a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: A Queen of the Stage Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304181h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jul 2013 Most recent update: Jul 2013 This eBook was produced 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
"A story full of mystery and of dramatic incident. It is wholesome, absorbing, and capably written." — from a review in The Liverpool Post.
Timidly, almost appealingly, a girl with pathetic blue eyes looked at a man opposite to her. They were a striking contrast; the girl so young and fair and innocent of the world, the man wearing an assumption of benevolence which was belied by the furtiveness of his eyes, and the sensual lips. Smooth were his words; but anybody who knew the world would have mistrusted Roger Carney instinctively. As to the rest, he was a theatrical agent in very poor repute, though Elsie Vane was ignorant of that when she wrote to him from the country in reply to a plausible advertisement. He spread out his hands and affected a look of sympathy.
"My dear young lady," he said. "I trust you will see that I am not to blame. As I wrote to you, I had succeeded in obtaining for you a part in a first-rate touring company. Judge of my surprise when I found that the manager was nothing but a barefaced swindler. These things will happen, you know, in the profession."
"Then you have nothing to offer me?" Elsie asked, with a sinking heart. "I expected to start at once. I am absolutely alone in London, and after paying my railway fare this morning have only a shilling left. If you will be so good as to return the money I paid to you in fees——"
Roger Carney smiled sadly. Many a poor girl knew that smile to her cost. He looked round the scantily-furnished office, and sighed in a manner that was quite pathetic.
"I am very sorry," he said, "but every penny of the money you sent me was expended in finding this opening for you. Up to now I have made nothing out of you at all. I am not of a greedy or grasping disposition, and did not expect to be recompensed until you had entered upon your engagement. There are a lot of low-class agents who live on their preliminary fees, but that has never been my method. Yours is simply a case of sheer misfortune——"
"We need not discuss that," Elsie said. Her courage was coming back, and she began to have more than a vague suspicion that she was dealing with a swindler. "When I wrote to you I explained my circumstances. I told you I was an orphan, without friends or money. You promised me a definite engagement on the stage at a fair salary, and on the strength of that promise I realised every penny I had and sent it to you. At the present moment one shilling lies between me and starvation, and I only know one man in London who is likely to help me. I must ask you to return the money you obtained from me."
The blue eyes were no longer pathetic and pleading, but bright with the light of resolution. Gradually Mr. Carney dropped his benevolent aspect. The thick sensual lips grew hard, and the watery eyes obstinate. He stood up in a threatening attitude.
"None of that," he said hoarsely. "Don't come here trying to bully me. I have done all I can for you, and it is no fault of mine that the show went bankrupt, so just take yourself off. You girls are all alike."
He pointed towards the door, but Elsie did not move. The last few moments had been a revelation to her. She no longer doubted that she had placed every penny of her worldly wealth in the hands of a common swindler. Dismal as the future was, she had no intention of leaving the office until she had wrung something from this pitiful rascal. What was she to do, where was she to go in this cruel city, where she was known to none? Well might she shrink from the contemplation of the days to come. But innocent as she was of the ways of the world, coming as she did from a quiet country home, she lacked neither courage or resolution. The hour was at hand when she would need both.
"You have robbed me," she said quietly, but firmly; "I see exactly how it is. You obtained no engagement for me, you never even tried to. You live on the ignorance and vanity of poor girls like me. If I went to the police I daresay you would produce some other villain who would swear you had obtained a post for me with his assistance. Oh, there are many ways of getting the best of one like me."
Carney grinned uncomfortably, quite by accident Elsie had guessed one of the common swindles pursued by the shady crew who make their money out of stage-struck men and women.
"You had better be off," he said. "You gain nothing by staying here. Little as you deserve any consideration——"
Whatever Carney would have added was cut short by the sudden opening of the office door and the appearance of a shock-headed youth, who seemed to be in a state of considerable agitation.
"Clear out!" he cried excitedly. "They're after you. They're coming up the stairs."
The door closed again, and the shock-headed youth vanished. The change on the appearance of Mr. Carney was ludicrous. His great fat face quivered in jelly-like fashion, and his eyes were filled with terror. He glanced helplessly at the door and shook his head, as if giving up all hope of escape in that direction. The 'offices' of Carney and Company consisted of the shabby room in which the interview was taking place, so that there was no avenue of escape by means of a second apartment.
Carney appealed piteously to Elsie.
"Well, if this isn't cruel luck," he protested. "One day more and I should have been safe, and it isn't altogether for myself either. I have treated you badly, and I don't mind admitting it, but if you will help me now you won't find me ungrateful in the future. They're after me——"
"I suppose you mean the police," Elsie said coldly.
"That's it. Never mind what for, and me with a fortune in my grasp! It is too cruel, but there is just a chance that if I hide beneath my desk nobody can see me, unless you give me away. You are a good, kind-hearted girl, I know. I can tell that from your face. Don't say anything."
Steps were fast approaching, and Carney had only time to slip behind the imposing-looking desk and bestow his bulky figure under the well. The whole thing had been so swift and unexpected that Elsie had no time to think. In the space of a few minutes all her pleasant dreams of a brilliant stage future had been dissipated. In the last few moments she had found herself face to face with poverty, and now she was calmly asked to shield the mean scoundrel who had brought it all about from the stern grip of the law. All these things passed through her mind in a flash, between the moment that Carney had concealed himself and the opening of the office door. An alert-looking man walked in and gazed about him. Probably he was re-assured by Elsie's appearance, for he asked her politely if Mr. Carney was anywhere about the premises.
"I am waiting for him," Elsie said coldly.
It was perhaps a quixotic thing to do, especially for a miserable creature like Carney; but the words were spoken, and, strange as it may seem, Elsie did not regret them. Outwardly she was cool, but her heart was beating fast and painfully. She tried to think she had told no lie, but she was grateful all the same when the intruder turned to a second man standing in the doorway, and muttered that the bird had flown. Then there was an echo of retreating footsteps, and Carney crept from the shelter of the desk, his pasty face a ghastly green.
"You did that uncommonly well," he gasped. "No doubt about it, you've the makings of a fine actress. That chap was completely taken in by your innocent face and pathetic blue eyes."
"How dare you speak to me like that?" Elsie cried, quivering with anger. "Why did I do it? Why did I humiliate myself for a scoundrel like you? Perhaps it was because my dear father always taught me that even the most abandoned wretch was an object of pity. I ought to have told the truth, I ought to have let the police take you. It would, at any rate, have been the means of preventing other poor girls from being placed in the desperate position in which I stand at present. Why are such men allowed to live?"
The burning words poured from Elsie's lips in a passionate stream. She had forgotten herself and her surroundings. To all intents and purposes the dingy offices ceased to exist. Surprised by a timid touch on her arm, she turned and saw another girl in the room. She was a slight, pretty creature, dainty and refined-looking, though her whole aspect was spoilt by the tawdry and cheap smartness of her attire.
"What were you saying to my father?" the girl asked.
"My daughter Dora," Carney stammered. "This, my dear, is Miss Elsie Vane, a lady who has been so unfortunate as to take an engagement through me in the 'Long Arm' Company."
"You need not go into that," Elsie said coldly. She looked at the girl with a smile on her face. "I do not know whether you are aware of your father's methods——"
"Oh yes, yes," the girl cried. "I heard all you said. Please do not humiliate me by going over it again. Father, this young lady must have her money back."
"I haven't got it," Carney protested. "On my word of honor as a gentleman, I haven't ten shillings in the blessed world. And that rascal Perks has put the police on my track. If he had waited until to-morrow I could have paid him every penny I owed him, and a handsome commission for himself besides. You must get me out of this, Dora. Get me out of the way till it is safe to show my face again."
"But what about Miss Vane?" the girl asked. "Have you no consideration for her? Oh, my dear young lady, if you only knew what I suffered when I heard how you have been treated, but there is no time to be lost. I came to warn my father and bring him some disguise, trusting to luck that the police would not know who I am."
With a sigh of relief Carney grabbed eagerly at the bag which his daughter was carrying. Possibly he was not unacquainted with the stage himself, for a few moments' working with the contents of the bag sufficed to transform him altogether. He was no longer a tall, clean-shaven being, but had a thick crop of brown hair and a neatly-trimmed moustache and beard. A pair of spectacles and a clerical band and coat and vest converted him to a middle-aged parson of benevolent aspect. His whole manner seemed to change with his disguise, so that even Elsie could not but admire his make-up.
"I think that will do," Carney said complacently as he surveyed himself in a hand mirror. "You had better step out and see that the coast is clear."
"That is all very well," Elsie said, "but what is to become of me? You have forgotten that you owe me some gratitude for the part I played."
"You were a good girl," Carney said huskily, "and I won't forget you. But I can't spare a sou. I don't know if Dora could find you a bed——"
"No, no," Elsie cried hastily. "I could not think of intruding in this fashion. Perhaps the one friend I know in London may help me."
Somewhat to Elsie's surprise, Dora made no suggestion of assistance. She had seated herself at the desk, and appeared to be writing on a card, which she held in her hand as she crossed to the door and looked down the corridor.
"There is no one about," she said eagerly. "You had better go while you have a chance, father. I will follow you as far as the street. I shall be anxious to know that you have succeeded in getting away."
As the girl spoke she turned upon Elsie an imploring glance, which the latter failed to interpret. Dora seemed to be making some kind of a signal, but, what it was intended to convey, Elsie had not the slightest idea. She stood lingering, not knowing what to do or where to go; but, as the bulky figure of Carney vanished, Dora threw the card at her. Mechanically Elsie picked it up and read the mysterious words——
"Be brave and patient. If your friend fails you, be under the portico of the Regency Theatre to-night."
For some moments Elsie stood in the dingy office turning the card over in her fingers, wondering what it could mean. Greatly as she had mistrusted Carney, she did not entertain the same feelings towards Dora. It seemed impossible the young and timid girl, with the frank, innocent face, could be the daughter of the sorry blackguard who made a living by robbing ignorant girls with a fancy for the stage. Elsie would have been puzzled to explain why she herself had been lured in that direction. The only child of a scholarly country parson, she had seen nothing of the world, and all her ideas of the Theatre had been drawn from novels which had presented the pleasant side of the picture. Had Elsie realised half the perils and privations of the stage, she would have shrunk appalled from the prospect. As it was, she had had her lesson. She was quite cured now. She wished to have nothing further to do with her old ambition.
Meanwhile, she was alone in London, and her sole means of subsistence lay within the narrow limits of the solitary shilling which she had in her purse. She had come, fully believing that she was to start at once on a provincial tour, when everything would be found for her, and every provision made for her comfort. She had left her wardrobe at Paddington Station, where she had intended to take it up before beginning her tour in the West. And here she was stranded, a pretty, innocent girl, alone in the cruelest city in the world for anyone who lacks friends.
It was fortunate she knew the address of her father's old acquaintance in the city of London. She had never seen Mr. Jeffries, but she knew he had been at school and college with her father, and had heard the latter speak of him as a man doing a large business as a solicitor. When in the street, Elsie summoned up courage to ask the way of a policeman, and was pleased to find she had no great distance to walk. With beating heart she inquired for Mr. Jeffries. The clerk was civil, but had a piece of information to impart which brought the tears to Elsie's eyes.
"I am sorry you can't see Mr. Jeffries, miss," he said. "He is out of town. If you are here on business connected with the firm, there are other gentlemen——"
"Oh, my business is quite private," Elsie said. "Mr. Jeffries was an old friend of my father's, and I wanted his advice."
"That is unfortunate," the clerk said. "Mr. Jeffries is on the Continent. He hasn't been well lately, and we don't expect him back for a month. Will you not see one of the partners."
Elsie shook her head. She had no words for the moment. It was all she could do to keep from breaking down. She was feeling faint from want of food, for it was nearly two o'clock, and she had had nothing since her early breakfast, which she had been too excited to eat. Desperate as her situation was, she could not find it in her heart to unbosom herself to strangers. She contrived to find her voice at last.
"It is very good of you," she said, "but I don't think I will trouble the other gentlemen. I dare say I can call upon Mr. Jeffries another time. I hope he will soon be better."
Elsie drifted out of the office, feeling she had broken the last link between herself and the past. Few well-educated, well-nurtured girls had fewer friends than she. Her mother had died years before, leaving her to be her father's only companion, in a small country village where congenial society was scarce. The failure of one or two concerns in which Mr. Vane had invested his money had so preyed upon his health that he died, leaving Elsie practically penniless when his debts had been paid. When she left home that morning there was not a single friend to bid her good-bye. So far as she knew, she had no living relations in England; and here she was, young and strong and active, with nothing but a slender wardrobe and one shilling in her purse.
Come what may, she must have something to eat. She wanted to sit down and rest herself, and think the situation over. Save for one happy fortnight three years before, she had never been in London, and the crowds of people dismayed her. She would not have been afraid to walk through the most desolate country place at midnight but in these thronged streets she felt abashed and frightened. It seemed dreadful to stand there with that stream of humanity flowing by, and not be able recognise one of that sea of faces. More by instinct than anything else, Elsie drifted into a tea shop and laid out sixpence of her money to the best advantage. She was pleased to find she could have a fresh egg and bread and butter and tea for the limited sum of sixpence. She was decidedly the better for her meal, frugal though it was. Her natural courage rose, and she felt able to face the situation. The healthy life she had led in the past had given her a perfect nerve and a magnificent constitution.
Surely there must be some place where girls situated as she was could find food and lodging for a day or two. If only these could be obtained, she had nothing to fear. She had been thoroughly trained to look after a house, and her learned father had educated her far beyond the ordinary standard.
Elsie wandered until she came at length to the Park, where she sat down and watched the children play. She resolved not to think of what was likely to happen later. She could not let her mind dwell upon the problem of her night's lodging. She would wait on the off chance of something turning up, and, if necessary in the last resort, would confide her story to a policeman, and ask her way to the nearest station. Then came a glimmer of hope as she remembered the card in her pocket. She could not help feeling that Dora Carney would prove her friend. If the appointment outside the Regency Theatre failed, then she could put her other plan into execution.
A smart nursemaid with two little children came to the seat, and one of the bairns asked for a knife to mend his boat. Elsie complied eagerly. She even mended the boat to the child's gratification. Elsie loved children, and here, too, was a means of escaping from her sad thoughts. For an hour or more she sat chatting to the children and their nurse, and watching the stream of glittering carriages flash by. The nurse was Cockney to her finger tips. She seemed to know a great many of the fashionable folk by sight, so that to Elsie the conversation was really entertaining. Presently there passed by a landau in which an elegantly dressed lady was seated alone. She was young, and apparently surrounded with all that wealth could bestow. There was something in her face that appealed to Elsie strongly. It was a beautiful face, clear-cut and pathetic, with dark, melancholy eyes, and Elsie thought the owner of such a face must be capable of rising to the loftiest heights both of courage and self-sacrifice.
"Do you know who she is?" she asked the nursemaid.
"Who doesn't miss?" the other replied. "That is Vera Barrington, the great actress. I suppose you have heard of her."
Elsie nodded. Even in the remote village where she came from, the name of Vera Barrington was known. She was young, not more than four and twenty, and yet had already arrived at the very zenith of her profession. Nothing appeared to come amiss to the woman who only three years before had made a hit at one of the minor music halls. She had her chance in a musical comedy, in which she had proved a brilliant success. Thence she had gone straight into the realms of tragedy, when her acting had been a perfect revelation to the critics. There was a slight feeling of envy in Elsie's heart as her eyes followed the figure in the retreating carriage.
"Of course, I have heard of Miss Barrington," she said. "Is she married? I understand there is something romantic about her."
"Nobody knows, miss," the nursemaid answered. "I am told she keeps herself quite to herself. She has a beautiful house in Regent's Park, but nobody ever goes there. Even in the theatre, they say she is standoffish. And now I must be going. Come along, children. Say good-bye to the lady first."
Elsie did not part with the little ones without a real sense of reluctance. The Park had suddenly become very lonely, and the stream of humanity in the streets would be preferable to this. So the hours drifted on till night fell, and the houses were picked out with points of flame. It was nearly eight o'clock before Elsie went back to the shop where she had had the previous meal. When her hunger was satisfied her purse was empty. Thanks to her country training and regular hours, however, Elsie was not utterly tired and worn out. Besides, she was buoyed up by the hope that something would come of the assignation outside the Regency Theatre. It was a fine night so that the anxieties of the situation were not too strongly marked. For nearly three hours Elsie walked briskly along, striving to assume the air of one who has some definite object in view.
Her heart beat faster and her pulse quickened as the hour of eleven drew near. She came at length to the portico of the Regency Theatre, and stood there waiting. One or two men in evening dress inside the vestibule gazed at her admiringly, but the girl's proud, unconscious face, and assured manner checked all attempts of familiarity. She turned to look at the large frame of photographs hanging in the doorway, and saw to her surprise that the figure in the centre was that of Vera Barrington. It struck Elsie as strange that she should be keeping an appointment outside the very theatre where the brilliant actress was engaged. A moment later a tall, graceful figure flitted through the entrance hall towards a brougham standing by the pavement. Elsie caught a glimpse of a pale, pathetic face, and, with a thrill, recognised that it was the tragedienne herself.
"She finishes early," Elsie heard one man say to another. "Beautiful woman, isn't she, but cold as ice."
The brougham drove away, and presently there was a sound of music within the theatre and the distant notes of the National Anthem. Evidently the performance was over, and almost immediately crowds of people in evening dress thronged the vestibule. Outside a couple of commissionaires were bawling hoarsely for carriages and the shrill sound of cab whistles filled the air. The clock had struck eleven, and with some dismay Elsie felt the appointment would not be kept. As she stood uncertain what to do, her eye fell upon the jaunty form of a little messenger-boy, who started forward as he met her glance.
"Miss Vane?" he said. "If so, I have a letter for you."
Elsie grabbed at the envelope and tore it open. Inside was a short message.
"Could not come," it said. "Go at once to 12 Regent Terrace and ask to see the mistress of the house. Go boldly without fear. Your presence is anxiously awaited."
Elsie stood for a moment oblivious to her surroundings, her whole attention fixed upon the letter in her hand. Here was a development which she had not expected. Not till now had she realised how much she had counted on the hope of seeing Dora Carney again. Nor could she be absolutely sure that the letter had come from the dramatic agent's daughter. Elsie knew little of the world, but, like most people who live in country places, she had read a daily paper carefully, and some weird stories came into her mind. Was this some subtle plot to lure her into a situation fraught with danger and difficulties?
Then Elsie's common sense came to her rescue, and she put the disturbing thought aside. The letter must be from Dora Carney. The girl had been prevented from keeping her appointment, and the appearance of the messenger-boy was the natural sequel. Doubtless Elsie had been described to the lad, and his sharp wits had been answerable for the rest. Elsie would have asked a question or two, but the boy had already vanished.
To go or not to go, that was the question. The letter in Elsie's hand was probably a passport to a comfortable lodging with respectable people, and perhaps the offer of regular employment. It was getting late and there was only one cruel alternative to the somewhat peremptory letter. If Elsie decided to have no more to do with it, she would have to carry out her original programme and throw herself on the mercy of the police.
And supposing they doubted her word? Supposing they regarded her as an impostor? In that case Elsie wondered if they could send her to prison. She had heard of country magistrates doing that kind of thing, when a man came before them charged with having no visible means of support; and it was an absolute fact that Elsie had no way of getting a living. There was nothing for it but to take her courage in both hands and boldly face the future. When this resolution was come to Elsie felt the better for it. A healthy craving for food gripped her. For one so vigorous, the amount she had eaten during the day was barely enough to sustain strength. She drifted down the Strand looking for some policeman so put her in the way of reaching 12 Regent Terrace. She wondered what all these happy, well-dressed people pouring out of the theatres would think if they heard her story.
To Elsie's alarm she found she had a considerable distance to travel. By the time she reached Marylebone-road her limbs were dragging painfully and her breath was coming fast, and with a feeling of thankfulness Elsie reached her destination. This was the place right enough. A row of magnificent houses gleaming white in the rays of the electric light. So far as Elsie could see, No. 12 was somewhat more important than its neighbours. The house seemed to be brilliantly lighted and a flight of marble steps led to the front door. For a moment the girl hesitated; then she laid a shaky hand on the electric bell and heard the ripple far below. There could be no drawing back now.
A footman in neat livery threw open the door and politely waited for Elsie to speak. She was not in the least surprised to notice that the servant was a negro. The circumstance seemed to fit in with her strange adventure.
"I have come here by appointment," Elsie said. "I—I do not know the name of the lady of the house, but I have a letter here which will explain everything to her."
"That is all right madame," the negro said, speaking perfect English. "Will you be good enough to come this way?"
Elsie's nervousness had vanished, and she felt sure there was no danger ahead. It was absurd to identify a house like this with anything in the way of crime or vulgar intrigue. Tired as she was and utterly exhausted, Elsie could not help noting the perfect appointments of the house. On more than one occasion in her father's time she had dined at the castle of the Duke of Sidmouth, one of the show places in her part of the country, but she had seen nothing finer than the suite of rooms through which she was now being conducted.
She came at length to a small apartment at once refined and homelike; a fire of logs and coals was blazing on the hearth. The warmth was so grateful to Elsie that she dropped into an arm-chair and closed her eyes. It was only for a moment that the fit of fatigue held her, then she realised that the negro was addressing her in tones of deference.
"I was directed to bring you here," he said. "It is not long before my—my—the owner of the house will see you. Meanwhile, you will permit me to offer you refreshment."
The negro indicated a table which Elsie had not previously noticed. She saw that a supper for one had been laid out, a dainty supper, perfectly served, and a gold-necked bottle stood by the side of the plate. Without waiting to be told, the servant opened the champagne, and gravely tendered Elsie a glass.
"Presently," she said. "After I have eaten something."
The servant pulled up a chair and vanished. Elsie was not sorry to be alone. She was too wolfishly hungry to care about being watched. Then gradually the feeling of hunger passed away, and she raised the glass to her lips and swallowed the champagne, which coursed through her veins like liquid fire, and braced her for anything that was likely to happen.
The house was strangely silent, but Elsie put that down to the thickness of the carpets on the floors. By and by she heard a sound of voices in angry altercation. One was the voice of a woman, pure and sweet, the other that of a man who spoke in commanding accents. While Elsie was still wondering, the door opened and a woman came in.
She was tall and dark, and gave Elsie the singular idea that she looked older than her years. At the same time she was haunted by the fancy that she had seen this beautiful, well-dressed woman before. Then it suddenly burst upon her, and she gave a cry of surprise and pleasure.
"I see you know me," the lady said with a smile.
"Not actually till this afternoon," Elsie responded, "and then only by a kind of accident. I happened to be in the Park, and someone pointed you out to me as Miss Vera Barrington. It is remarkable that I should have the privilege of making your acquaintance so soon afterwards."
Elsie spoke simply and naturally, and was under the impression that the great actress was in some way pleased with her. At any rate, the woman smiled and held out her hand.
"We are all the sport of circumstance," she said. "I dare say you envy me, and imagine that if we could change places you would be the happiest girl in the world."
"I think I should be," Elsie ventured to say.
"Ah, yes; I have been told that before. My child, I like you. I have taken a fancy to your face. I am certain that you are pure and good and innocent, and that you have courage and resolution as well. I want you to help me."
"Do you need help from anybody?" Elsie asked.
"Ay, indeed I do. A word in your ear. I am the most miserable woman on the face of this earth to-day."
The words came with a hissing whisper, with an electric thrill behind them, and for an instant the speaker's face changed to an expression of the most unutterable sadness.
"You have been very kind to me," Elsie stammered, "and I am very, very grateful. If there is anything I can do for you, pray command me, and I will do it gladly. When I come to reflect upon where I might have been at this moment—but of course, you know nothing of my story."
Vera Barrington indicated an arm-chair by the fire.
"Let us sit down and talk," she said. "I have managed to avert the danger for the time being. You will be astonished to hear that I know more of your story than you imagine. You are a friendless girl, and have come from the provinces with an idea of making a name for yourself on the stage. That is one of the saddest fates that ever could befall a woman. The public only know of the adulation and flattery, of the meretricious dazzle of the life behind the footlights. Ah, my dear child, I could show you another vision. I will show you another prospect if necessity arises. But we need not go into that now. Like many a girl before you and many a girl to come after you, you fell a prey to the class of rogue that battens upon innocent ambitions like yours. Roger Carney robbed you of every penny, and then put you out with an excuse that the company in which he had procured you an engagement had broken down. That story is told again and again to no end of victims, who believe it implicitly. When you left Carney's office this morning you were penniless and without friends, save one."
"I can guess who that one friend was," Elsie said. "I am glad my instinct did not play me false. You are speaking of Carney's daughter Dora. I feel sure she is a good girl."
"One of the best," Miss Barrington said with feeling, "and I can remember the time, too, when Roger Carney was an upright and honorable man, low as he has now fallen in the social scale. You would not take him to be a man who once gave promise of a distinguished career in the army."
"Indeed, I should not," Elsie murmured.
"I am only telling you facts," the actress went on. "But for your courage and good nature this morning, Roger Carney would by this time have found himself in gaol. One of his victims happened to be acquainted with a solicitor, who set the law in motion. It was very fortunate that Dora Carney happened to be present or you would not be seated here now. She is a good girl, and would have kept her promise to you but for an accident. Still, you are here, and you may consider yourself amongst friends. It will be no fault of ours if you are ever in need again. At the same time, I warn you that your courage will be put to the test. Do you think you could undertake a mission involving real risk, in which you must ask no questions and do exactly as you are told?"
Vera Barrington's manner had changed abruptly. There was something cold and almost stern in her manner of speaking.
"I think so," Elsie said, after a short pause. "As you are aware, I am friendless and without means. I am ready to earn an honest and honorable living."
"Make your mind easy on that score," Vera Barrington rejoined. "I would never ask you to do anything degrading. You have seen something of this house. You know something of my career. People envy me my success and the good fortune it has brought me, but would they do so if they knew the story of my life? I think not. In the course of your reading, did you ever come across that extraordinary poem of Tom Hood's called 'The Haunted House'?"
"I know it," Elsie said. "It is weird and fascinating; but you don't mean to tell me——"
"Indeed, I do," the actress said in a hoarse whisper. "This house is haunted by disgrace and crime. You would not think it, but the fact remains. The shadow has spoilt my life; it is making me old before my time, and unless I can find some means to lift it, the worry must go on to its certain end. Circumstances have inspired me with some hope, and when Dora Carney told me your story this afternoon, I began to see a way whereby you could be useful to me, and in return you shall never complain of my ingratitude."
"I will do anything you like," Elsie said. "If you will only confide in me, and let me know what you want."
Vera Barrington appeared as if about to speak then she checked herself, and rose in a listening attitude. From somewhere overhead came a rumbling sound, followed by loud voices and a heavy fall as if a blow had been struck. With the celerity of some graceful animal, Vera Barrington sprang across the room and switched off the electric light. Then she reached over and grasped Elsie by the arm with a grip that was almost painful.
"Come away at once," she whispered. "The trouble has broken out afresh. I would give five years of my life to prevent your presence in the house becoming known. Do not stop to ask any questions, but come at once."
Elsie made no demur. She followed up a flight of stairs into a bedroom that was all in darkness. With a whisper to her to keep up her courage, Vera Barrington closed the door and locked it on the outside, leaving Elsie to her reflections.
As far as Elsie could make out the bedroom was as superbly furnished as the rest of the house. A ragged, waning moon behind the bank of clouds served presently to pick out various objects. It was possible to discern objects here and there, which indicated that the room was occupied by a woman. The dressing-table was littered with silver-mounted trifles, and a great wardrobe with open doors revealed many toilettes. In a spirit of natural curiosity Elsie ranged round the room, trying to keep her courage in hand, and succeeding more or less indifferently. She would have been grateful for a light, but though she could see a score of electric fittings she did not dare to try the experiment. Some fascination drew her towards the bed, and to her surprise she saw that the counterpane was literally smothered with the most beautiful flowers.
They were all white, and when Elsie came to look at them she saw that they were not scattered about heedlessly, but arranged artistically and systematically. A wreath of lilies particularly aroused Elsie's admiration, and she stooped to smell them.
A moment later and she started back with a suppressed cry, for in the middle of the wreath was a white, cold face, still in death. It was not a repulsive sight, for the face was young and beautiful, and the marble forehead was half hidden under a veil of gleaming hair. Elsie stood fascinated, almost crazed with fear, and struggling to keep back the scream of hysterical laughter that was forcing itself to her lips. She did not realise that someone was shaking her by the shoulders vigorously. Indeed, it was not until the person behind her pinched her arm savagely that she came to herself. She turned to find herself face to face with Dora Carney. The latter's face was white as her own; her eyes were filled with tears, and she spoke with difficulty.
"Ah, I see I am only just in time," she said. "How thoughtless, how reckless of Vera to bring you here! I suppose the danger broke out suddenly, and she did not know what to do."
"I am glad you came," Elsie replied. "Another moment and I should have screamed aloud. But, tell me, how did you get here?"
Dora explained that she entered by means of a dressing-room, which opened out on the main corridor on the staircase.
"I could not meet you as I promised," she said. "I had a nasty fall, and was quite stupid all afternoon, but if you will come this way I will take you to my room, where you will be safe."
"Do you live here?" Elsie asked.
"Yes and no," was the strange response. "But I cannot go into that now, it will take too long. All in good time you shall learn the sad story of myself and the brilliant unhappy creature who is mistress of this house. I believe it lies in your hands to save us, Elsie. I hope you won't mind me calling you Elsie, but you are so good and kind——"
"I shall be very glad," Elsie replied. "I am only too thankful to think that I have fallen amongst friends, and am ready to do anything to repay their goodness. I am ashamed of my timidity. But when I looked down and saw that dead face——"
"We will not talk about that," Dora said, with a shudder. "It is part of the mystery and intrigue, which poison the happiness of this house. But come, where we can be more comfortable, and where I can tell you as much as you ought to know."
On the opposite side of the corridor Elsie found herself in a comfortable room where a fire was blazing. She noticed that Dora took the precaution to lock the door.
"I have not yet thanked you for your kindness this morning," the girl said. "But for your presence of mind, I tremble to think what would have become of my unhappy father. He spoke the truth when he said he had no money for you. If he had had means I should have compelled him to refund every penny."
"Perhaps it is as well as it is," Elsie smiled. "In that case I should have gone my way and we should have seen no more of each other. By this time I should have been in some lonely room, worrying myself as to the future. It must be awful for a girl to be alone in London. Now I am sure I have found two good friends, and I am quite looking forward to the adventure before me."
"I envy your courage," Dora said. "I envied it this morning. I must tell you something about my father, greatly as the subject pains me. Not so many years ago he was spoken of as one of the most promising officers in the Service. It was after my mother died that things began to go wrong. We found ourselves in need of money. I suppose it must be some strange defect in my father's character, for after he took the first downward step, he never stopped. It was only by the influence or a distinguished general officer that a terrible scandal was averted. For a long time after that we drifted from one obscure foreign town to another, living in a way that I blush to think of. My father had always been fond of theatricals, and so learnt a great deal about the inner life of the professional. That is how he became an agent. But, mind you, my father is a man of genuine if misdirected ability, and when he told you that he was on the verge of making his fortune he spoke the literal truth. I should have liked to explain everything to you then, but, unfortunately, there was no time. When I saw the resourceful manner in which you behaved I thought of Vera Barrington and her trouble, and it occurred to me that you were the very girl she requires. You have an ambition for the stage, and though you have made but an indifferent start, you will have an opportunity now of playing a part the like of which has never yet been presented to an audience."
"You rouse my curiosity," Elsie said.
"I have perhaps gone a little too far, seeing that I cannot gratify your natural desire to know everything. The explanation must come from Vera herself."
At that moment there came a gentle tapping at the door, and Dora turned the key in the lock. Vera Barrington came into the room. It seemed to Elsie that her face lighted up with a look of relief when she saw that her visitor was safe.
"I owe you a thousand pardons," she said. "I ought never to have put you into that bedroom, but the danger was so close that I had no alternative. Possibly you did not discover——"
"Indeed she did," Dora cried. "Imagine what a shock it was, especially after the trying ordeal poor Elsie has gone through to-day. I found her bending over the bed with her face as white and ghastly as—as——"
"Oh, I know," Vera whispered. "Few women could have endured a trial like that without screaming for assistance."
"I should have screamed in another second," Elsie confessed, "only Dora came in and shook my scattered wits together."
"I can hardly forgive myself," the actress said, "but no great harm has been done, and the danger is past, for the present, at any rate. Now, Elsie, will you kindly come this way? I hope you are feeling strong and well, for there is much to do before morning."
Elsie followed, asking no further questions in the meantime. She came at last to a large room on the ground floor, which appeared to be the library. Standing before the fire was one of the handsomest men Elsie had ever seen. His tall, well-set-up figure was all the more emphasised by reason of the mess uniform he was wearing. He seemed to be one mass of scarlet and white and gold lace. As he moved his spurs jingled. As far as Elsie could judge, he was a man who held a high command in one of the crack cavalry regiments. In age he appeared to be some sixty years, though there was not a grey hair on his head or in his long black moustache. Directly he spoke Elsie recognised the voice of the man whose tones she had caught almost as soon as she had come into the house.
"So this is the young lady," he said. "Let me have a good look at her. Yes, on the whole, I should say she will do very well indeed."
"This is General George Rashleigh," Vera explained. "You must not be afraid of him. He is a very terrible-looking person, and supposed to be the strictest martinet in the army. He has to take all these precautions to hide his kindness of heart or he would be terribly imposed upon."
The General smiled, then he turned and addressed a few kind words to Elsie. She felt that he was a man who would be a real friend, and yet who, at the same time, could be an equally determined enemy. He flashed a significant glance at Vera Barrington, and nodded as if he were quite satisfied.
"You had better get along," he said. "There is no time to waste. I suppose you have not explained to Miss Vane what she has to do. I am certain she will carry out her task with courage and tact and resolution."
The speech was a dismissal, or so Elsie deemed it. Vera Barrington put her hand through her arm and led her up the stairs to one of the bedrooms. It was brilliantly lighted, and contained every appointment necessary for a fashionable woman's toilet. The actress smiled, but looked restless and uneasy.
"We will dispense with a maid," she said. "Indeed, her presence would be a source of danger. Now, if you will undress and put on some of those things, I will explain in a few words what I want you to do."
"How delightful!" Elsie exclaimed. "I have never seen such beautiful things before. I only hope they will fit me."
"I have not much doubt about that. We had to get everything in a hurry, and guessed your measurements from Dora's description of you. Imagine you are going to a dance."
It was impossible to resist the beauty of the things, and Elsie fell in with the humor of the situation. At the end of half an hour she stood smiling softly at herself in the long cheval glass, completely attired except as to her dress, which lay a glittering, shining heap on the bed. Vera Barrington's deft fingers had been busily employed with needle and thread, so that by the time Elsie was ready to don it there was nothing wrong or out of place to mar the harmony.
"Now for the crowning touch," Vera said, in a voice that shook a little. "There, I declare the whole thing fits as if it had been made for you. Really, you look most charming."
Elsie drew a long breath of delight as she turned to the glass once more. The girl thought she might have been a bride being arrayed for her wedding morning. As she stood there, Vera came behind her and dexterously cast a long, sweeping veil over her head. Before Elsie could expostulate, the veil was fastened with a couple of diamond pins and the whole edifice crowned with a tangle of orange blossoms. Elsie's sudden cry was almost one of dismay.
"A bride?" she faltered. "Actually, I am a bride. Tell me, do tell me what this masquerade means."
Vera held her hand to her side as if in pain.
Elsie waited patiently for Vera to speak. Up to now the latter had been calm and collected, but at this point she appeared to be fighting hard against some overpowering emotion.
"Won't you tell me what it is?" Elsie asked. "Please do not be afraid. You know I will do anything for you, so long as I am not asked to stoop to deceit. Why have you dressed me up like this at this hour of the night?"
"Perhaps I had better begin at the beginning," Vera replied. "I saw you were impressed with the personality of General Rashleigh. You thought him an exceedingly fine man, didn't you?"
Elsie admitted that she did.
"He was just as favorably taken with you," Vera went on, "and, indeed, you have come to us like an angel unawares. I have been searching everywhere for a girl, of character—brave, resolute, well-educated, and good-looking. When Dora Carney told me of what had happened at her father's office I felt sure I had found the woman I required. I am going to take you into our secrets, because I believe you can be trusted. In the first place, let me tell you that General Rashleigh is my father. Perhaps you noticed the likeness between us?"
"Now you mention it," Elsie said, "I recognise it."
"You may be surprised to hear," Vera resumed, "that until a few months ago I had no idea I had a father alive. In fact, I had no idea what my real name was. From my present mode of life you will hardly guess that until my twenty-first birthday, I was brought up in the most puritanical fashion by a narrow-minded aunt who thought all pleasure sinful. It is almost impossible to describe how dull and monotonous my life was. Though she professed to be an exceedingly religious woman, my aunt hated me for some reason or other, and I was only too glad to escape from her house. I ran away and drifted on to the stage. After my success I became acquainted with General Rashleigh, who professed to see in me a likeness to his late wife. One question led to another, and on investigation it came out that the General was my father. It appeared that my mother was a very passionate and headstrong woman, and that after I was born she disappeared from home, taking me with her. My father advertised for her in vain; he never succeeded in discovering the quiet country hiding-place where my mother had sought refuge. You can imagine how interested I was to learn all this. When I met my father he was nearly on the verge of ruin in consequence of some rash speculations, and my brother has had to abandon his career in the army and go into an office in the city. All these things have happened during the past twelve months. As soon as I could, I freed my father from his difficulties, and tried to induce him to come here to live. That he would not hear of. But all seemed going happily till a few weeks ago, when my brother got into fearful trouble, and to make a long story short, was forced to flee the country lest he should fall into the hands of the police. It was a shocking business, and so complicated that I do not know the ins and outs of it. It is such a sad thing, for my brother is a dear, good fellow, and almost as handsome as his father, which is saying a great deal."
"Is he safe now?" Elsie asked.
"Far from it. And this brings me to the point. The pursuit is so hot that Gerald has been forced to come home again, and hide himself in this house, where he is at the present moment. I am almost certain the police have a clue to his retreat, and that is why you are here to-night."
"Indeed," Elsie exclaimed. "What can I do?"
"I think you can do everything we need," Vera said. "Our great idea is to get Gerald out of the house. I shall know no peace till that is accomplished. Roger Carney is blackmailing me on the strength of his knowledge. Of course you do not know that Carney is a relation of mine. He is my mother's only brother. There is another and still more terrible danger, but that I need not allude to just now."
"As you please," Elsie murmured.
"Now, to put it briefly, this is my scheme. You are an actress-friend, and come here this evening to induce me to accompany you to a fancy-dress ball at Covent Garden. It is your idea to go in the character of a bride, because I saw my way to fitting you out in that character without unnecessary trouble. Of course, I am not going with you to the dance, but you will take your maid with you. As the house is being watched, no suspicion will be excited by the sight of a young lady in fancy dress accompanied by her maid. Do you understand?"
Elsie's eyes sparkled; she was beginning to enter into the spirit of the adventure.
"I follow you perfectly," she cried. "My maid will be your brother."
"Quite right," Vera said approvingly. "That is the plan exactly. I have the tickets for the dance, and must leave you to get through the next two or three hours as best you can. I know it will be a trying time for you."
Elsie recognised that, too. She was feeling nervous and excited—to be alone, as it were, amongst a thousand people, was something she looked forward to with dread. Never in her life had she been to a dance, much less a public ball of this description.
"I'll do my best," she said. "I suppose I am to come back and report myself?"
"Precisely. My brother will see you into the ballroom, then he will take a cab and proceed to a place of safety. You need not remain more than a couple of hours; but you would like to see my poor brother?"
Before Elsie could reply there was a noise downstairs which followed swiftly on a banging at the front door and an angry voice was heard in altercation. Elsie glanced at her companion as if mutely asking for an explanation. She saw that Vera Barrington had turned white to the lips, and that her whole form was quivering.
"I half feared this," Vera said hoarsely. "He is coming this way. Don't say more than you can help, and fall in with whatever suggestion I make."
The door of the bedroom was burst violently open and a man staggered in. His well-cut features were spoiled by traces of excessive dissipation, for the face was blotched and red stained, and the naturally fine eyes were blurred and watery. From his gait it was clear that he was not sober. He lurched across the room and gripped Vera so savagely by the arm that livid red marks stood out on the firm white flesh. With a cry of pain Vera wrenched her arm free.
"Why do you come here?" she demanded. "Why do you break our compact in this fashion? You promised me——"
"I know I did," the man said suddenly. "I promised to keep away from you as long as you behaved yourself. Don't forget that you loved me once, and that we were quite happy——"
"Until you took to drink, and became the degraded wretch you are," Vera cried. "My love for you is dead and buried, but if you have a single spark of affection left for me——"
"I have never ceased to care for you," the man said with hoarse passion, "and you know it. There isn't a woman in the wide world who could take your place in my heart. You should pity my misfortunes. There is a demon in my blood that calls day and night for drink, and when the demon is aroused I am not fit company for the vilest of humanity."
"Spare me this," Vera said coldly. "I can only remind you that you are breaking our bargain. I give you a third of my income on the distinct understanding that you do not come near me or molest me in any way."
"Neither would I," the man said sullenly. "But you are not keeping your side of the compact. At the present moment there is a young man living in the house, and you are concealing the fact——"
"Do you dare to insinuate?" Vera cried passionately; her cheeks aflame with anger. "But I will not demean myself by discussing the matter with you. If you say one word more on that subject I will never give you another penny."
The man turned with a scornful laugh and fixed an insolent gaze on Elsie. She colored under his scrutiny, and turned to Vera for an explanation.
"Who is this lady?" the intruder demanded.
"She is a friend," Vera said. "Miss Elsie Vane. She came to persuade me to accompany her to a fancy-dress dance. I told you, Elsie, that I have more troubles than a woman ought to be called upon to bear, and when I inform you that this is my husband, you will see that I am speaking no more than the truth. The proverb says that those who marry in haste repent at leisure. I know the truth of that from bitter experience. Yet when I became Mrs. Edward Greatorex, I thought I was one happiest girl on earth."
The man muttered something and turned to the door. He called Vera on one side, and for a few moments they were engaged in a whispered conversation. Presently Greatorex went down the stairs and the front door closed behind him.
"Now you know something of my life," Vera said. "It is only two years since I first met that man, and he won my heart at once. I could not tell you what I went through with him for twelve months. It may be that alcoholism is a disease. It may be that he is utterly and entirely bad. The strange fact remains that he is sincerely and passionately attached to me, though. I could show marks of his ill usage which I shall carry to the grave. When the madness is upon him, Edward Greatorex is a veritable savage. A little time ago I gave him a large sum of money on condition that he stayed on the Continent. You see, he knows nothing whatever about my father and brother, and is insanely jealous because he believes I am harboring a man here. You know in what sense that is true, but I dare not tell Edward because he would detail to the first man he met all the circumstances of the case. That is another reason why I am so anxious to get Gerald out of the way. Come with me and I will introduce you to my brother. He is anxiously waiting to see you."
The house was quiet and the servants appeared to have gone to bed. In the library Elsie found herself face to face with a youngish man who bore a strong likeness to Vera Barrington. His manner was subdued, his voice low and pleasing. He did not strike Elsie as the kind of man who would stoop to a vulgar crime. Perhaps she was prejudiced in his favor. At any rate, she was satisfied there must be some terrible misunderstanding.
"I have heard about you from my sister," Gerald Rashleigh said. "It is good of you to come to our help. I never heard of anything more heroic and self-sacrificing. Why you should aid complete strangers is one of those things which——"
"But I do not regard myself as a stranger," Elsie smiled. "Do you know that when I came here to-night I was desolate and alone. It is a real pleasure to help you, as I am sure it will be to your sister to help me. She would be as good and kind to me if I could do nothing in return."
"That she would," Rashleigh exclaimed. "I trust you will not judge me harshly until you know everything. I swear to you that I am innocent of the dreadful charge that hangs over my head. I hope before long to be able to stand up before the world and prove myself blameless. The reason why I did not give myself up before is that I had serious lung trouble. I am practically cured, but I know that even the few weeks that I should have to remain in gaol would be fatal. I don't know whether Vera has told you this——"
"It doesn't matter," Elsie said. "I am quite sure, Mr. Rashleigh, that you are an innocent man. My belief may seem illogical, but women are supposed to have an instinct in these matters."
"You are as good as you are beautiful," Rashleigh cried. "And you are running all this risk for a man you never saw before. I will not forget it as long as I live."
"You can thank Elsie later," Vera said with some impatience. "Meanwhile, time is flying, and we are keeping others waiting. Now, assume your disguise at once and I will whistle for a cab. Heaven grant our scheme does not fail at the last moment. I believe it would break my heart if anything went wrong. This suspense is getting more than I can bear."
The front door stood wide open, and Elsie and Vera could see across the street. To passers-by they were two young and beautiful women chatting together as if they had not a single trouble in the world. The situation spoke for itself. One woman was going to a fancy-dress ball and the other was standing to witness her departure. Some way off down the street, was the sound of horse's hoofs as a cab came along in response to Vera's whistle. She wore a smile on her lips, but the words she spoke convinced Elsie of the danger ahead.
"Don't appear to be too curious," she said, standing with her back to the door. "But if you take a quick glance across the road you will see two figures lingering there. They come and go in various guises, and have been hanging about for the last few days. They are watching the house."
Elsie's sharp glance took in the outline of the two skulking objects in the shadow opposite. At the same moment, neatly disguised as a lady's maid, Gerald Rashleigh came along the hall carrying a bundle of wraps over his arm. In a deferential way he proceeded to envelope Elsie's glittering dress in one of the wraps. She turned to him in a haughty manner, which was entirely assumed for the benefit of the watchers. Then the group went towards the cab.
"I think that's about all," Vera whispered. "Good luck be with you. I will know no peace till you return. Let us hope our little scheme has baffled those people across the road."
"I am not so sure of that," Elsie remarked. "If you look down the street you will see a cab at the corner. Why should a cab be loafing there at this time of night? I fancy it is waiting for these detectives if they happen to want one in a hurry."
Vera said nothing, and the cab started. It was very late, and vehicular traffic had almost ceased. With a foreboding of evil, Elsie looked out of the window, and saw that another cab was following. It was the cab she had seen at the corner of Regent Terrace, for she recognised the grey horse. A sigh escaped her.
"What is it?" Rashleigh asked anxiously. "Anything wrong?"
"It is just what I anticipated," Elsie explained. "That cab is following us. Still, I don't want to imagine disaster. The men may merely be taking precautions. If they had penetrated your disguise they would have arrested you as you left the house."
"That seems logical," Rashleigh responded. "I expect they are following us on the chance of picking up a clue. Still, we must shake them off if possible."
The opportunity came sooner than Elsie and her companion had expected. In Piccadilly they were held up by a block of traffic. A great function was in progress, and the whole street was jambed with horses and carriages, so that the vehicles were brought to a standstill. A badly steered motor caused a pair of high-mettled animals to swerve and prance, so that the carriage-pole came sharply round and caught the wheel of Elsie's cab with a violent impact. A moment later and the cab was lying on its side. The whole thing had happened so quickly that Elsie had not even time to be frightened. Willing hands rescued her and her companion. The cab-man lay in the gutter insensible.
"I am very sorry for the man," Elsie whispered, "but we cannot stay. It would be too dangerous. Look behind you. There is the cab with the grey horse, and the occupants are wondering what has become of us. We could not have a better chance of dodging them. Let us walk on."
"Impossible," Rashleigh cried. "Look at the state of the pavements, and you in white satin shoes and stockings. How will they look by the time you reach the Covent Garden? Unfortunately, there is not another cab to be seen."
Elsie admitted that Rashleigh's objection was sound. As she gazed about her seeking for some conveyance her eyes fell upon a neat little auto-car drawn up by the pavement. A sudden inspiration seized her.
"This is no time to be nice," she whispered eagerly. "Look at that car left unattended. Did you ever learn to drive one of these things? If so——"
"I see," Rashleigh said. "I understand exactly what you mean. I know that kind of car, and have driven one hundreds of times. I am willing to risk it if you are."
"I am prepared to risk anything," Elsie said impatiently. "I am anxious to finish my task and return to your sister. You know how concerned she will be."
A moment later and the two were seated in the car. There was a flash of the lever, a quivering of the car, then it slid away as if it were alive. Not more than a hundred yards or so had been covered before there was a great shout, followed by the blowing of a police whistle. Rashleigh turned swiftly into the comparative obscurity of a side street.
"They have discovered their loss," he said, "and we are being pursued. If we get to Covent Garden all right the rest will matter nothing. The only thing that puzzles me is what to do with the car when we get there. It won't take many minutes to trace us, and no doubt several people in the crowd saw your fancy dress. The police will put two and two together, and come to the conclusion that the thieves are on the premises of Covent Garden Theatre. My dear young lady, it seems that I am going to lead you into serious trouble."
Elsie set her teeth firmly together.
"It can't be helped," she said. "I have given my promise, and I won't go back upon it. So long as you are safe, I don't care what happens. If I am discovered, I suppose I shall be fined, and, besides, it will not be difficult to get rid of the car. When we reach our destination you have only to give a couple of loafers half a crown each to take it to some fictitious address. Mr. Rashleigh, I am really beginning to feel quite like a criminal myself. I hope I shall wake up presently and find it nothing but a dream."
"Heaven grant we both may?" Gerald said fervently. "But here we are at the theatre. But what on earth is the matter? The place is in darkness. There is not a light to be seen anywhere. Has Vera, in the excitement of the moment, mistaken the night?"
She took the card of admission out of her pocket and examined it by the aid of a street lamp. A cry of dismay escaped her lips as she turned to Rashleigh.
"You have guessed it," she said. "Vera has made a mistake. The fancy-dress dance is on the seventeenth, and this is the eleventh. The error is partly excusable because the figures are very badly printed, and the 17 might be read for 11. Your sister has been so worried and harassed that we must excuse her. But what is to be done?"
"Upon my word, I don't know," Rashleigh admitted. "It is a terrible dilemma, and the worst of it is that within an hour my friends will be waiting for me. I can't do anything till the appointed time."
Elsie grasped the arm of her companion eagerly. Her quick eye had noted the presence of two constables, on bicycles, coming from Tavistock-street.
"Start the car again," she cried. "Drive ahead anywhere as fast as you can. I am sure these officers are after us. No doubt the police have been using the telephone freely. It doesn't matter where we go so long as these men lose sight of us."
Rashleigh did not need a second bidding. The car leapt forward at a high rate of speed which would have been dangerous at any other time of the day, and in a few minutes they were racing down Oxford-street. Then they left the Marble Arch behind them, and by a circuitous route reached Grosvenor Crescent. Once again they were in the thick of traffic, for a dance was being held at Lady Starfield's. The great doors of the mansion were thrown back so that one could see into the brilliantly-lighted hall and mark the guests as they flitted up and down the marble staircase. A chance remark made by some bystander attracted Elsie's attention. Her eyes were gleaming and her mouth was set in a firm line of determination. At a sign from her Rashleigh stopped the car.
"What have you got in your mind?" he asked.
"Here's the chance to escape," Elsie said. "These people are giving a fancy-dress ball. I haven't the remotest notion who they are, but that does not matter. Let us leave the car in one of side streets, and then I will explain."
Rashleigh obeyed without further question. The car had been turned into a yard and the fugitives were just leaving it when a policeman strolled up. He had a scrap of paper in his hand which he began to compare with the number on the motor. Rashleigh realised the danger in a flash. His right hand shot out and landed full on the side of the policeman's head. The man went down like a log and lay half-insensible upon the pavement.
"That was a close call," Rashleigh whispered. "No, I don't think the man is much hurt. We must get away. If only you hadn't that conspicuous dress on."
"The conspicuous dress is going to save us," Elsie said coolly. "You want to know what I am going to do, and I will tell you. I am going as a guest to the fancy-dress dance at the big house round the corner and you are coming as my maid. There is a risk, but positively I am looking forward to the adventure. It will give us an hour or two to turn round and make our plans complete. I dare say you will be asked into the servants' hall, where I can send for you when I need you. I will call you Mapp. It is an ugly name, and one is not likely to forget it. Now, please, come along before my courage oozes at my finger-tips. I dare not wait any longer."
Coolly, as if she had been brought up to this kind of thing all her life, Elsie walked into the house and handed her wraps to Rashleigh. Then she turned to one of the liveried servants and bade him take her maid to the servants' quarters. She did not wait to give her name, but ran lightly up the steps to the suite of rooms which had been given over for the dance. Fortunately the hostess was busy with a batch of new arrivals, and did not appear to notice Elsie at all. Elsie consoled herself with the reflection that possibly the large lady in the magnificent diamonds did not know half her guests by sight.
The girl stood in that glittering throng, trying to still the beating of her heart, and praying for an assumption of self-possession. For a moment she lost herself in the beauty of the scene, the like of which she had never looked upon before. A tall figure in the dress of a courtier of the time of Charles II. came smilingly up to her and held out his hand.
"How do you do, Miss Vane?" he said. "Really, this is a most unexpected pleasure. When did you come?"
Elsie did not know whether to laugh or to cry. After all she had gone through the shock was a cruel one, and none the less so because it was so utterly unexpected. She glanced round the magnificent room as unconcernedly as she could, whilst racking her brains for some excuse to escape the attentions of her companion.
Not the least trying part of the ordeal was the fact that she had not the remotest idea who the man was. He looked pleasant, his face was kindly, and Elsie thought him to be trusted.
Anyway, he must have met the girl somewhere at some time, or he would not have accosted her in such a familiar fashion. Meanwhile he had been holding out his hand for Elsie to take it.
"Are you so afraid of me!" he asked. "Do you suppose I am some fascinating swindler who has found his way into the house with the amiable intention of playing the confidence trick on the first likely person?"
Elsie laughed in spite of herself. There was something about this man that she liked. If the worst came to the worst she could make him a friend, and induce him to take part in the conspiracy. There was a humorous twinkle in his eye which gave Elsie an impression that he rather enjoyed the situation than otherwise.
"I had better confess it," she said. "But I have not the remotest idea who you are."
"Well, that is too bad," the young man exclaimed. "I suppose that I must flatter myself that I have changed for the better in appearance. You used to say I was the plainest boy you ever knew—all red hair and freckles. Surely you will not have the cruelty to say you have forgotten Edgar Sefton."
Elsie's heart thrilled with a spasm of gratitude. She recollected the name perfectly well. Indeed, some years before Sefton had been a pupil at the old rectory. It was possible to make out some sort of likeness to the harum-scarum youth who had never been so happy as when he was up to his eyes in mischief.
"I know you now," Elsie said. "You have certainly changed for the better. But what are you doing here?"
"I have come to the dance, of course," Sefton replied. "The last time I saw you you were in short dresses with your hair down your back, and yet you have not changed very much. How comes it that the dear old Rector has allowed you——"
"I would rather not speak of that," Elsie said in a low voice. "My poor father has been dead for some time. I am quite alone in the world, with my living to get."
Sefton elevated his eyebrows, and from the expression of his face Elsie could read exactly what was passing in his mind. It was by no means usual for a girl dependent upon her own exertions for her daily bread to be masquerading in a costume which could not have cost a penny less than two hundred guineas.
"I can't explain now," Elsie said, with a fine flame of color in her cheeks. "The story is too long, and too romantic."
"I wish you would confide in me," Sefton pleaded. "Don't you remember what chums we used to be in the old days, despite your rude remarks about my hair and freckles? I would do anything in the world for you, Elsie. Perhaps I ought not to call you Elsie now, but the name slipped out."
"I am sure that you mean everything that is good and kind," Elsie said gratefully, "and whatever has happened to me the world seems to have gone very well with you. You used to be rather stupid at lessons, and always declared you would enlist for a soldier."
"Well, I didn't," Sefton laughed good-naturedly. "It sometimes happens that the stupid boy does fairly well in after-life, and I fancy that I am going to make a successful man of business. I was fortunate enough to inherit a few thousands, and I invested them in a business in the City; but I don't suppose you are interested in that."
"Indeed, I am," Elsie said. Gerald Rashleigh uppermost in her mind for a moment. "Circumstances have so ordained it that I am quite interested in City matters. Do you happen to know the name of Rashleigh by any chance? I mean a young fellow whose father is a general officer in the army."
"I know him well. We were college mates. Till recently he was in the employ of Weiss and Company, a very big firm; but don't you know that Gerald Rashleigh has got himself into trouble——"
Sefton paused as if fearful of causing pain.
"I have the best of reasons for knowing that," Elsie went on. "But for him, I should not be here to-night. I am told that Gerald Rashleigh has disappeared from the City, and that it is rumored that he has embezzled a large sum of money belonging to his firm."
"I don't believe a word of it," Edgar Sefton said warmly. "There is some underhand business going on which I should like to get to the bottom of. Weiss has the reputation of being an exceedingly rich man, but no one knows who he is or how he came by his money. There are lots of such men in London to-day; they spring up in a night like mushrooms. Sometimes there is a solid basis to their wealth and they become great people. Sometimes they find their way to Mayfair, where they cut a tremendous dash with their dinners and their diamonds, and presently are heard of no more. A gaol or a bullet generally puts an end to their careers; indeed, people have got so used to this kind of thing that even the yellow press has ceased to make a feature of it. Between ourselves, I know Weiss, and look upon him as an adventurer, and when matters come to be investigated, Gerald Rashleigh will have little difficulty in proving his innocence. But let us talk about ourselves. How long have you been a friend of her ladyship's?"
"Whose?" Elsie stammered. "I don't understand you."
"Well, my question was plain enough. How long have you been a friend of the mistress of the house?"
Elsie decided to make a clean breast of it. She could not lie to or prevaricate with this old friend of hers.
"I don't even know her name. I dare say you will be astonished to hear me say this."
"Well, yes," Sefton admitted somewhat coldly. "It is rather a mild way of putting it. I cannot associate my old friend Elsie with anything that is wrong and underhanded, and, when I look into your face, I am convinced that you would do nothing against the dictates of your conscience."
"Oh, that is so," Elsie said eagerly. "Pray believe me when I tell you that half an hour ago I did not dream of finding myself here. It was by the merest accident that I came to enter this house, but the police were after us——"
"This is terrible," Sefton groaned. "The police? Do you want me to understand that you have gone so far——"
"Oh, no, no," Elsie cried. "I was shielding somebody else. I came to London early this morning only to discover that I had entrusted all my money to a scoundrel who left me penniless, without employment, and without friends. I am the sport of circumstance, the toy of fate, drifting hither and thither in a desperate attempt to obtain the necessaries of life. My dear Edgar, you do not know how near I was to sleeping to night on a doorstep, or the carnal ward of a workhouse. Then an accident brought me in contact with Gerald Rashleigh——"
"Oh, stop," Sefton exclaimed. "You make my head whirl. Let us go away to some quiet corner and discuss the whole thing."
A sudden babel of voices attracted Elsie's attention, and she turned round. An enormously stout man with a face ludicrously like that of a parrot was talking to the hostess and gesticulating angrily. With him was a red-faced woman almost as stout as himself, and literally smothered in diamonds. The third of the trio was in striking contrast to the other two. She was a tall, slim girl in white, her dress devoid of ornaments of all kinds. Even in that moment of stress and confusion the girl reminded Elsie of an old picture that used to hang in the library at home.
"A most extraordinary business, Lady Starfield," the fat man cried. "We stopped at my club in Piccadilly, and as it was a cold night we decided to go inside and wait for Parker. There was a note from Parker saying he couldn't come, so we went back for the car and it had gone. As I was driving it myself, having told my man to meet me here, we left the motor empty by the pavement. As we were pushing our way through a crowd that had gathered round an accident, we saw two women get into the car and drive away. Never saw anything more impudent in my life. I shouted, but it was too late. Still, I should know the people again, though I am not quite certain about one of the women. The other girl was evidently an actress, for she was wearing a fancy dress which showed out from under the cloak she was wrapped in. I could swear to her anywhere."
It was fortunate for Elsie, that Sefton was standing so close by her side. She swayed a little, and he caught her arm to steady her. With an effort Elsie recovered herself.
"Who is that man?" she stammered.
"The very person we were talking about," Sefton explained. "That is Samuel Weiss. He appears to be excited about something. Rather a cool thing, though, wasn't it, to go off with a man's car in that fashion. No wonder he is mad."
"He mustn't see me," Elsie whispered. "For Heaven's sake, take care that he doesn't see me. Thank goodness, you found me out to-night or who knows what might have happened to me within the next hour? I dare not think of it."
"But what has Weiss got to do with you?" Sefton asked.
"Everything," Elsie went on. "Didn't you hear him say he could identify the woman who was an accomplice in the theft of his car? My dear Edgar, I am the very woman who took part in that audacious theft."
Sefton whistled softly to himself.
"Well, I can't say or do anything till I know the history of the case," he said. "You have only been in London a day, you say, but you have crammed a rare amount of fun into the past twenty-four hours."
"Don't laugh at me," Elsie pleaded. "If you only knew my terrible position you would be sorry for me. Just think of it. Here am I, little better than a penniless adventurer, masquerading as one of Lady Starfield's guests. If that is discovered I shall be handed over to the police. If that dreadful red-faced creature recognises me, he will show no mercy. Worried and harassed as I am, I am curious to know what that tall, Madonna-like girl can have in common with people like Mr. Weiss and his wife."
"Strange as it may seem, she is their daughter, Iza. Everybody is puzzled to think that she can really be of their flesh and blood, but surely we have more important matters to discuss. What fiend put it into your head to elope with Weiss' car? Surely, with so many cabs about——"
"There was not a cab to be had for love or money. We were blocked in a crowd caused by an accident to our own cab, and there is not the slightest doubt that we were being followed by the police."
"Oh stop," Sefton murmured. "Really, my poor brain won't stand it. Who were being followed by the police?"
"Why, Gerald Rashleigh and myself. But I have forgotten that I did not tell you anything about that. You see, I was being used as the instrument to get Mr. Rashleigh out of the way. My disguise as a bride formed part of the scheme. We were being closely pressed by the police, and when we saw the empty motor car it seemed like flying in the face of Providence not to take it."
"I suppose I shall understand this muddle in time," Sefton said resignedly. "You ran off with the motor and came here."
"Only because the police nearly caught us red-handed when we were getting rid of the car. Mr. Rashleigh knocked the policeman down, and I am afraid hurt him considerably, only we could not stop to ascertain. We heard a passer-by say that a fancy-dress dance was going on here, and as I was attired for such a function, I hit upon the desperate resolve of trying to pass myself off as one of the guests. By sheer good luck, when I reached the ballroom, you came up and spoke to me."
"Amazing," Sefton said. "And yet people say that romance is dead. Perhaps you will tell me by what ingenious method you managed to save Rashleigh as well as yourself?"
"He is in the servants' hall at present," Elsie said, "disguised as a lady's maid—my maid, in fact."
Nothing but the grave, pained expression on Elsie's face saved Sefton from an outburst of laughter. He did not fail to grasp the gravity of the situation, but could not blind himself to the farcical side of the case.
"This is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard of," he said. "My duty lies quite plainly before me. I ought to go up to Lady Starfield at once and tell her everything that has happened. Only in a big crash like this where a Society hostess is merely on nodding terms with half her guests could such a thing happen. My dear Elsie, do you know what a serious thing it is to be the accomplice of a man for whose apprehension a warrant has been issued? Lady Starfield is very particular, too, and she would never forgive us if she knew that we had imported an embryo convict into her house. Of course, I will not say a word about this affair, and I must devise some means of getting you both away without a moment's delay. A flight of steps at the end of the next room leads to the garden which, for the time being, has been transformed into a huge conservatory. You will be safe there, and not likely to encounter Samuel Weiss. Leave everything to me, and I will see you come safely out of the trouble."
"You are more than good," Elsie said gratefully, "and I will do everything you tell me. Only, please, do not be any longer than you can help. I have had such a trying day, a day which would break down anybody who has not led so healthy and simple a life as I have. Think what it has been for me since I left the old place this morning. A little more, and I will collapse."
Sefton nodded in sympathy and was presently lost in the crowd. A sense of loneliness and desolation came over Elsie. She had to wrestle hard with an impulse to fly from the house and leave Rashleigh to his fate. Still, the temptation had to be resisted at all costs, and Elsie was a little more herself when she reached the great tent outside filled with most luxurious foliage. There was something calm and soothing about it, and Elsie felt strong enough to wait further developments. Half an hour passed, and she was growing impatient for Sefton's return. A dance had just finished, and there was a rush of dancers into the comparatively cool winter garden. Then, suddenly, a man brushed through the screen of palms in front of Elsie's seat and glanced at her casually as he passed.
For the life of her Elsie could not restrain the desire to shrink back and hide her face. Perhaps had she done so the thing would have passed, but an exclamation left her lips and her face had grown white and guilty-looking. The man stopped and gazed at her insolently.
"I never forget a face," he said. "A fine memory for faces and dates has been the foundation of my fortune. Do you happen to know who I am young lady?"
Elsie was regaining her self-possession by this time, and looked the speaker in the face, with a cold and haughty expression.
"Really, I have not the faintest idea," she said. "I never saw you before."
The man laughed unpleasantly. His short, fat figure and his vulgar features, seemed strangely out of place in refined surroundings, but, as Elsie had already heard, there were no social barriers where money was concerned.
"That may be," Weiss replied. "I am quite prepared to believe that you never cast eyes on me till this moment. There is an old-fashioned law that more people know Tom Fool, than Tom Fool knows. I have seen you before and not so very long ago either. It was in Piccadilly this very night."
Elsie looked eagerly about her for some means of escape. She began to wonder if Sefton would never return. It was of no use arguing with this man who had the dogged, determined nature of one who listens to no reasons but his own. Unless something speedily happened, Elsie would be dragged before Lady Starfield and the most disgraceful scandal must come out.
"You are exceedingly rude," she said. "It is impossible you can be one of Lady Starfield's guests."
"That has got nothing to do with it," Weiss said surlily. "You are one of the two people who stole my motor car, and I will swear to you in any court in England. You are an adventuress, that's what you are—an audacious minx, who has forced her way into this house to pick up all she can in the way of valuables. It is not the first time such a thing has been done, but it is unfortunate you hit upon the very house that I was visiting. Come, turn out your pockets, and let us see what you have managed to get hold of."
Tears stood in Elsie's eyes and trembled on the lashes. Was Sefton never coming? She made one last despairing effort.
"The man is mad," she said, scornfully. "I tell you. I know nothing of you. If you dare to insult me any further——"
"Oh, come, none of that," he said coarsely. "You've got to accompany me to Lady Starfield, and if you are a friend of hers, I'll apologise and there will be an end of the matter. Now then."
The man laid a rough hand upon Elsie's arm and dragged her from her seat. She was on the verge of a confession, when, to her great relief, Sefton appeared. She was face to face with the man who held Gerald Rashleigh's honor in his hands. But Elsie had not much time to think of that. She noted, however, that Sefton had taken in the situation at a glance, and was prepared to deal with it.
"What is the meaning of this?" he asked.
"Something about a motor-car," Elsie managed to say. "This—this gentleman accuses me of running away with his motor car, and also of coming here to pick up such valuables as I can lay my hands on. Will you be good enough to tell him, Edgar, that you have known me nearly all your life? Perhaps it may be the means——"
"Certainly," said Sefton sternly. "I have known Miss Vane for many years. She is not in the habit of frequenting houses for the sake of ill-gotten gains. You have behaved extremely foolishly, Mr. Weiss, and I hope you will apologise."
Weiss was not that sort or man, for he shook his head stubbornly. His eyes blazed with anger.
"Oh; it's you, Mr. Sefton," he said. "There is nothing against you, but as I told this young woman just now——"
Sefton's hands suddenly clenched and his arm reached out in the speaker's direction. He had almost forgotten himself in an access of rage, and it was only Elsie's imploring glance that saved Weiss from measuring his length upon the ground.
"I never forget a face," the latter repeated. "It may be that the lady was only indulging in some such freak as, I am told, happens in Society sometimes, but I don't like those tricks played upon me, and I won't stand them. I am certain that your young friend and another woman ran off with my car to-night and, what is more, nearly killed the policeman who caught them in the act of hiding the car in a back yard. I won't apologise till I know that I am wrong, and nothing you can say or do shall prevent me from laying the facts before Lady Starfield and taking her opinion on them. You can't stop that anyway."
Once more Sefton's fist clenched, and once more Weiss was within an ace of physical pain.
"You are mad," Sefton said. "And despite your money a very good house in London will be closed to you if you persist in making a scandal of this business. You are mistaken——"
"I shall be willing to admit it," Weiss said doggedly. "The thing lies entirely in your hands. If this young lady will come with me and have the matter out with Lady Starfield, no more need be said. If I am wrong, I shall be ready to apologise and, what's more, I will give her a diamond necklace as a solace for her wounded feelings."
"Upon my word, you are an impossible creature," Sefton said coldly. "Do you suppose that Miss Vane would accept a present from you? All she asks you to do is to believe that she has nothing to do with your late adventure——"
"Nonsense," Weiss exclaimed. "She is the girl right enough. I haven't the slightest doubt about that. And how am I to know that you are not shielding her for some purpose of your own?"
Sefton repressed his anger manfully.
"Very well," he said. "It shall be as you like, only I will ask you to remain while I induce Lady Starfield to accompany me here where there are fewer people about, and that strident voice of yours is not likely to attract so much attention."
As Sefton spoke he shot a significant glance at Elsie. Doubtless he had formed some plan to extricate her out of this terrible impasse. A few anxious moments passed, and then there appeared, not the expected form of Sefton, but the disguised figure of Gerald Rashleigh. With the greatest possible difficulty Elsie kept her countenance. She was wondering what Weiss would say or do if he only knew who was beneath the apparel of the lady's maid. Rashleigh was evidently prepared for his part, for he cast his eyes down and demurely announced that he understood Elsie had sent for him. He ignored Weiss, who was looking at him with eyes that were starting from his head.
"Well, if this doesn't beat all," he burst out. "Hang me! if this isn't the other one. I shall wake up presently and find that I have been dreaming."
Rashleigh took no notice, but intimated that Lady Starfield wished to see Elsie at once.
"She is in the little room at the end of the tent, miss," he said. "If you will be so good as to step that way——"
"Yes, and I'll step that way, too," Weiss muttered. "Come along, we'll have it out together. This is either the greatest piece of audacity or the most cunning trick I have ever encountered in my life, and I have seen a good few."
Elsie took no notice of him. She felt certain that some scheme had been evolved whereby she was to be rid of her tormentor. The trio advanced across the big tent to a smaller screened enclosure beyond. Beyond this again was the open garden, with the stars shining in the clear blue sky. The cool, crisp breath of the night was like wine to Elsie's jaded nerves, and a new courage filled her veins. She took a pace backwards at a sign from Rashleigh which was unseen by Weiss. The next moment Rashleigh stumbled against the form of the obese financier, and together the pair staggered into the garden. Then, like a flash, Rashleigh leapt at the other man and bore him to the ground. A sweet, pungent smell filled the air as Weiss' head disappeared into a large black cloth; there was a short desperate squirming, and the fat man lay still as if in death.
"Go back to the ballroom at once," Rashleigh said breathlessly.
Elsie stared helplessly at Rashleigh. The whole episode had been so extraordinarily rapid and dramatic that it had taken her entirely by surprise and her faculties were more or less numbed. Perhaps Rashleigh noted something of this, for he showed no irritation or impatience with her, but touched her gently on the arm.
"I dare say you are astonished," he said, "but not more than myself. Fancy plunging headlong into an adventure like this; but we are wasting time and increasing our danger."
"You haven't killed him," Elsie whispered.
"I am afraid not," Rashleigh said grimly. "I should very much like to have done so, and I don't think my conscience would have troubled me, though I suppose the law would call it murder. I have drugged the fellow with a mixture of chloroform——"
"But where did you get it?" Elsie asked.
"That was Sefton's scheme. How lucky you met him! The whole thing must have come out if you hadn't done so."
Elsie shuddered at the bare idea of it. It was indeed a blessed thing that Sefton had happened to be at Lady Starfield's dance.
"I left him to settle matters," she said, "feeling that I was safe in his hands. But how did he arrange things so promptly?"
"As far as I can gather from Sefton's hurried information, he could think of no other plan but the desperate expedient of drugging Weiss. He hastened to the nearest chemist's shop and procured the chloroform. Then he sent for me as if he were conveying a message from you. It had come to this, you see, either Weiss' mouth had to be closed for a time, or the scandal with all its possibilities would have become public here and now."
"How long is he likely to be unconscious?" Elsie asked.
Rashleigh shrugged his shoulders indifferently, and intimated that Weiss was of secondary importance compared with other things.
"Why should we trouble about the scoundrel?" he said. "He has been the ruin of me. When he comes to he is sure to make a fuss, but by that time we shall be out of the house and in a place of safety. There is bound to be a row, but no human ingenuity could prevent that."
"All the same, I don't like it," Elsie protested. "It is getting very cold, and it might be dangerous——"
Elsie broke off suddenly, conscious that she and Rashleigh were no longer alone. She was glad to find herself once more in the tent, for the night was very chilly and the cold penetrated her flimsy garments. She had hardened her heart to think no more about Weiss, and was therefore a little startled to see his daughter. Troubled and agitated as she was, Elsie was struck by the statuesque beauty of the girl, but considered that her perfect features would have been more attractive had they been tinged with a little animation. It was the face of one who wears a mask behind which all emotions were concealed. The girl came forward and addressed Elsie coldly.
"What is going on?" she asked. "I came to look for my—Mr. Weiss. I am sure he was here just now, and I am equally positive that he did not return to the ballroom by means of the passage. I did not intrude upon your conversation, neither do I desire to know what you were quarrelling about."
"Quarrelling?" Elsie stammered. "I don't understand."
"I think you do," the girl went on in her icy way. "I overheard a few words of the conversation. It seems almost an incredible thing, were it not that incredible things are happening every day, but did not Mr. Weiss accuse you of being one of the two people who stole our car in Piccadilly to-night?"
"He certainly did," Elsie was fain to admit. "But I assure you——"
Words faltered on Elsie's lips, but refused to be uttered. She could not tell a lie with those dark eyes fixed upon her, and whatever the other girl was—whether she was of the same flesh and blood as Weiss or not—Elsie felt that she at least was honest and honorable.
"I see you cannot deny it," Iza Weiss said coldly. "Now I come to look at you, I know my surmise is right. I do not intend to stir a yard from here until I know what you have done with my father. It is singular that a girl with a face as good and pure as yours should be mixed up in such a low and disgraceful adventure."
Elsie turned an imploring glance to Rashleigh, who stood demurely by, not for a moment forgetting his role of lady's maid. There was a twinkle in his eye and an encouraging smile on his lips now.
"Perhaps I may be permitted to explain," he said. "Evidently my disguise is excellent. Don't you know me, Iza?"
The tall, pale girl gave a cry as Rashleigh pushed back the hair from his forehead and removed the glasses he was wearing. No longer had Elsie cause to wish that Iza Weiss would show some animation. Her face flamed and a look of anxious tenderness crept into her dark eyes.
"Gerald," she whispered. "You here and in this guise! What does it mean? Surely it is not possible——"
"No woman is absolutely perfect," Rashleigh said, somewhat coldly. "And you, Iza, are no exception to the rule. There is only one little flaw in your character, and that is a certain unreasoning jealousy. This young lady was a complete stranger to me a few hours ago, and yet, despite that, she has run the gravest risks to save me from gaol. If you want a further testimonial to her character you had better consult Edgar Sefton, who has known her for many years, but there is no time to explain now."
"I am very sorry," Iza said. "I ought never to have doubted you, Gerald. Perhaps later—but what have you done with my father? Really, his presence is greatly needed."
"But we had to take steps to get him out of the way. He would have made a fearful scene, which would inevitably have resulted in landing Miss Vane and me in gaol. To make a long story short, he is lying in the garden suffering from an overdose of chloroform. If you can suggest any way——"
"Now, where has that man got to?" a high-pitched voice suddenly broke in upon the conference. "That is the worst of being a millionaire, everybody seems to want his advice. My dear young lady, who has spirited your father away?"
Lady Starfield herself uttered the words. She came smiling down the tent in her eager way. She looked at Elsie as if trying to recollect where she had seen her face. It was fortunate that Edgar Sefton came hard upon the heels of his hostess.
"That is an exceedingly taking dress of yours," Lady Starfield said. "I don't know whether you are a bride or not, but you ought to be, because that dress suits you so well. Of course it is very reprehensible of me, but I have forgotten your name. I hope you will not be angry if I ask——"
"It would be an odd thing if you did remember everybody's name, Lady Starfield," Sefton put in. "And that is why you Society hostesses are allowed great latitude. Still, if you never take the trouble to try to recollect people, your memory is liable to play you false. Don't tell her your name, Elsie, let her try to guess it. Now, Lady Starfield, here is a chance for you. You shall have half an hour to think it over, and when you do arrive at the right name, you will wonder why you didn't think of it before."
Elsie forced a smile to her lips, and breathed more freely. For the moment at any rate, Sefton had saved the situation. Lady Starfield tapped him with her fan.
"You tease!" she said. "But it shall be exactly as you say. Really, one might make a new game out of this kind of thing and give handsome prizes to the hostess who guessed the name of the greatest number of her guests. I want Mr. Weiss badly. I am interested in some shares about which his advice would be invaluable."
"I'll go and find him," Sefton said. "He had a fancy to look round the garden. Pray go back to your guests and make your mind easy. You shall see your millionaire."
Lady Starfield skipped away perfectly satisfied and absolutely ignorant of the drama that was being enacted under her eyes. Sefton took out his handkerchief and wiped his heated forehead.
"That was a close call," he said. "Thank goodness! my nerves are in good order or they would have been put to a severe test to-night. And now what is to be done?"
The problem was solved so far as the little group was concerned, by the unexpected appearance of the man who was the cause of all the trouble. Rashleigh saw him first, and dropped discreetly into the background. Obviously he could take no part in the play, seeing he was supposed to be nothing but a humble dependent, a mere lady's maid. Weiss came forward furiously. Despite the severe struggle he had recently gone through, he did not appear any the worse for it, save that his face had a blue-white tinge from the effects of the drug. His aspect was threatening.
"You—you——," he stammered. "I'll teach you to serve a man in my position like this. I am going straight to Lady Starfield to tell her everything. Scandal or no scandal, I will insist on having the police called in and the guilty parties punished. Now stand out of my way, for——"
"No!" The word came crisp and clear from Iza Weiss's lips. "You won't do anything of the kind. Understand once and for all, you will do nothing of the sort."
Commonplace as the words were, they had an extraordinary effect on Weiss. The angry look faded from his face, and he became the picture of perplexity and confusion. His mouth hung open, and he bore an extraordinary resemblance of a fat overgrown boy, just deprived of some dainty morsel.
"Why not?" he asked in whining tones. "I tell you that girl yonder was the very one who stole our car——"
"I know it," Iza said, in the same calm, dispassionate tones. "You shall hear the young lady admit as much herself if you like, but you are to do nothing and say nothing, and let the whole thing pass as if it had wholly escaped your memory. Now if you dare go outside these instructions it will be the worse for you."
Elsie wondered if she were dreaming, or if her senses had failed to take in the full significance of this extraordinary speech. It was not a daughter speaking to a father, but some queen rebuking a rebellious subject and threatening to end his life if he did not make an ample apology for his misdeeds. Iza stood motionless as a statue. Not for an instant did she doubt the effect of her words.
"It's a great shame," Weiss almost whimpered. "I don't see why I should be treated like this and then have to behave——"
"Really it does not matter what you think," she said. "There are things connected with this business of which you know nothing, and of which you are likely to remain in ignorance. It was fortunate for me and for others that I came on the scene at the moment when I might be useful. You have nothing to gain and nothing to lose by maintaining strict silence about to-night's absurd adventure. Surely, you have seen enough of the world to know that Miss Vane is a lady, and that she meant nothing disgraceful when she rode off in our motor to-night. The whole thing was an escapade, which would only make you the laughing stock of your friends if they knew about it. But why do I waste time arguing with you in this fashion? As I said just now, you must not mention this thing again. I don't ask you to promise not to do so, because I know my word is law to you. And now be so good as to go back to the ballroom, as Lady Starfield is anxious to have your advice on some business affair."
Without another word of protest, Weiss crept away bearing a strong resemblance to an overgrown dog that had been chastened for some fault. Iza watched him with her marvellous dark eyes, until he had disappeared.
"I dare say you are astonished at what you have just heard," she said, still speaking in the same icy tones, "but there are reasons why my—why Mr. Weiss should do exactly what I told him. But this is neither the time nor place to discuss that. I hope to have an opportunity of seeing Miss Vane again, for I confess that I have taken a great liking to her, and another danger threatens of which she knows nothing."
Without waiting for more remarks Iza Weiss walked away towards the ballroom, her manner implying that for the present, she did not desire to take further part in the drama.
"I had no idea you knew Miss Weiss so well," Elsie said, as she turned to Rashleigh. "You are old friends."
"We are rather more than that," Rashleigh replied. "It is a profound secret, even from those impossible people whom Iza calls her parents, but we are engaged to be married. There are urgent reasons why this should be kept a secret and you and Sefton will respect my confidence. Iza has got us out of a very tight place, and we ought to be exceedingly grateful. It is past the time when my friend should be waiting to convey me to a place of safety, and the sooner we get out of the house the better."
"No doubt about that," Sefton said heartily. "I had better call a cab for you two, so that you can slip away without delay. We need not trouble about Lady Starfield. She is very kind and good-natured, but extremely forgetful, and no doubt the little bride whose name she could not recollect has already faded from her memory."
A little later Elsie found herself once more in a cab with Rashleigh. When she was safe, reaction set in, and she trembled in every limb. She was about to faint, but contrived to throw off the feeling. She endeavored to keep her mind fixed on the point that she had been successful in the night's task. Whether or not the police had followed her from Regent Terrace did not matter now, for most assuredly they had afterwards been thrown off the scent. The cab stopped at Rashleigh's instigation, and he got out.
"I shall never forget your kindness," he said fervently, "but I will try to prove all I feel on some more fitting occasion. My friends are waiting close by, though you cannot see them, and in a minute or two I shall be absolutely safe."
Rashleigh turned away, and in a moment later was swallowed up in the darkness. With eyes half closed and senses drugged with fatigue, Elsie threw herself back in the cab, and recollected nothing till she found herself in the hall of Vera Barrington's house, trying to give the latter some sort of description of what had happened during the last few momentous hours.
"Really, I can't recollect anything," she said helplessly. "All I can contrive to keep in my mind is the fact that your brother is safe. He told me to tell you that, and that you were to have no more anxiety about him. As to the rest, it is all mixed up in my head in a most extraordinary jumble. It will come clear after I have had a good sleep, yet there was one thing I was very anxious to tell you. Oh, yes, I know what it was. Can I have some sandwiches and a small glass of wine? I am famished with the want of food."
"Poor, dear, brave little creature," Vera Barrington said, as she stooped and kissed Elsie affectionately. "I had not forgotten that. Come into the dining-room and I'll look after your creature comforts. And I promise that I will do my best to restrain my curiosity till to-morrow, eager as I am to know."
Elsie had a confused dream of eating a few delicious sandwiches and drinking a glass of champagne. Then it seemed to her that someone carried her upstairs and undressed her, and that presently, she was lying on a couch of down and floating through rose-colored space. When she opened her eyes again it was well into the forenoon, and Vera Barrington was standing by the side of her bed.
"How do you feel?" the latter asked.
"Perfectly splendid," Elsie replied. "You will be glad to know that I have not forgotten a single detail of what happened last night, and after I have had some breakfast I will tell you everything."
Elsie found an attentive listener in Vera Barrington. Not one word of interruption came from her till the whole of the exacting story was concluded.
"You have behaved splendidly," the actress said. "And I am glad to find that Dora Carney and myself were not mistaken in you. With a face like yours, you are bound to possess courage and resolution. Believe me, you will not find me ungrateful. There is not one girl in a million who would have done this kind of thing for a total stranger. If I could find words——"
"But what have I done?" Elsie protested. "And, remember, you have been exceedingly kind to me. If it had not been for your great goodness, I should not have lain snug and warm in that comfortable bed last night. It looked at one time as if I should spend the weary hours on a seat in one of the parks. One favor I wish to ask of you. You know that I possess nothing in the world except my wardrobe and a very good education. If you could only find me some situation or some kind of home or institution——"
"Bless the girl, what is she talking about!" Vera Barrington exclaimed. "But I see you are brave and independent, and I respect you all the more for it. But you are going to take your time over it and pick and choose, even if it takes you twelve months. I owe you a deep debt of gratitude, and I shall be grieved if you do not consent to remain here as my guest till you can find something perfectly suitable. Now, don't interrupt me, please, because I have only a few minutes to spare before I go to rehearsal. I will be back about three, and we can have a long afternoon together. Meanwhile, you will be only too glad to stay in the house and spend a lazy morning."
Elsie was disposed to fall in with the suggestion, but she was not destined to have the morning entirely to herself, for a little before one a servant came to say that Mr. Edgar Sefton was in the drawing-room, and wished a few minutes' conversation with Miss Vane.
Sefton was delighted to see Elsie. He held her hand in his warmly. There was a look in his eyes that brought the color to her cheeks. Somehow her heart warmed towards him.
"This is a wrong time to call," he said, "but I longed to know if you got back safely. You are interested in the welfare of Gerald Rashleigh, whom I believe to be innocent of the charges against him. I wish you would tell Miss Barrington what I say, and ask her if I could be of any assistance in the matter. Rashleigh is an old friend, and I will do all I can to help to clear his name. Besides, I owe it to him for bringing us together again. When I saw you last night the recollection of the happy days came back to me with vivid force, and I realised why I had remained a bachelor."
The color crept into Elsie's cheeks, but, audacious as the speech was, she could not feel angry with the speaker. She had never forgotten Edgar Sefton, and was filled with a great gladness in the knowledge that he had not forgotten her.
"You must not speak like that," she said gently. "I am quite sure you do not mean——"
"I mean every word I say and more," Sefton protested. "I am most fortunate to have met you again. Many a time I had intended to run down to the old rectory to see how little Elsie was getting on, but Fate always intervened. And now, as to your future. Tell me what you are going to do? A little later I hope to induce you to place that future in my hands, unless I have left it too late and there is some person so happy as——"
"Indeed, there is no one," Elsie said, tell-tale color still mantling her cheeks. "We met so few people—but, don't you think we are getting on a little too fast, Edgar? My father gave me an excellent education, and I could take a responsible post in a high school, but there is not the same anxiety about the future that there was yesterday. Miss Barrington has pressed me to stay as her guest for the present, and I shall be glad to do so, because I know she would feel very much hurt if I left her. Besides, my dear Edgar, to be practical, I have nowhere else to go. The more I think over matters, the clearer it grows that everything has fallen out for the best. In the first place, I have made a sincere friend of Miss Barrington; and, secondly, I have found you again. Now that I have you both to rely on I shall be less anxious about what is going to happen to me. And, another thing, I have been cured of my foolish ambition. It is a life that would have been unsuitable to me."
The conversation drifted into more personal channels, and then Sefton rose to go. He seemed reluctant to depart. He hoped that Elsie would allow him to call frequently. There was a fresh joy and gladness in the girl's heart when she was again alone. One man cared for her more than for any other woman. How strange the world seemed, how different from the grey old planet which had been so depressing yesterday! Thoughts like these were still running in Elsie's mind when Vera Barrington returned. When they had lunch they settled down for a long cosy chat. Naturally the events of the night before kept cropping up in the course of conversation.
"What struck me as most strange about the whole business," Elsie said musingly, "was the extraordinary way in which Miss Weiss seemed to rule her father. He behaved like a man who is hypnotised. She had only to say a thing and he obeyed her as implicitly as a schoolboy obeys his master. If the situation had not been so full of danger, I should have never met Miss Weiss, though probably your brother told you——"
"My brother told me nothing," Vera replied. "I didn't even know there was a Miss Weiss. But she must be an uncommon girl if all you say about her is true, and I have not the least reason to doubt it. I don't see how it is to be managed, but I should like to become acquainted with the beautiful creature who has promised to become Gerald's wife. How strange that one so refined and pure should be the daughter of a vulgar person like Weiss. But we must not forget that there is my brother to consider. I assume he is safe because we have heard nothing from him, and, indeed, if anything had happened we should have seen it in the papers this morning. And now, what would you like to do? Will you dine with me, or wait till later? Perhaps you would like to go to the theatre? Who is it, Wilson? I told you I could see no one this afternoon."
The servant hesitated, holding out a tray with a card upon it. He was understood to say that the visitor had come on pressing business. Vera glanced at the card and her expression changed.
"Ask her in," she said. "Elsie, here is an extraordinary thing. My caller is Miss Weiss herself."
"How very singular!" Elsie exclaimed. "Fancy, the one being that is uppermost in our minds appearing like this! I suppose you don't happen to know anything about her?"
"Nothing whatever," Vera admitted. "But we shan't solve the problem by chattering. Let her come in, and we shall see what she has to say for herself."
Iza Weiss entered the room and bowed in her cold, stately fashion to Vera and her guest. The former admitted that Elsie's description of the stranger's personal appearance was not exaggerated, and yet she would have been much more charming but for that icy mask which made her almost repellent. Looking at her in the broad light of day, Elsie could not help admiring the courage of the man who had asked this woman to be his wife. Perhaps there were times when Iza Weiss could unbend, and Elsie could imagine her to be very charming at such moments.
"I hope you will pardon my intrusion," the visitor said quietly. "But after what happened last night, I could not keep away. I am wondering if Mr. Rashleigh told his sister that we are something more than acquaintances."
"Indeed. I heard nothing till my friend here returned," Vera said. "Of course, she has told me everything that happened last night, and when my brother informed her that he was engaged to be married to you, she was naturally very much surprised."
A bitter smile flickered over the visitor's face.
"I can understand that," he said. "But we will discuss these matters presently. It is imperative that I should know all the circumstances of what happened last night without delay. But tell me, Miss Barrington, is your brother safe?"
The last words came out impetuously as if the girl, for the moment, had feelings and emotions like other people.
"So far as I know, yes," Vera replied. "We made very elaborate precautions. In ordinary circumstances, my brother would have given himself up and faced the consequences, but it was vital to his interests that he should have a few days' liberty. I presume from what you say that he has not tried to communicate with you."
"It would be too dangerous," Iza said, "seeing that I am living under the same roof as the man who is supposed to have suffered at the hands of your brother."
"You are speaking of your father?" Vera asked.
"Oh, yes," Iza said, with biting contempt. "I had forgotten. But we are travelling too fast. I want to know how Miss Vane came into this business, and what she was doing at Lady Starfield's last night."
Vera gave a detailed account of the way in which Elsie had come on the scene and been dragged into the whirlpool in which so many beings were involved. Iza listened with wrapt attention, her dark eyes fixed on the speaker's face. For a moment or two the mask dropped from her features, and she seemed to grow soft and human. Here was a girl to like and to trust, Elsie thought.
"That was very good and kind of you," Iza said with a tremor in her voice. "It was a splendid thing to undertake on behalf of a stranger. Under Providence, you are going to be the means of saving a good man's reputation, to say nothing of the happiness of one who has known little else but misery during the past five years. More than than this I cannot say at present. The result must be left to time."
"Still, I must confess I am a wee bit disappointed," Elsie said. "I thought you had come to tell some interesting story, so far as Mr. Rashleigh is concerned——"
"Do not judge me harshly," Iza said. "I came here to make friends with you both. Gerald wanted me long ago to be introduced to his sister, but I refused on the grounds of danger. But after what happened last night, I feel bound to undertake certain risks. At any rate, I had a great longing to see more of the brave girl who did so much for the man I love. You are thinking that I am not a girl capable of a great affection. Ah, if you could only look into my heart!"
"One never can tell," Elsie said quietly. "But now, as to this charge which is hanging over the head of Mr. Rashleigh. Like the rest of us, you regard him as innocent."
"Innocent!" Iza cried passionately. "Of course he is! He is the victim of a foul conspiracy set on foot by—no, I must not mention the name. I tell you this is one of the blackest and vilest things ever perpetrated by the wickedest man it has ever been my ill fortune to know. But I mean to get to the bottom of the whole business before I am done, and when the time comes you must help me. They say that Gerald Rashleigh has taken advantage of the confidence of Samuel Weiss to rob him of twenty thousand pounds. Oh, they have made out their case clearly enough; trust them for that! The money is missing. It has been traced to Gerald; it has even been passed through his private banking account. On the face of it, his explanation of the circumstances sounds wild to the last degree. No jury would believe it. And yet things just as extravagant are happening every day, as the newspapers testify."
Iza had forgotten her coldness and reserve. The words poured from her lips in a burning stream, as she paced restlessly up and down the room. She was utterly transformed, and Elsie could see in her now nothing but a very woman aflame to right the wrongs of the man she loved.
"Pardon me," Vera suggested, "but I hope I am not going to hurt your feelings by what I am saying. Am I to infer from your manner that this cruel conspiracy against my brother has been set on foot by your—I mean Mr. Weiss?"
"You need not trouble about my feelings in the matter," Iza laughed bitterly. "I am not going to lose my temper because you make an accusation like that. Mr. Weiss is at the bottom of the business. In fact, he has engineered the whole thing."
"That is a painful confession for a daughter to make," Vera said. "It must be a great shock to you."
"Oh, there are daughters and daughters," Iza cried. "You will know sooner or later why I have nothing but contempt for the man I call my father. I wish I could tell you everything. I wish I dared take you into my confidence, but there are things I must not speak about, at least not yet. One matter I must allude to before I forget it. Like all men of his class, Mr. Weiss has satellites who do his dirty work, and conspicuous amongst them is Roger Carney, whom, I believe, you have the misfortune to call your uncle."
"That is so," Vera admitted. "A degraded wretch, a blackmailer, who at one time, incredible as it may seem, was regarded as one of the most promising officers in the British Army. He has a daughter, for whom I entertain a sincere affection, otherwise he would never see the inside of this house. But you don't mean to tell me that Roger Carney is in this conspiracy against my brother?"
"That I am not sure about," Iza went on. "I have my suspicions, and I think that I shall not be doing wrong in taking Dora Carney into my confidence."
"But you don't know her," Elsie exclaimed.
"Not yet, but I want you to bring us together. At least, I want you to invent some pretext whereby I can become acquainted with Dora without the introduction coming through you. You will, therefore, see the necessity of keeping my visit a secret. It would never do for Samuel Weiss to know that I had been calling upon Gerald Rashleigh's sister."
Vera saw the need of caution clearly, and already was casting about in her mind for some means by which her visitor and Dora Carney might be brought together.
"Can't you manage it yourself?" she asked. "According to what you say, Roger Carney is a frequent visitor at your house. You might go out of your way to make friends with him, and announce your intention of calling on his daughter."
"Yes, I might do that," Iza said, somewhat doubtfully. "But it is a loathsome thing even to be barely civil to a man like Carney. Hitherto I have treated him with the greatest contempt, and I fear that he hates me proportionately."
"I don't think you need worry about that," Vera said with a smile. "Roger Carney can always put his pride and his passion in his pocket whenever money is to be made, and he would undoubtedly encourage a friendship between his daughter and the only child of the rich Mr. Weiss."
"Very well," Iza assented. "We will leave it at that. There are many difficulties and dangers ahead. We must have patience and courage, and no doubt everything will come out right in the long run. All I want is justice for Gerald, and freedom for myself. People call me proud and cold and distant. They say I have no heart, and no feeling. If I had not learned to restrain these, I should either have gone mad or else felt myself impelled to rid the world of one of the greatest scoundrels that Providence for its own inscrutable purpose has ever permitted to live. And now I have one thing to ask in conclusion. I cannot ask you to come to me, Miss Barrington, but there is no reason why I should not visit you. May I come when and how I like, and will you tell me when I am most likely to find you at home?"
"Come, and welcome," Vera said heartily. "I shall always be delighted to see you, as I am rarely out between twelve and three. If I get any message from my brother, I will not fail to let you know."
Iza rose somewhat reluctantly, as if loth to depart from that congenial atmosphere. She looked wistfully at Vera and half held out her hand.
"I hope you won't mind," she said. "I am terribly lonely, and I am afraid I am too prone to shut myself within myself like a sensitive plant. If you could only, both of you, be friends with me, I should be the most grateful——"
The speaker broke off suddenly, as if unable to continue. She could not have done better or made a more eloquent appeal to her listeners. With the quickness of the born actress Vera read Iza's feelings like an open book. She took the other by the shoulders and kissed her affectionately.
"There," she said, "that will show you what my feelings towards you are. Silly child, can't you realise that there are others who have their trials and tribulations? Elsie has been in the house long enough to know the cross I have to bear. Now run away and say no more about it, and come back whenever you please, always bearing in mind that I am going to be proud of the girl who is going to be my sister-in-law."
Iza murmured something about kindness, and a feeling of happiness, to which she had been a stranger. She was finding the world a better and a brighter place than it had been an hour ago. She walked along Regent's Park, her head high in the air, a smile upon her parted lips. She was so transformed, so entirely different, that Sefton, going towards Vera's house, almost failed to recognise her. Could this really be the ice Maiden? Any doubts on the subject were dispelled by Iza holding out her hand to him.
"I believe you were going to pass me," she said. "We may be nothing but acquaintances, but I think that last night might have placed us upon a somewhat different footing. I presume you are going to see Miss Barrington."
"That is my intention," Sefton admitted. "And if I may make a guess, I should say you were just returning from there. By the way, that reminds me, I have not yet thanked you for saving us from a dreadful scandal last night. It is strange to find Mr. Weiss's daughter taking such an interest in Gerald Rashleigh."
"I do take a great interest in him," Iza said with rising color, "and if you will tell Miss Barrington that you met me she will probably tell you why I am on the side of her brother. I understand that you are his good friend also. But I must not detain you longer, for I have serious work to do. It is fortunate that Gerald has so many brave and determined allies to fight his battles for him."
Iza shook hands with Sefton warmly and went her way, leaving him marvelling at the change which had come over the girl who was known to most young men about town by the name of 'The Ice Maiden.' Many of them were needy and daring enough to marry anyone in the way of an heiress, but so far none had ventured to lay himself at Iza's feet.
The great gong clashed and clattered in the hall, and reverberated through the mansion in Park Lane, where Samuel Weiss had elected to take up his abode. It was fortunate for a girl so cultured and tasteful as Iza that Weiss had taken the furnished house from a noble lord who could not afford to live in it himself. By the irony of fate, the owner of the mansion had lost most of his money in the very speculations in which Weiss was believed to have found his fortune. At any rate, the house was a museum of artistic and beautiful things, and not even the presence of Samuel Weiss could defile it.
Iza came slowly down the stairs, a dazzling vision in the white she always affected. No single ornament broke the severity of her attire, her face had lost its animation again, and she was once more the cold statuesque creature which the world knew.
The family were dining alone to-night, a long solemn meal, which was passed almost in silence. For such small functions Iza would have infinitely preferred one of the morning rooms, but Weiss loved the glitter and pomposity of it all. He had a fair eye for color, and loved to surround himself with the glitter and ostentation of his position. Half a dozen footmen tumbled over one another in their efforts to find something to justify their existence.
The meal came to its end at length, to Iza's great relief, and the port and cigarettes appeared upon the table, and the last of the gorgeous footmen disappeared. In ordinary circumstances Iza would nave gone to her own room, but she remained now, outwardly frozen and indifferent, yet in reality alert to catch any word which might be of use to her later. She sat by the fire, screening her features with a fan, and occupied with a large black poodle, which she was teaching to balance two lumps of sugar on his nose at once. Mrs. Weiss sat at the table, engaged in eating her third peach, and listening to her husband's comments upon things in general.
"Heard anything of young Rashleigh?" she asked.
"No, I haven't," Weiss growled. "Though there was very little doubt that he was hiding himself for a day or two in his sister's house. Still, the police tell me he has got away, and they have lost trace of him altogether, confound him! All the same, he is bound to be picked up sooner or later, especially now that I have offered a reward of a thousand pounds to anybody instrumental in arresting him."
"Scandalous! disgraceful!" Iza said, without heat or passion. She was still bending over her dog, her mind apparently concentrated upon her experiments. "You know that Gerald Rashleigh is an honest and honorable man in the clutches of a scoundrel—the most contemptible scoundrel unhanged."
Weiss looked at the speaker with a face distorted with passion.
"That's strong language," he said. "However, you are bound to have your own way, and we can't prevent you. Why you stay here is the thing that puzzles me. You hate and despise us both from the bottom of your heart. You look upon us as dirt beneath your feet, and yet you stay eating our bread——"
"You know why I stay," Iza said, in the same cold, dispassionate voice. "I stop because I have a secret to discover, and when that secret is mine, I shall trouble you no longer; you are bound to be civil to me, because I know too much. What would not the police give for my knowledge? What would the authorities at the Cape say if I told them where they could put their hands upon the notorious Jim Blake? Jim Blake, the greatest diamond thief who ever smuggled stones out of the colony. Ah, we could tell a story, Fuss, couldn't we?"
Weiss forced a laugh to his lips; the dog seemed to understand what was said, for he turned his intelligent head to Weiss, then back to Iza again, and gravely laid a black paw against the side of his nose. Weiss laughed once more.
"Wonderful dog, Fuss," he said. "I drink a glass of wine to you, Fuss, for you are the founder of the family fortunes. Don't go speaking like that in the house, Iza. Supposing one of the servants heard you, what would they think?"
"Sometimes I don't seem to care what anybody thinks," Iza said wearily. "There are moments when this life becomes almost insupportable, and yet I must drag on for the sake of the secret which you withhold from me——"
"Which I have got to withhold from you," Weiss growled. "I don't trust you, my girl. In fact, experience teaches me that it is a mistake to trust anybody. And don't forget yourself and drive me too far, else, maybe, you will be sorry for it."
"Oh, I know what you are capable of," Iza said. "You are capable of murdering me, both of you. You are ready and willing to put me out of the way. Not so very long ago you very nearly succeeded in doing so, but I found a means to prevent that, to make you civil to me, though you would give half your fortune to see me lying in my coffin at the present moment. But you know now that if any accident happened to me, or if I died, that a witness from beyond the grave would testify to the truth. If I cease to exist to-morrow, a certain firm of lawyers in London would open a particular envelope wherein the whole truth is written. If they fail to hear from me once a week, they have instructions to open that packet and read it. If they did so, what would become of the great millionaire, Samuel Weiss? How much longer after that would it be before the police captured the notorious Jim Blake? No, no, I am not in the least afraid of you, though you have every reason to dread my anger. You keep the secret that I am seeking, and, in return, I hold my tongue—for the present. Yes, as you said just now, even the dog could tell a story if he could speak. But, I presume, you have turned respectable, and those exciting episodes are done with for ever. When I think of the way in which I was made the innocent tool, I could almost forget my woman-hood and thrash you."
"Oh, don't keep on like this," Mrs. Weiss implored. "I declare you get upon my nerves to such an extent that I can hardly eat my dinner. But you two will never agree about anything. I am going into the drawing-room, where I may get a bit of peace and quietness."
"That's right," Weiss said approvingly, "and you go, too, Iza."
The ample form of Mrs. Weiss disappeared towards the hall, but Iza made no attempt to move. She was teaching the dog a fresh trick, which he seemed to pick up quite in a human fashion.
"I am comfortable where I am," she said. "Besides, now that we are alone, I have a few words to say to you. You have always accused me of being cold and self-contained, and caring nothing for anybody but myself, but like most other people, you are utterly mistaken. To begin with, I am interested in Mr. Gerald Rashleigh, whom you are trying to ruin for some purpose of your own."
"What do you mean by that?" Weiss growled. "Do you mean to suggest that the whole thing is a put-up job——"
"I am certain of it," Iza said calmly. "Of course, it is impossible for me to follow all the rascally schemes of which you are the author, but I know that Mr. Rashleigh has robbed you of nothing. Therefore, you will be good enough to discover that the whole thing is a mistake——"
"The girl's mad," Weiss said hoarsely. "Now, listen to me. You can push me to a certain extent, and you can make me look small, as you did last night, for instance. But there are limits beyond which it is dangerous to shove me. If you choose to defy me, then, do so; tell the story of Jim Blake and the diamonds and the little black poodle. After that, you can whistle for the secret of——"
"Mr. Carney to see you, sir," the voice of a servant broke in suddenly. "He says he is sorry to trouble you at this time of night, but his business is important."
"Ask him in," Weiss said, at the same time turning a suspicious glance at Iza.
"You need not mind me," Iza said indifferently. Apparently she was thinking about nothing but the trick she was teaching the dog. "If there is anything you want to say to Mr. Carney, you had better take him into the library where——"
The speech was cut short by the entrance of Carney himself. He was hot and excited about something, and did not notice the presence of anyone besides Weiss in the room.
"I have had a bit of real good luck," he said thickly. The man had been drinking more than was good for him. "It's young Rashleigh. By a mere fluke——"
"Fool!" Weiss hissed. "Can't you see that we are not alone. And I am not sure that I haven't changed my mind about Rashleigh. It is fortunate you came in this evening, because I am very anxious to see those figures which I asked you to get for me."
Weiss winked solemnly at his visitor, and the latter grinned, knowingly. He was sober enough to realise that Weiss did not want Iza to hear anything, but that what he had to say must be jotted down in writing. The girl was playing with her dog in the same earnest fashion. She had ignored Carney's presence altogether, as she usually did, and yet she was following every word intently. She guessed exactly what was taking place. With an effort she restrained herself from looking up, when Carney produced a piece of paper on which he seemed to scribble some figures. Presently the paper was tossed over to Weiss, who grunted as he cast his eye over the pencil scrawl.
"Good!" he muttered. "You have done very well indeed. Don't stay loitering here, but go off and see Harris without delay. The figures are satisfactory, and if you can get Harris to take the same view it will be a good night's work for you."
Carney discreetly vanished, and Iza rose to her feet. She must see that scrap of paper at any cost. As she swept by the table, her sleeve brushed the surface, and the scrap of paper fluttered to the floor. Then Iza made a little sound with her lips, and the black poodle looked up eagerly. Iza pointed with her finger to the scrap of paper, and the dog seemed actually to nod, as if he knew exactly what she required. As if nothing had happened, Weiss lifted the paper from the floor and dropped it with affected carelessness on the table. The dog watched him with a positively human expression.
"Come to the library a moment," Iza said. "I want to show you something. I had by no means finished what I was going to say when Carney came in."
Weiss followed obediently. He had forgotten about the paper on the table. Then, as they were crossing the hall, Iza made another sound with her lips and immediately the dog turned and crept back into the dining-room. Ten minutes later Iza was in her own room, which appeared to be empty. Once more she made a little sound with her lips, and from under the bed the black poodle crept with the scrap of paper in his mouth. Iza snatched at it and read as follows:—
"Have found where Rashleigh is hiding. Can lay hands upon him to-morrow night certain."
For a while Iza sat gazing into the fire. She was not blind to the desperate nature of the situation. At the same time she decided that nothing could be done in a hurry. A false step might mean the ruin of Gerald Rashleigh's carefully-laid plans. Yet delay was dangerous in the extreme. Gradually a plan began to shape itself in Iza's mind. There could be no holding back now.
"I must manage to get out of the house," she said to herself. "In ordinary circumstances this would be easy, but it is possible he may have detected my ruse. This thing will have to be carefully worked."
Iza rang the bell. Outwardly she showed no signs of the trouble that bore so heavily on her mind. She turned to the maid who entered and bade the latter shut the door.
"I hope there is nothing wrong, miss," the maid said.
"Nothing that you could prevent, Mary," Iza replied. "It is only another phase of the old trouble. I want you to do something for me at once. I know I can trust you implicitly. Get a sheet of notepaper and an envelope—plain paper, mind—and write a letter purporting to be addressed to me by some intimate friend, say, Mrs. Clayton Philips."
"A kind of forgery, miss?" Mary asked.
"You have guessed it exactly, Mary," Iza went on. "Mrs. Mary Clayton Philips wants to see me immediately. Seeing you write so good a hand, the deception will pass easily. Make the note short and mysterious."
"I think I can manage that, miss," the girl said. "And after that what am I to do with it?"
"Slip out of the house and go to the nearest telephone call office and ask for a messenger-boy. Give him the letter and a shilling and ask him to deliver the note. It will be brought to me, and I shall have to sign for it. What I wish to do is to get out of the house for an hour, and I want a plausible excuse for doing so. Now run along and get this little matter settled. There is no time to waste."
Mary departed on her errand, leaving Iza with no doubt as to the successful way in which she would accomplish her mission. Then, coolly and calmly, as if she had not a single trouble on her mind, Iza returned to the dining-room, where Weiss was smoking before the fire.
"I cannot understand," she said presently, "why you tolerate the presence of that man Carney. Haven't we enough shady people about us without adding Carney to the number?"
"He is useful to me," Weiss chuckled. "In fact, they are all useful to me. Besides, the fellow is a gentleman by birth, and can be quite fascinating when he keeps from the drink. A few years ago he was a good deal thought of."
"Really?" Iza said coldly. "I should not have thought it. I am told he has a daughter who is quite different from him. One or two of my friends who know her say she is charming. What a dreadful fate for any poor creature to be tied up to such a parent as that!"
"I believe she is a nice girl enough," Weiss said carelessly.
"I am strongly disposed to look her up," Iza went on. "You don't know where they live?"
Iza asked the question without daring to look at her companion. She would have given much to know whether or not his suspicions were aroused, but she had to risk that. But Weiss spoke quite naturally, and had no hesitation in giving Iza the desired information. The address did not sound very promising, but it had been obtained, and that was the great thing. After that Iza turned the conversation adroitly, and began to speak languidly of other matters. She showed no sign of perturbation, and by-and-bye a servant came in with an envelope on a tray.
"An express letter for you, miss," he said.
Iza took the note with a gesture of annoyance. She expressed a hope that no one wanted her at this time of night. The frown between her eyes was very artistically done. Nevertheless, she read the letter carefully. It was well and cleverly written, and calculated to deceive anybody. Iza tossed it somewhat impatiently on the table, and turned to the footman.
"I must go out," she said. "Will you please send my maid to my room? Strange how some folk always seem to be getting into trouble."
Iza walked away, leaving the letter behind her. She knew that Weiss would read it, which was perhaps the main reason she did not put the note in her pocket. She had not the least objection to Weiss gratifying his curiosity.
When she was outside the room, she flew up the stairs, and found her maid waiting for her.
"It was quite successful, Mary," she said. "I could not have done it better myself. Now put me out a walking dress, something plain and unattractive. Then go downstairs and call in a cab. There is no time to be lost, for I must be back here by midnight. Fortunately, Mr. Weiss goes to bed early, so he will know nothing about my return."
A little later and the hansom was rolling along in an easterly direction. With Carney's address fixed in her mind, Iza knew exactly what to do. The cab crossed Waterloo Bridge at length, and just before reaching her destination Iza stopped it.
"I am getting down here," she explained. "I suppose you know this part of London fairly well. Perhaps you can tell me how to find Parker's Buildings?"
The cab-man intimated that he "rather ought to know the locality, miss, seeing as how he had been born in the neighborhood."
Parker's Buildings, it appeared, was not very far off, and Iza reached it soon. She congratulated herself upon having put on plain attire, for the district was distinctly shady. Seedy-looking men and women lounged about the pavements. The gutters were full of children. Iza wondered how the children of the very poor never seemed to have any bedtime.
Parker's Buildings was a large block of tenements more or less attended to by a gruff-looking porter, who gave Iza the impression of having spent most of his life in the Army. A judiciously-invested half-crown produced a certain amount of civility in his manner, and the man recognised that he was speaking to a lady. He was ready to give any information in his power.
"I want to see Mr. Carney," Iza explained. "At least, I don't so much want to see him as to ascertain whether or not he is at home. Will you find that out without letting him know that I am here? You can easily manage that?"
There was the suspicion of a wink in the eye of the porter as he departed on his errand. He came back presently with the information that Carney was not in.
"He doesn't generally get back before eleven, and it wants some half hour to that yet; and I won't disguise from you, miss, that nine nights out of ten when he does come home, he ain't exactly in a fit state to discuss matters in what you might call an intelligent way."
"I understand," Iza said coldly. "Miss Carney is in, of course? Yes? I thought so. Take me as far as her room, and I will announce myself."
A minute later Iza was tapping at a door, and a gentle voice bade her come in. It was a shabby furnished room in the plainest and meanest fashion, though Iza did not fail to note that the place was both neat and clean. A pretty girl rose from a chair near a mere handful of fire, and looked somewhat doubtfully at her visitor. Iza closed the door behind her.
"Pray don't be afraid of me," she said. "No doubt you have heard your father mention my name—Iza Weiss."
"Your name is quite familiar," Dora Carney said timidly. "My father has said more than once——"
The speaker paused and broke off in confusion.
"You need not say more," Iza smiled. "I am aware that your father does not altogether approve of me. I have never taken any pains to show the amiable side of my character, for to be candid, I do not altogether approve of him. My dear child, there is a strain of similarity in our cases."
"But you are not poor," Dora protested.
"Not in that sense of the word," Iza went on. "I mean as to the men we call our fathers. We both have reason to despise them. Still, I can save you much suffering and anxiety, and I want you to let me be your friend. In the proper sense of the word I have no friend, though by great good fortune I have made the acquaintance of two girls of whom I am going to be very fond. I am speaking of Miss Barrington, the actress, and Miss Elsie Vane."
A smile broke out on Dora's face, and she began to feel less afraid of her cold and stately visitor.
"I know them both," she said, "though Miss Vane is quite a recent acquaintance. In fact, I was the means of bringing her and Vera Barrington together. You see, Miss Barrington has a brother, Gerald Rashleigh, who is a friend——"
"Of mine," Iza said with a smile. "Till lately he held an important post in Mr. Weiss's firm. Perhaps you will cease to doubt me when I tell you that I am engaged to be married to Mr. Rashleigh. You may think I would not care very much for any man, but you would be wrong, because I love Gerald from the bottom of my heart. He is a fugitive from justice at present—but I am wasting your time and mine by going into this matter, since you were in the plot to get him safely away from his sister's house. How successful you were——"
"Really successful, I hope," Dora murmured.
"That brings me to the point, and explains the object of my visit. I am alarmed to discover that Gerald is by no means so safe as we suppose. A visitor called upon Mr. Weiss to-night and I heard their conversation. The gist of the interview was summed up in a few words scribbled on a piece of paper, which the visitor left behind. By a little strategy I managed to read the paper. Imagine my horror when I learned that the visitor had discovered Gerald Rashleigh's hiding-place, and he would be arrested in a few hours. My dear child, can't you guess the name of that visitor?"
Dora looked up with a puzzled expression on her face. Then suddenly her features flamed, and a cry escaped her.
"Oh, I know," she said. "It was my father. Not that he has said anything to me about it. He conceals all his rascalities from me, and I was not aware till this moment that he knew anything about Mr. Rashleigh, or most assuredly I should have let Miss Barrington know. Now, what do you wish me to do? How can I prevent this dreadful thing from happening? Command me in any way!"
"I thought of a plan as I drove here," Iza said. "Your father is a pretty frequent visitor at Mr. Weiss's house, and I know something of his failings. I suppose his downfall is attributable to the cause which has plunged many a promising man into the depths—I mean the demon drink."
"You have guessed it correctly," Dora admitted. "It is a curse, and the worst of it is the victim does not bear all the punishment. His innocent family have to share the burden with him. Scarcely a night passes without the repulsive sight of my father in a state of—but I need not go into that. It is too horrible."
"I am sorry for you," Iza cried. "You must try to benefit now by your father's weakness. Indeed, I have reckoned upon that as I came along. You may be sure he has in his pocket the address of the house where Gerald Rashleigh is hiding. Dora, you must procure that address and let me have it. If necessary, I will stay here half the night and get it. My people believe I have gone to see a friend and my maid will wait up for me. When you hear your father come in, you must hide me in your bedroom."
"I could manage to do that," Dora said, indicating two doors which led from the sitting-room. "That is mine on the right. But, tell me, what will you do if I procure this address for you?"
"We will talk about that presently," Iza said. "Who is that coming up the stairs?"
Once more the cruel red flush stained Dora's face. She did not need to guess at the identity of the footsteps. She knew them only too well. They came halting and staggering up the stairs, reeling across the landing, and then a heavy figure stumbled across the door.
"Hide me at once," Iza whispered. "Whatever happens, he must not see me. Let us wait and watch events."
Before the door could be opened, Iza was standing back in the shadow of the bedroom. Without herself being seen, she was able to observe all that was going on. She saw Carney blunder across the floor and drop sideways into an armchair by the fire. The man was frankly intoxicated. His speech was thick and incoherent, but he seemed to be pleased with himself.
"Sitting up for me again," he stammered. "Why do you do it? I have so often told you not to."
"I could not sleep till I knew you were safe," Dora said sadly. "Do you want anything before I retire?"
"I won't go to bed yet," Carney replied. "I have some good news for you, my girl. What do you say to a holiday, a real holiday in Paris, with money to spend? You trust your old father. He may be a fool in some things, but he is not such a fool as he looks. It's a rare stroke of business I have done this time."
"So long as it is honest," Dora said, "I don't mind——"
"Honest be hanged!" Carney broke out. "What's the good of honesty in a world like this? This job is going to be worth a thousand pounds to me. I have only to wait till to-morrow afternoon and the money will be as good as in my pocket."
"A thousand pounds!" Dora cried. "Why that is the sum that Mr. Weiss is offering for information that will lead to the arrest of Mr. Rashleigh. Father, you don't mean to tell me you have sunk so low——"
"A thousand pounds is a thousand pounds," Carney said, dogmatically. "And don't come interfering in things you don't understand. Besides, you don't call that getting money dishonestly. However, it doesn't matter what you call it, my dear, I have got it all down in my pocket-book, so that I shan't forget it. After to-morrow we will go to Paris and have a good time."
The speaker's voice trailed off into incoherent mutterings; then his head fell back, and snore after snore came from him. Iza crept into the room. Her face was pale, but her eyes were blazing with determination.
"Now, try to wake him," she whispered. "I want you to see if he is really sound asleep. I understand that when men get in that state it is almost impossible to bring them to their senses again, until the effects of the drink have passed off. Shake him vigorously, pinch him, shout in his ears."
Dora did as Iza urged, but Carney might have been dead so far as the girl's efforts were concerned.
"That's right," Iza said. "Now we won't be long. Search his pockets and find that book he spoke about."
The search was not difficult, for Carney's pockets were empty, with the exception of a pipe and bunch of keys and a few coppers and odds and ends. The memorandum-book proved to be in the form of a small diary. Various mysterious items and hieroglyphics were scribbled on some pages. On one page a single entry consisted only of an address and the words "five o'clock."
"This is it," Iza exclaimed. "This is the address we want. Johnson's Hotel, Wilderness-road. The words 'five o'clock' indicate the time to-morrow when the arrest will be made. This address has only been written to-day, the pencilling is fresh and unblurred, and, you see, it is under the proper date. I am exceedingly thankful I came here to-night. With a little courage and determination I shall be able to save Gerald. Doubtless someone has betrayed him."
"But you can do nothing to-night,' Dora urged.
"Indeed, I can," Iza replied. "I must."
"I know Wilderness-road," Dora said. "It is not more than half a mile from here, and the neighborhood is as bad as this. You cannot undertake a journey like that alone at this time of night. It would be madness."
"Madness, or not, I am going," Iza said resolutely. "Don't you see that to-morrow will be too late?"
"I see you mean to have your own way," Dora said, "but you are not going alone. My father is not likely to wake for some hours, and that leaves me free. I will go at once to Regent Terrace and tell them what has happened. Perhaps I had better go to the nearest telephone office and inform Miss Vane now."
"Ask for her to call up Mr. Sefton and get him to follow me at once to Wilderness-road. It will encourage me to know that I shall have help."
Iza was already moving to the door. As soon as she reached the street she walked along rapidly till she met a policeman, and desired him to direct her to the nearest way to Wilderness-road. The officer looked at her dubiously, for though Iza was dressed plainly, there was no mistaking her air and manner, and the policeman had had his spell of duty in the West End. He inquired pointedly if Iza was going alone.
"I want to see a friend who is in trouble," she explained. "I suppose it is safe?"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly say it is unsafe," the policeman replied. "Only it is not the kind of locality where one expects to meet a lady. If you walk with me, I will put you in charge of the constable on the next beat."
Iza demurred at this, for it was the very contingency she most particularly desired to avoid. She got her own way at length, and walked hurriedly off in the right direction. It did not occur to her that Wilderness-road was much worse than Parker's Buildings. There were fewer children about, for the hour was late. One or two seedy-looking loafers glanced suspiciously at her as she passed, but no one offered to molest her. She was walking more slowly and scrutinising the houses on either side to see if she could find any trace, of Johnson's Hotel. If Iza had expected that something in the way of a private boarding-house, she was doomed to disappointment. When she reached it, Johnson's Hotel resolved itself into a flaming public-house of the most flashy variety. The place, in its glare and glitter of electric lights, was one mass of resplendent mirrors, strangely unfit surroundings for the squalid, poverty-stricken men and women who passed in a steady trickle through the swing doors of the bars. Iza's heart sank within her as she realised that this was her destination. What to do next she had not the least idea. It was maddening to think that Gerald was within a few yards of her, and wholly unconscious of the danger which threatened him. As Iza stood there one half-drunken lounger made a remark which brought the blood flaming into her face. Another loafer jeered and laughed, and Iza hastily crossed the road. She was dazed and frightened, and for the moment had lost her head. Before she knew what she was doing she had passed through the swing doors and into the centre of the great roaring bar. It was well for Iza that she bethought herself of the black veil which her maid had thoughtfully twisted round the black sailor hat she was wearing. At any rate, she could hide her features. She had hardly done so before a heavy hand was laid on her arm, and she turned in terror to find a big man at her side.
He was tall and muscular, but his fairly good-looking face was marred with traces of dissipation. There was a reckless air about him which spoke plainly of a turbulent spirit within. On the whole, though, what with his rough hair and long red beard, the man looked out of place. He would be much more at home in a mining camp or a ranche.
"Well, the world is a small place," he said, "and I have long since got over any feeling of astonishment at finding old friends everywhere. But to see you here of all places in the world, you who were always so cold and distant and haughty. I bet my bottom dollar on one thing. You didn't come here to get a drink."
"Absurd," Iza stammered. She was trembling from head to foot with fear and anger. "I am looking for a friend, Mr. Ford. It was necessary for me to come, but you can imagine——"
"Oh, I can imagine all that," the man called Ford declared. "And as to friends, why you have a good one in Ned Ford, bad as he is, and bad as he is likely to remain. It isn't you I have a quarrel with, but the man I'm looking for is Jim Blake, and when I last saw that infernal scoundrel you were in his company. Next time I meet Jim, let him look to himself. I have sworn to have that rascal's blood, and I'll have it, if I have to hang for it. Look here, my dear, see what I have got in my hand. No reason to ask you to guess what they are, for you know as well as I do."
"I know what they are," Iza stammered. "They are uncut diamonds, worth a king's ransom."
"Right you are, my girl, and there are plenty more where these came from. I got them in the good old-fashioned way, plenty of danger in it. Nothing like danger to make a man appreciate good fortune when it comes his way. Those stones are worth a king's ransom, as you say, and every one of them is yours if you will only tell me where I can lay hands on Jim Blake."
"I would not touch them if I were starving," Iza cried. "I was never with you in that disgraceful business. I was no more than a tool of Mr. — I mean Jim Blake and the others. Neither will I give any information about Blake's movements. No violence shall come through me."
"I like your grit," Ford said admiringly. "Now, let's try you another way. Supposing you are here looking for somebody you are very fond of; we will say, if you like, that he has got into a bit of trouble, and is anxious not to be too friendly with the gentlemen in blue. If I were to tell you where you can find him at this very moment, will you give me the information I'm after?"
Iza hesitated. The temptation was terrible. She did not stop to consider how this man had come to know so much, but made up her mind rapidly there and then not to accept any aid at the hands of Ned Ford.
"I can make no bargain with you," she said coldly. "If you like to help me you can, and I shall be very grateful, but I can promise nothing in return."
"Very well," the man said good-humoredly. "You see that room yonder; if you go through there you will find a passage on the other side leading into another room. The place is in darkness, but go boldly along, and I will see that you are not molested. Wait a few moments and I will try——"
Iza hurried on, only too thankful to escape from the smell and glitter and glare of the bar. She was in utter darkness, but the fresh air blowing on her forehead was cooling and grateful.
Cold and self-contained, it was yet far from easy for Iza to maintain her fortitude. She would have given much to find herself in the street again, and there seemed nothing to prevent her going. But to do that would be to waste the precious work of the past hour, and Gerald Rashleigh would be in as grave a predicament as ever. Her danger might be great, but his was still greater.
Moreover, the public-house might be a well-conducted establishment. True, the place was filled with the dregs of humanity, men and women from whom the fastidious shrink with a sense of disgust. But everything had appeared to be open and above board, and Iza had read that the police of London prided themselves upon the way in which public-houses are administered. At the same time, it was disquieting that Ned Ford should have divined the reason why Iza was here at all. How could he know that she was interested in Gerald Rashleigh when this was a secret even from Weiss and his wife? Still, Ford did know, and there was no getting away from it.
"He used to be good-natured," Iza reflected, "a rough, unscrupulous man, with more than one crime on his conscience. But I cannot recollect him ever unkind or harsh to a woman. What would people say if they knew how closely I had been associated with the boldest and most unscrupulous gang of swindlers that ever baffled the police? Oh, I do hope that Ford won't be long. If anybody came here and asked me my business, what could I say? But for Gerald's sake I cannot——"
Iza's troubled thoughts were rudely interrupted by an outbreak of tumult in the bar. She could hear the sound of blows followed by shouts and cries for assistance, and then, in the street beyond, she caught the shrill treble of police whistles. Almost before she was aware of what was taking place the house was in a ferment. Iza could not know that the authorities had raided the place, and were trying to capture one or two persons who were badly "wanted." The bulk of the crowd, naturally deeming themselves the objects of police suspicion, fought wildly for liberty.
The cries grew louder, the sound of blows became more frequent, and then the lights suddenly went out, and the whole place was plunged into darkness. Even if Iza were disposed to leave, she could not have done so now, for the simple reason that she was too terror-stricken to move. Nor, in the pitchy dark, could she have seen which way to go; all she could do, therefore, was to pray that no harm should come to her. Then a still disturbing thought came into her mind. If the police searched the house, they would find Gerald Rashleigh on the premises. Although they might not have come with any thought of finding him, they would take him off with the rest, and in the morning he was certain to be recognised. Iza forgot her own trouble in the light of this new peril. By-and-bye she grew aware that someone was creeping stealthily towards her. The roar and tumult of the bar had ceased, and a silence that was almost painful followed. In the stillness Iza could hear the breathing of the intruder—heavy, labored breathing, as if the unseen person had just emerged from a great struggle. There was not the slightest sound of a footstep. Was the stranger crawling hither on hands and knees? The breathing became less strident presently, and somebody whispered Iza's name. The mere sound of it startled her so much that with great difficulty she repressed a scream.
But everything pointed to the voice's being friendly, so Iza whispered softly, "I am here."
"I am glad of that," came Ford's gruff tones. "I began to think they had picked you up with the rest."
"What has happened?" Iza asked.
"The police have raided the house," Ford explained. "I suppose they got the tip that a great deal of betting was going on. At any rate, they have made their swoop and collared one or two bookmakers whom they have had under observation. It's not a badly-conducted house, but a lot of shady characters use it, and when the police appeared pretty well every man in the bar thought he was wanted, and there's been a fine shindy, with plenty or wounds, bruises, battered heads, and broken glass. Luckily for me somebody cut off the light, for two of the police had me, and if I had not taken strong measures, I should have passed the night in the cells. I don't know that I'm safe even now."
"Can't you get me away?" Iza asked eagerly. "It is so dreadful to be in a low den like this, and if I had to appear before the magistrate I should die of shame. I came here for a special purpose, but my mission is going to be a failure——"
"Not a bit of it," Ford exclaimed good humoredly. "Don't you give in yet. Besides, we cannot leave. The police have not finished their search, and there is sure to be a score of them outside waiting to examine all who pass in and out. Let me take you to a place of safety where there is small chance of your getting into trouble. Will you trust me?"
"Yes, I will," Iza said. "You are a bad man in many ways, but I think you will keep your word to me. What do you want me to do? I will do whatever you ask, so long as I can succeed in warning my friend of his danger and get him safely home."
"That's how I expected you to speak," Ford said approvingly. "Take my hand and follow me."
Without the slightest hesitation Iza obeyed. It struck her as strange that Ford knew his way about the house in the dark as well as in broad daylight. As far as Iza could judge, they passed down a long passage with a flight of stairs at the end of it. Once arrived at the top of the steps, Ford paused and listened eagerly. Then he took a box of matches from his pocket and struck a light. Iza thought they were on a square landing out of which no doors opened. The place was papered with a staring pattern of red and yellow. If there were an outlet, Iza could not see it. Ford, however, knew better. He ran his hand over the wall paper, as if feeling for something, and presently gave a grunt of approval. Before the match expired Iza saw that a square aperture had opened in the wall, disclosing another passage beyond. After carefully closing the door, Ford led the way through a small sitting-room, somewhat luxuriously furnished, considering the position and standing of the house.
"You will have to stay here for a while," he said. "You are quite safe, unless some spy has given away the secret of the house to the police. Several most daring robberies have been planned in these rooms. Beyond this room are two or three sleeping chambers that have been occupied by famous criminals, but they are all vacant at present. Wait till I come back, and, mind, you must not have a light."
Ere Iza could reply, Ford had vanished by the secret door. It was a miserable position for the girl to be placed in, but nothing was to be gained by repining. She must possess her soul in patience till the coast was clear, and then perhaps Ford might help her to find Rashleigh. If she succeeded in that, Iza felt her trouble and danger would not have been in vain.
She stood in the darkness straining her ears to listen, but no sound broke the silence. Doubtless these rooms were at the back of the house, or it would have been possible to hear noises from the street. Iza would have given anything for a light. Her position then would have been a little more endurable, but to remain for an indefinite period in that cavernous gloom was terribly trying to nerves already strung to the last point. The girl was worn out and her limbs trembled under her. She felt she must sit down. Cautiously she groped her way about the room till her hand came in contact with a ricketty little table on which some china stood. The table went over with a crash, followed by the rattle of broken crockery. Immediately a voice called out to know what was going on. Iza made no reply; she could not have spoken to save her life.
"Who is there?" the voice repeated. "Who is it?"
"Gerald!" Iza gasped. "It is Gerald."
"Iza! Oh, I must be dreaming. It surely cannot be you."
"Indeed, it is," Iza almost sobbed. "Where are you? It is so dark that I cannot tell the direction of your voice. You know the place. Will you not come to me? I am in the little room that leads off the landing. I came to warn you, and I pray Heaven I am not too late."
"How did you find me?" Rashleigh asked. "But you must defer the explanation till we are at closer quarters. I will come to you."
In a minute or two Rashleigh was by Iza's side, holding her hands in his. His very presence gave her fresh courage and resolution. It was good to know that they were once more together. For a little while Iza fairly gave way, and cried gently with her head on Rashleigh's shoulder. Even as she lay there, it came whimsically to her mind what her friends would say if they saw her then. They would have had great difficulty in recognising the stately, frigid creature, who was supposed to be entirely unfeeling and heartless.
"Don't cry," Rashleigh said tenderly. "It hurts me. Try to control yourself and tell me what brings you here."
Despite her efforts at self-control, it was some time before Iza was collected enough to proceed.
"It was almost an accident," she said. "How little we know what the passing of an hour will produce. Two or three hours ago I never dreamt that I should be called upon to go through an adventure like this. I was sitting in the room after dinner trying to get some information from Mr. Weiss when Carney came in. I knew by his manner he had something serious to impart to Mr. Weiss, and I was confirmed a moment later when he mentioned your name. As soon as he did so, Mr. Weiss checked him and he wrote something on paper. I guessed that Carney had found out your hiding place, and made up my mind to see that paper. With the help of my dear doggie I succeeded in getting a look at the paper without Mr. Weiss' knowledge. It was as I expected. Carney had found out where you were, and hoped to have you arrested to-morrow."
"Now, how did he manage that?" Rashleigh muttered. "I thought I had laid my plans so carefully that only a very few intimate friends knew my whereabouts. I am glad you have told me this, because I begin to see daylight in a rather dark place. Beyond question, Carney has been one of the tools used by Weiss to ruin me."
"That does not matter much now," Iza replied. "I thank Heaven that I have been successful in my mission and warned you in time. When I came here I was in despair what to do next. I expected Johnson's Hotel would be a boarding-house in a respectable street, and not a place like this. I was so frightened by a remark made to me in the street that I lost my head and walked recklessly into the house. I was puzzling what to say when I was accosted by a man named Ford, whom you may have heard me speak of."
"Ned Ford?" Rashleigh said. "He was one of Weiss' accomplices in South Africa before the villain made his fortune. I remember the name. But how singular you should find Ford here, of all places in the world!"
"I thought so, too, at first," Iza replied, "but now I am not so surprised. This is a very involved business. There are so many wheels within wheels that I am bewildered, and you will be astonished to learn that Ford was aware that you were hiding here."
A cry of astonishment broke from Rashleigh.
"You don't say so!" he exclaimed. "Why, I have never met the man in my life."
"Nevertheless he knows," Iza said. "Tell me, can you make anything of this new complication?"
"For the life of me, I can't," Rashleigh confessed. "Here is a vagabond supposed to be at the other side of the world turning up unexpectedly and interesting himself in the affairs of a man who is a total stranger to him. However, I take it that he is well disposed towards me or you would not be with me at this moment."
"That is so," Iza said, "and the strange thing is that Ford is hunting everywhere for Mr. Weiss, with the full intention of destroying him at the first opportunity. He offered me a handful of diamonds if I would give him Mr. Weiss' address, which I refused. He has not the smallest idea of Mr. Weiss present position, or he would have no difficulty in discovering that person for himself."
"Which is evidence that Ford has only recently returned to England," Gerald said. "Weiss is so prominent in finance and Society that Ford must find him sooner or later. And so he brought you here?"
"That is so. He knew where you were, though I have had no opportunity of learning how he became interested in your movements. He tells me that these rooms have been used by some of the most famous criminals, and that this hiding-place is unknown to the police."
"Quite right," Rashleigh replied. "Perhaps you will wonder how I come to be lying perdu here, seeing that my acquaintance with the criminal classes is so limited. One of my friends is a prominent journalist who is a great student of crime and its followers. He has know this place for many years, and arranged for me to come here. Hitherto there has been no danger whatever, but now that Carney and Weiss know where I am I shall have to flit."
"At once," Iza said eagerly. "I implore you not to delay. Carney has given Mr. Weiss your address, and he expects to get a thousand pounds for his services. Knowing Mr. Weiss as well as I do, he will not be above saving that expense by any shabby move that occurs to him. Why should he not bring the police without waiting until to-morrow, and have you arrested?"
"I had not thought of that," Rashleigh said.
"Well, the police have been here already," Iza proceeded to explain. "They did not come for you, and have not the slightest idea where you are. Ford says the house was raided for bookmakers and betting people. The police are now in possession, and the merest accident might lead to——"
Iza's sentence was never finished. From without arose sounds and cries, followed by the splintering of wood and the tearing of paper. The noises were so near that Iza screamed aloud.
"They are coming," she whispered. "They have discovered this hiding-place. What can you do?"
"Nothing," Rashleigh said grimly. "I can only try to make the best of my ill luck."
"Go back to your room at once," Iza whispered. "Let me come with you. Perhaps I can hide myself. There is no time to be lost."
Rashleigh caught Iza by the hand and hurried her towards the inner room. It was the work of a moment to conceal her in a large empty wardrobe, and then there was nothing for it but to wait on the march of events. From the little sitting-room came the sound of heavy footsteps and the voices of men talking excitedly.
"Well, you see, Mason was right," one of the voices said. "I have long suspected there was some secret room here, only I could never get hold of a decent excuse for raiding the house, but Scotland Yard has scored at last, as it always does in the long run."
"That's so," another voice said, "but I must confess that I looked on Mason's story as a mere conjecture to earn money out of. Mason is a sneak, and at heart a criminal, without the pluck to carry any scheme into execution. Those sort of fellows are very useful, I admit, but I hate them more than I do the culprit himself."
"Well, we needn't discuss that now," the first speaker said. "The fact remains that we have discovered one of the most ingenious hiding-places in London. I don't suppose there is anybody here at present, but we can have a look."
Through a crack in the wardrobe Iza saw the two lanes of light from a pair of lanterns that were flashing about the room. A low chuckle from one of the inspectors told her that Rashleigh was discovered.
"Hallo! Where did this bird come from?" one of the officers asked. "You see the nest is not empty."
"He is a stranger to me," the other inspector said, "and looks like a gentleman, too; though that is nothing to go by. Now, my good man, tell us who you are and why you are hiding here? Give an account of yourself."
"Pardon me," Rashleigh said coolly, "that is your business. There is no reason why I shouldn't be here, and you have no charge to make against me. You may make whatever investigation you please, but you will discover nothing against my character."
"There will be plenty of time to go into that," the inspector said. "We had better arrest him as a suspicious person who refuses to give any account of himself."
"Can you really do that?" Gerald asked.
The inspector nodded and made a significant gesture. The other man dexterously slipped a pair of handcuffs on Rashleigh's wrists, despite his vigorous protests.
"We will deal with you presently," he said. "Come, Morgan, we cannot waste time here. Let us finish our investigation and return for this gentleman when we have done. He hasn't the use of his hands, and he will find it hard to escape; but you may turn the key on him."
The speaker left the gas alight and quitted the room, his companion locking the door behind him. Immediately Iza stepped out of the wardrobe and confronted Rashleigh with a pale face and eyes filled with tears.
"This is dreadful," she whispered. "What are we to do? I never dreamt of anything like this. I suppose the raid on the bookmakers was simply a ruse to enable the police to search the house. Even if you could get away, Gerald, with those dreadful things on your wrists, escape is out of the question."
"And it is impossible to take them off," Gerald said. "Nothing but a file would do that, but it's no use discussing impossibilities. If you could only procure assistance, it is not yet too late——"
"But how can I leave this room?" Iza asked.
"That is not so difficult as it seems," Rashleigh explained. "This place has been more cunningly arranged than the police are aware of. They are very clever, but that window has not been examined. They naturally supposed that this being an upstairs room, the window must be twenty or thirty feet from the ground. In fact the window opens into a corridor from which one may reach the ground by means of an iron ladder. If you think you can manage——"
"Oh, I will try," Iza said. "I will do anything to get you out of this horrid place."
Without waiting for further words from Rashleigh, Iza crossed over to the window and opened it. Feeling with her feet, she touched the floor of the corridor, and the sensation gave her a sense of safety. At first it occurred to her to bid Gerald follow, but a moment's reflection dispelled that idea. It would be safer for him to stay where he was till she could obtain help, for if the police looked in and found their bird flown, they would give an instant alarm, which must inevitably result in his recapture.
Iza felt her way along the corridor till she saw, dimly outlined before her, the iron ladder which Gerald had mentioned. As she stood fumbling for the rail, she was startled by the appearance of a figure gradually emerging from the ladder. She instantly recognised the form of Ford.
"It's all right," he whispered. "I know what has happened, and was coming to your assistance. Go back to that room at once and hide in the wardrobe. I am coming with you."
There was nothing for it but to obey this masterful ruffian, who was so singularly competent to grapple with the intricacies of the situation. As he entered the room by the window, Gerald looked up with surprise. Ford smiled, and laid his hands on his lips.
"You mustn't speak," he said. "All you have to do is to sit there, as if resigned to your fate, and ask no questions. This lady will go back to her hiding-place, and I will lie down by the side of this couch. I want you to sit down on it just there."
Ford pointed to a certain spot on the couch, and Rashleigh obeyed implicitly. Some ten minutes passed in silence, then the voice of one of the inspectors was heard. The key turned with a click, and the officer entered. In a bustling tone he bade Rashleigh get up and follow him. Mindful of Ford's commands, Gerald sat still with his head hung down as if he did not hear a single word. The officer crossed over and pulled him roughly by the arm, then, like a flash, Ford rose from behind the couch and felled the policeman with a terrific blow on the head. With a cry Iza came from her hiding-place.
"Don't worry about him," Ford said cheerfully. "He's all right. I know how to hit without doing any harm. There is no occasion to hurry as our friend won't come round for a few minutes. Now follow me. Confound it, there's somebody in the corridor!"
There was somebody in the corridor, somebody whose voice was raised in expostulation. A great change came over Ford. His features turned hard and white as marble, and his eyes gleamed like burning coals.
"I've heard that voice before," he said, in a tense, metallic tone. "Young lady, I will not require to bribe you with diamonds again. I should know that voice amongst a million."
For the man outside was Samuel Weiss.
Ford spoke quietly—indeed, there was something almost playful in his voice—yet behind it there was a grimness of purpose and a determination that caused Iza to shudder. She could not see Ford's face, but she had a pretty good idea what its expression was like. She had known this man for some years, and was well aware what he was capable of. He had ever been reckless where his wishes and passions were concerned, and the fact that he was not now on the veldt, but in the centre of civilisation, would be no check upon him at all. Iza laid her hand on his arm.
"What are you going to do?" she whispered. "No violence, I implore you. Do not forget that I am here, and that any outbreak on your part would involve me——"
"Have no fear," Ford said. "I have waited too long to spoil my chance by undue haste. The reckoning between Weiss and me will come later. Let us keep to the matters of the moment. You can easily guess why Weiss is here to-night."
"Of course I can," Iza said. "He has come to procure the arrest of Gerald Rashleigh and to save himself the thousand pounds which he promised Carney, his jackal. But what are we to do?"
Ford frankly confessed himself to be puzzled. Weiss was close by in the darkness, no doubt looking for the police to tell them where they could lay hands on Gerald Rashleigh. Bidding Iza remain where she was, Ford disappeared into the corridor, and crept cautiously along until he came to the iron ladder. He peered down into the yard below, then quickly withdrew his head, for at the base of the ladder stood two constables, evidently on the watch. As far as Ford could judge, the man he was looking for was not on that side of the house at all. It was probable, therefore, that Weiss was at the far end of the corridor beyond the room to which Iza and Gerald were anxiously waiting. As Ford crept back a shadow advanced towards him, and a moment later he had Weiss by the throat. The latter was so overcome by surprise that he made no resistance whatever. Bulky as he was Ford picked him up as if he had been a child and bundled him through the window into the room, following himself and closing the casement behind him. His manner was cool and collected, but his eyes showed the passion that boiled within.
"Don't make a sound," he said, "if you value that carcass of yours. You didn't expect to see me here. You look as if the world was treating you very well, in fact, a great deal better than you deserve. How long is it since you have taken to wearing evening dress and frequenting the company of gentlemen?"
Weiss was too upset to reply. His fat, red face had faded to a ghastly green; his thick lips quivered; he gazed wildly around him, as if seeking some avenue of escape; he did not even notice that Rashleigh was looking at him with a smile of contempt on his face. Indeed, so abject was his fear he could see nothing but the burly form of Ford towering in front of him. Ford caught Weiss by the shoulders, and turned him sharply round. At the same time he signed to Rashleigh and Iza to conceal themselves in the wardrobe. Since Weiss had not noticed the presence of the man he desired to ruin, there was no need to enlighten him. It was incredible that Weiss should be so blind, but his terror had deprived him of his reason for the moment.
Before Weiss could turn round again, Iza and her companion were ensconced in the wardrobe. By this time Weiss was slowly coming to himself. He jerked out a few broken words which Ford ignored contemptuously. He would have grovelled at the latter's feet, but a look from Ford showed him the futility of it.
"What do you want?" he stammered. "For Heaven's sake, don't look at me like that. You fill me with fear. I feel as if I were choking. I know I treated you badly——"
"Don't go into that now," Ford said sternly. "There will be time by and by; for the present you can lay the flattering unction to your craven soul that you are not going to die yet. Listen to me, and pay close attention to all I say. Whatever I have been and whatever I am, no man can ever say that I broke my word. If you don't do exactly as I tell you, your minutes are numbered. I will not be in the room with you during the little comedy that is coming along, but I shall see and hear all that goes on. All you have to do is to lie and to lie freely. That is not asking you too much. It will come easy to a practised hand like you. Here!"
Ford called to Weiss as if he were a dog in need of chastisement. The coward instantly obeyed, and followed to the other side of the couch, but started back when he saw the prostrate form of the policeman.
"Good God! you haven't committed murder?" he faltered. "Don't tell me there has been any more violence. If you have killed that man and you want me to help you to make away with him, I shall hang with you if we are caught. I couldn't do it, Ford."
"You can do anything I ask you," Ford said grimly, "and how long is it since you have been so nice about the shedding of blood? Have you forgotten that night at Kimberley?"
"Uh-h-h!" Weiss shuddered. "Shall I ever forget it? I dream of it and wake up in the night drenched and terrified. If you want me to do a similar thing again, I tell you——"
"Tell me nothing," Ford said impatiently. "You chattering, craven fool, there is nothing wrong with this man at all. I had to knock him out of time, but, as you see, he is recovering, and it is to him that you will tell the fairy tale of which I will now give you the main outline. You are to wait till he comes to. When he does so he will ask you if you have seen anything of a prisoner he had left here handcuffed. You will tell him that as you came into the room you saw the prisoner strike him a blow and dart for the door. You tried to stop him, but he was too quick for you, and got away."
"What is he supposed to be like?" Weiss asked in a docile tone.
"What is he supposed to be like?" Ford said contemptuously. "As if you don't know him as well as I do! He is supposed to be like a young good-looking, clean-shaven man, with blue eyes, and bears a strong resemblance to a gentleman who till very recently was engaged in the City. You know him, and I am wasting time in describing the personal appearance of Gerald Rashleigh. What are you making that noise about?"
Weiss gave a cry which might have been alarm, or surprise, or fear. His cheeks once more assumed the peculiar green line which had come over his face when he first recognised Ford.
"There is no time to waste," Ford went on. "You must do as I have bidden you. As for myself, I will get through the window yonder and close it, except an inch or two at the bottom; then I shall be able to see and hear everything that goes on, and if you betray me, or if you so much as wink at our friend in blue, I'll put a bullet through your brain as sure as I am a living man. You never knew me break my word, and on this occasion no consideration on earth would induce me to do it."
Without further warning, Ford disappeared through the window and shut it to within an inch or two of the bottom. Looking furtively in that quarter, Weiss, despite his disordered imagination, saw the blue ring of a revolver barrel pointed in his direction. But he had other matters to occupy him, for the inspector had staggered to his feet, and was gazing stupidly about him.
"What is the matter," he asked. "What has happened to me, and why have I been lying here."
"I can hardly explain," Weiss said. "I came by appointment to see an inspector, and found the place in confusion and the lights out everywhere. My name is Weiss. I have a house in Park Lane——"
"I know about you now, sir," the inspector said respectfully. "And I am beginning to recollect what happened. I discovered a man concealed here who refused to give any account of himself, and took him into custody on suspicion. Just as I had fastened on the handcuffs he dealt me a tremendous blow, and I lost consciousness. It was a clever trick, and I wish I knew how it was done. By the way, how long have you been here, sir?"
"About a quarter of an hour," Weiss said. He was lying glibly, spurred on by knowing that he was covered by Ford's revolver. "As I came in a man rushed out and knocked me over. Now you mention it, there were handcuffs on his wrists. I dare say he has been picked up by one of your men outside."
"That is more than likely," the inspector said. "No one else has been in the room, I suppose?"
"Not a soul. It gave me considerable trouble to bring you round, and at first I thought you were dead. If you feel up to it, wouldn't it be as well to see if the prisoner has been taken."
"Perhaps it would," the Inspector replied. "I appear to be all right except for a shakiness of limb and a racking headache. Won't you come along with me, sir?"
Weiss hesitated. Nothing would have pleased him better, but he had Ford and his revolver to think of. At the same time, having exhausted his instructions, he hardly knew what to say. The faint click of a pistol trigger decided him. Weiss had heard it too often not to know the sound, and he resolved to remain where he was.
"I'll stay here," he said. "There's light in this room, and I have no fancy to a blow on the head in the dark. Besides, if you recover your prisoner there will be nothing more for me to do."
The inspector nodded and left the room. Hardly had the door closed than Ford appeared once more, a smile of grim approval on his face.
"You did that very well," he said. "And it is evident the policeman believed every word you said. It is a good thing he doesn't know you. As far as the prisoner is concerned, the officer may make his mind easy. He is not likely to see him again, despite the handcuffs. Did you see anybody when I dragged you into the room?"
"I saw nothing," Weiss said. "Your sudden appearance scared me almost to death, and I don't mind owning it. I wish you would not look at me like that. It makes me shake from head to foot, and if you don't want me any more perhaps you will let me go. It is getting late——"
"Don't leave me," Ford said. "You will stay as long as I choose. Besides, I think you will be glad to have a chat with an old friend. And you don't get an opportunity like this every day."
Samuel Weiss wriggled uneasily. His florid face was bedabbled with perspiration, and he moistened his dry lips. Beyond question the man was in a terrible state of fear as he had every reason to be. He had known Ford for many years, and had seen that desperado in various moods. He knew from bitter experience that Ford was never so dangerous as when he spoke in that jocular fashion.
But he made an effort to pull himself together and assume a semblance of manhood, which only served to deepen Ford's intense amusement.
"Look here," Weiss, said, with some show of bluster, "I am not afraid of you. We are not in the wilds of South Africa now. We are in London, where no man can commit an outrage with impunity."
"Think of that," Ford sneered, "but you seem to have forgotten that at present there are scores of undiscovered crimes in this town. Excepting yourself, nobody of any consequence has seen me here. I could cut your rascally throat with perfect safety, and go away with an easy mind and a healthy appetite. Upon my word, when I think of the opportunity, I am amazed at my own moderation. Sit down and talk it over."
Weiss was rather glad of the chance.
"That's right," Ford said encouragingly, "sit down, and carefully follow what I have got to say."
Two days passed uneventfully. Elsie had not seen Gerald Rashleigh again, nor had Vera Barrington's husband put in another appearance. The house had resumed its normal aspect, everything moved on oiled wheels, and the well-trained servants were a revelation to Elsie. There was a certain number of callers, but Vera did not encourage them, so that the two girls saw a good deal of each other, and the farther Elsie saw into the mind of her companion, the more favorably impressed she was.
Outwardly, at any rate, there was no sign of the actress about Vera Barrington. She hardly ever mentioned the theatre, and there was nothing in her dress to indicate her profession. She longed for the time, she said, when she could get away from it all, and retire to a quiet place in the country. And it was obvious that she meant this, and was not posing in the least. Later perhaps she might be able to gratify her wish, but her degraded husband was a great drag upon her, and, besides, there was her brother to think about. Till he was safe she could do nothing.
"I dare say people believe I am mistress of all I survey," she said to Elsie once. "It is true, this house is not so expensive as you imagine, for I entertain very little, and my personal tastes are simple, but my husband appropriates all my money. I dread a scandal; it takes me all my time to prevent scenes, and I would pay anything to avoid them. No, I can't get rid of the man; he is too cunning for that. But I am always worrying you about my affairs. I must go down to the theatre this morning, because we are to rehearse a new piece, and I shall have to throw you upon your own resources. That reminds me that you haven't been out of the house for two whole days. You really must get a walk. Why not go as far as Kensington Gardens? It's a lovely morning, and you will feel yourself in the country there."
The prospect was not unpleasing, and by and by Elsie passed through the sunny streets, with the feeling that London was a desirable place on a bright summer's morning. It was delightfully fresh, and she appreciated the well-dressed people and the elaborate shops. She had nothing on her mind, had no anxiety for the morrow, and the alert vigor of youth flowed in her veins. It was, therefore, some time before she realised that she was being shadowed by a man on the other side of the road, who loitered when she loitered and copied her every movement with a fidelity that became annoying. Her first vague sense of alarm began to give way to strong indignation.
There had always been a directness in her methods; so she crossed the road and turned to face the stranger.
He was attired like a shabby clerk out of work, had a pronounced beard and whiskers of nondescript color, and his eyes were concealed behind smoked glasses.
"Why are you following me?" Elsie demanded.
For the moment the stranger was taken aback.
"Then you don't know me? Well, that's a good thing, anyhow. I have a message for you. I must have done my work very badly, or you would not have spotted me in this way. Then you don't know who I am?"
"Nor am I in the least curious," Elsie said coldly.
"But I don't want to annoy you," the stranger went on; "in fact, I am Roger Carney. You will guess why I am disguised. Aren't you staying with Miss Barrington?"
"I have no doubt you are aware of the fact," Elsie replied, "but you cannot have any message for me, and I must decline to speak to you. You make me sorry that I interfered on your behalf at all. And if you follow me farther, I will give you in charge."
Carney appeared nonplussed with this reception, but made one more effort to deliver his message.
"Don't be so fast," he muttered, "for you are a poor girl, and, I believe, clever, too. Now, if I can put £100 in your pocket, what will you say to such a suggestion?"
"I should decline it at once," Elsie said firmly. "I should know that it was some rascally schemed yours. Be good enough to take yourself off at once, or I shall call the police."
But Carney lingered, greatly disappointed with his failure. Elsie, too, was in a dilemma what to do next. She dreaded a scene, and it was with feelings of the liveliest satisfaction that she discovered Edgar Sefton coming towards her. Acting on the spur of the moment, she clutched eagerly at Sefton's sleeve, and indicated the mean figure of Roger Carney.
"I am so glad to meet you," she cried; "this man is molesting me. I cannot get rid of him. I have threatened him with the police, but he does not seem to mind."
There was no need to say more. Sefton towered over Carney, and there was a look in his eyes which the adventurer did not relish. He staggered back at the first hint of violence, and shuffled rapidly across the road. A dainty pink crept into Elsie's cheeks as she noticed the joyful expression on her companion's face.
"I am very glad to be of service to you," Sefton said. "Don't you think there is a Providence in these things? I helped you out the other night, and am fortunate to be of assistance to you again."
"I can't sufficiently thank you," Elsie answered, "and now I must be getting back to Miss Barrington's."
"Really, that is too bad," Sefton remonstrated. "It is plain you have nothing to do, yet you try to avoid me. Candidly, didn't you come out for a walk? Haven't you all the morning before you, and didn't you mean to sit out in the Gardens and read for an hour or two? You had better confess, because the book in your hand gives you away. Come, let us sit down and have a chat for half an hour."
Elsie attempted to frame a refusal, but somehow she could not utter a word. It was so pleasant to meet Edgar again, so sweet to hear him talk as he had done only a couple of days ago, and there was a pleading look in his face she could not resist. It was very quiet, too; so they found a seat to themselves, and in a short time all Elsie's reserve melted away. Yet she did try to restrain Edgar's enthusiasm and to give him the minimum of encouragement, but—well, it was a delightful morning, and Elsie was young, and, besides, she assured herself that this was not likely to happen a third time.
Ere she could realise it, however, Edgar resumed without delay the tender and intimate speech on which he had ventured in Miss Barrington's house. With heightened color that made her look lovelier and more adorable than ever, Elsie deprecated his impetuosity.
"What is the good of talking like that?" he asked, in the old straightforward way Elsie knew so well, "as if you didn't know what my feelings are. When I met you in such strange circumstances the other night, I knew I had been waiting for you all this time. And, darling, you never told me you didn't care for me. If you had done so, I would have gone away at once, and tried to banish you from my thoughts. I believe you didn't tell me that because you couldn't, because it wouldn't have been true if you had. Would it Elsie?"
It was good to know that this man loved her, nor did she disguise from herself the fact that Edgar Sefton was by no means indifferent to her. In the circumstances it was impossible for her, embarrassed and confused as she was, to look him in the face and deny his statement. On the contrary, she was hoping he would not notice there were tears in her eyes, though her delicate face was flushed to the roots of her hair.
"I don't know what to say," Elsie murmured, "and I don't think you ought to speak to me like this. You know I am alone in the world, and it——"
"Oh, what nonsense!" Sefton replied, "you have known me for years. I tell you now you are the only girl I ever loved. The fact that you are alone in the world, therefore, is all the greater reason why I should think of your future. I have more money than I want, and there's a beautiful home in the country waiting for its sovereign lady—really, I have hardly patience to discuss the matter. Why——"
"One moment," Elsie said. "Of course, you know how my father died? You were not with us then, but you must have read it in the papers. The mystery of his death was never properly cleared up. Many people say he met with foul play, and sometimes I am disposed to agree with them. But others think he died by his own hand, amongst them the doctor who attended us for the last twenty years. The matter was hushed up at the inquest, partly for my sake, I believe, and partly because the people in the village respected my father. The police had their view of the case, and I have heard are investigating the mystery to this day. But after what the doctor told me, I haven't much doubt as to the cause of his death. Can you realise how this worries me? There is nothing more terrible than insanity in a family. Think what would——"
"I decline to believe anything of the kind," Sefton said stoutly. "It is absurd to suppose that my dear old friend took his life. He was far too courageous to do that. If he had any troubles he faced them like a man. He wasn't bothered by money affairs, and though, like a poor parson, he left nothing, yet he had no debts. Moreover, he had travelled all over the world, and had a wonderfully ripe and balanced mind. I never knew a man less likely to commit a rash act. So this stands in the way, does it? But do you think that I mind that?"
Elsie shook her head resolutely. It was, however, very hard to resist such brave and confident pleading, such staunch friendship.
"I cannot say more," she murmured, "some day my father may be cleared of this stigma—but, no, it is impossible."
Elsie returned to Regent Terrace with a fine glow of color in her face and a sparkle in her eyes. She had forgotten her fears, and was happy in the knowledge that she was no longer alone in the world, and had at least two friends. She had long ago put Edgar Sefton out of her mind, and had tried to forget him, but there were times when she confessed to herself she was glad she had failed. She had, however, neither hoped nor expected to see him again, but since he had come into her life again, they seemed somehow in accordance with the eternal fitness of things. As Edgar himself had said, there is a special Providence in these things, and Elsie was fully disposed to believe it.
At present she had not the least intention to marry Edger Sefton, or any other man, until she was satisfied that there was no hereditary taint of insanity in her blood. But, oh! it was very nice of Edgar to let her know that he had not changed in the least. Apart, too, from the happiness it yielded her, it was very soothing to Elsie's vanity.
She had promised to meet Sefton again; he would not let her go until she did so. He had asked endless questions about the extraordinary adventures in which she had become involved, and, in the circumstances, she had not been justified in refusing to answer them. It was singular that he should know Rashleigh, and still more remarkable that he should have been at Lady Starfield's dance, ready to act the part of the god in the car, and turn disaster into success.
"It's not the slightest use being obstinate," Edgar said, as he bade Elsie good-bye, "you may be quite sure that I won't lose sight of you again. I can't marry you by main force, but some day you will weary of saying no. Of course, if there is anybody else——"
"You know there isn't," Elsie said, unguardedly. "There, that is a nice confession you have tricked out of me! But, Edgar, I am perfectly serious. I will never marry until the mystery surrounding my father's death is cleared up."
Sefton smiled and let it go at that. Perhaps he had his own views on the subject.
"And you will meet me to-morrow?" he asked. "That's all right. Two negatives you know, make an affirmative. You may tell Miss Barrington that I will call upon her. Rashleigh is my friend, and I am convinced that he is the victim of an infamous conspiracy. I am certain of his innocence, and he would have been wiser to have come forward, and stood his trial."
"But that was impossible," Elsie argued. "Miss Barrington said her brother had just recovered from a serious illness, which had left his lungs in an exceedingly delicate state. But perhaps you did not know that."
"He could have gone into hospital," Sefton observed.
"But could he? I understand there is often considerable delay in dealing with such cases, and a single night in a cold, damp cell might be fatal. It is very good of you to take so much interest in him, and Miss Barrington will be exceedingly grateful. You have established a claim to be consulted in this matter. But do you think you can help us?"
"Wait and see," Sefton said, after a pause. "I happen to know a good deal about Mr. Weiss, and have knocked about the world to some purpose. I have what may prove to be a brilliant idea, but can say nothing of it for the moment. But I will think it over and let you know. Tell Miss Barrington I will call to-morrow afternoon, when we can discuss her brother's affairs over a cup of tea."
Elsie felt happier than she had done for a long time. She had a mission in life now, and longed for an opportunity to return the kindness Vera Barrington had shown her. A dainty lunch was partaken of with relish, and she looked forward to Vera's return confidently. By and by Miss Barrington entered, looking very white and tired.
"I have had a most distracting morning," she exclaimed, "and everything seems to have gone amiss. I shall be so glad to see the end of it. If girls only knew what stage life was like, very few would set their hearts upon it."
"I suppose it is very hard work," Elsie murmured sympathetically, "and yet I once thought I should enjoy it immensely. I know better now."
"I congratulate you upon learning your lesson so soon," Vera laughed. "Why, the sheer drudgery alone would frighten most girls. For every one who succeeds there must be a hundred who hardly get a living. But I did not come back to talk shop. I am glad to see you have had lunch. You can order dinner at any hour you like. We professionals can't eat at rational hours like other mortals. I dine about 4 o'clock and my next meal is usually about midnight. Then, as a rule, I breakfast in bed about eleven, which I dare say sounds very dreadful. But there is no help for it."
"But you were down before me this morning," Elsie said.
"Ah, but that was exceptional. Now that you will stay with me, I shall fall back on my old habits again. But how fresh and bright you look! Positively your eyes are shining with happiness. Shall I guess what it means? You have met Mr. Sefton."
Elsie colored slightly.
"You are a witch," she cried; "to be quite candid, I did meet Mr. Sefton. It was rather strange I should run up against him quite casually."
"Not in the least," Vera said demurely. "How delightfully ingenuous you are! I dare say he has found the air of Regent's Park invigorating, and has spent a good deal of time in the neighborhood. I wonder if you realise how charming you are. If I were a man I should fall over head and ears in love with you. But you must not mind me talking like this. So you saw Mr. Sefton and had along talk with him. Did he ask if we had heard anything from my brother?"
"Of course he did," Elsie said, "he was really very nice and sympathetic. He says he will do all he can to help, and will call upon you to-morrow afternoon. I rather fancy he may prove to be of the greatest assistance. He has travelled far and wide during the last year or two, and seems to know a lot about Mr. Weiss. I gather he has already thought out some clever scheme."
"It is very kind of him," Vera replied. "I like Mr. Sefton very much, and will value the help of a friend I can rely upon. My father is too impetuous to be of much use, and the less said about my husband the better. There is danger——"
"Yes, of course," Elsie interrupted. "I had forgotten that. We have enemies on all sides, and the house is being watched. I had not gone far this morning when I saw my steps were being dogged. I felt alarmed at first, but at last plucked up courage to order the man about his business. It turned out to be Roger Carney."
Vera looked uneasy.
"Is that really a fact?" she asked. "Imagine the audacity of the man? After what you told me about him, I wonder he has the assurance to show his face in the street, but perhaps he has found some way of satisfying the police."
"I don't think so," Elsie went on. "He was thoroughly disguised. But he must have been watching the house, else how could he have discovered that I am staying with you? It all tends to show how careful we must be. I don't believe Carney is in town on his own behalf. I can't tell you what he wanted, but he spoke to me in the most barefaced fashion. He offered no apology for his behaviour to me, and did not even pay me the compliment of believing that I am honest. He was good enough to remind me that I was penniless, and that he could put me in the way of earning £100—of course, by doing something mean and dishonorable; but I didn't give him the chance of explaining. I was so indignant that I came very near to giving him into custody. I believe I should have done so, if I hadn't thought of his daughter and her kindness to me."
"Still, its rather disturbing," Vera said, "I almost wish you had pretended to fall in with his views and ascertain what he wanted."
"That was Mr. Sefton's opinion, too," Elsie replied; "I am afraid I shall never make a diplomatist."
Faithful to his promise, Edgar Sefton turned up at Regent Terrace the following afternoon. His reception was flattering enough to please a vainer man, though Elsie said little, sitting in the drawing-room for the most part in silence.
"We shall be able to talk to our hearts' content," Vera Barrington said. "I have given orders that I am at home to no one. Another cup of tea, Mr. Sefton? Well, if you won't have any more, let us talk business. I can see from the way your hand is moving towards your waistcoat pocket that you are unconsciously feeling for your cigarette case. You may smoke if you like; in fact I shall be glad if you will. Now, tell me if you think anything can be done for my poor brother."
"Have you heard from him?" Sefton asked.
"Not a word. I haven't the remotest idea where he is. But I suppose he is safe, otherwise we should have read the bad news in the papers. We thought it better he should not communicate with me."
"Oh, quite so," Sefton said; "it would be madness on his part to write. Depend upon it that we are all being carefully watched, and that Weiss is leaving no stone unturned to lay his hands upon your brother. Now, I have the best of reasons for believing that Weiss is a scoundrel. He occupies a swagger position, but nobody heard much about him until eighteen months ago. He is supposed to be a big South African merchant who has opened a branch in London; that means nothing, and I can't learn that very much business is done. Weiss is received in society of a sort, but that is an easy matter nowadays, when a man with heaps of money obtains a welcome often denied to blue blood that is tainted with the crime of poverty. I came into contact with Weiss some eighteen months since in Capetown, and became interested in him in consequence of a few queer stories current about him. Oddly enough, I also met a man who knew him three years ago, when he had a furnished house at a place near Ross, in Herefordshire. This house was only four or five miles from where Miss Vane was born and bred."
"It sounds interesting," Elsie interpolated.
"I think I shall interest you more before I have finished," Sefton resumed. "Did you ever hear of any people named Weiss in your old neighborhood?"
"I don't remember them," she said.
"Perhaps not, but your father knew them, I know. They lived in the house that belonged to the Harleys, a family of some standing, I believe."
"They were not particularly rich," Elsie explained, "but came of a very good stock; we used to think them crazy on the subject of pedigree. I was never in their house, but I met the girls occasionally at tennis parties. They struck me as proud and exclusive—what we used to call at school 'stuck-up'—and decidedly stupid into the bargain. Now I come to recollect it, they did let their house about the time you mention. We rather wondered at their letting it to a stranger, but Mrs. Harley said her son had just gone to Oxford, and they had to economise. It was rumored the house had been rented by a German scientific man. But if the tenant's name hadn't been Weiss, I daresay Rumor wouldn't have bothered about his nationality. When I saw Mr. Weiss the other night he didn't strike me as a German, but perhaps I am wrong."
"Oh, no," Sefton said, "you are quite right, though the fellow's people were probably of German origin. Beyond a doubt Elsie's father, Mr. Vane, knew Weiss when he was in Herefordshire. Weiss, however, did not stay long in the country. He departed more or less mysteriously some months before his tenancy expired. Elsie, what became of those black poodles?"
Elsie smiled at the inconsequence of the question.
"What an extraordinary remark?" she exclaimed. "What have the poodles to do with your story?"
"What dogs were they?" Vera asked.
"We had a lot of dogs," Elsie proceeded to explain. "My father was extremely fond of dogs. How the black poodles first found their way into bur kennels, I don't know. My father knew people in all parts of the world, and in his younger days had spent a good deal of time in France. Stay, let me think. I seem to remember, when I was a little girl, two black poodles arriving from Paris, and my father telling me they were sent by the Marquise de la Zouche. I didn't take much interest in them, because I preferred dogs of a nobler type. But I believe the poodles were very valuable, and my father made money out of them. They were wonderfully clever, and almost human in some things—but how I am running on. It is your fault, Edgar."
"I accept the responsibility," Sefton said. "These dogs are going to play a very important part in the unmasking of Samuel Weiss. Did your father ever give or sell one of these poodles to Weiss?"
"I really cannot tell," she answered.
"I am sorry for that. Is there no means of finding out? It is most important?"
"There should be no difficulty about that," Elsie said. "Keeping dogs for profit, as my father did, is a regular business. The puppies used to be registered in the stud book of the Kennel Club, and when one found a purchaser the price was entered, along with the name of the new owner. When my father died his dogs were disposed of and fetched a considerable sum."
"Were the buyers county people?" Sefton asked.
"Not all, by any means," Elsie explained, "but I was so full of trouble at the time that I didn't take much interest in anything. I understand that fanciers usually keep to only one breed, and when my father's kennel was sold the animals probably went all over the country. In their way the poodles were famous. Why not write to the secretary of the Kennel Club, and ask for the names of the fanciers who bought the Reverend George Vane's poodles?"
"How will that help me? Sefton asked.
"The purchaser of such dogs would demand the pedigree; he wouldn't, in fact, take them without it. This would necessitate application to the Kennel Club and the secretary would, in furnishing the information, record the fact of the sale and the name of the purchaser. He will tell you whether Samuel Weiss bought any of my father's poodles."
"What a capital business woman she is," said Edgar. "I never thought of that. I will write at once, and let you know in due course."
"What put the poodles in your head?" Vera asked.
Sefton shrugged his shoulders carelessly.
"Well, it arose in a roundabout way, not apropos of anything in particular. When I was in South Africa I heard a good deal about illicit diamond dealing, but had forgotten the matter. In consequence, however, of certain reports that reached me, I had a notion that Samuel Weiss could tell an interesting story on the subject. I made it my business to pay him some attention, and he invited me to dinner the other night. I went, expecting to pick up some unconsidered trifle that might help dispel the air of mystery that surrounds the man. He introduced me to his daughter Iza. I cannot believe that such a man could have such a daughter. She is tall, beautiful, and distinguished, but is said to be haughty and reserved. I don't think she is anything of the kind. The girl has some secret trouble which she is hiding from the world, and I liked her. We got on rather well together. Most of the guests were purse-proud people, a vulgar lot, and the dinner was atrociously dull. Later in the evening I was alone with Miss Weiss. She was showing me some South African views in the morning-room, when there came in a black poodle. Miss Weiss said the dog belonged to her father, but she was very fond of it from which I gathered she is not so cold and indifferent to things about her as she is alleged to be. At any rate, the dog seemed greatly attached to her, and she put him through a number of tricks which considerably astounded me. I began to ask a few questions, and ascertained that the poodle had been at the Cape with the Weiss', and that it originally came from a vicarage in Herefordshire. Hence my interest in black poodles, and especially in the stock that came from your father's house. I have been forming a theory, which is not yet ripe for disclosure, but I hope before long to have information by which I can compel Weiss to refrain from prosecuting Gerald Rashleigh."
"But my brother is innocent," Vera said proudly.
"My dear lady, I am quite aware of that. But there is no reason why we should not extricate your brother out of his present danger, no reason why he should not come home again, and remain here free from anxiety until we can establish his innocence. Nor should I be surprised if we proved much more than that. I should not be astonished to learn that Samuel Weiss had a hand in the death of Elsie's father."
All the blood left Elsie's face.
"Oh! if you would only prove it," she exclaimed, "if you would only prove it. But you are speaking at random."
"No, I don't think so," Sefton said. "But I ought not to have mentioned it at such an early stage as this, and you mustn't build up hopes on the statement. Still, I know that Weiss left Herefordshire about the time that Mr. Vane died, and that there was a swindle in connection with a parcel of diamonds."
Sefton left Regent Terrace quite satisfied with his afternoon's work. He had a good deal to think about, but as far as he could judge, everything was going smoothly, and he hoped in a day or two to be able to call upon Samuel Weiss, and dictate terms to him. He sat alone in his room till dinner-time, smoking innumerable cigarettes, then dressed himself and went to his club. There he dined quietly alone, and afterwards turned into the smoking-room, which he found to be comfortably filled.
The habitués were talking excitedly, and it was evident that something had happened. A moment or two later Sefton caught the name of Weiss. He moved up to a group of men he knew, and saw that one of them had an evening paper in his hand.
"Anything fresh, Thornton?" he asked.
"Rather so," Thornton replied. "Another scandal, but I never liked the man myself, and you might say I am prejudiced."
"That's so like Thornton," another of the group observed, "he will never give a straight answer to a straight question. He would have made a most admirable village gossip; you know what I mean, Sefton—the sort of man you meet in a country place, who gets hold of a bit of news and takes about a week to tell it. As a matter of fact, he's talking about Weiss."
"What about him?" Sefton asked impatiently.
"Vanished! At any rate, nothing has been heard of him for two days. I don't understand how he ever got elected here. It only shows that any bounder can get into a good club if he only has money enough. Well, there seems to be an end of Weiss, and I don't pretend to be sorry."
"But what's he done?" Sefton demanded. "Has he committed suicide, or absconded, or become bankrupt? Are his affairs in confusion? Are the police after him?"
"Well, I don't think it's as bad as that," the other said reluctantly, "the police seem to suspect foul play. According to this evening's papers, everything appears to be in order, and Weiss' manager in the City has emphatically denied that anything is wrong financially. It is hinted that Weiss has enemies of various political shades, and the theory is advanced that he has been kidnapped. But read it for yourself, if you take any interest in the fellow."
So saying, the speaker handed the paper to Sefton, and began to talk on other topics to his companions. The paragraph was displayed, with appropriate headings, on the third page:—
"Considerable excitement has been caused in City circles by the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Samuel Weiss, the well-known merchant, whose offices are situated in Leadenhall-street. Mr. Weiss has not been in London very long, but for some years past has occupied a prominent position in South Africa, where he is widely known and respected. So far as it has been possible to ascertain, Mr. Weiss left the City the day before yesterday at five o'clock, according to his usual custom. There is no question that he was expected back on the following morning, because he made important appointments by letter, which, however, in the circumstances, he could not keep. On the evening of his disappearance, Mr. Weiss dined quietly at home with his wife and daughter, and afterwards retired to the library to smoke a cigar and read certain papers, which was his usual habit when he had no social engagements on hand. Only one visitor called during the evening, and he did not stay long, leaving, according to the testimony of the butler, shortly after ten. At that time Mr. Weiss was in the library, but when the butler entered the room at a quarter to eleven, Mr. Weiss was no longer there. Thinking his master had gone out, the butler said nothing and presently retired, leaving the front door on the latch. It was late on the following morning before the discovery was made that Mr. Weiss had not come back all night. Mrs. Weiss was not at first alarmed by this discovery, but as the day wore on and there were no signs of the missing man, she became frightened and sent round to Scotland Yard. It was then found that Mr. Weiss had not been near the City, and up to the time of our going to press nothing has transpired as to his whereabouts. The disappearance is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that we are informed on the highest authority that Mr. Weiss' business affairs are in absolute order. The missing gentleman, too, was in perfect health, and, so far as can be learned, had nothing to trouble him."
Sefton dropped the paper and lighted a cigarette. He wanted to think over the matter quietly. He knew more about Weiss than anybody in the club, or, for that matter, in London. No doubt Weiss had enemies besides himself, and some of these appeared to be both bold and unscrupulous. All the same, Sefton was annoyed to find the thing taken out of his hands in this way. He had thrown himself heart and soul into the fight with Weiss, and it was vexatious to have his hand forced in this fashion. It was, however, a consolation to know that as long as Weiss was out of the way Gerald Rashleigh was safe! The question was how long would he be absent? He might return at any moment, or he might be away for a month, or for ever, or might even be now in his house. It might resolve itself into a case of lapse of memory, such as frequently happens. But, at all events, Sefton's plans were confounded for the present. He felt he must go to Weiss' house and ascertain the very latest details. The members had forgotten Weiss by this time, the smoking-room company had passed on to more interesting topics, and none noticed Sefton as he threw the end of his cigarette in the fireplace and left the club. When he reached Weiss' house, a few lights were burning. In answer to his summons the butler came to the door, looking scared and agitated.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, "but I thought you were the police. They have been coming and going all day, till it's got on my nerves to such an extent that every time I hear the bell it brings my heart into my mouth. No, sir, we haven't heard a word about master in any shape or form."
Sefton asked a few questions, but elicited nothing fresh. He turned away disappointed, and walked slowly along the deserted street. Then he grew conscious that someone was coming behind him with rapid steps, and presently a trembling hand was laid upon his arm. He turned to see a pretty domestic, regarding him with a white face and quivering lips. Under the arc light he noticed the imploring look in her eyes.
"I beg your pardon, sir," she said, "but are you not Mr. Sefton? Yes, I thought you were. My mistress has said to me more than once that if anything happened to her I was to come to you."
"Try to calm yourself," Sefton said, sympathetically, "but you haven't told me who your mistress is."
"Miss Weiss, sir," the girl whispered. "I think there's trouble, and I don't know what to do."
Sefton was startled.
"Yes, yes; but what has happened to your mistress?"
"I can't tell," the girl said tearfully; "she went out last night, and has not returned."
Samuel Weiss sat in the semi-darkness glaring at his tormentor. To do him justice, he did not lack courage, and was ready to try conclusions with Ford, but he could not tell how such a struggle would end, and, as a fact, he had done this man a grievous wrong. This latter consideration did not count for much with Weiss, yet it was not without its moral effect. Weiss knew, too, that Ford had been hunting for him over two continents, and would slay him without compunction but for the fear of detection. Even this risk would not have deterred Ford if he had been quite sure of a certain thing. Until this matter was settled Weiss felt secure. But it was maddening to be detained here at the mercy of Ford, when there were so many pressing reasons why he should be at home.
"How much longer is this going on?" he demanded, rising to his feet.
"Were you speaking to me?" Ford replied. "Don't adopt that tone with me, for I won't stand it. You will remain here as long as I choose. I have several questions to ask. In the first place, where is my wife?"
Weiss stood sullen and silent. Ford repeated the question with an emphasis which left him no alternative.
"I don't know," he said.
"That's a lie," Ford said, without the slightest feeling. "What is the use of your telling me such a story? People call you clever, and I suppose you must be, but even clever men make mistakes. Now, Weiss, I will make a bargain with you. You are rich and prosperous, and appear to have turned over a new leaf. Mind, I only say 'appear.' I dare say you've made a good thing out of diamonds, and have come to England to settle down and, as the papers put it, take your proper place in Society. Before long you'll have a fine mansion in the country, be made a J.P., and get a seat in the House. Fancy you a magistrate! It makes me laugh even to think of it. But you won't be the only rascal on the bench, lecturing poor wretches on their shortcomings. I heard something from another quarter and have come here to spoil your little game. My idea was to expose you first and shoot you afterwards. But I don't see what I shall gain by that, so am ready to strike a bargain with you. Tell me where I can find my wife and child and I will not trouble you again."
Weiss shook his head doggedly.
"I don't know," he said. "I wish to goodness I did, so that I could be rid of you. I have not seen your wife for three years. She was to have come to a place near Kimberley to get her share of the money that belonged to us, but she never turned up, and from that day to this we have not met."
"You didn't look for her?" Ford asked.
Weiss was goaded into sudden fury. He hated to be cross-examined like this, and it cut his self-esteem to find himself a mere puppet in Ford's hands. Had he been less furious he might have been more guarded in his reply.
"No, I didn't," he said, "why should I worry? Your wife was quite capable of taking care of herself, and I had other things to think about."
"You are not speaking the truth," Ford retorted. "I am certain my wife came to you, and that you refused to give her anything. That was about the time when it was reported I had been killed by natives in a row near Kimberley, and you thought you'd heard the last of me. You had all the diamonds in your possession, the whole of a colossal fortune, and it struck you as an excellent idea to keep everything to yourself. If you could only get away, my wife could starve or die for all you cared—a solitary item in the vast African continent—and there would be an end of her. I am not talking at a venture. I have been a heedless, creedless, Godless blackguard, but I was fond of my wife, and she might have made a decent man of me if she had only had the opportunity. She trusted herself to me; she knew what I was, and married me. I ought not to have left her alone, but I saw my way to making a fortune in double-quick time, and that is how the trouble came about."
"How much longer are you going to be?" Weiss asked, with an affectation of being bored.
"I am in no hurry. Nobody knows you are in this den. Haven't I warned you that I could put you out of the way and walk out of the house unsuspected, and to-morrow all London would be asking why Weiss had blown his brains out in a low public-house. I have hardly a friend in England, and no one knows I am here. But you needn't be afraid. I have a better plan than that. We will wait till the coast is clear, and then I will go home with you and talk matters over."
This suggestion found favor in Weiss' eyes, for he almost ventured to smile.
"Very well," he exclaimed, "it shall be so. Then you will find that you have been quite mistaken, Ford, that I am not the man you take me for."
Ford did not care to dispute the point. He moved cautiously to the door, and bade Weiss remain till he came back.
"Don't move," he said threateningly; "don't play any of your tricks on me. And remember that the police may still be watching the house. You don't want to fall into their hands."
With these significant words Ford left the room. He was gone so long that Weiss became uneasy. He could hear a clock strike the hour of one, and the whole world seemed to have grown suddenly still and silent. But the minutes crept on and on, until half an hour had passed, and there was as yet no sign of Ford. In the intense stillness Weiss could hear the creaking of the floor boards; a mouse scratching behind the wainscot sounded loud and distinct. By and by he thought he detected someone breathing regularly and steadily, and had a queer, creepy feeling that he was not alone. He stood, impatient and restless, until he could endure the solitude no longer and groped his way towards the door.
His sight was not good, and he felt in his pocket for his glasses, but they were not there. Probably he had lost them in the confusion, and would have to do as best he could without them. He could only dimly discern the outline of the door, and found himself presently in a passage which, however, seemed to lead to nowhere. He could not discover the stairs, and tried to recollect how he had reached the spot where he was standing. His helplessness was most annoying, especially as he could have got clear away without seeming to break faith with Ford, for he could easily have said that he imagined Ford had fallen into the hands of the police.
Weiss gave a grunt of satisfaction as he found at length what he was looking for. A rickety flight of stairs turned abruptly to the right, and down these Weiss picked his way cautiously, but he had hardly reached the second step before the whole crumpled under his feet, and he fell heavily head first to the floor below. He experienced a dull feeling of pain, then a grinding horrible jarring from head to foot, and finally passed into a state of unconsciousness.
How long he lay there he never knew. When he opened his eyes again it was still dark, though faint streaks of the coming dawn were visible. He lay in a small courtyard surrounded by dilapidated buildings. The place was silent; the police had done their work thoroughly, and nobody was left in the house. Standing faint, dizzy, and confused, Weiss attempted to realise where he was. So far as he could tell, he showed no outward mark of injury, no sign of blood, not even a bruise. He could even walk and, to his surprise and relief, felt little the worse for his adventure. But what appalled him was that an extraordinary cloud had come over his brain. He had no recollection of yesterday or the day before, and the more he tried to recall the past, the more impenetrable did that veil become. Then suddenly he seemed dimly to understand his peril, a profuse perspiration broke out upon his face, and he trembled from head to foot. He knew he had sustained a severe concussion, which he feared had reduced his mind to a perfect blank. What if he had lost his memory? He fumbled for a pocket-book or card case. But could find neither. He had removed them the night before.
"I wonder who I am," he muttered; "am I an honest man or a rogue? And how did I get here?"
These questions Weiss repeated over and over again in the most helpless fashion. He sat down with his head between his hands, trying to puzzle it all out until his brain reeled, and he began to have doubts as to his own sanity. It was getting daylight, and before long somebody would turn up and ask him what he was doing there. The best thing, he concluded, was to go to the nearest police station and explain to the inspector what had happened. In an odd sort of way Weiss was still debating about his identity and what sort of life he had led previously. He had a strange feeling that he had a good deal to conceal and would have to be very careful what he said to the police. He had not the least idea what his financial standing was, but it was some consolation to know that he was well-dressed and that his linen was of the finest and most expensive quality. He had, too, a costly gold watch, but this conjured up a fleeting picture of a dastardly crime in which he had played the part of the chief actor. All this passed in a flash, but it rendered him very hot and uncomfortable.
Then by natural gradation he took to wondering if he belonged to the criminal classes. Had he been engaged in some nocturnal errand and met with an accident? What would happen if he were arrested at the police station as a notorious criminal who was wanted by the authorities.
"This is dreadful," Weiss groaned, "if I could only get a glimpse into the past! If I only knew my name! I must be a villain of the deepest dye or my mind would not be preoccupied with crime."
By and by he proceeded down a passage into the street. Weiss saw that he was in a squalid neighborhood, entirely unfamiliar to him. There was nothing here to give him a clue to his lost identity. He wandered on, restless and miserable, on the off-chance of finding somebody to whom he might explain his trouble. But the few people about at that early hour did not inspire confidence. It was too early for the laborer and artisan to be on their way to work, and the casual wayfarers who drifted by were nighthawks of the worst possible type. As he loitered, faint and confused, he was unconscious that he was being closely observed by two suspicious characters on the other side of the road. Possibly his watch chain had attracted their attention, for they came across the street, and stood one on either side of him.
"Anything wrong, guv'nor?"
Weiss made some vague reply, while one of the strangers relieved him of his watch and chain. They winked at one another exultingly, for a man who had passed the night not wisely but too well was an easy victim. But a policeman hove in sight, and the two thieves promptly took to their heels. Then there was the sound of a whistle close at hand, followed by another in the distance, and Weiss speedily found himself in a police station making a feeble effort to account for himself. The inspector in charge gave up the case with a shrug of his shoulders.
"It's no use, Jones," he said to a subordinate, "not for the present, anyhow. He's been drinking, that's what's the matter with him. And if he hasn't been drinking, he's been lured into some night-house and drugged."
The other constable nodded his head as he looked at Weiss' white face and lack-lustre eyes.
"That's more like it," he said approvingly. "It don't look like a case of ordinary drunk to me. The best thing is to leave the gentleman to himself until he comes round. There's nothing on him to give us a clue to his name. His pocket's been picked of his watch and chain, but we'll probably have these back before the day is out. We know where the culprits are, and it can't be long before they're nabbed."
Weiss listened in a dull, mechanical sort of way, until it gradually dawned on him that he was the subject of the conversation. He made a valiant attempt to explain who he was, but the endeavor was hopeless. He did not like his surroundings either, and was anxious to get away. His money was still intact, a piece of good fortune that consoled him. Perhaps his memory might return during the day, and in the meantime he would take a room at some small hotel, and lie low there until he was in a position to return home. With this idea uppermost in his mind he approached the inspector's desk.
"I am sorry to give you all this trouble," he said, "but the fact is I have been very unfortunate. I found myself in a row last night, and when it was over I helped to take a man into a house close by. I was foolish enough to drink some whisky they offered me, and almost instantly I knew it was drugged. I have been wandering about ever since, and it is only during the last two or three minutes that my mind is becoming clearer. I think I am all right now."
"What did I say?" observed the police constable.
"Never mind that," the inspector replied. "I suppose, sir, you couldn't tell me where this happened? No? I was afraid you would say that. You are a stranger in these parts?"
"Oh! quite," Weiss agreed. "I came down to look up an old servant, and failed to find him. I took a wrong turning to cross the river again, or I should have been back home hours ago."
"You have lost your watch and chain," the inspector suggested.
Weiss clapped his hand to his waistcoat with a cry of dismay.
"So I have," he muttered. "I suppose I have seen the last of that, and it was a valuable watch, too."
The inspector explained that the robbery had been witnessed, and the police hoped to recover the articles before long. Perhaps the gentleman would give them his name and address, so that they might communicate with him later. This was the last thing Weiss desired. Even had he felt certain of his identity it must not be disclosed until he had carefully considered whether it were discreet or not to appear in police court. He made a show of searching his pockets for a card.
"I shall be very glad to have my watch," he said, "but in the meantime I must be going. My wife and family will be wondering what's become of me. Perhaps you had better take my name and address—Mr. Reuben Farr, of 116 Brampton Gardens, Blackheath. I shall be pleased to hear from you if you get any news about my watch."
With a fairly brisk step Weiss bustled out of the office, but he did not breathe freely until he had put several streets between himself and the police station. He walked on for a long distance, still keeping to the river, until he reached a district which, though strange to him, was respectable. It was now nine o'clock. The shops were open, and the bustle of London life was in full swing. He came presently to a public-house, where he found he could have a room. The deposit of a sovereign allayed all suspicion on the score of the new customer's want of luggage. After making a few purchases, he partook of a hearty breakfast, and then, on the plea that he had been travelling all night retired to his room with instructions that he was not to be called till dinner time.
Weiss slept soundly all day, and woke up in the evening greatly refreshed and feeling himself again, except that the cloud had not lifted from his mind. It was still in the same blank condition, and ponder as he might he could not recollect anything that happened before his accident. At first he thought of consulting a doctor, but discarded the idea ultimately, resolving to let it stand for a day or two. He dined as heartily as he had breakfasted, and in the evening went to a theatre, where he saw a play which in some way was familiar to him, though he had no recollection of ever witnessing it before.
But four days passed, and Weiss still found himself in the same hopeless position. He was getting short of money, too. He passed bills on the wall offering a reward for his own discovery, but they conveyed nothing to him. On the evening of the fourth day as he was entering the inn, a constable in plain clothes accosted him.
"You are Mr. Samuel Weiss, sir," he said quietly.
Weiss nodded in the most natural way.
"Quite right," he said. "I had no idea of it myself till you mentioned it. How did you come to find me out?"
Edgar Sefton was astonished at what Iza Weiss' maid said.
"Let me understand you. You are Miss Weiss' maid and are in her confidence. You tell me she went out last night, and has not come back. Do you mean this?"
"Yes, sir," the girl answered, "and I don't know what to do. You say I am in the confidence of my mistress, and to a certain extent it is true. But there are many things I don't know, and it is not my place to ask questions."
Sefton waved the point aside impatiently.
"You had better keep to facts," he said. "Now, go on, and tell me everything you know."
"Well, it's like this, sir," the maid explained. "Miss Weiss is not happy at home. She doesn't get on with her people. I have known her hardly speak to her parents for a week at a time, and they don't behave as if they were her father and mother. For some reason, they are afraid of her. My mistress wanted to go out last night, but wished for an excuse to get away without it looking as if the thing were what you might call premeditated. I forged a letter for her, and had it brought to the house by a messenger-boy. When she went out she told me she should be very late, and I was to slip downstairs after everybody had gone to bed and let her in."
"Has this happened before?" Sefton asked.
"Oh, well, sir. Miss Iza has been out very late on several occasions. I may say it has only been lately, but I have let her in at three o'clock in the morning, and up to now we have managed to keep the secret. Sometimes she has been out all day, and Mrs. Weiss has been led to believe that she was in bed with a headache. But nothing like this has ever happened before, and I am terribly frightened. No one knows about it so far. They think she is in bed, not well enough to get up. I have gone through the form of taking meals up to her on a tray, but you can see for yourself, sir, that this can't go on much longer. What do you advise me to do?"
Sefton thought it over for a minute or two.
"I appreciate your difficulty," he said. "From what I know of Miss Weiss, it is impossible for her to do anything underhand. She must be very hard pressed indeed to be driven to these expedients. I can't believe that anything very serious has happened to her, and she is capable of taking care of herself. But at the same time it is your duty to speak."
The girl's tears began to flow afresh.
"It is so easy to give advice," she said, "but if I go to Mrs. Weiss and tell her and Miss Iza turns up again, she will be furious with me. She will say I have betrayed my trust. There is no knowing what damage I might do, meaning good all the time."
"I see that," Sefton said. "Wait until to-morrow morning. In the meanwhile I will make a few inquiries. I know something of the trouble which is on Miss Weiss's mind, and may be able to relieve it. If she comes back you can telephone to me, can't you? I will write my number down on a card for you. Perhaps you had better telephone in any case; it won't be difficult to do so from your house."
The girl agreed, and Sefton went on his way thoughtfully. He was more disturbed by this piece of intelligence than he cared to admit. He was not at all sure that that no harm had come to Iza Weiss, though he felt pretty certain her appearance had something to do with the disgrace which was hanging over the head of Gerald Rashleigh. He could do nothing that night, so he returned to his rooms. It was nearly two o'clock in the morning before he decided to go to bed. His hand was on the switch of the electric light, when the ripple of the telephone bell brought him up with a start.
"Are you there?" he asked. "Who is it?"
The reply came almost in a whisper. It was as welcome as it was unexpected.
"I am Iza Weiss," the voice said, "I hope you'll catch what I am saying. I have to speak very quietly, because the household are in bed, and I don't want anybody to know I am using the telephone. I have been talking with my maid. It seems she got frightened, and told you about my escapade. I can't blame her for that, because I told her if anything happened to me, she could not do better than communicate with you. I wonder if you can guess what has kept me from home?"
"I think I could," Sefton replied. "Gerald Rashleigh had something to do with it."
"He had everything to do with it," was the quiet reply; "he was in a position of great danger. I was able to warn him, but I don't want to talk about myself just now. I have managed to get back home without anybody but my maid suspecting anything. At present I am more concerned with Mr. Weiss. We have heard nothing of him."
"You are speaking of your father?" Sefton asked.
"My father! Oh, dear, yes. He is in a position of real danger. Whether he has met with an accident or not I don't know, but a man named Edward Ford is thirsting for his blood. You may remember Ford? He was a prospector in South Africa——"
"I remember him," Sefton interrupted, "a big, harum-scarum fellow, one of the most desperate men I ever came across. He will be dangerous to anyone who has crossed his path. Is he an enemy of Mr. Weiss's?"
"Very much, but I cannot tell you more now. I thought you would like to know I was safe, and that my adventure had brought no harm to anybody. I shall be much obliged if you will come round to-morrow morning under pretence of asking about my father. I have certain information which you may be able to convey in a in a diplomatic manner to the police. When may I expect you?"
Sefton arranged a time and went to bed feeling easy in his mind, but when he called on Miss Weiss next morning he was told she was not at home. He was inclined to question the correctness of the message, but the butler, who gave it, was quite convinced. He had taken letters to Miss Weiss which came by the ten o'clock post, and almost immediately afterwards had called a cab for her. She left the house saying she would not be back for a day or two.
Sefton turned disappointedly away, and indeed it was nearly the end of the week before he received a note from Iza Weiss asking him to call upon her the same afternoon. He found her in the library with a clean-shaven, astute-looking person, who, Sefton was not surprised to learn, had come from Scotland Yard. The visitor has just laid on the table a gold watch and chain.
"I won't detain you a minute," Iza said. "I have to attend to all the business connected with the disappearance of my father. My mother is too much overcome to be of the slightest use. The inspector has called to inquire if I could identify this watch and chain. He is convinced it belongs to Mr. Weiss, for it tallies with the one he was wearing the last time he was seen. I have no doubt of it myself?"
"How did it come into your hands?" Sefton asked.
"That's easily explained, sir," the detective replied. "It was pawned by two pick-pockets who are now in custody, and when we knew what jewellery Mr. Weiss was wearing, we came to the conclusion that this was his watch. This leads us to another important discovery. We have ascertained that Mr. Weiss met with a serious accident, which resulted in an injury to his brain, which induced loss of memory. The morning after he disappeared, he was actually in one of our stations in South London, and there gave a false name and address. But we have nearly succeeded in tracing him, and I think he will be home again this evening."
"Are you you going to leave the watch?" Sefton said.
"I can't do that, sir," the officer explained. "At present it is our property."
When the door closed behind the inspector, Iza Weiss turned eagerly to her companion.
"You have made a discovery?" she said.
"I have indeed," Sefton replied; "that watch may belong to Mr. Weiss now, but it was once the property of Miss Vane's father. But I cannot say more just now."
If Iza Weiss's maid had only known the perils her mistress was going through, she would have had graver cause for alarm. It was a desperate enterprise on which the girl had embarked, but for some years she had lived in an atmosphere of intrigue and trouble, so that adventure was to her almost a relaxation. And, besides, her lover was in imminent danger, and that sufficed. After numerous hair-breath escapes, she had found him, but even then it looked as if her efforts were in vain.
Most unexpectedly Ford had come to the rescue. Iza had known Ford in South Africa, was aware for years he had been associated with Samuel Weiss, and that the men had worked together in more than one questionable transaction. She knew, too, there had been a deadly quarrel between them, and that the chief motive for Weiss's return was a desire to be as far away from Ford as possible.
Despite his wild nature and extravagant outbursts, Iza had always liked Ford. Side by side with the potentialities of a blackguard, he had many sterling qualities which the girl was bound to admire. Women could trust him, and children were fond of him, and more than once he had gone out of his way to do Iza a real service.
And he had behaved splendidly to her now. But for his resourcefulness and courage George Rashleigh would at that very moment have been in the hands of the police. When he was arrested, his case looked hopeless. It was true the police had no notion who their prisoner was, but directly inquiries came to be made the truth would come out.
But thanks to Ford, Rashleigh had every chance to get clear away. The danger was not wholly past, because the police might return. Gerald stood for a while in the room, almost afraid to move. For a time there was silence. Then Iza began to get impatient.
"It must be very late," she whimpered. "Don't you think we might try to escape?"
"Wait a little longer," Rashleigh replied. "I suppose the excitement has been too much for me."
Rashleigh's voice was so hoarse and strained that Iza was startled. There was a note of pain in it, too, and he seemed to have difficulty in his breathing.
"Aren't you well, Gerald?" she asked.
"I am afraid not, dear," Rashleigh said. "I ought not to have come out. I hope I shall manage to keep up for the next hour or so, but my breathing is getting worse."
Rashleigh broke off abruptly, and Iza began to fear the worst.
"Then we must make an effort," she said. "The only thing I can think of is to take you to some hotel, and send for a doctor. But I have very little money."
"That's a very good suggestion," Rashleigh gasped. "You needn't worry about money, because I have plenty. Let us go. If it wasn't for those wretched handcuffs I should feel fairly safe."
"Oh, I daresay we can manage," Iza said eagerly. "I will button your overcoat over your arms, and make it look as if you had met with an accident."
A few moments later they found themselves in the street. The ghastly pallor on Rashleigh's face filled Iza with alarm. It was imperative he should be conveyed to some warm room at once, and be attended by a medical man. The streets were almost deserted, but an occasional passer-by glanced curiously at the man, who appeared to have lost the use of his arm. A policeman watched them, and Iza's heart came into her mouth. Presently it became clear that someone was following them. With difficulty Iza repressed a scream as a hand was laid upon her shoulder, but to her intense relief, she saw that it was Ford.
"You are taking big risks," the latter said grimly. "Why didn't you wait until I gave you the tip? However, Weiss is safe enough, and the police have cleared out. This is no business of mine, Miss Weiss, and we all have our troubles, but I shall be ready to help you if you will let me. I suppose this is a friend of yours who has got into a scrape?"
"He is the gentleman I am engaged to," Iza said quietly. "And he has to thank Mr. Weiss entirely for his present position. There is a foul conspiracy on foot, Mr. Ford, and I am here to prevent it. You can help us if you know the neighborhood. Mr. Rashleigh is dreadfully ill, and must get comfortable quarters at once."
"I am sorry," Ford said, in his rough way, "but I know no more about this locality than you do. But there must be plenty of hotels close by if you have got money, but how will you manage with this gentleman, tied up as he is? You can't take a man in handcuffs into a hotel and pass off as respectable people. I thought of that, and that's why I followed you into the street. You see the difficulty?"
"If I only had a file I could manage," Iza said. "We could take a private room, and before the doctor came I could rid Mr. Rashleigh of those horrible things."
Rashleigh took very little interest in the conversation. He was breathing with greater difficulty than ever, and his face was white and set. Ford smiled as be plunged his hands into his pockets and produced a file with the air of a conjurer.
"It isn't very large," he said, "but you'll find it of excellent quality. I always used it in South Africa as a rough and ready way of testing diamonds. Now I must be off. I have an account to settle with Mr. Weiss, and no doubt the longer I detain him the better he will be pleased."
Ford turned away and strode down the street. With the file tightly grasped in her hand, Iza urged Rashleigh along. She was alarmed to observe how painfully he walked and the increased difficulty he had in keeping up with her. She was so engrossed in her companion that for some time she did not notice a black poodle which was jumping up and fawning upon her.
"How did Fuss get here? How extraordinary to follow me here! And how dangerous! What do you mean by it, sir?"
The dog seemed to understand what was said, and laid hold of Iza's skirt, bent upon dragging her down a side street. It was a respectable-looking street of small houses, and on the spur of the moment Iza made up her mind to go that way. It did not matter which way she turned, however, for she was as likely to find an hotel in one direction as another.
"Very well, Fuss," she said resignedly, "you shall take charge of the party. Perhaps your instincts will help us. Go on."
The dog trotted ahead, barking joyfully, and paused before a house, where he whined and scratched at the door. A moment later the door was opened by a tall, refined-looking woman, with dark hair and regular features.
"You naughty dog!" she said, reprovingly, "why don't you go home? What brings you here so late?"
A sudden exclamation of thankfulness broke from Iza's lips. She rushed forward and placed her hands on the woman's shoulders.
"Kate Ford!" she exclaimed, "don't you know me? I am Iza Weiss, and in terrible trouble. Are you alone in the house? Do you live here?"
"I am alone in the house, and it is my own place," the woman replied. "I did not recognise you for the moment. Well, this is an unexpected surprise! I won't ask you what you are doing here at this time of night, but if you are in distress, I shall be only too pleased to help you. Come inside."
She followed Mrs. Ford into a comfortable sitting-room where a fire was burning, dropped into a chair, and burst into tears. It was only for a few moments, and then she was her own courageous and smiling self again.
The dark woman standing by the fireplace said nothing. She looked like one who had seen trouble and suffering in her time, but the expression in her eyes was kindly, and the hard, proud lines of her mouth softened a little. She even expressed no surprise as Iza placed Rashleigh in a chair and removed his overcoat, displaying his fettered wrists beneath. Iza looked at her appealingly.
"You were always kind-hearted and thoughtful," she said. "Many a thing you did for me when I was a child, and you won't turn your back on me now. This is Mr. Gerald Rashleigh, and I am engaged to be married to him. He is the victim of a conspiracy, which is being worked by the man whom I call my father. The police are after him, Kate, and there are urgent reasons why he should not fall into their hands. He is very ill. Oh! if you are alone in the house, help us. You might keep Mr. Rashleigh here till he is well. There is no question about money. We shall be able to employ a trained nurse, and you will be able to recommend a good doctor."
"Just as if I wouldn't do anything for you, Miss Iza," Mrs. Ford said reproachfully. "And goodness knows! I have had trouble enough of my own, and that generally makes one feel for other people. I'll help you now and ask questions afterwards. I am alone in the house; I know nobody hereabouts, and it will be a godsend to have someone to talk to. And if you can find a more capable nurse than I am, I should like to see her. But before we do anything we must take off these handcuffs."
With a broken murmur of thanks, Iza produced a file, and Kate Ford went to work with her strong capable hands. Rashleigh lay back in his chair as if the proceedings had no interest for him. Half an hour later Iza and Mrs. Ford managed to get him into bed and a cheerful fire blazed on the room.
"How can I thank you?" Iza said.
"There is no need to," Mrs. Ford answered. "I am only too pleased to help you. You shall tell me presently how Mr. Rashleigh got into this scrape. And since he is hiding from the police wouldn't it be more prudent if you went back home and left Mr. Rashleigh to me? I must concoct some story, of course. Mr. Rashleigh must pass for my brother. But if I were you I wouldn't see the doctor. You are too well-dressed and aristocratic for a neighborhood like this. The less suspicion we arouse the better."
Iza fell in with this suggestion. She was only too glad to have the burden of responsibility lifted from her shoulders, for now she was feeling the strain. She lay back in her chair with her eyes half closed and the black poodle curled up at her feet. She was dimly conscious of Mrs. Ford's return to the house; then she heard the sound of subdued voices, and, a considerable time afterwards, the front door closed again. Then Mrs. Ford bustled into the room.
"What does he say?" Iza asked anxiously.
"Well, it's pretty serious, my dear," Mrs. Ford replied. "A touch of pneumonia. But everything has been done that can be done, and the patient is getting on nicely. You can trust him to me, and you mustn't come here oftener than you can help. You must lie down, too, or I'll have a couple of patents on my hands, which will be more than I can manage. And how about the old folk at home? Won't they be terribly anxious about you?"
Iza smiled contemptuously.
"They will be more anxious to get rid of me altogether," she said. "But I am not running the risks you imagine. For all Mr. and Mrs. Weiss know to the contrary, I am safe in bed, and my maid is to be trusted implicitly. She would shield me even if I did not turn up to-morrow. And I can't go back yet. I couldn't return until I knew that the danger was over. But what will your husband say?"
Kate Ford stared at the speaker in undisguised amazement.
"My husband!" she exclaimed. "Why I haven't seen him for two years! It is a sore subject with me Miss Iza, and I shall be glad if you won't refer to it. I could never understand why he should send me a message saying he never wished to see me again. I married him with my eyes open, knowing all about his past and directly again at the wishes of my friends. I felt that Ned had good qualities, but I was a fool to think I could reform him. I never thought he would go away and leave me amongst strangers, and absolutely penniless. I inherited a little money after that and came back to London and took this house. You will think me foolish and sentimental, but if Ned came back I should welcome him. Still, that's all past and done with."
"But is it?" Iza asked eagerly. "I feel sure you are mistaken. There is some more of Mr. Weiss's work here. You wonder why I speak so of a man whom the world regards as my father. He is no relation of mine at all. There are reasons why things must remain as they appear to be, but I hope it will not be for much longer. But I am forgetting. I was going to tell you about your husband—it is not so long since I was in his company. The very file you were using belongs to him. He ran after us in the street and gave it to me. But perhaps I had better explain everything to you."
Kate Ford nodded her head slowly. She was unable to speak. There was an eager look in her eyes, but her face was pale and her lips trembled. She asked never a question until Iza had finished. It was only then that she grasped the meaning of it all.
"It seems like Providence," she remarked. "I never expected to hear anything like this. You mean to tell me my husband is in London. You think he is looking for me. Why, I might run against him in the street; I might meet him at any moment! You are right Miss Iza, this must be some of Samuel Weiss's rascally work. He had some reason for parting Ned and me, and did his work effectually. I cannot tell you how glad I am you came here this evening. What brought you?"
"I suppose it was the dog," Iza replied. "He found me in the street. At first I thought he had followed me from home. Then he dragged me down here, and in the excitement of discovering you, I forgot all about him. But does Fuss often pay you a visit? He disappears for hours at a time, but we never worry about that, as he always come back."
"Oh, the dog knows me," Kate Ford said. "We were very good chums in the African days. Fuss came up to me one day in Piccadilly and renewed his old friendship, and insisted on following me here. I was going to try to find his home when he suddenly vanished, but he turns up regularly about three times a week. But never mind the dog; tell me about my husband."
There was little more for Iza to tell. It was getting near daylight and Mrs. Ford urged Iza to go home. But the girl found it hard to leave until she could take good news with her. She lingered until the doctor paid his morning visit. She was still there when he called in the evening. It would be more prudent, she said, for her to return after midnight, when the Weiss household would be sure to be in bed. Her maid would be on the watch for her, and she was certain the Weiss family would not have the slightest idea that she had been outside the house.
"I know I have done right," she said. "Think how much happier I shall be, now that I have heard what a cheerful account the doctor has given of Gerald. After to-morrow I can get away for a day or two and come and help you to nurse him. You won't mind, would you?"
Kate Ford smiled pleasantly.
"I understand, my dear," she said. "If you can manage without any risk I shall be willing. I had better lend you a wrap or something. Your dress is rather conspicuous. Don't you worry about the patient. He'll be safe in my hands."
Iza was content. She was easy in her mind, and did not fail to realise that Gerald Rashleigh was in capable hands. It was very late before she reached Weiss's house and gave the signal to her maid, which was immediately answered. It was then she heard that Mr. Weiss had not yet returned. She smiled as she went up to her own room. She had no occasion to be displeased with the result of her adventure.
Iza listened with great interest to what Sefton had to say about his discovery of the original owner of the watch Weiss had been wearing on the night of the accident. Sefton's exceedingly guarded language satisfied her there was something he was concealing.
"Am I not to be trusted?" she asked.
"That is not the question," Sefton said hesitatingly. "I have found out something which has given me food for thought. If you were not Mr. Weiss's daughter——"
"You could tell me more, I suppose," Iza interrupted. "But as it is, you have a natural delicacy in speaking freely. Well, the time has come when we must be frank. Mr. Weiss is no relation of mine, but I ask you to keep this secret for the present; there are reasons why the presumed relationship should continue unsuspected for a little longer. You need not scruple to pronounce Samuel Weiss a cold-blooded scoundrel, for I am already aware of the fact. He would gladly remove me if he could, because I have a hold upon him. Yet he is powerless, because if anything happened to me, disclosures would follow, and he would be ruined."
"I am not altogether astonished to hear this," Sefton said. "I may admit now that it has always been a mystery to me how you could be his daughter, or he your father. Your avowal puts a different construction upon matters. The watch we were speaking of belonged to the Reverend George Vane, Elsie's father. I don't suppose you are aware of it, but according to popular opinion, Mr. Vane committed suicide. He was found dead in circumstances that seemed to indicate that he had taken his own life. Vane was too fine a fellow, too good a sportsman, to do so cowardly an act. When he died his watch was missing. I don't think enough was made of the point at the the time, but that is beside the mark. It is almost incredible that Samuel Weiss should wear the watch of the man he murdered, but your hardened criminal is both reckless and foolish. Some of the most astute have betrayed themselves by the most childish mistakes. Now, Weiss——"
"One moment," Iza exclaimed. "You are going too fast for me. Do you mean to say that at one time Weiss was on friendly terms with Miss Vane's father? I didn't know it."
"I had forgotten that for the moment," Sefton went on, "but it is a fact. I suppose it must be about three years ago, roughly speaking. Were you in England then?"
"No, I wasn't," Iza said. "I was at school in Paris."
"Ah! that would account for it. Weiss took a house in Herefordshire, not very far from Mr. Vane's. I don't know what he was doing in the country, but we may be sure he was up to no good. Perhaps London or Capetown had grown too hot to hold him, and he thought the country would be cooler. He became very friendly with Mr. Vane, who had a decided bent for science, and, from inquiries I have made, I think it likely he hoaxed with a process he had invented for the manufacture of diamonds. Knowing so much about diamonds, it would be easy for him to pose as a specialist and hoodwink a guileless parson. The men saw a good deal of each other, though I cannot ascertain that Weiss ever visited Mr. Vane's house. What was the outcome of this partnership we shall never know, because Mr. Vane met his death in a tragic manner, was, as I have said, supposed to have put an end to himself. I do not believe it, and never believed it. I fancy Mr. Vane found Weiss out, and threatened to expose him. He was a just and righteous man, and would have done what he deemed his duty fearlessly. I believe Weiss murdered Vane, and arranged the details so cunningly that the whole thing pointed to suicide. I am not talking without book, for I hold certain proofs, though I am bound to admit they are not quite complete. But you will see for yourself that the evidence of the watch is pretty strong. I recognised it in a moment. You will, of course, say nothing about this."
"Of course not," Iza said. "But how horrible the whole thing is. Fancy living under the same roof with such people! And yet one must dissemble for a little longer."
Sefton expressed sympathy and was about to say more when the front-door bell was violently rung, and two men alighted from a four-wheeler cab, leading a third between them. They saw at a glance that this was Samuel Weiss. He came quietly up the steps and walked into the hall with the air of a stranger. He looked with idle curiosity around him, and it was plain he had not the least idea where he was, or that he had ever been there before. He entered the library and dropped into a seat with a weary air, suggestive of utter boredom.
"Why did you bring me here?" he asked petulantly, "and who is this gentleman? I suppose he is the master of the house?"
The two plain-clothes constables exchanged glances; obviously it was unnecessary to detain them. Sefton sent for the doctor and loitered until Weiss's regular physician came. Then as he turned to go, Iza followed him to the door.
"Looks like a case for a doctor and a set of nurses," Sefton said. "I wonder how he has got into that state. By-the-bye, I forgot to ask if you had any news of Gerald Rashleigh. I have to see his sister this afternoon, and she will be anxious to hear."
"You can take her good news," Iza smiled. "Gerald is safe, and in excellent hands. But it was a very near thing. I got him into a house just in time to avert an acute attack of pneumonia. He is going on quite nicely. Between ourselves that's where I have been the last few days. You will see me again when there is anything fresh to tell, won't you?"
Sefton gave the desired pledge and went his way. He had plenty to occupy his attention. In the first place he took a cab and paid a hurried call on Vera Barrington, who was greatly cheered by the tidings about her brother. Then he drove to an address off the Waterloo-road. He had some difficulty in tracing the house where Mr. James Cutler lived, but found it presently in a blind alley. The yard in front was filled with scores of cages containing all sorts of animals, and at the rear were a set of kennels which would have done justice to a ducal establishment. The kennels were mostly filled with poodles of various colors and sizes, and though Sefton was not a judge he could see that the dogs were exceedingly valuable.
He had expected to find someone of the ordinary dealer type, but the man who came forward and proclaimed himself to be Mr. Cutler was well dressed, and had excellent manners.
"No, I don't live here, sir," he explained. "I only use this as a convenient kind of office. I generally motor from my place at Waybridge. Besides, it is so much easier for my customers in London to call here. Do you want a dog?"
"No, I don't," Sefton explained. "I am afraid I have come to give you some trouble. I understand your poodles originally came from Mr. Vane in Herefordshire. Mr. Vane was a great friend of mine, and I am interested in tracing a dog which was either sold or given some two years ago to a man named Samuel Weiss. I believe Mr. Vane's studbooks passed into your hands. I suppose it would be possible to trace this transaction? I shall be pleased, should it take time——"
"There is no occasion for that," Mr. Cutler smiled. "I shall only be too happy to place the information I have at your disposal. There need be no question of fee. Will you come to the office? When I bought Mr. Vane's dogs I had a lot of papers, and I fancy they don't all refer to kennel affairs. But you can look through them for yourself. Really, I ought to have sorted them out and returned them to Mr. Vane's executors. You might overhaul them, whilst I try to trace the dog transaction."
So saying, Cutler led the way into a neat little office and opened a safe, from which he took a number of books relating to his business. There were, besides, a lot of volumes mostly bound in black, and when Sefton turned over the pages he saw they were in Mr. Vane's neat handwriting. His eye caught the name of Samuel Weiss in several places.
"I wonder if I might borrow these?" he asked. "I will give you my name and address. And when I return in a day or two, perhaps you will have the other information for me. Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Certainly," Cutler replied. "Take them with pleasure."
Sefton hurried home with his find, and lost no time in getting to work upon the manuscripts. For an hour or two he waded through a mass of more or less trivial details. They were not uninteresting in their way, for they threw a considerable light upon the life of a man for whom he had always had the highest regard. He was still poring over the pages when his dinner was announced, and he had not yet dressed when that meal was laid upon the table. He sat down just as he was and hurried through his dinner. When he had finished and his cigar was lighted and the lamps were lit, he sat down in real earnest with no intention of going to bed until he had reached the last page of the diary.
There was nothing in the book to indicate the type of man who was likely to take his own life. The diaries were interesting, even from a literary point of view. They spoke of many things in which the writer had borne a leading part, and told of his travels and researches in many lands. It was not until Sefton had come to the middle of the third black-bound volume that he lighted on the name of Samuel Weiss. He read with enhanced zest.
"The world is a very small place," the diary began. "The more I see of it, the surer I am. I had taken my gun to go through some of the spinneys on the off chance of finding a stray rabbit or two. It was a beautiful morning, following a spell of lovely weather, and I noticed that in one of the orchards the daffodils had begun to bloom. It is a long time since I have seen anything of this kind at the end of March. But I did not sit down to my diary to discourse upon daffodils in March. I think my text was the smallness of the world. I had shot as many rabbits as I wanted, and had sent them home by a small boy at an outlay of sixpence when I sat on a stile to smoke a pipe in comfort. It was at this point the adventure began. Along the pathway through the woods there came presently a man whom I judged to be about fifty odd years of age, and one who was apparently a stranger in the neighborhood. He was dressed like a countryman, that is to say, his Norfolk suit was quite correct, and the same remark might apply to the rest of his attire. But there is no deceiving an old hand. I knew at once the fellow had been turned out by a Bond-street tailor, and that, except outwardly, he was no country man at all.
"I knew he was a stranger, but at the same time his face struck me as exceedingly familiar. Yet I must confess it was a face that did not appeal to me much. In the first place it suggested dissipation; in the second, greed; and in the third, cruelty. Nevertheless, the man had a suggestion of power about him, and he accosted me like one who is used to command and to be obeyed. I dare say if I had not been a lonely man I should have thought no more about him, but in a dull place like this a new face is a luxury.
"'Good morning to you, sir,' I said.
"He looked at me shrewdly from under his eyebrows. Perhaps he thought I wanted something, in which he was mistaken, save perhaps that I certainly wished to gratify my curiosity. Then I asked him if he was aware that he was trespassing.
"'Am I?' he said. 'Upon my word, I am not aware of it. I have lived so long out of England that I have almost forgotten what trespass means. I believe I have lost my way. Could you direct me to Harley Lodge?'
"I pricked up my ears at this. I had heard some little time before that the Harleys had let their house, but I had no idea who their tenant was, nor what manner of man he would prove to be. From what he said, I gathered he had spent most of his time abroad, and indeed there was something about him that suggested the colonial. And yet all the time I was haunted by the feeling that I had met him before. I felt sure I had seen him in circumstances which did not redound to his credit. I had to put the idea aside, because it was illogical, and, apart from the point of view of a parson, uncharitable as well. Still, I confess that my curiosity was piqued, and that is why I lingered after I had given the stranger the information that he desired.
"'Well, I suppose you are the parson?' he asked, in his blunt way. 'Do you live near here?'
"'That is my unhappy fate,' I replied. 'My name is Vane. May I venture to ask yours?'
"He volunteered the information that his name was Weiss, and his Christian name Samuel. It is not a pretty combination, and I am bound to confess that I did not like it. It suggests the city shark too much, with the requisite admixture of the respectable. And ever since I can recollect I have always detested the name Samuel. If I were a woman I would never marry a man named Samuel. It is strange how this combination of words, which I never heard before, struck a familiar chord. I rather disliked Mr. Weiss at the very first sight, and now I began to distrust him altogether, and yet I lingered in conversation with him, until finally he asked me to go over one day next week and lunch with him. I don't think I should have gone even then, but Mr. Weiss spoke of certain specimens he had which I was particularly anxious to see. From what he said I gathered that he had a poor opinion of the people of the neighborhood, and I should say that when he becomes known this feeling will be mutual.
"As I walked home, having arranged to go over to Harley Lodge on Tuesday, I wondered what had brought Mr. Weiss to such a quiet part of the world as ours. He had told me that he cared nothing for sport, that he was not particularly fond of the country, and that he deplored he had no telephone. Perhaps he has come for rest and quietness. But really it has nothing to do with me. I am getting quite as curious as my neighbors. . . .
"This afternoon I went to Harley Lodge, and had the pleasure of lunching with Mr. Weiss and his family. Incidentally, I made a great discovery. I knew now why I thought I had seen Mr. Weiss before. I knew that in this instance I was not mistaken. I suppose it must be twenty-five years ago, when I was a young man, that one of Lord Hillmouth's servants got into trouble owing to the disappearance of a valuable family ring. I had taken a certain interest in this youth, because I had found him unusually clever in the handling of ferrets. I recollect, as if it had been only yesterday, that the young footman had a peculiar tattoo mark on his left arm, which there was no mistaking. Of course, I had forgotten all this years ago, and it only flashed across my mind while Mr. Weiss was showing me the specimens I had come over on purpose to see. Some object caught Mr. Weiss by the arm and dragged up his coat sleeve, and there, sure enough, was the tattoo mark I have spoken about. I am positive that this prosperous-looking Samuel Weiss is the same young man who was prosecuted for theft by Lord Hillmouth a quarter of a century ago. Of course I said nothing about my discovery. It is not for me to judge other people, and possibly my host has been leading an exemplary life ever since his early lapse. I don't think he has myself, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt. But a little later, when I suddenly introduced the name of Hillmouth, I was curious to see what effect it would have upon Mr. Weiss.
"I saw him start and change color, then a sullen look came over his face, and there was a vindictive gleam in his eyes.
"'Never heard the name,' he said bluntly.
"'Oh, that's quite possible,' I replied. 'The family used to be a considerable one in these parts, but the late Earl was a very extravagant man, and after his death the Castle was let for a term of years. The present owner lives entirely abroad very quietly, in the hopes of paying off the mortgage.'
"'These great families are all alike,' Weiss replied. 'The time has gone by when they could do as they pleased, and owe everybody money without the slightest intention of paying it. Do you happen to know the present lord?'
"I replied that I hadn't that pleasure; indeed, no one has ever seen him in the county.
"'But I am very sorry for him,' I went on. 'I understand he has had a great deal of trouble. His favorite sister made a wretched marriage with a common soldier, who ran away with her, and they have never been heard of since. But I suppose this doesn't interest you.'
"Mr. Weiss said bluntly that it didn't. He had quite recovered himself, except that he seemed to regard me with a touch of suspicion. But one person at the table followed every word I uttered with the most flattering interest.
"It is strange I have written so far in my diary without making the slightest allusion to Miss Iza Weiss. As a man of the world I claim to know something about women, and I have had the pleasure of meeting many beautiful and fascinating ones in my time. But I never yet saw one who appealed to me more strongly than does Miss Weiss. She is tall and fair, and her beauty is of a very striking type indeed. Yet she impressed me as being exceedingly cold and distant, as if she were conscious of something to be ashamed of, at the same time betraying an anxiety to let a stranger know how indifferent she is to his opinion."
"I suppose it is because I am a lonely man that I take such a keen interest in my neighbors. I flatter myself that few people have ever appealed to me in vain when they were in trouble, and perhaps it was this trait in my character that drew me unconsciously towards Iza Weiss. I felt sure she was in distress, that her hauteur was unnatural in a girl of her age. There were certain soft lines about her mouth which suggested a sweet and generous disposition, and presently, a little later, she forgot herself and smiled at something that was said. That smile came as a kind of revelation to me. I knew that behind the frost and snow there was real womanliness, though it was only for a moment she smiled ere her features grew hard and set again.
"Here is some great and abiding sorrow beyond a doubt. Perhaps the girl has had a disappointment in love, perhaps she has bestowed her heart upon an unworthy object, but whether this is so or not, I am certain she has confided in nobody. And another thing I notice. The girl is not happy in her surroundings. She has nothing in common with her parents. To begin with, Weiss belongs to the vulgar class of money-makers, and probably is none too scrupulous in his methods. As to Mrs. Weiss, she is frankly common. She is of the housekeeper or small shopkeeper type, and I can easily imagine her running a boarding establishment, and robbing her lodgers of trifles. This is not a very charitable remark for a parson to make, but it is confided exclusively to my diary, and I feel sure I am right. Therefore, it is inexplicable how these common people with coarse red faces and blunt hands, should have a child so refined and graceful as Iza Weiss. She may not mean to treat them with contempt, but that is the impression she gives to an outsider. She takes no interest in what they say, and answers their questions as if it were an effort to do so. There is an aloofness and an air of detachment about her which I cannot understand. I think I must call again and see how matters are progressing. After living most of one's life amongst dull, respectable, commonplace people, it is a mental tonic to come in contact with a mystery like this.
"I was racking my brain for some ingenious excuse to appropriate Miss Iza to myself for a time, when the opportunity presented itself. Mrs. Weiss had vanished. She made no secret that she indulged in an after-lunch nap, and at that moment a messenger came in with some letters, which Weiss declared he must answer at once.
"'I shan't be more than half an hour,' he explained. 'Iza, perhaps you will show Mr. Vane round the gardens. They are supposed to be very fine. They don't interest me, but some people may like them.'
"He grabbed up his letters in his hard, stumpy hand, and went off to the library without further delay. I could see a faint contemptuous smile on the face of my fair companion.
"'I hope you properly appreciate Harley Lodge,' I said.
"The smile on the girl's face intensified.
"'I think it is perfect,' she said, in her low, pleasant voice. 'I am sure I should get to love it in time.'
"'You are quite different from your father,' I ventured to say.
"'To whom?' she asked; 'Oh! I beg your pardon, yes, my father, of course. No, we have very little in common. I think this place is a perfect dream of delight. I like to picture these rooms as they were two or three hundred years ago, crowded with ladies in hoops and farthingales and gallant cavaliers, all brave in silk and satin. I am told that King Charles II. once hid in this very house. How well the pictures seem to go with the old panelled walls! If I were alone in the world and had plenty of money, there is nothing I should like better than to live in a house like this. And of course you know the gardens too. How delightfully quaint they are with those prim yew hedges and that grand avenue of elms! This is a splendid place in which to forget one's troubles. I never realised till I came here what Tennyson meant when he speaks of "a haunt of ancient peace."'
"Now here was something in the nature of a miracle. The girl was transformed. She had lost every atom of repellent coldness. Her face was glowing with the inspiration of the place and a faint tinge of color in her cheeks rendered her indescribably charming. I did not fail to notice the sparkle in her eyes. Her pleasant voice vibrated with feeling. Whatever trouble it was that weighed upon her, it had nothing to do with blighted affections. She would not have talked like that if it did. She might pass amongst some people as cold and heartless and unfeeling, but they would be hopelessly at fault in so reading her. We walked up from the grounds presently, and it was my privilege for the next half-hour or so to give Miss Iza the history of the old house and its surroundings. I could not have wished for a more attentive listener. It was impossible to believe that this was the same white, chilling personality who had sat opposite to me at table.
"'How long are you going to stay here?' I asked.
"'I am sorry to say I don't know,' the girl replied. 'Not very long I'm afraid. There is nothing here to amuse Mr. Weiss. He sees nothing but drawbacks.' It was strange the girl should speak in this way of her father, but I had to let that pass.
"'Did you persuade him to come?' I asked.
"'No,' she answered. 'I never persuade him to do anything. I was always a poor hand at asking favors. But Mr. Weiss had had a sort of breakdown, and his doctor told him he must go into the country. I never thought he would take such a delightful place as this, and had he seen it, I doubt if he would have given it a second thought. But he was annoyed, and didn't want to come, nor would he have done so if his doctor hadn't frightened him. He had left the matter entirely to an agent, and I have been invoking blessings on that agent ever since. It will be a genuine grief to me when we turn our backs upon Harley Lodge.'
"'You don't find it dull?' I asked.
"'Dull?' the girl said with a glorious smile. 'Not in the least. No one possessed of a single spark of imagination could be dull in a house like this. Besides, I have all my books, and especially my poets, and whatever better company can a girl need?'
"'It is good to have friends occasionally,' I said.
"'I suppose it is,' was the thoughtful answer, as if I had put the matter in a fresh light to her. 'Yes, it would be nice to have a friend or two. I have read that a trouble is half healed when it is shared with some sympathetic friend. But I have never had the chance of making friends. Circumstances have prevented me from doing so.'
"A sudden idea occurred to me. This would be a charming companion for my Elsie. There are very few people of Elsie's age in the neighborhood, and more than once she has complained of being somewhat dull. I used to think so myself. I ventured to broach the matter.
"'It is only a few miles to my house,' I said; 'we make nothing of that in the country, it is not more than half an hour in the pony trap or on a bicycle. My daughter Elsie is about the same age as yourself, and I am sure you would get on with her. She will be very glad to call upon you. Shall I tell her you would like to see her?'
"Naturally enough, I expected the girl to express her willingness. But she is not made on conventional lines. The smile faded from her face, and she grew cold once more.
"'I would rather not,' she said. 'I have my own reasons for making few friends, and your daughter would find things very dull here.'
"Of course there was no more to be said after that, but I was a little disappointed. A man of my age who takes an interest in a pretty girl, and experiences a sincere pleasure in her society, is apt to be hurt by a rebuff like that, when administered when he appears to stand well in her good opinion. Perhaps it was my vanity that was wounded more than anything else.
"There was nothing for it but to change the subject and I plunged into a earned dissertation concerning the roses, which are a show feature at Harley Lodge in the summer months. After what had happened, I was not surprised to discover, when I turned to my companion, that she had not paid the smallest attention to my discourse. There was a faraway look in her eyes, her lips quivered slightly, then she gazed at me with one of those quick changes which I found so charming in her, and held out her hand.
"'I hope you will forgive me, Mr. Vane,' she said. 'But I am afraid that I was rude to you just now. Indeed, indeed, I appreciate your kindness. And I am sure I should find your daughter as pleasant and sympathetic as yourself. You are a gentleman, and will understand me. It isn't often I have the chance to speak to a gentleman.'
"This appeared to me to be somewhat of a reflection upon Mr. Weiss, but it was not for me to make any comment.
"'There are reasons,' she went on, 'why I cannot make friends. I should very much like to, but, situated as I am, it is impossible. And now I hope you will forgive me.'"
"There was nothing to forgive. And even if there had been, I should have pardoned her freely, if only to see the fleeting smile which hovered on the girl's lips once more. Speaking as a clergyman, I suppose it was my duty to have admonished Miss Iza for the way in which she spoke of her parents, but I deemed it prudent to let that pass.
"'I dare say you have your own reasons,' I said. 'But if you change your mind, I know that Elsie will only be too pleased to come over. I am anxious to see a good many more of Mr. Weiss's specimens, and he has been good enough to ask me to call on Saturday."
"There was no time for further speech, for at this point Weiss came bustling down the garden path, saying that he had finished his letters, and that his time was now at my disposal. I thought he glanced rather suspiciously in my direction, and then he turned to my companion and intimated in a tone of positive dislike that she might go.
"The girl had frozen again, and become once more cold and repellent. But for her, I think I should have made some excuse for taking my departure, with the firm resolve not to appear in Harley Lodge again, so long as the present occupants remained in the house. As it was, I loitered till nearly tea time, in the hope of seeing Miss Iza. But she had not put in an appearance when I left . . . .
"I fully intended going to Harley Lodge on Saturday, but I had a message at breakfast time from Mr. Weiss saying that he was unexpectedly called to town on important business, and that he would not be back for a few days. On Monday afternoon I had gone into the woods with my botanical case in search of a rare wild flower I had heard of, when I came across Mr. Weiss again. I was grubbing by a big gorse bush, when I heard voices on the other side. I had not intended to be a deliberate listener, but I recognised Weiss's strident tones, and something he was saying arrested my attention. Before I realised what I was doing I was eavesdropping in the most shameless fashion.
"'I tell you I have had enough of this,' Weiss was saying. 'I am a dangerous man to play with, as you know. Why do you follow me here? What do you want Kellett?'
"'Oh, I am taking no risks,' the man addressed as Kellett replied, 'and besides, I never went near the house. Nobody knows that I am not in London. I tell you there's no danger. I tracked you here, because it struck me as a nice quiet place for a little conversation.'
"'That was very daring of you,' Weiss said grimly. 'Nobody knows you are here, and nobody knows there is any connection between us. Now suppose you were found a little later with a bullet through your brain, lying stone dead in this plantation. It would be impossible to connect me with the affair, and you would be buried in a nameless grave. Upon my word, when I came to think of it, the temptation is almost stronger than I can resist.'
"Kellett laughed uneasily.
"'I have heard you talk like that before,' he said. 'But you are not in South Africa now. That kind of bluster doesn't pay here, and if I am to go on with this business of yours, I must have more money.'
"'And where do you expect I am going to get it?' Weiss asked hoarsely. 'I have one or two irons in the fire, but it takes all I have to keep them hot; indeed I was never so hard up in my life. You'll have to wait.'
"'It's all very well to talk like that,' Kellett said doggedly. 'By the time I get back to London, I shan't have five shillings in the world, and I am getting sick of your promises. If I don't get some money to-day, I shall take my information elsewhere.'
"'Indeed,' Weiss sneered, 'do you suppose it would be worth a penny to anyone but me?'
"'You have forgotten the girl,' Kellett persisted. 'She'd be glad to hear what I've got to say. I don't suppose I could get much from her now, not more than a few pounds to go on with, but later she would be worth a good deal more to me than you are. I am not going to fool on like this any longer. I have done most of the dirty and dangerous work, and you have had most of the plums. I mean to have fifty pounds to-day, or you had better look to yourself. If I go away without it, I shall act on my own hook in the future, and so I warn you.'
"'But I haven't got it,' Weiss said impatiently. 'I tell you I haven't got it. I can't do impossibilities.'
"Kellett turned upon his heel as if the interview was over. 'Very well,' he said surlily, 'in that case there is no more to be said. Don't blame me if I take steps to prevent myself from being landed in London without a penny in my pocket. And I will be candid with you as to what I intend to do. I will go straight away to see the girl, and if that brings trouble, you have only yourself to blame.'
"All this time I was feeling very uncomfortable, but I could not leave without making my presence known to those two scoundrels, and perforce I had to stay and hear the end. Through the gorse bush I could see Kellett's figure, as he turned his back on Weiss, and before I could realise what was happening Weiss felled his companion to the ground. It was plainly my duty to interfere, but the men were equally matched, and presently Kellett was getting the better of the encounter. It was a grim struggle on both sides, but by-and-bye Weiss had had enough of it. His lip was cut and bleeding, and he had an ugly lump over one eye. These signs of punishment filled me with satisfaction. I was pleased I was not destined to witness something in the nature of a tragedy. The fight was over.
"'Will you have any more?' Kellett asked.
"'I was a fool,' Weiss admitted sulkily, 'to lose my temper in that fashion. Look here, Kellett, we shall gain nothing by quarrelling like this. If you think you will better yourself by going to the girl, you are mistaken. She may pay you a few pounds to go on with, but as soon as she realises how far the conspiracy goes, she will use your information, and treat you like so much dirt beneath her feet. I suppose you regard her as a silly child.'
"'So she is,' Kellett panted.
"'Is she? You wouldn't say that if you knew her as well as I do. She does not lack courage, and is as clever and far-sighted as you or me. She found me out years ago, and I would get rid of her, if I could, but she's too artful for that. She has laid her plans so that if anything happened to her, the police would be down upon me instantly. Come to the house and talk the matter over. When I told you I had no money, I was speaking the literal truth. I couldn't draw a cheque for a five-pound note to save my life. But that doesn't prevent me from giving you something you can dispose of.'
"The rascally Kellett grinned all over his face.
"'That sounds better,' he said. 'I had forgotten you are living in a grand old house crammed with treasures. Did they let you have the loan of the plate before they went away? What a chance for you!'
"'No they didn't,' Weiss said curtly.
"Kellett shook with laughter.
"'What a game it is!' he chuckled. 'Fancy being let loose in a place like that! If they only knew you as well as I do, they would be here by the first train. Still, it works out all right for me. Just give me an odd bronze, or a bit of rare Dresden, or a cabinet picture, and I shan't trouble you for some time to come. But what a pity they didn't leave the plate!'
"'You always were a fool,' Weiss said angrily. 'You never had an idea beyond a vulgar burglary. Why, I am flying at much higher game. I will give you something that you can pawn, on the strict understanding that you send the ticket to me, so that I can replace the thing as soon as I am in funds again. Now come along.'
"There was nothing further to hear, but I had heard enough already. Perhaps I ought to acquaint Mr. Harley at once with the kind of man his tenant was, but probably the rent had been paid, and no great theft was contemplated. At any rate, I had time to think it over. I rose from my uncomfortable position and started homewards over the very spot where the two rascals were struggling together a few minutes before. Then my eye caught sight of a little black-covered notebook which one of the combatants had dropped during the fray. I glanced at the inside of the volume, and slipped it in my pocket. I anticipate some interesting reading after dinner."
"It seemed strange to associate a quiet neighborhood like ours with crime and tragedy. We have always pursued such a humdrum existence that the mere suggestion of anything out of the common frightens us. We leave our front doors unfastened at night without the least concern on the score of burglars, and in all the years I have been living here, I don't recollect any of my parishioners getting into trouble, except for an occasional outburst at Fair time.
"And yet we are right in the midst of duplicity and crime of the vilest description. I was intuitively afraid of it before I examined the black pocket-book, but I was not prepared for such extraordinary disclosures. It is very remarkable that I above all men should have been chosen by Providence as the instrument to bring these dark things to light.
"I have said more than once that I could not understand the connection between Miss Iza Weiss and the people she calls her parents. It seemed impossible that these two persons could be her father and mother, and now I know for a fact that I was right. The girl who passes as Iza Weiss is no relation whatever to them, and turns out to be the grand-daughter of old Lord Hillmouth, who was head of the family many years ago when I first came into the parish. All this I gleaned from the little book I picked up in the wood yesterday. There is a mass of other information which conveys nothing to me, though I have not the slightest doubt that it would be plain enough to the heads of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. I think it will be my duly to send it to them with an account of how it came into my possession. But this is by the way, and has nothing to do with the main issue.
"I suppose Kellett to be a tool of Samuel Weiss, but I can't understand what either has to gain by withholding certain information from Iza. That she is antagonistic to the Weisses is clear. She knows what they are, and despises them accordingly, and I am sure she would rather cut on her right hand than take part in any of their schemes. She knows they are no relation of hers, then why does she remain with them. I have asked myself this question a good many times since I laid the little black book aside last night. What does she suspect, and is she remaining with Weiss and his wife to try and find out the mystery of her birth? Have they money which belongs of right to her? It is plain they possess information which would be valuable to the girl, or Kellett would not have threatened to go to her as he did before he fought Weiss in the wood.
"What I learn from the book bears out what I knew already, namely, that the present Lord Hillmouth's sister became infatuated with a soldier, and ran away with him. I suppose I shall ascertain sooner or later what his name was, but I am bound to dispense with that information for the present. For the moment it will suffice to know that Iza is a child of that unfortunate union. This fact is beyond dispute, for there are entries giving dates and the names of places where certificates and other evidence of identity can be obtained. From hints in the black book, I infer that Iza is entitled to a considerable sum of money, which Weiss has probably got hold of. It appears likely that the money probably came from some distant member of the family, though it is impossible to speak definitely. It is certain, however, that Iza's father was a friend of Weiss, and no doubt this will account for the position which he is taking up. I cannot let the matter remain where it is, and if necessary I will go to France and see the present Lord Hillmouth. But ere I do that I must talk the matter over with Iza.
"I have had a long and interesting talk with Iza. I was fortunate in catching her alone, for Mrs. Weiss had gone to London, and Mr. Weiss was engaged with a man who had driven over from Ross. I found Iza in the garden, much interested in a bed of tulips which had come out since my last visit. She was alarmed lest a poodle which had accompanied me should do damage to the flowers.
"'You need not be afraid of that,' I said. 'Fuss is one of the cleverest dogs in the world.'
"Whilst showing her some of his tricks, in which she was deeply interested, Weiss joined us. I should not have expected him to care anything for the antics of a dog, but to my surprise he followed everything with rapt attention.
"'I saw you from the library window,' he explained. 'I hope you won't go home till I have had a little conversation with you. I will be engaged for half an hour or so, but as soon as my visitor leaves, I shall come back to you. You are not disposed to sell that dog, I suppose?'
"I replied that Fuss was not for sale. Weiss astonished me by offering a fancy price, which, to say the least of it, was tempting. I would not accept it, however, greatly to his annoyance and disappointment. I could not do less than offer him one of my young poodles, but he received the suggestion in a spirit the reverse of courteous. With hardly a word he returned to the house. To tell the truth, I was glad to see him go, and, a little later, I was seated in an arbor in the yew avenue, deep in a confidential chat with Iza.
"I told her what I had discovered, and how the information had come into my hands. She already knew a great deal, but it was plain that much was fresh to her.
"'I don't know how to thank you,' she said, 'for all the trouble you have taken on my behalf. Isn't it remarkable that these things should come to light close to the place where my mother was born? It is an extraordinary coincidence that Mr. Weiss should take a house in this particular neighborhood.'
"'I don't think so,' I replied. 'It strikes me forcibly that it is simply because your mother was born near here that he has become the temporary tenant of Harley Lodge. It is nonsense to say that he is broken down in health, and has come here for a rest. I should say he has never been better in his life. Depend upon it, he has come here for certain information, and that is why he is always prowling about the country. Now, can you supplement my news?'
"'I fear not,' Iza answered. 'Of course I have been aware for some time that the Weisses are not my parents. I began to suspect that when I was about fourteen. It was after I left school that I discovered what sort of people the Weisses are, and fancy I have been the means of preventing more than one crime, and though they would gladly be rid of me, only I refuse to leave till they tell me who I am. The enmity between us is undisguised, and I believe they would have put me out of the way had I not taken such steps as rendered it impossible for them to do so, without the gravest consequences to themselves. In one respect they tolerate me, for they consider me a credit to the establishment. The reason why they have kept me in the dark about my parentage is that they want my money, and for all I know to the contrary they may have succeeded.'
"'I don't think so,' I said. 'If they had, they would probably have sent you adrift before now. But you must see for yourself, my dear child, that matters cannot stay as they are. If you like, I will go to France with you to see Lord Hillmouth, and I have not the slightest doubt that he will be willing to make some provision for you, and safeguard your interests.'
"The girl hesitated. She gave me the impression that she was withholding some of her confidence. She sat gazing thoughtfully at the bed of tulips, while with her right hand she caressed the dog at her feet. Then she turned suddenly and asked me to let her look at the little black book which had played so important a part in these proceedings. I was vexed to find that I had not put it in my pocket. I recollected that I had left it on the writing table in the study. All I had were a few loose leaves which I had slipped into my pocket. It was extremely careless, but I reflected that nobody was likely to enter the study in my absence. I explained to Iza how negligent I had been, and showed her the loose leaves, but there was nothing on these that had any reference to her case.
"'I will bring it to you the next time I call,' I said.
"At that moment Fuss jumped up suddenly and began to bark furiously. Apparently he imagined that some enemy was hidden on the other side of the thick hedge, and no scolding had the smallest effect on him. Iza rose with a sudden exclamation and darted through one of the archways cut in the thick green fence. She returned a moment later, accompanied by Weiss, who looked annoyed and uncomfortable. There was a suspicious gleam in his eyes which I did not like. He muttered an excuse for his presence which did not sound convincing. He said he had dropped something, and having found it, he must go back to the house at once. He was most anxious I should stay to luncheon, but I made no promise.
"'Well, don't go till I come back,' he said. 'I shan't be many minutes.'
"When he was at a safe distance, Iza turned to me eagerly and laid her hand on my arm.
"'Don't you understand?' she whispered. 'I thought the behaviour of your dog would have warned you. All the time we have been speaking, he has been listening behind that hedge, and while we are loitering here, he will ride over to your house on his bicycle to steal that black book!'"
Such effrontery had not occurred to me. Iza, however, knew the man and his subterranean methods and her surmise was probable. There were several reasons why Weiss should not obtain possession of the book. Unfortunately, it would be impossible for me to reach my house before Weiss. When I was younger I might have outstripped and outmanoeuvred him by taking short cuts across the fields, but I was not vigorous enough now, and had no time to get a trap. Suddenly the way out of the difficulty flashed across me. I called the dog to me and allowed him to sniff at the few loose leaves. Then I bade the sagacious creature go and seek, and in a few moments he was scampering off to the Rectory. I was satisfied now that I had got the best of Weiss, and that within half an hour Fuss would bring me the book. The good dog accomplished his mission with complete success, and the book was duly consigned to my pocket, secure from Weiss' sinister intentions.
"When Weiss appeared he was disconcerted, as I had expected, and had very little to say. I was allowed to go without a renewal of the invitation to luncheon. Unfortunately, too, I had to leave without making arrangements for seeing Iza again.
"Next morning I had a letter from Iza saying she had gone to London for a day or two, and that she would see me on her return. I ascertained from my gardener that a man answering to Weiss' description had dismounted from a bicycle and entered the front gates, obviously with a view to calling upon me, at the very moment that Fuss crossed the lawn with the book in his mouth. The gardener did not attach any importance to this incident, for he knew that I often sent Fuss for things, but he was amused to see the stranger trying to coax Fuss to give up the property he was carrying. I made light of the incident, but nevertheless it disturbed me not a little, because it indicated how malignant and persistent an enemy Weiss was.
"I find that Iza has not yet returned, but there is no hurry on that score. There is, however, another thing which does not serve to allay my suspicions. For the last twenty-four hours nothing has been seen of Fuss, and I imagine he must have been stolen. He is not the dog to follow anybody, and, unless he is closely watched, is certain to come back. In casting about in my mind for the probable thief I am impelled to believe that Weiss could throw some light on this mystery. He was greatly taken with the dog, and offered me a fancy price for him. Perhaps he thought Fuss would be invaluable in carrying out some of his nefarious projects, and I cannot suppose he would kill the poodle simply out of spite at being checkmated in the matter of the book. I will go to Harley Lodge to-morrow on a secret expedition of inquiry. . . . .
"I have played the amateur detective. There is very little doubt that my suspicions are correct. Of course I didn't call at the house. On the contrary, I approached it from the meadows, and reached the outbuildings by way of the garden. I have my own way of calling my dogs, and after I had given the signal two or three times I heard Fuss whining and barking, as if he were making an attempt to get to me. So far I was satisfied, and made no attempt to force matters. When I had reached the road and turned homewards I saw Weiss coming in my direction. He had lost all his sullen manner, and greeted me in the friendliest fashion; indeed, his manner was a trifle too friendly. He was very anxious I should return to lunch, but I pleaded urgent business, and he did not press me further. I made no allusion to my lost dog, and naturally Weiss did not refer to the subject.
"As we were parting he paused, as if a new idea had suddenly occurred to him.
"'By the way,' he said. 'You remember our first meeting? You were shooting rabbits in the woods near your house.'
"'Perfectly well,' I said. 'It is a favorite spot. I always get rabbits there, and it is famous for the variety and beauty of its wild flowers.'
"'So I am told,' Weiss replied, 'not that I care for plants. Yesterday I met a man called Roscoe, who tells me he is a friend of yours. He is an enthusiastic ornithologist, and I am interested in birds.'
"I was surprised to hear it, but said nothing. Weiss did not strike me as being a field naturalist. But there was no reason why he should tell me an untruth about so trivial a matter. I know Roscoe well, and have spent many hours in his museum.
"'Roscoe said he shot nearly all his birds in these woods,' Weiss went on. 'I have been prospecting myself once or twice and saw a specimen of the great spotted woodpecker. It was a female bird, and I can show you the nest. I did not see the male, but no doubt he was close by. Doesn't that interest you?'
"Really, it did interest me. One ought not to destroy these rare birds, but the collector has no conscience, and I knew that if I didn't get these specimens Roscoe would. I urged Weiss to take me at once to the spot where he had seen the bird, but he could not do so then, he said, as he was in momentary expectation of a telegram which would have to be replied to immediately. Nor could he promise to meet me later in the afternoon.
"'And I may have to go to London to morrow,' he said. 'But I'll tell you what I'll do. If I don't go I'll meet you in the wood at eleven o'clock. Bring your gun with you, because you will have to do the shooting. I am a fair hand with the revolver, but a wretched shot with a sporting gun. If I can avoid going to town, I will meet you in the middle of the wood by the gorse bushes.'
"I promised readily enough. My dislike of Weiss was lulled, and I even forgot the loss of my favorite poodle. I went into the wood on my way home, but I saw nothing of the rare bird Weiss had mentioned. I felt inclined to go again later in the afternoon to see whether I could get a shot, but that did not seem fair to Weiss, who was apparently as keen about the matter as I was.
"Perforce, therefore, I had to wait till the morning. Iza will soon be back, and then I shall be able to develop the plans I have been pondering for her benefit. I wish to take her away from these people.
"I am writing these few lines to kill the time before going to the woods to meet Weiss. Perhaps I ought not to trust that man, perhaps I ought to have a companion, but surely these are groundless fears. I hope I am not losing nerve in the 'evening of my days.' I have nothing to be afraid of, and, besides, I shall be armed——"
The diary broke off abruptly at this point, and Sefton set it down with a sigh which testified to the intensity of his interest. It was as if he had been reading a serial story which broke off at the very point where the reader's attention was strung up to the highest pitch. There was not another word or line, and for a long time Sefton sat revolving the matter in his mind. He had not wasted his time, for here was matter of the deepest importance shedding an entirely new light upon the death of the Reverend George Vane.
Sefton had never believed that his old friend committed suicide, and now he had overwhelming evidence to justify his faith. There was not a word in these diaries to show that Vane's mind was unsettled, nor any suggestion of trouble. An enthusiastic sportsman and collector like Vane would not have laid violent hands upon himself. The longer Sefton pondered the matter the more convinced did he become that he was on the verge of clearing up the mystery to the satisfaction of everybody.
"Amongst my own documents," he soliloquized, "there ought to be a copy of the newspaper containing the account of the inquest. If I find that, I can verify the date of his death. I am sure I had one, and I am also certain I never destroyed it. I have hidden it away too carefully."
Sefton hunted everywhere for the missing paper, and found it at length neatly folded and placed away at the bottom of a drawer in his writing table. From it he learned that the date he was in search of was the 1st of May, 1903. Having made a note of this, he turned again to the diary on the off-chance that the entries appeared under regular dates. It was as he had hoped and expected, for at the head of the final passage was the date which the local paper gave as that on which the Reverend George Vane had met with his death.
"This is more than interesting," Sefton reflected. "On the 1st of May, 1903, George Vane died. On the same day he sat down after breakfast and noted in his diary that he was going to meet Weiss in the wood to shoot a rare kind of woodpecker. Probably the bird existed only in Weiss' imagination, but that is a point I need not trouble about at present. But it is suspicious that a man like Weiss should suddenly display so much interest in bird lore and name the depth of a wood as the rendezvous. It was smart, too, to whet Vane's appetite by suggesting that another collector might forestall him. That made Vane's presence almost a certainty. Now, if Weiss were in the wood, as undoubtedly he was, why did he not turn up at the inquest? Why didn't he find the body? Even if Vane committed suicide. Why didn't Weiss volunteer his evidence that he had been in the wood with Vane that morning? He must have known there was a chance of somebody seeing him and Vane together, and a dubious construction would be placed on his silence. I know pretty well how poor Vane came by his death, and it certainly wasn't suicide. Probably the authorities will call it by an uglier name."
Sefton was now able to correct certain conjectures he had formed at the outset of his inquiries. He had to abandon altogether his theory of a partnership between Vane and Weiss in the matter or a diamond deal. He might never learn the reason why Weiss had gone into Herefordshire, but that didn't very much matter. Probably some more or less shady business connected with schemes centring round his supposed daughter was at the bottom of his residence in the country. Sefton began to see his way to saving Gerald Rashleigh. He could put such pressure on Weiss as would effectually stop all persecution in that quarter. What to him was of greater moment was that his would be the happiness of proving that Mr. Vane had not perished by his own hand. The knowledge that her father had been murdered would be a shock to Elsie, but at any rate this would be infinitely more tolerable than the hopeless misery of feeling that there was insanity in her family.
Sefton was morally convinced that Samuel Weiss had murdered George Vane in cold blood, because the parson had grown to suspect—and in such case suspicion is practically knowledge—Weiss, and might prove a dangerous person. Owing to the providential recovery of these diaries the story of that tragedy would now come to light. It was an unexpected find. What Sefton had set out to try to establish was the fact of a connection between Samuel Weiss and the dog Fuss, and he had also hoped to elicit some damning evidence pointing to diamond robbery. That there was something like this in the background he felt certain. The poodle could have unfolded a story if he could only speak, and it was absurd to suppose that Weiss stole Fuss merely for the sake of stealing. In working out a theory based on information he had picked up in South Africa, Sefton had stumbled upon a more important clue. The first thing to be done was to see the man who had purchased Mr. Vane's poodles. Cutler had made a close examination of the books in the meantime, and he could find no trace of any transaction between Mr. Vane and Weiss. He offered to go through the books again, but Sefton politely declined the suggestion.
"I don't think I need trouble you to do that," he said. "I have come to the conclusion there never was a transaction. My suspicions have been confirmed, and the dog I am inquiring about was stolen from his owner. I suppose this frequently happens."
"Oh, dear, yes," Cutler said with a smile. "There is almost as much rascality in this line as in horse dealing. If a man can't get what he has set his heart on by honest means, he will resort to dishonest ones. But didn't the diaries help you? You haven't brought them back, I see."
"Well, to be candid, I haven't," Sefton explained. "I want to keep them a little longer. I am aware you don't know much about me——"
"But I do," Cutler replied. "Several of your friends are friends of mine, and you can keep those diaries as long as you please."
"That's very good of you," Sefton said. "Mr. Vane was a great friend, for whom I had a profound respect. It is generally thought he committed suicide, but these diaries throw another light on the matter. I believe that, purely by accident, I have hit upon the history of a cruel and deliberate crime. Mr. Vane was murdered, and I have more than a shrewd suspicion who the culprit was. You may be required to give evidence in the case yourself. You may have to prove how these diaries came into your hands. In the meantime, I must ask you to keep this entirely to yourself."
Cutler gave the assurance readily, and Sefton went in search of Iza. He had a great many questions to ask her. If she had had any suspicion of what had happened, why had she remained silent all this time? Iza was not at home, and the butler did not know when she was expected back. She might be home by dinner-time, but he could not speak definitely. Sefton left the house disappointed. Eager as he was to prosecute his inquiries, he could do nothing more until he had had an interview with Iza. As he walked away, he noticed that Fuss was following him. Presently, instead of following, the dog took the lead. He was telling Sefton plainly that he had better come with him. Gradually it dawned on Sefton that this was not the first time he had crossed Waterloo Bridge.
The man and the dog at length reached the street where Mrs. Ford lived. Fuss began to scratch at the door of the house. A woman opened it, and glanced at Sefton half-defiantly, and yet with a look of fear in her eyes. He knew where he was. This was the place where Gerald Rashleigh was hiding, and probably Iza was in the house.
"What do you want?" Mrs. Ford demanded.
"Sorry to trouble you," Sefton replied. "My name is Edgar Sefton. Miss Iza Weiss is a great friend of mine, and would like to see me."
Mrs. Ford's face cleared, and the suspicion died out of her eyes. She held the door open hospitably.
"Come in, sir," she exclaimed. "I have heard all about you. Miss Weiss is here, and so is somebody else, as you probably know. But one has to be careful, and at first I thought it might be a dodge of the police. But how did you manage to find your way?"
"You must ask the dog," Sefton answered. "I simply followed his lead. How is your patient?"
"Well, sir, he doesn't get on as well as I should like. He is getting better of his illness, but is listless and spiritless, as if he didn't care what happened to him. He is beginning to lose heart. What he wants is a bit of encouragement. If you could give him a piece of good news it would do him more good than all the doctor's stuff."
"Well, I can promise that," Sefton said. "But before I see Mr. Rashleigh, I must have a talk with Miss Weiss. Would you send her down to me? But don't let Mr. Rashleigh know I am here."
Iza was astonished to see Sefton. As she looked into his face her own grew pale, for instinct told her he was the bearer of important news.
"You have discovered something," she whispered, as she held out her hand. "You have something to tell me."
"I have much to say," Sefton answered gravely. "I have made most important discoveries, and will show you how to save Rashleigh from further persecution at the hands of Weiss. We may be able to compel Weiss to confess that Gerald is entirely innocent. But won't you sit down? My story is a long one."
"I am all impatience," Iza murmured.
"That's natural," Sefton smiled. "It has often puzzled me why Weiss manufactured this charge against Rashleigh. I understand that there has been no formal engagement between Rashleigh and you, and that the arrangement was supposed to be a secret. But mightn't it somehow have come to Weiss' ears? Do you suppose he never saw anything to arouse suspicion?"
"I don't think so," Iza said. "But it was always hard to deceive him, and he may have had his doubts. But that was no reason why he should have behaved in this outrageous fashion."
"I cannot agree with you," Sefton replied. "You forget you are entitled to a large sum of money, and that Weiss knew the secret of your birth. Now, can't you imagine that Weiss had this inducement to fabricate his charge against Gerald Rashleigh? As long as you remain single and in his family he has the uncontrolled use of your money. You know he was a needy adventurer and as poor as a church mouse. I don't know why he came to England, or why he stays here, for he can't make a pile by smuggling diamonds with the assistance of your dog Fuss."
"Well, you are clever," Iza cried. "How did you find all that out?"
"I can't take much credit to myself, but the first time I saw Fuss in Weiss' house and you put him through his tricks, I knew the poodle had been used for the purpose of smuggling diamonds. I had a hint as to that when I was at the Cape. Then I began to put two and two together, and it was not long before I found out where Fuss originally came from. But I need not tell you that, because you knew Mr. Vane well, and he was very much in your confidence at one time. Is not that so?"
"Wonderful!" Iza murmured. "I declare I am afraid of you. I have heaps of questions to ask, but am so puzzled I don't know where to begin."
"You had better wait till I am finished," Sefton said. "Some years ago I was resident with Mr. Vane. I was a pupil of his. I was quite grown up when I went to him. My idea was to read international law and other subjects for the diplomatic service, but I soon abandoned that idea, because I fell in love with Elsie Vane and wanted her to marry me. I don't know why she rejected me, because I had dared to hope that she cared for me, and recent events have proved I was right. But after her refusal I could not stay any longer. I grew restless, and the wanderer's fever seized me. I roamed over the world, passing part of my time in South Africa, where I heard that story of the poodle dog and the diamonds coupled with the name of Samuel Weiss and his proud and beautiful daughter, who was suspected——"
"Never," Iza cried passionately. "I give you my word that I had nothing whatever to do——"
"You need not tell me that," Sefton went on. "The notion is ludicrous. The first time I met you all my doubts vanished. When I came home again my old friend George Vane was dead; they told me he had committed suicide. I sought in vain for Elsie everywhere, and had given up all hope of ever seeing her again till our dramatic meeting at Lady Starfield's dance. I needn't recall the events of that night, nor repeat the story of the ensuing tangle, nor how my sympathies were enlisted on behalf of you and Gerald. When I learned that Weiss had lived in Herefordshire, and that you had known Mr. Vane, I began to ask myself a few questions. The clever smuggling dog reminded me that Mr. Vane had several fine poodles, and it suddenly occurred to me to ascertain if your Fuss had originally belonged to Vane. It turned out that he did, and I inferred that Weiss stole him. Whilst pursuing my inquiries I acquired information about how Mr. Vane came by his death, and the name of the man who slew him. Miss Iza, I am going to ask you a plain question. You were in Herefordshire when Vane died. You lived near him, and no doubt read the account of the affair in the papers. Did it never occur to you that this was not an accident, nor even the deliberate act of a man who was weary of life? Did Mr. Vane strike you as a man who would do that thing?"
"The last man in the world to do so," Iza answered, emphatically. "It was an awful shock to me, for I liked Mr. Vane very much."
"I know you did," Sefton went on. "To some extent you made him a confidant. Perhaps you may remember that Mr. Vane found a little black book in a wood, where it had been dropped by a man named Kellett during a scuffle with Samuel Weiss."
"Nothing is concealed from you," Iza said. "It is marvellous how you have collected your information."
"I made a lucky coup," Sefton explained. "But you haven't answered my question. Did you think that Samuel Weiss had a hand in Mr. Vane's death?"
It was some time before Iza replied.
"I did think so," she admitted. "I thought I would never get rid of that haunting impression. But I loathed the man to such an extent that I had to be very, very careful not to be unfair to him. There is no doubt but that Weiss knew that Mr. Vane was aware of the contents of the little black book."
"He listened behind the thick hedge while you and Mr. Vane were confiding in each other, and might have escaped discovery but for the poodle. Mr. Vane sent Fuss to fetch the book, which Mr. Vane had left behind, before Weiss got to the rectory. A day or two later the poodle was stolen, and the very next afternoon Mr. Vane was discovered dead in the wood about a mile from his house. Am I not correct?"
"Wonderful," Iza cried. "Word for word it is absolutely true. I never told a soul anything about it, and of course poor Mr. Vane was dead. Where have you learned these things?"
"They are all set forth in Mr. Vane's handwriting," Sefton said quietly.
Iza listened with white face and dilated eyes to this extraordinary story. Sefton drew from his pocket the last of the diaries, which contained most of the facts he had just been retailing, and handed the book to Iza.
"I want you to read this," he said. "It won't take long. It is a voice from the grave."
Iza pored over the pages with an excitement that was almost painful. Tears filled her eyes when at length she laid the volume aside.
"This is very strange and very touching," she remarked. "And it's as true as death. Now I understand what you mean by saying that Mr. Vane did not die by his own hand. You think he was lured into the wood and murdered by Weiss."
"The diary is plain," Sefton said. "There cannot be the smallest doubt of it. Mark how cunningly the trap was baited; note what Weiss says about bringing a gun with him. He pleaded that he was a bad shot with a sporting gun himself, but that, of course, meant that no one could say he carried a gun, while at the fit moment he would kill Vane with his own weapon. You know what truth there was in Weiss' statement that he was a very poor hand with a gun."
"It was an absolute lie," Iza rejoined. "Weiss is a magnificent shot. We shall never know how the thing happened, but there can be very little doubt that Mr. Vane was killed."
"Yes, but we also know the motive," Sefton went on. "Vane had become dangerous to Weiss. He knew too much about you. He had been on the friendliest terms with your mother's relatives, and, had he lived, would have taken care that you were not robbed of the money to which you were heiress. Therefore Weiss resolved to put him out of the way. Of course, Weiss did not know you knew he had been listening behind the yew hedge, nor would it occur to him that he had been suspected of cycling to the rectory to gain possession of the black book. No doubt he had arranged, if the occasion arose, to prove he had been in London at the time Vane met with his death. Obviously, if he had been innocent he would have voluntarily told the coroner all about the great spotted woodpecker and his dealings with Mr. Vane. But we need not discuss this matter farther. What I have to do is to prove my case. The difficulties are great. I might spring a mine upon Weiss when he is better, and overwhelm him with evidence, and so extort a confession from him. In this way we should save Gerald Rashleigh from further unpleasantness. But the thing will have to be very delicately handled. We have a clever man to deal with."
"Oh! I know that," Iza exclaimed. "But how did you obtain possession of this diary?"
"That was a stroke of luck, a proof of the saying 'Murder will out.' When Vane's kennels were sold the papers relating to the dogs passed into various hands, and I saw the man who bought the poodles with a view of tracing how Fuss became the property of Weiss. I did not anticipate further developments. I found the purchaser of the poodles an exceedingly decent fellow, and when he knew I was an intimate friend of Mr. Vane's he produced the diaries, which had got mixed up with the other documents. He apologised for having detained them, but he didn't know where to send them, and handed them to me as a friend of the family. Directly I opened the diary and saw Weiss' name I was interested. There is little more to say except that I'd be glad if you would explain one or two things. Despite your knowledge of your parentage and your suspicions of Weiss, you continued to live under his roof. Why?"
"Really, it is very difficult to say," Iza replied. "You see I had nowhere else to go, and, moreover, though I suspected much I knew nothing. No doubt I should have learned everything but for the tragedy of Mr. Vane's death. Now, of course, I cannot go back to Mr. Weiss'. I shall have to throw myself upon your mercy, and ask you to help me. Perhaps you will see my relations and tell them how things stand. But why do I talk about myself when Gerald is still in danger? You said you could see your way to help me."
"So I do," Sefton replied. "Why not take the bull by the horns, now that Weiss is incapable of interfering. I want someone to help me, and cannot think of a better man than Ned Ford. Can you tell me where to find him? I suppose he comes here."
"He came for the first time last night," Iza explained. "I happened to meet him and brought him. It is a romance in its way. I don't know how Weiss managed it, but he contrived to separate Ford and his wife, leaving each under the impression that the other had behaved very badly. By this devise Weiss contrived to keep a lot of property in his hands. Whatever Ford may be, he is genuinely attached to his wife and she has a great influence for good over him. Now that they have come together again, I feel sure he will lead a different life in the future. But he is very bitter against Weiss, and I tremble for the consequences if they should meet. Ford won't be long if you care to wait for him. And perhaps you would like to have a chat with Gerald."
"Not just yet," Sefton said. "If you don't mind I will wait until later in the day, when I hope to come back with good news for him. But I will wait for Ford."
An hour later Ford returned, and for some time he and Sefton were in close conversation. Sefton deemed it prudent to conceal nothing, so that when he had finished his story, Ford had an intelligent grasp of the events which had led up to the present situation.
"You'll do, sir," Ford said approvingly. "It will be a treat to work with a gentleman like you. I had made up my mind to blow out Weiss' brains, but it would be a pity to hang for a scamp like that, and now that I have got my wife back and everything is clear between us, I can see better days in store. And the law will save me the trouble of ridding the world of Weiss, so I shall have all the revenge I want without risk. And now, sir, what would you like me to do?"
"Go to Weiss' office," Sefton explained, "and confront his manager. Give him a hint of what we have discovered, and tell him we mean business. You say he is another of Weiss' tools and probably knows all about the conspiracy against Mr. Rashleigh."
"That's it, sir," Ford agreed. "I am ready to back you up. The sooner we start the better."
Ford strode along with the air of one who has a task to accomplish and will not be happy till he achieves it. It was a job after his own heart. Sefton, on the other hand, was wishing it well over. When he came to think it out, the errand required more diplomacy than he had expected. They were engaged on a filibustering expedition into the City of London, and very much depended on the way in which Weiss' manager received them. If he chose to show fight they were not likely to gain much, but on this point Ford seemed to have no misgivings. He smiled at Sefton's arguments.
"I should go straight to the point, if I were you, sir," he said. "I don't think you want to waste any time in preliminaries. The man is a coward, though he doesn't look it. Most bullies are."
"You know him then?" Sefton asked.
"Known him for years," Ford said crisply. "We've been in one or two undertakings together. He's clever and cunning, but when it comes to the pinch always backs out, so that Weiss and I had to leave only the business parts of our concerns to him, and attend to the riskier things ourselves. Physically he is a match for either of us, but he won't toe the line."
"I am glad to hear that," Sefton said. "I may assume he knows a good deal about Weiss' affairs."
"You may take it for granted he knows everything," Ford said drily. "If there is any conspiracy against Mr. Rashleigh, as you think, then the chap we are after will know all about it. Probably he's at the bottom of the whole thing. You needn't be afraid there will be any calling of police or anything of that sort. We shan't be handed over to the authorities as blackmailers, nor find ourselves charged at Bow-street to-morrow."
Sefton was willingly taking considerable risks for the sake of Gerald Rashleigh, but he had no wish to be dragged before the public. He and Ford at length reached the large building where Weiss had his offices on the second floor. There was not much evidence of business. A couple of clerks were yawning over the morning papers, and one of them looked up presently and asked Sefton's wish.
"I should like to see the manager," Sefton said. "No, it's no use giving my name, because it will convey nothing to him. You may say I shan't detain him long."
The clerk reappeared presently, saying the manager would see his visitor. Sefton walked to the inner office followed by Ford; a moment later the door closed, and Ford stood with his back to it.
A big man with a short black beard rose from the table and glared angrily around him. He looked strong enough for anything, except that there was just a quiver at the corner of his lips, and he had some difficulty in looking Ford fairly in the face.
"You didn't expect to see me," Ford remarked. "If you put your hand in that drawer I will knock you down out of hand. I know what you've got there, and if it's any consolation to you I have no weapon myself. You ought to know that we don't do business in that way in London. Sit down and talk the matter over. If you behave properly no harm will come to you, and when we apply for a warrant against Samuel Weiss on a charge of conspiracy it will be your own fault if you figure in the dock to answer to the same count."
The manager sat down promptly. He tried to smile in a superior fashion, but the attempt was not a success.
"I don't know what you are talking about," he said. "But you won't gain anything by this tone, and so I tell you plainly. I know nothing whatever about Rashleigh. I was on the Continent most of the time he was in the office, and when I returned I was told he had gone off with a parcel of diamonds, and that Weiss had put the matter in the hands of the police. If you only knew it, you are merely wasting your time here."
"I'm not sure of that," Ford said.
The manager shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, you had better come to the point," he suggested. "May I ask what this gentleman has to do with it?"
"Let me introduce myself," Sefton said. "My name is Edgar Sefton, and Mr. Rashleigh is a friend of mine. He is hiding from the police, because a warrant is out for his apprehension on a charge of appropriating certain diamonds, the property of his employer. I may tell you at once that Mr. Rashleigh is innocent. He is the victim of a vile conspiracy concocted in this office, and I am taking it for granted that you know all about it."
"That's devilish kind of you," the manager sneered. "And suppose I refuse to discuss the matter any further? Suppose I ring the bell and tell the clerk to send for the police? Suppose I give you in custody for attempted blackmail?"
Ford burst into a hearty laugh.
"Upon my word!" he exclaimed. "You've got more pluck than I gave you credit for. I didn't think you had nerve enough to bluff it like this."
"Didn't you?" the manager retorted. "At any rate, I can make it very awkward for both of you. If I ring my bell——"
"Do it," Sefton said curtly. "Send for two policemen, one for you and one for me."
The manager hesitated with his hand upon the bell. Gradually the truculent expression on his face changed, and he smiled in a sickly way.
"Of course," he stammered, "I don't want to do anything offensive. And you are making no accusation against me."
"Not for the present," Sefton said meaningly. "That will be for you to decide. If you like to ring the bell for the police, neither Mr. Ford nor myself will object. It might inconvenience us for a few hours, but you will find it a deal more awkward for yourself before the day is out. Are you prepared to listen to us, or do you prefer to ring your bell?"
Sefton spoke quietly and courteously, but there was no mistaking the grimness of his meaning. The manager listened to him attentively. He was palpably disturbed and ill at ease. He signified to Sefton to proceed.
"I am much obliged to you," the latter went on. "In the first place let me tell you that I regard your employer as an unspeakable scoundrel. I know him to be a diamond thief and to be absolutely unscrupulous. I also strongly suspect that no business is done here, and that this office is merely kept open as a blind. It enables you and your employer to deal in smuggled diamonds. You have a quantity at the present moment in the safe yonder."
The manager snapped out some kind of a denial, but the uneasy glance he cast at the safe convinced Sefton that his shot had not gone astray. He smiled contemptuously.
"Oh! you needn't be afraid we have come to rob you," he said. "I have called for the sole purpose of learning from you the truth about Mr. Rashleigh."
"But why drag me in?" the manager asked. "And what has Samuel Weiss to gain by trumping up a charge against Rashleigh?"
"Well, he might gain Miss Weiss' money," Sefton said. "Ah! I see you know what I mean."
The manager moistened his lips with his tongue. He paid Sefton the compliment of listening carefully.
"It is very good of you to give me your attention like this," he said. "Now let me see if I can interest you still further. Let us assume that Miss Weiss has inherited a large fortune, which comes to her independently of your worthy employer. It is only natural for such a man to covet this money. We will further assume that the girl who is known as Miss Iza Weiss is no relation to the estimable Samuel at all. I wonder if you are prepared to admit this possibility?"
The manager nodded. He was singularly impressed by Sefton's intimate knowledge. "You are a sensible man," the latter proceeded. "We will assume, then, that Miss Weiss is not Miss Weiss at all. I can see that this is no news to you. Probably you have known it for years. And I have not the slightest doubt you have often discussed the possibility of obtaining possession of this money. You might have managed it between you if Mr. Gerald Rashleigh had not intervened. Mr. Weiss discovered there was some sort of understanding between Mr. Rashleigh and Miss Weiss. Hence arose the conspiracy against Rashleigh, which was hatched in this office, and to which you were a party. You won't deny this?"
The manager seemed to be working it out in his mind, as if it were a sum in arithmetic.
"That's hardly good enough," he said. "I won't deny what you say about Miss Weiss, because you are evidently able to prove that. But I don't think that you can prove I have anything to do with this conspiracy. If you have any more cards up your sleeve lay them on the table. If you haven't, you can go to the devil."
Sefton nodded as if he were inclined to allow the point. Apparently this man was more astute than he had imagined, and had put his finger upon the weak spot in Sefton's argument. Ford saw it too, for the smile died from his face and an angry gleam came into his eyes.
"Don't be a fool," he exclaimed. "Don't push us too far or you'll be sorry for it, Kellett."
The last word shot through Sefton's brain with a dazzling flash of illumination. For the fraction of a second he wondered where he had heard that name, and then, in the same infinitesimal space, it came to him.
He had not expected such pure and unadulterated luck as this. He had never dreamed of finding in Samuel Weiss' manager the original owner of the little black book which had indirectly caused the death of George Vane.
Sefton recovered himself instantly. He saw his advantage, and meant to press it home.
"You are a trifle too previous," he said softly. "Before we go any further, suppose we try back a little. Let us go back to the time when Weiss had a house in Herefordshire. Did you ever hear of a place called Harley Lodge, Mr. Kellett?"
Kellett had some difficulty in replying. Once more he moistened his lips, and the eyes he turned upon Sefton were full of nameless fear.
"I have heard of the place," he said. "But I never went near it."
"That," Sefton said slowly, "is a lie; a clumsy lie, too, not worthy of your astuteness, Mr. Kellett. I believe you were there once, and that was before this office was open, before you went to South Africa with Weiss for the last time, when you did such good business in smuggled diamonds by means of that sagacious poodle. I wonder if you can recollect the dog's name?"
Kellett muttered something under his breath.
"Really, you are giving yourself away," Sefton went on. "My opinion of you is not what it was. But if your memory needs refreshing, that dog's name was Fuss. He was stolen from a clergyman in Herefordshire. Perhaps you will tell me next you never heard of the Reverend George Vane."
Kellett writhed uneasily to his chair. This merciless cross-examination was having its effect upon him. Beads of perspiration stood out upon his forehead and every hair in his coarse beard seemed to quiver.
"I have heard the name," he stammered.
"Of course you have," Sefton said encouragingly. "You went to Herefordshire to see Weiss because you wanted money badly. That was before the palmy days of diamonds. You were exceedingly hard up, and you could get nothing out of Weiss. You met him in a wood within a mile or two of Mr. Vane's house, and argued the matter out. It was not a friendly argument, Mr. Kellett, was it? You came to blows, didn't you? And you got the best of the fight. Was it Weiss' right or left eye you put temporarily out of action?"
"Good Lord!" Kellett burst out, "where did you get all this from? Who told you?"
"Oh! that's nothing," Sefton said airily. "A mere child could do it if he only knew the way. There's another thing I am curious about. When Weiss induced you to go back to Harley Lodge what did he give you to take to the pawnshop? It was a disappointment to you that the plate hadn't been left at Weiss' disposal. But I really am interested to know whether it was a bronze or a cabinet picture which you selected after all. And what became of the pawn ticket Weiss was so anxious about?"
Kellett mopped his forehead.
"Oh! go on," he cried in desperation. "Make yourself at home. Enjoy yourself, as if the place belonged to you. I dare say you think this is very funny."
Sefton's manner suddenly changed.
"No, I don't think it in the least funny," he said. "You will find it has a much more serious side. When you had that encounter with Weiss you lost something. Don't shake your head, because I know better. You dropped a little black book which contained a deal of valuable information of great use to a blackmailer. With that book in your custody you could have gone to Miss Iza and told her who she really was. You went to Herefordshire with that intention. But Weiss persuaded you that you would be merely wasting your time. You patched up your quarrel and returned to Harley Lodge, where I presume you came to some satisfactory arrangement. You did not know that the little black book had passed into the hands of Mr. Vane, who afterwards discussed it with Miss Iza. It was singular my old friend Mr. Vane should be the means of telling Miss Iza who she was. It was also unfortunate that their talk should have been overheard by Samuel Weiss. He tried to get the little black book back, but was frustrated by the dog Fuss, which he subsequently stole and used to good, but dishonest purpose in South Africa. Weiss never knew that his eavesdropping had been discovered, or he would never have gone the length of murdering Mr. Vane. Of course you know all about that, Mr. Kellett?"
Kellett threw up his arms despairingly.
"I didn't," he screamed. "I swear I didn't. I defy you to prove that against me. I am innocent."
Sefton did not reply immediately. He could afford to pause until the full weight of the whole revelation had soaked itself into Kellett's affrighted mind. But Kellett only sat trembling from head to foot, white, perspiring, and absolutely at the mercy of his antagonists. Then Sefton went on again.
"I dare say you wonder how I know all this," he said. "Perhaps you think I was in Herefordshire at the period. In fact, I had not seen my old friend for some time before his death, and have never heard a word from him since we last met. But he was murdered by Samuel Weiss, and I have just told you the reason why. Sometimes messages come from the tomb, but we have to thank a dumb animal for the proofs I have placed before you. If there had been no poodle I should not now be enjoying the pleasure of your society. This puzzles you, but you will have to remain in the dark for the present. You will probably learn the full details in the police court. I fear you may not follow the disclosures with unalloyed interest because you are likely to listen to them from the dock."
Kellett groaned piteously.
"Ah! Mr. Kellett it isn't a very pleasing prospect. But you were disposed to defy me, and must take the consequences. I think I have said all that is necessary."
"Not quite," Kellett answered hoarsely. "There are one or two matters. I should like to know——"
"I dare say you would," Sefton said drily. "But anything else you'll have to learn through the medium of the police court. You are intelligent enough to know the position in which you stand. I will lay the information I possess before the proper authorities, and you will pursue your own course."
Sefton turned to go, as if there were no more to be said.
Kellett dragged himself up from his seat and held out a trembling hand. His voice was husky.
"Stop a minute," he said imploringly. "Why do you wish to leave in this hurry? It's only fair that having said so much you should tell me everything. I want to know how you are going to drag me into this business."
"That you will learn in due time."
Kellett made a gesture of surrender. Every atom of fight had gone out of him.
"I give in," he whined. "You are too strong for me, but I swear to you that I had no hand in the death of Mr. Vane. I knew he had my pocket-book, because Weiss told me. We were both desperately hard pressed for money, and didn't know which way to turn. It seemed as if we were about to lose the girl's money at the very time when we had forged the necessary papers for getting possession of it. Even as it was it was not too late, could we only contrive to close Mr. Vane's mouth. We weren't afraid of the girl, because she only knew a few isolated and unrelated facts. Then Weiss suggested the way out of the difficulty, though for my part I was completely opposed to foul play. Weiss arranged the details, but I never believed he would have done it. I didn't think he had pluck enough. Then the deed was done, though I never expected it to come out. Since it has come out, I am ready to tell all I know about it. I don't see why I should suffer for a thing I had no hand in. I'll put it down in writing, if you like."
"That will not meet my present requirements," said Sefton. "As to the murder, you will have to give your evidence on oath in the witness-box, for as soon as Weiss is well enough to be removed from his house, a warrant for his arrest will be applied for, and he will have to take his trial for the murder of the Reverend George Vane. That, however, is a question for the future. What I must insist upon your giving me now, is a short written statement of the conspiracy against Mr. Rashleigh. If you play your cards properly you may save your own skin. Now, sit down and write that confession. No doubt the diamonds which are the subject of the charge are secure in your safe."
"They're all right," Kellett admitted. "It was easy to trace the alleged missing stones to Rashleigh. They were only paste, but they served our purpose. But if you will wait, I will put it all down on paper. I can't do it yet awhile because my hand is so shaky, but if one of the clerks will fetch me some brandy I shall be able to manage it afterwards."
Sefton had no objection. In a few minutes Kellett began to write, and when he had finished half a dozen sheets, he handed them to Sefton for inspection. They contained everything that was necessary, and Sefton slipped them into his pocket. Then he and Ford left the office and returned to the latter's house. It was a long story that Sefton had to tell Rashleigh, but Mrs. Ford was right in her prediction that it would do more good than all the doctor's medicine. The danger was averted, and Rashleigh was safe. There was a bright smile on Iza's face and a gladness in her eyes which Sefton had never noticed before, as she drove back with him to Weiss' house.
"You won't like going back there," Sefton said, "but it will be unavoidable for a day or two. Much has to be done before we can bring the thing home to Weiss, and I have a scheme for putting that right. As soon as Weiss is fit to see anybody, I wish you would let me know. This afternoon you might go to Miss Barrington's and tell her all that has happened."
Three days later Sefton received a message that Weiss was considerably better and his memory clear.
Sefton rang for a cab, and in a few minutes found himself in Weiss' presence.
Kellett sat a long while at his desk after his visitors left. He went through the formality of telling his clerks he must not be interrupted, although there was no risk of a rush of business, for practically nothing was done. Kellett lighted a cigar to aid his thoughts. The danger was threatening indeed. For many reasons he was anxious to remain modestly in the background. Sefton had said nothing about Kellett's own particular past and seemed to have no knowledge of the relations between him and Weiss, but a man who was so singularly well-informed on one matter might be equally well posted on another. And Sefton's information had been amazing. He had brought it down upon Kellett's head with sledge-hammer force. He had spoken like a man who knew he was master of the situation. Kellett's head swam when he thought of it. He had deemed the Vane episode dead and forgotten. He had thought no living soul had guessed even haphazard at the truth—and Sefton knew all about it!
Where had he got his information? Even when he was alone and had time to think, Kellett could not grasp where Sefton had found everything he needed. He had spoken familiarly about things only known to Weiss and himself; indeed, Sefton had given the gist of conversations which Kellett had had with Weiss. Surely Weiss would never have dreamt of repeating these to a third person. And yet how otherwise could a third person know about them? The longer Kellett excogitated these things the more bewildered did he grew. Never a fighter at the best, he now utterly lost his nerve, for there was something peculiarly terrifying in fighting this dread and unseen force. And what if Weiss had betrayed him? Weiss might have made his own story good at the expense of his unhappy manager, except that—and it was an exception to which Kellett clung like grim death—Weiss was unable to tell anybody anything. For the time his mind was gone, and possibly it was hints dropped unconsciously in his imbecile condition that had aroused Sefton's suspicions.
Kellett hugged this theory with the energy of despair, and tried hard to convince himself that if he told the bare truth he could not suffer seriously. He had had no hand in Mr. Vane's death. On the contrary, he had tried to dissuade Weiss from a deed so outrageous. Still, he knew that Weiss had had the murder in his mind, and he was what is called an accessory to the fact. After the crime the matter had never been mentioned between them. Kellett had never sought to know how the thing was done, and Weiss never volunteered to tell him.
Kellett had now made up his mind what to do. He had done fairly well during the last two years, and was Weiss' manager in effect as well as in name. Several parcels of stones in the safe could be disposed of, and then he would discreetly disappear. He would not go to South Africa. He was too well known at the Cape. But there was plenty of scope for his genius in several of the South American States. He would leave England lest he might be wanted, but before he went he would warn Weiss.
Three days had passed ere Kellett was ready for his voyage. He had realised all his securities, had transferred his money to a South American bank, and under another name expected to sail from Southampton on the following afternoon. He was leaving London that evening, but there was just time to call upon Weiss, who, so he heard, had more or less recovered from his accident.
His old employer sat moodily in the library. He was still white and shaky, but his memory had cleared and he could recollect everything that had happened up to the moment when the stairs had given way under him and thrown him with a crash to the ground. He received Kellett with anything but a good grace.
"Why haven't you been here before?" he asked.
"Because I have had something else to do," Kellett retorted. "If I weren't a good natured fool I shouldn't be here now. But I've done all I can for you, and now I must look to myself. I have closed the office. As no one ever comes there or wants to see us, it doesn't matter. To-morrow I shall start for South America, and within a few hours your old pal Kellett will cease to exist. I have realised everything and paid your share into the bank, so you won't be able to say I haven't done the fair thing by you."
"But why?" Weiss asked impatiently.
"Because I don't wish to haunt a police court," Kellett said. "I suppose we're safe here? No chance of anybody listening?"
Weiss glared angrily at the speaker.
"What on earth is the matter with you?" he demanded. "But you were always an arrant cur when there was any danger about. Why are you afraid of police court proceedings? Nobody suspects us, and as to the diamonds——"
"Oh! it isn't the diamonds," Kellett muttered. "It's another matter altogether. It relates to the death of Mr. Vane."
A startled exclamation burst from Weiss. His angry, contemptuous manner had vanished. He looked at Kellett with frightened eyes staring out of a face from which every drop of blood had gone.
"Say it again," he said hoarsely.
"Oh! why should I say it again? Didn't I make my meaning plain? I tell you they have found out all about it. Two men came into my office the other day, and Ford was one of them."
"Ford knew nothing of it," Weiss whispered.
"I didn't say he did. He didn't when he came into the office, but as he heard every word the other man said, he knows all about it now. But I don't think you need worry about Ford. The real danger does not come from that quarter. The man you have to beware of was Ford's companion."
"And what is his name?"
"Sefton," Kellett explained. "Mr. Sefton. He knows everything—chapter and verse. He poured it out on me till he had me as limp as a wet rag. I have had one or two frights in my life, but never one as bad as that. I was fairly paralysed."
"Yes, I have seen you like it," Weiss sneered.
"Yes, and I shall see you like it before I've finished," Kellett retorted. "I was a fool to come here. I ought to have left you to take care of yourself. This Sefton knows all about Vane's death. He was a great friend of Vane's, and lived in his house some time before you went into Herefordshire. From what I can gather, he once thought he had a chance of being Vane's son-in-law. But, at any rate, he knows everything. He knows about the little black book, he knows how it was lost, he knows about our fight in the wood. Why, he even knows that you gave me something to pawn when I left Harley Lodge. He knows how you tried to steal the black book from him, and how the poodle bested you. He knows you listened to Vane's conversation with Miss Iza, and he knows how you lured Vane into the wood with that story about the woodpecker. He knows——"
At this moment a servant entered.
"Mr. Sefton to see you on important business, sir. He says it is absolutely necessary."
Kellett rose from his seat with an oath.
"'Bye, 'bye," he said. "I have no wish to see that devil again. He gets on my nerves too much."
Without waiting for any reply Kellett bustled out of the room. He closed the front door quietly, hailed a passing cab, and drove to his lodgings, and thence to Waterloo Station to take the first train to Southampton. He did not begin to breathe freely until London was behind him. He was not himself until the ship cast off from her moorings and glided into the Channel. He had taken his precautions very well, and had managed to cover up his tracks, but he had a wholesome respect and dread of Sefton, and had half expected to find a detective's hand on his shoulder at the last moment. He had averted that catastrophe, however, and left his country for his country's good.
Meanwhile Weiss stared at the astonished servant trying to collect his scattered wits. At first he was inclined to tell the footman to send Sefton away, but it occurred to him that this would not be a wise proceeding.
"Show the gentleman up," he muttered.
"I think you have some idea why I am here," Sefton said. "As I was waiting to see you I saw Kellett leave the house. No doubt he came here to warn you."
"Warn me as to what?" Weiss demanded sullenly.
"Do you think you will gain anything by fencing with me?" Sefton asked. "It is evident from your appearance that Kellett has given you some very disturbing news, but if you don't care to hear me, I needn't detain you. I can find plenty of interested listeners for a story like mine. It was eccentric to come here at all. I ought to have gone straight to Scotland Yard, and have left the authorities to deal with you."
Weiss pointed to a chair. He had become old and bent and grey all at once, and yet the look of haggard anxiety died out of his eyes, and he appeared to resign himself to the inevitable. When he spoke his voice was steady.
"Sit down, Mr. Sefton," he said. "I won't disguise from you that Kellett came here with the most extraordinary story. He tells me you are an old friend of Mr. George Vane's, and are engaged to that gentleman's daughter. I have had the privilege of receiving you as a guest on two or three occasions, though I think you came rather as my daughter's guest than mine."
"That is so," Sefton admitted. "But I think it would be well to call the young lady by her proper name."
"So be it," Weiss said, as if the remark had been the most natural in the world. "I recognise that I am dealing with a man of more than ordinary astuteness. We will say, then, that you came as the guest of Iza Holland."
"I am obliged to you," Sefton said. "I have been interested for some time in Miss Holland. I suspected some mystery surrounded her, and now I know all about it. I derived my information from the diary which Mr. Vane left and which by great good chance fell into my hands. I know who Miss Holland is, where her relations are to be found, and where her money is invested. I am also a friend of Mr. Gerald Rashleigh's and I am acquainted with the conspiracy you and Kellett hatched against him. I found Kellett an easy man to deal with, and readily persuaded him to write a confession of the whole plot."
"Just so," Weiss murmured. He did not seem to be in the least disturbed, and might have been listening to a discussion about the shortcomings of a third person. "Yes, we did hatch that plot, because I desired to acquire Miss Holland's money. You will know presently why I am so candid with you. But Miss Holland's affairs don't concern me any longer. You are in a position to clear Mr. Rashleigh's character in the eyes of the world, and no doubt these two will marry and live happily ever afterwards on the most approved pattern of the story books. I admit that she is an exceedingly beautiful girl, and I confess that she has been thoroughly unhappy under my roof. Not that that troubled me—I never suffer myself to worry about other people's misfortunes, and I should have had small mercy upon her if circumstances had not been too strong for me. You see I am quite frank. Of course I don't feel the least bitter or disappointed because I have been beaten. A man doesn't worry over a toothache after he has broken his neck. I understand from Kellett that you prefer a much more serious accusation against me. You charge me with Mr. Vane's death."
"I am absolutely sure of it."
"Indeed! Well, you are not the man to say that unless you feel certain of the facts. But can you prove them?"
"Yes," Sefton said. "You conceived the idea of removing Mr. Vane when you discovered that he was aware of Miss Holland's identity. You did not know that you had been detected listening to an interview between her and Mr. Vane, nor that, when you went to recover the little black book, the dog you afterwards stole had been sent to anticipate you. It never occurred to you that Mr. Vane kept a diary, which came into my possession a few days ago. That diary is fully entered up—there is even an entry in it an hour before Mr. Vane went into the wood where you had promised to show him the nest of a bird, which existed only in your imagination. The diary relates how you persuaded Mr. Vane to bring his own gun on the plea that you were a wretched shot yourself. Wasn't that very modest of you?"
Weiss sat listening, with the tips of his fingers pressed together. He displayed neither feeling nor anxiety, and might have been following the most commonplace conversation. From time to time he twisted a ring round the second finger of his left hand and there was the ghost of a smile on his face.
"Are there any more proofs?" he asked.
A sudden spasm of anger gripped Sefton. This cynicism repelled him.
"Yes," he said curtly. "There are other proofs, but your manner does not encourage me to proceed."
"Nor is there any occasion," Weiss went on in the same dignified tone. "Now listen to me. I killed George Vane. I thought it best to put him out of the way, and laid my plans accordingly. Of course, I did not know about that diary, nor that I had been suspected of listening to the fateful conversation between Mr. Vane and Iza Holland. You have correctly imagined the scene. I lured Mr. Vane into the wood by false pretences, I managed to get hold of his gun, and I shot him at close quarters. No eye beheld me, and I was supposed to be in London at the time. I had the evidence ready to my hand to prove an alibi, should it have become necessary to produce it. It was easy to leave Mr. Vane lying in the wood as if he had committed suicide, and, as you know, this was the general opinion. I was content to leave the impression undisturbed, because it prevented the police from asking awkward questions. I could not say more than this if I were to harangue you for a week. I cannot profess a regret which I do not feel. But I wish to assure you how sorry I am that I have been found out. Now you may go and report this to Scotland Yard. But before you leave you will bid farewell to Samuel Weiss. Do you see this ring? It contains a virulent poison. If I press the hinge like this, why——"
He broke off abruptly, a spasm of pain shot over his face and he lay back in his chair as if asleep. It was no idle boast. The career of Samuel Weiss was finished.
Sefton would have kept the matter quiet if he could, but that was impossible. For the next few days people talked of nothing but the extraordinary way in which the mystery surrounding Mr. Vane's death had been solved. Certain extracts from the diary had been published, which demonstrated that it was not a case of suicide. In the excitement Gerald Rashleigh's affairs were almost lost sight of, but that was a small matter, by comparison, and mainly concerned Rashleigh and his intimate friends. He was free to appear in public, and as soon as he was fit to travel went off to recuperate at Sandgate along with his sister, Vera Barrington. About the same time the play in which Vera was appearing had suddenly ceased to attract, so that she found herself temporarily out of an engagement. She regarded her release as an unqualified blessing. What most she needed was change of air and thorough rest from worry and anxiety. Her husband did not trouble her much, for he was paying the penalty of his follies in the shape of a complete breakdown, which left him as helpless and vacant as an idiot child. It would not be long, so the doctors informed Vera, before she would be free of him for ever.
"I hope you won't think me stony-hearted if I say I am glad," she said to Elsie. "You cannot conceive what anxiety that poor creature has caused me. No, I never want to see him again. All I desire is to go right away and be quiet. In future I shall be able to call my income my own, and before long be able to save enough money to buy the cottage that I am thinking about. I am young, and life is not over for me. Now, what I propose to do is this. There is a place at Sandgate upon which my heart is set, and I mean to go there for a couple of months. I will take Gerald and Iza with me. She doesn't wish to go to her own people although, I understand, they will be glad to see her. We ought to be happy there."
"I am sure you will be," Elsie said sadly. "But I shall miss you dreadfully when you are gone."
Vera kissed the speaker affectionately.
"Indeed you won't do anything of the sort," she replied. "What an ungrateful wretch you must think me. Do you suppose that I will leave you behind? Why, we owe you a debt of gratitude we shall never be able to repay. By your courage you saved my brother's life. But for you we should not have met Edgar Sefton, and Iza would still be in the clutches of those dreadful people. If you don't come with us I won't go at all. If you refuse you will spoil my holiday, which won't be for long in any case."
"What do you mean?" Elsie asked.
"As if you didn't know." Vera cried. "Your pretty face suffused with delicate pink tells its story. Nay, you needn't turn away your head. My romance was a failure, but I was happy enough in the first few months of my married life, and I know what a girl's feelings are. Why, ever since the mystery of your father's death has been cleared up, you have been a different creature. You are singing from morn to night, you wear a constant smile, and your eyes speak things which you flatter yourself in vain you are keeping from the world. How long will it be before Edgar follows you to Sandgate? And how long will it be before he insists upon taking you away altogether? And what a bitter disappointment it would be if he didn't come at all!"
Elsie laughed unsteadily.
"You are merciless," she said. "But he may have changed his mind. I was so hard on him——"
"Oh! nonsense; he hasn't changed his mind, and you know it. I will bet you a new hat that we shall find Edgar Sefton at Sandgate before we have got into the house and taken our old hats off."
Vera prophesied truly. They had hardly settled down to tea in the sunlit balcony of a charming house on the cliffs when Sefton put in an appearance. He came across the lawn with the air of a man who is sure of his welcome.
"I couldn't get here before,"' he said. "That wretched business has tied me up entirely."
"It's a good thing you couldn't," Vera said demurely. "You wouldn't have found us here if you had. Where are you staying? And how long shall you be down?"
"I am at the Channel Hotel," Sefton explained coolly. "And I shan't stay a day longer than you do. I think I have earned the right to enjoy myself a bit. Upon my word! Rashleigh looks as if he had never had a day's illness in his life, and, Iza, if I may be permitted to call her so, is another girl."
Iza laughed whole-heartedly. She looked altogether changed. Her reserve had vanished. She blossomed like a flower in the sunshine. There was a joyousness about her which none of them had ever seen before. But Sefton had not come to study the happiness of other people. As he chatted over his tea, he did not fail to notice that Elsie was the quietest of the party. By and by Gerald and Iza walked down the garden and through the gate which led to the range of gorse-covered cliffs beyond. Frankly they were interested in their own society to the exclusion of everybody else. Vera turned with a smile to her companions.
"I won't have you here boring me," she said. "And if Mr. Sefton chooses to force himself upon a Bohemian household, he will have to dispense with ceremony. I am going to write letters now. When my correspondence is off my mind I shall enjoy a holiday with a clear conscience."
She sailed away, leaving Elsie and Sefton alone. For a time there was silence between them.
"Shall we follow the others?" Elsie suggested.
"I am glad to hear you say that," Sefton said. "By all means, let us follow the others. No, no; I don't mean in that way—I mean in following their example. Don't rise. I will bring my chair to yours, where nobody can see us. Elsie, you know why I am here; you know that you are free on the terms laid down by yourself. Darling! You won't send me away again, will you?"
Sefton had taken her hand in his, and she made no attempt to withdraw it. To her the landscape seemed to have suddenly grown blurred and misty in the setting sun. But she knew well that those unshed tears twinkling under her lashes were tears of happiness. There was not an atom of the coquette in her nature, for she loved this man with all her heart and soul, and she did not care how soon he knew it.
"Never again, Edgar," she whispered, "never again. I am the happiest girl in the world, and will marry you whenever you like. I'll try my best to make you a good wife, and if you want me to say more than that——"
She stopped and glanced shyly at him. But Sefton wanted no more, for he sat looking out across the wide track of the setting sun and envied no man his happiness.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia