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Title: Ambition's Slave
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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Ambition's Slave

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

First published by Ward Lock & Co, London, 1916
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014
Produced by Colin Choat



Cover Image

Ambition's Slave, Ward Lock & Co, London, 1916



TABLE OF CONTENTS



I. A LORD OF MILLIONS

THE night had come, and Marvyn Chase was a blaze of light. The magnificent grounds gleamed with electric arc and other lamps, there were brilliant alleys picked out in flame, two of the finest bands in the county discoursed soft music in the lovely June night.

There were two other bands inside the house, for Graham Minter, South African millionaire, was doing the thing in style, to use his own expression. The long suites of oak-panelled rooms were thronged with guests, most of whom had come down for the occasion by special train, a mob of reporters and press-men generally had the run of the house.

For this was the function of the season—the fancy dress bal masqué given by Mr. Graham and Lady Mary Minter. The thing had been puffed in the papers for weeks before, the grand old house built by the dead and gone Marvyns pictured and photographed over and over again.

Everybody knew now that Graham Minter had gone steerage to Cape Town ten years ago, and that he had come back eighteen months before a millionaire ten times over.

He could have bathed in diamonds had he chosen. He was into everything. The last inter-state war in South America could never have been brought to an issue had he not financed one or the other of the combatants. That he was utterly unscrupulous did not in the least matter. He was very rich and hospitable, he had married the daughter of a marquis, and his entertainments were Arabian Nights up-to-date.

It was a wonderful function, this bal masqué. Money had been lavished on it like water. The finest bands in Europe were here, the electric lighting had cost a small fortune, the supper had been imported from Paris with one of the most famous chefs in charge.

The great function was at its height. Gorgeous figures flitted here and there, the air was heavy with the scent of perfume, the electrics shimmered on a perfect atmosphere of diamonds. The gardens of Bendemeer might have been stripped to provide all those roses there. There were banks of soft green ferns to rest the tired and jaded eye. Quite two hundred couples were waltzing in the big oak hall. Their fancy costumes made a flashing kaleidoscope of colour.

The solitary individual who wore no disguise at all was the master of the house. He was a short, thick-set, clean-shaven man, with a certain bull-dog expression. His evening-dress was quite plain and not in the least loud. He might have been a sporting farmer, and indeed his tastes were in that direction. Hard as Graham Minter was with men, he was fond of dogs and horses, and they were fond of him. He could ride and shoot to perfection. His pink face and bloodshot eyes suggested an over indulgence in good living. But Minter boasted that he could live with the fastest and wake the next day with a head as clear as a bell.

There was a slight frown on the bulldog face and a close-setting of the heavy lips. He seemed to be looking for somebody. He liked to see in the papers that this and that distinguished aristocrat had dined with him, but he cared nothing for all the lavish display and frivolity That was Lady Mary's doing. It mattered nothing to him that he did not know half his guests by sight. They would have ignored him utterly if they had known him. They came there, they sponged on him, some of them fawned upon him for advice, but he knew what they really thought.

A graceful-looking woman, whose foolish, pretty face was exposed for a moment, flitted by. Minter shot out a hand and detained her with a grip that made her wince. The pretty face grew tearful. Lady Mary Minter was not overdone in the way of brains, she had married her husband because it suited his purpose to have a patrician wife to rule over his great ménage, but with his eyes open he knew that he was going to ally himself with a fool.

"Graham, you hurt me," Lady Mary whispered.

"Then stop a bit," Minter growled. "Let those brainless butterflies, those shallow sponges look after them selves for a moment. I asked you to do something for me."

"Did you, Graham? I had forgotten."

Minter's eyes flashed with a murderous light. He came from the class where men beat their wives. Lady Mary fell back whimpering.

"I had forgotten," she said. "But indeed I did what you asked. Mr. Desborough said he could stay till midnight. And Maude Beaumont remains to sleep. Indeed, I am not so foolish as you think me, Graham."

"Ain't ye?" Minter sneered. "Keep those two together. Desborough won't go so long as Maude is kind to him. And make Kit Clive useful. How is Desborough dressed?"

"As a lawmaker of the early Venice period—like a Doge, in fact."

"That will do. Don't you leave him till I tell you, or—"

He glanced at her as he would have done at a badly-broken spaniel, his hand uplifted slightly; a less silly woman than Lady Mary would have been frightened.

He passed out of the great hall into a wide, dimly-lighted corridor, where couples who were not dancing were seated.

Nobody took the slightest notice of him, indeed he might have been one of the servants for all most of them knew or cared.

It was darker still at the end of the corridor. A figure dressed as a monk crept out of the shadows and whispered something in Minter's ear. He flushed angrily.

"Well, you've got a cheek," he growled. "You're useful to me in the City, but I'll wring your neck rather than ask you to my house, Bigglestone."

"That's all right," said the other coolly. "I'm not here as a guest. And there are one or two City men that you would not like to be seen talking to. The thing was imperative, so I adopted this disguise, and here I am."

"Anything wrong up yonder?" Minter asked uneasily.

"Well, I should say so. Suppose they put Eli Price in the witness-box to-morrow."

Minter's square jaw dropped. But the murderous expression deepened in his eyes.

"Do you mean to say they've spotted him amongst the other guests of His Majesty at Dartmoor?" he gasped.

"Well, if they have and he tells the truth when the case is called on to-morrow, I'm done. That big South African business collapses and I shall be a beggar. Jove, if some of my friends here only knew this!"

"It's quite true," Bigglestone went on. "If only Clifford Desborough wasn't the leading barrister on the other side it wouldn't matter. But seeing that he was the leader in the Crown against Bartlett he knows too much."

"Can't we manage to keep Eli Price away?" Minter suggested.

"It could be done for money." Bigglestone smiled meaningly.

"Then let it be done. Money is no object now. To prevent that I am prepared to pour it out like water. Bigglestone, you've got a scheme?"

"Of course I have," Bigglestone chuckled. "You find the money and I'll not shirk the rest, seeing that it's going to put £20,000 in my pocket. But I've got a better idea up my sleeve."

"Well, out with it, man. None of your melodramatic mystery with me."

Bigglestone looked cautiously around him. Nobody was within earshot.

"The thing is quite easy," he said. "Square Desborough."

"Of all the fools!" Minter snarled contemptuously. "There isn't a harder-headed man at the bar than Clifford Desborough. I don't say he's particularly honest, but he knows which policy pays best. I admit that he is poor."

"And pretty considerably in debt," Bigglestone said meaningly.

"Granted. But lie has a safe seat in the House of Commons and he's certain to be made Home Secretary when Clifton resigns, as he may at any moment. And he has made up his mind to marry Maude Beaumont who has a large fortune. You might as well try to square the Premier."

Bigglestone winked knowingly. He believed in the integrity of no man. From his point of view it was only a matter of price. He led the way to a secluded seat amidst the palms and produced a bundle of long narrow strips of blue paper from his pocket. The papers had red stamps in the top left-hand corner.

"Will you kindly look at these?" he asked.

Minter surveyed them rapidly. As he did so the bulldog jaw was thrust out, there was a hard smile on his lips.

"I'll try it," he said, "dashed if I don't. I'll buy these of you."

"You shall," Bigglestone said hoarsely, "at their full value. Squeeze him, ruin him, let him know the tale you could tell his rigid, Puritan constituents. Look there. Who's that?"

A tall figure in severe Venetian garb came along with a dainty little "Beatrice" on his arm. Both watchers recognized the figure of the man. Then, with a meaning glance, Bigglestone turned and vanished.


II. MAUDE BEAUMONT

THE pretty little Beatrice clung somewhat unsteadily to the arm of her companion. She was just a trifle frightened that he had recognized her a little earlier in the evening, because the man of law had followed her pretty steadily of late.

Of all the pretty girls out that season none had attracted more attention than Maude Beaumont. To begin with, she had no dragon to protect her, nothing more than an invalid mother, who rarely went out into Society. Maude had health and beauty, moreover she was just one and twenty, and her large fortune was absolutely at her disposal.

She had her own gentle but effectual way of getting rid of the many lovers who had cast themselves at her feet. But there were two that she could not shake off—that eminent barrister and member of Parliament, Clifford Desborough, and Mr. Minter's private secretary, Christopher, otherwise Kit Clive.

Kit was all right, a handsome, clever fellow, with a clear eye and an honest face, so honest that Maude wondered why he had remained two years with Minter. For Maude was the one particular friend of Lady Mary Minter, and her opportunities for meeting with the handsome private secretary were many.

But Clifford Desborough, K.C., followed her up with a pertinacity that frightened her. He had let her know pretty well that he intended to marry her, and he belonged to the class of men who generally get their own way.

In his own way, the keen man of law admired Maude; indeed, he loved her so far as he could love anything outside his ambition. Maude had money and birth; with a rich wife Desborough might have become Prime Minister.

To-night he had determined to settle his fate one way or another. He had allowed Maude to know that from his manner. She was glad that her face was masked. He had asked her to come outside in the corridor with him and against herself she had complied. It was weak of her, but there was a certain fascination about this man. Maude would have turned back, but it was too late now.

Was there nobody at hand to deliver her? Yes? Her heart throbbed hopefully as Minter rose from a seat close by and barred their further progress. With characteristic bluntness Minter went to the point.

"Very sorry to trouble you, Desborough," he said. "And you, too, Miss Beaumont. No use either of you trying to disguise yourselves from me. I've got a most important message for you, Desborough. If Miss Beaumont will excuse me—"

"Oh, don't mind me!" Maude said hastily. "I can wait!"

She scudded hurriedly away, so hurriedly that she ran almost into the arms of a man dressed in the period of Charles of pious memory.

"Well, if the gods are not good to me to-night!" he said.

"Mr. Clive?" said Maude. "But how did you know me?"

"Lady Mary gave you away," said Chris coolly. "Knowing that she could never keep a secret, I got a description of your dress from her. Isn't it hot? Let us go down and sit at the end of the corridor. There's a little place there known only to myself."

In his breezy, cheerful way he slipped Maude's arm through his own. He did not fail to note that she was trembling violently. The little alcove was cool and secluded. Clive took off his mask, and Maude did the same. Afar off the band was playing, there was a splash of water somewhere near. The colour gradually came back to Maude's cheeks.

"What has been frightening you?" Clive asked.

He looked down tenderly into his companion's face There was a strong, manly air about him that appealed to the girl. He was so different from the rest, he never followed her, he never deferred his opinion to hers, and the admiration of his eyes was honest and sincere.

"I have had a narrow escape," she said, with an unsteady smile.

"Oh, indeed! Somebody been trying to run away with you?"

"Well, not quite that," Maude said, as she fanned herself slowly. "Mr. Clive, have you ever been in love in your life?"

"I have had the fever at times," Chris said. "But not sincerely till lately. Why?"

"Oh, because—well, I don't know. I have always been afraid of being married for my money. It would be such a horrible thing, you know."

"Oh! So you are uncertain as to whether a certain gentleman—"

Maude nodded. Clive's sunny face looked a little grave.

"If you happen to care for him," he began, "why then—"

"But I don't, I am sure that I don't. He fascinates me. When I am with him I feel that I am bound to do just as he tells me. And at the same time I know perfectly well that he cares for nothing else but his ambition. He wants money to push him on in the world."

Clive nodded. He began to understand.

"That description applies to Clifford Desborough," he said.

"How clever you are," Maude cried. "Sometimes I think I like him, and sometimes he frightens me. It would be a grand thing to be wife of a cabinet minister, but to think he only married you as a kind of ornament to his office! To think that one might have a life like Lady Mary!"

"Lady Mary is quite happy in her way," Clive said coolly. "So long as she has plenty of money and pretty toys to play with she is perfectly contented. But you are different. You are not married to a scoundrel like Minter."

"And yet you remain his private secretary?"

"Because I can't help it," Clive replied. "My father made his money in the city, but not quite in the same way that Minter does. When he died, he made it a sine qua non that I should spend five years in active business. Minter took me over, so to speak, from a man who died. A few weeks more, and I am free. No city for me after September. Still, the time has not been wasted."

"Then you are not dependent on your work for your living?"

"I've got a great deal more money than you," Clive said coolly, "so you need not look upon me with a suspicious eye at any rate. But I'm going to show you a means of getting rid of Desborough's attention."

Maude's face flushed, and she smiled.

"If you only would," she said eagerly. "If you only knew how he frightens and fascinates me. And he is hard and unfeeling."

Maude's hands went out to her companion impulsively. He caught them and held them in his strong grip and grasp that thrilled her. Then he drew her close to him, so that he could look down into her beautiful, troubled eyes.

"Marry me, darling," he whispered. "Maude, I have known you for a year or more now. During that time we have been good friends. And the longer I have known you the greater is my love for you. Fortunately there is nothing to be said against me on the score of my position. As a poor secretary I could not have spoken. And I have always felt that you liked me, Maude. If you can come to love me—"

He paused, and looked into the rosy, flushed face. There was a smile on the girl's lips, and something like tears in her eyes. A light broke in upon Clive.

"Maude," he whispered. "Maude, do you care for me a little bit?"

She slipped her arms about his neck. There was happiness in her eyes now.

"I love you," she said. "I loved you all the time, and I never knew it. It was only when you spoke that a veil seemed to fall away, and I could read my own heart clearly. But I never thought that you—"

"Well, other people did," Clive said joyously. "Foolish as she is, Lady Mary knows. In spite of her follies and extravagances, she is a good woman at heart, and nobody will be more pleased. And to think that you did not know!"

"Perhaps I did," Maude said shyly. "And so my troubles are ended. I was terribly afraid that I should have to marry Mr. Desborough."

"Nobody but me," whispered Clive as he gathered her his arms. "I shall take an opportunity of letting Mr. Desborough know of the little arrangement to-night, and there will be an end of him so far as we are concerned."

Maude lay back on her lover's shoulder with a little sigh of relief. It was all so sweet and so fair, and so different from what she had expected. And to think that she had loved Kit Clive all this time without being in the least aware of the fact! It was a long time before they returned to the ball-room. Most of the guests were unmasked as supper had been announced. Clifford Desborough was standing by the door as if anxiously looking for somebody. His face was white and set, his eyes were glittering with a steady, gleaming fire.

"I have been looking for you everywhere," he said to Maude. His voice was hoarse and hard.

"We've been away on business," said Clive cheerfully.

"Congratulate me. We shall want your advice later on over the marriage settlements."

Desborough bowed and smiled mechanically. He bent his face low to hide its sudden pallor.

"Good Heavens!" he muttered. "That cord snapped too! When is it going to end?"


III. WHEN SILENCE IS GOLDEN

WHEN Minter had stopped Maude and Clifford Desborough, the latter seemed to resent the intrusion of his host. He had taken Maude aside to put his fortune to the test. Ambitious, pushing, clever, absolutely certain of cabinet rank, there was one thing which the lawyer required, and that was a wife with plenty of money.

How necessary this was, he alone knew. The man was desperately in need of money. He stood on the narrow edge of ruin, it needed but a touch to send him either way. He might yet attain dizzy heights; on the other hand, if bankruptcy overtook him his political career was ended.

Therefore he kept his temper. It does not do to quarrel with millionaires who seem to require one's services urgently. Perhaps here there was a chance to lay hands upon the cash that Desborough so sorely needed.

He looked around him hurriedly. He was about to say something to Maude Beaumont, but she had already slipped away. He saw her stopped by a masked figure that he recognized as Kit Clive, and something like an oath rose to his lips.

"If the matter is urgent," he said, "why—?"

"Nothing more urgent under the sun," said Minter. "Come along! What do you and I care for all this tomfoolery?"

Desborough forced a laugh. The money wasted here to-night would have made him a free man, and absolutely assured his future. A feeling of envy assailed him as he looked at the flowers and the pictures, and caught the distant flood of melody. A single word from Minter would have put him right. He wondered if his host was aware how desperate were his circumstances.

"We all like to relax at times," he said. "Lead the way—"

Minter turned into a little room at the end of the corridor that chanced to be empty. He locked the door, and signified to Desborough to lay aside his mask. The latter accepted the proffered cigarette.

"What do you want me for?" Desborough asked.

Minter looked him straight in the face. There was a fighting gleam in his eyes, a hard expression on the bulldog mouth.

"I'll come to the point at once," he said. "I'm not one of those men who waste a lot of valuable time on what they call diplomacy. You have a big case coming on tomorrow—Mackness against the Certified Company. As you are aware, I am practically the company."

"So I understand," said Desborough. "And you are going to lose. Will that make any great difference to you?"

Minter's great jaw came out with an ugly sweep.

"All the difference," he said hoarsely. "Connect us with those smuggled arms and we forfeit our trading rights with all the South American States you know of. I've got every penny I can scrape together wrapped up in that business. If we fail now, down goes the whole house of cards."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Desborough said politely. "Your connexion with those smuggled arms is not on the face of my instructions, but I am going to prove it out of the mouth of one of your witnesses—Ericsson."

"Ah, that is as I suspected! Now, listen to me. If you made it easy for Ericsson your clients would be none the wiser. It would be at worst no more than an error of judgment on your part. Nobody could blame you."

"The mere suggestion is absurd," Desborough said coldly. "People might say I had made a mistake, that is all—as you say, a mere error of judgment. Why?"

"Because you are going to commit that error of judgment."

The words came out with a hoarse growl from Minter's lips. There was no suggestion of compromise about him, no gilding of the pill. He was commanding Desborough to betray his client's case, and abandon his own honour. Desborough stepped forward, thrilled to the finger-tips.

"I am going to sell my brief!" he gasped. "You scoundrel!"

Minter smiled. He was not in the least moved.

"Hard words break no bones!" he said. "I'm in a hole, my friend, an infernally deep hole. And you are in the same place. You get out on my shoulders, and then you pull me up afterwards. Or we are both ruined."

"And why should I do this?" Desborough sneered.

"Upon my word—"

"Oh, drop it," Minter said impatiently. "I've got you on the hip. For months you have been dealing with the money-lenders. You are hopelessly ruined. All those documents you have signed—those little bills—are in my hands. See."

He held out the long slips of blue paper that Bigglestone had given him. He slapped the pile with a vicious hand.

"See here—and here," he cried, "your signatures to all of them. I bought them up as a speculation. They are mine, you understand. Fourteen thousand pounds' worth, and every penny overdue. My future Home Secretary, you are in my hands. I can make your fortune or I can make you bankrupt on Monday morning."

Desborough staggered back. The full force of it utterly overcame him.

"Good Heavens," he said hoarsely. "I can't find as many shillings, man; have you no feeling, no sense of honour?"

His face was pale, the beads were running down his forehead. Minter thrust the suggestion aside with hard contempt.

"Don't prate to me," he said. "What are you trying to do? To catch a girl you care nothing about for the sake of her money. And you are right because money is everything, and truth and honour mere empty sounds. The people who come here sneer at me, but they would black my boots for a scrap of early information. I could walk on a carpet of coronets if I liked."

Desborough paced backwards and forwards. He was like a rat caught in a trap. He knew this man would have no more mercy on him than a terrier with the rat aforesaid. The steady eye and the cruel jaw showed that.

"Well, get on," Minter said impatiently. "You are perfectly safe. You said just now that the omission of a few questions would not be deemed anything more than an error of judgment. It would make no difference to you. It would leave me as I stand instead of stripping me of everything."

"I am thinking," Desborough said slowly.

"Then let me think for you," Minter replied with an oath. "Think of the place that you have so fairly won filled by another. Think of your smug constituency holding up their hands in horror at the news that their respected member has lost over five thousand pounds on the turf. A bankrupt! After that there would be no fresh start, no whitewashing for you. The people I mention are the backbone of your following: oily Pharisees, who may yet force you on to the Premiership. Think of the honour and glory that lies before you, all for a few minutes of discreet silence. Think—but I am wasting time. Why parley with me, why juggle with what you call a conscience? You have made up your mind already."

"If you gave me time."

"Not an hour, not a moment," cried Minter instantly, following up his advantage. "You can't find the money to pay me off. It is only when a man starts to borrow that he discovers how lonely he is. Do you accept my terms or not?"

Minter put the question in a hoarse whisper. He bent forward, with his eyes almost glaring into those of his unhappy victim. There was no disguise about him. He was proposing a vile and dishonourable course, and he took no shame in it.

And the worst of it was, Desborough was perfectly safe. Nobody would find out what he was going to do.

"I have only your word to rely on," he said feebly.

"To-morrow these bills shall be passed over to you. As to my word—why, you have got to accept what I offer you."

Desborough lunged out desperately at his tempter. In a sudden despairing fury he reached for the door, turned the key, and rushed down the corridor. All his emotion was absolutely lost on Minter. He followed a moment later until he came to the spot where he hoped to meet the disguised Bigglestone. The latter rose from behind a cluster of waving palms.

"Well!" he asked breathlessly. "Well?"

"Gone off in a fury," Minter chuckled. "But he didn't defy me, and I moved him as he has never been moved before."

"Then you didn't come to any arrangement?"

"Not definitely," Minter replied, with the same diabolical chuckle. "but for all that the thing is as good as done."


IV. A BRIEF RESPITE

OF the darker side of human nature Minter was a perfect judge. He knew perfectly well that there was no need to press Desborough further. The man had only one vulnerable point, and that was his ambition. He was hard and keen and shrewd; from early manhood he had made up his mind to become a Cabinet Minister. And now he knew perfectly well that only one feeble life stood between himself and his goal.

Unfortunately he had made too much haste to become rich. He knew the value of money, and he had longed for it. He had gambled and speculated, with the result that he was up to his ears in debt and difficulty; every month that he had struggled along only landed him deeper in the mire.

And here was a way out of it. Minter had bought up all his bonds with a view to force him to betray the interests of his clients. And he could do so without anybody but Minter being any the wiser. Once that was done he would be free from debt. His ordinary trade creditors did not trouble him in the least. To a man making his income at the Bar they mattered little. He might have made more money still by his profession had he not been so keen on politics.

All this passed through Desborough's mind as he tossed and turned on a sleepless pillow. He did not debate the matter at all; in his heart of hearts he felt quite certain that he should do exactly what Minter requested. Otherwise he might just as well end it all by a leap from Waterloo Bridge.

There was no trace of all these conflicting thoughts on Desborough's face as he came down to the Law Courts presently. He was perfectly master of himself now. As he turned into the building he came face to face with Minter. The short, thick-set figure of the millionaire was clad in tweeds; he had a soft felt hat on his head. He came forward and shook hands as if he and Desborough had parted the best of friends.

"Got anything important on?" he asked.

"Nothing very striking," Desborough said grimly. "A little case where you are more or less interested—at least you may be interested later on."

"Only indirectly," said Minter indifferently. "Can't always be answerable for the folly of one's servants, you know. By the way, have you heard the news? My secretary Clive is engaged to Miss Beaumont."

Desborough took the blow smilingly. He had been forewarned.

"So Clive told me last night," he said. "A good thing for him. There will be a run on millionaire secretaryships by penniless men about town after this."

"Clive has more money than Miss Beaumont," said Minter. "He merely took up city work under the terms of his father's will. So long!"

The men drifted apart. Minter's parasite Bigglestone came gliding up, a small, lithe man with a crafty face.

"That looked all right," he said meaningly.

"Exactly what I said it would be," Minter replied. "He'll do it, or rather, he will leave it undone. Otherwise he would never have talked to me in that friendly manner. The last prop is cut away, too. He hoped to marry Miss Beaumont. If he could have got her consent last night he would have snapped his fingers at me. As it is, my secretary very kindly took the job from off my hands. Your interests in our little venture are quite safe, Bigglestone."

"Don't forget that Price is to be called," Bigglestone whispered. "Price feels that he has been a victim. He thinks that if we had played him up fairly he would never have landed in Portland. He only comes to verify a signature to one of the many documents in the case, but he might get a chance of telling a tale or two."

Minter's eyes gleamed.

"I gave you a free hand," he said. "I told you not to spare money. You intimated last night that you had a scheme to—"

"And so I have. Once let me get the ear of Price and I'll soon square him. But it is Ericsson that I am afraid of."

"I tell you that Desborough does not ask any dangerous questions."

"Perhaps not. But Ericsson is one of the greatest cowards in the world. He has been drinking a great deal lately to steady his nerves. As a matter of fact, he has knocked his nervous system all to pieces. For two days I have kept him well in hand, with the result that I had to give him brandy to-day to make anything like a man of him at all."

Minter's deep brows came together in a heavy frown. He was playing desperately for a heavy stake, and his path was strewn with thorns. It was just possible that one of his own tools might cut him, but if he could see today well over, he did not care for the future. He passed into court with a jaunty air, but his heart was beating a little faster than usual. It rested entirely on Desborough whether the case took a sensational turn or not; on the broad issue Minter did not mind whether he got a verdict or not.

For some time the case proceeded smoothly. Presently the Crown counsel announced his intention of calling a witness. The usher took up the cry, and the name of Ericsson resounded far and near.

The man came at length, white and shaking, with a lip that trembled and a hand that grasped the edge of the witness box like a drowning sailor. He seemed to be terribly frightened about something.

Yet he gave his evidence fairly well. Evidently he had been carefully coached. Minter listened with his head well down. He had no desire to confuse the witness by meeting his shifty glance. Desborough was approaching the point where the fatal questions might or might not be put.

"It's coming," Bigglestone whispered to his client.

"Hold your tongue, fool," Minter muttered between his teeth. "Those questions are not going to be asked at all. Once that chap is out of the box we shall be safe. We are quite clear up to now."

All the same the witness was getting confused. He could not remember anything. He was mixed up in his mind with a certain man called Price. If Price could say this or that he would be able to proceed. Minter listened, with the big veins in his forehead swelling with anger.

"Who is this Price?" the judge asked impatiently.

"Forthcoming witness, my lord," said Desborough, "whom I shall call."

"Call him now," the Bench suggested. "Let this witness stand down."

Desborough bowed. Price was on the lips of the usher. They called again, but there was no response. There was just a minute's pause when a messenger handed a telegram up to the solicitors' table. One of the attorneys there read it with a start, and then passed it on to Desborough. The few spectators in court thrilled with the expectation of a dramatic surprise. They were not disappointed.

"A most extraordinary thing has happened, my lord," Desborough said. "This is from Sergeant Farringdon, who was sent down with two constables to bring the man Price from Portland."

"The man Price being a convict!" the judge said.

"Precisely, my lord. It appears that the convict and the escort got safely as far as Clavering, where there is a stay of a few minutes. It is a small station, and there were few people about. Without any warning five or six men came from another carriage, overpowered and maltreated Farringdon and the constables, and drove off with the prisoner in a dog-cart. The sergeant adds that recapture is inevitable, but it may be a day or two before it takes place."

A murmur of surprise followed this extraordinary statement. Minter sat with his face still hung down, but there was a look of fiendish satisfaction upon it. So far as he could see the situation was absolutely saved.

"Was this your scheme?" he whispered to Bigglestone.

"It was," the latter chuckled, "and a precious good one too, I flatter myself. A fiver apiece did the trick, with railway fare. You may be pretty sure that I shall see Price before the police get a chance. I wouldn't take £30,000 for my share in our little venture now."

"A most astounding thing!" the Bench murmured. "Under the circumstances, what do you propose to do, Mr. Desborough?"

"There is no alternative but to ask for an adjournment for a few days, my lord," said Desborough. "We cannot get on very well without the man Price, and we must give the police some little latitude. Say Monday?"

"Very well. The case is adjourned till Monday. Call the next, please."

Minter slipped out of the court, followed by Bigglestone. He was a strong man, but he did not disdain the brandy that he called for at the nearest bar. Desborough came out of court more slowly and thoughtfully. He felt that he had a reprieve. He had not abandoned honour yet. He still had a chance.


V. A VOICE FROM THE PAST

BEING a bachelor, Clifford Desborough's ménage was not an expensive one. He had three rooms in the Temple, and where he had his consultations was at once his living and smoking room after office hours.

To do the man justice, he was no sybarite. He had been busy all the afternoon and evening; he had swallowed an indifferently-cooked chop and some dubious claret, and now over a pipe he had turned to a mass of papers again. A big pile of invitations he had contemptuously swept upon the floor.

The clerk came in with two or three leather-bound volumes under his arm.

"Here are what you want, sir," he said. "They are the diaries of the late Mr. James Beaumont, the gentleman who originally obtained the concessions that more or less formed the base of the Mackness-Minter litigation."

Desborough looked up with an interested face.

"I'm glad you got those," he said. "A lucky find, Mellor."

"Well, yes, sir. Mr. Mackness found them after he bought Mr. Beaumont's practice. I have not ventured to investigate, but there are some private matters there that might as well be relegated to obscurity. In fact, Mr. Mackness' solicitor asked in the present action that they should be destroyed after you had made what use you like of them."

Desborough nodded a dismissal and the discreet clerk disappeared. It was some little time before the barrister had occasion to refer to the diaries. He picked up the first volume and skimmed it over. There were points likely to be of use to him in the case, and these he duly noted. But there were other matters also that few men confide to a diary. It seemed odd to Desborough that he should be looking at the life of the man whose daughter he had hoped to marry.

He read on, riveted by what was before his eyes. For the minute he had forgotten all about the case that these books led up to. He was reading sacred family secrets. Not that there was anything strange in this, seeing that lawyers and barristers lived in an atmosphere of this kind.

He should have put the book down, he should have destroyed it. But he did nothing of the kind. He read on and on until the clock struck ten. Then he lighted a cigarette and lay back in a chair.

His face was hard and set, there was a strange gleam in his eyes.

"Here is a chance," he muttered, "the chance of a lifetime. Only to a member of the law could such a thing happen. Fate places Maude Beaumont's future in my hands. I have discovered a shameful family secret. If I could go to her and—"

He paused, his mind working fast.

"I can save myself by doing what Minter asks me," he went on, "but by so doing I place myself entirely in the fellow's power. Sooner or later he will give me another disgraceful task to do, sooner or later, he will drag me down. And in a few weeks I shall be a Cabinet Minister. If only I could have won Maude's consent to marry me, I could have defied him. With my prospects and the knowledge that I was engaged to a wealthy girl I could have raised a loan to clear me. As it is, Fortune has stepped in and saved me from dishonour—as yet. I have a few days now to wriggle out of Minter's net. Maude has promised to marry Clive, but I could break off that match."

Desborough's face grew white and the gleam in his eyes deepened. He was contemplating a dastardly and dishonourable deed. Fate had placed a tremendous weapon in his hands. Should he throw it aside or should he use it? Anything to get out of Minter's clutches. He would have to proclaim himself a scoundrel to a girl he respected, who believed in him, but that did not matter.

It was a horrible position to be placed in altogether. But to remain under the thumb of Minter was intolerable. Sooner or later that was bound to spell absolute ruin. He sat up and glanced at the clock.

Only a little past ten, and social London was just beginning to enjoy itself. Most of the dinners were over by this time and the receptions beginning. Where was Maude Beaumont most likely to be to-night? Lady Mary Minter had said that she was dining at Park Lane to-night and that she was going on to Mrs. Hackett-Smith's party afterwards. It was pretty certain that Miss Beaumont would be there also. And Mrs. Hackett-Smith had sent Desborough a card. Whether he had accepted or not made no difference, Mrs. Hackett-Smith was always ready to smile on successful men, and next week he might be Home Secretary.

"I'll go and take the chance!" Desborough muttered.

He passed into his bedroom and dressed quickly. The barrister was put aside for the moment. Half an hour later the polished, easy man of Society was bending over the hand of his hostess and talking smoothly of nothing in particular.

He had to wait some little time. The rooms and the stairs were crowded. Desborough was preparing to get upon the track of his quarry by skilful questioning, when he caught the flash of Maude Beaumont's dress. She fluttered into a little alcove accompanied by Lady Mary Minter. A well-known Society journalist accompanied them.

Desborough pushed his way into the alcove with a vague air of expecting to find nobody there. There was just room for four.

"Here is a pleasant surprise," he said. "I was feeling like Robinson Crusoe. And four really is company. I'll take this seat, Lady Mary."

"You look worked to death," Denton the journalist suggested. "Anything sensational? I envy you barristers. I have to depend for my copy a great deal on imagination, whereas you have always something real to go upon."

"A barrister meets strange coincidences," Desborough said. "I met one to-night."

"Scandal!" Lady Mary cried. "Please, please go on. I'm bored to death!"

"I'd far rather it was fiction," Maude observed. "Is it very interesting?"

"I fancy you will find it so," Desborough replied. He had his voice perfectly under control, he spoke slowly and distinctly. "Probably I should not have mentioned it had Denton not been present. Anyway, here is a plot for a novel. We will say that I am a successful barrister with a great prize well within my grasp. I am young and ambitious, but, like most young and ambitious men, I am very poor. Not only am I very poor, but I am disgracefully in debt at the same time. My Oxford creditors nearly drove me mad. To try to pay them I speculated till I was in a worse plight than ever. There is a synopsis of the first act in a nutshell."

"And a very good one, too," Denton murmured approvingly. "I am deeply interested."

Maude looked curiously into the story-teller's face, but she could make nothing of it. All around her the chatter of the frivolous was going on, the outward seeming of absolute happiness rich Society always has, and yet she felt cold and uneasy. There seemed to be some meaning behind it all.

"Act II," Desborough went on. "The man I speak of must be saved in some way. As I speak in a Society atmosphere let me give you a Society flavour to the story. The man seeks a rich wife. A prosaic way out of the difficulty, but a safe one. He finds his ideal, who is lovely and good and clever and very rich. But she has the bad taste to care for another—she is engaged to another, in fact. Most men would look further, but not my barrister, because he is in a position to find things out. In this case he does find things out. He is engaged in a certain case, and in his researches into that case he consults some diaries written by the late father of the girl he wants to make his wife. There fortune comes to the aid of the ambitious young man. In that diary is the story of a family secret. The young lady has a sister. Years ago that sister made a secret match with a man of dubious reputation. All this is told in the diary which was consulted merely for dry business purposes. The newly-married couple were in a shipwreck and their names were given amongst the missing. As a matter of fact they were not drowned. Moreover, they were not married, for the scoundrel of a man had a wife alive all the time. The mother of the poor girl was not told, she does not know to this day. If she did, it would kill her."

Desborough paused as if for breath. He glanced at Maude, whose face was partly hidden by her fan. He could see that the face was white as marble, the fan rustled as if shaken by the wind. Desborough had learnt all he required. Maude had not heard this story for the first time.

"Now we come to Act III," he went on quite gaily. "The other daughter knows the story. My pushing young barrister is going to make her his wife. He tells her that she must give up the other man and marry him. For the honour of the family she is compelled to sacrifice her own feelings. The scandal still remains secretly buried, and that man and that girl save one another. End of Act III."

"Capital!" Denton cried. "So far, a really gripping story. But what about the end of the play—the last act?"


VI. FOR HER MOTHER'S SAKE

"THAT is as far as I have gone," Desborough said. "Some papers I found to-day suggested the romance to me, and I amused myself by working it out as I came along. You can finish the story as you please. It is a matter of indifference to me whether that fellow repents or holds the girl in his power. But the class of man I have in my mind would never sacrifice his career."

A band was playing somewhere near. The noisy chatter was going on. Maude lowered her fan. Her face was deadly pale, but there was a look of strange contempt not unmixed with pleading yearning in her eyes that was lost on all but Desborough.

"Would your friend trade on a professional secret like that?" she asked.

"You find the story convincing?" Desborough asked with a hard little laugh.

"Horribly convincing," Maude shuddered. "It seems strange that such scoundrels should be allowed to live. But really you have carried me away. I suppose it is because I am hot and tired. Take me somewhere and get me an ice."

She flashed a challenge at Desborough for a moment. She was going to see this thing through without delay. Desborough offered his arm. His feelings were strongly mixed as he walked along. The task of telling a woman whom he honoured and admired that he was a scoundrel was accomplished.

"Take me to the garden," Maude said. "It will be quiet there."

They found a secluded spot at length, a shady seat under the swaying light of a Chinese lantern. Maude turned upon her companion instantly.

"Now let us understand each other," she said, with heaving bosom. "I am not blind enough to think that you told your story for sheer amusement."

"My dear Maude, nothing is further from my thoughts at this moment."

"Miss Beaumont, if you please," Maude said coldly. "Well, for the present, if you like. But I beg your pardon. You were speaking. Go on."

"I will. You are the needy, ambitious, outwardly successful barrister. At the present moment you stand between a shining career and utter collapse. Therefore, you must marry money. It all comes down to money in the end. If you want money, ten, twenty thousand pounds—"

"Stop," Desborough cried hoarsely. Even his nature was galled at last. "I cannot stoop to that. Strange as it may seem, I still have my pride. My mood is not to blackmail you. If you only knew how I respect and esteem you—"

He came a step nearer, but Maude recoiled with horror.

"You fill me with contempt," she said. "How dare you pollute such words with your lips! You have a mother, a good woman."

"You have a mother too, which brings us to the point."

"Oh, you are shameless! You have me in your power, you have it in your hands to cast a slur over a good and honourable name, to strike one of the sweetest, dearest women on earth to the heart. Of course the miserable girl you told of in your story was my sister. My father's diary came into your hands for business purposes, and you abuse their secrets like this! Unless I promise to become your wife, you will tell this shameful story."

Desborough was silent for the moment. There was something in the pleasing scorn of the girl's voice that touched him. He was not quite so hard as he had imagined. But the thoughts of Minter and the gripping power of the man drove all feeling back. He was not going to stay his hand now.

"I must do it," he said hoarsely. "I cannot sacrifice myself now. As your mother is to you, so is my ambition to me. I am Ambition's Slave. A day or two and I shall be a Cabinet Minister or a beggar."

"A beggar or an honest man?" Maude cried.

"You are merely wasting time," said Desborough impatiently. "I have told you everything. You have seen the strong man, you have witnessed his struggle for his darling sin."

"And from the bottom of my heart I pity you."

"Pity me! Why—why on earth should you pity me?"

"Because you are an object of pity. What sadder spectacle than the sight of a man who for the first time proclaims himself a scoundrel?"

"Ah, you madden me," Desborough said, with a quick intake of his breath. "I should be a fool as well as a knave if I drew back now. You are going to marry me. With you by my side I would do anything."

"And if I refused the distinguished honour that you would confer on me?"

"You are not going to refuse. When you came out here this evening with me, you knew perfectly well what was the inevitable conclusion. You are going to save your mother—you are going to save me, you are going to save the situation all round."

Maude drooped into her seat pale and trembling. There was a mist before her eyes, and in the centre of it Desborough loomed big and strong and merciless. And only last night she had been so happy. Besides, she had given her word to another, she had promised to become the wife of Kit Clive.

But she could not go on with that now. She did not dare to think what Kit would say when she told him, as she must, that it was all over between them. Still, her mother must never know the shameful secret that had come so strangely into the possession of Clifford Desborough.

She knew the man well, and how strong his ambitions were. He must indeed have been desperately placed to go so far as this. She looked into his eyes and saw not the slightest sign of relenting there. Hatred, contempt, scorn all alike were lost on him.

"Why hesitate?" he said, "why wait? The thing is inevitable. Will you marry me—will you consent to be my wife, or—"

He paused. He took something shining from his pocket.

"This was my mother's engagement ring," he said. "I brought it with me for a surprise. See, it fits like a glove, an omen for the future."

A convulsive shudder shook Maude from head to foot. She could do no more than glance in a fascinated way at the shining hoop of diamonds.

"Go away," she said. "Leave me, or I shall do something desperate. Be content with the knowledge that I—I shall marry you."

The last two words were raised, they came as if dragged from the girl's lips. Desborough fought down the triumph that rose within him. It was not the moment to exult. He just touched the tips of Maude's chill fingers with his lips and was gone.

He did not see Maude fling herself back in her seat, he did not see the tears that ran down her cheeks. He had no consciousness of the man who had come up in the last moment or two and who had remained outside the ring of light watching the little scene with dazed fascination.

But the man came forward and laid his hand gently on Maude's shoulder. She did not look up, she cowered down as if something loathsome had touched her.

"Go away," she said. "For Heaven's sake be satisfied with your work."

"It is I, Maudie," said Clive. "I came to look for you. And I saw and heard things that pass my comprehension. What does it mean?"

Maude looked up now, her face white and deathly.

"This completes my humiliation," she whispered. "What did you hear, Kit?"

"I heard you promise to marry Desborough. You are engaged tome. And yet all the time you hate and loathe him!"

"Oh I do, I do. God knows that I do. Kit, you have trodden on the fringe of a strange and dreadful secret. I meant you to know nothing of this. I meant to have written to you a cold little note saying that our engagement was a mistake. My idea was to try and anger you, to make you feel that I was not worthy of an honest man's love. And now my misery is all the more profound."

"But, my darling, I am sure you have done nothing wrong."

"Not myself. But there are others. And you must not speak to me like that again, Kit, or I shall break down. It cuts me to the heart to tell you, but our engagement is at an end. I shall have to marry Mr. Desborough. Don't ask me why, don't press me to tell how, because I cannot. I dare not tell you. If you only knew, from the bottom of your heart you would pity me."

Kit made no reply. For a long time he was strangely silent. Maude looked up, her eyes red with tears.

"Say you are not angry with me!" she whispered.

"I am not angry with you at all," Clive said. "I am wounded sorely, but I have no feeling against you. My darling, I am going to get to the bottom of the thing. I am going to save you from a scoundrel. There is time to do so yet, time to set you free. If you say that you no longer love me—"

A broken cry came from Maude's lips.

"Never," she said. "Never, I shall love you to the end of my life."


VII. LOVE OR HONOUR?

CLIVE said nothing for the moment. It was a hard fight to keep his emotions in hand, but he conquered. He could not look into that beautiful face and clear, truthful eyes and feel that Maude had played him deliberately false. Her whole line of conduct forbade the traitorous thought, the attitude, the attitude of utter despair.

She gave him a wild, imploring glance.

"Why don't you leave me?" she asked. "Say something hard and unkind to me. Go away and forget me altogether."

But Clive did not move. His heart was full of an infinite pity for Maude. She would never have done this had there not been some stern necessity for her conduct.

"Presently," he said. "I am not blaming you, Maude; I shall never do that. Some deep tragedy has come into your life, you are taking this course for the sake of another. But surely when you come quietly to consider your own happiness—"

Maude laughed bitterly.

"Henceforth happiness and I are strangers," she said. "I have done this thing deliberately. I must do it. And yet not one word of reproach comes from you!"

"Because I love you," Kit said quietly. "I shall never care for another woman so long as I live. And you love me—nothing can rob me of that confession. Won't you tell me your secret?"

"The secret is not my own to tell."

"But I might show you some way. If disgrace touches you."

"It does. Not so much myself as another. Oh, I know you would not mind, and you are too noble and generous for that. But nothing could make any difference now."

Maude spoke from the depths of her despair. She could not meet Kit's eyes again.

"Very well," he said at length. "I will press you no further. But I shall get to the bottom of the thing. I will leave no stone unturned. For the present we will meet as friends only. Good-night, my darling, and God bless you."

He touched Maude's forehead lightly with his lips and was gone. In the inner room he could hear the full measured tones of Clifford Desborough's voice. There was a quiet ring of triumph and pride in the voice, never had Desborough looked quite so strong and powerful. He crossed over to Clive and held out his hand.

"It was all a mistake," he said. "You must not blame Miss Beaumont—"

"On the whole we had better not shake hands," Kit replied. "As to Miss Beaumont, you need not be under any misapprehension; I don't blame her in the least. By what vile means you have contrived to come between a woman and the man she loves I cannot say, but you are a loathsome scoundrel and you may resent that in any way you please."

The blood flamed into Desborough's face. The contemptuous words cut him to the quick. And from the bottom of his heart he knew that they were so absolutely true. Then he shrugged his shoulders and passed on. What did it matter so long as he had won the game? He had the woman he coveted to be his wife, her fortune would be at his disposal. And he was up to his eyes in debt.

If the crisis came he would be under a sea of bankruptcy, he would have to resign his seat and his political ambitions would be slain for ever. But once his engagement were announced his creditors would be only too glad to wait, the danger would be averted. There were the bills held by Minter, but Desborough did not want to think of that for the moment. He would have to go back to his chambers presently, there to have an interview with the witness Ericsson whose evidence had been so unsatisfactory on the first day's hearing of the Certified Company's case.

There had been a most fortunate reprieve over that case. The whole thing might be compromised yet, and those bills held by Minter could be redeemed in the ordinary way of business. So long as the witness Price, the escaped convict, kept out of the way, the trial could not go on. Desborough devotedly prayed that the police would not catch him at all. In which case—

Meanwhile Kit Clive went home thoughtfully and slowly. His dreams were not pleasant ones to-night. After all he would not go home at all. It was not late and the company of the club smoking-room would be preferable to his own gloomy cogitations. As he passed along somebody halted and hesitated before him. Kit pulled up mechanically.

"You wanted to speak to me?" he asked.

"I—I wondered," the other said, "if you would recognize me. I saw you go out of court as I was going in to give evidence, so that—but it doesn't matter. I am Charles Ericsson, we used to be in the same set in the old college days."

There was a strange hesitation in the speaker's manner—a nervous trembling of the eyelashes, that told its own story. The man was not badly dressed, he had all the outward bearing and semblance of a gentleman, but the seal of drink was upon him. It was only a question of time.

"I recollect now," Kit said quietly. "What can I do for you?"

Ericsson raised his hands with a sudden spurt of passion.

"Talk to me," he said. "For Heaven's sake bear with me. The others have left me to myself for an hour. I could not stand the house, so I came out. I promised that I would not touch a drop of anything, and it's hard. I shall fly to it if I am left alone. At eleven to-night I am to meet Desborough in his chambers. I must be sober for that. Clive, you were always a good soul and I—I—"

The speaker clung to Clive's arm as if seeking protection from some unseen danger.

"Come into my club," Kit said. "Oh, you are quite presentable enough. The fact that you are not in evening dress does not matter in the least. Come along."

Ericsson followed, muttering his gratitude brokenly. In the full glories of the electric light he looked a pitiful wreck indeed, not in the least like the hard athlete that Clive had known not so many years ago.

"Where have you been all this time?" he asked.

"Everywhere," Ericsson said. "All over the world. And I would give my soul to wipe it all out and start afresh. It was all over a girl to begin with. She preferred another and I—well, I tried to drown my sorrow. And I fell from bad to worse. Look at me."

The man spoke with the bitterest self-contempt. He was quite sober now. Kit regarded him pitifully. He could see that the other had fallen very low indeed. There was a wistful gleam in his eyes as a waiter passed with a tray of glasses that told its own tale.

"If I could only help you," Kit said, "give you a chance to pull yourself together—"

"Too late," the other muttered. "All the same I'm glad to have seen you. It's good to look an honest old pal in the face again. If I hadn't met you I shouldn't have passed the next public bar. Walk a little way with me."

Kit nodded. He had nothing to do, and in a way Ericsson fascinated him. And it was always a pleasure to Kit to help anybody in trouble. Ericsson was talking more quietly now, speaking of the past. He pulled up suddenly and gripped Kit's arm. His face had grown horribly white, the bloodshot eyes were staring with terror.

"There," he whispered, "by the lamp. For God's sake don't let him see me!"

Kit half glanced around. He had heard of men acting like this on the verge of delirium tremens. And Ericsson was peculiarly near the border line. Doubtless he was looking at some hideous vision conjured up by his own disordered brain.

"Steady," Kit cried. "Steady, man. Pull yourself together. It is nothing."

Ericsson laughed in a quavering kind of way. He dimly comprehended what Kit was driving at.

"It is not that at all," he said. "I'm horribly shaky, but my brain is clear enough to-night. It is that man standing there looking at that paper. Cross the road."

The speaker was trembling from head to foot and sweating with terror. There was nothing very formidable about the man who stood quietly reading a paper and smoking a cigarette under a lamp-post. He seemed like a respectable mechanic in his best clothes, a thick-set, powerful-looking man with a hard face and a strong-determined jaw; there was a certain air of patience about him, an air of dogged determination. Once on the other side of the street Ericsson stopped and wiped his face.

"I've had a shock," said he, as if talking to himself. "It was the same man—I never guessed for a moment that it would be the same man, not even when I heard that he was—It was a narrow escape for me—What was I talking about?"

Kit replied that he did not know, which was no more than the truth.

Ericsson laughed in a feeble, cackling kind of way that was not good to hear.

"You've been very kind to-night," he said. "Very kind indeed. And much always wants more. And I've had a fright, I dare not go home alone. I shan't be at Desborough's chambers very long. Not more than half an hour. I wonder if you would stretch a point and wait for me. If you only knew what a fright I have had."

He wiped his besotted face again, and his eyelids quivered. Kit nodded. It seemed all cheap and trivial enough, and from the bottom of his heart he was sorry for the other.

"All right," he said cheerfully. "I'll stay here and smoke a cigar. And after that I'll see you safe home to bed. And I should say you need it."


VIII. FOLLOWING IT UP

MAUDE sat on after her lover had gone, utterly unconscious of what was going on around her. She heard nothing of the clatter of voices, the ripple of laughter. She had come out to-night the happiest woman in London; within the compass of an hour she had become of all women the most miserable. She had lost the man she most cared for, she had given her promise to a man she despised. Her whole soul was filled with a loathing for Desborough.

And he had made his meaning quite plain. Maude understood that Desborough's parable applied to them both. He was the strong man who was prepared to sacrifice everything to his ambition, honour, self-respect and all. He was the man loaded down with debt and struggling to free himself by means of a rich marriage. That his ambition was tempered by the fact that he really adored her did not move Maude a bit. To save himself he was going to take advantage of a disgraceful family secret and force her to marry him.

Desborough had been brutal enough, he had burnt his boats and crossed the rubicon. And Maude would have to become his wife. She sat there overwhelmed by the mere suggestion of it. And Kit had been so kind and tender through it all. If he had only reproached her, only spoken as he had every right to do! Maude looked up to see Desborough standing before her.

"I want you to come back into the drawing-room with me," he said. "I am going soon."

He spoke with an air of proprietorship that Maude would have resisted. But what did it all matter? She would have to smile in the face of Society—to wear a mask in future. She would have to begin some time and the sooner the agony was over the better.

"I understand you," she said coldly. "You want to show your property to the world—you want your creditors to know that they will be paid."

Desborough winced slightly. After all he was not quite so hard as he had imagined.

"I have always admired you," he said. "In any case I should have asked you to be my wife. I could not marry a poor woman, but even if you had been a poor woman, in my heart I should have preferred you to any one else. And I shall make you care for me."

Her eyes flashed and her face grew hard.

"Never!" she cried. "A girl might be your slave, nay, with a man like you she would have to be. But the real spontaneous love that warms so many a heart could not be yours. And I am not the one to change. I love Kit Clive. I shall go on loving him always. You need not be afraid—the breath of scandal shall never touch me. I shall always remain as pure in mind and thought as I am now. And I shall ever despise you. I shall ever know you for the man that you are. Others may envy you and point to your success, but your wife will know you for a poor, contemptible creature who forced a poor girl to pay for your follies and ambition at the price of her happiness and the content of her family. Now will you give me your arm?"

Desborough stood quietly through it all. What he felt under the stinging lash of the girl's tongue she could only guess, he might have been carved out of granite but for the little red spot that burnt on either cheek. He held out his arm which Maude touched with her finger tips.

Yet he glanced at her anxiously as they came into the full glare of the brilliantly lighted drawing-room. There was a smile on Maude's face and a little suggestion of weariness. People were looking at the striking couple and whispering together.

"Will you congratulate me?" Desborough said as he approached his hostess. "I am very fortunate. Miss Beaumont has done me the honour to consenting to be my wife."

The news flashed round the room. Maude overheard the felicitations of her friends with the same hard, brilliant smile. She longed to cry out to tell them that it was all a hateful sham. She had a passionate desire to be alone again, to throw herself face down upon her bed and cry her heart out. But the thing had to be played out to the bitter end.

"Get me away," she whispered fiercely. "Find my chaperon, who will be glad to go. Call the carriages. If you don't I shall be forced to say something, to tell the truth, and once that is known I shall be free of you for ever. Do you hear me? Go!"

Maude spoke in a fierce whisper, but the hard, brilliant smile never left her face. It was not until the carriage had driven away that Desborough felt easy in his mind. He walked thoughtfully along in the direction of his chambers.

"I never knew that she had so much in her," he told himself. "She will have to be ruled, to learn to fear my power and respect it. And what a tongue she has. Well, she is the only one who knows that I am a scoundrel, and to draw back now would be to stamp me as a fool as well as a knave. Without Maude's aid I should have been a ruined man. Now—"

He glared at the thought of the future. There were letters in his room awaiting him; one from his solicitor telling him of no fewer than three writs that had been issued against him to-day. Desborough smiled bitterly as he read the letter.

"Minter is putting on the screw," he muttered. "I have to thank him for this. If I could only get from under that scoundrel's thumb I should be free—I could defy him. If I could raise that money! Perhaps I could now that my engagement is announced. Come in."

The door opened, and Ericsson entered. He was still pale and ghastly; despite the freshness of the night, there were beads of perspiration on his face.

"Sit down," Desborough said. "You are the witness who has an appointment with me. You were not in a fit state to say much when I last had the pleasure of seeing you. What's the matter?"

Those keen, cold eyes were looking at Ericsson searchingly. The pale face flushed.

"I'm sober enough now," he retorted. "And I had a bit of a fright coming along. It was that man Price. Eli Price who was also a witness in the case. I didn't know it was the same Price that—"

"Never mind that," Desborough said curtly. "I am not interested in your private affairs. Now listen to me, and answer all that I ask you truthfully."

For the next half hour Ericsson was replying to Desborough's searching questions. In that time he literally turned the man inside out. Then the lawyer rose and pointed to the door.

"You can go," he said. "And keep sober next time. And don't try to deceive a lawyer again who has you in the witness box. That kind of thing leads to trouble. Good-night."

Ericsson slipped away down the stairs, and almost instantly Desborough was immersed in a thick brief. He had forgotten everything else when the door was burst open and Ericsson dashed in. His face was white with terror, his eyes gleamed strangely. With a gesture of annoyance Desborough caught him by the shoulders and bundled him towards the door.

"Confound you!" he said, "what do you mean by this? If you don't go away—"

"But I dare not," Ericsson screamed. "He is after me, he is following me here. If he comes he will kill me. Hide me somewhere, get me out of the way. Isn't there any back way out? Oh, surely you are not going to let me—"

Desborough pointed to a door on the opposite side of the room.

"Try that way," he said. "It leads into a corridor, and there is a staircase that opens into a side street. Get along, and don't let me see your face again."

With a gasp Ericsson darted away, and was lost to sight in a moment. Then came the sound of heavy footsteps up the main staircase, then the door was flung open without ceremony and a second man came furiously into the room.


IX. TEMPTATION

FOR some time after Ericsson had passed under the archway leading to Desborough's chambers the man by the lamp-post stood reading his paper. Kit Clive passed him more than once, and wondered who he might be, and why the sight of him had such a paralyzing effect on Ericsson. The man looked quiet and respectable enough, not at all the kind of man to make a disturbance, but one who when once aroused was likely to see things through.

Then Clive dismissed the fellow from his thoughts. He had plenty of matter to occupy his attention. He was wishing himself back home again; he was beginning to regret that he had taken all this trouble for so worthless an object as Ericsson.

Meanwhile the man under the lamp-post stood quite still, reading the newspaper. He threw it aside presently with a gesture of disgust, and strode forward. As he emerged into the light again he came full upon Ericsson, who was coming in the other direction. He might have passed unheeding, but Ericsson pulled up, and a hoarse cry escaped him. The other man looked up indifferently, then his face changed. An unholy joy blazed up in his eyes.

Ericsson cried again ever so faintly. A policeman strode by without heeding. Eli Price sidled up to Ericsson, and held up his hand. It was like a chance meeting of two friends.

"Well, mate," he said, "who would have thought of meeting you here!" His voice sank to a whisper. "I know what you would like to do, curse you. You would like to call that policeman standing there and tell him that here is Eli Price, the escaped convict. If you open your mouth I'll crush your skull in before you can say two words."

Ericsson shivered. He was too utterly frightened for anything. As a matter of fact the very thing that Price had suggested had feebly flashed through his brain.

"Yonder policeman is your safeguard and mine," Price went on in the same fierce whisper. "So long as our friend in blue stands there waiting for his sergeant I can't kill you in the way you deserve; so long as he stands there you have no cause to fear. So I've found you at last!"

Ericsson shivered and said nothing. Like a hunted animal he was glaring about him for some avenue of escape. Commonplace people passed by, ignorant of the note of tragedy so close to them; a paper boy flitted along, yelling the latest news.

"Why don't you speak?" Price snarled. "Say something. Try to look like a man. When I see you standing there I could kick myself for the fool that I am. However I came to trust such a white, puling, lily-livered coward passes my understanding. But I thought you were clever, I didn't know that you had soddened your brain away. And when you played me false and I found you out you had just cunning enough to put me away. And because you turned coward and saved your own skin I have been lying like a dog yonder, bullied by warders and half starved into the bargain. If the policeman yonder would only move on and give me the chance!"

Price hissed out the last few words. There was murder in his eyes. Ericsson was too frozen with horror for a moment to see that the policeman was moving on at last. He could not see Clive anywhere. And once there was a chance to do so with impunity Price would certainly kill him. The knowledge set the poor wretch trembling like a leaf. A sudden cry came from his lips, and he darted off as hard as his legs could carry him.

He rushed on headlong, blindly. He was fifty yards away before Price could follow him. With a kind of dull instinct he fled into the passage in the direction of Desborough's chambers again. Poor creature as he was, if he could find light and protection he would be dangerous.

"I was a fool to stop him," Price muttered. "I might have followed him. If he gets to the ears of the police I am done."

Price picked up his heels and followed rapidly. Another policeman had heard the cry, and called on him to stop. But there was no time for ceremony. Price disappeared under the dark arch like a shadow, whilst the man of law came most leisurely behind. Price shut his teeth grimly. If that constable proved to be too inquisitive he would have to be silenced; the officer stood a good chance of lying on his back on the stones presently with a concussion of the brain.

There was just a glimpse of Ericsson as he disappeared up a flight of stairs. Price could plainly see the door into which he vanished. But he could not follow for the moment for the simple reason that the blundering policeman was searching about the arch. Price crept close into the shadow, as the light of the lantern flashed here and there. A moment later and a lane of light picked out the features and figure of the man in hiding.

"Come out of that, my lad," a pompous voice said from behind the lantern. "I dare say it's all right, but just you come out and give an account of yourself."

Price moved heavily forward. He had to control his face, but he was inwardly beating with passion. He was doing no wrong, he said; he had merely been having a few words with a friend. And if the policeman wanted to know his name and address—

He broke off suddenly. He made a spring like that of a tiger, and then his fist crashed on the side of the officer's head. It was a smashing and staggering blow, and the man in blue fell with a snore and a grunt upon the pavement, his lantern rolling away as he fell.

"Serve you right, you meddlesome hound," Price growled. "You won't worry about anything for a bit. But it was a pretty near shave."

He hastened up the steps, forgetting all about the policeman, and everything else besides Ericsson. He must see that man again, at any hazard he must be frightened into silence. Yes, this was the door through which Ericsson had disappeared.

He pushed his way in as coolly as if the place belonged to him. The red mist before his eyes rendered him reckless and blind to everything else. He hardly saw the owner of the room. Desborough started angrily from his desk. It was bad enough that Ericsson should come back in the way he had, but that the person pursuing him should force his way into a private apartment was intolerable. The newcomer was short and powerfully built; he had a strong, determined face, and withal the look of a gentleman.

He was almost beside himself now with passionate eagerness, and for the moment did not seem to see Desborough at all. The latter was half amused in spite of everything. His mood had suddenly changed. He stood before the intruder and barred the way.

"Make yourself quite at home," he said. "If there is anything that you desire."

Price looked stupidly at the speaker. His glaring eyes seemed to come back from somewhere a long way off.

"Where am I?" he asked hoarsely. "Where has he gone to? He came back here, I swear. As soon as he saw me he gave a cry and doubled back. At first I couldn't believe my luck. But I was after him quick enough, and he came in here. Where is he?"

"Perhaps I could tell better if I knew who you were looking for?"

"I'm looking for Ericsson. He came back here, I swear. If I could only hold him by the throat, if I could only choke the life out of him! Where has he got to?"

Price's glance travelled over Desborough's shoulders to the door beyond. He muttered something like an oath. He crossed to the door, passed to the room beyond, then he came back again. There was something in this cool proceeding that irritated whilst it amused Desborough.

"I suppose you are quite satisfied," he said. "If there is any other information you require I shall be very glad to give it to you."

He spoke with a cynical tone that was quite lost on Price. The latter was still breathing heavily, as if he had not yet recovered from the effects of his chase.

"He's got away," Price said. "There was a back door. What's the matter?"

Desborough fairly gasped. Cold and self-contained as he generally was, he thrilled now, he had made a discovery that thrilled him to the core.

"I know you," he said. "You were convicted at last Hardcastle Assizes and sentenced to seven years. You came very near to proving one of the most ingenious alibis ever tendered in a court of justice. I am a barrister, and I was present at the assizes. Under ordinary circumstances you should be in gaol now. Let me see—what is your name?"

"I don't mind telling you," the other said with a hard laugh, "seeing that you know so much. My name is Eli Price. And much good may the information do you."

Desborough made no retort. This was the missing witness in the great Certified Company, under his own roof, the man whose extraordinary escape had given him an unexpected and blessed reprieve at the hands of Graham Minter. As a barrister or a future Cabinet Minister his duty was plain before him. He ought to have instantly called in the police and handed his visitor over to justice. But he did nothing of the kind, he sat at his desk thoughtfully turning over the situation. So long as Price was free he was fairly safe. Price back in strong hands again and he was in peril. He looked up suddenly, and Price smiled.

"I see nothing to be amused at," he said. "If I do my duty—"

"But you are not going to do your duty," Price snarled. "I can read a face as well as most people. Yours is a cold and hard face, but you are not going to give me up. For some reason or another, you are going to keep your knowledge to yourself, to make use of me. Not that I care so long as you keep your tongue between your teeth."


X. STILL FURTHER TRIED

FOR once in his life Desborough had no retort ready. This man had read his mind with an accuracy that was amazing. He had yielded to the temptation, he dared not give Price up. So long as this man was at large, nothing very definite could come of the Certified Company trial, that fatal tampering with Desborough's brief would not be necessary.

"Who are you, really?" he asked.

"Never mind that," Price retorted. "I'm a public school and university man, and that is enough for you for the present. You ask no questions, and you will be told no lies. The point is that I left a policeman half dead outside, and that, all things considered, I should be more safe if I chose another exit. Is it possible to find one?"

Desborough pointed to the door by means of which Ericsson had got away. "Try that direction," he said.

"It is the caretaker's private right of way."

Price nodded and disappeared. Hardly had he gone before there was a knock at the door. Before Desborough could shout a request for his visitor to come in, Price's bullet head was back again.

"Locked!" he said crisply, "and only one light left. Caretaker's evidently gone to bed. What—"

"Stay where you are!" Desborough whispered fiercely. "I've got a visitor. Don't show yourself if you have any respect for your safety and my reputation. Go back!"

Price nodded. It was all the same to him. He was quite safe where he was, and for some reason or another his involuntary host was going to shield him. Price darted back again and pushed the door to as Desborough's visitor entered. The barrister seemed to be poring over some papers as if he had no mind for anything else in the world. The shaded lamp flooded the table, and left the rest of the room in semi-darkness.

Desborough looked up abstractedly at the slim, girlish figure. It paid him to pose like this. He made out a shabby dress, and a slim hand in a shabby glove, but he could not see the face.

"What can I do for you?" he asked.

"I come from Mr. Denton," the visitor said. "He particularly asked me to let you have this typed notice to-night. And I could not find a messenger, so I brought this myself. Will you be so good as to look over the pages and see if they are correct?"

The voice was gentle and refined, and pleasing to Desborough's ear. The notes were beautifully correct, and clearly done, and the barrister said as much.

"I am glad of that," the girl said timidly. "I—I get my living that way. My name is Alice Price, and I live in Paradise Buildings. If you should ever have work of that kind to do I can do it well at very reasonable prices. I have a lot of time on my hands."

Desborough listened with a certain interest. He had not the slightest feeling or compassion for anybody, but it struck him that there was a romance here. The girl was evidently a lady. As if by accident he pushed up the shade of the lamp so that the light fell full on the girl's face.

"I must tell my clerk your name and ask him to give you an opinion or two to copy," he said. "If the work is quite satisfactory—"

Desborough stopped with a gasp. He saw a pale, beautiful face, delicate and refined, a face that was strange, and at the same time familiar to him. The girl looked mildly surprised.

"A twinge of neuralgia," he muttered. "It comes from working too hard. Are you quite sure that your name is Price, young lady?"

"I am quite certain of it," the girl said, flushing hotly. "I—I am married."

"And before your name was Price was it not Alice Beaumont? Believe me, I am not asking out of any mere motive of curiosity."

"It was a secret," the girl murmured. "In fact, it is a secret still. I cannot tell you how you found out, but I implore you as a gentleman not to let it go any further. If you know my people—"

"I know your people very well indeed, your sister especially so. It was your extraordinary likeness to her that told me who you were. All I know is that Mrs. Beaumont's younger daughter married unhappily, and there is an end of the matter. But surely, there can be no reason why you do not let them know that—that—"

Desborough paused in some confusion. With all his faults and vices, this acting the hypocrite was a new rôle to him. As a matter of fact, he was profoundly disturbed. The secret of the diaries that had come into his hands professionally had told him of the disgrace that had befallen Mrs. Beaumont's younger daughter. But then the diaries had also told him that the girl and the man to whom she had given her heart were dead. And here she was alive and well, but with every desire to keep the fact from her relatives.

Clearly it was the policy of Clifford Desborough to aid in the deception. True, if Alice and her mother came together again, the disgrace would not be washed away, and he would still retain his iron grip on the fortune and person of Maude, but the extra knowledge would give him fresh power. It was strange that he and Alice should have met there at such a time.

"I will do anything you like," he murmured. "For the present your secret is safe with me. Presently I shall hope to persuade you to divulge it. And I will take care that you have plenty of work to do, we have lots of it here, Miss—"

He hesitated over the name. The stranger flushed.

"I am what I claim to be," she said proudly. "My name is Price. I couldn't prove the fact yet, but I hope to some day. I was bitterly deceived, but not in that way. But the time is coming when I shall be able to clear my name, such as it is."

She spoke with a deep note of bitterness in her voice.

"Your husband did not prove satisfactory?" Desborough asked.

"The man that I claim for a husband was a scoundrel. He deceived me. He thought I had money, but I had none. All the money belongs to Maude, my sister. My father died poor, and Maude's money came from her godmother. The man I married thought we were co-heiresses. He never mentioned the matter to me. Oh, if he only had, if he only had done so."

There were tears in the girl's eyes, a bitter regret in her voice. Then she drew herself up, and went on in a quiet voice. She was very like Maude, Desborough thought.

"Not that it matters," she said. "I am fairly free, or thought I was free till to-night. It is not every woman who rejoices in the thought that her husband has been sentenced to seven years' penal servitude. But I was glad, really glad to hear—"

"Your husband is in gaol?" Desborough asked hoarsely.

"Yes, you see when Eli—a pretty name, is it not?—when Eli—"

But Desborough was not listening. He was utterly dazed and confused for the moment. It had only just occurred to him that Alice Beaumont had given the name of Price. And that very Price at that moment was not many feet away behind a door that was not closed. The convict was here, and could prove if he liked the truth of the girl's words. Here was another and a still deeper temptation. A word, a sign, and Price would have gone back to the Fate that he had earned, and this unhappy girl would have been free to look the whole world in the face again. Like a flash, the thought of Graham Minter crossed Desborough's mind. He stepped over to the girl and laid a hand on her lips.

"For Heaven's sake be silent!" he whispered hoarsely. "Remember that even here the walls may have ears. I hope you have not said—"

He was shaking with excitement. The girl looked at him with wild amazement. What could he mean? What had she said or done to cause all this violent agitation on the part of so strong a man? Desborough read the questions in the girl's eyes. He drew a slip of paper and a pen to her.

"I am not quite myself to-night," he said. "And I am more deeply interested in this case than you imagine. Write your address here."

"Paradise Buildings," the girl said. "Just off the street that—"

Desborough stifled something like an oath. Silence was everything at this moment. The man in the inner room must not know.

"Write," he said sternly, "and then leave me. I am very busy. That will do!"

The address was set clown with a shaking hand, and the next moment Alice was in the street. Desborough called carelessly to the escaped convict. He lounged into the room. How much or how little did he know, Desborough wondered. But he could read nothing in Price's eyes.

"Safe to go, eh!" he muttered. "Like my room better than my company, eh? Well, so long. But you haven't seen the last of Eli Price!"


XI. A FREE MAN

ONCE out in the roadway Price stepped out briskly. His quarry was not in sight, but he expected to come up with him presently. Really things were coming out splendidly for him. Only yesterday morning he had been a prisoner with no hope of freedom. In his wildest dreams he had not expected anything like this. He was to go to London to give evidence, to which he looked forward with more or less indifference.

It would be a change, anyhow. He would see fresh faces and scenery, he would have the privilege of talking, at the stations where the trains stopped he would get something respectable in the way of food. There was something like a smile on his broad face as he thought of it. On the whole he looked forward to it.

And here he was free! It had all come like a dream. There was a dissolving view of a struggle, the dull thud of blows, a vision of two warders lying back, dazed and white, in their respective corners of a third-class carriage, and then Price was speeding down a country lane in a high dog-cart with two strange companions. An overcoat had been hurriedly buttoned over his convict's garb, and one of his new friends proffered him a cigarette. The delicious flavour of tobacco filled Price with content.

"What's it all mean?" he asked. "Where are you taking me to?"

"No harm intended," the driver said. "Ask no questions and you'll hear no lies."

They came to the outskirts of a wood at length, and there Price changed his stripes for a suit of artisan's clothing. It was nearly dark before the dog-cart went on again, and it was quite late when, coming down Hampstead way, Price could see the light of London. It mattered little where Price was going. He was free now and meant to remain so. The dog-cart pulled up at length, and at a sign Price dismounted.

"Now foot it the rest of the way," Price's companions growled. "Then we'll give you some supper and a bed and tell you all about it to-morrow."

Price was in no mood to ask questions. The supper was good, the bed better, so clean and comfortable that Price slept far into the next afternoon. The luncheon was as good as the supper, and the escaped convict ate heartily. His taciturn companion pushed a box of cigarettes across the table and glanced at Price.

"I dare say you'd like to know what all this means," he growled. "You'd better call me Jones. That ain't my real name, but it's good enough for the people here, and you're my brother Bill, up from the north, looking for a job as a boiler-maker. I'm a gas engineer. Is there anything more you'd like to know?"

"A lot," Price said, as he pulled at his cigarette. "What have I got to pay for that little job yesterday? You didn't run all this risk to get my company for nothing."

Price's rough manner had left him. He spoke with the air and manner of a gentleman. He picked his words slowly and there was a cynical flavour about them.

"You've got nothing to do," the other said sullenly. "There's big people behind the job, though who they are I don't know any more than the dead. All I had to do was to get you out of the way, and to see that you don't go taking the air in the locality of the Law Courts. That's what I'm paid for and I'll see that it's done."

Price pulled thoughtfully at his cigarette. So the reason of that daring and successful attempt at kidnapping was to prevent his giving evidence in the Certified Company case. For the present he was at a loss to understand why. How could the suppression of his evidence be of such vital importance to one party or another? But he would find out, as men with a jaw like Price's find out everything that they set their minds on. There might be money in this later on. For the present he was free. Till the hue and cry had died away he would be housed and fed and well looked after. There would be no going back to prison again. And Price was a man of resource, his knowledge of London was extensive and peculiar.

"Then so long as I keep close, I can do as I like!" he asked.

"Oh, can you?" the other sneered. "Not much. My orders are not to lose sight of you on any account. If the police pick you up again I shall have had all the trouble for nothing. You can go for walks after dark, but I go along too."

Price smiled to himself as he lit another cigarette. He had not the slightest intention of being used as a puppet in somebody else's game. To their own ends some other people had set him at liberty. But his liberty was not going to be curtailed like that. He would give his gaoler the slip presently and lose himself in London.

"All right," he said, dropping into his rougher manner. "I'm not likely to go out so long as it is daylight. Leave me plenty of cigarettes and a paper and I'll make myself comfortable. Only I shall be glad of your entertaining company after dark."

The other man lounged away, leaving Price to his own reflections. For the present he was tired, he dare not go out in the daylight. And even when darkness came he could not slip away as he might have done for the simple reason that he had no money. The other man seemed to be pretty flush, for he had taken out a handful of sovereigns to find a sixpence to send the landlady's little girl to fetch some cigarettes. Price's eyes gleamed as he saw the gold. If only that were in his possession he need not trouble his new friends any longer. And they need have no anxiety as to his coming in contact with the police. Price would see to that for his own sake.

He read the paper carefully, as a man does who has been debarred from newspapers for a long time; he read of his own escape with a grim smile. He carefully noted the names of counsel engaged on both sides, for in his roaming life he had once been in the service of the Certified Company. But, puzzle as he would, he could find no reason why his tongue should have been tied in this way. It was quite dark before the other returned.

"Come along and stretch your legs," he said. "We'll try a music hall presently."

"You don't mind my sending a telegram?" Price said.

"Yes, I do," the other growled. "None of your nonsense. My orders were to let you communicate with nobody. You're being well looked after and well fed, and you ought to be satisfied. We'll have a drink at some respectable place, and you can go as far as the Momus in Oxted Road."

Price professed himself to be perfectly agreeable. It was no cue of his to run counter to the wishes of his companion. But he set his teeth close as he heard the jingling of the sovereigns in the other man's pockets. It would go hard if those sovereigns were not his before long. "I'd like to have sent that telegram," he said, "but, after all, it doesn't matter much. There used to be a snug little house down this way that I knew years ago—the Norfolk Arms>."

The other man nodded. The Norfolk Arms was well known to him. They might just as well take their whisky and soda there as anywhere else. A florid-looking landlord with a fat face and a cunning eye started as he caught sight of Price. The latter passed a glance at his companion. He made a significant gesture of pouring something into a glass, and a moment later a tiny phial was dexterously slipped into his hand by the landlord under pretence of tendering his customer a match. The other man had seen nothing of what was going on.

"Better be moving," Price suggested. "We don't want to be out late."

The other man nodded. A half hour passed in the Momus watching a dreary and not too refined entertainment and in the consuming of more whisky and soda. A fight flared up in one corner, and Price's companion stood up eagerly to watch. Like a flash the little bottle came out of Price's pocket and the contents were dropped into his companion's glass. There was a sound of a scuffle, the sudden flash of a policeman's buttons and it was peace again. The other man drank his whisky with a remark that they sold pretty queer stuff at such places.

"Come along!" Price said. "This isn't good enough. We're better at home. My nerves ain't very strong, and the sight of that policeman gave me a turn."

The other man rose willingly. He seemed dazed and stupid as they reached the outer air. He muttered something about poisonous drink, he hung heavily on Price's arm. It taxed the enormous strength of the convict to get his companion along. They came presently to a new road where extensive building operations were being carried on. Price literally carried his now senseless companion into one of the empty houses and laid him on a pile of sacking. He plunged eagerly for the sovereigns into the other's pocket. There had been no mistake; here was a score or more of the precious, clinking, yellow coins, more than enough to keep Price in funds till he had developed his plans.

"Well, my star is in the ascendant to-night," he muttered. "Freedom, a change of clothes, getting clear away to London, and a pocketful of money, all in a little over twenty-four hours. I ought to back my luck now that it is in. Good-bye, my friend, sleep well, and if you have a fine head in the morning, put it down to the Momus whisky."

Price strode cheerfully along in the direction of London. It was a little past ten when he reached Oxford Circus. Here he stopped to dispatch a telegram. Then he wandered on filled with an exulting sense of freedom. What should he do next he was asking himself. He had a presentiment that further developments were coming. It was at this moment that a passing figure half stopped, there was the sound of an alarmed cry. And then it was that Price found himself face to face with Ericsson—Ericsson in the flesh, the cur who had laid a better man than himself by the heels. Price forgot everything in the exultation of the moment. What followed the reader already knows.


XII. PARADISE BUILDINGS

ALICE came at length to a gloomy thoroughfare with high tenement houses on either side that excluded the light of day. Here are suites of rooms let off to the struggling respectable classes, artisans, tailors, workers in wax and other flowers, and the many trades by which half the world ekes out a precarious livelihood. In one of these tiny flats Alice Price worked hard day in and day out at a typewriter.

The room was barely furnished, a cheap lamp stood beside the typewriter, there was nothing there to denote anything but the direst poverty save for a lovely bunch of lilies in a tawdry glass jar. The poor girl who usually slaved at the typewriter looked not unlike a lily herself. She was young, and under ordinary circumstances would have been beautiful, but the dull despair of her eyes had taken all the flash and colour out of them, her face was rarely pale—the pallor that speaks out plainly of the want of proper food. And yet there was something very attractive about the girl, for she was little more. Alice flung herself into a chair with a sigh, her head was aching, her meeting with Desborough and his identification of her had disturbed her and robbed her of her sense of security. She would not go there again. And then she looked at the little packet of money Desborough had thrust into her hand at parting. And there was more to come from that quarter, and money was so hard to earn.

"Eleven shillings," the girl sighed. "It seemed so much and yet so little. And the promise of regular work. I cannot—cannot turn my hack on it. I suppose God wills it this way. If only Mr. Desborough will be discreet and silent."

There was a hurried knock at the door and a man entered. He was a tall, well-set man, with a cheery, pleasant face and a pair of resolute grey eyes. The girl smiled and held out her slim white hand.

"How good you are always to think of me," she said. "Come in, Mr. Denton."

Harvey Denton needed no second invitation; it was easy to see that something besides mere good-heartedness brought Denton to Paradise Buildings. There was a yearning look in his eyes that told its own story. He glanced down tenderly into the pale, flower-like face.

"There is nothing in the least kind about it, Alice," he said. "You know perfectly well why I come here. My darling, if you would only take my advice and get rid of that man."

Alice Price laid a trembling hand upon the speaker's lips.

"Hush!" she whispered, "you must say no more about that. You promised me. That man is my husband. It suits him to say that such is not the fact, that he had a wife alive at the time he married me, but he is my husband, and my duty is plain; and if I did what you ask I should bring shame and disgrace upon my mother and sister. They think that I am dead; it is far better that they should keep that delusion. I know that you love me, dear."

"God knows that I do," Denton said hoarsely. "And you cared for me. I believe that you care for me still, only you are bound to what you consider your duty. And that man fascinated you; his indomitable will swallowed your weaker one altogether. And your father found out everything too late to save you. Your mother—"

"My mother knows nothing, and never shall," Alice said, with a determination that caused her voice to tremble. She looked strong and brave enough now. "Harvey, you found me out by accident. If you had not come here on one of your journalistic missions you would never have known. You have been very kind to me, and you will not betray my secret."

The sweet face was pleading, and Denton yielded. But it was all very hard, when so near at hand. Alice had relations who would have received her with open arms, and surrounded her with every luxury. He put aside sentiment resolutely.

"I've brought some more work for you," he said. "It's my own 'copy' which you are used to. They are some facts that I got up for Clifford Desborough, which he wants for that big case of his; but you have already done some 'copy' on the same case. If you could let him have the 'copy' to-morrow."

Alice nodded resolutely. She felt sick and tired tonight, but work meant money, and it meant that there was no time for idle repining.

"It shall be done," she said. "I have already seen Mr. Desborough to-night; but I am sorry that I went, sorry my usual little messenger failed me. It was very unfortunate, but Mr. Desborough recognized me."

Denton looked uneasy. He had not anticipated this. His heart softened and grew sad as he noted the pretty, pallid face. If he could only have induced Alice to let him help her more materially. But he had tried it once before, and it had nearly severed their friendship. Alice had sternly set her face against accepting more than the market price for her work. If he could only scheme a way!

Alice half turned her head away, and the slim fingers played with the keys of the typewriter. Denton sighed.

"I suppose I must go," he said. "I am afraid that we must wait and hope for the best. But if your mother and sister knew, I am sure—"

"But they must not know, Harvey; they must never know. One word, and they would be here at once. And it would break my mother's heart. I made my bed deliberately, and I must lie upon it. I left home and friends and everything that life holds dear for the sake of a scoundrel who thought he had married a fortune. He did not know that my sister had everything and I nothing. Good-night, dear old boy, and may God bless you."

Denton kissed the slim, white hand in silence. He did not dare to trust his voice at present. And there were tears on the keys of the typewriter as Alice bent over them, tears that she brushed away and then went on with her work resolutely.

She worked on mechanically for some time, till her fingers grew stiff and her weary eyes could hardly make out the keys. Her mind was in a whirl: she tried vainly to understand why it was that Mr. Desborough puzzled her. Why had he been so strange in his manner, and why had the name of Eli Price so strangely agitated him? Even in the seclusion of his own chambers he had bade her be silent, and had suggested that walls have ears. Then he had made her write down her address, as if fearful that somebody else was close by listening. But one thing Alice felt very certain about—Desborough would not betray her to her mother and sister. Alice put her typewriter up, and resolutely made up her mind not to think any more about it for the present. There was a stealthy footstep on the stair, and presently it stopped before the door. The latch turned, and a man came in. At the sight of him all the blood receded from Alice's face, and left her white to the lips.

Price bowed ironically and smiled. In spite of his disguise, Alice recognized him instantly.

"Paradise Buildings," he said mockingly. "Many thanks for the information. Our friend the popular barrister didn't want me to know that. But you blurted it out, and the escaped convict being in hiding in the back room heard all he wanted to know."

Alice said nothing. She was too dazed and stunned by this unexpected blow. This man had humiliated and disgraced her enough. When the prison doors had closed upon him she had held herself to be free for some years to come. Then here he was back again, under her own roof, an escaped convict, a fugitive from justice, and she would be compelled to shield him. She could only sit there with a face white and ghastly, and regard her tormentor with sad eyes.

"That swell friend of your family is up to something," Price went on. "It was his duty when accident took me to his rooms to give me up to justice. And why didn't he give me up to justice? Because for some reason or another he doesn't want me to give evidence on that trial I came up for. I don't know what his little game is, but I mean to find out. And when I do find out there will be money in it for me. And that chap won't betray you to your friends. Why?"

Price asked the question again, and at length Alice found words to reply.

"Because he is a gentleman," she said.

"Rot. Because he's interested in that haughty sister of yours, because he means to marry her and have possession of all her money. Desborough is in a big position, and likely to be in a bigger one, but he is as desperately hard up as I am. But never mind about that. Go and get me a bottle of brandy and some cigars. The public-houses are not closed yet."

Alice hesitated, and the man made a significant gesture with uplifted hand. He threw on the table a sovereign from his ill-gotten gains.

"None of your pride," he muttered. "I thought I had broken you of that. Get the brandy and get the cigars, and then I'll tell you what I mean to do next. There's a fine night's work before you, my girl, if you only knew it. That white face and those mournful eyes of yours will make our fortunes yet."

With trembling limbs Alice crept down the stairs. She passed into the street, but the cool night air failed to revive her. Just for an instant the world seemed to go spinning round her, and her reason was gone. When she came to herself her head was half reclining on a man's shoulder. As Alice drew back she found herself face to face with Harvey Denton.

"Oh, leave me," she cried. "If you only knew, if you only knew."


XIII. IN THE HOUR OF NEED

DENTON could do no more than stand there waiting for Alice to speak again. That some new and overwhelming trouble had come upon her he could see from the expression on her face. He had never seen the poor girl hopeless before. But now the white drawn despair of those features touched him to the heart. The broad gleaming band from the electric standard close by shone into Alice's eyes as if they were deep pools. The dumb, patient misery of them moved Denton to something like anger.

"You ought not to be here at all," he said in low, tense tones. "What is a beautiful refined creature like you doing in this vile atmosphere? Alice, I can't work properly for thinking of you. Even you cannot touch pitch without being defiled. It must be horrible."

Alice shuddered. How horrible she only knew. A drunken ruffian staggered by with foul words upon his lips. A mad impulse to spring upon the brute and strike him to the ground was checked by Denton. After all, that would only make matters worse. Alice had forgotten her husband just for a minute. She was pure in mind and thought, but she loved this man, and he loved her, and both of them knew it.

"A little place in the country," Denton urged. "A cottage where at least you could breathe fresh air and enjoy God's blessed sunshine. I could get you plenty of work to do. And here you are in some fresh and terrible trouble that—"

The words recalled Alice to herself. She started forward.

"I cannot listen," she said. "I dare not. There is another trouble; yes. And I have to do something from which my soul recoils. If I dared ask you!"

Alice's pale face flamed. Denton would have done anything for her.

"What is it?" he asked eagerly. "Only tell me. Anything in the world for you!"

Alice stammered out an explanation. She wanted brandy and cigars. The latter she could get without any great inconvenience, but the former could only come from one of the great glittering palaces that seemed to breed and flourish like noxious blossoms in the foul miasma of a low neighbourhood. She had never entered one of these places as yet.

"You are ill!" Denton cried. "It is for yourself?"

"It is not!" Alice cried. "Oh, please do not ask me, indeed you must not. Get me a quantity, a large bottleful, so that I may be spared the humility again—and again. See, here is a sovereign. I am ashamed to ask you, but—"

The girl could say no more. Just for a moment Denton stared at the glittering coin in Alice's little pink palm. Whence had that sovereign come? Such a sum was wealth to the girl. And why did she want so large a quantity of spirit? But the pleading misery in the poor girl's eyes robbed Denton of his suspicions.

"Wait here," he said. "I shall not be long."

There was a place close by, where he had been many times before in search of copy. He asked for a bottle of brandy, which was handed to him with a wink.

"Four and nine to you, sir," the landlord said in a fat whisper. "Got something on, eh? See anybody here you recognize? Down the counter, drinking champagne!"

Denton looked in the indicated direction. A man in evening dress stood with a small crowd about him drinking champagne.

"So he's out again!" Denton said thoughtfully.

"And as large as ever," the landlord replied in the same oily whisper. "Better not let him see you, sir. He's got a dangerous gang with him, and he's had too much to drink."

Denton nodded and withdrew, deeming discretion to be the better part of valour. There were a good many reasons why he did not want to encounter the man in evening dress at present, and Alice was waiting for him.

"How can I thank you?" Alice said. "I could not have gone there myself."

"But why should you go at all?" Denton urged. "If this is an errand of charity, if you are providing for some poor fellow out of your own slender means—"

"But I am not. The money is not my own. Oh, I wish I could tell you. There is—"

Alice paused. A wild, red flush spread over her face. Denton thought that he understood.

"You are in the meshes," he said. "That man has dragged you down, and you cannot escape. If it is some vile confederate of his who is hiding—"

"Oh, no, no! I would not permit that. Harvey, it is the man himself!"

Alice glanced round fearfully, as if afraid that the walls might hear her. She felt a strange sense of relief now that she had told the truth.

"Impossible!" Denton said. "Why he is—he is—"

"He was. Now he is up in my room. It is all like some evil dream. There was a footstep and a sound. Then I looked up and there he was."

"My poor girl!" Denton groaned. "As if your punishment was not enough already! You will have to bear it now, to put up with it for a time. One comfort you have, it cannot be for long. He will try something desperate and get caught, the police will discover where he is. Alice—"

But the girl had gone. She felt that she could stay there no longer without bursting into tears. One good and true friend remained to her, but she had not even thanked him. Hardly knowing what to do next, Denton stood irresolute on the edge of the pavement. He was a man who hated to be beaten, but he had to confess that he was baffled and beaten now.

"I won't go away yet," he told himself. "Something tells me that she will want me again. Did ever a poor girl pay so terrible a price for mistaking a scoundrel for an honest man before? I ought to tell the police where the fellow has got to."

A quarter of an hour passed, and Denton was still standing there, heedless of the flight of time. A loud burst of laughter smote on his ears, a little way down the road some man was parting with a little knot of companions. Then he separated from them and came swaggering towards Denton. His light overcoat was open, displaying his evening dress beneath. Denton crossed the road as he recognized the newcomer for the man he had seen in the Bay Horse.

The man passed him now, and, paused before the block of buildings where Alice had her small abode. He merely looked at the number over the porch and strode in. A sudden inspiration came upon Denton, and he followed. There were many people passing up and down the corridor leading into Alice's room. Before it the swaggering stranger knocked, and then, without hesitation, walked in. Denton had more than he wanted to know for the present.


XIV. WELL MET

ELI PRICE looked up with a threatening scowl as his wife came back.

"You've been time enough!" he said. "Where did you get this stuff? And where's the change?"

Alice stammered out something. She had not the remotest idea where the brandy came from, and, as to the change, she had clean forgotten all about it. But with all his vices, Price was no lover of money for its own sake, and he could afford to be generous now, especially as his present supply represented no honest labour, nor the sweat of his brow.

"Left it on the counter!" he sneered. "You talk like a frightened rabbit. I'd rather have gone myself, but it's a bit too dangerous at present. Give me a glass and a box of matches. Now you can sit down and talk to your loving husband. Feels quite like old times, doesn't it? So you are slaving here just because you are too proud to let your mother know that you are still in the land of the living. Why, you might be rolling in luxury, and in a position to defy me by saying two words."

"You don't understand!" said Alice. "You never could understand."

"Well, perhaps not! I sent a telegram off just before I had the pleasure of seeing your sweet face again, and I shouldn't be surprised if a friend turns up to see me at any moment now. If he knocks, you cut into your bedroom and lock the door. If you listen to a single word—"

Price's face darkened again, and his eyes smouldered. "I have no desire to listen," Alice said with some spirit. "Have I not humiliating knowledge enough without desiring to learn the secrets of your dissolute companions? I shall go to bed."

"No, you won't. You won't do anything of the kind. If you do I shall know how to get you up again. You've got to play sentry, my girl, and don't you forget it. Give me some brandy."

For some time Price drank in silence. Presently there came a tap at the door, and Alice crossed the room and quietly disappeared. Despite his swagger, Price's heavy features bore a look of most unmistakable relief as a man in evening dress entered. With an air of used-up boredom he extended a slim white hand to his host.

"A cigar? Certainly," he said. "And brandy, but not much of it. Upon my word, my dear Eli, we are a most remarkable pair of individuals. If we had chosen the rugged paths of honesty—"

"You can have all the honesty for me," Price growled. "I tried it once. You got my telegram?"

"Yes, it was handed to me at the old shop. I have been a guest of his Majesty for the past six months, and only succeeded in bringing my stay to a finish yesterday. Quite a paltry affair, Eli."

"What are you calling yourself just at present?" Price asked.

"At present I am an Australian of means, the Honourable James Macgregor, squatter and all that. As I have been in Australia, it suits me very well. I've got chambers in Piccadilly, but no money. Money I must have before long or I shall be in a tight place. Fortunately I had practically worked out a little plant before his Majesty was so graciously pleased!"

"Oh, stow it," Price growled. "What a chap you are to jaw. Why are you always so desperately anxious for people to know that you were brought up a gentleman? I was too, but nobody would guess it."

"You're right there," Macgregor laughed. "My tongue does carry me away at times. But to revert to my little plant before his Majesty—all right, I'll get along. Yesterday and to-day I have been picking up the broken threads again and the plant's as good as ever. You're the very man I would have picked out to join me. It's a big thing."

Price nodded and smiled approvingly. He was badly in need of money himself and a trip to Paris—that paradise of the cosmopolitan scoundrel—appealed to his imagination.

"When do you want to try?" he asked.

"What's the matter with to-night?" Macgregor answered one question with another. "I've got the whole thing at my finger's ends. No men in the house except servants, a garden leading into a lonely lane behind and any amount of valuables lying about. I've lost my interior plan of the place, which is a pity as the fool of a lady's maid who was such a mine of information before has left. But you've only to make a slit in the lining of your coat and there you are. I can find the way into the house, swell in evening dress and all that kind of thing, and you can take the swag."

Price's eyes glistened. All his luck seemed to be tumbling into his lap in a heap. He was a man who above all things hated the inaction which looked like being inevitable to him for some days to come, and behold here was work to his hand and money wherewith to line his pockets.

"You can count me in," he said carelessly. "Where is the crib?"

"Forty-five, Royal Crescent. Not far from Hyde Park. Do you know it?"

For Price was lying back in his chair laughing silently. There was something horribly suggestive about that noiseless mirth. He laughed till he shook again and the tears began to trickle down his coarse cheeks.

"Pass it on," Macgregor suggested. "Don't keep it all to yourself. If there is anything wrong—"

"Oh, there's nothing wrong," Price replied, speaking with difficulty. "Only you amused me. It's one of those beautiful coincidences that people receive with incredulity, but which are happening every day of our lives. But it's a private matter that concerns myself, my noble Colonial, and you'll have to suppress that itching curiosity of yours. I'm going to laugh again."

Once more the man's frame shook with mirth, Macgregor paced the room impatiently.

"When you've quite done," he muttered, "we'll get to business."

"Oh, we'll get to business right enough. Only I can see a way to make the matter easier and reduce the danger to a minimum. You will oblige me, my dear Macgregor, by taking a short walk and meeting me at the corner of Duke Place in half an hour. If I am alone, why then come and speak to me. If I appear in the congenial rôle of a squire of dames, then please follow at a respectful distance. Au revoir but not adieu."

Macgregor disappeared discreetly. That Price had discovered some striking and original plan he felt certain. Usually he was morose enough, but when he became florid he was always pleased with himself and invariably saw his way quite clear.

Once alone he pitched his cigar into the fireplace and locked up the brandy bottle after a short but sharp struggle with his animal desires. He crept across to the bedroom and flung the door open suddenly. Alice had not been listening as he had half suspected, for she was lying down half asleep, worn out with fatigue and anxiety. She started as the light fell upon her face.

"Get up," Price said not unkindly. "I want a few words with you. Afterwards I may require you to accompany me for a little walk. Come along."

Alice followed him in the sitting-room without demur, tired and worn out as she was. She found herself answering in a vague and misty way, questions that turned upon her past and the happy days before this dark love had come into her life, and she had lived at home with her mother and Maude. Out of the mist came Price's voice and woke her up.

"So you could find your way in from the garden?" he asked.

"Oh, yes." Alice was lapsing into dreamland again. "I have done it more than once. One night I got locked out. There is a way of working the key in the garden gate. And there are steps up the ivy leading to the billiard-room. Some of the leaded lights are quite loose—I told mother and she said she would have it attended to, but she forgot. She forgets everything."

"The billiard-room is absolutely in the house?"

"Oh, yes, why do you ask the question?"

Alice looked up quickly, but Price's face was averted. He said something about flowers. Alice's mind went back to the dear old garden and her vague suspicions faded into the air. She talked on, but far more to herself than Price; her eyes were heavy with unshed tears. She was only half conscious of the fact that Price had risen and was shaking her by the shoulder.

"Come along," he said. "We are going for that little stroll I talked about."

"Are you going anywhere particular?" Alice asked.

"We are and we are not. Put on a shawl and a good thick veil if you have one. Now cut along and get ready."


XV. THE MESH OF CRIME

DESBOROUGH sat in his chair as the door closed behind Eli Price with a fear upon him that his iron nerve was failing. Nobody knew better than the brilliant barrister what the first meshes in the warp of crime led to. And yet his crime was in embryo; he had done nothing yet to bring himself within the grip of the law.

But he was going to; he could not disguise the fact from himself. Up to now he had only been merely dishonourable, and if ever Maude Beaumont escaped from his grip she would never be likely to say anything to the discredit of her whilom lover. But Minter was pushing him further than that. Minter would have his pound of flesh, indeed only the extraordinary escape of Eli Price had prevented the South African millionaire from having it already. And here was the danger piling up on all sides, Price here in these very rooms, his wife actually within earshot of her dastardly husband.

And there was another unseen force to reckon with. Who were the daring people who had ventured to rescue Price, and what did they mean by such a bold course? Desborough would have given a large slice of his big practice to know that. He never dreamt for a moment that Minter's creatures had been at the bottom of the strange affair.

Anyway, this man of blood and iron was shaken now. He felt his nerves quivering, he could see that his hands were trembling. And he had boasted that he had no emotions. He felt half inclined to mix himself a brandy and soda, but he put the desire aside. Anyway, he could do no more work to-night. He would go to some of the many brilliant functions to which he had been invited; he would find Maude and take her home. If only he had not made such a fool of himself at college! But it was useless to repine about that. Desborough turned into his bedroom and dressed himself hastily.

Maude was not in Clarges Street, though she had been there, nor was she at the Austrian Ambassador's. Desborough found her presently at a big reception in Lancaster Gate given by one of the American Society leaders. A band was playing somewhere, a few people were dancing, but the great majority of the company were absorbed in Bridge. Maude was not playing, but she was looking over the hand of a young Russian princess who seemed to be winning largely.

She looked wonderfully attractive, though her face was deadly pale, but the brilliancy of her eyes made up for that. It was getting late now and only the chosen friends of the hostess remained. At a corner table Graham Minter was playing, his square face was rigid, his eyes fixed and clear. In a speculative way Harvey Denton was watching him. Denton had come on to Lancaster Gate in despair, deeming it useless to wait for Alice any longer. He wanted to forget that white face and those pleading eyes if he could. But he could see them everywhere. He was looking haggard and miserable enough himself, but he was taking no heed of his own feelings.

Nevertheless, he could not quite put his professional instincts aside. Very little was lost upon those keen, if dreamy-looking eyes. He caught the expression of Minter's face as he met Desborough's glance; he saw the latter scowl and set his teeth. Then he looked up and found himself face to face with Kit Clive who had just come into the room.

"I haven't seen you lately," Harvey said. "Not since the engagement—"

"Between Miss Beaumont and Desborough was announced," Kit said calmly. "My dear fellow, the thing was bound to be mentioned between us, seeing what friends we are. You desire to know all about it, only good taste prevents you from asking. You want to say you are sorry for me. I can't tell you anything because I don't know any more than you do."

Denton tried not to look incredulous.

"It's a fact, dear old chap. Miss Beaumont was engaged to me. There were reasons why the engagement was broken off and why Desborough took my place, but I never asked them."

"She looks utterly miserable," Denton murmured. "I can't see behind that mask. She comes here because she cannot bear to be alone with her own thoughts. She loves you still, Kit."

"Nothing can deprive me of that knowledge," Clive said in a low voice.

"And yet you are going to sit quietly down and—no, you are going to play a waiting game. Kit, I believe that I have made a discovery. There's something afoot between Minter and Desborough. I saw the threatening way in which our millionaire looked at the lawyer just now. Minter is at the bottom of this thing for certain. What are you going to do?"

"I am going to maintain a strict silence and keep my eyes open."

"Good. Minter is giving one of his most brilliant weekend parties at Marvyn Chase on the 8th. I have been so fortunate as to secure an invitation. If you are asked also—"

"Oh, I am persona grata there. You see I am still more or less Minter's private secretary. My main duties have been to look after Lady Minter and arrange her functions for her. But I could tell a thing or two about Minter that—"

"Yes, yes," Denton said hoarsely. "Those will keep. The information may be useful later on, perhaps. You go down to Marvyn Chase on the 8th. I shall go, and I am certain that Desborough is going also. That being so, Miss Beaumont is sure to be asked."

"Being Lady Mary's greatest friend, yes."

"Good! We are going to get to the heart of the mystery. Already I have a pretty shrewd idea what it is, if I only dared tell you."

Denton hesitated for a moment. He longed to tell Clive that Desborough was aware that Alice Beaumont or Alice Price was alive and that the lawyer was keeping the fact a secret for some reason of his own, but this would be betraying confidence.

"But you are doing the right thing," he went on hurriedly. "Pretend to accept the inevitable and throw dust in the face of the foe."

"I will," said Kit between his teeth, "but it's hard work."

He glanced at Desborough who was bending over Maude with the air of proprietorship. There were women present who envied Maude for her beauty and her wealth, and her future husband. If all went well Desborough was pretty sure to be Prime Minister some day. If these people could only have looked behind the mask!

"I have come to escort you home," Desborough was saying. "I was very busy, indeed. I shall have to go back and sit up half the night, but I could not resist the temptation."

"The model lover makes the model husband," the hostess said in her high-pitched American voice. "Don't you agree with me, Clive?"

Clive started but recovered himself in a moment.

"It all depends upon how one reads the character, Mrs. Levassor," he said. "Anyway, Desborough has no excuse for being anything to the contrary."

Mrs. Levassor smiled approvingly. With Society generally she knew that Kit Clive had been discarded for Desborough, but she always admired pluck when she found it, and Kit was behaving splendidly. Maude had turned away and was absently fastening her wrap. She did not want any one to see her face, for the moment. All she desired was to be out of this and at home again. That Kit had not followed her here she felt certain, his coming was a mere accident.

"I am quite ready," she said. "Good-night, everybody. Good-night, Mr. Clive."

She turned with a steady smile and held out her hand to Kit. Everybody was watching the couple furtively. But there was nothing to see, nothing to denote the fact that they were anything more than mere acquaintances taking a cordial leave of one another.

"If grit and pluck go for anything," Denton said, "that smug barrister will be beaten yet."


XVI. ON THE THRESHOLD

THE carriage rolled along in silence, for Desborough seemed to have nothing to say once he was alone with Maude. Truth to tell, he was no squire of dames and he had a conscience of some kind under his hard exterior. That the girl despised him from the bottom of her heart he knew only too well. Desborough was not accustomed to be despised, he liked people to envy and respect him. The few halting remarks he made were accepted with curt monosyllables, and on the whole he was glad when the brougham pulled up before the door of Mrs. Beaumont's town residence.

"Won't you come in?" Maude asked with visible coldness. "It is not so very late."

Desborough had not meant to do anything of the kind, but he changed his mind. It appeared to him that this girl had not learnt her lesson sufficiently. If they were to live together he meant to be master, and she must be taught her place. He flushed with anger as he saw how Maude recoiled from his touch. And yet he had not made any lover's advances.

"I will come in for a few moments," he said slowly.

The softly-lighted drawing-room was empty, but a novel, face downwards on a chair, testified to the fact that Mrs. Beaumont was not far off. Maude threw off her wraps and dropped wearily into a chair. The yellow gleam from a shaded lamp touched her pale, beautiful, haughty face with a subdued light. She looked utterly weary and worn-out.

"You are not treating me properly," Desborough said sternly.

"I know it," Maude replied. She never glanced at him for a moment. She might have been addressing some disgraced cur. "If I did I would ring the bell and have you put out into the streets. If I did, I should tell everybody what a scoundrel you were and how you have taken advantage of a disgraceful secret to force me to become your wife. No, I am not treating you fairly, but I am treating you a good deal better than you deserve."

It was a merciless speech delivered in a merciless tone of voice. The biting contempt of it cut Desborough to the quick. He began to see that he might break the girl, but he would never bend her to his will.

"You care for Clive still," he sneered.

"That is the class of remark that I should have expected from you," Maude said. "All the same, it is quite true. I love that man, and I shall love him to my dying day. All the same I am not going back upon my word. For the sake of those whom I love—"

Maude's voice shook a little as she looked round the refined and perfectly appointed room. In her mind's eye she could see her mother white-haired and smiling seated in her favourite armchair with the perfumed lilies of the valley behind her. She could never bow that grey head, or chase the smile from those loved features, though her heart's blood was the price.

"I am going to keep my share of the bargain," she said. "Usually people buy off the blackmailer, but I am going to give myself as well as my money. Unless you would care to release me from my bargain for a large sum of money down."

Desborough's strong face flushed. It was a bitter, stinging insult, but he put up with it. Little as he cared for any one but himself he found a deep admiration for Maude stirring within him at this moment. What a wife she would make, how she would increase his position and his power! He would not let her go.

"You are talking nonsense," he said. "I—I want you too."

"I daresay. Well, the time for my punishment will come soon enough. But till then I am going to be free, you understand, free. You are not to follow me about, you are not to assume that air of proprietorship that makes my fingers tingle to strike you. Don't drive me too far, for I have my limits. I may break down before a whole room full of people, and tell them the shameful truth. And what would your future be worth if that happened?"

Desborough was discreetly silent. There was a hard glitter in Maude's eyes that told its own story. Then her eyes softened suddenly, and she laughed.

"My mother," Maude whispered. "For Heaven's sake not a word of this before her."

Desborough smiled in his turn. Here, at any rate, was the lash by which the girl could be flogged into reason. He said something hurriedly as the old lady with the white hair advanced into the room. There was no suspicion of anything wrong in Mrs. Beaumont's face as she greeted Desborough charmingly. Maude was smiling too as if she had held her happiness in her own hands.

"And now I am going to turn you out," she said, holding out her hand frankly to her companion. "If mother begins to talk as late as this she cannot sleep afterwards. We must think of her."

Desborough just touched the proffered hand and then dropped it. Mrs. Beaumont smiled.

"Young people are so very different from what they used to be in my day," she said. "Your poor, dear father would never have been content with a handshake like that."

"We are more discreet and retiring," said Maude, with a laugh, that was a deal nearer to tears than either of her companions imagined. "Perhaps we can't find the necessary time for the higher emotions. Besides, we have been here some little time. Good-night."

Desborough murmured something and disappeared. Just for a moment Mrs. Beaumont looked keenly at Maude.

"Well, I hope you will be happy," she said in a voice that implied exceedingly grave doubts on the point. "I suppose you are quite sure of yourself, Maude?"

"Quite," Maude said, with her eyes turned away. "I am acting for the best."

"You were always a good child, dear, so different from poor head-strong Alice. And yet I always imagined that it was Kit Clive whom you—"

"Go off to bed at once," Maude said cheerfully. "If you sit up any longer you will come down to breakfast looking like an amiable ghost. Kit and I are very good friends, and we shall always remain so. Now you go off to bed without delay."

Mrs. Beaumont went off obediently. That she always did what people told her to do was no doubt the reason of her popularity. As the door closed behind her the smiling mask dropped from Maude's face, leaving it white and set and miserable. Should she ever be able to go through with this thing? she wondered. She heard nothing of the house being locked up and the snapping out of the electric lights. The maid came in presently and pointedly asked if anything was required.

"You can go to bed, Sellers," Maude said. "I will do for myself to-night. There is a book that I want to finish first. Good-night."

The smart maid retired thankfully. Maude sat in there, busy with her own painful thoughts. A clock somewhere struck one, but she did not heed it. She began to grow tired and heavy at length, she would go to bed also, and forget her misery. Somebody appeared to be moving in the billiard-room, and then Maude awoke to the fact that it was nearly two o'clock.

"I wonder what it is," she murmured. "Everybody must have gone to bed long ago. It is possible that one of the servants—but not in the billiard-room."

All the lights were out, but Maude knew her way perfectly. She walked across that hall and down the passage leading to the billiard-room without troubling to switch on the light again. The girl's physical courage was high, she had no fear of any one.

She looked into the billiard-room where the table loomed ghostly before her. Just for a minute she stood there listening intently. Along the roof was a kind of flat gallery in the form of a long glass beneath the dome light, and something was tapping against that like a bird that had flown far and was dazzled by a great light.

"It is a bird," Maude told herself. "Perhaps one of the house pets that—"

She paused as a faint light broke out behind the glass gallery. She could hear voices. Then there was a rush of cold air from somewhere and the outline of a face illumined by a wax vesta. As Maude caught sight of that face she bit her lip to suppress a scream.

"My sister Alice," she murmured. "I am mad or dreaming. It could not be Alice, and yet—"

She stood there looking up in an attitude of rigid attention.


XVII. SOMETHING LIKE A GHOST

IN fear and trembling Alice followed her lord and master, though her limbs tottered under her and her eyes were half blind with sleep. In a dazed kind of way she realized the fact that Price was in a more genial mood than he had been before, always a bad sign with him, and one that generally meant mischief later on.

It was getting late now, but there were still a few people about, cabs and carriages flashed by, daintily dressed women on the arms of their escorts, a troop of laughing girls going home from a party.

Alice had not been in this part of the world for some time; indeed, owing to the dread of exposure and detection, she had kept away from the West. But it all seemed strangely familiar now, and like the time when she, too, had been a happy, careless girl with no heed for the morrow, except the pleasure that it was going to bring.

How many years ago was that? she wondered. Not so many by the flight of actual time, but it seemed like an eternity, and she was very young still.

Price addressed a remark to her, but she did not reply, she was far enough away for the moment. Then she became conscious that he was pressing her arm cruelly hard.

"Always half asleep," he growled. "Always thinking of something else. Seemed like yesterday to me when I caught sight of your face in that barrister chap's office and—"

Price paused and muttered something. He had not intended to tell Alice how he had found her out. He wanted the girl to be duly impressed by his own amazing cleverness. But Alice was no longer dreaming, she was looking keenly in her husband's face.

"So you were in the inner room," she said. "It was only by pure chance that I went to see Mr. Desborough to-night. I needed work and money, but I would have starved for both if I had only known what the result was to be."

Price paid no heed to the bitter speech. He had betrayed himself over a small matter, but he hated to do it all the same. Perhaps his presence in Desborough's office would puzzle Alice. As a matter of fact, it did.

What was the escaped convict doing under the same roof as the distinguished lawyer who was freely mentioned as the forthcoming Cabinet Minister? The matter found Alice food for thought for some little time. Perhaps there was some connexion between the two men. Price looked common and brutal enough now, but he was a gentleman by birth, and before his fall he had mixed in the same class of society to which Desborough belonged.

Alice abandoned the attempt to solve the problem. She looked around her curiously. Surely she was on familiar ground. A little to the left was Dupont Street, and here was the lane leading to the stables behind the house where her girlhood had been passed. And here was the lane also that ran behind the gardens of Royal Crescent.

"Where are you taking me?" Alice asked.

"You'll see presently," Price replied, in a voice obviously intended to be pleasant. "Wait here just for a moment. And if a policeman comes along, drop back into the shadow."

Alice had nothing further to say. Her heart was beating violently. She knew quite enough of Price to feel that there was some mischief on hand. She was to be this man's tool now as she had been many times before. The old sway of terror was still upon her—the fear of personal violence.

A policeman came along presently, and Alice crouched in one of the green doorways, feeling very much like a criminal herself. Well, it did not matter much. She was tired and weary of the struggle, hope had deserted her. Perhaps she would be better in gaol. A wild desire to step out and warn the policeman was only suppressed from fear of Price. The officer paused as the light of his lantern danced like a ghost down the lane.

"If it were anywhere else," Alice groaned, "if it were not so near to my old home? What would they say if they knew how close I am?"

Price strode back into the main street with his hands in his pockets. He was taking a huge risk seeing that he was being sought after everywhere, but the man's courage never failed him. Audacity was his motto, and he had never yet come to regret it. True, he had come to grief at last, but that was partly owing to the treachery and the cowardice of Ericsson. Once the present little mission was accomplished he would cross the Channel and lie low in Paris till the scent got cold.

Price whistled gently, and Macgregor appeared from somewhere. He looked quite the West End lounger just going home from some fashionable function—at least, that was the impression he created late at night and under the artificial light. Whether he would have passed muster in the sunshine was quite another thing.

"Well, you're trying my patience," he said. "What's the game, and who's the woman?"

"Never mind who the woman is," Price said doggedly. "That's my business. I've got a bit of pride left, and my lady friend is not to be mixed up in this affair more than is necessary. There's a bit of coincidence here if you only knew it."

Macgregor nodded, but discreetly asked no questions. He had a fine respect for Price's perspicuity, and he also remembered Price's silent mirth when 45, Royal Crescent was mentioned.

"I'll do just as you tell me," he said.

"Of course you will. Did I ever make a mistake yet? There is no burglary to be done here, no chance of any suspicious noises, nothing but to walk boldly up to the door of forty-five and pretend to ring the bell. You can stand on the doorstep, and when the man in blue goes by, you can wish him 'good-night' and he'll do no more than touch his helmet to you."

"Good! I always hated extra trouble, Price."

"There will be no trouble. Wait here till you see a light in the hall. Then cross over and pretend to ring the bell. The door will open to you and you just walk in as big as life. After that I'll join you and we shall come out of the front door and walk away leaving somebody inside to clean up the trail. This is one of the neatest things you ever took a hand in."

Macgregor expressed himself with due enthusiasm. It sounded indeed like a beautiful plant. Price walked back to the lane where Alice awaited him. His manner was curt and short.

"Come along," he said. "I dare say you have guessed where we are going to, haven't you?"

Alice trembled violently. A dim suspicion of the dreadful scheme had come into her mind. She would have drawn back only Price gripped her arm fiercely.

"Come along," he said. "For purposes that need not be published, but merely as a guarantee of good faith, as those newspapers say, we are going to visit your childhood's happy home. We are going to look again on the scene so familiar to you before you gave up the world for the sake of a man who is utterly unworthy of you. How do you open the door?"

"I can't do it," whispered Alice. "There is something dreadfully wrong going on here. I cannot do it. You may illtreat me as you have done before, but—oh!"

The cruel grip tightened on her arm. Price's eyes gleamed fiercely in her face. His hot, brandy-laden breath seemed to scorch her.

"Do you want me to murder you?" he hissed. "Do you want me to take you by your white throat and choke the life out of your body? Fool that you are to pit yourself against me. There is a knack in opening this door. What is it?"

The cruel pressure still remained till Alice felt faint and sick.

"Let me go," she panted, "oh, what a coward you are."

"Call me any name you like, but open that door."

"Let my arm go, and I will do so. You lift the latch and lift the door at the same time. It is too stiff for me, but perhaps you can—"

The door was open in a minute and closed behind the two figures as the ghostly dance of the policeman's lantern light came down the lane once more.


XVIII. "BEWARE OF THE DOG"

SO far, so good, Price told himself. They were quite safe now and all danger had been cleverly averted. In the quiet seclusion of that well-appointed garden nothing was likely to happen.

Just for the instant Alice had forgotten her fear. She was immersed in a sea of painful and pleasing recollections. Under the cedar tree she had read her favourite books on hot afternoons, in the corner by the nut trees stood the little conservatory where she had grown her flowers. Here was the little summer house where she had written her innocent love messages to the individual by her side whom she had deemed to be the best of men. Her eyes filled with tears and she saw nothing for the moment.

But Price was a fine antidote for sentiment. He dragged the girl along till they came to the billiard-room which was built out of the side of the house and possessed a flat roof with the glass gallery in the centre. The wall was covered with ivy.

"How do you get to the top," Price suggested.

Alice explained that there was a series of iron steps here and there, but they could not be seen owing to the fact that they were covered with ivy. Her father had the steps built in case of fire.

"But you could easily find them!" said Price.

"Oh, yes. I could find them blindfold," Alice said drearily. She felt as if she were doing all this in her sleep, or as if her will had been merged into that of her companion.

"I could open the gallery door to the billiard-room. The gallery inside runs round the dome. A flight of steps lead to the floor."

"Up you go, then," Price said with a chuckle of satisfaction. Everything seemed to be making for his luck to-night. "Up you go and I'll follow. After that—"

He paused. No need to tell Alice too much. She fumbled among the ivy in the same dreamy way, glad to be here and yet longing to be away from it all. The hypnotism of Price's presence urged her on. Often afterwards she tried to recollect that hour but always failed.

They were on the flat roof at last, with the glazed gallery before them. Absolutely obedient now, Alice touched one of the sashes, and it gave to her shaking fingers at once. It was pitch dark in the billiard-room, the place was not overlooked from anywhere. Price cautiously lighted a vesta. As he did so, the box slipped from his hand and tinkled on the floor of the billiard-room.

"Don't use such language," Alice implored, "it is horrible, it makes me tremble."

She thrust her face eagerly forward, a white face, faintly illuminated by the match. It seemed to her that another face was looking up at her, but she was too dazed and stupid to be certain. But Price had no illusions on that score, the face was quite plain to him.

"I could cut my own throat," he growled. "I could kick myself from here to—come along, we're spotted! Let's get out of it at once."

Maude looking up into the dim, white face of Alice, slowly recollected her scattered senses. She was not quite sure yet what had happened, she was willing to admit that perhaps she had been startled by a chance likeness, wonderful as it was, but she did realize that some predatory characters were trying to get into the house. They had come by way of the garden doubtless. Well, they should not escape if Maude had her way.

But she must not wake her mother, and there was no time to lose. Maude flew into the basement, flicking up the lights as she went. Then she whistled softly, and a magnificent specimen of a bloodhound came bounding forward up the steps.

"Good Gambit!" Maude whispered. "Come with me. This way. Softly, old fellow, softly, or we shall smash the windows. Ah, that is right."

A window leading to the lawn was open at length, and the faint sweetness of the night air came in. Maude pointed to the darkness. She could make out the outline of swiftly moving figures. She saw the bristles rise on the dog's back.

"Hold them up!" she said. "Mark them, Gambit!"

With a low growl and a flash of his teeth the dog bounded forward. Price heard the sound. He released Alice's hands, intent only upon saving himself. He reached the green door, but the stout oak resisted all his endeavours. Evidently there was another way of opening it from the inside. Overhead was a wall nearly ten feet high. Here also was a tree, nothing much in the way of a tree, but sufficiently high for anybody to be beyond the fangs of that dreadful hound.

Alice plunged forward over the trim fresh flower beds, startled and dazed, and without the slightest idea where she was going. She tripped over a tangle of pegged down verbena, and came headlong to the ground. The next moment the dog's muzzle was close to her throat.

"Gambit!" she said, in a dazed, dreamy voice. "Is it you, dear old Gambit?"

The huge hound was evidently puzzled. In that sagacious steady brain of his some memory was stirred. Clearly there was no enemy here. Gambit liked that voice, he recognized the fact that it belonged to a friend whose features he had forgotten for a moment. On the whole, he liked that voice very much, and all the more so because the speaker had recollected his name.

The tense spines went down on his back, and his tail wagged slightly. He licked Alice's face, down which the tears were streaming. Gambit was telling her quite plainly that she was safe. Then there came a little puff of breeze, and the pronounced smell of a foe, and Gambit realized that there was work of the most important kind on hand.

Yes, there was the enemy up the tree. Gambit crept towards the harbour of refuge on the tips of his toes and his hair like a mane rising from his powerful shoulders. Price would have said something but he was too frightened, more frightened than he had ever been in his life before. There was a hard lump in his throat, his heart was hammering against his ribs, big drops beaded his forehead. He saw a figure all white lace and glittering jewels coming down the garden, but he dared not call out. The faint cry would mean the summoning of the police, and once he was in the hands of the police he could say good-bye to liberty for many a day to come.

Maude glanced curiously about her, half expecting some sudden yell for help. Those people must still be in the garden, for they could not have got away in time. And one of them was a woman. Ah, here she was lying on one of the flower-beds with her white face upturned. A dreadful thought overwhelmed Maude for one terrible moment. Here lay the victim of the dog, Gambit had killed her. But then, Gambit was perfectly trained, and he never disobeyed orders.

Maude bent over the figure on the verbena bed.

"I hope you are not hurt," she said. "Let me assist you to your feet."

The other girl rose without any assistance. She drew a handkerchief from her pocket and spread it over her face. She spoke through the muffled folds in a voice that was hoarse and strained.

"I am all right," she said. "The dog has done me no harm. You are a woman, like myself, and therefore you must have pity. Let me go at once, ask no questions, and let me go at once. Oh, if you only knew how innocent I am! The dog knows, poor Gambit—"

Alice paused, conscious of the fact that she had betrayed herself. Maude had heard, too, and the knowledge strangely moved her.

"I can feel for everybody," she said. "But you are coming into the house with me. I presume the man who was with you escaped? No, he is up the tree yonder, and Gambit is guarding him. Good dog! He is quite safe for the present. But you are coming with me?"

"If you would only let me go," Alice urged.

"If you are in trouble, as you seem to be, you will find a good friend in me. And I want to see more of the stranger who knows the name of my dog. There are more things in Heaven and earth—Who are you?"

Maude asked the question almost fiercely. Alice showed her white set face.

"You will have to know," she said. "I have tried my best to keep my miserable secret, but Fate has been too strong for me. I am your sister Alice!"


XIX. HOME!

MAUDE held her breath for a moment. She had caught sight of the face of a woman looking down into the billiard-room, a face that reminded her vividly and resistlessly of her dead sister, but she had put this out of her mind at once as so much mere fancy. But now there was no longer any room for doubt.

The voice was that of Alice beyond question. It was impossible to see more than the outline of her features now, dark as it was. Maude was wondering vaguely whether the man had escaped, for the tree in which Price had hidden was out of sight and out of earshot also. A low, snuffling snarl proved to Maude that Gambit had not failed. He would do the intruder no harm beyond holding him up until he received his new orders.

The fellow should have a good fright, he should be left to his own devices for a time, at any rate. Maude laid a hand that shook a little on Alice's shoulder.

"I am like one who hears a voice from the grave," she said. "Even now I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or not. Come with me, dear."

Alice shrank back afraid. She could see the gleam of lights beyond the open French window, the tender green of the ferns, and the brilliant glare of the blossoms, a picture stood out here and there in its gold frame. It was all so quiet and refined, so different from what Alice had been used to of late. A great longing for the sight of home came upon her.

"You had better let me go," she whispered. "Let me step back into obscurity, and forget that you have ever seen me. I have disgraced you enough."

"Dearest, you are my only sister. You must come along. We must get to the bottom of this strange mystery. And this house is quiet. Come before—"

"Before that man sees you," Maude was going to say, but Price was thinking of nothing beyond the saving of his own rascally skin.

He had eyes only for the brilliant row of flashing teeth, ears alone for the snarling of the great dog. He dared not move for fear of having his life torn out of him; he dared not shout, for that meant the intervention of the police, and the asking of important questions certain to lead to permanent trouble. He did not know if Alice had escaped, he did not care for the present. If he could only have rid himself of the dog, if only his clumsy fingers had not allowed that match-box to slip, if only he had not telegraphed to Macgregor. Cramped, and sore, and stiff, Price huddled up to the tree, reviling everything but himself.

Meanwhile the two girls were moving on towards the house. Maude closed the window behind her, and pulled down the blind. Alice looked about her with tear-filled eyes. Every object there seemed to bring back some happy recollection. Nothing seemed to have been changed. There were the pictures and the armour, and the old oak chests just the same, but with a greater glamour upon them by contrast with the sordid surroundings to which Alice had lately been accustomed.

"My mother, is she well?" she faltered. "She knows nothing?"

"She knows nothing at all, Alice. She is as ignorant as I was up to a few minutes ago. Of course, she knew that you made a foolish marriage, but how foolish it was my father kept from her. That you had been tricked and deceived, and that the man was no—"

Alice made a gesture as if she would speak, and then checked herself.

"You know what a weak heart mother had!" Maude went on. "She has got over her trouble now. She mourns you as a dear one lost."

"She must not be undeceived!" Alice exclaimed. "You must keep the secret, Maude."

"For the present, yes, but I shall find a way. How tired and worn out you look. Child, child, do you get enough to eat?"

"Sometimes," Alice said unsteadily. "It is hard to live. I did not realize what it was to be poor until I left home."

But Maude was not listening. She bustled out of the room, to return presently with a large plate of dainty sandwiches and a decanter of port wine. She positively refused to listen to another word until Alice had dispatched the lot. Alice forced herself to eat slowly, though her eyes gleamed at the sight of the fair food, a glass of port brought back the colour to her cheeks.

"It's dreadful!" Maude said unsteadily. "My own sister actually in want of a meal! I could cry when I look at your dress, too. How do you live?"

Alice explained with a simple directness that the tears came into Maude's eyes again, but Alice was perilously near to breaking down again, and it was no time for sentiment.

"Horrible!" Maude cried. "Horrible! Fancy living in a place like that, and never knowing from day to day where your next meal is to come from! And being liable to be turned into the streets if your rent is not paid to the day. And yet—"

"I have lived, Maude. It is wonderful what one can endure without breaking down."

Maude looked steadily at her sister. The face was drawn and white, but it was pure and innocent as it had been when Alice was a little child. Trouble had not sullied her nature.

"I thought I knew what sorrow was," Maude murmured. "But my trouble is nothing to yours. And the man who is responsible for all your trouble?"

"You mean my husband?" Alice asked simply.

"My darling, I wish I could use that word even in connexion with such a man!"

"You can. Did I ever tell you a lie, dear? Eli Price is my husband. He says not, but I shall prove the truth some day. He thought I was rich, he did not know the fortune was all yours. If I had been rich the certificate of my marriage would be produced at once. If I was suddenly to come into money, Maude—What is the matter?"

Maude had started violently. Then she checked herself.

"It is nothing," she said hurriedly. "We will talk of this again. Where is that man?"

"He is here, in London. He came to me to-night. I thought I was at any rate free from that bitter scourge, but it was not to be. He has escaped from gaol."

"Indeed!" Maude cried, obviously interested. "I forget what he called himself."

"He has as many names as the sand on the sea shore, but he was convicted under his real name. I am privileged to call myself Mrs. Eli Price!"

Maude nodded thoughtfully. She had more than half expected this. And so her sister Alice was the wife of the man whose name was on everybody's lips at present, the missing witness in the famous Certified Company case who had disappeared so strangely.

"How did he find you out?" Maude asked.

"Oh, quite by accident, by the same Fate that seems to dog me everywhere! Harvey Denton had found me some legal copying to do—"

"Oh, so Harvey Denton was in your secret! I should never have guessed it."

"Harvey Denton was always a good and loyal friend, Maude. He loved me, and I was foolish enough to laugh at him. If I could only shake off my fetters I should never laugh at Harvey again. I know what a good and true man he is. Oh, Maude, Maude, if I could only recall the past!"

Violent sobs shook Alice's slender form. She lay for a little time with her head on Maude's shoulder; it was a long space before she could speak again.

"Usually I sent my work," she went on, "but to-night my messenger was engaged. So I had to take the matter round myself. By pure bad luck my husband was in the inner room of the barrister's chambers, and he recognized my voice. He followed me home, and that is the reason why I am here with you to-night."

"Strange for a lawyer to conceal the presence of an escaped convict," Maude mused. "He must have known who Price was. Who is your lawyer friend?"

"Mr. Clifford Desborough. And, oh, Maude, he is the man to whom you are engaged!"


XX. THE MAN, THE WOMAN, AND THE DOG

MAUDE could not grasp it all at once. It was impossible to look Alice in the face and believe that she was telling anything but the truth. But at one word she had doubled the mystery, and puzzled Maude more than she had been puzzled before.

It was passing strange that Desborough should hide in his own chambers the most important witness he had in his rôle of leading counsel for the plaintiff in the great case of Mackness and the Certified Company. Up to this evening Maude had regarded her future husband as a man utterly devoid of heart or feeling, an ambitious man who was marrying her solely because her wealth would remove certain obstacles from his path. He had most unscrupulously made use of a professional secret, but there seemed to be worse behind.

"We must go into this," Maude said hoarsely. "But first, tell me how you got here?"

Alice told her story as coherently as possible. She had been brought here so that the house might be burgled in a practically safe fashion, but the accident of the falling matchbox and the forgotten presence of Gambit had put an end to the pretty scheme.

"I see," Maude said thoughtfully. "The house must have been marked down for robbery for a long time. Your husband's visitor to-night gave him the plans, and, seeing that you knew the house so well, Price bettered the scheme. We shall see about that presently. Alice, are you quite sure that Price was hiding in Mr. Desborough's rooms?"

"Absolutely certain. To my great alarm, when I got there, Mr. Desborough recognized me. And when I told him who I was, he was frightened. Yes, that strong, self-reliant man was frightened! He begged me not to speak so loud. Maude, I hope you are not making a mistake. I can't see how you can really love that man—"

"Love him!" Maude cried. "I loathe him from the bottom of my soul. If I heard to-night that he was dead, I should be glad, glad, glad!"

"My dear Maude, my dearest sister, do you mean to say that you also—"

"Oh, I can tell you nothing!" Maude went on more quietly. She could say nothing of the truth without betraying the fact that it was Alice herself who was responsible for all this heartfelt misery. It would have been a cruel thing to do at present, and no good could come of it. Later on, perhaps. "Clifford Desborough is a scoundrel, despite his high position, and the fact that he has a Cabinet portfolio almost within his grip. He recognized you, and yet he never said a word to me when he brought me home to-night. He knows that you are alive, and yet he withholds the information from me. And he conceals in his own room the very man whom he ought to hand over to justice. Why did he want that man to escape? But I am going to find out. I am pledged to Clifford Desborough, and, if necessary, I will keep my word. But if I can find any way of honourable escape, I shall take advantage of it. We are two lone girls with not too many friends, but God will not desert us."

"There is Kit Clive," Alice suggested.

The warm blood flamed into Maude's face.

"I was engaged to him," she whispered. "He asked me quite lately. And I said yes, I was the happiest girl in London, for I loved him, and he loved me. He cared nothing for my hateful money. If I had known the sorrow and misery that money was going to bring to me I would have changed it all into sovereigns and thrown it into the lake at Mayton. I had to go back on my word and tell Kit that I could not marry him."

"That you did not love him, eh, Maude?"

"I said nothing of the kind. I said that all must be over between us. And Kit took it splendidly. I fancy that he must have partly understood. He is my good friend now as ever. I have only to hold up my hand, and he will come to me. Oh, my bonny, bonny Kit!"

Maude's voice broke off and she hid her face in her hands. It was Alice's turn to play the comforter now. But she could only hold her sister tight in her arms and smooth her shining hair. There are times when words are useless, and this was one of them.

"I wish I knew what to say," Alice whispered.

"There is nothing to say," Maude replied, dashing the tears away bravely. "It may sound silly of me, but your presence here gives me fresh hope and courage. Fate has brought us together again for some good purpose. My plans are vague yet, but I begin to see my way. Alice, you must go back to your old life again for the present. It cuts me to the heart to say so, but it is necessary. You must deceive your husband, you must let him believe that you escaped owing to your superior knowledge of the premises. Cultivate Clifford Desborough, go to his chambers as frequently as you can, pick up every scrap of information. Can you do this for me, dear?"

"I can do anything to try and atone for the past," Alice said bravely. "It is a hard struggle."

"It is not going to be a hard struggle any more," Maude cried. "You shall have no further anxiety as to your daily bread. I can quite see why you refused to accept any favours from the hands of Harvey Denton. Thank God, darling, you are your good and pure self in spite of everything. But you are going to let me help you, I shall be miserable if you refuse."

"I can refuse nothing to my own dear sister. There is hope before me now."

"That is the way in which I like to hear you speak. Here are five sovereigns for you. Let me know when you want more. And if you desire to see me, why that is quite easy. I cannot come to you, but you can come to me any time you care to make an appointment. That can be done through a newspaper, say the Express. And now I am going to turn you out."

Alice rose wearily. The reaction had set in now and her limbs were like lead. But there was a feeling of lightness about her heart that she had not known for many a day. She had a true friend now, and no fear for the future. She had been nearer to the cold hospitality of the pavement and a bed on the Embankment seats than she cared to contemplate. She moved towards the window.

"Not that way," Maude said. "You are going out of the front door. Good-night, darling. And don't let it be long before I see you again."

Maude was alone again with her own uneasy thoughts. It was very late now, but she had not the slightest idea of bed. It would have been impossible for her to sleep at present. She turned the situation over in her mind, but she could make very little of the confused tangle. The thing that puzzled her most was the connexion between Eli Price and the brilliant Desborough. Surely Price must possess a powerful hold on Desborough for the latter to shield him like this.

"Oh, if I could only find out what it is," Maude exclaimed. "Why, the very idea."

She passed out of the room into the passage and then into the garden by the French window. She crossed the lawn; and called softly to the dog. A whine and a snarl gave Maude her direction. In the faint light she could see Gambit at the foot of a tree, his black muzzle looking upwards.

"So you are up there," Maude said quietly. "Draw off, Gambit. Now, sir, I shall be pleased if you will come down. So long as I am here the dog will do you no harm. You will be good enough to follow me to the house, where I can see you better."

Price slipped down the tree and staggered across the lawn. He found himself presently in the dining-room where Maude had turned up the lights. The horrible, cramping stiffness was going from his limbs now, he looked about him eagerly for some means of escape.

"What do you want?" he asked sulkily.

"I want to talk to you," Maude said. "No, you are not to sit down. Men of your class are not allowed to sit down in the presence of ladies. You will be good enough to stand there and answer my questions. I know more of you than you suppose. What is your name?"

"If you want to know, it is Edward Staunton."

"That is not true. It will pay you to be candid with me."

"I could crush you," Price growled. "I could crumple you up like a sheet of paper."

"If I were alone," Maude said coldly, "but you see I have a companion who takes a keen interest in my welfare and yours. Look there."

The dog was lying in the doorway with the deep-set, red eyes fixed on Price's face.


XXI. BLACK SUSPICION

THE dog lay there blinking his deep-set eyes and telling Price as plainly as words could speak that it was as much as his life was worth to move. A queer sensation played up and down the spine of the ex-convict. He generally could see his way out of tight places, but here was one which was frankly beyond him.

He looked round the beautiful room with its shaded lights playing upon the Louis Seize carved oak furniture, against which the old silver gleamed, and back again to Maude, beautiful and calm, in her flowing white dress. A gleam of admiration came into Price's eyes. It was just possible that this girl might let him down easily.

"Will you tell me what you want?" he suggested. "I admit being in the garden."

"Denial would be rather ridiculous," Maude put in. "You were on the top of the billiard-room, which is not exactly the place for an honest gentleman taking an evening walk. Where is your confederate?"

Price had no confederate. He had come quite alone. The lie came readily from his lips, and his eyes were steady as he met Maude's glance.

"I felt certain that I saw a woman with you," Maude said.

"I was quite alone," Price said glibly. "This is no woman's work."

Maude permitted the point to pass. Evidently Price had seen nothing in the garden. He had not the remotest idea that his wife had been in the very room, and Maude had her own reasons why the man should remain in ignorance of the fact.

"I'll take your word for it," she said. "But if you try to deceive me again, it will be the worse for you. Why did you give me a wrong name just now?"

"If you know so much perhaps you know my name also," Price sneered.

Maude half-smiled as she looked into the sullen face. "I know your name quite well," she said. "You are Eli Price. Once you were a gentleman with a good and honourable name, but that is long ago. You are the man to whom my poor sister owes all her misfortunes. We deemed you both to be dead, but in your case the adage that 'one who is born to be hanged never gets drowned' holds good. Where is my sister?"

"She must have gone down with the ship," Price muttered uneasily.

"Let us hope so," Maude went on. "You are astonished at the extent of my knowledge."

Price was, but he had no intention of saying so. He was alarmed and uneasy. He could have taken this slender girl by the throat and crushed her easily, had it not been for that infernal dog. Every time he made a gesture Gambit moved uneasily. Those red eyes were ever upon him. Yet the feeling was growing upon him that Maude meant him no harm. She seemed to read his thoughts.

"I am not going to call in a policeman," she said. "So far as I am concerned you are not going back to gaol yet, though of course that is only a matter of time. I have what you would call the pull of you, and I want certain information."

"As much as you like," Price said more cheerfully.

"Then we will begin at the beginning. How came it about early this evening that you were hiding in the inner office of Mr. Clifford Desborough?"

Price gasped. Of course he had meant to play with Maude, and tell her as little or as much as he pleased. But it seemed to him that he had more than met his match here. There was no sign of weak womanish triumph on Maude's face, she looked perfectly tranquil and beautiful, and she seemed so absolutely certain of her ground.

"Who told you this?" he gasped.

"That does not concern you in the least. You were hiding in the place I mention. Why?"

"Because the police were after me, of course."

"That is not true. If such had been the case Mr. Desborough would never have compromised himself for a moment. Prominent barristers who are freely spoken of as future Cabinet Ministers do not harbour escaped convicts. Nor is Mr. Desborough what you would call a humane man. Why did he allow you to hide in his rooms?"

"To tell you the honest truth, I don't know," Price replied. "I met an old enemy of mine in the street, and he gave me the slip. I tell you I felt like murder just for the moment. But for Ericsson I should never have seen the inside of a gaol."

Maude made a note of the name. Price was speaking the truth now, she felt certain.

"And you don't know why Mr. Desborough befriended you?" Maude went on. "He recognized you perhaps."

"He did. He was present in court at the time I was convicted. And he let me go. It wasn't out of any kindness, I'll take my oath to that. I'm a pretty good judge of a face, and if ever I saw a face without feeling or soul behind it, that face is Desborough's. And he let me go."

"You are puzzled," Maude said. "Shall I explain to you?"

"Well, yes. Seems to me I had better learn the truth. Why did he let me go?"

"Do you know anything about Mr. Graham Minter, the South African millionaire?"

The question appeared to startle Price. He looked at Maude with deep admiration.

"You're a clever one," he said. "I never met a woman to touch you. You've got a pretty scheme in your mind now, and yet I can't for the life of me see what you are driving at."

"You are not intended to. I shall be glad of a reply to my question."

"Well, I've known Minter for years. Knew him when he was holding horses for a living. If I happened to be free—I mean free to go about the streets like other men—I could make a good thing out of Minter."

"Only your misfortune prevents it. Ericsson managed to get you into trouble—" The name slipped off Maude's tongue as if she had known the man all her lifetime. "Now, did it ever strike you that Minter desired to have you out of the way, and that the creature Ericsson was used as a tool to do so?"

Price glared at the questioner. The point had never occurred to him before. His admiration for his beautiful antagonist deepened. What a head she had to be sure!

"Never," he said hoarsely. "But you've let some daylight into this thick head of mine. I should never have thought of that. Why, when Minter—and myself—"

"I have no time to go into that," Maude said. "We'll take the past for granted. You were to be brought up here to give evidence in a certain case in which Mr. Minter is deeply interested. On your way here you were forcibly taken from the custody of the police. It was a lucky accident for you, but even now you are in ignorance as to the identity of your friends."

"That's so," Price admitted candidly.

"And you have taken no trouble to ascertain what the particular case was. I see you are still in the dark. Warders in prisons don't chatter much with their prisoners. The case in question is one in which Mr. Minter is deeply interested, and where fortunes are involved—Mackness and the Certified Company it is called. Do you know anything about it?"

"I know the whole thing from top to bottom."

"I expected that reply. Doubtless your evidence would have damaged Mr. Minter's case severely. He or some clever tools of his procured your release. So far so good. But Mr. Desborough is on the other side, and therefore when he recognized you, should have taken immediate steps to secure your safety—I mean secure your appearance in the witness box. Instead of this he deliberately shields you and lets you go as soon as it is safe for you to leave his chambers. Why?"

"My dear young lady, I don't know any more than the dead."

"Well, I am going to find out. I am going to use you for what I hold to be a good end. But no more to-night. Give me an address where a letter will find you so that I may send for you when I need your services. Write it down on this card, and then you can go. On the whole, I am disposed to think you are a lucky man, Mr. Price."


XXII. KIT HAS SOMETHING TO SAY

MAUDE saw her way pretty clearly before she finally retired. Her thoughts were full of the subject as she took her breakfast. There was some strange rascality here and she was going to get to the bottom of it.

It had been Clifford Desborough's bounden duty to call in a policeman as he recognized Eli Price for an escaped convict, but he had done nothing of the kind. More than that, he had deliberately connived at the escape of an important witness in his case, a case, moreover, for which he was being well paid. Why Desborough had done this Maude did not know, but she had every intention of finding out.

By a mere trick Desborough had forced a promise from Maude, and that promise she would keep unless she could prove that Desborough was not worthy of the hand of a good woman.

But who could help her now? There was only one man, and he had told her that he would come to her side any time that she was in trouble. There was nothing for it but to ask Kit to call on her. It cost her an effort to write the friendly little note, and she breathed easier as it was posted. There was just a chance that Kit would come the same afternoon. Mrs. Beaumont had gone out calling and Maude left instructions that she was at home to nobody but Mr. Clive.

Kit came in the course of the afternoon, a little quiet and subdued, but with no change in his manner. He was not even dignified, there was just a shade of sadness in his eyes, his face was just a little anxious. He took Maude's hand and carried it to his lips.

"This is good of you," she said, with a hot flush on her face. "Oh, Kit, if only you knew how grateful I am for all your kindness. And after I have behaved like this!"

"You are all right," Clive said, with assumed cheerfulness. "You said I was not to ask any questions. And in spite of everything you love me still?"

"Are my eyes so truthful as all that, Kit?"

"They are always truthful to me. And you do love me still?"

"God knows I do. I shall love you all my lifetime, dear old boy. And he knows it; I told him that my heart would ever belong to another. Kit, you ought to hate me."

"It seems the proper thing to do," Kit said dolefully. "But I don't. There is some deep rascality here that I shall get to the bottom of yet. I shall never give up hope so long as you are free, Maude. And I am ever and ever your good and true friend."

Maude held out her hands impulsively. The next moment Clive's arms were around her and his lips were pressed to hers. The world was forgotten for the moment. Then Maude gently drew herself away and wiped the tears from her eyes. A great wave of carmine swept over her face.

"We are both very foolish," she whispered. "And yet where is the wrong? I am my own mistress still. Kit, you sit there. Badly as I have behaved, I did not send for you to make love to me. My dear boy, I have found light in the darkness. The light has shown me some terribly repulsive things, but even they have their uses. Now listen to last night's adventures."

Maude told her story plainly and clearly to an appreciative listener, Kit following with the deepest attention. His eyes were gleaming as Maude finished.

"I fancy I can help you," he said. "It sounds very mean, but I am obliged to allude to Desborough in terms none too complimentary. Mind you, I am not taking advantage of my position to abuse my rival. But as a boy, Desborough led a very fast life."

"That is not very serious," Maude smiled. "No woman ever admired a man less because she knew that he had been a little wild in his youth."

"But that fact is the source of all the trouble, Maude. Desborough's father was a poor parson, and Desborough went to college on a small allowance and his scholarships. He chose to live with the best, and the consequence was that he came down at the end of his career some thousands in debt. Those debts have hung round his neck like a millstone ever since. There have been heavy costs and interests to pay, law proceedings and the like. Once a man gets into the hands of a money-lender he is doomed unless he has pluck enough to go through the bankruptcy court. But that would have been fatal to a barrister with brilliant prospects. At the present time Desborough owes over £10,000, and his big fees are swallowed up by the sharks who have bled him all these years. He has gambled and lost money. He represents a very Puritan constituency who would ask him to resign to-morrow if they knew half that I know."

"Where do you get all these facts?" Maude asked.

"You forget that I have been for so long Mr. Minter's private secretary. I think I told you of the clause in my father's will that compelled me to keep to business till I was twenty-five. I am a few weeks over my time now and I am only staying with Minter till he can find a successor. I gathered these facts from him because he rather wanted to make Desborough his standing legal adviser and, to put it plainly, have a hold over Desborough."

"Did he go any further than that?" Maude asked. Clive moved a little uneasily on his chair.

"I am betraying the secrets of the prison house," he said. "But with those beautiful eyes upon me—"

"Never mind my beautiful eyes, sir. I am not asking out of—idle curiosity."

"Well, Minter did go further. I know for a positive fact that he has recently bought up all Desborough's bills, so that if he liked to press for payment he could make Desborough a bankrupt to-morrow. In that case he would have to resign his seat and his political career would be ruined."

Maude listened thoughtfully. Much was being made clear to her now that had all been dark and confused to her before. Doubtless Minter had let Clifford Desborough know of the hold he had, and the barrister had played a desperate card in order to make a rich woman his wife.

"Is Mr. Minter going to lose that law case?" she asked.

"I fancy so," Kit replied. "But, you see, Price has disappeared—"

"Got out of the way by Mr. Minter," Maude interrupted.

"After what you tell me it seems likely," Kit said thoughtfully. "He is not a man to stick at trifles. Our friend Desborough would have got the truth out of Price."

"I don't quite agree with you," Maude whispered. "He is in Minter's power. If he suppressed certain questions, the verdict would have gone against Clifford Desborough's client. Kit, that is why those bills were bought up. Clifford has been told what will happen if he presses a certain point. I feel sure of it as if I had been present and heard the conversation."

Clive started. The suggestion had not occurred to him.

"I see," he said hurriedly. "It could not be held up in judgment against Desborough. People would have said that he had not shown his usual astuteness upon the case and there would have been an end of it. But to think that a leading K.C. should dream—"

"My dear, it has been done once or twice before. And look at the terrible temptation. Fancy you and I sitting here and discussing the man whom I am pledged to marry. If I had read a situation like this in a novel I should merely have laughed. But I can't go through with it, I cannot marry a man who acts like this. And I cannot break off my engagement—at least not yet."

"Is there any hope?" Kit asked, with a gleam in his eyes.

"Dear old boy, there is every hope. Only you must be near me and show me how to act. Our future happiness depends upon the events of the next few days. I had refused Lady Mary's invitation for her week-end party at Marvyn Chase, but—"

"Change your mind," Kit said eagerly. "They will all be there, I shall be there. The drama will move under our eyes, and now we have but the key to it. If you are brave and strong we shall find the way to victory yet. And when we do, Maude—"

"Then I shall be the happiest girl in the world again. Kit, I cannot do without you, I will not give you up. We must find a way."

Kit rose and took Maude in his arms again. He kissed her once, and put her from him.

"Courage, my darling," he whispered. "Love will find a way."


XXIII. ROGUES IN COUNCIL

PRICE drew a long breath like a swimmer who comes to the surface after a dangerous dive. After all he was going to escape, this beautiful creature was allowing him his freedom. Even the dog seemed to understand, for he rose at a sign from Maude and lurched heavily into the hall. Then the door was opened and closed, and Price was under the stars.

Well, it had been a very pretty adventure, though the ex-convict was puzzled, and there was an uneasy feeling that he had been bested by a woman who was making a tool of him. He lighted a cigarette thoughtfully. Perhaps there was money in this thing. Anyway, he would keep in touch with Maude so long as the police did not interfere. He would—

"Well, you are a pretty nice fellow," a voice growled in his ear. "Been taking an inventory of the furniture with a view to a season in town? Here have I been dodging up and down for near two hours and no sign of you. What have you done?"

"Nothing," Price replied. "I've had an adventure. We were spotted, Jim. My lady accomplice got away right enough, but a big dog chased me up a tree, and there they kept me for a long time. Then I was asked to walk into the dining-room and explain things."

"But there is no man in the house besides the servants."

"It was not a man, Jim. It was a young and beautiful woman. For coolness and courage I never saw her equal. With a confederate like that I should die a millionaire. And she knew all about me, too. Turned me inside out, and dismissed me like a discharged butler who had been stealing the old port."

"I should have enjoyed that," Macgregor grinned.

"Oh, no you wouldn't," Price said drily. "You would have been precious glad to get away. But the time has not been wasted."

"Oh, indeed. What else do you call it, then?"

"Well spent. I don't know what the young lady's game is, but I mean to find out. I tell you she knew all about me; she asked questions about my past that fairly startled me. But I am not going to say anything about that because it's my secret. And she told me a thing that I should never have guessed. She asked me if I knew anything about Graham Minter."

"If you don't know anything about him, who does?"

"Precisely. And what do you think Miss Beaumont—I drink her health in the spirit—suggested? That Minter had got me put away with Ericsson for his accomplice."

Macgregor whistled thoughtfully. Certainly the suggestion had never occurred to him, but when the point was considered it looked extremely likely.

"Easy to find out," he suggested. "I'll run Ericsson down for you."

"And make him tell the truth. But that accomplished and beautiful young lady went further. I was brought up to London to give certain evidence in a case concerning the Certified Company in which Minter is deeply interested. For some reason or another I was removed from the hands of the police. Who by, and why? Why, by Minter's creatures so that I should not give evidence. And Minter is going to pay for this."

"Don't you go doing anything rash," Macgregor urged.

"Oh, I'll bide my time! We'll drag the truth out of Ericsson, and then we'll tackle Minter. He shall pay for this. Fancy that man living in Park Lane and me like this!"

Price regarded his seedy garments with disdain. Macgregor laughed.

"I was past Minter's house as I came here," he said. "Lights all over the place. A big dinner to a lot of swells, including a German Prince. And a few years ago Minter was sweeping out a store in Cape Town! Let's go back that way and see if the Dukes are still there. I'd give a trifle for a chance to have the run of that house."

Park Lane was fairly quiet and most of the houses in darkness. But in the big marble-fronted palace that Minter called his own, lights were blazing and the big doors stood open. There were three houses together there equidistant, all of them of the same type, speaking of wealth and prosperity, and appealing to the envy of the passers-by.

"That's the drawing-room," Macgregor whispered, as he pointed to a row of brilliantly-illuminated windows. "And on the other side is the big smoking-room, where Minter does all his home correspondence and sees his visitors and business friends. I've got a plan of the house somewhere, with all the places marked where the treasures are."

"How did you manage to get that?" Price asked.

"Why, I made it myself. Minter's South African collection is unique. He asked the Press to go and see the show a year ago, and I went as an American journalist. There's a case of unset stones in the corner of the morning-room that sets my mouth watering as I think of it. If I could only shovel that lot into my pocket I could stand a whole season in Paris and ruffle with the best of them. But the thing wants a bit of scheming."

Price admitted the fact sadly. By the shadows moving across the blinds it was evident that the dinner guests had not all departed. Probably there was a financial genius or two there working up some brilliant scheme for the lightening of fools' pockets. Late as it was, a messenger boy came up the front steps with a letter to deliver. A few minutes later and a slouching figure in a soft hat and overcoat with the collar pulled high up emerged into the street.

"Evidently a valuable tip," Price sneered, "or he wouldn't wrap up a night like this. Perhaps it is the German Prince who—what's the matter?"

Macgregor had gripped his companion's arm tightly.

"Prince be hanged," he whispered. "Can't you recognize the bit of a limp and the stiff neck? The man in the overcoat is nobody but Graham Minter himself!"

Macgregor spoke no more than the truth. The figure shuffling away in the darkness was Minter sure enough. His call must have been very important to draw him away from his guests like this; also he could not be going far, or he would have dismissed those visitors before he left the house.

"I'm losing my powers of observation," Price growled. "Nothing makes you more dull than a few months on the wrong side of a brick wall. Let's follow him."

Macgregor agreed, but not with enthusiasm. He had been walking a long time now, and his system seemed to need refreshment of a liquid nature. But all the houses of entertainment were closed now, and there was no chance of that for some time to come. Minter's errand was evidently secretive, for he preferred to walk instead of taking a cab as he would have done under ordinary circumstances. He turned presently into Oxford Street, and finally into a narrow thoroughfare behind the nest of squares beyond Green Street.

He came at length to a place the front door of which was not closed, the gas still flared in the fanlight, and Minter entered. Macgregor knew all about the place as usual. It was a lodging-house of none too high a type, much frequented by foreigners who moved usually under the eyes of the police. Minter was not very long, for he emerged presently, buttoning up his coat as he came out.

"Keep your eye upon him," Macgregor said. "I'll just step inside and ask for my friend, Count Duvest. No such person exists, but that will make my task all the easier. As it's our own way, we can follow Minter home, so that no harm comes to him."

Macgregor swaggered into the house to return a moment later with a broad grin of triumph on his face. He had evidently discovered something.

"My friend was not there," he said. "There was only one man in the coffee-room, and he was just putting up some papers, so obviously he was the object of Minter's coming here. And that man is staying in the house. Bet you a shilling you can't guess who the man was."

Price smote his thigh, he uttered a ferocious oath of triumph.

"Done," he cried. "The man is Ericsson for a million! We are getting on."


XXIV. THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR

MINTER turned into his house in due course, heedless of the fact that he had been so closely shadowed. He had not been gone long enough for his presence to be missed, for he came as far as the hall door presently in full evening-dress, to speed a little knot of guests who departed noisily. Minter stood looking down the street after his friends had disappeared with an air of expecting somebody. A tall, well-set figure came down the Lane, and Minter smiled as the figure stopped.

"So you changed your mind," he said, in his strident voice. "Come along in. I have sent the servants up to bed. We can thrash the matter out over a whisky and soda."

The speech was plain to the pair of listeners on the other side of the Lane. The big door closed upon the brilliant stream of light, there was the sound of a sliding bolt.

"We're getting into it thick to-night," Price muttered. "Yon was my barrister friend, the man who let me hide in his chambers and depart without a sign."

"What, the man who was going to upset Minter's case for him—the young lady told you of?"

"That's the joker. What does he want here?"

"Why, come to square the case, of course," Macgregor muttered. "Honesty! Bah, what's honesty? All right if it pays, and safe because it don't get you into trouble. But fortunes ain't made that way. Desborough's going to square the case for a pot of money."

Price was inclined to agree, or why had not Desborough handed him over to the police? There was some deep rascality here that might be discovered and turned to money. Price looked longingly up at the two gleaming windows at one end of the balcony. The rest of the house was in darkness now.

"They've gone into the smoking-room," he muttered. "The windows are open too. I'd give a trifle to find myself in that balcony."

"Don't see how it's going to be managed," said Macgregor.

"Not unless we had the key of the next door premises," Price reflected. "Blinds all down from top to bottom, windows papered up, family away from home. Caretaker evidently lives in the basement and probably sleeps in the attic."

"Old woman," Macgregor supplemented, "and a little inclined to beer. Bless you, I know all about it. House belongs to some big foreign financier who couldn't come over to England this season because of affairs. They say it is a grand house inside."

"Well, we're going inside to see," said Price doggedly. "Those big houses are like ladies' jewel bags, patent locks, and all that, whilst a sixpenny penknife can do all the mischief. Bet you what you like there's only a bolt and a catch on the basement door. If we had that pretty little screw jemmy of yours we'd be inside in less than a minute."

Macgregor chuckled, and tapped his pocket significantly.

"You don't mean to say you've got it?" Price said hoarsely. "Down you go."

There was no occasion for violence, however, as Price's cynical prophecy was verified to the letter. A window in the basement was only partially latched, and a pocket knife pushed the hasp back easily. A minute later and the two marauders were ascending the stairs.

"Not even so much as a door locked," Macgregor chuckled. "You can light a match, eh? Thanks to all those papers posted about not a glimmer will show. There's no danger whatever until we come to open the drawing-room window that leads to the balcony. Look at this!"

Everything on the landing and in the drawing-room was swathed in holland covers. Macgregor pulled one of them aside and disclosed a magnificent Louis Quinze cabinet in ebony and ivory, a work of art that might have been worth anything up to ten thousand pounds.

"Pity these things are too hot to handle," he said significantly. "We'll collect a few trifles as we return by way of a souvenir of our visit. Plate sure to be in the bank."

The far drawing-room window opened easily and noiselessly, and the two marauders crept cautiously out on to the balcony. It was an easy matter to pass from one balcony to the other, seeing that there was only a low ornamental rail between. The brilliant gleam of the electric lights made a deep shadow outside the smoking-room windows, and here Price and his companion crouched and listened. The blind was up slightly, and the window open, so that it was possible to get a peep of the interior.

Minter was lounging in a big armchair in the centre of the room, a huge cigar was between his teeth, and he smoked in a worrying manner that strongly reminded the spectators of a bull terrier gnawing at a bone. Clifford Desborough stood before the fireplace, cold and self-contained. He had a cigarette between his lips, but it was dead and cold. Minter's strident voice was booming.

"Take me for a fool!" he said. "Not an inch do I go back on what I said. If I am ruined—"

"There is not the slightest need for you to be ruined, Minter," Desborough said, "seeing that the witness you had the most reason to dread has disappeared."

"Oh, yes—Price," Minter said carelessly. "But there's Ericsson and others. You can see your way to smash up my case, I can read it in your face."

"And supposing I can see my way to smash you up?" Desborough asked the question quite coolly. Minter looked up and smiled.

"Suppose I could prove that you had a hand in Price's disappearance?" Desborough continued. "Would you be surprised if I told you that Price had been to my chambers to-night and that I could put my hand upon him at any moment I choose? If I do that and my duty afterwards, exit Minter. You would go down like scores of other financial comets that I could name. What then?"

Minter flicked off the end of his cigar on the carpet transported from an Indian palace.

"I should be ruined," he said, "but you would be ruined, too. I might rise again with my brains and audacity. But you would be a bankrupt; you could never take a high place in politics again. No, on the whole my position is far better than yours."

"You take a cool view of it," Desborough cried, stung to passion.

"Because I know the world, my boy," Minter said. "And I know you. It's only a question of time. Pay me what you now owe me, and you are free. But you can't pay me the money, and you are not going to give up your career. You are going to marry a rich wife, but you can hardly hope to lay your hands on Miss Maude Beaumont's fortune before she is Mrs. Desborough."

Price chuckled softly. He had heard a great deal in the last few moments. It would be no fault of his if this information did not prove of the greatest value. He had heard practically all that he wanted to learn, and there was no reason to remain there any longer. Those two men would go on arguing in a circle, but Minter Would get the upper hand in the end.

"Let's get away," Price whispered. "My luck's too good to be played with. Besides if some meddlesome policeman goes down the area and finds the window unlatched—"

"Shut it," Macgregor chuckled. "I take no risks of that kind. But I'm hungry and thirsty, and I should like a smoke. I know of a little place not far off where we can get all we want in that line and a bed into the bargain. Lead the way."

They were safely back in the house again, and the window carefully fastened. Macgregor struck a match and looked about him. A cabinet on slender gilt legs seemed to take his fancy. He slipped the cover off and looked into the cabinet, something ragged yet glittering under plate glass. The sight of it seemed to fascinate him beyond power of speech.

"Well, what is it all about?" asked Price impatiently.

"Minter's collection of uncut stones," Macgregor said at length. "This is the very collection I told you about. I'll swear to them anywhere. Look at that ruby!"

"Rot!" Price grunted contemptuously. "It must be a copy or something of that kind."

"I'll swear to the stuff," was Macgregor's reply. "Pull out the lower case. In the centre you'll see a big ruby with pure gold threads all over it. If you don't find this, why—"

Price pulled at the drawer, and looked at its contents with wolfish eyes.

"Right you are," he muttered. "Now what is the meaning of this little game?"


XXV. A PORTRAIT OF A GENTLEMAN

MACGREGOR was trembling from head to foot with the excitement of his find. Visions of gorgeous days and still more gorgeous nights in Paris rose before his mind. He had only to cram one of his pockets with a handful or two of the uncut stones and the future would not trouble him for some time to come. The thing was deliciously easy and safe, too. Once the stones had changed hands they would immediately be cut and recognition rendered impossible. In all probability the gems would be on the market before they were missed.

"It seems strange," said Price, who was keeping a cool head, "very strange. You have proved to me that these things belong to Graham Minter."

"Used to belong," Macgregor chuckled. "Thousands of pounds there, my boy. Just make a rough division and we'll be off. Personally, I should like the big ruby, but—"

"You're not going to touch a stone," Price said slowly and thoughtfully. "We are going away from here leaving things exactly as we found them. You are all very well in your way, James, but your vision is limited. What you lack is education. You are going to grasp at a few hundreds, man, and lose the chance of thousands in the future."

Macgregor looked wonderingly at his companion. Price was long-headed, and his words generally worthy of attention. Some scheme had come to him.

"Go on," Macgregor growled. "Get it off your chest."

"I'm going to. It doesn't matter two hangs to us how those stones got here. Suffice it to know that they belong to Graham Minter, and that we found them in the house of a foreign financier who is not residing here at present. If this means anything, it means a mystery worth sifting. For the present we can come here when we like. Don't imagine that nobody comes here who has a stake in the house, because that's a mistake. Whoever is at the bottom of this thing feels safe, or those stones would never be where they are. But if we take the stones our birds will be alarmed, and our chance of getting here again small. We are coming again and again, until we get to the bottom of this thing, and there's a fortune in it. Don't imagine that you are going to be allowed to spoil everything because you are breaking your neck to get to Paris."

"Have your own way," Macgregor growled, "only get me out of this, or I shall be hitting you a crack over the head and levanting with the spoil. A bird in the hand, you know."

Price clapped his hand over Macgregor's mouth suddenly. Silently he pointed to the door. It was wide open, and gave on to a long corridor, at the end of which a figure appeared with a lighted candle in his hand. Macgregor just caught sight of a black suit and the flash of a wide expanse of white shirt front. Evidently there had been no alarm, for the man with the candle was coming along leisurely enough towards the drawing-room.

"Somebody living in the house," Macgregor muttered.

"Not a bit of it," Price whispered. "Pick up those two wax matches off the floor. You fool, you might just as well leave your visiting cards about. Get under the holland wrap around that big cabinet and hide there. I can squeeze under the table."

The intruders popped out of sight like two scared rabbits. By cautiously lifting up the edges of the wrappers they could make out the features of the man with the candle. It was Graham Minter, a fact that filled Macgregor with astonishment, but that merely caused Price to smile with the self-satisfied smirk of one who has seen his plans flourishing.

He came along to the cabinet of stones and glanced at them casually. Then he deposited a small casket on the mantelshelf, covering it over with a piece of newspaper. His features were dark and sombre, and not quite devoid of anxiety. With a keen glance around him he went slowly out of the room again. Price was after him almost before he had gained the corridor. On his hands and knees the ex-convict watched. Minter turned to the right and disappeared.

"Well, that's odd," Macgregor said, as he followed close behind. "The corridor simply ends in a big window, and there is no door at all. And yet the man's gone utterly."

Price made no reply. He had his own ideas, but for the present he was not sharing them with his companion. All the same Macgregor was telling no more than the truth. Minter seemed to have vanished through the wall. There were large pictures at regular intervals in deep gold frames, apparently let into the wall like panels. By their general appearance they had been there a long time.

"Bought with the property," Macgregor explained. "I know all about it. The late Lord Bryuder sold the lot."

"Not this one," Price said curtly. "This is a Velasquez, and it only came from Rome two years ago. Let's make a close examination of this chap."

With the aid of half a box of matches Price did so. The work took time, but it led to a satisfactory result at length. A small portion of the frame looked as if it had been restored. Price fumbled at this until the picture gave a queer crack, and slowly swung back, leaving a passage behind. There was a lurid light of triumph in Price's eyes.

"Let's make sure of the catch," he said. "We may want to come back this way presently. Look, here is a picture on either side of the panel, so that there is nothing to disclose the fact that there is a door. 'Portrait of a gentleman by Velasquez.' A very good idea, Mr. Minter. Now you see, my dear James, how foolish it would have been to put up with those stones and ruin a secret that may put Mr. Graham Minter's fortune in our hands. Yes, the door opens the same way back and front. Let's go and investigate, comfortable in the knowledge that all the servants have gone to bed.

"What's that?" Price whispered, as the liquid notes of a piano flooded the house. "I thought Lady Mary Minter was down at Marvyn Chase."

The mystery was explained presently by a peep into the smoking-room. The magnificent piece of music was being played by Minter on the pianola. For the moment he seemed to have forgotten everything else. Price touched Macgregor lightly on the shoulder.

"Your sight is better than mine," he whispered. "Who is that writing at the table by the wall?"

"Why, Ericsson, of course. Shut up, can't you. Minter has finished his music."

Minter rolled up the Nocturne of Chopin, and closed down the lid of the pianola with a bang.

"I wish I had learnt music as a boy," he said. "I should have devoted myself to it, and never have been worried as I am at present. You are sure that Isaacson is coming?"

"Quite sure, sir," Ericsson said, in his fawning voice. "He was only waiting for the girls. The thing was certain to be settled."

Minter paced up and down the room in an agitated manner. All his brutal audacity seemed to have deserted him, he looked like a criminal awaiting the verdict of the jury. There were spirit decanters on the table, and more than once he fingered them irresolutely. Then with a sort of self-contempt he turned away and resumed his walk again.

"You know what you have got to do," he said. "Step out directly the Jew comes and hide behind the screen. You are to take down every word you hear, and be careful not to make mistakes. Is it my fancy, or did I hear the bell down below?" Ericsson rose from his writing and crossed to the door. The two intruders had barely time to step into the darkness of the next room before Ericsson was in the corridor. They could hear Minter in the smoking-room striding about and muttering to himself.

"A man or a mouse," he said. "A month hence a millionaire in very sooth or a pauper—aye, something worse. Which is it to be? I have my treasure, my precious treasure. And my uncut stones that they speak of so highly. I should like to see the face of the thief who stole them and tried to sell them in Amsterdam. I should like—"

The prospect seemed to please Minter, for he broke off and laughed aloud. Price grasped Macgregor by the arm as he choked down a chuckle.

"Who was right?" he whispered. "We shall do better than fill our pockets with those stones."


XXVI. THE BYNGTON JEWELS

MACGREGOR grinned uneasily. He had not quite abandoned all ideas of looting the uncut stones, but he was bound to recognize the superior wisdom of Price's policy. Footsteps were creeping up the stairs now, and Ericsson appeared, followed by a little man with a bent form and a cough that proclaimed the fact that the owner was not much longer for this world. Yet his dark eyes were not dimmed, and the greed glittered in them as it had done any time the last half century.

"Your humble servant, Mr. Minter," he said with a cringing bow. "You sent for me, I think."

"That's a lie," Minter said brutally. "I never sent for you, and you know it. When you have anything particularly good you come to me because I can get you a much better price than anybody else. I got your message to-night, and that is why I am waiting up to see you."

Every word of the conversation was quite plain to the two intruders listening in the next room. The little Jew writhed and chuckled as if Minter had perpetrated some unusually good joke.

"Stop it!" Minter cried. "Get to business, Isaacson. Let's hear what you have to say."

The two listeners would have exchanged glances only the darkness prevented it. More than once they had had the kindly assistance of Israel Isaacson in disposing of valuable but dangerous property. The Jew was pouring himself out something to drink by the sound.

"I can't be bullied," he said. "This dreadful cough of mine—oh, dear, dear. My dear sir, I have been reading the papers lately, some of the papers that deal in gossip. In one of them there was an article on the Earl of Byngton's jewels. Do you know him?"

"Met him," Minter said coolly. "A young fool who was intended by Nature to be a woman. Dyes, powders, and wears stays and all that. Ought to be licked, the young cub. They say that he always carries a small fortune in gems about him."

Isaacson chuckled again. Minter followed as patiently as he could.

"So he does, so he does," he whispered. "Fond of theatrical company, going behind the scenes, and all that. Very fond of champagne, too."

"Drinking himself to death, if that is what you mean."

"Well, well; we need not be too hard on the follies of that young man. Where would some of the pretty fortunes come from if there were not foolish young men? And the late Earl was not much better, only he took the precaution of having copies of all his gems made. I know that because a young friend of mine got possession of the copies."

"Ah," Minter exclaimed. He was interested now. "That is very curious. Go on, Israel."

"My young friend gets the copies. He is a wise young man and says nothing. Maybe those copies may prove useful some day. The copies came into the hands of a lady not entirely unconnected with the music-hall stage. She is not a star, but she has powerful friends, who can push her, and get her picture in the illustrated papers. Yesterday's Lorgnette, for instance, had a portrait."

"You need not mention any names, Israel. I—er—take the Lorgnette in regularly."

"What a pleasure to do business with a man who has a luminous mind!" Isaacson cried, in a kind of rapture.

"On that point no more need be said. Lord Byngton, he takes his jewels to a little supper party, and they go round freely. Presently one or two of the ladies of that party go away and the jewels are still circulated. Would it not be strange when Lord Byngton wakes up sober in the morning for him to discover that he had not got the gems but the paste? At so large a party the culprit would be difficult to discover, eh?"

Minter nodded, and his deep-set eyes gleamed.

"What has all this got to do with me?" he asked.

"Nothing, nothing," the Jew hastened to say. "It only struck me as a clever plot for a novel or a little scheme that might be worked successfully by a financier. Not for a moment would any of the people I mention think of robbing his lordship in that way."

"Of course not," Minter growled. "It seems to me you are wasting my time."

"For which a thousand pardons, my dear sir. What I came to say was this. The young lady whose portrait appears in this week's Lorgnette, also a friend of hers, similarly favoured, have had misfortunes. They possess gems of historic value. Whence these gems come does not matter. You are prepared to purchase such gems. The young ladies would like to see you—in fact, they are waiting at the corner of the Lane in a cab for that very purpose. The price is ten thousand."

"And your commission of course. If the young ladies are not afflicted by undue shyness let them come here. But as to cash, I am particularly short of it at present. You can have two £250 shares in the Certified Company for your commission, which is as good as ready money and much safer to handle than a cheque. I could pay the girls in the same manner, and every share that they hold could be sold at a premium to-morrow."

Isaacson nodded. He had a pretty poor opinion of Certified Shares, and his own views as to the financial soundness of his present host, but Certifieds were good for the present, and the Jew would lose no time in turning them into cash.

"You would like to see the young ladies," he said eagerly. "Very good. I will send them here. As to myself I will not return, the air is not good for my cough. Good-night."

Isaacson bowed respectfully, but there was a strange gleam in his dark eyes as he went down the thickly-carpeted stairs. There would be a mighty smash here some of these days, but that mattered little to the Jew so long as his share of the plunder was safe. Minter paced up and down the room restlessly till the sound of high-pitched voices broke on the ear and the room gradually filled with a powerful odour of perfumes. The girls were handsome enough in a hard, bold kind of way, nor were they a bit abashed by the luxury of their surroundings.

"So you are here again," Minter smiled. "'Pon my word, you both of you wear very well. How many years is it since I was doing baggage man and you were both playing in Lenzo's stock company at Cape Town?"

"Never mind about that," the taller of the two girls laughed. "Actresses never grow old. And don't forget that you are going to take us on the river from Reading to-morrow and to your place to tea afterwards."

Minter admitted that he had forgotten all about the promise. Lady Mary was at Marvyn Chase to-morrow, but she was lunching out and would not be back till late.

"So we'll risk it," he said cheerfully. "I've got a weekend party, but a telegram or two will keep all off the premises till after six. Meanwhile a little bird tells me that you two girls have got a pleasant little surprise for me."

The taller of the two girls laid a packet done up roughly in tissue paper on the table, and Minter gave a casual glance at the inside. Just for a moment the room was filled with a dazzling stream of liquid fire, then Minter crushed the glittering mass in his ponderous hand and thrust it deeply down in his pocket.

"Pretty," he said carelessly, "very pretty indeed. I'll look at it when I have time. Meanwhile I am going to give you a little present each which I will post to-night to your rooms. A letter for each of you with a few little shares in it, shares that you can take to your broker and coin into hard money. Won't that be nice?"

The girls giggled and dexterously began to talk about something else. Ericsson appeared presently and the visitors, with many shy suggestions as to the outing for the morrow, went away. Minter's face grew dark and troubled again as he saw them depart.

"Clear up and be off," he said to Ericsson. "I want to be alone; I have work to do yet. And mind you keep sober after Sunday, at any rate. If you don't I'll lay you by the heels as sure as you are a living man!"

Ericsson muttered something and departed. Minter poured himself out a strong glass of brandy and tossed it off as if it had been so much water.

"It's a foolish thing to do!" he muttered, "but my nerves are not what they were!"


XXVII. NEWS FROM ABROAD

WAS it a man of iron or a man of straw who stood there clinking the glass against his teeth? Whatever he might be on the morrow Minter was utterly unnerved for the moment.

The man was playing a desperate game, he stood just on the verge of ruin, a state of affairs fondly imagined to be known to nobody with the exception of a tool or two whom he could have crushed at the first sign of indiscretion.

The man was an adventurer playing a desperate game. The very splendour of his appointments and his reputed wealth kept creditors at bay. Tradesmen who would have hung on to him like a leech if they had known the true state of affairs, fawned at his feet now and thrust their wares upon him. And yet on the other hand the phantom millions would be no phantom at all if all went well with the Certified Company shares. It was a pure matter of bluff. But if those shares went the way of so many of them, then Minter would be something worse than a bankrupt.

He held himself to be no worse than many he knew. Other millionaires, now in a safe position, had risked the chances of a gaol and now stood firm on a solid financial footing.

But Minter looked ahead. If the crash came the police would seek in vain for him. He would disappear in such a way that the authorities could never find him. He would take with him enough money to give most men a fortune. It was a wonderfully elaborate yet beautifully simple scheme, but it was to be avoided if possible.

It was well for Minter that he knew many capitals in Europe and spoke many languages. Most people would have been astonished to find how many languages Minter knew. But he kept this fact to himself.

But for the moment he was beaten; he realized that he was not quite the man of three years ago. Nothing soothed his nerves like music, the pianola was a great solace to him. He shut off the lights now and played something dreamy in the darkness.

"Hadn't we better clear out?" Macgregor suggested in a whisper.

"Not yet," Price replied between his teeth. "So long as we know how to find our way into the house next door we are safe. I've found out a great deal, but I am not yet satisfied. Fancy the very man that Minter has the most reason to dread hearing all this! We shan't want to work any more, Jim. If Minter pulls through, as he probably will, you and I will be in clover."

But Macgregor was getting restless and uneasy. So far their luck had been wonderfully good, so good that it seemed a pity to unduly strain it. The house was very quiet now, with nothing but the soft, liquid tones of the pianola to break the silence. Minter might have been a white-souled, pure-minded artist with nothing to worry about. The weird music stopped at length, and in the stillness that followed the click of a latchkey could be heard.

Somebody came slightly wheezing up the stairs as Price stepped back into the black shadow of the smoking-room.

"Bigglestone!" Price murmured. "All the army has been here to-night. This is the first lieutenant, Jim. We are going to hear something more."

The pianola began again with something dreamy of Beethoven's. Bigglestone struck in without ceremony. "Put that up, sir," he said. "and let's have a light. I've got news for you."

"To the dickens with you and your news!" Minter cried passionately, though he turned from his instrument and switched on the lights again. "Everybody has been here but you, and it's bad all along the line. Have you just come back from Paris?"

"Straight here, sir. And I have had a travelling companion."

"Don't speak in enigmas, but get to the point. Who was it?"

"You will never guess. What do you say to the Countess de Lary?"

A furious oath burst from Minter's lips. He raged up and down the room white and furious. He was in the mood that finds vent in breaking things.

"Plague take the woman!" he said between his teeth. "What on earth does she want here? She used to say that she would never come to England again."

"Well, she is looking after Baron Kinski, who, she says, robbed her of half a million francs in Vienna five years ago. I pointed out the fact that the courts had acquitted the Baron even in his absence, and that he had gone to America to look after the very interests that so concerned her. As you know, Baron Kinski is a man who likes to keep his movements secret."

"Quite right," Minter said with a grin. "I know the rascal well. Funny thing that he should have taken the house next door to me, Bigglestone. If he happens to come to England when the Countess is here there is likely to be a scene or two. Is she as flighty as ever?"

"Worse," said Bigglestone. "More talk and more dye and powder. She's changed the colour of her hair and looks like a girl of eighteen. But she's found something out; I don't know what, but she's found something out. I could see that from the queer look in her eyes."

"Oh, indeed! You must pump her, Bigglestone. Pose also as a victim of the Baron."

"That I did, of course. But, despite her Mighty ways, the old girl is mighty cunning. If she hasn't come to England with some big card to play, I'm much mistaken. No man can guard against everything. If she finds out that you are connected with the Baron—"

"My good Bigglestone, that is impossible."

"It looks so upon the face of it," Bigglestone said thoughtfully. "But you never can tell. There is nothing in the world to equal a good piece of bluff."

"Kinski never had his portrait taken," Minter said suddenly. He did not appear to be following the conversation of his companion at all. "He was always reticent."

"Granted. But there are clever artists who get big prices for the pictures of celebrities. In Vienna Kinski kept to himself, even his clerks hardly knew him by sight. An editor would have paid a large figure for a good sketch. And Manton the caricaturist got one. For once he made no use of his comic powers; he made a faithful likeness, which was reproduced in the Vienna Poste."

Minter nodded thoughtfully. His mind seemed to be very far away.

"That was before Kinski shaved his beard and moustache," he said. "I fancy that nobody in Vienna saw the Baron after he had shaved. I kept a copy of that particular issue of the Poste by me for some time; indeed I only parted with it to-night."

"Indeed," Bigglestone asked, with a startled expression. "To whom?"

"To Ericsson. The man has a sober fit on him and I am making him useful. He has a genius for figures and I am getting him to look at the statistics of those 'silver' shares we had a go at five years ago when we were at a loose end in Europe. The figures were all in the Poste."

"And Ericsson has got the lot, including the one with the picture of the Baron in it?"

"Well, that's so. But that need not concern us."

Bigglestone muttered something that the listeners outside could not catch. Minter brought his fist crashing down on a table and his big hoarse voice rang out passionately.

"I'd forgotten it," he cried, "quite forgotten it. I believe my mind's going, Bigglestone; there is such a tremendous deal to think about. But you can get that paper back. 10th December, '97, wasn't it?"

"Well, that's so. I've got good reason to remember the date. Give me Ericsson's address."

Minter scribbled the desired information on a piece of paper, and Bigglestone rose. For once Minter seemed reluctant to be left alone.

"Where are you of to in such a hurry?" he asked.

"Going to look up Ericsson at once. He won't be gone to bed; he was always the sort that sit up half the night and sleep half the day. There's no time to be lost."

Bigglestone nodded and passed out of the room. There was a sullen thud of the front door and then the house was silent once more.

"The best thing I can do," Minter said, half-aloud, "is to go to bed."


XXVIII. A FOREIGN NEWSPAPER

PRICE grasped the arm of his companion in a vice-like grip and hurried off along the corridor. On the thick Persian carpet their feet made no sound. The portrait of the gentleman by Velasquez swung back on well-oiled hinges without a sound, and the next house was gained again.

"What's the game now?" Macgregor growled. "How you do get on one's nerves to be sure."

"The night's work is nearly finished," Price said, in a deep, hoarse whisper. "And a good night's work it has been. One more little thing to do and we are safe. Bigglestone must not go to Ericsson's quarters yet. He must be prevented by force if necessary."

"Oh, so you think you have found something out, eh?"

"I don't think anything about it, Jim. I've made a discovery that causes my head to swim. But you're not going to know anything about that yet because you are not always discreet. Get a move on you. We have to overtake Bigglestone and keep him quiet for the time."

They were safely out in the fresh air again, not a soul in sight; there was no sound beyond the beat of a heavy footstep down the Lane. Macgregor lit a cigarette and inhaled the smoke with genuine delight. Price dragged him forward impatiently.

"That's right," he said. "Lose the chance of a lifetime for the sake of a cigarette not worth a farthing. I have spotted my man, I know that heavy tread of his. We'll overtake him, and when we get alongside ask him a question. The rest you can leave to me."

"Sounds risky," said Macgregor, whose physical courage was not a strong point. "In the open street I don't think I should dare."

"Dare! I'd dare anything with such a prize in my grasp—murder even. I shall wait my time, have no fear on that score. Come along and talk. You can talk fast enough as a rule. Act the giddy goat coming home from a party so that our man can't suspect."

Macgregor was chatting in a nervous, highly-pitched voice as the pair drew near to Bigglestone. As they were close up Price dropped a little behind. He had no mind to be recognized, seeing that Bigglestone and he were old acquaintances. The remark did not apply to Macgregor.

"Keep it up," Price said hoarsely. "Between the next two lamps. It's safe now."

Bigglestone plodded along without any suspicions whatever. If he did give a passing thought to the couple behind him it was merely to wonder whether they had been dining out or not. Price and his companion parted, one ranging up on either side of the victim. Macgregor slightly brushed against him and begged his pardon in a tone that suggested a more than usually good dinner.

"Don't mention it," Bigglestone said shortly. "I have been like that."

He got no further. From behind Price dealt him a murderous blow under the ear. A few stars danced before the eyes of the victim, he reeled, and fell full length on the pavement snoring aloud. For the moment he was quite knocked out of time.

"You didn't half do that," Macgregor said, with chattering teeth.

"There was a deal of interest to pay off as well as the debt," Price muttered. "That'll do for the present. A policeman will pick him up and take him off in the ambulance under the impression that he is drunk. The police always think that when they find a poor fellow unconscious in the street. By the time Bigglestone is in possession of his senses again I shall have finished my business with Ericsson."

"In the coffee-room," Macgregor said, as the two hurried along. "First door on the right. On the whole I had better not come along, eh?"

Price nodded. He had not the least intention of taking Macgregor with him. He pushed presently into the dingy coffee-room with the odour of stale tobacco and bygone meals. A sleepy waiter made no objection. In that house the lights were never out night or day. Suspicious characters were not suspicious there. The coffee-room was deserted save for Ericsson, who sat smoking a cigarette and making entries from some papers by his side. Price stepped over to him.

"I want a word with you," he said. "There's no getting away from me."

The pen dropped from Ericsson's nerveless hands, his white face quivered like features seen behind blazing spirits. In a feeble kind of way he grasped across the table as if feeling for a glass. But there was no glass there, and the man had to fall hack upon his own fleeting courage.

"What do you want!" he gasped. "The people know me here, and you are a stranger. Any violence—"

Price laughed.

"All right," he said, "you are safe for the present. But for you I should have been a prosperous man by now."

"Oh, no, you wouldn't. You would have gone too far as usual," Ericsson said, with some display of spirit. "I admit I served you a very bad turn, but—"

"But you were under the thumb of our friend Minter. He had to put me away, and you were the tool used for the purpose. But that astute financier did not see quite far enough, and the very man he put in gaol he would have given thousands to see outside and away on the far side of the world. If Minter had known as much as he does now I should never have seen the inside of a prison. I should have been enjoying myself with his money out in Australia."

"What do you mean?" Ericsson asked uneasily.

"Exactly what I say. Do you suppose I don't know why I was rescued from the police and at whose instigation? You can tell Minter I said so. You and he dare not give me away. Why, I could walk into Minter's house and call for a bottle of champagne, and get it too! He would not dare to summon the police. Give him my compliments; tell him he is going to hear of me again. I was going to kill you to-night, but I have found something far better to do."

Ericsson permitted himself to smile. He had been in mortal fear of this man, so fearful that he had not dared to move from his present quarters to Park Lane and back without a cab. And now, for some reason, Price had decided to forego his vengeance. There was a cunning twinkle in Ericsson's eyes that warned Price not to say too much.

"But you're going to do something for me," he said. "You recollect that little matter of the concert we got up for a friend who, alas! is no more. Peace be to his ashes, for he was an engaging scoundrel. I want the list of patrons who took tickets—you can guess why. I know you always keep useful information of that kind. Have you got it?"

"Upstairs in my bedroom," Ericsson replied with an effort to please. "If you don't mind waiting here I shall be glad to get it for you."

Ericsson went away shakily. This second encounter with Price and the easy manner in which the latter had found him out had given him a feeling like a palsy. Positively he must stop at the bar and have a little glass of brandy.

The delay was all in Price's favour. Rapidly he flung over the pile of copies of the Vienna Poste that lay on the table. He had nearly reached the bottom before he came upon the object of his search, a special issue of the paper with a portrait on the first page. It was good work by a good man, and capitally reproduced. Price laid it on the table flat and held his hand over the lower part of the face. His eyes gleamed, he thrilled with exultation from head to foot.

"I'll cut it out," he muttered. "No, on second thoughts it would be wiser to take it wholesale. Never do to arouse suspicion. Hullo, you back already. Thanks for the list. And just you keep out of my way, for I may not always feel as amiable as I do now."

Ericsson promised that he would do so. Evidently he was quite sincere about it. Price strolled into the street, where Macgregor was awaiting him.

"It's all right," he said hoarsely. "Hold on, or I shall shout out the good news. My boy, it's a fortune; you and I are going to be millionaires. Never in the whole course of my life have I dropped upon so sweet and good thing as this!"


XXIX. THE STAR STILL SHINES

THERE are haunts in London for criminals of all classes, and some of them by no means confined to the slums. Like most things, it was a mere matter of money, and Price, being by no means short of cash, and having excellent prospects of more to follow, chose to make himself comfortable. He breakfasted luxuriously in bed, he procured a stock of clothing from the proper quarter, and after a shave and the donning of a pair of gold-rimmed glasses felt himself equal to the task of facing the police under any circumstances.

Alice he would leave alone for the present; she might draw any conclusions she pleased, but she would not be troubled again until she was wanted. Price was in blissful ignorance of the amount of information in his wife's possession.

Neither had he told Macgregor too much. It was enough for the latter to know that they had practically found a gold mine. A confederate would be needed later, but for the present Macgregor was in ignorance of the great discovery. For two days Price smoked and ate and slept, slowly maturing his plans the while.

On the third day there was a message for him that came by tortuous means. Miss Maude Beaumont desired to see him. She was going into the country to-morrow for a few days. She would be alone after dinner, when Price might call. He had better have a parcel of some kind, and invent some ingenious excuse for his visit. Maude left that to him.

There was a ring of command about the letter; it was cold and contemptuous. All the same Price looked forward to his visit. He admired Maude tremendously, her beauty and courage moved him. If only Alice had been her sister!

"I'll go," he told himself. "It's a treat to be in a decent house with a lady again. There are times when I'd give something to have my position once more."

Without quite knowing it Price had fallen a victim to Maude. He was not fully aware how tremendously he admired her. He was a headstrong man, and his passions generally controlled him. His heart beat faster, his pulses thrilled as he stood before Maude again. She was as tranquilly beautiful and coldly contemptuous as ever. He would have sat down, but her glance restrained him.

"You are wondering why I sent for you," Maude said.

Price admitted the fact. Maude toyed thoughtfully with a paper knife, her hands flashing in the light as it caught her rings. She hardly knew how to begin.

"Have you made any fresh discoveries?" she asked. "I told you before that my duty was plain. I ought to hand you over to the police."

It was on the tip of Price's tongue to suggest that family reasons barred the way. He had no idea that Maude was aware how closely he was connected with Alice; perhaps some day a disclosure of the fact might prove useful. But for the present he wanted money, a little more than he possessed. Money was always a useful thing to have.

"What discovery do you mean?" he fenced.

"Oh, there need be no disguise between us. I want to know why Mr. Minter desired to have you out of his way, and why Mr. Clifford Desborough shielded you. I may have my opinion."

"Why not ask Mr. Desborough yourself?" Price suggested impudently.

"I should advise you not to speak like that to me again," Maude said coldly. There was not the slightest suspicion of colour on her cheeks. "I desire to discover these things for myself. They are worth a very high figure to me—and you."

"With something down on account!" Price suggested.

"Certainly. I was prepared for you to make that request. I want to know everything. Here are a hundred pounds for you and more to follow. Find out what I want, and I'll pay you £1,000. It is a disgraceful thing to do, but I am prepared to do it."

Price's eyes glistened as he stowed away the clinking, glittering sovereigns. It was a pleasure to do business with a girl like this. Most of them would have paid in bank-notes, which are somewhat difficult to dispose of when a gentleman is temporarily under a cloud, and moreover notes can be traced. But the sovereign pays its own way and calls for no questions.

"I would do anything for you," the ex-convict said fervently. It was evident that he spoke sincerely. "I'll find it all out, never fear; don't you see that I am doing your work and mine at the same time? Desborough—"

"Say Mr. Desborough. It sounds better and hurts my self-respect less."

"Very good—Mr. Desborough. Well, he's under Minter's thumb. Very late the night before last those two had an interview at which I was fortunate enough to be present. They were not aware of the fact, but let that pass. There are wheels within wheels, you know."

"Oh, I know," Maude said impatiently. "I don't seek to pry into your disgraceful secrets. I don't doubt for a moment that you are doing two things at the same time."

"I am that." Price's face darkened for a moment and his eyes gleamed. "I've got to be revenged. I'm going to take my revenge and crown it with gold. But that's not the point. The point is that Mr. Minter has got Mr. Desborough under his thumb in some way and threatens to ruin him unless he more or less sells his clients over the Certified Company's case."

Maude nodded with her lips pressed tightly together. She had expected something of the kind, but not quite so bad.

"Can you give me any more details?" she asked.

"Not much at present, I am bound to confess," Price replied. "Minter—well, Mr. Minter—has bought up Mr. Desborough's debts and can make him bankrupt to-morrow, as far as I could gather. But surely, Miss Beaumont, if you with your money—"

Price stopped discreetly, seeing that he was going too far. The same point had occurred to Maude at the same time, and the blood flamed into her cheeks.

"Mr. Desborough is not the kind of man to ask the favour," she said carelessly.

Nevertheless the suggestion thrilled her. She might buy Desborough off, she might release him from Minter's clutches as the price of her freedom. But this she could not discuss with Price. She had shame enough as it was in the knowledge that the ex-convict was her confederate. Still all is fair in love and war. Desborough had forced her into a hateful engagement, and if she could get out of it without her mother suffering she felt that she need have no scruples.

"Was the discussion over certain questions to be put to a witness?" she asked.

"You have guessed it," Price said admiringly. "I am one of the witnesses, and a most important one. Minter has more or less spoilt his game. If he had let me appear when the iron was hot and those debts were hanging over Mr. Desborough's head, the latter would have done what was required of him."

Maude was inclined to agree with the speaker, but she was loath to confess it.

"You seem to have a poor opinion of human nature," she said.

"Well, yes, I've good reason to. Mr. Desborough would have yielded, and so would any one, or at least nearly every one under circumstances like that. If you like—"

But Maude had risen as an indication that the interview was finished. She wanted to be alone now, to think out the plan that Price had suggested.

"That is all for the present," she said. "On the whole I am getting value for my money. To-morrow I go to Marvyn Chase for a few days, where you can write to me if you have anything fresh."

Price went off downstairs a little more infatuated with Maude than ever. It was unfortunate, perhaps, that she failed to understand her power. But she had other things to occupy her mind at present—the prospect of freedom.

"Dare I tell him what I know?" she asked herself. "Dare I open his eyes and make a question of money of it? He could have half my fortune, nay, he could have the lot of it, if he would pass his word to keep silence and leave me to my dear old Kit."


XXX. GUESTS AT THE CHASE

MAUDE turned her back upon London next morning with no feeling of regret. She had just had a letter from Alice, in which the latter said that she had not seen her husband since the night of the burglary fiasco, and that she hoped this condition of things was likely to last. It was raining too, and even the West End of London does not delight the heart when it is wet.

With her maid Maude travelled down to Marvyn Chase. There was to be a brilliant Saturday to Monday gathering there and Maude had come down to luncheon at Lady Mary's special request. Most people spoke of Lady Mary Minter as a fool who had married Minter for his money at the command of her mother the Duchess, and for the most part they were right. But though she was generally a mere cypher in the house, Lady Mary had her family pride and there were limits beyond which even Minter dared not go. None of his choice spirits ever entered the house. If they did, it would mean Lady Mary instantly leaving it. And Minter could not afford a scandal just now.

The great house seemed strangely silent as Maude entered the hall. A big fire flickered cheerfully on the pictures and statuary, but there was no sign of a visitor anywhere. Usually Lady Mary came forward to greet her own favoured guests.

But her woman appeared in Maude's bedroom instead. Lady Mary had unfortunately been called away. The Duchess her mother was lunching at Castleton Towers, and had desired to see Lady Mary. She would be back to tea at the very latest.

Maude dismissed the woman cheerfully. She did not in the least mind. She would lunch alone, and if the rain still kept on she would make a tour in the house in the afternoon. The place was worth more than a casual inspection. Maude came down into the hall presently and turned over the leaves of a book, waiting for the luncheon-gong to sound.

A door opened somewhere, there was a rush of cool air and the sound of high-pitched voices. They were not such well-bred voices as they might have been, but they sounded easy and as if the speakers were thoroughly at home. But they were not Lady Mary's class, Maude told herself. Surely she of all women had not released the rigid rule of the house and opened the front door to that horrid "smart" set!

But they must be visitors clearly enough, for there came the raucous sound of Minter's voice, a voice that seemed none too steady to Maude. The ripple of laughter came nearer.

"Oh, I am all right now," a voice said. "The mackintoshes were a great success. Say, Nobby, this is a sight better than being on the Thames in a launch."

Maude began to understand. These were some friends of Minter with whom he had been intending to spend a day on the river. The wet had stopped that and the master of Marvyn Chase had brought them to lunch. They were probably theatrical, for Minter's tastes lay in that direction, but it was pretty certain that they would not be here if Lady Mary had been home to luncheon. Maude smiled to herself as she pictured the face of her host when he caught sight of her.

"Come along," he was saying. The flicker of the log fire touched his red face and watery eyes. Maude was a little disgusted and a little surprised. It was not strictly true to say that Graham Minter was intoxicated, but he had had a great deal too much champagne.

"Come along, girls," he said unsteadily. "When the cat's away, you know. Lunch will be ready in a few minutes, and I've ordered up sortie of that '94 you like so much. Sit down and—hullo!"

Minter pulled up and stared at Maude uncomfortably. For once in his life he had the grace to feel thoroughly ashamed of himself. The two highly-coloured, yellow-haired girls exchanged glances and smiled.

"I, didn't know anybody was here," Minter stammered.

"I came by special request," Maude said. "I find Lady Mary has been compelled to go out to luncheon. But I am between your friends and the fire."

Minter muttered something. In a clumsy way he introduced his other guests. He boggled over their names as he performed the ceremony, and exchanged a wink with them that Maude failed to see. They were not low-looking women, she thought, despite the horrible way they made up and the boldness of their manners. The elder one, whom Maude was told was Miss Sefton, she deemed pretty and amiable, save for a certain hardness of the eye and greedy cut of the mouth. They were both uneasily familiar, as if conscious that they were out of place here, and desirous of emphasizing the fact that they were as good as anybody else.

"We are going to have a quick lunch, and catch the 4.15 to town," Minter said. He spoke thickly, and he was none too steady on his feet. For the thousandth time Maude caught herself wondering why Lady Mary had ever married such a man. "If it hadn't been for the rain we should have stayed on the river."

There was a note of apology in the speech that was meant for Maude's ears alone. Minter was asking her to pardon the little indiscretion, and say nothing about it to Lady Mary. After all it would perhaps be as well to do so; no doubt the girls were honest enough in their way, and under the circumstances it had been more or less impossible to dispense with the hospitality.

But the tall woman called Sefton laughingly refused to be accounted for in this way.

"Not a bit of it," she said. "None of that, old boy. It was part of the programme—the part that we looked forward to most. I'm not a Sunday school little girl taken into the vicarage for a treat."

The other laughed, and both finished their champagne with relish. Maude felt a little more chilly and reserved. These visitors were drinking more wine than good taste or good manners called for, and as the lunch progressed their familiarity with Minter increased. Maude felt sincerely sorry that she had come, but she would have to go through with it now. The talk grew theatrical presently and less personal.

"What theatre are you at?" Maude asked the tall woman.

"One and another," she said. "I'm so popular that one theatre is not enough for me. And a good thing too, for money slips through my hands like water."

"She is at the halls," the other girl said. "She's got her portrait in this week's Lorgnette."

Maude bowed, but she did not quite understand. The rain had cleared off now, and the sun was shining again. Perhaps these strange women with their free speech and easy manners would leave the Chase. Maude wished that they did not take quite so much wine, for their faces were growing red and their eyes glistened. She had met many members of the profession before, but they did not act like these women.

Lunch came to an end at length, almost as much to Minter's relief as Maude's. The sun was shining brilliantly now, a high-stepping dog-cart came up to the hall door.

"There's the cart," Minter stammered. "Come along, girls. I'll drive you to Reading, and there will be just time to get tea there."

Maude muttered something politely. She was not quite sure whether she had enjoyed her new companions or not, but she was certain of the fact that the departure of the unaccustomed guests would be a relief to her. The tall woman nodded in a careless fashion, and marched into the hall. Presently they had gone with as little ceremony as they had come.

"Mum's the word," Minter whispered to Maude as he followed to the door. "They're not bad girls; not your form, of course, but they'll pass—especially Miss Sefton. All the same, I'd rather you said nothing to Lady Mary. If it hadn't come on to rain, you see."

"Your little secret is safe with me," Maude said.

The dog-cart drove away, and Maude returned to the hall. She turned over a pile of papers, coming presently to the Lorgnette. Miss Sefton's portrait was in here she had been told. With languid curiosity Maude fluttered over the highly-glazed pages.

Yes, here she was, right enough; tall and fair and saucy, with a big hat perched on her yellow curls. Maude would have recognized her anywhere. Then she looked at the letterpress—

"The latest photograph of Amy Rayne, at the Cornus, etc."

"That woman," Maude gasped. "That infamous creature here! And he dared to introduce her to me!"


XXXI. AN OUTRAGE

THE hot blood rushed to Maude's cheeks. She quivered and tingled under the insult that Minter had put upon her. He had done it deliberately, and with his tongue in his cheek, so to speak. No doubt he had been drinking, but he knew quite well what he was about when he had brought those two women to lunch at Marvyn Chase.

Minter might have urged in excuse that he had not expected to find his wife or any of her guests present so early in the day. But even that did not palliate the bitter insult that he had put upon Maude. Anything vulgar connected with the stage she might have tolerated and made light of, but Amy Rayne was a different matter.

Nobody knew this better than Minter. Once the mischief was done it would have been easy to give Maude a hint to the effect that the visitors would be more comfortable without her society, and she would have understood at once.

But Minter had gone further than this. In his cunning way he had wilfully deceived his wife's guest and passed an infamous woman off as Miss Sefton. All lunch time the trio were making quiet fun of her. The mere thought of it sent the blood tingling to Maude's face. She had actually sat and lunched with that infamous creature, a woman whose past was repulsive and whose present was unspeakable.

Under ordinary circumstances Maude would never have found this out. But by sheer accident she had been fluttering over the leaves of the Lorgnette, and here were the bold features of Amy Rayne smiling mockingly in her face.

"I shall not let it pass," Maude said, shutting her little white teeth together. "Lady Mary shall know what is going on in her absence. When I tell her this, Marvyn Chase will want a new mistress. She will never remain here."

Lady Mary Minter was by no means strong-minded, but she came from a high, proud family, and nobody entered her house whose name was tainted with suspicion. For some strange reason she had become the wife of Graham Minter; she was afraid of him, but once touch her pride of race and she would have broken with her husband to-morrow.

On the whole it would be best perhaps; such a course would save her much trouble in the future. Lady Mary should know of this outrage. Maude was calmer now, but the red spot still burnt on her cheek as she carefully put the tell-tale Lorgnette away for future reference. She would tell Lady Mary everything after dinner, she would leave Marvyn Chase to-morrow and never enter it again. Then Maude became aware that somebody was in the hall.

She looked up to see Kit Clive standing before her. Pleasure and surprise were on his face.

"I did not expect this," he said. "Are you quite alone here?"

Maude explained how it had all come about. A big footman brought in the tea and noiselessly vanished. Kit drew his chair up to the table.

"I came down here to finish some work," he said. "Saturday is more or less of a holiday in the City, you know. Under ordinary circumstances I should be playing golf. But I am finishing up my affairs with Minter, and I am anxious to get everything settled. Maude, what is the matter?"

"I have had an unpleasant surprise," Maude said hurriedly. She felt too ashamed to tell Kit what was the cause of her annoyance. "It is nothing. Are you staying here?"

"For the next day or two, yes. I am afraid that I am here to play the detective. I'm going to get to the bottom of this business, Maude. Of course I ought not to be here."

"I suppose not," Maude said, with a watery little smile. "Oh, Kit, why did I have that money left me? Why was I not poor?"

Kit stared at her moodily. He tried to be cheerful in Maude's presence, but it was hard work at times. There was a grey shadow on his face now. Maude touched his arm gently.

"Don't," she whispered, "don't look at me like that. I am not worth it, Kit."

"Yes you are, darling. We love one another, and that makes all the difference."

"I suppose it does. My whole heart and soul are yours, Kit; my heart cries out for you. I shall never be happy without you. I shall never care for any one else. Couldn't I buy him off? Would he not spare me if I gave him all the money?"

"You are talking of that scoundrel Desborough?" Kit asked in a low voice.

"I am talking at random," Maude said, with a start. "If I could only tell you my secret! Still, there is always hope so long as the fetters are not forged. If I can only get free, if I can only see a way out without injuring others!"

"You would do it if you had the chance, Maude!"

"Would I not, Kit? No, no, you must not kiss me again. There are some people coming."

There was a tramp of feet, a murmur of conversation and light laughter. Two or three women came forward, followed by a brace of footmen with more tea. Clifford Desborough loomed large behind the pretty women in their elaborate tea-gowns.

"Quite a pretty picture," one of the guests laughed. "So this is why you had to come down here so early, Mr. Clive? Pressing business, eh?"

"I have not been here half an hour," Clive said.

"Ah, well, much mischief can be done in half an hour," the second visitor drawled. "Lady Mary has just come back. Mr. Minter came down in the same train with a lot of men, only they preferred a smoker to our society. Please may I have some tea."

The spell was broken now, and Maude a self-contained woman of the world again. Desborough pushed to her side with an air of proprietorship that caused Kit's fingers to tingle, but not by so much as a quiver of an eyelash did Maude betray her feelings. There was a murmur of more voices, Minter's high above the rest, hoarse and commanding.

"Nothing of the sort for me," he was saying. "My time is far too valuable. A great mistake if you think you did, dear boy. I've been in the City all the afternoon."

No doubt the man had his own reasons for telling this lie, Maude thought with a little feeling of disgust. As Minter came in his eyes met Maude's and he winked as if to seal the understanding between them. Under ordinary circumstances it might have been allowed to pass; Maude would have simply found it discreet to say nothing of the luncheon-party.

But not now, she was not going to spare the man. He had humbled and humiliated her, he had insulted her in the most flagrant fashion, and he was going to pay for it. Minter was perfectly sober now, and dominating every one about him in his characteristic fashion. Maude waited her time. She would say something presently that would bring the millionaire down from his high estate. He came up presently to Maude's table with what he imagined to be an engaging smile.

"Lady Mary's not here yet," he said. "She is engaged with some aristocratic pauper retainer of hers in the housekeeper's room. How have you been killing time?"

"I have been looking over the week's illustrated papers," Maude said very slowly and in a clear voice that warned Minter of coming trouble. "I found them very interesting. But the most interesting of the week's periodicals to my mind is the Lorgnette."

Minter flushed and looked a little uncomfortable.

"Mostly actresses, isn't it?" he asked.

"Yes—and other class of people. I suppose some people like that kind of thing. For instance, on the front page of the Lorgnette is a portrait of Amy Rayne. I wish I had seen that paper before lunch instead of after."

With the greatest difficulty Minter swallowed an oath. He had been found out, and he could read no mercy in Maude's clear, cold eyes. His coarse face grew red, the veins stood out on his forehead, he said something, but even Maude could not hear.


XXXII. STRATEGY

STILL Minter lingered about Maude's table. Lady Mary would be here presently and he must try to square matters before then. Kit Clive he could get rid of, but Desborough was a different matter. He would get his friend Lady Haredale to help him. Presently Lady Haredale signalled Desborough gaily to her side and Minter had his opportunity.

"I suppose it is a case of a diamond bracelet," he said hoarsely.

Maude smiled. This man's creed was that money could do everything. After the way he had insulted her he was coolly proposing to heal the wound with a present.

"You have not quite learnt the methods of good Society," she said. "If I happened to be a barmaid whom you had injured, why, perhaps—but the idea that I should take anything from your hands is ridiculous. Nor will I dwell upon the outrageous way you behaved to your wife's guest. You thought I should not find you out, and in the ordinary way you were right. But for once fortune has played you a pretty trick. I am going to tell Lady Mary."

"There is bound to be trouble if you do."

"Certainly. Lady Mary would leave the house in the morning never to return. She is weak, and in some strange way she cares for you. But once you touch her pride and the pride of her family she can be as hard as a diamond. And the Duke and Duchess would uphold her."

Minter's thick brows were knitted together. He knew resolution when he saw it and resolution was here. Nothing was going to stay Maude's hand now.

"If I had known that you were here," he began weakly.

"That makes no difference. You outrage your wife and you outrage decency by bringing that creature here. And you could easily have spared me the humiliation of sitting at the same table. You have brought your punishment upon yourself."

Minter could have taken the speaker by the white throat and choked the life out of her frail body. The situation was desperate. The millionaire's week-end parties usually had a flavour of business about them and this one was very important. A north country magnate was coming in time for dinner, an austere man with an equally austere wife, a philanthropist from whom Minter had hoped to gain much. If there was anything like scandal the light of the great man's countenance would be withdrawn with disastrous results.

"I must have this out with you," Minter said hoarsely, "but not before this mob of chattering jays. What pleasure my wife can see in their company beats me. We don't dine till half-past eight, so there will be plenty of time. Meet me in the billiard-room at seven."

"There is not the slightest good in that," Maude said. "My mind is made up."

"Meet me there at seven," Minter went on doggedly. "I suppose you can change your mind like other people?"

Maude shook her head resolutely as Minter turned away. He must be by himself a little while or he would break out before all these people. As he left the hall Desborough followed. Maude watched them with an outward air of indifference that she carried off very well. She would have given much to have followed them and listened to their conversation. Kit came back again.

"You seem to have upset Minter," he said. "I never saw the man so utterly beaten before. It may be my powerful imagination, but it seemed to me that he blushed."

"I fancy he did," Maude smiled. "Let us go and walk up and down the terrace."

Kit assented eagerly enough. He wanted nothing better than to be by Maude's side. The little comedy between the girl and Minter still puzzled him.

"What was it?" he urged. "And why does he shy so at the mention of the Lorgnette? Unless I am greatly mistaken he offered you a diamond bracelet?"

"Your ears are too long, Kit," Maude laughed. "But it was something like that. All the same I'll tell you nothing till I've seen Lady Mary."

Kit looked thoughtfully across the garden.

"I wouldn't press that man too far if I were you," he said. "He has a vast deal of power to do you good or harm. From a diplomatic point of view it would be better to make a friend of him. Unless I am greatly mistaken he knows all about you and Desborough. I mean the way in which the engagement has been brought about. Minter is a very clever man and he has a pretty tight grip upon Desborough. He might provide you with a weapon with which you could cut your way to happiness."

Maude fairly gasped. She had not thought of this before. Doubtless Minter had a strong grip upon Desborough, but it was not stronger than her grip upon Minter. But once she told Lady Mary the weapon would be like the sting to the bee, useless for the future. And yet Lady Mary ought to know, it was dishonourable not to tell her.

"Would it hurt our host if he had a quarrel with his wife?" she asked. "I mean would it make any great difference if Lady Mary left him?"

"Well, yes, just at present it would," Kit explained. "Minter is a little shaky; he has been hand and glove with a very speculative lot. His cue now is to be seen with more solid people, he is trying to bring about a big syndicate up North. He is coming in contact with men whose names in the North are as good as the Bank of England. For the most part they are straight-laced and very respectable. If there was any scandal they would drop Minter like a hot coal. Murdock, who is coming here to-night, for instance, with his wife."

Maude nodded, she quite understood what Kit meant.

"I'm going to tell you something," she said. "Mr. Minter was here to luncheon. He brought two actresses with him as the day was wet and the river excursion a failure. One of them he called Sefton. Of course they were quite impossible creatures, but I put up with that. When they were gone I took up the Lorgnette and there was the portrait of one of them. But in the portrait I refer to she was not called Miss Sefton."

"You don't mean to say," Clive burst out—"you don't mean to say that—"

"Indeed I do, Kit. It was the infamous Amy Rayne. I have lunched with that woman, I have made myself agreeable, I have shaken hands with her. This very day in this very house. Mr. Minter thought I should not find out, but you see I did. This is why he looked so uncomfortable when I mentioned the Lorgnette at teatime. Now what is my obvious duty?"

"Your obvious duty is to tell Lady Mary and leave the house," Kit said. "I didn't think that Minter was quite such an utter blackguard. And yet, Maude, and yet—"

"Go on, dearest. I know perfectly well what you are going to say."

"You have yourself to consider. A powerful weapon has been placed in your hands. Lots of people I know whose code of honour is pretty high would conceal this on diplomatic grounds. If you do so you may save your happiness and mine yet. You may be free, you and I together."

He turned and smiled into Maude's face. They were at an angle of the terrace where nobody would see them. Maude's pretty face was uplifted, and Kit kissed her.

"My darling!" he whispered, "the temptation is very fierce, but I am not going to press you one way or the other. All I say is sleep on it, say nothing to Lady Mary to-night. And hear fully what Minter has to say. He has done an unpardonable thing, but you must do him the justice to admit that it would never have been done had he known that you were in the house."

"My blood tingles at the very thought of it," Maude said.

"So does mine, Under normal circumstances I'd have Minter out here and thrash him till my arm ached. But we can't very well take that course. I dare not advise you."

Maude plucked a rose and slowly pulled the blazing, flaming petals away one by one. She was half ashamed of her thoughts, pulled this way and that by contrary impulses.

"I'll do as you suggest," she said at length. "It can do no harm to delay for a time. And I shall meet Mr. Minter in the billiard room as he desired."


XXXIII. A STRONG APPEAL

THERE was not much likelihood of Maude and Minter being disturbed in the billiard room. Marvyn Chase was a fashionable house, and nobody dreamt of playing anything between tea and dinner but bridge. It was in the height of the craze, and none seemed to have a mind for anything else.

It would have been hard to say exactly what Maude expected to gain from the interview. True, she had a hold upon Minter which was considerably strengthened by the information that had come to her from Kit Clive. At the present moment Minter would have paid a handsome price to avoid a scandal. Might the price be Maude's freedom?

"I wish I understood these things," Maude sighed to herself. "I wish I knew all about business. I suppose clever people would make a bargain here. It sounds hateful, and yet my future and my happiness more or less depend upon this man."

The billiard room was empty when she reached there. Nothing less than an earthquake would have moved the rest of the party from their beloved bridge. Minter looked in furtively, as if half expecting to be disappointed; there was a queer smile on his face as he saw Maude.

"I fancied you would come," he said. "Now let's put it all right. What have you got to say?"

Minter spoke in his hardest and most truculent manner. It was a style that seldom failed. But for once Maude was not impressed. She had the whip hand of the man and she meant to use her power. A cold little smile flickered over her face.

"I have nothing to say," she replied. "I have already expressed my opinion of your conduct."

"Well, yes. On the whole I admit it was a caddish thing to do."

"Naturally, or you would not have done it, Mr. Minter." A little colour crept into the millionaire's cheeks. It began to dawn upon him that he had a clever woman to deal with. If he could only anger her something might be gained. But Maude would not move from behind that cold reserve of hers.

"What is it you really do want?" Minter asked sullenly.

"To tell you the honest truth, I don't know," Maude admitted, "but I am prepared under certain conditions to make a compact with you."

"Oh!" Minter cried. His red little eyes glistened When it came to matters of that kind he generally got the better of his opponent. The joy of battle was in him now. For the moment he had almost persuaded himself that Maude was beyond corruption.

"What do you mean by that remark?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing. But everybody has his price, you know. Come, you want something. I can see that in your face. Are you prepared to let me down easy in return? At any rate, it can't be a matter of money."

"I know perfectly well that I should not get it if I asked," Maude said.

"Meaning that I haven't got it?" Minter sneered.

"Precisely," Maude said coolly. "At the present moment you would be extremely averse to parting with a large sum—in fact it would be impossible."

For once in his life Minter was fairly and squarely beaten. All his swagger left him; he could only regard Maude with anxious eyes and a haggard expression of face. He had deemed his secret absolutely safe from all prying eyes, and here was this girl absolutely ignorant of business, yet knew everything.

"You are hovering on the brink of ruin," Maude said. "You hope to retrieve your position by getting Mr. Murdock to back your new schemes; you are desperately anxious to float something that you can turn into cash. If I say one word to Lady Mary, those schemes go to the winds. Mr. Murdock would shake the dust of the place from his feet; he would ignore you for the future."

"Go on," he gasped, "is there anything else?"

"Well, I might just as well finish while I am about it," Maude went on. "You have still a fair chance of pulling round, especially if you could get that Certified Company case settled in your favour; in fact if you did so you are absolutely safe. If it goes against you nothing in the world can prevent your ruin. Correct me if I am wrong."

"The game is with you," Minter growled. "Proceed."

"So you had to guard against consequences. You spirited Price out of the way so that he should not be asked certain questions. That was not clever of you, because until Price can be found the case must remain in abeyance. Do you know where Price is?"

"I know nothing whatever about him," Minter said. The interview was not going as he had anticipated. "Perhaps you can enlighten the authorities on that point."

Maude smiled. A brilliant inspiration had come to her.

"As it happens I know everything," she said. "I have only to hold up my hand, and Price surrenders at discretion and gives his evidence. I can make him speak the truth. I have merely to say the word, and the Certified Company collapses like a balloon and Graham Minter goes along with it. You may bribe my future husband, but you don't bribe me!"

Amazement, admiration, wonder possessed Minter in turn.

"What on earth is it you want?" he asked.

"Your power over Clifford Desborough. You hold all those papers of his—bills I fancy you call them in your City jargon. You could ruin him if you liked. Did you adopt this course so that you might prevent Mr. Desborough from doing his duty to his client?"

Minter nodded sulkily. He had been beaten all along the line. The girl seemed to know everything.

"Tell me more," he said hoarsely, "tell me everything!"

"No, no," Maude cried. "Knowledge is power. I am going to fight you, sir."

Maude said no more, for there were footsteps in the corridor outside. Minter jumped to the slate over the marker and hastily scribbled his name and that of Maude upon the board in chalk, and placed a fictitious score against each.

"Sorry there is no time to finish," he said in a loud voice; "perhaps after dinner. I have chalked up the figures, and you are in hand after potting my ball. Hullo!"

He winked knowingly at Maude, who was a little amused at this seeming unnecessary diplomacy.

"You have gone too far," she said. "Neither of us could have made half those points in the time we have been here. But then I have no diplomacy. It's Mr. Harvey Denton."

Denton came in cigarette in hand.

"I beg your pardon," he said, "I have just arrived. They are all so busy at bridge that I fancied a quiet ruminative smoke here."


XXXIV. INSTINCT, OR WHAT?

WELL, so far it had been anything but a drawn battle, Maude told herself as she dressed for dinner. She would have to see Minter again later on. She had shaken the man and rendered him uneasy. And Maude was playing for her future happiness. Despite the fact that she had passed her word, she felt that she could not possibly marry Desborough. Her whole soul recoiled from the contract.

But all these terribly trying emotions found no expression on Maude's face as she went in to dinner. She looked gay and handsome enough as she sat by Kit's side. They might have been two casual acquaintances getting on famously together. That their hearts were aching under the strain of a great tragedy would never have been guessed by the spectators.

"They tell me Desborough's appointment to the Home Office is only a matter of time now," Kit said, "and yet he does not look like a happy man."

Desborough was glaring across the table between the banks of orchids and feathery ferns. Maude smiled recklessly; she felt in an audacious mood just now.

"The cares of office are beginning to press on his brow," she said. "All the same, he has no right to glare at me like that. What a strange situation it is, Kit! Were any two people ever placed like that? You ought to be scowling over there and Clifford Desborough smiling here."

"I couldn't scowl at you, darling," Kit whispered, "and it's all coming right. You shall never marry that fellow so long as your heart is mine."

Maude sighed gently as she toyed with a peach. Perhaps it was all coming out right; indeed, she had far stronger hopes since her interview with Graham Minter.

Her pleasant thoughts were cut short by Lady Mary rising and moving towards the door. Maude lingered in the hall with a feeling that she wanted to be alone for a time. There were a great many fine pictures there, and she had a passionate love of art. Then her pleasant thoughts fled as she saw Desborough standing by her side.

"Come out of doors," he said, "I want to speak to you."

It was a hard command rather than a request. But Maude made no protest. She caught up a wrap and flung it round her white shoulders. In a sulky kind of way Desborough proffered his arm, but Maude chose to ignore it altogether. "You are too much with Clive," Desborough said, going to the root of the matter. "I can't have it!"

"Indeed!" Maude said coldly. "Until you are my lord—and master—I shall go my own way. You see I am very fond of Kit—indeed, I love him. Nothing could after that fact—not even my calling myself Mrs. Clifford Desborough."

"It is unwise to throw that in my teeth. If you hate me so much—"

"I don't hate you at all. From the bottom of my heart I pity you!"

"Pity me! I am an envied man. For the life of me I can't see where the pity comes in!"

"It is because you are such a pitiful scoundrel. I watched you to-night at dinner. I felt like standing up and telling everybody the truth. Fancy if I had! It would be death to your ambition. You would be generally shunned, you would have to take your name off your clubs. I doubt if you would ever see a brief again. Oh, pitiful, pitiful scoundrel!"

Maude spoke sternly and with a deep ring in her voice. Her face was turned upwards, she seemed to be addressing her speech to the silent stars. She could not see the shamed red on Desborough's face.

"I was happy until you came," Maude went on, "was happy in the love of a good man. Then you made a shameful use of a family secret. You did that because you were poor and in debt. You wanted to get free from Minter and those bills of yours he had bought."

"What do you know about that?" Desborough cried hoarsely.

"Everything. To save the situation you would actually have sold your brief and—"

"It's a lie! I defied Minter to do his worst over that—"

"It is true!" Maude cried. "You may have defied Minter and made a show of doing so, but you are going to let him have his own way in the end. If not, why did you shield Price—why did you not give him over to the police the night that he visited your chambers?"

Desborough was silent, too astonished for words. He could not deny this; he had temporized and allowed Price to go, when all the time his duty lay clear as crystal before him. And Maude seemed to know everything. Small wonder, then, that he seemed a poor creature in her eyes.

"You can atone," Maude went on. "Defy Minter, let Price be forthcoming—"

"Price has utterly vanished, so far as I am concerned."

"But not so far as I am concerned. He can be produced. Let him come and give his evidence. If I say the word, he will appear without delay. Then do your duty. And when Minter wreaks his vengeance upon you, come to me and I will find the money. Is that not plain?"

"And the price I am to pay for this?"

Maude laughed scornfully. Really the man's effrontery was amazing.

"Who are you to talk about price?" she said. "Am I not saving your honour and your political reputation? Am I not bringing the derelict into smooth water again? At a cost of ten thousand pounds for the sake of a man whose soul, is not worth so many pence!"

"Does it not occur to you that I have a heart?" he said.

"Well, really, so remote a contingency had not occurred to me," Maude said. "If you have done me the honour—"

"To fall in love with you? Well, the unexpected has happened, as it generally does."

"Go away and think over my offer," Maude said. "I have put up with a great deal, but the idea of you making love to me—well! I want to be alone."

She turned away and walked to the far end of the terrace.

What was that? Something that sounded like a cry of alarm, followed by the deep bay of a hound. Presently the moving animal came closer, and Maude rubbed her eyes. She passed swiftly down the steps and into the park. Her heart was beating fast, but she was not afraid. She gave a peculiarly long whistle.

The great dog stopped, and threw up his head and howled.

"Gambit!" Maude cried. "Gambit! come here, sir! What does this mean, and why are you this long way from home?"


XXXV. THE DOG AGAIN

THE big dog took no heed of Maude's call. She could see the great lithe body swaying noiselessly over the grass, head down, and going up and down like a setter in a field of turnips. The motion was not particularly fast, but seemed slightly puzzled and hesitating. Presently the dog threw up his head and gave a short whine.

Maude began to have her doubts. Gambit was a well-trained dog, and never before had his mistress known him to disregard her lightest wish. Possibly she had made a mistake after all. Minter was fond of dogs and his kennel was a large one. He might have a score of bloodhounds for all Maude knew to the contrary.

"All the same, I'm going to see," she told herself. "The likeness to Gambit is amazing."

Heedless of the heavy falling dew and her thin satin slippers, Maude passed across the little fancy bridge leading to the park. If the dog did not turn out to be Gambit she might find herself in a considerable personal danger. But she did not let her mind dwell on that. If, on the other hand, the dog was Gambit, then there was some mystery here that she was going to solve once and for all.

She was close to the hound by this time; he passed her in his eager search. There was no longer any question about it—here was Gambit to a certainty. The slope of the shoulders, the ragged white patch on the breast proved the fact.

"Come here, sir!" Maude commanded sternly. "Come here at once!"

Gambit pulled up and shivered. He seemed glad enough to see Maude, but at the same time was asking his mistress quite plainly not to interfere with his search. But Maude laid a detaining hand on his collar, and with a whine he surrendered to the inevitable.

"Not another yard do you stir, sir!" Maude said firmly.

"Thank God for that!" a faint voice came from the darkness close by. "Beg pardon, miss, but there's no call to be frightened. I'm standing in a pool of water so as to destroy the scent. If I hadn't found it, that dog would have killed me."

With Gambit so close Maude had no fear. Evidently she had found a burglar or something of that kind. But the man's voice seemed fresh and candid, albeit a little tinged with fear.

"Come out and explain yourself," Maude said! "you are safe now."

A dark figure emerged from the pool where the deer came to drink. With some little surprise Maude saw that he was dressed as a policeman.

"You were going your rounds?" she asked.

"No, miss, I am a London constable. I had just gone off duty, and was on my way home when I made a discovery. I saw a man who was wanted. Only he had a bicycle. So I got a cycle, too, and he spotted me. It was a pretty stiff chase, but I thought I had run my man down. I was dodging him for over an hour. Then the dog turned up. I believe he was hunting my man, only I crossed the trail and the brute began to hunt me. If you will keep your dog quiet till I can reach my machine I'll be greatly obliged, miss."

"And the man you are after?"

"Well, he's pretty sure to be miles off by this time. Good-night, and thank you kindly."

The luckless officer hurried off in the direction of the lodge. The matter was more or less serious, and Gambit's extraordinary conduct still unexplained, but Maude could not repress a smile.

"Now who did you follow in the first place?" she asked. "Certainly not the policeman. And you did not come down here to give me a surprise visit, or you would have behaved differently."

The spines on Gambit's back stiffened and he growled.

"For God's sake go back!" a hoarse voice whispered.

"Get into the brook again! That infernal dog hasn't gone. I'd give something for a revolver!"

"Mr. Price," Maude said quietly, "you can come on without being afraid. As to your companion, he had perhaps better stay where he is. I want a word with you."

Price was understood to say something that sounded grateful. He was wet to the knees, he shivered with cold and his whole aspect was one of sullen discontent.

"Seems like a providence," he said. "I came down to see you, Miss Beaumont. I was just a little bit too audacious perhaps, but I got myself spotted. I was on my bike and I moved off pretty sharp for a street or two. And then presently I was awake to the fact that I was being followed on another machine by the man who had spotted me. I might as well come this way as any other, and here I am. If you have seen anything of the police—"

"I have," Maude said curtly. "But they have gone on—at least, the one man has. He was being hunted by the dog. When I got here he was standing in the pool where the deer drink."

Price laughed aloud. The humour of the situation appealed to him.

"Fancy that!" he exclaimed. "Mr. Bobby must have crossed my trail and drawn the dog on him. Your hound has not been properly trained to this kind of thing, so he has merely followed his instincts."

"How did your companion get here?" Maude asked.

"He came down by train. Business in the neighbourhood not connected with your matters. He promised to meet me here, knowing that I must see you."

"What necessity is there for you to see me?"

"My dear young lady, a mere desire for money. London is getting warm for me. I must make fresh woods and pastures for a time. I invented an excuse to call for you, and when I came out the dog was airing himself on the pavement. Doubtless he followed me, reminiscences of our first meeting proving too strong for him. Gambit has done me a good turn, though he is certainly an angel very much disguised. But if I am to work for you I must have more money."

Maude made no demur to this cool suggestion. Price should have money in reason if he would only find the information that Maude required. She had expected to pay for these services, but later on she was going to use Price in a way that he little imagined.

"Let me have your address directly you have one, and I will telegraph you money," she said. "You had better go now, as I shall be missed if I don't return to the house. Get away at once. Cross the brook so as to break the scent for the dog, and find your way back to the main road. Is there anything else that you have to say to me?"

Price thought not. There was a restless furtiveness about him that gave Maude an uneasy impression that he was deceiving her, that he had not come to see her at all, that as a matter of fact he had blundered upon her quite by accident.

"I'll leave the dog here," she said, as if some sudden idea had occurred to her. "Please go and take your companion along, Mr. Price; you would do a great deal for £20,000?"

"Wouldn't I? I'd give myself up and work out my sentence for that. Why?"

Maude turned away. She had learnt all that she required. But it was a big price to pay even to a scoundrel like this. But Maude was beginning to see her way without paying anything at all.

Price disappeared in the darkness. Maude stood hesitating a long time. Finally she took off one of her gloves and gave it to the dog.

"Take it home," she said. "Do you understand, sir? Take it home! Now go!"

Gambit waved his great tail as if he understood. With a little bark of suppressed affection he picked up the glove and slung off at a steady trot. Well satisfied, Maude turned her face in the direction of the house.

"I'm glad that dog has gone," a thin, affected voice said from close by. "He worried me. Once I thought he was going to kill me. But he seemed to know a lady when he saw me, my dear."


XXXVI. COUNTESS DE LARY

MAUDE expressed no surprise. The recent rapid rush of events had deprived her of that emotion. She saw a slight, elderly figure, dressed in old-fashioned but none the less distinguished style, a foreign style evidently; indeed the speaker's English, if correct enough, proclaimed that fact. Maude could see a faded, rather highly-strung face behind a cloud of untidy, grey hair. The small bonnet was awry, and the speaker's lace skirt was sadly torn.

"I beg your pardon," Maude said. "I am very sorry my dog has been the cause of trouble."

"Of course you are, my dear," the stranger said. "Your voice is very sincere. If I could see your face I should know you were beautiful—beauty always goes with a voice like yours. I was walking up to the house when the dog came up to me."

"He did you no harm, I hope!" Maude said.

"Not the slightest, my dear. He seemed sort of surprised to see me. His bristles were up, he walked on the tips of his toes, and I was terribly frightened. He seemed to be asking me questions. But I couldn't tell him anything, you know. Then some men came along and the dog followed them. All the same I was terribly frightened."

The speaker was still trembling from head to foot. There was a simplicity about her speech and a restlessness of limb that suggested a mind none too strong.

"Let me walk as far as the lodge gates with you," Maude said soothingly, "then I shall be able to tell you exactly where you are and which way to go."

The stranger laughed a little vacantly.

"You mistake me," she said. "Oh, I am not in the least mad. As a matter of fact, my dear, I am an exceedingly clever old woman. Baron Kinski found that out, for all he got the best of me. But I'm going to ruin Kinski yet!"

The poor creature was mad enough beyond all doubt—mad but harmless. And yet she had followed the drift of Maude's thoughts with wonderful penetration.

"I am going to surprise the Baron," she went on. "Everybody thinks he is in America, but I know better. I had certain information that he was in England, and I followed him here. You must understand that he is most carefully disguised. And last night I saw him, I heard him speak. He said he was going to spend the week-end at Marvyn Chase. To find out where is Marvyn Chase—behold how easy it is. Then I make my plans to fit the situation. I come here by train, but for an accident I arrive at the house. I give a servant a sovereign, and say I must see Baron Kinski at once. He comes without the slightest suspicion, ah—!"

The speaker paused, and her features grew dark and furious. Maude's tact showed her the futility of saying that there was no such person at Marvyn Chase. But after all, was she quite certain about that? Marvyn Chase was a huge house, and a score of extra guests made very little difference. Again, for the most part, Minter's friends were quite apart from those of his wife, and other of his friends might have even arrived since Maude left the house. Certainly there had been no Baron Kinski at dinner, but he might have come since.

If this old lady saw the baron there would be a scene and perhaps a scandal. Doubtless she had had some financial relations with the great capitalist in question, and had imagined that her ruin had been brought about by him. The same thing had occurred over and over again.

"You came down from London?" Maude asked.

"Mais oui, by train. For the time being I spend my last florin; I have not even a fare back. Entirely I rely upon my infamous friend the Baron. Once I see him I have money in plenty. In my pocket there are papers that I could not possibly produce before. Conduct me to the Baron, and you shall see what you shall see, my dear."

Maude murmured something soothing. As a matter of fact this was the very thing she had not the slightest intention of doing. At any costs that must be prevented.

"Listen," she said. "You are a lone woman suffering wrongs at the hands of bad men, and so am I. This house is the residence of Mr. Graham Minter and my friend Lady Mary, his wife."

"That I know. Mr. Graham Minter was a friend of the Baron. He married Lady Mary Stockford, and I used to know her. I once had the pleasure of doing a service to the Duchess and Lady Mary in Vienna. She would remember me, I expect."

"Of course she would," Maude said soothingly. "Therefore I am going to take you to her, and you can explain all the circumstances of the case. But there must be no scenes, you understand, no confronting the wicked Baron before the guests. You shall have your chance quietly. You must see how much better that course will be."

The Countess de Lary nodded. In spite of her fantastic air and flighty brain, she had still all the best instincts of her race and training. She would be désolé to cause any inconvenience to la belle Lady Mary, whom she remembered as a pretty girl in Vienna years ago. Her vengeance would keep perfectly well till the morning. She was very tired to-night.

"Poor old soul, I can see that!" Maude said. "Now come along with me; take my arm. We will not go through the front door, because I should not care for the guests to see you as you are, or to see me either for the matter of that."

Maude looked down at her soaked dress and shoes. They would have to be changed.

"We'll go in by way of the side conservatory," she said, "up the private stairway that leads to Lady Mary's boudoir. When I have got you there I will fetch my hostess."

"I am not accustomed," the Countess said with some dignity, "to—"

"Of course not," Maude went on hurriedly. "But under the circumstances, you see—and the first person you might meet in the hall would probably be Baron Kinski. Now, would you like to appear in the midst of a smart house-party dressed as you are?"

Maude had touched the right note, and the old lady simpered and smiled. In silence the terrace was reached. A light blazed in the smaller conservatory. It appeared to be empty as Maude came in, though the reek of recent cigarette smoke was strong there. Somebody was playing and singing in the music room; there was a murmur of conversation from the hall, but the majority of the guests had reverted to their beloved Bridge.

"Come along," Maude whispered, "the coast is clear. Nobody is here."

The little old lady came simpering in. She lifted her nose daintily.

"The Baron has been here," she said! "I recognize the peculiar scent of his cigarettes. Perique, my dear, and a suggestion of opium. I used to smoke them myself; they come from Batoum, in Asia Minor."

"Hush!" Maude whispered as she went forward, "there is somebody here."

There was a rustle behind a big palm, and the pale face of Graham Minter looked round furtively. Maude had never seen her host with a pale face before, and the phenomenon startled her. Minter's eyes were positively haggard for a moment. Then he dropped down on his hands and knees and seemed to be making his way in that grovelling fashion for the far doorway.

"Is there anything I can do?" Maude suggested.

"No, no," Minter said. His voice sounded hoarse and strained and far off. "It is a diamond stud, I mean a valuable paper I have lost. Don't say a word to anybody, but pass on. Take that infernal old woman away! Take her and drown her somewhere! Go on!"

Maude turned away with a feeling of disgust. The Countess seemed to have fallen into a waking trance over the beauty of the flowers. She hardly heeded as Maude touched her arm.

"Oh, it is like old times," she said. "The flowers! I love them as they love the sunshine. I shall have them all again after I have seen the Baron."

She passed on, half dragged by Maude. Minter rose to his feet and dusted his knees with a hand that shook like the palsy.

"Here!" he groaned. "Good heavens! Of all the places in the world, here!"


XXXVII. THE UNINVITED GUEST

MAUDE'S first impression was that Minter had gone mad. Certainly he was quite sober, he had not shown such signs of agitation otherwise. The same thing had happened before to men who carried too much on their minds. But on the other hand, if Minter were mad there was much method in it. On the whole Maude was forced to the conclusion that the unhappy woman had been one of Graham Minter's financial victims, and with a man's horror of a scene, he feared to meet her under his own roof.

Meanwhile the old lady must be attended to. She followed quite willingly, half lingering to admire the pictures and the staircase and the flowers ranged along the banisters. Her feet sank caressingly into the thick Persian carpets.

"You are fond of these things," Maude said as she hurried her along.

"My dear, yes," the Countess de Lary whispered. "As a child we had them all in my father's house. He was an artist with a great soul, and that soul I inherited from him. Beautiful things are warmth and food to me. Since I have been ruined I have lived apart from beauty. Imagine my delight to find myself here!"

The speaker seemed to have forgotten everything else. A little murmur of delight escaped her as she entered Lady Mary's boudoir. She stood quite fascinated for a moment. There was a rustle of silken skirts outside, and as Maude stepped into the corridor Lady Mary was there.

"You sent for me, Maude," she said. "What is it?"

Maude explained generally, with no reference to her own share in the adventure or that of Gambit. Lady Mary listened attentively. She was not particularly strong mentally, but her beauty and her intense feeling for suffering of all kinds made up for that. She appeared to be deeply interested in the fortunes of the Countess de Lary.

"Poor old soul!" she said sweetly. "Of course she is utterly mistaken. I am quite sure there is no such person as Baron Kinski in the house."

"He is a great European capitalist," Maude explained. "You have surely heard of him?"

"Oh, yes, from my husband, who usually talks of nothing but business. But I understood that the Baron was not in Europe at all. He was coming to London this year; in fact, my husband recommended him the house next to ours in Park Lane. He is an American." Maude had not expected to hear anything to the contrary. Clearly the Countess' troubles had interfered with her brain. "But something must be done for her," she said.

"Of course," Lady Mary said promptly. "There shall be no talk among the servants. I shall merely say that the Countess lost her train or she would have been here before. Then to-morrow we can see what can be done for her. I won't even call in my maid."

The Countess stood raptly contemplating a head by Romney as her hostess entered. It was some little time before they could bring her in touch with mundane affairs again. The draggled skirt was removed, so were the soaked shoes and stockings, and the mischief made good by Maude's deft hands. In a very short time the Countess was transformed into a grande dame who fitted beautifully into the picture.

"Your lace is splendid," Lady Mary said. "And those things fit you so well. All you require now are a few stones in that lovely white hair of yours. I'll get you some."

But the Countess waved the suggestion aside.

"There is no need," she said, "I have some in my hand-bag. I have always kept them, because I shall need money when my turn comes and I can crush the Baron Kinski. I have been very near starvation more than once, my dears, but I have always kept these."

She took a couple of shabby-looking green cases from her shabby little handbag, and poured the contents into her hand. A stream of living fire flew from them. On her head and round her neck the glorious stones glittered. Her faded cheeks flushed.

"How magnificent?" Maude cried. "Do you always carry them?"

"Always—in my little bag wherever I go. They have been in my family three hundred years; they are all that is left out of a once princely fortune. Oh, if I had been content with it!"

Maude wondered. Doubtless the gambling spirit had been inherited like the diamonds. It was thrilling to think of this poor old lady in her dingy lodgings, walking the mean streets with this fortune in her hand all the time. She nodded brightly.

"Oh, I can take care of myself," she said. "It is only when I come to dabble with stocks and shares that I lose my head. The Baron shall see when we meet in a country like this, where one can get justice. I am just a lady in a lady's house now."

She drew herself up proudly for a moment; then her head dropped. Lady Mary had an inspiration.

"You will like a little refreshment of some kind," she suggested.

"My dear, I should. I have had nothing since breakfast. My little money had gone, you see, and I had my ticket to pay for. A temporary faintness—"

Lady Mary nodded significantly to Maude, who flew downstairs into the dining-room. It was a little difficult to make a selection from the profusion on the sideboard, but it was done at length, including a tiny flask of champagne. It was not a great deal, but the Countess did not give the suggestion of being a large eater.

Maude was creeping up the stairs again, pleased with the knowledge that she had not been seen. Desborough stepped out of the library and called to her. There was a look of command in his eyes, his mouth was hard and cruel.

"Come here," he said, "I have a few words to say to you."

"Presently," Maude said coldly. "At present I am engaged. And if I were you I would keep that manner till you had the legal right to use it."

"I will wait for you here ten minutes," said Desborough, "no longer."

A hot retort trembled on Maude's lips for the moment. Then she saw that Desborough's cold eyes were critically taking in her clammy skirt and sopping shoes, which she had not changed yet. Well, after all, it was no business of his, and Maude was going to stand none of this.

"I will not unduly try your patience," she said. "I shall be there in ten minutes, because I also have a few words to say to you!"

Desborough made no reply as he turned on his heel and affected to look at the pictures. Inwardly raging, Maude went upstairs, all her old troubles heavy about her shoulders again. She had made a certain amount of progress, and discovered much useful information, but as yet she could not quite see her way to put it all into effect. Perhaps Kit might help her.

The Countess' eyes gleamed as she saw the food, but she ate slowly and in the manner of one accustomed to such things. Her breeding never broke down for a moment. Gradually the wild look left her face; she sat there placid and contented, the very picture of an elderly lady of the grand old school, who had never known anything but the sunshine of prosperity.

"Perhaps we had better leave you here," Lady Mary suggested, "because—"

"Because you are fearful for me, my dear. You need not be afraid; I am all right now. Take me among your guests—let me live in the old atmosphere for a few hours. Please!"

Lady Mary looked helplessly at Maude, who nodded. Maude was anxious to see the Countess and Minter face to face. It might have been a dangerous experiment, but the girl was in a reckless mood, and anxious to gratify her curiosity.

"Come down presently," she said. "You shall make up your story so as to account for your new guest whilst I go and change. I am wet through."

Maude slipped away to her own room and changed. Then she went downstairs to meet Desborough and have it out with him. But Desborough was nowhere to be seen for the present, and standing anxiously in the hall and apparently waiting for Maude was Minter.


XXXVIII. A BLOW

THE millionaire smiled in an uneasy fashion. He was making a clumsy effort to appear entirely at his ease. The rôle did not sit well on him, and Maude saw through it at once.

"Wondered where you had got to," he said. "Been collecting any more curiosities lately? Where did you pick up that strange old fossil you brought into the conservatory?"

"What do you know about her?" Maude asked.

"Nothing, except that she is an intolerable nuisance. She's mad on capitalists. If she had recognized me tonight there would have been an awful scene. Know who she is?"

The question was asked keenly, but with a fine assumption of carelessness.

"I do," Maude said quietly. "She is Countess de Lary, of Vienna."

Minter started and bit his lip. Maude appeared to be quite sure of her ground.

"Let them look after her in the housekeeper's room," he said. "See that she has every comfort, and put her in a train for London the first thing in the morning. I believe she is quite harmless, but we don't want anything in the nature of a scene here. Oh, yes; I am coming, coming!"

A voice from an inner room summoned Minter imperatively. Maude stood there for a moment before Desborough appeared. He strode over to her and looked down into her eyes, but they did not quail.

"You are dramatic," Maude said with a slight laugh. "What does this mean?"

"It means that I am going to be master. Where have you been to-night?"

"On the terrace. I stayed there after you left me. Is there anything else?"

"Yes, the truth. You were away for an hour or more. It is quite dry and hard on the terrace. Then why do you come in as if you had been crossing a river?"

"The answer is quite simple. I was in the park. I may be very careless and inconsiderate, but not even I can prevent the summer dew falling on the grass."

Desborough clenched his hands passionately. Beaten almost to the knees himself, he wanted something to crush down to his own level. Some day the girl should recognize his will.

"You went there to meet somebody," he said. "Tell me who you met there?"

"Certainly, I met Mr. Eli Price, the escaped convict who saved himself by sheltering in your chambers some days ago. We had an interesting conversation."

Desborough's face fell. He had not expected this.

"I suppose I must believe you," he said. "We will admit for the sake of argument that you met this man in question. But didn't you meet anybody else?"

"I did not," she said. "The first meeting was clearly an accident. There was no second. If you insinuate that I went into the park to meet Mr.—Mr.—"

"Well, say the end—Kit Clive. You went there to meet him."

"I did nothing of the kind, neither did I see him. Oh, this is monstrous!"

"And yet you come back soaking wet! A few minutes after you return in this draggled condition, Clive comes back also with his feet saturated and damp. When I point out the matter to him he says it is a mere nothing, and goes off to his room to change. I am to be fooled with denials like this. If this thing occurs again, do you understand—"

"It cannot occur again because it has never occurred before," Maude flashed out hotly. "And let me tell you something. If I want to see Kit I shall do so. There is no occasion for clandestine meetings. If I had met him in the park to-night I should never have denied it!"

"You are telling a deliberate lie about it now!"

Maude would have replied scathingly, but was saved the trouble. A hand was laid lightly on her shoulder, and she was put aside by the subject of the discussion.

"You are not displaying your usual discretion, Desborough," Kit said coldly. "If you discuss your clients' affairs as loudly as you discuss your own, I wonder at your success. Your voice is unpleasantly high when you do your best to tell the house that Miss Beaumont had been meeting me secretly and that she tells a deliberate lie in denying the fact."

"She does," Desborough said doggedly, "and you are telling another at the present moment."

"Oh, Clifford!" Maude cried in genuine distress, "how can you so far forget yourself? If—"

She paused, for Clive had passed the bounds of endurance. In some underhand, disgraceful way this man had robbed him of all that he held most dear. All the pent-up rage and hate burst its bands. He stepped forward and dealt Desborough a crashing blow in the mouth. He staggered back, and only saved himself by catching at the corner of an old oak table close by.

"You hound!" Kit hissed, "you mean, dishonourable scoundrel! For Maude's sake I was going to let this pass, but I can do so no longer. By some disgraceful trick of which I know nothing—but shall find out—you rob me of the woman I love! Bah! you are not fit for the touch of an honest hand. And yet it is for you to judge of the honour and integrity of others! By heavens, if you don't give us both an ample apology I'll do it all over again!"

But Desborough slipped away quietly with his handkerchief to his face. Fortunately nobody had seen or heard anything of the altercation. Kit looked at Maude.

"They must have heard me shout at him," he said.

"You didn't shout," Maude said unsteadily. "Your voice was only a whisper, Kit. I have never seen a man in such a rage before. It was dreadful."

"My darling, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry."

"Are you, Kit?" Maude went on with a watery smile. "I'm not. I'm glad, glad. How dare he insult us in that disgraceful fashion—a man who—who I am going to marry. And therefore it may be dreadfully unladylike, but, I tell you, I am glad you struck him."

"Well, nobody is likely to be any the wiser," was Kit's consoling remark. "For my sake, my darling, I shall be silent, and Desborough is not likely to proclaim it from the housetops that he has been thrashed for insulting a lady. But I was in the park all the same, Maude."

"You don't mean to say that you followed me, Kit?"

"Well, not exactly that. I was going down to the lodge to fetch some forgotten papers when I saw you. And when I saw you speaking to some suspicious-looking man I stopped. I was pretty close to you, but I could not hear what you said, neither did I desire to do so. I have no doubt you will tell me all about the affair in your own good time."

"I will, Kit, but not to-night. Oh, I am so tired and weary of it all! Sometimes it seems to me that I can see the way clear before me, and at other times it is all dark and hopeless. Let us get away from here before they adjourn to the billiard room."

There were sounds from the drawing-room that signified the breaking-up of the Bridge parties. A few of the stragglers had already overflowed into the hall. There was the usual babble, the usual disputes over this or that card played, and the clinking of money.

"Well, ask our host," a thin voice piped. "He must let us play for higher stakes to-morrow. Positively, I must have my revenge. Where is Lady Mary?"

Minter replied that he had not the slightest idea. He was uneasy in his mind, for the great Murdock had not come, and there was no telegram to explain his absence. Personally, he would gladly have dispensed with his guests to-night.

"There's Lady Mary coming down the stairs," somebody said. "But who is with her? What diamonds!"

"The Countess de Lary," another voice said. "I didn't know she was staying here. By Jove! they are stones too. I say, Minter, what do you say to—"

But Minter had vanished. With a curse that nearly choked him, he slipped into the library and locked the door behind him.


XXXIX. THE POLESTAR

ONLY Maude watched the effect on Minter with any interest. Why was that strong man, with his marvellous audacity and cunning, afraid to meet Countess de Lary? Maude wondered if it would be possible to bring them face to face, and what might happen if she did. Would she learn anything useful, or would she ruin all her plans?

To grip some vital secret of Minter's would be somewhat in the nature of salvation. If so, she might force him to relax his hold over Clifford Desborough, and keep that back as the price of her freedom. Not that she dared build up any hopes on this, but she was lonely and unaided, and fighting desperately for her future and her happiness.

It was the idle chattering hour before bed; Bridge was over for the night, and there was nothing much to do beyond smoking in the hall and playing billiards. Therefore the Countess and her wonderful diamonds attracted more than usual attention. The elderly lady was quite herself now; she was quite at home there, and evidently meant to keep her word. There were guests there, too, who knew something of the life-story of Countess de Lary, the one-time brilliant beauty who had set a Court ablaze, and whose exceptional talents had been a universal theme.

"Wonderful woman," a bronzed globe-trotter said to his pretty companion. "Wrote books, and painted pictures, and composed music. Was music mad when I knew, her years ago. Finally, she married de Lary for his millions, which she dissipated in speculation after his death. There's no doubt that Kinski robbed her."

"Who is Kinski?" the pretty companion asked.

"A comet, I should say. Burst on Vienna all at once; was going to make everybody's fortune, that kind of philanthropist, you know. He got heaps of money, and went off to America to look after some El Dorado he had purchased there. The bubble isn't pricked yet, but it will be. Pretty certain Vienna will never know Kinski any more."

"But he's taken a big house in London next to the Minters," the young girl urged.

The bronzed man shrugged his shoulders. He did not profess to understand these things; he was a man of honour, and a gentleman who steered clear of Minter and his associates. He was only here because of his feelings for the pretty girl by his side.

"My dears, I declare that you make me feel quite conceited," the Countess was saying. "Yes; I suppose they are very pretty diamonds. They have been in our family for ages."

A little ring of women stood round the speaker. One, a little bolder than the rest, touched the stream of living fire that formed the necklet. The pendant she studied carefully.

"Was this part of the family heirloom?" she asked.

"Well, no, it wasn't," the Countess said with a little laugh. "I got that from Baron Kinski. But I promised not to mention his name. He was the man, my dear, who robbed me of everything."

"It is quite an old story," said Lady Mary hurriedly.

"Oh, quite," the Countess said as hurriedly. "But I must explain a little. That man robbed me of everything. I need not tell you how, at the present moment, I am prepared to prove that. But then, that is not the point. The pendant is called the polestar—diamonds let into a huge ruby, as you see. I borrowed it for a certain purpose, and I kept it. Shall I say more?"

The speaker looked anxiously and inquiringly at Lady Mary, who shook her head. She was standing on the outskirts of the group, and could not see very well what was going on. The girl who started the discussion was still regarding the pendant carefully.

"I have made a startling discovery," she cried. "Lady Mary, look at this."

Lady Mary pressed forward curiously. She started as she saw the pendant.

"May I have this in my hands for a few minutes?" she asked.

"Assuredly, my dear. Examine it with pleasure. It is unique; they say there is nothing else quite like it in the world."

The brilliant ruby with the diamonds so cunningly let into it sparkled in Lady Mary's hand. There was a queer, unsteady smile on her face as she examined it.

"This is very strange," she murmured. "The Countess is quite justified in thinking her treasure is unique, but I have one exactly like it."

A murmur of interest followed. The Countess looked up eagerly.

"Would you mind telling me where you got it from?" she asked. "It was a present, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes. My husband gave it to me. Perhaps Baron Kinski had two of them. Of course, my husband knows the financier in question; at any rate, we'll ask him. James, will you find your master and say he is wanted for a moment?"

The hall footman bowed, and departed on his errand. Maude waited for the result of the search with a certain feeling of grim amusement. She felt pretty sure that James would have trouble for his pains. Minter had not the slightest intention of meeting the Countess de Lary and he was keeping out of her way for that very reason. James came back presently.

"Very sorry, my lady," he said, "but I cannot find the master anywhere. Bronson seemed to think that he had gone to meet Mr. Murdock, who seems to have had an accident."

"Well, it doesn't in the least matter," Lady Mary cried gaily. She did not see the smile on Maude's face. "I'll get mine, and we'll have a close inspection. I'll not be long."

Lady Mary flitted away, to return presently with a little box in her hand. As she laid bare the contents a little cry of surprise went round.

"Identically the same," Maude said. "Only the snap on Lady Mary's is different."

"Because I had it changed," Lady Mary exclaimed, "but the snaps were identical. Can you see any difference? Is it not a wonderful likeness?"

Nobody could see any difference in the artificial light.

"Let us carry the investigation a step further," Maude suggested. "Isn't there a wonderful incandescent lamp rigged up in the blue morning-room for some purpose connected with the testing of diamonds? We shall know by the use of that."

Lady Mary cried that here was the very idea. By that wonderful light the most searching investigation could be made. The blue morning-room was more or less given over to Minter, who kept his samples of ore and his maps there. The only luxury was a grand piano facing into the room, and, beyond it, the owner's pianola, for use when the mood was upon him.

The great blazing arc of light was turned on; so brilliant was it that most of the spectators shaded their eyes. The rest of the room seemed in black darkness, and all that could be seen was a brilliant white shape of light with a white hand and arm, the hand holding the two precious gems. The rubies seemed to be absolutely transparent now, the light penetrated clean through.

"Well, what do you say?" Lady Mary asked at length.

"I don't know what to say," the bronzed man said as he switched out the light and restored the normal 'Robertson' lamps. "The gems are the same, probably a pair fashioned for some ancient order a great many years ago. It is very strange that one should come into the hands of Baron Kinski and the other into the hands of Mr. Graham Minter."

"Do you know if they ever met?" Lady Mary asked.

"I could not say," the Countess replied. She had laid her pendant on the mantelshelf for a moment. "But if I could see Mr. Minter—I hear his voice—That is his voice."

All this in a whisper, heard only by Maude. Evidently the mad fit was coming on again. The hearing of an imaginary voice was a certain sign.

"Let us go back to the hall," Maude cried gaily. She literally forced the Countess before her. "In the morning Minter shall try and solve the mystery. Come along."

They trooped out noisily, but Maude hustled her companion along till she had reached the drawing-room. It was empty.


XL. MUSIC HATH CHARMS

"NOW, you distinctly promised me that you would not excite yourself," Maude said reproachfully to the Countess de Lary.

"But, my dear, I heard his voice. There was a disturbance in the outer hall, and a lot of people speaking at once. And I most distinctly heard Baron Kinski's voice."

"No, you didn't," Maude said sternly. It was no time for politeness. "Your mind was full of him and the new discovery, and you imagined it. Now, you are not to do anything of the kind again; at least, you are not to do so until I give you permission. What are you going to do when you leave here?"

"My dear, I have not the slightest idea. For reasons which I cannot go into, I dare not part with my diamonds. And for the present my money is exhausted. I have a little annuity, but it does not fall due again for some weeks, and I have no friends whatever in London."

"Oh, yes you have," Maude smiled. "I shall be here till about Tuesday, and when I go, you go with me. You are coming to pay a nice long visit to my mother and myself. Will you come?"

Countess de Lary began to cry softly. It was so good, so kind, so generous. Maude felt a little guilty. She would have made the offer under any circumstances, but she could not rid her mind of the fact that she had in the first place been prompted by the idea of further discoveries.

"There, that is settled," she said gaily. "Let us go into the billiard room."

The disturbance in the outer hall had subsided. Outside some men were wheeling or dragging away the remains of what a little time before had been a fine Panhard. Mr. Murdock had arrived at last, but he had not brought his wife with him. She had been detained by some important business, and a stupid servant had quite forgotten to send off the necessary telegram of apology. As the trains fitted in awkwardly, Murdock had decided to run down by motor. He could not stay, as that important business still pressed, and he had to get back to London before daylight. All this he explained to the listless ears of Lady Mary. The heavy financier and his wife did not interest her much.

"So sorry," she murmured with the most conventional politeness. "That dreadful business seems to upset everything. I can't imagine where my husband has gone to."

The library door opened, and a white, anxious face looked out. The hall was fairly clear, so Minter stepped across.

"I've been in the library if you have wanted me," he growled. "What's this fuss about? Come in here—no, the papers I want to show you are in the morning-room. This way, Murdock. And I am not to be disturbed by anybody, you understand, Mary."

Lady Mary nodded. She was relieved to get the Murdock business off her mind. When the door of the room was closed, Minter breathed freely again. He would have locked the door, but for the fact that it would have looked strange to the most important guest.

"You seem to have been knocked about," he said. "What's the matter?"

Murdock explained. He was a large, ponderous man, with an air of the most intense respectability. His very appearance was of utmost value at a meeting of angry shareholders. But the man rarely touched anything that was not absolutely sound, and his name stood high.

"I got smashed up two miles off," he said. "No, I am not hurt; only I shall want you to lend me one of your cars presently to get back with. What are you doing there?"

"I was just going to play an inpromptu of Chopin's on my pianola," Minter continued. "I am passionately fond of music; in fact, it's my one soft spot. I can't play myself, so this machine does it for me. If you've got any feeling—Would you like to hear it?"

But Murdock's weakness did not lie that way. He was a plain, hard man, who looked upon art of all kinds as so much vice. He tapped his teeth thoughtfully with his glasses.

"I've gone into your papers and figures," he said.

"Oh, yes," Minter said carelessly. "And they are as I said they were?"

"Oh, yes. They appear to me quite satisfactory. But I can't touch them."

Minter played a few bars of Chopin's lovely setting and stopped. He wanted time to recover his temper. He wanted to appear as if he did not care one way or another. He wanted to fly out at the smug financier and do him personal violence, if necessary. He got a grip of himself presently.

"So you are going to back out of the concern?" he said quietly. "Why?"

"Well, to me, it does not appear to be quite good enough. To be perfectly plain, I don't like the rumours that are going about concerning that Certified Company. I don't know where the rumours come from, but, in this case, they appear to be particularly well founded. They say that if the missing witness had turned up your case would not have been worth sixpence."

Minter smiled disdainfully.

"Is that it?" he said. "Why don't they go further—why don't they say that I found the money for the plan that released Eli Price?"

"My dear Minter, there are plenty of people who believe that too."

Murdock spoke coolly and quietly enough. Minter laughed, but there was a snarl behind it, and he had great difficulty in keeping his voice steady. He felt the ground slipping from under his feet; he knew quite well why Murdock had not brought his wife. The urgent business was only an excuse to keep everything like a semblance of friendship out of the matter and render it according to commercial rules.

"I'm sorry I've wasted your time and mine," Minter went on in his rasping voice. "I can see that you don't altogether trust me, and I don't blame you. But, if I had another good name behind mine, perhaps you might feel disposed to reconsider the matter?"

Murdock admitted the possibility. If Minter had any suggestion to make, why—

"It is not a suggestion," the latter said. "It is a hard reality. Will you come in, once for all, if I can get Baron Kinski to come on the board?"

"Oh, now you are talking," Murdock cried. "That is a different matter altogether. Personally, I don't know Kinski; but if you can induce him—"

"Consider the matter done. You shall have a cablegram to-morrow and a letter in due course."

Murdock's white teeth were displayed in a brilliant smile. He had not hoped for anything quite so satisfactory as this. Baron Kinski was a financier who kept himself very much to himself, but at the present moment his name stood high, and he was reported to have vast wealth in America. It was true that there had been some business over a mad Countess, but then the courts had decided in Kinski's favour.

"We could call it settled on those lines," Murdock said. "If you will see me on Monday—what's that?"

A high-pitched voice rose outside—an excited voice, evidently that of a woman.

"Oh, dear no, I haven't lost it," she said. "I remember now perfectly well putting it on the shelf in the room. I'll get it in a moment."

A smothered oath, so low that Murdock did not hear it, broke from Minter's lips. As the door opened, he rushed for the switch and turned off the light. To Murdock, whose mind did not work too rapidly, it seemed as if something had gone wrong with the circuit. The Countess advanced into the room, and in the light of the hall lamps, fumbled her way to the fireplace.

"So there is somebody here," she said. "So sorry to disturb you, but I left something behind me just now. Ah, here it is. I felt quite certain—"

Minter's feet came on the pedals of the pianola, the masterpiece of Chopin was not more than begun. The keys began to speak, and the liquid melody to run off. Long before it was finished, that infernal woman would have gone away, Minter thought. Murdock sat there tapping his teeth with his glasses, and wondering if the strain of a great business was beginning to tell upon Minter's mind. To a blunt intellect like his, all this was so much frivolous nonsense.

The wondrous liquid harmony ceased at length, the sounds of melody died away. Minter half rose from the pianola and drew a deep breath. He had escaped for the present. A figure moved in the centre of the room; there was a deep sigh of pleasure.

"Wonderful," the Countess said gently. "Truly wonderful. What a soft, melting touch. My dear madam, I cannot see you, but will you play that again?"


XLI. IMAGINATION

THE figure at the piano said nothing. The shaft of light proceeding from the hall only threw the corner of the room where Minter was sitting into deeper gloom. He sat there awaiting events, hoping for the best, and yet fearful of results. Then Murdock helped him out of his difficulty. Murdock laughed.

"My friend is shy," he said. His peculiarly pawky form of humour was tickled. It was seldom that he jested, but the whole thing struck him as so absurd that he could not refrain from amusement. "She is not used to perform in public."

It was a slightly rude speech, all circumstances considered, and the Countess resented it. She could just see the out-line of Murdock's figure by the fireplace.

"To whom have I the pleasure of speaking?" she asked.

Murdock announced his name and address pompously. He liked the effect they generally produced. But the Countess was not in the least impressed by the presence of the millionaire. On the contrary, she gave a start and darted forward. At the same moment, Minter slipped from the room. He perspired freely, and his face was white.

"So you are one of those capitalists?" the Countess exclaimed. "And I imagined my property to be safe here! Please turn on the light at once."

Murdock fumbled for the switch by the door, and found it at last. With a mutter of satisfaction, the Countess snatched up her ruby and diamond pendant and left the room. To her disordered mind, a capitalist was another word for a thief.

"I've got it!" she cried. "He couldn't possibly have known it was there, or I should never have seen it again. What a fortunate thing, Lady Mary!"

Lady Mary agreed soothingly, though she had not the least idea what had happened. As she led the Countess away, Minter sneaked from behind a pile of palms and slipped into the morning-room again. Murdock regarded him suspiciously and sourly.

"Is it some kind of play-acting you're doing?" he asked impatiently.

"Nothing of the kind," Minter replied. He had quite recovered himself. "That's Countess de Lary, you know. She's absolutely mad, and how she got here passes my comprehension. Probably some soft-heartedness on the part of my wife. It's a wonder she did not make a great scene when you told her who you were. I have to keep out of her sight in my own house to preserve the peace. She's been quite insane ever since that affair with Kinski."

Murdock allowed the explanation to pass, for it seemed ingenious enough. And the man had not one ounce of imagination about him. He had come down on business, and that business had proved a great deal more satisfactory than he had expected. He had finished now, and the sooner he got back to London the better he would be pleased.

"I'll get you to lend me a car," he said. "No; I'll not take anything."

"Then we will go across to the stables this way," Minter said eagerly, as he pulled up the blind and opened the catch of the French window. "I'll have your chauffeur called up and find you a good car. I'll not fail to see you on Monday morning."

On the whole, Minter was not displeased to see the back of his guest. He stood in the forecourt before the stables watching the big Panhard, with its flashing lamps, skimming like a great bird down the drive, and then he returned to the house. Somebody was in the morning-room now, for he could see shadows flickering across the blind. With a feeling of annoyance, Minter entered by the front door. Lady Mary was seeing a male guest off, the Countess had vanished.

"Where's that old cat gone to?" Minter growled.

"Do you mean the Countess?" Lady Mary asked innocently. "She's in the gallery looking at the pictures. The poor old thing has a passion for art."

"I daresay. Now, you take my advice and pack her off to bed, and get rid of her the first thing in the morning. She's a dangerous lunatic. And if I'd known that you were going to ask her down here—"

"My dear Graham, I didn't ask her. She is quite mad, poor thing, but perfectly harmless. She has spent her last few pence in coming down here to look for Baron Kinski. Maude Beaumont found her wandering about the park and brought her here properly enough. It was quite a fixed idea of hers that Kinski was here, and she is going to ruin him."

"Poor Baron!" Minton sneered. "How does she propose to do that?"

"She has some fresh evidence. She is very mysterious, but I fancy that there is a good deal of method in her madness, poor thing. She thinks the Baron has fled from here in disguise, and she is equally sure that she can penetrate that disguise."

"Mad as a hatter," Minter growled. His eyes were red, and the coarse veins showed on his forehead. "Get rid of her, turn her out of the house, do you hear? By Heaven! if she is here after to-morrow morning I will do it myself. You understand me!"

Lady Mary flushed and drew back. Minter seemed to be more coarse and vulgar than usual. The pressure of his grip almost amounted to pain.

"I don't quite understand you," she said, "and I see no reason for this violence. If you ask me—"

"I don't ask you, I command you. That wretched old lunatic shall not remain under my roof any longer. After to-night she goes. Mind, I've said it."

Minter stalked away down the corridor to his own particular den, where he was never disturbed under any circumstances. It was getting very late now, but he had no desire to go to bed. Nor did he desire human companionship in any form. He wanted to be alone, apart from those chattering Society idiots. He wanted to think, and his thoughts were by no means pleasant ones. There was danger pressing in upon him from more sides than one. He smiled to himself. How many of the gilded rats would be here if the true state of things were known?

There was a mist before Lady Mary's eyes as she crossed the hall. That she had wrecked and ruined her life she had known for a long while; indeed, she had done the thing more or less deliberately. She feared her husband rather than disliked him. He was so strong and so cruel; he was cruel now. It seemed so dreadful for Minter to turn against this poor creature and order her out of the house. And she would have to go.

Maude's quick instinct saw that something was wrong immediately.

"What's the matter, dear?" she asked. "What troubles you?"

"It's that poor old soul!" Lady Mary said unsteadily. The poor old soul in question was still deep in her contemplation of the pictures. "Graham has been making a fuss. I tried to enlist his sympathy, but I might as well have tried to get sympathy from a shark. He says she shall leave the house the first thing in the morning, and he will keep his word."

Maude made no comment. She had expected something like this; indeed, she would have been surprised if Minter had taken any other course of action. Seeing what she had seen, Maude's suspicions were generally confirmed. She smiled sympathetically.

"I hope Mr. Minter did not tell the Countess so much," she said.

"No; he wouldn't see her at all. He seems to have a rooted horror of the poor old thing. He says she will some day become dangerously mad and do some mischief to some man of money. Maude, what can I do? I cannot turn the poor old dear out, and yet my husband—"

"Hide her," Maude said coolly. "The house is big enough, in all conscience. Hide her away; leave her to me, and when I go back to London I'll take her along and see to her future. Have they put her bedroom close to mine?"

"I don't know what I should do without you," Lady Mary sighed. "You are always such a comfort to me, Maude. And if anything happens I can say that you will—"

"Take the blame," Maude cried cheerfully. "Certainly. The man is not born yet—capitalist or not—who can successfully bully me."


XLII. THE COUNTESS SEES A FACE

THE lights were out in the big drawing-room, the gleam from upstair windows grew fainter. The last few stragglers had left the billiard and smoking-rooms, and the butler yawned behind them as he flicked out the electrics with a suggestion that even here people occasionally went to bed. Certain lights remained here and there, lakes of light in a black island of darkness; Marvyn Chase was too large a house to leave entirely unilluminated. It was possible to see in the corridor.

Maude had seen Lady Mary in the hands of her maid, and had said "Good night." As she passed into the gallery where the famous pictures hung, she saw that the Countess was still there.

"Are you going to stand admiring the things all night?" Maude asked.

"My dear, they are magnificent. To me they are a constant joy. In my youth, I was always surrounded by works of art and beauty; to be deprived of them is a terrible loss. At one time I thought it would have affected my reason, but, of course, I was too strong-minded for that."

Maude successfully hid her smile. It was amusing enough, but there was a pathetic side to it all the same. Very cleverly she drew the old lady into her room.

"Sit down for a chat for a little while," she said. "Tell me about yourself. And this Baron Kinski. Why do you imagine that he is here to-night?"

The Countess looked cautiously around her. She spoke in a deep whisper.

"My dear, I know that I can trust you," she said. "The man is here in disguise. Lady Mary may not know it; indeed, I am sure she does not. But I found the end of a cigarette he had been smoking and I heard his voice. They hang together. Our host is shielding that man from my vengeance. But I shall find him; I shall penetrate his disguise."

"You think you would know him under any circumstances?"

"My dear, I am absolutely certain of it. Give me a little time and I shall succeed. Meanwhile—"

"Meanwhile, you are going to bed," Maude said with firm good humour. "I'll take you there."

She heard the door of the room next to hers close at last. It was very late, but Maude had not the slightest feeling of sleepiness. There was much to engage her thoughts. First there was the quarrel between her lover and the man she had pledged to marry. Desborough had brought it upon himself, and from the bottom of her heart, Maude was glad. It was only now that she was beginning to realize how she loathed and despised the man who had forced this match upon her. She was getting reckless and desperate, ready to take any means consistent with honour to get out of her promise.

A clock somewhere sounded two; from outside came the booming bell note of a great dog. Maude thought about Gambit, and wondered if he had got home all right, and, if so, what the servants would think of the fact that he had one of his mistress's gloves in his mouth?

What possible connection could there be between Graham Minter and the poor, mad lady in the next room? Minter knew Baron Kinski, and there the matter ended. But why was he so desperately anxious not to come face to face with Countess de Lary, and why had he crawled on his hands and knees to avoid it? It seemed very strange that a strong man like Graham Minter should go in bodily fear of a woman who was obviously deficient in intellect. Had they met at some previous time?

But that seemed impossible, because Countess de Lary disclaimed even a personal knowledge of the millionaire. The more Maude thought of this the more puzzled she was, and the less she saw her way of turning this discovery to advantage.

The note of the hound boomed out again, much closer this time. But Maude did not hear. In so big a place as this, with so great a value scattered about inside, it was absolutely necessary to keep watch-dogs, and doubtless this one was on the premises somewhere.

But something was stirring in the next room. Maude wondered what it was. With a start, she saw the handle of her door turn; but she had no occasion for alarm, as the Countess came in. Her eyes were shining; she held something in her hands.

"Take these for me," she said; "hide them. There are thieves about."

Obviously the speaker had been asleep and was still dreaming. But Maude took the worn, shabby cases without protest.

"Have you come straight here?" she asked.

"No. I have been wandering about the house. I could not sleep; all the beauty and luxury reminded me too much of the old times. So I put on the wrap that Lady Mary lent me and I went all about the house. Then a face looked at me suddenly out of the darkness—an evil face, the face of a thief—and I was frightened. So I got my jewels from my room and I came to you."

"And I shall take you back again," Maude said. "Lock your door, and you will be quite safe."

The Countess admitted that she had never thought of that course. She seemed perfectly satisfied, and quite easy in her mind now. Of course, the face was all imagination, Maude told herself. Nevertheless, she listened at the head of the staircase, her mind strung to its highest tension.

A creak, the rattle of a shutter, a hoarse whisper, and then silence. Somebody was getting into the house. Minter was still down in his den, as Maude pretty well knew for certain. She would go down and tell him. The stairs creaked under her, as stairs do on such occasions, but Maude went bravely on.

* * * * *

Across the park, in the darkness, Price proceeded with Macgregor moodily by his side. Their luck had not been exactly what they had expected, but it was better than they deserved. On the whole, Price considered that he had not done a bad thing for himself.

"What's the game now?" Macgregor asked sullenly.

"Get our machines and back to London," Price responded shortly. "If you only knew it, we were precious near to being caught to-night, thanks to that dog. We shall have to be more careful in the future. It's a good dog and a valuable dog, and I am fond of them, but before long Gambit must die. I prophesy that he will die by poison."

"I'd do it cheerfully," Macgregor said. "People have no right to keep a dog like that. By Jove! there the beggar goes across the park."

Price recognized with a thrill that the statement was true enough. The lithe body of the great hound passed slowly backwards and forwards as if the dog were looking for something. In fact, he was feathering after his own trail so as to pick up his homeward tracks again. For an hour or more he trotted backwards and forward whilst the men stood silently there reviling their own impotence. To move might bring the dog on their scent again, and if that happened they were doomed. They might try a tree, but afterwards, when daylight came and questions were asked, what then? Price did not like to think of it.

"I'm going back," he said. "Anything is better than this."

Macgregor followed with chattering teeth. Suddenly Gambit gave a whine, he dropped the glove, and proceeded to cover the ground more quickly. An execration burst from Price.

"The dickens take all dogs," he said. "Here's a bit of cruel luck. Hang me if that brute hasn't picked up our trail again! He's going over all the ground we covered, and he'll be on us sooner or later. What are we to do?"

"Go to the house and hide somewhere there till daylight," Macgregor suggested. "The dog will be seen and questions asked. Miss—I mean the lady you know of—will see the brute and send him home again. After that we can watch our chance and slip away."

"Well, one learns something from every fool," was the complimentary reply. "Get a move on you. I daresay Minter and Co. have gone to roost by this time. Given five minutes, and we shall be safe from that dog after all. Only don't make a noise."

The house was reached at length, but none too soon, as Gambit had picked up a strong scent and was racing round the park towards the mansion. On the terrace Macgregor stood outside the blue-room window. The light was still burning as Minter had left it, the catch was unfastened. Macgregor's quick eye took the fact in like a flash. Cautiously he pushed the blind aside and looked in. He smote his thigh, and gave a little chuckle of satisfaction.

"Here's hospitality," he whispered, "here's confidence. Open the latch and walk in. Not a soul in the room at all. Come along, my noble partner."


XLIII. IN THE BLUE ROOM

PRICE grinned at the unexpected luck. Really, the servants in large houses are very careless, a fact that the predatory class counts upon. A set of decanters and glasses and a large silver box of cigarettes attracted Macgregor's attention. He stretched out a longing hand.

"No liquor and no tobacco for Heaven knows how many weary hours," he said. "Don't see much sense in leaving tobacco at home myself."

"I do," Price said grimly. "You never could wait patiently without smoking, though there's nothing more dangerous or more likely to give you away. Well, you can fill your pockets and have a drink, and then we'll be off as quietly as possible."

Macgregor protested. There were lots of small yet valuable articles scattered about, and to leave them behind seemed like a sinful waste of golden opportunities. Besides, there was the dog. They were safe, it was true, for the present, but how were they going to get away again?

"How you manage to get your living is a mystery to me," Price growled. "You're not going to touch one single thing. And, as to the dog, that's quite easy. Whilst he's nosing about outside here, we shall slip out of the front door. You stay here till I've found it."

"And nothing to be taken?" Macgregor asked.

"Not so much as a cold cinder. You fool, suppose we get picked up on the way home? Such things have happened before now and will again. Here we are with a fortune in our grip, and you want to spoil it for a £5 note. If you touch anything, I'll—"

Price advanced so fiercely that Macgregor quailed.

"All right," he said tartly, "what a bad-tempered fellow you are. You go and raise the portcullis whilst I stay here. Only it seems a pity not to—ah, all right, keep your hair on. Only I'll be glad to get back to London again."

All this time Maude was listening at the top of the stairs. Not that she could hear a word of all this conversation, which was being carried on in whispers. All she felt was that somebody was in the house, and that Minter must be roused as quickly as possible. She felt pretty certain he would not have gone to bed yet, for she knew him and his habits.

She was creeping down the stairs now when a shadow crossed the corridor. Maude looked up hastily. Doubtless the noise had aroused some other guest. She was just a little annoyed to see the Countess in her white wrap standing behind her.

"Did you hear it?" she whispered. "Did you hear that noise?"

Maude murmured something reassuring. She could not leave the other woman there, she felt that the fact of her going downstairs in a dressing-gown and with her hair all over her shoulders needed some explanation.

"It is only your imagination," she said.

"Then what are you after?" Countess de Lary said with a sudden shrewdness. "Why are you creeping about like this, I want to know? You heard that noise?"

"I am going back for something that I have forgotten," Maude said. "But first I am going back to your room. You simply must stay there. As to your jewels—"

"They are quite safe, you think? I am in a strange house, the house of one of those capitalists. It is only another word for a thief. I don't know Mr. Minter, but if he could get my jewels he would do so. They are all alike."

Maude was biting her lips with vexation. Time was precious, and the poor old lady was keeping her waiting. Her whisper, too, was getting loud. Maude took her gently, but firmly, by the shoulder and piloted her back to the bedroom again.

"You are not to move again," she commanded. "If you do, I shall refuse to be responsible for your gems. If you like, when I return, you may come and sleep in my room. But not if you are going to disobey my orders in this fashion."

The bribe sufficed. With a patient little smile, the Countess promised to be good. Once again Maude crept down the stairs and into the hall, dimly lighted with one electric lamp in the large corona. It might have been fancy, but it seemed to the girl that she could hear whispering somewhere, that presently a dim form crossed the hall and disappeared.

There were no lights in any of the main rooms, as Maude could see. She passed down two of the corridors before a little slit of flame seemed to cut into the darkness. That was from the morning-room, the French window of which opened on to the terrace. Maude would have to pass that door to reach Minter's sanctum. Her heart was beating a little faster now.

Her foot caught against a stool and made a little noise, but the girl pushed resolutely forward. A burning curiosity took possession of her, a strong desire to see what was in the room. Burglars, as a rule, do not illuminate their proceedings with vivid electric lights, and it might be possible, after all, that Maude was mistaken. She pushed open the door and went in.

Nobody there, she told herself with a sigh of relief. But that was not quite correct. The intruder, Macgregor, was there, examining the pictures round the walls. The man was quick enough, so far as resource was concerned, for he pushed the door to instantly and confronted the astonished Maude. It was only a woman, after all, Macgregor told himself.

"What—what are you doing here?" Maude stammered.

"I am waiting by appointment to see Mr. Minter," Macgregor replied. For the life of him, he could not keep that smirk from his face. He was a squire of dames in his way, and prided himself on his correct judgment where a pretty face was concerned. And here was the most beautiful woman, with the most wonderful hair, he had ever seen. "Is he likely to be long?"

But Maude was not deceived, the smirk gave Macgregor away.

"You are a cool scoundrel," she said. "Do people who come to see Mr. Minter at this late hour generally enter the house by means of the window?"

The window might have been fastened, for all Maude knew to the contrary, but she made the shot. Macgregor laughed silently. It was the kind of adventure he liked.

"I am here by stress of circumstances," he said. "I have an enemy outside who is literally thirsting for my blood. So long as I am here I am safe; in fact, I should not have been safe if that window had not been luckily open. I assure you I am telling the truth."

"And you expect me to believe that and allow you to go?"

"The ears of beauty are never deaf to the tones of distress," Macgregor said smoothly. "If you will permit me to depart by the front door I will be grateful."

"I have not the slightest doubt about it. But such is far from being my intention."

The smirk disappeared suddenly from Macgregor's face, and an ugly look took its place.

"There are other methods of gaining my desire," he said. "For instance, you are weak and I am tolerably strong. And I have the advantage of the closed door on my side. Before you could give the alarm I could have you by that beautiful, slender, white throat of yours and choke the life out of you. I could gag you, and lock the door behind me. It would not be a pleasant thing to do, because I am a most humble and devoted admirer of your sex. On the other hand, the prospect of a long spell in gaol this lovely weather is not to be contemplated with equanimity."

Maude followed this tirade more or less hazily. The man spoke more or less like a gentleman, he was most offensively at ease, but he looked like a tiger. The girl was repenting of her boldness. If she had passed on and called Minter, there would have been nothing of this.

"You would not dare," she managed to say.

"Oh, yes, I would," Macgregor said with the ugly smile on his lips. "I dare most things. What does Shakespeare say on the subject? But never mind Shakespeare. Are you going to show me the front door, or shall I find it for myself?"

The door opened behind Maude before her reply was ready.


XLIV. GRUDGING HOSPITALITY

HOPE flickered up in Maude's breast for a moment. Doubtless her host had arrived, and he would very soon put a different complexion on the matter. But it was no dress-coated form that crept so slowly into the blue-room, but another man, the first intruder's accomplice, no doubt.

"It's all right," he whispered. "You can come along, Macgregor. Who the—"

Price paused in astonishment, not unmixed with admiration. Maude could have laughed aloud, had not her anger got the better of her. She faced Price indignantly.

"And this is the way you reward me!" she said. "This is why you came down here. Had I known, I would have allowed the dog to tear you in pieces."

"If I may never speak again, you misjudge me," Price said in a hard whisper. "I'm telling the truth now, may I die if I'm not. We were going out of the park when the dog picked us up again. He was carrying something in his mouth, and I thought that you had sent him home—"

"So I had," Maude said. "I can't understand."

"Well, the dog picked up our tracks again. We had to make a bolt for it, and so we came here. Our idea was to hide somewhere till the dog was discovered and called off and then make our escape. But we found the window open, and I suggested going through the house and out the other side. If it hadn't been for the dog, we should have been in London before now."

The man was telling the truth, Maude felt certain of that. All her fear vanished.

"In that case, I had better let you out," she said. "There is a side door here that will save going across the hall. I know where the key is kept."

"Half a moment," Macgregor said eagerly. "Allow me most humbly to beg your pardon; I used language just now, under a mistaken impression, of course, that I should not—"

"No apology is needed," Maude said. "I quite understand. The sooner you are gone the better."

"Step outside for a minute," Price said, "and close the door behind you."

Macgregor winked discreetly and disappeared. Price hesitated some little time before he spoke.

"I hope you believe me," he said. "I assure you nothing is missing here. I have too big a game to play to think of this paltry little thing at present. Would you like to have Minter under your thumb?"

"It would be useful," Maude said, suppressing her eagerness, "very useful. In fact—but go on."

"I can't go on for the present, my plans are not yet quite definite. But I'm going to do it. You have done me a good turn, and Eli Price never forgets that. But when the time comes, I'll not fail to let you know."

"Meanwhile, you had better be going," Maude said. "I'll get the key, and you can let yourself out. Presently I will come down again and lock the door. Good-night."

The key was procured, a sort of latch-key for emergencies, and was handed over to Price. Maude ran swiftly towards the stairs, but, as she did so, her foot caught in the edge of an armed figure, the shock dislodging the helmet, which clanged upon the floor.

"Be quick," she whispered. "Mr. Minter has not gone to bed. Not for worlds would I have him know that I have been talking to you. And that noise is sure to disturb him."

Maude flew up the stairs and into the room of the Countess. She had forgotten all about her troubles and suspicions now, for she lay on her bed fast asleep. At any rate, there was something to be thankful for. Behind the closed doors Maude listened intently, but no sound could she hear. No doubt the intruders had got safely away by this time, and Minter had found the cause of the commotion. He would naturally conclude that the helmet had fallen off, and there would be an end to the matter. But, on the whole, it had been a narrow escape, and Maude had no desire to repeat the experience.

To have a hold over Minter, too! The mere thought caused Maude to glow to her finger tips. Once given that, she could see her way. On the whole, it had been a good night's work when she first made the acquaintance of her rascally brother-in-law, and any stick was good enough to beat a dog with. If everything went well, she might be free yet.

But things downstairs were not going altogether as Maude could have wished. The key of the door was in the lock, but the wards refused to turn. Price shook it passionately.

"What's the matter?" Macgregor asked with his teeth chattering.

"Key stopped up," Price replied. "A bit of fluff down the barrel, or something of that kind. Fancy all this owing to a bit of fluff. Got a pin about you?"

But Macgregor did not possess that trivial but useful article. He only hoped that the master of the house had not been aroused by the clang of the falling helmet. Price tugged away, but all in vain.

"We shall have to go back by the way we came," he said. "Perhaps the dog's gone now; it's all a chance. Good thing Minter did not come out upon us."

But Minter was not so deaf as Price had fondly imagined. He had heard the noise of the falling helmet, and his suspicious nature told him that somebody was in the house. But how had they got there? Like a flash it came upon him how he had taken Murdock to the stables by means of the French window, the fastening of which he had forgotten. The thieves had entered the house that way and would return by the same exit.

Whatever Minter's faults were, he had no lack of physical courage. Nature had not given him that hard mouth and square jaw for nothing. He smiled grimly to himself as he took a loaded revolver from a drawer and let himself out into the night by means of his window, taking care to lock his door behind him so that there should be no loophole for the burglars.

All he saw was a dark shadow of a dog moving restlessly about. One of his own dogs, no doubt. He came to the blue-room; he smiled again to find the lights burning brilliantly there. As he stepped into that room, Macgregor entered by the door. A second and he was looking down into the blue rim of a revolver barrel and reviling his fate silently.

"Hands up," Minter said. "I've got you fairly this time. Any weapon about you?"

"Don't work in that way," Macgregor said sullenly. "Besides, it's dangerous. I'm not armed."

"Then you can sit down in that chair," Minter said in high good humour. "Help yourself to cigarettes and a drink. They are likely to be the last you will get for some time."

Macgregor complied with a shaking hand. His glass clinked against his teeth as he raised it. He wondered vaguely what Price was doing all this time. He had shot back directly he had caught sight of Minter. Perhaps by this time he was speeding across country. But Price was not that sort. He prided himself on the virtue of always sticking to a pal. Doubtless he was thinking of something now. Macgregor looked uneasily at the door.

Minter followed his glance, and detected his thoughts instantly.

"So you are not alone?" he said. "There is another man. I'll soon settle this."

He pushed the door to and raised his revolver. Before he could fire and give the necessary alarm, the door burst open and Price gripped his arm. Minter turned savagely in expectation of a struggle, but Price did not mean to fight for a moment; his face clearly proved that.

"Hold hard," he panted. "No reason to make a fool of yourself in that way. You've caught me fairly out, but I've got the grip on you, and we could murder you between us now despite your courage. You've forced my hand, my dear sir, but really it doesn't much matter."

"And who may you be?" Minter asked with well simulated curiosity.

Price dropped in a chair and laughed in his horribly silent fashion. He was always at his worst, he was always in his most dangerous mood when he did that. He took a cigarette and lighted it, he poured down his throat a liberal measure of brandy as if it had been water.

"I am Eli Price," he said. "I am the escaped convict who did not give evidence in the Certified Company case. And you pretend not to know me."

"I'll have you locked up before morning," Minter said.

Price laughed again in the same horrible, silent fashion.

"Not a bit of it," he said. "You dare not. Ring the bell, Minter. Call in the police. Sound the loud timbal, blow the trumpets, and all the rest of it. Why don't you do it, Minter? I'm quite prepared to face the music if you are. And my price is £100,000."


XLV. PUTTING ON THE SCREW

MINTER dropped into a chair and surveyed his unwelcome guests quite steadily. The man's nerve was not what it had once been, and he had been sorely tried lately, but he could cope with these two. There was a battle coming, and his courage rose to it.

"You rascal," he said. "I could shoot you both on sight, and the law would hold me blameless. I should merely say that I caught you in the act of burglary, and there would be an end of the matter. I daresay your pockets, too, are full of valuables."

"They're full of nothing of yours," Price said. "I've got a better game than that. We shouldn't have been here at all, but for a confounded dog which tracked us down. My friend found the window unfastened, and we were simply going to get through the house and give that dog the slip."

Minter laughed scornfully. At the same time, he had a feeling that Price was speaking the truth.

"And you expect me to believe that?" he said. "What do you take me for?"

"I take you for an unmitigated scoundrel," Price replied. "I take you for something precious near a pauper. You may grasp the right end of the stick and come out of it a millionaire in the proper sense of the word, and, if so, you'll have to pay my share of it. I know all about it; I know why you paid to get me out of the hands of the police."

"You dog, I'm going to send you back where you came from!"

Minter spoke ferociously, but there was no sting in the threat. Price smiled as he helped himself to another cigarette. He was master of the situation.

"Cut it," he said. "You are armed, and you know how to handle a revolver as well as most men. If that's your game, ring up your servants and call the police. What are you waiting for? Shall I tell you why you don't!"

"Because I am waiting to hear what you have to say."

"That's a lie. You are afraid to do anything. Go down into the cellar and get me a bottle of champagne. Let it be the best. Get a move on you, or I'll ring the bell certain."

Minter tried to smile contemptuously. But, as Price crossed over and actually rang the bell loudly, his manner changed. For the time being, he was beaten.

"For God's sake drop that nonsense!" he said hoarsely. "What are you driving at?"

Price came back to his seat. He was master of the situation, and he knew it. Unless Minter had him privately murdered—which he was quite capable of doing—he was bound to win.

"Now you are beginning to talk English," he said. "I know everything. You had me got out of the way because I was a stumbling-block to you. Ericsson managed it. But at that time you never anticipated trouble over the Certified Company business, or that I might prove so valuable a witness. I had to be silenced at all hazards, hence the plot to get me out of the hands of the police. But you had two strings to your bow, though you didn't quite trust Desborough. Ah, ah!"

Minter started, and Price laughed silently in that dangerous way of his.

"You've got Desborough under your thumb, and you fancy he is all right now. But you haven't got me under your thumb, and you are never likely to. If ever I do find myself in the witness-box, I shan't give Mr. Desborough a chance of evading important questions. I shall tell everything. If I do that, you are ruined—stock, lock, and barrel."

"And you'll go back to gaol for months," Minter snarled. "What then?"

"What then? A fool's question that. Suppose there is somebody working against you who will make it worth my while to stand the racket?"

Minter's heavy jaw dropped. He had not anticipated anything like this. Still, it was possible. He marvelled to find that Price knew so much. It looked like a case of paying again.

"What do you want from me?" he asked.

"The answer is easy. I want £100,000 to hold my tongue, and perhaps more afterwards."

"Modest request!" Minter said bitterly. "Where do you expect to get it from?"

"Well, not from you at present, for the simple reason that you are not worth it," Price said coolly. "I'll take bills at long dates; your name and another one on the back of them."

Minter laughed aloud. This man might be cunning, but he had a poor notion of business.

"It's impossible," he said. "Why, you would be blown upon directly. And who do you suppose would back my bills to the extent of a hundred thousand pounds?"

Price reached across the table and whispered in Minter's ear. He only said one word, and that word was Kinski. Minter's florid face grew pale, his eyes opened to their fullest extent. He might have been a craven coward listening to his own death sentence.

"I don't understand," he said. "I haven't the remotest idea what you mean."

"Oh, yes you have," Price sneered. "He's your greatest friend. The Baron would do anything for you."

"What do you know about him, then?"

"I know everything about him. I know where he came from and how he made his money, and where he is to be found at the present moment. Why, he is so fond of you that he actually takes a house next yours in Park Lane. He'll back your bills right enough."

Minter took up a cigarette, but he did not light it for a moment. His face and voice were fairly under control, but he could not stay the violent trembling of his hands, and he wanted to conceal the fact. He would have liked to strike Price's smiling, sneering face; he would have liked to strangle him.

"You seem to know everything," he said with a faint effort at sarcasm.

"I do know everything," Price replied. "It's a deep game, but you are going to play it as much for my benefit as your own, sonny. And I'm not a bit afraid of treachery on your part. If you play me false, I tell the whole truth and get my money from the other side, sweetened by the satisfaction that I have ruined you body and soul."

Minter silently admitted the logic. Price was master of the situation for the present.

"Would you know Baron Kinski's signature if you saw it?" Minter asked.

"I might not be able to swear to it," Price admitted. "But if I saw the noble baron sign those bills, that would get out of the difficulty, wouldn't it? On serious consideration that's the best plan; in fact, I'll stand by and see you both sign."

Price spoke with a leer, and with his tongue in his cheek. Macgregor sat there puzzled, but interested, and with a feeling that Price was getting the best of it all along the line. Minter managed to light his cigarette at last. He was utterly and absolutely beaten, but to resign with a good grace was not in him.

"I suppose you must have your own way," he growled. "But these things can't be done in a hurry. Under ordinary circumstances, I would ask you to come and see me in my offices on Monday, but we had better conduct the business by correspondence."

Price nodded. He had no wish to draw Minter into the compounding of a felony. He had all the cards in his hands; he had no fear of Minter playing him false. He poured himself out another glass of brandy, and coolly filled his pockets with cigarettes.

"We're keeping you up," he said. "Now that the business is settled, I'll go. I'll wire you my address, where I shall expect to hear from you in a few days. Let me once turn the bills into money, and you may die prosperous and respected, for all I care. I'll be off to Paris. Come along."

"Better go as you came," Minter suggested.

"Beware of the dog," Price replied. "The front door, please. I didn't mean to make myself known to-night, but circumstances were too strong for me. Funny, isn't it, to think that you should have done me so good a turn without intending anything of the kind. Ta, ta, Minter."

Minter growled something by way of a reply as he led the way to the door. He ought to have shot those two rascals and taken the consequences, he told himself. He could easily have done it, and then filled their pockets with portable property afterwards. And now there was a millstone about his neck, that threatened to drown him if he were not very careful.


XLVI. A COLLAPSE

MAUDE had not gone to bed yet. She had to make sure that the men were off the premises and the key of the side door restored to its proper place. Then there was the dog to be got rid of. If Gambit were seen about the premises in the daylight questions might be asked. By this time doubtless the two men would be far away, and Gambit would probably go home.

Maude waited for a little time without hearing anything, and then she crept downstairs. No doubt the fall of that helmet had not disturbed Minter. Encouraged by this feeling, Maude went along the corridor till she came to the blue morning-room. She would go out by the window and give Gambit a severe scolding for his disobedience, and incidentally she would fasten that window. It was not pleasant to sleep in a great house like this filled with treasures, and in the knowledge that the window was unlatched.

To Maude's intense surprise, the room door was closed, and there were people talking inside. The door was a thick one, and it was impossible to hear what was going on inside, but Maude made out Minter's voice and the hard tones of Price.

"Now, whatever does this mean?" she asked herself. "They are not quarrelling, or they would speak louder. How did they come together like this? I wish that door were thinner; I wish I could hear it. It sounds dishonourable, but under the circumstances—"

But Maude could hear nothing. It was dangerous to stand there, for the door might be opened at any moment and her presence discovered. She would go back to bed again; at any rate, Price would not betray the fact that she had any hand in the business.

The Countess was sleeping more lightly and murmuring to herself. She did not seem to be quite easy in her mind. Presently Maude heard suppressed voices downstairs, the creak of a door, and the rattle of a key. Beyond doubt, Minter was seeing his undesirable guests off the premises. But would he think to lock the window? The doubt disturbed Maude.

There was nothing for it but to sit up a little longer and see to it herself. Maude sat trying to interest herself in a book, and devoutly wishing that Minter would come upstairs soon. But Minter was not going to do anything of the kind. Price had effectively spoilt his night's rest, and he was in no mood for sleep. He paced up and down his room like a caged animal.

"Where the dickens did that fellow get his information from?" he muttered savagely. "I thought it was all between Desborough and myself and Bigglestone. Maude Beaumont knows, of course; but then Price never got his facts from her; and yet he knows all about it, which means that I have powerful foes, who are working underground. And Kinski, too. Do they know about Kinski? If that is so, and the Certified Company goes wrong, I'm done. There will be an almighty smash, and I shall end in a gaol. And, if things go right, I shall never miss the price of that rascal's silence."

For a long time Minter paced up and down the room, muttering to himself. He had lost all count of time; he had almost forgotten where he was. What would all these gilded butterflies upstairs say if they knew the facts of the case? It was a toss-up either way; lots of big men who had heavy balances behind them to-day had stood in Minter's shoes and pulled through. They were successful scoundrels, and they had never been found out.

"I'll try the girl again," Minter determined. "If I can discover where she got her information from I shall be on the right track. It's easy to fight an enemy that one can see, but this burrowing arrangement is the very dickens. Maude Beaumont is clever, but in the end she will be no match for me. I'll forget all about it for the present."

But this was easier said than done. Minter wandered about restlessly; his brain seemed to be on fire. He longed to be away in some lonely spot, where he had nothing to do but eat and sleep. Even his iron constitution had been sorely tried of late. In a restless way he sat down to the pianola. It was very late, and he might disturb his guests, but he cared nothing for that. Why should they be sleeping so peacefully whilst his mind was all inflamed?

He reached over and took Beethoven's Appassionata from its box. The tones of the rich, quivering melody filled the house. There was nothing mechanical about Minter's playing; he was a master of the instrument, which in skilful, feeling hands can be made to speak as Rubinstein and the rest made their music speak. Music was the one soft spot in Minter's nature; it was a craze with him. He put his heart in his melody now; it tingled to the tips of his fingers.

Maude came downstairs more boldly. The sonata was a long one, she knew. Minter would not stop until he had finished, and so she would have time to admonish Gambit and fasten that window. Gambit was still raging up and down outside, and he came to Maude's call with a shamed air. A few hearty cuffs on his long, drooping ears did as much good as a sound thrashing. Maude pointed sternly towards the drive, and Gambit disappeared into the darkness.

Maude crept back and fastened the window gently. Thank goodness that was done. The music was still going on as she advanced towards the stairs. Suddenly it broke off, and from Minter's room came a sharp cry, as of a strong man in pain.

Without a moment's hesitation Maude entered. She saw Minter leaning over the pianola, his features all drawn up; there were big drops on his forehead.

"Are you really ill?" Maude asked. "I came down for something that I had forgotten, and I heard you cry out as if you were in dreadful pain. What is it?"

Minter came to himself with an effort. His face was still grey, and his eyes fixed.

"I don't know," he said with an effort to breathe. "It's here, in the centre of my chest. I have had it more than once lately when I have worried very much."

"If you would like me to telephone for the doctor—"

"Not for a moment. He'll tell me to rest, or something of that kind. Just as if a busy man like myself can ever find time to rest! If it's really serious, why it is serious, and there's an end of the matter. I'm better now."

Maude listened with a sympathy that was not in the least assumed. In the presence of pain and suffering, she was her sweet self at once. She urged the plea of the doctor again, but Minter shook his head as he resumed his seat once more.

"It will pass," he said, "the music soothes me. There is one thing I should like, if you could possibly manage to get it for me without trouble, and that's a little sal-volatile. A good strong dose of it very often takes the pain away."

The sal-volatile was fortunately close at hand; indeed, Maude had given the Countess a wineglassful of it earlier in the evening. As she flew upstairs the music rang out once more as if nothing had happened, but the big drops were still on Minter's forehead, and the difficulty of breathing remained.

Maude poured out a liberal dose of the powerful medicine, and filled the glass up with water. As she left the room, the Countess stirred and opened her eyes. She was wide awake in an instant, listening with all her ears to the lovely, rippling music, with its rising and falling note of passion. Music to her was as the very air she breathed. She sat up entranced.

"Who is it?" she asked. "A master, a veritable master. I must get up."

"You will do nothing of the kind," Maude commanded. "If you stir from your bed, I shall go downstairs and have the piano locked up. Do you understand that?" The old lady ducked down immediately, and closed her eyes as if she meant sleep at once. It seemed to Maude that she could leave her there in peace. Her strong will conquered the other's weakness. And still the tones of the melody floated in.

"There is a good strong dose," Maude said. "Drink it at once."

"That's better," he said, "it seems to act like magic. When I've finished this thing I shall go to bed. I won't forget your kindness to-night."


XLVII. THE COUNTESS FINDS OUT

THE man looked utterly weary and fagged out. There was no semblance of the successful man of business about him now. By sheer strength of will he kept himself from the spirits on the table, for he had a full contempt for the people who seek courage that way.

"Is there anything more that I can do for you?" Maude asked gently.

"No, nothing. You are a good girl, and I have treated you very badly. I'd like to know one thing, however. Do you really and truly care for Clifford Desborough?"

Minter asked the question with all his old cunning and swiftness. There was no impertinent curiosity about it, and the hot blood flamed into Maude's cheeks from no feeling of resentment. Her eyes met his steadily as she replied—

"I do not care for him at all," she said. "There are reasons why I am bound to marry him. I shall be utterly miserable, because I despise the man, and my heart is given to another. Not that the latter fact is likely to appeal to you."

Minter looked round the room as if his mind were far away.

"You are wrong there," he said quietly. "I had a heart once, and there was a woman who cared for me. And she died—practically of starvation. If she had lived, I might—I am sure I should—have been different. Ah, you undergo what I have suffered, and you will think that money is everything...But I wasn't going to say that. If I go under, you come to me and I will show you a way to get rid of Desborough."

"I should prefer for you to show me now," Maude said coldly.

"I can't do that; it would interfere with my plans. No, no; I am not going to be sentimental; each for himself. Good-night!"

Minter waved Maude out of the room; he was his own hard self again. The girl heard him humming a little tune to himself as he went to his own room. Her head was getting heavy now; a great sense of fatigue was upon her. She would put everything aside and sleep now. She passed into the bedroom where she had left the Countess de Lary, feeling very much like a mother who has the care of a peevish and intractable child. She had promised to hide the old lady, and the responsibility—

Maude gasped as she looked at the bed. It was empty. Perhaps the patient had wakened up and wandered into the other bedroom. But she was not there. Of course, the music had been the source of all the trouble. It had preyed upon the brain of the poor creature without doubt, and she set out to find whence the melody came.

Maude crushed down her feeling of vexation and anger. She was very tired, but, all the same, she could not go to bed until she had found the wanderer. After all, the poor creature was not responsible for her actions. Doubtless she was rambling about the house somewhere. For the first time, Maude felt sorry that she had undertaken this obligation.

From the top of the house she walked downwards, lighting and shutting off the electrics generally. It was not until she reached the hall that she came upon the object of her search. She was pacing up and down the hall with the lights full on, her bare feet cold as ice from contact with the marble floor. There was a queer smile on her face; she did not seem to realize that she was doing anything in the least out of the common.

"I couldn't sleep," she said! "lately I am greatly troubled that way. So I came down to look at the pictures. The music disturbed me, too, that divine music. Have you any idea when it is going to commence again?"

"The musician has gone to bed," Maude said crisply. "I have just said good-night to him. You will have to wait till to-morrow. Come along."

"My dear, you must not speak to an old lady like that again in that tone of voice. It is not polite; in my young days it would never have been tolerated. You will please to remember that I am not your visitor, but the guest of Lady Mary Minter."

Maude repressed her rising anger. The prospects of getting to bed were anything but favourable, and she was dead tired. The Countess' passing annoyance was light as a summer cloud, and she was smiling again.

"We will go up in a few minutes," she said. "My dear, you have been very kind to me. The only thing you will not do is to tell me whether Baron Kinski is staying in the house or not. I fancied that I had found him some time ago; in fact, I was almost certain of it. But I must have been mistaken, because he was playing the piano."

"Baron Kinski is a great musician?" Maude asked, painfully struggling with a yawn.

"He does not know one note of music from another. Of that I am certain. I felt sure I had him to-night; I tracked him by his cigarettes. And in the room was another capitalist, so that, had they known, I should have lost my lovely pendant. And, behold, the man I thought was the Baron was making the most lovely music in the world. He was a shy man."

"Musicians generally are," Maude said with another yawn.

"He was in the dark. He put the lights down. And the other man, the capitalist, was listening. I did not imagine that those people had souls for anything but money. Still, it was one of Chopin's impromptus, and such lovely music. I asked the gentleman to play again, and, whilst I was getting my pendant, he slipped from the room. But I must meet him again."

Maude had no doubt that the matter could be easily arranged. How much longer was her companion going to sit there, alert and clear-eyed, she wondered.

"I'll do all I can for you," she said. "Meanwhile, do come to bed. I can hardly keep my eyes open, and you will catch your death of cold on this marble floor. Besides—"

Maude was about to explain what a piano player was, but checked herself. Evidently the Countess had never heard of the thing, and it would mean a cascade of questions.

"Music is a passion with me," the Countess went on. "I could listen for weeks. And the piano I heard was a lovely instrument. Let me go and see it."

"If you promise to come to bed immediately after," Maude said.

The desired promise was given. Maude had forgotten all about the pianola by this time. She walked across to the blue-room in a kind of waking dream; the lights hurt her eyes; she dropped into a chair, and was practically asleep before the high voice of the Countess aroused her.

"What does it mean?" she exclaimed. "Come here! I am old-fashioned and out of the world sometimes, and there are many new things with which I am not familiar. How does this play?"

"It is more or less mechanical," Maude explained. "The music plays from rolls of paper, and you put the expression into it yourself. The execution is perfect; indeed, nobody can play as this marvel plays. If you have no feeling, no soul for music, it is more or less like a barrel organ, but an expert on this instrument can work wonders. It is superb."

"And that is what I heard to-night. Why did you not tell me before?"

"Because I wanted you to go to sleep; because it was no use to bother your head. You shall hear it to-morrow; indeed, I am considered very good at it myself. And now do come to bed, and to-morrow I will explain all these keys and catches to you."

The Countess looked up with longing doubt upon her face.

"And that is what I heard to-night," she said. "On your honour, that is what I heard to-night?"

Maude suitably responded to the excited question.

"And the man at the piano did not probably know a note of music. He left the room as soon as he could after I had entered. Because he was musical, I came to the conclusion that he could not possibly be Baron Kinski. But the Baron might play that thing; he might pass in the dark for a mighty musician. I am right, right after all."

"Right in what?" Maude asked. She only seemed able to think with one side of her brain.

"Right in saying that Baron Kinski is in the house, my dear. He was playing the instrument. Let me go to bed instantly. I want a clear brain in the morning."


XLVIII. DANGER FOR MINTER

MAUDE'S task was rendered easier than she had expected by the fact that the Countess was unable to leave her bed the next day. The exposure had brought on a severe chill, and the doctor was pretty firm on the point that she must stay where she was for the present.

"Please send us a nurse," Lady Mary asked. "A strong-minded nurse, doctor, for your patient wants firm handling. And I wish you would see my husband whilst you are here. He has a violent headache, and seems to have lost all his energy."

Minter was in bed also, and likely to remain there for the day. But he stoutly refused to have anything to do with the doctor. He had business of vital importance in London on the morrow, and any suggestion that he should lie by and rest was absolutely out of the question.

Maude went peacefully off to church, glad to get away from her troubled thoughts for the time. She would have a quiet and peaceful Sunday, at any rate. It was all the more peaceful because Desborough did not show up. He had had a fall in his bedroom and hurt his face, so he told Lady Mary at breakfast-time, and he would therefore spend most of the day in his own room. He was fearfully busy, too, a pile of briefs called aloud for his immediate attention.

"Make the best of your time," he said to Maude, as she stood in the hall sorting out her prayer and hymn books. "Enjoy the society of Clive whilst you have the chance. I shall call upon you when you return to town, and things will have to be definitely settled by then."

Maude bowed coldly, but her face flushed.

"As you please," she said. "I want to save you if I can, but you make it very hard for me. What should you say if I were to dispose of my fortune, if I turned it into money or bestowed it on some hospital? Would you be so eager to marry me then?"

"You would not be so foolish," Desborough said uneasily.

"Don't be sure of that," Maude said. "A desperate woman will do strange things if you push her too far. And God knows that I am a desperate woman."

Desborough went back to his room and his work with an uneasy mind. In any case, he would not let Maude go now. She had stood by and seen Clive strike him; she had even taken a pleasure in the blow. The fact that Desborough had brought it all on himself did not lessen the sting. It was with him all day; it was still with him as he returned to London on Monday morning. He would have to wait his chance with Maude, for she had decided to remain where she was for the present. But Clive had come up by the same train to take Minter's place if possible.

"I can hardly move my head," the millionaire groaned. "Fancy being kept here like this at such a time. An hour in the City now would be worth a year to me; my fortune hangs upon it. Connect my private telephone wire so that I can get it up here."

Lady Mary made the sufferer as comfortable as possible, and left him to his own devices. This was to have been a critical day in the fortunes of the capitalist; he was to have met Murdock in the City and settled the business by bringing Baron Kinski in. And here he was laid by the heels like a weak dog, and nobody capable of doing the right thing by himself.

He lay there with towels over his racking head until the telephone was fixed and the receiver was close to his elbow. Then he felt a little easier in his mind. He liked to see the men he was doing business with, to look into their eyes and read their inmost thoughts.

He was half asleep when the sharp tinkle of the bell brought him to his senses. He groaned with the physical pain as he turned round and demanded what was wanted.

"I'm here," he said. "I shall be here, confound it, all day. Is that you, Mellor? Mr. Murdock—"

"Just been here, sir," came the reply. "Between ourselves, he does not seem to imagine that there is anything the matter with you at all. He thinks that you are trying to gain time."

"I wish he had my head," Minter gasped viciously. "Is there anything else?"

"Nothing else at present, sir. I'll let you know if things are going wrong."

Minter waited impatiently for the best part of an hour before the bell rang again. That something had gone very much astray he could tell by Mellor's voice. Ugly rumours had got abroad concerning Certified shares, and there was a sharp drop in them. Murdock had not come back again, and he was holding aloof for the present. What was to be done?

"Nothing for the next few hours," Minter said. "Let the bears have their head. I shall astonish them before the day is out. Stay where you are, so that I can be in touch with you as I want you."

Minter dragged himself up painfully in bed. The pain of the exertion turned him sick and faint, but his head was steady now and his brain clear. He reached for some cablegram forms and a pencil from the table.

"The time has come for the coup," he muttered. "It was inevitable from the first. The game is going to be a dangerous one, but a little boldness and the thing is successfully accomplished. It will be a case of Minter and Kinski against the rest. And, if Kinski gets found out, he will have to fly, and I shall be able to show a clean pair of hands. What a scheme it is!"

Slowly but surely Minter wrote out his cypher cable. It was addressed to an office in New York. Then he rang the bell and gave the message to a groom.

"You're to go into Reading and dispatch this at once," he commanded. "Here are four pounds to pay for it. Take the fastest horse in the stable."

The groom bowed and retired. They were used to these things at Marvyn Chase, so that the cable caused no surprise. Minter was smiling to himself now as a man does who has got the best of his foes. He dropped presently into a sleep, a sound sleep that he had not had for days. He was still sleeping when Lady Mary came in about luncheon time.

"I'll not disturb him," she said to Maude. "Sleep is the best thing in the world for a head like that. How is your patient getting along?"

The Countess was something of a trial, and Maude was glad when the nurse came. It was a lovely afternoon, much too fine to stay indoors. There was not the slightest reason why the carriage should not be ordered round and a series of visits repaid. It was past three before Lady Mary and Maude departed, and nearly four before Minter came out of his sleep at the tinkle of the telephone bell.

"What's up now?" he asked as he grasped the receiver. "Got any more bad news, Mellor?"

"Just the contrary, sir," Mellor said with a catch in his voice. "A cablegram from Baron Kinski. He wants to come in at once. His first order is for 10,000 shares, and he says he is starting for London on the Cedric tomorrow. What am I to do?"

"See our brokers and get the order through at once. Go at once. You need not pick up anything for me."

Minter smiled grimly to himself as he gave these instructions. So far the game was perfectly safe. And in any case he could see a good way out for himself. The name of Kinski behind himself was good enough for everything. At four o'clock Mellor called him up again.

"I've managed it, sir," he exclaimed. "The market closed firmer than it has been for days. There will be a great boom in Certified stock to-morrow, especially as Baron Kinski is coming over. Mr. Murdock called a few minutes ago, but I was out."

Minter chuckled. The bait had soon brought the fish.

"Tell him my head is too bad to do any business," he said. "I'm on no account to be disturbed. What's that? Mr. Murdock is there now? I'm sorry, but I can't speak to him, I can't really. Ring off."

Minter banged the receiver down and refused to answer again. Half an hour later a telegram came from Murdock—

"Shall run down and see you by the 8.15. Can explain. Shall hold you to your bargain. Mellor seems to have quite misunderstood me to-day."

"So he will come in?" the sick man muttered. "Well, he shall. And shall live to rue the day that he tried to play fast and loose with Graham Minter."


XLIX. THE TURN OF THE WHEEL

THE great coup had been made, and there was little to do now beyond a waiting game. The sheer audacity of it had frightened Minter at first, headstrong and daring as he was. But gradually the details had shaped themselves until the thing became perfect. It was only to be played in cases of emergency, but the grizzly skeleton had been staring Minter in the face for some time now.

"It's all right," he muttered to himself as he lay in bed. "If everything goes smoothly I can drop the baron; he can go back to America and stay there. If all goes badly, he takes all the blame, and I step discreetly aside and efface myself. It's fine! Upon my word, I could almost wish for the worst if only to study the faces of certain people, that pompous ass Murdock, for instance, who will come in now at any hazards. Well, his name will be useful."

Gradually the racking pain was passing away, the strong, cunning brain grew clear, life and freedom were returning to Minter's limbs. He rose presently, had his bath, and dressed with more than usual care for dinner. A strong cup of tea, and he was himself again. He dispatched a telegram to Murdock and sat down now to wait upon events.

But, first, he must know if that infernal old woman had left the house. Things never go exactly as one desires, even in the case of successful millionaires, and Minter was displeased to hear that Countess de Lary was still at Marvyn Chase. But there was consolation in the fact that she was still in bed and likely to remain there.

"I suppose we must make the best of it," he growled to Lady Mary. "Once she does go, she is not to come here again, mind that. And let us have something out of the common for dinner, with as much show as you can crowd on. I expect Murdock down, and I've asked him to stay the night."

Lady Mary gave the desired assurance and went away, leaving Minter to his music. He was already dressed, though it wanted more than an hour to dinner time. He had put business out of his mind altogether; some new music had just arrived, and Minter was deep in a study of Schubert's. He looked up, none too pleased as somebody touched his shoulder. A drawn, haggard face was looking down into his; he hardly recognized Clifford Desborough for the moment.

"And what the dickens do you want?" he growled. "I was in a world of my own for the moment. Has somebody found you out, or what is wrong with the man?"

Desborough crossed over and closed the door carefully. Then he came back to Minter's side.

"Somebody has been talking," he said. "Swayne came to me this morning. He didn't come from the powers that be, you understand, but he had a mission all the same. He hinted that my financial position was freely canvassed; indeed, he went further than that. It's pretty clear to me that, unless I can prove that my affairs are sound, Hume will get the Secretaryship."

"What's that got to do with me?" Minter asked brutally.

"Nothing, if you put it that way. I must convince the public that I am largely interested in some sound concern. Somebody must have been talking very freely indeed, because I had been almost definitely promised the Home Secretaryship."

Minter saw no difficulty in the way whatever. All Desborough had to do was to borrow a good round sum of money from his future wife and invest it in sound securities. These he could show to the intermediary Swayne, and there would be an end of the matter.

"Of course, you laughed at the idea of your being in Queer Street?" he asked.

"Well, yes, I was properly indignant, too. But I can't ask Miss Beaumont for that money. We have been brought up in different schools, Minter, and regard things with different eyes."

"Then get the girl to name the day and marry her. A man engaged to a rich girl and a man married to her are two different persons. Don't bother me any more."

"Swayne hinted something to the same effect," Desborough said moodily. "but that is not quite all. Our side have moved in the matter of the Certified Company to restore the case to the paper for next Monday. Carter, who is my junior, tells me that fresh evidence had cropped up, and that we can manage without Price. I haven't gone into the case yet, but there you are. Will that suit you?"

"It won't suit me at all," Minter said between his teeth. "When I got Price out of the way—"

"Man alive, you must be mad to talk to me like this!"

"To the dickens with you and your legal quibbles," Minter cried. "We are a pair of rascals together, and there is no use in blinking the fact that we both know it. You know that I got Price put away—"

"My dear sir, I may have had my suspicions to that effect, but really—"

"Suspicions be hanged; you knew it from the first, the same that I know that you actually shielded Price in your own chambers when the police were after him. Aye, you may stare and wonder where I got that from, but there it is. You dared not give Price up, and you know it."

There was a deep, vexed flush on Desborough's face. He would have given his soul at that moment to fling a denial into Minter's face and defy him. All he could do was to ask for instructions.

"Get an adjournment," Minter whispered hoarsely. "We have a week before us, and by that time Baron Kinski will be here. Give us another week after this, and I am afloat again; between Kinski and Murdock and myself we are going to do the trick. Get an adjournment, I say."

"If the legal firm instructing me objects what can I do?"

"Do? Lots of things. Feign illness, have a kind of seizure in Court. Let it be known that nobody can grapple with the case but yourself, and it's easily managed. You must do this thing, Desborough, or, by Heaven, I will ruin you, stock, lock, and barrel."

Desborough nodded gloomily. He feared this man; he did not trust him. Minter would not hesitate to throw him over at the last moment if his interests lay that way. And it was quite possible that the judge trying the case of Mackness versus the Certified Company would not consent.

"Go away," Minter said. "Don't bother me any longer. I want to play this music, I want to think. But I am not going to trust you any further than I can see you. Only you'd better stop to dinner."

The big gong boomed out in due course, and the guests began to assemble in the drawing-room. Murdock came in rather late, but with an evident desire to please his host, who received him curtly. Minter must be very sure of his ground to act like that, the shrewd North countryman thought. And all around him were evidences of wealth and prosperity, the wonderful pictures, the statuary, the floral decorations. Dinner was served presently, and the great dining hall, a Jacobean room with some of the finest carved oak and tapestry in the kingdom on the walls. The meal was served on a silver service that had belonged to Louis XVI, the china was genuine Watteau. It was impossible to see the canker in the fruit.

And yet the ostensible owner was rotten to the core. It only wanted a straw upon the wind to start the hurricane to sweep it all away. A few days would decide it one way or another. But Minter sat there, strong and self-reliant, with the glance of a Napoleon, and a security of his position calculated to deceive anybody. Certainly he carried off everything exceedingly well. Yet at any moment he would not have been surprised to see a figure standing in the doorway with the shadow of Justice behind.

Desborough watched him bitterly. He had taken Maude into dinner, but he was by no means his usual self. Little passed between them, for Desborough's mind was busy. He had played it as low down as it was possible to play anything; he had made use of a legal secret, but, as yet, he had not dared to ask Maude for money. And yet—

He put the thought out of his mind for the moment. He would hear something definite presently. Lady Mary and some of her guests were discussing a recently-fixed Society wedding. Desborough bent over his plate and said a few words, the purport of which Maude failed to catch.

"Were you asking me something?" she said.

"Yes," Desborough replied. "I am asking you to fix our wedding day. I cannot afford to wait any longer. Why not cap Lady Mary's intelligence, and say that our wedding—"

Maude shuddered. Her face had grown very pale.

"I must see you presently," she said. "I have a proposal to make to you."


L. BLOOD MONEY

DINNER was over at length, and the house party scattered about. Kit Clive had come down by a late train, and was in the library transacting some business with Minter. He had resigned his position as private secretary; in a day or two he would be free of the City for all time. Maude was sitting in the outer hall amongst the flowers, with the door open, enjoying the evening breeze. There was a trying interview before her, and she was trying to brace up her nerves for the ordeal. Kit, passing on his way to the stables, found her.

"This is a bit of bad luck for me," he said cheerfully. "I have a great deal to say to you, Maude."

"Not now," Maude said hastily. "Presently, Kit. I shall be in the small dining-room in an hour's time, but first, I have something serious to say to Mr. Desborough. Kit, he wants me to fix the day."

Kit drew a long breath, and his face grew hard.

"You are not to do that," he said. "On no account let him persuade you to do that until you have seen me again. I don't know, I may be wrong, but I fancy that I can see the way clear now. I won't give you up, darling; you belong to me. I could never be happy without you."

He caught Maude's hand passionately and carried it to his lips. A shadow fell across the hall, and Desborough stood there, with eyes full of cold contempt.

"If I am not intruding," he said. "I should like to have a word with you, Maude. In fact, I am under the impression that you asked me here for that purpose."

No colour stained Maude's cheeks; she pointed quite coolly to the chair by her side. Kit moved away, and his figure was lost in the darkness.

"How long is that going on?" Desborough asked.

"If you have any self-respect—"

"I am not going to accept any lessons in self-respect from you," Maude said. "I love that man with my whole heart and soul, and he loves me. Do you hear that?"

"I hear it fast enough. But I shall soon teach you to forget it."

"You never will. Oh, I shall not disgrace you; the tongue of scandal will never touch me. And when Society finds that you have not married a rich woman, even you will be free from the accusation of a mercenary marriage."

"What do you mean by that? The fortune that you inherited under the will—but that is nonsense."

"It is not nonsense at all. I am worth about £20,000 at the outside, and that sum is represented by my jewels. Do you know how my money is invested?"

"I never inquired. As your trustees are thorough men of business, I presume—"

"My trustees had no option. When my father died the property of the Certified Company was a valuable one. Now, thanks to the manipulations of men of the Minter type, it may be worth millions, or it may be worth nothing. All my money is invested in Certified Shares."

Desborough fairly staggered under the blow. Surely Fate had never placed a man in such a cruel position. If he won his case, as he most assuredly would have done had not Minter got him in his grip, Certified Shares would have been worth more than ever. He had quite forgotten for a moment that the late Mr. Beaumont had practically been the Certified Company in his lifetime.

"Why didn't you tell me this before?" he asked hoarsely.

"For the simple reason that I did not know," Maude replied. "It is only quite lately that I have been learning something about business. I had some idea of setting my affairs in order, and I wrote to the solicitor to my trustees. He tells me that I have everything in that Company."

Desborough suppressed a groan. He had practically made up his mind to let things go, and do as Minter wished. As the husband of Maude he could afford to let the world pass, but that did not free him from Minter's hard grip. He liked Maude, he wanted a rich wife, but he loved his ambition more than either. If he defied Minter, the latter would speak, and he would be ruined. Once the bitter truth was spoken, not all the money in the world would ever set him on his political pedestal again. And all this time, without knowing it, he had been shaping a course deliberately calculated to deprive Maude of what he most valued—her money. And he could see no way out of it.

If he defied Minter, he would win his case, he would have a rich and lovely wife. But then Minter would drive him out of the House of Commons without scruple or hesitation. And if he let things go, and Minter came out of the trial with flying colours, Maude would be a pauper.

"You seem to take it very coolly," he said bitterly.

"If you valued your good future—"

"Oh, I do. From the bottom of my heart I want Mr. Minter to win. In that case you will have no further use of me; you will have degraded yourself in my eyes, and played the scoundrel for nothing. Every time you meet me you will think that somebody knows you for what you are."

"If your money is gone"—Desborough was stung into retort—"you are not likely to meet me in—"

"In Society. You are forgetting. I shall not mind my money, it will not make the smallest difference to me. You see I shall be free to marry the man I love, and you know he is a rich man. Kit Clive has far more than we shall ever need, and he will be glad to take me as I am. On the whole I shall not be sorry to see Mr. Minter get the best of that case."

Desborough made no reply for some little time, and Maude sat there regarding him with a smile of dry contempt. Strong, clever man as he was, Desborough was hopelessly beaten and overcome. Rack his brains as he might, he could see no way out of the difficulty. He was between Minter and the deep sea of political oblivion. If Maude's money had been in his hands...Could she sell out?

But Maude could do nothing of the kind, at least not until a certain date. Her father had left her everything, with a stipulation that if the shares in the company realized a certain price the surplus was to go to her sister, Alice, or any representative she left behind her. It sounded sentimental, but there it was.

"But your sister is dead," Desborough said.

Maude fought her anger down. Was this man utterly shameless?

"That has to be proved," she said. "It will be a long and expensive business, the lawyers tell me. If we win our case those shares will bound up, they say, and Alice, if she is alive, would be entitled to something like £60,000. I'm told the Court would hesitate to hand that over to me unless my proofs of Alice's death were strong."

As a lawyer, Desborough had to admit the soundness of this reasoning. Both Alice Beaumont and her husband might have survived the shipwreck; they might be close at hand at the present time. A dull red flushed into the barrister's face as he realized how near they were. What his feelings would have been had he but known to what extent Maude shared his knowledge can only be guessed.

Maude rose; she felt it impossible to sit there any longer with that calculating scoundrel without betraying herself.

"It is useless to stay here any longer," she said. "It seems to me that I have given you plenty of food for reflection. I shall be glad to know in a day or two what you propose to do. Or shall we go to Lady Mary and tell her the date fixed for our marriage?"

The bitter gibe went home. Desborough winced before it. Hard rascal as he was, he was not quite devoid of feeling. Maude pressed her advantage.

"I am not without information," she said. "I know, for instance, that Mr. Minter is terribly in want of ready money. It seems to be a condition of affairs common to the modern millionaire. Let me try and get you out of the depths of despair into which you have fallen. I can command money; I can raise £20,000 on my jewels. I'll go to Minter and ask him what he will take for those papers; I'll offer to buy them. He shall be paid money down. And then you will be free to play the man again. No doubt it will be a peculiar sensation, but I should say a pleasing one."

Desborough said nothing, a ray of hope lighted up his dark soul. He made some protest, but there was no heartiness or sincerity about it.

"Minter would not part with the papers," he said feebly. "Besides, I could not permit you to—"

"Mere hollow words. I can see that you are glad of the suggestion. To-morrow night, if I get the chance, I will do this thing for you, for the sake of your past, for the sake of the mother who is so proud of you. Try and hold up your head once more, look me in the face. For even you are not likely to reach a greater depth of degradation than this."

Maude moved away with her head in the air and the light shining on her white, beautiful face.


LI. MINTER IS CANDID

THE special editions of the evening papers arrived at Marvyn Chase about ten o'clock. On the whole, Minter had no cause to be dissatisfied. Once more he had become a central figure. His portrait, vilely executed and smudgily printed, appeared in two of the flimsy sheets, vague rumours of the good time coming for Certified shareholders filled columns. One contemporary, bolder than the rest, had an interview with Baron Kinski telegraphed from New York. On the whole, Mellor had done his work well, Minter thought.

By one bold stroke, his tarnished credit had been established on a higher pinnacle than ever! Kinski and Minter and Murdock could move financial mountains. At the end of a week Minter could see his way to the best part of a million of money. And yet he was at his wits' ends for a few thousand pounds in ready cash. It has happened to millionaires before.

But, on the whole, he had every cause to be satisfied. There were terrible dangers ahead, but Minter could make light of them for the present. His smile was large and engaging as Maude came up to him as he was leaving the drawing-room.

"Can I have a little conversation with you?" she asked.

"Why not?" Minter replied. He had a fine admiration for Maude, whose beauty and intelligence had made a deep impression on him. If he could have looked into the depths of the girl's mind he would have been less florid and more cautious. That she was going to make use of him he never imagined for a moment. But Maude saw her way clear.

"Come along to my room," Minter said in great good-humour. "Murdock has gone to bed. He is one of the class that takes no liquor, and can't do with only eight hours' sleep. Good thing for Murdock that he happened to be the son of his father—he would never have made his own fortune. And now, what is it I can do for you?"

Maude seated herself before the wood fire thoughtfully, for the night had turned chilly. The flickering blaze fell on the lovely, sensitive face, on the shimmering drapery, and the slender hands. She formed a beautiful picture that compelled Minter's admiration.

"I want some information," she said. "Do you know that all my money is in Certified Shares?"

Minter nodded. There was very little he did not know upon that subject.

"My father practically made that company," she said. "After he died you got hold of it; at least, you obtained command of enough shares to direct its policy. Then came the business of those smuggled arms. If the case goes for Mackness what happens?"

"I'll tell you. It's a treat to talk to an intelligent woman like yourself. The Mackness action is not a large one, but if it wins it opens the door to others. Not that I care so much as I did, because before the week is out the shares will be double their present value."

"And how is that going to be brought about?"

"I'll tell you. I'll be perfectly candid. Kinski and Murdock have joined in the business. The great public will naturally conclude that we must have a good thing, and they'll jump for Certified Shares. They will be up points before Wednesday. If you can get your trustees to sell out then, you'll make more than £100,000. That's what I'm going to do."

Maude started at the cool audacity of the speaker.

"But that sounds like a swindle," she said.

"Not a bit of it. It's only the smarties who will get bitten. If we win our case the enhanced value of Certified Shares will be permanent. At the bottom, it is a magnificent property."

"And if you lose your case, Mr. Minter?"

"Then there will be a big slump. I shall sell and take my profit, and I shall quietly buy back the depreciated shares, because, as I said before, the property is a sound one. We shall appeal and fight and argue till the holders of shares will be glad to get rid of them."

"And that is what you call commercial morality?" Maude cried scornfully.

Minter laughed. He had been candid, very candid indeed. He did not usually go so far as this with anybody, but he'd had a trying day in which ruin and disaster and dishonour had been suddenly turned into smiling prosperity. And he had taken a great deal of wine at dinner.

"It's business," he said. "I've shown you how to make a fortune, and you should be grateful. And, unless I am greatly mistaken, you'll take my advice."

"Yes," Maude said, with a curious thrill in her voice. "I shall see that my solicitors take your advice. From what you say, you stand on velvet either way. But, supposing that the missing witness comes forward and goes into the box!"

Minter's heavy face clouded, and a dark gleam came into his eyes.

"My wings would be clipped," he said. "I could do no more than make my pile over the shares. If Price gave evidence, I should have to drop Certifieds at once. Between ourselves, my dear young lady, Price has a very queer story to tell."

"And so the Certified Company would go into honest ways again, as it did in my father's time?"

"Well, that's rather a strong way to put it," Minter said, with a wry face, "but it's true. Not that there is the slightest chance of Price turning up again."

Maude bent down and restored a fallen log to the fire. She was fearful lest Minter should see the fierce joy blazing on her face. The man had told her everything that she positively wanted to know. Better still, he knew nothing of the tremendous weapon he was placing in Maude's hands. She would free herself yet; she would see the end of Desborough's hated attention, and she would lay her head on Kit's breast and be happy.

"Then I should very much like Price to turn up," she said.

"Why? You have nothing to gain by it."

"Personally, perhaps not. But it would cut the knot of the hateful business. It would save thousands of poor creatures from ruin in the long run. It is men like you who are the bane of modern industry. You cannot do anything for yourselves, you invent nothing, you leave nothing better than you find it. You have not even the possession of intellect. You are the pests of Society."

Maude flashed out suddenly, not without bitter self-contempt behind her anger. It galled her that she had to make more or less of a friend of this man. It did not occur to her that he was giving her all this information by way of bribing her to keep silence over the visit of Amy Rayne to Marvyn Chase. She only knew that she was paltering with a scoundrel for her own ends.

"Are we as bad as all that?" Minter asked, with a smile.

"Indeed you are. Your whole stock-in-trade is cunning and audacity. And you have no feelings. For your own ends you have gone far to ruin Clifford Desborough's career. You are compelling him to do a dishonourable action, the trap you deliberately laid—"

"Draw it mild," Minter blustered. "I'm not going to feel any remorse for him! There are some men who go through the world honestly, because it has never paid them to be otherwise. Some men die honest, because they are never tempted. Up to now Desborough has been one of them. But he's bad to the core; don't you know that he is as bad as they make 'em?"

Maude looked down without a reply. She knew perfectly well that he was telling the truth. Desborough was bad to the core, but Maude was going to make an effort to save him. It would be a costly business, but it would get her out of this hateful tangle, and she would have paid a heavy sum for that. If Minter refused, her scheme would have to go on.

"All the same, I should like to see Mr. Desborough free," she said. "If I could only handle those papers that you possess he would be free enough."

"That's right," Minter chuckled as he lighted a cigarette. "Much power lies in those slips of paper. Now what price are you prepared to pay for them?"

"In cash," Maude said, very quietly and simply. "I'll give you twenty thousand pounds!"


LII. THE PRICE OF HER FREEDOM

MINTER appeared to be looking very thoughtfully into the fire. He had himself well in hand to-night, so that it was no trouble to him to conceal his feelings. All the same, he was bitterly reviling himself for a fool.

Minter would have given his head at present for the sum Maude had mentioned, but there was a very good reason why he could not see his way to complete the bargain. Ready-money at the present moment was an absolute necessity to him. All his lovely schemes might fail yet for a little golden ointment for the machines; given that sum, and he would have backed his position against the world. Then, as he sat there, a pretty idea came to him. It was utterly unscrupulous, and absolutely worthy of the man, but he decided to put it into force.

"This is going to be strictly between ourselves," he said hoarsely.

"Between you and me, and Mr. Desborough," Maude said. She had certainly forgotten Kit for the moment. "Why should I tell anybody else? The only way to save Mr. Desborough is by keeping absolute secrecy."

Minter nodded. Really, when he came to think of it, he did not need those fatal bills. He knew now that Price had been deliberately hidden in Desborough's chambers; Maude knew the whole guilty secret, and if it became necessary to threaten Desborough again it would be easy to call Maude as a witness to his guilty knowledge. She would never have backed him up with a deliberate lie.

On the whole, Minter could see his way to play the philanthropist, and put money in his pocket at the same time.

"What do you want those bills for?" he asked.

"To burn them. I should burn them as soon as they came into my hands. Oh, I don't want to read them—there is shame and humiliation without learning the details by heart."

Minter rose and paced up and down the room. He could have shouted in his exultation. After all, Maude was only a sentimental woman, and she would never know anything of business. The money was as good as in his pocket, his grip on Desborough would not really be relaxed at all.

"When do you propose to pay me the money?" Minter asked.

Maude thought the matter over for a moment. She knew perfectly well that the sacrifice entailed the sale of her diamonds, and that might take a day or two.

Doubtless Kit would see to that for her. She had heard Kit talk of a firm in Gracechurch Street where they bought gems to any amount, and paid for them promptly. The matter might be settled by Wednesday if no hitch took place.

"Shall we say Wednesday evening?" she said. "I could have the papers to-night if you would trust me."

"Oh, I can trust you fast enough," Minter said with obvious sincerity. "There is precious little respect between men where business is concerned, but we all admire integrity, much as we sneer at it. I'll go further than that; give me your bill for that money at three days' date, and the papers are yours now."

Maude's heart leapt within her. She was actually going to have those papers now. Before she slept she would be happy in the knowledge that Desborough was free, and that he would not trouble her any more. Again she could at once free herself from the slimy tangle of the hateful business. Once she was out of it nothing would induce Maude to touch it again.

"Tell me what you want me to do!" she asked.

"Nothing very dreadful," Minter said, with a queer laugh. "I draw out a form on stamped paper whereby you agree to pay me £20,000 in three days and you sign it. You pay the money into your bank to meet it, and there is an end of the matter. It is very simple."

All this Minter explained quite gleefully. Soon he would be the master of a large sum in cash, a sum of money that was of almost a vital necessity to him. As a matter of fact, it would be more or less a gift to him, for his position and power over Desborough were more secure than ever. Why, this transaction in itself was a proof of the things that he knew against Desborough.

"Come into the library," he said. "We'll settle everything in five minutes. I've got the forms there, and the papers are in the safe. It is a big price you are paying, and Desborough is a lucky man. Now, come along, and you can have your bonfire as soon as you like."

Maude found herself presently affixing her signature to an oblong strip of paper. With a sigh of relief that he could hardly conceal, Minter placed the document in his safe. Maude watched him with a little smile of contempt curling her lip. The thing was blackmail pure and simple, though Minter did not seem to see it. To him it was an ordinary business transaction. He rummaged about his safe for some time, then he produced a bulky parcel in a foolscap envelope.

"Here you are," he said. "If I were you I should put sentiment aside and read those bills. It may not be pleasant literature of the Mudie type, but you would at least know that you had value for your money."

"I shall burn them as they are," Maude said coldly. "Good-night, Mr. Minter."

Minter watched Maude depart with her head in the air. She had paid the man's price, and, if possible, she disliked and despised him a little more than ever. But that fact did not trouble the burly capitalist in the least. He had done an excellent stroke of business. He would restore his battered credit now, and pay such things as were a little more than pressing.

Maude went away with the precious papers clutched tightly in her hand. For the loss of her jewels, for the outlay of a sum so enormous, she cared nothing. All her trouble and misery had been brought about owing to her possession of that wretched money, and Kit had loved her for herself alone. Maude's plan was pretty clear, as she went in search of Desborough.

She found him presently in one of the morning-rooms, a pile of papers before him, a half-smoked cigarette between his thin, hard lips. The man was far away by this time; he was deeply engrossed in his case. There lay the secret of his power. Maude had to speak twice before he looked up.

"What do you want?" he asked. "I am very busy just now. If it is not of importance—"

"It is of the greatest importance," Maude said. "More important than anything you have there. I have been trying to come to terms with Mr. Minter."

"You know perfectly well that he has only one set of conditions?"

"So he said. But those conditions were rooted in money, and money can do anything with a man like that. Suppose I induced him to part with those bills for a consideration, what then?"

Desborough jumped to his feet and commenced to pace up and down the room. The grey, tired look left his face, his eyes grew clear and bright. All the old ambition was pulsating within him, the darling ambition that had caused him to throw honour and conscience to the winds.

"In that case I should be free," he said. He spoke with his head high, he had almost forgotten Maude. "Nothing could touch me any longer, I should get back the power and grip that I have lost lately, I should compel my way as I have compelled it all along. But Minter would never do that."

He paused in his walk, his face grew dejected again.

"Things have altered," Maude said. "Minter seems to think that now he has Baron Kinski on his side, to say nothing of Mr. Murdock, he can do great things. I offered him a large sum for the papers."

"And he laughed at you for a fool, I suppose?" Desborough sneered.

"He did nothing of the kind," Maude said. "He listened. Look here, see what I hold in my hand. And without making any condition with you, trusting to your manhood and your better sense, I take the poisonous things and throw them into the fire there."

The envelope was dropped into the centre of the wood fire, and the mass at once leapt up in blue and yellow flame. Desborough watched in a dazed kind of way.

"I didn't quite understand," he gasped. "You say that Minter agreed to—and he parted with—impossible! He would never have done it. Maude, do you mean to say that the record of my folly, the whole story of my past, is burning there before my eyes?"

"I do mean to say so," Maude cried. "Never mind the power. There is your freedom, your freedom. And I am standing here waiting for the one thing you can do to atone."

"And what is that?" Desborough asked, with his eyes on the leaping flames.

"Surely you must know," Maude replied. "There is your freedom—now give me mine!"


LIII. A HARD MASTER

DESBOROUGH made no reply, for Maude denied him that opportunity. She had done an act of amazing nobility and generosity. Of her own free will she had stripped herself of a large portion of her fortune to save his name from social and political destruction. Nor could it be urged that she had anything to gain by so doing; on the contrary, she had acted against her better judgment.

It was not as if she cared for him, as if she were making a sacrifice for the man she loved. Her whole soul turned with disgust and loathing from Clifford Desborough, and she would have freed herself from her fetters if she could.

She was going to leave it entirely to Desborough's generosity. She merely made the suggestion that one good turn deserves another. Nay, further, Maude had not even stayed to receive the thanks of the man she had saved. There were the fateful papers now a mere handful of glowing, flickering embers, and Desborough was alone with his thoughts.

Maude had saved him. Juggle with his own conscience as he might, he was bound to admit that. From the very first he had known that he must follow the crack of Minter's whip, and palter with his honour. He would have sacrificed everything to his darling ambition. And now he was once more free.

He drew a long, deep breath like a swimmer after an extended dive.

Minter could not touch him now. And those bills had disappeared like a millstone from about his neck. He was free in more senses than one. But once he took office he would be a poor man, and he knew the value of money. Why should Maude want what she called her freedom? His face flushed as he thought of it. Why should he let her go? Many other women would have been too ready to share lots with him. And, after all, Maude had done no more than she had to do. It was specious reasoning, but it seemed to satisfy the ambitious barrister in a way.

He would see Maude to-morrow, and have it out with her. He was going to town by an early train, but then Maude was always an early riser. Desborough breakfasted alone—there were breakfasts at all hours at Marvyn Chase—and afterwards asked for Maude. She was in the garden somewhere. Desborough looked at his watch, and saw that he had half an hour to spare.

He found Maude presently amongst the roses. She looked fresh and sweet as a rose herself; it seemed to Desborough that she had never appeared more beautiful. Youth and good looks and riches made up a fine combination. And Maude was clever too. With a wife like that there was no reason why Desborough should not eventually become Prime Minister.

Maude laid the fragrant blossoms on a seat as Desborough approached. Her heart beat a little faster. She was not in the least afraid of this man; she knew now that she could sever the rope when the time came, or, at any rate, she fancied that she saw the way, but she preferred that the advance should come from Desborough. She hated and despised him from the bottom of her heart; yet she would have given much for one disinterested action from him.

"You wanted to speak to me?" she said.

"Yes, I have a little time to spare. You gave me no chance to thank you last night."

"I wanted no thanks. For your sake, and the sake of the mother who so admires you, I made a sacrifice. When you forced me into a hated engagement, there was an excuse for you. That excuse is now removed, and you are now a free man. God knows, you had fallen low enough in my estimation, but even still I hoped for you, I gave you credit for one generous, manly impulse. Surely you understand what I mean?"

Maude held out her hand with Desborough's engagement ring on it. He started back, and her face flushed. The time was coming for him to speak.

"I am afraid that I don't quite understand," he said.

"Surely you do. I want you to take that ring from my finger. Then no further word need be said."

The slender finger shook a little, the stones in the ring glittered in the morning light. Desborough pointed to the seat. A little disdainfully, Maude sat down.

"You have set me free," Desborough said. "Now I can look the whole world in the face once again. Not only am I beyond Minter's power, but that heavy load of debt has gone. And you have done this thing of your own free will. It is impossible to thank you."

"I need no thanks," Maude replied. "All I ask you to do is to take this off."

She held out her hand again, her fingers steadied by now. But Desborough ignored the request.

"So far so good," he said. "I can accept the offer which is certain to be made me now; it may lead to the highest post in the power of the Crown. But once I abandon my practice I am a poor man. I cannot afford to be a poor man. It will make all the difference in the world. But as a rich man, with a beautiful and clever wife, I could do anything. Do you understand?"

"I fancy I do," Maude said with a curl of her lip. "Your wife would be part of the programme, a necessary piece of furniture in your political doll's house. You would select her as carefully as a builder selects his wood. Any such poor adjuncts as love and affection would be out of the question. And yet there are women who would not refuse."

"I don't want them," Desborough said in a low tone. "I only want you, Maude."

"And suppose I found it intolerable, suppose I left you, left you for the man I love! Ah, such things happen every day when the woman is bent to the breaking point. If you cared for me—"

"I do care for you, Maude. I love you, and I cannot let you go."

Maude rose to her feet, the crimson and yellow roses lay on the ground unheeded now. Her face was white, her eyes were very scornful.

"What do you know of love?" she asked. "You profane the name of it. You will not let me go because you love me. And yet you would not hesitate a moment if you knew that my fortune had dissolved in thin air. There would be no struggle."

"Indeed there would, Maude. I don't think I could let you go in any case."

"That is not true. Let us understand one another. Little as you deserved any kindness at my hands, I have done you a great service. I had hoped to-day that you had felt the service and tried to repay it. I might have known better. I might have known that the scoundrel ready to take disgraceful advantage of a family secret would stick at nothing. Oh, have you a single good impulse about you, one redeeming virtue? How can I find words to express my feelings?"

"You would have me a fool as well as a knave?" Desborough asked sullenly.

"And yet you are both. You are a knave by chance and inclination; a fool because you think you can bend a woman to your will. I shall never be your wife now. There!"

Maude wrenched the sparkling circlet from her finger, and threw it passionately away. The mere freedom from the presence of the ring seemed to give her ease. Without the slightest display of emotion, Desborough picked up the trinket and slipped it into his pocket.

"You will think better of that in your saner moments," he said. "I cannot let you go, because I care for you, more than I ever thought to care for anybody, besides—"

"Besides yourself. You will never love anybody as you do yourself."

"Possibly not," Desborough said coolly. "But I care very much for you, and I shall not let you go. I daresay you imagine that nothing so mean or contemptible has ever happened before, but you are mistaken. If you care to hold out the olive branch and be friends—"

"Friends!" Maude cried, with a dangerous gleam in her eyes. "Oh, yes, we shall be friends—up to a certain point. But I shall have no mercy on you now. I almost regret what I did last night. I ought to have let Minter degrade you and drag you down. Why don't you leave me? Why do you stand there between me and the blessed sunshine?"

Desborough walked slowly away. He had said his will, and gained his point as he thought. Really he had gone far to meet his own absolute degradation.


LIV. THE COUNTESS SPEAKS

IT was some time before Maude could think of her flowers again; they lay on the grass at her feet neglected and forgotten. Maude had half expected something like this, but the truth was humiliating. She felt utterly sick and weary of the world, and inclined to trust nobody in it. But gradually it all came back to her, the faith, the hope, and the beauty of the day. She picked up the roses and buried her hot face in them.

"We'll play our trump card," she whispered, as if telling her secret to the flowers. "And if the rogue in the play does what one has every right to expect, I shall be free, free. And once I am free there is to be no mercy for Mr. Clifford Desborough. He shall never be Home Secretary, never. Fancy a wretch like that having the power of life or death over poor creatures who are clean by comparison. He shall be punished, and I am the chosen instrument."

Maude walked thoughtfully back to the house. Most of the men had departed for town, including Minter. He was in an expansive, generous mood; he had a good thing which he did not mind sharing. His advice to all his rich guests was to buy Certified Shares. They could use their discretion about selling, but there were small fortunes to be made in the next few days. All this was very broad and good-natured on Minter's part, and he was voted a good fellow. It never seemed to occur to them that they were pawns in Minter's game. So most of them had gone to town eager to make money.

"I shall have to go, too," Maude smiled. "You see, I am also interested in the stock. How one picks up the jargon of the Exchange here. I must go and see my trustees, May. And, at the same time, I am going to take our friend the Countess along."

Lady Mary agreed. Minter had mentioned the old lady again that morning. Lady Mary was kind-hearted enough, but she was terribly afraid of her husband.

"What are you going to do with her?" she asked.

"Take her home with me for the present. I have written to my mother to meet me this morning at Paddington. I daresay we shall manage to make the poor old thing comfortable."

So Maude departed at length, taking the Countess along. Mrs. Beaumont was waiting at Paddington; the Countess seemed to take to her at once. The whole thing sounded quixotic to a degree, but there was a great deal here beyond mere good nature. Countess de Lary was going to be a valuable ally later on.

"No, I am not coming with you," Maude said. "I am going into the City, where I have an appointment with one of my trustees, Mr. Shackleton. I shall be back late in the afternoon."

Maude took a taxi and proceeded to Fenchurch Street. She had hitherto hated the City and its ways, but now she was interested as Minter himself. In the private office of Mr. Shackleton she waited, idly turning over the pages of the early edition of the evening papers. She looked with some curiosity to the City news. She read the headlines—"Foreign Rails Dull," "Strong Market in 'Certifieds'"—with a peculiar thrill. There was a good deal she could not understand, but she could make out that in some way Minter and Murdock and Kinski were sending up the stock she was so greatly interested in.

And behind all this the drama of love and plot and passion were being played. Business men glanced at the slim figure there, and wondered what so much loveliness was doing there. Maude found herself presently in the presence of her trustee. He was very busy, he said, but—

"I understand," Maude smiled. "But you are going to give me all your time. Mr. Shackleton, I want you to sell all my shares in the Certified Company."

The man of business smiled. But he listened with his deepest attention as Maude proceeded with her story.

"And that is all I have to tell," she concluded. "You are the one friend of the family who knows the tragedy of my poor sister Alice's life. I want to stop that tragedy, and give her the right to hold up her head again and appear before the world. Day and night I have been thinking this out, and now Fate has shown me a way. Is my scheme wild and impracticable?"

"It's splendid!" Shackleton cried. "Really splendid! And it looks all so dry and legal, too. If the shares go up another two points, as they are certain to do, I shall sell. Then there will be a surplus of £50,000 odd for your sister Alice. Immediately we shall go to the Court for instructions as to what is to be done with the sum pending proof of your sister's death."

"But there will be no hint as to her story?" Maude asked anxiously.

"No occasion for that, my dear Maude. The case will be reported in the papers; it will look so commonplace and natural that it is bound to have the effect you desire. Really, you should come in with us, a head like yours is wasted on mere Society. But I am heartily glad for poor Alice's sake. Only you had better leave her where she is for the present."

"Of course," Maude sighed. "Any move on my part might be fatal. Of course, the man Price had not the slightest idea I am aware that Alice is alive. And now I fancy that I can safely leave matters to you. If you only knew how I loathe the City."

Mr. Shackleton laughed as he shook hands.

"Let me whisper a word in your ear," he said. "Strictly between ourselves, we all hate it. I never knew a man who really didn't in his heart. I'll let you know as soon as the sale is effected, and the next day we will apply to a judge to know what to do with Alice's share. Goodbye."

Maude felt easier and happier in her mind than she had done for some time. She had been just a little afraid that Mr. Shackleton would deem her scheme wild and impossible. Given one little thing, and she would be absolutely free, and Alice would be free also.

"Well, I declare, I haven't seen you looking so bright for a long time," Mrs. Beaumont said as Maude came in smiling to tea. "What have you been doing?"

"Making money," Maude said gaily. "A wonderful place is the City."

Countess de Lary sat up, and her eyes sparkled. The mere mention of money aroused her. The gambling spirit in her was not dead, it was doubtful if it ever would be.

"Tell me all about it, my dear," she asked. "That is the talk that does me good. It warms my blood and makes me feel young again."

Maude would willingly have passed on to another topic, but the Countess prattled on. Baron Kinski was at the bottom of all her rambling discourse. Some day or another she would be even with him, and then she would come into the fortune of which he had deprived her. Mrs. Beaumont slipped from the room, leaving Maude to bear the brunt of the conversation alone.

"Well, you might see your Baron presently," she said. "He is coming to England, you know; in fact, he has already sailed for Europe. I read it to-day in one of the papers."

The Countess chuckled, her eyes had grown very bright and cunning.

"I saw it too," she said. "It is all nonsense; what you call hanky-panky. They say that man is coming, that he was interviewed before he started. And, behold, I know better, because at this very moment he is in England. They say he is coming to a great house in Park Lane. Why does he not come when all the time he is in England?"

"But surely," Maude protested, "surely there must be a mistake on the part—"

"Of those imaginative pressmen, my dear. I tell you that man is in England. I forfeit my precious jewels if such is not the case. Some of these early days I will point him out to you with his glossy hair and beautiful black beard. A black beard! Oh, oh!"

The speaker laughed as if something heartily amused her.

"Is the man an impostor?" Maude asked.

"Yes, a great impostor. Baron Kinski, with his black beard. He is no baron at all, but an English adventurer who is wanted on the Continent. When I knew him first—but that is what your great novelists call another story. Ah, if you could only see us meet—"

"What would happen then?" Maude asked.

"I would pull his beard off," the Countess said. "But no occasion to do that. When he comes face to face with me I get all that he robbed me of, everything—perhaps more. Ah, and I have never noticed that piano. Will you play me something?"


LV. FOR HER OWN SAKE

GRADUALLY, but surely, Maude was beginning to see her way now. One false step, however, might ruin everything. So long as Price kept away from Alice, so long as he was utterly unsuspicious that Maude knew of her sister's existence, all was well. All the same, Maude's conscience pricked her over Alice. The girl had been terribly neglected.

Maude dared not write or communicate direct, which would have spoilt everything; but, at any rate, she would send for Harvey Denton. By the aid of the telephone she got him presently, and in the course of the evening Denton came round.

He had not seen Alice for some days, he admitted. Now that Price was back again the thing was more difficult. He had been frequently in the neighbourhood of Paradise Buildings, but he had seen nobody about there whom he could identify with Alice.

"I am glad to hear that," Maude said, with a sigh of relief. "At any rate, that scoundrel has not been inflicting his presence on my poor sister. Not that she is likely to be poor or afflicted much longer. Of course, you know that Price is Alice's husband?"

"I do. Alice told me so. I have believed her from the first."

"And you have always cared for her, Harvey?"

"Always, always. You know that. But she laughed at me, and then Price came with his, strange fascination, and the mischief was done. And yet all the time Alice cared for me; she told me so. I shall never care for another woman. It is very sad."

"Sad indeed," Maude said gently. "Some day we may find a way out. For the present I want to see Alice free of that scoundrel, free to hold up her head and to come home. If she could only prove her marriage she could come home to-morrow."

"Yes, yes. But Price is too cunning a scoundrel for that. He married Alice for the money he thought she had, and he was disappointed. That marriage took place secretly in a church that Alice cannot identify. She says that she was dazed and confused, and that she had travelled far. That was the cunning of the man. If anything went wrong he could deny the marriage, thus leaving him entirely free. Things did go wrong, and Price denied the marriage. But that there was a marriage I am certain."

"I suppose we could not advertise for the certificate?" Maude suggested thoughtfully.

"My dear Maude, what do you suppose I have been doing all this time? I have tried every means I can think of. Price is not the man to stick at trifles. He is quite capable of stealing a register or burning a vestry down. Oh, he is a cunning rascal."

"He will find that I am as cunning," Maude smiled. "I have laid a trap for Price, and I am sure that he will walk into it. Meanwhile I want you to try and see Alice, and let her know that she is not forgotten. In a day or two she can return home, tell her that. How I am going to bring it all about must be my secret for the present. You need not be afraid of meeting Price; he has a great deal to occupy his attention just at present."

"I'll go to-night," Denton said, taking up his hat eagerly. "If Alice wants to see you—"

"If she wants to see me badly bring her into the garden. Then you can come round to the front door and tell me what you have done. But Alice is best where she is for the present."

Denton departed on his errand. There was nothing for it but to go boldly into Alice's room and take the chance of meeting Price there. He knocked somewhat timidly on the door, and a feeble voice bade him enter. Alice was seated by the fire with a wrap about her shoulders. She looked terribly drawn and ill; there were great lines under her eyes.

"You have not been yourself, my darling," Denton said tenderly.

"I have been ill," Alice said! "but for the kindness of some people here...Oh, yes, I had money; I got that from Maude. For a day or two I thought I was going to die. Oh, if you only knew how utterly lonely it has been."

Alice's voice broke, and the tears streamed down her cheeks. Denton bent down, and put his arm round her; the girl's arm closed about his neck. For a long time they were silent.

"The tears have done me good," Alice whispered. "They have taken the hard lump from my heart. I was very nearly sending for you to take me away; I very nearly gave up everything for you. But I am better now. I shall be able to stand it. But I was so dreadfully lonely."

"I was afraid to come," Denton said. "If that man had seen me here—"

"Oh, you are quite right. Only it seemed so very, very lonely. And I prayed God to let me die and end it. Have you seen Maude lately?"

Alice looked up and spoke more cheerfully, though obviously with an effort.

"I have just left her," Denton explained. "She asked me to call here. Maude is a very clever girl, and she has some great scheme on hand. She is quite certain that within the next few days you will be able to return home and hold up your head before the world again."

"But, my dear old Harvey, I could never do that unless I could prove my marriage. And that will never be so long as it suits my husband's purpose to disguise the truth.

"Maude knows that quite well. And she is going to make Price speak. Do you feel well enough for a walk with me as far as Royal Crescent, or we could have a cab, as far as that goes? Maude says she should like to have a little chat with you."

Alice rose unsteadily. She was weaker than Denton had imagined. He saw that her hands shook as she put on her hat and gloves, such patched, worn gloves they were.

"It will be a change," Alice murmured. "It will take me out of myself. If I were ill here long I should slowly go mad. Did ever a girl suffer more cruelly for a foolish mistake?"

Alice seemed a little braver and stronger in the open air, but Denton would not let her walk. A little while later and she was in the familiar garden of Royal Crescent. She recalled the night that Gambit had effected her miserable capture; she had entered the house by that window. The touch of a hand on her shoulder brought her back with a start from the past to the present. Maude was smiling tenderly into her face.

"I had not forgotten you, dear," she said, "only I have been so very, very busy. Why do you start so? That is only Harvey Denton smoking his cigarette while he waits for you. My dear Alice, I wish I could take you into the house now and keep you there always."

"I wish to Heaven you could," Alice whispered fervently. "The life I have been leading lately, the dreadful solitude—"

"Oh, I know it must be dreadful. I do feel for you, indeed, dearest sister. And yet it is necessary that you should go on for a few days longer. It will be only this week. Keep on telling yourself that by Sunday you will be under the old familiar roof again, never to leave it except from your own choice. I pledge you my word that by Sunday you will be free."

Maude spoke low and fervently, but there was conviction in every word. Alice felt her heart uplifted and comforted.

"You don't know how ill I have been," she said.

"Oh, yes, I do, dearest. I can tell that by your voice. I don't want to look into your face, for then I might break down altogether and drag you into the house and ruin everything. No, I am not going to tell you or anybody else my scheme. By to-morrow night I shall know if all is well. Oh, Alice, pray, pray that it may come out all right."

"My heart is constantly praying," Alice said. "Looking back my past is like some hideous dream. Oh, I have had my punishment for my deception. I'll go away now, Maude; I'll live in hopes. And I wanted those hopes badly when Harvey Denton came to me to-night."

Maude kissed her sister tenderly and wiped the tears from her own eyes. She could be hard and cold when she liked, but she was a very woman after all. Even now it was a big struggle to put Alice aside, to send her home to her hovel, when she might have stayed here.

"I'll go," Alice said. "Is that my mother's shadow on the blind? What will she say, Maude? Oh, to see her again! And yet the very thought frightens me. Let me go home now. I feel that I shall sleep to-night, and Heaven knows that I need it."


LVI. KIT CAUSES A SURPRISE

MAUDE slept herself in a fashion, but her brain was too excited for much rest. Everything vital to her scheme depended upon the next day. By the afternoon she hoped to hear that Mr. Shackleton had sold the Certified shares at a handsome profit, and then the trap would be properly baited. For the second time in her life Maude turned to the City columns of the daily paper. She read down the article without understanding much about it, but she saw enough to satisfy herself that all was going well.

The upward tendency of the shares was still maintained. They had closed strong, with every symptom of rising still higher. But the best laid schemes of mice and men gang oft agley, and Maude would not feel fully satisfied until she had heard from Mr. Shackleton that the sale had been actually made.

She would go into the City after luncheon and see for herself. Meanwhile she had the Countess off her hands for the present. The old lady was still suffering from the effects of the chill, which the short journey by train had not improved. She seemed saner and calmer this morning, and wisely decided to stay in bed for the day, a decision that Maude applauded for more reasons than one.

Maude stood on the step undecided whether to walk part of the way this glorious afternoon and take a taxi when Lady Mary's carriage fluttered past. There was a motion of the hand, and the Victoria pulled up.

"You look undecided," Lady Mary said. "Come with me. I need money, and I am going to beard the lion in the City. What do you say to being my support?"

Maude replied that she also was going into the City on money business. They came at length to the huge suite of offices where Minter transacted his business. There scores of clerks bent over huge ledgers, a constant stream of people came and went. In his private office Minter sat. He smiled as his visitors entered and curtly offered them five minutes of his time. He scribbled a cheque and tossed it over to Lady Mary with an air of great good humour.

"There," he said. "I make it and you spend it. Miss Beaumont, I see you have taken my advice."

"And what might that be?" Maude asked innocently enough.

"Why, over the Certified shares. You can't keep knowledge of that kind from us. A big block of shares were thrown into the market this morning by Shackleton & Co., and they were snapped up directly. I should say you are £50,000 better off than you were a couple of hours or so ago."

Maude smilingly replied that she was very glad to hear it. The news took a heavy weight off her shoulders. In all human probability her scheme would be successful now. Minter looked across the table and winked.

"Don't forget your little obligation to me," he said in a hoarse whisper.

Maude started. She had forgotten all about it for a few moments. And the money had to be paid to-morrow. She got Lady Mary to put her down outside the offices of Shackleton & Co., and urged her friend not to wait.

"Goodness knows how long I shall be here," she said. "There may be papers to sign and all that kind of thing, Go back to the West, giddy butterfly, and spend your money."

Lady Mary kissed her hand gaily and vanished. Mr. Shackleton had just come in and would see Maude at once. He smiled as he shook hands and pointed to a chair.

"You ought to have come into the business," he said. "We have followed your suggestion, and the result is that you have materially increased your fortune. To say nothing of your own profit, there is a surplus of over £50,000 that belongs to your sister Alice."

"I am heartily glad of it for her own sake," Maude said, "to say nothing of other things. And I was terribly afraid that something might happen at the last moment to upset all my plans. Now how long before you can ask the Court to advise us what to do with this money?"

Shackleton smiled shrewdly at the question.

"To-morrow," he said, "we could do it to-morrow. You see it is not business of a contentious nature."

"It would be reported in the papers, of course?"

"Naturally. Is there anything else I can tell you?"

Maude thought not. She was more than satisfied with her day's work. Everything was going on in the most successful fashion. All she had to do now was to raise the money for Minter by the sale of her jewels. True she might have had the wherewithal from Mr. Shackleton, but that would have entailed a certain amount of explanation, and she could not go into sentiment with her man of business.

"Then I shall say good-bye," she cried smilingly. "I think we have done very well. And it is so nice to think that Alice will have an independent fortune of her own."

Maude retraced her steps, a conspicuous figure in the crowd of bustling men, to Minter's office, where she asked to see Mr. Clive. He came at once with a smile to meet her.

"My last day or two here," he said. "After that I shall bid a long farewell to the City. But what brings you in this line of industry?"

Maude partly explained. She wanted to consult Clive on important business. Was there no place near where it was possible for a lady to have a cup of tea? Clive thought that it could be managed. There was a little place where they sold tea, and which was fairly quiet at this hour.

"Now I am going to tell you something," Maude said, as she sipped her tea. "I want £20,000. You may naturally suggest my trustees, but there are reasons why they should know nothing about it. Isn't there a place here where they advance large sums on jewellery?"

Kit thought a moment before replying.

"Won't you let me be your banker?" he asked presently.

"No, sir, I won't," Maude said firmly. "I want you to take me to those people to-morrow and get the matter settled. It was you who told me about them in the first place."

"Greyson & Co., of Gracechurch Street," Kit said. "Very well. Meet me to-morrow at the same time, and we'll settle the affair out of hand. You haven't been gambling, have you?"

Maude laughed just a little unsteadily.

"I have in a fashion," she said. "I laid £20,000 on a man's integrity, and I lost. It was a bad bet, but, at the same time, I thought my horse was not quite the rogue he proved to be."

"In other words, you want this money to help Desborough?"

"You have guessed it, Kit. You remember telling me some time ago that though they looked so wonderfully prosperous at Marvyn Chase Mr Minter was desperately driven for ready money? You know also the power he had over Clifford Desborough? Well, it came to me that I might buy Mr. Minter off. So I went to him and offered him £20,000 for those bills. That is why I want to raise money On my diamonds."

"So you got those bills?" Kit said. He was breathing a little faster than usual. "What did you do with them?"

"I burnt them in the presence of Clifford Desborough. I put them into the heart of the fire."

"You looked through them very carefully first, I suppose?"

"Indeed, Kit, I didn't do anything of the kind. I know enough to the detriment of Clifford Desborough already. Why should I pry further into his disgraceful past? Mr. Minter said I ought to satisfy myself that I had obtained what I had paid for, but I refused. Anyway they are burnt now."

"And so you burnt them in Desborough's presence. What did he say?"

"At first he was too surprised to speak. I told him I had given him his freedom, and I asked for mine. Then I left him to think it over. And, after all I had done, he refused to let me go. He said he loved me—a mere pollution of the word—he said he wanted a rich wife. I have destroyed his secret, but he refuses to destroy mine. Kit, was there ever such a scoundrel?"

Kit did not speak for a moment. His eyes were blazing, but all the time there was a queer little smile hovering about the corners of his mouth.

"A scoundrel indeed," he said. "So now that he is free he is going to hold you still to your bargain? He little knows that you burnt merely a heap of paper refuse."

"My dear Kit, those bills were destroyed under my own eyes."

"Indeed they were not," Kit said coolly. "As a matter of fact, I purchased the real securities from Minter myself a week ago, and, what is more, I have them in my breast pocket at this very moment. Will you take my word for it, or shall I prove what I say?"


LVII. PAVING THE WAY

MAUDE failed to understand for a moment the drift of Kit's statement. There was something very stern about his face, though his lips suggested a faint amusement.

"But I don't know what you mean," the girl said. "Mr. Minter handed me those papers himself. He even pressed me to examine them, so that I might see that I had full value for my money."

"He is an audacious man," Kit replied. "He trusted to the certainty that you would not understand even if you had read them. But they are in my pocket. I bought them, and paid for them. And I can assure you that I verified the signature on every document."

"But what did you want them for, Kit?"

"Well, you see, Minter had no further use for them. He seemed to think that he had said and shown enough to prove that he had Desborough under his thumb. I happened to know, too, that he was in desperate need of ready-money, and I offered him as much for those bills as they cost him. Doubtless he imagined that I had some rascally game on—Minter believes in no man's honesty—and he parted with a grin. Oh, I assure you that I am quite correct."

Maude no longer doubted it. Minter had played a double game, probably driven by the pressing need for more ready-money.

"It is a criminal thing," Maude said. "What shall I do, Kit?"

"Nothing. If Minter presses you tell him that you have been deceived. Refer him to me."

There was nothing else to do under the circumstances. Maude looked thoughtfully at her lover.

"There is another thing that I should like to know," she said. "Why did you buy those papers?"

"I bought them to save you, Maude. My darling, do you suppose I could sit quietly down and see you marry that scoundrel? How utter a blackguard he is, is proved by the fact that he refuses to release you after you have apparently saved him. Could you marry him?"

Maude shuddered. She had always felt that her conscience would fail her at the critical moment.

"I see," Kit went on gravely. "I don't want to pry into your secrets, but I never had the smallest intention of letting you go. And now I am master of the situation. If Desborough refuses to release you, I shall have a complete list of the bills and documents in my possession printed in the paper in Desborough's constituency that support the opposite side in politics. The Editor would jump at a chance like that. I can ruin Desborough, both politically and financially, and I'll do it unless he ceases his persecution."

Kit's voice was hard, but deadly earnest. There was a suggestion of power and resolution about him that Maude had never noticed before. It was good to know that she could rely upon a man like this.

"Don't do anything rash," she urged. "Badly as that man has treated me, I don't desire to ruin him. If he will only act honourably I will ask no more. And in a day or two I shall be able to tell you my secret, Kit; then it will be a secret no longer. I am even hoping that there will be no disgrace. And if I am right, Mr. Desborough will be harmless in any case."

Kit opened his mouth to reply, and then suddenly changed his mind. It was very sweet and charming of Maude to speak like this, but the easier she took it the harder Kit grew. But for the accident of fortune, Maude would have been forced into a hateful match by a callous scoundrel. When the time came Kit had no intention for him to escape scot free. Desborough should pay the price of his perfidy. A man like that had no business in the House of Commons.

"We shall see," he said. "Meanwhile, you keep those diamonds. Go home now and forget all about it. And if Minter makes himself objectionable refer him to me. Shall I call you a cab?"

Maude was glad enough to get away from the City to the more congenial atmosphere of the West End. She was only too anxious to see the next day over. She came down next morning with a feverish anxiety to see the day's papers. Perhaps the application suggested by Mr. Shackleton had not been deemed of sufficient public interest to secure a place in their columns.

But, to Maude's great relief, it was all there. The Times gave it in full, the other papers less extensively. The cheaper Press made a kind of story out of it, the story of a dead girl's fortune, and gave it special headlines. It read almost like a romance under the practised hand of the up-to-date journalist.

"I don't see how that can be missed," Maude told herself. "Everybody must see it. But I'll make sure, I'll ask Price to come and see me to-night."

She hastily scribbled off a note and posted it herself. Maude had cancelled all her social engagements for the next day or two; she did not feel equal to the strain. A quiet afternoon with a book and an equally quiet early dinner restored her ruffled nerves somewhat. At the same time, quite late in the evening, she was not pleased to hear that Desborough was waiting for her in the front drawing-room.

"What do you want with me?" Maude asked. It was getting late, she wanted the house quiet, and the servants out of the way before Price came. "Why do you come at this time?"

"Am I so very late?" Desborough asked. "Usually this is about the hour you generally start out when you are dining at home. But I will not detain you. I have, as yet, had no answer to my question. I am a busy man, and I won't unduly bore you with my company. I won't stay many minutes now. What do you think of this?"

Desborough produced half a sheet of notepaper from his pocket and handed it to Maude. It was a brief announcement of the fact that the wedding of Miss Maude Beaumont and Mr. Clifford Desborough, K.C., would take place at a certain church at a certain date. The girl read it with a curling lip.

"Well," Desborough asked impatiently, "what do you think of it?"

"Concise and to the point," Maude said. "I presume this is intended for publication. Well, I shall not stop you. It is all the same to me. Send it to the Morning Post if you like. But I shall never marry you. You have treated me shamefully. I wonder how you dare to come into my presence at all. And you are going to be punished, ah, you are going to be punished. I have given you every chance, and you refuse to take warning."

Desborough smiled, but in a vaguely uneasy way.

"Do you fully understand what you are talking about?" he asked.

"Only too well," Maude cried. "Give me my freedom and I will try to show you a little clemency. Oh, this is no wild theatrical talk of mine. You deserve all the punishment that you will get; never has a man played so vile a game as yours before. And it is not yet too late to save yourself."

Desborough buttoned up his coat carefully and reached for his hat. He did not understand, he had no particle of imagination. How could anybody injure him so long as those fateful bills were destroyed? He was free as air now to act in any way he chose. He only wished that he could lay his hands on Eli Price, and hand him over to justice. Then he could smash Minter, and his triumph would be complete. So men often argue when the strong hand of destruction is grasping for them. He had no fear of Price, though he had shielded him once. Price would never have an opportunity of telling that tale.

"You are hysterical this evening," he said. "You don't know what you are saying. I am going back to my chambers when I shall make a copy of the paragraph I have just shown you for all the leading papers. Tomorrow you will be able to read it for yourself in print."

"As you wish," Maude said wearily. "By the end of the week I shall be free from you. Oh, I am not going to tell you any more; it will be no use you coming to me afterwards to intercede for you. You are a strong, cunning man, but you are not the first man of that class who has been outwitted by a woman."

Maude turned and rang the bell as a sign that the interview was ended. In spite of his smile, Desborough was feeling mean and small. Maude was boasting, of course, she really could do nothing. Desborough went thoughtfully down the steps and crossed the road. A figure seemed to be skulking there as if waiting for some signal. The figure looked up, and Desborough recognized him.

Eli Price in the flesh! Surely his good angel was on his side to-night. Above all people this was the one that Desborough most wanted to meet. Once get the missing witness in the box, and Minter was doomed. He paused in front of the slouching figure.


LVIII. ELI PRICE GOES HOME

THE recognition was mutual. Price remembered that hard, cold face well enough. This was the man who had given him shelter in the time of his need, but by no means out of kindness of heart. Price could read faces, and he could read Desborough's on that eventful night. He read it now under the flare of the gas lamp, and he saw quite plainly that he was going to be handed over to the police.

"Just a minute," he said softly. "There is a policeman coming. No, not that way, just behind you."

Desborough turned slightly. A policeman was exactly what he was looking for. He had his story all ready. Like a flash, Price had his man by the throat, and was hammering his head against the square railings before he could give a cry. But the policeman was not so apocryphal as Price had imagined, for he suddenly loomed into the light, and Price sprang for the railings as active as a cat.

"I should have murdered the brute in another minute," he said breathlessly, as he darted across the grass. "Oh, blow your whistle, you beauty, and may it stick into your throat and choke you."

Price was over the railings on the far side and sprinting down Carrington Place before Desborough recovered his scattered senses.

Not till Price found himself out of Oxford Street did he breathe freely. He had walked boldly enough past a great many policemen lately, but he felt very shy of them to-night. He drew a long breath when at length Paradise Buildings came in sight, and he was in the shelter of the hall.

He crept upstairs to Alice's room and knocked at the door. There was no answer as he walked in. The lamp was on the table, the typewriter open by its side, a heap of paper littered about. On a chair stood the remains of a rather elaborate supper.

"Gone out to post some work," Price muttered. "Um, the remains of a pretty supper, and a lot of flowers about that evidently cost money. I wonder what it means? Had a bit of luck perhaps. Taken in the Morning Post, too. What does it mean?"

Alice came in presently, tired and breathless. Her features changed, and she fell back with dismay at the sight of the man who meant so much misery to her.

"You back again?" she faltered. "I—I did not expect—this. You told me that you should never—"

She paused and stopped, for the ready tears choked her. How foolish she had been to imagine that this man would ever cease to persecute and annoy her!

"Don't unman me with the warmth of your reception," Price said fiercely. "What a pitiful white-faced cat it is! And to think that I should once call you good looking! I didn't come here by my own choice. I met a man to-night who recognized me, and who meant to hand me over to the police. I wish I had killed him!"

Alice sat on a chair shivering and trembling, Price puffed savagely at a cigarette.

"I ought to have killed him," he said. "And who do you suppose he was? But you'll never guess. It was Mr. Clifford Desborough, the lawyer. Once he shielded me, for his own good purpose, now he wants me in the dock. I read it in that hard, cruel face of his as soon as I saw his eyes...Then a policeman came round the corner and that saved him."

He ground his teeth together and paced the room furiously. Alice could only cower there and cry quietly. An hour before she had been brave and strong enough, happy in the knowledge that Maude was moving in her interests, but with Price before her the future looked black and hopeless.

"This is a pretty welcome for a man," Price growled. "And only for a day or two that I am here. It isn't so attractive as I thought. You go off to bed. I may be here when you get up in the morning, or I may be gone. You can bolt your door if you are afraid of me."

Price was alone at last, and not sorry to be deprived of Alice's society. He had never cared for the woman on whom he had wasted his valuable person, and all along she had been a terrible drag to him. He began to wish that he had not come here at all, no doubt his old haunt was perfectly safe if he had only kept his nerve. Anyway he would hear from Macgregor in the morning, and then he would know for certain.

He would stay here the night anyway, only a little brandy was a necessity. He walked out into the street, gaining all his old courage and resolution as he went. For a bribe of a few pence a small gamin selling matches procured his brandy, and he returned to the shelter of Alice's rooms.

The brandy was soothing, and he had plenty of tobacco wherewith to make cigarettes. He did not feel in the least sleepy; he took up the Morning Post and begun to read it, the criminal reports first, and then the more general news. Then, in the law intelligence, the name of Beaumont reached his eye.

It was the report of the motion made before a judge at the instigation of Mr. Shackleton. Price had to read it twice before he understood the full importance of it.

"Well, I'm blest," he exclaimed. "Reads like a bit of romance. Here is my wife, Alice Price, as I can prove if it's worth my while, sleeping in the next room, living on a pound a week and earning it, when all the time she is worth £50,000. And it's all in the bank at the present moment in hard cash! Of course, she doesn't know it, or she would never stay here. But women don't understand law reports. The money will remain in court for a year, and at the end of that time it will be announced that Alice Beaumont, otherwise Alice Price, is dead. Now, is it good enough to declare that I am a lawful husband and claim the swag? Anyway, it's a comfort to know that I am securely married to a woman worth £50,000. Or shall I pin my faith to Minter? But Minter may go smash at any moment, and this is hard, honest money...Six months of my time to serve if I go back again. And I didn't escape from the police; I was kidnapped. By Jove!"

Price paced up and down the room excitedly. All the time a plan was forming in his mind. He would keep Alice out of the way, he would produce evidence of her death if necessary. And as her husband, he would be enabled to claim all this money. He would force her to accompany him to the Continent. She would never know the truth, and so long as she could not prove her marriage, she would never let her people know that she still lived. It was worth undergoing a few extra months in gaol for a prize like this. Minter, on the other hand, was a slippery dog, and always the most dangerous when he was cornered.

Price helped himself to a little more brandy and lighted another cigarette. Gradually his resolution was taking a concrete form. He put on his coat and hat gravely and thoughtfully. He went through it all over again, and then he put out the lamp and passed into the street.

A policeman stalking along gave him a sudden chill and weakened his resolution. He looked lovingly at his cigarette as one who is about to part with an old friend. Then he clenched his teeth and quickened his pace as he turned his face in the direction of Covent Garden.

"I'll do it," he told himself. "I'll do it, if it hangs me. Fifty thousand pounds in hard cash! And the spending of it! Fifty thousand pounds! How sweet it sounds."


LIX. BETWEEN TWO STOOLS

ONCE more Graham Minter was the man of the hour. Once again the papers were dotted with more or less veracious personal fragments; his portraits were trotted out again. People who had shrewdly suspected him of being a humbug and a sham were trying to persuade themselves that his financial reputation rested on a solid basis. His tradesmen smiled with pleased anticipation.

Another week, Minter told himself, and these forecasts would be hard realities. It was a marvellous change that had come over his fortune in a few hours. Murdock stood behind him now, and that made all the difference in the world.

If any one had told Minter that the whole of his beautiful strategy was on the verge of being wrecked by a woman with no knowledge of business, he would have laughed the idea to scorn. Yet so it was, mere girl, with love and sympathy and affection on her side, was undermining everything. But Minter knew nothing of this as he sat at dinner the next night at Marvyn Chase. It was more or less of a financial dinner, and there were men there of solid respectability, who hung on their host's lightest word. Kit Clive had come down unexpectedly, and he had taken Lady Mary in to the elaborate meal.

"I'm glad you've come," she whispered.

Minter was laying down the law in his strident way, his big voice seemed to boom in the fretted roof. "Those business functions seem to stifle me. After dinner I am going to get you to escort me as far as Warnley Priory, and fetch me again after eleven. Does my husband think of anything but money?"

Kit smilingly gave the requisite promise. He had come down on no very pleasant errand, but there was no occasion to tell Lady Mary that. Presently the cards were produced, and something like gambling indulged in. Minter watched; he cared nothing for cards. He had no desire to fog his busy brain for so meagre and uncertain a result. He was watching a grim battle at poker when Kit came back. He touched his host on the arm.

"I'd like to have a few words with you," he said, "if you can spare the time."

Minter nodded. There was a curtness in Kit's manner that he resented. He led the way to the library and closed the door. He seemed to scent the fact that he had an enemy to deal with here.

"Well," he said. "Cut it short. I have plenty to do presently."

"I'll cut it as short as I can, Minter. Why did you accept my offer for those bills of Desborough's?"

"Because I had no further use for them. I'll be perfectly candid, and all the more so because from the very first you had a pretty shrewd idea what I was driving at. When you suggested a price for those papers I jumped at it. I had got Desborough down pretty fine, and I thought I could do without that evidence."

"Quite so," Kit said thoughtfully. "But that was not the only reason. You had a more powerful one."

"Right again. You owe me a good deal, young man. You are a smart young fellow now, very different from what you were when I first took you into the City. I wanted money pretty badly lately, ready money I mean. In a few days' time I shall be in a position to buy those papers back at ten times the price, and not feel it. But, as a matter of fact, I can do without them, and that's why they were disposed of."

"You had no idea what I wanted them for?"

"No, and I had no curiosity either. I guessed that you had your little row to hoe."

"Well, I had. But I did not expect to make a penny. That seems strange to you after the careful training I have had at your hands. I wanted to have a hold over Desborough, and to force him to give up his hold over Miss Beaumont. Therefore, I paid £10,000 for that evidence. Miss Beaumont wanted to free the man she had promised to marry, and so she also bought those papers."

"And promptly burnt them," Minter interrupted.

"No; she burnt some rubbish that you palmed off on her. In other words, you deliberately robbed her of £20,000. I am glad to know that it is not in your possession. It would have been to-day, but I stepped in and put an end to that. Really you go too far, sir."

There was a sullen red on Minter's face. He could not meet the other's accusing gaze.

"You may believe it or not as you like," he said, "but I never meant to rob the girl of a penny. I was going to try and teach her not to believe anything but her own eyes. Later on I should have restored every copper."

"Provided always that you had the necessary number of coppers to restore?"

"Well, I'll not defend the morality of it. I wanted the cash pretty badly; I'd have done anything for it. And then fortune, so to speak, stands up and flings it into my face. I should have told Miss Beaumont later on, and in the meantime I should have the use of the money."

There was something almost brutal about the man's candour; it compelled Kit's admiration.

"Well, I've stopped that," he said. "The money won't be paid. I came down here on purpose to tell you this. I'm not going to blackguard you, for that would not have the slightest effect. It's pretty clear that Miss Beaumont has told Desborough he is free, or he would not act as he has done."

"But he's not free so long as you hold those bills," Minter said uneasily.

"Quite so. And I am assuredly not going to be so quixotic as to destroy them. The fellow is a scoundrel, and he is going to be fairly punished later on. But he thinks he is free."

"If you will let me have those little bills back for a day or two I will give you double—"

"Nothing of the kind. My scheme is a perfectly honourable one, and I am not going to be mixed up in your dirty politics," Kit said firmly. "Money could not tempt me."

Minter looked keenly at the speaker, and saw that he was in deadly earnest. Somehow in the last few moments the ground seemed to have shifted under his feet.

"What do you say Desborough is doing?" he asked sulkily.

"Moving as if he were a free man," Kit replied. "By a strange coincidence, last night he met Price opposite Mrs. Beaumont's house. Of course, you know that he and Price are old acquaintances. Well, he tried to arrest Price, and got badly mauled for his pains, all of which means that he is desirous of seeing Price in the witness-box. If he does get there, it will not be pleasant for you."

"It will be ruin for me," Minter whispered. He wiped his damp forehead. "If that fellow dares—"

"He will dare a great deal. Whatever are the fellow's faults, he does not lack pluck. He thinks those bills are burnt, and he is going to act accordingly. The ready way in which he tackled Price shows that. I should not be quite so sure of my ground if I were you."

Minter nodded gloomily. This was a complication that he had not anticipated.

"This is the first I have heard of it," he said. "If Price had been taken I must have been told."

"Price was not taken. It was a very near thing, but he managed to save himself. But the police know that he is in London still, and will double their vigilance."

Minter smiled. After all, Price had not been arrested, and he had many friends to shield him. The man, too, was wonderfully audacious and cunning; moreover, he had no desire to find himself in gaol again. On the whole, Minter began to feel easy in his mind on the score of Price.

"All right," he said. "That's my business. I'm sorry about Miss Beaumont. You can tell her that I had not the slightest intention of taking her money—only of borrowing it. If you have any more to say—"

But Kit had nothing further to say on the subject. He had caught Minter out in a disgraceful fraud, a fact that did not seem to trouble his host in the least. Evidently the man had no sense of shame. As Kit crossed the hall in the direction of the smoking-room the sounds of the pianola stole out.

"What a mind!" he murmured. "Nothing seems to trouble him; he has not a shred of heart or conscience. And he can be passionately fond of music at the same time."

An hour later Minter strolled into the library, where an evening paper lay on the table. He took it up eagerly. A paragraph caught his eye—

"THE MISSING WITNESS SENSATION. ANOTHER PHASE OF THE CERTIFIED CASE. ELI PRICE GIVES HIMSELF UP TO THE POLICE.

"About seven o'clock this evening a powerfully-built individual, fairly well dressed, walked into Bow Street Police Station and demanded to see the inspector in charge. On being confronted with the individual in question the stranger coolly stated that he was Eli Price, the missing witness in the case of Mackness v. Certified Company, and that he had voluntarily surrendered himself to the authorities.

"He states that he was forcibly taken from the police, that for some days he was drugged and kept a prisoner, and that he had only escaped the night before. On being questioned as to his assault on Mr. Clifford Desborough, K.C., he admitted it freely, but stated that his mind had not yet recovered from the shock, and that he had taken the eminent barrister for one of his old foes. He says he wandered about all night, not knowing what he was doing; but that directly his mind became clear he decided to come straight to Bow Street. The story needs investigation, but, at the present moment, the Bow Street people are inclined to believe that it is all substantially true."

Minter tore the paper into shreds passionately.

"Now what is the game?" he asked himself. "That man might have lain low and blackmailed me for thousands of pounds. And yet he does this. What does it mean? What am I to do? There is only one thing."

He rang the bell, and his servant came.

"Pack a bag for a day or two," Minter said. "I've got to go to Paris, a message on the telephone. No, I shall not take you. Let me have the bag, and I'll carry it to the station, Peters. Look sharp. And you are to say nothing about this."

Half an hour later Minter was being whirled towards London in a special train.


LX. INTO THE NET

PRICE had really given himself up. A great many people besides Minter racked their brains to know the reasons why, but the real solution lay in the hands of a woman alone. Minter had puzzled his mind, and given it up in despair. Price had so much to gain from him that the whole thing seemed to border on madness. Why had he done it?

Other people were asking themselves the same thing. A certain City set, who had not scrupled to say that Price had been got out of the way at Minter's instigation, shook their heads as they read the news on their way to business. Of course, this was only a new deep move on the part of the wily capitalist. And then the incident was forgotten.

People had read it with all kinds of feelings, but nobody perused that crisp little paragraph in the same way as Maude. She generally breakfasted alone, for Mrs. Beaumont took that meal into her bedroom, and the Countess was still too unwell to come down, though, just at present, she took as keen an interest in the daily papers as did Maude herself.

Maude swallowed her tea, and then compelled herself to finish her breakfast slowly. She was too wildly glad to care for food this morning. For she had been successful, the scheme that she had thought out in many sleepless hours had borne good fruit at last.

"He has done it," she told herself. There were tears of joy in her eyes. "I expected it; at the same time, I half feared failure. To think that my enemies should have provided me with the weapon wherewith I have defeated theirs. Thank God, my anxiety is at an end."

It was a little after ten when Maude called up Kit on the telephone. She must see him on most important business without delay. Kit was at Minter's office, where he was winding up things, and would be round as soon as possible.

"I don't want to come here again," he said. "When I leave the place presently it will be for good and all. What's the matter, sweetheart? How your voice is trembling."

"Trembling with happiness," Maude said. "I can't tell you over the wire. Come as soon as you can, for there is any amount of work to do."

Kit's taxi dashed up to the house half an hour later, and he ran eagerly to the drawing-room. Maude's face was all smiles and softness; her eyes had a look of deep content in them. She came up to Kit and placed her arms about his neck lovingly.

"Now I am going to kiss you," she said. "Oh, I can do it now freely and shamelessly. I am going to send Desborough about his business and leave him to his own conscience."

Kit's face grew hard. Maude might have found some way to get rid of Desborough, but the scoundrel was not going to be allowed to escape like that; Kit was going to put no premium on dishonesty. He was looking forward eagerly to an interview with Desborough.

"Aren't you going to tell me all about it?" he asked.

Maude laughed in the most joyous, heartwhole fashion.

"Not yet, sir," she said. "I am not absolutely sure of my facts. But you have work to do. Of course, you read in the papers that the missing witness, Eli Price, had given himself up?"

"I saw that, and I confess I did not quite understand it. The fellow had everything to gain by keeping out of the way and blackmailing Minter. And now he gives himself up. Inexplicable!"

"I can explain it in good time," Maude said. "I want you to go and see this man for me. You are to say that a certain young lady is interested in his case. He will understand that. Say the young lady is ready to find a counsel or lawyer, or whatever he requires. Get him to talk. And when you have finished, get Scotland Yard to lend you one of his photographs."

Kit gravely promised to follow out these instructions. That Maude knew perfectly well what she was talking about, he could see. But she did not want to answer any questions yet. Kit went off presently to Bow Street, and there he found little difficulty in seeing Price. The latter was calm and good-tempered; it was pretty evident that his story, and the manner in which he had surrendered, had not been without its effect on the police.

"If you come here from Minter, sir, I can have nothing to say to you," Price said politely. "That man has been my enemy. He got me put out of the way, and Ericsson was the tool he used. Oh, yes. I've got a lawyer, and he is investigating the business for me. I don't deny that I've been in trouble before, but I should never have been here to-day but for Ericsson and Minter. I gave myself up as soon as I could."

Price lied cheerfully and well. But he seemed more friendly and communicative when Kit delivered his message.

"Thank the young lady," said he, "and tell her there is nothing she can do at present. What a splendid girl she is! If I'd had a wife like that instead of a—"

Price paused suddenly. He was on the point of betraying himself.

"You will want money for these investigations!" Kit said.

"Well, perhaps I shall. There's a useful witness up at Egmont in Norfolk, but I owe him £20, and he'll do nothing till that's paid."

"I'll do what I can," Kit said. "Is there nobody else I can see for you, no relatives?"

"My dear sir, I don't want any relation to know what I have come to. I was once like yourself; I am a public school and university man. There is nobody since my wife died. She was a Miss Beaumont, but that is neither here nor there. The witness I want is called Chorsley, and he lives by Egmont Church in Norfolk, where I was married."

Price spoke quite calmly as if giving a piece of ordinary information. In reality this was the first shot fired in the campaign that he had mapped out for himself. Kit smiled at the coincidence that this man should have married a Miss Beaumont whilst he was going to do the same thing.

"The lady I speak of will find you any money you require," Kit went on. "Let your lawyer know this, will you? As a man of the world, you will see the reason for not having this young lady's name mentioned. But she is quite ready to advance all the money you need."

"Then I shall never return to a convict prison," Price said with energy. "I've made a fine impression by the prompt way in which I gave myself up. I've given the police every assistance in my power, and I've only nine months of my sentence to run now. If I can prove what I say about Ericsson I shall probably get a pardon. And I shall smash that scoundrel Minter for good and all. Where is he now?"

Price's manner changed; his eyes grew as hard as his mouth.

"He's gone to Paris," Kit explained. "Was called away suddenly. I heard a rumour as I came along that he has met with a nasty accident, which will keep him in bed for a day or two."

"Ay, and out of England for many a day," Price said with a bitter sneer. "Directly that man heard that I had given myself up he bolted. He'll never show up till my mouth is sealed. Why, bless you, when I get into the box over that Certified case and tell the whole truth, Minter will stand in the dock. And I'll do it; I've got a heavy score to wipe out, and it shall be done."

Kit made his way thoughtfully to New Scotland Yard, where he was received curtly enough. There was some little difficulty in getting possession of a photograph of Price, but upon his giving an undertaking to return it at an early date, Kit went off with the picture in his possession. Maude smiled as she saw it.

"Did you find the man conversational?" she asked. "Did he say anything about his friends?"

"He didn't want them to know, and his wife is dead. Curiously enough, his wife was called Beaumont. They were married at Egmont in Norfolk, where there is a witness—"

Maude jumped to her feet, and clapped her hands joyfully.

"Victory!" she cried, "victory all along the line! This is my Waterloo, Kit. My stratagem has been successful. There's only one thing that I want now, and it is on the table by your elbow. Hand me that Bradshaw, Kit; you and I are going on a journey."

She and Kit caught the 11.49 for Patisford, and visited the rector of the little parish church. From him she heard that the register of births, marriages, and deaths was destroyed by fire three years before, and that there is no written record of any marriages before that time.

But when Maude produced the photographs of Eli Price and of her sister Alice the old vicar distinctly remembered having married them.

"Yes!" he exclaimed, "I recollect them very well. If you want this marriage proved, I am ready to give evidence anywhere."

On their return to London, Kit and Maude went straight to Paradise Buildings, and told Alice the result of their investigations.

A gush of happy tears came to Alice's eyes. "And now I leave here!" she cried.

"Yes," said Maude, "for ever! And you are coming home—home to mother!"

"Home," murmured Alice. "Home again! It seems like some happy, blissful dream."


LXI. HOME AGAIN

AFTER dinner that night at the Royal Crescent house when Mrs. Beaumont had carried off Alice to the drawing-room, Maude told her plans to Kit.

"I found Alice," she said, "and her husband had not the smallest idea of the fact, neither did he know that I had guessed her identity. After that I made a tool of him; I used him to extract information from Mr. Minter. But, so long as things were as they appeared to be, Alice could not come back. For my mother's sake, she stayed away. Still, she was married, and that had to be proved. From the first, it was pretty easy to see why Price denied the marriage.

"Then I tried to think out some scheme to force his hand. It was a conversation with Minter that gave me my first idea. He told me I could make a big profit by selling my Certified shares now. And then I remembered that clause in my father's will. If I made a big profit, Alice would have a fortune. Well, I made my big profit, and Alice got her fortune. But it was necessary that Price should know this. As the daughter of a lawyer, I have picked up scraps of legal information, and I remembered that where difficulties presented themselves, it was generally considered the proper thing to get directions from a judge. My trustee agreed, and the application was made. I wanted Price to see this; indeed, it was more or less done for his benefit."

"You clever darling," Kit cried.

"It seemed very good," Maude cried. "If Price had not seen it, the thing would have been brought to his knowledge. But he did see it, as subsequent events proved. Once he knew that Alice's fortune was no chimera, he abandoned his designs of blackmail on Minter. He gave himself up. Why?"

"So that he could claim that fortune when his sentence expired," Kit said.

"Precisely. And he admitted his marriage to you; in fact, I sent you to see him on purpose to hear that confidence. Afterwards, he would have got Alice out of the way, have proved her death if necessary, and claimed the money. At the present moment, he is, no doubt, hugging himself with the delusion that Alice knows nothing. He will get an unpleasant surprise when he is released."

"Well, it's one of the cleverest schemes I have ever heard of," Kit said. "And it has turned out exactly as you anticipated. There is only one thing in the coil that puzzles me."

"Tell me, and I'll explain. Has it anything to do with Mr. Desborough, for instance?"

"That's it. Alice is free, but are you free yourself?"

"Don't you see, Kit dear, that one thing involves the other," Maude said softly. In defiance of all the conventions, Kit had crossed the room and was sitting with his arm about Maude's waist. "It was the knowledge that Alice was unmarried that Desborough was trading upon. He discovered the secret in some diaries of my father's, which had come professionally into his hands in connexion with the Certified Company case. He was in desperate need, and, with his guilty knowledge, forced me into an engagement. Unless I consented, he would let my mother know the shameful truth. At that moment I did regard it as a shameful truth. My mother knew nothing, and I feared that the shock would kill her."

Kit's face grew dark.

"I felt that Desborough was a scoundrel," he said, "but I did not dream that he was so utterly abandoned."

"Forget him, Kit," Maude whispered. "Leave him to his conscience."

"And to benefit at the loss of £10,000 to me! Well, we shall see. I have made up my mind what to do."


At the same moment, Price was standing in Lime Street station, listening with an air of deference to the inspector, but really a free man. He hoped for a slice of luck like that, but he had not really expected it.

"You can go for the present," Inspector Tate said crisply, "but no nonsense. Let me have your address, and come back here again at half-past three."

What should he do now? Well, the first thing was to see Alice and get her out of the way. He had already fired the train by telling Clive that he was a married man, and that his wife's name had been Beaumont. Later on, he would come forward and claim that pretty fortune of over £50,000 as the legal representative of his late wife. All Alice's friends deemed her to be dead. He would get her to make a will in his favour, and date it back some years before. Once away on the Continent she would do anything that he told her. Of course, she need never know that she was legally married to him; the whole thing might be managed without Alice knowing anything.

And Maude Beaumont was good for any amount of money in reason. He could get a couple of hundred pounds from her and slip away to France by some quiet route, say, by way of Weymouth and Jersey. He would pretend that Alice wanted a change of air; he would say that he had had a slice of luck, and that she deserved a little treat.

There was nothing like striking while the iron was hot. He would go and see Alice at once. Price was in high good feather as he sprung up the stairs and opened Alice's door.

"No work to-day," he cried. "I've had a windfall, my girl. If you fancy—"

Price stopped, for his usually ready tongue had failed him. The aspect of the room had quite changed. A man sat at the table by the window, with a shade over his eyes and some work before him.

"And who the dickens do you want?" he asked gruffly. "If you are looking for the last tenant, you have come to the wrong shop."

Price crept down the stairs again, much more quietly than he had come. The commissionaire had no information; the young woman had given up her room, and left the furniture in lieu of rent.

"So that's your little game, my lady, is it?" Price said between his teeth. "You have moved to get out of my way. If I had you here now, I would give you one of the old lessons."

All the same, Price was considerably humbled as he went back to Lime Street. The inspector was there; a foreign telegram lay on the table before him.

"Have you got it?" Price asked eagerly.

"Well, I am not quite sure," Tate said thoughtfully. "So far, your information is quite correct. This is a reply to my telegram to the Paris police. Read it for yourself."

Price took up the flimsy sheet and read as follows—

"Nobody answering to your description has been here and no accident. Minter is not in Paris, and, what is more, he has not been here. Shall we try Berlin?"

"Shall we try Berlin?" Tate asked.

"Not much," Price chuckled. "Try London. I can lay my hands on Minter at any moment."

* * * * *

But there were other people on the hunt for Minter besides Price. The report of the accident to the millionaire had found its way into more than one paper, though the accounts seemed varied, and, for the most part, lack of details was made up by speculation. There was a certain amount of uneasiness over the affair in the City, where Minter had been freely discussed lately.

But Kit arranged with Murdock to come into the Certified Company, and to persuade Shackleton & Co. to come in with him.

That masterly stroke of business saved the situation.

A few hours later Price formed one of a party of four on their way to Minter's house. The other three men were Inspector Tate and two plain clothes policemen. The little party arrived at Park Lane, and then Tate prepared for strategy. But Price boldly turned the handle of the door and walked in.

"Cat's away, the mice at play," he whispered. "They are all down in the kitchens. And as we shan't come out the way we went in there is no occasion to disturb them. Come this way."

Tate followed with no further hesitation; Price seemed to be sure of his ground. He led the way up the stairs and into the corridor on the other side.

At the end of the corridor a door was open, and a stream of light shot out. Before a table a man sat writing, a man with black beard and moustache, and dark eyes behind glasses. So engrossed was he with his occupation that Price crept close behind him and touched him on the shoulder before he knew that anybody was in the room.

With a cry of alarm, he started up and looked with glaring eyes into Price's face. His fists clenched, he took one step forward, and then stood stiff and rigid.

"Gentlemen," Price said, "let me present Baron Kinski. Baron Kinski in the flesh with his beard grown. Baron, will you tell me what has become of Graham Minter?"


LXII. INTO THE NIGHT

THE man with the black beard stood there breathing heavily. To a certain extent his face was in shadow, for the only light in the room was the electric standard on the writing-table. Tate regarded his involuntary host with a rather puzzled expression. By this time, he had pretty well grasped the complications, but, as a believer in the Bertillon system, the man opposite should have had grey eyes.

"You have made a mistake, Parkes," he said to his chief assistant. "The eyes, too. They should be—"

"Blue grey," Price said. "So they are. The dark effect and the extended pupil are due to the effect of belladonna. There's a hint for you, Mr. Inspector. Didn't know a man could change the colour of his eyes, eh? But you've got an artist to deal with here."

"What do you want?" said the man by the desk in a hard, deep voice.

"Such an artist!" Price went on with mock admiration.

"Baron Kinski! Baron Kinski was going into the City to-morrow to meet his business friends. He was going to take Minter's place. Bah!"

With a sudden spurt of rage, Price flew at his antagonist, and wrenched beard, moustache, and glasses away. The transformation was instantaneous and complete. Minter stood confessed. There was no shame or anger or confusion on his face; he was like a mask. The marvellous scheme had failed. He had looked to success here, and Price had betrayed him. Why?

"Mr. Graham Minter," the latter said in the same mocking tones. "alias Baron Kinski. Think of the simplicity and audacity of it, think of the houses next door to one another and the secret passage by way of the 'Portrait of a Gentleman.' If I had not discovered that passage, I should not be here to-night."

"Why do you turn against me?" Minter asked. "It is not a sudden honest impulse—"

"There need be no talk of honesty between us," Price said. "I threw you over because I had a better and a surer game to play, and you would never have dealt fairly by me. And it was you and Ericsson who laid your heads together to put me in gaol. I have not forgotten that."

Price's eyes gleamed revengefully for a moment. Minter asked no further questions of his antagonist. He appeared to be utterly at the end of his resources for the moment. He was so quiet and restrained that Tate relaxed his vigilance for the time.

"What is the charge?" Minter asked. "Where is your warrant?"

"The warrant is in my pocket," Tate replied, "if you care to see it. Just for the moment the charge is one of conspiracy to steal certain jewels, the property of Lord Byngton. There will be other charges, but we need not go into them at present."

"As you please. I am to consider myself your prisoner?"

Tate bowed. He would call a cab if necessary, which suggestion Minter curtly declined. He would like to get his papers in order first.

"The light is not quite strong enough for me," he said. "That confounded belladonna has made my eyes quite misty. Inspector, will you please give me a 32-candle power lamp from the drawer behind you and a screwdriver. This light is only a sixteen. Thanks, very much. Please switch on the chandelier lights whilst I make the change."

Tate complied without the least hesitation. Surely there could be no harm in a request so simple. The new lamp was handed over, the old one remained. Under the glare of the big chandelier, Minter took the screwdriver in his hands and fiddled with the positive and negative poles in the socket of the standard. The wire was still alive. It looked very simple.

Then the steel of the screwdriver was suddenly jammed against positive and negative pole simultaneously, there was a sudden spurt of flame, and the room was in absolute darkness. Minter had deliberately short-circuited the current, and blown out every fuse in the house. It would take a couple of men an hour before the damage could be repaired. And it had all been done like a flash by the simple application of steel to copper.

It was done in an instant. So quick and unexpected was it, so like an accident it seemed, that nobody moved for a moment. Price was the first to yell out.

"It's a trick!" he screamed. "Anybody could have done it with two-pennyworth of electrical knowledge. He's gone!"

There was a dull thud of hurrying feet outside, then the slamming of a heavy door. Before the alarm could be given, Minter was half way across the park. He had deliberately cheated his captors under their very eyes; indeed, Tate had actually handed his prisoner the means of escape.

"I didn't think such a thing could be done," the discomfited inspector muttered, as he fumbled his way down the stairs into the hall. "Confound the place! It seems to be crammed with furniture. Hasn't anybody got a match?"

Unfortunately, nobody possessed that necessary article, and it was some time before the door was found. All this meant precious moments of liberty to Minter. Each second's delay was as good as an hour to him. It was useless to make an unnecessary outcry over the business. "We are bound to have him before long," Tate said. "He has gone away as Minter. He was utterly unprepared for our visit; I am sure he has very little money about him."

"You'll never get another chance," Price growled. "A man who could work out such a scheme—so elaborate and yet so simple—isn't likely to blunder twice. He's got other cards up his sleeve. And I was looking forward to seeing him in the dock and hear the judge give him ten years! It's a cold, cruel world, and full of disappointments. If you don't want me, inspector, I'll go home."

The inspector had no further use for Price at the present. The latter called a cab, and was driven off in the direction of Fleet Street. As he confidently expected, he had a pretty story to tell, and one of the kind eagerly snapped up by the newspapers. The climax was not quite what he had anticipated, but he had material for a sensational article of about two columns. The editor of the Morning Review received him coldly.

But Price had chapter and verse to give; he had a good story to tell, and he wanted a hundred pounds for it. On the whole, it was cheap at the money. A little wiry nervous-looking man in glasses fairly bombarded Price with questions as he flung the replies on the paper in shorthand. At the end of half an hour he beamed.

"That will do," he said. "This is splendid. Shan't want to keep you any longer. If there is any sequel, you understand?"

Price nodded. If he had only foreseen the sequel! But he buttoned up his coat complacently, and, outside, took another cab, which he ordered to be driven to 45, Royal Crescent.

He was going to see Maude Beaumont; in fact, she had sent for him. There was no occasion to slink there any more; he could be driven up like an honest gentleman; he could play his game freely now. Thanks to his own audacity and good luck, he was well in funds; he could take Alice away and remain with her till the time was ripe to claim that money. It would be rather slow, of course, but what a reward for his patience!

On the whole, Price was on very good terms with himself as he drove up to Royal Crescent. He was ushered into the library, where Maude presently came. She was just a little haughty and self-contained, and there was a queer brightness in her eyes that puzzled Price.

"I am glad you came at my request," Maude said. "I want to settle up matters, and I shall not require your services after to-night. I understand that Mr. Minter—"

"Bolted!" Price said laconically. "He's been playing a pretty game. Minter and Baron Kinski are one and the same. I found that out some time ago, and I put the police on his track."

"This is strange news," Maude exclaimed. "Poor Lady Mary! But, really, she will be...And so you set the police going. Surely that was not like your usual acumen? I should have thought you would have turned a secret like that to much greater advantage, Mr. Price."

Price grinned uncomfortably; he did not appreciate the satire much. Nor was it prudent to say that he was playing for a much higher game. Maude was very bright and clever, but she did not know everything, he reflected. If she had, he would indeed be hoist with his own petard.

"Tell me the story," Maude said.

Price did so, to an exceedingly interested listener. So there was an end of all this chicanery and fraud, Maude thought. She would be glad to get away from it and into the pure air of the country for a time.

"It's a dreadful business altogether," she said. "Tomorrow I shall go away and try to forget it. Meanwhile, I have a little to say as to your own affairs."

Price beamed approvingly. All this sounded like some more money.


LXIII. A DOUBLE EXIT

"IT is exceedingly kind of you to take all this interest in my welfare," he said.

"We won't go into that," Maude replied. "I want you to answer a few questions. You are a married man, I think?"

Price replied that he was, but that, unfortunately, his wife was dead. She had gone abroad with him for the sake of her health; she had, unhappily, contracted a fever at Rome and died, in spite of the most assiduous and tender attention. Price conveyed a delicate hint to the effect that, if his wife had lived, he might have been a different man.

"I was married at Egmont, in Norfolk," he concluded. "But these are wretched memories."

"No more wretched than your own memory," Maude said, as she rang twice. "There are many things that you seem to have forgotten, and I am going to remind you of them. Please come in."

The door opened and closed again, and Alice came into the room. She was dressed as befitted her rank and station, the pallor had gone from her face, she looked softly and serenely beautiful. Price had never realized that his wife was quite so pretty as this. Fear had given her a colour, her lips were parted, showing her white teeth within.

"You see, I am refreshing your wretched memory," Maude said. "Let us have no outburst of violence, please. There are men in the house, and, if I ring that bell, you are liable to be pitched off the doorstep. You ought to be grateful to me for my preventing your intended fraud."

"What fraud do you mean?" Price blustered.

"Why, the attempt to gain possession of my sister's fortune. Ever since the night you tried to rob this house, I have known who you are; that very night I discovered that Alice was not dead. My desire was to prove that my sister was married to you, but not out of consideration for my brother-in-law. You had not the remotest idea that Alice's friends knew that she was alive. So I laid a plot for you, to force from you the knowledge of where you were married. That is why we played at that business of the Certified Shares and the application to the courts. You would see the account of that, and you would make up your mind to get the money."

"It's good to be clever like you are," Price sneered.

"So I have discovered for myself," Maude said quite coolly. "You saw that application in the papers? Had you not done so, I should have brought it to your notice. There was a prize ready for you, with only a little trouble to get it. You could easily get Alice out of the way; you could pose later on as a widower and obtain possession of that money. Only you would have to serve out your sentence first. When I saw that you had given yourself up, I could read your mind as clearly as if you had put everything down on paper for me."

"What a mind?" Price writhed and wriggled and perspired. "Only fancy having a brain like that!"

"It has been exceedingly useful," Maude said. "When you were in gaol I sent a friend to see you, and you told him all I wanted to know. It was your first step in your game. I have been to Egmont, where I laid your photograph and that of my sister before the clergyman who married you. He identified you both at once, but he could not produce the register, because there had been a fire in the vestry. There is no need to go into the history of that fire, though I have no doubt that you could give me some information on that point."

"Inferring that it's possible that I had a hand in the accident!" Price growled.

"I'm absolutely certain of it," Maude said, looking at Price with cool, accusing eyes. "The fire took place almost immediately after the contents of my father's will became public property. You knew that your wife had no money, and it occurred to you that it would be prudent to destroy all trace of the marriage. But, you see, we have found out all these things for ourselves. Your wife has the money; she is going to keep it. And so long as she has friends to protect her, not one penny do you touch."

Price had no reply for a moment. Gradually he began to see how he had been tricked and fooled all along the line. The humiliation was bad enough, but to have been the mere tool of a woman was worse. He walked up and down, muttering and threatening, but Maude stood there, cold as a stone. From start to finish, not one word had come from Alice.

"You can do nothing," Maude said at length. "You deserted your wife, and thus she is free from you. And the sooner we are rid of your hateful presence the better. Do not come here again. Alice, kindly ring that bell. I forget that this must be a trying ordeal for you."

Price moved uneasily towards the door. He wanted to say something that would sting and wound and blister. But, for the life of him, he could think of nothing but vulgar abuse, and that would only make his antagonist's victory more complete. He found his way finally into the street, without a word of any kind. He put a cigarette between his teeth, and chewed half of it before he awoke to the fact that it was still unlighted.

So, with all his cunning and ability, he had jumped from the frying-pan into the fire. He had thrown over Minter coolly and deliberately, whilst that man might have been an absolute fortune to him; he had made Minter an outlaw and a fugitive from justice, and all for what end? To be tricked and fooled by a woman! It was useless to expect to touch a penny of his wife's money now.

He had about three hundred pounds in cash and his freedom. Well, he would have a holiday first; he would go to Brighton, and there lay his plans of campaign. He would take Macgregor along. He walked across Westminster Bridge to Macgregor's lodgings, but the latter was out. Very slowly and thoughtfully, Price retraced his steps. It was getting very late now, and the clock said it was close on twelve. The Embankment was deserted as Price strolled along, only one solitary figure came along the other side of the road. It was a skulking figure, Price noted in a preoccupied way, a beggar perhaps. The man crossed the road.

There was a grip on Price's collar, and he struggled round. He was face to face with Minter. Minter, white and hollow-eyed, but filled with a grim, determined purpose. The tide was high, so high that it could be reached by leaning over the wall with a stick.

"Are you mad?" Price said hoarsely.

"I am at the end of my string. No money, no credit, face to face with a hopeless future. I am too old to begin the world once more, even if I had the means. But there is one thing I can have, and that one thing is—revenge!"

Price struggled silently but furiously, and said nothing. He did not like the look in Minter's eyes.

"I watched you leave the house," the latter said. "I was hiding in the park, I followed you to Royal Crescent, I waited for you outside, I have been following you ever since. I've waited for this chance."

Price struggled still more furiously, but he could not break away. He would have cried out, but Minter read his intention in his fear-stricken eyes and had him by the throat like a flash. The man seemed to have a marvellous strength. Inch by inch, Price was forced back. He was raised and pushed on to the top of the wall. The madman was going to murder him. Price could see the rush of the brown water, could hear the strong suck of the ebbing tide. His hands slipped on the polished granite; he made one clutch as he fell, and grabbed Minter by the heel.

There was a kick and a struggle and a furious oath, and then a dual splash. The two men were clinging together now, not in a fury of passion, but madly for self-support. There was a gurgling cry, another hoarse bubbling scream, and the sound of voices as a police lantern shone on the flowing waters and took in those black specks. A boat was put out from the far side.

But it was too late. The hoarse cries had ceased by this time, the black arms had gone up, and the black bodies had gone down for the last time. The flashing zone of the police lantern followed down stream, until the nose of the boat came into the sphere of its influence.

"I can see one," a hoarse voice said. "By Jove! I can see the two. The strong tide's brought 'em both up again. 'Ere, Bill, look alive with that boat-hook. Got 'em safe? But three minutes too late!"

It was even as the boatman had said. Minter and Price were both beyond human aid when they were taken from the boat and laid out in the light of the river-side station. The sequel of the story had been told, but it would never be reported to the editor of the Morning Review by Price. A plain clothes constable looked in and gave a stare as his gaze fell upon the two bodies.

"I know 'em," he said. "The stout one is Minter, the millionaire we'd got a warrant for. The other is Price, who was mixed up with him. No; more a case of murder than suicide. I must go to Lime Street and report this at once. It's a fine thing for the morning papers."

It was a fine thing for the morning papers, especially the REVIEW. Maude read it and passed it over to Alice, who cried quietly and then smiled again. After all, it was only natural. And Lady Mary read it, too, but with what feeling will never be known to anybody but herself.


LXIV. AMBITION'S FALL

ALL London was ringing with the story next morning. The whole thing seemed amazing. A few of the newspapers seemed to know all about it, but, at the same time, the reports were vague and inconclusive. As the day wore on, more facts came to light. It had been feared at first that an investigation of Minter's affairs would have disclosed huge defalcations.

But nothing of the kind had happened. Fortunately, Mr. Murdock had been lured into the breach, with the result that his name seemed likely to carry everything through, If Minter had lived another week, he would have found himself a rich man, but the irony of Fate had been too much for him. And there was that fatal business of Lord Byngton's diamonds.

The matter was more or less easily explained; at any rate, the police theory was clear enough. Seeing that Kinski and Minter were one and the same now, it was quite easy to see how those gems had come into the hands of the latter. Of course, the "Kinski" business could not have been played without confederates, but they were not likely to speak now. So long as people are ready to be gulled by rogues, a dual identity business like that was quite possible.

"I am not going to trouble about the jewels," Lord Byngton said. "Clearly they belong to the Countess, and, if she fought me about them, I should have to give them up. And I daresay I should do something silly with them, in any case. Let the poor old lady have them."

Inspector Tate had nothing to say one way or another. Kit, who was present, thought that Byngton had done more stupid things in his time. So there was an end of the jewel episode. If Lord Byngton refused to prosecute, the police were powerless. And Amy Rayne continues to play to great houses nightly, and blesses the luck that saved her from a prison instead.

Kit went off to the City after the inquest on Minter and Price. It was not a long inquest, and the verdict of "found drowned" had the full approval of the coroner. Murdock was just coming back to his office as Kit drove up.

"We've got the worst over," the North Country magnate said. "All our shares have dropped a little, but not much. And when the City gets to hear that I have settled all those actions that Minter was so foolishly fighting, there will be a strong reaction in our favour. Do you appreciate how near to ruin we have all been, young man? Do you understand that?"

"Perfectly," Kit said coolly. "It was a case of do or die. And pluck pulled us through. Minter ought to have seen it, though, instead of wrecking everything in his mad desire for vengeance on Price. Strange, is it not, that Minter should have died a rich man after all?"

"At the risk of ruining us," Murdock said sourly.

"All's well that ends well. But you don't catch me putting my hand to speculative business again."

It was a busy afternoon that Kit passed. He had taken pretty well everything in his hands. By the afternoon it was pretty well known who Price was—a gentleman who had fallen into evil ways. The story of his romantic marriage was a secret no longer. On the whole, it was no bad thing for Alice. And, after all, Price was her husband, and the family would have to arrange for the funeral. Lady Mary had come up to town, and she had implored Kit to do what he could for her. The one man now that Kit desired to see was Clifford Desborough, but he was away up North fighting a sensational case, out of which he was likely to emerge with honours higher than before.

The funerals were over at length, Minter laid to rest in the churchyard at Marvyn Chase, whilst Price found a humbler resting-place. The blinds were up at Marvyn Chase again, and Kit was seated in the library, discussing matters with Lady Mary.

"You'll never make me understand business," Lady Mary said with a faint smile. "I suppose everything must go. When the modern millionaire comes to grief, it generally means disgrace as well as poverty."

"No disgrace can touch you," Kit said evasively. "There are rumours, but they will soon be forgotten. Your husband has left you a rich woman, Lady Mary."

Lady Mary candidly admitted that she was very pleased to hear it. She wanted no details; indeed, they would only have confused her. By a mere accident, Minter's depleted property had blossomed again, and Lady Mary would not have sacrificed herself to such a man in vain.

"It is very good of you to take all this trouble for me," she said gratefully. "I shall shut up the house and go abroad for a time. When I come back, I must really make an effort to understand things. I don't know what I should have done without you lately, Kit."

Well, that matter was settled, Kit thought, as he took his way back to town. As for the rest, Lady Mary must be taught what to do and how to manage by the highly respectable firm of solicitors who had managed her father's affairs for generations. Lady Mary was all right.

The streets were hot and dusty as Kit drove along towards Royal Crescent, the glare was trying to the eyes. By contrast the garden behind Mrs. Beaumont's house was delightfully green and cool. Mrs. Beaumont, dressed in the slightest mourning, was pouring out tea, with Alice on a stool at her feet. Alice was in black, but by no means a sombre dress. To mourn for Price would be mere hypocrisy. Down deep in her heart the girl was glad to be free, the anxious, pinched look had left her face her eyes were clear and free from care. Maude Was dressed in her favourite blue.

"This is charming," Kit said. "Let me have that swing chair and a cup of tea. Then I will tell you all I have done, if you will allow me to smoke a cigarette."

"Did you find Lady Mary resigned?" Maude asked.

"Well, yes. Better be a rich widow than the wife of a heartless gambler. Lady Mary is going abroad for a time. And what are you going to do? The season is dragging on to its end. Why people, who can afford to get away, stay in London this weather passes my understanding."

Alice looked up with a vague expression in her eyes.

"We are going to Sandmouth to-morrow," she said. "Oh, what a treat it will be to me! Could you manage to come along, Kit?"

"No getting rid of me," Kit laughed with a glance at Maude. "I am the old man of the sea, and I shall be delighted to turn my back on the City. What does Mrs. Beaumont say?"

"For many things I shall be glad," Mrs. Beaumont said. "Of course, Alice, poor child, is the first consideration. And now Maude tells me that she is not going to marry Mr. Desborough. Under the circumstances, to remain here and meet him continually would be very awkward. Though why Maude—"

"It was a mistake, Mrs. Beaumont," Kit said gently, "the result of a trifling misunderstanding between Maude and myself. But that is all explained now, and, in short, if you care to accept me for a son-in-law in lieu of so brilliant a man as Clifford Desborough, why—"

Mrs. Beaumont threw up her hands in delighted astonishment.

"Well, I am pleased," she said. "I had looked for this all along. When Maude told me that it was Mr. Desborough, I was really disappointed. Somehow I felt that she did not care for him, but I was very upset about it."

Maude came over and kissed her tenderly.

"And yet you never for one moment showed it," she said. "But you were ever the best and kindest of mothers. The Countess declares that when she comes back from Vienna she is going to live with my mother, Kit."

"She might do a great deal worse," Kit laughed. "Still, I hope that Countess de Lary's relations will look after the old lady better in future. What time do you go to Sandmouth?"

Denton came in just as the train was being fixed. He merely shook hands with Alice, but a glance passed between them, and they understood one another. Mrs. Beaumont rose and walked back to the house, saying that she felt sure the grass was getting damp.

"Ever the most discreet of mothers," Maude said. "Now you can sit and smoke cigarettes and tell us all the news. We shall be out of the world to-morrow."

A servant came across the grass and stood to attract Maude's attention.

"Mr. Clifford Desborough is in the drawing-room, miss," he said. "He would like to see you for a few moments as he has very little time to spare."


LXV. THE END OF IT ALL

KIT and Maude rose simultaneously; the servant had disappeared discreetly. "My turn first," Maude said. "You shall come in later Kit. Once I have got this off my mind, I shall be happier. I'll call you when I am ready."

Desborough was standing with his back to the fireplace, calm and masterful as ever. Minter was dead and he was free; he had not even those debts to pay. And now he was going to bend Maude to his will. He glanced at her face and smiled, but she faced him steadily. Maude was the first to speak.

"I am glad you came," she said, "glad you came for the last time. I have been discussing you with my sister."

"Your sister?" Desborough said. "Your sister? Why, I was under the impression that she was dead!"

"You are making yourself out as black as possible," Maude cried in contempt. "My sister is alive, and you know it. She has been frequently employed by you as a typist. You know how you kept the knowledge from me. You suspected that Price was her husband, but you concealed that. And Price was her husband. She was married to him some four years ago, at Egmont, in Norfolk."

"And this you can prove?" Desborough said with a sneer.

"Indeed, we can. We have the word of the clergyman who married them. We have Price's own word for it before he died. My mother knows everything now, the world knows everything. Therefore your disgraceful hold over me fails, you can tell any story you like and nobody will care. I have granted you this interview, though you would have no more than your deserts if you had been kicked down the steps. If Kit Clive met you in the street and gave you a good horse-whipping to-morrow, you dare not seek a remedy. This is the last time I shall speak to you, henceforth we meet as strangers. I have written to the papers denying our engagement. Now, have you any more to say?"

Desborough appeared to have nothing to say at all. For once in his life he was taken utterly aback. For nothing he had proclaimed himself in this woman's eyes as a worthless scoundrel.

"You had better go," Maude went on. "There is nothing to gain by staying here, or—stop, I have a friend who desires to see you. If you will wait a moment, I'll send him to you."

Desborough appeared to hear nothing of this. He was not sorry to be alone; he wanted to collect his scattered wits. Before he knew it, Kit was in the room. In the presence of this man, he must appear to disadvantage. He looked up with a cold smile on his face.

"You are the conqueror and I am the vanquished," he said between his teeth.

"Ay, you are more vanquished than you anticipate," Kit said bitterly. "I have read of and met some pitiful rascals in my time, but never a worse than you. But your claws are cut now, your teeth drawn. Maude Beaumont is free from you, and it is my turn to dictate terms."

"Your turn!" Desborough laughed. "Do you presume to match your brains against mine?"

"That is precisely what I am going to do. I am a poor écarté player, and you are a good one. But if I hold all the cards you are powerless, and your good play counts nothing. I hold all the cards, and I am going to make you suffer. You won't get by me. You recollect those bills of yours that Minter bought?"

"Destroyed," said Desborough, "by Maude Beaumont before my eyes."

"Nothing of the kind, sir. It was a fraud of Minter's. I hold those bills; they are on my person at the present moment. If you refuse to believe me, look at them."

Desborough's heart sank as he recognized the papers.

He looked at Kit, but he could see no mercy in his eyes.

"Maude Beaumont tried to buy those papers to save you," Kit went on. "She thought she had done so. And then she asked you for her freedom. You refused, after all the sacrifice she had made. Had you shown her a bit of feeling then I would have spared you. What would happen if I gave these papers to the newspaper in your constituency which is opposed to you politically?"

"I should be ruined!" Desborough said huskily. "I should have to resign my seat. Never again would I become a prominent figure in politics."

Kit slowly returned the bills to his pocket.

"I was going to do that," he went on quietly. "But for the aged mother who believes in you, I should have done so. But, to a certain extent, I will spare you. Listen to my terms."

"Terms!" Desborough cried. "Do you mean you are actually going as far as—"

"As far as I can," Kit cried sternly. "You are going to resign your seat in the House of Commons. From here you are going away to do that thing; by to-night everybody will know that you can't afford to neglect your practice so much. Oh, you can wriggle and protest as much as you like. Those are my terms, or those papers are in the hands of your constituents within eight and forty hours."

It was a bitter, crushing blow, the most bitter that Desborough had ever had in his life. For his political ambition he had sacrificed everything that most men hold dear. Honour and truth had gone to the winds. He felt sick and faint as he listened to Kit's words.

"Not one hairsbreadth do I move from my position," the latter went on. "And I shall give you two years to pay me the money you owe me. Then you shall have the papers back again. If I could have seen in you the slightest trace of regret or feeling, I would have spared you. But no, you would have given up everything for the sake of your hateful ambition. That is a thing of the past. There is no more to be said. This is the last time I shall ever speak to you, the last time you will ever enter this house. You are going from here a broken and degraded man. I can see it in your face. Do you still defy me?"

"I dare not!"—the words came slowly—"I dare not! And if ever my time comes—"

He took up his hat and strode to the door. But, as he walked down the street, his feet seemed to drag, and his head, that was usually erect, was deep between the shoulders. In the garden, Maude was waiting for Kit. Alice and Denton were down among the roses.

"He has gone," Kit said, "he will never come again. And I have served him as I told you I would. Now let us dismiss the fellow from our minds. Where are the others?"

"Love and roses," Maude laughed. "Really, there is no reason why they should conceal their feelings any longer. And Harvey has served for Alice faithfully and well."

The other two were down among the roses. Alice was arranging a creamy bud in Denton's coat. He made some jesting remark, and her laughter rang out sweet and clear.

"It's good to hear you laugh like that again, little Alice," Denton said. "It reminds me of old times. My darling, you are not going to keep me long waiting?"

"Indeed, I am not, dearest," Alice said with a fearless, loving glance. "I long to make up for lost time. And I shall be more worthy of you now, because I am rich. Do you mind a rich wife, Harvey?"

Denton responded suitably enough. He had waited for his happiness, but it was all the sweeter for the delay. Maude and Kit had gone back to the house. Maude stood gazing at Kit with a moisture in her eyes that was suspiciously near to tears. Kit caught her to his heart passionately.

"Tears!" he said. "When you ought to be quite happy."

She gave him one glance, and their lips met with a sweet content.


THE END

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