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


Title: The Old Secretaire
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1402671.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2014
Date most recently updated: October 2014

Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy

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

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

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

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

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Old Secretaire
Author: Fred M White

*

THE OLD SECRETAIRE.

A CHRISTMAS STORY.

By

FRED M. WHITE.

*

Published in Chambers's Journal, in serial format commencing 3 December, 1887.

*


CHAPTER I.

THERE had been a Secretan at Woodside Manor for three hundred years,
from the time of Norman Secretan the Catholic, down to that of Myles
Secretan, the present representative of the race, who thought as a man
of the world of the family dignity, and scoffed openly at the family
ghost. A wing of the great house, now fallen partly into disuse,
contained the Haunted Chamber, a wing which Myles Secretan vowed to
have restored to its pristine glory some day when the fortunes of
Woodside should mend; for, three generations of wild Secretans--Walter,
with a taste for gambling; Arundel, friend and boon-companion of Edgar
Warren of Normanton Grange, a neighbouring great house, for the Warrens
and Secretans had ever been closest of friends; and lastly, Clive, who
had been one of the Pavilion intimates, and a prime favourite with 'the
first gentleman in Europe'--had brought the resources of Woodside to
a very low ebb indeed. The favour of kings is proverbially a fickle
thing, unless one happens to be a Brummell, as Clive Secretan had
found to his cost; and thus it was that the west wing remained in its
half-dismantled state, and the ghost walked o' nights, to the awe and
terror of the neighbourhood.

It was not such a very old story, or a very ancient spectre either, as
it only dated back as far as the present possessor's grandfather. There
was one old servant in the house--a dreadful man, nearly ninety years
of age, with white bushy eyebrows and keen black eyes--who remembered
the tragedy--Silas Brookes, the unfortunate Arundel Secretan's valet.
But even he never spoke about it, and only listened when the story was
mentioned with suspicion and hatred glowering out of his evil dark
eyes. The servants said he was mad--that the recollection had turned
his brain. Once, years ago, he had told the story, and was never heard
to mention it again.

He was perhaps the wildest of them all, this friend of Edgar Warren's,
with his handsome face and soft effeminate manner; his carefully
paraded vices, and mad love of gambling. For a time, Walter Secretan,
the father, had been proud to hear of his son's social success, of his
conquests and his gaming exploits in connection with the most famous
men in Europe; of the tales which came down to the world-worn old roué
in the peaceful Kentish village, and reflected, as it were, a lustre
upon himself. There was some one else, too, who heard these tales, and
went over them in secret--pretty Mistress Alice Mayford, the vicar's
daughter, who wore on her finger a rose diamond in a quaint setting,
and something warmer in her heart. She heard all these things, watching
and praying for the time when such vicious pleasures should pall and
'the king come home again,' which he did at length; and the stalled
ox was killed, and presently there was a quiet wedding at the little
church under the hill.

But Arundel Secretan had too much of the swashbuckler in his blood
to settle down at twenty-six, even with a beautiful wife to bear him
company, and a doting father at his beck and call. For hardly had the
cherry orchards bloomed again, ere Warren, fresh from a continental
tour, was in town, hunting high and low for his fidus Achates, and
at last found him out. There was a new actress to see, he wrote, a
score of new amusements; for the sake of old times, a week, only a
short week, and then he might return to his peaches and Ashford ale for
ever. Arundel hesitated, and finally fell. For three whole years they
saw nothing of him, but they heard much--tales from the Levant came,
filtered through gossips from town; sad stories from Rome, and Venice,
and Florence, yet nothing from the wanderer save the constant cry for
money. Old Walter Secretan grew grayer and grimmer; he was harsh and
hard to all save Alice, and what they suffered together, no one ever
knew. The master of Woodside wrote at length refusing to send further
funds; and then the heir came home--home one night when they least
expected him, clanking with whip and spur into the great dining-hall,
where injured father and outraged wife were seated, as if his absence
had only been for an hour. Oh, but he was changed--three years of vice
and unbridled license had set their mark upon his face, had clouded the
open forehead and bleared the eye. His wife, poor child, would have
risen and fallen at his feet for very joy, but that Walter Secretan
motioned her back, and called for another cover with a coolness
that astonished the trembling old seneschal, and struck him with a
presentiment of coming evil. It was a strange meal, with no word spoken
on either side.

'On my honour, your modern husband but a strange fashion of showing
love and devotion to his bride,' said Walter Secretan, when the cloth
had been drawn, and the wine set in great coolers, and Mistress Alice
had gone tremblingly to her chamber. 'Odds-fish, but you take the
matter coolly. In my time it would have gone hard if----'

'In your time,' Secretan the younger answered languidly, as he brushed
a crumb from his velvet skirts. 'You kept your vices closer at home.
With our greater regard for the proprieties, we take them abroad--not
quite so dutiful, perhaps, but a great deal more wholesome--for
Woodside.'

'And now, forsooth, that my patience is exhausted, the supplies have
stopped, you come home to "eschew sack and live cleanly?"'

'We both seem to be labouring under a mistake, sir; and I will be
perfectly candid with you. I have no intention of assuming the part of
the prodigal son--a character which, pardon me, would as ill become
your unworthy servant as the other character would befit you.'

'Fore George, your elegant tropes go clean over my head,' the father
said with some show of anger. 'Leave your fine phrases where you seem
to have left your heart and your manhood. You come down here neither to
seek forgiveness nor to be forgiven. Why do you come at all?'

Arundel helped himself to another glass of claret, and crossed his
elegant legs in an attitude of utter nonchalance. 'Most honoured sir,
what is the one thing that should bring me from the sweet shady side of
Pall Mall to such an inferno as Woodside?'

'And that one thing? omitting such trifling circumstances as love and
duty, for which I humbly ask your pardon for recalling to your mind,'
said Walter Secretan sardonically. 'I am all ears.'

'Need I say that I am alluding to money?'

For the first time during the interview, a smile broke out upon the
listener's dark handsome features. 'I am heartily glad to hear it,' he
returned; 'and all the more so that you will not get it. No, if you go
down on your knees to me and swear reformation by all the saints in the
calendar, not another guinea do you get from me; no, not even if it
would save you from starvation. If my son is a heartless profligate, I
will take care that yours does not suffer for his father's sins.'

For the first time the younger man showed signs of agitation and alarm.
'There is more than one way of suffering for a father's sins,' he said.

'I know it--who better?--as well as I know by your manner that you
have brought dishonour on the house. And so yonder innocent lad's
patrimony is to be the price of your absolution. Why not go to your
fine friends for money? Is it a greater sin to rob them than rob an
indulgent father? Go to your faithful friend from Normanton yonder, the
immaculate Edgar, who would prate of love and honour, whilst the doors
of all honest men are shut in his face--ask him for the money.'

'This is vulgar prejudice,' Arundel exclaimed, stung into retort by
these bitter words. 'If the man you speak of was in England, I should
not be here to ask this favour of you now.'

'I believe that,' said Secretan. 'You would not come unless you were
forced to do so.'

'Edgar would help me cheerfully enough, only he is away, no one knows
where, upon one of his mad expeditions. It is a matter of life and
death with me--a debt of honour to be met--a debt so large that I have
arranged for three months in which to raise the money.'

'On my honour, you have been sustaining the family reputation! And
who is the fortunate individual who has been astute enough to get the
better of so accomplished a dicer and card-player as Arundel Secretan?'

'Lord St Devereux--a name, I believe, known to you.'

'Known to me in years gone by as a disgraced blackleg and notorious
roué. By the blood of my ancestors, but you have been figuring in noble
company!--And the amount?'

'Nearly thirty thousand pounds, so far as I can recollect.'

'And which the immaculate St Devereux will never get,' returned
Secretan with the same grim quietness. 'I have done enough, and more
than enough. St Devereux and a son of mine together! Borrow this
money--beg it--steal it if you like, but never mention it to me again,
or I shall forget our ties of blood and strike you where you stand.'

The younger man rose quietly, a ghastly pallor on his cheeks. He
hesitated for a moment ere he spoke again. 'You will not deny me a
night's shelter?' he said.

'No; Woodside will hold us both. Stay here while you may; come and
go at your pleasure. My penance will be the contemplation of my own
handiwork. Your penance has yet to come.'

Arundel Secretan walked up the open staircase, past the frowning
ancestors he had dishonoured, with white set face and glittering eyes;
past his wife's room, to the apartment they had prepared for him. His
social excommunication had come--he had read the death-warrant in
his sire's determined aspect. For more than an hour he sat in silent
thought. There were pens, ink, and paper on the table, and as his
troubled gaze fell upon them, his brow cleared a little and he began
to write. The writing lasted till nearly midnight, till at length the
broad sheets were folded and addressed to the friend whom his father
had just maligned so bitterly. Then the writer rang his bell, and told
the servant to send his man, Silas Brookes, to him. He came, silent and
lynx-eyed, listening respectfully to his instructions. He was to start
on the morrow for Italy; walk, ride, fly, or crawl, anything so long
as the precious packet was delivered into Edgar Warren's hands without
an hour's unnecessary delay. Silas Brookes took the packet and the
accompanying purse of gold without a word, and saddling a horse in the
stable, rode out into the night upon his errand.

So this rarely faithful servant turned his face eastward, and nothing
was heard of him for many days. Arundel Secretan meanwhile lived a
quiet retired life, rarely appearing at meals, and when he did so, the
set frown was on his brow, the haunting anxiety in his eyes. He seemed
to shun society, even that of his wife and child, though Alice's love
was not of the kind to be killed by any coldness or neglect; but he
had so strangely changed, so hard and cynical, that her gentle nature
turned from the politely sarcastic phrase as from a blow. Two months
went by; the leaves had fallen from the trees, the earth was bound in
iron bonds, a thick sheet of snow lay in the forest drives and over the
desolate lawns. The Yule-log was trimmed and placed outside the great
hall door; the red holly-berries and sickly white mistletoe hung on
picture and spear and armour. There was a sound of joyous revelry in
the servants' hall, echoing faintly in the great dining-room, where the
silent two sat over their weary repast--a Christmas Eve without love or
harmony, but a moody silence, till the sharp ring of a horse's hoofs
outside roused a little languid attention. Arundel Secretan heard the
sound, and rose to his feet a great shout bursting from his lips.

Silas Brookes stood in the hall, a fine white powder upon the cape of
his riding-coat, and sternly silent, as if his absence had only been
for an hour. He bowed his head to his master's glance of interrogation,
and signified that the latter should lead the way. Once up-stairs in
Secretan's chamber, his natural reserve gave way.

'I saw Mr Warren,' he said, still standing, and speaking mechanically,
as if repeating a lesson. 'He has been, nay, he is very ill, sir; but
he was pleased to hear from you, the more that he has a presentiment
you will never meet again. And then he read your letter.'

The listener laid his hand upon his heart, as if to check the violence
of its beating--there seemed to be a band of iron round his forehead,
crushing into the heated brain. 'Get to the point!' he exclaimed. 'The
answer--the answer!'

'I saw him read every line, and smiling in the way he used to smile
when anything amused him. "Give my compliments to your master," he
said, "and tell him that even I cannot make bricks without straw. It
is a lesson I have been trying to learn from the Jews without much
advantage to me, but considerable profit to them."'

'And that was all he said?' asked Secretan calmly, though the reply was
so like the man, he knew it must be so. 'Nothing more?'

'Nothing more, sir--not a word.'

'And that man was my friend and my debtor!' These were the last words
Arundel Secretan ever spoke. Without further hesitation, he drew his
rapier from its sheath, and turning the point towards his heart, threw
himself full upon it. And there they found him in the morning--dead,
with a great pool of blood upon the floor; and in due course he was
buried with his fathers. But every Christmas Eve a light is seen in the
dormer window in the west wing, and a shadowy form paces the passages
with a stain upon its breast. This was the tale Silas Brookes had to
tell, only once, with a strange agitation and restlessness, for he had
loved his master in his own strange method, and grieved for him to
this day. And so, year after year, the ghost walked on Christmas Eve,
though Myles Secretan would have none of it, vowing that Arundel, his
ancestor, disliked home too much to make a permanent habitation of the
half-ruined west wing.




CHAPTER II.

MORE than half a century had passed since Arundel Secretan had
been found with the rapier in his heart, and the west wing had
still remained tenanted by the rats and mice and the shade of the
unfortunate gambler. Again the Yule-log stood without the door; there
was a pleasant sound of laughter in the great hall, for the snow was
falling thickly on the bare oaks and pines and dashing against the
casement. Inside, all was light and warmth, a huge fire burning on the
tiled hearth, rugs and skin-mats scattered about with all kinds of
comfortable lounges, from a settee, borrowed from the drawing-room, to
the beehive straw-chair, purloined for the moment from the kitchen.
Holly and mistletoe gleamed everywhere, from ancient pictures and
chain-mail, to the seventeenth-century clock ticking on the stairs. For
some moments the merry party were silent, listening cosily to the snow
beating on the lattice. Presently, Ada Secretan, sole daughter of the
house, roused herself from the contemplation of the cheery blaze to
give a fresh turn to the conversation.

'We are here for a whole fortnight,' she said. 'In my limited
recollection, I distinctly remember being snow-bound here for fifteen
days. Suppose this should happen again, my sisters, cousins, and aunts!'

A golden head shimmered in the light for a moment, and a low rapturous
voice was heard to ejaculate the single monosyllable 'Jolly!' But the
rest of the party became suddenly grave at the bare idea of such a
calamity.

'Don't imagine it's slow,' came another mysterious voice out of the
gloom, 'because it isn't. I was snowed up in Scotland for nearly a
week, once. I never enjoyed myself so much in my life.'

'What did you do, Connie?' asked golden-head from her corner, sleepily.

'Heaps of things, my dear. First of all, we ransacked the place from
top to bottom--such a deliciously quaint old house, with old cupboards
in all sorts of queer places, and ghostly passages--oh! Then, of
course, we had charades and theatricals.'

'We might have theatricals here, Ada,' suggested the girl addressed
as Connie, though better known to the world of fashion as the Hon.
Constance Lumley, 'if any of the gentlemen are equal to writing a
farce.'

'I have been expecting this,' said a man's voice resignedly, apparently
belonging to a pair of knickerbockers and homespun hose, half hidden
in the beehive chair. 'Of course, you have all forgotten my existence
utterly, and equally, of course. I am expected to volunteer my services
as author and stage-manager.'

'Oh, Mr Warren, how delightful!' cried a grateful chorus. 'After
writing for the London stage, it will be child's-play to make us a
little play.'

'Amateurs are so easily satisfied!' continued the dramatist dryly, the
hero of more than one successful comedy. 'All you have to do is to give
them all leading parts, and there you are, you know!'

'And pretty dresses,' murmured golden-head, intensely interested.

'And pretty frocks, Miss Wynne.--What do you say to attempting
something of the Rivals and School for Scandal type? It would
save a vast amount of stagework; and surely, in a jolly old house like
this, we might hunt up picturesque costumes enough.'

In spite of his affected cynicism, Frank Warren was by this time as
much in love with his own scheme as the bevy of fair listeners. With a
dexterity born of long practice, he sketched out rapidly the outline of
a plot, which he submitted to his hearers, and which they accepted with
fervent if subdued applause. Though the snow beat upon the casement,
drifting higher round the laurel and barberry in the drive, there was
no repining at the weather in the ancient hall, where the firelight
fell fitfully upon a ring of fair flushed faces gathered round the
oracle.

'Your brother is expected this evening, Miss Secretan?'--Ada nodded
assent.--'And with myself, not forgetting our host and Colonel Lucas,
will be enough. Of course, we shall not all be able to play in this
piece; but those who don't, can take a part in the tableaux vivants
afterwards.'

'Tableaux vivants, and a play afterwards!' exclaimed Miss
Lumley, throwing herself back in a pretended ecstasy of admiration.
'Glorious!--Ada, my dear child, with all your picturesque ancestors and
lovely ancestresses, you must have some splendid dresses somewhere.'

'Tradition says there are some in the west wing,' Ada Secretan replied;
'though, candidly, I have never had courage to go there and look for
myself. The Haunted Chamber is there.'

'Do you boast a Haunted Chamber?' Warren asked with some curiosity.

As the outer shadows fell, the wind gathered strength in the pines; it
grew dark inside in the early gloaming, till nothing but the firelight
remained. It was the hour and season for a romantic legend, fresh to
some of them, and they gathered closer round the ruddy blaze while Ada
Secretan told the story. By the time she had finished, darkness had
fallen, and the listeners were very silent. 'And all this happened,'
concluded the narrator, 'not sixty years ago.'

'Was the west wing habitable then?' Warren asked presently. 'You can
understand the interest I take in this pitiful story. For,' continued
the speaker, in a higher key, 'Edgar Warren of the story is my
ancestor. Indeed, I am the first Warren who has crossed this threshold
since that fatal night.'

'The wing was falling into decay; but still it must have been a
pleasant place in the summertime; and in it were the suite of rooms set
aside for the eldest son of the house from time immemorial. Since that
night, I don't think any of us have set foot in the wing.'

'It seems a pity to let such lovely old rooms lie idle,' mused Miss
Wynne. 'Though I can understand how little your great-grandfather cared
for them.'

'He cared a great deal more than people thought,' Ada replied. 'In
spite of his apparent harshness and severity, he was very fond of his
son, and bitterly disappointed by his dishonourable conduct. He did not
live very long afterwards, when Alice Secretan died; and before his
decease, he had the entrance to the west wing nailed up; and not a soul
has ever set foot in the building since his death.'

'Well, that's a strange way of showing grief,' Warren exclaimed
irreverently.--'And what about Clive, the young son and heir?'

'He was taken in good hands, and the estate carefully nursed during his
long minority--a fortunate thing for us, as it turned out afterwards.
He married at twenty-one that foreign-looking lady who hangs up over
the staircase there; and broke his neck at twenty-three over some
foolish wager, just in time to save everything from utter ruin; and,'
concluded the fair narrator candidly, 'that is really the reason why
the west wing has never been restored to its pristine glory.'

'In that case, Mr Secretan has no foolish--that is, no reverence for
his ancestor's strange taste,' Warren remarked. 'If your grandfather
had not been a friend of "the first gentleman in Europe," that part of
Woodside would have been restored long ago! Would he mind some of us
exploring it?'

The questioner, at someone's instigation, emptied a bucket of
pine-knots on the sullen wood-ashes, and roused up a ruddy blaze,
roaring and spluttering up the wide open chimney. Rugs and chairs
were brought closer round, and a little gipsy table set in the midst.
A solemn footman deposited a tray containing gleaming silver and
fragile china on the wicker-stand, and vanished. For a time at least,
the spell cast over them all by the legend was broken, and a babel
of nimble tongues broke loose. Warren raised himself with a great
show of reluctance from his shadowy retreat and stood waiting at Ada
Secretan's right hand; for at these cosy afternoon teas they had voted
the presence of servants a restraint, and the feeling in favour of
self-help was unanimous and voluntary. Presently, when every fair one
had been supplied according to her needs, the dramatist drew a chair
closer to the youthful chatelaine's side, speaking in a low key.
'You don't know how your little romance has interested me,' said he,
'especially the recollection of my ancestor, Edgar Warren. Talk about
having no poetry in real life, with a Haunted Chamber, and a mysterious
mansion sealed and barred for nearly sixty years! Miss Secretan, I must
have a ramble through these rooms, if I commit burglary to do it.'

'So far as that goes, I do not see why all of us should not go. It will
certainly have the merit of being a novel Christmas amusement.'

'Then you really think Mr Secretan will consent?'

'Consent to what?' cried a voice behind, bringing with the owner a gust
of cold moist air and a general sense of snow and discomfort.--'What is
the last mad scheme I am to consent to, eh! pussy?'

Warren looked up with serio-comic disgust into Mr Secretan's face, or
at least as much as could be seen of it under a shooting-cap with the
flaps carefully tied under the ears, and a mackintosh from foot to
collar. A little snow collected on his boots and gaiters melted in the
warmer atmosphere, and trickled across the polished oak floor.

'You have been sitting over the fire, you lazy young people, till you
are all of you half asleep. If you really won't have lamps, ring for
some more wood, so that I can see where the mischievous ones are.'

Warren rang the bell, and politely offered to relieve his host of hat
and coat; an offer declined at once, on the plea of more outdoor work
to be done. As the latter still lingered, Warren hastened to press his
request.

'Of course, if you like to run wild amongst the dust and black beetles,
I have no objection,' said the cheery Squire. 'It will do the place no
harm to have a little air let in. Only, don't get frightening any of my
pretty visitors; I want nothing but Christmas roses here on Christmas
morning.'

'The thing is done!' cried Warren theatrically, as the outer door
banged behind the Squire. 'Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
the mystic west wing is about to be reopened, after an interlude of
sixty years----'

But any further declamation was checked by a violent ring at the hall
bell; a throwing open of doors, and the entry of three people: one an
elegant-looking girl, draped and shawled; the second, a tall military
figure; and lastly, a young man in a rough tweed ulster--none other
than Walter Secretan of Woodside Manor and Pump Court, Temple; and the
before-mentioned Colonel Lucas, and Miss Edith Lucas, his daughter.

Warren stopped in the midst of his florid utterance, and would have
come forward, but that he felt a hand laid upon his arm. Looking down,
he saw an old man bearing some logs of wood, a bent decrepit man,
with heavy overhanging brows, and dark, evil-looking eyes. Somewhat
surprised, he would have asked the meaning of this strange conduct,
save that the ancient servitor held up a warning hand, and said: 'Sixty
years, you say--ay, sixty sorrowful, bitter years.--And you would come,
another of your hated race, prying into family secrets.--Listen to me,
sir; take an old man's advice, and keep away from yonder wing, or your
life, perhaps more than that, will pay the forfeit.' And so saying, he
was gone.

It was later in the evening before the astonished hearer found an
opportunity of discovering the identity of his strange friend. Without
disclosing what he had heard, he drew Walter Secretan out somewhat
cautiously. That gentleman was tying his white cravat at the time, a
matter just then of more importance to him than anything so mundane as
a family servant. 'That? Oh, that old fellow was my great-grandfather's
valet--Silas Brookes, who went on that mad excursion you have heard of.
An excellent servant in his day, but getting a little imbecile, you
understand.'

Warren did understand, and held his peace. But all the same he felt
that the words he had heard were the outcome of neither imbecility nor
madness. Was he hiding some dark secret, or was it merely rancorous
hatred of a Warren that dictated the outburst of bitter spleen?




CHAPTER III.

LIKE most men of his profession, Warren was a keen observer of
character; a mystery delighted him equally from a business or an
analytical point of view. Here, then, were all the elements for a
seasonable romance--a Haunted Chamber; a mysterious servitor of the
good old orthodox type, moreover the only living historian of the
tragedy--a trusted servant, who had actually a personal acquaintance,
so to speak, with Edgar Warren, and who alone--Warren was sure of
that--could solve a dark and blood-stained catastrophe.

Morning broke with snow knee-deep in the drive, huge drifts half-way
up the windows, and no prospect of any outdoor amusement. Even the
rural postman had not succeeded in forcing his way through. It was, as
Constance Lumley observed, when the parliament had gathered round the
hall fire, a Christmas evidently to be spent quite magazine-artically.
With nothing whatever to do, and no immediate prospect of amusement,
conversation began to languish, till one of the party entered with
the startling news that the ghost-light had been seen burning in the
haunted wing all the previous night Thereupon, the listeners began to
thrill, and a new zest was given to the flagging flow of talk.

'Christmas Eve, the anniversary of the tragedy,' Ada Secretan
exclaimed. 'I had forgotten that. To-night, the ghost walks, rapier in
hand, down the dusky passage. Shall we interview him?'

But in spite of nineteenth-century civilisation and the boldness of
numbers and daylight, there was no enthusiastic response to this
appeal, for each looked at his neighbour, waiting for him to speak.

'Haunted Chamber or not, this is the very morning to explore those
old rooms,' Walter Secretan remarked. 'What do you say to us all
going?--only you girls had better put on some wraps, for it is sure to
be dirty enough. Those in favour of my motion, please hold up their
hands.'

Immediately, a host of fair fingers were extended; and the proposal
being carried nem con, the ladies trooped away to prepare themselves
for the coming excursion. As they began to reappear one by one, cloaked
and hooded, Warren and Walter Secretan returned in rough laced jackets,
bearing between them a gigantic bunch of rusty keys, a small but
powerful crowbar, an a dark-lantern.

A short walk along a broad flagged passage brought the sightseers to
a flight of steps surmounted by a wide oak door, fitted with long
iron hinges, rusty and timeworn, but still forming a powerful barrier
against intruders. After some difficulty, a key was found to fit, and
the creaking lock forced back by the united strength of Secretan and
Warren. The bolts were drawn; but the great iron hinges held, till the
crowbar being brought into requisition, finally the great door flew
open with a sullen bang that seemed to re-echo moodily down the dim
reverberating passages.

A low corridor was before them, hung with ancient tapestry, torn and
moth-eaten, and swaying in ghostly fashion before the cold air. Thick
dust lay upon the tiled floor, deadening the sound of footsteps. Still
the light of the lantern was enough to guide their somewhat hesitating
steps, till at length a hall was reached, in the centre of which was
a noble staircase, lighted from the roof by a glass dome, though the
accumulated dust of more than half a century made daylight dim and
pallid. Here every step echoed loudly; every vibration of the voice
seemed to ring as if the place was filled with mocking spirits. With
some difficulty they flung back the ponderous iron-lined shutters,
and a stream of light poured in. There were rusty-armour figures in
dim corners; pictures peeling slowly from their panels on the walls;
a colony of rats scudded noisily across the floor under the rotting
wainscot. There were three rooms leading out of the hall, the doors
of which they had no difficulty in opening--rooms in which old oak
furniture had been placed, though the damask had mouldered and left the
frames bare. There was nothing of interest in any of these apartments,
save one or two curious ornaments; and upon one dusty table, a pack of
cards lay strewn, with a decanter and glass, the former containing a
pungent sediment.

Up-stairs was a long corridor containing many rooms, all of which they
explored; and here the girls found themselves in their element. There
were wardrobes and huge linen-chests containing lace in abundance;
tarnished silver buckles and rich brocades; lutestrings stiff as
cardboard; a rich treasure of silk and velvet enough, more than enough,
of dresses from the time of the 'merrie monarch' downwards, to furnish
material for a hundred ancient comedies. The fair bevy of connoisseurs
drew a breath of mingled delight and envy, when this rich harvest had
been gathered into a shimmering heap.

They had drawn apart by ones and twos, each of the party pouring
over some newly discovered treasure, as the boxes were turned out
promiscuously on the floor. Point-lace collars and paste buckles,
a heavy garnet signet ring, some delicate cameos, silken hose, and
claret-coloured full-bottomed coats slashed with silk--every article of
clothing affected by a lost generation was there.

'You don't deserve a shred of these beautiful things, Ada,' exclaimed
Althea Wynne, drawing a long breath of unalloyed admiration. 'Fancy
allowing all these treasures to moulder here for years and years!'

'"O'er all, there hung the shadow of a fear,"' Warren quoted.--'Miss
Wynne, I am afraid you are a Radical--you cannot understand the
reverence due to one's ancestors.--And now, confess, Miss Secretan,
have you not been just a little afraid to ransack these sacred
apartments?'

'A little, perhaps,' Ada confessed. 'I almost feel guilty of sacrilege
now. What do you say to carrying our spoils away? I think we have done
enough.'

'Without invading the sanctity of the ghostly chamber!' cried Miss
Lumley. 'Perish the thought!--Mr Secretan, lead the way!'

But Secretan did not know which room was the ghostly chamber, though
he knew sufficiently the geography of the rooms, to point out the
mystic apartment. All Secretan knew was, that the chamber looked out
upon a green courtyard facing the east wing, and that it was lighted
by an oriel window. At the end of the corridor the explorers found
another room facing them, which, after a little cogitation and some
speculation as to their exact latitude, Warren declared must be the
place of their search. To their surprise, they found this door barred
with iron let into the solid masonry, so strongly, indeed, that half
an hour's exertion at least was required before they could wrench away
sufficient of the barriers to try the key. At this critical moment,
swift footsteps came unheeded towards the eager group, and Warren felt
himself dashed aside with a force scarcely credible in the feeble frame
of the intruder. 'Hold, hold, I say! Have you no reverence for the
dead?'

Silas Brookes was standing with his back to the door, a flashing rapier
in his hand. He seemed to have thrown off half a century of years; his
figure, no longer bent and halting, was drawn up to its full height; a
bright colour gave an air of youth to the shrivelled cheek; his keen
eyes flashed with all the fire and brilliancy of perfect manhood. For
a few moments the group started back in some alarm, and not a little
fright amongst the girls, who clung to each other in unaffected fear.

'What is the meaning of this folly?' Secretan demanded, the first to
recover himself. 'Brookes, you forget yourself. Go back into the house
immediately, or we shall know how to treat you. You are alarming the
ladies by this conduct.'

But the words might have fallen on ears of stone. The old man stood
with one hand behind him, as if protecting some unseen treasure, the
other held forward the rapier, prepared to pierce the first intruder.

'Shall we make a rush for him?' Warren whispered, his blood up by this
time. 'We could easily overpower him between us.'

'Think of the girls,' Secretan replied between his teeth. 'I am afraid
we shall have to beat an ignominious retreat. Confound it! this comes
of keeping a madman on the premises; and yet I don't like to give in.'

Warren for reply was about to advocate extreme measures, when a happy
thought struck him. After all, the situation had its ludicrous aspect;
but he was too intent on his new plan to see this now. He whispered
a few words in his friend's ear to the effect that he was to get the
party away, and leave him to face the strange custodian of the Haunted
Chamber.

'You have some scheme in your head?' Walter asked.

Warren nodded. He had a scheme, though it had scarcely taken shape as
yet. Nevertheless, it was with a certain feeling of relief that he
heard the echoing footsteps of his party dying away in the distance.
Then he turned a pair of fearless gray eyes full upon the guardian,
standing in the same watching attitude, and commanded him to lay
aside his weapon. Brookes threw the rapier on the stone floor with a
resounding crash.

It was an hour later before Warren stepped into the hall again, where
he found the late adventure seekers waiting in a group for him. But,
if they expected any story of wild adventure, to hear the history of
some gruesome tragedy or hidden treasure, they were mistaken. He simply
pointed out to them the fact that the old servant was not so much to
blame for his conduct as they thought; but that it was more their
fault, the simple fact being that the faithful valet was aghast at the
idea of the room sacred to his beloved and revered master being given
over to ruthless plunderers. Indeed, so smoothly did the wily dramatist
put the case, that public opinion, which had been strongly against the
obstreperous Brookes, rapidly veered round in his favour, till some
of the actors in this affecting little comedy began to feel somewhat
ashamed of the part they had played.

'Poor old man!' said Edith Lucas pityingly; 'and all this time we have
been accounting him a dangerous madman. I'm so glad!'

Warren smiled under his moustache; and Walter Secretan, turning towards
him, caught the look of amusement in his friend's eyes. Presently,
under cover of the conversation, he got alongside him, and in a
cautious whisper, demanded an account of the interview.

'Too long to tell you now,' Warren murmured. 'Only, if that old
gentleman is mad, there is method in his madness.--Wait in the
dining-room after dinner till the rest have gone, and I will tell you
my plan.'

They had some time to wait, for it being Christmas Eve, the meal
was a lone and elaborate affair. It was nearly ten before the last
frou-frou of skirts announced the disappearance of the ladies, and
nearly half an hour later before the Squire and Colonel Lucas sought
the drawing-room with many a sly allusion and bald platitude concerning
the want of gallantry of the present generation. Walter closed the door
behind them with a parting shot, and taking a cigarette from his case,
composed himself to listen to Warren's plan of campaign.

'Did it ever strike you what a fine place this west wing would be for a
gang of smugglers or coiners?' Warren commenced. 'You are not far from
the high-road, within easy walking distance from the sea, and not a
single servant in the house dare be near the haunted part of the house
after dark. Why, they would be safer there than in London!'

'What are you driving at?' asked Walter

'Simply this--that your faithful old servitor knows something about
those rooms he is in mortal fear some one else should discover. I need
not tell you that my pretty little romance touching his lifetime's
devotion was a pleasant fiction. Walter, there is something going on
here, and we must find it out.'

'I am afraid I don't quite follow you,' Secretan returned. 'You see,
if there had been anything going on, as you suggest, all these years,
we must have heard something of it. Depend upon it, poor old Brookes's
brain is giving way. Remember, he isn't far short of ninety.'

'No more mad than I am. I convinced him diplomatically that there would
be no further interference on our part, and you should have seen the
look of relief on his face--it was a study for an artist. Now, in the
next place, as to these ghostly lights they talk about----'

'They certainly do exist,' said Secretan with quiet conviction. 'I have
seen them myself many a time when I was a boy.'

'That exactly confirms what I say!' Warren exclaimed triumphantly.
'Now, look at it from a common-sense point of view. Can you believe for
a moment that these lights are the work of supernatural agency?'

'It certainly seems contrary to common-sense.'

'It's contrary to all kinds of sense.--Now, listen here. After I had
smoothed the old rascal down this morning, we fell into conversation,
and by degrees I learnt a good deal of the life of your ghostly
ancestor; and, with all due deference to your family pride, I must
say a more thorough-paced scoundrel seldom existed. Though, perhaps,
the less I say about rascally ancestors the better. Under pretence of
wanting a window open, I lured Brookes away, and while his back was
turned, I opened bluebeard's chamber with the key.'

'Did you go in?' Secretan asked interestedly, for by this time he had
caught some of his companion's enthusiasm.

'It was too risky, especially after I had soothed the old boy's
feelings so nicely. All I wanted was to know if the key would fit. It
will fit. Now, on every Christmas Eve at midnight that light is seen;
so the legend runs. If you are game for a little healthy excitement,
you and I will know before morning the origin of this mysterious
illumination.'

'You can count on me,' Secretan returned, rising and walking up and
down the room, to conceal his excitement--'How do you propose to do it?'

'I propose to do it now, and in this way. It's past eleven; all the
others are safe in the drawing-room, and we shan't be missed for an
hour. They'll think we are in the billiard-room. A couple of peacoats,
a dark-lantern, and a brace of revolvers, and our preparations are
complete. Is it a bargain?'

A burst of merry laughter as they passed the drawing-room door, mingled
with the sound of a piano and someone singing, told the conspirators
they had not been missed. As they crept silently along the quiet
passages, feeling their way--for they dared not show a light from the
dark-lantern--the stable clock chimed the three-quarters after eleven.
A few minutes later, after a cautious walk along the unaccustomed
corridors, they found themselves at length on the threshold of the
chamber where, fifty-six years ago that very night, Arundel Secretan
had ended his wasted life in his last hour of despair. Cautiously
turning the key with many a creak and groan, the great door swung
slowly open, and a second later, the conspirators found themselves
safely inside.

Despite the fact of undoubted courage and resolution, each of them was
conscious of a certain quickening of the heart and tightness of breath,
which came as near fear as it was possible. A feeble moon was trying to
struggle through a rushing mass of pendulous cloud, lighting the great
oriel window; there was a cold icy draught in the apartment, chilling
the adventurers in spite of their additional clothing. As their eyes
gradually became accustomed to the gloom, they noticed a funereal bed
to the right of the window, with sombre trappings shaking in the wind;
and placed in the centre of the window an ancient secretaire with a
high carved back, and countless drawers down either side. Had the
place been kept sweet and clean, the rats and mice and all-destroying
moths driven away, the apartment might have been termed luxuriously
furnished. As Warren and his friend noted these things, the stable
clock gave out the hour of twelve with mournful cadence as the notes
were borne away on the breast of the wind.

'Now for the family ghost,' Warren whispered eagerly--'the witching
hour has come.--Is your revolver all right, Walter?'

'I hope you won't do anything rash,' said Secretan cautiously. 'Mind,
no firing, it it is possible to avoid extremities.--Hist! what was that
noise? Verily, we are going to see something, after all.'

Scarcely were the words out of his mouth, when the apartment began to
be filled by a faint luminous light under the window, throwing the rest
of the chamber into deepest shade. The illumination growing stronger,
appeared to come from behind the old secretaire. Presently, above it
rose two small points of flame, two wax candles in ancient silver
candlesticks, and something which gratified the watchers' curiosity
indeed. The holder of these lights--a man in the prime of life,
with handsome features and full-bottomed wig, was dressed in plush
knee-breeches and white silk hose; his feet clad in shoes, latched
with heavy silver buckles. He wore also a peach-coloured velvet coat,
slashed with pearl-gray silk, and ornamented with gold basket buttons.
By his side, as was the fashion of the period, he carried a long
rapier in an ornamental leather scabbard. For a moment he stood with
his back to the secretaire, gazing earnestly around, then apparently
satisfied with his scrutiny, turned to the desk, on which he placed the
candles, and took out a bundle of papers. At this grave moment, the
watchers, engrossed by this sudden apparition, with its pale deathlike
features, were so startled that Warren burst into a sudden exclamation.
Immediately the figure rose and confronted them; they saw the rapier
flash from its sheath, as the shade of Arundel Secretan arose and
started forward. But at this moment a gust of wind blew out the
candles, leaving the apartment in darkness; there was a short mocking
laugh; and by the time Warren had sufficiently recovered himself to
swing round the slide of his lantern, the figure had vanished, leaving
not the semblance of a trace behind.

There was the bundle of papers, but where was the spectre? That he
could not have left by the door was clear, for that was fast shut, and
search as they mighty they could find no other exit. It seemed almost
like a dream--the sudden entrance, the wonderful disappearance of the
lights, and, last of all, the still more wonderful spiriting away of
the figure.

Secretan sat down trembling in every limb; his face was white and set,
while great beads of perspiration stood upon his forehead. 'Come away
from this,' he said hoarsely. 'It is like tampering with a dead man's
secret. Warren, as sure as I am a living man, I have seen my ancestor,
Arundel Secretan, to-night!'

'Arundel Secretan be hanged!' said Warren contemptuously, as he placed
the packet of papers in his pocket for future and closer reference.
'Your nerves are all unstrung. It was that cunning old scoundrel
Brookes, man! I could swear to those sinister eyes among a thousand.'




CHAPTER IV.

FRANK WARREN'S practical solution of the apparently thrilling mystery
had the desired effect. By one touch of common-sense the ancient tale
was dissolved--in an instant the revered family ghost of the Secretans
reduced to the level of a vulgar every-day fraud. When the adventurers
reached the hall, they had barely time to remove their rough clothing
ere they became aware that their absence had at length been noticed.
In the hall, which was quite dark, someone had set a huge bowl of
'snapdragon,' the burning spirit casting a curious blue glare upon the
ring of surrounding faces. Warren was not too much unnerved by his late
adventure to miss the opportunity which presented itself of taking the
vacant place by Miss Secretan's side.

'Pretty conduct indeed!' said she. 'Give an account of yourselves. We
have been seeking for you high and low, till we almost anticipated for
you the fate of the unfortunate bride of "The Mistletoe Bough."-- Where
have you been?'

'Hunting the "snark,"' quoth Warren lightly. 'You shall have all my
confidence directly.--Dare you snatch a raisin for me? I am afraid.'

'Certainly not. I have burned my fingers sufficiently already.--Won't
you tell me what you have discovered? You must have found something.'

'We have actually had an interview with the family ghost,' Warren
commenced; and then drawing her aside, he told her everything under
the seal of inviolate secrecy. And, indeed, he must have told his fair
listener more than that, for when the last blue flicker in the witches'
caldron had burned away, and the lamps were turned up, there was a
touch of colour in her cheeks, and a new brightness in her eyes, only
lighted by the tale that is never old.

Meanwhile, another conversation equally interesting had engrossed the
attention of Edith Lucas and Walter Secretan. They, too, had withdrawn
from the rest, and striking unobserved through the dining-room, made
their way into the conservatory. There was the soft light from a pair
of bronze lamps shining dimly through the ferns, behind which was
placed a rustic seat entirely out of observation. For a moment they
regarded it in some doubt, much as if such a thing was a new object
to both of them, then they sat down. For some time there was silence
between them, Miss Lucas engaged in rapt contemplation of her fan.
Walter stole out a hand presently and laid it upon the white wrist of
his companion, unreproved.

'Don't you feel horribly mean?' asked the girl at length.

'Certainly not,' said her companion coolly. 'Who was it who said that
all's fair in love and war? Anyway, he was right.--My dear Edith,
put it to yourself. Would you rather be here as you are, or still in
London, enduring the lover-like gallantry of our gouty friend Ramsden?'

'But General Ramsden ought to be here too,' said Edith demurely.

'I am overwhelmed with grief by that officer's defection. I promised
Colonel Lucas he would come; and the colonel--being desirous to
sacrifice his daughter to an elderly cripple, whose only recommendation
is, five thousand a year and his Order of the Bath--jumped at the
chance of visiting his old friend Myles Secretan.'

'But you have not told me why the general failed at the last moment.'

'No? Then I will tell you. I had to exercise a little diplomacy, such
as information to the effect that Woodside was a capital place for
skating, in consequence of its being in the eye of the east--"Ah, I
suppose you use hot-water pipes in the house, then?" said the general
uneasily.--"My dear sir," I replied, "my father would not hear of such
a thing; and even if he would, the draughts are so prevalent that
they would be useless. But of course an old soldier does not mind
that."--All the same, as you know, the old soldier did mind that; hence
his lamentable absence on this occasion, to my great grief, as you
know.'

Edith Lucas laughed and shook her head reprovingly. 'Of course, it
makes a capital subject for amusement; but I could never many him,
Walter. But seriously, I do not like this; I do not like to be engaged
without my father knowing. Perhaps he would be angry at first; but in
the end I am sure he would consent. 0, Walter, why, why, don't you ask
him and get it over?'

Secretan pulled his moustache and bit his lip uneasily. He was
honourable enough, as young men go; but it had never struck him
till now that there was anything wrong or underhand in this secret
understanding. 'I was going to tell you,' he said. 'You must understand
that I am beginning to earn a living by my profession--three hundred a
year, perhaps; and another three which my father allows me, for I will
not take any more. And I had made up my mind not to broach the subject
nearest my heart to your father till I could show him a thousand a year
from every source. We have a small outlying estate called Oatlands,
which has usually been the portion of the eldest son on his coming
of age, and which used to--does now, in fact--produce some fifteen
hundred a year. But, unfortunately, my grandfather found his income
insufficient for him, and, amongst other places, he mortgaged Oatlands
for twenty thousand pounds. The strangest thing of all is that the
mortgage is held by General Ramsden.'

'But what has all this to do with us!' asked Edith, somewhat puzzled.

'Simply this--that any reduction of the amount of this mortgage
increases my income. The surplus over the interest thereon, to put
it quite legally, has been saved since I came of age, with that
intention.--But of course you cannot understand all this professional
jargon. However, it shall be as you wish, darling, only let it remain
for the few days you are here, and then I will speak. Don't spoil our
holiday.'

'I wonder what your father will think of it, Walter?'

The lover's face brightened again. 'The dear old governor will be
delighted; and so will Ada, I know. Who would not be proud to welcome
you as a daughter, when----'

'Oh, here you are at last!' cried Warren, bursting in upon the
tête-à-tête with affected unconcern, and looking at everything besides
the blushing lovers before him. 'We have been searching for you
everywhere. Come and indulge in the seductive game of blind man's buff.'

'Won't something less energetic suit them?' asked Secretan lazily. 'Why
is it that all Christmas games must be noisy, not to say dangerous?
However, if I must, I must.'

So they all joined in that simple game with a zest and gaiety and
simplicity of heart that Christmas time brings to us all, when there
seems to be an unseen kindly influence in the air--a deeper, holier
feeling of good-will and friendship to all--when distinctions are
forgotten, and high and low mingle together, forgetful of rank and
class, for a few hours all too brief. When they had exhausted that
amusement, Christmas carols were started, after which every one trooped
into the servants' hall to wish a happy Christmas to one and all.
Whereupon the butler arose with a glittering eye and proposed the
health of his master and the visitors; after which the Squire mixed a
huge bowl of punch with his own hands, out of which they all drank,
including Silas Brookes, whom they insisted upon dragging out from his
solitary retreat to pledge King Christmas in a flowing glass. As he
glanced over the rim of his tumbler, his eyes fell upon Warren's face
with a glance so full of significant warning, that Walter noticed it
and drew his friend's attention thereto. But Warren merely shrugged his
shoulders, mentally resolving that come what may, the next trick played
should be his.

'Is there a fire in the smoking-room still?' he asked, when the last
good-night had been said, and quietness reigned supreme. 'It isn't
three o'clock yet, and I should like one cigar before turning in. What
do you say?'

As a rule, youth wants but scant excuse for stealing a few hours from
the night. Moreover, it had been an evening of pleasant excitement,
over and above the seasonable festivities in which they had indulged.
Walter wanted no second bidding; and changing their dress-coats for
something lighter and more comfortable, they selected a couple of the
cosiest armchairs and commenced a somewhat confidential conversation.
Presently, the discussion worked round to the visit to the Haunted
Chamber.

'Frank, you are perfectly right about that rascal Brookes,' Walter said
energetically. 'I didn't think so at the time; but I am certain of it
now. The look he gave you over his glass, the scowl upon his face, were
identical with the aspect of my counterfeit ancestor. We can't let it
stop here.'

'If you think I am the man to give a thing up directly it begins to
assume an interesting aspect, you are vastly mistaken,' Warren remarked
grimly. 'That there is some rascality on foot here, I am certain. Hang
it! a man can carry devotion to his master up to a certain point; but
it does not rise to the extent of working out this ghost business for
over half a century, and denying rightful owners the privilege of
looking over their own premises.'

'I must confess the mysterious disappearance most alarmed me. Where the
fellow could have got to, utterly passes my comprehension. That he did
not leave by the door, I am prepared to swear.'

'And so am I, for the simple reason that I had my back against it all
the time,' said Warren dryly. 'But you must remember that your west
wing is much more antiquated than the rest of the house; and both from
old association and constant habitation in the place, Brookes knows
more about it than any living being.--Now, do you remember ever hearing
of a secret passage connecting any one part of the house with another?'

'So that is your theory, then?--No; I can't say that I have; and what
is more, I don't think that any such thing exists.'

'And, on the contrary, I feel perfectly certain there does. To-morrow
afternoon, if we can get that wicked old scoundrel out of the way for
a time, we shall soon solve the question. Lombard Street to a China
orange, that we find a secret passage from Arundel Secretan's chamber
to another part of the house.'

Walter continued to smoke in meditative silence, watching the wreaths
of smoke curling round his head. Over all the house there reigned a
deadly stillness; the wind outside had fallen, a bright moon shone upon
the drawn blinds.

'What makes you think there is a mystery here?' he asked.

'Isn't there mystery written on the face of it? Here is an old servant
so deeply versed in his master's secrets that he can be trusted on a
confidential important mission, and not only that, trusted to be the
bearer of a large sum of money. He alone knew the real cause of his
master's death; he told the story after his own fashion. Before it
could be proved, the only other man who could throw any light upon the
strange affair was dead too. Need I say that I am alluding to Edgar
Warren? How do we know, you and I, that, after all, this money was not
actually sent?'

Warren had dropped his voice almost to a whisper. For a few moments,
nothing was heard save the monotonous click-clack of the great hall
clock and the soft sobbing of a dying fire. There was, moreover,
such an earnestness in the speaker's tones, that Secretan fell in
unconsciously with his humour.

'You mean, that he brought the money home with him? In that case, what
reason was there for Brookes, after telling my great-grandfather that
his mission was unsuccessful, to mention the reason of his errand to a
soul? And if he had the money, why remain here?'

'Who can follow the workings of the human mind? But, for the sake of
argument, let me try. Brookes, from his close connection with his
master must have known my esteemed relative well. When he found him
at Venice in the autumn of 1823, he must have seen--as other people
saw--death in Edgar Warren's face. Fletcher, the valet, told him his
master was dying; that, Brookes admitted to me after that dramatic
episode in the west wing. Now, here was temptation placed in his way.
He would probably reason thus: "If I receive the money, and deny having
received it, and my master's friend dies, I am safe. If he lives, then
I must make my escape." But fortune favoured him strangely; for in a
short time they were both dead. Brookes is a man suffering from some
secret remorse; he has lying on his conscience a crime he dare not
disclose. Some day, perhaps, you will know. But I am going to force his
hand, if I can; and, not to put too fine a point upon it, I should like
to clear my family name--for more reasons than one.'

Walter had followed this close reasoning carefully, not a little
struck by the force of his companions logic. For a moment he wavered;
a little colour crept into his face as he replied: 'Strange things do
happen--things we cannot explain. Is it not just possible that we have
seen a supernatural visitor--that the figure you took for Brookes might
be, after all, the shade of Arundel Secretan?'

'My dear fellow, I am not mistaken. And besides, ghosts do not handle
bundles of papers in that business-like fashion.'

The speaker drew the packet from his breast-pocket and broke the
string. There were a heterogeneous mass of papers, smelling strongly
of damp and mould, the ink upon them faded to a dull, lustreless red:
invitations to rout and ball, a batch of unpaid bills, and small
notes in more than one feminine handwriting. One there was, sealed
with a coronet, unopened, and bearing the superscription, 'To Arundel
Secretan, Esquire, of Woodside, Kent.' With an air of faint curiosity,
Warren tore it open and commenced to read. When he had finished, he
laid the letter down with a calm air of triumph. 'When was Brookes sent
to Italy?' he asked.

'Early in the autumn or late summer of 1823.--But why?'

Without deigning any reply, Warren read as follows:


'VENICE, October 1823.

'Without my fostering care, 'twas but natural for trouble to overtake
you. But your sore strait, as you call it humorously, is but a rosy
plight; for, hearing of your indebtedness to St Devereux, at Venice
(you were both at Rome, remember) I wrote to that nobleman a letter
reminding him, quite good-naturedly, of certain little indiscretions of
his youth known to me; also, that I had heard of his wonderful luck(?)
at cards with you, and demanding from him a receipt for the money,
which he was to take as paid. This I now enclose.--That I am your
debtor both in money and kind, I own; and it is fortunate that I am at
present in a position to aid you--a consummation not always equally
possible. All you want, I lack; but in coin and current security, by
Brookes's trusty hand I forward you nearly seventeen thousand pounds,
leaving just enough for my needs; also a little jewelry, the gift
of certain foolish admirers of mine, worth something to you in your
trouble. Had you not quitted Venice so hastily, I would have repaid you
then all I owed. May it serve you better than it has served me.

EDGAR WARREN.'


'And now,' Warren said, when he had concluded this strange letter--'and
now, to find out where the cunning scoundrel has hidden the money.'




CHAPTER V.--CONCLUSION.

AFTER a long and earnest consultation, lasting almost till daylight, it
was finally decided to make another expedition to the Haunted Chamber,
with the object of discovering, if possible, any secret passage
existing thence to another part of the house; only Warren stipulated
that nothing further should be done until he should have completed his
little domestic drama, the main portion of which had been written,
only a few finishing touches being required to make it ready for
distribution among the actors. And so far his prognostications having
proved correct, Walter Secretan was content to leave the matter in his
friend's able hands.

It was, of course, impossible to do anything on Christmas Day, even to
get out to church, for the weather had taken a change in the night,
and morning dawned with a strong wind and snow falling heavily. A kind
of informal service was held in the drawing-room; and afterwards, for
lack of other amusement, the party assembled one and all in the hall to
listen to Warren's comedy, which was declared to be, with one or two
trifling alterations, exactly the thing required.

'There is one thing we want now,' Warren observed, when parts had
been chosen and the manuscript had been given into willing hands to
copy--'the suggestions for the tableaux vivants. Can't some of you
ladies suggest something original? We are all tired of Lady Jane Grey,
Mary Queen of Scots, and Joan of Arc.'

'When are we to be ready for the first rehearsal?' Althea Wynne
demanded. 'It will take me quite a week to learn my part.'

'In that case, we shall be reluctantly compelled to cut you out,' said
Warren firmly, 'because the first rehearsal--of which I propose to have
three--will take place in this hall to-morrow night at eight. Why, the
great charm of private theatricals is in half-knowing your part, and
finding your fellow-performers worse than yourself.'

'Mr Warren is quite right,' said Constance Lumley promptly; 'and so far
as utter ignorance of the book-part is concerned, he shall not find me
wanting. Besides, is there not an individual known as the prompter?'

'Most admirable of amateur actors, being least seen and most heard!'
Warren laughed.--'I suppose that is settled then.--And now for the
tableaux.'

'What about Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond?' Edith Lucas suggested.
'Or perhaps----'

'The Eve of St Bartholomew, as interpreted by Millais,' suggested
a demure voice in the background--an inspiration treated with
contemptuous silence.

'What you want to do is to show off your dresses and look nice,'
Warren observed. 'We seem to have everything to hand; only there is a
plentiful lack of ideas, as Mrs Malaprop would say.--Now, do make up
your minds.'

Finally, the choice fell upon three--the trial scene from the Merchant
of Venice, after a struggle for the part of Portia; one founded upon
the most pathetic scene in Enoch Arden; and finally, the play-scene
from Hamlet--with, as Warren observed, the full strength of the
company. Once decided, there was a general exodus on the artistes'
part to make selection out of the rifled treasures of the west wing as
apparel on the eventful night.

'Now is our time!' exclaimed Warren, when the last of the fair
performers had disappeared. 'Old Brookes is safe in the billiard-room
for the next half-hour, marking a game between the colonel and your
father.--Get a couple of helpers out of the stable. I want that old
secretaire out of the Haunted Chamber--it will be useful as an article
of stage-furniture.'

'Have you made up your mind what is to be done?' Secretan asked, when
he had despatched a messenger for the desired assistance.

'Almost. I am going to try and frighten the man--work upon his fears,
if possible.--Mind you, not a word of this; I want it, if possible,
kept a secret. I do not want anything we know, or what we are going to
do, to be guessed even by the other players. I suppose you intend to
have the servants in to see the performance?'

'Of course.--Where else should we get our audience?'

'That's exactly what I wanted to know. "The play's the thing wherein
to catch the conscience of the king"--only, in our case the drama will
play quite a secondary part in bringing that wicked old rascal to
book.--Allons.'

'I suppose you know what you are talking about?' Secretan observed.
'For the life of me, I don't.'

'If you knew a little more of the divine bard, you would,' Warren
observed airily. 'Perhaps it will dawn upon you presently.--However,
here we are.'

Daylight made but little difference to the apartment. Upon everything
lay the melancholy of decay--the carpet torn, and faded by the rust
and dust of half a century. In the large open grate, a handful of
wood-ashes still remained, with some charred embers, the remains of
papers partially destroyed. Over the handsome cornices, once gay with
gilt, a fine powder had settled, and great spiders had spun their nets.

With the assistance of the two stout helpers, they raised the old
secretaire, though a lever had to be employed. As it gradually slid
along, Warren's foot slipped through an open space. He recovered
himself with a great shout, for, as the desk gradually moved away, an
open trapdoor stood revealed.

'The ghostly passage!' he exclaimed, whilst Secretan and the helpers
looked on open-mouthed.--'This is the way he must have gone. You see,
it is exactly behind the secretaire, and protected by this movable
back. Look!'

He pointed to the opening, where, at that moment, a head and shoulders
had appeared. It was Silas Brookes, a look of deadly hate and vengeance
upon his face, in the eyes fixed upon Warren with such rancour. As he
stepped into the apartment in profound silence, they saw that he wore
the masquerade dress of Arundel Secretan. The trembling hand was laid
upon the rapier; but ere he could draw it, Warren, reading the mischief
in his eyes, was upon him, and bore him to the ground.

'You two go and fetch your master and Colonel Lucas,' he said to
the dazed helpers. 'You need not trouble to return again;' and the
half-stupefied servants hurried off to obey the stern command.

There was not a word spoken till the host and his guest entered.
Brookes's eyes wandered from one to the other in a defiant, hunted
fashion; he knew that he was found out. But with his iron nerve, he was
not the man to cry out for either mercy or forgiveness. Utterly amazed,
the Squire looked to Warren for an explanation.

'Allow me to introduce you to the family ghost,' commenced the
triumphant dramatist, 'as interpreted by this faithful servant.--But
I forgot that you are entirely in the dark as to what has transpired.
Call to mind, in the first place, your family legend, and the part
one of my family played in it. You gave me permission to search these
rooms, and thereby hangs a tale.' So saying, Warren related all he had
seen and heard, ending his narrative by placing in the Squire's hand
the fateful letter dropped by the ghost in his flight on the eventful
preceding evening. As he read, his usually benign features became
stern and hard. To the end he perused it, and then turned to Brookes,
speaking in a voice clear and metallic, such as the ancient servitor
had never heard before.

'Where have you hidden this money, you scoundrel?' he demanded.

There was no answer to the thrice repeated query. By this time the
news had spread through the house, and one by one the visitors had
joined them. Mr Warren threw the letter to Brookes, who read it
slowly, ponderously to the end. His face turned to a pale ashen gray;
he clutched at his throat, then the words burst from him, as he threw
himself upon his knees at his master's feet, covering his face with
trembling hands: 'I never meant to wrong my master--never! never! But
the temptation. I found out Mr Edgar Warren; I got the money. It was
when his valet told me that he was dying, the temptation overcame me.
In London, I changed the notes into gold. I brought it down here. Then
I saw my dear master. I lied to him, and he died by his own hand. Oh!
if I could have only known--if I could have only guessed! I thought
myself safe.--After my master's death, I was afraid to speak. The
servants talked about his ghost. That was my opportunity. I had hidden
the gold. Bit by bit I carried it here into this very room. I knew I
should not be interrupted, so gradually I got it here--hidden, all of
it safe. To keep it safe, I have played the ghost for all these years.
But I have not been dishonest--it is all there. I intended to confess
before I died; I intended to be honest. I am no thief, so help me
heaven!'

'Where?' Warren demanded impatiently--'where, man?'

'In the desk behind you, in the old secretaire--every penny of it. And
now perhaps you will be content.' He rose to his feet, as if to quit
the room. The Squire signified to Warren to let him pass; and so he
went without another word.

The ancient piece of furniture, now such an object of interest, was
speedily prised open, and a breathless knot of spectators gathered
round. The head of the desk had a circular top, which, upon being
opened, disclosed a nest of drawers, each full of papers and memoranda,
the drawers down either side being filled with a mass of odds and ends,
but no signs of money. It was certainly strange. Apparently, there was
no space to be accounted for, till a rule was applied to the side, and
it was discovered that, behind the nest of drawers, a considerable
space yet remained. They drew out every one of the tiny drawers, but
no sign of an opening could be seen. Walter Secretan, in a fit of
impatience, jammed the head of a hammer against the frail wood, and as
he did so, the fabric gave way. Placing his hand in the aperture thus
formed, he drew out one by one seven leather bags, each fastened with a
small padlock, and a flat shabby-looking case, which he opened.

There was a cry of delight from the ladies, as a magnificent diamond
necklace flashed and shimmered in the light, a quivering fire of stones
in a tarnished gold setting; but no damp and decay could pale the
gleaming jewels. As they passed from hand to hand admiringly, Secretan
employed himself in cutting the top off one of the leather bags; and
plunging his hand in, he drew out a score or two of English gold coins.
When they came to count it, it contained two thousand four hundred
pounds. A careful addition of the remaining bags brought up the total
to sixteen thousand two hundred and eighty pounds in good English
money, which, including the necklace, must have represented close upon,
if not quite, the sum of twenty thousand pounds.

There was a kind of stupefied silence for a few moments; then every one
seemed to find his voice at once, speaking in a clamorous din.

'Warren, I thank you,' said the Squire warmly. 'I owe you a deep debt
of gratitude, so deep that I scarcely know how to repay you.'

'I shall soon put you to the test,' Warren replied, significantly.

* * *

'Well, of all the callous scoundrels!' cried the colonel, when he had
sufficiently recovered to speak. 'Fancy having a man like that under
your roof! I would soon make short work of him.'

'Gently, gently,' cried the Squire good-humouredly. 'Remember the poor
fellow has suffered terribly; and remember Christmas time, colonel.
Peace and good-will to men. If he has repented, truly we must not
withhold our forgiveness.'

'Well, if he hadn't been a rogue, you would be some thousands worse
off,' was the practical reply. 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody
luck, Secretan.--Eh, Warren?'

'It shall blow some one luck,' said the Squire, turning to Warren
significantly. 'Come into the smoking-room and talk it over.--So,
this is what a snowy Christmas comes to, is it? They say no snow no
matrimony, and in this case----'

'History repeats itself,' said Warren calmly, indicating Walter and
Edith Lucas.

They had the hall to themselves, both gazing out over the snowy
landscape, her head upon his shoulder, his arm wound round her slender
waist.

'Why, bless me!' exclaimed the colonel, staring through his eyeglass,
'it's my daughter, and your son, Secretan.--And all this time I was
under the impression she was in love with somebody else.'

'A mistake, sir,' said Walter lightly, 'as I hope to convince
you presently. You see, General Ramsden is all very well; only,
unfortunately, Edith does not love him.'

'Unfortunately! you ungrateful young rascal! Why, bless me! in that
case, why didn't she say so at once? I am sure it was no wish of
mine.--But you young people always delight in making mysteries of
things, and we have had mystery enough for one day.'

'Well out of that, darling!' said Walter, as the elders disappeared.
'But I am just cynical enough to believe that he would not have been
quite so amiable, if it had not been for the discovery in the Old
Secretaire.'


THE END.


This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia