Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership

 

Title: The Lonely Bride
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1303821h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Jun 2013
Most recent update: Jun 2013

This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy.

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE


The Lonely Bride

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

First published by Ward Lock & Co, London, 1907(?)
Seralised in:
The Chronicle, Adelaide, Australia, 28 Mar 1908, ff
The New Zealand Herald, serial, 27 Jun 1908, ff
The Evening News, Sydney, Australia, 5 Feb 1909, ff



TABLE OF CONTENTS



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."


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."


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.


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."


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."


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."


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?"


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?"


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?"


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!"


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.


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?"


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."


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.


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.


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."


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."


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.


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."


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."


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!"


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.


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.


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.


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."


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."


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."


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."


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.


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."


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."


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."


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."


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."


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."


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."


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.


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?"


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

This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia