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Title: The Secret of the Sands Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305501h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2013 Most recent update: Sep 2013 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THE saffron glow in the evening sky filtered into the dining- room at Oversands, and caused the candles on the table to gleam fitfully under their green shades. The rest of the room was in shadow, picked out here and there by the dull gleam of polished oak, the gold picture frames, and the flash of silver on the sideboard. The wax candles made pools of light upon the table, at which three people were seated. At the head, Sir Horace Amory sat, facing his daughter Vera. Lady Amory had been long dead, and to Vera she was little more than a memory.
Over against the old Elizabethan sideboard sat Maria, Lady Amory, widow of Sir Gabriel Amory, Sir Horace's deceased uncle, from whom he had inherited the title and the property. There are few families of standing without some strange story or whispered rumour, and the Amorys were no exception to the rule. The servants in the house and the people in the village generally spoke of Lady Amory with a significant glance or a smile as the case might be.
It was not that she was old; indeed, in years she had the advantage of Sir Horace. She was beautifully dressed, her face knew no wrinkles, her hair was glossy and abundant. Yet she conveyed the strange, uncomfortable impression that she was a dead thing behind a mask of wax, a corpse that had been galvanised into life. There were times when she talked on everyday topics glibly, though always with an effort, and nobody had ever seen smile on that regular face—the mask never relaxed.
She had her moods, too; there were days when she kept to the seclusion of her room and refused to see anybody; at other times she would come down to meals without a word or a sign to those at the table. If she had feeling or affection for a living soul it was for Dick Amory, Sir Horace's scapegrace son, who had elected to try his fortune on the Stock Exchange.
The cause of all this was unknown. The tale ran that Sir Gabriel Amory had passed most of his time in the South of France, and had not been in England for many years, while his wife had never been seen until after his death, when she came as a legacy to Oversands. Her secret—if secret she had—she kept rigidly to herself. Years ago she had expressed a desire to have a place of her own, and had taken a large rambling cottage on the far side of the River Fleem, about five miles away. But she was hardly ever there, and seemed to prefer Oversands for the most part. Still, there were certain black hours, when she disappeared and took up her quarters at the cottage, waited upon by a grim, silent old man and his wife, who had been with her all her lifetime.
Sir Horace, however, had not the remotest notion who this strange relation of his really was. He could have answered no questions concerning her parentage or pedigree. That she was a lady was evident. He supposed that she was wealthy, but even this was pure surmise. On occasions she wore amazing jewels, but she was neither more nor less than a mystery, and therewith Sir Horace was fain to be content.
It was a quiet meal, slow and decorous, and a trifle prolonged for so small a family gathering. Sir Horace was rather given to ceremony. The Amorys were not an old family, Sir Horace being the third of his line. Oversands had come into their possession eighty years before, having been purchased by the first baronet net after he acquired the title. Their wealth had mainly been made in the town of Shoremouth, close by, and the banking firm of Amory and Sons was an important concern still; not what it had been, of course, since the advent of the gigantic joint-stock banks, but a great many people in the town and the country round swore by Amorys. Sir Horace was highly esteemed and his position dignified.
And yet he did not altogether look the part of a local magnate as he sat at the head of his dining-table playing with his glass. There was a moody frown on his face, a suggestion of anxiety in his eyes.
Usually Vera Amory would have been quick to remark this, but she also appeared to be wrapped up in her own thoughts this evening. She was a dainty little creature, happy of disposition, and generally wore a sunny smile on her fascinating face. She had courage and resolution, too, or the firm lines of her mouth belied her.
"If he doesn't mind he'll be in the quicksands!" Lady Amory cried.
Her voice rang in the silent room with a startling suddenness, but the remark passed unheeded. These weird suggestions were quite in the ordinary course. The words were loud and distinct, but the wax mask was graven and placid as ever.
"The sands will keep their secret," the speaker went on; "but I know them. If anybody says that I pushed her in, they lie. She committed suicide."
Again the words rang clear and still, though Lady Amory sat placidly eating an orange. A frown of annoyance crossed Sir Horace's face. There were times when this sort of thing irritated him, and Vera intervened.
"Quite right, aunt," she said, soothingly. "It was no fault of yours. Won't you come into the drawing-room with me and have some music?"
"I'm going to bed," Lady Amory muttered. "If I don't it will get in the—everything gets into the newspapers nowadays. But they were disappointed about the inquest."
Vera led her away gently. The poor creature was in one of her worst moods to-night. Lady Amory suffered herself to be conducted upstairs.
"Keep away from the quicksands," she said; "and don't go near the Red House. It's safe for me because I know the secret, but you must avoid the place."
The warning was uttered in a hoarse whisper. Vera shuddered slightly. That dangerous and desolate spot by the river near the old Red House had always been a nightmare to her. Gruesome legends hung around it. But why, Vera wondered, should that place be for ever uppermost in the mind of Lady Amory? She could not speak half-a-dozen sentences without alluding to it. More than once when she had wandered from the house she had been found sitting, gazing intently into those boiling, shifting grey sands, whence nothing ever emerged alive that had been engulfed in their deadly coils.
With a long sigh of relief Vera found herself alone. The studied calm left her face, and she looked anxious and unhappy. Black and bitter trouble was coming, none the less dreadful because Vera had foreseen it for a long time. She took a letter from her pocket and read it again, though she had the words by heart:
"Meet me by the Red House at ten to-night.
You must manage to slip away.
I am in the most awful trouble and dare not show up.
It was not the first time that Dick Amory had distinguished himself in this fashion. His debts had been paid for him more than once; there had been stormy scenes and promises of reform, and on the last occasion Sir Horace had said that in future Dick must look to himself. But this fresh difficulty shaped like a still blacker and more bitter business. If Dick dared not show himself at home, then disgrace, dishonour, and other dreadful things that Vera did not dare to imagine too closely, seemed imminent. Was it possible that the police——
Sir Horace must be told. It was far too serious a problem for Vera to grapple single-handed. It was out of the question that she should go as far as the lonely Red House at that hour of the night. Vera went off at once to the library, where she found her father smoking his after-dinner cigar. He was not alone, as she had expected. A tall young man, with a pleasant, resolute face, lighted by frank, steady grey eyes, stood by the fireplace. He looked very handsome and manly in his evening dress. His features were oddly familiar to Vera.
"You need not go away, dear," Sir Horace said. "This is Mr. Ronald Bastable, the son of my old steward, Joseph Bastable."
"It is a long time since I saw you last, Miss Vera," the young man said.
"Fifteen years, isn't it?" Vera smiled. "We were good friends in those days."
Sir Horace frowned. Ronald Bastable appeared to forget that only a few years ago his father had been employed on the Oversands estates in quite a subordinate capacity. Joseph Bastable had made money since then. Half the new houses in the rising watering-place belonged to him, but though he had given his only son a public school and university education, he was still the ex-steward in Sir Horace's eyes. There had been a bitter quarrel between them two years ago, and Joseph Bastable had sworn that Sir Horace should eat his words some day.
But Vera remembered nothing of this now. The young man before her had been her playmate. He had shown her where early violets and primroses were to be found, and had brought many additions to the collection of birds' eggs she had been so proud of in those days. Moreover, Ronald Bastable was plainly a gentleman.
"My brother would be pleased to see you again," she said.
"It's strange you should mention his name," Bastable replied. "I came on purpose to get his address. I called at his office in town, and they said he was probably here."
"My son hardly ever comes here," Sir Horace said, stiffly. "I regret I cannot help you."
It seemed to Vera that Bastable was looking grave, not to say anxious.
"Is it of importance?" she asked.
"Certainly," Bastable answered. "I am sorry not to be able to speak more freely, but my business is strictly private. All I can say is that I am extremely disappointed not to find your brother's address."
A vague alarm possessed Vera. Was Bastable speaking to her in a language not meant for Sir Horace's ears. It was impossible to listen to those words without feeling that there was something behind them. The speaker was sympathetic, too. He would be a good and loyal friend in the hour of need. An impulse to take him into her confidence gripped Vera. It was singular that, after all these years, she should meet Ronald Bastable again in her present dilemma.
"I am vexed," she said; "I would help you if I could. But I am interrupting your talk. Good-night, Mr. Bastable."
She slipped out of the room before any effort was made to detain her, but stood in the shadow of the drawing-room waiting eagerly. Come what might, she would take Ronald Bastable into her confidence. At any rate, he would respect her secret, and it might be a matter of life or death to Dick.
She heard the library door open presently, and saw Ronald cross the hall. Sir Horace bade his visitor a formal good-night, and fastened the front door behind him. No sooner was he safe in the library again than Vera rapidly crossed the drawing-room and opened the long French window leading to the lawn. The tall, athletic figure of Ronald Bastable was disappearing down the drive. There was not a moment to lose.
She ran across the grass, and laid a timid hand on Ronald's arm.
Bastable's eyes shone softly as he turned to his companion. He could see she was in distress. The pleading expression of her face was sufficient to tell him that.
"I hope you won't think this is wrong," she said. "But I have not forgotten. I know your father and mine are bitter enemies, but that is no reason why we should not be friends. It seemed strange that you should come to Oversands to-night of all times, but I see the hand of Providence in it. My brother is in trouble!"
Bastable appeared to hesitate for a moment. "Has he told you this, Miss Vera?" he asked. "Sir Horace does not know——"
"Oh, my father knows nothing. The news only came to me just before dinner. It reached me in the form of a note delivered by a child. Have you seen Dick lately?"
"I have seen a good deal of him in London. I am a barrister, Miss Amory, and belong to the same club as your brother, and more than once I have been in a position to give him some little, well——"
"You have lent him money?" Vera exclaimed. "How odd that Dick should never have mentioned your name in his letters! But I am wasting time. My brother has got into some very serious trouble. He tells me that he dare not show his face at Oversands. Mr. Bastable, is it really as bad as that?"
Bastable looked down into the white, sad face that was turned to his. "I am afraid so," he said, gently. "Dick gave me a hint to that effect a night or two ago. He was anxious that I should advise him. I am inclined to believe that he did not tell me everything, but so far as I could gather it was very bad."
"You mean that that foolish boy has—has disgraced us?"
Bastable was silent for a while. Vera's worst fears were confirmed. "Your brother is very friendly with a lawyer called Bowen," he went on presently. "I fear that Bowen and Dick have been speculating with the property of a client of Bowen's—an old lady who died recently. Her trustees have asked for accounts, and the whole thing must come out. Unless something like twenty thousand pounds is forthcoming in the next few hours it is probable that——"
There was no occasion for Bastable to say more. The thing was as plain as daylight to Vera. Dick was little better than a thief—a criminal flying from justice.
"Oh, this is dreadful," the girl whispered. "It will break my father's heart. But we must save that wretched boy if we can, Mr. Bastable. Have you any scheme——"
"Would it not be as well to find out where he is first?"
"Oh, I had forgotten that!" Vera cried. "Dick is hiding at the Red House. That dreadful place always had a fascination for him. In his letter he says he will be there by ten o'clock to-night, and wants me to meet him. I could not do it—I have as much pluck as most girls—but I simply dare not go. When I came into the library to-night, I was going to tell my father everything. Ought he not to know?"
"Not just now," Bastable said after a pause. "It is possible I may be able to save the situation. I'll go and see Dick for you. I will explain how his address came into my hands. You had better return to the house lest anybody should discover that you have been out."
"How can I thank you for all this kindness?" Vera murmured. "But you will let me know soon? I shall not have a moment's peace so long as that poor boy——"
"I will see you to-morrow?" Bastable suggested. "You must meet me somewhere. I know it is awkward, but in the circumstances it would be imprudent to write. Shall we say to-morrow at midday in the yew avenue?"
"Where we used to meet for one of our stolen expeditions," Vera smiled faintly. "How far off those days appear to be! And to think that you should come back into my life in this fashion. But I must go. Good-night, Mr. Bastable!"
She held out her hands with a sudden impulse that touched Bastable. How sweet and fair and dainty she had grown, to be sure! He had never forgotten his little playmate, though he had not seen her for years. Most of the time she had been at school, and after that quarrel between Sir Horace and his father, Oversands had been a closed place to him. Now she was talking to him as if there were no social gulf between them. Her hands lay in his—he raised one of them to his lips.
"I have always remembered you," he said. "I was glad to help you in the old days, and I will help you now, Miss Vera. If by any possible chance your brother can be saved it shall be done. I have a scheme in my mind, but this is not the time or place to discuss it."
"I must try to be patient till to-morrow," Vera murmured.
"Twelve o'clock to-morrow. I only hope I may bring you good news."
Bastable turned away more or less abruptly and strode down the drive. The full round shield of the silver moon was rising, and his shadow fell on the undergrowth. He had the best part of an hour's walk before him if he wished to reach the Red House near ten o'clock.
He had ample food for thought as he walked along. He was recalling the old days when he and Vera had been children together, she a pretty little thing of seven, he a boy of 12. Then his father had been merely an upper servant of Sir Horace's; but the quarrel followed, and Joseph Bastable was summarily dismissed. There had been some suggestion of dishonesty, but that might have been only idle gossip.
Many things had happened in the past 14 years. In that interval the fortunes of the Amorys had gone back, whilst Joseph Bastable had flourished exceedingly. He had set up in Shoremouth as an agent just at the time when the place had begun to prosper. He had speculated boldly but shrewdly in land, with the result that to-day, as we have said, half the town belonged to him. He had been mainly instrumental in bringing to Shoremouth the joint stock bank that had affected the prosperity of Amory and Sons. He boasted more or less openly that he would bring Sir Horace to his knees and drive him out of Oversands. He had made a gentleman of Ronald—but, then, Ronald was a gentleman in any case.
Joseph Bastable had other ambitions, but these he did not mention in public. He had discussed them with Ronald to the younger man's embarrassment. However, it looked as if fate were about to crystallise these dreams into concrete realities.
The moon was riding high in the blue dome when Ronald left the high ground for the flat marshes by the side of the river. Here it was dreary and desolate to a degree. It seemed almost impossible to believe that the sylvan beauties of Oversands were so near, that within two miles lay the attractive town of Shoremouth.
The tide was out, and the wide range of sands lay bleak and deserted. At certain spots it was possible to cross the river by means of flat rocks that formed stepping-stones, but these depended upon the conditions of the tide, and now and again they were covered with slimy sand and weed that made the passage dangerous. One false step and there was an end of you. The shifting quicksands were capable of sucking down a good-sized boat without leaving a single trace behind.
A hundred yards or so back from the mud and sands stood a house that bore some resemblance to a martello tower. It was a wild and lonely spot, and there were various legends to account for the building of it. It had never been occupied in the recollection of the oldest inhabitant, though it was partially furnished. There had been a rumour lately that Sir Horace had been sounded by a prospective tenant, but he had not confirmed it. The place looked grim and repellent now in the glare of the moon. Ronald approached the building carelessly—he was not in the least afraid of meeting anybody, though it was a spot that most people avoided after dark.
The door yielded as Ronald pushed it; in the dingy sitting-room somebody had been smoking, for the musty atmosphere smelt strongly of tobacco. Very softly Bastable called Dick Amory by name. The call was repeated three times before any reply came. Then a head was cautiously thrust round the doorway from the hall, and Dick Amory entered listlessly. There was an unsteady smile on his weak, handsome face, and the irresolute lips quivered.
"How you frightened me!" he whispered. "I've been sitting in this infernal old kennel till my nerves are all to pieces. How did you manage to find me?"
Bastable proceeded to explain. Amory listened gloomily.
"It's uncommon good of you, old chap," he said. "Well, the mischief is done, and there is no help for it. I expect they have issued a warrant by this time. I should have gone and made a clean breast of it to the old man, but I didn't dare to show myself at Oversands. I'll have to get you to do it for me, Bastable. Don't forget to let me have some cigarettes and whisky to-morrow. I can manage till then. So long as I lie close I'm safe here until the governor can find the money. It will be a bit of a pull for him, especially as things haven't gone very well lately. What a fool I was to let Bowen drag me into this mess! I never had a penny of the money. It's an infernal shame that I should be the one to suffer!"
Amory's voice faded into a whine and something like tears stood in his eyes. It was almost impossible to sympathise with a poor weak creature like this. It was hard to believe that this was a relation of Vera Amory's.
"I should drop that if I were you," Bastable said, sternly. "There is nothing to be gained by self-pity. I have a scheme of sorts, and I want you to follow me carefully. I don't say that I shall be able to save you, but I'm going to have a good try. If——"
Amory grasped the arm of his companion with convulsive force. His face was white and set with ghostly fear. He trembled violently. "Quiet!" he whispered. "There's someone in the house!"
Bastable became rigid at attention. Surely enough somebody was shuffling along the hall towards the door. It seemed to Bastable that he could hear the notes of a tune coming from between half-closed lips. Then the door of the sitting-room opened a little and a hand lay upon the jamb. The hand—long, white, slim, with beautifully-moulded pink nails—stood out clear as a cameo in the white moonlight, and as it came so it vanished.
"Did you see that?" Bastable whispered. "You didn't? It was wonderfully plain. An exquisite slim white hand, with a superb old marquise diamond and ruby ring upon it. I should know that ring again anywhere!"
Amory made no reply for the chattering of his teeth. He managed to find his voice again presently. "Don't move," he whispered. "Don't leave me. Perhaps the fellow has gone away. You never saw any ring; it was pure imagination on your part."
For a moment Ronald Bastable was disposed to regard the whole thing as a delusion. The events of the evening had got upon his nerves, and the rest was a mere matter of imagination. But why should he be a prey to panic? He was young, clean-living, and clean-minded, and, moreover, in excellent training. The hand, too, had been so real; he had noticed the clear pinkness of the nails; he could recognise the marquise ring again anywhere.
A cautious search of the house disclosed nothing in the way of a clue. There was no sign that anybody else had been there. The shabby old furniture and fusty carpets showed no trace of disturbance. The back door was fastened, and the rusty key was in the lock. As to the front door, Bastable had taken the precaution of securing it when he entered. It was still fast.
"Oh, you imagined it all," Dick Amory said, irritably. "Don't keep harping upon that. I've got to remain alone in this dismal hole all night, and I don't want my mind filled with horrors. Now, what's to be done?"
Apparently very little could be done as far as Bastable could see. A scheme was maturing in his mind, but the time was not ripe yet. He went off presently towards Shoremouth. He promised to look up Amory again in the morning. Just now he felt in the mood for company. It was not too late to turn into the club for an hour.
The club of Shoremouth was somewhat of a new institution. There were a great many residents with plenty of time on their hands, retired soldiers and sailors and the like, who had come to the place on account of its bracing air, and there was also a fair sprinkling of visitors most of the year round. In the season the club was crowded with temporary members affiliated to various London institutions of a similar kind. The club was always open to visitors of undoubted social position.
The smoking room was comparatively empty as Ronald entered. It would be a good idea to look at the London evening papers. He might glean some information as to what was happening as to the affair of Dick Amory and his quondam friend Bowen, the solicitor. Probably a warrant had been issued for the apprehension of both. If so, it would be well to know how the land lay. Perhaps, up to the present, no ugly suspicions had been aroused. Still, he must make sure.
Ronald turned over an evening paper carefully. Here was something at length that promised to be of interest. It related to a missing solicitor:—
"STRANGE AFFAIR IN IVY COURT."
"The police authorities are investigating a remarkable affair in connection with the disappearance of a well-known city solicitor, Mr. Arthur Bowen by name. For some years past Mr. Bowen has tenanted offices situated in Ivy Court, Fenchurch-street, a blind thoroughfare occupied for the most part by warehouses. At the end of the court, facing the street, is a small house of two rooms, rented by Mr. Bowen, who retains the upstairs room for his own office, whilst the two clerks work downstairs. At certain times of the day the court is comparatively deserted, since the warehouses can be entered by side doors, and in any case are mostly used for the purposes of import and export only. Thus the majority of the people passing along the court are clients and solicitors, who come to call on Mr. Bowen.
"Yesterday morning, Mr. Bowen came to business as usual. He greeted his two clerks in his usual cheery manner, and then proceeded to his own room to transact the business of the day. About 12 o'clock a telegram arrived from a client in the country who needed some papers urgently, and one of the clerks was despatched with them by train a few minutes after the receipt of the wire. At half-past 12 the other clerk went off to his lunch. On his return an hour later he found nobody in the office, for apparently Mr. Bowen had been called out on business.
"As the cash-box was open and several important papers lay about, the clerk went to Mr. Bowen's room to see if anything was wrong. The room was empty, papers and documents were scattered about in disorder, and the large safe in the corner had vanished. The safe, weighing upwards of a ton, had been wrenched from the walls and carried away bodily. All the private books and ledgers had gone also, and no trace of Mr. Bowen could be seen. On the office table were several spots of blood and a soaked handkerchief with the unfortunate solicitor's monogram upon it.
"We understand that, up to the time of going to press, the police have been unable to throw much, if any, light on the mystery. Nothing more has been seen of Mr. Bowen, and the authorities are compelled to believe that he has been the victim of foul play. If so, it passes comprehension how a brutal crime could have been accomplished in broad daylight within a few yards of a busy thoroughfare like Fenchurch-street."
Ronald Bastable read the paragraph again. It certainly was a most remarkable chain of events. Bowen appeared to be a man who possessed powerful enemies. At any rate, this would mean a respite for Dick Amory. It would give him time to turn round and find the money he had embezzled along with Bowen. Ronald was about to throw the paper aside when something in the "stop press" edition attracted his attention:—
"A CLUE TO THE IVY COURT MYSTERY."
"Late this afternoon the police were called up on the telephone by a firm of carriers and furniture dealers carrying on business in College Place. The firm appear to have had an express letter from Mr. Brown asking that a van should be sent round to Ivy Court at one o'clock precisely to remove some furniture and a safe to premises in Orchard Lane. The van was despatched at the precise time mentioned in the letter, and the carter in charge was met at the entrance to the court by a gentleman, who informed him that the goods were not ready yet, but that they would be packed with as little delay as possible. The van was backed into the court, and the gentleman gave the driver, and vanman half-a-crown, at the same time telling them to get some refreshment, as their services would not be required or half an hour at least.
"On the men returning at the expiration of the time, they found that the offices were empty and the van had been removed. The rooms were in a state of disorder, the safe had been cut from the wall, and no sign of it was to be seen. In the course of the afternoon the van was discovered near St. Paul's Churchyard, empty and apparently derelict. The police are now making a diligent search for a thin man of middle age with a dark moustache, speaking with a slight foreign accent, this being the description of the stranger who handed the half-crown to the vanman and his colleague. The police have satisfied themselves that the letter ordering the van and purporting to be in Mr. Bowen's handwriting is a forgery."
Here was a fascinating mystery in itself, quite apart from any connection it might have with the fortunes of Dick Amory. It was a daring and original scheme, and had succeeded by reason of its simple audacity. Probably the telegram which had drawn one clerk out of the way was a blind. Beyond all question these scoundrels knew every detail of the daily routine in Bowen's office. They were aware that the lawyer was in the habit of being alone in his office for an hour in the middle of the day. It was the hour, too, when the business of the city was generally at a standstill; and if anybody did come along, a confederate could easily put him off with an excuse. A blow on the head would keep Bowen quiet whilst the thieves were removing the safe. The way in which they had obtained the van was ingenious. Here was a crime that London would already be discussing.
One or two other people had lounged into the smoking-room. These persons were unknown to Ronald, and he put them down as visitors. Two men came in presently and sat down immediately opposite to him. They were evidently strangers, from the way in which they glanced about them. The elder of the two was tall and somewhat striking-looking; he had a fierce military moustache obviously dyed some purple hue and waxed in spikes that turned upwards. He wore a glass in his right eye, and he spoke to the waiter with a foreign accent. The other man appeared to be timid and retiring and glanced nervously about him as if afraid of something. His face was half-hidden behind a bushy beard and whiskers of iron grey; his eyes were shielded by blue glasses. Evidently the man suffered from some nervous trouble; plenty of such came to Shoremouth for the air at all times of the year. With a ready ease and politeness, the foreigner dropped into conversation with Ronald.
"Very pleasant quarters you have here, sir," he said. "It's a change after the bustle and glitter of a London club. My friend, Sir George Lumley, recommended me to come here and bring my relative, Mr. Sexton. He's been working too hard, with the inevitable result. But they tell me there is no air like Shoremouth for nerves."
"Many doctors recommend it," Ronald said.
"Ah! They are right sir," the man with the purple moustache replied. "I feel the better for the change myself. I've had experience of climates all over the world, and I find none to beat England. I speak as a man of science."
"You are thinking of settling here?" Ronald asked, casually.
"Now, how did you guess that, sir?" the stranger asked, smilingly. His keen eyes played over Bastable like a searchlight. "You are a thought-reader. I have taken a hand in most matters connected with practical science, but my latest hobby is the flying machine. Without boasting, I can promise the world something new in that way before long. The difficulty is to find a quiet place for one's experiments. I believe that I have solved the problem here in Shoremouth. I'm talking of a place called the Red House. The place has a bad reputation, and most people give it a wide berth. Those lonely sands are an ideal place for aeroplane trials. Who owns the place?"
"It is the property of Sir Horace Amory," Bastable explained.
A queer smile played like summer lightning over the face of the stranger. His moustache seemed to disappear into his lip in a way that struck Ronald as sinister. The nervous little man seemed to be interested now.
"I've heard the name before," the stranger said, drily. "I daresay Sir Horace will only be too glad to let the place, especially if I am prepared to take it as it stands. Sexton, I'll trouble you for the loan of a pencil. I'll take Sir Horace's address."
The little man fished a pencil from his pocket, and the moustachioed stranger proceeded to remove one of his grey suede gloves. As he shot his hand free of his cuff, Ronald started. For a moment his glance was fixed on the hand of the newcomer.
On his third finger he wore a ring. In ordinary circumstances there was nothing remarkable in that. But it happened to be the very marquise ring that Ronald had seen on the hand of the door jamb at the Red House! He looked again to see if he were mistaken. But it was no mistake, he could have sworn to that ring anywhere.
It required an effort on Ronald's part to control himself and turn his gaze casually elsewhere. He was annoyed to find the nervous little man in the blue spectacles was regarding him suspiciously. But he was sure of his facts, and he was certain as to that magnificent ring. At the risk of incurring further suspicion he must have another look at the stranger. The ring was the same undoubtedly, but the hand was different. This was no long, slim white hand with perfectly manicured nails, pink and white and rounded, but a hand brown and sinewy, the knotted veins standing out from the hairy back like cords. Still, Ronald was far from satisfied.
He was not at all taken with the stranger. The man's manner was easy; he was accustomed to good society; he was cultured and polished. But he was a little too friendly and plausible, and his eyes were those of a wolf. It was singular that a man of this type should view with a favourable eye such a desolate and dreary place as the Red House. His boast as to the aeroplane might be true, or it might be a blind to conceal something sinister. It was significant, too, that the foreigner should be enamoured of the place at the moment when it was imperative that the movements of Dick Amory should be kept secret.
Ronald rose and strode casually into the hall, and thence to the bar. The steward was idle.
"Who is the dark visitor with the eyeglass, Salmon?" Ronald asked.
"Gentleman of the name of De Lava sir—Count Henri De Lava," the steward explained. "He came with Sir George Lumley's card. The other gentleman is an invalid and they are both staying at the Grand. They only joined this afternoon."
"Did they dine here, Salmon?"
"Yes, sir. They came in about half-past six after a long walk. The gentleman in the spectacles seemed very tired and done up, and the count suggested dinner here, if we did that sort of thing. Mr. Sexton said he was too worn out to think of dressing for dinner, and I got them a chop, sir."
"So that they could have a stroll upon the parade afterwards?"
"I don't know about that, sir. They didn't. As a matter of fact, they went into the billiard-room, and had their coffee and cigarettes there. After that they adjourned to the smoking-room."
Ronald went back to his seat satisfied to a certain extent, and yet more perplexed than ever. It was impossible to see his way. Still, he would keep his eye upon these strangers; he felt sure that in some way they meant mischief so far as Dick Amory was concerned. For the present they must not see the inside of the Red House. It would take some time to get the key from Sir Horace's agent, and Dick would, at any rate, be safe for another day.
Ronald turned the problem over in his mind until he fell asleep, but no solution came to him. Directly after breakfast he examined the London papers. Most of them were full of the mysterious affair in Ivy Court, and many ingenious theories were advanced. It seemed almost impossible that a solicitor, together with all his papers, and most of his office furniture, should vanish in this way, but there was the hard fact, and there was no possibility of getting away from it. The police were inclined to think that Mr. Bowen had been enticed away, and had returned unexpectedly before the thieves had finished their work. He had then been stunned or murdered outright, and his body conveyed from the office in the van. The removal of Bowen was intended to baffle the authorities, and make it impossible to fix the direct charge of murder on anybody. In the absence of the body, it was not positively certain that he was dead.
Bastable went off presently towards the Red House. With the events of the previous night uppermost in his mind it behoved him to be cautious. But no living soul was in sight as he strode along the marshes, nothing but sea-birds wheeling overhead, calling to one another like lost spirits in torment. The tide was out again, and the whole stretch of grey sands quivered and bubbled as if some unseen hand stirred their horrible depths; they churned and seethed round the flat stepping stones in a wickedly suggestive fashion.
"So you've come at last," Amory said, none too graciously. "What a time you've been!"
"It's barely eleven o'clock," Ronald replied.
"Isn't it? It seems like afternoon to me. I had to pawn my watch to raise the money to get here, and I haven't a notion what the time is. Got the cigarettes?"
"I've got enough to last you a week. The food difficulty is my great trouble. But, in any case, you'll have to find some other hiding-place. From what I could gather last night, there's a possibility of this house being let at once."
Amory broke out passionately. "I wish I was dead!" he cried. "I wish I had never been born. Of course, by this time the police are looking for me everywhere."
"I don't fancy so," Ronald said, soothingly. "It's an ill wind that brings nobody luck, and you've got your turn, though it's at the expense of your friend Bowen. But I put a newspaper in my pocket so that you could read for yourself."
Amory snatched at the paper eagerly. Ronald watched him with a feeling of contempt. It was clear Dick Amory cared for nobody but himself. Whatever might happen, his personal safety was the first consideration. There was something like a smile on his face as he finished the report.
"It's very odd, Bastable," he said. "But Bowen was mixed up with a shady lot. Well, this gives me breathing-time. No steps can be taken against me until it comes out that Bowen is a defaulter, and they can't prove that till his papers are produced. Still, one can never tell how far Bowen had committed himself. I think I'll stay here for——"
"But you can't," Bastable interrupted. "The thing is impossible. I met a man in the club last night who is exceedingly anxious to take this place. He is a foreigner who wants a quiet practise ground for a flying-machine he has invented. He has been over the marshes, and says the place will suit him admirably. He may get hold of the keys to-day, and if he does he is certain to be here to-morrow."
"What sort of chap was he?" Amory asked at random.
"A foreigner—a tall, slim man with a dyed moustache and an eyeglass. I fancy he calls himself De Lava or some such name—Count De Lava. He has a friend named Sexton, who appears to be somewhat of an invalid."
Amory began to pace impatiently up and down the dingy sitting-room. He puffed nervously at his cigarette. Then he turned abruptly to Ronald.
"You must manage to keep those chaps away a bit longer," he said. "I've been trying to think out a plan for getting this money. After all, I may not have to find it; at least I shan't be asked to do so until the police get to the bottom of the Bowen business. It's long odds that the thing remains a mystery altogether, in which case I stand on velvet."
"But that's downright rascality," Ronald said, coldly. "You have robbed those people of this money, and you and Bowen have spent it between you. If those ruffians have made an end of Bowen, then you are responsible for it all."
"Why should I interfere?" Amory asked. "If Bowen is dead, there is an end to the matter. He won't know that he has had all the blame, and I shall be free."
Bastable turned away in silent disgust. "Let us assume," he said presently, "that Bowen isn't dead. Say that he comes back again. What will be your position then? It will be no excuse for Bowen to say that he has been robbed by a gang of scoundrels. He will have to produce the money all the same, and he will look for your share."
"If he does, then I fancy I can see my way to find my half."
"There will be no question as to half. If Bowen is penniless, as I expect, you will have to find the lot. You don't seem to realise how deeply you are plunged in this trouble. If you can see any way clear I shall be glad to hear what it is."
"Well, there is my aunt, or my great-aunt, Lady Amory," Dick said. "She's queer, as you know. Some people think she is quite mad, but she's got more about her than folk imagine. And she's fond of me."
"Is that a sign of sanity?" Ronald asked.
"You needn't rub it in," Amory said, sullenly. "She's been fond of me from a child. I can get more out of her than anybody else. She's got money, though she has always been very close on that score. People of weak intellects generally are. Did you ever see her when she's dressed for a big party?"
"I have never had the pleasure," Ronald said, drily.
"You should, my boy—that is, if you admire beautiful jewellery. The old lady has some of the finest diamonds and rubies in the country. Goodness only knows what they are worth. And she keeps them in a safe in her cottage. Now, if I could get hold of these——"
"What, you're not suggesting the possibility of a further——"
"Of course not," Amory went on. "My idea was to get the chance of a few words with the old lady and let her know how things are with me. If I pitched it pretty strong she might consent to pawn some of the gems to get me out of the present hole. She's staying at Oversands just now, and she generally has a lot of stuff with her. Of course, I don't want you to mention this to Vera, but you might ask her to arrange an interview with Lady Amory for me."
There was no objection to this course as far as Ronald could see. He would lay the proposal before Vera, and afterwards discuss further arrangements for Dick Amory's safety.
Vera was waiting impatiently in the new avenue. Her pale face lighted up and a splash of colour came into her cheeks as she saw Ronald, but in the bright sunshine she looked tired and worn.
"I hope you have good news for me," she whispered.
"I have no bad," Ronald replied. "On the contrary, there is a respite that may enable us to tide over matters. But perhaps I had better explain."
Vera listened eagerly to all that Ronald had to say. It was a relief to know that the blow was not to fall yet. "It is very, very kind of you," she said, gratefully. "We may find some way of stopping this terrible scandal altogether. I haven't a notion what Dick expects to gain by seeing Lady Amory, though she is fond of him; indeed, he is the one creature that she cares for. But I will try to make her understand. She is in the garden at the present moment. If you'll stay here, I'll go and speak to her."
Ronald waited patiently. He could hear voices close by, Vera's soft and persuasive, and Lady Amory's vague and incoherent. They passed along a grass path so close to Ronald on the other side of the hedge that he could almost have touched them. Lady Amory was leaning on an ebony stick with a crutch ivory handle; her bare hand was clasped upon it.
"Have patience," she said. "I shall understand presently. Now say it slowly. I never can think of anything when the tide is low on the quicksands."
Ronald started, but not at these strange words. His gaze was fixed on Lady Amory's hand. It was the very hand and the very ring that he had seen on the door jamb at the Red House the night before.
"What does it all mean?" he asked himself. "In heaven's name, what does it all mean?"
There was something fascinating in these developments, although this was one of the last places in which to look for full-blooded romance. For these were strange events to happen in a house like Oversands. Sir Horace was only a plain country gentleman with an interest in a banking business. Still, romance is a plant that often strikes deep roots and takes years to flower.
Assuredly there was some connection between Lady Amory and the florid stranger who called himself Count De Lava. Why was this half-demented creature in the habit of visiting the Red House alone in the dead of the night? Few people in Shoremouth had the courage to enter the place after dark, and yet this poor weak woman had no hesitation in so doing. There was something uncanny about it all.
But Ronald had other matters to occupy his attention just then. He could hear the murmur of conversation on the other side of the yew hedge, and, as far as he could gather, Vera was doing most of the talking. She seemed to be urging her companion, who replied every now and then somewhat vaguely. Bastable could catch a few words here and there, but they seemed to have little to do with the point.
Vera came back presently with a grave look on her face. "I am afraid I have made a sad mess of it," she said. "I have tried to explain matters to my aunt, and I fear I have left her under the impression that something has happened to Dick. It is one of her worst days. If Dick could come here and see her, perhaps he could make her understand. He has always been a favourite of hers, and he can do almost anything he likes with her."
"You mean that Lady Amory failed to understand?"
"Utterly. I have only confused her. Can you suggest anything?"
"Only that your brother should come here. If I were you I should not mention the subject to Lady Amory again, but try to arrange matters in such a way that your brother can see her by accident, as it were. I am sorry this secrecy is necessary, but you know the necessity for caution."
Vera sighed deeply. She was looking very pale and miserable. "Quite," she said. "How good and kind of you to take all this trouble. There was worry enough without this folly on Dick's part. I used to think that Oversands was the happiest house in England, but now——"
Words failed her for a while. She turned her head away, and when she looked at Ronald again her blue eyes were full of tears. "I daresay you wonder why I speak like this," she resumed. "I suppose no girl in my position has fewer friends than I have. I have always been perfectly happy looking after the house and the servants and attending to my garden. At one time my father was my constant companion. Latterly that has all changed. My father cares for nothing, he sits in the library and broods. Of course, I know that Dick has caused him a deal of anxiety. But I am sure there is something else—some black and bitter trouble that my father is keeping from me. If I could only find out——"
Vera paused; the tears were trembling like diamonds on her long lashes. She touched Ronald to the heart, but he could say nothing. Yet he was flattered, too, by her confidences, and possibly he could have told Vera the secret of her father's vexation. His own father had given him more than one hint as to that. Matters at the bank had not been flourishing for some time, and Sir Horace's speculations in building sites in Shoremouth had come too late. Ronald was aware that Oversands was mortgaged heavily, and he had a suspicion that the mortgage was in his father's hands. Joseph Bastable, in his boasting way, had never actually said so, but he had dropped more than one suggestion to this effect. He knew also that his father had a big scheme in his mind, and that Sir Horace barred the way. If he continued to do so, then it would be hard upon him before very long.
"I am sorry to hear you say this," Ronald murmured.
Vera smiled bravely, through her tears. "I ought not to say it," she replied. "Only it seems so natural to confide in you. I did so when a child, and though we have grown up, I feel just the same. I am not given to change, Ronald."
The old name dropped from her lips naturally. Ronald felt his heart beating faster. It had been a dream of his that some day he might be rich and famous and make Vera Amory his wife. He had never forgotten this ambition of his. The vision of fame had vanished, but he would be rich some day, and in point of education he was the equal of the girl by his side.
But would Sir Horace take the same view? In his mind Ronald would still be the son of his old servant, Joseph Bastable, the man who used to touch his hat to his master and called him "Sir." And there were people who said that Joseph Bastable had not been altogether honest in his dealing with his employer. The truth would probably never be known, but the fact remained that the man was now in a position to dictate terms to the old master. In Ronald's eyes this was a drawback. He wanted nothing of that sort; if he was to follow the desire of his heart, he would do it in his own way. That desire possessed him now with more than its old force.
"I will do what I can for you," he said. "You know that you can rely upon me. The one thing that we have to think about is Dick's safety. It is possible that he may not be called upon to find this money at once. I mean that he need not do so unless it is voluntarily. Taking it for granted that Dick is an honest man——"
"Mr. Bastable, can we take that for granted?"
Ronald evaded the point. There was no occasion to go into that now.
"Well, we shall see," he said. "Dick thinks that Lady Amory will help him, and I fancy that you are of the same opinion. I'll tell him exactly what has happened, and he must try to come here on the chance of an interview with your aunt."
It was growing towards dusk before Ronald found time to go to the Red House. Save for Vera's sake he would have wished himself well out of his task. It was difficult to smuggle food and drink to the Red House without attracting undue attention. Fortunately the loneliness of the spot rendered it easy to guard against surprises. Amory was sitting moodily in the dining-room smoking cigarettes and reading a sporting paper.
"Well, you've taken your time," was his greeting. "I expected you hours ago. You don't know what it means to be all alone like this."
"My dear fellow, it is not so simple as you imagine," Ronald retorted. "The mere getting food to you is in itself a problem. Personally, I think you are foolish to shut yourself up. It would be safe to go out in the daytime. You can see anybody coming miles off, and there are plenty of sandhills covered with long grass where you could hide, if necessary. Come out now."
"All right," Dick said; "a brisk walk for a mile or so before dark will do me good. This place gets on my nerves. All the time I am expecting somebody to knock at the door and ask for admission. I can almost see the detectives who are after me. Now tell me what you have done."
"So far, very little. I had a long chat with your sister to-day, and she told Lady Amory you wanted to see her. It was impossible to make the poor lady understand. She was under the impression that some harm had come to you. It will be necessary for you to see her personally. You had better go as far as the house to-morrow night after ten o'clock and hang about until your sister is ready for you. When all is safe she will give you the signal and smuggle you into the house. But mind, you are to play the game, Amory. If Lady Amory helps you, the money must be devoted to the people who have suffered by your folly."
"What else do I need it for?" Amory asked, sulkily.
"I don't know; it isn't for me to say. But I am pretty well acquainted with your character, my dear fellow, and you are not likely to do an act of justice voluntarily. Still, there is no occasion for us to discuss this. I'll come and see you to-morrow."
Ronald turned on his heel and made his way back to Shoremouth. Amory had accompanied him further than he had intended, so that he had a mile or more between him and the Red House. There was not the remotest chance of encountering anybody on the way, but the place played on his unstrung nerves. He imagined every heap of sand and tuft of grass concealed a foe, that the waving rushes were so many detectives ready to pounce upon him.
He was trembling and tingling from head to foot by the time he reached the Red House. It was bad enough to be indoors, in all conscience, but it was worse to be outside. He would be glad to shut the door behind him and shoot the bolt. The door was open as he came up to the house, and this caused a pang of uneasiness.
"Funny," he muttered. "I could have sworn that I closed it after Bastable. I suppose I must have made a mistake."
He pulled the heavy dusty stiff curtain across the window, and lighted two of the candles with which Bastable had provided him. Then from a worn and battered oak chest he produced a bottle of whisky and a glass. He helped himself liberally to the spirit, and the colour crept into his pale cheeks.
So far he was safe. It was absurd to suppose that anybody would look for him here. The whisky was doing its work, and he was growing easier in mind. Nobody ever came near the Red House at this time of night, for the thick curtains shut out all light from the candles. Upstairs, Amory had made himself a bed, but he was not feeling like sleep yet.
He fumbled in his pocket for his matches and cigarettes, but found none—he had probably dropped them. A box stood on the mantelshelf, and Amory reached it. The pattern was unfamiliar.
"Now, where did these come from?" he muttered. "Common sulphur matches such as one sees on the Continent. I'll swear I never had any like them."
It was certainly strange. As Amory glanced round the room his eye fell upon five of the sulphur matches arranged in a rough, careless pattern on the table.
"Five matches!" he exclaimed. "Two bent, and one split in two, and the whole forming the sign of a dagger. What, in the name of heaven, does this mean?"
Dick Amory stared at the symbol with a fluttering at his heart. Beyond question those matches were not on the table when he had quitted the house with Bastable an hour or so before. He could not have arranged them mechanically in that odd fashion without remembering the fact. Besides, he had no such matches in his possession; he had not seen a sulphur match for years. So far as he knew, they were extinct in this country. He had seen such things in France, where the Government have a monopoly of the match industry, but not in England. The box lay on the mantelpiece, and had evidently been forgotten by the owner, who must have been here a little time before.
Possibly he was in the house at that moment. The mere suggestion of such a thing sent a creeping sensation up Amory's spine and set his scalp quivering. He would have to go upstairs and make a search. The whisky gave him fleeting courage. He must find out whether he was alone or not. If those matches represented some hidden sign, if they had some subtle menace, it certainly was not for him. He had never had anything to do with secret societies, though he had read of their doings in the papers. It suddenly flashed across his mind that other people besides himself might be making use of the Red House. It was the sort of place that desperate characters might use. Perhaps these people had been away upon some expedition; perhaps the matches were a message to somebody who might be expected back at any moment.
It was not a soothing suggestion, and Amory helped himself to more whisky. He hid his glass and bottle carefully again. If any visitor, should come it would be as well he should see nothing of his store of spirits.
Forcing himself to take action, he proceeded to search the house. He passed carefully from room to room, disturbing the dust on old furniture, but beyond a mouse or two and a big red-eyed rat he could detect no sign of a living thing. Somewhat easier in his mind, he replaced his candle on the table and glanced about him. The five matches forming the rude semblance of a dagger were still there, but no longer alone!
Dick gasped in astonishment. Instead of one sign, there were now three. They were laid out neatly side by side, looking just as innocent as if they had been the work of a child trying some simple puzzle with the little splinters of wood. But they drove the blood from Dick Amory's heart and left him helpless and terrified.
"I'm mad!" he murmured. "I've gone mad! Those matches exist only in my imagination. I shall come to my senses presently and laugh at myself."
But the matches were real enough. Amory pinched himself vigorously. He could feel the pain of it tingling up and down his leg. The fascination held him for a minute longer, till the sound of a footstep outside fell like a pistol-shot on his ear. The spell was broken. He jumped back into the passage and crouched almost breathless with fear behind an old oak chest. In a fashion almost mechanical he had blown out his candles and placed them over the fireplace. Beyond a doubt the police were on his track at last!
The needle-like rays of an electric torch flashed across the passage. Raising his head, Dick made out the figures of two men. One of them at least did not suggest the detective as he is pictured in popular imagination. He was rather tall and slim, wore a dark, military-looking moustache, fiercely twisted at the ends, and in his eye was a single glass. His companion had a face covered in hair, and his eyes were concealed by blue spectacles. Amory was conscious of a feeling of relief. There would be no necessity for the officers of the law to assume a disguise if they were after him in earnest, and there was no disguise about these intruders as far as he could see. The tall man was a foreigner, his companion English beyond doubt. There was something oddly familiar in his figure; Amory thought he had seen the little man before.
"Evidently designed by a fortunate chance for our special benefit," the tall man said. "On the brave and clever fate always bestows her smiles, my dear fellow. Now, here is a house where we shall never be disturbed. The curious tourist will give it a wide berth; no tramp or vendor of cheap sewing-machines will ever intrude upon our privacy. We shall be able to get it at our own price; indeed, Sir Horace will be only too glad to secure a tenant. Let us explore further."
The electric torch was turned away and the intruders vanished into the dining-room. The gay tones of the tall man came distinctly to Amory's ears.
"You will observe, my friend, that the house is partially furnished. Here are old things that some people would value highly; also behold a pair of candlesticks with half-consumed candles in them—to say nothing of a box of matches. They appear to be matches of a date singularly appropriate to the character of the house. Let us light them and look about us, my comrade. It was a fortunate chance that we found the back door open."
The listener cursed his carelessness under his breath.
"A pair of drawn curtains keeps the light from shining over the sandhills," the speaker proceeded, gaily. "Somebody has been smoking cigarettes within recent memory. Possibly Sir Horace Amory calls occasionally to inspect his property. Will you be so good as to place the candles on the table, and—by the powers, what is this?"
The last words rose almost to a scream; anger, fear, hate, and fury were strongly mingled. In spite of the risk he ran, Amory crept along the passage and looked into the dining-room. The candles were burning brightly on the table, and the tall stranger stood with his hand pressed to his forehead. His hat had fallen to the ground, and the look in his eyes fairly fascinated the watcher. The whole gamut of evil emotions chased one another rapidly across that pale and malignant face.
"What on earth is the matter?" the smaller man asked.
"Look at this," the other said, in a hissing whisper. "Look at this on the table. To you they convey nothing—to you they are so many matches laid out by somebody who has been trying one of those silly puzzles invented for the amusement of fools. Would to Heaven they were! So there are three of them upon my track! I thought I had tricked them nicely; I was idiot enough to imagine I had done with them for ever. And all the time they have been close on my heels, all the time are watching my every movement. They even knew that I was coming here to-night. Why, I didn't know myself till an hour ago; I told nobody but you, and you have not been out of my presence since."
"What are you muttering about?" the little man asked.
The foreigner pulled himself together and smiled. All the same, his face was twitching, as Amory could see as he stood in the shadow of the doorway.
"No matter," he said. "I'll tell you presently. You know what it is to be afraid of the police! Ah, my friend, there are worse things in the world than police. You don't know what it is to be possessed by devils as I am. That the fault is my own makes it all the worse. Still, it is only a warning, and I am safe for to-night, at any rate. Now, let us sit down, and consider our position. We are here to solve the secret of the sands. As a man who was born and bred here, you have the whole legend by heart."
"It is no legend," the little man said.
"So much the better. The thing is true, and we have to solve it. Not very far from us, and buried in the quicksands, lies one hundred thousand pounds, or its equivalent. With my scientific and your local knowledge it is going to be our business to get hold of that treasure. That it belongs to somebody else gives it greater zest in my eyes. But like most remunerative enterprises, this one requires money. We have no money, my dear fellow. At the moment I don't know where to turn for the cash to pay our hotel bill yonder at the end of the week. It is necessary that our credit should keep good. When we come to take this place we shall be asked for references. I have none. Why! we got into the club here by using the name of a man who dare not show his face in England, though nobody knows it but ourselves and the police. When we are asked for references, my idea is to pay a year's rent in advance."
"Only you don't happen to possess it," the little man sneered.
Amory, listening there, was racking his brain to discover where he had heard that voice before. The thing eluded him in the most irritating way. The face conveyed nothing to him, though the man had been bred and born in the neighbourhood of Shoremouth.
"Precisely," the foreigner admitted, gaily. "We are penniless. But we shall be in funds before long if you show a little courage. Now I have done you a good turn. I have baffled the police for you; I have made your position safe for some time to come. During the few days I spent here before you came I made several inquiries. I have been exploring the neighbourhood for likely spots to try my flying-machine—when it is made. Occasionally, I have trespassed on private property, and been reminded of the fact. I have then apologised in my most charming manner and withdrawn. But I have used my eyes, and I have learnt many useful facts. For instance, I have learned that in this locality there are some ten thousand pounds' worth of jewels to be had for the asking almost. They lie snugly to hand in the drawer of a dressing-table. The dressing-room window is only a few feet from the ground, and there is strong ivy all round it. The catch of the window is a common one that can be pushed back with a knife. Now what I do you say to that, my dear young friend?"
The little man murmured something that sounded like approbation.
"Well, they are ready for us whenever we like. But the woman, lovely woman, is as capricious as she is beautiful, and has a charming habit of changing her mind. She might suddenly take it into her head that the jewels are not safe."
"She might," the little man said. "To-morrow night——"
"No, my faithful friend and follower, not to-morrow night, but now. I didn't tell you before, because you might have funked it at the last moment. We are going almost at once, and I shall run up to London and get rid of the plunder. By this time to-morrow we shall be rolling in money. Kindly blow those candles out and follow me. All you have to do is to follow your instructions—there is not the slightest danger. Come on."
The lights were extinguished, the door closed behind the conspirators, and Amory was alone again. He was still puzzling over the mystery of the little man, and where he had heard that voice before. He was glad to be alone, glad to have the house to himself.
"Now, I wonder who these fellows are?" he muttered. "I wonder where they are going and where they are likely to find all those jewels ready to their hand. I know of nobody within dozen miles who would be so silly as——"
He jumped to his feet with a start. It all came with a staggering flash.
"Lady Amory's diamonds!" he cried aloud. "The gems that were to get me out of this infernal scrape! But any risk, any hazard——"
He jammed his hat on his head, and flung open the door. Then, heedless of personal danger, he ran across the sandhills towards his father's house.
THE town of Shoremouth, is a curious mixture of the old and the new. Originally it had been a fishing village, until local enterprise had found an opening for capital in the shape of rope-works. The more ancient part the town consists of shops with gabled roofs and half-timbered fronts; in fact, the High-street is quite Elizabethan. There are gaps between the houses here and there, faced by high walls, and behind them some good houses devoted to the use of the professional classes.
The new town is altogether different. It is modern and up-to-date, and boasts of shops of the newest pattern. Most of the streets lead to the parade and the pier, or to large open squares where the boarding-houses are situated. And it mostly all belonged to Mr. Joseph Bastable.
As a matter of fact, Joseph Bastable was the most important man in the place. Fourteen years ago nobody thought anything of him. As to that, fourteen years ago the new town had been no better than a ridge of sandhills where now streets of houses stood. To all practical purposes, Bastable had made Shoremouth. He had a hand in everything. He owned the houses, and in many cases the furniture in them also. He was even nominal manager of the Great Northern Bank, the concern which had had so much to do with the falling fortunes of the house or Amory. Nobody knew how far the ramifications of Mr. Bastable went; you never knew where you might run up against him.
As to Mrs. Bastable, she was superior to her husband in every respect. She had been an Amory at one time, dependent upon the bounty of Sir Horace, but her marriage to Joseph Bastable had caused mortal offence to the family. It was the beginning of the feud between Sir Horace and Joseph Bastable that was going to ruin the baronet.
Bastable was a big man, with a big manner and a big voice. He made his presence felt wherever he was, was proud of his success, and intolerant of the opinion of others. He had made few mistakes in his life, which, perhaps, accounted for his conceit. He was hard, grasping, and unscrupulous. He had realised most of his ambitions. The first and greatest was to see Sir Horace trampled in the dust. Also he was desirous of providing Shoremouth with a golf links that should become famous. Not that he knew one end of a golf-club from another. But the prosperity of Shoremouth was like the breath of life to him, and he realised what a good course meant to a seaside resort. One obstacle blocked his plans. The stretch of land where those famous links were to be laid down was in the possession of Sir Horace, who had point-blank refused to part with it to his enemy. It was worthless land on the far side of the river, opposite the Red House, and Sir Horace's obstinacy might fairly be attributed to dislike and detestation of Joseph Bastable.
Bastable came home to dinner in an unusually gracious mood. He was loud and assertive as usual, but, for him, almost genial. Preoccupied though Ronald was with gloomy thoughts, he did not fail to observe this. The cloth was removed presently and the decanters were placed on the polished mahogany. This was the one bit of ceremonial that Bastable was fond of. It suggested solid prosperity and well-earned importance. Bastable positively beamed on his family as he lighted a big black cigar.
"Take one, my boy," he said, expansively. "You'll never do any good in the world so long as you stick to those wretched cigarettes. I've got some news for you. Kennedy is dead."
"John Kennedy?" Mrs. Bastable asked. "I am sorry."
"Well, yes; he'll be a loss to Shoremouth," Bastable went on. "He made a bit of money here in the old days, and he knew how to take care of it. One way and another, I should say that John Kennedy is worth half a million."
"I hope he has thought of his poor relations," Mrs. Bastable murmured.
"Not he. Kennedy was no fool. He never gave me a hint as to what he was going to do. But I am one of the executors; I shall know soon."
"What was the matter with him?" Ronald asked.
"Nothing in the ordinary way," Bastable explained. "Whole thing was an accident. Kennedy was in Switzerland looking after some timber land he had bought, when an avalanche swept down and buried the whole party. They were carried over a cliff some hundreds of feet high, and none of them will ever be seen again. They tell me it is impossible to recover the bodies. It is all in the evening papers. I should like to see old Amory's face when he gets the news."
"What has Sir Horace to do with it?" Ronald asked. "They were pretty good friends."
"They did a lot of business together, if that is what you mean, my boy. I happen to know that Kennedy helped Amory out of a good many tight places. He had to pay for the accommodation, but it was mighty useful at the time. Our bank holds a promissory note at the present moment due from Amory to Kennedy for twenty thousand pounds. It has been renewed a good many times, but that won't happen again."
"You mean that Sir Horace will have to pay?" Mrs. Bastable asked.
Bastable chuckled as he helped himself to another glass of port. "That's about the size of it, my dear," he said, with great good humour. "As executor, it will be my duty to call in all the money due to Kennedy's estate. In eight days Amory will be asked to take up the note, and if he fails—well, so much the worse for him. I happen to know that he hasn't got the cash."
Mrs. Bastable looked anxious. She had no head nor liking for business, but it was impossible to live in the same atmosphere as Joseph Bastable without learning something of the ways of the money-spinner.
"You are not going to use this as a weapon, Joseph?" she asked.
"Why not?" Bastable demanded. "I should be a born idiot if I threw away a chance like this! I am going to bring that chap's nose to the grindstone. He shall come to me on his knees asking favours. Look how he has treated me over those golf links! And he professes to have the prosperity of the place at heart. He wants money badly, and yet he won't part with that land of his across the river. It is of no use to him, whereas I could make a fortune out of it. Now he will have to sell, and at my price this time."
"Then you will not renew that note?" Ronald asked.
"Renew the note! Bless my soul, what is the boy talking about! Directly it becomes due, Amory will be asked for the money. He will demand time and an extension, and my answer will be a writ. It will smash him up; he will have to sell Oversands, and when that comes into the market I shall buy it and live there. That has been a dream of mine for years. I'm going to be known as Joseph Bastable, Oversands, and don't you forget it. If Amory behaves himself I'll give him a post in our bank. And you shall marry his girl, Ronald. Sir Horace will be only too glad to have you for a son-in-law. That's what's going to happen!"
Ronald writhed uneasily in his chair. This rude hand on the tender spot hurt exceedingly. He wondered if his father had guessed his secret, or if he were merely expressing his own wishes.
"Please don't jest about it," he said. "If I had ambitions in that quarter, and your remarks came to Miss Amory's ears, my chance would be gone forever."
"Not if she was a pauper, my boy. She looks down upon us now, but she won't then. You'll be a good catch one of these days. Still, I don't insist upon it."
"You are very good," Ronald said, drily. "But you'll give Sir Horace notice?"
"Not a day, not an hour," Bastable said, with a click of his lips. "I mean business if ever man meant it. Nine o'clock, is it? I must go; got a meeting of the Goldnay trustees."
Bastable finished his port and departed abruptly. Mrs. Bastable gathered up her skirts and retired to the drawing-room. But this evening she did not take up her knitting as usual. She sat with her hands in her lap, looking into the fire. Ronald was equally thoughtful over his cigarette, which was permitted in that sacred apartment after dinner.
"Ronny," Mrs. Bastable said suddenly—"Ronny, this must be stopped!"
Ronald started. He could never recollect hearing his mother talk like this before. Apart from the domestic side she was a mere cypher in the household. Such a thing as a difference of opinion with her husband was unheard of.
"I'm of your opinion," Ronald said, moodily. "It isn't just on my father's part; I'll go further, and say that it isn't honest. Sir Horace ought to know at once that this note of his will not be renewed. He should have a fair chance to turn round and find the money."
"Would it be loyal," Mrs. Bastable whispered, "if you were to——"
She let the sentence remain unfinished; she glanced half-guiltily at her son.
"I was thinking of that," Ronald said. He glanced at the clock. It still wanted twenty minutes to ten. He moved towards the door, a sudden resolution uppermost in his mind.
"I'll go now," he said. "I may be doing wrong, but surely this is a case where the end justifies the means."
Sir Horace was alone in his library. He sat before a table, turning over a mass of papers, the sight of which produced a profound melancholy. Like most easy-going men, he had a natural dislike to looking his liabilities squarely in the face. He was making an effort to do so now, and the situation appalled him. How had he got into this mess? How could he have drifted so far without realising the serious state of affairs?
The great trouble, of course, was the promissory note to Kennedy, due in a few days. Kennedy was always willing to renew, but would he do so again? Besides, he was away, and not likely to be back for some time to come. Sir Horace was not aware that the note had been deposited with Mr. Kennedy's bankers. Well, the thing must stand over till the old man came home.
The promissory note was probably in his safe. One or two speculations might prove successful, and then the note could be taken up. The sanguine side of the man's nature was cropping up again. He smiled almost amiably as a footman entered.
"Mr. Ronald Bastable to see you, sir," he said.
"Really. At this time of night. Give my compliments to Mr. Bastable, Gregory, say that I am engaged. Ask him to call at the bank in the morning."
"Beg, pardon, Sir Horace," the footman stammered, "but he says it's urgent business."
Sir Horace made a gesture of impatience. A moment later and Ronald came into the library. He looked a fine, handsome figure. Really, the fellow was very presentable, Sir Horace admitted magnanimously. He appeared quite at home there, his manner easy and natural. Besides, on his mother's side he was an Amory.
"Sit down, my dear fellow, sit down," Sir Horace said, cordially. "It's rather strange that I should see you under my roof twice in so short a time. You came on business, my servant tells me. Would it not have kept till the morning?"
"I think not, Sir Horace," Ronald replied. "It is something that you ought to know without the slightest delay. Mr. Kennedy is dead."
"Bless my soul!" Sir Horace cried. "What a calamity!"
He was enough of a business man to see the ominous result of the catastrophe. There could be no question of getting the note renewed now. He paced up and down the room in an agitated manner.
"Will you kindly tell me all about it?" he said.
Ronald proceeded to do so. Sir Horace appeared to be listening vaguely. With an effort he concentrated his attention on what Ronald was saying.
"This news means much to me," he said. "But how did you guess it? How did you come to know that this unhappy accident affected my fortunes? For you do know that, or you would not be here to-night."
"I got it from my father," Ronald explained. "He is one of Mr. Kennedy's executors. He will have the administration of the estate in his hands. I want to be plain and honest with you, Sir Horace. To a certain extent I am betraying confidence, but I fancy that I am justified in so doing. There is an acceptance from you to Mr. Kennedy for a large amount due in eight days. The note will not be renewed, you will be required to pay it off or take it up, as you call it. I didn't want this to come as an unpleasant surprise to you at the last moment, and that is why I am here to-night. You can see for yourself that it is no pleasant task I have taken in hand. It makes me feel a trifle mean and dishonourable, but I have weighed one thing with another, and——"
"Not another word, my boy," Sir Horace said, huskily. "I appreciate the delicacy of the position, and from the bottom of my heart I thank you. Your action has been only what I should have expected from one who has the Amory blood in his veins. Your father and myself have been enemies for years, and I suppose I cannot blame him for making use of the weapon that Fate has placed in his hands. Still, I shall have time to turn round and look about me. If the worst comes to the worst, I daresay I shall be able to compromise over that land on the far side of the river."
Sir Horace held out his hand as if to terminate the interview. The blow had shaken him more than he cared to acknowledge; he wanted to be alone to grapple with the truth. The thing was as plain to Ronald as if Sir Horace had said so in as many words.
"Good-night," he said. "I'm glad I came. Please don't trouble to ring the bell—I can let myself out easily."
It was doubtful whether Sir Horace heard or not. He had probably forgotten all about Ronald's existence. As the door closed he dropped heavily into his chair and covered his face with his hands. There was something almost murderous in this unexpected stroke of fortune. He was delivered, chained and bound, into the hands of his bitterest foe. It would be utterly futile to expect mercy from Joseph Bastable. Why, the man would actually have paid a large sum of his beloved money for a chance like this.
It was perfectly plain what he was going to do. Directly Sir Horace made default in payment of the advance, he would take legal proceedings—the whole thing would come out, and the credit of Amory's Bank be destroyed for ever. At any cost the claim must be met; and so far as Sir Horace could see, this was out of the question.
Ronald crossed the big hall with its armour and old oak and pictures gleaming under the soft glow of the shaded lamps. There was nothing to suggest poverty or trouble of any kind. The drawing-room door was open, and Ronald could see Vera there. At a little table Lady Amory sat, apparently absorbed in some trivial game. He paused for a moment, and Vera came out.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "Is anything wrong?"
"Not so far as your brother is concerned," Ronald replied. "I came to give Sir Horace some business information that was pressing."
"Then you have nothing to tell me about Dick?"
"There is nothing fresh. I think he is fairly safe for the moment. He is anxiously waiting for the chance of an interview with Lady Amory."
Vera shook her head sorrowfully. "I am afraid that is impossible just now," she said. "My aunt is in a worse mental condition than usual. I cannot get her to understand anything. She is in the mood when the most trivial things amuse her. She has a new game. It is played with a box of matches, and is really most ridiculous. Come and speak to her."
Ronald followed his companion into the drawing-room. Lady Amory sat at a little card-table with a box of matches before her. She had divided them into groups of fives, and had so arranged them by bending and breaking them that they presented a rude resemblance to so many daggers. Though Ronald did not know it as yet, it was the very formation that had so startled Dick Amory in the Red House half an hour or so ago.
"Good evening, Lady Amory," Ronald said. "Won't you teach me the game?"
A sadden shrill laugh broke from the player's lips. Her eyes gleamed strangely.
"Teach you to play, the deadliest game in the world! But you know nothing of that; it conveys little to you. Look here, boy! That one at the top is the chief. These others are his satellites. Once he gives the word, the traitor is doomed. There is no escape for him wherever he goes. It may be days, it may be years, but it comes all the same. And it always falls when least expected!"
The words trailed off in a broken whisper. It seemed hopeless to expect any intelligent talk. Ronald mentioned Dick's name.
"Dick is a good boy," the player said, without looking up from the table. "He is a good boy, and one day he will have all my money. But you need not pretend that he is anywhere here, because he always writes to me before he comes. You are his enemies. I can see that both of you hate him."
Ronald tried again, but Lady Amory stubbornly refused to say more. Her frame of mind changed to one of open hostility and dislike. Ronald turned away and walked to the door. Vera followed him into the hall.
"You see that it is useless," she said. "I can do nothing. We can only wait as patiently as we can for a change in her mood. My father is dining out on Friday, and I should say that that would be our opportunity. Dick can come round about 10 o'clock, and I will contrive to smuggle him into the house."
"I suppose we had better arrange for that," Ronald said. "But will things be any better when Dick sees his aunt?"
"Much better; I am sure of that," Vera replied. "Dick always has an extraordinary effect on her. She is a different creature in his presence. How considerate of you to take all this trouble for us. I don't know how to thank you."
She held out her hands impulsively. Ronald caught them in his own.
"Don't call it a trouble," he murmured. "Don't you know that I would do anything for you, Vera? I have never forgotten the old days. There was a gulf between us then——"
"There never was," Vera smiled. "At least, not in my eyes. Don't forget that on your mother's side you are an Amory. I must come and see your mother. I know that your father and mine are at dagger's drawn, but I care nothing for that. Tell Mrs. Bastable that I am going to call one of these days. Good-night."
Vera looked up almost shyly as she spoke. There was something in her eyes that was more than friendliness; they said more than Vera intended, more than she guessed herself. Ronald thrilled as those little hands rested in his for a brief moment. He walked away from the house with a feeling of exultation that he would have found it hard to explain. He passed into the drive with the great beeches on either hand; it seemed to him that he could see a figure in the gloom to the left. There were footsteps on the gravel.
Then another figure loomed out from a patch of laurels and confronted Ronald. He hesitated for a moment before he gripped the intruder by the throat. A gurgle of protest followed. The voice was familiar. Ronald smiled as he recognised Dick in the dim light.
"You had a narrow escape," he said. "I thought you meant to attack me, and I was ready to give you a warm reception. What are you doing here?"
"Following two burglars," Dick explained. "I overheard the robbery planned in the Red House. There are two of them, and their idea is to rent the Red House from my father. As far as I could make out they are a couple of precious rascals. They are staying at the Grand, and have managed to get the entre of the club."
Ronald gave a low whistle of astonishment. "I know them," he said. "One is a foreigner with a big black moustache and an eyeglass; the other is a little stout chap with a beard. They were in the club last night. I didn't much fancy the look of them. What are they going to do?"
"Well, they are going to get something to turn into money to start with. You see, it was impossible for me to give the alarm. I did not care to show my face anywhere, and so I had to let them go. The tall man had found a place where it was easy to steal a lot of jewels. He described the place, and I was fool enough not to understand what he was alluding to until after they'd started on their expedition. Then it flashed across my mind that it was Lady Amory's jewels they were after. There was no mistaking what the big man meant. I followed on the half-chance of giving the alarm and frightening the rascals away."
Ronald remembered the two figures he had seen on the side of the drive a minute or two ago. Undoubtedly they were the thieves. His blood began to glow with the anticipation of adventure.
"It was lucky I met you," Dick said.
"You're right," Ronald replied. "Let's talk the matter over. Those fellows can do nothing for the next hour or so, and we can work out our plan of campaign meanwhile. With a little fortune, we'll bag the pair of them. You need not show up—I can do all the talking when the time for explanation arrives."
For a long time Sir Horace had understood that matters were not going well with him. By slow degrees the other banks in the town had been weaning his best customers from him. Occasionally he had to decline remunerative business from sheer lack of funds. He was not the kind of man to ask favours, or he might perhaps have shared these good things with his London agents. He had a great idea, too, of standing well with his fellow-tradesmen. It was pleasant to walk about the place and be saluted respectfully by the people. The baronet was, moreover, kind-hearted—he could never listen unmoved to a tale of distress; he never pressed a man by any chance. There were some assets of the bank that the auditors would fain have written off. But Sir Horace had a weakness to regard them as money. When he felt anxious it afforded him a certain relief to put these sums to his credit.
Of course, he would pull round some day. Sooner or later things must take a turn for the better. Kennedy's loan would not be always round his neck. A cruel stroke of luck like this he had never anticipated for a moment. There was a touch of the malignant about the way in which fate had played into the hands of his enemy.
Yes, everything was clear now. No longer was he blinded by the sense of his own importance. He would not be called Sir Horace Amory of Oversands much longer. Within a week the story would be all over the place, and Amory and Sons a thing of the past. It was a frightful prospect. Yet, now that it had to be contemplated, Sir Horace, to his astonishment, was calm and collected. He did not seem to mind in the least; he was almost looking forward to the peace and happiness which would come when he had stripped himself of everything and retired to some little cottage.
He went out into the hall presently and called to Vera. As he did so he saw Lady Amory making her way slowly up the stairs. Usually she retired much earlier. Sir Horace saw how the lights were sparkling on her jewels. Half that she possessed would set him free from all his troubles.
Vera was not so full of trouble and misery herself that she failed to read the pain in her father's eyes. She had wondered why he had been so moody and preoccupied of late. Now she saw without being told. She knew that ruin had fallen on the house. A smile trembled on her lips.
"I will come and talk to you, dear," she said. "You shall tell me all about it. I had no idea that things were so bad."
"But, my dear child," Sir Horace protested. "Surely it is not quite so——"
"No, but it will be if you go into Shoremouth to-morrow with that anxious face. You are going to tell me that we are ruined. I shall be able to bear it."
Sir Horace gave a sigh of relief. "Sit down by the fire," he said. "I want to have a long chat with you, Vera. We must try to-night to decide what is best to be done. We can't stay here."
"You mean that we shall have to leave Oversands, father?"
"Yes. I shan't trouble to sell it, as the place is mortgaged to the hilt. I have had a good many misfortunes lately, Vera, and when I could stand it least I had Dick's debts to pay for the third time. Practically, it is Dick who has ruined us. I ought to have refused after the first time—I should have led those people clearly to understand that they need not look to me again. But pride, which has always been my curse, stood in the way. There are other things as well."
"You have heard bad news to-night, father?"
"Yes. Young Bastable came and told me. It was very kind and thoughtful of him. I had not expected such delicacy in a Bastable."
"Who is also an Amory. Don't forget that, dad."
"Well, I daresay that accounts for it. A considerable time back I borrowed twenty thousand pounds from old Kennedy. That money I have never been able to pay back. I did not worry about it, because Kennedy has always renewed; in fact, he told me more than once that I should benefit by his death. He is dead."
"Mr. Kennedy dead! We shall never see him again. Such a dear old man!"
"And very fond of you, my child. Well, he is dead, and the management of his estate devolves upon Joseph Bastable. The twenty thousand pounds I spoke of falls due next week, and Bastable won't give me a day's grace. He will proceed against me, and the whole place will be talking. Can you see what it means?"
Vera knew little of business, but she could see the size and weight of the weapon which circumstance had placed in Bastable's hands.
"Father," she asked, "why does that man hate you so?"
"Because he once did me a terrible injury," Sir Horace said, in a low voice. "I had always trusted Bastable. I always trust everybody, for that matter. He was entrusted by me with a large sum of money. There was a financial panic at the time, and my old friend Cartwright, at Smeaton, had asked for help. He was in sore need of fourteen thousand pounds in gold. I sent it to him by Bastable. It never reached its destination. Bastable elected to go by way of the quicksands—the tide was out, and he and my other messenger were going to cross the river by the stepping-stones. Bastable came back alone. His companion had slipped in the darkness and was never seen again. The gold had vanished with him. You know what the sands are like. Well, that was the story. It was a lie, Vera. I cannot prove it, but I'm sure that murder was done that night. From that moment Bastable began to grow insolent and indifferent to my interests. I discovered that he was making investments in Shoremouth—he who had not a penny! He knew perfectly well that I suspected him, for it was impossible for me to conceal my suspicions. I am telling you something now that I have kept to myself all these years. I need not say that this must not be mentioned to a soul. It is strange that the son of the man who did me this injury should warn me of my danger."
"He is a gentleman, dad, and in a degree a relative."
"Well, I am not going to wait for Bastable to strike. I can dispose of my business to one of the banks; in fact, I have had a good many offers. Skepton, the stockbroker, will take Oversands off my hands as it stands. When everything comes to be settled up we shall have, perhaps, £300 a year to live on."
"I shall not mind, father. We shall have nothing to be ashamed of——"
She stopped, thinking suddenly of Dick. She rose from her chair, and crossed over to her father's side. Very tenderly she bent and kissed him.
"I'm glad you have told me this," she said. "I am proud that you should confide in me. I won't worry in the least. Of course, it will be a terrible wrench to leave Oversands. I love the place where I was born; there is not an inch of ground that has not its pleasant recollections. But I daresay I shall be happy elsewhere, and the luck may turn."
"It may," Sir Horace agreed. "I have one or two promising ventures on hand. Still, the time is very short, dear. If I could meet this claim of Kennedy's, things would be very different. I could amalgamate my business with one of the other concerns, and then we could go on."
"We are talking nonsense," Vera smiled. "I'm going to bed. Mind, you are not to sit up half the night grieving over these things."
Sir Horace promised due obedience. But half an hour later he was still sitting looking moodily into the fire. He came out of his reverie presently conscious that someone was moving about in the drawing-room. Nobody could have any legitimate business there at that hour.
Lack of courage was not one of Sir Horace's failings. He strode off towards the drawing-room. One cluster of lights by the side of the fireplace was glowing. In the centre of the room was Lady Amory, apparently looking for something.
She had not yet taken off the resplendent white dress she had worn at dinner. The dusky hair was still piled up on her head, and she shimmered with jewels.
"What are you looking for?" Sir Horace asked.
Lady Amory glanced up vaguely. She seemed to see nothing for the moment.
"My box of matches," she said. "I can do nothing without the matches, you know. If I haven't got them, I can't make the sign. When they see the sign they grow frightened and run away. I saw one of them yesterday in the road."
Sir Horace expressed his sympathy. It was best to humour the poor lady when she had one of those dark moods upon her. Amory stooped and picked a box of matches from the floor from behind a Chippendale table. He handed it gravely to his companion.
"Is that what you need?" he asked. "I hope you won't have any more trouble with that sign. Besides, nobody will worry you at this time of night."
"They come at all hours and in all guises," the poor lady said. "They are the boldest people in the world. But they are afraid of the sign."
She stood with her head drawn back in an attitude of rapt attention. She was listening to something Sir Horace could not hear, and made a striking picture with her white dress and flashing gems.
"You are fortunate to have all these, Maria," Amory said. He touched a five-pointed diamond star that blazed upon her breast. "It must be nice to walk about with a fortune on your dress. But at the same time it is foolish, not to say dangerous. Why don't you let me take care of these things for you? Let me put them away in my safe. You have only to ask me when you want to wear them."
The woman drew back, with cold suspicion in her eyes. "No," she whispered, "they are safe with me. Only show the sign, and they dare not touch one of my beloved stones. They are all I have to care for."
She fondled the stones almost affectionately. A sudden temptation gripped Amory. Here was an easy way out of his troubles. If only he had that diamond star he could defy Bastable to do the worst. He need not leave Oversands; he would retain the respect of his fellow-men, and hold his head as high as ever.
"Give me one of these," he said, hoarsely. "Lend me one for a time. Maria, I am in great distress. Try to understand what I am saying to you. Unless I have money soon I shall have to go away from here. I shall have to dispose of the place and take a cottage. All the luxury and comfort you enjoy will be gone for ever. You can save me if you like."
To a certain extent she did understand. Her eyes showed that. But there was no answering smile on her face, nothing but suspicion and alarm and fear. With a low cry she broke away from Amory's detaining hand and fled up the stairs. She locked the dressing-room door behind her, and proceeded hurriedly to remove a mass of jewels from the drawers of a table. These she thrust between the mattresses of her bed. She was trembling from head to foot as she did so.
"No, no," she whispered, fiercely, "not that way. He would have robbed me if I had stayed with him longer. I can give them to nobody but Dick. If the others come in the night I must be prepared."
She took up the box of matches and arranged the strange signs upon the dressing-table. Then, with a half-satisfied sigh, she retired to her bedroom.
De Lava and Sexton lay snugly in a dry ditch by the side of the drive. It was safe to remain there for the present and smoke cigarettes. By peeping through the bushes they could command a good view of the house. They were waiting till all the lights should be out before beginning operations.
Their patience was being tried. As a general rule the lights of Oversands were extinguished by eleven o'clock, but it was past twelve now, and the study window still glowed, as also did one or two of the bedrooms upstairs. De Lava fidgeted.
"This waiting gets on my nerves," he said. "In action, my dear Sexton, I am the bravest of the brave. My courage would be a telling theme for poetry. Your Walter Scott would have revelled in a character like mine. But when I have to wait and wait, I am like a timid schoolgirl. That is the window on the left."
"Do you mean the one with the light in it?" Sexton asked.
"The same, my friend. That is the dressing-room of our lady of the gems. Usually she seeks her blameless pillow at an early hour. She is, unhappily, of weak intellect; but that is rather a fortunate thing for us. Ah, the light is out!"
Sexton shook in his shoes. Courage was not one of his strong points. He was new to this kind of thing, and from the bottom of his heart wished he was well out of it. Anything calling for cunning or rascality he would have met quite coolly; but there might be trouble here, and bloodshed as well. His teeth chattered.
"It is good to have so stout a comrade," De Lava said. "But I implore you not to be violent, my dear fellow."
"I'm not used to it," Sexton growled. "I can be cool enough in the face of some kinds of danger, as you know. I can face a judge and jury and lie myself clear out of the dock. That even you were afraid to do on a certain occasion. Besides, I am not frightened of a few lucifer matches on a table."
The retort silenced De Lava for the moment, and he grew pale. "All right," he said. "I'll not chaff you any more. There will be just time to smoke one cigarette, and then to business."
The cigarette finished at length, De Lava rose to his feet. He pushed boldly across the grass until he stood under the window of the dressing-room. It was not far from the ground, and, the wall being covered with ivy of ancient growth, the task was an easy one.
"The gems are in a drawer up yonder," De Lava whispered. "The thing is simpler than I had imagined. Why was I so generous as to let you come into this good thing. Why didn't I keep it to myself?"
"Because I shall be useful later," Sexton muttered. "Generous! You! I am surprised that you can pronounce the word. You couldn't spell it."
De Lava chuckled noiselessly. This humour appealed to him. "Give me the torch," he said, "and the knife. Wait here and keep your wits about you. If anybody comes in sight give a whistle. It's a soft job for you, my friend, and one that you will be well paid for. Honest, too, by comparison with some of your exploits."
With this De Lava proceeded to climb up the ivy. He speedily reached the window and pushed back the catch with the thin blade of the knife. A moment later and the adventurer was in the room.
He pressed his finger on the button of the torch and the tiny lance of brilliant flame shot out. Here was the dressing-table, and there the drawers where, so gossip said, the mad Lady Amory kept her gems. Gossip for once in a way was correct, and De Lava could not know that he had come a day after the fair. With growing impatience and muttered curses, he turned one drawer out after another. Finally everything in the table had been ransacked, but not a single gem was to be seen.
With a furious oath De Lava flashed his light about the room. He replaced the cover on the dressing-table, which he had disarranged, and as he glanced down the curses died away on his bloodless lips.
The five matches! The sign of the dagger! The sight petrified him for the moment. The white lips quivered.
"Those fellows must be in league with the devil," he muttered. "They read my inmost thoughts; they know what I mean to do before I know myself. Now, this poltroon of a Sexton never heard of the gang. He did not know till just before we left the Red House that I meditated this expedition to-night. Therefore, he is playing no tricks upon me. Yet there are the signs—large, legible, menacing. The mere sight of them turns my blood to water."
He was sweating from head to foot, leaning against the dressing-table for support. He was fighting desperately to regain control of himself. Gradually the colour crept back into his cheeks, and the trembling in his limbs ceased. After all, there could be no immediate danger, and the task of the evening was not yet done.
The gems must be somewhere near. In all probability they were in Lady Amory's bedroom. This increased the risk, of course, but De Lava was not the man to retire at the first indication of failure. He slipped out of the room and joined his companion.
Sexton sighed with positive relief. "We can be off now?" he asked. "There is nothing to wait for?"
"On the contrary," De Lava said, drily, "there is a good deal to wait for. There are the diamonds, my dear sir."
"You don't mean to say you haven't got them?" Sexton said, dismally.
"That's about the size of it," De Lava responded. "This doesn't appear to be our lucky day. The diamonds are not where I expected to find them. Our fair friend has taken it into her head to hide them elsewhere—probably in her bed room."
"Then we had better return to our hotel," Sexton suggested.
"Without money to pay the bill! My dear fellow, if you think I am going back now you have mistaken your man. An obstacle or two—bah! what' of that? On the contrary, I am more than ever resolved to have those stones. I will enter the lady's room. If she is asleep and I can get the diamonds without disturbing the sweet serenity of her slumbers, so much the better. If I don't find them I shall be under the painful necessity of awaking her. Ah, no; I will use no violence. Henri De Lava is too devoted a slave of the sex for that. Stay here, but keep your wits about you."
Sexton groaned, while De Lava slipped through the window again quite gaily. With the electric torch in his hand he crept into Lady Amory's room. He was slightly dismayed to find that the electric light over the bed was still burning. Lady Amory, however, lay fast asleep, as her regular breathing testified. It promised to be an easy matter, after all.
But the diamonds were not to be discovered. At the end of half an hour De Lava had searched everywhere to no purpose. His heart was hot with baffled fury and disappointment. His fingers crooked towards the bed. If the worst came to the worst, he would not hesitate to wake the sleeper and demand to know where the jewels were concealed.
He was spared the trouble. He turned as an exclamation fell upon his ears. Lady Amory was sitting up in bed, a wild fury gleaming in her eyes. There was no suggestion of fear on her face. She sprang up and huddled herself into a wrap.
"What are you doing here?" she cried.
De Lava stepped back amazed. "Maria!" he exclaimed. "Maria! There is some mistake. Lady Amory——"
"I am Lady Amory. Once more, what are you doing here?"
The words were cold and cutting. There was no mental weakness in the woman now. Her eyes were bold and resolute; she knew exactly what she was doing.
"I am Lady Amory," she went on. "What you are is only known to heaven and your own foul mind. I am the last person in the world you wanted to see. The shock of meeting you has given me back my reason, for the time, at all events. To-morrow the cloud may fall again. Ah! I guess what you want. You have heard of Lady Amory's diamonds."
De Lava bowed and smiled. "You have saved me the pain of introducing a disagreeable subject," he said. "You always were a wonderful woman, Maria. Behold me for the time being penniless. The confession is humiliating, but true. You have the wherewithal to set me on my legs again. The household is asleep, nobody knows that I am here. It would distress me beyond measure to be compelled to resort to violence, Maria."
"Would it?" the woman asked, with a bitter sneer. "Then a heart and a conscience must have been born in you since last night. You will get nothing from me. What you find you may keep."
For an instant she glanced at the bed. De Lava saw the look, and, like a flash, put the right interpretation upon it. He began to drag at the mattress. The whole thing came away on the floor, and the pile of flashing stones lay disclosed. With a chuckle of triumph the thief grabbed them.
This action roused Lady Amory to fury. The sane look faded from her eyes, and she became wild and ungovernable again. She beat with her hands madly on De Lava's shoulders, and raised her voice until scream after scream rang through the silent house. With a muttered curse De Lava tried to shake her off, while the gems scattered themselves about the floor in a shimmering stream of blue and yellow flame.
The din was at its height when Sexton uttered a warning cry. De Lava dashed to the dressing-room window and looked out. Sexton was struggling with somebody, whilst another figure was climbing up the ivy.
"Drop back or I fire," De Lava said, in a hissing, whisper. "If you don't stop I'll shoot the pair of you."'
Ronald promptly jumped to the ground. If the speaker was armed, this was a case where discretion was the better part of valour. Ronald and Dick had waited too long. Just as De Lava sprang from the window the door of the bedroom was flung open and Sir Horace rushed in. By this time De Lava and Sexton were running for dear life across the fields towards Shoremouth. Pursuit in the circumstances was dangerous. Besides, they were known to Ronald and Dick although both were ignorant of the fact that they had been recognised—so they might be arrested at leisure.
Sir Horace put his head out of the window. Dick slunk back.
"I must not be seen," he whispered. "I'll be off to my hiding-place. Tell my father it's a friend of yours, and don't let out that you know those fellows. Remember, they are in possession of a secret that may be useful to us. Good-night."
Ronald explained up to a point. At Sir Horace's invitation he climbed up the ivy and entered the dressing-room. In the bedroom Lady Amory was collecting her scattered treasures.
"Is there anything missing?" Ronald asked.
Lady Amory glanced at him suspiciously. She understood the question. "A diamond star," she said. "I have everything else. To-morrow I will send them all back to my cottage. Give me the matches so that I may make the sign again."
Sir Horace led the way into the dining-room. "She doesn't know what has happened," he said. "I'm greatly obliged to you, Mr. Bastable, and very sorry the poor woman has lost the diamond star."
A good night's rest did wonders for Sir Horace. He slept soundly in spite of the burglary, to the details of which Vera listened with some uneasiness.
Nothing of this kind had occurred at Oversands before, and the knowledge that the house could be so easily entered was disquieting. Lady Amory was taking her breakfast upstairs as if nothing had happened. She had entirely forgotten the exciting events of the previous evening.
"I had my hand on the fellow," Sir Horace said. "I believe I would have collared him if he had not put out the light. The coolest hand I ever came across. He was armed, and threatened to shoot young Bastable, who tracked him here. Bastable was waiting below with a friend of his."
Vera smiled faintly. She was wondering what her father would have said had he known who Ronald Bastable's friend was.
"The thieves got away with nothing?" she asked.
"Unfortunately, no," Sir Horace explained. "I was in time to prevent wholesale plunder, but the diamond star had vanished. It's very annoying, but your aunt has nobody to blame but herself. I have worries and anxieties without this additional burden on my shoulders."
"You will bear them bravely," Vera smiled.
"I hope so, my dear. I am not likely to forget that I am an Amory. But there is no hurry, my dear child, no hurry, I assure you. My post-bag this morning is exceedingly satisfactory. I hear that one of my speculations has turned out magnificently. It is too early to speak certainly, but there is more than a chance that we may never leave Oversands. But we will go into the matter more fully later. Meanwhile, there is no cause for anxiety, none whatever."
Vera listened with relief. It was a real happiness to see her father so bright and cheerful. He was carrying himself now with all his old easy dignity.
"Then you need not be afraid of Joseph Bastable?" she asked.
"Certainly not," Sir Horace said. "Metaphorically speaking, I can snap my fingers in his face. I am spared that humiliation."
Vera turned presently to the morning paper. It was her habit to glance through it after breakfast. Public affairs were dull apparently, for the editors continued to make the most of the "Safe Mystery." The disappearance of the lawyer, Bowen, was still the topic of the day. There were columns of it. Vera was interested, because Bowen had been a friend of Dick's.
But this was not all. The editor of the Daily Review had discovered a side issue of the case and given prominence to it. Vera read the paragraph with a pale face and a sinking at her heart:—
"A curious thing in connection with the 'Safe Mystery' has come to light. It seems that for the last two days nothing has been seen of Mr. Richard Amory, of the Stock Exchange, who was an intimate friend of Mr. Bowen's. Mr. Amory, who is the only son of Sir Horace Amory, of Shoremouth, left his lodgings two days ago immediately after breakfast, presumably on his way to business. He has not been seen since. Inquiries at Mr. Amory's office give some colour to the statement that Mr. Amory is on a flying visit to Paris, but it is somewhat strange that these two gentlemen, who are so intimate, should be missing at the same time. Mr. Amory's relatives profess to be quite easy in their minds."
It was an unfortunate paragraph. Directly she had read it Vera telephoned her father at the bank. He refused to take it seriously.
"The papers must say something," he replied. "You may depend upon it that Dick is all right. If he had wanted money he would have let me know. Why, the boy has no business to look after. He's either in Paris or Monte Carlo. You mustn't detain me now; I have two or three people waiting to see me."
Vera had expected some notice to be taken of Dick's movements, but her father knew nothing. It was clear the matter could not be ignored. In sheer desperation she rang up Ronald Bastable, on the chance of finding him at home. By good luck be answered.
Yes, he had seen the paragraph, which must be answered at once. If the insinuation were allowed to pass unchallenged the consequences might be serious. Dick's clerk must have a letter in his employer's handwriting to prove to the editor of the Review that his inference was a mistaken one.
"I'll see Dick at once," he said. "Then I will go to London this afternoon and see that the Review makes a proper apology to-morrow. Please don't worry yourself any more about the matter. How is Lady Amory this morning!"
"As usual," Vera replied. "She is happy, and has not the least recollection of last night's scene. Do you think the thieves are likely to try again?"
"I am sure they will not," Ronald said, with conviction. "I know who they are, and where they are to be found when the proper time comes. There is a mystery here which I am determined to solve. If these fellows were arrested, all my plans would be ruined. Meanwhile they will be closely watched. I will give word to the police in due season."
As a result of this conversation Ronald travelled up to town late in the same afternoon with two letters of Dick's in his pocket—the one for Amory's clerk, the other for the editor of the Review. They were sufficient to allay suspicion, and conveyed the impression that Amory was on the Continent on business of importance that he could not publicly discuss. Incidentally a hint was given to the editor of the Review that he would do well to mind his own business. Immediately on the delivery of this Ronald made his way to Scotland Yard. He wanted to see the inspector who had charge of what was called the "Safe" case.
He was invited to see Inspector Kite. That official was still holding Ronald's card in his hand as the latter entered. There was a peculiar smile on his face.
"I have wanted to see you, Mr. Bastable," he said.
Ronald nodded coolly. All the same, he was rather taken aback.
"Because I have something to show you presently," Kite went on. "Meanwhile, I should like to hear your business first."
Ronald produced a copy of the Review and pointed to the offensive paragraph.
"It's about this," he said. "I am a friend of the family. One makes allowance for the traditions of our newspapers, but this is going too far. Mr. Richard Amory was a personal friend of that unfortunate Bowen, but there is absolutely nothing to justify this paragraph. You can read it in several lights—you can assume, if you like, that Mr. Amory has been made the victim of the same gang who carried off Mr. Bowen. On the other hand, it may also be implied that these two gentlemen have hit upon a clever form of disappearance, mainly with the idea of cheating their creditors."
"Are you sure that that is not the case?" Kite asked.
Ronald affected an amusement he was far from feeling. "That is your little joke," he said. "As a matter of fact, Mr. Amory was in England yesterday, and has written to the Review asking for an apology, which will appear to-morrow. He has some very important transaction in hand which renders it necessary that his movements should be kept secret. He will be on the Continent for some days. He frequently leaves his office like this."
"I am aware of it," Kite said, coolly.
"But, my dear sir," Ronald protested, "you surely don't infer that—- "
"Mr. Bastable, I infer nothing," Kite went on, quietly. "We have a singular crime to unravel, and we have many ways of doing it. It may be that Mr. Bowen has been the victim of a gang of rascals; it may be that this is only a smart dodge to—but we need not go into that yet. Our first duty is to find out all we can about the ways and habits of the missing man. This involves inquiry as to his associates. At present I am bound to admit that we have not progressed very far. But one never knows what some trifle may lead to. However, we've found the safe."
"So you've got that," Ronald cried. "Where did you manage to find it?"
"It was fished up out of the Thames at Rotherhithe. That was a bit of luck. Some bargemen found it when they were dredging for an anchor. The safe was locked and the key missing. When we opened it there was nothing inside but a solitary half-sheet of notepaper in one of the drawers. As this had slipped down the back of one of the drawers it was probably overlooked. This brings me to the point. I told you I wanted to see you, sir, and it was in connection with the half-sheet of notepaper. Being a friend of Mr. Amory's, I have been asking a few questions about you. And now as to the piece of paper. What do you make of that, sir?"
Kite handed the document over to Ronald. He read carefully as follows:—
"The address is Joseph Bastable, High House, Shoremouth.
Good luck to you, and may you get what you want,
but I doubt it.—
"What does it all mean?" Ronald asked.
"We are as much in the dark as you are," Kite admitted, candidly. "This document has been in existence for some time. You can see how discoloured it is, and how brown on the creases where it has been worn by being carried about in somebody's pocket. Goodness knows what it means. It may have no connection with the mystery; on the other hand, it may be of great importance. I shall be glad if you will make a copy of it and ask your father's opinion on the matter. He may be able to tell us who this J.T. is who wrote the letter."
"He might recognise the writing," Ronald said. "If you care to trust the original to me, I fancy it would facilitate matters."
Kite hesitated for a moment, then placed the scrap of paper in an envelope and handed it to Ronald.
"Very well," he said. "I shall be obliged if you will let me know something definite as soon as possible. You may be of assistance to us here."
"I'll do my best," Ronald smiled. "Have you any clue yet?"
"Only the vaguest. A clerk who called at Ivy Court at the time when both Mr. Bowen's assistants were away says that he saw a tall man in the office, who told him that he was in charge for a few minutes. That was one of the gang, undoubtedly. My informant is very hazy as to what the stranger was like, as the office is dark and the stranger's face was hidden in a newspaper. He wore on his right hand a marquise ring in diamonds and rubies that struck the clerk as very much out of the common."
Ronald started. Fortunately Kite was not looking at him. "Really!" he said. "That ought to help you, Mr. Kite. And if there is nothing else I can tell you——"
Ronald felt that he had reason to congratulate himself upon his self-possession. He had come very near to be betraying himself when Kite had alluded with dramatic suddenness to the marquise ring. In a flash it dawned upon him that he could bring about the arrest of the author of the "Safe" mystery at any moment. For it was as clear as daylight that the inventor of the ingenious piece of rascality was none other than Count Henri De Lava, at present quietly planning a new coup at Shoremouth.
It had been on the tip of Ronald's tongue to say as much. But by doing this he would have upset his plans and perhaps injured Dick Amory at the same time. What a strange tangle it all was! How queerly everybody, or nearly everybody, he was interested in was being drawn into the net! That his own father should have suddenly become a pawn in the game was amazing. For Joseph Bastable ordinarily was only a keen business man, leading a commonplace and monotonous life.
Ronald had plenty to think of as he travelled to Shoremouth that same night. He had no opportunity of laying the matter before his father till after breakfast the following morning. Bastable gave him a few minutes, grudgingly.
"I won't detain you any longer than I can help," he said. "You have followed what the papers call the 'Safe Mystery,' I presume?"
Bastable replied that he had. Audacity and courage always appealed to him. Had he not been a successful business man he might have been an equally successful criminal.
"Well, the safe has been found," Ronald said. "It was dredged up from the bottom of the Thames. I happened to be at Scotland Yard yesterday on business, and saw the inspector who has the affair in hand. Naturally, he knew my name and that I was a son of yours. The safe contained a scrap of paper which was wedged behind one of the drawers. On that paper were your name and address."
"Nonsense!" Bastable cried. "What are you telling me?"
"Nothing but what is true," Ronald went on. "Your name and address are on the paper together with a few words. I prevailed upon Inspector Kite to let me have the original; I thought that perhaps you would recognise the writing. Here it is."
Bastable snatched eagerly at the paper. He betrayed a haste and eagerness, not to say a nervousness, that surprised Ronald. He had never seen his father so perturbed before. He read the words until he must have had the formation of every letter by heart. The red face was pale and clammy, his big hands shook.
"Can't tell you anything," he said, hoarsely. "I'm ready to swear that I never saw that list before. Somebody wanting a loan, perhaps. Might be a begging letter. Tell your detective friend I'm sorry I can't help him."
Ronald went away with an uneasy feeling that his father was lying. He had not failed to see the extraordinary effect produced by these apparently innocent words. He was convinced that they had come as a great shock to the old man.
Bastable sat at the table in a brown study. His lips were pressed tightly together. Gradually he gained the mastery over himself. His big, coarse face grew hard and bitter. He did not look like the kind of man to be imposed upon.
"So he's back again!" he muttered. "Let him try any of his tricks on with me! Let him only dare to show his face in Shoremouth, and I'll—I'll——"
He pounded one great fist into the other passionately. He would go down to the office and take it out of somebody.
With his hat on the back of his head he strode off to the bank. His signature appeared on the official papers as manager, though for the most part the ordinary routine was supervised by an assistant. There were no letters of importance this morning, with the exception of a curt note from Sir Horace Amory asking Bastable to favour him with a call. Bastable smiled sourly.
"Wants me to dance attendance upon him," he muttered. "Confound his insolence! A pauper like that to treat me in this way. I daresay the fool thinks that I shall only be too glad to renew that note for him. By gad! it wouldn't be a bad idea to tackle him in his own office. I'll get him to go down on his knees and kick him afterwards. I don't suppose he has the money."
The mere thought of this was so distasteful that Joseph Bastable discarded it at once. He had his own peculiar sources of information, and he did not hesitate to stoop to bribery to get it if it were worth his while.
He despatched the bank business presently and strode down the High-street to the old-fashioned premises where the offices of Amory and Sons were situated. Sir Horace was in his room and would see Bastable in a few minutes. The latter paced about the waiting-room fuming and angry. Amory might keep him like this, but he should pay for it all, by gad! He should suffer for this!
But there was no sign of nervousness about Sir Horace. He bowed politely to his visitor and motioned him to a chair. The easy, natural manner, the calm assumption of social distinction, set the blood humming in Bastable's veins. This was the style he had tried so hard to affect. He knew perfectly well that congenitally he was an overbearing bully.
"This is very good of you, Mr. Bastable," Sir Horace said.
"No, it isn't," Bastable replied, stoutly. "No it isn't, Amory; and you know it."
Sir Horace looked almost sadly at the speaker. "I think you have forgotten something," he said. "It is only a little common politeness, but the little things count, you know. I prefer, if you please, that you should give me my proper name as I am giving you yours. In the old days, when you used to touch your hat to your old master, I always addressed you as Mr. Bastable. Really, you will gain nothing by being needlessly offensive. I am a gentleman, and I shall be glad if you will remember the fact."
Bastable had no reply for the moment. There was something so cool, so cutting, and contemptuous, in the slowly spoken words that Bastable was reduced to silence. The interview was not falling out as he had anticipated. The sarcastic line should have been his.
"Oh, I can't match you at that game, I know," he said. "But you can't live on it. You can't pay your debts with insolent words. It won't help you in the matter of that note of——"
Bastable bit off the words gently. He had come very near to betraying himself. That blow was intended to fall at the last moment, to take Sir Horace by surprise and reduce him to wreck and disaster.
"Why do you wish to see me?" he asked, sullenly.
"My dear sir," Amory went on, with exquisite humour and politeness, "why did you interrupt yourself in that abrupt manner? You were just going to introduce the very topic that I wanted to see you about. That acceptance of Mr. Kennedy's, you know."
Bastable glanced angrily at the speaker. "How should I know anything about it?" he demanded. "Kennedy banked with me—I am his executor, and all his papers and securities will come to me sooner or later. It is possible there is an acceptance of yours——"
"Mr. Bastable, why do you lie to me like this? What do you expect to gain by it?"
Joseph Bastable maintained a sullen silence. The enemy had too many guns for him. He was casting round in his mind to ascertain who had betrayed him. He was not a ready thinker; the quick, rapier-like play of Amory's wit puzzled and confused him. He preferred to plot and scheme and work underground like the mole; he needed days and weeks of plodding thought for his dirty purposes.
"I had better enlighten you," Sir Horace went on. "The acceptance is for twenty thousand pounds, and so far as I know is in the possession of your bank. It has been more than once renewed, because it has paid me better to renew than to meet the bill. But now that you are practically my creditor, I am anxious to settle the claim as soon as possible."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Bastable said, sullenly.
"Really! Oh, come; I pay a higher compliment to your intelligence than that. The note is due this week, and if I don't meet it I shall have a writ served on me. All Shoremouth will know it in twenty-four hours. It is perfectly clear that you have figured it out in your own mind. If you will send this note round to me, you shall have cash for it within an hour."
Bastable changed his ground. He began to regret his impetuosity. The interview was going against him; he was feeling small and humiliated. It was only natural to him to judge others by his own standard, and to imagine that Amory was bluffing him. He felt sure the money would not be forthcoming. If it would be, then Amory was going to make use of funds that belonged to other people. And there could only be one end to that kind of thing. Still, the challenge had been thrown down, and it was necessary that it should be met.
"Very well," he said. "I'll go over to the bank and get the note. I'll take Bank of England——"
"Of course you will take Bank of England notes in payment," Sir Horace said. "I want you to be satisfied there is nothing wrong. Shall I bring my money across to your office and settle it there, or shall I——"
"I'll come here," Bastable said, hastily. "I'll not keep you long."
He needed time to think. Amory's tactics were too quick and elusive for him. Besides, he wanted to be certain that the note was in his possession.
He had never actually had it in his hand, though Mr. Kennedy had often mentioned the matter to him, and he understood that the document was amongst the papers deposited by him with the bank before the trip abroad which had ended so disastrously. Certainly the note was on the list of securities, for Bastable had seen that; indeed, it had inspired the little scheme for Amory's ruin that had come instantly to Bastable's mind on hearing of Kennedy's decease.
He went back to his bank and called for Mr. Kennedy's papers. There were a great pile of deeds and debentures and securities of all kinds, and it was necessary to go through them methodically. But though they were turned over twice and subjected to a most rigid scrutiny, the note was not there!
Bastable ground his teeth furiously. The note was on the list, right enough, but the document was missing. Possibly Kennedy had changed his mind at the last moment, and had forgotten to mention the fact.
But the great point remained—note was not there! Bastable mumbled curses in his beard. It looked as if Amory would slip through his fingers after all. But the note was in existence somewhere! Amory was going to meet it with funds he had embezzled from his clients. This must be forced to an issue.
Bastable sat down and thought it out carefully. He would not let his enemy escape like this. Even if he had to commit——
He rang the bell. A clerk came to the summons.
"Go over to Amory's, and see Sir Horace," Bastable said slowly. "Tell him I am sorry to cause trouble, but the document we spoke of just now is in London, in the hands of our agents. Say I am writing for it, and hope to call on Sir Horace with it the day after to-morrow."
Loud, blustering, and self-important as he was, Bastable could hardly be reckoned as a bully in his own household. He had a poor opinion of women as a whole, and seldom deigned to consult his wife about anything. But in his secret heart he was proud she was a lady, and, where social observances were concerned, he was afraid of her. Like most of his class, he was a snob—though he would have resented it had anybody told him so.
But for once Joseph Bastable was inclined to show the stuff he was made of. For the last two days he had been moody and irritable. There was a furtive look about him that puzzled and rather annoyed Ronald. Had it been anybody but his father, he would have said that this was a person who had done something wrong.
The matter culminated at breakfast. The blood flamed into Ronald's face at some remark of Bastable's in reply to a question from his wife.
"Will you recollect that you are speaking to my mother, sir?" he said.
Bastable's coarse red face flushed. He would have given a thousand pounds of his beloved money to possess that quiet, incisive manner of speaking. He was proud in a way to feel that his son had it. The manner came of breeding, the mixing with people of position. Bastable understood these things, but he knew that they were not for him.
"I won't be dictated to by you," he said. "Ashamed of me, I suppose?"
"At certain moments, almost," Ronald said, gently. "Just now, for instance."
Bastable subsided into sullen silence. He ate his breakfast as if he bore it a personal grudge. He tendered a sort of apology to Ronald later.
"I've had a great disappointment," he muttered. "Walk as far as the office with me. If you've nothing better to do, I shall be glad if you will give me a hand with my private correspondence this morning. Can you manage it?"
"I've nothing to do all day," Ronald replied.
"Come along, then. I'm disappointed, my boy. You know how I had set my heart upon a first-class golf links for Shoremouth. I am told that a thousand pounds would make it one of the finest links in the Kingdom. Six thousand pounds for a club-house with all the modern luxuries would pay. My idea was to run it myself. I'd get some golfing swell and make him secretary. The land as it stands is worth practically nothing. I expected to get if from Amory for a few hundreds. In the course of time I would sell the fringe of those downs at fancy prices for golfers' houses. People would come here from all parts of the world. But when I approached Amory, hang me if he'd sell me a yard!"
"Perhaps he had other views," Ronald suggested.
"Not he. It's pure stubbornness. He made a personal matter of it. I wanted the lower part of the ground, because it is nearer to the town. But, if necessary, I'm going to build a bridge over the river a few hundred yards above the Red House, so that from the links the town will not be more than a mile. Then I shall use my own land on the far side of the river, and be independent of our stiff-backed friend. I had him in a cleft stick a day or two ago. I was in a position to make him sue for terms, but he got to hear about it, confound him!"
"Do you mean in the matter of the Kennedy business!" Ronald asked.
"That's it. But he got to know, or perhaps he anticipated matters. If he didn't then somebody in my employ betrayed me. I've my suspicions."
Ronald flushed uncomfortably. If his father had his suspicions, then somebody would suffer before long. It might be an innocent person who had a wife and family dependent upon him.
"Your suspicions are wrong," Ronald said. "I told Sir Horace myself."
Bastable pulled up short in his stride. "You—you infernal—I mean you idiot!" he blazed out. "That you should dare——"
"You are attracting attention," Ronald said, quietly. "People are staring at you. My dear father, it has been your fancy to make me what you call a gentleman. I am grateful to you for that. But then you have afforded me a training that places us as far apart as the poles. No doubt, from your point of view, it is quite legitimate to take advantage of Sir Horace. You regard it as business. But those who taught me my code would regard it as a dishonourable transaction. I think they are right. I felt ashamed of you when you told me what you were going to do. Therefore, I took the first opportunity of warning Sir Horace. I am glad to know that I have been of assistance to him."
Bastable contested the point no further. He was always conscious of a sense of meanness and inferiority when Ronald spoke to him like that. In an odd way he felt that Ronald was right. The boy might be a fool, he might have a poor head for business, but he knew the ways of the world, and more than once the older man had benefited by that knowledge.
Conscious, perhaps, that he had gone too far, Ronald sat down with the intention of doing a good morning's work. He often helped his father in this way. There was a mass of correspondence to deal with, and Ronald slogged steadily at it. He was thinking of nothing but the work in hand when he stumbled upon a letter that staggered him. He read it twice:—
"481, Lincoln's Inn Yard,
"We have carefully considered yours of the 13th inst., and regret that we cannot see our way to regard your views as correct.
"According to the correspondence before us, both from yourself and Mr. Arthur Bowen, it is clear that our late client was misled as to the nature of the securities. We are unfortunately unable to consult Mr. Richard Amory, who at present is on the Continent and likely to be away from London for some time.
"After careful consideration and investigation we are forced to the conclusion that our late client has been the victim of what looks remarkably like systematic fraud either on the part of Mr. Bowen or Mr. Amory. We are not prepared in the present state of affairs to say who really is the guilty party, but unless we have some satisfactory assurance from you in the course of the next week we shall place the matter in the hands of the proper authorities.
"We are not disposed to admit that Mr. Bowen has been the victim of a gang of desperadoes; on the contrary, we are inclined to think that a close examination of affairs will disclose something highly ingenious in the way of a fraud. Mr. Bowen was kidnapped from his office on a certain date; he vanished early in the afternoon, and this being so, it is odd that we should have received a letter from him next day posted in London on the day of the alleged outrage. It may be argued that the letter was posted before the raid on his office, but this is disproved by the envelope which contained the letter, which envelope we enclose herewith. You will see that it bears the 9.40 p.m. postmark, and that it was posted in the West Central district. Kindly return it at your convenience.
"In view of this significant fact, we shall be glad to have a call from you as soon as possible.—Yours faithfully,
"HEREPATH AND BUTLER."
The name of the firm was familiar to Ronald. It was that of one of the most prominent companies of solicitors in the City of London. The letter was vague in its way, yet there was a cold suggestiveness about it that Ronald did not like. He read it again and again; he could think of nothing else for the time. It was incomprehensible, though the hint of a threat was plain. In some way his father had been mixed up in some transaction that this respectable firm of solicitors regarded with disapproval—or worse!
The tangle was growing still more intricate. The more Ronald fumbled with the ravelled words the more complicated the knots became. One point, however, was perfectly clear, no fatal result had followed the spiriting away of Arthur Bowen. Without doubt he had posted that letter hours after the attack upon him in his office. Somebody might have found the letter and dropped it into the box, but that was exceedingly unlikely. The postmark was plain. Whoever posted the letter had forgotten this, or had reckoned upon its being unnoticed. It was seldom that a postmark stood out so legibly as the one on the envelope Ronald was holding in his hand.
How did his father come to have dealings with these people? What had he done to cause Herepath and Butler to write to him in this offensive manner? He had admitted that he had followed the "Safe Mystery" with interest, but had said nothing to suggest that he was himself associated with any of the leading characters in the drama.
Ronald was still pondering over the puzzle when his father returned. He was in high spirits; he had got the better of somebody, and expanded accordingly. There was a spreading smile on his face as he took the letter from Ronald's hand.
"I am afraid I am not competent to deal with this," the latter said.
The smile faded from Bastable's face as he read. He grew flabby, and Ronald saw his hand was shaking strangely.
"I'll attend to this myself," he said. "It's a private matter, and I am sorry you opened it. I daresay you wonder——"
"It would be strange if I didn't," Ronald said. "You never told me you were in any way mixed up——"
"What do you mean by mixed up?" Bastable demanded. "Anybody would think that I was one of a gang who set about Bowen. I couldn't say anything for the simple reason that my lips were sealed. Bowen has done a good deal of business for me in connection with investments which I desire the lawyers here should know nothing about. The boasted secrecy of a lawyer's office is all bosh. I was fool enough to guarantee an account for Bowen, and it looks as if he had been robbing his clients."
"These people are acting for trustees?" Ronald asked.
"That's it, my boy. Some client of Mr. Bowen's is dead, and the trustees have employed another firm of solicitors. So far that is pretty plain. Bowen has been using my name to a greater extent than he was entitled to. I'll run up to town to-morrow and put these people in their proper place. Still, it's deuced odd about Bowen."
"Very," Ronald said, drily. "I see that Dick Amory is mixed up in the business too. Were you aware of that?"
Bastable showed signs of sullen impatience. "I'm not in the witness-box," he muttered. "Anybody would think you were cross-examining me. As I know a good deal about Bowen, it is only natural I should be aware that young Dick Amory acted as his broker. There is no mystery about it so far as I am concerned, my boy. I'll see these people to-morrow. When I come back I may have something to tell you."
Ronald left the office later in a thoughtful frame of mind. Dick Amory's danger was closer than the latter imagined. It was clear that the suspicions of Herepath and Butler were aroused. Failing Bowen, they would call on Amory to produce his books directly he showed his face. It would be necessary to see Dick without delay.
Meanwhile, Bastable was pacing up and down his office moodily. He was alone, and the mask was dropped. The letter had made a deep impression upon him. After he had pondered the matter, he rang his bell savagely.
"Has John Turk been here to-day?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," the clerk replied. "He has been waiting a long time to see you."
Bastable waved his hand impatiently. The door of the office opened, and a little old man entered with a furtive air. He was dressed in seedy, shiny black clothes, his boots were down at heel, and his sodden white face and red nose told their own story. With it all, however, he had the vague appearance of having started life under happier auspices.
"Well, John," Bastable said, with a certain rude good humour, "have you come to take up that little cheque of yours?"
"No, sir," Turk said, meekly. "I understand that you wanted to see me?"
"Well, perhaps I do. Perhaps I could put something in your way. We will postpone that trifling matter for the present. Most people would have prosecuted you over that affair. And to try it on with me of all people!"
"I'm afraid I had been drinking," Turk said, humbly.
"Drinking! Of course you had. What else have you done the last score of years? With your brains, you should have made a fortune by this time. But, even as it is, you are to be trusted to a certain extent, John. Never ever been known to betray a secret. Have you got that paper for me?"
Turk glanced cautiously around him. It was as if he suspected the furniture of having ears. He crept across to the door and satisfied himself that it was fast. Then he drew a long slip of blue paper from his pocket and handed it to Bastable. The latter regarded it long and carefully through his glasses. He only wore these on special occasions, but he seemed to need them now. He nodded a surly approval.
"Very good, John," he said "very good indeed. Here are the five pounds I promised you. Now, go away, and try to save this money for once."
Turk went his way unsteadily, and Bastable locked the slip of paper in his private safe. Then he forced himself rigidly back to his business routine and wrote till lunch-time. He partook of his frugal meal at the club, after which he went as far as the offices of Amory and Sons, and asked for a few moments with Sir Horace.
The latter was disengaged, and would see Mr. Bastable at once. Sir Horace smiled blandly as his enemy swaggered into his private office.
"As to the little matter we discussed the other day," Bastable suggested.
"The matter we discussed?" Sir Horace asked, vaguely. "Oh, you mean the Kennedy note. I had forgotten that in the pressure of other business. I understand that the acceptance was in the hands of your London agents?"
"It's in my pocket at the present moment," Bastable said, bluntly.
"Really, now! That is interesting, Mr. Bastable. Let me see—didn't I say I should be glad to take it up as soon as possible? Twenty thousand one hundred and fifteen pounds, nine shillings, and fourpence, I fancy. Will you be so good as to touch the bell for me? Thank you."
Sir Horace scribbled a few words on a sheet of notepaper and handed it to the clerk who came in response to the summons. The subordinate came back a few minutes later with a pile of rustling banknotes and a handful of gold and silver.
"I fancy you will find that correct," Sir Horace said. "I should like you to count it, so as to make quite sure. Then I will trouble you for the bill."
Bastable fluttered over the notes gravely. He did not know whether to be glad or sorry. He had half expected an appeal for time to pay. Still, if he were deprived of this revenge, he had another consolation. He was certain the money belonged to Sir Horace's clients. When the crash came, it would be a resounding one. On the whole, he could afford to wait. All the same he parted with the bill with great reluctance. He held it grudgingly in his hand.
"You can't eat your cake and have it," Sir Horace smiled. "Thank you."
"I'll throw it on the fire," Bastable said, with some show of good nature.
"Indeed you will do nothing of the kind, my dear sir," Sir Horace replied. "In its way that paper is an asset. For all you know to the contrary, I may have borrowed the money to meet it, and my creditors may insist upon seeing the acceptance as a receipt. What a suggestion to come from a man of business like yourself!"
Sir Horace spoke in terms of mild reproach, but the words brought the blood flaming into Bastable's face and anger into his eyes. He read some subtle meaning in the speech. With unsteady hand he grabbed up the notes and gold and tossed the bill on the table, and then, with a surly nod, strode out of the office.
Sir Horace watched him with a calm, cynical smile on his lips. The smile was still there as he sat with the slip of blue paper in his fingers. He had the air of a man who had gained some coveted treasure at a small outlay. The document was cancelled and done with; it could have been destroyed in the ordinary course of events, but Sir Horace put it away in the corner of his safe.
"A la bonne heure," he murmured. "This has been a great day for me."
A clerk was standing by his elbow with a visiting-card in his hand. "The gentleman wants to see you, Sir Horace," he said. "Shall I ask him in?"
Sir Horace podded vaguely. The card bore the name of the Duc de Villier. There was no address on the card, nothing to denote the nationality of the caller. He came in presently, a tall man of some fifty years of age, with grizzled hair and tanned features. He had the right air about him, as Sir Horace recognised at a glance.
"You will pardon my intruding upon you in business hours," the stranger said. "I am staying with my friends at Sands Castle, and I motored over to-day. You are perhaps not aware that I am a sort of connection of yours by marriage?"
"Really, Duke?" Sir Horace smiled. "In what way, may I ask?"
"Well, you see, Lady Amory, your uncle's widow, is my cousin. For some years we have lost sight of one another entirely. As I happened to be in the neighbourhood, I thought I would look her up."
"Pleased to meet you, I am sure," Sir Horace said. "It is rather a singular thing, but I have always been in the dark as to the antecedents of Lady Amory. She—well, she is a little peculiar, and sensitive, you understand."
"Mad," the Duke said calmly. "Quite mad, poor thing. She married your uncle against the wishes of the family. There was a good deal of coolness on both sides, and poor Maria was ultimately forgotten. She and her husband lived abroad, did they not?"
"Almost entirely, till my uncle died. I saw my aunt for the first time after his death. She was left to me as a legacy, so to speak. It was sufficient for me that she was a lady, you understand. We asked no questions; indeed, it would have been useless to do so."
"Quite so," the Duke murmured, sympathetically. "I will tell you the whole sad story at a more fitting opportunity. You may blame me for not giving that poor creature's claim on us common consideration, especially as Maria and myself were such friends at one time. She was really fond of me, and if I could see her——"
"My dear Duke, of course you shall," Sir Horace said, hospitably. "You are staying here some time?"
"My movements are uncertain," De Villier replied. "I have the castle practically to myself for the next day or two, and——"
"Then come and dine with us this evening," Sir Horace suggested. "By motor, this can hardly be more than half an hour from the castle. If you would not mind putting ceremony on one side, my daughter and I would be glad to see you."
"That is exceedingly kind of you," the Duke said. "It is all the more kind because I deserve no consideration at your hands. I will come with pleasure. If I may venture to ask another favour, I should like to meet my poor relation alone—I mean, I shall be grateful if you can arrange for her to be in the drawing-room when I am announced and before your daughter is present. I am sure you will appreciate this suggestion of mine, Sir Horace. It may sound sentimental."
"Not at all," Amory replied. "It reflects great credit on you. I am sure that my daughter will fall in with the idea. We dine at eight."
With a smile and a handshake the Duke departed. It wanted a few minutes to eight when his car pulled up before the portico at Oversands. At first sight it looked as if the drawing-room was untenanted, but a slim figure in white, blazing with gems, came from one of the big windows as De Villier entered.
Lady Amory regarded him with her calm, vague scrutiny for a moment, then her face flamed red, and from red changed to white again. She pressed her hand to her side and staggered backwards. The Duke managed to catch her.
"I got your message, Maria," he said. "I came as soon as possible. Courage, my dear, courage! So they have followed you to England?"
Lady Amory clung to her companion. The vague look had left her eyes, which were clear and natural. "You have come at last," she whispered. "Thank Heaven, you have come at last!"
The more Ronald turned over the situation in his mind the less he liked it. He had never cared to analyse his father's character too closely; indeed, he had always shrunk from doing so. There were, however, times when he felt that, had the relationship been more distant, he would have regarded Joseph Bastable with loathing and contempt. He was bound to face some plain questions now.
How far was his father dipped in this shady business? That he was in it was proved by the letter from the London lawyers. The tone of that letter filled Ronald with uneasiness. It was the kind of missive he would have written to anyone he utterly despised, a person lost to every sense of decency. The blood mounted to Ronald's face as he thought of it. But his father had not even noticed the tone. He had not resented it for a moment, had shown none of the warmth, and indignation of an honest man. On the contrary, he had taken it quite in the ordinary way. Moreover, the letter had frightened him. Beyond doubt the elder Bastable had been alarmed. Ronald had never seen such signs of fear in his father before.
It was clear that Joseph Bastable could have explained much had he chosen. The strangest thing of all was to find him mixed up with Dick Amory. Why should he concern himself with the affairs of Sir Horace's luckless son? He hated the father, as Ronald had reason to know. It was not likely, then, that he would go out of his way to be of any assistance to the boy. Unless he wanted to ruin him!
Ronald started as this thought flashed across his mind. He knew his father was capable of it. A man who feels no shame in being a professional moneylender is not likely to hesitate at much.
It would not be difficult to drag the truth out of Dick Amory. It would be a humiliating business, but for the sake of all parties the facts must be disclosed. Ronald was thinking more of Vera than of anybody else.
He dined early at the club, and afterwards made his way to the Red House. Dick Amory, smoking the inevitable cigarette, awaited him.
"I thought you were never coming," he said. "I'm not blaming you, my dear chap, but to sit here hour after hour alone is maddening. For the life of me I can't see what is to be the end of it. I'd better go abroad."
"And so admit you are guilty," Ronald said.
"Do you think it would look like that?"
"What else could people think? If you appeared in London and paid all your debts first, it would be quite another matter. At present people imagine you are on the Continent on business. I daresay some of them are anxiously awaiting your return. But they are not dangerous."
"Some are not," Dick said, with a vicious grin, "and some are."
"So I understand. Herepath and Butler, for instance."
"Good heavens! Bastable, you don't mean to say they're moving?" Amory cried. "In that case it's all up. They are the solicitors to the trustees of the man who—who——"
"Whom you and Bowen robbed of his money. They are moving, though I am in the dark as to what is going on. I saw a letter from them——"
"You saw a letter from them! To whom was it written?"
Ronald hesitated before he replied. "It is as well to be candid," he said. "The letter was addressed to my father. It was not intended that I should see it. I didn't like the tone of it; if it had been addressed to me I should have been indignant. These people as good as said that Bowen was not dead at all."
"Not dead!" Amory exclaimed. "The man was murdered."
"My dear fellow, you must not count upon that. Without any desire to be offensive, I see you regard this outrage on Bowen as an asset in your favour. You can throw the blame of everything on him. But Herepath and Butler refuse to believe that he is dead. They have evidence to justify that belief."
It was impossible for Amory to conceal his disappointment. "Did you see the evidence?" he asked.
"Well, yes, I have had it in my hand. At any rate, I have had part of it. The evidence takes the form of a letter, written to Herepath and Butler by Bowen. The letter was posted many hours after Bowen had been spirited away. The postmark is clear. These lawyers do not hesitate to say that the whole thing is a clever scheme for getting Bowen out of the way to prevent his prosecution. But for that fatal postmark they would probably have allowed matters to rest. Now they talk of laying their evidence before the police. Your name was mentioned."
"By jove!" Dick gasped, "then I'm done. There's no help for it now."
"It looks bad," Ronald went on. "I'm afraid these people know more than we give them credit for. Now I come to a more personal matter. Why didn't you tell me you have had dealings with my father?"
Amory looked uncomfortable. "Did it matter?" he asked. "Has it anything to do with this affair?"
"I don't know. That is what I have to find out. Your name crops up in the letter to my father. How long has this been going on?"
"Oh, a year or two," Amory said, with a poor show of indifference. "But really, Bastable——"
"I wouldn't take that tone, if I were you," Ronald interrupted. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I was ashamed of it," Dick burst out suddenly. "You may believe me or not, but I wanted to spare your feelings as far as possible. I'm a bad lot, Ronald, but I'm a plaster saint compared with your father."
Ronald's lips quivered, but he said nothing. Amory regarded him doubtfully. He had perhaps expected an outburst of indignation or even violence. But Bastable was perfectly calm.
"Go on," he said, quietly, "tell me the worst."
"You are sure you don't mind? Because I shall have to speak very plainly. I came in contact with your father about two years ago in connection with a customer of the bank. We met more than once in London. You can understand that at first I was prejudiced against your father—as an Amory I would be. But he appeared a good sort when I came to know him better. He wasn't long in finding out that I was deuced hard up, and helped me. He gave me the address of a fellow who lent money on easy terms—at least, they were easy terms at first! Afterwards I found out that I was in the hands of one of the biggest scoundrels and bloodsuckers in London. The more I struggled the deeper in the mud I stuck. Ever heard of De la Pole and Co.?"
Ronald nodded. It represented the most notorious rascal in the usury line.
"Well, these were the people. They had most of the money I got from Bowen. De Pole, stripped of his assumed name, is Joseph Bastable."
Ronald gave a gesture of amazement. He had not anticipated so disgraceful a revelation.
"This is terrible!" he murmured. "What would your sister—I mean, what would those whose good-will I value say if they knew?"
Amory administered a rough-and-ready consolation. "We've nothing to hold up our heads about," he said. "If your father is a scamp, my father's son is another. Don't worry about Vera. She's a loyal girl; and if she cares for you it won't matter what your relations are. Mind, I would have spared you this if I could, and that's why I said nothing about my dealings with your father. He thinks the De la Pole connection is a profound secret. I got to hear of it quite by accident. If you only knew of the dirty work I have done for him? What I have done I have done, but I should never have been in this mess if I hadn't met your father."
Ronald desired to hear no more. What he had heard already was a bitter blow to his pride and his ambitions. He sat staring gloomily into space. This was the end of his castle-building. He could never aspire to Vera Amory now. In his eyes the most degraded criminal was scarcely worse than the professional moneylender who battened on the misfortunes of others.
"I don't want that side of the question alluded to again," at last Ronald said. "Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that my father was a friend of Bowen's. Let us assume, too, that Bowen ingeniously managed to delude people into the belief that he had been the victim of an outrage——"
But Amory was not listening. His face was anxious and moody. Every road before him only led to despair.
STANDING in the long drawing-room at Oversands, the fading light of day on her features, Lady Amory conveyed no impression of mental trouble to her companion. She looked him squarely in the face; her eyes had the suggestion of many memories in them. She seemed, too, to be part and parcel of her surroundings. She might have been the mistress of the fine old place welcoming some favoured guests. Yet a few minutes before she had been struggling dimly to remember some matter of little import.
But the stimulus of meeting this old friend and relation had given her the spur she needed.
"Why did you not come before?" she asked.
"My dear cousin, I could not," De Villier replied. "Besides, there was nothing to be gained. Now that Lugi is dead, things are different."
"Is Lugi dead? Did he die—in his bed?"
"Oh, he came to his end quite naturally. You can imagine what a task it has been all these years to protect him from those people. Don Bentes was the trouble. But a year or so ago Bentes was killed in the mountains in a vulgar quarrel about some woman. We had less to fear after that. Bentes was our most implacable foe. We could never make him understand that we were blameless in the matter, and that that arch-traitor, De Lava was to blame. If I ever meet that scoundrel——"
"Hush!" Lady Amory whispered. "De Lava is here! I have been close to him more than once. I have heard him speak."
"De Lava here!" the Duke cried. "What is he doing here?"
"You forget. He is after the treasure. He knows everything. Recall to yourself the close and confidential terms on which he stood with us for years. He knows the whole story of the missing treasure and the suicide of my poor sister. But I dare not think of that, because when I do so I get quite confused. She died before my eyes, and my husband said that I murdered her. I am innocent, I swear!"
Lady Amory raised her voice so that De Villier glanced anxiously about him. With soft and gentle words he soothed her until the flashing hardness left her eyes.
"I am certain of that," he said. "You loved poor Julia too well. I know it must have been a terrible grief to you, Maria."
"Oh, it was, it was! She flung herself into the quicksands, but before she did so she threw the treasure in as well. That it was my treasure made no difference. But she was mad at the time—as mad as I was afterwards. Still, it may not be too late to save Sir Horace. You see, I care for him. He has been good to me. My dear Victor, it would be impossible to say how kind. They have put up with my trying moods without one single word of complaint. I am very trying at times, you know. I have always been welcome here; they would keep me altogether, if they could. Vera is an angel of goodness. I am very fond of that unhappy boy, Dick, who is always getting into trouble. They have fallen on evil times, but they never ask me to help them, though they are under the impression that I am rich. It is only now and then that I realise all this, only when my mind is clear as it is now."
"Oh, I daresay we shall manage to repay their kindness," De Villier said, cheerfully. "But there are plenty of troubles before us first. My word, what a story we could tell if we chose! But nobody would believe it. A novelist who dared to put it on paper would be laughed at. People think romance is dead—they believe a vendetta like ours is found only in the shilling shocker. I wish they had had to spend those two terrible years in the mountains of Sicily! Why, the house was a fortress, and we dared not go out alone or unarmed for fear of the vengeance of Bentes and his followers. De Lava worked that very cleverly, Maria. If ever I come across him again——"
The door of the drawing-room opened at that moment, and Vera entered. She crossed to De Villier and held out her hand. "I am glad to meet you," she said. "It has always struck me as strange that we should never see any of my aunt's relations."
"Oh, I know that I ought to be ashamed of myself," the duke said, with a smile. "I want you to believe that I am. But, really, the fault has not been altogether mine. There are reasons why I could not leave Sicily. We have had family troubles which you would hardly credit, Miss Amory. Is that not so, Maria?"
Lady Amory answered vaguely. The old weary listlessness was on her again, and she seemed to be lost to her surroundings. The mental effort she had just gone through had been too much for her. But she was no longer restless; she had ceased to fidget with her hands in the nervous way that that worried Vera so much at times.
Sir Horace appeared a moment later, and with him dinner was announced. It was not an elaborate meal, though dainty and well cooked, and the wines were carefully chosen. Glancing at the old silver across the mass of flowers upon the spotless napery, De Villier saw no indication of poverty or want. Sir Horace, too, was in one of his most brilliant and most charming moods. It was obvious that this was not forced, but natural and spontaneous. Vera was wondering if the prosperity her father had hinted at had suddenly dropped from the clouds. It was a long time since she could remember so pleasant and happy an evening.
With a feeling of regret she rose at length from the table. Sir Horace passed over the silver cigar-box, and intimated that the port stood at his guest's right hand. De Villier took a cigar and puffed at it luxuriously.
"Do you know, Sir Horace," he said, "that I have a great admiration for your English life? There is nothing more delightful than an English gentleman's house. It is in every sense a home. How to manage a household we don't seem to understand on the Continent. My places are too big and cold; there is too much marble about them. Now, all this appeals to me. Did I tell you that I was educated in England?"
"I don't remember your mentioning the matter," Amory said.
"Well, I was at Eton for five years. It was my father's wish that I should enter the diplomatic service and be attached to the Italian Embassy in London. That would have come about but for a calamity that befell us. I cannot tell you the story just now, but you shall hear it in good time. Meanwhile, I desire to tender a most abject apology for the way I have behaved as to Lady Amory. It has been very shabby to leave her on your hands so long."
"She is Lady Amory," Sir Horace murmured.
"Oh, quite so. That was gracefully put, Sir Horace. But that does not free us from our obligations. Lady Amory brought no money into your family, and I understand that her husband made no settlement upon her. That makes your conduct all the more generous and magnanimous. The real reason why we did nothing was because we could not at the time. You didn't know Lady Amory before her marriage?"
"No," Sir Horace explained. "We did not meet till my uncle died. He and I were not very good friends, and I did not come here at all in those days. I was with the London agents of my bank. My uncle passed most of his time abroad. He died suddenly without making a will, and I came into everything. I often say that Lady Amory was a legacy, but none the less welcome on that account."
"Did you ever hear how your uncle met his death?" the duke asked.
"Didn't he die in the ordinary way?" Sir Horace inquired.
"He fell over cliff—at least, that is the legend. As a matter of fact he was murdered. For a year or two before his death he spent some time here and some time in Sicily. On one occasion Lady Amory brought her sister here. She committed suicide by throwing herself into the quicksands near the place you call the Red House. The affair was hushed up, I fancy. People were told that an accident had happened to a foreign servant of Lady Amory's. Her sister had been obliged to conceal her identity."
"Surely a lot of unnecessary mystery?" Sir Horace said.
"By no means unnecessary," De Villier responded, gravely. "If I detained you now and told you the whole strange story you would be astounded. Sooner or later, you shall have the outline of it. But there are other reasons to account for Lady Amory's mental depression besides the troubles she has had to endure. Did you know much about her husband?"
"Very little, as I have already said."
"Then I will enlighten you somewhat. He was one of the hardest and most cold-blooded men I ever met. He was absolutely callous and indifferent to suffering. It was always a mystery to me why Maria married him. But a woman in love is capable of any vagary. At any rate, she married him, and he began almost at once to neglect her. When he died there was not even a will in her favour."
"But you told me he died suddenly," Amory argued. "He might have intended to do something for his wife and put it off till too late. He knew, of course, that Lady Amory was provided for. She had money of her own."
"Had!" the duke said, significantly. "It was not what you call property in your sense of the word. It could have been converted into money at any moment, but it was the kind of thing that it breaks a woman's heart to part with. Lady Amory's wealth was in jewellery."
"Which is a large fortune in itself."
"Precisely—if it existed. But to all intents and purposes it has ceased to exist. Your uncle was well aware of the fact. When Lady Amory's sister made away with herself she cast all the gems—the grand family gems—into the quicksands. They are there to-day."
Sir Horace stared at his guest with open-mouthed amazement. "Is that so?" he stammered. "Do you mean to tell me—why, I never heard so surprising a story in my life. But Lady Amory has other jewels!"
"Not one," the duke said. "Not a stone. They were all copied years ago for the sake of safety. It is by no means a new plan for the baffling of thieves. Every gem that Lady Amory wears to-day is paste."
"You are not joking?" Sir Horace gasped.
"My dear sir," said the duke, solemnly. "I was never more serious."
Sir Horace was speechless, his lips twitched, and the healthy red of his face was turning gradually to ashen grey.
In a vague way Sir Horace realised that his guest was speaking to him, but he appeared to be enveloped in a dense fog that clouded his reason with coldness and doubt and suspicion. He repeated again and again the word that seemed to hold his mind to the exclusion of everything else. Paste! The whole universe was made of paste. That was what everything consisted of nowadays.
"I fear you are not well," De Villier murmured, politely.
Sir Horace forced himself to smile. He poured out a glass of brandy and gulped it down. The incident might have passed unnoticed with a duller man, for, after all, the shock was natural enough. But the guest was a man of the world, and divined that Sir Horace had counted on Lady Amory's jewellery.
There was more of this had the duke only known it. But Amory began to talk fast, as if to remove a bad impression.
"It's my heart," he said. "Nothing to be afraid of, but I have to be careful. I get giddy all of a sudden, and have a difficulty in hearing what people say. Another glass of port? No! If you have finished your cigar, shall we have coffee in the drawing-room?"
De Villier professed he should like nothing better. He was becoming interested in this household. There was romance as well as trouble here. If he could avert the latter he would be glad to do so. He had formed a high opinion of Vera, apart from the fact that she had been so good to Lady Amory.
The menage was very refined and charming, too. It was sad to think that there must be an end of it all unless the fortunes of the family mended. Somebody else would acquire this old house and perhaps "restore" it. As a man of family, the duke could not but sympathise with Amory.
He crossed the room and took his seat by Vera's side. Lady Amory was playing patience in one of the deep-seated windows, as if her whole mind were given to the game. Amory wandered about restlessly. He would have given a great deal to be in his study with the door closed. De Villier watched him closely. The smiling mask had fallen from the old banker's face, and he looked weary and haggard.
De Villier talked with the easy grace of a man of "Eton" who sees all things without comment. He admired the arrangement of the pictures and the soft reflections of the shaded light. Vera had a gift for disposing flowers to advantage—the light hand and eye that make blooms look as if they were growing in a room. She was not unlike a flower herself as she sat smiling in her chair.
"To my mind there is no place like Oversands," she said. "I was born here, and I am very seldom away. Even when I go to town, I am always glad to get back again. My father is very considerate. He lets me manage the house and grounds."
"That isn't kindness," De Villier remarked. "That is wisdom on his part."
Vera laughed at the compliment. "I am glad you think so," she added. "But I am afraid I must steel my heart to leave it. My father is not the business man he used to be, or perhaps he has grown old-fashioned. The rival bank, with its newer methods, has done us great harm. Besides, my father is too good-natured. He cannot listen unmoved to a tale of distress. He has helped old customers when he knew that he was throwing away his money. He would not have it otherwise, but when I think of leaving Oversands it makes me feel a little—a little——" Vera paused, and her lip quivered.
Sir Horace stood with his back to the fireplace with a moody frown upon his face, and a cry of pain escaped him. De Villier looked up anxiously.
"Your father is not well," he said.
Vera rose hastily from her seat. Amory staggered into a chair and lay back for a time as if on the point of collapse. When he spoke it was with an effort.
"I shall be all right in a few minutes," he said. "There is not the slightest cause for anxiety. My dear duke, I shall be distressed if you think of going yet. All I need is to recline on the couch in my study for a few minutes. Vera, give me your arm."
De Villier stood aside politely. He watched the two as they crossed the hall. Sir Horace dragged himself along almost painfully till the library was reached. He was white and shaky, and looked like an aged man as he dropped on the couch.
"Shall I send for the doctor, dear?" Vera asked.
"No," Sir Horace gasped. "The doctor can do me no good. It's nothing but the worry of the last few months. I had a bit of very bad news just when everything seemed bright and cheerful. Perhaps I am frightening myself unduly. Go back to the drawing-room and make my apologies to the duke. The best thing I can do is to go to bed."
"Then I shall dismiss our guest and attend to you," Vera said. "I couldn't sit chattering, feeling that you were in trouble."
The duke was exceedingly sorry to hear the bad news. He insisted that Vera should not consider him. He would wait till his car was ready.
"It is very kind of you," Vera said. "You understand my feelings. If you don't mind, I will say good-night, as I shall not come down again."
De Villier held open the door for her. As he closed it gently, Lady Amory looked up from her cards.
"We could not have a better chance than this," she said, clearly and naturally.
De Villier started. For the moment he had forgotten his companion. It was strange how the logical side of her mind came uppermost when alone with him.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," he said. "What do you want me to do?"
Lady Amory threw down her cards impatiently. "To go as far as the Red House," she whispered. "Oh, I have no fear. Many is the hour I spend there when the rest of the house is asleep. There is a way down from my bedroom, by which I can go out without attracting attention. There is not the faintest chance of meeting anybody. Besides, to-night is one of the lowest tides of the year, and the stepping-stones are clear of the waves. It is low water at ten minutes to eleven. Nobody can teach me anything about the tides here—I know every mood of the water, all the secrets of the sea are mine. Come, and I will show you something you have never seen before."
All this was uttered distinctly in a low whisper. De Villier laid a soothing hand upon his companion's arm. The touch quieted her directly.
"I am beginning to get excited," she said. "I always do when I think of the sea and the great grey stretch of sands. But I mean what I say, and so long as you are with me I know exactly what I am doing. If you decline to come, I must go alone."
"But consider the time of night. Think of the risk."
"My dear Victor, there is no risk whatever. Besides, I must go. Something drags me on. If I resist the impulse all power of sleep will leave me for days. When I get like that I always think of my poor sister and how she ended her troubles. When the sands give up their secret, then I shall be myself again."
De Villier looked at her half-sadly, half-affectionately. After all, she was still young. It was a matter of twenty-five years since her marriage, and then she was only a girl of sixteen. At forty she was in all the prime and pride of her beauty. But for the haunting sadness of her face and the strange, vacant look in her eyes, she would have been uncommonly attractive. And there had been a time when she was the only woman for the Duc de Villier.
"It is a strange fancy," he said. "But I will take you and bring you back——"
"No. I will return alone, as I always do. I will tell you the spot where your motor can wait for you. I will make the necessary change in my clothing and join you at the end of the drive. It is a lovely night."
Against his better judgment, De Villier fell in with the suggestion. He had not looked forward to a midnight adventure like this. As far as he could see, there was nothing to be gained by it. Still, it was possible that Lady Amory was in possession of some secret, the key of which she had not given him yet.
"Very well," he said. "I will do as you require. It is a queer proceeding for one at my time of life, but I was never a very responsible creature."
They met by-and-by at the end of the drive. Already De Villier's motor had gone on to await him at a particular spot. It was rather dark as they struck into the path leading to the river, though there would be the last quarter of the moon presently. Lady Amory slipped her hand under her companion's arm, chatting gaily as she kept step with him. For the moment she had forgotten her troubles or the serious purpose of the journey. But as they neared the spot her mood grew graver, and De Villier could feel how the hand on his arm was trembling.
They came at length to the low ground that ended in the river. So far as De Villier could see in the faint, uncertain light, the place was a tangle of rushes—reeds covering ridges of desolate sandhills in a region remote from civilisation. They soon passed the sandhills and came out to the ooze and mud left by the tide. De Villier could just make out the grey shaking mass which formed the dreaded quicksands. They were incessantly churning, as if a vast furnace with fierce fires raged beneath them. There was something horribly cruel about the grey landscape.
"What a spot!" De Villier exclaimed, with a shudder. "Imagine such a ghastly place so near to Oversands! It was here that your poor sister——"
He hesitated to finish the sentence. Lady Amory pointed to a long line of rocks that stretched like sentinels across the quicksands.
"Over there," she whispered. "Those are the stepping-stones. Sometimes they are nearly covered, and sometimes they stand out high above the water. It depends upon the tide. I have been backwards and forwards a score of times when the stones were level with the stream. It was the third one from which my sister flung herself. I was standing on this very spot, and saw it. My husband accused me of pushing her in; he said that I was insanely jealous of her. He little knew how Julia hated him for his neglect and unkindness to me. She was mad, of course; she had that wild, ungovernable temper that has always been our curse. She fancied I was against her—that was why she took my jewels and her own and threw them all into the quicksands. But nobody knows that. I have kept the secret well."
De Villier was silent. He could have told another story had it been worth while.
"I begin to understand what the fascination of this awful spot is," he said. "I have a longing to cross to the other side. Is it safe?"
"If you take every care. If you slip the sands will suck you down like some deadly octopus. No power on earth could save you then."
De Villier took a step or two forward until he came to the first of the stones. As he sprang upon it Lady Amory watched him anxiously. As he was about to take the second spring her voice rang out in a scream.
"Come back!" she cried. "Come back! Somebody has moved the stones."
Lady Amory's keen eye had detected the danger. Every stone was as familiar to her as her own bedroom. She could almost have gone blindfolded to the spot and made her way to the far side of the stream. For years she had been coming here constantly; indeed, every time the dark mood was upon her she was in this direction.
In some way one of the stepping-stones had been tampered with. As a matter of fact, it was something more than a stone; indeed, it appeared to be a large fragment of rock that reached far below the quicksands for its foundation. It looked as if some mighty force had wrenched the top off and had then replaced it. Certainly it had never been like this before.
Lady Amory was clear and alert. The deadly nearness of the peril flashed through her mind instantly. The quickest intellect could not have grappled with the danger more speedily.
For De Villier had slipped almost as soon as his foot touched the top of the stone. He swayed and staggered from one side to the other, vainly struggling to regain his balance, and keenly sensible of what would happen if he failed. The pale strip of ragged moon cast a fitful light that played upon the grey face of the shifting sands. It was as if millions upon millions of discoloured snakes were wriggling and twisting, waiting for their prey.
"For heaven's sake throw yourself down flat!" Lady Amory cried. "It is your only chance."
But De Villier did not heed the advice. The words came to his ears dimly. Without being afraid, he was conscious of the horror of the situation. There are some deaths which it is possible to face with courage and resolution, but not one like this. In imagination, De Villier felt himself sinking lower and lower, the sand filling his throat.
It seemed an age, but it was little more than a flash. Again Lady Amory's voice rose in shriek, and again her caution passed unheeded. There was not a soul to appeal to—-these two were alone on the verge of the universe.
"Lie down flat!" Lady Amory screamed. "Oh, he is gone!"
De Villier staggered again and slipped. As his feet struck the face of the sands he sank to the knees. With an effort he turned and grasped a splinter of rock with his left hand. It was the merest grip, but it sufficed to keep him above the surface for the moment. All the while unseen forces seemed to be dragging at his legs. There was something horrible in the relentless strength that was drawing him under.
Lady Amory wasted no further breath in useless warning. Heedless of danger, she rushed to the rescue. She threw herself from one stone to the other so that she might lie flat on the slippery surface.
"Give me your other hand," she said, hoarsely. "I can help you that way. I know the terrible force there is behind the sands. Is not that better?"
For the moment the danger was averted. Still, the final catastrophe was only postponed. Even had it been broad daylight, assistance would have been as far off as ever. A long spell of patient endurance would benefit De Villier little.
"I can keep you up now," Lady Amory said. "But—but——"
There was no occasion to finish the sentence.
"It was brave of you," De Villier said. "I have never seen anything finer. This is no ordinary danger. But in an hour or so——"
"I can call out," Lady Amory said. "Let us both call for assistance. It is only at rare intervals that anybody comes near this dreadful place."
They shouted again and again. There was no response but the mocking cries of the words and the complaining yell of a sea-bird disturbed on his nest. Then another louder, more despairing call went up, and this time an answer came from the Red House.
Lady Amory laughed hysterically. De Villier gripped her hand more tightly.
"Don't!" he said. "Try to control yourself a little longer, dear friend. No, it was not an echo this time. I distinctly heard a man's voice."
The voice came nearer still, and a figure loomed large in the moonlight.
"Hold on a little," the voice said. "Where is the trouble?"
"By the second stepping-stone," Lady Amory explained. "My companion slipped off, and I am holding him up as best I can. If you will fetch a ladder! There is one in the shed at the back of the Red House."
The figure on the bank disappeared promptly towards the house. Another figure anxiously awaited him.
"What on earth is the matter, Bastable?" he asked.
"It's your aunt—Lady Amory," Ronald explained. "They have actually been trying to cross to the other side of the river, by the stepping-stones. Her companion has fallen in, and Lady Amory is holding him up. They want a ladder."
A curse broke from Dick Amory's lips. "It's courting death to play the fool like that in the dark. It's confoundedly hard on me, too. Still, there is no reason why I should show up. You can manage alone."
His voice shook with fear as he spoke. As usual, he was thinking entirely of himself. Ronald's lips curled with contempt. He was regretting that he had put a hand to help Amory in the time of his trouble; but for Vera's sake he would go on. He spoke in tones of anger and disgust.
"Two lives are at stake; but that makes little difference to you, provided you save your own skin. Can't you see it is no time to think about yourself? A ladder is needed at once. If you don't help me, by jove! I'll drag you there."
The words had the desired effect. Amory went round the back of the house to the shed where the ladder was kept, and between them they carried it to the edge of the sands. The ladder was a long one fortunately, and reached from the shore to the third stone, where the end rested firmly. Ronald crawled along and caught De Villier tightly by the shoulders and turned him round so that his hands could grasp the rungs of the ladder.
"I am most profoundly obliged to you," De Villier said, coolly. "It seems a special providence that you should be here to-night. We might have held out for an hour, but not longer. I am safe. Will you look to Lady——my companion?"
"Lady Amory shall be my immediate care," Ronald answered. "Now, Dick, get on the first stone and help Lady Amory."
Dick came forward sullenly. It was no longer possible to conceal himself. He held out his hands, and Lady Amory jumped ashore. She looked at Dick without the slightest sign of recognition in her eyes. Doubtless she was in one of her worst moods, he thought. But her whole mind was concentrated upon Ronald and De Villier. Ronald was standing up, his feet braced firmly against each side of the ladder, straining every nerve to release the duke from the terrible grip. Inch by inch the latter crawled along till he was able to regain his footing on the stepping-stones. The rest was easy.
Lady Amory clapped her hands thankfully.
"Heaven be thanked!" she said. "It is as if an answer had come to my prayer. How cool and thoughtful that young man is! Mr. Bastable, is it not?"
She spoke calmly and naturally, but she addressed Dick as if he had been a stranger. This was another phase of her extraordinary moods, he thought. But as yet she had not looked at him; her whole attention was turned to the other two.
"That is my friend's name," Dick answered.
At the first word Lady Amory regarded him intently. "Dick!" she cried. "Dick! What are you doing here? How long have you been at home? Why did you not come and see me this evening?"
Dick laid a hand on his aunt's arm. He spoke in his softest manner.
"I want you to try to understand things," he said. "I want you to concentrate your mind on all that I say. I have not been at home because I dare not go home. I have got into a sad mess, and must not show my face here or in London. I am hiding in the Red House, and Bastable is finding me in food. But for this accident, I should have kept myself in the background. I suppose your companion will have to know now—I only hope he is to be trusted."
"You need not trouble about that," Lady Amory said, coldly. "That gentleman is a relative of mine—the Duc de Villier. Your secret will be safe with him."
De Villier came up at this moment, and Lady Amory explained briefly. Dick had never seen her in this businesslike mood before.
"Some trifling escapade," the duke said, gaily. "I have been a young man myself, Mr. Amory. To find you in hiding here gives the adventure a romantic flavour. Will you kindly lead the way to your cave—I mean the house? I should like to take off my wet clothes and dry before a fire."
They turned into the Red House and entered the dining-room. The thick blinds were drawn so that no light could be seen from the outside. But on the threshold the little company paused in astonishment at the sight before them.
A brilliant, petrolite lamp stood on the table. Under it was a white cloth, and arranged thereon a dainty supper for three people. There were silver forks and spoons, a chicken, and a pie, together with a salad, and on the sideboard stood an army of bottles with gold foils on the necks.
"This is very welcome," the duke said, gaily. "If you can find me a change, Mr. Amory, I shall be delighted to sup with you afterwards."
Despite the fact that he was usually a light-hearted scoundrel with a humourous philosophy of his own, De Lava was profoundly disappointed at the failure of his attempt upon Lady Amory's jewels. In his sanguine way he had looked upon this as a certainty. Your criminal is always an optimist, and this quality is responsible for a great proportion of crimes against property.
For the successful consummation of the campaign, money was absolutely necessary. As a rule, De Lava did not lack the possession of means, but his present programme threatened to last longer than he had anticipated. Shoremouth itself did not afford many facilities for the making of money. Moreover, the hotel bill had been presented with an intimation that a week was the limit of credit. Thereupon De Lava had drawn a cheque, half of which he had asked for in cash, with the full knowledge that there were no funds to meet it.
He was almost inclined to be despondent as he lounged with Sexton in the private sitting-room after breakfast. His face was moody and thoughtful.
"I have given a cheque for our account," he said. "They did not demand it at the bayonet point, but it came to much the same thing. Like the Speaker in your House of Commons, they were polite, but firm. I persuaded them to let me have ten pounds as well. If that cheque is not met the day after to-morrow, a distinguished foreigner, a friend of mine, will stand the chance of being arrested for fraud."
"You always were so rash," Sexton said.
"Audacious," De Lava corrected; "but it pays. Before post-time it is my intention to forward the sum of five hundred pounds to my bankers. This done, we shall be provided for the campaign. I did not want to tap this particular source, because I thought I saw my way to getting a great deal more later. It is rather like killing the goose that is going to lay the golden eggs, but it can't be helped."
"Whom do you mean to blackmail?" Sexton asked.
"A man who lives here," De Lava explained. "As he happens to be on the spot, it will be very convenient. I mean Joseph Bastable."
Sexton stared at the speaker, and his hard, haggard face expanded in a smile. He gave way to a fit of silent laughter.
"Audacious is the right enough word," he said. "Is there any limit to your impudence? Bastable is the last man in the world to part with money. As sure as fate he will kick you out of his office."
De Lava smiled as he lighted a cigarette.
"I think not," he said, coolly. "Now, I want you to coach me a little. Tell me the facts about that man Batter again. I propose to use his name as a lever. I will make an appeal on behalf of his wife and family."
Sexton grinned. He was by no means averse to seeing his friend's pride humiliated. He spoke for some time, while De Lava listened patiently. He professed himself satisfied at length.
"That is sufficient for my purpose," he said. "And now to call upon Mr. Bastable, and tap the well-springs of his charity. I am going to enjoy myself."
He went off with the jaunty air of a man on the best of terms with himself if not the world. The hotel manager was polite and almost gushing as he remembered the cheque in the safe. De Lava called at Bastable's office and sent in his card. The great man would see him in a few moments. Bastable stood by his desk with the card in his hand. His manner was not particularly gracious, for he had the wonted insular contempt for a foreigner.
"What can I do for you, Count De Lava?" he asked.
De Lava bestowed upon him a smile peculiarly sweet and winning. "In the first place, my dear sir, you can offer me a chair," he said. "I prefer to sit down, as this interview may take some time. I am a man of a scientific turn of mind. The practical side of science appeals to me. Before long I hope to put on the market an aeroplane that will be both cheap and durable. I am looking for a quiet place where I can carry out my experiments without being subjected to the annoyance of curious fools. The Red House will suit my purpose."
"The Red House does not belong to me."
"So I have been told. It is the property of Sir Horace Amory. I understand that he has no objection to letting it, subject, of course, to satisfactory references. Now, I am a stranger here, and to get this matter settled will take more time than I care for. I want to get to work at once. I thought that perhaps you would be willing to become responsible for me."
Bastable smiled sourly. The suggestion amused him.
"You scientific men have a poor idea of business," he said. "Why should I do this for you? You may be a swindler, for all I know."
"Quite so," De Lava said, genially. "I might. But I don't look it. You don't look it either, but, nevertheless, you may be a cold-blooded rascal, ready for anything. One always has to take these risks in the world."
"Do you mean to insult me?" Bastable demanded.
"My dear sir," De Lava protested. "I only hint what you might be, just as you hinted what I might be. I should not have used the illustration had I not known something of you through my old acquaintance Batter. I fancy his Christian name was Roger, but I am not sure."
Bastable's mouth grew a trifle more hard. The note of danger was sounded in his ears, and he was ready for the battle. The name of Batter had not been mentioned in his hearing for years, but he had not forgotten it.
"Roger Batter is dead," he said. "Unless you are familiar with this part of the world, you could not have known him. It is a romantic story."
"I know the story," De Lava said, "but I am a stranger here. Batter was the man who was supposed to have lost his life crossing the quicksands with a large sum of money to avert a bank crisis. The journey as undertaken by night, and the stepping-stones were used as the shortest way."
"What do you mean by supposed to have met his death?" Bastable demanded.
"My dear sir," De Lava said, sweetly, "if he met with his death I should never have known him, and consequently should have been deprived of the exquisite pleasure of making your charming acquaintance. I can assure you that Batter died penitent. He sincerely repented having robbed his employer of all that money. Most of the plunder went elsewhere, but that does not detract from the sincerity of Batter's confession. For his trouble he had a banknote of five hundred pounds. With this he vanished into space, and the story went that he died nobly doing his duty. He lost his nerve to such an extent that he never cashed the note, and it found its way into my possession. Perhaps you would like to see it."
De Lava produced a "Bank of Engraving" note, but it served the purpose. Bastable waved it aside. It never occurred to him that anybody would dare to try on a game like that with him.
"This is the note," he said. "The others were paid to Mr. Arthur Bowen to meet the cost of some property here purchased by—but really, Mr. Bastable, is there any necessity to tell you by whom that property was purchased?"
Bastable pressed the tips of his fingers together and glared at the speaker. He was holding himself in with an effort. He was gradually coming to recognise the fact that he had a foeman worthy of his steel.
"You'd better come to the point," he said.
"My dear sir, you English are so practical," De Lava murmured. "Nothing will content you but the obvious. It was a rare stroke of fortune when you bought the old marshes at the far end of the new town. It was strong evidence of your foresight, too."
"So you mean to suggest that I stole it?" Bastable cried.
He was on his feet now, prudence flung to the winds. He was swayed by a wild desire to fall upon this man and bruise his smiling face. De Lava was ready. The struggle was brief and signally one-sided. A moment later Bastable lay on his back on the floor, De Lava holding him by the throat. There was a livid mark over his left eye, and his lips were cut and bleeding. De Lava was as fresh as a daisy.
"I know you stole the money," he purred gently. "You found out that Batter had been robbing the bank and compelled him to join your conspiracy. It was an ingenious coup, and you deserved all you earned. I can prove every word of what I say, if you desire it. You can get up now, and if you try any more brutal violence upon me, I'll break your right arm for you."
Bastable struggled to his feet. In the whole course of his life he had never had such an experience before. He had fought his way to the front, and found most people terribly afraid of him. But here was a man who could beat him at his own game. He cringed before De Lava.
"What do you want?" he asked sullenly.
"For myself, nothing," De Lava said, loftily. "By the way, you had better think of some neat way of accounting for the change in your personal appearance. I have called on behalf of the family of the late Roger Batter. I am raising a subscription for them, and I am sanguine enough to believe you will put your name down for five hundred pounds. Now please don't protest. Your modest and generous nature shrinks from the publicity that such a handsome donation might entail. But be not anxious, my good Bastable—I will see that you remain anonymous."
Bastable writhed from side to side. Behind De Lava's smile he noted little lights in his eyes as hard as steel. With an almost painful effort he dragged his cheque-book from a drawer and scribbled the desired amount on it.
"There!" he mumbled, "take it, you confounded rascal."
"This is a great pleasure to me," De Lava went on, as if he had heard nothing. "I hope to see you frequently at the Red House. By the bye, I forgot to say that I will give Sir Horace Amory your name as my reference. Having satisfied you as to my bona-fides, you cannot refuse."
"Get out of my office, you foreign scum!" Bastable roared.
De Lava went out with a smile. His pride was soothed and flattered.
"Most excellent," he observed; "but when I saw how easy a conquest I was likely to make I wondered at my own moderation. But we shall meet again, Bastable."
"Really, most kind and thoughtful," De Villier remarked again.
He looked round the room with a pleased smile. Much had been done to improve the place in so short a time. There were several pieces of fine old furniture in the Red House, and these had been given a prominent position. There was a flavour of romance about the whole thing, an Arabian Nights' suggestion, that appealed to De Villier.
"These are very comfortable quarters, Mr. Amory," he said. "This is the kind of atmosphere that would reconcile most of us to exile."
"I have no more to do with it than yourself," Dick said sulkily. "An hour ago there wasn't a sign of all this."
"A pleasant surprise on the part of your friends!" De Villier suggested.
But the joke was lost upon Dick. He was looking anxiously at the table before him. He noted the costly wines and the brand on the cigars. What was the meaning of it, and who was responsible for it? Certainly nobody had done it out of affection for him.
"I can't understand it," he went on. "Till this day this was the safest place to hide in you could imagine. Nobody ever came near the place. Not a dozen people in Shoremouth dared pass it after dark. Now it looks like becoming a tourist centre. People come here and make a midnight picnic. Of course, you can do as you like. As for me, I must not be seen."
"Is the escapade as serious as that?" De Villier asked.
"I am a fugitive from justice," Amory said sullenly. "There is no warrant out for my arrest, but one may be applied for at any moment. I have taken that which does not belong to me, and I did it with my eyes open. That I believed in my ability to replace the money when it was needed has nothing to do with the question. There are many criminals who do not intend to be dishonest at the start."
Amory spoke with the bitterness of despair. He was realising that Fate was against him. Why did these people come and worry him in this way? What was the strange fascination that suddenly drew so many people to the Red House?
"You force me to speak like this," Amory concluded.
He glanced at Lady Amory as he spoke. She had understood every word, and was regarding him with tears in her eyes.
"My poor boy," she said; "oh, my poor boy! You might have known I would have helped you if you had only come to me. But now I am powerless. If I only had all that I have lost! If only the sands would give up their secret, I——"
She broke off and turned aside. Dick gazed at her in puzzled astonishment. She seemed to grasp the situation, to understand his danger and the pressing need for assistance. But, from Dick's point of view, the last few words betrayed the mind diseased. To his understanding, the secret of the sands meant nothing. He could only listen vacuously.
"I hardly know what to say," De Villier interposed. "If I could be of any assistance? You will pardon my selfishness, but I am wet, and if I could procure a change——"
Amory at any rate could offer that. There was one change of dress in his bedroom. De Villier came down presently dry and comfortable, and disposed to be pleased with his adventure. He did not appear to notice Amory's anxiety. For him the whole affair was a novel experience to be made the most of.
"Now sit down to this tempting supper," he said. "True, it is not intended for us, but what matter? If the worst comes to the worst, we can pay for it. I must confess that I should like to meet——"
De Villier paused in his gay chatter. The smile faded from his face, and his lips grew hard and his eye stern. Only a plain silver matchbox on the shelf had attracted his attention. He stood looking at it with a glare that was positively murderous. Then he turned angrily to Lady Amory. She shook her head sadly.
"On second thoughts, we had better go," De Villier said, in a changed voice. "I will remain till my car comes. I can explain what has happened to the gentlemen who are supping here, and they——"
"I shouldn't," Ronald said, significantly.
De Villier threw a quick, questioning glance at him. "You wouldn't?" he asked. "I am obliged to you for your warning. But I beg to assure you that I am absolutely safe. Can anyone give me a box of ordinary matches?"
Amory produced the matches. "Here you are," he said. "If you will excuse me I will take myself off. It is all very well for you people, but the place is not safe for me. If I were in the Duke's place I, too, should regard the affair as a joke——"
De Villier's teeth came together with a click. "There is no joke," he said, "unless, perhaps, it is a grim one. But I am glad I came. If you will leave me here——"
"Victor, you would not be so rash!" Lady Amory cried.
"My dear, there is no danger for me. I hold the key of the situation in my hands."
"Your rashness is sinful," Lady Amory went on. "It was always the same with you. I implore, I insist that one of these gentlemen——"
There was a sudden commotion outside, and the door was flung open. Vera Amory stood there, her face white and agitated, and her breast heaved painfully as if she had run far and fast. There was a hint of alarm in her eyes, of fear that had been struggled with but not altogether conquered. A long sigh of relief rose tremblingly to her lips. Ronald moved towards her tenderly, and anxiously she put her hand in his.
"Oh, if you only knew the relief of finding you here!" she gasped. "I had to come. It was absolutely necessary that somebody should come, and there was none I could trust."
"Something terrible has happened?" Ronald asked.
"I am afraid so," Vera said. She was recovering from her exhaustion, and the colour was creeping back into her cheeks. "I ran all the way. I knew that my brother was here, and I guessed that Lady Amory had come, too. Dick, it is your father."
"Has anything happened to him?" Dick asked.
"He has had a seizure. He was talking to me quite naturally when the stroke came suddenly. Oh, it was horrible! He asked for you, and seemed dreadfully anxious to see you about something without delay. Even after the doctor came, and he was only partially conscious, he moaned for you. It sounded like some business of the last importance. They telephoned for a nurse from Shoremouth—But you must come."
Dick listened with a miserable and wan face. He was not bad at heart. In his selfish way he was fond of his father. Still, this looked like the destruction of his elaborate plans for his own safety. He would have to appear openly at Oversands, and might even be needed at the bank to-morrow. The mere thought of it drove the blood from his face and set him trembling.
Ronald watched this hesitation with impatience and contempt. "There is no occasion to say more," he said. "We will all come."
They departed presently, leaving De Villier alone. He appeared to be very busy manipulating the box of matches. Lady Amory lingered a moment to say something urgent, but he smiled and shook his head. With a sad expression she turned away, and Dick fell back by her side.
"Why are you hiding, Dick?" she asked.
She spoke normally and sensibly, and appeared to be sane and in full possession of her senses. A sudden hope flared up in Dick's heart.
"Didn't I explain to you?" he whispered. "Let the others go further ahead so that they will not overhear us. Aunt Maria, I am in great trouble. I have done a foolish—a wicked and criminal thing if you like. If I don't get twenty thousand pounds in the next few days, I shall have to go to gaol. I shall not only disgrace the family, but I shall have to suffer imprisonment as well. Do you understand that?"
"Your words are perfectly plain," Lady Amory said. "It is dreadful."
"My dear aunt, you don't know how dreadful. Everybody will talk about it. The shame and humiliation will drive my father and sister from Shoremouth. My father will help me if he can, but that is impossible. He told me certain things a little while ago that opened my eyes to his position. I am sure this seizure is connected with money or the need of it. Can't you help us, aunt?"
Lady Amory laid a long slender hand on her jewelled breast. She understood what Dick was hinting at, and turned to him a face that was wet with tears.
"My dear boy, I would gladly do it, if possible," she said. "For your sake, I would cheerfully sacrifice my last farthing. I want to make this clear so long as my mind is capable of comprehending things. You think I am rich—in reality I am as poor as yourself. I have only a small annuity and the furniture in my cottage——"
"But, the diamonds!" Dick whispered impatiently. "Those wonderful gems of yours! You are wearing enough now to put us on our feet again."
"Shams," Lady Amory said, mournfully, "shams, every one of them. I had them made at a time when the real stones were in my possession; they were made as a protection against thieves. But the real stones lie at the bottom of the quicksands."
"Impossible!" Dick said, incredulously. "You do not understand——"
"My dear boy, I understand only too well," Lady Amory observed. "I want you to believe that what I say is true. Take this!"
She tore one of the glittering ornaments from her breast, and handed it to Dick.
"Take that!" she said. "Look at it. See how it gleams and sparkles even in this light. In the ordinary way it would be worth thousands. Try to sell it; ask any dealer what he would give you for it. Perhaps a hundred pounds, as the paste is good. Oh, I know you think me mad, but I am sensible enough to-night. But I want you to try. You shall have the pick of my jewel-case, if you like. It is the only way to convince you."
She must be mad, Dick thought. Knowing what he knew, he could not credit such a story as this. He held in his hand what represented the price of his freedom. He would go to London with this and convert it into money. The jewel would fetch thousands of pounds, enough to enable him to face the music when Bowen's affair came to be investigated.
"How did it happen?" he asked.
Lady Amory told the same story that De Villier had listened to. He began to understand why the duke was interested in the Red House. So his aunt had imposed this ridiculous legend upon De Villier! It was necessary to keep up the deception.
"I am very sorry," he said; "sorry for your sake as well as mine. What strange happenings in so quiet a place as this! Well, I suppose I must face the situation and do the best I can for myself."
Lady Amory smiled at the cheerfulness of the tone. "You are a brave boy," she said. "All will be well with you yet."
Sir Horace lay on his bed indifferent to all that was going on around him. He seemed suddenly to have grown an old and feeble man. In some mysterious fashion bad news had reached him during the night. Yet earlier in the evening Vera had thought him brighter and more cheerful than usual.
He fretfully put aside the suggestions of his nurses and doctor. He spoke in a low whisper in words that slurred over one another curiously. He wanted his son. He asked for Dick as a tired child asks for its mother. When Dick came the doctor gave a sigh of relief. It was greater fortune than he had expected.
"This is a lucky chance," he said. "I never hoped for this. Your father——"
A sort of angry snarl rose from the bed. The doctor moved towards the door.
"Your presence will do Sir Horace far more good than I can," he whispered. "He has something on his mind which he is anxious to get rid of. When that is done I am sanguine he will sleep. It is the one thing needful."
With a shamefaced air Dick stood by the bedside. It was impossible to believe that this poor wreck was his father. A clearer light shone in Sir Horace's eyes.
"I'm glad you are here, Dick," he said. "You are a good boy to come so quickly. My—my mind isn't what is was—I forget things. Find my keys. They are in my trousers pocket."
Dick produced the keys and held them up for his father to see. He smiled approvingly.
"The small key," Sir Horace went on with an effort—"key of my private safe. Left-hand drawer at the bottom—acceptance in favour of John Kennedy—paid—forgery."
He repeated the last word a score of times, as if to impress it upon Dick's understanding.
"Keep it," he went on. "May be useful. That scoundrel Bastable——"
There was no more, for Sir Horace had collapsed; his eyes were closed, and his face was like death. With a great fear at his heart, Dick summoned the doctor. To his relief the latter looked satisfied.
"No, he's not dead," he whispered; "it's the reaction. I don't want to be inquisitive, but Sir Horace told you what he wanted you to know?"
"Probably he thought so," Dick said. "He seemed to be contented."
"At any rate, it has done him good. I hope he will get a good night's rest now. If he does, he will be much better in the morning. But in cases like this one never can tell. He has a good nurse, and I will look in early to-morrow."
Meanwhile those in the drawing-room had been waiting anxiously for news. The events of the evening had been somewhat trying for Lady Amory, for she sat with her hands in her lap and a far-away expression on her face. Vera regarded her with uneasiness. At the mention of bed, she rose obediently as a child and passed out of the room heedless of anybody. She did not appear to see Ronald at all.
"Did you ever know of a more remarkable household?" Vera asked. "Is anything like it possible outside of fiction?"
"Truth is stranger than fiction," Ronald said, awkwardly. "Is Sir Horace very ill?"
"Well, it depends upon what you call illness. I think his trouble is not physical at all. Strangely enough, he has not been so cheerful and bright for a long time as he was early in the morning. Things have been going badly with him lately; indeed, we had contemplated giving up this house. All at once he became optimistic. I have never seen my father happier than he was when I left him in the dining-room with our guest after dinner. When they came into the drawing-room I noticed the change at once. Yet nobody had called, and there were no letters. The trouble could not have been caused by anything my father heard from the Duc de Villier, because till to-day he was practically a stranger to us. Can you help me, Ronald?"
Ronald warmed at the mention of his name. It was good to feel that Vera reposed confidence in him. Nevertheless, he was conscious that he was resuming the old tender footing by something like false pretences.
"I fancy I might be of use," he said. "I am very much afraid that my father is at the bottom of all this bother. He has made no secret of his dislike for Sir Horace, and has set his heart on getting the land at the other side of the river. It is very awkward for me, Vera. There are certain so-called business methods that——"
"I understand," Vera said, as Ronald paused. "You were always honourable and honest, Ronald. I think I can follow your feelings. Whatever your father is, my brother——"
Ronald took Vera's hand in his and pressed it tenderly. "We both have a burden to bear," he said. "It is one more bond of sympathy between us."
"I—I hope you won't let your pride stand between our friendship, Ronald. What does it matter so long as we can look the world in the face? You are an Amory, you always have been an Amory; there is nothing of Bastable about you but the name."
She was smiling into his face, her whole soul in her eyes. She was telling Ronald more than she knew. It was very quiet in the drawing-room; the shaded lights made a fitting background to it all. With a sudden impulse Ronald placed his hand on Vera's shoulder and drew her towards him. He saw the dainty red rising to her cheeks, and felt the pressure of her hands in his.
"We understand each other, dearest," he whispered.
"Yes, darling," Vera said, in a voice so low that Ronald barely caught the words. "When I saw you again after the lapse of all those years, it seemed as if we had never been parted. Only perhaps you have grown very proud, Ronald."
"Not so proud as I am at this moment," Ronald smiled.
His arm slipped from Vera's shoulder to her waist. She swayed towards him, and as she did so he stooped and kissed her.
"I should like all the world to see that," he said.
"It is not the first time," Vera replied. "It has happened before, Ronald. But you have forgotten."
"I have forgotten nothing," Ronald said. "Everything is as clear to me as if it had happened yesterday. I have never changed my mind. You were my little sweetheart in the old days, and I knew somehow that you would remain faithful to me. But those were times—my father——"
"I thought we had decided to forget that," Vera said. "And oh, Ronald—how thoughtless and selfish you make me! It was your mention of your father. Fancy my talking like this when my father may be—Really, I blush for myself."
She looked so distressed that Ronald kissed her again. They were still talking in low tones when Dick Amory entered. Vera glanced at him anxiously.
"Is father better?" she asked.
"He has gone to sleep," Dick explained. "It was what the doctor desired; he says his patient will be better to-morrow. The nurse is a very capable woman, and there is nothing that you can do except go to bed."
Vera gave a thankful sigh. She was suddenly conscious of feeling dreadfully tired. On the whole it had been the most trying evening she had ever experienced. But at the end of it she had found her life's happiness.
"I think I will," she said. "I need rest. Good-night, dear."
She put up her lips for Ronald to kiss. Dick looked on with dull surprise.
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" he asked, when the door had closed. "So it's like that? Well, it isn't for me to complain. A chap in my position couldn't grumble if his sister chose to marry a decent chimney-sweep. Personally, I'm glad. You're a deuced good fellow, Ronald, and the best friend I ever had. You're a relation on my mother's side, too. But my father will be against it."
"Don't let us meet trouble half-way," Ronald smiled. "How is Sir Horace?"
"Well, Sir Horace is confoundedly bad. His appearance was a positive shock to me. He looked about a hundred years old. But he's worried in his mind. He wanted to tell me something, and was under the impression he had done so. But, really, I failed to get the hang of it. It was some story connected with an acceptance he had given to old Kennedy. This bill must have been duly honoured, for I gather that my father has it in his safe. At any rate, he told me it was there and gave me his keys."
"I happen to know something about that," Ronald replied. "Look here, Dick, it is as well I should be candid with you. My father and yours are deadly enemies. My father wants to compel Sir Horace to sell the land across the river for a golf links. As old Kennedy's trustee, he knew all about the acceptance. He was going to hold his hand to the last moment, and then force Sir Horace to pay or issue a writ. I thought it mean and dishonourable, and warned Sir Horace of what was going on. Well, he knew the money had to be found; he found it."
"But he said something about a forgery," Dick said.
Ronald's face grew pale. A haunting fear possessed him. He was seeing more in this than was clear to Dick Amory.
"Do you mean to say that he said the bill was a forgery?" he asked.
"That was about the size of it, so far as I could gather. The acceptance was a forgery. But that only complicates matters. Why should your father, who has had a business training, be such a fool as to pay £20,000 to meet a bill that was a forgery? That is what we shall have to find out. The more I think over this affair, the more puzzled I am. We seem to be surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery. What are these people doing at the Red House? What is the connection between them and my aunt? Again, what is the significance of those matches which one is always coming across at the Red House? And now Lady Amory tells me she has no jewels at all, and that her gems are at the bottom of the quicksands. Upon my word it is enough to turn one's brain."
But Ronald was only following this vaguely. His mind was fixed upon that part of Dick's story which dealt with the acceptance drawn in favour of old John Kennedy. How could the thing be a forgery? Sir Horace must be wandering in his mind. His troubles had been too much for him, and his brain had given way. It was notorious that association with lunacy is a dangerous thing, and constant contact with Lady Amory had not been without its effect.
"Can you see to the bottom of it?" Dick asked abruptly.
"At present, no," Ronald replied. "I am as much in the dark as you. Possibly my father may be able to throw some light on the matter. You need not be afraid that I shall say anything calculated to do you harm. You will go down to the bank to-morrow?"
Amory nodded moodily. He was busy thinking of his own trouble again.
"I must," he said. "Everybody will know in a few hours that I am back again. It's a risk, but I can see no way out of it. I shall have to run up to London in the evening on a matter of business, but I shall be back next day."
Ronald looked at the clock. It was long past midnight, and he was getting tired. Besides, he wanted to be alone to think over the recent complication. He wanted to try to puzzle out what his father was doing in the matter. He reached the road presently which connected the main way to Shoremouth with the path to the quicksands and the Red House. As he reached the spot a man passed him walking towards the town. There was something familiar about the figure, and Ronald hailed him.
"Inspector Kite!" he called out.
Kite faced round suddenly and recognised Ronald in his turn.
"The same, sir," he said. "Odd we should meet like this. But I had forgotten that your home is here."
"I presume that you have come on business?" Ronald suggested.
"Well, yes," Kite said, guardedly, "and a business in which you are interested. I have come to arrest a man on a charge of being concerned in the kidnapping of Mr. Bowen. The man I want calls himself Count Henri de Lava."
Dick Amory woke next morning to a full understanding of his responsibilities. The sense of misery and anxiety lay heavy upon him. He was feeling nothing in the way of remorse or regret, and was thinking only of himself, and how he could get out of his troubles. Like most sanguine spirits, he had a plan of escape, and was inclined to doubt the truth of Lady Amory's statement as to the fate of the jewels. The poor woman was mad, and had not the least idea what she was talking about. It was a delusion of hers that the priceless gems had been cast into the maw of the quicksands. She firmly believed such was the case, but she must be in error.
Dick stood before the window in his dressing-room holding the diamond his aunt had given him up to the light. He was no judge of such things, though he flattered himself that he knew enough to tell the true from the false. How the thing flashed and glittered, how deep was the blue and yellow flame that lay in its depths. Surely an expert would not hesitate to pronounce it genuine.
Still, Lady Amory's story had sounded natural enough as she told it. The Duc de Villier, too, was familiar with all these details; but, with his sanguine temperament, Dick was enamoured of his own theory. He had come to believe that he held in his hand the key to the door that would lead him past all his troubles. He would sell the beautiful thing for a large sum of money.
He went down to breakfast presently in quite an amiable frame of mind. Vera was seated in the morning-room awaiting him.
"How's the governor!" Dick asked, carelessly.
"Better, they say," Vera replied. "He does not seem so anxious this morning, and is inclined to sleep a great deal. The nurse thinks we had better keep out of his room as much as possible. I fancy he is going on all right. But it is a very miserable state of affairs."
"I daresay it will all come right," Dick said, cheerfully. "After all, the governor is much better off than I am."
A look of pain and reproach crossed Vera's face. "Why do you talk like that?" she asked. "Have you no shame? Anybody might think you were proud to find yourself in your present position. Surely we have trouble enough as it is."
Dick helped himself to more ham. "Don't worry about me," he said. "Give me another cup of coffee. I shall be all right. In fact, I am clear now."
In spite of her anxiety, Vera could not repress a smile. "Always the same," she said—"always doing silly things and hoping to escape the consequences. How can your position have improved since last night?"
"Well, it has," Dick said, with a lapse into his sullen manner. "I have had a slice of good luck, though it is too early to speak of it yet. Don't worry about me, Vera—I will bring no disgrace on the family. From what I saw last night, you will have your own hands pretty full before long."
The hot blood flamed into Vera's cheeks.
"You are alluding to Ronald Bastable?"
"That's it. What will the governor say when he hears you are going to marry the son of his old servant, Joe Bastable? Bastable the bounder—Bastable who, under another name, is one of the most notorious money-lending bloodsuckers in England! Oh, I know that because I have been in the brute's clutches myself."
Vera listened calmly. Joseph Bastable could be no worse than she imagined him to be. But Ronald's father had nothing to do with the matter. The misfortune was Ronald's, and she loved him the more for it.
"It is a question that I shall decide for myself," she said, quietly. "There is disgrace on both sides of the family."
Dick said no more. He was feeling less elated as he made his way into Shoremouth. He was greeted on all sides by acquaintances anxious to hear the latest bulletin about Sir Horace. Others, of the boon-companion type, were curious to know why Dick had not been home for so long. Strange stories were afloat in connection with Dick and the "Safe Mystery." He was feeling more and more uncomfortable and alarmed as he reached the bank. The chief cashier, a man who had grown grey in the service of the Amorys, greeted him somewhat coldly.
"What can we do for you, Mr. Richard?" he asked.
"Oh, don't be alarmed, Pemberton," Dick said, airily. "You need not be afraid that I came here to loot the safe. My father thought it would be as well for one of us to be about the premises. I won't interfere with you. To be quite candid, I came to get a paper from the governor's safe. I suppose you have no objection to that?"
Old Pemberton began to feel easier in his mind. "Certainly not, Mr. Richard," he said. "I hope Sir Horace is better?"
Dick swaggered into the private office, and proceeded to overhaul the safe, but every drawer had its own particular key, and Dick could only open one of them. In it lay a strip of oblong blue paper, which Dick regarded with intense curiosity. It was the acceptance for £20,000 drawn in favour of John Kennedy, and duly cancelled on behalf of his bankers. Dick wondered why his father had kept this, seeing that it had been paid. What had Sir Horace meant when he said that the bill was a forgery? As a business man he would not have parted with so valuable a consideration as £20,000 for a forgery. There was nothing of the diplomat about him, either. He was the last man in the world to plot and scheme, or even intrigue for his own advantage.
Dick turned the blue strip over and over in his hands. He was a great fool in some matters, especially where money was concerned, but in the matter of trickery and cunning he had little to learn; he had lived too long in the wrong set for that. In his own language, he prided himself as being up to every move on the board.
The puzzled expression on his face gave way presently to a smile. The bill was dated six months before, as Dick saw at a glance. As his eye fell on the inland revenue stamp in the corner he smiled again. He placed the strip of paper carefully away in his pocket-book and reached for his hat. A few moments later and he was in the rival bank asking for the favour of a few moments' interview with Mr. Bastable.
Bastable sprawled in his chair, a grim smile on his coarse, red face. "This is an unexpected pleasure," he said. "Why do you want to see me? Are you trying to arrange for bail in the early future? Do you expect me to become security for you when you make your appearance before the London magistrate?"
The brutal sneer passed over Dick's head. In the ordinary way he was horribly afraid of the man, but not to-day. He had too much confidence in the weapon he carried. He felt like the man who matches a revolver against a club.
"I wasn't thinking of that," he said. "But your mention of the word security gives me an idea. I want to borrow some money. Would De la Pole be any good?"
Bastable's face darkened. "What do you mean by that?" he asked.
"Oh, you know what I mean well enough. I've found you out, Bastable. It's not a bit of use to tell me a parcel of lies. What a fine piece of scandal for Shoremouth! To think that that pillar of respectability, Joe Bastable, should be one and the same person as De la Pole, the poisonous scamp who has been lashed in every newspaper in England! Fancy the Mayor-elect of Shoremouth lending money at 100 per cent., and robbing poor wretched clerks of fees for advances he never meant to make. Upon my word, I'm paying you a compliment by speaking to you at all."
The veins stood out like cords on Bastable's forehead. He made a movement in Dick's direction. The latter smiled as he watched him.
"None of that," he said; "none of that, or it will be the worse for you. Upon my word, it's lucky you have a son like Ronald. If it hadn't been for him this story would have been all over Shoremouth long ago."
Bastable dropped back in his seat again. This, clearly, was a case when his blustering, bullying methods would be useless. Nothing short of murder would suffice.
"Do you want me to proceed against you for criminal libel?" he asked.
"Rather!" Dick retorted. "Nothing would please me better. I am able to prove every word that I say. You have ruined me, and if I go down you will go down too. With all your brag and impudence, you would not dare to show your face in Shoremouth if this came out. This is not the worst—that is not the worst, Joseph Bastable."
"Oh, so there is something more?" Bastable said, sourly. "Let me hear it."
"Well, I'll tell you some of it. I've been going over a few of my father's papers—at his request, mind—and found an acceptance drawn in favour of old Kennedy by my father for £20,000. Now, my father is not well enough at present to be worried with business, but it strikes me as a strange thing that Sir Horace should redeem a bill drawn and accepted six months ago on a bill stamp dated only six weeks since!"
Bastable leaped to his feet. A startled expression escaped his lips. For the moment he had forgotten himself. He was a flame of madness, intoxicated with fury, longing to have the fool responsible for this by the throat and choke the life out of him. But with it all he was raging with impatience at himself.
"John Turk!" he roared. "Oh, John Turk, if I had you——"
Then he paused. What insanity possessed him this morning! He was actually making matters a thousand times worse! And this fool of an Amory was sitting opposite to him with frank enjoyment of the situation. He forced himself to be calm, to summon a smile to his face. The effort sent the blood humming through his veins and brought a mist before his eyes.
"Let me have a look at the bill?" he asked.
"I think not," Dick said, calmly. "The bill is safe. Perhaps I have made a mountain out of a molehill, perhaps not."
"If you would allow me to help you," Bastable began, "possibly——"
"No need, Bastable, no need," Dick said, loftily. "My affairs are in an exceedingly prosperous condition. When I am in pressing need of money I will obtain assistance from that genial philanthropist, Godfrey de la Pole."
With this parting shot, Dick swung out of the office. Not for a long time past had he been on such good terms with himself. As he turned into the High-street he saw little knots of people gathered together eagerly discussing some matter. He detached an acquaintance.
"What's up?" he asked. "Someone been murdered?"
"It looks like it," the other said. "They tell me that the dead body of a man has been found in the Red House. No details at present."
Ronald had been looking forward to a good night's rest, for he had had a trying time of it lately. But all desire that way vanished now. He was instantly alert again. A peculiar smile trembled on his lips. There was comedy as well as tragedy in the situation, though Kite was not aware of the fact. In connection with the disappearance of Bowen, Ronald had a theory of his own, but on this point he had not yet said anything. Neither did he intend to enlighten Kite at that moment.
"You think that De Lava is at the bottom of it?" he asked.
"I fancy so; in fact, I am pretty sure of it," Kite replied. "De Lava is a man whom we have had under observation for some time. Our attention was first drawn to him by the Italian police. He comes from Sicily, and is of a very good family. He was mixed up in one of those blood feuds which are still a feature of the island, and only his family influence saved him. He is implicated in more than one murder, but in Sicily these things are hardly recognised as capital crimes. Finally, De Lava had to fly when the influence of his party waned and his opponents came out on top. He is an extravagant fellow, and needs a deal of money, and is not in the least particular as to how he gets it. We believe that he is the instigator of several successful swindles of late, but have not been able to bring them home to him."
"How do you identify him with the Bowen affair?" Ronald asked.
"By a piece of carelessness on his part," Kite explained. "It is strange how careless the most cunning criminal can be at times. They are a vain lot, as a rule, and this is one of the greatest assets in our favour. The man is fond of jewellery."
Ronald smiled. He had noticed that, indeed, it was De Lava's weakness for jewellery that had led him on the right track from the first.
"He has a wonderful diamond and ruby marquise ring," he said.
"Precisely what we noticed," Kite answered. "It seems almost incredible, doesn't it? Here is a distinguished criminal who labels himself in this fashion all because he cannot resist the temptation to make a display. If you remember, the man who was seen in Bowen's office on the day he disappeared was wearing a marquise ring. The fact gets into the papers, and yet De Lava is not warned. He is subsequently seen in a fashionable West End restaurant wearing the ring, and the fact comes to our ears. Naturally we keep an eye upon him and make inquiries. The inquiries lead us down here, where we find him staying at a good hotel with a companion called Sexton."
"Is there anything against Sexton?" Ronald asked.
"Not so far as we know at present," Kite went on. "Sexton may be one of his victims, though personally I doubt it. I fancy we shall find him in his hotel. Come!"
Sexton was seated in the depths of an armchair reading a book when the unexpected guests entered. He jumped to his feet, pale and agitated. His eyes blinked behind his glasses in a helpless manner; his face was ghastly and wet with terror.
"What—what is the meaning of this?" he stammered.
The attempt at bluster was poor enough, for he was shaking from head to foot.
"It is a liberty, sir," Kite said, smoothly. "But there is no help for it. I am here from Scotland Yard, and my name is Kite."
Sexton collapsed into his chair. There was something pitiable in his efforts to keep his features under control.
"What has that to do with me?" he demanded. "My name is Sexton, and——"
"I am well aware of that," Kite went on. "Now, sir, you can save yourself much unpleasantness if you will be guided by me. You are the friend of Count de Lava, and, therefore, we regard you with some suspicion. In fact, I am here to arrest Count Henri de Lava."
"Bless my soul!" Sexton stammered. "What for?"
"On suspicion of being concerned in the disappearance of Mr. Arthur Bowen, the solicitor. We believe he was the man who kidnapped that gentleman."
Sexton suddenly ceased to tremble and shiver. The twitching of his muscles ceased, and the colour crept slowly back into his cheeks. Something like a laugh broke from his lips. The laugh became more and more pronounced, till finally he threw his head backwards and roared with amusement. The subtlety of the exquisite joke brought tears into his eyes. Then he grew grave as he saw the other regarding him intently.
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen," he gasped. "Really, I apologise for my rudeness. But the thing is so comical. The idea of De Lava being mixed up in a matter like that tickles me. How the count will enjoy it!"
"He shall have the opportunity," Kite said. "The whole thing may seem absurd, but I am pretty sure of my ground. I am so sure of my ground that unless you give me every assistance I shall arrest you on suspicion of being an accomplice."
Sexton's mood changed abruptly. He was showing signs of terror again.
"Once more I beg your pardon," he said. "I see you are serious. The count is at the Red House. He has taken the place for some experiments, or he means to take it. Any tenant would be welcomed, I should say. He is there now. I will accompany you, if you like, and you shall be convinced from his own lips what a mistake you have made. Late as it is, I will go with you."
Sexton fussed into his hat and coat with an air of importance. He appeared to be restless and excited, and chatted in a nervous manner as he strode along with the others. But he was quiet by the time the Red House was reached. From the edge of one of the windows a long thin stream of light gleamed, and voices could be heard within as the three approached. For the first time Sexton hung back and hesitated.
"Perhaps you had better let me go first and prepare the count," he said.
"Can't do it," Kite said, curtly. "Out of the question altogether. I have not come to take risks of that kind, Mr. Sexton."
Sexton began to bluster again between teeth that chattered. The voices inside the house grew louder and more threatening, as if a quarrel were in progress. Then came a shout and a curse, following a blow that was succeeded by the quick cry of a man sorely pressed, and almost immediately the light in the dining-room vanished. A figure dashed from the back of the house towards the sandhills.
"Come on!" Kite yelled. "He's got the tip somehow. He'll escape us."
"Better search the house first," Ronald suggested. "It's too dark, and he is too far away by this time——"
He struck a match as he spoke and entered the dining-room. The lamp had been upset, but the pair of candles stood on the mantelshelf. A dark figure lay huddled on the floor.
"You are quite right, sir," Kite muttered. "Looks as if he had escaped us after all."
SEXTON stood shivering and evidently anxious to be gone. But Kite fixed a cold eye upon him, and he changed his mind. Ronald proceeded to light the lamp. The blaze flooded the room and picked out every object distinctly. So far as Ronald could see, the table had not been disturbed. Certainly nobody had supped there, for the plates were still clean, and the silver and cutlery lay in order by their sides. But the lamp had been upset, one or two broken glasses lay about, and a box of matches had been spilt upon the floor.
In front of the fireplace a figure lay flat on his back with hands to the sides. A plain steel dagger was plunged to the hilt in the unfortunate man's heart, and just under it lay five matches disposed in the form of a dagger. Ronald wondered where he had seen this sign before. It flashed across him presently.
"This is the man you have been looking for," Ronald whispered.
Kite gazed coolly into the dead man's face.
"I must take your word for it, sir," he said. "As a matter of fact, I had never seen the man. But the ring is there all right."
He indicated De Lava's hand, where the marquise ring sparkled in the lamplight. Sexton groaned and turned away his head. Ronald pointed significantly to the neatly arranged matches on the dead man's breast.
"Do these things convey anything to you?" he asked.
"Look strange, don't they?" Kite replied. "Sort of thing you read of in sensational stories. Very ingenious, though. Much better than elaborate signs that cost money and are not easily procurable. Now, matches can be obtained anywhere, and, moreover, are not calculated to attract attention."
"That arrangement is," Ronald said.
"Meant to do so," Kite said, professionally. "It is a hint that the society has accomplished its work. Certain to get into the papers and so advertise headquarters, thereby saving the despatch of dangerous letters. It also serves as a warning to members likely to kick against the authorities."
"You think some secret society has been at work?"
"I am sure of it. In fact, I can tell you the name of the society. It is the Red Section of the Knights of Antonia, in Sicily. There are two sections, the Red and the Blue, and each is sworn to wipe the other out. It isn't a bad notion, for it saves the police trouble, and these ruffians are ridding the island of themselves by a process of gradual extinction. I studied the whole matter years ago in Paris, and am rather an authority at this kind of thing. De Lava was a traitor to his section. This is the traitor's sign over his heart. But we are wasting time."
"The criminals are not far off," Ronald suggested.
"They are far enough off for all practical purposes," Kite said. "We shall never lay hands upon them, and, between ourselves, we don't trouble ourselves excessively in such cases. From our point of view, villains like De Lava are best removed."
He bent down coolly and began to search De Lava's pockets. He produced a purse with a little money, an empty pocket-book, and lastly a bundle of letters, which mostly consisted of unpaid bills, applications for money, and a loose cheque carelessly folded. Kite raised his eyebrows as he looked at the pink slip, which he handed to Ronald.
"The count does not seem to be a total stranger here," he said. "Will you be good enough to tell me who drew this cheque, Mr. Bastable?"
Ronald stood open-mouthed with the draft in his hand.
"My father," he exclaimed. "A cheque for five hundred pounds! Extraordinary!"
Kite turned at a cry from Sexton. It sounded like a cry of annoyance.
"Have you anything to say, Mr. Sexton?" the officer asked politely.
"I was only surprised," Sexton said. "De Lava should have paid that cheque into his account as soon as he got it. I know that he was overdrawn, and that he had given a cheque for our hotel bill knowing there were no funds to meet it. I have known him do a stupid thing like that more than once."
"The count was an old friend of yours?"
"I have known him for some years. We met in a business way."
"Then probably you know something about this affair. Can you tell us how he comes to have Mr. Bastable's cheque in his pocket? Unless it is a forgery."
"It is no forgery," Sexton cried, angrily. "I am certain of that. As to the rest, I can tell you nothing. I know De Lava had—had some dealings with Mr. Bastable, and he told me he had money to come."
Ronald listened unconvinced. He did not believe the man was telling the truth; at any rate, he was concealing something. He had an uncomfortable feeling, however, that his father could throw light upon this fresh mystery. Kite, on the other hand, appeared to be satisfied, for he was examining the letters he had taken from De Lava's pocket. One of them seemed to interest him greatly.
"I have a few more questions to ask you," he said, turning to Sexton. "I have already told you why I had made up my mind to arrest Count de Lava. He was wanted in connection with the disappearance of Bowen, the solicitor. Now, will you be so good as to cast your eye over this telegram? I presume that it comes from you?"
Sexton took the flimsy paper in his hand. It was brief and to the point:—
"Wednesday at 1.15 sharp.
Both out of the way.
"Do you remember sending that telegram?" Kite asked.
Sexton fumbled the paper in his shaky fingers, and glanced suspiciously at Kite. Evidently he suspected some trap. Inwardly he was cursing the folly of De Lava in keeping such useless but highly incriminating documents. Still, his name appeared on it, and denial would be futile.
"I sent it," he said, as if the words were dragged from him. "I—I forget what it was about. Some little matter of business probably. Surely there is no harm——"
"No, there is no harm," Kite went on casually. "But, you see, it was on Wednesday that Bowen was kidnapped from his office, and the time was a-quarter past one as near as possible. Both clerks were out of the way. I may be wrong, but that is my reading of the message. It may be more than a mere coincidence. But it is enough to justify me in detaining you on suspicion of being concerned in the abduction from Ivy Court."
Sexton smiled, much as he had smiled an hour ago in his private sitting-room in the hotel. A similar cackle of hysterical laughter broke from his lips. Then he grew grave once more. The situation was sufficiently serious.
"You are wrong, inspector," he said. "If Mr. Bowen ever turns up again he will exonerate me at once. He is an old friend, and would do anything for me. That telegram is only a coincidence."
But Kite was not listening. He was reading one of the letters. There was just the trace of a smile on his face as he finished.
"It's no good, Mr. Sexton," he said. "The more I go into the affair the blacker it looks against you. Now, glance at this letter."
Sexton did so. As his eyes fell on the sheet he groaned and staggered. He gave a gesture towards the inspector as if asking him to read the letter aloud.
"Very well, I will," Kite said. "Now listen to this, please."
"'Dear De Lava,
"'Wednesday will do capitally. I have left all the details to you so far as your end of the business is concerned. One of the clerks will be sent off into the country, so that he cannot be back till lunch at one and does not return for an hour. So there will be ample time for everything. Your scheme as to the van is excellent. There is an audacity about the thing that is certain to make for success. This strikes me as being better than anything underhanded. The trouble will be the safe, but your plan of grappling with that is great.
"'I shall wait for you as arranged, but in case of accident don't move till you get a wire from me, one never can quite foresee everything. I'll telegraph on Tuesday evening if everything is going properly. After that, we can make for Shoremouth and try your scheme for recovering—you know what.
Sexton lost all control of himself. "The fool! The idiot!" he burst out. "De Lava must have been drunk or mad. Nobody but a madman would have carried a letter like that in his pocket. Inspector, it is useless to make further protest. I see you mean to arrest me for a presumed share in the kidnapping of Mr. Bowen, and, from your point of view, you can do nothing else. But I am prepared to swear that you are making a mistake, seeing that a man could hardly—but no matter."
Sexton dropped sulkily into a chair. Yet moody and despondent as he was, ever and again a grin spread over his face, and he seemed to have much difficulty in concealing some queer form of amusement. Ronald watched him in a puzzled way.
"Not much use staying here," Kite said. "Even if I search the house, I shall find no trace of the criminals. I'll lock up the place and inform the police in Shoremouth. I'll ask them to send a couple of men here. I am sorry to have to detain you, Mr. Sexton, but my duty is plain."
Sexton rose with a groan. Once more the convulsive grin galvanised his gloomy face into life. Then he sighed dismally as he followed. A sleepy sergeant of police at Shoremouth grew alert and vigilant as he listened to Kite's story. A couple of men should be despatched to the Red House at once, he promised.
"And you had better come this way," he remarked to Sexton.
Sexton saw nothing for it but to comply. He found himself presently in a narrow cell with a bed in one corner. Certain things he asked were provided. Was it too late to write a letter?
"You can write a letter," the sergeant said. "I'll get it delivered for you in the morning. You need not be afraid of its being opened. You are not a prisoner yet, you are merely detained on suspicion."
For some time Sexton scribbled away at his letter, with many a dash and underlined words, and then handed it to the officer.
"If you can have that delivered by breakfast time, I shall be obliged," he said.
The officer took the letter and withdrew. He whistled as he read the name on the envelope. The note was addressed to Richard Amory, Esquire, and marked "Urgent."
Dick Amory came down to breakfast with a feeling that the world was by no means so bleak and barren a place as he had thought it. It was a pleasing reflection that he had got the better of so astute a person as Joseph Bastable. He had the whip hand of that gentleman, and might compel him to help him out of some of his most pressing difficulties.
It was rather late, and he had the breakfast-room to himself. His father was better, but still very queer and misty in his head, so that it was deemed advisable to keep him from seeing anybody for the present. It was a great nuisance, of course, from Dick's point of view, especially as he would have liked a little more light on that forged acceptance. It was a good weapon, but it might so easily be made into a better.
But, on the whole, Dick tackled breakfast with a keen appetite. The healthy pangs vanished, however, and the upraised coffee-cup clattered into the saucer, as Dick caught sight of a letter by his plate. The mere handwriting struck a cold chill to his heart.
"More worries!" he muttered. "What's amiss now?"
With shaking fingers he tore off the cover. It needed no foresight to tell him that this was bad news, but he was not prepared for the stunning gravity of it. He read the letter again and again until its full import came home to him. He pushed his now useless plate aside, and planted his head on both his upturned hands.
"Great Scott, what a complication!" he groaned. "Now, who could have foreseen such a hideous muddle as this? It makes one cold even to think of it. And yet, upon my word, I never heard of anything more amusing in the wildest farce. If it were anybody else's case it would tickle me to death. But I shall have to go—I shall have to go, if only for my own sake."
With an air of insolence and swagger not too easily affected, Amory called at the police station an hour later and asked to see Mr. Sexton. The interview was a long one, and when it was over he left hurriedly for London.
Dick breathed more easily as he neared London. He was glad to get away from Shoremouth if only for a few hours. There were particular reasons why he wanted to be beyond the reach of Mr. Sexton. After he had transacted his business, he wrote his letters and spent half an hour at his club. Then he called a taxi-cab and drove to one of the leading jewellers in Bond-street. He lounged into the private office with the air of a customer of importance.
"What can I do for you, sir?" the proprietor asked.
Dick produced the paste ornament from his pockets. "This belongs to my aunt, Lady Amory," he said. "I am Mr. Richard Amory. I shall be glad if you will make a close examination of this and tell me what it will cost to duplicate it. My aunt may need a copy."
The jeweller took the ornament to the light. He came back presently and deposited it on the table before him tenderly and cautiously.
"We could do it, sir," he said, "for £11,000. These are very fine stones. They would not be very easy to match."
"As much as that?" Dick gasped.
"Quite, sir. I would give £10,000 for the stones as they stand, and should consider I had made a good deal with you."
Dazed and stunned, and yet wildly jubilant, Dick stumbled out of the shop a few minutes later. His voice shook as he spoke to the driver.
"Attenborough's," he said, huskily. "Go to the nearest branch. What a piece of luck, to be sure!"
The inquest on the body of Count Henri de Lava was fixed for four o'clock at the Town Hall. The room was full when Bastable got there, but people made way for him instantly. Perhaps they knew that he would push by them in any case. The inquiry had already begun when he took his seat at the solicitor's table. Inspector Kite was giving evidence.
"I came here on business connected with the deceased," he said. "In fact, I came to arrest Count Henri de Lava."
"In connection with another matter?" the coroner asked.
"Precisely, sir," Kite went on. "I had reason to believe that the Count was concerned in the 'Safe' affair—I mean the strange disappearance of Mr. Arthur Bowen, the London solicitor who was kidnapped from his office in Ivy Court."
"Does one matter involve the other?" the coroner asked.
"To a certain extent, sir. It may be remembered that one of the men suspected of being in the 'Safe' case wore a peculiar diamond and ruby marquise ring. The deceased had a ring of precisely the same pattern. The count was also mixed up with a set of Continental criminals of the worst type. But it was the ring that gave us the clue. I have it in my pocket. Would you like to see it, sir?"
The coroner was curious. Ronald Bastable handled the ring as he passed it up to the presiding official. One glance was enough for him—it was the very image, the twin brother, so to speak, of the ring worn by Lady Amory. No doubt there were two of them, but it would be time enough later to go into that matter.
"I took the ring from the finger of the dead man," Kite went on. "I removed it as he lay on the floor of the dining-room in the Red House. There were papers in the pocket of the count that justified my belief that he was connected with the disappearance of Mr. Bowen. One of these letters and a telegram were from Mr. Sexton."
"Who is Mr. Sexton?" the coroner asked.
"A friend and ally of the count's," Kite proceeded to explain. "This gentleman is being detained on suspicion of being connected with the same case. In the interests of justice, I should object to the documents being made public just yet, but I should like you to see them, sir."
The coroner perused the letters gravely. "Quite right, Inspector Kite," he said. "Your justification is well established. I suppose there was no suggestion of any quarrel between the dead man and Mr.—Mr.——"
"Sexton. No, sir. Mr. Sexton was with us when we found the body. I have every reason to believe the crime is the work of a foreign secret society. I think that I shall be able to prove that to your satisfaction. The count had been stabbed to the heart with a dagger, which I produce. On the breast, immediately below the wound, I found the sign of the society. I am well posted in that kind of thing, and shall be glad to explain to you, sir. I should like a box of matches."
The excited spectators were getting good value for their attendance. They followed Kite's story and his exposition with the five matches breathlessly. This was something which would fill the daily papers to-morrow. The excitement became still more intense when at length Kite stood down and Joseph Bastable was called.
He stood there, big, important, and inclined to be defiant. The coroner was holding a pink slip of paper in his hand.
"I am sorry to trouble you, Mr. Bastable," he said, "but it seems that you can give us some information concerning this strange case. This cheque was found in the pocket of the dead man. It appears to bear your signature. Did you sign it, or is it a forgery?"
Bastable hesitated a moment. The coroner was offering him an exceedingly simple way out. It would be easy to deny his handwriting. Nobody could prove anything to the contrary. But Sexton was sitting there looking on eagerly. Unfortunately, it was impossible to guess how much Sexton knew. There was nothing for it but an ingenious story.
"It is my cheque," Bastable said. A story flashed into his mind. "Whatever the count may have been otherwise, he was a clever scientist. He came to me with plans for a new aeroplane. I was interested, and consented to find some money for further experiments. That is the history of the cheque."
It sounded simple and convincing. The spectators were frankly disappointed. They had expected something more than this. One two more questions of no significance from the coroner, and Joseph Bastable stepped down. He thought he had got out of it easier than he had expected. In addition he had his money back. Still, he would have felt more contented and easier in his mind had he not noticed the uneasy grin on Sexton's face. The latter was smiling as if something amused him greatly.
Excitement began to rise again as Ronald came forward. It occurred to more than one of the audience how strange it was that both father and son should be involved in the affair. But nothing very sensational was to be got out of Ronald, after all. To a great extent he could do no more than corroborate Inspector Kite's evidence. When he left the witness-box he took a seat by his father's side, at Bastable's instigation.
"It's all very well," the latter growled. "Of course, this business does not affect us in other ways, but I should like to know how you got in touch with this fellow Kite. You seem to have been knocking about with him day and night, as if you were in the profession yourself. I should like to know what it has to do with you."
Ronald shook his head politely but firmly. "That I cannot tell you at present," he said. "I am concerned for a friend who prefers not to appear just now. You shall know everything in good time father. But there is more here than meets the eye, and——"
But Bastable was not listening. Above the murmurs of voices a name struck on his ear—a name that he had forgotten years ago. It struck him almost with the force of a blow. It appealed to him all the more because it came from Kite's lips. The coroner stared unaffectedly. He was a local man, and for years had been au fait in local affairs.
"I don't quite understand, inspector," he said. "You said that you proposed to call another witness who would tell us something of the actual crime. Did you say Josiah Batter?"
The audience broke out into loud murmurs of astonishment. Josiah Batter had been dead for years. He had died in the service of Amory's Bank. He was a sort of hero in his way.
"That is the name, sir," Kite said. "I had the statement from his own lips this morning. Call Josiah Batter."
The name resounded through the room. It sounded weird and strange to the people to whom the name had long been only a memory. Bastable stared with hard, dry eyes at that part of the crowd where stir and movement were going on. Then there emerged a little man, broken and grey, and dirty, who came forward with an air of apology.
"By heavens, it is Josiah Batter right enough!" Bastable whispered, hoarsely.
His heart was beating violently, and his forehead was wet. He reached out a shaking hand for a glass of water on the table in front of him, and drained it to the last drop.
It was some time before Dick was sufficiently composed to appreciate the full extent of his good fortune. There was no longer any doubt that the stones were genuine. It was not likely that an expert would make a mistake. Moreover, the stones belonged to him—had been openly and frankly given to him by Lady Amory. In the whole history of pure blind luck, Dick had never heard anything to equal this. Lady Amory's jewels had been cast into the quicksands by her sister in a fit of madness, and by a mere chance one of the genuine ornaments had been overlooked. By a still blessed chance, out of the mass of glittering rubbish the real jewel had passed into his possession.
Dick's head swam as he thought of it. With this money he could face his creditors! He could not pay them all, but he would meet Herepath and Butler now, and get rid of their client.
"I wonder if there is another piece of equally good stuff amongst that lot?" Dick ruminated as he drove along. "A bit of luck like this is often followed by another. Blest if I don't find out before I sleep to-night. It will be a jolly good thing for Bowen as well as myself."
The verdict at Attenborough's only seemed to confirm the opinion of the expert in Bond-street. Dick was somewhat surprised to find that the representative who attended him had much information on the subject of Lady Amory and her gems.
"It is our business to know these things," he said. "Oh, yes, we should be willing to allow you £8500 on this article. Would you prefer notes or gold?"
"I'll take your cheque," Dick said. "I am in no immediate need of cash."
He drove back to the office and posted the cheque to his banker. He had not felt so light-hearted for many a day. He was half inclined to stay in town and make a night of it with some of the old gang, but he resisted the temptation. That would mean cards and possibly something in the nature of a heavy gamble. Dick had lost most of his money in that way, and he had had a lesson lately. He put the impulse fairly aside, and wrote a letter to Herepath and Butler making an appointment for the following day. He felt he would be able to meet them on their own ground.
It was getting late before he reached Shoremouth—too late for dinner at Oversands. He would go to the club and have a chat there instead. He strolled into the smoking-room, which was full of excited members discussing the dramatic events of the afternoon. A knot of loungers buzzed about him.
"Why this sudden popularity?" Dick asked, quietly.
"Just as if you didn't know," an acquaintance protested. "Did you hear anything of it before? Were you aware that he was not dead?"
"Ask me an easy one!" Dick exclaimed. "Something has happened outside my knowledge. Who has turned up? I've been in London all day, and only just got back."
"That accounts for it," the first speaker said. "I mean old Josiah Batter. The man we have regarded as dead for years, you know."
"The hero who died for us at the post of duty fifteen years since? Well, go on."
"He's turned up again. The police arrested him by the Red House soon after the murder was discovered. Evidently took him for one of the criminals. He was able to prove his innocence so far as that was concerned, but it seems that he was practically a witness of the deed. Gave the most dramatic evidence this afternoon. Hasn't been so much excitement in Shoremouth since the place was a smuggling village. I thought that perhaps you knew all about it."
Dick listened with undisguised amazement. "All news to me," he said. "Like everybody else, I thought Batter was at the bottom of the quicksands years ago. He was lost when conveying a large sum of money in gold that we were sending secretly to the assistance of another bank. But if this means anything, it means that Batter stole the money and skipped with it. It was the more singular because he was not alone at the time. As a matter of fact, Jo——"
Dick paused, suddenly conscious that Ronald Bastable was one of his audience. Joseph Bastable had been with Batter at the time of the supposed fatal accident, and had come back with the news. Therefore it looked almost as if——
Dick read all this in Ronald's moody eyes. He managed to get away from the knot of fellow-members presently and joined Ronald.
"Is this true?" he asked.
"Absolutely," Ronald replied. "Those people don't understand the full significance of Batter's evidence. They only consider it as touching on the death of De Lava. They have forgotten about the facts surrounding the disappearance of Josiah Batter. Your people remember it because it has a bearing upon your fortunes. My father was with Batter. He came back and told Sir Horace about the disaster. Now, don't you see——"
"I decline to do so at present," Dick said, cheerfully. "Your father might have honestly believed that Batter had met with an accident. It was very dark at the time, and with Batter's knowledge of the stepping-stones he might——"
Ronald listened miserably. This was very nice of Dick, but Ronald knew better. He knew that in some mysterious way his father's fortunes dated from the time when Batter and the gold had perished in the quicksands. He had looked at his father that afternoon when Batter came forward to give his evidence, and seen that in the older man's face which had poisoned the rest of the day for him.
"Cheer up, old chap," Dick said, hopefully. "It won't make any difference to Vera. I must go home. They'll be wondering what has become of me."
The strange story had reached Oversands, of course. Vera, in the drawing-room, was trying to explain matters in whispers to Lady Amory. Sir Horace, who had taken a sudden turn for the better, had insisted on coming down after dinner. He lay on a couch in one of the big windows, and to all appearance was fast asleep. The room was large enough for conversation at one end without in the least disturbing anyone at the other.
"My father does not know of this?" Dick asked.
"Not a word," Vera said. "He was much better after lunch, and the doctor said he might come down for an hour this evening. It's risky, but better than fretting upstairs. He has gone to sleep, which is an excellent thing."
"I suppose Batter has not turned up by any chance?"
"No. Did you ever hear of anything more extraordinary? I'm told that Shoremouth is talking about nothing else. What does it mean, Dick?"
"Well, the inference is pretty plain," Dick said. "It was a put-up job between Batter and old Bastable. They divided the plunder, and probably Bastable got the best of the deal. Being the stronger and older man, he naturally would do so. Batter disappeared, and Bastable remained to make a fortune. He was a poor man in those days, and just about then his circumstances changed in the most curious way. The facts are forgotten by everybody but us, which is rather a good thing on the whole, because it makes it easier for Ronald."
"Poor Ronald!" Vera said, softly. "Have you seen him?"
"I left him at the club when I came here. He understands the full significance of it; in fact, he mentioned the matter to me. I made light of it, of course. I told him it would make no difference to you."
The warm colour mantled Vera's cheeks. "That is true," she said, gently. "What does it matter, since there is disgrace on both sides? I am only sorry to see how little you feel it."
The gentle reproof passed easily over Dick's head. "You will lecture me!" he said. "On the Stock Exchange we are down to-day and up to-morrow. This is one of my up days. My last speculation has turned out trumps, and I am in a position to meet every claim. The money is actually at my banker's, and I'm going back to work at once. But I'm not so casual as you imagine, my dear. I've had a pretty hard lesson, and I won't forget it. I have done with the old set, and will give you no anxiety in future."
Vera expressed her pleasure at the declaration. She slipped away upstairs presently to see that all was ready in her father's bedroom. Sir Horace still slept on, and Lady Amory was deep in her game of Patience. Dick gently took the cards from her. She looked up with a smile.
"So you are back again, Dick?" she said. "How happy you look!"
Dick forgot the sleeping figure in the window. He spoke in a clear and eager voice.
"That is because I have had some wonderful luck," he said. "I want you to try to understand. The ornament you gave me was not paste, but genuine. I took it to a big firm to-day and they advanced me some thousands of pounds upon it. I have got enough to tide me over until I can set my house in order. Another sum of equal amount would set me free. By accident, one of your gems was saved from the wreck. By accident, that very one found its way into my possession. Now, it's just possible there may be another. I want you to let me have one or two to take to London to-morrow."
Lady Amory nodded brightly, though she shook her head. "I am glad," she said, "very glad for your sake, Dick. Of course, I will do everything I can to help you, but you will not hit upon good fortune like this again. There are one or two things I can get now, if you like."
Dick acquiesced. It would be as well to have the jewels; it was more than possible that in the morning the poor lady would fail to grasp the state of affairs. If she would go at once, Dick would be much obliged. As the door closed behind her Sir Horace opened his eyes and struggled to his feet. His eyes were shining strangely, and he seemed to be suddenly possessed of a new vigour.
"Well, Dick," he said, lustily. "So you are back again. Didn't you come and see me when I was ill? I have some hazy idea of telling you something. Upon my word, I forget what it was for the moment. Oh, something to do with an acceptance."
He moved about the room restlessly, a curious suggestion of exultation in his eyes.
"I'm very tired," he went on. "I'll go to bed. Didn't I hear you say that you are going to London to-morrow? Well, I have to go to London too. We can travel up together, and I can tell you all about that little business. Good-night, my boy."
He walked out of the drawing-room with a brisk air, humming a tune. He astonished the nurse by declining to avail himself of her services. Vera, venturing to remonstrate, was greeted with a smile and a jest.
"I'm all right, my dear," the patient said. "Back to business to-morrow. I'm going to London with Dick. He will look after me, you know. Good-night."
The gay expression faded from his face and a look of eagerness filled his eyes. He carefully locked the door and took a key from his pocket. With this he opened a small dressing-case and removed a compact object wrapped in tissue-paper. He unfolded it with loving care.
"Dare I venture?" he said. "Would it be safe? I wonder if it is possible that after all—but I am almost afraid to build up hopes on that."
Josiah had indeed provided a sensation for Shoremouth. The mere fact of his return from what looked like the grave, would have sufficed in ordinary circumstances, but the matter went deeper than that. There were people, of course, ready to play the sceptic. Batter had never been lost in the quicksands, they maintained, but these folk as a rule were the cantankerous gossips that flourish in every small town. There were legends that Batter had been seen in this or that part of the world, and it was whispered that Joseph Bastable could tell a story did he choose. For the most part, however, Shoremouth had accepted the tragedy as real.
But here was Batter back again after all these years, shabby, shifty, and palpably worse for wear, standing by the table ready to give evidence. Many people in the hall remembered the old bank clerk, but apparently he was not anxious to recognise them. He shuffled to his place, white and shaky, and trembling with something like fear.
"You have come to give evidence?" the Coroner asked.
"The police brought me," Batter said. "I—I didn't come."
"Perhaps I had better explain, sir," Kite said. "One or two officers in the local force went as far as the Red House after I had reported what had taken place. They were acting under instructions from me. They found the witness prowling about, and took him in custody on suspicion. They were justified in doing this, as the witness showed a disposition to run away. When he was brought here he was recognised as an old inhabitant of the town. He has an interesting story to tell."
"You used to live here once?" the Coroner asked.
"Oh, yes, sir," Batter said in his jarring voice. "I was in Amory's bank."
He raised his eyes for the first time and looked furtively around him. He started and shivered as he recognised Bastable. The glance of his old colleague seemed to fascinate him. He read something like murder in that concentrated look.
"You were supposed to have been drowned?" the Coroner suggested.
"Yes, sir. That was the fact, sir. I met with an accident. My—my head was hurt, and I don't recollect what happened afterwards. When I found I had lost the money my nerves gave way, and I was afraid to come back."
Bastable breathed more freely. This was better than he had expected. This ingenious story was plausible. In any case Batter would never have the audacity to come back and blackmail him! That the man was broken down and in dire need was apparent at a glance. He had crept back, as such people do, to the place where he had enjoyed at least comparative prosperity.
"Well, we need not go into that," the Coroner suggested. "We are here to listen to what the witness has to tell us about the crime."
"I came back to Shoremouth yesterday," Batter went on, huskily. "I walked from London. When I arrived I had no money. I came here to call on a friend who I thought might help me. It was after dark when I got to Shoremouth and went to the lodgings of my friend. To my disappointment he was away from home. There was nobody else I cared to appeal to, and I had to procure a night's lodging. Then I thought of the Red House. If the place was still unoccupied I could find accommodation there. No one recognised me as I passed through the town and along the shore to the sands. The door of the Red House was open and I went in. I was weary and worn out, and dropped off to sleep in the little sitting-room at the back of the dining-room. I don't know how long I slept, probably not more than an hour, when I was aroused by the sound of voices. I looked into the hall and saw two men. They were speaking in a language I did not understand, but from one or two odd words I should judge they were Italians."
"Men of any particular class?" the Coroner asked.
"They looked well-to-do and prosperous, sir," the witness explained. "I should say that they were men of business. Well-dressed, and all that kind of thing."
"Not suspicious-looking characters?"
"By no means, sir. They were smoking cigarettes and laughing together. I saw no signs of anything like temper. I could see they had a large basket with them, which they proceeded to carry into the dining-room. Presently I saw a brilliant light, and judged that they had brought a lamp with them. I smelt food, which I had been without all day, and I had half a mind to beg for some. Just then the two men left the house, and closed the door behind them."
"You saw no more of them?" the Coroner asked.
"Indeed I did sir," the witness went on. "I expected they would come back or they would never have left that brilliant light behind them. I was very hungry, and the smell of food was tempting. I crept as far as the dining-room and looked in. There was a petrolite lamp on the table and a dainty supper set out. There were other things on the sideboard as well. I was looking to see what I could take without its being missed when the door opened and the two men returned. I had just time to hide behind the heavy curtain that hung over the window. A minute later and another man came in. He started back and would have gone again, but one of them quickly closed the door and locked it. Then he put the key in his pocket and burst out laughing."
"You are sure that he laughed?" the Coroner asked.
"Oh, yes, sir. He seemed to be highly amused at something. By moving the curtains a little I could see everything that was going on. Both the men I had discovered first appeared to be extremely pleased. The other man looked from one to the other and demanded something in an angry voice. I thought that he was frightened too. I was."
At this naive confession the Coroner smiled. "What had you to be afraid of?" he asked.
"Well, sir, you see I was in an awkward position and very hungry. I hoped those men would not stay long, and that perhaps I might get a good supper with a little patience. All the time, too, I had a suspicion that something underhand was going on. I didn't like the way those two men laughed. There was something blood-curdling about it. Then the third man turned very white, and looked about him as if seeking for some avenue of escape. One of the others said something to him, and he spoke—in English."
"'I don't understand your patois,' he said, sneering like. 'Try Italian.'
"'English, if you please, then,' one of the others said. 'But we are not going to quarrel with you, my good Henri. The time for that kind of thing has long gone by. It is many months since we left the island in search of you.'
"'Well, you have found me, what then?' the count asked.
"'Is there any reason to ask the question? You are a traitor twice-fold, and must pay the penalty. You betrayed your own flesh and blood, and after that you betrayed us. Our quarrel with the Duke has been transferred to you. Now that Bentes is dead nothing matters. But you are to pay for your share, and that is why we are here to-night. Not that we are angry—not in the least. It is a pure matter of business with us. We know why you are here; we rejoice that you chose to come to this lonely spot and make it so easy for us. We run positively no risk whatever. There is not the remotest chance of anybody coming here either by day or night. Before you are discovered we shall be far away. To show that there is nothing vulgar in our quarrel, we invite you to sup with us. We conveyed these good things in our motor, now waiting outside. You will perceive, dear Henri, that everything is of the best. The wines have been chosen with loving care. Will you please sit down and make yourself at home?'
"It was all very smoothly spoken, sir," Batter went on, "but it made my blood cold. I knew plainly that I was to witness a tragedy. The man addressed did not show any fear, except that his face was pallid and his eyes glistened. With an easy gesture he moved to the table and sat down. He ate a good supper and drank a little wine, and smoked a cigarette after talking to the others in a natural way. When they had finished all three stood up."
"'Are you ready?' one of the men asked.
"The count shrugged his shoulders. He tossed the end of his cigarette into the grate, and stood with his chest well forward. At a sign from the leader the second man advanced a step or two. I saw he had something glittering in his hand; he gave a sudden plunge with his arm, and the count staggered and fell backwards. A moment later he lay dead on the floor, with the dagger in his heart."
A thrill ran through the listeners. The story was simply told, but it was none the less effective for that. There was a pause for a few minutes.
"It was done as quickly as I have told it," Batter proceeded. "There was no struggle, no noise or confusion. The two men laid the count on the floor, and one of them did something with a box of matches. I could not see what it was, and I could not move for fear of being discovered. I knew that if I were discovered my life would have been forfeited. After that the murderers lit cigarettes and made preparations for departure. They left everything as it was, and for the first time I began to breathe freely. Despite the shock this had been to me I was dreadfully hungry. But I could not eat in the presence of a dead man. I began to remove some of the things into a back room, when I thought I heard a noise. I ran out into the night, and had barely hidden myself before some other people came along. I could not recognise them all. One I knew to be Inspector Kite, of Scotland Yard. After they had gone I went back, and had barely finished supper when the police arrived. By a bit of bad luck I fell into their hands, and—and that's about all I can tell you."
The conclusion was tame, but the story lost nothing in the way of sensation. A murmur of voices rose in the hall, so that the Coroner had to call for silence.
"You would recognise those men again?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, sir. I don't think it is likely that I shall ever forget their faces."
"There ought to be no difficulty in tracing them," the Coroner remarked. "According to the evidence they came in a car. They must have purchased the materials for that remarkable supper-party not very far off."
"They might have brought the goods from London," Kite remarked.
"That is possible," the Coroner admitted. "But surely the car is something to go upon. It is impossible to hide traces of a car."
Kite was of a different opinion, but this he kept to himself. He had stated from the first that this kind of crime was seldom if ever solved. It was true he had a full description of the outrage, but this was of little practical use. From his knowledge of the doings of secret societies he could have reconstructed the crime without any assistance from Batter. The deadlock still existed.
"Have you any more witnesses to call?" the Coroner asked.
"Not at present, sir," Kite explained. "Neither can I see any prospect of doing so at present. I ask for an adjournment for a month."
The Coroner glanced at his watch and rose from his seat.
"Very well," he said. "The inquiry stands adjourned till this day month, at the same hour."
The excited spectators flocked out of the court to discuss the doings of the day in the open air. As Batter turned a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up and saw the hard red face of Bastable glaring into his.
"I should like a few words with you," Bastable said, harshly. "Come to the side door of my office after five o'clock and walk in. I shall be alone, and ready to hear what you have to say."
Bastable held that money could do everything. That was part of his creed, an axiom that had never failed him as yet. Doubtless, Sir Horace was like the rest when it came to his pocket.
He was still debating the matter when Batter shuffled into the office. He turned upon the broken man with savage brutality.
"Well!" he said. "What does this mean? Why did you come back, you white-livered cur? You used to be a man once!"
Something of the old manhood stirred in Batter now. He looked round the luxuriantly-appointed office, and noted the evidences of wealth and prosperity about him.
"I was a man until I came under your influence," he said. "Now I am a wreck and you are rich and respected, all owing to me. You picked me out as your tool; you recognised my weaknesses and played on them. You induced me to plunder Sir Horace, so that I should be in your power. Of course, you paid for the work. But you gave me money on terms, and when the time came for you to get your bond I paid it with my good name and reputation. I had £500 and you had the balance of the money which was supposed to be hidden with my body in the quicksands. What a fool I was! I almost laugh when I think of it."
"You'll laugh on the other side of your face presently," Bastable growled.
"I don't think so. There is nothing for me to be afraid of now. And besides, Sir Horace Amory might be glad to know that he has a fair prospect of getting the £13,500 back. I mean to tell Sir Horace the truth."
Bastable's manner changed. The cold fear was gripping his heart. "Better think it over first," he said. "You can do nothing for a day or two. Sir Horace is ill—has had a seizure, and sees nobody. Give the matter a day's consideration, and come and see me at my house to-morrow night after dinner. Why should you try to injure me after all these years?"
Batter laughed ironically. There was a sardonic humour in the question. "I'll come and see you to-morrow night," he said. "But I make no promise. It's a lucky thing for you that Sir Horace is ill just now."
Batter passed out of the office, leaving Bastable to his meditations. Scheme as he would, he could see no way out. All that evening and all next day he pondered this and that solution. Black care was with him after dinner; it poisoned his cigar. He must do something with Batter this evening, if it cost him ten thousand pounds. But Batter did not call; instead, came a note on shabby paper to the effect that Sir Horace had asked him to Oversands between nine and ten that night on important business.
Bastable tore up the note and dropped the pieces in the fire. It was news to him—most unpleasant and dangerous news—that Sir Horace was so much better. This message upset all his carefully-laid plans. He must see Batter at once, and try what a heavy bribe would do. If Batter stuck to the tale sketched out for him, then no harm would come to the man who had wrecked the fond fool's life. But if he told the truth——
Bastable rose from his chair and put on his hat. Before he slept that night he must learn the worst. He would see Sir Horace. He glanced at the clock. There would be plenty of time to get this interview over before Batter put in an appearance. It was very humiliating, no doubt, but in the circumstances there was nothing else to be done.
Sir Horace had dined and was in the library, so the footman informed Bastable. Yes, Sir Horace was decidedly better; in fact, his recovery had been astonishing. He had actually been in London all day on business. If Bastable would wait a moment——
"No hurry," Bastable said. "But please make Sir Horace understand that I must see him. It is most important business, my good fellow."
The footman came back with the intimation that Sir Horace would see his visitor at once. Bastable's lips curled as he crossed the hall. There was no sign of poverty or trouble; all looked as if it worked on oiled wheels. The pictures, the armour, the gleaming palms bespoke wealth and that suggestion of serenity so marked in houses of that class. It was very different from the house in High-street where Bastable lived. Yet he told himself that he could buy up all this and more without feeling the loss. He meant to try sooner or later, and make Ronald a handsome present on his wedding-day. It was only a matter of time.
Sir Horace rose courteously as his visitor entered. He bore no trace of his illness; indeed, Bastable could never remember his looking so well. He had lost every sign of uneasiness, and his manner was bland and dignified.
"Pray be seated, Mr. Bastable," he said, quietly, but with that faint touch of patronage that always sent the blood to Bastable's face. "This is rather unusual, though I am glad to see you; in fact, you saved me writing a letter."
Bastable was taken aback. He was trying to feel at his ease in that luxurious room, but there was a cold sensation at his heart.
"Perhaps you have come to see me on the same business," Sir Horace proceeded. "I am alluding to the dramatic appearance of my old clerk Batter."
"I was as surprised as yourself," Bastable said.
"No doubt, no doubt. Shall we say disagreeably surprised?"
Bastable misunderstood the pointedness of the question. "That's not a pretty way of putting it," he said.
Sir Horace smiled blandly. He appeared to be master of the situation.
"It is no time for picking one's words," he said. "I have not seen Batter yet, because I have been in London all day, but he has written to say he will be here this evening. You have seen him?"
Bastable would have given much to be able to deny the suggestion. He would have lied about it could he have done so safely.
"Only for a moment," he said. "In the street; he asked me for money. I have not seen him since. There is something very wrong here, Sir Horace."
"I am certain of it," Sir Horace said, significantly. "On the face of it, I should say that I have been deliberately robbed of £14,000. I think that was the sum that was entrusted to Batter and yourself fourteen years ago to carry——"
"Precisely," Bastable said, eagerly. "I admit my responsibility. So long as I believed Batter to be at the bottom of the quicksands with the money I felt no blame attached to me. It was an accident that might have happened to anybody. But since Batter has turned up again, I cannot disguise from myself that I am liable. It is no use to prosecute Batter—it would only be throwing good money away. I suggest that you refuse to see him and refer him to me. I can deal with that type of man much better than you can, Sir Horace. I ask you as a favour to leave it in my hands. As to the lost money, I shall be happy to refund it. I have my cheque-book in my pocket, and I will draw a draft in your favour now."
BASTABLE smiled more or less amiably. It was a great card to play, a terrible wrench to part with all this money, but some sacrifice had to be made. Sir Horace would take it, of course; at the present moment the money would be a blessing to him.
"That is very magnanimous of you Mr. Bastable," he said. "But I do not see my way to accept your offer. It is no question of money just now; I mean that, as matters stand, if I took your cheque my subsequent actions might be open to grave criticisms. I refer to my acceptance in favour of Mr. Kennedy——"
"The bill I found amongst Mr. Kennedy's papers?" Bastable asked.
"The same. As regards that matter, I am consulting my solicitors. They may find it necessary to dispute, but I will say no more on——"
"Dispute what?" Bastable demanded. "If Kennedy were here now——"
A startled-looking footman came into the library with a card on a tray. He held it out to his master in a dazed way. Sir Horace gave some muttered instructions.
"This is a time of dramatic surprises," he said. "We shall have an opportunity of knowing what Mr. Kennedy would say if he were here now. This is Mr. John Kennedy's card. He is waiting for me in the drawing-room."
Bastable laughed harshly. At first it occurred to him that a cunning plot had been laid for him. It was the kind of thing he would have applauded had it been engineered at the expense of anybody else.
He was fond of that sort of vulgar trick. More than once he had found it effective, though not with a man of his astuteness. Really, Sir Horace had gone too far.
"Very pretty," he said. "Excellent idea. But you are trying it on with the wrong man."
Sir Horace looked up from the card he was examining with polite perplexity.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "I'm afraid that I fail to catch your meaning."
"Not you," Bastable replied. "As if I wasn't up to this kind of thing! But when you go so far as to pretend that old Kennedy——"
Bastable laughed again. A smile of comprehension dawned upon Amory's face.
"I begin to follow you," he said. "You think this is some silly scheme of mine to frighten you. I have heard of these—dodges in modern business. They are particularly favoured by the city shark of the 'financial agent' order. Upon my word, Mr. Bastable, I am greatly obliged to you! Would you like to see Mr. Kennedy?"
Bastable made some half-inarticulate reply. He was not sure. He was gradually coming to see that this was no stratagem on Amory's part. Very slowly it was dawning upon him that Kennedy was alive. How long had Amory known it? He would have given a fortune for the information. Perhaps he had been aware of the fact from the first. He might have had exclusive information. If so the man whom he despised was treating him as if he had been a child.
"Of course," he muttered, "if you and Mr. Kennedy between you——"
"I will ask you not to take that tone," Amory interrupted. "I cannot permit of it for a moment. There are certain things that you cannot understand; it would be hopeless to try—to teach you. With all his peculiarities, Mr. Kennedy is a gentleman. I hope I am another. Methods that you recognise as legitimate we would not stoop to. At this moment I know nothing except that Mr. Kennedy is alive. I thought him dead, as everybody else did. He has come back at a most awkward moment—for you."
The menace of the words were clear—none the less clear because they were quite courteous. There was a hard ring in Amory's speech that frightened Bastable. This was the man whom he had regarded as a pompous good-natured fool!
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
"I must leave you to place your own interpretation upon it," Sir Horace said. "It is not for me to teach you how to conduct your business."
"You think that acceptance was a forgery?"
Amory smiled slightly. It amused him to note how this clever man was blundering. He was floundering headlong into the trap.
"What acceptance are you alluding to?" he asked.
"As if you didn't know," Bastable said, doggedly. "Come, speak out."
"Really, there is nothing to say. I owe Mr. Kennedy a large sum of money. It is not convenient to pay him, and I look forward to a renewal of my paper. Mr. Kennedy disappears in circumstances that point to his death, and, to all practical purposes, you become my creditor. I do not desire to owe money to you, and I take up the bill! The bill exists; I pay it without any protest. I don't ask if it is the original bill. Presumably, I am dealing with an honest man——"
Bastable started. His face took on a deeper shade of red.
"And therefore I raise no question. If there are any questions to be asked, I should much prefer to ask them through my solicitors."
Bastable said nothing. He wanted time to think; he wanted to be alone to ponder this new development. That was his usual method. Slowly and patiently he fabricated a scheme. He regarded it from every standpoint; looked mercilessly for all its weak points. What would his adversary do in this or that case? And how could he counter if this or that happened? Then he would score his points quickly; thus he had come to be regarded as a man of intellect. Naturally, he was dull and stupid; but his wits were gathered now.
He was fighting with his back to the wall, and he knew it. Obviously, the less he said the better.
"You made a suggestion, just now," Sir Horace went on. "You offered to refund the money lost so many years ago by your—carelessness. In certain circumstances, I should have accepted your offer. I may accept it yet; it all depends upon what happens when I see Batter presently. It is not the question of the money. As a matter of fact, I am in no need of money. I never shall be again."
For the life of him Bastable could not repress a sneer.
"A course of judicious speculation has justified itself. I was afraid at one time and my engagements kept me close. But that is all over. I am thinking of disposing of my bank; I wonder if your people would buy."
Bastable didn't know. He wished he could feel that this man was lying to him—that this was the sort of cheap stuff he had to listen to every day of his life. He rose from his chair and reached for his hat. Obviously nothing was to be gained by staying. There was yet another way open to him.
"Well, I stand by my offer," he said, bluffly. "I see now that I was to blame, and I am ready to accept the consequences. Good-night, Sir Horace."
Amory bade his visitor good-night amiably. He had every reason to feel satisfied with the interview. He saw Bastable to the front door and remarked genially on the state of the weather. Then he went off to the drawing-room to meet Kennedy. It was marvellous how things were going his way.
But Kennedy was no longer there. He had not been able to stay, so Dick informed his father. Many things had required his immediate attention. He would come up again to-morrow; in fact, he had invited himself to dinner on the next evening. He had arrived in Shoremouth that afternoon late and gone to his office. There was one little matter that he did not understand on looking through his accounts.
"I thought that Bastable had taken possession of everything," Sir Horace said.
"Kennedy had two sets of keys," Dick explained. "Anyway, it doesn't signify. There hasn't been time yet for Bastable to interfere with the routine of the old man's business. There was one thing he could not understand at all. He says you can explain it. It is possible he may call and see you at the bank to-morrow. I don't want to interfere with your affairs, dad, but has it anything to do with that acceptance?"
"As a matter of fact, everything," Sir Horace replied. "I owed Kennedy the money all right, and it was most inconvenient to pay. But directly I found that I was in the power of Bastable I resolved to liquidate the debt at all hazards. It was impossible to remain in the grip of a man like that. You know what he meant to do with me; in fact, his own son was so good as to warn me of my danger. I paid the bill."
"Where did you get the money?" Dick asked, bluntly.
"Well, I found it. I had to make a great sacrifice, but I found it. When the bill came back to me I saw it was a forgery."
"Yet you paid it?"
"Yes," Sir Horace said, slowly. "I paid it. The bill was supposed to be deposited with Mr. Kennedy's bankers, in other words with Bastable. I took the wind out of his sails by calling him in and telling him all I knew. At first he professed he had never seen the bill. When I nailed that lie to the counter he said that it was amongst Kennedy's papers. He went over to the bank to fetch it, and sent a message that it was with the agents in London. Then I knew that he hadn't got the bill, and if he produced anything in the shape of an acceptance it would be a forgery. He thought it would be safe, as Kennedy was out of the way. I should take it for granted that the thing was mine and pay. In the ordinary course of things I should have done so. I should have destroyed the paper and thought no more about it. But that man was trying to ruin me. I felt sure he would be unscrupulous in his methods. When the bill came to be presented for payment, sure enough I was right."
"Of course you were," Dick cried. "The fool who forged it never looked at the date stamp. Now let me tell you what happened when you were ill.... What do you think of that? I frightened Bastable out of his wits. By jove! I recollect now. When I mentioned to him the matter of the date stamp, he was furious. He mentioned a name that did not convey much to me at the time, but it's clear now. It's quite plain that the forger of the bill was poor old John Turk. In his rage Bastable blurted out Turk's name. Oh, we've got him right enough. What is the next move?"
"Well, that depends upon circumstances," Sir Horace said. "I am in a position to prove that Bastable has obtained from me £20,000 by false pretences. I don't care for this kind of dirty work; but I have to protect myself. It is certain that Bastable robbed me of a further £14,000 in collusion with Batter. This money must be paid back, and fortunately Bastable is in a position to refund it. That man's hatred of me and his insane desire to humiliate me have driven him to this. He thought that Fate had placed all the weapons in his hands. On the face of it, really he had every encouragement. He never realised I could pay. He did not know that I was a wealthy man."
"Well, we shall see some fun presently," he said. "I don't think I'll stop now and watch the meeting between Batter and you. I have to see Ronald Bastable at the club. Funny thing that he should be the son of his father, isn't it?"
"A gentleman," Sir Horace murmured. "But, of course, he is an Amory."
Dick went on his way chuckling. Sir Horace had provided him with an argument for future use. He found Ronald in the club moodily reading the evening paper.
"Come into the window, where we can be quiet," he said. "I've something to say to you about Bowen. Well, I've found the money to put matters right. It doesn't signify how I got it, but I got it honestly, and there is an end of the worry. What I need now is Bowen. I hope he'll return with some story of having been drugged and kept in a state of insensibility by a lot of rascals concerned in some Stock Exchange swindle. Do you see what I mean? Bowen must be got at."
"If you know where he is, why not?" Ronald asked.
"Oh, I know where he is," Dick smiled. "In fact, I have seen him. But he is not in a position to do as he pleases; in fact, he is in prison on a serious charge. I laugh when I think of it."
Ronald smiled in turn. "I had an idea that such was the case," he said. "Then I am to understand that Sexton, now in the police cell, is none other——"
"Precisely," Dick said, coolly. "Sexton is Bowen in disguise, and he is detained on a charge of being concerned in kidnapping—himself!"
Joseph Bastable was not happy. In his more expansive moments he was wont to regard himself as a model to be imitated and envied, but lately he had abandoned that attitude. He was frightened. He still strode down High-street with his hat on the back of his head, and the usual truculent nod for his acquaintances, but his heart was full of fear. The man was a bully to the backbone, and it looked as if his time had come.
He could get no information from any trustworthy quarter. He might have extracted it out of the drunken, broken-down Turk, had not Turk departed. He had left Shoremouth altogether for some place in the north, where he would be properly attended to, and Bastable could not get his address. He might, perhaps, have vented some of his spite on Batter, but Batter, too, the town knew no more. He was supposed to have emigrated to America.
In point of fact, Sir Horace and Kennedy had deemed it judicious to get these two men out of the way. Looking at things from his own standpoint, therefore, Bastable concluded that there was a conspiracy against him. Sir Horace meant to prosecute him, and was getting up his case. This was how Bastable would have acted had the position been reversed. At any moment, he imagined, he might be arrested. At the sight of a policeman the moisture oozed on his forehead, and he forgot to return the officer's salute.
What were these fellows doing? Why didn't they make a move in the matter? For some days they had been in London. Bastable could stand it no longer. He would see Kennedy and propose terms. But it was more than a week ere this was possible. Then it was Mr. Kennedy who sent for Bastable. The message was curt and to the point. Bastable was to call, directly after luncheon.
As he swaggered down the street people greeted him respectfully. He was the man in the place to be envied above all others. How could they know that his legs were trembling under him, that there was a dryness at the back of his throat! Joseph Bastable would have sacrificed every penny of his beloved money to be at Oversands again, humbly listening to Sir Horace's orders.
Kennedy kept him waiting so long that his nerves began to give way. He sat a trembling mass of fear. He could hardly speak when Mr. Kennedy entered. The latter did not shake hands as usual.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Bastable said.
"I did," Kennedy replied. "I had to. But you need not grovel. How long is it since you spoke to anybody in that respectful way?"
Bastable ventured on a faint smile. "I am always at your service," he said.
"No doubt," Kennedy said, drily. "No doubt, Joseph. I am glad to see you are not unduly puffed up by success. True greatness is always humble, Joseph."
"I have worked very hard for my money, Mr. Kennedy," he said.
"Oh, you have," Kennedy smiled. "I admit that freely. But you have made much more by scheming than by hard work, Joseph. Honestly, what are you worth?"
Bastable repeated the figures with some pride. Kennedy appeared to be taken aback.
"Really!" he exclaimed. "So much as that! Why, you have more money than I. Now, tell me candidly, what possessed you to be so foolish in the matter of Sir Horace Amory?"
Eager as Bastable was to speak, at first the words refused to come, but when he was started it was not so difficult.
"I hated him," he said. "He always looked down on me, and when a man looks down upon me I curse him and plot revenge. He tried to stop my marriage, to deprive me of the best wife man ever had. I swore I would ruin him. More than once I had him in my grasp, but he managed to elude me. Then came a real chance."
Kennedy lay back in his chair, watching his visitor with acute interest. He might have been a scientist studying a new specimen.
"Quite so," he said, "a gift from the gods. You expected to crush your enemy without risk or expense to yourself. You are alluding to that promissory note of mine?"
"That's right," Bastable went on. "I thought you were dead. I knew that when you were dead I should be your executor——"
"You have no sense of humour, Joseph. But you will have to pay, my friend. You will have to pay Sir Horace the £14,000 you robbed him of fourteen years ago, at compound interest, which makes the sum over £30,000. You will have to refund the £20,000 obtained by means of the forged bill. Please don't argue, because you are not entitled to do so. These are our terms, Joseph."
Dick and Ronald spent an anxious hour or so next day in the police-court.
It would, perhaps, have been better had Bowen been legally represented, but in view of the fact of what was going to take place later the policy amply justified itself. Besides the evidence of the letter and the telegram from Sexton found in De Lava's possession the police had no further testimony to offer.
"In that event I apply for bail," Bowen said, eagerly. "I have been detained on the flimsiest evidence for some days, your worships."
"Perhaps that is so," the chairman said. "Case adjourned for a fortnight. The prisoner is released on his own recognisances in the sum of £100. Next, please, Mr. Chief. We shall be here all day at this rate."
It was a piece of blind luck, of course—the story of an officious policeman and a pompous magistrate.
It was not difficult to convey a certain sum of money to Bowen, who an hour later was on his way to London. When at length he reached the metropolis, Sexton no longer existed—Bowen was restored to his office. With grim amusement Dick read the story of Bowen's abduction in the daily press next day. On the whole it was not a bad story, and sufficed to satisfy the public.
Dick had letters to write, and Ronald found himself with Vera.
"The whole afternoon to ourselves," Ronald said. "What shall we do?"
"A long walk," Vera suggested. "One of the walks we used to take years and years ago."
"Very well," Ronald smiled. "Let us cross the park and go as far as the Red House. I am anxious to see the bridge my father is building. They have made wonderful progress in the last ten days. The huge baulks of timber are all in place. Now that the big piles are in, they tell me the river has changed its course. What amazing things they do nowadays, with engineering machinery! The sands are ever so much firmer, and lower down, near the Red House, they have almost vanished. What will the place be without the quicksands?"
His eye roamed over what had once been a wide expanse of shifting, quivering, grey sands. But how changed the scene! The boiling mass had gone, leaving a deep track of hard silt behind. The stepping-stones stood out in great masses of granite, like a row of grim sentinels. The bed was firm to the tread. Ronald scraped some of the yellow stuff aside with his foot.
"Fancy a few piles higher up the river doing this," he said. "Well, it is certainly less repulsive. In a year or so when the golf links are open——"
He paused and looked down. Some glittering thing was sticking out of the sand at the base of one of the stepping-stones. Ronald stooped and wrenched it from its place.
"What treasure is this?" he asked. "What smuggler in the old days——"
A sudden cry of illumination came from Vera. "I know what it is," she said. "It is my aunt's jewel-case!"
Ronald turned the contents of the box out on to the grass. What at one time had been fine leather cases lined with velvet were now rotten masses of pulp. Embedded in the centre of each case was an ornament. They looked dull and lustreless, and not in the least suggestive of the fortune they were worth.
"They seem like theatrical stuff," Ronald said. "Do you think it possible that the years of exposure to the sea water has done them harm? I never heard that such could be the case. The diamonds seem to be dull and worn at the edges. Surely, the sand could not do that. Well, I am no expert, so we will take these, treasures to Oversands."
Sir Horace pondered the matter deeply. He was asking himself a few questions. The lost gems had been recovered in their casket, but they looked like rubbish. On the other hand two of Lady Amory's ornaments which she regarded as paste had turned out to be of priceless value; they had saved the fortunes of the family. Suppose, suppose——
"It came to me like a flash," he said, "Lady Amory's sister made a mistake. She removed the paste from the proper box and replaced it with the genuine gems. Then she took the real gem-case and threw it into the quicksands, and all these years nobody has taken the trouble to verify the story. This could have been done by critical examination of the stones. Of course, the imitations were excellent, and it was only after they had been in the salt water for many years that the difference grew very manifest, even to the untutored eye."
They broke into groups presently, Ronald and Vera strolling into the garden.
"I am glad your people are coming here this evening, Ronald," Vera said. "I am going to be very fond of your mother. Your father——"
"There will never be any trouble between us, sweetheart," he whispered. "What a wonderful romance it has been, to be sure. And in so short a time, too! It is only a few weeks since I first called here and saw the little girl who was my old love in the days gone by. Then I knew—well, you will understand——"
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