening to wait there in suspense.

It was nearly dark before the search party began to straggle back to
the bank house again. They had been absolutely unsuccessful in their
search, though their ranks had been largely augmented during the past
hour or two. But nobody had anything to report, no trace of Max Graham
had been found. Nor had anything happened over at Water Park to solve
the mystery.

"We have been everywhere," General Graham said. "We have even searched
the ruins of the old priory behind the big cover. It is exceedingly
kind of you all to take this trouble and I will not worry you any
further. I am so worn out with anxiety now, that I must go home and
rest."

The darkness had fallen at length, and Anstey's guests had departed,
and father and daughter were dining alone. It was a silent meal, for
Grace was consumed with a sickening anxiety, and Anstey was moody,
and preoccupied. He looked up presently to note that the tears were
streaming down Grace's cheeks.

"Why worry about it?" he asked irritably. "Do you honestly suppose that
anything serious has happened to Graham? Besides, in any case, he could
be nothing to you now, and the sooner you get your mind to forget him
the better."

"I shall never forget him," Grace said. "Father, why have you changed
so much towards me of late, why are you so different from what you used
to be? I used to regard you as one of the best of men, and now it seems
to me----"

But Grace was speaking to the winds, for Anstey had flung himself out
of the room and banged the door behind him. Grace sat there engrossed
in her own painful thoughts until a footman entered with the intimation
that "Poor Billy" desired to see Miss Anstey.

"Least, that's what I understand, miss," he explained. "It is very hard
to make Billy out, and we have come to the conclusion that he wants to
see you, miss."

"Ask the poor fellow in," Grace said, forgetting her own sorrows for
the moment, "bring him in here."

The half-demented little man shuffled into the room presently, and
looked about him in a vacant kind of way. Yet there was some sort of
method in his madness, for he seemed to be seeking something, and his
eyes were not so expressionless as usual. Grace signed to the servant
to leave them and close the door. With a gesture she signified that
Billy should take a seat by her side. It was useless to speak to the
ragged little figure, for he was deaf as well as dumb, and everything
would have to be done by signs. Grace raised her eyebrows and looked
significantly at her tattered companion. He smiled in a vague way and
went through the motion of writing a letter. Evidently he had watched
people doing that kind of thing, though, it probably conveyed nothing
to his intelligence.

But it seemed to Grace that she understood. It suddenly flashed upon
her now that Billy had been the messenger employed to convey that
fateful letter to Mr. James Holder. Perhaps he was alluding to this. It
was just possible to test the poor idiot's intelligence, and Grace laid
a sheet of paper and pencil on the table before the little man. A smile
lighted up his face.

He took the pencil in his shaky fingers, and began to make marks upon
the paper. Gradually there grew up thereon something that bore a
resemblance to a ruined old house; in front was a decayed tree which
had obviously been struck by lightning at some time.

"Old Water Priory," Grace exclaimed. "What does it mean?"




CHAPTER VIII.--A SILVER CIGARETTE CASE.

Grace's sudden cry was quite lost upon the little man with the pencil.
He was deeply engrossed with the work now, it was obvious that with
proper training he might have been a capable artist. The lines were
somewhat thin and feeble, but surely and slowly there grew on the paper
the outline of old Water Priory, the house which had been occupied
by the Grahams up to about a century ago. Now it was no more than a
roofless ruin, a great part of the walls had fallen in, and all that
remained was thickly covered with ivy. A great crime had taken place
there over a hundred years ago, wherein, in a fit of jealousy, the
Graham of the time had killed his wife and drowned himself in the
pool close to the house. Old Water Priory was a picturesque spot in
the daytime, with its half-empty moat and a great belt of dark firs
about it, but not for a king's ransom would any villager have dared
to approach it after dark. Grace for the life of her could not see
any connection between the ruin and the message that "Poor Billy" was
obviously attempting to convey to her.

He looked up with a smile on his face as if he felt that he had
accomplished his task.

"You poor creature," Grace said sympathetically. "I wish I could only
understand what you are driving at. And yet I know you are doing your
best to tell me something."

Billy smiled and nodded as if he perfectly understood what Grace was
talking about. Her face clouded again, and Billy looked as if he was
going to weep. He bent in a despairing kind of way over the paper,
then a queer, croaking cry escaped him. On the top of the picture he
proceeded to draw a circle, to which he pointed with his fore-finger,
and frowned grotesquely as he noted Grace's blank face. It was as if he
were the teacher and she were the pupil for the time being. Once more
the smile flashed out on the idiot's face as inspiration came to him.
In the centre of the circle he proceeded to draw the rough outline of
a human face. His eyes said now as plainly as words could speak that
if Grace did not understand this he would have to abandon the task
altogether. Grace laid her hand upon his ragged shoulder and patted it
approvingly. She had grasped the meaning now.

"Good little man," she said. "I see that is meant to represent
the moon. It is quite evident to me that I am to see something of
importance or discover something dreadful at old Water Priory during
the time of the full moon. Wait a moment."

Billy seemed to understand quite as well as if he had ears to hear all
that Grace was saying. She came back from the library presently with a
copy of 'Whittaker's Almanac' in her hand. Rapidly she fluttered over
the leaves till she came to the place she was looking for. It was just
as she had expected.

"We are getting on quite famously, Billy," she smiled. "We know all
about the Priory now, and all about the full moon. According to
'Whittaker,' the moon is at the full at 11 o'clock to-night. I think
that is all that we want to know."

But Billy seemed to be fogged again; he had a lingering doubt as to
whether or not he had conveyed anything to Grace. She tried in vain
to make him understand, until at length a happy thought came to her.
She took the pencil from Billy's resolute fingers and made a little
sketch of herself walking in the direction of the Priory, and obviously
searching for something. The frog-like croak shot from Billy's throat
again, and he snapped his fingers in great delight. He quite understood
now that Grace had promised to visit the old Priory in the light of the
full moon. Then his face changed entirely, the vacant idiotic look came
back to him, and he shuttled with his usual crab-like motion in the
direction of the door. Grace would have detained him, and loaded him up
with the good things of the table, only Billy had vanished.

Then Grace went to her own room to think it all out. The more she
debated the matter the more disturbed did she become. She knew, of
course, from gossip the kind of life that poor Billy usually led. He
depended entirely for his daily food upon the charity of the villagers;
he occasionally earned a few pence by carrying letters to well-known
people. In the winter time he slept in some barn or other, but in
summer nothing could keep him from the open air, and his resting-place
was in the fields. Like a great many of his class, he was a light
sleeper, and wandered about half the night, generally in search of
birds' eggs, of which he was passionately fond. It occurred to Grace
now that Billy must have seen something the night before, or he would
never have ventured to intrude himself at the bank house.

Many a time and oft had Grace tried to induce him to come into the
house, but always in vain. The mere suggestion of a room or anything
with a whole roof over it seemed to scare away what small wits Billy
possessed. Still, his feeble intellect was stronger than he had credit
for. The drawing of the picture showed that; the introduction of the
full moon was quite clever. By this time Grace had thoroughly made up
her mind what to do. She called her maid and bade the latter close the
door quietly behind her.

"I am going to take you into my confidence, Helen," she said. "Of
course, you have heard all this miserable business about Mr. Graham?
You know he has disappeared?"

"And very sorry to hear it I am, miss," Helen said. "I do hope nothing
has happened to him. Such a nice gentleman----"

"Never mind that," Grace said impatiently. "I have every reason to
believe that Mr. Graham has been the victim of foul play. I do not
want to say anything about that yet, because the time is not yet ripe
for disclosures. I have had information to-night from a most unexpected
quarter. I am going out, Helen. I want you to stay here and wait till I
return, keeping the window open so that you can hear when I call you.
Do you understand?"

Helen nodded in open-mouthed amazement. The idea of her mistress going
out at this time of the evening seemed past comprehension.

"Going out alone miss," she protested, "and at this time of night, too?
Why if anybody happened to see you----"

"I am going out alone," Grace said resolutely. "I propose to start in
about a quarter of an hour, as I want to be at the old Priory by 11
o'clock. I tell you this so that you may know where I have gone to if
anything happens to me."

"I would not go there at this time of the night for all the money in
the world," Helen said with a shudder. "If your father only knew, it
would be as much as my place is worth----"

"But he must not know," Grace whispered. "Nobody must know. You are
never to speak of this to a soul. All you have to do is to stay here
till I return and let me in."

"But surely you will let me come along with you, miss?" Helen asked.
"Frightened as I am of that place, I could not let you go alone. It
seems such a terrible thing to do."

"I must go alone," Grace said firmly, "and you must stay here and let
me in when I return. All the lights will be out presently and the house
locked. If you did not remain behind how could I get in? Now, get me
out a dark coat and hat and help me on with a thick pair of shoes.
Don't stand there any longer."

It was useless for Helen to protest any longer, and she hastened to
do the bidding of her mistress. It was nearly half an hour later that
Grace stole away from the house by the side door at the back of the
drive and made her way into the road. It was close upon eleven now,
and as Grace had some little way to go she stepped out briskly. There
was nothing to try her courage yet, for though the road was deserted
it was brilliantly flooded with moonlight. Grace could see the mists
rising from the river and covering the country like great sheets of
still water, out of which the trees rose in the semblance of a forest
of masts towering over some huge navy. Away behind the shoulder of the
hill she could just catch a glimpse of the ruined chimneys of the old
Priory.

It was at this point that she turned down a bridle path and found
herself a few moments later in the heart of the woods. The girl was not
so sure of her courage now, for the sense of loneliness was oppressive,
and tried her nerves sadly. Grace had been through a good deal the
last few days, and the strain was beginning to tell upon her. A rabbit
flashed across her path, and she started as if some danger had suddenly
confronted her. She could hear strange rustlings in the wood; an old
grey fox slunk by, almost touching Grace as he passed.

She stood there just for a moment, her hands tightly clenched, fighting
for the courage which seemed to be deserting her. She forced herself
to think of Max and his danger, and that this midnight journey of hers
might be the means of preserving her lover's life. With this thought
uppermost in her mind she pushed on until the woods gave upon an open
space, and there she saw the moon shining upon the moat which still
more or less surrounded the old building. Grace was more cautious now;
she crept towards the ruin, taking advantage of bushes here and there
and the deep bracken which flourished on either side.

She stood just for a moment on the threshold of the deserted house; she
was conscious of some hesitation which held her footsteps back. The
next moment she had dived headlong into a friendly bed of bracken and
lay there gasping for breath, her heart hammering so painfully that she
could feel it thumping against her ribs. The giddy humming in her head
cleared away presently; then she began to understand that someone was
searching inside the building, for she could hear a mutter of voices
and catch the flash of a lantern. So far as she could tell, she had
never heard those voices before. She dare not raise her head to look,
she had to judge the class of men by their speech. They did not strike
her as people she would have cared to meet on a lonely night in the
dark.

"No use seeking here any longer," one of the voices said. "I don't
believe it's here at all. Besides, it doesn't much matter if it is."

"That's all you know about it," the other speaker growled. "It may not
make much difference to you, but if Stephen Rice happened to discover
that you hadn't been----"

The voice trailed off to a whisper, and Grace heard no more. She lay
there quite still, almost afraid to breathe, and fully conscious of
what discovery might mean to her. She drew a deep breath presently
when at length the men emerged from the ruin and were soon lost in the
thickness of the wood. A full five minutes elapsed before Grace dragged
herself to her feet, and, with trembling limbs, entered the ruin. The
brilliant rays of the moon showed her the grassy floor had been well
trodden down in a search for something. She began to wish now that she
had not come; she could see nothing likely to help her in the solving
of the mystery. She half turned to leave the ruin, fully deciding to
see "Poor Billy" again and try and get more information from him. As
she turned, her foot slipped upon something, and she came to her knees.
The object that had caused her fall was an oblong square of silver
looking like a cigar or cigarette case which had had a great deal of
bad usage lately. Grace picked it up and held it to the light.

"Max's," she cried. "Surely this is Max's cigarette-case. What can it
possibly be doing here?"




CHAPTER IX.--IN THE RUINS.

Grace stood there with the cigarette-case in her hand, examining it as
closely as possible by the light of the moon. She had no longer reason
to doubt; there was Max's monogram plainly enough; the deeply-cut
letters standing out all the more clearly now that they were filled
with dirt. The inside of the case was empty, a fact that rather
surprised Grace, seeing that it had been Max's invariable custom to
keep one of his visiting cards there. The girl noticed with a thrill
that the case was not only dirty, but that it was also marked and
battered as if it had been ill-used or as if somebody had trodden upon
it. All these signs pointed to foul play.

In the first place, the old ruins were long way out of Max's route on
the return journey from Brooks' house to Water Park. The high road
was well enough at this time of the year, so that it was possible to
wear evening slippers; indeed, Grace had noticed that Max was wearing
pumps on the last occasion that she had ever seen him. But it was not
in the least likely that Max would have walked through the damp grass
shod in that light way when he had a clear path home. Still, Grace held
it in her hand, evidence of the fact that Max had been to the ruined
Priory, or she would not have found his cigarette-case there. Just for
a moment it occurred to her as possible that the miscreants had placed
the cigarette-case there by way of blinding the trail, but a reflection
assured Grace that this was not to be thought of. She stood there full
in the light of the moon waiting for something, she knew not what, to
happen. She had a strange feeling that something out of the common was
about to take place, one of those premonitions we all feel at times,
but cannot logically account for. Therefore it was no surprise to Grace
when a long, misshapen shadow lay across her feet, and the figure of a
man came rapidly towards her. The man had been running very fast; he
gasped for breath, but he did not seem in the least surprised to see
Grace waiting there. Nor was she in her turn surprised to find herself
face to face with "Poor Billy."

"What is the matter?" she asked, heedless for the moment that "Poor
Billy" could not possibly understand a word she was saying. "Why do you
follow me here instead of coming along with me in the first instance?
But I forgot."

Billy was regaining his breath by this time; he displayed no signs
of terror, but the way in which he looked about him filled Grace
with a vague uneasiness. She could see that he wanted something, for
he pointed in the direction of the distant hill and shook his head
solemnly. Then he ran to the edge of the ruin and returned as quickly
as he had gone.

"Oh, if I could only understand him," Grace exclaimed. "I am certain
that he wants to tell me something of importance. I wonder if we could
manage to use the drawing idea over again."

The walls of the ruin were fairly dark and fairly even inside, so that
it would be possible with the aid of a piece of chalk to make such
signs as might convey Grace's ideas to Billy's darkened intelligence.
There was no lack of chalk flints on the floor, so that Grace took
one of them up and commenced to make signs on the wall. One glance at
Billy's face sufficed to show that he had grasped the situation. The
anxious look left his face, and he smiled. Then in turn he took up
one of the flints and proceeded to draw on the wall the outline of a
hand pointing in the direction of the valley below. It was a somewhat
difficult problem for Grace to solve; it was still troubling her when
Billy turned suddenly and uttered a hoarse croak of warning which gave
Grace barely time to throw herself in the centre of a bed of nettles
before two other figures rushed into the ruin. From the position in
which she was lying Grace could see nothing, nor did she dare to
move. She heard voices now, but she utterly failed to recognise them.
Also she could hear Billy's hoarse croak like the cry made by some
frightened animal as he rushed round and round the ruin trying to avoid
those who had apparently come in search of him. The croaking noise
turned into a gurgle presently, and Grace rightly judged that Billy had
at length fallen into the hands of his enemies. There was the noise of
a struggle, and the quick gasps of those engaged in conflict.

"I think he'll about do now," one of the strangers said. "Not that I
imagine he is worth all this fuss."

"He isn't," the other man said. "He might have seen the whole thing
without being a bit the wiser. What does it matter what a deaf mute
knows--he couldn't tell anybody to save the life of him. Lie still, you
little beggar."

Something like a moan came from Billy, telling Grace pretty plainly
that the words had been accompanied with a blow.

"I think he is all right now," the first man said. "I have tied him
up pretty safe, and here he can stay till somebody finds him in the
morning. Now let us get on as far as the farm. We have got plenty of
work to do before daylight yet."

Grace could hear the scratch of a match and catch the scent of tobacco.
She was sharp enough to note from the delicate smell of the cigarettes
that Billy's assailants were no common men--the ordinary desperado did
not smoke tobacco of that class. Grace ventured at length to raise her
head and look about her. The white pallid light of the moon showed
that the ruin was deserted save for the prostrate body of Billy, who
lay prone on his back looking up stupidly at the stars. Grace's face
and hands fairly tingled with nettle stings, but she did not notice
this in the excitement of the moment. She crossed over to where Billy
lay, trussed like a fowl, with his hands and feet securely corded, and
touched him on the shoulder. His eyes fairly beamed with delight, he
tried to struggle to his feet, but he was too firmly secured for that.

"I will see to all that," Grace said gently. "Do you happen to have a
knife? Oh, I had forgotten again."

But Billy possessed no knife, Grace ascertained that fact by searching
his pockets. Then she bent herself to the task of undoing the knots
in the stout cord; they were stiff knots; and Grace's fingernails
were broken and her delicate hands sore before the last of the bonds
were released, and Billy was free to stand on his feet again. The
heavy dew was thicker now, so that even by the light of the moon it
was impossible to see beyond a limited radius. It was striking twelve
by a distant church clock, and Grace suddenly realised that the dawn
would not be far off, and that she had possibly a great deal more to do
before she could return home again. She turned to Billy and pointed to
the rude figure of the hand he had drawn upon the wall. Billy's eyes
gleamed, he held out his own hand, which Grace took in hers, feeling
that that was what he wanted. It evidently was, for Billy beamed
again and patted the small hand that lay in his approvingly. Then he
set off at a good round pace, taking Grace after him across the wet
grass and through bypaths which were utterly unfamiliar to her. Grace
congratulated herself now that she had put on a stout pair of boots,
for the undergrowth was full of thorns and brambles, and already, the
girl had left a great portion of her skirt behind her.

Grace had always prided herself upon the fact that she had an intimate
knowledge of every wood and spinney of the neighborhood, but she had
to acknowledge now that Billy was immensely her superior in woodcraft.
He seemed to know every bit of the way he passed along with an assured
footstep; he appeared to avoid pitfalls by a marvellous instinct. It
was not many minutes later that he emerged from the wood into the open
fields again. Here he stopped and pointed to a farmhouse that lay in a
hollow at the foot of the fields. He seemed to be trying to make Grace
understand that his errand was more or less finished.

Grace recognised the farm, though she very rarely came that way.
The homestead, together with some two hundred acres of more or less
poor land, lay in the centre of General Graham's property. The old
soldier had tried to buy it on several occasions, but Samuel Fenton,
who owned the property, had curtly refused. The man in question had
an exceedingly shady reputation. Nobody believed for a moment that he
could possibly make a living out of his poor farm, to say nothing of
the fact that he was a man who drank heavily into the bargain. There
was practically no stock on the place, indeed there was very little
there to feed cattle. The pastures were rank and thin, such crops as
were sown were rarely gathered, the buildings round the house were in a
state of ruinous repair. As to the rest, Fenton kept quite clear of his
neighbors; he rarely went into Leverton, and, when he did, he failed to
show up at such public-houses as the majority of his fellows favored.
People came from a distance to see him, but these friends appeared to
be of the same shy class as himself.

Time was when the Fentons had been respectable and respected. But the
present owner of the farm had chosen to marry a gipsy woman. He had
one daughter--a handsome, bold-faced girl, who was reputed to be as
passionate and headstrong as her mother had been. Farm laborers and
people of that class had stories to tell of the scenes of dissipation
and passion that regularly took place at the Fenton's farm.

Grace had never heeded these stories when they had come to her through
the lips of her maid, but now she was taking the greatest interest in
the Fentons. She could see that lights were burning in one or two of
the rooms; it seemed to her that she could hear snatches of some ribald
song. She would have given much to know why Billy had brought her here.

"I am to go down there?" she asked, pointing to the farm. "Am I to go
alone, or are you coming with me?"

Billy seemed to understand quite well, though, of course, the spoken
words conveyed nothing to him. He picked his way cautiously down the
hillside and came close to the farmhouse, stopping at length in the
comparative shadow of a ragged blackthorn hedge. Grace could see there
were lights in various windows now; she noted the ragged and tattered
blinds, through which slits of light penetrated; she could not but see
the desolation of the place.

Apparently no coat of paint had been laid upon the house for years,
a certain amount of tiles had been stripped from the roof by passing
gales, the walls were wet and clammy, everything was dropping to decay.

It was quiet enough for a moment, though, judging from the lights in
the windows there must have been a number of people in the house. Then
suddenly Grace heard the song again, followed by a burst of laughter
that sounded forced and strange. Grace glanced at Billy, who signified
that she should go closer to the house. It was rather a rash thing
to do, seeing that the moon made even the smallest objects plainly
visible, but Grace did not hesitate. On the right-hand side of the
dilapidated doorway was a window that gleamed thinly red against the
light of the moon. The blind was down, but years of brilliant sunshine
had rotted the fabric so that it hung now more or less in shreds, as
if some mischievous person had slashed it with a knife. It was quite
easy for Grace to see what was going on inside the room, and she did
not hesitate a moment to look. She felt quite sure that Billy had not
brought her here out of idle curiosity. Besides, she had Max to think
of. From the first she had been certain that Max's disappearance was
at the bottom of the whole adventure. Therefore she looked in now with
a feeling that she was doing the right thing in the circumstances. The
room was more comfortably furnished than Grace had expected. Indeed,
it was quite cosy and homelike under the light of the big lamp with
the red shade. By the fireplace stood a tall, handsome girl, and in
her Grace recognised Fenton's daughter. She had vivid black eyes, and
great piled-up masses of black hair adorned her perfectly-shaped head.
Her lips were parted in a contemptuous smile, her teeth flashed like so
many pearls. A handsome, daring, reckless face, Grace thought, and yet
one capable of good under better and happier auspices. The girl was not
alone, for on the other side of the fireplace stood Stephen Rice, who
appeared to be pleading for some favor at the hands of his companion.
The girl laughed again; and then Rice crossed to her side and kissed
her in a careless kind of way. Grace drew back, feeling that she had no
business here. Despite the sinking of her heart she was not free from a
certain passionate indignation at this conduct on the part of the man
she had promised to marry.

It was impossible, of course, to hear what was taking place within the
room, and Grace had to content herself with what she could see. So
far as she could judge Rice had attempted to persuade his companion
to do something against her inclinations, for she turned upon him
passionately presently, and Grace could see that her eyes were
flashing. Then a hand was laid on her arm, and Billy was tugging her
violently away from the house.




CHAPTER X.--THE VOICE IN THE NIGHT.

Grace wondered what had happened, for her shabby companion was
dreadfully excited, a series of hoarse cries came from his throat. He
bent his head until it touched the ground, and appeared as if listening
for the sound of somebody approaching. Then he rose again; and catching
Grace by the arm hurried her across the field, till at length they had
reached a cluster of old trees, some two hundred yards from the farm.
Billy had apparently timed the thing to a nicety, for no sooner were
they sheltered behind the trees than three men emerged out of the mist.
They came very slowly and painfully along, for between them they bore
some heavy object that lay upon a hurdle. Grace had seen this kind of
thing before, especially in the hunting field, where it is necessary
sometimes to take a hurdle or barn door and use it as an improvised
ambulance. The girl could distinctly see the outlines of a body as it
lay on the hurdle, though it was entirely covered with blankets or some
heavy material of that kind. One foot of the injured man dangled over
the side of the hurdle; even at this distance Grace could see that the
foot was covered by a black sock, and that the boot had either been
removed or had fallen off.

Very slowly and carefully the gruesome burden was brought to the door
of the farmhouse, where one of the three men whistled, and the front
door opened. Somebody stood in the hall holding a lamp high overhead,
and Grace had no difficulty in making out the graceful figure of
Fenton's daughter. Grace did not fail to notice either that the girl
did not seem in the least surprised or agitated when she saw what the
men were carrying. If the thing had been an accident then Bessie Fenton
had been warned beforehand, for she stood there quite coolly with the
lamp in her hand and made signs to the men as to where they were to
take their unconscious burden. A light flashed up presently in one of
the other rooms, so that Grace could give a pretty good guess as to the
apartment in which the unfortunate man was now lying. There was a kind
of balcony running round two sides of the house, so that it would have
been possible with the aid of a ladder to look into that particular
room, for the blinds there, like all the others, were torn and frayed.
Billy made no signs of motion until the door of the farmhouse was
closed and all was safe again. Then once more he took Grace by the
hand and led her down to the edge of the farmyard so that they stood
close by to where the strangers had turned with the body. The track was
concealed entirely from Grace's eyes, but Billy could read it as if it
were an open book to him. He pointed down to his left foot and kicked
his broken boot off. Then he looked up sharply at Grace to see if she
took his meaning. She nodded and smiled after a moment's hesitation;
she perfectly understood that Billy was telling her that he had also
noticed the shoeless foot hanging over the side of the improvised
ambulance. It was quite evident also that Billy attached considerable
importance to this point, for he put his nose to the ground in
grotesque imitation of a retriever dog, and started to run uphill in
the direction from which the men had come.

"It is all becoming quite clear to me," Grace murmured. "Really, this
poor fellow has more intelligence than I gave him credit for. I suppose
his idea now is to find that unhappy man's shoe."

Billy seemed to understand, for he turned and smiled at Grace, who was
following up the hillside. It was some little distance before they
reached the wood again, but Billy did not hesitate for a moment. He
was following the track of those men with the unerring instinct of a
bloodhound. He came to a broad green rise at length; he stooped and
picked up some object, chuckling hoarsely as he did so. Then Grace
could see that he held in his hand a patent leather shoe, which had
evidently belonged to some well-dressed man, though Grace could not
recognise the maker or the wearer. One thing, it told her the man on
the ambulance had not belonged to the same class as those who had
conveyed him to Fenton's farm.

"I wonder what it all means?" Grace murmured. "Oh, if I could only see
for a moment at the back of Billy's brain, what a deal of trouble and
unhappiness might be saved. Who was it on that ambulance, I wonder? Is
it possible that it might have been Max? He was wearing shoes like this
last night, and yet that tells me nothing. Thousands of well-dressed
men wear the same kind of shoes every night. And yet Billy must attach
a deal of importance to this, or he would never drag me here."

But apparently Billy was not satisfied yet, for he pointed down the
hill again. Had he been possessed of proper intelligence, and the
capability of understanding plain words, Grace would have bade him
stay there while she returned home and gave information to the police.
But then, unfortunately, Billy was not in that mental condition; and
the only thing for it was to see the matter out to its bitter end. The
strangely assorted pair were descending the hillside again now, and
once more they stood in the shadow of the blackthorn fence. They had
not long to wait there for developments, for presently the door of the
farmhouse opened and Rice emerged into the moonlight. He was not alone,
for Bessie Fenton accompanied him as far as the gate. They were both
so close to the watchers now that by stretching out a hand Grace could
have actually touched the other girl. She could see the moonlight on
her face, she could see the quivering of the finely-cut nostrils. Even
at that moment, full of unseen peril as it was, Grace felt herself
thinking how beautiful Bessie Fenton would have looked properly dressed
and attired for some great function. There was something about her that
attracted Grace.

"I tell you I won't have anything to do with it," she was saying. "Why
do you come here, lying to me in this fashion? You profess to care for
me, and yet all the time you are going to marry another girl. Yes, she
may be better-looking than I am, but miserable as I am, and much as I
loathe my home life, I shall never leave it with any man whom I cannot
call my husband."

"You are altogether wrong," Rice said moodily. "I care for nobody but
you, indeed I never have."

"You are a liar, Stephen Rice," the girl said dispassionately. "God,
that I should have ever given my heart to a creature like you. You are
not good to look upon, you are a cur and a craven at heart. Some day
when my mother's blood in my veins shall call to me I will take up a
knife and drive it through that black heart of yours, and there will be
an end of Stephen Rice."

"I tell you you are utterly mistaken," Rice said gloomily.

"And I say, I am not," the girl cried. "You are going to marry that
fair-haired girl up at the bank house. And when you do, look to
yourself. I have been your tool and slave for the past three years, and
now I am finding you out. To-night's business----"

"We need not go into that," Rice said hastily. "Besides, it hardly
concerns you at all; it is more a matter between your father and your
brothers and myself. I am paying them very handsomely for the little
they have done for me, and there need be no anxiety about money for
some little time to come."

The girl laughed in a scornful sort of way, and yet there was just a
note of sadness in this strained mirth.

"When did money ever do any good to us?" she asked. "When was it
anything but a curse? You know what it means--nobody better. It means
drink and brutality and violence. You have been here and seen it all. I
can teach you nothing as to the meaning of the word drink."

There was a terrible emphasis on the last word; it caused Grace to
shudder. It came back to her with strange force then that here was the
man she was going to marry. Here was the man to whom she was going to
sell herself to save her father's honor. That Rice was capable of many
brutalities, Grace felt sure. But that she was going to ally herself to
a drunkard was the last straw on the burden of her misery. She had half
waited for some denial from the lips of Rice, but he only laughed in a
sullen kind of way.

"You are not yourself to-night," he said, "or you would not talk in
this manner. I am prepared to swear to you, if you like, that I have no
intention whatever of marrying Miss Anstey. She is nothing to me and
never will be."

"You had better take care that that is the truth," Bessie Fenton said
with a swift indrawing of her breath. "Otherwise, I should see Miss
Anstey and give her a few interesting episodes from that buried past of
yours. Once I did that, there would be an end of your chances for ever
in that direction."

Rice laughed, as indeed he could afford to do. Grace knew perfectly
well that this was no case where a girl could rid herself of her bonds
on the score of her accepted husband's morality. Had he been the
greatest scoundrel that ever polluted the earth she would have been
equally forced into that detested alliance.

It seemed as if the listeners were not likely to hear any more, for the
conversation between Rice and Bessie Fenton took a less personal turn.

"Now, you go back home," Rice said, "and try and keep that temper of
yours under better control. Nobody can be a finer nurse than you, when
you like, and you are likely to have your hands full for some time to
come. If anything happens or you want money, just send me a note and
you shall have all that you require. It is a very good thing you don't
keep a servant, so there will be no chattering women about, asking
curious questions as to who your visitor is."

"You do not want him to die?" Bessie Fenton asked hoarsely.

"I don't care whether he lives or dies," Rice replied. "So long as you
obey instructions and keep him quiet for the next three weeks. After
that you can do what you please. Your father and brothers are anxious
to get away from here, but if they keep to the line I have laid down
for them they will have money enough to follow their fancy. Good-night."

With a careless nod Rice disappeared, and Bessie Fenton returned to
the house. A few moments later and Grace could see her shadow on the
blind of the room in which she felt sure the injured man lay. A sudden
resolution came to the girl; she felt her courage mounting high. She
pointed to the window where the shadow was, and made a motion as if she
were climbing a flight of stairs. It was some little time before Billy
understood the meaning of this little pantomime, but he grasped it at
length.

Signing to Grace to stay where she was he disappeared round the back
of the house, and returned presently staggering under the weight of a
ladder. In less time than it takes to tell, Grace was creeping along
the rickety old balcony in the direction of the lighted window. It
was no safe position, but the girl did not heed that now. She was
consumed with a burning desire to see what was going on in the room,
nor was there any reason why she should not, seeing that the blind was
so frayed and torn. She made out the outline of a figure lying on the
bed, and over this figure Bessie was bending. Grace placed her ear to a
broken pane of glass, hoping that some words might reward her.

The figure on the bed stirred; Grace could see a hand moving uneasily.
Then the man's lips opened, and he asked vaguely what time it was and
whether or not he was late for breakfast.

Grace fairly staggered back, and nearly fell over the rotten edge of
the balcony. With difficulty she repressed a cry. For in the tones of
the man on the bed she recognised the voice of Max Graham.




CHAPTER XI.--THE LAMP GOES OUT.

Had she paused a moment for reflection, Grace would have seen what was
the prudent thing to do. She felt practically certain that it was Max
who lay a prisoner on the bed there, for she had not only heard his
voice, but it seemed to her also that she could recognise the outline
of his form. It was quite evident that Max had suffered some violent
treatment, or he would not have been in the semi-unconscious condition
as indicated by the question addressed to Bessie Fenton. He had been
brought there for some purpose, doubtless of a sinister nature, and he
was not likely to be moved for some little time. It was evident that
those in the plot deemed themselves to be quite safe; it would not
have entered into their calculations that there was any possibility
of a visit from those who were searching for the missing man. In the
circumstances Grace's obvious duty was to have returned home at once
and place the information she had derived in the hands of the police.

But she did not stop to think now, she was too deeply concerned in the
welfare of her lover. She could not bear the suspense; her heart was
beating fast now; come what may, she made up her mind to know the worst
before she slept that night.

She felt fairly safe where she was; the mist had thickened about the
house, the moon was sliding down now behind the fringe of the woods.
At that moment, too, fate seemed to be playing into Grace's hands, for
Bessie Fenton left the room; indeed it seemed to Grace as if she were
not coming back at all. Here was the opportunity to her hand if she
only had courage enough to carry it into effect. Grace could see that
Billy was waiting for her down below, and the knowledge that she had an
ally at hand strengthened her resolution. A close examination of the
window showed that more than one pane was broken, so that, by reaching
through, Grace found it possible to draw back the latch. It was all
quietly and successfully done at length, and a moment later Grace was
in the room.

She felt no fear now; her courage mounted high as she crossed the room
in the direction of the bed. There was need for caution, however, for
she could hear footsteps on the stairs. They were stealthy footsteps,
with just the suggestion of hesitation about them; then, down below
were the sounds of other steps--heavy, staggering footfalls, indicating
illness or intoxication. Knowing the character of the house, Grace put
it down to the latter, nor was she far wrong as events were going to
prove.

The footsteps on the stairs died away, then Grace advanced once more
in the direction of the bed. She was surprised to find how cool
and self-possessed she was, and that her utmost feeling was one of
annoyance to note that the cheap, evil-smelling lamp was going out.
By this time there was no more than a circle of ragged, straw-colored
flame around the burner. The lamp flashed up for an instant and then
went out with a sob.

It was cruelly unexpected, but Grace was not dismayed. The geography
of the room was by this time plainly photographed in her mind, she
knew in which direction the bed lay, and pushed across to it quickly.
Her hand fell at length upon the still, cold face, and it required all
Grace's resolution to suppress a scream. Just for an instant it seemed
to her that the man lying there was dead, so chill was the face. But
by bending down and laying her ear to his heart she knew that this was
a mistake, and that the man--were he Max Graham or anybody else--was
still living. Greatly daring, Grace shook the prostrate figure, and
whispered a few words in his ear. But she might have been talking to a
corpse for all the result that there was; she dared not go any further
for fear of arousing the inmates of the house.

As she stood there, shaking and irresolute, a slit of light pierced the
open doorway. Evidently someone was returning with another lamp. It was
a maddening moment for Grace, for she had not yet fully established the
fact that the man on the bed was Max Graham. The light grew stronger
and broader, and Grace could see a possible hiding-place under a table
on one side of the room. She might have made her exit by the window,
but she hardened herself now, determined to see this thing out to the
bitter end. She had scarcely concealed herself under the table when
Bessie Fenton came in carrying a fresh lamp in her hand. Over the table
under which Grace lay was a tawdry tapestry cloth, so old and threadbare
that it was possible to see through it almost as clearly as if it had
been a thick veil.

Grace felt fairly safe now; she felt all the safer as she turned to the
window and saw Billy's gleaming eyes peeping through a crack in the
blind. She hoped fervently that the poor fellow had watched everything
that was going on, so that he might be able to come to her assistance,
if necessary. Therefore she could give her close attention to all that
was taking place in the room.

There was not much to see, at any rate for the present, for Bessie
Fenton had merely given a passing glance at the bed, and then preceded
to prepare something that looked like food or medicine. The more Grace
regarded her, the more she found herself attracted to the girl's
face. The features were wistful and passionate enough, but there was
something kind, almost noble, about them all the same. Grace was still
wondering if it would not be well to disclose herself and declare
the errand which had brought her there, when there suddenly arose a
great disturbance downstairs. A man's strident voice seemed to fill
the house; he poured out a stream of words full of the most revolting
oaths that Grace had ever heard. Involuntarily she placed her hands to
her ears to shut out the horrid sound. A moment later, and a big man
staggered into the room. His face flamed with passion, his eyes were
bloodshot and gleaming, he advanced towards Bessie in a threatening
manner. Just for a moment the girl seemed to fairly cower before him,
she shrank back in a way that plainly showed that she was accustomed to
personal violence at this man's hands.

"What are you doing here, father?" Bessie asked. "Why are you trying to
spoil everything in this way?"

"What does all this mean?" the man demanded. "Why am I kept in the dark
like this?"

"But you are not kept in the dark," Bessie protested. "If you were only
sober enough to understand----"

The girl said no more, for the big brute reeled across the room to her,
and struck her a violent blow on the face. Grace could see a drop or
two of blood trickling down the girl's face; she had great difficulty
in restraining herself from emerging from her hiding-place and calling
for assistance. She would probably have done so only she became
conscious now that a restraining hand was upon her arm. To her surprise
she found that Billy was by her side. He had crept in through the open
window and hidden himself without being noticed by the the occupants of
the room.

In some strange way Grace felt comforted in the knowledge that even so
poor an ally as Billy was to her hand. She could see now that Bessie
was standing by the table holding on to keep herself from falling, and
looking in an imploring way at the drunken brute who had so savagely
assaulted her. She made no complaint, she uttered no cry; she wiped
the blood from her face as if this kind of thing were an everyday
occurrence. The man hardly seemed to realise what he had done, though
his aspect was still threatening.

"Go to bed," Bessie panted. "Go to bed and sleep it off--you will be
all right in the morning."

"I'll do as I like," the man roared. "And as for you, you white-faced
cat, I shall kill you one of these days."

"I believe you will," Bessie said wearily. "Perhaps it would be all for
the best. Ah, here come the boys at last."

The man turned with a savage cry, and would have undoubtedly meted
out fresh punishment to Bessie only two men burst into the room and
grappled with the drunken scoundrel who had caused all this mischief.
The struggle was short, if severe, and though Grace knew that the
conflict was between father and son, she did not notice that the
relationship had any restraining influence on the younger men. Grace
felt sick and faint now, and only sorry that she had embarked upon
her present adventure. But the thing had to be gone through with; at
any rate, there was no chance of that disgraceful scene happening
over again. Bessie Fenton stood there for a moment wiping her bruised
face, then she walked towards the door, evidently with the intention
of removing all traces of her punishment. As she left the room Billy
squeezed his companion's arm, and Grace understood what he wanted her
to do. She was across the room in an instant and bending over the bed.
Before she could identify the features of the unconscious man Bessie
Fenton was back in the room once more. Grace did not heed her presence;
she was, indeed, not aware of her return until the girl's angry cry
aroused her to her senses. Before Grace had time to turn there was a
fall of a chair, followed by a smash of broken glass, and the lamp went
out once more. The whole thing had been brought about by Billy, who had
acted with a swiftness and fertility of resource, which would have been
a credit to a man of greater wits than his. Grace did not stop to ask
what had happened; she was glad enough to avail herself of the friendly
cover of the darkness. She made her way as best she could in the
direction of the window, feeling that she could go no further to-night,
and only anxious to find herself in a place of safety. Then a hand
clutched her arm and held it in a grip amazingly tight. For a woman,
Bessie Fenton seemed to be possessed of more than ordinary strength.

"I should like to know what the meaning of this is," the latter said.
She did not speak above a whisper. "I don't know who you are, young
woman, and I don't much care, but you are in danger here."

"Let me go," Grace implied. "I am doing no harm."

She struggled to get away, but she was as a child in the hands of a
strong man. In some vague way she was perfectly aware of the fact that
Bessie Fenton was proud of her strength, and she was also aware that
her antagonist was more grim than angry. Grace ceased to struggle--she
knew that it was impossible to gain her ends that way. She would try
diplomacy instead.

"I swear to you that I am doing no harm," she said. "I am in great
trouble, and I came here feeling that in this house I should find an
end of it or know the worst. If you have any feeling in your heart at
all you will let me go without further question; you will not even seek
to know my name."

Bessie Fenton laughed softly; she seemed to be amused.

"Well, you are either very cool or very simple," she said. "How am I to
know that you are to be trusted?"

"I am to be trusted because I give you my word," Grace went on eagerly.
"We have never met before, probably we shall never meet again; but I
know more of your history than you are aware of. I know, for instance,
that the man to whom you have given your heart is faithless to you.
You are doing his disreputable work at his bidding, and he will repay
you with base ingratitude. He means to marry Miss Anstey, of the bank
house."

It was a bold stroke to play, but Grace had not hesitated. She felt the
grip on her arm tighten, she heard the fierce indrawing of the other
girl's breath.

"I could kill her," Bessie said hoarsely. "If I had her here now I
would take her by her white throat, and crush the life out of her. If
she is a friend of yours----"

"She is a friend of mine," Grace said. "And moreover, she is in love
with Mr. Max Graham--she hates and despises Stephen Rice from the
bottom of her heart. If you let me go now, I will be discreet and
silent, I will keep your secret. Don't you see that so long as Max
Graham is alive there is a great stumbling block in the path of
Stephen Rice. And now, will you let me go?"

"Upon my word I have a great mind to," the other girl said. "You are
cleverer than I had imagined, and I am a greater fool than I took
myself to be. If I can help you----"

Any further remark was interrupted by a hideous roar downstairs, and
the voice of a man declaring that he would have no stranger under his
roof. A cry of passion broke from Bessie Fenton.

"My father again," she exclaimed. "I must go downstairs and try and
stop that noise. It is fortunate for us that we have no near neighbors.
Don't move, stay here till I return."

Grace promised implicitly. She had not the slightest intention of
leaving the house until she had definitely ascertained whether or not
Max Graham was under this disgraceful roof. She stooped down to see
if she could find the overturned lamp, but nothing beyond a touch of
broken glass rewarded her search. Meanwhile the noise downstairs had
subsided, and a strange silence followed. Grace moved towards the bed
again; then she was conscious that another man was in the room. She
crossed rapidly over to the doorway, and dashed hurriedly up a flight
of stairs leading to the top storey of the house.




CHAPTER XII.--THE PAINTED LADY.

Grace stood there looking down to the landing below with a feeling that
she had by no means bettered her position. She could see down in the
hall two or three figures standing around some object which lay prone
upon the floor. The girl's dismay increased when at length she made out
that the object was nothing more or less than Bessie Fenton. The man
who had so recently entered the bedroom emerged again, and joined the
group in the hall.

"What an infernal shame it is," somebody was saying. "Why does the old
man knock the girl about in this fashion?"

"If you were half a man you would see he didn't do it," another voice
remarked. "This is not the first or second time it has happened. Here,
try and get a drop of this brandy between her lips."

"I hope it isn't going to be very long," the third man muttered. "We
have got plenty of work to do before morning yet. The old man is in
bed and fast asleep by now--that last dose of whisky finished him off
properly. We had better carry Bess up to her own room and leave her
there to recover herself."

The unconscious figure of the girl was raised, and carried none too
tenderly to a room at the back of the house. Vaguely alarmed, Grace
wondered if her late companion had not suffered more from the effects
of that terrible blow than had at first been apparent. Grace was
thankful that none of the men came up the last flight of stairs; she
saw them gather together in the hall, with hats and rough coats on, as
if they were going somewhere. Then the front door opened and closed,
and Grace heard the click of a lock as if the door had been fastened
on the outside. She hoped that those men would not notice the ladder
by which she had reached the balcony, but she need not have had any
anxiety on that score, as Billy had removed the ladder and reached
the balcony himself by climbing one of the pillars that acted as
supports. Grace crept down the stairs now, feeling that she had the
house entirely to herself. If she could only find a box of matches she
would be able to satisfy herself as to the identity of the man on the
bed, after which she could leave the house and give information to the
police, and so settle the vexed question once and for all.

Her courage had come back to her now; she felt that she had things
entirely in her own hands. A dim light burnt in the kitchen; there
was a lamp in the dining-room, also. Presumedly there was a servant
of some kind in the house, for a housemaid's cap and apron had been
carelessly flung over the back of a chair. On the mantelpiece lay a box
of matches, and armed with these Grace made her way upstairs. A few
minutes more, she told herself, and she would be quit of that hateful
house for ever. But Grace's task was by no means finished, for to her
horror she found that the bedroom door had been locked and the key
was missing. There was nothing for it now but for Grace to make her
way out of the house and enter the bedroom once more with the aid of
the ladder. But even this was not so easy as it seemed, for both the
front and back doors were securely locked, and in addition to this,
every room on the ground floor appeared to have iron shutters, the
unfastening of which was utterly beyond Grace's strength. Then she
realised that she was trapped, and that there could be no escape for
her unless she could rouse Bessie Fenton and get the girl to give her
the freedom of the place.

But a fresh and disagreeable surprise was in store for Grace. It seemed
to her that she had marked the room to which Bessie Fenton had been
conveyed--a little room at the back of the house on the ground floor;
this door was locked also. Grace sat down to think over her position.
She was cut off from all assistance, and even Billy was powerless to
aid her now; she would have to hide herself in one of the rooms and
wait till someone came back. She pictured to herself the anxiety of
Helen, who would be wondering what had become of her mistress all
this long time. By the clock in the dining-room it was nearly two,
outside the dawn must be breaking; indeed, Grace could already hear
the twittering of the birds. She was still debating upon her perilous
position when the click of a key in the front door lock almost brought
her heart into her mouth, and she fled hastily up the stairs. The front
door opened, giving admission to a tall, handsome woman who bore a
considerable likeness to Bessie Fenton, though she was handsomer and
far better dressed. The newcomer was exceedingly well clad, as Grace
could see at a glance. She took from about her head a wrap of some
fleecy material, which could have only been made in Paris, her evening
dress of black could not have cost less than a hundred pounds anywhere.
But that the woman was to the manner born and accustomed to good
society Grace had no hesitation in deciding. And yet the woman seemed
to be so strangely out of place here, whilst at the same time she was
so thoroughly at home. She cast her wrap aside carelessly, and throwing
her long train over her arm walked resolutely into the dining-room.
She did not call out, she rang no bell; indeed, she appeared to be
waiting for someone for whose presence she had no pressing need.
Greatly daring, Grace crept down the stairs again and tried the front
door. Evidently it closed by some cunning device for, try as she would,
Grace could not open it. She crept back upstairs again only just in
time, for the door opened again and a man came in. Like the woman who
preceded him, he appeared to be thoroughly at home. Grace could not
catch a sight of his face, she was too high up for that, but she saw
that the man was exceedingly well-dressed. He took off his soft hat and
overcoat and disclosed an evening suit. Then he strolled lazily into
the dining-room, and immediately Grace heard whispering and laughter.
Anything was better than standing there waiting upon events, so Grace
ventured into the hall, where she could listen to the conversation
of two people who seemed to be just as much out of their element in
that strange house as she was. The woman was speaking now in tones of
refinement.

"Well, what do you think of it all?" she said. "You are a queer man
with a weakness for the queer ways of life, so this last adventure
ought to satisfy you."

"Oh, I am satisfied enough," the man replied. Grace wondered where she
had heard his voice before. "I am more easily satisfied than you think,
Ella. The mere sight of Mark Anstey's face the other night more than
rewarded me for all that I have gone through."

"I am not altogether in love with it," the woman said thoughtfully.
"Mind you, I think that Mark Anstey deserves all he got. At the same
time he has an only daughter, who, I believe, is an exceedingly nice
girl, and I don't see why his sin should be visited upon her head.
That's the way I look at it."

"Quite a new character for you," the man laughed. "I wonder what Fenton
would say if he could see you now."

"The prodigal daughter," the woman cried. "Not that there is much
prodigal about me. My father turned me out of the house ten years ago,
when he discovered that I had made up my mind to go upon the stage; it
was the greatest kindness he ever did me."

"And you have never seen him since?" the man asked.

"No. Nor has any communication passed between us. I vowed that I would
never set my foot across this threshold again, but fate has been too
strong for me, as you see, and I am here again. If I had read of a
situation like this I should have laughed at it; it is almost too
extravagant for the stage. A strange coincidence, was it not, that
professional business should bring me to Leverton just at this moment?
I wonder if there is anything to eat in the house?"

"I will go and see, if you like," the man volunteered. "I hope those
brothers of yours won't be very long, as I must be back in Leverton
before daylight. And now to go and explore the larder. It used to be
fairly stocked in the old days."

Grace slipped aside just as the speaker emerged into the hall. He came
back presently with the information that he could find nothing but
bread and cheese. He had noticed, he explained, that an apron and cap
lay in the kitchen, thereby suggesting that a servant was kept in the
house. It would be just as well to rouse the servant.

"I recollect the bedroom," the woman said, "the little attic at the top
of the house. I'll go up and wake her."

Grace made up her mind what to do on the spur of the moment. She made
her way rapidly up to the attic bedroom, the door of which stood ajar,
and from the inside came the regular breathing of one who is fast
asleep. Grace struck one of her matches, and ventured to light the
candle. She closed the door on which there presently came a tap and
a request to know where the provisions were kept. In a half-stifled
sleepy kind of voice Grace replied that she would come down at once,
and making up her own dress into a bundle she managed to scramble
into the dirty print dress of the Fenton's maid of all work. She
pushed her hair back from her forehead, and screwed it in a tight knot
behind. Her cap and apron which she routed out of a drawer completed
the disguise. As Grace glanced into the bit of dingy looking-glass,
she was surprised at the marvellous change which a few deft touches
had brought about. Emboldened by the knowledge that there was little
chance of her identity being discovered now, Grace made her way down
the stairs. There was one difficulty in the way--though she might
possibly impersonate a maid of all work without arousing the suspicions
of the strangers, she had no more idea than themselves as to where
anything was to be found. More by good fortune than anything else she
hit upon the larder where there was a plentiful supply of cold meat
and the like. The rest was now easy. It was not difficult to find a
table-cloth, and knives and forks, and glasses, and in a little while
the table was spread. The stately lady in the handsome dress looked
at Grace curiously once or twice. There was just the suggestion of
amusement in the way her lips trembled. Grace replied demurely that she
had only been there a short time, which, indeed, was a fact.

"You would be a very pretty girl if you were only properly dressed,"
the woman said. "And, related to the house as I am, I grieve to say
that this is no place for a virtuous girl who has any respect for
herself."

Grace made no reply, indeed she could hardly restrain the start as
the man who had been looking into the grate turned round and faced
her. He did not appear to be looking at her at all, indeed, he did not
recognise Grace but she knew him on that instant as the man who had
started all the dreadful trouble at home--she was face to face with
George Cattley. Grace managed to get out of the room without betraying
herself, nor did she return again until the woman called her.

"You can clear away," she said. "Where are you going, George?"

"I am going to get my cigarette case out of my overcoat pocket,"
Cattley replied. "Perhaps you would like one, too?"

With trembling hands Grace began to collect the supper things together.
She was racking her mind now for some excuse to get the front door
open. She might say that she had forgotten the wood for the kitchen
fire, or something of that kind. She looked up timidly into the
half-mocking eyes of the magnificent woman who was now standing by the
fireplace and watching her.

"I see you are astonished," she said. "In my turn I am astonished also.
I am not asking out of any idle curiosity, but I am anxious to know why
you, Miss Grace Anstey, of the bank house, are masquerading here as a
maid of all work. Now tell me."

But Grace had no words, she was too astonished to speak.




CHAPTER XIII.--FRIEND OR ENEMY?

For some little time Grace stood there, not having the slightest idea
what to say. The question had been so utterly unexpected. Besides,
Grace had been more or less satisfied with the efficiency of her
disguise; she had never expected to betray herself like this. The tall
woman smiled, almost in a patronising way, and Grace felt the color
come into her face. It was just as if she had been some village girl
patronised by the great lady of the parish. Grace at length plucked up
courage to speak.

"It pleases you to be amused," she said.

"Better be amused than suspicious," the woman replied. "I don't think
it will pay you to adopt that tone with me. I think you ought to see
that I have a perfect right to ask the question, considering that I
find a lady of your position masquerading as a servant in Mr. Fenton's
house."

"If it comes to that," Grace said, "I am not the only one who appears
to be masquerading."

Grace looked significantly at the splendid attire of her companion. The
woman laughed as if Grace had paid her a compliment.

"I daresay we have both plenty to explain," she said. "Only
unfortunately there is no time to do it. I recognised you at once;
indeed, I have often seen you in London, though you did not seem to
remember me. I assure you that in town my position is a much greater
one than you can ever hope to occupy. Now, do you recognise me? Now do
my words convey anything to you?"

Grace was bound to confess that they did not. Her one idea now was
to get away before the return of the man who called himself George
Cattley. By the stream of fresh air that poured into the room the girl
knew that the front door must be wide open. She caught the smell of
fresh tobacco; evidently Cattley was smoking on the doorstep.

"I cannot tell you why I am here," Grace said. "I am so dazed and
confused that I hardly know what I am talking about. I appeal to you
as one woman appeals to another. I implore you to get me out of the
place at once; I ask you to keep my presence here a secret. There is
something about your face which says you can be kind and good enough if
you like."

"No, there is no occasion to be afraid of me," the woman, said. "On the
whole, I am not sorry you have failed to discover my identity."

Who and what the woman was Grace could not have said. All the same, she
recollected now that part of the conversation between her companion and
Cattley which tended to prove that this brilliant creature was another
daughter of Fenton's. It was not policy to mention this fact, and Grace
went on to speak of herself.

"I want you to get me away from here at once," she said. "And I shall
be all the more obliged to you if you will contrive to do so without
Mr. Cattley knowing."

"Ah, I had quite forgotten him," the woman exclaimed. "So you regard
him as one of your enemies, do you?"

"I am bound to," Grace confessed. "The two greatest misfortunes of my
life arose almost as soon as I made Mr. Cattley's acquaintance. I fear
him; not for worlds would I have him know that I am here to-night."

The listener smiled in an indulgent kind of way.

"Very well," she said. "It shall be entirely as you wish, though I
fancy you are mistaken in believing Mr. Cattley to be an enemy of
yours. You will find later on that he is nothing of the kind. And now
let me deprive you of that disguise of yours, and let me help you into
your own clothing which must be close at hand."

It was all done at length, and Grace was free to depart. Nor did
Cattley prove to be any obstacle in the way, for Grace's companion
contrived to get him out of the path, and a few minutes later Grace was
out in the open air once more. She stood there just a moment watching
the dawn breaking over the distant hills; then it occurred to her
that Billy could not be far off. As she walked down the path in the
direction of the fields Billy suddenly appeared from behind a hedge,
from where he had been watching the house, and danced round Grace with
every appearance of extravagant joy. Then he placed his hands to his
lips as if to impose silence, and vanished into the woods. There was
nothing further to wait for, so that Grace pushed on towards home as
fast as her legs would carry her. There were no signs of life about the
house, which was no bad thing, as it was nearly daylight, and the pale
face of Helen could be seen anxiously looking through Grace's bedroom
window. A moment later and the girl was back in shelter again, feeling
an assurance that her night's work had not been entirely wasted.

"Don't ask any questions," she said wearily. "Only undress me and
get me to bed as soon as possible. You are not to say a word of this
to anybody, least of all to anybody in the house. I am so tired--so
utterly weary--my head----"

The girl collapsed on the bed; all her limbs seemed turned to water. In
a vague, drugged manner she was going over the exciting scenes again.
Days seemed to elapse, then came a long, deep, overpowering sleep,
which ended presently by Grace sitting up in bed and feebly demanding
what was the matter with her. A sudden fear filled her with alarm.
Helen crept to her side and held her hand.

"What is it?" Grace murmured. "What has happened to me? Surely it is
far into the day?"

"You had a sort of fainting fit," Helen said. "Don't you remember
coming back at daybreak and my letting you in? Oh, but I see you don't.
You have been lying there over four-and-twenty hours. The doctor said
you must have had a shock of some kind."

Four-and-twenty hours! And all this time what had become of Max? Grace
dragged herself from the bed, heedless of the remonstrances of her
maid. She felt that she must be up and doing. For the first time in her
life she demanded stimulants, brandy, anything to give her strength to
carry out her task. It was a cruel stroke of fate that had overtaxed
her powers just at the moment when she needed them most.

"Don't tell anybody I have gone out," Grace whispered. "I must be away
before the doctor stops me. I have to go as far as Water Park at once."

Fortunately the general was at home and welcomed Grace in his usual
kindly manner. He noticed the deadly pallor of her face.

"There is nothing new," he said. "No sign of Max. Would you mind giving
me my medicine for my neuralgia. About twenty drops from that bottle of
morphia on the mantelpiece."

The old soldier dropped into a chair as he spoke, and Grace could see
how overcome he was. She poured out the solution, which the old man
took off like so much water.

"Enough to kill a dozen men there," he said wearily. "But I have got
accustomed to it by this time. For a pain like mine there is nothing in
the world like morphia, only one has to be very careful in dealing with
the doses. Ah, that is better."

The speaker drew a deep breath of relief. Then he turned to Grace, for
he could see that she had something important to say to him. He could
see how her eyes were shining.

"Is it possible that you have discovered something?" he asked.

"I think I have discovered everything," Grace cried. "I think I know
exactly where to find Max at the present moment. One thing you may
be sure about--he is not dead. But, perhaps, I had better tell you
everything I found out last night."

Grace told the whole of her story, whilst the general listened with
deepest attention. He did not interrupt till the narrative was
finished, and then his indignation burst out.

"We will go and rout out the miscreants at once," he said. "I never
heard of anything so monstrous in the whole course of my fife. It seems
incredible to believe that an outrage like this could take place in
England at this time of the day. But why should this man Rice commit
such an act--what has he to gain by it?"

"I fancy that Max knows something of his past," Grace explained. "I
fancy also that Max is to be detained where he is until it is too
late--I mean, too late as far as I am concerned."

"It is certainly most unfortunate," the general cried, "that you
should have broke down at such a critical moment. The loss of these
four-and-twenty hours may mean a terrible calamity. Still, it is pretty
certain that no great harm is likely to happen to Max. At any rate, for
some time to come, or they would not have been so careful of him. I am
afraid, my dear, we can't do much in the daylight. If we approach the
house now those ruffians are sure to see us and take alarm. If we wait
till evening we can get some neighbors to help us, and possibly capture
all the scoundrels red-handed. Now, go back home and rest yourself. I
will let you know what takes place to-night, however late it may be."

"I am coming with you," Grace said with determination. "I could
not possibly bear the suspense a moment longer than is absolutely
necessary. Please do not refuse me. I will be very quiet and promise to
keep out of the way, but really I must get you to allow me to accompany
you this evening."

General Graham demurred for a moment, but finally gave way to Grace's
passionate entreaties. It was all very foolish, he said, but the
circumstances were so extraordinary that he had not the heart to ignore
Grace's request.

"Very well," he said. "It shall be exactly as you like. You can tell
your father that you are coming to have dinner with me this evening,
which he will not regard at all as a suspicious proceeding, and you can
also say that it will be my privilege to see you home. You can leave me
now and come back here about 8 o'clock. Does that satisfy you?"




CHAPTER XIV---A BLANK COVER.

The day was dragging slowly along. It was nearly tea time before Grace
was called in from the garden with the information that two visitors
had arrived, and were now awaiting her in the drawing-room. It was not
a time for social observances, but there was nothing for it now but to
go into the house and dispense tea to the callers. They were both young
girls and close friends of Grace's, but it seemed to her now that she
could detect a certain coldness in the manner of each. The conversation
proceeded on more or less stilted lines until Grace could stand it no
longer.

"What is the matter with you both?" she asked. "Why are you so frigid
and polite? Have I done anything?"

"That is exactly what we came to ascertain," the elder of the two girls
said. "My sister and myself have heard a strange rumor. We do not want
to pry into your affairs, Grace, but we have always imagined that
between Max Graham and yourself was a tacit understanding; well, you
know what I mean."

"I know perfectly well what you mean," Grace replied. "It is very
unfortunate that you should mention this matter just at the moment
when we do not know whether Max is alive or dead. I am as grieved and
anxious as anybody. But I have never let you understand, or, indeed,
let anybody else understand, that there was any engagement between Max
Graham and myself."

"That is not exactly the point," the younger of the two girls put in.
"I am not going to ask you if there has been any misunderstanding
between Max Graham and yourself, because that kind of thing is no
business of anybody's, except those most intimately concerned. But
when I am told that you have deliberately thrown over Max and engaged
yourself to Mr. Stephen Rice, then, as old friends of yours, we feel
bound to come over and ask if this, this dreadful thing, is true.
Please say that it is false."

It was a cruel position for Grace, she had not contemplated that her
half-understanding with Rice was going to bring her under the harrow
like this. Her face flamed with shame, then the blood receded from her
features and left them pale and quivering.

"You place me in a very awkward position," she said. "If you knew
everything you would see that I am not in the least to blame."

"But is it true?" the elder visitor asked.

"I cannot tell you," Grace cried. "For the simple reason that I do not
know myself. If Mr. Rice has been saving anything likely to lead you to
believe that I am in any way----"

"Who is taking my name in vain?" Rice said, entering the room at that
moment. "Ah, Miss Maple, how are you? And your sister also? I hope I
see you both well."

The two girls looked at Rice coldly and inclined their heads the
fraction of an inch. Any other man would have felt the snub, but Rice's
hide was too thick for that. He went on just as genially as if the
girls had been personal friends.

"I think you were asking Grace a question," he said. "I thought I heard
my own name mentioned also. If you are here in search of information, I
am quite sure that I can gratify your curiosity. Miss Anstey is engaged
to me, and the marriage is going to take place at a very early date."

The words were clear and deliberately spoken. Rice had fixed his eyes
upon Grace as if daring her to deny his statement. The elder of the
two visitors rose, ignoring the full cup of tea by her side. The other
sister followed her example. The situation was full of shame for Grace,
but Rice seemed to be enjoying it.

"Are you going so soon?" he asked. "I assure you, you are not in the
least de trop. Grace and myself----"

But the visitors had not waited to hear any more. With a cold bow to
Grace they indicated to the footman that they were ready for their
carriage, and vanished without another word. Grace turned round upon
Rice, so furious that she could have felt it in her heart to strike
him. Then her manner changed, she felt how hopeless she was, how
powerless she was to change the situation.

"You are a coward," she cried. "It is a poor thing for a strong man
to get the better of a defenceless girl like myself. And yet you
profess to care for me, you have polluted the name of love on more
than one occasion. You stood there just now stabbing me to the heart
and enjoying the process. You so arranged matters that I could give no
denial to your statement. You could see what both my friends thought
of both of us. But, to quote an old proverb, you are counting your
chickens before they are hatched. It is possible that before long you
and your dissolute companions may be made to suffer for the outrage----"

Grace paused suddenly, conscious that she was about to say too much, it
would have been better perhaps had she rounded her speech off neatly,
for now she could see that Rice's suspicious were all aflame. He half
started to ask a question, then changed his mind and smiled knowingly
instead. Grace turned from him with an intimation that she had a
headache, and that she was going at once to her own room. Rice took his
dismissal calmly enough, and sauntered out of the house.

It was a little before 8 o'clock that Grace made her way across the
fields in the direction of Water Park, where General Graham was
awaiting her. The meal was a silent one, for both of them were looking
forward eagerly to the events of the evening; the minutes seemed to
creep along, and the hours followed with leaden footsteps. To Grace's
great relief it struck 11 at last; then the general rose and rang.

"I am going to take the motor," he said. "If Max is where you think
he is, and if he is in the bad case you suggest, we shall want a
conveyance of some kind. The moon is a little later to-night, therefore
the darkness will be all in our favor."

They rode presently down the lanes in the direction of Fenton's Farm.
The car proceeded slowly, for there was no hurry. It was a good thing,
perhaps, in the circumstances, for the car pulled up suddenly and
stopped with a jerk. Something seemed to have gone wrong with the
machinery, for the chauffeur jumped down and shook his head as he
crawled under the car.

"I can't make it out at all," he said. "There has been some mischief
here. This pin connecting the crank has been deliberately filed through
till it is nearly severed."

"Looks like it," General Graham muttered.

"Upon my word, we seem to be surrounded by enemies over this business.
Fortunately, it is not very far to our destination, where our friends
will await us. I did not tell you, Grace, that I had kept your
information to myself, merely informing our allies that I wanted them
to meet me about 11 o'clock to-night to follow up a clue that I had
found in the neighborhood of Fenton's Farm."

The two were in the roadway by this time, anxiously watching the
features of the chauffeur, who was understood to say that he could do
nothing without the aid of a crank pin. At the same moment a cyclist
came swiftly round the corner and almost ran into the car. He saved
himself dexteriously and vanished into the heavy bank of mist which
was rising along the roadway. At the same time the cigarette he was
smoking fell from his lips, nor did he stop to regain it. Grace looked
up quickly. There was something about her manner that attracted the
general's attention.

"Who was that?" he asked. "Did you happen to see?"

"I am almost certain it was Stephen Rice," Grace said. "He turned his
head away so that he should not be noticed. But we can soon ascertain.
He dropped his cigarette into the road; I can see it lying smouldering
at your feet now."

"But how does that help us?" the general asked.

"Because I happen to know the brand of cigarettes that Stephen Rice
smokes. If you will pick that one up you will see that it is called
'The Lone State.' Will you try it?"

The general snatched eagerly at the cigarette, which had only been
lighted for a moment. It was exactly as Grace had said, the brand on
the cigarette showing out quite plainly in the light of a match.

"It is all my fault," Grace said despairingly. "I was foolish enough
this afternoon to give Stephen Rice something like a clue to what I had
discovered last night. I feel certain that he is making the best of his
way to Fenton's Farm. Is it not possible to patch up the car and get
there as quickly as he does?"

The chauffeur shook his head. The crank pin was only a small thing, but
it quite sufficed to put the car out of action. There was nothing for
it but to walk, which, after all, was only a matter of some twenty
minutes. They reached the scene of action at length; the dingy house
was half lost in the mist, and so far as Grace could see there was not
a single light in any one of the windows, not even in the window of the
room where Grace fervently hoped that Max was lying. Out of the mists
three men emerged.

"Our friends," the general explained in a whisper. "Now I am going to
ask you to stand here whilst we make our raid upon the house. If you
see anybody escaping you can let us know."

So saying the general vanished into the heavy mists with his three
companions. They were a long time away, or so it seemed to Grace
waiting patiently there. She fancied that she could hear a noise
like the splitting of wood, the hoarse murmuring of voices, and then
something that bore a strong resemblance to a mocking laugh. She was
half inclined to go forward, for she could bear the strain no longer,
when the figure of General Graham came towards her.

"Gone," he cried. "The most extraordinary thing. Could you have been
mistaken last night? For the house contains nobody, it is devoid of
furniture--absolutely empty!"




CHAPTER XV.--THE EMPTY HOUSE.

Meanwhile General Graham had gone towards the house where he had joined
the one or two trusty neighbors whom he had selected to accompany him
on his errand. It struck him as strange, as it had struck Grace, that
there were no lights about the house. Graham had always been informed
that the Fentons were a wild lot, and made it more or less a point of
turning night into day. It was hardly possible that everybody would be
gone to bed; if so, it would be necessary to rouse the house. Knocking
at the door had no effect whatever, the blows rained on the stout oak
until the dull echo of the noise reached far and wide. The general
smiled grimly.

"We have evidently a very cunning lot to deal with," he said. "I should
not in the least wonder if they had discovered what we are after;
indeed, one of the gang----"

General Graham checked himself in time. He was about to say something
in allusion to Stephen Rice, then thought the better of it. Now once
more he plied his stick upon the door.

"Quite useless," he said. "I am going to ask you gentlemen to help me,
and I will take all the responsibility of what may appear to be an act
of unnecessary violence. There is only one thing for it, and that is to
break down the door."

Apparently the general had come prepared for some such purpose, for he
took from his pocket a small powerful lever, which he handed to one of
his companions.

"You are a younger man than I am, George," he said. "Perhaps you will
be good enough to use this little instrument."

Though the general spoke calmly enough, he was filled with deepest
apprehension for the safety of his son. All this grim silence pointed
to something very wrong indeed, and the sooner Graham was inside the
house and had satisfied his curiosity the better. The application
of the lever to the hinge of the door was followed with a crashing
sound, and instantly the woodwork gave way. A moment later the four
adventurers were inside, groping their way along the hall in the
darkness, until one of them struck a wax match and held it above his
head.

"The place seems to be deserted," he said. "So far as one can see there
is not a soul on the premises."

The speaker's voice echoed in a muffled kind of way that one notices
in uninhabited houses. As each man moved forward the sound of
his footsteps clanked on the bare boards. It was the same in the
morning-room at the back of the house, the same in the dining-room.
There was no longer room for doubt or hesitation--since yesterday the
house had been entirely denuded of its furniture; in other words, the
place was empty.

Graham and his companions looked stupidly at one another for a moment.
The thing seemed to be absolutely incredible. For generations the
Fentons had lived here, it had always been a boast of theirs that
nobody could get rid of them. On many occasions the elder Fenton had
scornfully refused General Graham's offer to buy his property. He
boasted that he was a blot on the neighborhood, and meant to remain
one. And here was the house, which yesterday had been full of life, as
empty as on the day when it was originally built.

"This thing is more terrible and mysterious than I had imagined,"
General Graham said in a voice that trembled not a little.

"Gentlemen, there is little or no doubt that my son was under this
roof last night. He was either ill or suffering from some terrible
ill-treatment, but that he was here I am absolutely certain. It is just
possible that if we go upstairs----"

"I have already been," one of the party said. "Most of the rooms are
locked, but from the way the place echoes, I am quite sure there is
nothing in the house."

The speaker paused and held out his fore-finger in the direction of the
kitchen under the door of which a streak of light appeared. Evidently
somebody was there, and Graham hastened to see who it was. A solitary
tallow candle stuck in a bottle stood on the mantle-piece, an armchair
was pulled up to the fire, but beyond this the room was as empty as the
rest of the house. In the chair sat Samuel Fenton, who had obviously
just aroused himself from a drunken slumber. His black eyes glared at
Graham; he frowned hideously as he demanded to know the reason of this
intrusion.

"I came to look after my son," the general said crisply. "He was
brought here last night, in a more or less unconscious state, by some
of your sons, and was looked after by your daughter. If you are sober
enough to understand what I am saying, you will give me the key of the
room where my son is lying, and thus avoid any unpleasantness. I do not
wish to be hard upon you----"

"So it's the general," Fenton sneered. "My esteemed friend and
neighbor, General Graham. You haven't been to dine with me lately,
which is unfortunate, seeing that I can no longer offer you the
hospitality of the place. I have warehoused my furniture and propose to
pass some time on the Continent."

Overcome as he was, Fenton was sober enough to enjoy the discomfiture
of his ancient foe. In a sudden fit of passion, Graham leant forward
and shook his fist in the other's face.

"You rascal," he cried. "Give me those keys at once."

Fenton grinned by way of reply, and intimated that he had not the
slightest idea where the keys were. If Graham liked to break open the
doors he was quite welcome to do so. But, though this extreme measure
was adopted, there was no sign of Max to be seen; indeed, the place
had absolutely been stripped of everything. Press him as they would,
nothing whatever could be got out of Fenton, who finally bowed the
party out of the house with drunken gravity and returned, muttering to
himself, to the kitchen.

"There is something very strange here," Graham said. "I have a very
good idea where those people got their warning from. We must ascertain
without delay where that furniture has gone to and follow it up. Clever
as those people may be, they cannot take away a large vanload of
antique furniture without leaving some traces behind."

"Let's go and knock up old Griffiths," one of the party suggested;
"being a shepherd he must have seen everything that was going on. His
cottage is fairly close by."

The aged shepherd came downstairs rubbing his eyes sleepily, though
he became alert and active enough when he heard the errand of his
visitors. Graham asked him if he could throw any light on the
mysterious way in which the Fentons had vanished.

"Well, sir, I can't tell you much," Griffiths said. "I never went any
nearer Fenton's house than I could help. Me and the old man was not
exactly what you could call friends. But I was in the big meadow above
the hill this morning, looking after some lambs of the master's, and I
see a great big furniture van come up to the house. I should say it was
there about three hours. I didn't take much notice, but it seemed to
me as if they was putting all the furniture of the house into the van.
I suppose they got finished something like 2 o'clock. At any rate, the
van had cleared off by 3 o'clock and a smaller van besides."

"This is interesting," one of the search party said. "I suppose you
didn't happen to see the name on the van?"

"Well, sir, I did," Griffiths said. "It was on a kind of tarpaulin. I
noticed the name because it was such a peculiar one--Develin & Co.,
Leverton."

No one seemed to recognise the name, though most of them there were
well acquainted with the town of Leverton. Grace had joined the rest
of the party by this time; it was she who made a practical suggestion
which appealed to the others.

"I think you ought to lose no time in seeing to this matter," she said.
"If you will come to the bank house with me, general, we can use the
telephone and consult the police at Leverton as to this firm of Develin
& Co."

There was nothing more to be done so far as the house of Fenton was
concerned, indeed there was nothing more to be done at all until the
furniture could be traced, and this must now be a matter for the
police. Therefore Graham hurried off with Grace in the direction of the
bank house. Mr. Anstey himself was not in, he had gone to Leverton on
important business, so that there was no chance of consulting him in
the matter. There was no difficulty in reaching the police station at
Leverton by means of the telephone, and the outlines of the facts were
speedily laid before the authorities there. The sergeant in charge of
the station professed never to have heard the name of Develin, but said
that he would make enquiries at the post-office. At the end of half
an hour's suspense the telephone rang again, and Graham sprang to the
receiver.

"Is that you, sir," the voice at the other end of the wire said.
"I have seen several of my men and we have made enquiries at the
post-office. We cannot find that there is anybody of the name you
mention engaged in the carrying business; indeed, the clerks at the
post-office say there is absolutely nobody of the name in Leverton at
all. If you will be good enough to come over and see me in the morning
I daresay I shall be able----"

But Graham waited for no more. With a white face he turned to Grace and
told her what had happened.

"I am afraid our troubles are only just beginning," he said. "Those
people are far more cunning than I imagined. It is quite evident that
all this has been pre-arranged."

"And what do you propose to do now?"

"I propose to go to bed," Graham said wearily. "Then to-morrow I shall
pay a visit to Leverton to see if we can trace this van. The suspense
is getting more than I can bear."

Grace said nothing, she was past words now. She kissed her companion
tenderly then went sorrowfully upstairs to bed.




CHAPTER XVI.--A WARNING.

Grace was up and out in the woods early the following morning. She
ascertained at Water Park that General Graham had already gone to
Leverton; then she wandered off in the direction of Fenton House,
hoping to find some clue to the mystery of the disappearance of the
furniture. It was just possible that she might find a track of wheels
or something of that kind, anything likely to lead to the direction in
which the van had gone. It was getting towards lunch time before Grace
came across old Griffiths, the shepherd, as the old man was bringing
his sheep in from the moorland where the main flock had been feeding
the day before. The shepherd seemed moved out of his usual philosophic
calm and greeted Grace eagerly. Like most of the country people
thereabouts he had a pretty shrewd idea of the footing on which Grace
and Max Graham stood towards each other. Grace could see the eager look
in the old man's eyes, and hope began to rise in her heart once more.

"Griffiths," she cried, "you have found something. I mean, something
relating to the mysterious way in which the Fenton's furniture has
vanished. Is that so?"

"Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't," Griffiths said with the
caution of his tribe. "But it seems to me I have found something. I
lost one or two of my lambs last week, and it occurred to me as perhaps
they had strayed into the big wood at the edge of the moor. I was up
before daylight and all over the big wood, but I didn't see nothing
whatever of my lambs."

"Yes, yes," Grace said eagerly. "Never mind the lambs, but tell me what
you have found in the woods."

"It was the cover," Griffiths said. "When I say the cover, I mean the
tarpaulin what was hanging over the van what took the furniture away.
It was hidden at the back of the old hut where the charcoal burners
used to be; folded up it was and pushed under a lot of faggots. Quite
new, too, and I should say painted for the occasion. I have got the
thing locked up in my cottage, and you can come and see it now if you
like."

Grace decided to avail herself of the opportunity. On inspecting the
tarpaulin she was quite of Griffiths' opinion that the thing was
painted for the occasion, for though the waterproof sheet was old and
torn, the lettering was as white and clean as if it had only been done
yesterday. It was easy to see what had happened--a van belonging to
somebody else had been procured under some pretext or another, and
this cunning cloth had been thrown over it to disguise the right name
below. Excited with the discovery, Grace retraced her steps from the
shepherd's cottage and returned to the bank premises without delay.
Anything was better than doing nothing; so Grace took her bicycle
and with a packet of sandwiches in her pocket proceeded to scour the
country roads in search of anybody who might have seen the furniture
van go along.

It was nearly 4 o'clock before anything like success met her efforts.
She was some eight or ten miles from home by now, and in a locality
where her name would not probably be recognised. She was talking to
an old dame, whose pretty cottage lay on the roadside. The woman
happened to have seen a vanload of furniture go by on the previous
afternoon, but she had no recollection of the name on the van. One
thing she was certain--the van had no tarpaulin over it--indeed, it
was rather a showy affair, with a great deal of gilt about it. Grace
might have given up the clue, as furniture vans along country lanes are
no uncommon object, but she grew interested again when the old dame
suggested that there was a smaller van behind the larger one.

"Come to think of it, miss," the old woman said, "those two vans
stopped on the common behind the mill yonder. I did hear tell that one
of the men had had a bit of an accident. Anyway, I saw Dr. Jessop going
that way on his bicycle."

Grace was conscious of a quickening of her pulses. She felt certain
that she was on the right track again. If, as she suspected, Max had
been conveyed from Fenton's house in the latter van, it was just
possible that he might need medical advice, and this would account for
the calling of the local doctor.

"Will you be good enough, to tell me where Dr. Jessop lives?" Grace
asked. "I shall have to go and see him."

The doctor's house was conveniently near, and, very fortunately, he
had just come in to tea. He was quite ready to give Grace all the
information she needed.

"Won't you have a cup of tea?" he asked. "I am sure you look as if you
need it. I am quite well acquainted with your father, Miss Anstey. Now
tell me what I can do for you?"

Grace explained her errand more or less fully.

"I am afraid I can't help you much," Dr. Jessop said. "Of course, like
most people, I have heard of the strange disappearance of Mr. Graham.
Not that I identified him for a moment with my patient of yesterday
evening. I took those people to be gipsies--indeed, they were very like
gipsies to look at. One of them came to me and said that his brother
was suffering from some disease or another, and I went down to see
him. I did not take much heed of the matter, because it occurred to me
that the sufferer in question was merely recovering from a very heavy
drinking bout."

"Might he not have been suffering from an overdose of drugs," Grace
asked. "Would the signs have been the same?"

"To a great extent," the doctor admitted. "It was very dark inside the
caravan, and I could not make my patient out. I gave him a soothing
draught and promised to call again later on in the evening, but when I
returned the party had vanished."

There was no longer room for doubt in Grace's mind; she felt positively
certain that the sick man of the caravan was no other than Max Graham,
and that he was being constantly and heavily drugged as a simple means
of saving trouble. With this new information Grace mounted her bicycle
and rode off in the direction of her home. She came to the big wood at
length, and there dismounted. By going through the wood she would save
at least four miles of hot dusty road, and the afternoon had turned
very oppressive.

There was a fairly good road through the wood, so that Grace wheeled
her machine easily along and enjoyed the shade from the trees. It was
very quiet and sultry there, so Grace started as a tall black figure
came swinging suddenly round a bend and almost walked into Grace's
arms. To Grace's great surprise she saw that the figure was that of
Bessie Fenton.

The girl looked heated and travel-stained, for her black dress was
covered with dust and her boots were as white as flour. She was tearing
along with her head well down; Grace could see that her lips were
parted, as if she had been running far. She looked up now, and the
expression of her eyes changed to one of intense malignity. Vaguely
alarmed, Grace stood on one side waiting for the other to pass. But
the girl did not do so; she stood there and addressed Grace with a few
bitter words:

"You mind your own business," she hissed, "and don't come interfering
with us, or maybe it will be the worse for you. And if ever you and
Stephen Rice become----"

The speaker broke out into a mocking laugh, and then vanished hurriedly
down the green lane, leaving Grace to wonder what it all meant. She was
still thinking it over when she reached the lodge gates of Water Park,
and saw that the general was coming down the avenue in the direction of
the road. Here was a good opportunity for Grace to tell her old friend
what she had discovered. He listened carefully to all she had to say,
then shook his head sadly.

"I am afraid that the further we go into this business the worse it
gets," he said. "I have been making enquiries at Leverton all the
afternoon without the slightest result. It is quite certain that nobody
named Develin lives in Leverton."

"That is proved by the fact of the discovery of the tarpaulin," Grace
said. "I am perfectly certain that the old woman I have just been
telling you about saw the van containing Fenton's furniture. She also
saw the caravan in which poor Max was lying."

"I should say that is very probable," the general agreed. "I wish
you had been in a position to get something more definite out of Dr.
Jessop. Surely he must have seen something of his patient's face. It
seems almost impossible----"

"But the caravan was kept dark on purpose," Grace said eagerly.
"Besides, Dr. Jessop was under the impression that he was attending a
man who had just recovered from a heavy drinking bout, and, therefore,
you see he would have but little sympathy with his patient. Still,
I think I have had a very good afternoon's work, and it should be
a comparatively easy task for the police to find a gaudily-painted
furniture van with a small caravan attached. I will go straight back
home at once and telephone to the police at Leverton, telling them the
result of my investigations so far."

This excellent idea General Graham eagerly applauded. Grace finished
her task presently, and then went to her room for the bath and change
of clothing, which she so sorely needed. A little lighter at heart and
thoroughly refreshed, she came downstairs presently. As she passed
through the hall an hour later she saw a note lying on the table
addressed to herself. With a sickening sense of impending misfortune,
Grace saw that the envelope was in the general's handwriting. With
trembling fingers she tore the cover off, and began to read the
following note, which bore his signature:--

"I am writing this on a sheet of paper torn from my note-book. I cannot
say quite definitely yet that I have made an absolute discovery as to
who Dr. Jessop's mysterious patient in the van really is. But I have
succeeded in discovering that Max is in all probability the patient in
question. Will you come over and see me as soon as possible and talk
the matter over?"




CHAPTER XVII.--NO SIGN.

Grace stood turning the letter over in her hand and trying to grasp the
true inwardness of it. Restless and uneasy as she was, she was bound to
be more or less satisfied with the result of the last few hours' work.
There was always the fear that she might break down, as she had already
been tried almost as far as endurance would go. She had telephoned to
the police at Leverton, with full instructions, and all she could do
was to sit down and quietly possess her soul in patience until she
could see the general and ascertain what his note really meant.

At the same time, it was dreadfully trying to linger there in the house
while so much remained to be done. She felt now what a blessed thing
it would be if she had some friend to confide in. Her own common sense
told her that it would be all the better if the authorities could know
something of the real reason why Max had been so mysteriously spirited
away. But this confession would necessarily involve a discussion of her
father's private affairs, and Grace naturally shrank from this. Still,
she could, perhaps, confide in the general, who was the soul of honor.
Besides, the general really ought to know.

The more Grace thought over the matter, the more puzzled did she
become. She rose from her seat, and paced up and down the room
miserably. She felt a desire for the outer air. She crossed the hall on
her way to the garden, and there came face to face with her father. He
glanced carelessly at the letter in her hand.

"What have you got there?" he asked casually.

Without comment Grace placed the letter in his hands. Anstey read it
to the end with no more than a puzzled expression on his face; then he
laughed contemptuously.

"Really, I have no patience with this romantic nonsense," he said. "The
fact of the matter is this precious lover of yours has got tired of
you, and evidently wants to throw you into the arms of his rival. This
disappearing nonsense is very stupid, and not quite honest. At least,
that is what I think."

"How can you talk like that?" Grace cried passionately. "You will be
saying next that General Graham is in the plot."

Anstey shrugged his shoulders as if to imply that such a thing was
quite possible. He went on to say that he had heard of this kind of
thing being done before. He seemed all at once to have changed his
nature. Tears rose to Grace's eyes. She had never felt her loneliness
more than she did at that moment. It seemed almost impossible to look
back to a week ago and realise how the whole color of her life had
changed. In the short space she had lost her lover and her father, for
she felt it almost impossible to look upon Mark Anstey any longer in
the light of a father.

"I had hoped you would have helped in this matter," she said. "Why have
you changed so towards me? In your heart of hearts I feel sure that you
despise Stephen Rice as much as I do myself."

"After all it is a matter of business," Anstey replied. "I have been
quite candid with you as to the position in which I find myself. I
have explained why it is absolutely necessary for you to become the
wife of Stephen Rice. You can refuse if you like, and I can take the
consequences. But if you do refuse neither of us will ever be able to
hold up our heads again."

Grace would have rebelled, only she could see the utter futility of
doing anything of the kind. The more she seemed to struggle the more
tighter did the meshes of the net seem to close about her. Besides,
she had given her word that things should be as Mark Anstey wished. He
seemed to see what was going on in the girl's mind. He turned to her
abruptly.

"This nonsense must end here and now," he said. "Rice is coming to see
you this evening and he has intimated pretty broadly that he expects
the day fixed for his wedding before he leaves the house. He will brook
no delay."

"Impossible," Grace cried. "I could do nothing till this mystery about
Max is at an end. Whatever you may say I feel that his life is in the
direst peril. Max would never have written a letter like that unless he
had been pushed to the last extremities. I shall take this letter over
the General Graham's and lay it before him. He at least will show me
some degree of sympathy."

Anstey checked a hot reply, and contented himself by shrugging his
shoulders. At the same time he did not fail to realise how he had
fallen in the estimation of his child. The man was struggling now
to keep his position up before the world; he was even prepared to
sacrifice his honor to do so. It rankled in his mind to know that he
hated Stephen Rice as intensely as did Grace herself. But there was
ever before him the phantom of a gaol and the sight of the name of
Anstey trailing in the mire of public contempt and ridicule.

It was past six o'clock before Grace left the house and walked in the
direction of Water Park. She felt now that it was impossible for her
to meet Stephen Rice this evening; her nerves were too worn and frayed
to stand the strain. Sooner or later the ordeal would have to be gone
through; indeed, Grace had already given her word.

As Grace walked along she dwelt upon the helplessness of her present
position. She had lost in one week her lover and her father. She would
have to marry Stephen Rice now, though the very thought of it filled
her with shame and degradation; Max could never be anything to her any
more. Whatever her future might be, it would be impossible to look up
to Mark Anstey again, or ever give him the affection due from a child
to a parent. It seemed to Grace that her father had made no effort to
obtain the much-needed money elsewhere, but that he merely regarded
her as a valuable asset to be sold to the highest bidder. More than
once Grace had heard her father declaim indignantly against society
marriages; he had been a warm advocate for love matches. And here, at
the first temptation, he was going out of his way to prepare a life of
misery for his only child.

Grace had made up her mind what to do; she was feeling stronger and
more able to cope with her trouble now that she was in the open air.
She would lay the whole matter before General Graham and leave him to
deal with the situation as he thought best. She would probably stay
and dine at Water Park and then return in time to settle matters with
Mark Anstey. Grace had the whole programme settled; she had walked
unconsciously much further than she had intended, for the big dinner
gong was sounding in the hall at Water Park as the footman admitted
her. General Graham was crossing the hall, his usually soldierly figure
bent and stooping now, but he looked up with a smile of welcome as he
saw Grace.

"So you have come to see me again," he said. "I hope you are going to
dine with me; it is a very sorry business sitting here at night without
Max opposite. I suppose it is no use asking if you have heard anything
since I wrote you that hasty note."

Grace intimated that the matter could be discussed presently; together
they sat down to what, after all, was only the pretence of a meal. The
servants flittered noiselessly about the room; the shaded wax candles
threw a subdued light on the flowers and crystal and flashing silver;
everything was there to gratify the artistic eye--everything but the
peace of mind for which the general and his guest would have given ten
years of their respective lives. Grace played with her knife and fork
utterly careless as to what she was eating. She was glad at length to
see the grapes and peaches on the table, and to find herself alone with
her host. Then without any comment whatever, she laid bare the secret
that was killing her.

"I want you to consider my case," she said, "and tell me what you think
of it. In any event I shall have to do exactly what my father desires,
but that does not make his conduct any the less extraordinary."

"Indeed, it doesn't," the general cried. "An Anstey to behave in this
outrageous fashion. Amazing!"

The old soldier drew fiercely at his cigar, and honest indignation
played in his kindly eyes. He was torn between sympathy with Grace and
anger at her father's strange conduct.

"I hope you won't be too hard upon him," Grace said pitifully.

"I don't want to be hard on anybody," the general replied. "But this is
almost inexplicable. Considering that we have known one another such a
number of years, your father might have felt certain that he had only
to come to me----"

"He is a very proud man," Grace said.

"Well, I know that perfectly," the general said. "But that is no reason
why he should try and save himself at the expense of your happiness.
And as to your marrying this fellow Rice, why the mere suggestion is
simply an insult to you."

"All the same it will have to be done," Grace said sorrowfully. "I have
already explained to you as far as I dare, how my father is situated. I
am perfectly helpless."

General Graham paced up and down the room furiously.

"It is disgraceful," he cried. "I never heard a more monstrous thing
in my life. Why could not your father have put his pride in his pocket
and come to me? I would have lent him any money he liked within reason,
and I am perfectly sure that Max would have done the same. Then we
could have kicked that rascal Rice out of the house, and there would
have been an end to the matter. As it is that blackguard has dared to
aspire to you, he has even dared to conspire with that fellow Fenton to
kidnap Max, and keep him out of the way. I will move heaven and earth
to defeat his vile conspiracy. The police must find those people, and
if it costs me the last penny I have, I will see that they are properly
punished."

"But I don't see how you can get at Mr. Rice," Grace said. "So far as
we know at present there is nothing whatever against him to connect
him with this extraordinary outrage; He will deny the whole thing, and
the only way to prove it is to lay hands upon the Fentons. Probably by
this time they are on their way from the country with plenty of money
provided by Mr. Rice. I am told that he never counts the cost of a
thing, he never stops to consider money, where his mood is concerned."

"That is all very well so far as the men of his kind are concerned,"
the general said. "But don't forget what you told me about Fenton's
daughter Bessie and how she has given her heart to that scoundrel Rice.
Her father and brothers may be glad enough to get away from England,
but you may depend upon it that she will be found not very far from
Leverton. If Rice marries you, I don't envy him so long as that girl
is within a hundred miles of the place. We shall be able to play upon
her jealousy, a little cunning, and she will tell us all we want. Well,
what is it, Watson?"

For the old family butler had burst into the room, his face white and
agitated, his limbs trembling like leaves shaken in the wind.

"Mr. Max," he gasped. "Mr. Max--just now, in the corridor--in his
bedroom--I saw him there--I swear I saw----"

General Graham darted from the room, closely followed by Grace. They
raced across the hall and upstairs to the corridor leading to Max's
bedroom. If anyone had been there it was too late now to find him, for
the room was empty. There was no sign of a human being to be seen. A
little sternly the general turned to his old servant and demanded what
it all meant.

"Don't ask me, sir," the man said. "It must have been a dream. Nothing
but a dream or that my eyes are failing me."

"Not quite," Grace replied quietly. "See, here is a cap--surely the
very cap Max was wearing the last night I saw him as he was going
across to the house where Stephen Rice was dining. . . . It is the same
cap--of that I am absolutely certain."




CHAPTER XVIII.--THE VOICE SPEAKS AGAIN.

It was certainly an amazingly extraordinary thing. By this time the
old butler had collected his scattered wits and was doing his best to
give a proper and coherent account of what had happened. He had been
walking along the corridor, when he had suddenly came upon a figure
crouching by the side of an old oak chest in a dark corner. Naturally,
he had at first taken the intruder for a burglar, but before he could
give the alarm the figure had risen, and, laying a hand upon his lips
as if to impose silence, had walked directly into Max Graham's bedroom.
It was at this point that Watson had decided that the intruder was his
young master. He was too hopelessly overcome and bewildered to give an
instant alarm; on his own confession, he had stood in the corridor for
the best part of a minute before he had been able to move. Then he had
made his way down the stairs and given the alarm. This, however, had
been done too late, seeing that the intruder had already vanished as
mysteriously as he had arrived.

"You have not been drinking, Watson?" the general asked severely. "You
are quite sure of that?"

"Did you ever know me to do such a thing, sir?" Watson protested. "I
am as sober now as ever I have been in my life. I saw Mr. Max quite
plainly; he was wearing that cricket cap on the back of his head, like
he always does. The only thing I noticed about him that was different
was his dress, which struck me as being very shabby and not at all too
clean."

"What did he look like?" Grace asked eagerly.

"Precious thin and white, miss," Watson replied. "He walked along
unsteadily, like a man who gets out of bed for the first time after a
long illness. Oh, it wasn't any dream, sir, and there's the cap in Miss
Anstey's hands to prove it."

"That's right enough," the general admitted. "It is a peculiar cap,
too; it is one worn by a small club at Oxford, which club is now
extinct. Besides, I saw the figure of a man distinctly disappear
through the bedroom window, but when I looked out he was nowhere to be
seen. And a very dangerous jump it was, too. Let us go and see if we
can find the marks of any footprints on the flower-borders outside the
window."

Surely enough there were marks of footprints, deeply indented in the
soil under the bedroom window. It was impossible to trace the footsteps
any further, for there was a narrow strip of flower-bed which gave at
once upon a broad, well-kept gravel path, on the far side of which was
a wide stretch of lawn. Beyond this lay a thick belt of shrubs, so that
anybody leaving the house that way would almost immediately be lost to
sight. Very slowly and thoughtfully General Graham turned back in the
direction of the house. But Grace declined to go inside again, she felt
that it was time she went home and faced the coming ordeal with Stephen
Rice. She reached the bank house at length, and as she crossed the hall
towards the drawing-room she could hear loud voices and laughter coming
from the direction of the dining-room.

The girl's lips curled scornfully as she listened. It seemed almost
impossible to believe that a man like her father could stoop to be on
such insolently familiar terms with Stephen Rice. Besides, Anstey had
never been a noisy man; he had ever been too refined and dignified for
that; but at this moment he was making as much noise as a man who has
drunk more than is good for him. As the pair came into the drawing-room
together a little later on, Grace could see that her father's face was
flushed, and his voice had a hoarseness about it that she had never
noticed before. Rice was by far the more cool and collected of the
two; there was just a suggestion of triumph in his eyes as he advanced
and took Grace's cold, limp hand in his. Grace's heart was beating
violently now, but outwardly she preserved a demeanor that told Rice
nothing.

"Are you going to give us some music, Grace?" Anstey asked. "I
understand that my young friend here has come over on purpose; or
perhaps you would like to have the other little matter settled before
we sit down to our social evening."

The time had arrived now and Grace braced herself to meet it.

"I should much prefer that we settled the business side of our
interview first," she said. "If you will be good enough to get that
over I won't trouble you any further to-night. It does not in the
least matter, but I might just as well mention the fact that I have a
dreadful headache, and the sooner I can get away to bed the better I
shall be pleased."

"Spoken like your father's daughter," Rice cried. "What a business-like
way you have of doing things! But I suppose that love and affection and
that kind of thing is quite out of date?"

"It would be certainly greatly out of place here," Grace said bitterly.
"As much out of place as would be the singing of a comic song in a
house of worship."

The girl crossed the room and opened a pair of French windows leading
to the lawn. She felt she must have air or that her heart would break.
The evening was warm and balmy, but to Grace the atmosphere was like
that of some deadly tropical place. She sat there by the window in a
big armchair, her eyes fixed upon Rice with a cold and cutting contempt
that penetrated even his thick skin.

"Upon my word," he protested. "I am not particularly romantic, but I
expected something a little more warm than this."

"You have no right to expect it," Grace went on in the same cold way.
"I have passed my word to become your wife, and I shall not shrink from
the bargain. For my father's sake I am going to sell myself to a man
whom I dislike and despise from the bottom of my soul. For my own part
I would gladly wed one of the footmen in preference to you. Mind you, I
shall do my best to keep my part of the contract, but let there be no
cant about love and affection between you and me."

"And I shall know how to behave when the time comes," Rice said
sullenly. "You will find that out."

His small eyes gleamed, the firm mouth grew cruel. A dull red flush
of shame rose to Anstey's cheeks. Full well did he know what he was
doing, full well did he realise the price that Grace would pay for the
preservation of his honor. He was about to say something, but Grace
held up her hand to impose silence.

"Please let me finish," she commanded. Her voice was clear and strong
now. "I want you both to understand exactly what the situation is. Mr.
Rice is a rich man, and he does me the honor of desiring to make me
his wife. If he had even the remotest instinct of a gentleman he would
never persecute me like this. What he is doing now is levying blackmail
upon an unfortunate girl's heart. He thought he could ruin my father
socially and financially, but thanks to another man, whose name we need
not mention, that part of the plot looked likely to fail. My would-be
husband had another string to his bow--he has in his possession a
letter which distinctly implicates my father in the murderous outrage
perpetrated the other night on Mr. Holder. What would happen if that
letter were produced in public I need not go into. The price my
father pays for the silence of a scoundrel is his daughter's life and
happiness. I do not complain, I do not blame anybody, I do not even
accuse Mr. Rice of any hand in the conspiracy which has resulted in
the disappearance of Max Graham--though I am certain that I am stating
facts. This latter outrage----"

"It is false," Rice cried. "I know nothing whatever about this business
of Max Graham's."

"It is true," Grace declared. "You lied to me the other night when you
said you had not seen Max Graham after you left the Brookes' house the
other evening. You walked down the road together, you had a violent
quarrel, the results of which you are still carrying about you."

"There is nothing to gain by going on like this," Rice said sulkily.
"You can prove your accusations if you like, but the law says that
a wife can't give evidence against her own husband. What we have to
consider now is the date of our marriage. I have everything ready;
it is necessary for business reasons that I should be in New York
within a fortnight of next Saturday. It is my wish to make this this
part of my honeymoon, and I shall be obliged if you will fall in with
my suggestion--it fact you will have to fall in with the suggestion
whether you like it or not. Will Friday week do for you? The time seems
limited, but----"

Rice paused significantly. Grace's hand stole to her heart as if to
still its tumultuous beating. She only realised what this thing meant
now that the terror was so close to her. It was some time before she
could find words to speak.

"You must give me ten minutes," she said. "Ten minutes to decide. It is
not much to ask."

Rice rose and taking his cigarettes from his pocket lighted one and
strolled out of the window on to the lawn. He was followed a moment
later by Anstey, who did not dare to stay there alone with his
daughter. Grace could see the glowing ends of the cigarettes as the men
walked up and down on the grass. She sat there in her chair with her
mind in a perfect whirl, a great wheel seemed to be going round and
round in her head, her temples throbbed with pain.

"If I could only decide," she cried aloud. "If only there was someone
to help me at this bitter crisis."

"Do as I tell you," a voice whispered. "Do not hesitate for a moment,
but follow my advice to the letter."

The words seemed to come with hissing force out of the darkness of the
night. The moon was not up yet, a heavy mist lay over the landscape, so
that it was difficult to follow the motion of figures outside. It was
only by the tiny points of flame that Grace could make out the outlines
of her father and Rice.

And yet the voice had come to her ears from somewhere close by the
window. It was a low, strained voice, but low and strained as it was
Grace recognised the tones of her lover. There was no question that it
was Max who was speaking to her. Then for the first time she lost her
head entirely. With a loud scream she rose to her feet and darted into
the garden. Everything was misty and obscured for a brief space. The
next thing Grace remembered was lying back in a chair again with her
father and Stephen Rice bending over her.

"It is nothing," she said with a great effort. She was determined to
tell neither of these men what she had heard. "My nerves have been
rather highly tried lately."

"Nothing for nerves like a good sea voyage," Rice laughed. "I suppose
you have made up your mind by this time?"

"I have made up my mind," Grace echoed. "It shall be as you wish. I
leave all arrangements to you."

"Then I will put up the banns to-morrow, or get a special license,"
Rice said. "Your own vicar----"

"No, no," Grace cried. "There will be no marriage of the sort you mean,
no church, no bridesmaids, no flowers. I could not suffer to stand in
the House of God and perjure my lips with cant as to love and honor and
obedience. You may get the license if you like, but you and I will be
married a fortnight to-day at Leverton Registry office. This is my last
word, and you can take it or leave it as you like."

Grace rose from her seat as if the whole thing were finished, and
passed through the French window into the garden. She was vaguely
conscious that hurried footsteps were crossing the lawn in her
direction; then to her astonished eyes appeared the familiar outline
of Max Graham. He held out his hands to her, he whispered something
that the girl failed to catch. Then two more figures emerged from the
shrubbery, and falling swiftly and violently upon Graham, dragged him
back into the shelter of the trees. Very swiftly Grace ran forward and
called Max by name aloud.

She called again and again, but no response came. She turned and looked
towards the drawing-room. She saw the big form of Rice standing there
with a light behind him; then she pitched headlong on the grass and
knew no more.

       *       *       *       *       *

All through the night and far into the day the search for the missing
man went on without avail. Far and wide willing friends were scattered,
but none had any tale of hope to tell.




CHAPTER XIX.--A NEW ALLY.

It seemed to Grace that she lay there a long time; it seemed to her
that she was dreaming, and that all her troubles had fallen away from
her shoulders. She had a misty recollection of a pair of arms about
her, and after that whispering voices and somebody saying something
about somebody else being run down, and after that a dreamless sleep.
When full consciousness returned to Grace she was lying in her own bed,
with Helen by her side with a cup of tea for her.

"Have I been asleep all night?" Grace asked. "It is a very strange
thing, but everything seems to be a blank to me since I was lying on
the lawn last night."

"You are better now," Helen said evasively. "The doctor thought that
you had been doing too much lately. You are to lie in bed for the
present. I will look after you."

But Grace refused to do anything of the kind. It was impossible at this
time she should lie there idly, when events were moving so rapidly. The
whole thing came back to her mind now with vivid force; she must find
out at once whether Max had been really seen or not. In her own mind
she was absolutely certain that he had been close to her elbow last
night.

"I shall get up immediately," she said. "It cannot possibly matter what
you say, or what the doctor thinks. I feel perfectly well again. If you
come back in a quarter of an hour I shall be ready for you. You need
not say anything to my father."

But Mark Anstey had already gone to the bank when Grace arrived in
the breakfast room. It was quite clear that Anstey was giving himself
no consideration at all as to the welfare of his daughter, for he had
sent no message by Helen, neither had he made the faintest effort to
see Grace. He was palpably avoiding her, and evidently meant to do
so, until the ceremony of marriage was a thing of the past. But there
were others who were interested in Grace, and amongst them was General
Graham, who put in an appearance in the drawing-room shortly before
luncheon. The old soldier's manner was very sympathetic; he reminded
Grace of what her father used to be.

"I have been hearing poor accounts of you," the general said, as he
stood with his hands on Grace's shoulders. "You know how these little
things are talked of in small places. Is it true that you had a bad
fainting fit last night?"

"I suppose so," Grace confessed. "I fell down on the lawn after dinner,
and I recollect nothing more till Helen brought me my tea this morning;
but I am better now."

"You don't look it," Graham murmured. "I don't like to see that bonnie
face of yours so pale, or those dark rings under your eyes. You have
been evidently overdoing it lately."

"It is not quite that," Grace confessed. "I don't think I am the girl
to give way in the face of trouble. But I had a great shock last night
which I must tell you about. Max came to me, or rather he came very
near me, and whispered a few words in my ear. I was sitting by the
window in the drawing-room, discussing a certain matter with my father
and Mr. Rice----"

"I was just coming to that," the general interrupted, "but go on. Let
us have your story first."

"Evidently Max was listening," Grace resumed--"listening just outside
the window in the darkness. I heard his voice say quite plainly that I
was to do exactly what Mr. Rice told me. You can imagine my feelings.
I controlled myself with a wonderful effort, and managed to reach the
lawn without arousing the suspicions of my companions. Nobody was
there, and I began to fancy that my imagination was playing tricks on
me when suddenly a figure emerged from the shrubbery, and I saw Max
coming towards me with outstretched arms. Before I could say a word two
other figures came out of the gloom and snatched Max away, and then I
fainted. It is too much to hope, I suppose, that you have seen any more
of Max."

The general shook his head sorrowfully. He was quite prepared to
believe every word of Grace's story, but he had seen nothing of Max. He
turned to Grace in a pointed manner.

"And now I am going to ask you to be still more candid with me," he
said. "You said just now that Max had asked you to do everything that
Stephen Rice desired. Is it Stephen Rice's wish to make you his wife?
It seems a dreadful thing----"

"But it is absolutely true," Grace said. "I feel I must do exactly as
Max has directed me. You have asked me to be candid, and I will tell
all I dare. It is absolutely necessary that I should become the wife
of Stephen Rice; indeed, I have already fixed the date. If you knew
everything, if you knew how dreadfully I was suffering, you would not
look at me with that stern expression."

"Was I looking at you with a stern expression?" the general asked. "I
am sure I did not mean to. I came over here to scold you severely for
even so much as thinking of that man, but when I look at your pale,
pathetic face, I can feel no anger in my heart against you. Grace, must
this thing really be?"

"Indeed it must," Grace whispered. "There is no other way to
save----But please do not push me too far, for the secret is not
entirely my own. There is still hope to me that Max may turn up and set
me free. Till then it is absolutely impossible for me to say any more
on this painful subject."

Whatever General Graham might have thought he did not express his
feelings in words. He went his way presently, and Grace tried to busy
herself with household affairs. She was almost glad to get a message
from her father to the effect that he was too busy to come in to lunch.
It was towards three o'clock before Grace left the house and took her
way across the fields in the direction of the woods where she had been
accustomed to meet Max. The place was very quiet and restful, there
was little chance of anybody passing by, and the secluded spot where
Grace sat was conducive to restful reflection. It might have been an
hour or more that Grace sat there, deeply engrossed in her own painful
thoughts, before she was aroused from her reverie by the sound of
voices.

One voice was familiar enough, and, although Grace had only heard the
other speaker once, she had no difficulty in determining who it was. By
brushing away an overhanging spray of blackberry brambles, Grace could
see who the intruders were. She saw the hard cunning face of Stephen
Rice, now black with anger, and the defiant features of Bessie Fenton.
The latter laughed, and snapped her fingers under Rice's nose.

"You're a liar," she cried. "You always have been a perjured liar,
and now I have found you out. Oh, it was a cunning scheme of yours.
You were going to get rid of us all; you had so arranged it that my
father and brothers should no longer remain in England and live upon
your shameful secrets, you thought that once they had departed from the
farm I should be compelled to go, too. Well, you are mistaken you see,
because, though the others have gone, I am still here."

"You are mad," Rice cried. "Haven't I passed you my word----"

"And haven't I proved that your word is valueless," Bessie retorted.
"You are going to marry that girl at the bank house, though you
are pledged to me. Am I not as good-looking as she is, am I not as
virtuous, have I not preserved my good name amongst surroundings that
would have been fatal to nine women out of ten? God knows why I love
you at all; you are a bad man, and if I were your wife you would treat
me brutally. And yet, despite it all, I am ready to go to the end of
the world with you; I am ready to kill you rather than that any other
girl should call you husband."

"No other girl is going to," Rice said sullenly.

"Why do you treat me in this childish way?" Bessie cried passionately.
"I am having you watched, I know all your movements. Only this morning
you have arranged to buy a special license, and you are going to be
married on Friday week. You need not deny it."

Rice muttered something that Grace could not catch. His face blazed
with passion. Just for a moment it occurred to the watcher that a
tragedy was imminent, but Bessie did not seem in the least afraid; she
laughed in a taunting way.

"There is no denying your courage," she said. "Only don't push me too
far. Women of my race do not hesitate at the price of their revenge
when they are slighted. If I only like to speak the word you would not
be standing by Grace Anstey's side next Friday week; indeed, you would
be much more likely to stand in a dock. And once that happened, once I
told all that I have to tell, the next few years of your life would be
spent in a convict prison. You need not stand there gaping at me like
that--go your way and think it over. I have warned you for the last
time; don't blame me if your headstrong folly brings you trouble."

With an imperious gesture Bessie waved her companion away. Perhaps he
wanted time to find some way out of the difficulty; anyway, he made
no further protest, but strode away, Bessie watching him as he went.
A sudden resolution found its way into Grace's mind. She did not hope
that the woman standing there would give her any material assistance
in freeing herself from the hatred attentions of Stephen Rice. But
Bessie Fenton seemed to have Rice's future in the hollow of her hand,
and moreover she loved him. Yet it was possible that in that moment of
anger, Bessie Fenton might, at any rate, be in a mood to disclose the
mystery of Max's disappearance. Taking her courage in both hands, Grace
emerged from her hiding-place and stood before Bessie Fenton.

The half-gipsy blood in the girl's veins flamed to her face in a spasm
of anger. Here was the very one whom she had occasion to hate more than
any other of her own sex in the world. Impulsively she stepped forward
and gripped Grace tightly by the shoulder. But the latter did not
flinch, her steady eyes were fixed upon the others.

"I know what you are going to say," Grace began. "You are going to
accuse me of listening to your conversation with Stephen Rice. With the
assurance that I did not follow you for the purpose of listening, I am
prepared to admit it. I was seated behind the brambles yonder when you
came along, and I heard all that you had to say. This is not the first
time we have met."

"Indeed," Bessie Fenton sneered. "The honor would have been so great
that I could not possibly have forgotten it. You are a plucky girl. If
you only realised it you were very near to having the life crushed out
of you a second or two ago."

"I am not afraid," Grace said. "You say you have forgotten our last
meeting. It was in your own house, in the dark in the room where Mr.
Max Graham lay after the lamp went out. Now I am going to ask you a
fair question, and I want a fair answer. Where is Mr. Max Graham at the
present moment?"

Bessie Fenton looked with involuntarily admiration at the speaker.

"You deserve the information," she said, "even if it is only for your
pluck and courage. Are you very much interested in Mr. Graham? I mean,
do you care for him?"

"He is the one man in the world for me," Grace said quietly. "I love
him as much as I hate and despise the scoundrel who has just left us.
You care for him, there is no accounting for the tastes of a woman. If
Mr. Graham stood by my side now----"

"He shall do so," Bessie cried. "I pledge you my word to that. You will
want all your courage and resolution, but I am sure these will not fail
you. Meet me here to-night at ten o'clock, and you shall have your wish
whatever the cost to me may be. If you are afraid to come, you have
only to say so----"

"I am not in the least afraid," Grace said, "and I am quite ready to
trust myself implicitly in your hands. Ten o'clock, I think, you said.
If there is any danger----"

"Ave, there is danger enough," Bessie Fenton whispered. "What should a
child like you know of the rascality of those who surround me. If you
only knew----"

Bessie checked herself suddenly, laid her hand impressively on her lip,
and vanished into the thickness of the woods.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was no one to prevent Grace carrying out her appointment with
Bessie Fenton. Her father was avoiding her now; it was evident that he
had no intention of seeing any more of Grace than he possibly could
until after her wedding day.

Grace was not in the least hurt by this conduct of Anstey's, for she
felt almost unable to sit down at the same table with the man for whose
sake she was making this hideous sacrifice. She had heard casually from
the butler that her father was dining at Leverton, and would not be
back till late. It was with a feeling of deep annoyance that a little
after nine Grace was told that Mr. Stephen Rice was waiting for her in
the drawing-room. He would have to be got rid of without delay.

Grace tore off her hat and jacket angrily, and went to meet the man
whose presence now might prove disastrous.

"What do you want?" she asked coldly. "My father is not here, therefore
you cannot stay."

"I suppose I am not up in the observances of exclusive society," Rice
sneered. "And yet I have a recollection that you more than once used to
receive Mr. Max Graham in similar circumstances."

"Mr. Max Graham was a different person altogether," Grace cried. "To
begin with, he was the man to whom I was engaged to be married."

"And do I not stand in the same favored position?" Rice asked. "I fail
to see the difference."

"And yet the difference is enormous," Grace said, almost sadly. "I have
promised to marry you, and I shall keep that promise, unless something
turns up to free me from the word I gave under compulsion. Let us make
no mistake about the conditions which bind our contract. If I could see
my father free I should repudiate you without the slightest hesitation.
As it is, I am bound to carry out my compact."

"I don't think we need quarrel over that," Rice sneered. "It is only
a matter of a few days now. You may disabuse your mind of the idea at
once that some kind friend will place me under your thumb. Nobody could
possibly do it."

"I should say that a great many people could," Grace said coldly. "For
instance the Fentons, Miss Bessie Fenton in particular. When you treat
a woman so badly as you are treating her, she is apt to forget the past
in her desire for vengeance in the future."

Rice stared at Grace, a dull angry flush on his face.

"Where did you get that from?" he demanded. "I doubt if you as much as
know Miss Fenton by sight. If she has been to you----"

"She has not been to me," Grace explained. "Neither have I been to her.
But I know what I am talking about, and your face told me a minute ago
that my suspicions are correct. But we are gaining nothing by this idle
discussion, and I have business elsewhere. Tell me what you want, and
then go away."

"It doesn't matter," Rice said between his teeth. "I have changed my
mind. You can treat me in this scornful way, but my turn will come. And
when my turn does come, look to yourself. In a year's time from now
that proud spirit of yours will be humbled, you will come to me like a
dog comes to his master."

Rice turned upon his heel abruptly, and quitted the house. Despite
his strong language and his bullying air, Grace could see that he was
seriously disturbed, and, very much moved by what she had told him.
She watched his retreating figure until he turned in the road, and
then proceeded to assure herself that he was walking in the direction
of Leverton. Once he was out of the way Grace felt that she could keep
her appointment with Bessie Fenton without the fear of Rice before her
eyes. She walked along rapidly without the slightest feeling of fear
in her heart. She had gone through too much lately to care much what
happened to her, but hope had returned now with a bare possibility
that some unseen force might save her the humiliation which she had
deliberately accepted.

It was nearly dark when she reached the spot in the woods which Bessie
had arranged for their meeting place. Grace could hear the clock of
the village church chiming the hour of ten as she stood by the fallen
tree where she and Max had sat and passed so many happy hours. A keeper
passed along the ride, and then an old woman gathering sticks, and
after that a brooding silence reigned over the place. It was fully ten
minutes later before Bessie appeared, and whispered Grace's name. Grace
replied as cautiously. She saw that her companion was breathing very
heavily, and that she had evidently just been undergoing some violent
personal exertion.

"I am glad you came," she said. "I have had some considerable
difficulty to get here. If you will come this way and be silent you are
likely to be rewarded for your confidence in me."

"I will do anything you ask," Grace replied. "Please lead the way. I am
entirely in your hands."

Bessie Fenton strode along, turning away from the main path into a
byway so narrow that it was impossible for two people to walk abreast.
The girl seemed to know every inch of the way; indeed, her woodcraft
was quite equal to that of poor Billy. Grace had never been here
before, and she had to admit to herself now that if she were left
alone she would have been hopelessly lost and compelled to spend the
night in the woods. At length the bypath opened into a space which had
been denuded of some of its best timber, and here Grace could see two
charcoal-burners huts, in one of which a light gleamed. For the first
time Grace hesitated.

"I do not understand that light," she whispered. "I can remember the
charcoal-burners as a child, but they were a rough lot, and General
Graham got rid of them. There has been no charcoal-burning here for
years. What, therefore, does the light down there mean? If it is
anything wrong----"

"There are things I can tell you and things I can't tell you," Bessie
replied. "You asked me to do a favor for you, and I am going to
carry out my promise. But there is one thing you must promise me in
return--whatever you see or hear to-night is never to be mentioned to a
single soul as long as you live."

"The promise is given," Grace said. "What are we standing here for;
cannot we get along a bit faster?"

Grace could hear her companion laughing softly to herself, as if amused
by something.

"As far as you are concerned you will have to wait considerably
longer," Bessie said. "I am afraid that I am going to tax your
patience. You will stand here, taking care to hide yourself in these
bushes, if you see even so much as a dog approaching. I may be an
hour, perhaps more; or, on the other hand, I may not be more than ten
minutes. Your part of the proceedings is to do exactly what I tell you.
Now you understand?"

Grace nodded by way of reply; she did not feel like wasting words just
at that moment. Bessie crept away, making not the slightest noise as
she moved along in the direction of the hut, and finally her figure
disappeared, and the oppressive silence was all that Grace had for
company. She stood there close by the side of a thicket of blackberry
bushes, into which she was prepared to plunge on the slightest sign of
danger. As the wood grew darker before the uprising of the moon, so did
the light in the hut become more brilliant. It occurred to Grace that
the dazzling flash through the tiny window could not have been caused
by the ordinary lamp usually to be seen in a workman's cottage. As
Grace stood there with all her senses alert it seemed to her that she
could hear a dull thudding like the noise of a village smithy from afar
off, accompanied by the chinking of metal.

A moment later, and a figure crossed the lane of light and paused for
a moment, so that his black outline was picked out clearly. He held
something in his hand, something that glowed in a phosphorescent way,
and on this glowing mass he proceeded to pour water, for Grace could
distinctly hear the hiss of liquid on hot metal and see the suggestion
of vapor as it rose.

"What are you doing there you fool?" a hoarse voice muttered. "Who was
it that pulled the dark curtain aside?"

Grace could not see the speaker, who evidently was not the man standing
outside the hut, for that individual laughed and turned in the
direction of the light.

"What does it matter?" he asked. "Who is any the wiser?"

"Keepers," the other man growled. "You are the most reckless idiot I
have ever had to deal with. That light could be seen from all parts of
the wood. Do you suppose anyone would be idiot enough to take it for a
penny dip?"

The man with the metal in his hand said nothing; he vanished from
sight, and almost immediately the blinding light from the hut window
became dim and indistinct. There hut door was closed now, but Grace
could hear voices inside, though she was quite a hundred yards away,
and the voices were evidently raised in a heated discussions. The
conflict of words ceased suddenly, and Grace heard a cry like that of a
woman in distress pierce the stillness of the night.

She would have run forward without fear or hesitation, but that she
recollected her promise to Bessie Fenton, and held herself to the
spot by tremendous effort of will. A moment later the door of the hut
opened and a woman came headlong out, followed by a man with upraised
hand. Grace half-closed her eyes, feeling that she was going to be the
witness of some sordid tragedy, when the pursuer stumbled and came
headlong to the ground. Before he could recover himself the woman
had vanished into the thickness of the wood, and the man returned,
muttering and swearing, to the hut again. For fully five minutes Grace
stood there, trembling from head to foot with a sensation that was not
all fear. The whole drama had been so swift and sudden that Grace had
had only a misty impression of what the woman's figure was like. She
hoped from the bottom of her soul that it was not Bessie Fenton whom
she had seen, as in that case it meant failure. Grace was still hoping
against hope when a hand was laid upon her arm, and she turned with a
stifled cry, only to find that Bessie Fenton was behind her.

"How did you manage to get here," she gasped.

"It is a mercy that I am here at all," the other girl panted. "Fortune
has been against me to-night, but I am not the one to give up hope in
this easy fashion. It is not prudent for you to stay here any longer,
you had better go home----"

"I am going to stay till the end," Grace said. "So far as I am
concerned there is no hurry whatever--no one is likely to miss me for
the next hour to come. I could not rest; I could not sleep until my
mind was at rest one way or the other. But what is that on your face?
It looks like blood."

"It is blood," Bessie Fenton said coolly. "It is a mere nothing to me.
I am quite used to that kind of thing."

The girl took a handkerchief from her pocket and proceeded to wipe
her face just as if the incident was an everyday occurrence. Grace
could only wonder at her wonderful self-possession. It seemed to her
impossible to connect a girl like Bessie Fenton with those tears which
are so potent a weapon in a woman's armor.

"Do I understand that you have failed?" Grace asked.

"Not yet," the other said. "There is just a chance that I may be able
to keep my promise yet. It is more a matter of patience than anything
else. Ah, I thought so."

The speaker pointed in the direction of the hut, the door of which
had opened, showing the figures of two men as they emerged. They were
carrying something heavy between them and muttering as they went. With
startling suddenness a pistol shot rang out, and Grace would have
screamed, only that her companion's hand was pressed firmly to her lips
and a voice urging silence hissed in her ear. Then Grace could see that
the pistol-shot had been fired by her companion. Its effect upon the
men was marvellous. With an oath they dropped their burden, and raced
headlong across the wood in the direction of the thick cover beyond.
The crashing fall of their footsteps died away at length, and Bessie
Fenton released her hold upon Grace. The latter looked for explanation.

"I cannot tell you now," Bessie whispered hoarsely. "Every moment is
distinctly precious. A bold dash and victory is ours. Come along with
me and ask no questions."

Bessie Fenton raced access the open space; Grace panted behind her, her
heart beating fast with mingled hope and fear.




CHAPTER XX.--RICE IS GENEROUS.

Grace flew along at the side of her companion, reckless now as to what
happened to her, and intent only upon anything that might tend to the
safety of her lover. That there was danger she was perfectly well
aware, she could judge that by the stealthy way in which Bessie Fenton
crouched in her stride. The hut door was closed, but the brilliant
light shone behind the barely curtained window. It was only a matter
of a moment before the intervening sward was crossed, and Bessie laid
her hand upon the latch. The door yielded to her touch, and a moment
later the girls were inside. Grace had an instantaneous vision of a
poorly-furnished room, then the light vanished leaving her in Egyptian
darkness, her eyeballs aching with a sight of the brilliant light
which had now so mysteriously disappeared. Filled with a new fear,
Grace involuntarily clutched at the arm of her companion. There was
a reassuring pressure from Bessie, and the latter whispered words of
comfort in Grace's ear. She needed them badly enough now, for her
nerves were sadly frayed and worn by the events of the night.

"Courage," Bessie said. "Do not cry out whatever happens. Unless I am
greatly mistaken you will need all your pluck before we are through
with this. All we have to do now is to wait on events. As soon as I
feel that it is safe to do so, I shall find a way of my own of lighting
this room."

Bessie evidently meant to say more, but she paused abruptly and
squeezed Grace's arm as if bidding her be alert and silent. They were
standing full in the centre of the room, their ears strained to catch
the slightest sound, and sure enough the sound came in the form of
a footstep that seemed to be crossing the floor. It was an assured
footstep, knowing every inch of the ground perfectly, for it moved
directly across to the door. There was a sudden click, and something
that might have been a chuckle, then the echoing footstep receded till
it seemed to Grace that she could hear it far away. This was all the
more extraordinary, for Grace had seen for herself how small the room
was.

"Are we locked in?" she whispered.

Bessie muttered something to the effect that she would go and see. It
was only a few paces to the door and back, so that the thing was soon
done. It was even as Grace had feared.

"We are locked in surely enough," Bessie explained. "But even this fact
may have its advantages. If we cannot get out it is equally certain
that others cannot get in."

"But we may be here all night," Grace protested.

"I should not be at all surprised," Bessie said coolly. "On the other
hand, I should not be in the least surprised if you were on your way
home in half an hour. How long can you stay here in safety? I mean, how
long will it be before they are likely to worry about you at home? Your
father, I mean?"

But Grace had no great anxiety on that score. Before she came out she
had intimated to Helen that she might not return till late, and so far
as her father was concerned he was not in the least likely to worry.
Come what may, Grace was determined to go through with the thing now.

"I am entirely in your hands," she said. "I don't wish to hurry you,
but I don't see what we have to gain by standing here in the darkness.
It may be dangerous, but I should prefer a light."

"I dare say you would," Bessie said drily. "You don't seem to
understand the danger I am running more or less for your sake, and
the man you care for. I am a creature of impulse and passion; at the
present moment I may be wrecking the whole future of those nearest
to me to gratify a revenge that may be as Dead Sea fruit when I get
it. To-night I am reckless and desperate, another time I may not be
disposed to lift my little finger to assist you. One false step and I
may regret it for the rest of my life."

The girl spoke in a vehement whisper. Grace could feel that her whole
form was shaking with emotion. Her breath was coming thick and fast,
her grasp was tight upon Grace's arm.

"But I did not come here to pry upon your private affairs," Grace said.
"I came here at your request because you promised to restore Max Graham
to me."

"And so I will," Bessie whispered. "I cannot tell you the difficulties
and dangers that surround the situation. Ask no questions, only wait
and be patient."

Grace lapsed into silence, the leaden moments crept along, half an hour
that seemed like a week lagged and loitered, and then it seemed to the
girl's strained ears as if she could hear voices outside. The voices
were no more than hoarse whispers, but they evidently meant something
of importance, for Grace could feel that Bessie had grown rigid as a
statue. The voices broke and died away, and then, by the clicking of
the door handle, Grace knew that those outside were endeavoring to get
in. The door clicked still more loudly, there was the muttered echo of
a disappointed oath, and then a passionate hammering at the door.

"You thrice-dyed fool," a voice said hoarsely. "Do you want to have all
the parish down on us! If she has no mind to let you in, you've just
got to stay outside, you ought to know by this time. I expect she is in
one of her moods to-night."

The wild hammering on the door ceased; it was evident that those
outside had abandoned their intention for a moment. From the distant
corner of the room came a soft amused laugh. Grace could hear something
that sounded like the closing of a shutter, and an instant later the
whole room was flooded with brilliant light. As soon as Grace's eyes
became accustomed to the glare, she could see a tall figure standing
dressed entirely in some dead lustreless black. The woman was in
evening attire, and evidently had her dresses from Paris, if Grace was
any judge at all. She stood there quiet, smiling and serene, as if she
had been some great society lady welcoming her guests.

Grace was past all surprises now, for they had come so thick and
fast that they did not move her in the slightest. She expressed no
amazement on finding herself face to face with the wild beauty who had
facilitated her escape from Fenton's farm the night she had gone there
in quest of Max Graham.

"We seem destined to meet," the woman said. "You are a plucky young
lady, and I honor you for your courage. If you only realised the danger
you stood in at the present moment, you would not look at me quite so
fearlessly. If you don't believe me, ask my sister yonder. What do you
say, Bess?"

But Bessie Fenton appeared to be past words for the moment. She looked
at the dazzling figure by the fireplace, a mixture of astonishment and
contempt in her eyes.

"So it's Ella come amongst us again," she exclaimed. "My versatile
sister Ella, who is one of the cleverest girls in the world. So
you two have met before. Do not have anything to do with her, Miss
Anstey; avoid her as you would the plague. There is a woman capable of
anything. She might have attained the highest position on the stage,
she might have married an earl, but she chooses a life like her present
for choice."

"I'm not altogether so bad as you make me out to be," Ella Fenton
smiled quite good-humoredly. "Indeed this young lady will tell you so
if you ask her. You are doing a very foolish thing, Bessie. You are
running a terrible risk merely to gratify your desire for revenge and
to place this young lady outside the possibilities of being a rival
of yours. If I had not been down here to-night there would have been
bloodshed, if not worse. Still, I have a genius for turning tragedy
into comedy, and I am bound to confess that comedy pleases me best. I
also take an interest in this young lady, and I am going to help her to
get the best of that scoundrel Stephen Rice. But I am going to do the
thing in my own way and in my own time. If you have any sense of humor
at all, you will thoroughly enjoy the little scene that I have prepared
for you. Will you be good enough to unfasten that door?"

"So you knew that I was coming," Bessie exclaimed with a blank face.
"Where did you get the information from?"

"Never mind about that for the present. I always know everything. Will
you be so good as to open the door as I asked you? Leave it on the
latch, and come and sit over here by the side of the fireplace. Miss
Anstey will sit close beside you, and I will stand here just where
I am. Now the scene or the melodrama is properly arranged, we will
proceed with the tableaux. I think it is time that our expected guest
entered the stage."

Ella Fenton spoke quite gaily; she consulted a tiny watch set in
brilliants, a trinket that Grace could see had not been bought for less
than a couple of hundred pounds. In a dim sort of way Grace recognised
the woman now; she knew that she had seen her somewhere in a brilliant
stage production during her past visit to London. But she had little
time given her for the study of Ella Fenton's features. She could
hear another footstep outside now, the handle of the door turned, and
another figure came in. It was a man this time; a light overcoat was
thrown over his evening dress; he wore a tweed cap on the back of his
head. As he came in he noticed nothing but the tall, graceful figure of
the woman in the centre of the room. He advanced towards her smiling.

"I have come at your command," he said. "A word from you would bring me
from the other end of the world."

"You are too florid," Ella Fenton laughed. "Besides, I do not care
for second-hand compliments. I suppose you try them first on Bess
here, then passed them over to me when you think they are sufficiently
polished. Is not that so, Bessie?"

The self-satisfied grin faded from Rice's face as he turned and saw the
figure of Bessie Fenton by the fireplace. He seemed to realise that he
had fallen into some sort of a trap, for the cunning look that Grace
knew so well crept over his face again. He stammered out something, he
tried to make out the form behind Bessie's, but the girl stood up in
front of Grace and frustrated his intention.

"You didn't expect to see me here," she said. "It is very good of you,
Ella, to ask my future husband to meet me here in this informal way. I
thought he had forgotten me; in fact, there were rumors to the effect
that he had transferred his affections elsewhere. Stephen, tell my
sister that you have no intention of marrying anybody but myself."

"If anybody says otherwise it is a lie," Rice replied.

"What good news for Miss Anstey," Bessie sneered. "Do you hear what
Mr. Rice is saying, miss? I am exceedingly pleased that you should be
present to hear Mr. Rice make a declaration like this. I understand you
are old friends."

So saying Bessie dragged Grace forward so that she stood face to face
with Stephen Rice. Just for one instant there was a murderous gleam in
his eyes, then a dull, sullen red crept into his cheeks. He managed to
find words at length.

"It's all a mistake," he said hoarsely. "I don't know what Miss Fenton
means by dragging Miss Anstey's name into this discussion. The whole
thing is farcical. Besides, I am going away; I mean that I am leaving
Leverton altogether. When I have settled down in the North I shall come
back here--what I shall return for Bessie knows, and it doesn't concern
anybody else."

A wild hope rose in Grace's heart. She stepped forward, and confronted
the miserable man before her.

"We had better have a clear understanding," she said. "It has been
generally stated that we were to be married shortly. Will you be good
enough to publicly contradict that statement wherever you hear it, Mr.
Rice?"

The wretched man shuffled about; he could not meet Grace's eyes. She
waited patiently there for the reply which she fully intended to wring
from his lips. It came at length, grudgingly.

"There has been a mistake," he muttered. "Miss Anstey is nothing to
me. If I have any claim upon her, the claim is withdrawn here and now;
indeed, I may go further, and say that after to-night I am not likely
to see Miss Anstey again."

Grace said no more; indeed, she could not have spoken further words for
a king's ransom. Before she was aware of the fact Ella Fenton had taken
her by the arm, and hurried her outside. Her whole manner had changed,
she was stern and hard now.

"Go," she whispered. "Get out of danger now you have the chance. Your
time is coming--only be brave and patient."




CHAPTER XXI.--RICE REPENTS.

"Let us have a clear understanding," Grace was saying. "I am just a
little dazed and bewildered by the sudden change. It is now nine days
since we had that eventful meeting in the charcoal-burner's hut. On
that occasion you repudiated all connection; you said that in all
probability we should never meet again; you gave me to understand in
plain language that you were going to marry Miss Fenton. I came away
feeling happier than I have done for some time; I was also comforted
by the reflection that I was very soon to see Max Graham again.
Unfortunately, Max's disappearance is still a mystery, though I had a
strange letter this morning, telling me that if I am patient all will
be well. It looked to me as if my lost happiness was coming back again.
And now you come to me at the eleventh hour telling me that you will
expect me to keep my compact, and meet you at the registrar's office
to-morrow morning at 11 o'clock. At any rate, I think I am entitled to
an explanation."

The words came from Grace in a torrent of anger and indignation. For
eight days she had seen and heard nothing of Stephen Rice; she had
taken him absolutely at his word, and she had regarded herself as being
free in future from his hateful attentions. And here he was at the very
last moment standing before her in the drawing-room of the bank house
as if nothing had happened, and reminding her that he expected her to
keep her compact the next day. He did not look a bit like the miserable
abject creature that Grace had seen in the charcoal-burners' hut--he
was the Rice, cold, and treacherous, that she had learnt to fear so
much.

"Circumstances alter cases," he said coolly. "I am not going to deny
that there have been tender passages between Bessie Fenton and myself,
because those little incidents occur in most men's lives. Bessie has
her mad moments, so that it becomes necessary to soothe her; besides,
I don't see why you should be brought into it. You might have seen for
yourself that I was merely humoring the girl."

"You did not convey that impression," Grace said. "As you have not
been near me for the last few days I presumed that you had gone to the
north to prepare a home for a bride who was assuredly not to be me. You
have a poor opinion of my intellect. You are terribly afraid of Bessie
Fenton, and the last few days have been devoted to getting her out of
the way, so that you might be free to come and claim me again. You may
deny this, you may lie to me as much as you like, but I feel perfectly
sure that I have hit upon the truth. Please do not deceive me further."

Rice would have assured Grace that she was mistaken, only he could see
quite plainly that an instinct had moved her in the right direction.
He deemed it best to assume a truculent air with a touch of the bully
about it.

"I am going to have no more of this nonsense," he said. "You are going
to meet me to-morrow morning as arranged. At 12 o'clock you will be my
wife. You can't make any excuse to postpone the ceremony because you
have nothing to get ready, no preparations to make, and no bridesmaids
to consult. From your point of view it is no more than a business visit
for five minutes to the little office in Leverton, and the thing is
done."

"You are utterly merciless," Grace cried. "You know perfectly well that
if you insist I can only obey. It is for the sake of my father that I
endure this hatred----"

"Why put if like that?" Rice demanded hoarsely. "Why remind me every
time that you loathe and despise me from the bottom of your soul? I
love you with a depth and passion which you can never realise; I would
make an idol of you and devote myself to your lightest whim. That is
the kind of love that mine is."

"You blaspheme," Grace cried. "This is not love--it is a sordid
passion, a disease springing from a debased mind; true love is holy
and pure and self-sacrificing. But why do I stand here trying to
make you understand these things when they are utterly beyond your
comprehension? For the sake of my father, and for the sake of the good
name that we both hold so dear, I am going through with this thing to
the bitter end. I shall meet you to-morrow at the appointed time, and
I shall come alone. I shall not even allow my father to accompany me.
Another thing I mean to do--I am going to be married in black."

Rice laughed with a sudden sardonic humor. It mattered nothing to him
how Grace came, so long as he gained possession of her. He had nothing
more to remain for now, and in a clumsy sort of way he backed out of
the room and vanished. He had expected tears and protestations; he had
half-feared that Grace would make some passionate entreaty, or perhaps
at the last moment refuse to make the sacrifice. He had no idea of the
reason why Grace bore up so well.

He had not seen the letter to which she alluded--Grace took it out of
her pocket now and read it again thoughtfully. It was a well-written
letter on exceedingly good paper; it bore no heading or signature, but
Grace had derived great comfort from the words.

The letter went on to say that Grace need not be alarmed because
of the failure of her advantage in the charcoal-burner's hut a few
night before; she was reminded that her presence there implied grave
consequences which might have resulted in disastrous ends. But the
man she was in search of was quite safe, and he would return in good
time. Above all, Grace was urged to make no objection to carrying out
her compact with Stephen Rice. If necessary she was to meet him for
the fulfillment of the marriage service, which, or so the writer of the
letter indicated, would never take place.

Grace derived the greatest comfort from the strange communication,
reading it again and again when her courage required strengthening. All
the same it had been rather a cruel blow when Rice put in an appearance
after his considerable absence, and insisted upon Grace keeping her
promise.

Still she pinned her faith to her anonymous correspondent, and
outwardly at least went about her household duties as if nothing had
happened. It was at dinner time that she met her father for the first
time that day. He seemed moody and ill at ease, and showed every desire
to get the meal over as quickly as possible. But Grace was not disposed
to allow him to escape quite so easily.

"I suppose you have not forgotten that I am to be married to-morrow?"
she said. "You have made no allusions to it lately, and I thought
perhaps the matter had escaped your attention."

"Why rub it in?" Anstey asked moodily. "Do you suppose I should have
allowed this thing to go on, if I could have seen any other way out
of the difficulty? I have not said anything to you about it, because
I could see the subject was extremely distasteful to you. If there is
anything I can do for you----"

"There is nothing," Grace replied. "I have elected to be married at a
registry office, because I dare not perjure my soul in the House of
God. I am not even going to allow you to accompany me. I shall steal
out of this house to-morrow morning dressed in black, and you will
not see me again till I occupy the enviable position of being Stephen
Rice's wife. No, do not say anything sympathetic to me, or I shall
break down. Do not let the matter be alluded to between us again. I am
making the sacrifice for your sake entirely, and your honor is the one
thing I have to think of."

Grace rose from the table feeling that she dare not say any more. She
went up to her own rooms and proceeded slowly to undress herself. Her
maid, Helen, came in only to be gently dismissed with an intimation
that her services' were not wanted to-night. It was a consolation in
the midst of her dark trouble for Grace to know that the faithful Helen
was to accompany her in her new life. Helen had asked no questions,
she seemed to know by instinct that there was some powerful reason why
Grace should embark upon that hateful alliance.

Grace proceeded to destroy a number of little things that reminded her
of her happy past. She retired to bed at length with a feeling that she
would pass an utterly sleepless night. She compared herself with the
criminal on the eve of his execution. And yet, strange as it seemed,
no sooner did her head touch the pillow than she fell into a deep,
untroubled slumber. When she woke again the sun was shining high in the
heavens, and Helen was standing by the bedside with her morning tea.

"I did not wake you, miss," Helen said. "I thought I would let you lie
undisturbed. I have brought your breakfast upstairs, and when you have
finished it I can dress you."

"Then you had better dress me at once," Grace said. "For the mere
suggestion of breakfast fills me with loathing. Give me the plainest
black dress and hat you can find. You need not look surprised at
me--you have already guessed that this is no love match that I am
making. It is a consolation to me to know that you are coming along to
share my troubles and my sorrows. But you are never to allude to them;
but let us pretend that I am perfectly happy and that I have no cause
to regret the step I have taken."

Helen nodded and blinked away the tears which had arisen to her eyes.
The ceremony of dressing was completed at length. A little before
eleven a hired fly drove up to the house to take Grace as far as
Leverton. By this time it was no secret in the house that the young
mistress was going to be married, and many and curious were the glances
thrown at Grace as she stepped into the cab. That something very wrong
was here the servants knew without being told, but it was no business
of theirs, and they could ask no questions. Grace had ever been a great
favorite with the servants, and there was not one of them there who was
not deeply sorry for the young mistress.

Heedless of all this Grace went on to the sacrifice. She was still
hoping against hope that her anonymous correspondent would be in time
to save her yet, but the minutes were getting perilously few, and
once those dull legal words were spoken, in the eye of the law, Grace
would be as much the wife of Stephen Rice as if the ceremony had been
performed by the whole bench of bishops. In a dull, mechanical way,
Grace noticed the beauty of the morning, she saw the happy, unconscious
children playing by the roadside, and envied them from the bottom of
her soul. Here she was at Leverton at length, directing the cabman
where to drive in a voice so dull and level that she hardly recognised
it for her own.

In a dreamy sort of way she found herself sitting in a dirty little
back office, where a dingy clerk had placed two chairs, to say nothing
of an oblong book and a Testament. The clerk performed his duties
in his usual routine way, then a better-dressed man entered, and
cheerfully proclaimed himself as the registrar, whose duty it was to
perform the ceremony.

In the same vague way Grace saw Stephen Rice come into the office; the
registrar was saying something, but she did not pay the slightest heed
to what it was. Properly prompted, Grace suitably responded to the
questions asked her, but she started violently as Rice produced a ring
from his pocket.

Then the voice of the registrar became inaudible, for a sudden
disturbance seemed to break out in the outer office. Grace could hear
loud voices raised in anger, and someone calling for a policeman.

Then the disturbance lulled. Grace could see the ring gleaming on her
finger, and became aware of the fact that the registrar was offering
her the usual form of stereotyped congratulations. He did not finish,
however, for the disturbance broke out again, the door was flung
violently open, and there entered the dishevelled figure--his face pale
and white, as if from some intense suffering--of Max Graham. He came
headlong, with his arms held out, to Grace. Forgetful of everything in
the excitement of the moment, she fell forward, and Max caught her in a
close embrace.

"Too late, too late," she moaned. "Oh, Max, Max, you must not hold me
like this. It is not right, it is not proper. If you had only been two
minutes sooner! But I am married to that man--the most unhappy bride on
God's earth at this moment."

The dramatic scene was none the less vivid and effective on account
of its dingy setting. A strong ray of light falling through the dusty
window fell full upon Grace's upturned face and showed the horror and
misery which dwelt for the moment in her despairing eyes. She seemed to
have forgotten Rice entirely, and though with a kind of instinct that
she was doing wrong, she still partly clung to Max, as if he had come
back from the grave in time to save her from abject misery.

Rice stood there with a sneer upon his face. In his peculiar way he
loved the girl whom he had compelled to become his wife; indeed, he
had not exaggerated when he had stated that he was prepared to go
any lengths to make her his. Though this spontaneous outburst of
affection for Max was like gall and wormwood to him, yet his cruel
nature rejoiced in the knowledge of the pain he had inflicted upon two
innocent people. He smiled in a sarcastic way, he was prepared to wait
to see what developments offered.

"Oh, why did you not come before?" Grace cried. "Why did you delay in
this fashion? Five minutes sooner----"

It was impossible to say more. Very slowly and reluctantly Grace freed
herself from Max's grasp, and stood facing the rest of the little
group. It was hardly the time or place for an explanation, but Grace
did not think of that. The little dried-up registrar who had performed
the ceremony effaced himself as much as possible, though he was keenly
interested in what promised to be the choicest morsel of scandal he had
ever had to retail in the course of his gossipy life. Naturally, he knew
Miss Anstey of the bank house perfectly well; he had thought the whole
thing strange, but he was not prepared for anything quite so piquant as
this. But Grace was not thinking of the official, her mind was full of
the fact that Max had returned, and that he had come too late. The girl
steeled herself; she fought hard to regain her self-control, she turned
almost coldly to Max, and demanded an explanation of his conduct.

"I can give you no explanation," Max replied. "For the last few days I
have lived in a kind of dream. The only clear impression I have dates
back a fortnight ago. It was the night I parted from you, when you
told me that you had given your word to marry that scowling scoundrel
yonder, and I had promised that I would take such steps as would set
you free. I could see that you were acting under compulsion, therefore
I did not blame you--indeed, I do not blame you now. I saw Rice,
I had an interview with him, and when we parted he promised me he
would go straight home and write you a letter absolving you from your
engagement. That being done, I turned across the fields to make the
best of my way home. I had not gone far when I heard footsteps behind
me. As I faced round someone dealt me a tremendous blow on the back of
the head, and I recollect no more."

"Not for a whole fortnight," Grace cried. "Impossible. Forgive me if
I doubt your word, but my credulity has been sadly tested lately.
Hitherto I have regarded most men as honorable and upright, but when
one idol after another fails me----"

"I recollected nothing," Max repeated. "I merely dreamt. Sometimes my
dreams led me to look for you; sometimes I almost think that I evaded
my captors and came more than once to the bank house, but I was not in
the proper possession of my senses."

"It seems almost incredible," Grace murmured. "My dear Max, I have in
my pocket now a letter which seemed to be inspired by yourself, urging
me as I valued your safety to do all that Stephen Rice desired. What
have you to say to this?"

So saying, Grace produced the letter from her pocket, and laid it on
the table. Max approached eagerly, and seemed to devour the letter with
burning eyes. Then he shook his head, and was understood to say that
he knew nothing whatever about the writer, though his own calligraphy
appeared to have been imitated more or less clumsily. But Grace was
not listening. Her heart was full of pity for Max. She saw how pale
and drawn he was, and how his shabby clothes seemed to hang about his
emaciated limbs. Evidently he had suffered from some sharp, short, but,
none the less severe, illness.

For a moment Rice seemed to have obliterated himself altogether. He
stood looking out of the grimy window as if the matter had nothing
to do with him. But he was telling himself that his turn would come
presently, and that it would be no fault of his if he did not break
down the proud spirit which had so long been opposed to his will. Grace
touched the letter with her finger.

"You know nothing of this?" she asked.

"Absolutely nothing," Max said. "You see, I have been more or less in
a state of madness. And never, no, never, in the strange circumstances
should I have given you the advice confined therein. I could not have
done it."

"But you came to me," Grace protested. "You came near to me one evening
when we were settling the whole dreadful business, and whispered that I
was doing quite right. I was seated by the window in the drawing-room,
and I heard your voice outside. When I rushed out you were no longer
there, but a moment later you rushed across the lawn to me, followed by
two men, who snatched you away to the shrubbery before I could reach
the spot where you were standing."

Max shook his head mournfully; all this was so much news to him. He
repeated the statement that his mind during the last few days was a
perfect blank. He had been deliberately kept out of the way until Rice
could accomplish his design. He turned with rising passion to the
motionless figure looking out of the window.

"This is your doings, you scoundrel," he said hoarsely. "I cannot prove
the fact, but I know it was you who dealt me that murderous blow. I
know that your allies carried me away, and by a system of pernicious
drugging kept me in a state of stupor till it served your ends to let
me go."

"I deny the whole thing," Rice said.

"It is useless," Grace cried. "What Max said is true. Your confederates
carried Max away to Fenton's farmhouse. For some time he lay in a
bedroom there--the bedroom over the porch."

"What do you know about it?" Rice asked.

"I know it because I have been there," Grace replied; "indeed, I know
pretty well everything. But it is useless to prolong this painful
discussion. I am, God help me, your wife, and I must put up with
the consequences. It may be possible that such facts shall come to
light----"

"Not so long as I hold a grip upon a person who shall be nameless,"
Rice sneered. "You know who I mean. Come along, my sweet lady. You
are as much mine as the veriest slave who was ever bought in a South
American market. And as to you, Mr. Max Graham----"

Grace laid her hand upon Rice's arm, and pointed to the door. She was
ready now, and prepared for everything. The bitterness of death seemed
to be past, the black future loomed like a cloud before her. With bent
head Max stood aside, feeling dazed and helpless, and still suffering
from the effects of his ill-treatment. In a kind of dream Grace found
herself presently driving along by the side of a man to whom she was
likely to be tied for the rest of her life. She asked no questions; she
did not care in the least where she was going--what did anything matter
now? The carriage pulled up at length in front of a well-appointed
house that stood half-way between Leverton and Grace's birthplace. She
comprehended now that this was Rice's own house, though as yet she had
never been inside it.

"What is going to happen?" she asked listlessly.

"We are going to stay here," Rice snarled. "I am not quite ready as yet
for our proposed voyage to America, and we can remain where we are till
the beginning of next week."

Grace raised no objection; indeed, she had no spirit for anything. The
cruel blow had fallen upon her with crushing force, her senses were
mercifully numbed for the moment. She had a vision of the curious faces
of the servants who had gathered in the hall. She bit her lip, and the
tears came into her eyes as Helen came forward. A moment later she was
alone with her faithful maid in a luxuriously appointed bedroom, which
might not have been furnished at all as far as she was concerned.

"Oh, you poor dear," Helen cried. "How my heart bleeds for you. Why did
you do this thing, Miss Grace; why didn't you----?"

"Stop," Grace whispered. "Help me to undress. You must not say a word
to me of kindness and sympathy to-day; at any hazards, I must preserve
my self-control. What is done is done, and there is an end of it. We
will discuss other matters later on. And now let me lie down and rest,
for I am utterly tired and worn out."




CHAPTER XXII.--IN PERIL OF HER LIFE.

How long Grace lay there she could not have told. It was getting
towards dinner time when Helen roused her and proceeded to dress her. A
clock was striking seven as Grace walked down to the dining-room. Rice
was standing in the hall already dressed. He caught Grace roughly by
the arm and led her into the library. His face was flushed, his small
eyes shot with blood; it filled Grace with vague terror to see that he
had been drinking.

"You are rough," she said. "Your grasp on my arm is painful. If you
begin like this and drive me too far----"

"Take care you don't drive me too far," Rice muttered. "It is quite
time we had an explanation, my lady. You belong to me now, and I am
going to take very good care to let you know it. It is in your hands to
have as good a time here as any woman could wish for. You can have your
friends, you can have your horses and carriages, you can cover yourself
with jewels if you like, but I am going to have my price. None of your
confounded airs and graces here, no looking at me as if I were dirt
beneath your feet."

The grip on Grace's arm tightened till she could have cried aloud with
the pain. She wrenched herself free and pointed to the deep red wheals
on her delicate skin. A passionate anger filled her heart--for this
kind of thing wives had murdered their husbands before now.

"Oh, that is nothing," Rice said. "If that proud spirit of your does
not bend I am going to break it. Do you remember what happened in the
case of Mercy Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit? Do you recollect how she
laughed at him and made fun of him, and how patiently he bore it till
she was in his power. And then, my lady, he showed her what I am going
to show you. It was not long before that patient, humble wife crept to
the feet of her lord, and implored him to be kind and good to her. You
may not believe it, but I love you with a passion that you little dream
of. But that will not prevent me teaching you that I am your master
here. You do not know what I am when I am thwarted."

The words came huskily from Rice's lips, his grip was on Grace's arm
again, his hot, drink-laden breath seemed to scorch her. For the first
time in her life Grace knew what fear was. She felt that in certain
circumstances this man was capable of murdering her. She had heard
tales of his cruelty, she felt quite inclined to believe them now as
those vindictive eyes glared at her.

"This is all premature," she said coldly, "I am your wife only in name;
it is a civil contract I have undergone for the sake of my father. I am
not afraid of you."

"No, but you will be before a week is passed," Rice sneered. "I am
merely warning you, and the consequences will be on your own head if
you persist in going your own way."

Without further protest Grace made her way to the drawing-room,
followed by Rice. She hardly glanced round the apartment. She did not
notice how perfectly appointed it was, the rose-shaded lights conveyed
nothing to her. She had other things to occupy her attention, she
hardly heeded a figure in the corner of the room seated on a couch.
The figure was daintily decked out in an evening dress of some orange
hue. The wearer rose, and came across the room perfectly collected and
smiling, and held out her hand to Grace, who stared at her in amazement.

"I have come to dine with you," the intruder said. "I hope I shan't be
out of place, but the circumstances are not normal. My dear Stephen,
have you no words of welcome for your beloved friend, Bessie Fenton?"

A good round oath broke from Rice's snarling lips. Just for a moment
it occurred to Grace that he was inclined to offer the unbidden guest
personal violence. The blood had flamed into his face, the purple veins
were standing out like whipcord on his forehead, his great coarse
hands clenched as if they had clenched about the throat of an unseen
foe. But whatever other attributes Bessie lacked, she did not want for
courage. She smiled into the convulsed features of her host as if she
had been the most welcome guest in the world. She seemed to be quite
self-possessed; indeed, it was she who suggested that they should all
sit down.

"And don't you look at me like that, Stephen," she said; "pray control
yourself. If you throw yourself into such passions you will most
assuredly have a seizure of some kind. Don't forget what happened to
you three years ago, and what the doctor told you then. I see you have
been drinking again."

"I have been drinking all the afternoon," Rice said savagely. "What do
I care what the doctors say?"

"Go on," Bessie said almost gaily. "Go back to your old life, and you
will be doing your new wife the greatest kindness in your power. So you
thought you were going to fool me, to play with me as if I were some
simple village maiden listening to a tale of love for the first time.
You thought to lure me to leave the country; you thought I believed
your story which you told me at Manchester three days ago. If I had
managed to reach Leverton two hours earlier this morning you would
never have had the proud privilege of calling Miss Anstey your wife. It
is a curious complication altogether."

"Here you have a wife who despises you from the bottom of her heart,
knowing you for the detestable scoundrel that you are, and here am I,
with the same evil knowledge of you, prepared to follow you to the end
of the world. You know it is within my power to land you in a gaol
within an hour from now, and once you are in that gaol, society would
see nothing of you for the next ten years, and this poor girl here
could set the machinery of the law in motion and regain her freedom.
But because I care for you in my blind, unreasoning way, I cannot say
the words which would deprive you of your liberty. According to all the
traditions I ought to feel a violent hatred against the woman who has
supplanted me. But I don't do anything of the kind. After all, I am a
woman, and she has all my deepest sympathy. My dear lady, I am going to
protect you from the violence of that man. If ever he ill-treats you,
come to me, and I will put into your hands a lash of scorpions."

Grace listened mechanically to this extraordinary conversation. It was
amazing to hear old Fenton's daughter speaking like a polished woman of
the world and carrying off a rich dress as if she had been used to that
kind of apparel all her life. One thing Grace noted, and did not fail
to make a point of, she saw that Bessie Fenton had some powerful hold
upon Rice, and that he was bound to do exactly as she told him. She had
herself wonderfully in hand, too, she spoke without the slightest trace
of passion, her tones were level and self-contained.

On the other hand, Rice stood there, with the dusky red still upon his
face, like a man who is on the verge of some physical collapse. At the
same moment a servant entered and announced that dinner was ready.
Bessie Fenton rose and suggested that Rice should offer his arm to his
wife.

"I am not going in to dinner," he muttered. "Devil can take the dinner
for me, and you, too. Brodie, bring me a bottle of brandy, and a couple
of syphons of soda water. Why don't you go into dinner, you white-faced
cat? Go, both of you, before I forget you are women, and do you a
mischief."

Bessie Fenton took Grace by the arm and led her away. It was a strange
home-coming for a young bride; the humor of the situation appealed
perilously to Grace, and a sharp, half-hysterical laugh escaped her
lips. Bessie looked at her anxiously.

"Don't do that," she whispered. "For heaven's sake, try and control
yourself. And, whatever happens, you are not to forget that I am your
friend. You are evidently utterly run down for want of proper rest and
food. Never mind what the servants say or think; the servants in this
extraordinary household are accustomed to everything. Now you are going
to have some soup and a glass of champagne. I am going to take you into
my own hands."

Grace submitted like a tired child under the control of a nurse. She
was quite surprised to find that she could eat anything at all, but
gradually the healthy appetite of youth came back to her, and she made
a good meal. There was something strange and sympathetic about her
companion. She wondered where Bessie Fenton could possibly have been to
acquire such good manners and address.

The girl seemed to read her thoughts, for she smiled.

"You must not forget that we Fentons used to be people of importance in
the county," she said. "My mother was a gipsy, it is true, and from her
I inherit the wild blood in my veins. But my father has relatives who
have done their best to get us into their own hands. This is the way in
which I have been more or less educated, though I confess it has been
very scrappy."

"Enough to tell you the difference between right and wrong," Grace
said. "Enough to make it all the more extraordinary to me that you
should have given your heart to a man like Stephen Rice."

"It is extraordinary," Bessie said thoughtfully. "But there it is. I
bitterly regret that. I did not succeed before----"

"In freeing Max Graham," Grace said eagerly. "You promised me that he
should be set at liberty; indeed, your sister--I presume it was your
sister--wrote to me making a definite promise on the subject. Mr.
Graham came too late by five minutes. Tell me where he was all the
time."

"In our house partly," Bessie said. "Mind you, we never guessed, we
never knew the reason why. Of course, I knew that Stephen Rice was
anxious to make you his wife, but I did not dream that you were engaged
to Mr. Graham. Stephen Rice intimated to us that Mr. Graham had got
into a scrape and that he must be kept out of the way for a few days. I
quite thought that Mr. Graham's accident was part of the trouble."

"But he wrote letters to me," Grace protested, "at least I received one
letter, which I will show you."

"I know nothing of that," Bessie said. "I expect that was where Stephen
Rice's cunning came in. My father is ever in dire need of money, and he
would do anything that Rice asked, provided that he was paid for it.
It would be absurd to disguise the fact that my father is a consummate
scoundrel, and ready for anything that would pay him. I have not the
slightest doubt, after what you tell me, that Mr. Graham was kept under
the influence of some deadly drug, and if he wrote that letter he did
not know what he was doing at the time. I think when you go into the
matters you will find it exactly as I have said."

"What is the use of going back over the past?" Grace asked mournfully.
"The thing is done now, and I am tied for life to a man whom I cannot
but despise."

"Not for life," Bessie said significantly. "Do you hear that?"

Suddenly the silence of the house was broken by a hideous cry and the
sound of ribald mirth. Grace's face paled; she shuddered, though she
could not altogether understand.

"That is going to be your best friend," Bessie went on. "A friend that
you will have to fight, a friend that may place your life in peril, but
a force that is fighting for your freedom all the time."

"You must be more explicit," Grace said.

"That I will. It is drink. That expresses it all. Sometimes for a month
or two Stephen Rice would lead a sober life. Then the demon gets hold
of him, and for the time being he is mad. He has broken out again the
last two or three days; indeed, I have known him to go on for a week
with out food or sleep, and but for the intervention of a certain
preparation or morphia which he takes he would have died raving mad,
or, perhaps, have perished by his own hand. I must show you where he
keeps that drug, and you must find it and administer it to him when he
becomes dangerous. There are full directions on the bottle. It is the
only way to reduce him to sleep; the only way to save yourself from
personal violence."

Grace listened, wondering when the sordid recital would reach the
point of the greatest degradation. The noise in the drawing room was
increased now to cries and whoops, and there was a sudden crashing
smash, and Grace could stand it no longer.

Crushing down the fear that held her, she made her way to the
drawing-room. In the middle of the room stood Rice denuded of his coat
and vest, and glaring as if he were face to face with some bitter
enemy. As Grace entered he grabbed from the table a delicate tea set
of Dresden china and flung it violently against a mirror, which was
hanging on the wall. As the china smashed into a thousand pieces he
gave a wild, unsteady laugh and lurched across the room in Grace's
direction. She placed her hand upon the bell and rang it violently.

"You won't get that answered," Rice yelled. "I have sent all the
servants out of the house on one errand and another, and they won't be
back till midnight. I am going to have it out alone with you, my lady."

The half-demented man had evidently forgotten the presence of Bessie
Fenton. Grace rang the bell again and again, but there was no response.
No sound came from the direction of the servants' hall. Rice laughed
again and reeled across the room to a side table, from which he
produced a shining object, which Grace to her horror recognised as a
revolver. With a little cry she fled from the room, closely followed
by Rice, who screamed horribly as he came. Like a flash Grace darted
upstairs and flung herself headlong into her bedroom, locking the
door behind her. She was thankful to notice that the door was strong,
and that Rice had contented himself with stopping at the foot of the
stairs, where he was whooping and yelling like a demon. A moment later
Grace could hear the softest of knocking on her door.

"He has never been as bad as this before," a voice whispered. "It is
a good thing for you that he has forgotten my presence here. Keep
very quiet and make no response even if he speaks to you. I heard
what he said in the drawing-room--it is quite true that he has sent
all the servants away. Dare you stay here while I steal away and get
assistance?"

"Anything you like," Grace replied. "Anything so long as you lose no
time in getting me out of this dreadful house."

"Courage," Bessie whispered. "Courage, and all will be well.
Fortunately I have not far to go."

There was a silence then, followed a moment later by the soft closing
of a door, and Grace breathed all the more easily when she realised
that Bessie had departed on her errand. She could hear Rice yelling
to her to come out, and threatening her with all kinds of horrible
violence if she declined to accede to his request. It seemed as if help
was never coming, as if Bessie Fenton had abandoned her to her fate.

"Come out," yelled Rice. "Come out and kiss me, or will I break the
door down. Come out, I say."

There was a sudden pause in the yells and screams, then a heavy
footstep blundered up the stairs, and Grace could hear stentorian
breathing on the other side of the door. The cries were resumed again,
followed by a deafening crash that seemed to shake the house. Then to
her horror Grace saw that the panel of the door had given way, and that
an axe, followed by a bare arm, was already protruding into the room.
Before she could rush to the door and remove the key the hand inside
through the broken panel was fumbling at the lock, and Rice's hoarse
voice was heard cursing his own stupidity. Grace raised the window and
measured the distance between herself and the ground. If the worst came
to the worst that was the only way.

Grace stood there, her heart beating furiously. She was filled with a
feeling that her end was very near. She was not afraid--indeed, she
would have found it hard to analyse her emotions. She had abandoned the
idea of making use of the window; curiously enough, while she dreaded
the thought of a severe accident, she did not attach half as much
importance to the absolute certainty of death at the drunken madman's
hands. She watched Rice's trembling fingers fumbling for the lock, she
saw the key turn, and in an instant later the door opened.

It was only then that Grace's faculties returned to her. She had to
make some effort for safety, for now at any moment help might be at
hand. Before Rice could enter the room she had made a dart for the
bed, and lifting the valance, hid herself from sight. She lay there
straining her ears to catch the sound of assistance. On the other hand,
Rice seemed to be dumbfounded at finding the room empty. He called aloud
for Grace; it never seemed to occur to him where was her hiding-place.

"Where has she got to?" he muttered to himself. "I could have sworn
that she came into this room. Come out, I say. Come out, and let us die
together. I have the revolver in my hand!"

With a hideous laugh, Rice laid his hand upon the trigger of the
weapon, and three shots followed in rapid succession. Grace could hear
the smash of glass, and, terrified as she was, she had sense enough
to hope that the noise would bring someone to her aid. Rice laughed
again, then commenced a perfect fusillade of shots in all directions.
The smashing of glass and the splinting of wood made a fitting
accompaniment to the disgraceful scene. Then it seemed to Grace that
she could hear voices outside, and a moment later footsteps hurrying
up the stairs. Was it possible, she wondered, if she was going to be
saved, after all? It seemed like it, for suddenly the hideous noise
ceased and Grace heard something that might have been the noise of a
struggle. She heard the revolver fall crashing to the floor, she could
hear deep breathings, and then the thud of a body, as if someone had
struck Rice a violent blow and hurled him backwards. Greatly daring,
Grace ventured to peep from her hiding place; then to her great relief
she saw that Rice was lying prone on his back with the figure of
another man sitting on his chest. Apparently the newcomer divined that
somebody was behind him, for he muttered that Grace need not be afraid,
and that he would need her assistance. He did not turn, his eyes were
fixed intently upon Rice's convulsed face.

"There is no cause for alarm," he said, "will you be good enough to go
and fetch Mrs. Rice here?"

"I am Mrs. Rice," Grace said, hesitating over the hateful name. "What
can I do for you?"

"Oh, you have been hiding under the bed," the man said. "You had a
very narrow escape, indeed, but our friend here is powerless for the
moment; in fact, I think that the fall stunned him. But he will be
himself again very soon, and we must find somewhere to quiet him. In
your husband's bedroom you will find a little medicine chest by the
side of the dressing-table. In the chest there is a small bottle marked
'Morphia Drops.' Will you please fetch it for me."

Grace went off without the slightest hesitation. Whoever the stranger
was, evidently he was a man to be obeyed. Being practically a stranger
to the house, Grace had some little difficulty in finding the bedroom,
but returned presently with a tiny blue bottle in her hand. Her unknown
friend was still seated on Rice's chest; the latter's eyes were open
now, and he was glaring wildly about him. In the coolest possible way
the stranger threw half the contents of the bottle on the carpet,
and the rest he forced between the lips of his opponent. At once the
effects of the dose were apparent; in less than two minutes Rice
had closed his eyes, and had dropped off into what appeared to be a
profound sleep. As if he had been a child, the stranger picked up the
body of the unconscious man and placed it on the bed. Not till then did
he turn to Grace with a smile of recognition on his face.

"Mr. Cattley," she cried in amazement. "What are you doing here? How
did you know I was in danger?"

"I don't think we need go into that," Cattley said coolly. "Sufficient
to say that I am here, and that I have probably saved your life. I take
a great deal more interest in you than you imagine--why, you will know
some day."

Grace was silent for a moment, her thoughts travelled back fast over
the stirring events of the last few days. It had seemed to her that
Cattley's first appearance had heralded the subsequent troubles that
had almost overwhelmed her. And here he was now smiling at her with the
air of a man who plays the part of a faithful friend.

"It seems hard to believe it," Grace said bitterly. "Up to the hour
that I met you I was one of the happiest girls in England. And yet
from that moment everything has gone against me--well, after what you
have seen the last few minutes, I need not go into details. Perhaps it
is because I know more than you think--perhaps it is that after the
accident to Mr. Holder----"

Grace paused, conscious of the changed expression on the face of her
companion. There was a frown between his brows, his eyes gleamed like
points of flame.

"Whatever you know about that, say nothing of it to anybody," he
whispered. "You think you are on the track of a crime--you never made
a greater mistake in your life. If you know anything, if you have the
faintest idea of the truth, do not let a single syllable escape, even
to your dearest friend. Later on I shall show you how George Cattley
came from the other end of the world to save the honor of a good old
house."

"I will believe you," Grace said. "You speak with such deep sincerity
that I have no other alternative. But I can wish from the bottom of my
heart that you had come a few days sooner."

"I quite understand what you mean," Cattley said, almost sorrowfully.
"I would have saved you if I could, but whilst I was engaged in other
matters that scoundrel who lies on the bed yonder was too many for me.
I did not expect that he would have taken matters quite so daringly in
his own hands."

"But you seem to know him perfectly," Grace said. "You understand his
habits; you even know where to place your finger on the remedy for that
terrible disease."

"All that we shall come to presently," Cattley said. "As you say, it is
a disease inherited from a father who perished most miserably. Before
long Rice will open his eyes again, and you will find that he has
entirely forgotten the events of the past hour. Then he will fall into
a deep sleep which will last for many hours, and perhaps for the next
month or two you will see no sign of the trouble. I will show you how
to act."

Grace shuddered; the mere idea of living so close to a sleeping
volcano was dreadful. It was all very well for Cattley to promise her
an absence of anxiety; but then she would never be able to tell when
another outbreak was due. Probably Cattley had read something of this
in Grace's mind, for he went on to speak again.

"Of course, you must be protected," he said. "What you want here is
some powerful man who can act in the capacity of a kind of keeper. The
thing can easily be managed without scandal."

"I could not stand it," Grace cried. "Another scene like this would
deprive me of my reason. It is bad enough for the ordinary wife to
discover this curse in the man she has married, but when you hate and
loathe anybody as I hate and loathe Stephen Rice, the mere fact of
being under the same roof with him is unspeakable. Not even for my
father's sake could I----"

Grace paused, for she saw now that Rice had lifted his head from
the bed, and was regarding her curiously. His face was no longer
convulsed with passion, the hot blood had receded from it, leaving it
a dull, pasty white. The man's hands shook and trembled as if with the
feebleness of old age. He seemed to comprehend that something out of
the common had happened. So far as Grace was concerned she might have
been a perfect stranger; the man on the bed had eyes only for Cattley,
who regarded him sternly.

"What's up?" Rice moaned. "What brings me here? Was it another of them,
or one of the old attacks----"

"Not one of the heart troubles," Cattley said, curtly. "You have been
drinking yourself blind for the last three hours, with the inevitable
consequences. Some day you will have another stroke after one of your
bouts, and the world will be all the richer for the loss of Stephen
Rice."

"I can't help it," Rice moaned; "you know very well I can't help it,
Cattley. What have I been doing this time? There must have been some
cause for my breaking out just now."

"I suppose the main cause was Bessie Fenton," Cattley explained,
"though as a matter of fact you haven't been properly sober for a week."

Rice sat up in bed with his hands pressed to his aching temples. He was
a pitiable object to behold.

"I begin to recollect it now," he said. "I had just brought my wife
home when Bessie came in to dinner. I was dangerous before she came--so
dangerous that I dared not go into dinner. Then I got the brandy out,
and I don't recollect anything else till I woke up just now and found
you both here. Did I startle you a bit, Grace?"

Grace turned away, too disgusted to reply. The man had come very nearly
to murdering her in his drunken frenzy, and now he spoke of it as if it
had been no more than some practical joke.

"You don't appear to appreciate the position," Cattley said. "But for a
sheer accident of fortune you would have murdered your wife. I got here
just in the nick of time."

Rice groaned, but offered no apology. He seemed to be humble and
contrite enough now, and expressed a desire for sleep; indeed, he fell
backwards as he spoke, and his regular breathing testified that he had
lapsed into a profound slumber.

"Leave him there," Cattley suggested. "He is not likely to move for
the next twelve hours. Now let us go down to the dining-room and talk
this matter over. I understand that all the servants have been got rid
of under some pretext or another, and that they will not be back till
morning. In the circumstances, I could not leave you here alone."

"Nothing would induce me to stay," Grace cried. "My maid will come
back, I know, and I shall get her to sleep with me in some other room,
taking care to securely lock the door. At the risk of asking you a
favor, I will suggest that you pass the night here."

"Oh, I most assuredly will," Cattley promised. "Not that there is the
slightest cause for fear now; if you will wait in the dining-room a
little time I will try and find your maid for you, and afterwards we
must turn out another bedroom. You look tired to death. A good night's
rest----"

"There will be no good night's rest for me," Grace said bitterly. "I am
utterly tired and worn out, but I could not sleep. I will go to bed, of
course, but I dread the darkness and the knowledge of my danger. A few
days ago and the word nerves conveyed no meaning to me. I have found
by bitter experience what a reality they are. Still, you have been
exceedingly kind to me, and I shall not forget it. Now, will you try
and find my maid for me?"

Cattley bustled off with the air of a man who knows the house perfectly
well. He returned presently with the information that Helen had come
back, and that another room had been prepared for Grace. She climbed
wearily upstairs; she allowed herself to be partly undressed, and
declared her intention of passing the night in an armchair. She had
made up her mind what to do now; she would return home in the morning
and never come back here any more. Helen was asleep by this time,
the house had grown strangely silent; even Grace was nodding towards
slumber when suddenly she was aroused by a sharp cry below, the
smashing of glass, and the echo of a footstep on the gravel outside.




CHAPTER XXIII.--CALLED HOME.

Grace started up, her heart beating violently; a profuse perspiration
had broken out upon her forehead; she wondered what fresh tribulation
was here now. She strained her ears listening intently, but no further
sound came, and gradually she regained her mastery of herself once
more. She had the knowledge behind her that Cattley was in the house;
he had seemed to be a man of resource and courage. Grace had a little
later on steeled herself to open the door and stand looking down from
the landing into the hall below. The place was perfectly quiet, no
sound broke the silence now, till presently Cattley walked across the
hall, a cigarette in his hand, as if nothing had happened. Grace would
have called out to him, but she felt ashamed to do so. She had given
enough trouble already.

She tripped back to her room again, resolved that this time she would
not close the door. Cattley had assured her that she had nothing
further to fear from Rice for many hours to come. Therefore there was
no need to take extra precautions, and Grace settled herself down in
her chair again to try and snatch a little sleep.

But sleep was out of the question to-night. No sooner did the girl doze
off than she came to herself again with a horrible start, or in the
brief snatches of slumber went through the dread scene all over again.
Grace rose in despair at length, and resolved to get something to
read. She had noticed in a mechanical way that the library contained a
tremendous number of novels, and one of these might sooth her mind, and
enable her to drop into the rest which she so sorely needed. It would
be no trouble to slip down the stairs and enter the library, seeing
that the house was still lighted up and that nobody was about. Grace
reached the library at length, she had selected the book which she
required, and was returning to the hall when a shadow fell across her,
and with a little startled cry she grasped a figure standing in the
doorway. Grace was past all surprises now, therefore she expressed no
more than a mild astonishment when she found herself almost in the arms
of Max.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. There was a certain cold
reflection in her voice that stung Max, for the blood flamed into his
face, and he made no reply for a moment.

"I did not expect to meet you," he stammered at length. "I did not want
to inflict this pain upon you, though sooner or later there must be an
explanation between us. I came here----"

"But you should not have come," Grace cried. "In the circumstances it
is almost indelicate--but I would not say the words which you must know
are uppermost in my mind. If you came with any intention of seeing
me----"

"I swear before heaven I did not," Max cried.

"Not so loud," Grace whispered. "I ought not to stay talking to you
here at all. Besides, we are not alone in the house because----"

"If you are alluding to Cattley, he has gone out," Max said. "In fact,
I did not come in till I had seen him safe off the premises."

"What do you want?" Grace repeated.

"I am looking for some papers," Max explained; "papers of the gravest
importance to me, and touching largely on your future welfare. I do not
like these methods, but they are forced upon me, and I have to fight a
man like Stephen Rice with his own weapons. But I swear to you that I
am after no wrong."

"Then you had better go," Grace said. "It is wrong for me to stand here
talking to you in the house with a man whom I have the misfortune to
call my husband."

"And such a husband!" Max said bitterly. "I am not quite alone here;
I have been hearing something of what has taken place the last hour.
I could not find words to express my sympathy for you in the way you
have been treated. If I gave vent to my feelings I should take you in
my arms and try to show you what I feel for you. No, you need not be
afraid. I have only one consolation left--that is that I have done
nothing to sully my honor."

Grace lingered, though she felt it would be the better part for her to
depart and leave Max to his search. In any case he was playing the part
of a thief in the night, and Grace could see no justification for that.

"If you had only come sooner," she said, "I mean if you had only turned
up a few minutes earlier this morning, what a difference it would
have made to my fate! My recollections of this morning are confused
and misty, but I seem to remember you saying that you had in your
hands certain information by the use of which you could have compelled
Stephen Rice to set me free."

"And so I had," Max protested. "But since you are Rice's wife, and
utterly lost to me, what would be the use of stirring up a scandal. You
would be no better off, and people would say I only did this out of a
paltry desire for vengeance."

"Now that you are here," Grace said, "you might tell me exactly what
happened to you. I mean what happened after you left that Brooks'
house and walked down the avenue with Stephen Rice. He denies that you
left the house together, but that is not true, as Mr. Walters saw you
talking together in the road."

"We had a very heated discussion," Max explained. "I told him all the
information that I have gathered, in fact I let him know quite clearly
that it would be impossible for him to give another serious thought to
you. Then we parted, and I turned across the wood in the direction of
my house. Someone came behind me and dealt me a murderous blow on the
head, rendering me absolutely unconscious. From that time till this
morning I never really was myself. I seemed to be walking about in a
kind of dream; I seemed to have lost all my will power, and was only
able to do exactly what was told me by those who kept me a kind of
prisoner."

"You recognised who your captors were!"

"You have not quite forgotten," Max went on, "the treacherous blow
from behind which deprived me of my reason for some considerable time.
Even when I came to myself again I was not able to think coherently,
to say nothing of the fact that I was nearly blind as a result of that
cowardly assault. All I could do was to lie down. I seemed to have
quite lost all my interest in life. But I have no doubt that I shall
elucidate the secret some time."

"Possibly I may discover the secret first," Grace interrupted. "For
some little time you were kept a prisoner at Fenton's Farm, and Bessie
Fenton waited upon you. Curiously enough, she is violently in love with
Stephen Rice, who used her as a tool in this dreadful business, she
not realising for a moment that she was playing Rice's game at her own
expense. She was not aware that you and I were engaged, or she would
have at once exposed the fraud and put an end to the conspiracy. And
now by the strange irony of Fate, Bessie Fenton is playing the part of
my friend. I feel sure, too, that her sister is on our side, and from
them you may get the truth. Do you know the sister?"

"I have heard that there was one," Max replied. "When I came properly
to myself this morning I was lying in the charcoal-burner's hut, and
it seemed to me that I saw a woman disappear from the room just as I
opened my eyes. On the table by my side was a scrap of paper, in which
I was urged to get away at once to the registry office at Leverton, if
I wished to defeat Stephen Rice's nefarious scheme. Dazed and confused
as I was, I guessed exactly what had happened, and came away as quickly
as my weak state would allow. I was just too late as you know. Five
minutes sooner, and you would be a free woman at this moment."

Grace shook her head sorrowfully; it was too late to talk of this. She
would have to go her own way.

"I shall have to put up with it," she said. "I have promised this man
to become his wife. I had to do this to save my father's good name, and
that must be my consolation in my hours of suffering. But you must not
come here again, Max--the less we meet in future the better. And if it
falls out that my trouble is greater than poor human nature can bear,
then I will send for you with a sure and certain knowledge that you
will come."

"I will come even from the uttermost ends of the earth," Max cried
passionately. "And now you had better go off to your room and leave me
to my search. I am anxious to find those papers before Cattley comes
back. He is sure not to be long."

Grace found herself wondering why Cattley had gone out at all,
especially after his promise to her that he would remain in the house
all night. Perhaps the cry she had heard a little time before had had
something to do with it. It was possible that somebody else had made
an attempt to get into the house--indeed, the sound of broken glass
and the hastily-retreating footsteps favored this theory. Grace turned
sorrowfully away and held out her hand to Max. Her voice was unsteady
as she spoke.

"We have been sorely tried," she said. "But let us do the best we can
to bear up bravely. Good-night, Max."

Max carried the hand to his lips and kissed it tenderly. A moment or
two later and Grace was back in her room. She closed the door behind
her this time. She saw that Helen was still steeping peacefully, and
envied the girl her perfect rest. Grace sat down in her chair again
longing for the sleep which refused to visit her eyes. An hour parsed,
and Grace was surprised to find it was only twelve o'clock. It seemed
ages since she had first entered that house of sorrows, although she
had been there but half a day. She rose from her chair half impatiently
and began to pace about the room. She could hear footsteps down below
and muttered voices. With a feeling of alarm she wondered if the
presence of Max had been discovered. She could bear the strain no
longer. She crossed into the corridor and looked down into the hall. So
far as she could see there was no cause for alarm. Cattley was standing
there, still smoking his cigarette. He appeared to be giving some
instructions to one or two of the servants who had just come in. They
seemed by no means surprised to discover that all had not been as it
should be during their absence. Grace could hear them presently going
up the back stairs in the direction of their quarters. Cattley strolled
across the hall into the library and closed the door behind him. It was
quite evident to Grace now that Max's presence in the house had not
been detected, and with this consolation uppermost in her mind Grace
returned to her room.

She would make a determined effort to sleep, she told herself. But rest
appeared to be quite out of the question in that strange household, for
along the drive came the quick beat of a horse's hoofs, and a moment
later a bell rang violently downstairs. Grace could hear Cattley call
out to the servants that he would answer the bell in person, the door
was thrown open, and somebody in agitated tones was talking to Cattley,
whom apparently the messenger had come to see. Grace was startled to
recognise the voice of one of her father's grooms. With a feeling in
her mind that something dreadful had happened she slipped down the
stairs into the hall just as Cattley turned and saw her.

"Is there anything wrong at home?" Grace asked.

"I am afraid there is," Cattley explained. "A groom has just driven
over with a message from the bank house. It appears that your father
has met with a serious accident----"

"Then I will go at once," Grace said. "Can you tell me how the thing
happened, and if my father is----"

"Not dead," Cattley interposed. "Strangely enough he was found just now
on the bank premises proper, wounded and ill-treated precisely in the
same way as the assault was committed upon Mr. Holder."




CHAPTER XXIV.--A FRESH CLUE.

Grace listened to all that Cattley had to say, but her mind had been
made up long before he had finished. She almost dreaded to analyse her
own thoughts; she hardly dared to acknowledge that this accident to her
father came to her more in the shape of relief than anything else. The
one thing uppermost in her mind was the knowledge that she was about to
escape from Stephen Rice, even if it was only for a few days. She felt
very like the convict in the condemned cell who receives information
of his reprieve. Perhaps Fate was working on her side at last; perhaps
she was going to escape from this hateful house for ever. But if she
had loved Rice as much as she had hated him, her duty would have been
equally clear before her. Without a word to Cattley she went up to her
room and speedily reappeared dressed for a journey.

"I will go over to the bank house at once," she said. "Perhaps you will
be good enough to stay here and look after my husband."

"I don't think so," Cattley said. "One of the men-servants has come
back, and he is accustomed to deal with Rice in his dark moments. I
will get the servant up and instruct him what to do."

"Then you are coming with me?" Grace asked.

"Assuredly I am. In case your father is seriously damaged, it is
absolutely essential that I should have speech with him. Pray look upon
me as a friend of the family--you do not know what a friend I shall be
later on."

Without further explanation, Cattley led the way to the dog-cart, and a
moment later the horse's head was turned in the direction of the bank
house. The accident was as bad as it had been reported; the affrighted
old housekeeper could give but a meagre account of what had happened.

"I was just going to bed," she said. "I had been sitting up rather
late, and everybody but myself had retired--that is, everybody besides
my master. It was getting fairly late for him. I went in the study to
see if he wanted anything, and was surprised to find that he was not
there, though lights were out in all the other rooms on the ground
floor. I did not think much of this, as it was such a beautiful night,
because my master sometimes walks outside smoking a cigar. As I was
going up the stairs I heard a crash and a cry, followed by a series
of groans. The noise seemed to come from the direction of the bank
premises, and then, to my surprise, I saw that the big door leading
to the bank was open. I had never seen it open before--it is always
as rigidly locked after bank hours as the big entrance to the street.
I felt at once that something had happened, and without a moment's
hesitation I rushed into the counting-house. The place was brilliantly
lighted. On the floor lay my master, bleeding profusely from a wound in
his head. Then I summoned assistance, and we got the poor gentleman to
bed. He is absolutely unconscious."

"What does the doctor say?" Grace asked.

"The doctor has not yet been," the housekeeper explained. "We sent to
two doctors; both of them happened to be out. We expect one or another
of them at any moment."

The housekeeper bustled away, leaving Grace and Cattley facing each
other. The latter's face was very grave.

"We must get to the bottom of this business," he said. "It is very
remarkable that your father should have been attacked in the same
murderous way as poor Holder was assaulted. The same time at night,
the same place. I have a theory which I will explain to you later on,
meanwhile we had better go upstairs and see if we can do anything for
your father."

Anstey lay on the bed stiff and rigid, and to all appearances dead.
There was only the faintest movement of his heart, there was a great
gash across his head covered with blood, which had now congealed and
prevented a further flow. Almost at the same moment the doctor arrived,
and for half an hour or more was too busy with his patient to offer any
opinion as to the extent of the injuries sustained. He looked up from
his labors presently and smiled at Grace, whom he knew very well indeed.

"Is it very serious, Dr. Welsh?" the girl asked.

"It is pretty bad," the doctor said cheerfully. "That blow must have
been administered with tremendous force, with some sharp instrument,
presumably an axe. Though the skull is fractured, the brain is
uninjured, and with a constitution like Mr. Anstey's I have very strong
hopes of a quick recovery."

"Do you think he is likely to return to consciousness?" Cattley asked.
"I mean may we hope for a speedy explanation of this outrage, so that
we may follow up the culprit without delay?"

"I should say not," Welsh replied. "There will be no consciousness for
at least a week. All we have to do now is to keep the patient perfectly
quiet and administer such nourishment as I shall prescribe every few
hours. I will send a nurse in in the morning; meanwhile there is
nothing for me to remain for."

The doctor departed, leaving Cattley and Grace alone together. Anstey
lay there still and motionless; he was not likely to move for some
hours to come. Cattley whispered to Grace to follow him down to the
dining-room. There was no thought of bed for Grace to-night, so that
she was prepared to listen to all that Cattley had to say.

"You won't mind my smoking?" he said. "My dear girl, I am going to take
you into my confidence to a certain extent. I know you are under the
impression that your father has been very foolish about money matters,
to put it mildly."

"'What other conclusion could I come to?" Grace asked. "You seem to
know everything, and therefore I can be equally candid with you. My
father told me that the shadow of disgrace hung over his name. He
informed me that unless he had a large sum of money without delay, he
would be compelled to face a criminal prosecution. Stephen Rice was
ready with that money on certain conditions--I need not repeat what
those hateful conditions were."

"We won't go into that," Cattley said. "The mischief is done and
there is an end of it. Not, mind you, but what I would have prevented
it had not Rice been a little too quick for me. So you thought that
your father had been making ducks and drakes of his clients' property
and spending money right and left which did not belong to him. As a
matter of fact, that is not the case. Your father has been criminally
careless, I admit--for the last few years he has left everything to
Holder. Things have got into such a muddle that no man who is not a
financial genius could understand them. I was in a position to find
that things were going wrong some time ago. On the night that Holder
was nearly killed I came here to see your father and to demand certain
securities which he was holding for me. It did not take me long to
discover the true position of affairs. I did not want a scandal,
therefore I took my own way of sending for Holder."

"But what did you want Holder for?" Grace asked.

"Because for some years he has really been the head of the bank. He
was the only one capable of explaining the complication. He came at my
request, and he was going to sit up all night to get out a statement
of accounts. What happened later on you know as well as I do. That
statement was practically finished, all the same, and when I came to
check it, I made certain startling discoveries. Securities and deeds
which your father could not have possibly handled had been spirited
away, and most of these I traced to an office in London, in which
office Holder was distinctly associated. In other words Holder has been
making away with bank property----"

"What, Mr. Holder!" Grace cried. "If there was one man in the world I
regarded as absolutely honest----"

"Precisely," Cattley said. "We get these unpleasant shocks every day.
I think I shall be able to prove to you before long that our friend
Holder was no better than he should be."

Grace could hardly take the thing in for a moment. She had always
regarded Holder as the model of respectability. The man had been at
the bank for upwards of thirty years; he had had positively no vices;
he was reputed to have saved money, and, besides this, he was quite a
pillar of the parish church.

"It seems incredible to me," Grace said. "But I suppose I must take
your word for it. And now I think I had better go and look after my
father. I had not thought about a bedroom for you."

Cattley replied that he would see to that himself. Grace went slowly
up the stairs, and closed the door of her father's bedroom behind her.
Anstey was lying in exactly the same attitude; there was nothing for it
but to watch him, and Grace picked up a book with which to while away
the hours.

She had almost forgotten her troubles in this brief moment of security;
she was getting quite interested in her story when there came upon
the window a sharp tap as if a bird were outside trying to get in. At
first Grace thought it was a bird, and took no heed; but presently
the tap came again, this time more sharply, followed immediately by a
series of taps, and then Grace knew that someone was throwing gravel
at the window to attract her attention. She rose softly and pulled
aside the blind. In the light of the very early dawn she could see
that a grotesque figure was standing on the gravel. With a thrill she
recognised the form of "Poor Billy."

He waved his hand as he saw Grace's face. He appeared to be very
pleased with the success of his enterprise. His left hand hung by his
side, and to Grace's surprise she saw that he held a small axe. In his
grotesque way he motioned to Grace to come down; evidently he had some
strange story to tell.

Grace did not hesitate for a moment; she recollected how useful
Billy had been on a previous occasion. She crept quietly down to the
dining-room, and opened the long French windows leading to the lawn.
Billy grinned in a satisfied kind of way, and held the axe above his
head. To Grace's horror she saw that the blade was stained with blood.
She pointed to the weapon and raised her eyebrows as if asking what it
all meant.

Then Billy commenced a strange pantomime. He sat on the grass with the
air of a man who is writing busily. He pretended to be turning over
the pages of imaginary books. Evidently he was playing the part of a
business man, doing work in his own office. Then he laid his coat and
hat upon the grass, and retreated a little distance, coming back a
moment later on tiptoe with the axe poised above his head. He brought
down the axe with a tremendous crash upon his own coat, after which he
turned and grinned knowingly at Grace.

"I see it all," Grace said, forgetful for the moment that Billy could
not understand her. "You saw that crime committed. My father was busy
with his books in the office when the murderer stole up behind him with
that axe and did the mischief, but where did you get it from?"

Grace pointed at the weapon, and Billy in his turn pointed in the
direction of the bank premises. He made a gesture which Grace took
to mean that the miscreant was still not far off. Without a moment's
hesitation Grace returned to the house and made her way to the room
where Cattley was sleeping. She had barely knocked twice before he was
at the door ready dressed. Grace told her story breathlessly. Cattley
raced down the stairs and into the bank, the big door of which had not
yet been closed.

Grace stood there waiting for some little time before she heard a shout
and the sound of a blow, then came swift footsteps and a man burst
through the big doors into the house. There was only a feeble spot of
light in the hall, but it did not seem to matter to the stranger, who
appeared to know the premises perfectly well. He came crashing against
the table. With his head down he darted for the dining-room door, and
fell almost headlong through the window on to the lawn. Whether he
had seen Grace or not the girl did not know, she was too surprised to
ask herself the question. Cattley came panting back, a disappointed
expression on his face.

"Has the fellow gone?" he cried. "Did he pass you? And if you did see
him, would you be likely to recognise him again?"

"I don't know," Grace said confusedly. "But I should almost be prepared
to swear that the man was James Holder."




CHAPTER XXV.--A DARKER TRAGEDY STILL.

The doctor's report the following morning in regard to Mr. Anstey
was much better than could have been expected, taking all the
circumstances into consideration. The patient had had a good night,
and his grand constitution was evidently standing him in excellent
stead. An efficient nurse had taken up her position in the house,
and there was nothing further for Grace to do. Anstey was likely to
remain unconscious for some days to come, so that, as a matter of
fact, Grace was not needed, indeed she was living so close that she
could be fetched at any moment in case of necessity. Very regretfully,
Grace decided that it was her duty to return to her husband's house.
She mentioned the matter to Cattley at breakfast time, and he was
emphatically of the same opinion.

"There is one thing I have to tell you before you go," he said, "and
that is something I have learnt during the last hour. I went out before
breakfast with a view of seeing how Holder has been going on, and for
that purpose I called at the hospital. You must know that Holder has
been going on very well for the last three weeks, indeed physically
he is almost as well as ever he was. They say the brain is clouded
and likely to remain so, but a few days only will have elapsed before
Holder would have been discharged bodily cured. You told me that you
are almost sure you saw him last night, and if that was the case there
is little doubt that we could put our hand at any moment on your
father's murderous assailant."

"But if Mr. Holder is in the hospital," Grace began, "I cannot possibly
understand how he could have been here at the same time."

"That is precisely the point I am coming to," Cattley cried. "I asked
to see Holder, and I was refused. I saw that the hospital officials
were disposed to be reticent in the matter, and I insisted upon getting
to the bottom of it. It seems that about ten o'clock last night Holder
managed to get the nurse out of the way, and when she came back a
little later Holder had vanished. To make a long story short, they
were looking for him all night, and only found him about seven o'clock
this morning, lying asleep and utterly exhausted in a ditch not very
far from here. After that, I don't think there is any occasion for us
to have any doubts as to the author of last night's mischief. At the
present moment Holder is not responsible for his actions, therefore we
should gain nothing by taking proceedings against him. For the present
this matter had better be a secret between us."

Grace went her way, wondering whether there would ever be an end of
the mystery and trouble that seemed to cloud her life into a tempest.
She arrived at home presently; she found the servants awaiting her.
On their faces was a lot of anxiety and concern, which filled Grace
with dread. She had hardly passed into the hall before she heard the
sounds of shouting and singing, and she knew at once that the scenes of
last night were going to repeat themselves. It was no use pretending
anything to these people; it would have been folly to hide the truth
under so transparent a mask.

"How long has this been going on again?" Grace asked. "You need not
tell me what is happening--I know that quite well for myself. Is
anybody with him?"

"Yes, madam," the housekeeper replied. "Parker is up there, and Parker
can manage as well as anybody in the house. You had better not go up,
though the master has been asking for you."

Grace replied that she had no intention whatever of going upstairs. She
was quite prepared to leave everything to Parker, who was familiar with
these degrading scenes. At the same time Grace felt that she must see
Cattley again; indeed, each hour she seemed to rely more and more upon
his assistance. Grace had enquired as to whether it was not usual in
these cases to call in a doctor. The housekeeper shook her head.

"They won't come, madam," she explained. "There is not a single local
doctor who will come near the house. They know exactly what is the
matter, and, besides, master has insulted most of them at one time
or another. He has slept nearly all night, but when he woke he asked
for brandy again, and we always know what that means. When the fit
of violence has passed away he generally takes that drug of his and
gradually gets better."

Grace listened with a feeling of sickness at her heart.

"And how often does this kind of thing occur, may I ask?" she said. "Is
it a daily matter, or are there intervals when the house is sweet and
respectable? It is a mystery to me why you servants stay here at all.
Why do you stay?"

The housekeeper intimated that it was merely a matter of money,
and that Rice paid his servants liberally, though at somewhat long
intervals.

"It is only now and again master is as bad as this," the housekeeper
went on, "though he is never what I call a pleasant man. From all I can
see, I should say that he is a good deal worried about money matters.
You look surprised, madam?"

It seemed to Grace that she had occasion to be surprised. She had
always heard Rice spoken of as a rich man though his father had always
lived almost penuriously. If Rice had deceived Grace in this matter,
then her sacrifice had been all in vain. There was no opportunity now,
neither would there be for some time to come, of ascertaining from Mr.
Anstey whether Rice had performed his part of the contract. Not that
it much mattered, not that anything much mattered now, so Grace told
herself wearily.

The long day dragged on slowly, and Grace killed the time by making
herself acquainted with the house which might be meant to be her prison
for many years to come. She was bound to admit that the cage was
heavily gilt; indeed, the more she saw of the place the less surprised
was she at the class of mother who had openly tried to secure Stephen
Rice as her son-in-law. Nothing was wanted there that money and taste
could procure. But Grace would gladly have exchanged it with the
humblest cottage. It seemed to her a dreadful thing that a man who had
all the good things of the world on his side should make a hell of his
life, and become the slave to a spirit which was gradually sapping life
and reason. From time to time the girl could hear Rice's shouts and
bursts of ribald laughter. He paced up and down his room incessantly
like some caged animal seeking for an outlet for escape. It was about 6
o'clock before the man Parker came downstairs, and proclaimed himself
to be thoroughly worn out. He was not without marks of violence, as
Grace could see for herself. Evidently more than one close struggle had
taken place in the seclusion of Rice's bedroom.

"I am afraid you have had a bad time of it," Grace said. "Is there
nothing we can do to prevent a recurrence of these disgraceful scenes?
Is he better now?"

"A little quieter, madam," Parker explained. "But one never knows when
he is going to break out again. But don't you be afraid--we'll look
after you. I would rather see a daughter of mine in her grave than
married to a man like that. And if ever a man ought to be heartily
ashamed of himself, why, your father----"

The man broke off in some confusion, conscious that perhaps he was
going too far. The servant Grace had dispatched to the bank house to
enquire after Mr. Cattley came back at this moment with the information
that Cattley had been called to London on very urgent business, and
that he would not be back before to-morrow.

"I will go to my room now and dress for dinner," Grace said. "You will
see that Mr. Rice does not come downstairs without letting me know."

There would be no chance of that, one of the servants explained. Rice
rarely left his room when he had these fits upon him. Therefore Grace
was surprised and rather alarmed to find Rice in the drawing-room as
she entered. He had not changed, his dress was dishevelled and was very
dingy, as if it had not been changed for days. He looked at Grace in a
dull way, but she was thankful to see that he gave no signs of violence.

"Are you better?" she stammered. She could think of nothing less stupid
to say. "I hope you are feeling better."

Rice seemed dimly to understand that somebody was talking to him. Grace
could see that his features were twitching horribly, as he paced up
and down the room with his hand held before him as if warding off some
dreadful unseen object. Then with a powerful effort he managed to pull
himself together.

"So it is you," he muttered. "You need not be afraid, I am too full of
the horrors of the damned, to think about anybody but myself. I am not
likely to do you or anybody else a mischief to-night. I want you to
send into Leverton for some of my medicine."

"But I understand you only take a dose at a time," Grace said, "and I
know that a third of the bottle was left last night after Mr. Cattley
used it. He told me that a double dose would be fatal."

Rice held the empty phial that Grace had seen the night before up to
the light. It was palpably empty.

"I haven't had a drop," he said sullenly. "Besides the dose ought to be
increased--it doesn't do me half as much good as it used to. Send to my
chemist at Leverton at once, and tell him to make the stuff stronger.
My God, I cannot bear this agony much longer. No human being could
stand it. Unless I have morphia I can't keep my hands off myself. I
must tear my heart out."

Rice collapsed into a chair, shaking from head to foot like a
reed swaying in the wind. A sudden thought had come to Grace. She
recollected that General Graham also took strong doses of tincture of
morphia for the terrible neuralgia to which he was a martyr. Doubtless
any sort of morphia would have the effect that Rice ardently desired.
He had not had a dose as yet to-day, and there would be no harm in
sending over a note to Max asking him to procure the general's bottle
and bring it over.

"Try and restrain yourself a little longer," Grace said. "I think I can
manage to get what you want without the delay of sending into Leverton.
Be patient and bear up."

Grace went hurriedly away and scribbled a note to Max telling him
exactly what she required, and asking him to send a bottle by
messenger. The messenger came back presently in the form of Max
himself. He looked just a little ashamed of himself, but he proceeded
to justify his presence by his solicitude for Grace's welfare.

"I heard what has been going on here to-day," he said, "and when I got
your note I came to the conclusion that things were worse than usual.
However, I brought the bottle with me; to be on the safe side I have
only left one dose in it, for it is very powerful stuff, and wants very
careful handling. There is something I have to say to you, Grace. I
will wait here till you come back."

Grace made her way back to the drawing-room, where Rice sat, still in
the same state of pitiable collapse. His face lightened a little as he
realised what Grace had; he clutched the bottle eagerly, and tilted the
contents down his throat. A moment later he gave a deep sigh of relief
and flung himself down on the couch.

"Ah, that is better," he said. "The horrors have left me. Let me
alone--all I want to do is sleep, sleep, sleep."

The dinner gong was ringing as Grace came back into the house again.
She paused by the drawing-room door, but no sound came from there; she
could see that Rice was extended at length on the couch, like one who
is in the last stage of physical exhaustion. That he might sleep till
morning was Grace's fervent prayer. She was utterly worn out herself
now and was looking forward to a good night's rest. Moved by some
impulse she crossed the drawing-room and stood looking down into the
slumbering man's face. It was perfectly still and motionless; there
was a peculiar ashy grey lying over the features. Grace bent down; she
could see no motion of the lips; the body was stiff and rigid. With a
curious thumping at her heart, Grace laid her fingers on the clammy
brow. Then she started back suddenly, and a piercing scream escaped her
lips. She flew to the bell and rang it violently. Almost instantly the
room seemed to be filled with servants. They came in headlong, impelled
by mingled fear and curiosity. Grace found voice at last.

"Fly for a doctor!" she cried. "A doctor at once. Not that there is any
use, for your master is dead--dead--dead!"




CHAPTER XXVI.--AN UNEXPECTED DANGER.

It was even as Grace had said. Inexperienced as she was in these
things, she did not need anyone to tell her that Stephen Rice was past
all other mischief. After the first outbreak of surprise Grace grew
singularly calm and collected. She noted the look of curious interest
on the faces of the servants; she did not fail to see that there was no
trace of regret anywhere. Stephen Rice was dead, and there was an end
of it as far as his employes were concerned. The world was a better and
a purer place without him.

Grace stood there giving a few simple directions when the full force
of his unexpected death came home to her. It would have been absurd of
her to have expressed any regret, she hoped that those about her could
not possibly understand or follow the fierce exultation that was making
her heart beat thick and fast. For she was free, she had not made her
bitter sacrifice in vain. She had not even to look back with loathing
and contempt upon even so much as an hour spent alone in the society of
Stephen Rice. She had married him as she had promised, but he had never
so much as clasped her hand; he remained to the end the same stranger
that he had begun.

But Grace put these thoughts away from her mind--there would be plenty
of time for such reflections later on. What she wanted now was a doctor
who would certify as to the cause of death.

"Don't any of you know a single doctor who has attended Mr. Rice?" she
asked. "Isn't there anyone in Leverton?"

A groom spoke up presently. He was aware of the fact that occasionally
a doctor from Leverton, called Hunter, had been in the habit of calling
on his master.

Grace recognised the name.

"Then go into Leverton at once and fetch him," she said. "Meanwhile we
can shut this room up, and nothing shall be disturbed until the doctor
arrives. You had better see that all the blinds in the house are pulled
down."

It was a beautiful summer evening, with the sun setting full on the
face of the house. Grace felt a curious sensation, a half-shameful kind
of elation, as she sat in the darkened dining-room making a pretence of
dinner. She was free now; after all, the price she had paid had been no
more than a few days' sickening anxiety; yet her nerves grew no calmer,
and her appetite did not return. She pushed her plate away presently,
and went out into the garden. Anything was better than the depressing
atmosphere in the house. Grace wandered up and down there until, to
her great relief, the doctor arrived. Like most people he had heard of
the strange marriage of Stephen Rice, though he made no allusion to it
now. He treated Grace as he would have treated any other wife in the
circumstances. His manner was grave and sympathetic.

"This is a very sad thing," he said. "I had better see your unfortunate
husband first, and perhaps you will be able to tell me something about
it afterwards. Will you come with me?"

Grace declined; she saw no necessity for that. It was nearly dark
before Hunter came into the dining-room; the lamps had been lighted,
and the room looked more cheerful now. The doctor's face was not less
grave than it had been when he first arrived.

"I suppose you have nothing fresh to tell me?" Grace asked.

"No," Hunter said cautiously. "Death is due to heart failure. I may
tell you that Mr. Rice has been in the habit of consulting me from
time to time as to the general state of his health, though I have
never given him anything in the way of medicine. My prescription was
principally a caution as to the deceased's diet, for his heart was far
from strong."

"Were there any traces of heart disease?" Grace asked.

"There was no trace of organic disease," Hunter replied, "though the
heart had evidently been unduly tried. Mr. Rice was a strong man, but
there are some people who ought never to touch stimulants, and he was
one of them. I am afraid that occasionally he was in the habit of
disobeying my instructions."

"I think it is far best to be candid," Grace said. "Naturally you are
smoothing over things as much as possible, but you must know as well
as other people, that my husband drank to excess. He has been raving
mad with drink for the last four-and-twenty hours; indeed, the amount
of brandy he has consumed in that time is almost incredible. Surely an
outburst like that would account for death."

"Not necessarily," Hunter replied. "So far as I can see, death has
been caused by an over-indulgence in some drug--cocaine or morphia
poisoning, or something of that sort."

Grace looked up, her face had grown a little paler.

"It seems impossible," she said. "My husband had a prescription which
he used to take at such times when his potations had ceased to keep
away the horrors of delirium tremens. He only had one dose in twelve
hours; indeed, I saw one dose administered to him last night. As that
dose emptied the bottle, and as my husband was alive up to an hour ago,
I should not say that what he had taken had produced this disastrous
result."

"Are you quite sure of that?" Hunter asked earnestly. "Are you quite
sure that the bottle was empty? I mean, is it not possible that Mr.
Rice had two doses within a short time? I ask you this because I have
made rather a startling discovery. Is this the bottle that your husband
generally used?"

So saying, Hunter produced a tiny blue vial from his pocket, and handed
it over to Grace. She recognised it at once as the vessel out of which
Cattley had administered a dose to Rice on the previous evening. There
was a London chemist's label on the bottle.

"This is the one," Grace said. "I saw it in Mr. Cattley's hand last
night. I may as well tell you that there was a great scene here
yesterday, and that but for the intervention of Mr. Cattley, who is a
friend of the family, I should most assuredly have lost my life. I tell
you all this in confidence----"

"I am afraid you need not make any secret of it," the doctor said. "It
will, of course, be a great trial for you, but all this will have to
come out at the inquest."

Grace gasped, and her face turned paler still. It had never occurred to
her till now that a legal enquiry into the death of Stephen Rice would
be necessary.

"If you could certify," she faltered, "that heart failure----"

"I couldn't do that," Hunter replied. "This is no case of heart failure
in the ordinary sense of the word. Unless I am greatly mistaken, Mr.
Rice died from an over-draught of some strong drug, probably morphia.
It is absolutely necessary that there should be a post-mortem; besides,
there are other things."

"Will you please be a little more explicit," Grace said.

"Perhaps I had better," the doctor replied. He seemed to be struggling
with some strange hesitation to speak. "You tell me that last night a
dose of this morphia was administered to your husband. So far as you
can recollect that dose emptied the bottle. I should like to know,
then, what was in this bottle."

Hunter produced a second vial from his pocket and handed it to Grace.
She had no difficulty in recognising the little vessel which Max had
brought to her from Water Park.

"I procured that," she said. "My husband told me he was out of his own
drug, and knowing that General Graham used practically the same mixture
for his neuralgia, I sent across to Mr. Max Graham and asked him to let
me have a small quantity. I should not have done this unless my husband
had been in a state of absolute collapse; indeed, he was crying aloud
for the drug."

Hunter was silent for so long that Grace looked up at him with a
feeling of anxiety. What she saw in his face drove the blood from her
heart and set her trembling like a leaf.

"You don't mean to say," she faltered; "you don't mean to insinuate
that anything I might have done----"

"I don't insinuate anything, my dear young lady," the doctor said in a
voice full of sympathy. "But it is my duty to tell you that the drug
you recently administered to your husband was the immediate cause of
his death. What I suspect is this--you were mistaken as to the proper
bottle being empty, and by some unfortunate means Mr. Rice received two
doses within a short time of one another. There is another thing that
you must take into consideration--drugs of this kind want increasing in
quantity as the patient progresses with them. The nerves of a drunkard
do not keep responding to the dose unless it is increased in strength.
The amount taken by Mr. Rice might not have been sufficient to restore
his nervous system to its normal state, but it might have been quite
sufficient to produce a fatal result. When this case comes to be
investigated, I am quite sure that we shall find that Mr. Rice died
from an overdose of morphia; indeed, I can come to no other conclusion."

Grace listened with dismay. It might have been as the doctor said, her
eyes might have deceived her on the previous evening; it was possible
that Cattley had left a full dose of the medicine in the bottle.

"Where did you find this first bottle?" Grace asked. "I thought it was
in my husband's dressing-room. The second bottle I know I left on that
little table by the couch."

"And the other I picked up on the hearth-rug in front of the
fire-place," Hunter explained. "My dear Mrs. Rice, I am exceedingly
sorry for you, but don't you see that we have here proof positive of my
theory. There is no getting away from it."

"What are we going to do next?" Grace asked.

"I must go into Leverton and report the matter to the police, or
perhaps the best thing would be for me to remain here and send my man
into Leverton, remaining here myself till the authorities come over. I
can't think of anything better than that."

It was a weary wait, but the inspector of police arrived at length.
Inspector Carden listened gravely to all that Hunter had to say, then
he asked to be allowed to view the body. He came back presently with
the information that he had sealed up the drawing-room, and that no one
was to interfere with the seal until the following morning, when he
would come over with the coroner and hold the inquest. He departed at
length, taking Dr. Hunter with him.

Grace was waiting breakfast the next morning about eight o'clock when
Inspector Carden returned and expressed a desire to have a few words
with Grace. There was something about his manner which she did not like.

"The inquest will be at ten o'clock," he said. "It will only be a
formal affair; because a post-mortem will have to be held, and the
jury could not come to a proper conclusion until they had heard the
doctor's evidence. It is necessary for me to ask you a few questions.
Dr. Hunter gave me a pretty good idea of what had happened as we drove
into Leverton last night, but there are a few points that I should like
to have cleared up. I should like to know, for instance, why you were
so imprudent as to give Mr. Rice morphia from another prescription?"

"But it was a solution of morphia," Grace cried. "I was expressly told
so. And I felt quite sure that the solution I borrowed from General
Graham was not as strong as that which my husband was in the habit of
taking. Besides, he was in such a pitiable state of collapse that I had
to do something."

"It was very foolish of you," the inspector said. "Am I to understand
that you fetched the drug, or did you send over a messenger to General
Graham?"

"I did neither," Grace replied. "I wrote a note to Mr. Max Graham, and
he came over here with the bottle. He did not remain, and I have not
seen him since. But why do you ask me this question?"

"Well," the inspector said slowly, "you see I have been making
enquiries. In fact, I have that letter in my pocket at the present
moment. People are saying that you were forced into marriage with a man
you hated and despised, and that you had to give up Mr. Max Graham, to
whom you are passionately attached. I am afraid that when your letter
is read in court----"

"Good heavens," Grace whispered. "I had not thought of that."

Grace looked up to see that the eyes of the inspector were bent upon
her with a more kindly expression than she had anticipated. There was
no one she could confide in, no one to take her part, therefore she
felt that she must speak in her own defence to this official, who would
probably not believe what she said.

"It was an innocent enough letter," she said. "I was beside myself with
fatigue and anxiety. The scandal is inevitable now, and I may as well
admit at once that my marriage with Mr. Rice was one of convenience.
Nobody could possibly care for a man like that--a coward and a
drunkard, a man utterly without principle or sense of honor."

"I beg of you to be careful," Carden remonstrated. "You seem to forget
that every word you utter may be used against you."

"I do not care," Grace said, recklessly. "You are insinuating that Mr.
Max Graham and myself have put our heads together to rid the world of
the one man who stood between us. I am free now, but it is heaven's
doing, and the man has had no hand in it. That letter you speak of is
as innocent a one as it is possible----"

"Would you like to see it," the inspector asked, "and read it by way of
refreshing your memory?"

Grace assented eagerly, and Carden placed the note in her hand.
Yesterday the words sounded innocent enough, but now they were pregnant
with the deepest meaning. The words seemed to stand out like letters of
flame before Grace's eyes.

"My dearest Max," she read, "he has broken out again. This is only the
beginning--if this life continues for a few hours longer I shall do
something desperate to myself or to him. Peace and quietness I must
have at any cost. He is out of his medicine; will you send me some of
the same drug that the General uses for his neuralgia? May it be strong
enough to----Yours, ever, Grace."

Inspector Carden watched Grace as she read the letter for the third
time. She did not feel like a guilty woman, and yet as she handed the
paper back to Carden she was white to the lips and trembled like a
leaf. In the midst of it all she was furiously angry with herself in
that she betrayed these signs of confusion.

"I was mad with despair and grief," she said. "As heaven in my witness,
that letter was written with the most innocent intentions in the world.
Where did you get the letter from----"

"I will tell you," Carden said. "I was up very late last night make
enquiries into this matter, and the result of those enquiries led me
to believe that Mr. Max Graham would be able to tell me something. I
called upon him this morning, and waited till he came down to breakfast
in the library. You will please understand that I did no prying, but
there on the table before me lay the letter which you have just read.
Of course, I told Mr. Graham what had happened, and also that I had
seen the letter, which I told him he must hand over to me. I am bound
to say that Mr. Graham seemed very shocked and surprised to hear of the
death of your husband. It was news to him."

"Of course it was," Grace cried passionately. "Even if I were so vile
as you seem to think me, I should never have been mad enough to try
and enlist Mr. Graham in the commission of a brutal crime. It seems to
me that the further I am dragged into this business the more cruelly
I suffer. Perhaps I had better not say any more--I have said too much
already."

Inspector Carden seemed to think so, for he begged Grace to excuse him
that he might complete his preparations for the forthcoming inquest.
It was a little before ten when the coroner arrived, followed a little
later by the jury. After they had viewed the body a move was made to
the dining-room, where the inquiry was to take place. It looked very
informal to Grace with the coroner at the head of the table and the
jury on both sides of him, with an inspector of police at the foot. A
few curious people, attracted by the rumour of Rice's death, had put
in an appearance, to Grace's disgust. A couple of reporters bustled
in and sat at a side table, with open notebooks before them. In dull,
mechanical tones the coroner proceeded to instruct the jury as to the
cause of their being called together. He told them that they had to
enquire into the death of Stephen Rice, and that they would have to
carefully consider the evidence before they came to a decision. This
ceremony being concluded, the coroner immediately proceeded to call
witnesses, the first one being Grace herself. She told her story, much
as she already told it to Dr. Hunter. She did not fail to note the
significant looks on the faces of the jury when she came to tell of
the way in which she had procured that fatal dose of morphia from Max
Graham.

"Most extraordinary," the coroner muttered. "It seems almost
incredible. Are we to understand that you sent for a dose of morphia to
administer to your husband, needless of the fact that it came from a
bottle which had been prescribed for another man?"

"But it was tincture of morphia," Grace protested. "It was tincture
of morphia that my husband used to take, because I was told so last
night. If you do not believe me you can send for Mr. Cattley, who, as I
have already told you, administered a drug last night. And I know that
General Graham took morphia because he told me so. My husband was in
such a state of collapse----"

"Had he been drinking," one of the jury asked.

"He had drunk himself into a state of dangerous madness," Grace said.
"But for a fortunate accident last night he would most assuredly have
taken my life. The only thing to quiet him was the powerful drug in
question, and I saw how wonderfully that acted upon him a few hours
ago. He asked for more yesterday evening, but his bottle was empty. He
was so ill that I dared not wait to send into Leverton, but acted as I
have already told you."

"Amazing," the coroner repeated again. "It is impossible to imagine a
woman behaving in this way, but for a man to have been so criminally
careless--really, General Graham ought to have known better."

"General Graham had nothing to do with it," Grace protested. "I wrote
a note to Mr. Max Graham, who was fully acquainted with the facts of
the case, and I asked him to send me one single dose of the soothing
medicine. He brought it over in person, and I gave it to my husband.
When I went back to the drawing-room a little time later I found that
he was dead. If I keep you here for a week I could not tell you any
more than that."

"This goes further than I had thought," the coroner said. "It would
be far better perhaps, to adjourn the enquiry pending the doctor's
examination of the body. If Dr. Hunter finds that death was due to
natural causes, or from alcoholic poisoning, there is an end of the
matter. But if he certifies that death was caused by an overdose of
morphia, why, you see that----"

The coroner paused and shrugged his shoulders significantly. A juryman
intimated that he should like to have a little more evidence before the
inquest was adjourned. He desired to know if there was any truth in the
rumor that up to a comparatively short time ago witness and Mr. Max
Graham had been engaged to be married.

The blood flamed into Grace's face; then, receding, left it white as
snow. She felt she must speak now.

"There was no formal engagement between us," she cried. "Though we
were passionately attached to one another, and had not unforeseen
circumstances compelled me to become Mrs. Rice, I should certainly have
married Mr. Graham."

It was a prosaic enough speech, but the terrible significance of it was
not lost on the listeners. There was a long pause, then the coroner
called Inspector Carden to the head of the table and carried on a low
conversation with him for a time. When the official looked up again he
put a direct question to Grace.

"You say you sent to Mr. Graham for this drug," he asked. "Was it a
verbal message, or did you write a letter?"

"You know that I wrote a letter," Grace cried with great contempt.
"Even as I stood here I heard Inspector Carden tell you so. I wish to
hide nothing, I am only anxious for the closest investigation. The
letter you speak of should be read in court."

The jury craned eagerly forward, the reporters scribbled away
furiously. There was a feeling in the air that something out of the
common was going to happen. Very slowly and distinctly the coroner read
the letter. By the time he had finished there was not a single soul
there who was prepared to believe that Grace was innocent of the death
of Stephen Rice. Here was motive proved up to the hilt, there was the
letter of a desperate woman, written to her lover, and asking him to
help her to rid the world of the creature who stood between them and
their happiness. The letter was the cry of a lost soul seeking peace
and contentment at any cost. Here was a beautiful woman, passionately
in love with a handsome man, and yet tied to a drunken, dissolute
scoundrel who had threatened her life, even on her wedding day. It only
needed the evidence of the doctor to prove conclusively that Stephen
Rice had died of an overdose of poison.

"Have you any explanation of this to offer?" the coroner asked. "But
perhaps I am doing you an injustice. As things stand at present I
propose to ask you no further questions, so that between now and the
adjourned hearing you may have the benefit of proper legal advice. Do
you propose to call any fresh evidence this morning, Inspector Carden?"

"Only one, sir," Carden replied. "A servant, she is one of the maids
who helps in the kitchen. She volunteered a statement to me this
morning which may be of interest to the jury."

The witness was called, and gave the name of Jane Steer. Grace had
not seen her before; she seemed to be a timid frightened creature,
who regarded the coroner and jury as if they had been monsters ready
to devour her. What she had to say was little, but that little was to
the point. She had come home very late the previous night; she was out
without leave, and when she arrived home the kitchen door was closed.
She had tried to arouse the servants, and one of them had looked out of
the upstairs window presently and told her that the catch of the larder
window was unlatched, and that she could get in that way. According to
what the witness said, this was no unusual state of things in Stephen
Rice's easy-going household. She went on to say that after coming in,
she fastened the door and went in the direction of the dining-room
with the intention of getting herself a glass of port from one of the
decanters on the side-board. As she was creeping out of the dining-room
again she became aware of the fact that two people were standing in
the hall. At this point the witness became absolutely incoherent, and
stared at Grace whilst the tears began to run down her face.

"It isn't fair," she said. "If I had known that I was going to do that
pretty creature an injury, I declare that I would never open my mouth.
I won't say another word."

"But you must speak," the coroner said, sternly. "Tell us at once what
you saw; this is a serious matter."

"Then I saw Mrs. Rice there," the witness said, defiantly. "She was
standing in the hall, talking earnestly to a gentleman--I had to wait
to listen, or I should have been discovered. Presently the gentleman
went away in the direction of the library. He kissed Mrs. Rice's hand,
and then I managed to get away upstairs!"

"Did you recognise the gentleman?" the coroner asked.

"Yes," said the witness, as if the words were dragged from her. "I
recognised him as Mr. Max Graham."

A long, painful silence followed.




CHAPTER XXVII.--A FRIENDLY FOE.

In an instant Grace perceived the new danger. The exact meaning of the
question came to her in a lightning flash. As she glanced up proudly
and defiantly she read her fate in the eyes of the jury as clearly as
if she had been standing in the dock and a judge had just asked her
peers to pronounce the sentence upon her.

Even in the midst of her trouble it was wonderful to her to note how
clear and luminous her mind was. She recollected having read something
of the same kind in a daily paper recently--the sordid history of a man
and a woman who had placed her husband out of the way to conceal the
story of their guilt. And now it seemed to Grace as if her difficulty
was on all fours with the same low class of crime. It was well known
already that she had married a man she both hated and despised merely
as a matter of convenience; all her friends knew that she was greatly
attached to Max Graham, and here was a witness in a position to prove
that Max Graham had visited her late at night on the very day of her
marriage.

It was all absolutely innocent, of course, but it was none the less
unfortunate in the light of recent events. And following on this had
come the undoubted fact that Stephen Rice had perished by a dose of
poison administered by the hand of the woman he had so recently made
his wife. The more Grace thought over the matter the more perilous did
her situation seem.

All this had passed through the girl's mind between the time that the
question was asked and answered.

"This is absurd," she cried, "it is impossible for anyone who knows me
to believe that I am deliberately capable----"

"You will please be silent," the coroner interrupted. "I cannot permit
you to interrupt the business of the court like this. If you will be
advised by me, you will say nothing. The enquiry will be adjourned
presently, and at the next hearing, if you are wise, you will be
represented by a proper legal assistant."

The coroner actually spoke as if he were already addressing a criminal.
There was no mistaking the grimness of his manner. He turned to the
witness who was whispering and muttering to herself, but it was
impossible to elicit further information from the girl. She declared
that she had told all that she had seen, and that so far as she was
concerned there was an end of the matter. At the first opportunity she
had stolen up to her bedroom again, and what happened afterwards, or
how Mr. Graham left the house, she did not know.

As Grace looked up again she caught one friendly eye amongst the
jurymen. She knew the man for a small farmer in the neighborhood. They
were on quite friendly terms.

"Aren't we getting on a bit too fast, sir?" the farmer asked. "After
all said and done it is just possible that Mrs. Rice can give a
plausible explanation for Mr. Graham's presence here last night."

"Oh, yes, it is possible," the coroner said, drily. "The present
witness had better stand down, that is, of course, if Mrs. Rice desires
to say anything."

"I have very little to say," Grace replied. "I came downstairs late
last night when the house was quite still, and to my surprise I found
Mr. Graham in the hall. He declined to say what he had come for, but I
was assured that he was in search of certain papers which my husband
had promised him. I should have thought less about the presence of Mr.
Graham in the house if we had not had so disturbing an evening. Mr.
Cattley was on the premises also, and it occurred to me that perhaps
Mr. Graham had come in with the former gentleman. I only stayed a
minute or two with Mr. Graham, then I returned to my room."

"You did not see him again that night?" the coroner asked.

"Certainly not. I have told you all that happened."

"Not quite. For instance, the last witness said that she had seen Mr.
Graham kissing your hand passionately. Is that so?"

"I cannot deny it," Grace said. She felt the hot blood flaming into her
face; "the witness spoke nothing more than the truth."

"Surely the most extraordinary proceeding," the coroner suggested. "I
am loth to give you unnecessary pain, but it is plainly my duty to ask
you these disagreeable questions. It seems to me an extraordinary thing
that a stranger should be under a man's roof kissing his wife's hand
within a few hours of his marriage."

"If you knew all the circumstances you would not think so," Grace
cried. "I have known Mr. Graham ever since I was a child."

"Was he a friend of your husband's?" one of the jurymen put in. "I
mean, were they on friendly terms?"

Grace was bound to admit that they were not; pressed by the same
juryman, she was compelled to say that Stephen Rice and Max Graham were
strongly antagonistic to one another.

"How did Mr. Graham get into the house?" the coroner asked.

"I have not the least idea," Grace said. She was getting confused with
these endless questions, the asking of which seemed to land her deeper
and deeper into difficulties. "I really don't know. I had only just
before that barely escaped with my life from the hands of the man whom
I had so recently married. I was not in a state of mind to realise what
was taking place. It is just possible that Mr. Cattley may be able to
tell you how Mr. Graham found his way into the house. If any one of
you insinuates that it was arranged, I say it is a cowardly lie, and
cruelly hard upon a defenceless woman like myself."

Something like a murmur of sympathy followed this impassioned speech.
Even the coroner hesitated for a moment.

"I am afraid I must trouble you again," he said. "I want you to tell
me, is it not a fact that up to three weeks ago you were engaged to be
married to Mr. Max Graham?"

"I cannot deny it," Grace replied. "There was no public engagement,
in fact, there was no occasion for anything of the kind. The thing
was looked forward to on both sides of the family, indeed it was
our inclination, and we gradually drifted into an understanding. If
unforeseen events had not happened I should have become Mr. Graham's
wife in time."

"You had a quarrel, I presume. There was a difference of opinion
between you, and on the spur of the moment you elected to give your
hand to Mr. Rice--not the first time that ladies have done this kind of
thing."

Grace would have given much to be able to answer the question in the
affirmative. It would have been a good way out of the difficulty, but
at any hazard she was going to tell the truth.

"We had no quarrel," she said. "We did not even quarrel when I told Mr.
Graham that I could not carry out my promise, and that I had arranged
an immediate marriage with Mr. Rice."

"I must push you still further," the coroner said. "It is absolutely
necessary for this investigation that we should know everything. You
have the reputation of being a lady of high moral attainments, not at
all the class of girl likely to lightly break a solemn promise. You
discovered nothing against Mr. Graham?"

"There is nothing whatever against him," Grace said. "Oh, I see
perfectly well what is uppermost in your mind. You want to know
why I abandoned an honorable gentleman like Mr. Max Graham for an
unspeakable, drunken creature like the man whom I have the misfortune
to call my husband. I can see the danger in which I stand, and yet I am
as innocent of evil as any of you here to-day. I married Stephen Rice
because circumstances compelled me to do so."

"In other words for money, I presume?"

"In a measure, yes," Grace explained. "It was at my father's
instigation. He was in need of certain funds, funds absolutely
necessary, and under certain conditions Mr. Rice had agreed to find the
desired amount."

One or two members of the jury looked significantly at the other. Had
she but known it, Grace's admission was a fatal one so far as her
father's financial prospects were concerned. In those few words she had
entirely given away the key of the situation. She was hardly conscious
of what she was saying, her lips were pale, her throat was dry as ashes.

"Pardon me, if I pain you," the coroner said, "but it is necessary to
put it plainly. Were you to be part of the bargain?"

"That is what it comes to," Grace answered. "Provided that I promised
to marry Mr. Rice by a certain date, the money was to be forthcoming.
It is a shameful thing that I should be compelled to stand up here and
make such a confession, but there it is."

"Then your feelings towards Mr. Rice were no more than those of
ordinary friendship?" the coroner asked.

"I would say so if I could," Grace replied, "but I am compelled to
misuse such a word as friendship. From the bottom of my heart I loathed
and hated the man who had dragged me into such an alliance. I knew too
much of his character, I saw more than I wanted to see in the few hours
which elapsed between my marriage and my husband's death. And yet,
sorely tempted, as I might have been, I acted for the best. I could
never put out a hand to hasten the death of a man, whatever his death
might have been to me."

A long silence followed, a significant pause, during which time Grace
stood there white and defiant and ready for any further questions
that might be asked of her. She knew perfectly well that the more she
was pressed the blacker the case grew against her. It seemed almost
incredible to her that she could be the same happy, careless, sunny
girl of a month ago. She felt old and careworn now, the weight of
trouble seemed to lie upon her shoulders and bear her to the ground.

"Your marriage was unexpected?" the coroner asked. "You made up your
mind to keep it a secret, I suppose?"

"Not at all," Grace replied. "Mr. Rice was going to America, and it was
arranged that I was to accompany him; in these circumstances there was
no time to be lost. As you are all aware by this time, the marriage
took place before the registrar at Leverton."

"Why?" the coroner asked. "You had to have a special license, which
would have been equally available in a church."

"I don't think you have the right to ask the question," Grace
protested. "But all the same I will tell you. I declined to be married
in church, I declined to take the vows imposed by the Church service,
because I could not stand there in the face of my Maker and utter such
dreadful blasphemy. Therefore I chose the civil ceremony. There is
nothing more to tell you; indeed, I should have declined to say as much
as I have. So far----"

What Grace might have said was interrupted by the unexpected entrance
of General Graham. He strode into the room white with excitement, and
almost beside himself with passion. He did not seem to heed for a
moment the fact that he was in the presence of a properly constituted
tribunal; he declined to sit down, but the coroner called him sharply
to order.

"Rubbish, my dear sir, rubbish," he cried. "I have only just heard of
these monstrous proceedings. They have been telling me all about the
death of Rice and a lot of nonsense to the effect that he was poisoned
by a dose of morphia which came out of a bottle belonging to me. They
say that my son took it out, and brought it over here. Nothing of the
kind my dear sir, the thing was absolutely impossible."

"This is very irregular," the coroner said. "Really, General Graham, an
old soldier like yourself ought to know better than to come bursting in
here like this. If you have any evidence to offer I shall be pleased to
listen to you in due course, but for you to stand there and say----"

"I do say it," the general protested. "I say that the thing is
preposterous and absurd. I will tell you why it is absurd. I take
morphia for my neuralgia, and I only keep a bottle at a time in the
house. And if you put me on my oath I am quite prepared to swear that
I emptied my bottle yesterday afternoon. What have you got to say to
that, Mr. Coroner?"

A thrill passed through the spectators; it seemed to them that as yet
they were only on the fringe of the mystery.




CHAPTER XXVIII.--A RUN ON THE BANK.

It was the coroner who broke the silence at length. He was heard to
reiterate his former statement that all this was irregular in the
extreme, but at the same time it seemed to him that it would be the
wisest course to call General Graham as a witness. There was no further
questions to be put to Grace, so that she was allowed to sink back
into her chair trembling from head to foot, and faint with the ordeal
through which she had just gone. Someone handed her a glass of water,
which she gulped down eagerly. And then she became conscious that
General Graham was speaking.

It was not much that he had to say; he merely reiterated his previous
declaration that he had finished his bottle of morphia on the previous
afternoon.

"But we have it directly on the evidence of Mrs. Rice," said the
coroner, "that she wrote a hurried message to your son asking him to
supply the drug, which we hold finally killed him. Indeed, we have in
our possession also the letter written by Mrs. Rice. In response to
that, your son came over here bringing some small dose of liquid which
Mrs. Rice administered to her husband. As far as we know at present,
that dose was fatal."

"Fatal or not," General Graham cried angrily, "it did not come out of
my bottle."

"Have you other drugs at Water Park?" the coroner asked. "Is it not
possible that in the excitement of the moment your son make a mistake,
and took up a different phial----"

"No, sir, it is not," the general snapped. "I am no believer in drugs
and all that sort of hysterical rubbish. I take that morphia because it
alleviates the pain, but apart from that you would not find so much as
a patent pill at my house."

There was a puzzled silence again; the enquiry appeared to have reached
a deadlock, and the coroner hardly knew how to proceed. He was helped
out of his difficulty at length by a suggestion from Inspector Carden,
who advised the adjournment of the enquiry pending the post-mortem on
the body of the dead man.

"Very well," the coroner agreed. "We will adjourn the case for three
days--two o'clock on Thursday afternoon."

The reporters put up their notebooks and vanished, the little knot of
idlers lounged out of the house, followed by the coroner and jury. A
moment or two later and Grace was left alone with General Graham. He
came to her side and stroked her hair with loving sympathy. His touch
was very soothing to Grace.

"This is a dreadful business, my poor child," he said. "These
confounded people will be making out next that you poisoned Rice to get
him out of the way."

"They are saying so already," Grace replied. "I have been cruelly
questioned this morning as to my relations with Stephen Rice. I have
had to admit that I married him to save my father from something like
ruin. I have had to admit that I broke off my engagement with Max to
do so. Don't you see how terribly appearances are against me? In the
eyes of certain people I am already condemned for a crime that I never
should have dreamt of."

"Of course you wouldn't," the general cried. "I hope no one will take
that view with me. Simply because you and Max----"

"It sounds much worse that you seem to know," Grace said. "Has Max told
you that he was here last night?"

"Here last night!" the general echoed. "Do you mean to say that he came
to see you at a late hour----"

"A very late hour, my dear general. He did not come to see me
personally, but I went downstairs for something, and he was standing in
the hall. Anybody might have heard all that we said. Unfortunately Max
kissed my hand as we parted, and a little thief of a servant saw it.
This account sounds very trivial to tell, but when it was told to the
jury this morning I could see that it had a marked effect upon them."

The general was visibly disturbed, but he said nothing except a mutter
that Max had been terribly imprudent. The old gentleman lingered there;
he was doing his best to soften the blow; he even suggested that she
should leave that dreadful house and spend the next few days at Water
Park. But Grace felt compelled to decline--after what had happened it
would be anything but sensible to seek shelter under the same roof that
contained Max Graham.

"It is more than kind of you," she said gratefully, "but a little
reflection will show you that I cannot entertain your offer. Besides,
I am not going to remain here. I shall leave the arrangements for the
funeral in proper hands, and go back home at once. My place is by my
father's side, and I shall not leave him until he is himself again.
Perhaps you would not mind coming as far as the bank house with me."

The general had a trap at the door; he would drive Grace over to the
bank house without delay. It was about three quarters of an hour
later that they drove through the village. As a rule the streets were
deserted at this time of day, but now the roadway was full of excited
people, a black, struggling mass was seen to be fighting its way up the
steps that led to the bank. Grace noticed that few eyes were turned in
her direction, indeed it seemed to her that many of them whom she had
known from her childhood were deliberately turning their backs on her.

"Is there an election of some kind taking place?" she asked languidly.
"Or what does this crowd mean?"

General Graham took in the situation at a glance.

"It is no election, by Jove!" he cried. "My dear girl, there is a run
on your father's bank. Why it should be so is a thing that passes my
understanding."

But Grace understood perfectly well. An hour before she had publicly
proclaimed the fact to over a score of residents in the neighborhood
that she had deliberately sacrificed herself to save her father from
ruin. In those few words she had told the interested listeners that
Anstey's Bank had been on the verge of collapse, and that her hand had
been the price paid to avert the calamity. And now the man who had been
in a position to save Anstey's fate was dead, and nobody knew whether
or not he had completed his part of the bargain. In the space of one
hour the news had spread like wildfire, and people were coming from all
parts to regain their savings before it was too late.

"Our misfortunes are apparently not ended yet," Grace said. "My dear
old friend, what are we going to do?"

"Get into the bank through the house," the general suggested. "In the
circumstances I should have no hesitation in asking how things are. If
I had foreseen this I should have been in the position to help, but
it is almost impossible to raise a large sum of money at a moment's
notice. These people are like a flock of sheep--once you prove to them
that their money is safe they won't want to take it out of the bank; on
the contrary, they will go down on their knees and ask the bank to keep
it. You had better stay in the house and let me go and make enquiries."

Three white-faced clerks behind the counter of the bank were doing the
best they could to satisfy the eager, clamoring crowd which packed the
building to overflowing. It was doubly unfortunate that both the head
of the firm and the trusted old cashier were absent from their posts.
Walters was doing the best he could; indeed his head seemed to be the
clearest and coolest of them all. It was on his advice that the other
clerks were deliberately slow in cashing the sheaves of cheques which
were thrust across the counter like weapons pointed at their heads.

"Can you carry it through?" the general whispered. "Can you manage to
stagger on till closing time. If so----"

Walters shook his head as he glanced at the clock. It still wanted an
hour and a half to closing time, and there remained in the bank cellars
a sum of money which must become exhausted in less than an hour.

"If we could only carry on till you shut up," the general said, "I will
help you out in the morning. These people must have their money so that
confidence may be restored. Once that is done the bank will be in a
firmer position than ever."

"And if it is not done it goes smash," Walters said. "I foresaw this
yesterday--indeed, it was partly pointed out to me by that mysterious
fellow, Cattley. He went off hurriedly to town this morning, saying
he should be back this afternoon, and intimating that he had a lot of
money which he was going to place in our hands. If he only turns up in
time the situation may be saved."

But still the rush went on, still the golden tide flowed out till the
white and anxious clerks whispered to Walters that another ten minutes
would see the end of it. There was a quarter of an hour yet before
the Bank closed for the day, the clock crept on another two minutes,
a clerk stood with a cheque for nearly a thousand pounds in his hand,
and looked significantly at Walters. At the same moment the doors
behind the counter opened and Cattley rushed in, followed by two men
bearing heavy bags of washleather, which they proceeded to lay on the
counter. In a breathless way Cattley cut the strings of the bags and
poured a golden stream of coins upon the counter. The scrambling mob
fairly gasped, not one of them had ever seen anything like it before.
Walters rose to the situation; he took the cheque pushed threateningly
towards him, and coolly proceeded to count a thousand sovereigns into a
washleather bag. He smiled as he passed the money across.

"There you are, Mr. Long," he said. "I am rather surprised at you,
considering the way we have helped you at different times. Take your
money and don't let us see you here again. You are the kind of customer
that a bank is best without. Push along there, please--we want to get
all this money paid as soon as possible. We shall keep open an hour
later if necessary."

The situation was saved; the sight of that shimmering pile of
sovereigns on the counter was quite sufficient to restore public
confidence. The struggling mob surged backwards into the street, and
almost immediately scores of those who had been already paid were
creeping back sheepishly to restore their hard-earned savings to the
custody of the bank. With a shy grin, Long tended his bag of sovereigns
to Walters, who shook his head.

"No, thank you, Mr. Long," he said curtly. "We have done with you. Go
off and find another bank somewhere else."

Five minutes later, and the counting-house resumed its normal attitude.
With a beaming face the general walked into the bank house to tell
Grace what had happened. He had been forestalled, however, by Cattley,
who had been first with the news.

"As a matter of fact, the bank is perfectly solvent," Cattley said. "It
is too long a story to go into now, but I will tell it you when I have
time."

It was past six o'clock before Grace came down from her father's
bedroom and partook of the apology in the way of dinner which had been
prepared for her. Cattley had gone into Leverton; he was exceedingly
anxious to know what had been the result of the post-mortem examination
on the body of Stephen Rice. He had promised to send Grace a telegram
after he had seen Dr. Hunter. Grace waited for this telegram with an
almost sickening anxiety. So much depended upon it--it was practically
in Hunter's power to say whether or not she should stand accused of her
husband's death.

A telegram came at length, and Grace tore it open with trembling
fingers. It was a long message, and the words seemed to swim and glide
into one another before Grace's eyes. At length she made out the
words--they were standing out clear and black and very threatening now.
The pregnant message ran as follows:--

"I have just seen Hunter. Analysis complete. Body contains strong
traces of morphia, but not sufficient to cause death in a man
accustomed to the drug. Immediate cause of death, administration of
twenty drops of strychnine. Coming by next train."

The telegram dropped from Grace's fingers; she recollected no more till
she looked up at length and saw the anxious face of Cattley bending
over her.




CHAPTER XXIX.--THE DOCTOR'S EVIDENCE.

Cattley refused to say anything or give any explanation of what had
happened until Grace had contrived to swallow something in the way of
nourishment. It was strange what an influence this stranger was getting
over her. He seemed to be entirely different from the cynical man whom
Grace had met the night before her misfortune began. Grace murmured
something of this, and Cattley smiled.

"You will know presently," he said, "why I take so keen an interest in
your welfare, but I am not going to tell you anything more until you
have eaten something and disposed of the glass of wine which I have
poured out for you. If you only knew everything, you would look upon me
with loathing and contempt."

"Indeed, I should not," Grace protested. "You have been everything that
is good and kind to me; I do not know what I should have possibly done
without you."

"I have made a terrible mess of things," Cattley said humbly. "My dear
Miss Grace--I must utterly refuse to call you Mrs. Rice--if I had not
been so confoundedly clever, the whole situation would have been saved
and you would never have undergone all your cruel misfortunes. Rice
would have been dead just the same, and you would have been free to wed
Max Graham and live happily ever afterwards."

"I cannot see it at all," Grace said. "You have done everything you
possibly could for me; I cannot forget that you saved my life."

"And I cannot forget that I ruined it," Cattley protested; "as I said
before, I was altogether too clever. I had no idea that Rice was going
to push matters forward so quickly, or most assuredly I should have
stopped him. I wanted to spring my mine upon him and thoroughly expose
him."

"That was very strange," Grace said thoughtfully. "Max Graham also
had some hold upon Rice; indeed we know that he was spirited away to
prevent him speaking, and kept a prisoner until it was too late. And
now you come along with a statement that you also had Stephen Rice in
your power, and like Max, you also were too late. I wonder are you
thinking of the same thing?"

"I don't fancy so," Cattley responded thoughtfully. "When I came from
the other end of the world, I had no thought for you at all. I had
no thought for your father either, for he many years ago treated me
exceedingly badly; in fact he went very near to ruining me. But as
events turned out my misfortunes proved to be my greatest blessing.
I have quite forgiven your father. I heard quite by accident of your
existence, and it was to see you that I came home again."

"I know whom you remind me of now," Grace cried. "I always had a
feeling that I had seen you before, and now I can explain that
sensation. You remind me most wonderfully of my mother."

"We will discuss that later on," Cattley said with a peculiar smile.
"I came home, as I have said, to see you; in fact, I saw you many
a time before you were aware of my existence. And then a strange
thing happened. I am a rich man, as I have already told you, and my
business ramifications are many. The threads of my finance have become
interwoven with the businesses of both your father and the firm of Rice
& Son. In looking into certain matters I had my suspicions aroused, and
discovered, to my great astonishment, that there was a conspiracy on
foot between Stephen Rice and James Holder to get your father entirely
in the hands of the former. Need I tell you why Rice set about scheming
out this conspiracy."

"To get me in his power, I presume," Grace said, thoughtfully.

"Precisely. Rice was a dogged sort of man, not clever in the ordinary
sense of the word, but full of schemes and dark ways of his own. In
all probability he had made up his mind a long time ago that you
were to become his wife. He knew it was useless to approach either
yourself or your father without some tremendously strong weapon in
his hand. He knew that your father would not receive him as a guest;
he was perfectly aware of the fact that you were already pledged to
Max Graham. In his patient, dogged way, he sat down to conspire to
bring about by fraud what he could not obtain by honorable warfare. He
discovered in the way of business that James Holder was speculating
with the money belonging to his employer. Here was his chance, and he
worked it for all he was worth. Your father had always been careless,
he had entrusted matters entirely in the hands of Mr. Holder, with
the result that you already know. He was not aware of the fact that
recently Holder had been developing a peculiar phase of brain trouble.
Mind you, I have only found that out recently myself. Holder's peculiar
disease led him to believe that he was a great financier, who only
needed the command of a sum of money to become a multi-millionaire. I
presume that Rice found this out, for a little time later your father
discovered that his affairs were frightfully involved, and that he was
apparently on the verge of bankruptcy. It was at this point that I came
upon the scene, just in time to avert a great catastrophe. I think,
when your father heard my name mentioned, he was afraid that I had come
back home to make trouble."

"I recollect that," Grace cried. "My father was terribly agitated when
he saw your card, and begged me to come downstairs and speak to you so
that he could have time to recover himself. At that time, and for the
next two or three days, I looked upon you as my greatest enemy. Strange
how a few words from you should change the whole aspect of affairs!"

"I came in the guise of a friend," Cattley said. "I soon proved that
to your father. He refused to believe me, but I exposed Holder to him.
At my request Holder was sent for, 'Poor Billy' being the messenger,
and directly Holder came I left the house without his seeing me; in
fact, it was essential at that moment that Holder should not know of
my presence. Holder was to be asked to go into certain accounts, your
father was to give him an hour or two, and then go back into the bank
to learn the result of Holder's investigations."

"And meanwhile somebody had stole into the bank premises and attempted
to murder him," Grace cried.

"Nothing of the kind," Cattley said coolly. "Holder had two sides to
his brain--the visionary and the practical man of business. Before he
had finished those figures he knew that he had been found out. When
your father went into the bank at two o'clock in the morning, he found
Holder lying there at the point of death. Come, confess it, did you not
think that Holder had been partly murdered by your father."

"I did," Grace whispered. "Up to the present moment I have seen no
reason to change my mind."

"Then I will relieve you of that anxiety," Cattley said. "Holder had
attempted to commit suicide. Your father was so dreadfully upset, he
did not know what to do; he was creeping up to his room with a view
to getting an overcoat to come and see me and ask my advice when he
met you face to face. I hope I am not unduly puzzling you with these
details, but it is absolutely essential that you should know them.
Unfortunately, it is not always advisable to tell the truth, and in
the perilous condition of the bank's finances it would have been
exceedingly imprudent to let go out in the world that James Holder had
attempted to commit suicide. It would have been immediately assumed
that Holder had made away with the bank property, and that he had
determined to take his life to save disgrace. Everybody knew the
position in which Holder stood to your father, and it would have been
only fair to assume that the defalcations were heavy. Your father did
come to me just before daybreak and gave me the facts of the case.
Acting under my advice we decided to do nothing, but leave the body
there until it was found in the morning."

"What a ghastly idea!" Grace shuddered.

"In justice to ourselves, I must tell you that we thought that Holder
was dead," Cattley exclaimed. "Otherwise, we should have adopted some
other course. Then I went away to London and investigated the condition
of affairs. I managed to lay my hands on the whole of the money that
Holder had made away with. Strange to say, he had invested it in what
looked like a very sound speculation, so that I had no difficulty in
preventing the money being handled by outsiders. To give a substantial
proof of my success, I came down here to-day in time to save the bank,
and every penny of the thirty thousand pounds that I brought with me
rightly belongs to your father. And now you see that he is perfectly
free to hold up his head again. I have my own theory as to what
happened to him in the bank the other night, but we need not go into
that just now. What we have now to consider is you. Now, you had better
go to bed and try to get a good night's rest."

Grace slept better than she expected to; she felt more like herself
the next morning. But the time dragged heavily on her hands, she was
looking forward with anxiety and dread to the adjourned inquest. For
the next two days the girl did not leave the house, she had a morbid
objection to meeting friends and acquaintances. On the eventful day she
drove over to Rice's house in company with Cattley. She was very silent
on the way, her face was white and anxious, she hardly knew what to
expect.

The number of spectators attending the adjourned inquest was
considerably increased, there was barely room for all of them. They
looked eagerly at Grace as Cattley piloted her up to the coroner's
table. She felt instinctively that everybody there regarded her as
the criminal heroine of a great tragedy. Still, there was no sound
of disapproval, nothing like a hostile demonstration. The coroner
gravely announced that the post-mortem on the body of Stephen Rice had
taken place, and that Dr. Hunter was in a position to give evidence.
To Grace's surprise, she saw that Hunter was even more disturbed and
agitated than herself.

Hunter's usual natty appearance seemed to have suffered somewhat, his
waxed moustache had been allowed to droop over his chin, his linen was
not so clean as it might be. He gave one look at Grace, and then his
eyes dropped furtively. Grace found herself wondering whether this
man knew something he did not care to say. The girl recollected that
Hunter had been a close friend of Stephen Rice's, and was no doubt more
or less wrapped up in the latter's disgraceful past. She put these
thoughts out of her mind now, and turned eagerly towards the coroner,
who simply called upon Dr. Hunter to tell the jury the result of his
investigations.

"I have made a post-mortem as directed," the doctor said, in a voice
that shook strangely, "and my examination confirmed my previous opinion
that the deceased died from an overdose of some poisonous irritant. An
analysis proves that."

"You mean morphia poisoning?" the coroner asked.

"Not necessarily," Hunter replied in the same strange voice. "The
deceased used to be in the habit of taking regular doses of morphia,
and I am bound to confess that my analysis tells me that morphia was
not the immediate cause of death. It is impossible to say where it came
from, but somebody or another administered to the deceased before he
died a dose of strychnine which has left behind something like twenty
grains."

"Impossible," the coroner cried. "No private individual could procure
from the chemist even so much as one grain of strychnine, let alone
twenty. There is not a chemist who would dare to sell it to anybody but
a medical man."

Grace looked up to see that Cattley was smiling at her. He looked like
a man who holds the key of the situation. She took fresh courage as she
noticed his smiling eyes.

There was a pause for a moment, for the coroner's exclamation had
apparently caused a deadlock. Nobody had suggested for the moment that
Grace could possibly have administered strychnine to her husband; this
last sensational development gave a fresh aspect of the case. There was
a sudden disturbance at the door, and Inspector Carden bustled up to
the table.

"Pardon me a moment, sir," he said, "I have an important piece of fresh
evidence to submit. We have found the strychnine bottle."




CHAPTER XXX.--WHERE THE BOTTLE CAME FROM.

A thrill passed through the spectators, there was a murmur, followed
by profound silence, as Carden held the bottle up to the light. It
was only a tiny phial, no larger than a bottle of marking-ink, but
everybody felt that it might hold the fate of some desperate criminal.
The tiny blue object was handed up to the coroner, and he examined it
through his glasses gravely.

"I should like to know where this came from," he said. "Will you be
good enough to tell the court where you found it?"

Carden proceeded to explain that the bottle had been picked up during
the last few minutes outside the window of the drawing-room. It had
evidently been thrown upon the path, for it had rolled across the
gravel, and had become firmly wedged between the grass and the small
drain. The cork was still in the bottle, which was half full of liquid.
As the coroner drew the cork and placed the contents to his nose, he
shrugged his shoulders significantly. As a doctor himself, he had no
hesitation in pronouncing the liquid to be strychnine. He passed the
little blue phial to Carden.

"Strychnine beyond all question," he said. "Enough remains in the
bottle now to kill half a dozen ordinary men. But tell me, Inspector
Carden, was there no label on this bottle?"

"I see what you mean, sir," Carden replied. "Had there been a label
I should have deemed it my duty to suppress this evidence until I
had made full enquiries as to whom the poison came from, and who was
the purchaser. Probably the heavy dews of the last few nights have
soaked the label off. We have looked for it everywhere, but that most
important piece of evidence is not to be found."

"You will pardon me, I am sure," Cattley put in. "Speaking as a friend
of Mrs. Rice, I should like to ask a question. No; on second thoughts,
I shall be quite content with an examination of the bottle. I presume
you will have no objection, sir?"

The coroner nodded his head, and the bottle was handed over to Cattley,
who examined it with a grave, preoccupied air. He shook his head
presently, and relinquished the clue to Carden. But Grace saw a steely
gleam in his eyes; she did not fail to notice how the grip of his hand
on the table suddenly stiffened.

"You have found something out," Grace whispered.

"I think so," Cattley replied. "But I am not quite sure as yet. This
is a fine discovery on the part of the police, and nobody rejoices
more than I do. At any rate, though we know perfectly well that you
administered a dose of morphia to your husband, it will be impossible
to attach any serious blame to you, and for them to prove that you had
the handling of the strychnine."

Grace would have asked further questions, only Cattley turned away from
her and proceeded to scribble a pencil note, which he handed up to the
coroner. The official nodded as he read, and then it seemed to Grace
that he was regarding her with a more friendly eye than he had done
previously.

"I think we will take the enquiry in proper order," he said. "The
strychnine bottle had best be left in the hands of Inspector Carden, so
that he can make due enquiries. At this moment we had better go on with
Dr. Hunter's evidence. I should like to know if the witness maintains
that death was in any way due to an overdose of morphia. It is a most
important point."

"I don't think so," the doctor replied. "Undoubtedly death is due to
the strychnine poisoning. That is my view of the matter."

"But strychnine poisoning is hardly consistent with so placid a death,"
the coroner replied. "As far as I recollect, death by strychnine
produces rigidity of the body, and in this case those symptoms are
conspicuously absent."

"You are not quite correct in your assumption, sir, and you have
probably forgotten that the rigidity you mention is not always present.
We will suppose for a moment that the patient died in a moment of
relaxation. What I mean is this--the unfortunate victim is absolutely
doubled up with pain, and if death took place at that moment we should
have the rigidity which you mention. But supposing that the moment of
agony had ceased for the fraction of a second, and in that fraction
of a second the unhappy victim had died. In that case death would
he perfectly normal; in fact, it would be an ordinary ease of rigor
mortis. I hope you see my point."

"I think I do," said the coroner thoughtfully. "I have some faint
recollection of reading this theory in one of the medical dictionaries.
Death in a moment of relaxation is exceedingly rare, but still it
is quite possible, and I will not carry my argument any further. I
understand you to say that the deceased died from the administration of
an overdose of strychnine."

"Precisely," Hunter responded. "What we have to do now is to discover
whence the strychnine came."

"I see your point exactly," the coroner said. "This development is so
startling and unexpected that I am disposed to adjourn the inquest for
another week. The whole mystery is locked up in that little bottle, and
until the police can find out something further about it, our hands
are tied. I don't know if Inspector Carden has a proposal to make, but
I don't see how we can get any further this morning. What do you say,
Inspector?"

Carden intimated that he was perfectly prepared to leave himself in the
hands of the court. He candidly confessed himself to be utterly taken
back by the recent startling events; he would do his best to get to
the bottom of the strychnine business, not that he felt in the least
sanguine of success. The disappointed spectators filed out, the coroner
stopping just a moment to shake hands with Grace, and to offer her a
few words of congratulation; then the house was empty once more, except
for the servants. Grace shuddered as she looked around her; she hoped
that she would never find herself within those walls again. She turned
to Cattley enquiringly, and asked him what he meant to do next.

"Don't forget that you have this house in your hands," he said. "I have
asked a question or two, and from what I can ascertain, Stephen Rice
died without making a will. He was just the sort of man to do a thing
of that sort. If what I say is correct, then everything comes to you."

"Not one penny of his money do I touch," Grace cried.

"No, but you must consent to administer the estate all the same. If you
will leave everything to me, I will see to the upkeep of the house and
the servants, who must remain here till these legal proceedings are
finished. After that you may do as you please. Now I am going to take
you home, and then proceed into Leverton to make a few enquiries as
to this strychnine affair. This is one of the best things that could
possibly have happened to you."

"I don't quite see why," Grace murmured.

"My dear child, you know very little of the world. Don't you understand
that uncharitable people would say that you murdered a hated husband to
clear the way for the man to whom you had given your affection. Even
if no proceedings had been taken against you, lots of people would have
been ready to say that, whereas now it is impossible to identify you
in any way with Stephen Rice's death. I can speak plainly now that the
danger is over, but I am perfectly certain that if this new development
had not come to light, you would have left this house this morning as
Inspector Carden's prisoner. Not that I am going to let the matter stop
here; I am going to get to the bottom of this strychnine business, and
prove who the criminal really is. Inspector Carden is doubtless a very
clever man, but there are little things that he fails to notice. Within
the next hour of two I shall know the name of the chemist where the
strychnine was procured. And now I am going to take you home."

Grace was back home again at length. She would have asked Cattley to
come in, but he pleaded business elsewhere, and drove over in the
direction of Water Park. There he asked for Mr. Max Graham, who came
presently and coldly demanded the meaning of this intrusion. But
Cattley was not the man to be shaken off like this.

"You will have to listen to me, whether you like it or not," he said.
"I know you regard me in the light of an enemy, but I am going to prove
to you that I am one of the best friends you ever had. Mrs. Rice will
tell you that the first time you meet."

"That is all very well," Max said coldly, "but I am informed on good
authority that you were fully aware of the way in which I was treated
by the Fentons. Indeed, you were actually in the house one night with
Fenton's elder daughter whilst I was still a prisoner there. If you
really were a friend of mine----"

"We need not go into that just at present," Cattley said. "I will
explain everything in due course. Meanwhile I shall be glad if you
will come with me to Leverton where I want to make sundry enquiries. I
presume you are aware of the startling revelations which came out at
the inquest this morning."

"I have had everything from a witness," Max said. "It looks to me
almost like an intervention of Providence to save Grace from her
perilous position. If we could only prove----"

"I know exactly what you are going to say," Cattley interrupted, "and
we will prove it if you will only give me your assistance. I understand
you have a telephone on the premises. May I use it to get through to
London?"

Max had no objection to offer and for the next 20 minutes he and
Cattley discussed ordinary topics till the tinkle of the telephone
bell warned the visitor that he was wanted. He came back a few moments
later, his face beaming with satisfaction.

"It is just as I had expected," he said. "I have found out something
that I particularly wanted to know. Will you come into Leverton with
me--your time will not be wasted?"

Max was beginning to rather like the man who seemed to be taking up
things so heartily on his behalf. He would go into Leverton with
pleasure, he said. Cattley's dog-cart was at the door, so that they
set off without further delay. Cattley took from his pocket a scrap of
paper on which was a small monogram and underneath the figures 5456.

"I dare say you wonder what this means," he said. "It is the stamp that
I found on the bottom of the strychnine bottle. It struck me at once
that here I had the maker's name. I have a friend in London who does a
tremendous business in that kind of thing, and I telephoned him just
now giving him the monogram and the number and asking him if he could
tell me where that particular bottle had been sent to in the course of
retail trade. I had not long to wait, for the bottle had formed the
portion of a large packet sent to a wholesale chemist, at Barchester.
I telephoned to Barchester with great success. The bottle had been
sold to one of three chemists in Leverton with a lot of other poison
phials some three months ago. Don't you see how I hold the key of the
situation? I have only to show that bottle to those three chemists, and
one of them is sure to identify it. We will go into the police-station
and get Carden to accompany us on our search."

Carden was quite eager to fall in with the suggestion. The first two
chemists were positive that they had sold no strychnine lately, the
third one seemed to recollect a transaction of the kind which he had
had recently. He looked at the bottle searchingly.

"Yes, this is assuredly one of mine," he said. "I sold it last Monday
week. I recollect now it was the only phial of the size I had left. I
scratched my thumb on that little chip in the neck. Did I sell it to a
private individual? Why do you suggest anything so foolish, Inspector
Carden? I sold it to a properly qualified medical man, only I can't
quite recollect his name for the moment. We do a very large business in
drugs. But, of course, I can tell you by referring to my register. As
Inspector Carden perfectly well knows, we never sell deadly poisons of
this kind, even to a doctor, unless he signs the book. If you wait just
half a moment I will go and look up the name."

The chemist reappeared presently with the desired information.

"I have it for you," he said. "I sold that poison on Monday week as I
said to Dr. Hunter."

Evidently the chemist had no idea there was anything wrong, for he
chatted on in a casual kind of way whilst Cattley stood there asking a
question or two. Max said nothing, as yet he did not quite understand
or appreciate the full significance of the discovery. Once they were
outside in the street again Cattley turned to his companion and smiled,
significantly.

"Well, What do you think of that?" he asked.

"I don't know what to think of it," Max replied. "I judge from your
manner that you have discovered something of great importance, but I am
too dull to appreciate what it means."

"We shall come to that presently," Cattley said. "In the first instance
it is a great thing to be able to prove that the bottle of strychnine
which I have in my hand at the present moment should be traced into the
hands of strangers--I mean people in whom Mrs. Rice had no interest
whatever."

"Still harping on the same point," Max said, impatiently.

"It seems to me to be rather an important point," said Carden. "I
am afraid you hardly appreciate the peril in which Mrs. Rice stood
recently. Not a single person among the spectators at the inquest this
morning expected to see Mrs. Rice leave the court unless it was in
custody as my prisoner. Not to put too fine a point upon it, I expected
it myself."

"We can go into all that presently," Cattley said. "As yet, we are only
on the fringe of the mystery. Mr. Carden, will you be good enough to
tell me what sort of character Dr. Hunter bears."

Carden stroked his chin thoughtfully.

"Well, if you mean socially or morally, rather indifferent," he said.
"Hunter is a clever man, a man of all-round abilities, and I understand
that he has tried many things in his time. Amongst other occupations
he has been on the stage. I think he has fair means of his own. He
came down here a few years ago with a view to establishing a practice.
He had a great reputation as a surgeon and would have done very well
indeed only that he is fond of gambling and is to a certain extent,
addicted to drink."

"I expected to hear something like this," Cattley said thoughtfully.
"Was Hunter by way of being a friend of Rice's?"

"They were in the same set together," Carden explained, "but why are
you asking me all these questions?"

"I have a very good purpose to serve, as you will see presently," said
Cattley. "You will recognise the utmost importance of tracing this
bottle back to Hunter, and discovering how it ultimately found its
way into the house of Stephen Rice. I don't say that Hunter is in the
least guilty. I don't suggest for a moment that he had anything to do
with the death of Stephen Rice. That is a point which we will have
to determine upon. The first thing is to make enquiries at Hunter's
house. Now, Hunter knows you, of course, and if you appear in the
matter he will take alarm at once--that is, providing he has any guilty
knowledge. What I want you to do is this--let me go to Hunter's with
Mr. Graham and work the thing out my own way. If the enquiry results
in nothing, well, there is an end of the matter. If, on the contrary,
there are any sensational disclosures we could call you in."

Carden debated the matter thoughtfully for a moment or two, then he
decided to fall in with Cattley's suggestion. He gave his companions
instructions at to where they could find Hunter's house, and went off
himself in the direction of the police station.

"Do you expect anything of importance to arise out of this?" Max asked.

"Indeed I do," Cattley exclaimed. "But you will see what you will see
presently. Here is the house, and now to see what Hunter has to say in
the matter."

Hunter's establishment was a rather imposing one, standing a little
back from the road. It was a typical doctor's house, solid and
respectable, and suggesting that the occupant was a man with whom the
world went well. At the same time Max did not fail to note that several
of the venetian blinds were pulled up at different angles, and that
the windows had not been cleaned for some days past. The curtains,
too, were dingy, and the flowers in the window boxes were drooping
with neglect. Some sort of attempt had been made recently to clean the
brasswork and the plate on the front door, but the work showed every
sign of slovenliness.

"The outside of the house tells a story, does it not?" Cattley said.
"Hunter is evidently careless as to outside appearances, and I should
say that he has a slattern of a wife."

"Doesn't look as if he had a wife at all," Max murmured.

"Oh, yes, he has," Cattley inserted. "You will see presently. As a
matter of fact, you are going to have a great surprise. It was a
surprise to me up till a little time ago, but the facts that came to
my knowledge then did not interest me half as much as they do now. I
suppose the bell doesn't ring--kindly use the knocker."

The knocker being plied vigorously, the summons was answered at length
by a parlor-maid, who would have looked well enough had her cap and
apron been cleaner and her big fringe a little less prominent. She was
rather pert and off-hand in her manner as she asked the visitors into
the hall, and showed them into the dining-room. She was understood to
say that Dr. Hunter was at home, and would be with them as soon as he
had finished with the patients in the consulting-room.

The dining-room was typical of the outside of the house--well and
handsomely furnished. But the pictures were dusty; sundry ornaments
showed the same grime; the Turkey carpet was half-smothered with
crumbs, and evidently had not been swept for days.

"All this looks bad," Cattley murmured, "these things tell a tale. But
here comes our man, I fancy."

Hunter came smoothly into the room. He had evidently been paying a
little more attention to his personal appearance than usual, for he was
smartly groomed now and presented quite a different aspect from what he
had done at the inquest. He bowed to the visitors and waited for them
to speak.

"My name is Cattley," said Max's companion. "It is just possible that
you have heard of me before."

It might have been Max's imagination, but it seemed to him that Hunter
started and looked just a little bit dismayed as Cattley pronounced his
name. He made no comment, but waited for Cattley to proceed. He plunged
at once into the subject.

"We are both friends of Mrs. Rice. This is Mr. Max Graham, to whom
Mrs. Rice was engaged before she was forced into a hated alliance
with her late husband. I can speak all the more candidly, because the
facts I am mentioning are already public property. As you made the
post-mortem, acting as Mr. Rice's medical man, none of the surgical
facts are concealed from you. A stroke of fortune has established Mrs.
Rice's innocence as to the manslaughter of her husband. You are still
of opinion, of course, that Rice died from an overdose of strychnine?"

"The question is absolutely unnecessary," Hunter said. "The morphia had
nothing whatever to do with the accident."

"Quite so. Stephen Rice died of strychnine poisoning. Now we may take
it for granted that that poison never touched Mrs. Rice's fingers. You
will admit that of course?"

"Only too willingly," Hunter cried, eagerly. "You heard my views stated
at the inquest. I have not the slightest doubt in my mind that somebody
crept into the drawing-room when Rice was lying there in a comatose
state, and forced the strychnine between his lips. It could easily have
been done."

"I quite agree with you," Cattley said. "Then the murderer vanished and
got rid of the strychnine bottle by the simple expedient of throwing
it into the garden. Our duty now is to trace that strychnine to its
purchaser."

"I think you will find that absolutely impossible," Hunter said. "In
the first place, no chemist would sell that quantity of poison to
anybody but a qualified medical man. The law does not allow chemists to
deal with deadly drugs in that fashion."

"Then how did the murderer get hold of the bottle?" Cattley asked.
"Could he or she have stolen it?"

"Not from a chemist's shop," Hunter said; "nor could it have been taken
away from any wholesale establishment. I am afraid the thing must
remain a mystery."

"I am a little more sanguine than you," Cattley said, significantly.
"My theory is that the bottle was stolen from the dispensary of some
doctor."

Something like a cry broke from Hunters lips, but he steadied himself
instantly.

"That seems to be improbable," he said.

"Not at all," Cattley went on. "Let us say it is your case, for
instance. An unknown patient comes to you for some slight ailment, and
you leave the dispensary for a minute. The bottle vanishes, and so
does the patient. Now I am going to ask you a straight question, and I
hope you will give me a straight answer. Have you missed a bottle of
strychnine from your dispensary for the last few days? Do not be in a
hurry to reply."

Assuredly Hunter was in no hurry to reply, for he stood there staring
at his visitors, his face deadly pale; he breathed as if he had some
trouble at his heart.

"I assure you, you are mistaken," he gasped.

"Indeed, I am not," Cattley said, sternly. "Here is the missing bottle.
On the bottom of it is a number and monogram. By means of that number
and monogram I traced the maker of the bottle. I went even further than
that, and actually discovered the chemist to whom the bottle was sold.
The name of the chemist was Haines, High-street, in this very town."

"Ridiculous," Hunter said hoarsely, "as if a man could recognise a
bottle like that."

"Well, he has recognised this one anyway," Cattley said coolly. "There
is a little chip on the neck with which the chemist scratched his thumb
when he was filling the bottle. He has only sold one lot of strychnine
for some considerable time, and he was good enough to look at his books
and give us the name of the doctor to whom he had sold the poison. Is
there any need of me to mention that doctor's name, or will you tell us
yourself?"

Hunter stood there apparently unable to speak. His face had grown
deadly pale, he wiped the moisture from the palms of his hands, he sank
tremblingly into a chair.

"I certainly bought some strychnine on the date mentioned," he
stammered. "But so far as I know it is in my dispensary at the present
moment. I will go and see."

"On the contrary, we will come with you," Cattley snapped. "You will
see that this matter is beginning to assume a serious aspect. I shall
be greatly surprised if you find the bottle you speak of in the
dispensary. By the way, do you allow members of your family to enter
your dispensary? I shall be very glad if you will consult your wife on
this point."

Hunter crossed the room and rang the bell. In reply to the dingy
parlor-maid he signified that he should like to see Mrs. Hunter a
moment. There was silence for a moment, then a woman's voice outside
protested against being disturbed. Then the door opened, and a tall,
handsome woman sailed into the room. She appeared to take no heed of
Hunter's visitors, but angrily asked him what he wanted. The light of
the sun was full upon her face.

"Mr. Cattley, you know," Hunter said. "This gentleman with him is Mr.
Max Graham."

"Whom I also know," the woman laughed. "It is just possible that Mr.
Graham has forgotten me, but I did him a service a little time ago for
which he owes me his best thanks. But I am always one to hold that
virtue is its own reward."

Max started as the woman turned to him. He was standing face to face
with the one whom he had known as Fenton's elder daughter, Ella.

Cattley appeared to be not in the least surprised by this last
development; indeed, his air seemed to signify that everything was
moving in exact accordance with his pre-arranged plans. The woman
stood there smiling. She demanded to know what was the matter with her
husband, and why he seemed so disturbed.

"We have had a rather unpleasant interview," Cattley explained. "It
is in relation to the death of Stephen Rice. As a matter of fact, we
have traced the bottle of strychnine into your husband's possession. At
least, so we think."

"And I am going to deny it," Hunter cried. "I am not going to permit my
good name to be smirched by a mere----"

"If you take my advice you will do nothing of the kind," Cattley said
sternly. "There is not the slightest doubt in the world that the fatal
bottle was taken from your dispensary. We will take it for granted that
the bottle was stolen, and, therefore, no blame can possibly attach to
you."

"But it is impossible," Hunter protested. "I cannot recall to my
mind one single instance when a patient has been left alone in my
dispensary, and I could not suspect one of my servants."

"That is precisely what we want to arrive at," Cattley said. "I presume
it is no uncommon thing for poorer patients to wait in the dispensary
when you have to be out on professional business."

Hunter grasped at the idea as a drowning man clutches at a straw. It
seemed to Max as if Cattley was showing the other a way out.

"I had not thought of that," Hunter exclaimed. "I frequently ask
patients to call and see me at a certain time--I mean my poorer
patients--and if I am likely to be detained longer than I expected I
telephone my wife or the servants to ask them to call again later. That
is the thing that frequently happens."

Cattley turned to the woman who called herself Mrs. Hunter and raised
his eyebrows interrogatively. She had lost her jaunty air for the
moment, and was looking exceedingly distressed and anxious. It occurred
to Max for the moment that she was waiting for her husband to give
her a lead. But he sat downcast and moody, with his eyes fixed on the
carpet.

"I am waiting for Mrs. Hunter to speak," Cattley said.

"There is not much I can tell you," the woman said at length. "It is
exactly as my husband has told you. Very frequently I get a telephone
message from some patient's house or call-office, telling me that
he has been detained, and that if any patients are waiting in the
dispensary they are to be told to come again at such and such a time.
Sometimes I take the message to the dispensary, and sometimes it is one
of the servants."

"That is precisely what I thought," Cattley said. "During the last few
days have you noticed anybody suspicious-looking in the dispensary?
Don't answer at random."

But Mrs. Hunter could give no information on that head. She had not
recovered her easy, jaunty manner--in fact, she looked particularly
distressed, as Max did not fail to notice. He felt quite sure that she
knew a great deal more than she cared to say, and that she was in a
position to throw considerable light on the mystery, if she only chose
to do so. Cattley rose at length, as if to go.

"I am sorry that we have not got any further," he said. "I had hoped
for great things from this visit. It is absolutely certain that this
fatal little bottle I hold in my hand was stolen from Dr. Hunter's
surgery by some person who had the deliberate intention of making an
end with Stephen Rice. I am not altogether without a clue. I meant to
have gone over to Rice's house this evening to follow up a thread or
two which I had unravelled, but now I shall have to go post haste to
London instead. I shall be very glad if Mr. Graham will accompany me."

Cattley winked swiftly at Max as he spoke. Nobody else saw the rapid
movement of his eyelid. It only remained now for Max to signify that he
was absolutely at his companion's service. Mrs. Hunter looked up with a
gleam of curiosity in her eyes.

"Will you mind giving us an idea of your clue?" she asked.

"Dangerous information to confide to a woman," Cattley said, with the
nearest approach to a laugh that he had yet uttered; "but I think
things are fairly safe in your hands. The clue lies in the garden close
to the little drain where we found the bottle. Little things like those
very often weave into ropes that hang people. It may be a missing key,
a scrap of braid, or a lost earring. Whatever it is, don't you mention
to anybody what I said about a clue and a drain. And now we had better
be going."

Hunter pulled himself together and accompanied his visitors as far as
the door. All the same, they could see that it was only by a great
effort that he maintained the conversation, and that he was generally
glad to be quit of their presence.

"What are we going to do now?" Max asked.

"First of all we are going to have some lunch," Cattley said. "We will
lunch at the George, and as soon as we have finished our meal I am
going to call loudly for a time-table, and you and I will discuss the
best afternoon train to London. It will be for you to say that you must
be back early to-morrow, to which I shall make no demur. As a matter
of fact we shall go by the 3.50 train, because that particular train
stops at Yarborough Junction, whence we shall return to Mayfield, and
walk across the fields in the direction of Rice's house, arriving there
about dark. We shall drive to the station in a cab--in fact, we shall
make our departure as public as possible. This is an essential feature."

"But why all this acting?" Max asked.

"For the simple reason that we shall be watched, my dear young friend.
Unless I am greatly mistaken we are being watched already. But we need
not worry about that--I am playing this game my own way, as you will
see presently."

"What about the servants at Rice's house. Surely you don't want them to
know what is going on."

"They won't," Cattley chuckled. "As a matter of fact there will not be
a servant on the premises after five. I have arranged all that, and as
I possess a latchkey there will not be the slightest trouble to get
into the house."

"And what do you expect to find when you get there?"

"Well, it may be a great deal, and it may be a very little," Cattley
explained. "Time will prove that. And now let us go and have our lunch.
Before many days are over everything will be satisfactorily settled."

They took their lunch in the coffee-room of the George Hotel, and
over the meal Max had many questions to ask his friend. He was not a
little puzzled, for instance, to find the mysterious woman of Fenton's
farmhouse playing the part of Hunter's wife. He wanted to know also how
Cattley had come to know the woman so intimately.

"It is a long story," the latter said. "I used to know old Fenton years
before I left England. You must not forget that he was a man of good
family, and that he occupied a good position before he married his
gipsy wife. When I came home there were certain things connected with
the bygone affairs in which Fenton was in a position to help me. You
must know that my early past was by no means a creditable one, and it
suited my humor for Fenton to believe that I am as bad now as I was
when I went away. You heard Carden say that at one time Hunter had been
on the stage, and there he met Ella Fenton, who might have made a great
reputation for herself, but for her bad temper and eccentric habits.
Every now and again she goes back to the stage until she quarrels with
her manager and returns home once more. But all this will be explained
in due course. Now let us go through the formula of calling for a
time-table and fixing on our train."

The thing was done at length, and presently the two were in a
first-class carriage bound for London. The train was on the point of
starting when Cattley pointed out to Max the bent figure of an old
woman creeping timidly along the platform in search of a seat.

"I told you we were being followed," he said. "You will be surprised
when I tell you that that admirably made-up old woman is no less a
person than Mrs. Hunter. You want to know how I know that. Do you see
that man standing by the bookstall? He is one of my spies that I left
outside Hunter's house with instructions to keep his eyes open. As the
woman passed he caught my look and pointed to the bent old figure,
whereby I knew whom I had to deal with."

"Admirable, admirable," Max cried. "There is one thing you seem to have
forgotten. How are we going to get away at the junction. Won't that be
rather awkward?"

Cattley explained that there would be nothing awkward about it. He
had foreseen something like this, and his spy had instructions to act
accordingly. On reaching the junction there appeared to be something of
a disturbance in a third-class carriage a little lower down the train.
Cattley stepped swiftly on to the platform and pulled Max after him
into the shelter of the refreshment-room.

"That's all right," he explained. "My man managed the whole thing very
creditably. Much the same kind of thing will happen at Paddington,
and Mrs. Hunter will naturally assume that she has missed us in the
confusion of the moment. Now let us get back to Mayfield and walk as
far as our destination."

Mayfield was reached at length, and the two strolled across the fields
in the direction of Stephen Rice's house. They stopped for tea at a
small roadside public-house, and then they lounged smoking in the
fields till it was quite dark.

They came into the grounds presently without being observed by anybody;
then with the aid of the latchkey Cattley passed into the house. It
was absolutely dark by this time, and Max wondered how they were going
to manage. He did not need anybody to tell him that this expedition
was a profoundly secret one; he knew perfectly well that it would be
dangerous to use a light. But Cattley seemed to have made all these
arrangements with care and precision. He fumbled about in the hall for
a moment, having closed the door behind him, then he produced a dark
lantern.

"Nothing like prudence in these affairs," he said. "We will go into the
drawing-room now and slightly open one of the windows leading to the
lawn. It is just at this spot you will remember where Carden found the
bottle of strychnine. Come along."

By the aid of the lantern they found their way to the drawing-room
window which Cattley proceeded to unlatch so that it could be opened
without any noise. He pulled the blind up so as to convey the
impression to any trespasser that it had been overlooked owing to
the carelessness of a servant. Then he sat doggedly down to watch.
Max asked no questions, he felt that Cattley was in no mood to be
communicative. He would have liked to smoke, but Cattley sternly
forbade anything so imprudent.

The hours crept on till a clock on the mantel-shelf struck twelve. It
was intensely dark, though it seemed to Max he could see the outline of
Cattley's figure crouching on the floor. Presently the latter touched
his arm and whispered in his ear.

"It's coming," Cattley said. "Can't you see something outside moving
across the grass towards the drain?"

Surely enough Max could make out something creeping towards the house.
A moment later and the French window was pushed back and Cattley was
outside. Max paused irresolute, hardly knowing whether his services
would be required or not. He could make out now the two figures
drawing closer together; it seemed to him that he could hear a faint
cry and the tramp of feet on the gravel. Then there was another sound
suspiciously like a blow, followed by a scream which was checked as if
somebody had clutched a throat and was strangling the life out of a
human body.

"Not that way," Max heard Cattley say hoarsely. "Not that way--you will
find it a little more to the right."




CHAPTER XXXI.--THE UNEXPECTED GUEST.

Left to herself, Grace's first thoughts were for her father. Cattley's
revelations as to the extraordinary state of affairs which had been
brought about by the unexpected conduct of James Holder had somewhat
softened Grace so far as the author of her being was concerned.
Naturally, she had imagined that her father had been speculating wildly
with the money entrusted to him by his clients, and that he had made an
attempt to shield one crime with a still greater crime of forcing her
into an alliance with Stephen Rice.

It was good, at any rate, to know that this was not the case, and
that Anstey had suffered, like many a better man before him, from
over-confidence in others. If what Cattley said was correct, then James
Holder was no better than a cunning swindler, who had grossly betrayed
the trust reposed in him, and had led a life of sheer hypocrisy. But,
as Cattley had pointed out, James Holder was not entirely responsible
for his own actions. He had developed a mania which no one guessed for
a moment.

He had always been a quiet, reserved type of man, given to study and
book-lore generally, and no one had guessed that he had within him the
makings of a dangerous lunatic. On the whole Anstey had not been as
much to blame as appeared on the face of matters.

Grace went slowly up the stairs in the direction of her father's
room. He was sleeping peacefully; there was an utter absence of that
restlessness which up to now had marked the course of his illness. The
nurse greeted Grace with a smile.

"We are doing very well indeed," she said. "A little time ago your
father seemed to recover consciousness for a minute, and asked one or
two intelligent questions. The doctor reports of him very well indeed.
You look a great deal more in need of nursing than many patients I have
had lately."

"I am very tired," Grace admitted, "and I have been through a very
trying time lately."

"I have heard all about it," the nurse replied. "I am very, very sorry;
it seems to me such a hard thing to have all this trouble through no
fault of your own. I don't wish to seem impertinent, but I hope that it
is true--I mean what I heard just now."

Grace smiled wearily. She felt it almost beneath her dignity to go into
explanations, but she gave the nurse a short account of the dramatic
happenings of the morning.

"How foolish people are!" the nurse said. "Just as if anybody could
suppose for a moment that you had anything to do with that dreadful
business. Was anything discovered as to the bottle of strychnine? I
hope you won't mind me asking these questions, but I am generally
interested in your welfare."

"It is very good of you," Grace said gratefully. "I seem to have more
friends than I imagined. I will go away now and have some luncheon
and try and sleep for an hour or two afterwards. I am afraid I am not
considering you as much as I should--you have not been out of the house
for two days."

"Oh, please do not consider me," the nurse cried. "In the circumstances
I have put myself in the background, but I should be exceedingly
grateful if you could see your way to take my place for a couple of
hours or so this evening, as I want to go into Leverton. I have a
married sister there whose only child is ill, and I am very anxious
about the little girl."

"There is no escaping from trouble in this world," Grace said. "I will
gladly take your place to-night, and please do not hurry back on my
account. You had better take the carriage so that you will not have to
trouble about a train."

The nurse murmured her grateful thanks, and Grace went off to the
dining-room. For the first time during three weeks the sight of food
did not fill her with nausea. She was conscious now of a fine, healthy
appetite, and did thorough justice to the meal which had been laid out
for her. A feeling of lightness of heart and elasticity of spirit to
which she had been a stranger for some time possessed her. And, indeed,
it seemed to her, she had cause for congratulation.

In the course of a few hours most of the dark clouds had rolled away,
and she could see the sunshine of hope in the distance. Not so long ago
she had looked forward with dread to a long life of abject misery, tied
to a man that she hated and despised, and moving in fear of her very
existence. Not so long ago the other disgrace had loomed large--the
dreadful knowledge that her father might stand at any time as a felon
in the eyes of his fellow-men. And yet, as if by magic, these two
dreadful terrors had vanished, never to reappear again. Though Grace
had been greatly shocked by the appalling suddenness of Stephen Rice's
death, it would have been sheer hypocrisy on her part to profess the
slightest sorrow. On the contrary, Grace could not but regard it as a
direct interposition of Providence to guard her from further misery.
Now she could see the outline of a happy future before her, without
outraging the proprieties, she could look forward to becoming Max
Graham's wife at no very distant date; she told herself that not one
penny of Stephen Rice's money should ever pass through her hands.

Grace was not unconscious, too, of the goodwill of those about her.
Naturally, the servants said nothing; but Grace could judge by their
manner that they were all on her side. She cried a little softly to
herself as her head sought the pillow, and five minutes later she was
fast asleep.

When she woke again she could hear the clock striking seven, and then
she knew that she had had nearly five hours of sound slumber. The sun
was setting on the front of the house, the whole place was bathed with
a glorious yellow light that seemed to find its way to the remotest
corners of Grace's heart. She felt a different girl now; once more life
was pleasant and worth the living. It was nearly eight o'clock before
Grace appeared again in her father's bedroom. The nurse smiled at her;
it was good to notice the change in Grace's appearance.

"I should hardly have known you," she said. "I hope you have had a good
sleep and feel all the better for it?"

"I feel as if something had changed me entirely," Grace said, "but I
am not going to keep you talking here, knowing that your heart is in
Leverton all the time. I have arranged for the carriage to drive you
into Leverton and bring you back, so there is no cause for hurry. What
am I to do if the patient awakes?"

"You are to be very firm," the nurse explained. "I have written out a
few simple directions on my tablets, and if you follow these carefully
you will be on the safe side, only you are not to allow your father to
talk."

The nurse went off presently and left Grace alone in the sick chamber.
The girl felt now that she was able to concentrate her attention on
a book, and the next hour or two passed away rapidly. Indeed it was
nearly eleven o'clock before Grace realised the fact. A servant looked
in presently, and desired to know if anything more was wanted before
the household went to bed.

"Nothing, thank you," Grace replied. "Please do not fasten the front
door, as the nurse has not yet returned. I don't think there is
anything else."

Gradually the house elapsed into silence, the hands of the clock crept
along until the hour of twelve struck, and as yet the nurse had not
returned. Grace felt no alarm, she had been liberal in her ideas as
to the time the nurse might take, indeed her absence made very little
difference. The clock had barely finished striking the hour before the
patient turned uneasily in his sleep and opened his eyes. Grace was
bending over the bed in a moment.

"Is there anything you want," she whispered.

In a feeble voice Mark Anstey intimated that he would like something to
drink. Grace had got the nurse's instructions almost by heart, so that
she knew exactly what to do. Anstey swallowed the patent food which the
doctor had prescribed for him, then he asked Grace how long he had been
lying there.

"You are looking very well, my child," he whispered.

"I am very well," Grace said. "Everything will be very well before
long. Your nurse has gone to Leverton on business, and she has not yet
returned. She particularly told me that you are not to speak, so I
shall tell you no more."

"Have they caught him?" Anstey asked. "He flew at me with an axe and
struck me on the head."

"Who did?" Grace asked. She had forgotten the nurse's precautions for a
moment. "Who struck you?"

"I don't know," Anstey said vaguely. "Perhaps I shall recollect in the
morning. I feel too terribly tired and sleepy to be able to use my
brains at all."

The sufferer's eyes closed and he lapsed into slumber again. Grace was
thankful that her task was made so easy. She was glad also that her
father would probably be in a position later on to speak definitely as
to the identity of the man who had so grievously assailed him. Grace
was still puzzling over the matter when it seemed to her that she could
hear the front door open and somebody stealthily creeping across the
hall. Vaguely alarmed, Grace went on the landing and looked over the
banisters. This could not possibly be the nurse, she thought, for there
was no occasion for her to creep into the house like that, besides, if
it had been the nurse, Grace would have heard the sound of wheels.

She was feeling brave and strong to-night, so that she did not hesitate
as to what to do. She went quickly down the stairs and looked into the
dining-room and library. The lights had not been turned out, there was
no chance of anybody concealing himself, and it seemed to Grace that
she saw a shadow flit across the drawing-room. She entered boldly and
demanded to know who was there. Then her suspicions became a certainty,
for a figure stood up by the side of an old fashioned bureau where Mark
Anstey kept a number of private papers, and confronted the girl. To her
amazement, Grace saw that she was face to face with James Holder.

"What?" she cried. "Have you escaped again?"

"It is no question, of escape, miss," Holder said. He spoke in his
usual smooth and respectful way, but there was a restless gleam in his
eyes that Grace did not like. She saw to her horror that be had a long
clasp-knife in his hand.

"Why are you not still in the hospital?" she managed to say.

"Cured," Holder chuckled. "Discharged this afternoon. But you go away,
miss, and leave me to do my own business in my own way. But for me
Mark Anstey would have ruined the bank. I put him out of the way; I
prevented that, and now we are going to be rich--rich beyond the dreams
of avarice."

The speaker's voice rose so high that Grace was fearful lest they
should disturb the patient upstairs. Holder might have been discharged
from the hospital, cured so far as bodily hurt was concerned, but Grace
had a shrewd idea that she was face to face with a dangerous lunatic.
There was nothing for it but to humor him.

"What do you want?" she asked. "Is there any way in which I can help
you? You have only to say the word and----"

"Oh, no," Holder muttered. "I don't trust anybody. All my life I have
never trusted anybody. I want those papers. You must get me the key."

Grace was about to make some suitable reply when her strained ears
caught the sound of flying footsteps outside, and a moment later the
front door was flung open and somebody rushed with an incoherent cry
into the hall. Startled and angry, Holder looked at Grace as if he
suspected her of some plot against his freedom. With a snarl he darted
across the room in the direction of the windows, and, flinging the
catch of one back, plunged headlong into the darkness. With a feeling
that she had had a narrow escape Grace hurried into the hall.

A figure rose from the floor, a black figure with a face white as
death, and clutched Grace appealingly about the knees.

"Save me," she whispered. "Don't let them catch me here."

"Why," Grace exclaimed, "why, it is Bessie Fenton."




CHAPTER XXXII.--STRUCK DOWN.

Suddenly mindful of her duty towards her father, and the danger of
arousing him at this critical moment, Grace led her involuntary guest
into the dining-room. At the same moment she heard the noise of
wheels outside, and gratefully recognised the fact that the nurse was
returning. Bidding Bessie stay where she was for a moment, she welcomed
the nurse, whose placid features showed that she had heard no ill news
in Leverton.

"I am glad the child is better," Grace said, "if I may judge from your
face. My father has only been awake for a few moments, and I have
followed your instructions to the letter. I have a friend here to see
me--a friend who is in a deal of trouble, but if you want me I shall be
in the dining-room."

"I am sure I shall not want you again to-night," the nurse replied, "if
I do I will come down."

Grace felt now that she could concentrate all her attention upon
Bessie Fenton. She found the girl lying at length on a couch utterly
prostrated, and evidently in the early stages of some dangerous
illness. Grace's heart went out to the girl; she could not forget that
Bessie Fenton had done her a great service voluntarily, and at the same
time she had every reason to hate the one whom she had assisted. Bessie
opened her eyes as Grace came in.

"I do not know what to do," she murmured. "You are good and kind, and I
came to you. Don't let them touch me."

Grace had too much tact to ask who they were. She could see that not
only was the girl really ill, but that she was suffering from some
great mental strain.

"You are perfectly safe here," she said soothingly. "You seem to be
utterly exhausted. Shall I get you some food, or perhaps you prefer a
glass of wine instead?"

Bessie turned away with a shudder. Grace knew what she meant. She had
been through that phase herself too recently not to understand. She
waited for Bessie to speak.

"No no," she said. "I could not touch food--I have not touched it for
days. And if I had so much as a sip of wine now it would intoxicate me,
and then perhaps I should lose my head, and tell the dreadful truth.
Do you know what it is to have something on your mind--something that
you would give years of your life to forget? Do you understand that
feeling?"

"Yes, indeed, I do," Grace responded. "I have been so recently through
it myself. I would not have believed that it was possible for anybody
to go through what I have undergone and keep their reason. But you may
speak plainly to me."

"I had forgotten, I had forgotten," Bessie said wearily. "What will not
women endure at the hands of a scoundrel when they give their foolish
hearts to him. Stephen Rice would have ruined your life, as he would
have ruined mine. But then, you hated and despised him, while with all
his faults, I cared for him still."

"He is at the bottom of your trouble, too?" Grace asked.

"Oh yes, yes, if I dared only tell you everything. But I am so wicked
and you are so pure-hearted that I dare not tell you. There was one
moment when I hesitated as to whether I should kill you or him. My
words may seem wild to you, but I swear to you that I am telling you
no more than the truth. It was to be one of you, I hardly cared which.
You cannot conceive what a bringing up mine has been; if you could,
you would understand my feelings. But I fought with myself, and to a
certain extent I conquered. Why should I injure you, who was but the
victim of a scoundrel's conspiracy? I reasoned with myself that, even
if you were out of the way, Stephen would never have married me. And
now he is dead, and I am all alone in the world, with not a soul to
care for me."

The girl raised her voice in a passionate protest; she staggered up and
down the room as if her spirit was too strong for her body. Grace could
not fail to note how deadly pale she was; and how that gripping illness
was gaining the mastery every moment.

"You are wearing yourself out," she said. "I cannot allow you to go
on any longer like this. Where do you propose to sleep to-night? You
cannot get to Leverton."

Bessie threw her arms wildly over her head.

"What does it matter?" she cried. "Scores of times I have slept out
of doors. This is a warm night, and I have all the world before me.
Besides, the further I sleep away from listening ears the better. I may
dream, and in my broken slumber tell the whole dreadful story. Ah, I
must not sleep; I must----"

The girl broke off and passed her hand across her eyes as if trying
to rub out some dreadful vision. A lightning flash seemed to scarify
Grace's brain and impress upon it the image of a frightful thought;
then Grace put the idea away as shameful and unworthy. Her first
consideration now must be for her visitor.

"You are going to stay here to-night," she said. "You are going to
occupy my own bedroom, and you are going to see a doctor the first
thing in the morning. The sooner you are in bed the better."

"No, no," Bessie cried. "I must not stop--I tell you I dare not. For
days I have been trying to forget. I have tried to lose myself in work,
I have been amongst the slums of Leverton nursing the very poor there.
But it was no use. I could not get away from the hideous shadow. Then I
went over to Stephen's house to-night and they nearly caught me. My last
resource was to see you--I know that you are good and kind. Ah, there
they are."

The speaker's voice dropped to a frightened whisper; she clung to Grace
in terror as someone rang the bell. Grace could hear the sound of
footsteps on the gravel outside. Very gently she put Bessie Fenton on
one side.

"Stay here till I come back," she commanded. "I promise that no one
shall hurt you as long as you are under this roof."

Grace opened the door to find Cattley standing outside. There was
another figure in the shadow and she asked who it was.

"Mr. Max Graham," Cattley explained shortly. "He would not come in; in
fact, I need not tell you his reasons. I want to know if you have had a
visitor this evening. Has Bessie Fenton been here? Is she in the house
now?"

Thus put to it, Grace had no alternative but to tell the truth.

"The girl is here," she explained. "She came a little while ago,
bursting into the house full of a terror akin to madness. The door
happened to be open, for the nurse had not returned, and I was
downstairs when she came. I am quite sure that Bessie is suffering from
some terrible mental strain, and I am equally sure that she is on the
verge of some serious disease. I am going to keep her here to-night;
in fact, she is going to share my bedroom. Is it true that you had an
encounter with her outside Stephen Rice's house?"

"True enough," Cattley said, coolly. "But for a misfortune I should
have been in a position by this time to tell you how Stephen Rice came
by his death. If my foot had not slipped at a critical moment I could
tell you now."

"What has Bessie Fenton got to do with it?" Grace asked.

"That we will go into later on," Cattley said. "I had an idea by the
direction she took that Bessie was making for this house--to tell
you the truth I was rather afraid she had it in her mind to do you a
mischief. Still, if you are in the least alarmed----"

"I am not alarmed at all," Grace said. "You may rest assured of one
thing, Bessie Fenton will do me no mischief. She came here this evening
regarding me in the light of the only friend she has in the world. Does
that satisfy you?"

Cattley signified that it did. On the whole, it suited him that Bessie
should remain where she was for the present, and he announced his
intention of seeing her in the morning.

"It is very shameful to disturb you like this," he said, "but believe
me, I am doing everything for the best. You must be very tired, and I
will not keep you up any longer."

"I am not in the least tired," Grace explained. "I had five solid
hours' sleep this afternoon, and I am ready to listen to anything you
have to say. I might as well tell you, whilst I think of it, that I
had two visitors this evening, and of the two I regard the first as
infinitely the most dangerous."

"James Holder, for a hundred," Cattley cried. "I heard it said that
they were sending him away from the hospital this afternoon practically
cured so far as his bodily condition was concerned. I warned the doctor
that he was suffering from hallucinations, but my warning seems to have
done no good. What was the man after?"

"Papers, so far as I could gather," Grace explained. "He was trying to
open the old Dutch bureau in the drawing-room with a clasp-knife in
search of some documents belonging to my father. The man is clearly
mad, Mr. Cattley. He babbled about great fortunes, and all that kind of
thing. There was a gleam in his eye, and a look which I did not like at
all. It was only when Bessie Fenton rushed in here that he took alarm
and vanished."

Cattley was visibly disturbed. He muttered something to himself that
Grace could not catch.

"This must be seen to in the morning," he said. "That man is more
dangerous than people imagine. It seems hard to picture poor old Holder
in the light of a dangerous lunatic, but such I regard him as being.
And now that I am not going to keep you here any longer, I shall come
round to see you in the morning."

Grace would have liked to say a few words to Max. She liked it none
the less because he remained in the background, but she refrained, and
returned to the dining-room, where Bessie Fenton was lying utterly
worn out on the sofa. It was with considerable difficulty that Grace
got the girl upstairs and into bed. She seemed to want nothing now but
sleep. She murmured her thanks incoherently, then for a long time she
was silent. An hour or so passed before Grace felt inclined for bed
herself. She could see that Bessie was asleep now--the deep sleep of
utter exhaustion--though her breath was painfully short. She looked
like a white statue reclining there, so white and cold, and yet when
Grace laid her hand upon the head of her strange companion the touch
seemed to burn her fingers like contact with a living coal.

"A doctor must see her first thing in the morning," Grace murmured. "I
am quite sure that she is going to have a dangerous illness. Perhaps I
had better sit up."

A little later, however, the sufferer's head seemed to grow cooler, and
Grace crept into bed. The sun was fairly high before Grace returned to
consciousness and the knowledge that Helen was in the room. She lost no
time in explaining what had happened, she could see now in the broad
light of day that Bessie was still worse than she had been the night
before. She turned to Helen and bade her go off at once and telephone
the family doctor without delay. Bessie lay there muttering in her
uneasy sleep, but Grace could not rouse her, try as she would. She felt
terribly anxious and uneasy; she began to wonder if the doctor was
never coming.

He came at length and Grace explained the situation of affairs to him.
He bent over the patient and examined her carefully; there was a look
of dismay on his face as he turned to Grace.

"Do you mean to tell me that you actually occupied the same room with
this woman last night?" he said. "She shared your bed with you, and you
never noticed anything seriously wrong?"

"Well, I thought she was ill, of course," Grace said. "Not that I am
in the least concerned for myself--I am no coward where illness is
concerned. Pray tell me what it is."

"I know you are no coward," the doctor responded. "I am very sorry to
tell you that this poor creature is suffering from typhoid, and, what
is more, she has it in a malignant form."




CHAPTER XXXIII.--COALS OF FIRE.

If the old family doctor had expected to see any signs of dismay on the
part of Grace he was doomed to be disappointed. After all the girl had
gone through lately a little thing like that did not trouble her at
all. Her heart was full of sympathy for the unfortunate sufferer; she
had no mind for anything else.

"In that case she must stay here," she said.

Dr. Gibson vehemently objected. The thing was not to be thought of
for a moment. He pointed out the difficulties in the way, but Grace
declined to heed.

"My friend is going to stay here," she said firmly, "and I am going
to nurse her myself. It will give me something to do. I suppose I had
better be careful and not go outside the house till you have definitely
ascertained that there are no further complications. It is just
possible, I suppose, that something contagious may supervene. Is not
that so?"

"Quite possible," Gibson admitted. "You had better consider yourself in
quarantine for a week or two."

"Precisely," Grace said triumphantly. "You would not even let me go
near my father?"

"No, nor anybody else in the house. It is very fortunate that your
suite of rooms occupies the whole of this wing, and that there are no
bedrooms in the same corridor."

"Nobody is likely to come within the zone of possible danger. So
you may go away without any fear of my disobeying orders. I'll make
preparations at once, and rely upon it that I mean to have my own way.
I know you are very angry with me."

Gibson frankly admitted that he was.

"It's a good thing for you," he said, "that you are not living in a
town. If that were the case I should insist upon having your friend
removed to the nearest hospital for the treatment of this class of
disorder. As your house stands quite by itself, there is no need to
adopt that course, so you must have your own way. I will give all
the necessary instructions, and you may think yourself lucky if your
servants don't desert the house in a body. They are sure to be very
frightened."

Grace felt quite confident that she could rely upon the loyalty of the
servants, nor was her belief falsified by subsequent events. Not so
much as a scullery-maid left the house, everything proceeded just as
smoothly as if nothing out of the common had taken place. Indeed, the
neighborhood generally was quite unaware of the fact that there was a
case of malignant disease so near.

But it was a grim fight that was taking place day by day in the
secluded bedroom, and each time that Dr. Gibson called his face seemed
to grow graver.

"There is something here besides the ordinary run of disease," he
said. "Your patient seems to be far more exhausted than I should
have expected. She must have been greatly run down when the disease
struck her; in fact, if she had not been below par she might not have
contracted the trouble at all."

"I can't understand that," Grace said. "I should have said Bessie
Fenton was in the best of health. She had always been accustomed to a
free, open air life; she comes of a fine stock on both sides of her
family."

"All the same I am perfectly certain that I am right," the doctor
replied. "Either she was in a poor state of health or she has some
great trouble on her mind."

"Of course, she has," Grace exclaimed. "I had forgotten that. She told
me herself that she had tried nursing in the slums of Leverton to get
away from herself, but that she had failed to do so. I have a haunting
idea that I know what is the matter, but I dare hardly whisper it to
myself without the most convincing proofs. Is she in very great danger,
doctor?"

"Her life hangs on a thread," Gibson said. "If she does recover it will
be due to chance and your good nursing."

It was even as the doctor had forecast, and for the next few days
Bessie Fenton hovered between life and death, attended by as much
loving care as if Grace and her maid had been near and dear relations.
It was after a terribly trying day that Grace had walked into her
dressing-room and opened the window wide. She felt that she needed
fresh air; the cool breath of evening blew gratefully about her heated
temples. As Grace looked out into the green forecourt she saw to her
surprise that Cattley was standing below.

"I am fortunate," he said. "This is the third evening I have been here
trying to attract your attention. How is your patient progressing?
Going on well, I trust."

"She is not progressing at all," Grace said. "I am certain that she has
some terrible weight on her mind which is retarding her recovery."

"I am not surprised to hear that," said Cattley, significantly. "I
shall be able to tell you presently what the source of the trouble is.
It is rather a hateful thing to do, but there is no alternative. The
mystery of Stephen Rice's death must be cleared up, even if it is only
for your sake, and Bessie Fenton is in a position to do it. Dries she
talk in her delirium at all?"

"The greatest nonsense," Grace said. "I do not like to listen to it. It
seems a shameful thing to do."

"I know," Cattley said, sympathetically; "but if you hear anything
likely to tend to clearing up the present trouble, you must please let
me know without delay."

"But how am I to do that?" Grace asked. "I cannot possibly see you, and
no doctor in his senses would allow a letter from this house to be sent
to one outside. Two or three times in the last day or so I should have
been glad of a word with you, I have racked my brains in vain to find a
way."

"The way is perfectly easy," Cattley said. "At the present time I am
stopping with General Graham at Water Park. It is necessary that I
should be in touch with Mr. Max Graham, and the General has kindly
invited me to be his guest. Surely you will have no difficulty in
reaching me on the telephone."

Grace had not thought of that, she admitted. Anyway, there could be no
danger in that direction. She went back to her room, greatly comforted
by the knowledge that she had an ally so close at hand. It was her turn
this evening to do her long spell of night watching, and Helen had been
dispatched to bed with an intimation that her services would not be
required till about two o'clock in the morning. The evening was passing
slowly away; Grace could near the rest of the household closing up for
the night; the old butler had gone to bed, so that the rooms below were
deserted. It was always the custom for the butler to be upstairs last,
therefore Grace was slightly disturbed to hear the unmistakable sound
of footsteps somewhere below.

She passed out of her room and flung aside the saturated sheet which
hung at the end of the corridor. Down below Grace saw to her mingled
annoyance and dismay that Holder was in the house once more. She
wondered how he got there, then she recollected that he had always had
a key to a side entrance to the bank, which same key opened the big
door which led to the house proper.

In ordinary circumstances Grace would have boldly tackled the intruder,
who seemed to be intent now on trying to open a big, old-fashioned
desk that stood in the hall. But Grace had others to think of besides
herself; she dared not go any nearer to the intruder; she knew how
annoyed Dr. Gibson would be if she did anything of the kind.

But something had to be done, and that speedily. There was an extension
telephone more or less connected with domestic purposes at the end
of the main corridor, and this Grace felt that she could use without
disturbing the madman downstairs.

She managed to get the exchange presently, and a moment or two later
she was rejoiced to hear the voice of Cattley at the other end of the
wire. In a whisper Grace told Cattley what was taking place.

"This must be stopped at once," he said, sternly. "I will come over to
the house without delay. Have you a latchkey or anything of the kind
that you could drop out of the window for me and leave somewhere where
I can find it."

"I daresay I can manage that," Grace said. "I will drop the key out of
the window at the head of the big corridor, where you will find it on
the grass."

Grace crept back to her room again and closed the door gently. For once
in a way her patient seemed to be in a deep sleep, so that Grace had a
few moments to her hands to listen to what was taking place below. It
seemed an intolerable time before she heard a step outside, followed
by the click of a key in the front door. Grace gave a hurried glance
at the still form on the bed; she saw that Bessie was quite placid;
she felt she must hear what was going on below. Very quietly she stole
along the corridor and looked down into the hall beneath.

Holder was standing there, still fumbling at the lock of the old desk
and humming broken fragments of song as he used his knife. A second
later and Grace could see the outline of another figure thrown out
against a wall opposite. Then a hand descended upon Holder's arm, and
the knife fell from his grasp. Grace could see that Cattley's features
were white with passion; he shook the old man to-and-fro as a leaf is
shaken in the wind.

"You scoundrel," he hissed, "what are you doing here?"

Holder gasped, for the sudden onslaught had almost deprived him of the
power of breathing.

"I don't know," he stammered. "I was looking for something--I was
looking for papers--papers to make the fortune of the old house. When I
find those papers--ho, ho!"

The old man's voice suddenly rose to a scream which was promptly
checked by Cattley, who laid a firm hand on the other's mouth.

"Be quiet, you old rascal," he said. "Do you want to have the whole
house about your ears? Now, don't pretend you don't know me, because
you know who I am perfectly well. Look me in the face. Look at me
steadily. Now, James Holder, tell me who it is that you are talking to."

"George Cattley," Holder said, as if the words had been dragged from
him by some terrible force. "George Cattley in the flesh."

"I thought you would know me," the other said grimly. "You are not as
mad as you pretend to be."

"I was nearly murdered," Holder whined. "They stole upon me when I was
in the bank and tried to kill me."

"They did nothing of the kind, you lying old scoundrel," Cattley said.
"You tried to commit suicide, and very nearly succeeded."

Holder made no reply. He was looking at Cattley as a fascinated bird
regards a snake. It was pitiable to watch the play of his features, and
Grace found it in her heart to be sorry for him as she looked at the
unhappy man and noticed his terrible distress. It was new light to her
that Holder might have suffered at his own hands, and at the same time
it utterly absolved her father from any charge of guiltiness. Cattley
laid a stern hand upon Holder's shoulder and pointed towards the door.

"That is your way," he said. "You are going back to your rooms, and I
am going to accompany you. I think I shall be able to get a great deal
of information, despite the condition of your mind. Now, go along."

The front door closed gently behind the strangely-assorted pair, and
Grace returned to her room. She glanced at the bed hoping that Bessie
was still in her sound sleep, but to Grace's horror the bed was no
longer tenanted. Grace flew into the dressing-room, and there Bessie
stood with the light of madness in her eyes. She had grasped an empty
medicine bottle, and went through the dumb show of pouring the contents
into her mouth.

"There," she whispered. "Take it.... He has taken it, and I am
revenged..... My God! I have killed him--killed him...."

With a great cry the sufferer fell headlong to the floor.




CHAPTER XXXIV.--FORCED TO SPEAK.

Meanwhile Cattley had gone off in the direction of Holder's lodgings,
dragging the miserable man after him. There were no lights in the
farmhouse except in the room downstairs, which was devoted to Holder's
requirements. The blinds were down and the windows appeared to be
fastened, but Cattley knew better than that. He led the way across
the grass and pulled one of the old-fashioned casements open. Then
he pushed Holder into the room and followed after him. Holder seemed
dazed and utterly incapable of doing anything of his own free will. He
dropped into a chair obediently enough, and Cattley took one opposite
to him.

"Now," the latter said. "We are going to have an understanding. How
many years have you been robbing your employer? To my certain knowledge
you began twenty years ago, or in all probability I should never have
left England at all. You smug-faced old rascal, I can hardly keep my
hands off you."

"Please don't sir," Holder whined. "Please don't touch me. I am a very
old man, you see."

"You may thank your stars for that," Cattley said. "If you had been a
young one you would have been in gaol long ago. Now, tell me in a few
words how much you have robbed you employer of."

"Indeed, I did not rob him at all," Holder protested. "It is a mistake,
sir, altogether a mistake. You stand, sir, in the presence of a genius,
one of the greatest financial geniuses that the world has ever seen. My
employer did not care, he did not appreciate the beauty of figures, and
he left it all to me. He looked upon me as a dull, plodding tool, who
was only fit to wait on thick-headed farmers and stupid county gentry.
I tell you the monotony of it would have driven me mad, and then I
worked out the scheme that was to make our fortunes over and over
again. I took the money a few hundreds at a time, and my master knew no
better. Then I took thousands, and he was quite as blind. If you give
me all the money you possess I will make you a millionaire in a week."

"Drop it," Cattley cried roughly, "drop it. Don't go off in that wild
way, but try and keep yourself in hand--a thing you can do very well if
you like. Where have you hidden all that money?"

A cunning smile crossed Holder's face. Cattley bent over and shook him
again passionately.

"Don't you push me too far," he said between his teeth. "I have found
you out. I know exactly where that money is, or rather I know exactly
where it was."

"Where it was?" Holder screamed. "Do you mean to tell me----"

"That I know all about Simpson and Co.," Cattley said. "In fact, I have
seen your friend Simpson, and he has very wisely disgorged everything.
Every penny of your defalcations have come into the bank again, so that
its position stands higher than ever. Now, what I want you to do is
this. You are to come into Leverton to-morrow night at nine o'clock,
and call upon Dr. Hunter. Do you quite understand that?"

Cattley fairly glared at Holder as he spoke, and the other nodded with
his faded eyes fixed on his companion's face.

"Yes, yes," he said slowly. "I am to come into Leverton to-morrow night
at nine o'clock and call at Dr. Hunter's house. I know Dr. Hunter very
well indeed."

"Yes, and you knew Mr. Stephen Rice very well indeed, too," Cattley
said. "And a precious trio of scoundrels you are, between you. You have
had a kind and thoughtful master all these years; you always professed
to be devoted to your employer's daughter, and yet you were a party to
a conspiracy which led her into a hateful alliance with Stephen Rice,
knowing all the time that the latter was practically bankrupt. You
were supposed to sit here night after night studying thoughtfully and
devoted to innocent intellectual recreation. When honest people passed
your window they told themselves that James Holder was sitting up late
improving his mind--they little knew of the vile conspiracies which
were being concocted in this very apartment. Here the Fentons came
and Stephen Rice, while your good landlord and his wife were sleeping
peacefully overhead. Now, don't look at me in that dull kind of way;
you understand perfectly well what I am talking about."

"Quite so, sir," Holder said obediently. "You are much too clever for
a poor old man like myself, and yet it only seems the other day that
you were a headstrong boy without a single thought for anything outside
sport of different kinds."

"Those days have gone by," Cattley laughed. "You will find me no boy
now, I assure you. Now, you are going to bed and I am going back to
Water Park."

Without another word Cattley turned away and left the room. He came
to Water Park at length. The house was in darkness, save for a light
in the smoking-room, where Cattley knew that Max was awaiting him.
He tapped gently on the window, which was immediately opened by Max
himself.

"Well," the latter cried eagerly, "is there any news. Grace has been
telephoning you. She wants to speak to you directly you come in. She
would not tell me what she wanted, but I rather gathered from her voice
that something has greatly moved her."

Cattley slipped from the room and returned a minute or two later.
From the expression of his face he had heard news of the greatest
importance. He did not, however, confide anything to Max, and the
latter asked no questions. He knew something of Cattley's methods by
this time, and was perfectly aware that the latter would speak when he
felt so disposed.

"Miss Anstey's message will keep," Cattley said. "I found Holder in
the house, and I took certain steps which I think will prevent him
going there again. The fellow is not half so mad as would appear; in
fact he is more a monomaniac than anything else. Keep him off the
subject of money and he is as quiet and sensible as most of us, but
on the subject of finance he is exceedingly dangerous to anybody who
has the misfortune to employ him. It appears that he has been robbing
his employer for years, and so carefully has he manipulated the books
that he would never have been found out unless I had by accident come
in contact with the so-called firm of Simpson & Co., and where all the
plunder was deposited. Strange to say I found this firm of Simpson &
Co. in quite a flourishing condition.

"Holder has not become a millionaire by speculating his employers'
money, but all the same he has done very well out of it. But you shall
hear all about that to-morrow, after I have seen Dr. Hunter, with whom
I have a little matter to settle to-morrow night."

It was somewhere about half-past eight the following evening when
Cattley called upon Hunter; the latter had just finished his dinner,
and was sitting down to the enjoyment of a cigar when Cattley was
announced. Hunter looked restless and ill at ease, as he saw who his
visitor was.

"I suppose I can speak freely here," Cattley said.

"Perfectly," Hunter said, with a ghastly attempt at geniality. "There
is only one servant in the house, and my wife has gone to London. You
can be as frank as you like."

Cattley smiled to himself. Not only did he know that Mrs. Hunter was
in London, but he was also fully aware of the guise in which she had
left Leverton. Cattley felt quite certain that Mrs. Hunter had never
realised the trick which had been played upon her on the day when he
and Max Graham ostensibly started for town.

"I have come to talk to you about Stephen Rice," he said. "I am taking
it absolutely for granted that the strychnine which was the cause of
all the trouble was stolen from your surgery."

"I don't admit it," Hunter said uneasily, "but we will let it pass for
the sake of argument if you like."

"That is very good of you," Cattley said, with something like a sneer.
"I have been making enquiries, and I find that on the morning of
Stephen Rice's death a neighbor of yours, an old maiden lady, came to
you and asked you to poison a dog for her. Perhaps you will recall the
circumstance?"

"I remember it," said Hunter, unsteadily. "But as to the poison used, I
beg to remark-----"

"Don't remark anything," Cattley snapped. "You took the dog in your
hands and placed three or four drops of strychnine on its lips. The
dog was dead in an instant, and the poor old lady remarked upon it.
She asked you what poison you used, and you showed her the bottle with
the word 'strychnine' upon it. This was the same day of Stephen Rice's
death, and the incident took place shortly before lunch-time. I am
telling you all this to prove that the fatal dose which killed Stephen
Rice was actually in its parent bottle within a few hours of the
murder."

"The murder," Hunter stammered. "Good heavens, man, you don't really
mean to say that you suspect anybody?"

"That is the word I prefer to use," Cattley said. "The bottle of
strychnine was safe here at two o'clock--between two o'clock and seven
it vanished. Between two o'clock and seven you were not out of the
house that day at all. You came back at lunch time after seeing your
patients; you had a very severe headache, and you went to sleep in the
consulting-room adjoining the surgery. Is not this true? Correct me if
otherwise."

Hunter nodded. He would have found it exceedingly difficult to speak at
that moment. His eyes were cast down upon the floor, he did not appear
equal to looking his tormentor in the face.

"Quite in order," he managed to say at length. "I had a dreadful
nervous headache that afternoon."

"I have no doubt I could tell you the cause of the headache," Cattley
smiled, "seeing that I am quite aware of the manner in which you
spent the previous evening. Still, let it suffice that you had a bad
headache, and that you gave orders not to be disturbed. You were to
be out to everybody. It was nearly five o'clock before someone came
into the room and walked into the surgery. That somebody was a woman
dressed all in black, but you were too sleepy or too intoxicated,
perhaps, to take any heed. It was only after you had missed the bottle
of strychnine that you began to grow uneasy. Upon my word, with the
temptation before you, I wonder that you did not suppress the fact that
Stephen Rice died of strychnine poisoning. It would have been such an
easy way out of the difficulty, don't you think so?"

It seemed to Hunter to be high time that he asserted himself in his
dignity. He tried to look at Cattley in an indignant way, but the
effort was a failure.

"I don't know whether you wish to insult me or not," he said. "You seem
to have a poor idea of the nobility of my profession. I could very
easily have given a certificate to the effect that death was due to
morphia alone, but that would have placed Mrs. Rice in an exceedingly
serious position."

"Oh, I quite appreciate your scruples," Cattley said, with a
significant laugh. "When you made that post-mortem it was any odds that
you had not missed your strychnine bottle. I have dealt easily up till
now, but the time has arrived when, for the sake of others, I must
compel you to speak out."

"Compel me," Hunter blustered. "I quite fail to understand you, sir. If
you come here with the deliberate intention of insulting me in my own
house, you must be succeeding beyond your expectations. I will ask you
to speak quite plainly and tell me what you mean. What do you accuse me
of?"

"Suppressing material facts," Cattley said. "I came here to-night to
force you, if necessary, to tell me the name of the person who wilfully
murdered Stephen Rice."

"Murdered Stephen Rice," Hunter echoed. His voice was faint and hoarse,
great beads stood upon his forehead. "I--I don't understand you. If you
know the name of the murderers----"

"I do," Cattley cried in ringing tones. "And, what is more, you do,
too. Now speak, so that it may not be the worst for you."




CHAPTER XXXV.--THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

Hunter laughed in a short hysterical kind of way that Cattley did not
like at all. He could see that the former was bracing himself for the
struggle, and that he meant to fight it out to the bitter end, still,
Cattley had all the cards in his own hands; he felt that everything
was on his side. Hunter seemed as if waiting for Cattley to proceed,
but the visitor said nothing until, at length, the silence became
intolerable, and the doctor was forced to resume.

"I do not wish to lose my temper with you," he said, "but I am not
going to sit down tamely and submit to be insulted in my own house. You
must put it much plainer, or you must apologise for your unwarrantable
assertion."

"That is impossible," Cattley said coolly. "This is no time for nice
points of social etiquette, but still, if you decline to speak, I shall
have to take other steps to open your lips. If I go away from here now
without an understanding from you, your story will have to be told
in the police court. I have no feeling against you whatever; indeed,
I desire to spare you as much as possible, but if you will not avail
yourself of my consideration when you must go your own way."

Hunter laughed again, this time a little more unsteadily.

"I cannot see what you are driving at," he said.

"I am driving at nothing," Cattley said, impatiently. "I say
emphatically that you are perfectly well aware who it was who stole
your bottle of strychnine on the day of Stephen Rice's death. The
bottle has been identified beyond question, and I have proved
conclusively to you that it was in your surgery within a few hours of
Rice's unfortunate end."

"That may be so," Hunter said eagerly; "indeed, for the sake of
argument, we will admit that such was the case. But how does that prove
that I could possibly tell who stole the bottle?"

"I am in a position to prove it," Cattley said. "As a matter of fact, I
am in the position to prove the whole conspiracy from beginning to end.
I should like to let you down as easily as possible, but you are tying
my hands for me in that direction."

Hunter intimated that he had nothing further to say in the matter.
He was not going to be bullied in his own house, and he gave Cattley
a broad hint to the effect that his room would be preferred to his
company. Cattley made no attempt to move; he smiled to himself as he
heard the front-door bell ring, knowing fairly well that here was James
Holder at last. The dingy-looking parlor-maid opened the study door and
announced that a certain Mr. Holder desired to see her master. Hunter
fairly started, and hurriedly told the servant to ask the visitor into
the surgery.

"Much better have him in here," Cattley said coolly. "I know you regard
this visit of Holder's as an unfortunate coincidence, but let me tell
you it is nothing of the kind. It was I who arranged with Holder that
he should meet me here this evening at nine o'clock."

"Oh, did you, indeed?" Hunter sneered feebly. "Upon my word, anybody
would think that you took a deep interest in my welfare."

"You are a fool," Cattley said sternly. "I am doing my best to make
matters smooth for you, and you are doing your worst to nullify all my
efforts. I am a better friend to you than you imagine."

"I suppose I must believe you," Hunter sneered again, "but it is very
difficult to see what you are going to gain by having James Holder
here. The man is little better than a lunatic."

"Holder is by no means so demented as you imagine. Physically, he is
practically recovered from his injuries, and, with a little prompting,
he recollects everything that took place up to the time that he
committed that folly in the bank."

"What folly do you mean?" Hunter gasped. "The man was brutally
assaulted by some unknown assailant and very nearly murdered in the
bank that night."

"Come, you know better than that," Cattley said. "You know perfectly
well that nobody attacked Holder at all. You know as well as I do
that Holder was called to the bank late that night to explain certain
irregularities in his accounts. Now please don't interrupt me,
because I am not drawing deductions now, but stating absolute facts.
It was I who first put Mark Anstey on his guard, and it was at my
instigation that Holder was sent for on the night in question. Two or
three questions established the man's guilt beyond dispute. He was
ordered to go into the bank and prepare a detailed statement of his
accounts, which was to be delivered to Mr. Anstey in the morning. We
knew perfectly well that it would take him nearly all night to get
those figures out, but Holder did not demur to that. Long before he had
finished he saw that his detection was a matter of absolute certainty,
and he made a nearly successful attempt to take his own life. You know
that perfectly well; no man knows it better."

It was quite evident from the expression of Hunter's face that Cattley
was making no new disclosures to him. On the contrary, he seemed to be
utterly staggered and taken aback by the extent of Cattley's knowledge.
He managed to gasp out something to the effect that he could not
possibly have known anything as to the events to which Cattley was
alluding.

"I see I shall have to take strong measures with you," the latter said.
"I find that two days before Mr. Max Graham disappeared so suddenly,
your financial affairs were in a very desperate position. You had an
execution in your house for a large amount; you were being pressed
severely by other creditors. On the next morning after Mr. Graham had
been abducted, you settled everything up with a cheque for 1,100,
which Stephen Rice gave you for the purpose. It was just a little odd
that your own relations by marriage should have been the instruments
chosen to bring about Mr. Graham's disappearance, and thus clear the
ground for Stephen Rice so far as Miss Anstey with concerned. Stephen
Rice is such a scoundrel that he could not even go straight with your
sister-in-law and her brothers, but it was you who arranged the whole
thing, and from time to time you have been well paid for it. It was
no fault of yours, however, that Rice should have deceived the people
who risked so much to aid him, but that is all by the way. You are not
going to deny, I suppose, what I say about your creditors, and the
means by which they were paid."

"I deny and admit nothing," Hunter said.

"In that case we had better have Holder in without delay," Cattley
said. "Will you fetch him, or shall I?"

"Oh, I'll fetch him," Hunter growled. "I suppose I must humor you, not
that I am likely to take much notice of what that poor fellow says,
seeing that he is utterly incapable of making a lucid statement. I'll
fetch him."

Hunter came back a moment or two later with Holder shuffling behind
him. The latter looked at Cattley in the humble way of one who knows
when he is in the presence of a master.

"You had better sit down," Cattley said. "This interview is likely to
last for some time. To go straight to the point, I want you to tell
us the story of the conspiracy between Stephen Rice and yourself for
ruining Anstey's bank."

"He doesn't understand what you mean," Hunter grumbled.

Cattley tapped Holder smartly on the shoulder.

"Pull yourself together," he said. "Now, my venerable friend, I want
you to assure Dr. Hunter that you know exactly what I mean. You know
me, and you will have to deal with me unless you tell the truth. Now
get along at once."

"I understand quite well, sir," Holder said. "And Dr. Hunter, he knows,
too. It is nearly two years ago that Stephen Rice came to me, and told
me that he was aware that I was speculating with the bank moneys. I had
a sort of madness then, indeed it comes over me now. I did not mean to
be dishonest, as God is my witness, I did not mean to rob my employer
of a farthing, but there was always something within me urging me on to
become rich, rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

The old man paused and wiped his heated face. Hunter would have said
something, but Cattley sternly suppressed him.

"I don't quite know how Mr. Rice found me out," the old man went on.
"I think I must have been dabbling in some shares in which he was
interested. At any rate, he did find me out, and threatened to expose
me to my employer if I did not do as he directed. It did not matter
much to me for the moment, because I had that dream of wealth always
before me. I seemed to feel that if I ruined the bank I should be in a
position before long to restore to Mr. Anstey all that I had deprived
him of. It was a long process and had to be carefully done. It was
finished at length in such a way that Mr. Anstey honestly believed
that he had lost all his money in the legitimate way of business. I
never asked, and I was never told, what Stephen Rice had to gain by his
course of conduct. I only knew that within the last day or two, when
I heard that he had married Miss Grace Anstey. Then the whole thing
became plain to me, and I knew that I had allowed myself to become the
tool of an abandoned scoundrel. The moment that I really realised the
horror of my position was that long night when I sat in the bank making
out a true statement of my disgraceful past."

"So disgraceful that you attempted to take your own life," Cattley
said. "Is not that so?"

The old man hung his head; it was difficult for him to speak at the
moment; when his words came again they were so low that Cattley had to
bend forward to listen.

"It is even as you say," Holder said. "I did try to take my own life,
and as I lay in the hospital it seemed to me as if all the past had
been wiped out again, and that nobody knew anything besides myself
and Mr. Anstey. I was impelled by some force to get up and see him. I
seemed to dream now that I put my employer out of the way because I
did not wish him to interfere with me until I had restored everything
which I had taken from the bank. If this is merely a dream, why in that
case----"

"We won't go into that just now," Cattley said hastily. "We had better
stick to the point. Can you tell me how it was that Dr. Hunter came
into the conspiracy, and why Stephen Rice was compelled to pay him
large sums of money from time to time?"

"I think I can explain that," Holder said. "People are under the
impression that Stephen Rice is a rich man. As a matter of fact it will
be found that he has no money at all. Since he has taken to drink so
heavily his speculations became more and more reckless, and latterly
when Dr. Hunter wanted money Rice used to send in for me."

"We are getting a little away from the point," Cattley said. "Why
should Dr. Hunter come to you for money?"

"Because Rice had none to spare. You see, Dr. Hunter had been Stephen
Rice's attendant for some time past, and during the latter's fits of
drunken frenzy he had betrayed the whole secret to Dr. Hunter. The
doctor will pardon me for saying that he has always been a needy man;
he has extravagant tastes, to say nothing of an extravagant wife."

"The explanation is perfectly satisfactory," Cattley said drily. "In
fact you need not say another word on that subject. Now let us go on
to another point. I know perfectly well that on the night Mr. Max
Graham disappeared he was going to see Stephen Rice with a view once
for all of compelling the latter to abandon any further pretensions for
the hand of Miss Anstey. Do you know what secret Mr. Graham had that
would give him so strong a hold on Stephen Rice, and practically force
him----"

Cattley's sentence was left unfinished, for the door opened at the same
moment, and Mrs. Hunter came like a beautiful fury into the room. There
was no sign of fear in her eyes; she met Cattley's glance boldly; then
she brought her hand down with a crash on the table and spoke with a
shrill scream.

"Why ask him?" she cried. "Put it to me. You want to know what secret
Max Graham possessed that would have rendered Stephen Rice a child
in his hands. I will tell you. Stephen Rice was married to my sister
Bessie, and Max Graham knew it."




CHAPTER XXXVI.--VANISHED.

Cattley had felt all along that all the cards of the game worth
having were in his own hand, but he was genuinely surprised by this
extraordinary statement. He had been so busy of late that he had had no
time to discuss with Max Graham what power the latter had over Stephen
Rice. Max had from time to time suggested that he had gone out of his
way to prevent a card scandal at the County Club, in which Rice had
been implicated. Cattley had imagined that this was at the bottom of
it; certainly he never dreamt for a moment that Max was aware of this
marriage; indeed, he was not quite sure of it how. It was just possible
that Mrs. Hunter had blurted the whole thing out in one of her fits of
passion, feeling that Cattley had known a great deal more.

The surprised expression of his face was not lost upon the actress. She
broke into a bitter laugh--a laugh that was not altogether free from
passionate self-scorn.

"I have gone too far again," she said; "I have been listening for the
last half hour, and I thought that you knew everything, George Cattley.
Did you know that?"

"To be perfectly frank, I did not," Cattley admitted, candidly. "I have
been informed that Stephen Rice had had a narrow escape of being kicked
out of the County Club for cheating in cards, and that Mr. Graham had
gone a good deal out of his way to hush up the scandal, but I never
really expected to make such a terrible discovery as this. It is a
dreadful affair altogether."

Mrs. Hunter looked deeply concerned, her passion had fallen away from
her like a garment, there was something like tears in her eyes as she
turned to Cattley.

"I swear to you that I knew nothing of this till after the mischief was
done," she cried. "My sister has kept her secret well, so well indeed
that none of us knew anything about it. When Stephen Rice came to me
and asked me to help him in keeping the outrage on Mr. Graham a secret,
I was told that the two men had quarrelled over money matters, and that
it was absolutely necessary to keep Mr. Graham out of the way for a few
days. You see, there was a violent quarrel, resulting in Mr. Graham
being seriously injured."

"There was no fair fight," Cattley said. "That injury was caused by a
foul blow treacherously struck in the dark. But I believe all you say,
Ella. I have known you for a great number of years now, and though you
are wild and passionate and headstrong, I do not think that you would
do a fellow creature a deliberate injury. I have seen you several times
since I returned to England, because I wished to benefit you and your
sister as far as possible. Why, when I visited the farmhouse with you
that night, Max Graham must have been under your very roof."

"Oh, he was," Mrs. Hunter admitted. "And so was Miss Anstey, too. You
see, Bessie found out that Rice had become enamored of Miss Anstey, and
never for a moment did she believe that Rice would have been mad enough
to commit the crime of bigamy."

"Rice was a dangerous lunatic," Cattley said. "He had drunk himself
into such a condition that he had entirely destroyed all sense of
morality. To gain possession of Miss Anstey had become a monomania
with him; in that respect I am quite sure he was not responsible for
his actions. And yet, with all his blundering, reckless criminality,
he managed to utterly deceive you and everybody else. His idea was to
get your sister out of the way so that he could come back here, and
go through a form of marriage with Miss Anstey; and what is more, he
actually managed to bring it about."

"But no harm has been done," Mrs. Hunter cried. "Thank goodness that
that is not on my soul. Miss Anstey was a wife in name only. The
miscreant who brought all this trouble about was a corpse almost before
he was a bridegroom, and yet I blame myself severely that my partiality
for Rice should have placed an innocent girl in this danger."

"Let us go back a little way," Cattley said. "You sister found this
out, she came back from the North immediately. Rice was married in
the morning, and he brought the girl whom he professed to call his
wife back to his own house in the afternoon. Before dinner your sister
turned up, and insisted upon staying in the house. For some reason best
known to herself, she said nothing of the true nature of things--I
suppose she was probably waiting to break the news gently to Miss
Anstey, but that opportunity was denied her, since Rice dared not
face the disclosure which he knew would take place after dinner. He
declined to go into dinner at all, and started on the heavy drinking
bout instead. He had cunningly dismissed all the servants; in his
madness he probably decided that if Grace Anstey could not be his,
she should never become the wife of another. He tried to murder her;
indeed, he would have done so had I not fortunately come upon the scene
to save Miss Anstey's life in the nick of time. During the next day
Rice was in a state of absolute collapse. At the time he entered the
drawing-room when he asked Miss Anstey to procure the morphia for him,
he as as ill as a man could be. He drank the morphia, but five minutes
later he was found dead on the couch where he had been lying. I am
reminding you of these details at some length because it is necessary
to do so. Dr. Hunter testified to the fact that death was due to
strychnine poisoning, but how the strychnine found its way into Stephen
Rice's stomach there was no possible evidence to show. The mere fact
of death being caused by strychnine, absolutely absolved Grace Anstey
from any hand in the mystery; but to carry the thing at little farther
I must remind you that the police made every effort to discover the
strychnine, and eventually the bottle was found in the garden. I was
instrumental in discovering the chemist who had sold that particular
bottle of strychnine, and I was also instrumental in tracing the poison
to the doctor who purchased it. I wonder if you can guess who was the
doctor who brought that strychnine?"

Cattley put the question suddenly, like a shot from a gun. It had
little effect upon Hunter, who had heard all this before, but his wife
grew stiff and rigid, her face was ghastly pale.

"Here," she whispered. "Do you mean here?"

"Precisely," Cattley said. "I mean that there is no shadow of doubt
but that the strychnine which did the mischief was removed from your
husband's surgery for the very purpose. We know it was here the morning
that the crime was committed, and we know that it vanished in the
course of the day. This is no accident, it is absurd to argue from that
point of view. This is a crime, carefully planned out, and carefully
executed. But for the fact that the criminal dropped the bottle of
strychnine, we should probably never have traced the culprit at all. My
theory is this--the criminal concealed himself or herself in the house,
and that as Rice lay practically insensible upon the couch he, or she,
poured a few spots upon the sleeping man's lips and then vanished
swiftly. Are you not disposed to agree with this?"

Hunter hung his head moodily, he had tacitly declined to take any part
in the discussion after his wife had entered the room. On the other
hand, Ella Hunter could only look imploringly into Cattley's face, her
black eyes filled with a great terror.

"Do you know," she whispered. "Could you actually give the name of the
criminal? Tell me that?"

"I think I could," Cattley said, "and I think you could also. It must
have been somebody who knows the house well, who could take that
strychnine away without any fear of being detected. We would ask your
sister when it will be possible for us to have speech with her. But,
unfortunately we cannot do that."

"My sister is very ill indeed," Mrs. Hunter said. There was a pleading
note in her voice, which was not lost upon Cattley. "I should not
wonder if she does not recover from her malady."

Cattley rose and took up his hat. There was no occasion for him to stay
any longer. He nodded curtly to Hunter, and intimated to Holder that he
had no further use for his services. He would have shaken hands with
Mrs. Hunter, only the latter announced her intention of seeing him as
far as the door. It was only when the two were together, in the dim
seclusion of the hall, that the woman broke down altogether and clung
almost appealingly to her companion.

"What are you going to do about this dreadful thing?" she wailed. "I
see you have guessed everything; there is nothing concealed from you.
The suspense is truly awful. And yet it seems pitiable to think that a
creature should die for depriving a world of such a wretch as Stephen
Rice. He deceived us all round, he induced us to do things that we
should never have dreamt of ourselves. We are a wild lot, but hitherto
we have always drawn the line at actual crime."

"I can see you are feeling it deeply," Cattley said, "but in the
circumstances there is only one thing for me to do. However, there must
be a certain amount of delay. How long have you and your husband known
all about this?"

"Almost from the moment that the strychnine was missed," Mrs. Hunter
explained; "and after my husband had made his post-mortem examination
suspicion became a certainty. But you will be as merciful as you can;
you will not visit the sins of others upon us too heavily. And yet I
am almost glad that this thing has come to your ears--the suspense was
insupportable."

Cattley replied as soothingly as he could, and went his way
thoughtfully in the direction of Water Park. It was a fine night, so
that he decided to walk the whole distance and turn recent events over
in his mind.

He had made suspicion a certainty, but there was no feeling of triumph
in his heart as he walked along. Indeed, he felt almost sorry that he
had ever come into the dreadful business at all.

It was quite late when he reached Water Park; everybody had retired
except Max, who was eagerly awaiting him. Cattley had his own reasons
for not going at length in to the whole of his recent interview; for
instance, he said nothing as to the strychnine or generally as to
the death of Stephen Rice. He wanted to know what hold Max had had
upon Stephen Rice, which led up to their quarrel and the subsequent
murderous attack upon the man who held Grace's affection.

"It was a card scandal," Max explained. "Of course, no man like that
could marry an innocent girl. I let Rice know what I intended to do,
but he refused to listen, and I went on my way home. It was immediately
afterwards that I received that treacherous blow--but you know all
about that."

"Then Rice was under the impression that you knew of a still more fatal
bar to his intended marriage? Any fuss about cards would not have
stopped him for a moment; he was under the impression that you knew the
whole secret, or he never would have attacked you in that murderous
way."

"What whole secret?" Max asked.

"Why, that Rice was already married," Cattley explained. "Mrs. Hunter
blurted that out to-night to my great surprise. It appears that those
two had been married for some time without Bessie Fenton's friends
being any the wiser. On the whole, it was a fortunate thing that Rice
died as swiftly as he did."

"Good heavens, yes," Max exclaimed under his breath. "It looks almost
like a direct dispensation of Providence to preserve an innocent girl
from harm. I tremble when I think----"

Max broke off suddenly, for there was a shrill tinkle of the telephone
bell, and Cattley crossed the room to take the message, but it was not
without its effect upon Cattley, who threw the receiver on its hooks
and immediately made a grab for his coat, Max looked at him wonderingly.

"What on earth is wrong now?" he asked. "Is there anything very serious
the matter with Grace, or----"

"Nothing the matter with Miss Anstey," Cattley said, "it is that poor
girl, Bessie. She has managed to slip out of the house in a moment of
delirium, and is now wandering about somewhere in the fields. Come
along with me at once--there is no time to be lost if her life is to be
saved."




CHAPTER XXXVII.--A SORRY HOMECOMING.

Max did not hesitate for a moment, but followed Cattley out of the
house. In the excitement of the moment he did not even wait to secure
the font door. It was not till they were outside, and had time to
realise the magnitude of the task before them that they hesitated and
looked at one another, as if each was asking for a lead.

"Have you anything to suggest?" Max asked. "Did you ascertain from
Grace how long it was since she missed her patient?"

"Upon my word, I didn't," Cattley admitted. "I was so taken aback
with her news that I could not think of anything for the moment; at
any rate, it could not have been long, for Grace had evidently used
the telephone as soon as she had discovered her loss. It seems a most
extraordinary thing that anyone suffering from a malignant illness like
that should have managed to have got away from the house."

"Well, it can't be a matter of more than half an hour," Max said. "The
best thing we can do is to go as far as the bank house and try and
arouse Grace's attention. She may be able to give us a hint or two as
the best way to proceed."

Cattley had no objection to make to the course, so the pair set out
rapidly in the direction of the bank house. It was an easy matter
to arouse Grace's attention; a handful of gravel thrown at the
dressing-room window sufficed to bring about the desired effect.

A moment later and Grace pulled the blind aside and looked out.

Directly the tinkle of the gravel on the window-pane attracted her
attention she guessed what had happened. The pair below could see that
her face was white and anxious-looking. Grace answered their questions
in a hoarse whisper.

"I suppose it was all my fault," she said. "I allowed the nurse to go
into Leverton to see the child of a relative of hers who is not at
all well; she was to have got back here by twelve o'clock, but I told
her not to hurry, as I did not mind an extra hour or so of nursing. I
suppose I was more tired than I thought, for I dropped off to sleep
a little past eleven o'clock, and when I came to myself half an hour
later my patient had vanished."

"Then she has only got half an hour's start," Max said eagerly.

"Not much more than that," Grace said. "I telephoned you directly I
discovered my loss. I could not think of anything else to do. I am all
the more astonished because the poor girl had been sleeping better
to-day than she has done since her illness began."

"There were no signs of delirium?" Cattley asked.

"Not the last two days," Grace explained. "It is really a very bad
case; indeed the doctor says that there is very little chance of the
patient's recovery, and now, by my gross carelessness, I have sealed
her fate."

"It might have happened to anybody," Max said soothingly. "Besides, who
would ever expect a typhoid patient to go off in this fashion. But we
are wasting time here."

Cattley turned away, and with the aid of a box of matches began a
fruitless search for footprints. It seemed to him at length that
indications pointed to the fact that Bessie had crossed the lawn in the
direction of the main road, and that in all probability she would take
to the woods opposite.

"Her gipsy instinct would lead her to do that," he said. "I wish you
would let me know if she would happen to be wearing anything when she
went away, Miss Grace?"

"She was wearing a pair of slippers and a long cloak of mine," Grace
said; "at any rate I suppose she was, for those articles are both
missing."

"Come on," Cattley cried, "we will try the woods. It is not
particularly dark, so that we shall not require a lantern."

An hour's search in the woods brought nothing to light. It was a little
time later that Max saw, or thought he saw, a dim figure flitting on
ahead, in the dusky undergrowth. He grasped Cattley's arm, and pointed
in the direction of the shadowy figure.

"Don't you see anything over there?" he whispered. "I am sure of it.
Look to your right yonder."

"I believe you are correct," Cattley said. "Assuredly there is a woman
not far away. You go this side, and hide yourself behind those bushes,
and I'll try and drive her in your direction."

Max did as Cattley had suggested, and presently he could hear footsteps
on the path, and a sharp crackle of broken twigs as somebody advanced
in his direction. Then he stood up and confronted, not Bessie Fenton,
as he had expected, but her sister, Mrs. Hunter.

"What are you doing here at this time?" he exclaimed.

The woman glared at him defiantly. Just for a moment she did not seem
to recognise whom she was speaking to. A slow, mocking smile dawned on
her face.

"I think we have met before," she said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken,
you are the gentleman who enjoyed the hospitality of my father's roof
for few days."

"I believe that is the case," Max said drily, "and you will quite
understand me when I say that I have not the least recollection of the
fact. But you have not answered my question, as to what you are doing
here, this time of night."

"When I ascertain that you have any right to ask it I will tell you,"
Mrs. Hunter said. "It is no business of yours. So much I do not mind
saying. I have been to the bank house to see if I could not persuade
the nurse to allow me to have a few words with my sister, but though I
rang the bell over and over again, I could not make anybody hear, and I
made up my mind to wander about till morning."

Max recollected that the front door bell of the bank house rang only in
the kitchen, and that it was an exceedingly difficult matter to make
anybody hear after the servants had gone to bed.

"But you would not have been allowed to see your sister," he said,
"much less speak to her. If once you had found your way into that house
the doctor would have had you detained. There is still a fear that
possibly contagious complications----"

"I know it," Ella Hunter cried fiercely, "and I know a great deal more
than you dream of. I want to nurse my sister, at least I want to help
those who are so kindly looking after her. I am sick of my present
life. I am almost afraid of the secret which keeps me awake at night,
and makes me so miserably restless, but as I said before, you know
nothing about that. If----"

The speaker seemed as if she were going to say more, then suddenly
changed her mind. With a gesture of her hand she turned down a side
path and vanished, as mysteriously as if the earth had opened and
swallowed her up. It was at this moment that Cattley came up. He
demanded to know whether the woman had come near Max, and if he had
been in a position to identify her.

"It wasn't the poor creature we are looking for at all," Max said.
"Strangely enough, it was her sister, Mrs. Hunter. She seems to be in
great trouble about something, and says she is going to stay here till
morning, when she wants to go to the bank house and see her sister. She
seemed greatly troubled."

"I am not surprised to hear it," Cattley said significantly. "There
are grave reasons why Ella Hunter should be near her sister just now.
I must manage to see Grace and give her a hint to the effect that Mrs.
Hunter must be admitted to the house if she desires it. It will be far
better in the long run."

"More mysteries," Max said, "but I know you won't tell me anything till
you feel inclined. Still, we are wasting time here, and had better go
on with our search."

The search seemed destined to end in failure, and Cattley was about
to give it up when his sharp eye detected a piece of torn black cloth
fluttering on the top of a hedge which bordered a narrow lane, leading
down into the valley.

"That is probably a part of Grace's cloak," he said; "the poor girl
must have climbed over here and gone down the valley. She could not
possibly have climbed up the hedge on the other side of the lane, so,
therefore, she must have taken the downward path. What a pair of fools
we are, Graham."

"Why so?" Max asked in some surprise.

"Why, not to have guessed before exactly what the poor girl would do.
She has gipsy blood in her veins, so that even in her delirium her
instincts would not have led her far astray--as far as the woods and
fields are concerned. As soon as she was tired she would make her way
home. I feel absolutely certain that we shall find her somewhere about
at Fenton's farm."

"But no one is living there," Max protested.

"It doesn't matter a bit about that," Cattley went on. "It's any odds
that when we get to the farm we shall find the poor girl there. Let us
give it a trial anyhow."

They pushed on rapidly down the hill until the farmhouse loomed up
in the gray of the very early dawn. A surprise awaited Max and his
companion, for they saw that there were lights in the two lower rooms
of the farmhouse. As they came closer they could hear sounds of voices
raised as if in angry dispute, and above the other voices the boom of
old Fenton's tones like a fog-horn on a thick night. It was possible to
walk right up to the window and hear every word that was being said.

"I tell you I don't care what you say," Fenton's voice was heard to
remark. "I'm going to stay here and take the risk of it."

"And probably find yourself in gaol," another voice said. "Don't you
delude yourself with the idea that young Graham would lie down quietly
without trying to get even with him for the outrage committed by us to
oblige Stephen Rice."

"Perish Stephen Rice," Fenton yelled. "I wish he had been dead and
withered before ever I came in contact with him. Look how he deceived
us all, look how he fooled that unfortunate sister of yours, and we
were going to get a thousand pounds each for our trouble. We are going
to sell the old place, and skip off to the other side of the world,
where folks are not so particular as they are here. A thousand pounds,
mind you; enough to see the end of me at any rate. And here, instead
of a thousand pounds, is a bit of worthless paper--Rice's dishonored
cheque, not worth so much as the penny stamp in the corner. What else
could I do but come back home again, and try and scrape a living in the
way we used to do?"

"There seems to be something in that," the other voice admitted. "It
was a very scurvy trick that Rice played upon us all, but the poor
brute is dead now, and we shall never get any satisfaction out of him.
Not that I am going to stay here, mind you--the neighborhood is a bit
too hot for me."

"You can go to the devil, if you like," old Fenton grumbled. "What's
that noise? Seems as if someone was tapping at the back door. No chance
of the police, I suppose?"

Every word had been distinctly audible to the listeners outside.
Cattley grasped Max by the arm and whispered eagerly in his ear. He
realised exactly what had happened.

"What did I tell you?" he said. "I knew the girl would come back home;
I felt it from the first. It is no police who are trying the back door
of the house, but Bessie Fenton herself. Let us run round to the back
of the house and see."

By the time this was done the back door was closed again, and whoever
had entered the house was now safely inside. The listeners could hear
an outburst of bellowing wrath on the part of old Fenton. He appeared
to be giving orders against which others were protesting, and above all
the din there rose a cry as if of someone in pain.

"Get out," Fenton screamed. "What are you doing here? Haven't you
brought us trouble enough? Go back to those who sent you. We'll have
none of you here."

Without further hesitation Cattley tried the front door. It was locked,
but he did not go through the formality of ringing; he crashed full
against the woodwork, which gave way under the force of the assault,
and a moment later he and Max were in the sitting-room, facing Fenton.
By the fireplace stood Bessie, looking dazed and ghastly, and evidently
only dimly comprehending what was going on.

"You murderous, old ruffian," Cattley yelled. "The girl is sick unto
death--she is in the last stage of typhoid."




CHAPTER XXXVIII.--MORE LIGHT.

Fenton had evidently been drinking, but Cattley's words had a sobering
effect upon him. He lost his bullying, threatening manner, and became
all at once docile, not to say timid. He had been standing fairly close
to Bessie whilst he had raved at her in his blustering way, but now he
had staggered back as if his daughter were some loathsome object. The
word typhoid had scared him horribly.

"It is very strange," Cattley said, "that a man can be at once so brave
and so intolerable a coward. You are frightened to death at the mere
mention of a word."

"No man ever called me a coward without having cause to repent it,"
Fenton muttered. "I am not afraid of any man who lives, though I am
turned sixty. But typhoid, that is quite another matter. A catching
thing like that----"

"It isn't catching," Cattley said curtly. "And it would be tantamount
to murder to move that poor girl once she had a shelter over her head
again. One of you light a fire here and you go upstairs and prepare
a bed without delay, and you skulking in the corner yonder, go into
Leverton and bring Dr. Hunter here at once."

The sharp cutting tones of Cattley's voice seemed to have a magnetic
effect upon the listeners. With one accord they began to bustle about
doing his bidding, till at length everything was ready for the unhappy
patient, whom meanwhile had fallen into old Fenton's armchair in a
state of absolute collapse.

"This is very awkward," Cattley muttered. "I would give anything if we
had a woman here. We must have somebody to put this poor girl to bed
and see that she is made comfortable. Do you know of any neighbor here
who is likely to be of assistance."

"No I don't," Fenton growled. "You couldn't get any respectable woman
to come within a mile of my farm. Besides, it is hardly fair to drag
anybody into this business."

"Quite true," Cattley said thoughtfully. "And you will have to behave
yourselves for the next few weeks, for you won't be allowed to go
off the farm so long as there is any danger of possible contagious
complications. But I would give anything if we had a woman here."

Cattley's prayer was speedily answered, for the door opened at the same
moment, and Grace, accompanied by the nurse, entered the room.

"I could not rest, I could not sleep," she said. "As soon as the good
nurse here came back we started out in search of our own. We were
passing this house when I saw lights, and it occurred to me that
perhaps poor Bessie had made her way home.

"So she has," Cattley explained; "the sooner she is in bed the better.
It is impossible that she should go back to the bank house in her
present condition. I have done all that I can for her welfare, and
I hope by this time that there is a comfortable room for her ready
upstairs."

Grace waited to hear no more; with the assistance of the nurse she
managed to get the sufferer upstairs and into bed. The other inmates
of the house were shuffling about sulkily and whispering to themselves
when Grace came down again.

"I have done all I can," she said. "I should like to see a doctor as
soon as possible. I shall have to get some of you to go into Leverton
and bring me out a list of things which the nurse will prepare. We need
not detain you any longer."

"You are never going to stay here," Max cried. "Under the same roof
with these rascals. Surely, you could not think of such a thing. This
is no place for an innocent girl----"

"I have fully made up my mind," Grace said gently. "Besides, I am not
in the least afraid. These men would be abandoned, indeed, if they
interfere with a girl who is doing her best for their own flesh and
blood."

"Spoken like a lady," Fenton cried. "I never wanted to set eyes on that
daughter of mine again. I did not care what had become of her, but
so long as this lady is in my house she shall be treated with proper
respect or I'll know the reason why. Don't you think that we shall
interfere with you, miss--the fact is, me and the boys will not be in
the house at all. It's nice, warm weather now, and we can take up our
quarters in one of the barns."

By way of proving the value of his statement Fenton began to get a few
odds and ends together, and signified to his son's to follow him to the
outhouses. Max felt a little easier in his mind, but his face was still
dubious.

"You need not worry about me," Grace said, "there is practically no
furniture in the house, so you will have to send on all we require from
Leverton. I quite agree with Mr. Cattley--it would have been a great
mistake to have taken the poor girl all the way back to the bank house;
indeed, it might have been fatal, and as for me, I shall be just as
well off here as I am at home."

Cattley and Max departed presently and made the best of their way
to Leverton, where they arrived shortly after daybreak. It was
nearly middle-day before they had got everything together, and it
was past lunch time when they were in a position to feel that Grace
had everything she could possibly desire. Hunter had come over from
Leverton, and at Max's suggestion had gone over to the bank house to
report on the patient's condition.

"Is she much worse for the escapade?" Max asked.

"Infinitely," Hunter said. "As far as I can gather she was doing
exceedingly badly before, and now she has contracted a severe chill
owing to exposure to the night air. Poor Bessie will never be any
better and perhaps it is all for the best."

"You mean that she is going to die?" Cattley asked.

"Nothing on earth can save her," Hunter said. "She may linger on
for two or three days, but I am prepared to pledge my professional
reputation on my verdict. Of course I will go over to the farm from
time to time, but it is only so much waste of energy."

The verdict was conveyed to Grace, who was already prepared for it, and
the nurse. The next day or two passed away quietly, and it was towards
evening at the end of the week before consciousness came back to the
patient, and she looked about her with clear, enquiring eyes. The nurse
shook her head sadly; she conveyed to Grace by a sign what that symptom
meant.

"I am afraid I am giving you a tremendous lot of trouble," Bessie said.
"It is really very good of you, when, indirectly, I have been the means
of giving you so much anxiety."

"Better not talk," Grace said. "You want to keep all your strength, so
as to enable you----"

"It is quite hopeless," Bessie said with a smile. "I know perfectly
well that I am going to die--in fact, I have been semiconscious all
this long time. I seem to have been been asleep and dreaming that I
was seriously ill, and in that dream I have heard all the doctor has
said. Both your family doctor and my brother-in-law have given the
same verdict. If you appeal to the nurse, I am sure she will have no
objection to my talking to you."

"No objection in the least," the nurse said. "It cannot possibly
matter. If there is anything you would like to say, I can find
something to do and leave you alone together."

The nurse moved out of the room, and Grace could see that Bessie was
regarding her with shining eyes.

"You have been more than good to me," she said. "I could not find words
to express all the gratitude I feel. As soon as I can brace myself to
it, I am going to make a full confession of the trouble that lies so
heavy on my mind. Only not quite yet. I have not thought it out very
clearly. Every now and again my mind gets misty and confused. Still,
when I tell you everything, you will see what I have done to shield
your good name and preserve you from harm. It seems so strange to be
talking like this to you now when at one time I hated you with a hatred
which was akin to madness."

"But why?" Grace asked. "I had done you no harm."

"No, but I thought so. When I realised that you were coming between
Stephen Rice and myself I could have murdered you. Indeed, I would have
done so only I discovered that you were being coerced against your
will, and that your heart was in the possession of another man."

"Love is a strange, wayward passion," Grace said, "and we women are
strange wilful creatures. I have known and read of good women who
have given everything into the care of a man whose very touch would
be pollution. You will forgive me if I tell you that I am thinking of
Stephen Rice at this moment. I shudder to think of the terrible fate
which would have been mine but for the merciful death of that man. And
yet you cared for him, knowing him to be the creature that he was. It
is inexplicable."

"There is no explaining it," Bessie said. "I have known Stephen Rice
ever since I was a child. I believe I cared for him before I was
old enough to realise what love was. He was so big and strong and
masterful; and I always like men like that. If he made up his mind to
a thing, nothing could turn him away from his purpose. And even when I
began to find out his faults, it made no difference to me. I knew him
to be a liar; I knew his word was utterly unreliable, and that he was
cruel and vindictive. I am like the women in the east-end of London,
who cares for their mankind in proportion to the amount of cruelty they
have to suffer at their hands. But I need not go into that any further.
You will know presently how I repaid Stephen Rice for his treachery
towards me and you."

Bessie lay back on her bed as if utterly exhausted by her outburst, and
for a long time she did not speak. The nurse crept in and out of the
room under the impression that the patient was asleep. It grew dark
presently and Grace lighted the lamp. Down below she could hear the
nurse bustling about, and presently she came up and told Grace in a
whisper that she was going out for some little time. It was a perfect
night, with a beautiful full moon, so that, by pulling the curtains
aside Grace could see the country for miles around. Bessie suddenly
turned and addressed her companion.

"Wouldn't you like to go out yourself?" she said. "I shall be quite
safe here. Nothing matters much now, and you have not been outside the
house since yesterday."

Grace declined the suggestion, and a few moments later she had the
satisfaction of seeing that her patient was fast asleep. She turned the
lamp down and drew up the blind so that the glory of the moon flooded
the room. Outside lay the peaceful landscape, with the great trees
rising here and there above the pearly mists like the masts of ships on
a sea of mist. From afar off came the distant tinkle of a sheep's bell,
and presently a cry that sounded like someone in distress. The cry
came again, this time more loudly, and then Grace could see a figure
crossing the upland sloping meadow rapidly before it disappeared once
more in the pearly mists. Grace felt vaguely anxious, though she would
have found it hard to say why. Perhaps she was a little overcome with
her hard work of the past few days; anyway, she could not get it out of
her head that that flying figure was a messenger of misfortune.

She stood there gazing eagerly out of the window till the figure
appeared in sight again, coming at a rapid run in the direction of the
house. Then a door banged somewhere, and Grace knew that the intruder
was close by. The sullen clanging of a door roused the sleeping
patient, who opened her eyes languidly and looked around her with an
air of uneasiness.

"Why did you wake me?" she said. "I was in the midst of such a
beautiful dream when you brought me back to life again."

"It was a noise below," Grace explained. "You are to go off to sleep at
once. There is something I want to do downstairs."

Bessie closed her eyes obediently, and Grace, taking the lamp in her
hand, walked down into the dining-room and looked about her. She
was horribly frightened, but there was no suggestion of this in the
expression of her face; the hand that held the lamp was perfectly
steady. Grace called aloud to know who was there.

"Come and show yourself," she commanded. "What do you mean by coming
here like this in this unexpected way at such a time----"

The lamp nearly fell from Grace's hand as a body rose from the floor
and came within the sphere of the light. Then Grace saw the white,
sweat-bedabbled face of James Holder.

"Save me," he cried hoarsely. "Hide me from them, for they are after
me. Hide me, I say."

"Who are after you?" Grace demanded.

"The police," Holder whispered in the same strained voice. "The police
are after me--for murder."




CHAPTER XXXIX.--THE WRITING ON THE WALL.

Grace listened in surprise to what Holder had to say. It seemed
impossible to identify that meek old man with violence or bloodshed of
any kind. Grace would not have been afraid of him even if he had come
armed into her presence. He stood there now with his head hung down
and his limbs trembling violently, for all the world like some child
detected in some pretty fault. It occurred to Grace that Holder was
rambling in his mind, and it would be far better to humor him. Besides,
she was careful for her patient.

"You had better go back home," she said. "Go home to bed, and I will
see that no harm comes to you."

Holder laughed in a helpless kind of way. It was pitiable to notice how
he seemed to hang upon Grace's words.

"I am afraid," he said. "I know that they are waiting for me. Just now
they came to my lodgings, and I heard them ask for me. Then I slipped
out of the house, and ran across the fields in this direction. I
thought that the Fentons had gone away, and that I should be quite safe
here."

The last few words were uttered with a despairing cry that rang through
the house. Grace was glad to see the face of the nurse as she came back
into the room. That sort of thing must be stopped at any hazards. The
nurse looked enquiringly at Grace, who pointed to the bedroom overhead.

"Go upstairs," Grace said, "I will deal with this poor man."

Whilst Holder was still standing there crying out and muttering to
himself, Grace left the house and made her way across to the barn where
she understood that the Fentons had made preparations to spend the
night. The old man was still awake. In fact, he was sitting by the door
of the barn smoking his pipe. He stood up as Grace approached and asked
what he might do for her.

"Mr. Holder is here," Grace explained; "he seems to be a little more
wild and rambling than usual. He is rather too noisy for us, and I am
afraid he will disturb our patient if he is allowed to remain there any
longer. He must be removed."

"What's be rambling about now?" Fenton asked.

"He seems to have an idea in his head that he has committed a murder,"
Grace explained, "though anybody more unlikely to stand charged with
such an offence it would be hard to imagine. He has fled here because
he says the police are after him."

Grace did not notice the queer expression of Fenton's face. The latter
laid down his pipe and strode across the yard in the direction of the
house. Holder was still wailing and wringing his hands when Fenton
unceremoniously grasped him by the collar and hustled him out into the
open air. He carefully closed the door before he bent forward and spoke
in a fierce whisper to Holder.

"They don't guess anything inside," he said, "but I know what you are
driving at, and what brings you here. A couple of police were by here
a little while ago, and asked me if I had seen a man answering to your
description. You take my advice and light out of here as soon as you
can. You haven't told me what the trouble is, but I can guess it easy
enough without that."

Holder looked at his companion with affrighted eyes. "Do you really
know?" he whispered. "Did anybody tell you, or have you guessed it? Did
I tell you?"

"Of course you didn't, you stupid old dodderer," Fenton said
impatiently. "I haven't seen you for months till to-night; certainly
not since the time we used to meet at Rice's. But I can guess what has
happened as clearly as if I had seen it done. Now get along, and don't
waste your opportunities."

"But where am I to go," Holder, whined. "Where can I hide myself? They
have taken all my money from me and left me penniless. If I leave here
I shall starve."

Fenton intimated pretty broadly that Holder's future was a matter
of absolute indifference to him. He crossed to the barn and closed
the door behind him, leaving Holder standing there in the moonlight,
looking like some poor hunted animal. He started suddenly with a loud
cry, and rushed into the road. A moment later and he was struggling in
the arms of a man compared with whom he was but a child. He struggled
only for a moment, and then Holder commenced to cry softly. Once he
felt himself within the grip of the law, the wild desire for freedom
had left him altogether.

"I am coming quietly," he said. "Where are you going to take me? As far
as Leverton, I suppose?"

"That's it," the other man said, not unkindly. "I've got a dog-cart a
little way down the road; come along."

Leverton had had a good deal lately to occupy its attention in the way
of scandal, but a fresh sensation awaited it in the morning. People had
not yet done talking about the strange marriage of Stephen Rice and his
equally strange death; they were still discussing the outrage upon Mark
Anstey and comparing it to the similar outrage upon Holder, and yet
here was another phase of the same mystery. By breakfast time Leverton
heard with astonishment that James Holder had been arrested the night
before on the charge of attempting to murder his late employer, Mark
Anstey.

That was the story that ran round Leverton, the rumor that filled the
police-court to over-flowing. Everybody was discussing the matter
eagerly, and James Holder was just as well known a figure in Leverton
as Anstey himself. There were those who argued it as absurd that so
meek and insignificant a man as James Holder could have got the better
of a struggle with so fine a sportsman as Mark Anstey. However, rumor
for once spoke the truth, and presently as many Leverton people as
could cram into the police-court saw James Holder standing in the dock
pleading not guilty to the serious charge which the police had brought
against him.

He seemed quite quiet and subdued, as if absolutely resigned to
his fate. The prisoner was not defended; indeed, he declined all
suggestions that a lawyer should be engaged on his behalf. He only
asked that he might be permitted to have a chair, as the hearing was
likely to last for some time.

This being granted, Inspector Carden rose to give evidence as to the
arrest of the prisoner. It was likely to be a curious case, Carden went
on to inform the magistrates, because there was only one witness, and
that witness was only able to testify by signs.

"What do you mean?" the chairman of the bench asked. "Is there anything
mentally or physically the matter with the witness?"

"Neither, your worship," Garden explained. "There is nothing whatever
the matter with the witness except that he is deaf and dumb. People who
live in the village, where the outrage took place upon Mark Anstey,
will tell you that the man called 'Poor Billy' is as sharp as anybody
else. It is by making signs that he understands what is wanted of him.
He is exceedingly clever with a pencil and a piece of paper, which
seems to do just as well for him as the use of his tongue."

"Then be cannot read or write?" the magistrate asked.

"Neither, sir," Carden said. "In small places there are no facilities
for teaching deaf mutes. Perhaps I had better go on to tell you how I
arrived at the conclusion that the prisoner was responsible for the
outrage upon Mr. Mark Anstey."

Everybody craned forward to listen except Holder, who sat huddled up on
his chair as if thoroughly worn out and nearly asleep. During most of
the hearing he maintained the same attitude of stolid indifference. It
was a strange story that Carden had to tell.

"I have had my suspicions for some time," he said, "that the prisoner
could tell us a great deal as to the way in which Mr. Mark Anstey came
so near to his death. It always struck me as a strange coincidence that
the two outrages accompanied by personal violence should take place in
the bank at the same hour--that is, not long before daylight. In each
instance the wounded man was discovered in the counting-house of the
bank when the business premises were opened in the morning."

"Have you any idea as to the identity of the culprit who committed the
first outrage?" a magistrate asked.

"I can quite see what your worship means," Carden said. "It occurs to
you that some desperate thief, bent on robbing the bank was responsible
for the two assaults. As a matter of fact this is not so, and to
disabuse your minds I will give you a pretty good idea of what took
place in the first instance. I can put a witness in the box who will
prove beyond all doubt that the prisoner has been robbing his employer
systematically for years. Mr. Anstey is a man who reposed every trust
in the prisoner, and his confidence was betrayed almost to the verge
of ruining the bank. Very fortunately for Mr. Anstey, the prisoner had
been speculating successfully with his ill-gotten gains, and every
penny of the money was recovered on the day on which there was a run on
the bank."

"What has all this to do with the case?" the chairman asked.

"Your worships will see that presently," Carden went on. "Mr. Anstey
discovered what had happened on the night that the prisoner met with
his so-called accident, or rather, his so-called encounter. Mr. Anstey
sent for his servant and ordered him forthwith to make out a full list
of all the securities, which the prisoner agreed to do, remarking that
it would take him nearly all night. He knew at that moment that he was
suspected, he knew that he must be detected, therefore there was no
outrage whatever--the prisoner's injuries were self-inflicted."

"In other words he tried to commit suicide," a magistrate said.

"That is precisely what I mean," Carden said coolly. "If the prisoner
would only admit it, we have solved that problem."

Holder sat up suddenly and looked eagerly about him. So far as the
spectators could judge he had not been taking the faintest interest in
the proceedings.

"That's right," he cried. "Inspector Carden has told you exactly what
happened. He has guessed it as correctly as if he had been there."

All this was very irregular, but irregularities in county police courts
are the exception rather than the rule. Everybody waited to hear what
Holder was going to say, for he was standing up now, with the air of a
man who is bound to make a statement.

"I took that money," he cried, "from time to time I took over twenty
thousand pounds, but not because I was a thief, mind you, I am too
great a financier for that. For years I have been hearing voices
telling me that I was born to become a millionaire, and those voices
urged me on to take my employer's money and grow rich. I was going
to make a great fortune and repay my employer a thousand fold, but,
somebody came along and my secret was betrayed, and my employer sent
for me late that night and told me to make out a list. I knew that my
crime was no longer locked in my own breast. I sat up late poring over
those columns of figures, and as they grew, so did my alarm and despair
grow with them. There was nothing before me then but a prison. I saw
myself condemned by everybody and despised by all. Then it was that I
laid hands upon myself. I meant to kill myself, but I lacked either the
strength or the courage, and when I was found next morning almost done
to death, everybody jumped to the conclusion that I had been working
late and had been surprised by some ruffian who had come with the
intention of robbing the bank. I have nothing more to say."

It seemed to the spectators that Holder had said enough. It was
certainly an extraordinary climax to a problem which had been puzzling
Leverton for some time. There was a murmur of conversation that the
court made no attempt to suppress, as Holder resumed his seat again.

"I think that is satisfactory, as far as it goes," Carden said.
"Personally, I am quite of opinion that the prisoner has not been in
his right mind for some time past. I quite agree with him that he had
no intention of robbing the bank for the mere sake of robbery. You will
see presently what these remarks of mine are tending to lead up to, and
now, with your permission, I should like to call my witness. Call 'Poor
Billy,' please."

"Poor Billy," was not called in the ordinary sense of the word; he was
led into court by a policeman. He stared about him, as if fearful that
something out of the common was going to happen. Then when his eyes
fell upon the familiar figure in the dock, he nodded and grinned in a
self-satisfied way.

"Here you are," said Carden, "take this piece of chalk. With your
worship's permission, I should like to have in here the large
blackboard from the police station. Then I will explain to you the
story of the assault upon Mr. Mark Anstey."




CHAPTER XL.--A PLEA FOR MERCY.

Such of those as had been fortunate enough to find their way into the
courthouse watched the proceedings with deepest interest. The mere
fact of a blackboard being set up right in front of the magistrate's
desk was in itself an object of almost admiration. Everybody could see
what was taking place, and as Billy advanced to the board with the
piece of chalk in his hand, he was the focus of all eyes. He seemed
to appreciate his position, and how important a figure he was for the
moment. At a sign from Carden he took the piece of chalk and commenced
to make marks on the big blackboard.

"We had better let him go his own way," Carden said; "we have managed
to make him understand that he is here to tell us the story of the
murderous assault on Mr. Anstey. It is common knowledge that that
assault was committed some time in the middle of the night, by somebody
who knew that Mr. Anstey would be working very late in the bank. Now
this dumb witness of mine has no settled home, he is privileged to
sleep pretty well where he likes, and at this time of the year he likes
a dry ditch as well as anything else. Everybody in his own neighborhood
is aware of the fact that he is very fond of wandering about at nights,
and undoubtedly he was close to the bank at the time Mr. Anstey was
struck down. Every so-called question we put to him leads us to believe
that such was the case."

Carden turned and made some unintelligible signs to Billy, who nodded
brightly and commenced to draw on the blackboard. It was no very
brilliant effort, but there were touches of originality in the sketch
which decidedly proved that Billy had within him the makings of an
artist. On the blackboard presently there appeared the outline of a
French window surrounded by a creeping rose and opening on to a lawn.
Billy pointed to it with an air of triumph.

"What is that supposed to mean?" a magistrate asked.

"That, sir, is a window in the prisoner's sitting-room," Carden
explained. "It opens on to a lawn so that the prisoner is in a position
to go in and out of his rooms at any time of the day or night without
his landlord and landlady having any idea what is going on. It is a
faithful representation of the window which, as you will see, is an old
lattice partly adapted as a French window by the insertion of a wooden
panel at the base. A climbing rose tree grows over it precisely as you
see in the sketch."

A thrill ran through the audience; they were getting decidedly a fresh
sensation in the way of evidence.

"You can see now how easy it is for the prisoner to have the run of the
bank at all times of the night without anybody being any the wiser;
but it so happens that my witness is in the habit of wandering out
at night, too, so that if he could speak he might have some strange
stories to tell. Go on, Billy."

Carden turned to the witness with a gesture that conveyed to him the
idea that he was to proceed. He partly rubbed out the sketch of the
window and rapidly substituted the bent figure in a slouched hat that
seemed to be stealthily creeping into the darkness. Holder looked up,
and then he laughed in a broken kind of way.

"That's me," he said, "that is the very hat I always wear when I am
going for my walks. Billy is an artist; Billy has a great future before
him."

Indeed, Holder spoke no more than the truth, for the likeness to
himself was unmistakable. Billy grinned in an appreciative sort of
way, as if he felt that his efforts had not been wasted. He wiped the
blackboard clean; he seemed to hesitate for a moment, and once more
plied his chalk rapidly. There was nothing sensational disclosed in the
fresh sketch; it was merely a sort of tool shed, with sundry articles
of domestic use piled in one corner. But Billy seemed to be just as
pleased as if he was thrilling his audience, as he had done when
drawing the outline of the prisoner.

"What does this mean?" the chairman asked.

"I am afraid I can hardly tell you," Carden said, with a puzzled frown.
"It seems to me that we had better let the witness give his evidence in
his own peculiar way."

The tool-shed was wiped out, and then Billy proceeded to draw the
outline of a small axe, to which he pointed with a queer, hoarse laugh,
as if he had done something very clever indeed.

"It seems to me that the explanation is quite plain," Carden said. "We
have seen how the prisoner came creeping out of his room on his way
to the bank with the full intention of doing his employer a deadly
mischief. To achieve his object he had to have a weapon of some kind,
and doubtless he made his way to the tool-shed, where he found the axe
which the witness has just drawn for you. There is little doubt in my
mind that Billy was hanging about the farmhouse where the prisoner
lives on the night of the crime, and that for some reason or other he
was followed by the witness. No doubt he had the axe in his hand at the
time. But we shall see what follows."

The axe disappeared as the other sketches had done, and then Billy
proceeded to make quite an elaborate outline of a building over which
he placed something that looked not unlike a sign. Carden smiled
approvingly, and patted the draughtsman on the back.

"Well done," he said. "I don't think I need remind any of you present
what that building is."

There were murmurs from the audience that here was the old bank of
which an Anstey had been the head for generations. Anybody who had ever
been through the village where the premises stood recognised them at a
glance. It was easy also to understand what Billy was driving at. He
meant to convey to his deeply-interested audience that on the night in
question after securing his weapon Holder had gone straightway to the
bank.

Billy did not need anybody to tell him that he was absolutely
successful; the grin on his face testified to that. He rapidly wiped
out the building, and in its place he drew a pattern of a latchkey.
Once more Carden nodded approvingly.

"I think we are getting on, your worships," he said. "On the night of
the outrage it is quite clear that Holder went down to the bank and let
himself in with his latchkey. It is just as well for me to admit at
once that this evidence has been rehearsed before we came into court.
It is just possible that when it comes to be tendered again before a
judge it will be ruled out as inadmissible. But that I need not dilate
upon here. The point I was going to make is this--since these facts
first came to my knowledge, I have been making enquiries at Holder's
lodgings, and I have discovered that a small axe has been missing from
the tool-shed ever since the morning following the attack upon Mr.
Anstey. This may not mean much, but taken into consideration with other
circumstances it appears to me to be exceedingly significant."

The latchkey disappeared, and presently in its place bit by bit there
rose the image of a clock face, marking the hour of two. Almost before
it was finished Billy rubbed out one of the hands, and put it on to the
hour of three, after which he turned and nodded as if he felt quite
sure that everybody fully understood his meaning.

"I think the meaning is quite plain," Carden said. "It was two o'clock
when the prisoner let himself into the bank, and he evidently remained
there for an hour longer. After that I cannot find any trace or learn
anything of the prisoner's movements, the presumption being that he
went straight back again to his rooms and remained there till morning."

"You have not found the weapon, then?" the chairman asked.

"No," Carden was fain to admit, "I have not. That is the one thing that
I cannot impress upon the mind of the witness. I have tried him in all
sorts of ways, but I cannot get him to understand."

"Then this evidence is complete," the chairman asked.

"So far, yes," Carden said, "unless by some great fortune----"

The speaker paused suddenly, for Billy had taken up his chalk again,
and was proceeding to draw a sketch of a mill worked by water. The
wheel was there, and the deep race below. It was not so good a sketch
as the others, and Carden was puzzled for a moment to know what it
meant. Then some excited individual in the back of the audience cried
out that it was the old deserted mill in the grounds of Water Park. It
was quite evident now to Carden that he had reached an important part
of the proceedings.

"I can see it, I can see it," Carden cried excitedly. "Unless I am
entirely out of my calculations, the axe was thrown in the mill race,
where it probably remains at the present moment. With your permission I
will try and see if I can make the witness understand."

Billy appeared to be in the act of rubbing out his sketch when Carden
restrained him. The inspector took the chalk from Billy's fingers
and proceeded to make a rough drawing of an axe as if it were lying
at the bottom of the stream below the mill wheel. Then he turned and
looked interrogatively at the artist. Billy threw up his hands, and
danced about in sheer delight. He nodded violently a score of times;
he was evidently full of triumph at the knowledge that his efforts had
conveyed so much to the spectators.

"This is excellent," Garden exclaimed; "we shall find the axe in the
mill race to a certainty. We will now try and ascertain who placed it
there, but there is little doubt in my mind that the prisoner hid his
weapon here."

Carden pointed from the axe to Holder, and raised his eyebrows
significantly. He had taken in exactly what Carden wanted, but had
no way of explaining. Then suddenly he wiped the sketch off the
blackboard, and drew in lieu thereof a rough outline of his own face.
After that he nodded violently, and patted himself on his breast.

"This is extraordinary," Carden cried. "The witness says almost as
plainly as words could speak, that he himself threw the axe into the
mill race, and the question we have to ask ourselves now is how he
became possessed of it."

But this was utterly beyond the powers of anybody to explain to
Billy. Carden tried him in every way that his ingenious mind could
conceive, but utterly without result. Hitherto Billy had been cheerful
and confident, but now he seemed to be doubting his powers, and grew
restless and sullen accordingly. Finally, he flung round and threw his
chalk in a childish fit of anger on to the floor and strode from the
court altogether, Garden making no effort to detain him. He had seen
quite enough of Billy in his present mood to know that nothing could be
gained by coercion.

"It seems to me," he said, "that the present proceedings had better be
adjourned till we have an opportunity of seeing whether or not the axe
can be found. How Billy got hold of it or why he threw it in the mill
race is a matter that will probably remain a mystery for all time. I
should like to have this case adjourned for a week at the very least."

"Very well, inspector," the chairman said. "It shall be as you please.
The case is adjourned to this day week."

Holder stood up suddenly; he had lost all his inert manner, he was
trembling from head to foot. His voice rang out loud and clear as he
made an application that he might be admitted to bail.

"No bail," the chairman said firmly. "The charge is far too serious for
that. Besides, I very much doubt if you would find anybody willing to
enter into the desired recognisances for your appearance. If there are
any such present----"

Cattley rose suddenly. He had been an interested spectator of the
extraordinary proceedings. He had evidently made up his mind to some
course. In a quiet voice he offered to become surety for Holder to the
extent of a thousand pounds.

"But we do not know you," the chairman said. "If you are backed up
by anybody in a substantial position with whom we are acquainted the
matter might assume a different aspect."

"I can satisfy you on that head," Cattley said. "I am here on behalf
of Mr. Mark Anstey who has authorised me to act as I may think best in
this matter."

"But Mr. Anstey is not in a position to give instructions to anybody,"
the chairman protested. "I am given to understand----"

"It does not matter in the least what you are given to understand,"
Cattley said impatiently. "Perhaps you would like Mr. Anstey to speak
for himself. If so, he is waiting outside the court at the present
moment in his brougham."




CHAPTER XLI.--ANSTEY HEARS THE TRUTH.

Meanwhile it will be perhaps as well to go back to the bank house,
where too long we have left Mark Anstey struggling with a dangerous
wound inflicted upon him during the small hours on the night on the
bank premises. It was perhaps mainly owing to his wonderful physique
that he was recovering so rapidly from his injuries. Naturally Grace
had not seen her father for the last few days, at any rate not since
the startling discovery had been made that Bessie Fenton was suffering
from typhoid, and during the fortnight which had elapsed Anstey was
almost himself again.

At the same time there was something about him that Dr. Watson did not
like at all; never before had he seen his patient moody or taciturn.
Every allowance had been made, of course, for the strong man who was
not accustomed to illness, and there seemed to be something on the mind
of Anstey that his medical man could not grapple with at all. He was
exceedingly moody, to say nothing of a certain heavy sulkiness which
led him to be rude to all about him. It was at this point that Dr.
Watson resolved to speak out freely.

"This will not do at all, my dear friend," he said. "You have given
me a rare fright the last few days, because I began to imagine that
something was the matter with your brain."

Mark Anstey looked up with a startled expression.

"You don't really mean that," he exclaimed.

"Well, on the whole, no," Watson replied, "but your manner precisely
reminds me of people troubled by some brain shock. Does it ever occur
to you how exceedingly rude you have been both to your nurses and
myself the last few days?"

"Have I really?" Anstey asked contritely. "It had not occurred to me
that my manner is different from what it usually is. I have something
on my mind which troubles me greatly. It is so dreadful to lie
helplessly here when I might be up and doing something to re-establish
my lost position."

"What lost position?" Watson asked. "Do you mean the bank?"

"Of course, I mean the bank. When I was stricken down I was just trying
to ascertain how much there would be to divide between my creditors. It
is an awful state of affairs, Watson."

"There is nothing the matter with the state of affairs at all," Watson
said cheerfully. "Everything is going on quite comfortably; indeed, you
have great cause to congratulate yourself on having such a friend as
Mr. George Cattley. If I were you I should send a message over and ask
young Max Graham to come and see you. I have no doubt he can tell you
all the details, seeing that Cattley is staying with him, and that they
have become such great friends lately."

Just for a moment Anstey hesitated; he had known all along that
sooner or later he must see Max again, but he dreaded the interview.
That he had treated Max very badly indeed he could not disguise from
himself for a moment. No sophistry on his part could save him from the
knowledge that he had played a shabby part where Max and Grace were
concerned, and yet he felt humble and contrite now, and ready to make
any reparation that lay in his power.

"Very well," he said, "perhaps you will call in at Water Park on your
round this morning."

It was an hour or so later that Max came across to the bank house. He
had intended going into Leverton with Cattley, there to hear the charge
against James Holder for the attempted murder of his master. Naturally
Anstey knew nothing whatever about this, as all the recent happenings
had been carefully concealed from him. Anstey was a little ashamed at
the generous way in which Max extended his hand, and asked after his
old friend with an obvious sincerity. It was some little time before
Anstey could speak, for this generosity touched him to the heart.

"It is very good of you to come," he murmured at length. "I hardly
expected it, after all that has happened.

"Why not?" Max laughed. "Things are not so bad as you imagine."

"But they must be," Anstey murmured. "Max, there is something within
me that impels me to tell you everything. I have treated both Grace
and yourself abominably--I have done things which I should have deemed
myself incapable of doing six months ago. If anyone had told me that
I should have bartered my daughter's happiness for the sake of my
financial reputation, I should have laughed the idea to scorn. Up to a
little time ago I looked forward to the time when Grace would become
your wife. I was just as much set on the idea as the general was, and
then all at once there came the thunderbolt out of a blue sky, and I
found myself to be a ruined man. I was never really made for business,
and I don't understand it, but I always felt that I could place
implicit trust in Holder, who took advantage of my confidence to rob
me. That is not quite the worst."

"I don't think that Holder robbed you in the ordinary sense of the
word," Max said thoughtfully. "Without our knowing it, for many years
James Holder has been given over to a dangerous form of monomania, and
no one would have guessed for a second that that quiet, respectable,
plodding old gentleman was suffering from so strange a form of mental
disease. Mind you, I know what I am talking about now, because I
had it from the lips of Holder himself. He was quite convinced of
the fact that he had it in his power to make you a millionaire, and
therefore, without consulting you, he drew large sums of money from
the bank cellars. I think you will recollect that it was Cattley who
first struck the note of warning, and pointed out to you the perilous
position in which you stood."

"That is quite right," Anstey admitted, "as a matter of fact I did
Cattley a great wrong some years ago, and I was almost ashamed to
meet him, especially as I thought he had come back to expose me to
the world. He came to me on the same night that it became known that
Grace was going to marry Stephen Rice. To my great surprise I find that
Cattley was very favorably disposed towards me. It was only by a sheer
accident that he discovered what was going on, and there and then he
insisted that James Holder should be sent for and asked to draw out a
detailed scheme showing the true position of the bank. What happened
afterwards you know as well as I?"

"Are you quite sure you do know?" Max asked.

"Well, I conclude that some enemy of Holder's found his way into the
bank and tried to murder him. When I found the body of James Holder
lying there I was too utterly overcome to raise an alarm, and in the
most cowardly fashion possible I left it to my juniors to discover
the tragedy. Mind you, there is one thing I must say in my own
justification--I was firmly of the opinion that James Holder was dead,
or I should never have left him lying there all night. Not the least
unfortunate part of the whole affair was that Grace happened to see me
as I was leaving the bank and making my way upstairs to bed. I am quite
sure that Grace was under the impression that mine was the hand by
which Holder met his fate."

"Grace knows better now," Max said. "I see you don't in the least
understand the true position of affairs. As a matter of fact James
Holder attempted to commit suicide."

"Is that really true?" Anstey cried. "How could you possibly prove such
a statement as that?"

"I may almost say that I have heard it from Holder's lips," Max said.
"It has been Cattley's theory all along. When you sent for Holder that
night he could see at once that he was found out, and in a fit of
despair he attempted to take his own life. Unless I am greatly mistaken
you will hear him say the same thing before very long. And now as to
your position."

"I have no position," Anstey said bitterly. "I am absolutely ruined, as
you know perfectly well."

"Nothing of the kind," Max cried cheerfully. "As a matter of fact, the
position of the bank is firmer than ever it was. There was a run on it,
but before the day was out hundreds of people who had withdrawn their
money were back again asking us as a favor to take care of it for them."

"But where did the money come from?" Anstey asked.

"You need not fear that you are under an obligation to anybody," Max
explained. "The money was all your own. Cattley discovered where Holder
had hidden his ill-gotten gains, and the whole of the capital was
available, just in time to meet the calls of your creditors. You may
take my word for it that you never were in a better position than you
are at the present moment."

"I don't deserve it," Anstey said brokenly. "It seems almost
intolerable to think I should escape like this, and that Grace should
suffer so terribly."

"Grace's sufferings are over," Max said quietly. "Stephen Rice is
dead; he died within a few hours of his marriage. But perhaps I better
explain to you the circumstances of the case."

Anstey listened with the deepest interest to the strange story that Max
had to tell. His heart was filled with shame and misery to think of the
bitter trouble that he had brought upon his only child. He bowed his
head with his face to the wall when Max proceeded to explain the story
of Rice's dual marriage.

"Thank God it has been no worse," he said. "I am almost glad that Rice
should have perished before he had time to do any more harm. But one
thing is certain Max--Grace must never touch a penny of this man's
money."

"I am afraid I have not made myself very plain," Max said. "Did I
forget to tell you that Rice left no money at all. His fortune had been
pretty well all gambled away; in fact, had it not been for a conspiracy
between himself and Holder, Rice would never have been in a position
to force you to consent to his marriage with Grace. But perhaps I had
better go into that matter also."

Anstey could see it all now; he exclaimed that he was treated much
better than he deserved. Then he proceeded to ask after Holder.

"Before we go into that I should like to ask you a few questions about
yourself," Max said. "Don't forget that you were found on the bank
premises under precisely the same circumstances as Holder was found,
and that nobody as yet knows how the thing came about. I suppose you
did not attempt to commit suicide?"

"I had thought of it," Anstey whispered, "but, thank God, I had a
little too much manhood left for that. I was spending the night trying
to derive some scrap of comfort from the examination of my books, when
I was assaulted, and I recollect no more till I came to myself in bed.
If you ask me who my assailant was----"

There was a curious hesitation about Anstey's manner that Max did not
fail to notice. He asked pointedly if Anstey could tell him who the
miscreant was, but no direct reply came. It was no time to be put off,
and Max decided to speak freely.

"You are trying to shield somebody," he said. "But your efforts in that
direction will be entirely lost, because we have already discovered not
only who it was who attempted to murder you, but also how the thing was
done."

Anstey sat bolt upright in bed and asked for his clothes. Max would
have demurred, only he saw that Anstey was in a much fitter state of
health than he had anticipated.

"Where are you going?" Max asked. "You can't possibly leave the house.
Besides if you want to shield James Holder you are too late. At the
present moment he is being tried at Leverton police court on the charge
of attempting to murder you on a certain date. If you had not sent for
me, I should have gone into Leverton with Cattley this morning to hear
the case. What are you going to do?"

Anstey jumped out of bed and was proceeding to shuffle into his clothes
before Max could interfere. Then the master of the house rang the
bell and ordered a carriage to be got ready to take him into Leverton
without delay.

"This must be stopped," he said. "It is absolutely imperative that it
should be stopped. Telephone a message to Cattley, at the police court
and say that I shall be there in half an hour."

"But this is madness," Max protested.

"Nothing of the kind," Anstey cried. "It is no more than an act of
simple justice, I tell you I must go into Leverton at once."

Anstey crossed the room with a firm step; his face was fixed and
resolute, a look of determination was in his eyes.




CHAPTER XLII.--NEARING THE END.

All this time James Holder had been undergoing the ordeal which had
already, been described. It was only from time to time that he had
shown much sign of interest in the proceedings, but now that he heard
his master's name mentioned he uttered a low cry, and covered his face
with his hands. Already the spectators had begun to file out of court,
but a great many of them stopped now, feeling that great developments
were at hand.

"This is exceedingly irregular," the chairman said. "Still, if Mr.
Anstey has anything to say, it is our duty to hear it. I am only too
glad to find that Mr. Anstey is in a position to undertake so trying a
journey."

"He will save me," Holder murmured. "He has come on purpose to save me.
I knew he would come."

Cattley, closely studying the prisoner's face, was more than ever
convinced that the unfortunate man was not in full possession of his
senses. He could see Holder's eyes gleam with almost pathetic affection
as they were turned upon his employer.

"I know this is exceedingly irregular," Anstey said. "I should have
been here earlier had I known what was going on. I understand that my
old servant James Holder is accused of attempting to murder me some
little while ago. I beg to say that I have nothing to do with these
proceedings, and that they would never have been instituted had I been
consulted in the matter."

"I beg your pardon, sir," Carden put in. "There would have been no
cause to consult you in any case. These proceedings were taken at the
instigation of the police in the plain execution of their duties. A
witness has already testified to the fact that on the night of the
outrage the prisoner secretly left his room and repaired to the bank
premises with an axe which he had stolen from a woodshed, and with
which beyond all question he committed the assault which nearly ended
in the loss of your life. I have already had it on the authority of Dr.
Watson that the blow was dealt with a weapon of that kind."

"Perhaps you will produce the weapon," Anstey said.

"I hope to be in a position to do so at any moment," Carden explained.
"We actually know where it is hidden, but that is beside the point.
Of course, if Mr. Anstey is prepared to swear that it was not the
prisoner, but somebody else, who was responsible for the attempt upon
his life, then I have no more to say."

Anstey appeared to hesitate; he was debating as to whether he should
go so far a length as that. It was Holder who settled the point once
and for all. He stood up, and waved his hands above his head wildly.
Cattley noticed the gleam of insanity in his eyes. His voice rang out
clear and loud above the din of conversation.

"No, no," he cried, "I know what you are about to do. You cannot forget
my thirty years of faithful service, you cannot forget that I am not
responsible for the madness that possesses me. It is some years now
since voices first began to whisper to me that riches lay before me
if I had only the strength to take them, and it was not for the sake
of the money that I wished to obtain it. My salary has been enough,
and more than enough, to provide for my simple needs. It was for the
sake of others that I wished to be provided with money, so that my
name could go down to posterity as a benefactor of mankind. Yes, and I
should have done it, too."

The speaker's voice rose to a loud scream. He had evidently lost
himself in the excitement of the moment. He held the audience with a
strong grip, as an actor does who carried the house with him in the
moment to some great personal triumph.

"I should have done it," he cried again; "only there came a man who
found me out, and my scheme vanished like a beautiful dream. And then,
as sense and reason returned to me, I saw that I was no great financier
rushing headlong to my goal, but a poor, broken-down speculator, and
thief, who had vulgarly robbed one of the kindest men who I could ever
have called master. It came to me with overpowering force that night,
as I sat in the bank making out a list of my defalcations. I should
have died there and then, but perhaps my hand was too weak; at any
rate, I failed to make an end of my miserable self, and that is why I
am standing here to-day. But there is a worse thing to tell, a far more
shameful story----"

"Do not say any more," Anstey cried, "if you have any respect for me,
I command you to silence. The police may take any proceedings they
please, but the law is powerless to force me to identify my assailant.
If I say that I could not do so, if I go further and say that it was
not James Holder----"

"But it was--it was--it was!" Holder screamed. "The madness was upon me
once again, and but for the grace of God you would be in your grave,
and I should be standing here on a charge of murdering my master. And
now that I have said so much, let me make my confession complete."

"This is all exceedingly irregular," the chairman of magistrates
murmured. "What is the best thing to be done in the circumstances?"

The magistrates' clerk whispered something, and then the excited
spectators saw that they were going to hear the thing to the end.
Holder stood there with his hands clenched at the edge of the dock,
gazing intently at Anstey, who, with bowed head, recognised that his
efforts on behalf of his old servant were futile.

"I brooded and brooded over the matter," Holder said, "and I determined
in my madness to make one more struggle to successfully carry out the
dream of my life. I don't know how I was going to do it, for, when I
try and think of the past two or three weeks, my head grows confused
and misty, and I can see nothing but blood. Don't ask me what my
reasoning was, for I had none. It seemed to me that if I could get my
employer out of the way, I should be able to get affairs in my own
hands, and gradually recover my position. I used to hang about the bank
at nights, and that is how I found out that Mr. Anstey was working
late on the accounts. I wanted to go in and see him, but I could not
discover a way; then it suddenly flashed upon me that I always had a
key of the bank in my pocket. I don't know how it was or how I got
there, but I woke up one night from a kind of dream and discovered that
I was in the counting-house with an axe in my hand. Mr. Anstey was
at work when he turned and saw me. He did not appear to be angry; in
fact, he was not angry at all, but, before he could speak, some strange
force raised my arm, and, without any power of mine, struck Mr. Anstey
to the ground. Then I recollected no more till I found myself in my
own bed again. You think perhaps that I am sorry to stand here, but I
am glad--I am glad that the suspense is over, and that I can tell the
whole world of my crime. I am guilty and yet innocent--innocent because
some stronger force than my own will moved me to do this thing. There
is no more to be said."

Quite suddenly Holder collapsed on the floor of the dock and lay there
an inert mass until he was removed by two policemen to the cells
below. There was a cry for a doctor, and Hunter came forward from the
body of the audience. There was no more to be seen and heard now,
the interested spectators flocked into the street eagerly discussing
the dramatic events of the morning. With the exception of the court
officials, Max, Cattley, and Mr. Anstey alone remained. It was some
little time before Hunter returned with information as to the condition
of his patient.

"It looked to me like an utter collapse," Anstey said. "Perhaps that
would be better, as I should be very sorry to know that my old servant
was likely to pass the last of his years in gaol."

"There is not the least likelihood of that," Hunter said. "Poor Holder
has been trying himself too much lately, and he has paid the penalty.
He is suffering from a paralytic stroke, from which I should say be
would never recover again."

"Is it as bad as that?" Anstey asked.

"Is it not the best way?" Hunter retorted. "The poor old man may never
recover again; even if he does he will be quite childish and incapable
of doing anything for himself. In these circumstances the police could
do no less than drop the prosecution."

There was nothing for it now but to see that Holder was made
comfortable and conveyed to his own lodgings without delay. It was at
Anstey's instigation that Hunter accompanied the little party as far as
the village. A nurse was procured, and an hour or two later nothing had
been left undone to provide Holder with everything that he needed.

"I will see that he lacks nothing," Anstey said. "His landlady
offers to do everything that she can, and I will see that a nurse is
permanently engaged to take care of the poor fellow. By the way, Dr.
Hunter, I have been hearing strange things of your relatives, the
Fentons. I hope that your sister-in-law will be none the worse for her
escapade the other evening."

"It will make no difference," Hunter said. "I am fairly convinced that
poor Bessie would have died in any case. Wandering about as she did in
the night air the other evening simply made suspicion a certainty. I
should not be surprised to receive a summons at any time from Fenton's
Farm to hear that Bessie was rapidly sinking. It is a noble thing on
the part of your daughter to treat the girl as she did."

"It was very like Grace," Anstey said. "I only hope that she may not
suffer for her kindness."

Hunter muttered something to the effect that there was not much fear
of that, so long as Grace and the nurse carried out their instructions
faithfully.

"It has been a dreadful business altogether," Anstey said. "And I
hold myself as much to blame as anybody else. But for me there would
never have been the slightest suspicion in the minds of anybody that
Grace had a hand in the death of the man it was her misfortune to call
husband for so short a time."

"Nobody knows better than Dr. Hunter," Cattley said, significantly. "He
will tell you that the doses of morphia administered to Stephen Rice
had nothing whatever to do with his death, but that he died of a dose
of strychnine administered by someone who stole it from Dr. Hunter's
surgery."

"Is this really a fact?" Anstey cried.

"So Mr. Cattley seems to think," Hunter said, sulkily. "He has proved
conclusively to himself that he has identified the poison bottle found
outside Rice's house with one stolen from my surgery. I am bound to
admit that someone did steal a bottle from my surgery; therefore, on
the face of it, Mr. Cattley makes out a very strong case. At least, so
he says."

"I could go a great deal further than that," Cattley said. "For
instance, I could lay my hand upon the criminal at this present moment
if I chose to do so."

"Then why not do it?" Anstey urged. "No shadow of disgrace could
possibly attach to my child, but if the world knew the name of the real
criminal, every lingering doubt would be set at rest once and for ever.
Do you not think so?"

"No, and you would not think so if you knew everything," Cattley said.
"But please, do not be impatient. I am certain that within a few hours
the truth will be divulged. It would be a thousand pities to force it,
especially----"

Cattley checked himself as if fearful that he was saying too much.
Hunter looked at him with an agitation plainly marked upon his face. He
appeared to be waiting for Cattley to speak again.

"I say no more," Cattley said. "Dr. Hunter knows exactly what I mean,
and he ought to appreciate my reticence in the matter."

"Perhaps I do," Hunter stammered. "Well, what is it?"

For a boy approached the group, and stood there hesitating, as if
afraid to speak until he had been spoken to.

"Fenton's Farm," he gasped, for he had evidently been running. "A lady
spoke to me out of the window and said I was to go over to Water Park
with a message. They were to send for Dr. Hunter----"

"I am he," Hunter said. "What was the message?"

"About the lady who was ill there," the boy stammered. "There was to be
no delay in fetching Dr. Hunter because the lady said that her patient
was sinking fast."

Without another word Hunter turned and walked away in the direction of
the farm.

Anstey would have made an effort to detain Hunter, but Cattley
restrained him by a touch on the arm. At the same time he turned
to Max, who seemed to understand without being told, that Cattley
preferred to be alone with Grace's father. It was easy enough for
Max to make an excuse by which he could leave the two elder men
together, and this he did gracefully enough. For some time Anstey stood
thoughtfully watching the retreating figure of Dr. Hunter until the
latter had at length disappeared; then he turned to Cattley.

"There are several points about this strange business which are not yet
quite clear to me," he said. "For instance, I should like to know how
that man Hunter comes into this matter at all, but perhaps before we
begin to discuss the thing, you will come as far as my house. I feel
that I have rather overdone it."

"I ought to have thought of that before," Cattley said. "Let me give
you my arm as far as the house."

Anstey accepted the offer gratefully enough, and Cattley could feel
that the other was leaning on him heavily. They walked along together
thoughtfully in silence till Anstey spoke at length.

"It seems very odd that you and I should be going along together in
this friendly fashion," he said. "I never expected that you would be
so kindly disposed towards me after all that you have suffered at my
hands."

"It does seem odd," Cattley said, drily. "Neither did I think that I
had such a forgiving strain in my nature. It is perhaps a good thing
that our friends and neighbors know so little about our inmost hearts."

"I quite agree with that," Anstey said. "Up to a little time ago I
regarded myself as rather a fine fellow, now I can see how weak and
criminal I have been. I was prepared to sacrifice everything except
myself to save my position. And little did I imagine that it would be
you who would come to the rescue."

"Oh, I am not quite so forgiving as you imagine," Cattley said. "I
will not say too much about the past, and how it was for your sake
that I suffered a grievous wrong at the hands of my relations. If you
had spoken out freely then you would have saved me from something
like disgrace--as it was, my tongue was tied, because I was so deeply
attached to my sister. If she had known anything of that disgraceful
Oxford business--I mean if she had known that you had been in it, it
would have broken her heart; but one of your redeeming virtues was your
genuine love for my sister Mabel, and for her sake I was silent. I hope
that you never gave her any cause to regret----"

"Never--I swear it," Anstey cried. "She never suspected, and she never
knew. For thirteen years she was genuinely happy, and on her deathbed
she told me so. Do you not think that Grace is very like what her
mother was at the same age?"

"I do, indeed," Cattley said. "It is Grace's likeness to her mother
that has saved you. I was fortunate with my business abroad, I returned
home with more than any man could need, not that I had any intention
of seeking you out because my sister was dead, and my heart was no
softer towards you than it had been hitherto. Then it so happened one
night that I was attending a large reception given by a friend of
mine in London. It was there that I first met your daughter Grace. I
was not introduced to her, but a single glance at her face told me
who she was. I heard the very best accounts of her, and so gradually
my feelings began to soften towards you, and I decided to renew the
old acquaintance for the sake of my sister's child. You see, I have
no other relations now, and eventually Grace will inherit all my
money. Singularly enough, it was about this time that a small business
transaction of mine put me on the track of what was happening in regard
to the affairs of the bank--your bank, I mean. Then I came down to see
you, and what happened after that you know as well as I do, but we are
not going to discuss that any more. I am quite prepared to let bygones
be bygones, and feel that I am a welcome guest under your roof. It is a
dream of mine that I should see a child of Grace's who might be named
after myself."

"How could it be otherwise?" Anstey said, not without feeling. "You
have saved my good name and my reputation, you have heaped coals of
fire upon my head. I don't want to say too much, but I will try and
show you in deeds what I cannot express in words."

The bank house was reached at length, and it was some time before the
discussion was renewed. It was after luncheon that Anstey approached
the subject again.

"You did not tell me how Hunter came into this business," he said. "I
always understood that he was a clever man, but sadly dissipated on
principle."

"So he is," Cattley explained, "if you will remember as a young man
I was rather friendly with old Fenton, who in those days was not
altogether the reprobate that he is now. At any rate, I knew the Fenton
family exceedingly well, and I was not prejudiced against them. But,
to confess the truth, they had gone entirely out of my mind when I
came home to England, and until I got on the track of old Holder's
speculations, it was as if they had never existed. I discovered
that there was a regular conspiracy on foot to rob you, and in the
conspiracy were Stephen Rice and Hunter. Pushing my investigations
further, I discovered that Hunter had married Ella Fenton, who had
made a considerable reputation for herself on the stage. I knew that
Ella would remember me, so I made an appointment with her to meet her
at her father's house. It matters little what I wanted to see here
there for; anyway she came. What happened afterwards Grace will be
able to tell you. That all bears upon the extraordinary outrage which
was perpetrated upon Max Graham by the Fentons at the instigation of
Stephen Rice. But that story can be told another time. I brought Holder
here because I wanted to force something in the way of a confession
out of him----"

"To do with the death of Stephen Rice?" Anstey exclaimed.

"Precisely," Cattley went on. "It has everything to do with the death
of Stephen Rice. Mind you, it would be impossible for anybody but the
most evil-minded person to try and connect Grace in any way with the
tragedy that resulted in the death of that scoundrel. All the same, the
matter must be cleared up and a confession made by the culprit. This
must be done for Grace's sake."

"Provided that the culprit can be found," Anstey said.

"Oh, the culprit will be found right enough. In fact, I have made the
discovery already, not that it is altogether a secret, because Hunter
and his wife have known for some little time who was responsible for
the premature decease of Stephen Rice. I am sorry in a way for that,
because they are in no way to blame, and in the circumstances they
could not have acted in any other way. Is there anything else I can
tell you?"

"No," Anstey said thoughtfully. "The matter seems to be very clear now,
but I certainly should like to get to the bottom of the tragedy now we
are about it."

Cattley intimated that he did not think there would be much trouble
about that, and if Anstey could have seen what was taking place in that
quiet bedroom at Fenton's Farm his mind would have been less troubled
than it was.

For the last twenty-four hours it had been quite plain to Grace that
Bessie Fenton was growing gradually worse. The fever had left her,
and there was a marked absence of pain, but the patient was weaker,
and there was something about her face that was eloquent of the end
so near at hand. Grace did not need to ask if the nurse was of the
same opinion. The morning was fairly well advanced, and Bessie had
fallen into a light slumber, so that it was possible for Grace to go
downstairs and seek a little fresh air. She found the nurse standing on
the doorstep, rejoicing in the warmth of the sunshine. Grace broached
the subject.

"The end is not far off," she whispered.

"The end is very near," the nurse replied. "It is merely a matter of
a few hours now. I thought that we had finished our task just before
daybreak, when you were asleep, but there was a rally, which, however,
can be only temporary. As a matter of fact, I have sent a boy over to
Water Park to ask General Graham to dispatch a message to Leverton to
fetch Dr. Hunter. When our patient wakes again she will probably ask to
be told the truth. Unless I am greatly mistaken she would like to hear
the truth from your lips, because I fancy she has a confession to make
to you. Of course, this may be mere imagination on my part."

Grace nodded thoughtfully. The idea was no imagination on the nurse's
part, for Bessie had intimated to Grace more than once that she had a
secret to unbosom when the time came. Grace was sitting reading in the
dying girl's bedroom an hour later when she opened her eyes and looked
about her.

"I want to speak to you," she said. "I am going to make a confession.
Tell me how long have I to live?"

It was difficult for Grace to speak bravely, but she braced herself for
the effort. Perhaps she hesitated a moment too long, or perhaps Bessie
read her sentence in her companion's eyes, for she smiled faintly, and
held out a languid hand.

"Your kind heart moves your tongue," she whispered. "Your lips hesitate
to tell me the sentence which is assuredly mine, as if it were
pronounced by the first doctor in England. I feel that the end is very
near, very near, and I only hope that I have not left it too late. How
long have I yet before me?"

"An hour or two," Grace faltered. "Oh, it is too horrible to have to
talk to you like this, but the doctor told me, and the nurse thinks the
same thing. If I thought that you were the least afraid, I would never
for a moment----"

"Afraid!" Bessie echoed with a faint smile. "Oh, my dear, sweet
friend--the best friend I ever had in this world--I am not in the
least afraid to die? Can't you understand that I want to die? There
is nothing in life for me now, I could not endure the thought of a
long existence with a mind blackened and burdened as is mine, and
yet I acted for the best. I think I would do it again in the same
circumstances. Perhaps I shall be judged not so much for my crime, but
inasmuch that I sacrificed myself to prevent crime in another. I should
have told you all this before, but I did not want to injure myself in
your eyes till the anger of Fate beckoned me with no uncertain motion.
If you think that I am capable----"

The speaker paused and closed her eyes; she looked so deadly white
and still that for a moment Grace imagined her to be gone. It was
quite evident that the mere fact of speaking was a greater strain than
the patient could bear. It was a full five minutes before her lips
fluttered, and she opened her eyes again.

"I thought it was too late," she said. "Give me something, anything to
moisten my lips so that I may speak."

Before Grace could comply with the request the nurse came quietly into
the room with an intimation that Hunter was below. Grace gave a little
sigh of thankfulness and relief.

"I am glad of that," she said. "He has come just in the very nick of
time. Bring him upstairs at once."

Hunter came into the room; his trained eye took in the situation at a
glance. In a faint distant voice Bessie asked for a cordial of some
kind.

"She has something that she wants to say to me," Grace explained;
"unfortunately, she has left it till almost too late. Is it not
possible that you might give her something----"

"I understand," Hunter said, moodily. "I know what she wants to say,
and I am glad to be in time. A glass and a spoon, please."

"But are you in time?" Grace cried. She pointed to the bed on which
Bessie lay inert and still again. "Are you not too late?"

Hunter grabbed for the spoon and the glass, and, taking a small bottle
from his pocket, contrived to coax a few drops of the contents between
the dying girl's lips. For some moments she lay perfectly still, then
there was just a vestige of color on her cheeks, and her eyes opened
once more.

"It is in time," she said. "Thank God, it is in time. And now will you
please go away and leave Miss Anstey and myself together?"




CHAPTER XLIII.--THE LAST LINK.

They were alone together at last, these two people, whom the
vicissitudes of fortune had thrown so strangely together, and Grace
was waiting patiently to hear what Bessie had to say. The cordial had
evidently had the desired effect, for the girl seemed to be breathing
more freely, and there was a touch of color in her cheeks which Grace
had not noticed for some days past.

"Take your time," she said, "and pray do not unduly distress yourself
if you would rather not speak at all----"

"But I must," Bessie said. "I could not go into the presence of my
Maker with a secret like mine upon my soul. Do you know that it was I
who was responsible for the death of Stephen Rice?"

"You are dreaming," Grace cried. "This is some strange freak of
imagination. You could not have done it."

"Do I look strange or wild?" Bessie asked, calmly. "Is there anything
in my manner to make you behave that my mind is unhinged?"

"No," Grace admitted. "But it seems so incredible; you look so pure
and good and innocent as you lie there, that I find it impossible to
associate you with crime."

"And yet we women can do great things when we are strung up to them,"
Bessie said. "There was Joan of Arc, for instance--look what that
simple village maiden was capable of. But I am wandering from the
point. Already I feel that my strength is failing me. Let me tell you
my story without further interruption."

Grace sat on the side of the bed and took the speaker's hand almost
caressingly in hers. She had always deemed it impossible that anyone
could stand beside a murderer without recoiling in disgust. And yet
here she was, with her heart full of sympathy for the speaker.

Bessie went on calmly. "I was not moved by any feelings of revenge,"
she said. "To a great extent it was my fault that Stephen Rice was
allowed an opportunity of placing you in such deadly peril. I could
have prevented that after I came to know how good you were, by the
utterance of two or three simple words, but I never dreamt that that
man would go so far. It never occurred to me that he would run the risk
of a prosecution for bigamy."

Grace fairly gasped; just for a moment she felt sick and faint, and
then she recovered herself with a violent effort.

"I see that you are utterly overcome and surprised," Bessie went
on. "Yes, that man was my husband, and we had been married for some
considerable time past. It was only when I found I had been grossly
deceived and I heard that Stephen Rice had gone through a form of
marriage with you that I made up my mind what to do! It became clear
to me that my duty was to save you from any suggestion of scandal
or evil-speaking. At the same time, with all his faults, I loved
Stephen Rice with a passion which was as strong as it was blind and
unreasoning. If I had spoken out the truth I should have sent him to
gaol for a term of years, and I could not bear to think of that. On
the other hand, if I kept my mouth closed I should have been doing you
an injury absolutely beyond despair. You can imagine the difficulty in
which I stood. I thought it over and over until my brain reeled and I
was fearful for my reason. I dared not delay; if my mind had given way
the damage beyond repair would have been permanent and terrible. For
this reason I came to Stephen Rice's house within a few hours of that
illegal ceremony. I came with my mind made up to tell you everything. I
purposely delayed till after dinner, and in the meantime that misguided
man had drunk himself into a state of madness. You will remember how
he sent the servants away, and how I went to get assistance to prevent
him from murdering you. I knew then, having had considerable experience
of Stephen Rice's drinking bouts, that you were safe for some time to
come. I had a little leisure in which to decide upon a plan of action.
I went back into Leverton and stayed part of the next day with the
Hunters, intending to come and see you towards evening. It so happened
that I was in my brother-in-law's surgery when my eye fell upon the
bottle of strychnine which gave me my inspiration. I took the bottle
and hid it in my pocket. It seemed to burn me as I walked towards
Stephen Rice's house."

The speaker paused a moment and struggled for breath. Grace would have
urged her to say no more, but it seemed to be kinder to let her go on
and finish her story.

"I had the phial in my hand," Bessie resumed in a faint tone. "I only
seemed to have one thing uppermost in my mind, and that was yourself
and the terrible danger in which you stood. You may believe me or
not when I say that I would have given up all hopes of salvation to
undo those few fateful seconds. But it was too late for that. What I
did next I do not know, except that I have a faint recollection of
dashing the phial with a feeling of horror from my hands and hearing
it tinkle on the gravel outside. I must have really been cooler and
more self-possessed than I imagined, for the next thing I remembered
was creeping on tiptoe across the hall and making my way through the
library window into the shrubbery. Once there I knew that I was safe
from observation, for I felt that not a soul had seen me entering or
leaving the house. My gipsy blood enabled me to know by instinct the
way to conceal myself in the woods on the way back to Leverton. I
reached Leverton in safety at length, in a state of mind that is better
imagined than described. From that moment I knew no peace or rest. I
tried what I could in the alleviations of the sufferings of others to
drown the recollection of the past. I took every risk; I was anxious to
catch the disease which is now killing me, and I had my wish.....I have
no desire to palliate my offence--only before I go I want to hear one
sympathetic voice speaking sorrowfully and pitifully; I want to hear
you say you forgive me for this awful thing."

"Oh, so far as I am concerned, you have all my forgiveness," Grace
cried. "It is not for me to judge."

Bessie smiled faintly; she pressed Grace's hand and closed her eyes.
She lay there absolutely still for a minute or two longer; there was a
long-drawn sigh, and then Grace knew that all was over. She watched the
still white face; she laid her hand upon the passionate, wayward heart
which had ceased to beat for ever. Then she crept quietly down the
stairs to the sitting-room where Hunter was looking moodily out of the
window, and informed him what had happened. He gave an unmistakable
sigh of relief.

"You must not think me callous or utterly hard-hearted," he said. "But
I assure you that this is all for the best. I presume that Bessie made
a confession to you. You need not hesitate to tell me what it is, for
the story is already known to me."

"She poisoned Stephen Rice," Grace said. "It seems that she and Stephen
Rice were married."

"It is only fair to my wife and myself to say that we have only known
that a short time," Hunter exclaimed, "and so poor Bessie poisoned her
husband out of feelings of revenge----"

"No, no," Grace cried. "It was done more for my sake than anything
else. But we need not dwell upon it, and so far as I am concerned the
story will never be mentioned. I shall make it a point of honor that my
relatives and friends are to say nothing of this. Why should the poor
girl's name be sullied?"

"That is very noble of you," Hunter said. "I am by no means a noble
man myself, but that does not prevent me appreciating that quality in
others. Don't you see for your own sake that the story must be told.
Poor Bessie is dead and gone now, and doubtless by this time she has
made her atonement. So far as I am concerned this thing shall be no
secret. So long as I have the power to speak everybody shall know that
Miss Grace Anstey was absolutely innocent, both in intent and deed."

Grace would have pleaded for her point, but she saw that Hunter was
absolutely firm, and, indeed, in the presence of death a discussion
would have been almost indecent. Grace allowed herself to be led away
by the nurse to seek the rest of which she was in such sore need. She
was feeling utterly worn out now that the reaction had come, and threw
herself at length upon her bed and slept as she had not slept for the
past week or two. It was a weary time that followed, a dark and gloomy
time, beginning with the funeral of Bessie Fenton, and followed by
three weeks in the desolate farmhouse before the doctor would permit
Grace or her companion to mingle with their fellow creatures. The time
came at length when Grace found herself once more dressed from head to
foot in clean, fresh clothing, and in a position to walk out of that
dreadful place and turn her back on it for ever.

It was a beautiful summer morning, with the heat tempered by a gentle
breeze, and Grace felt a lightness and buoyancy to which she had been
long a stranger. She crossed the fields with the firm, elastic step
of youth; she could have found it in her mind to sing aloud for the
great joy of being. It was strange how the troubles had slipped from
her shoulders, leaving her very little changed, and yet feeling better
and purer by contact with sorrow, which is no bad thing for all lofty
minds. Grace had elected to cross the fields alone; she wanted to
return to the old bank house just as if nothing had happened. Here were
the lawns and gardens the same as usual, the same gardener tending the
flowers, as Grace had seen him do a thousand times. The servants were
going about their household duties, and to Grace this indeed was home
again.

The meeting between father and daughter was a trying one. But Grace
would have none of her father's protestations of sorrow.

"Do not let the thing ever be mentioned between us again," she pleaded.
"It has been no bad thing for you, and I am sure it has been no bad
thing for me. The sad story which I have just finished telling you
must, I fear, become public property, seeing that Dr. Hunter insists
that all the circumstances shall come out. Now, if you are wise, you
will go back to the bank again just as if nothing had happened. I am
longing to get back the control of the household again, and to feel
that I can return to the old life once more."

Anstey would have pursued the subject, but Grace kissed him softly and
turned him out of the room. As he went he mentioned casually that he
rather expected to see Max Graham at dinner that evening. And, after
all, there was no occasion why Grace should not see her lover again.
There was no obstacle in the way now.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dinner was a thing of the past, and Anstey was smoking his cigar in
the library just in the old way. Outside Grace and Max were walking
in the moonlight. They paced up and down a long time before either of
them spoke. They had already discussed at length the strange happenings
of the past few weeks, until there was nothing more to be said on the
subject. Max paused at the end of the terrace, and drew Grace closely
to his side.

"This is going to make no difference," he said. "Now that the truth
is known, we have nothing but sympathy from all sides. In a few weeks
the whole thing will be forgotten, and we can take our way together as
we used to before the darkness came and the sorrow that threatened to
blight your life and mine."

"I think I am all the better," Grace said softly. She was smiling up
into the face of her lover, her hand resting carelessly on his hair.
"We were too happy and selfish, Max, too careless of the feelings of
others. Now it will be all different."

"You never were careless of the feelings of others," Max said fondly.
"You were always good and perfect in my eyes, and yet, since you came
home again, there is something in your face that seems to render you
more beautiful than ever you were. I don't know what it is, I cannot
describe it, but I can see it quite plainly."

"The fires of adversity," Grace smiled. "They are supposed to purify
one's soul."

"As if yours needed any purifying," Max cried. "As if you were not
always the best of girls. But you know that, you know as well as I can
tell you that I----"

Max said no more, his heart was too full for words. He bent and kissed
the girl upon the lips, and there was a long silence, a blissful
silence between them.



THE END.


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