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Title: The House of the Schemers
Author: Fred M White
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Language: English
Date first posted:  November 2014
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The House of the Schemers

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

Published as a serial in: The New London Journal,
C.W. Bradley & Co., London, October 13, 1906 ff

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



TABLE OF CONTENTS



I.—THE SHADOW OF A FEAR.

Only in the great Metropolis could the house have passed, silent, mystic, and unnoticed, without the wagging of tongues and the prying of idle curiosity. It was not as if No. 13 stood apart—Vernon-terrace was a smart row of houses, where for the most part people of mains resided. The other homesteads were bright and clean, there were boxes of flowers in the windows, and silk blinds behind. Lights gleamed in them at night, glittering carriages stood before the open doors.

So the rustiness and neglect of No. 13 were all the more remarked. It was like one horribly black, decayed tooth in an otherwise perfect set. No lights showed there, the ill-painted blinds were always down, the front steps were greasy, the panes were black with the passing of years. The neighbours occasionally alluded to No. 13 in a careless kind of way; they believed that a gentleman called Colville lived there. He was understood to be a scientific man or something of that sort. But nobody really knew, and nobody cared. Nobody had ever been inside the house, which was understood to be only partly furnished. The same sense of loneliness and mystery pervaded the interior of No. 13. The noble reception rooms on the first floor were never opened; indeed, for years they had not seen the light of day. A sense of mystery, the brooding spirit of some immeasurable trouble lay every where. And yet the black dust and hanging cobwebs rested on priceless pictures and works of art, on old tapestry, furniture, and Eastern carpets. Somebody years ago had filled an old Cellini epergne with flowers, and the blackened stalks still remained. So much could be seen by the girl who stood there looking fearsomely around with a solitary candle in her hand.

It was a kind of tradition in Vernon-terrace that an exceedingly pretty girl had been seen occasionally at No. 13. For once tradition was right, for Ailsa Lefroy was a very pretty girl indeed. Her dress was of the simplest, her hair was caught up in a very severe fashion; but all this did not detract from the girl's beauty, or rob her deep violet eyes of the sweetness of their expression. Her face was a little pale, yet the skin was clear and healthy, the little red lips were unsteady now. In age, Ailsa might have been taken for one-and-twenty. Anybody who guessed that would not have been far wrong, for she would be twenty-one on the morrow.

Five years she had spent under the roof of Archibald Colville since her father died. Five years in a dreary prison house with nobody for company but her books and her painting, the strange taciturn old servants, and an occasional glimpse of the man who called himself her guardian. Other girls tasted the delights of life, Ailsa had none of them. And the time was close at hand when she would be own mistress. Many things would be made plain to-morrow. Ailsa was looking forward to the morrow with mingled feelings.

She had naturally a high courage of her own, but the old house frightened and depressed her. Strange things happened from time to time in the dead of night. Afterwards Ailsa wondered if she had been dreaming. Once she had stepped into the corridor from her bedroom and listened. She had heard blows and cries, a prayer for mercy, and silence. And then she had seen old Susan, the cast-iron housekeeper, come along the corridor wringing her hands and crying bitterly. Yes, over all these things hung the shadow of a fear.

Ailsa had her dinner in solitary state, served by the taciturn Susan, and cleared away by the equally taciturn Thomas, the butler. She would go to bed early and sleep till the fateful morrow. Ailsa hardly dared to ask herself what to-morrow would produce. Somebody was knocking loudly at the front door, a heavy hand jangled at the bell. Such a thing had never happened before in the recollection of the girl. She caught her breath quickly with a sudden premonition of fear.

It was only a telegram, after all, directed to Ailsa. It was a curt intimation from Archibald Colville, despatched from Birmingham, to the effect that the sender could not possibly return to London on the morrow, and that Thomas was to take the midnight train to Birmingham and there meet his master with the gladstone bag.

"You had better give this to Thomas, Susan," Ailsa said as she handed over the flimsy sheet of paper. "I dare say he would know what it means."

Susan's hard, corrugated features grew suddenly pale and ghastly. Something like a groan escaped from her lips. She stiffened again as she became aware of Ailsa's widely opened, questioning eyes. She snatched the paper almost angrily.

"Oh, yes, I know," she said hoarsely. "More curses on this cursed house. And him to go away on this of all nights of the year! The hand of the Lord is heavy on some of us.. .. You go to bed, missy, and forget what I've been saying."

But Ailsa did not move. The dread fascination of the old house was upon her as it had never been before. Hitherto she had closed her eyes to the suggestion of wrong-doing: now her senses were alert and awake. She had never seen old Susan in this mood before. Usually, the aged servitor had been taciturn and sullen to the last degree. She had encouraged no advances on the part of Ailsa.

"I do not quite understand you," the girl said. "What do you mean? You seem to be in great trouble about something that I——"

"I'm in no trouble about anything," Susan retorted. "You go off to bed and mind your own business, my pretty little soul. Ask no questions, and you will be told no lies, as they used to tell me when I was a child. If you were not so pure and innocent you would know that things are going on in this house——"

"Not wrong things?" Ailsa interrupted. "Not crime and wickedness! Susan, I am afraid that something has upset you very much to-night. Does Thomas ill-treat you—is he unkind at times?"

"Unkind! He is the greatest—— But, there, I am letting my silly tongue run too fast. Never you get married, miss. Never trust your happiness to any man, however kind he seems to be. But what do you know of that kind of thing?"

Ailsa flushed a vivid crimson. She could have told a tale had she pleased.

"It's the men that make us what we are," the old woman croaked. "Don't let one of them spoil your life. And now be off, for you have no business here."

The last words were almost kindly spoken, but the hard, grim, wrinkled face did not relax again. The old, strange heavy silence settled on the house again, broken presently by the tramp of heavy feet in the hall, and the sullen banging of the front door. Thomas had departed on his mysterious errand, evidently; Ailsa was alone in the house with Susan. Suppose the old woman was taken ill in the night and died? Ailsa put the thought away from her. It seemed to her that she could hear noises everywhere; stealthy footsteps in the great reception-rooms overhead. It was pure fancy, of course; nobody was likely to come there. All the same, Ailsa took one of the candlesticks from the polished surface of the mahogany table and walked upstairs to the great room above.

Nobody there; nothing but silence and dust, and the scratching of mice behind the panels. It was not once a year that Ailsa entered these rooms; their grandeur overpowered her. She did not know that the blackened ornaments here and there represented some of the most priceless old silver in England. Ailsa paused just a moment before a portrait hanging between two of the shuttered windows. It was the presentment of Archibald Colville, done ten years ago by one of the most famous painters of his day.

Ailsa had never carefully noticed the picture before. She felt sure that there had been a speaking likeness at the time it was painted. A dark, rather hard face, as if it had been soured by trouble and misfortune rather than the hand of Nature. Yet the eyes and mouth were sad, the folded hands had a suggestion of resignation about them. They were slim, yet resolute hands; on the one little finger was a curious snake ring of diamonds with ruby eyes. Ailsa had often seen that ring on the hand of her guardian, and in some queer way it always fascinated her. It fascinated her now so that she almost forgot to wonder why Archibald Colville had changed from black to absolute grey in ten years.

"I wonder why," Ailsa mused aloud. "Perhaps it was old Susan who set me thinking, but I never connected my grim old guardian with a romance before. Perhaps all the love went out of his life calmly and left it grey and colourless. Do we all suffer in the same way, I wonder? And what would Archibald Colville say if he knew that I too had loved and lost! And yet it seems almost absurd, seeing that I was but a child the last time I parted with Ronald Braybrooke! I wonder if he guessed how much the child of sixteen cared for him!"

Ailsa stopped, conscious of the fact that she was talking aloud. In that old home the echo of her own voice almost frightened her.

Still, the broken romance was yet very fresh and pure in her heart. Ailsa was not the girl to pine and die over a thing like that, but her heart ached at times when the happy old days rose up before her mental vision. And she was very restless and uneasy to-night.

It seemed to her that she could hear stealthy footsteps overhead, and again that somebody was down in the kitchen talking in whispers to old Susan. Ailsa let her mind run riot until she could hear the blood running through her veins. She had never been so restless and uneasy since she had come to the old house. Perhaps it was the anticipation of the morrow that so strangely affected her.

"I am positively ridiculous," the girl told herself. "Really, I should like something out of the common to happen! Better than rusting out like this, or becoming slowly and gradually melancholy. What a blessed thing is bed!"

Ailsa made her way slowly down the stairs again. She wished that the house was not quite so still. She could hear the roll and rattle of cabs outside, the jingle of harness, and presently soft laughter in girlish voices. Evidently the people next door were giving a party of some kind.

It was no use sitting there; far better to be in bed and asleep. Presently old Susan shuffled about downstairs, putting the lights out. Ailsa could still hear the rattle of carriages next door as she dropped off into unconsciousness. It seemed to her that no time hardly had passed before she was sitting up again listening intently to the cry of somebody near at hand. Presently the cry was stopped.

Ailsa was out of bed in her dressing-gown in a moment. It required courage to open her door and look out, but the girl did not hesitate. The moaning cry was repeated from somewhere downstairs, and Ailsa called out to know who was there. Again came the cry—to Ailsa's unutterable relief, and the croaking voice of old Susan.

Ailsa flew downstairs on the wings of the wind. What was going to happen if this woman was ill or dying? She lay huddled up at the foot of the basement stairs. Ailsa wondered vaguely what she was doing here at this hour, for a clacking old clock somewhere struck the hour of two. There was an ugly bruise on the side of Susan's head.

"I slipped," she moaned. "I—I had toothache, and I came to get some of the stuff that I rub on my gums. I believe that I have broken something."

It was impossible to get the woman upstairs, a task to help her to the kitchen. She flopped on to a chair, and rocked to and fro with her head in her hands.

"He didn't hit me," she muttered, "I swear that it was an accident. I'll take my oath that it was my own fault, so there! Get me some brandy!"

"Where is the brandy to be found?" Ailsa asked.

The old woman looked up suddenly, as if she had just come back to the consciousness that she was not alone. There was a little brandy in a medicine bottle in her room, she muttered. Right at the top of the house. Then she fell to muttering incoherently again, and Ailsa could make nothing of what she said.

There was no help for it; the brandy must be procured without delay. Ailsa crept up the stairs, her bare feet making no sound on the thick, dusty carpets. She had not the slightest idea where Susan's bedroom was, but she did not doubt that she could find it. It was somewhere at the top of the big, silent house.

Doubtless a window was open somewhere, for a door banged suddenly, a fierce draught caused Ailsa's candle to weep and gutter. Then there was a fiercer draught and Ailsa's light went out altogether. It was like being stranded in a strange land to Ailsa, and she stood irresolute. There was no help for it but to feel her way down and get a box of matches.

Before Ailsa could turn the draught stopped, and a door was shut quietly. She could hear the handle turn, so that it was no agency of the wind here. Immediately Ailsa felt for a doorway, and stood within it waiting for developments. She was quite sure now that she could hear somebody moving overhead. Her heart stood still for a moment. There was a stumble, and somebody muttered something in a half-angry voice.

Those footsteps were feeling their way and descending the stairs. Could Susan possibly know that anybody was there? If so, would she have sent Ailsa for the brandy? The girl decided not; evidently this was some midnight marauder. She stood there with trembling limbs and a heart that beat quite loudly.

The stranger was near to her now, so near that she could hear him breathing. He stumbled again, and said something that the girl could not catch. She could hear the striking of a match on a box, and a small ring of flame spurted out. It was only for a moment, and then it was gone again. Ailsa checked a cry.

She could make nothing of the man, whose face was hidden in a slouch hat. But she had just for one instant seen the flash of a ring on the left hand as he shaded the match. And the ring that Ailsa had seen was the gem of gold and rubies and diamonds that she had seen so often on the little finger of her guardian!


II.—THE PORTRAIT.

Ailsa stood there with a certain curious exultation in the knowledge that she was no longer afraid. Here was a real and tangible danger, so different to those suggested by the utter loneliness of the dreary old home. This was no spirit from the other world, but a real, live man, who had no business here. He was a burglar, after some of the valuables with which the house was crammed, and it was Ailsa's obvious duty to hand him over to the police without delay.

But was he no more than the average burglar? It seemed absurd to think so; but Ailsa's instinct told her that there was something more than met the eye. As she stood there she could hear the passing cabs outside and the tramp of a policeman trudging along his beat. It would have been so easy for Ailsa to slip quietly down the stairs and call the officer in.

And yet she stood there, hesitating, curious, and not afraid. If this man had been a real burglar he could have filled his pockets and departed as quietly as he had come. But he seemed to be looking about him for some definite object. As he moved again presently it struck Ailsa that he must be familiar with the house. There was none of that fumbling hesitation about the stranger. Perhaps he had forgotten his bearings for a moment, hence the striking of the match. A discharged servant, perhaps? But discharged servants do not wear diamond rings of price.

Then a sharp and sudden thought came to Ailsa. Had this man anything to do with the injury to the old woman lying in the kitchen? Susan had declared that her hurt had been caused by an accident; she had been unnecessarily emphatic on this point. Even in her semi delusion she had seemed very anxious to shield somebody. Ailsa made up her mind that she would go downstairs to make sure. It was easy to feel her way to the handrail and creep down noiselessly in her stockinged feet.

Old Susan still sat in her chair with her eyes closed. She was breathing more easily now; she seemed to have fallen into a deep sleep, the heavy sleep of intoxication as it appeared. But Ailsa knew that there was nothing of the kind here. It might be a cruel thing to do, but she laid a hand on Susan's shoulder and shook her forcibly. The old woman opened her eyes, and glared round her as if in terror.

"You'll be found out," she whispered. "He is certain to find out, and you'll go to gaol. Mind you, nothing can save you from that. But it was quite an accident."

The woman repeated the last sentence fiercely, as if trying to convince others of what she did not herself believe. Ailsa waited for the fit of anger to pass.

"What is that man doing upstairs?" she asked sternly. "Tell me at once."

Susan sat up suddenly, and her eyes gleamed. There was a look in them so cold and revengeful that Ailsa fairly staggered back. The old woman staggered to her feet, and caught the girl by her two wrists in a grip of steel. Her manly strength and vitality came positively as a revelation to Ailsa. She was terribly frightened, but she would not show it. She had read somewhere that it was the best thing to display coolness and courage in the face of dangerous lunacy, and that old Susan had suddenly gone mad she did not for a moment doubt. It cost the girl a great effort to keep back the cry of pain and fear that struggled for utterance at her lips.

And she felt quite sure, too, that old Susan knew all about the man upstairs. It was necessary to take a bold course, but Ailsa did not hesitate.

"I am not going to be put off like this," she said quietly. "There is something very wrong going on in the house—something that you are concealing from my guardian and your husband. Who is that man?"

Old Susan made no reply. She still gripped Ailsa tightly, but the look of madness was fading from her eyes, the pallid face grew less vivid.

"I don't know what you mean," she said. "You are talking in riddles. Go to bed, dearie, and leave a poor old woman alone. Was I unkind to you?"

The speaker had dropped Ailsa's hands, and stood sorrowfully regarding the hard red bands round the girl's wrists. The fit of sudden passion was passing as quickly as the dispersion of an April storm. Susan fell back in her chair again, and the dazed look was once more on her face. Evidently she had aroused herself with an effort that was utterly beyond her strength. Ailsa did not know whether to pity her or be sorry. But the girl did not mean to lose all the advantage she had gained.

"Has anybody been ill-treating you?" she asked. "Now, tell me?"

"Nobody," Susan muttered. "It was all an accident. I tell you it was an accident. And if you don't believe it, why, then, I say that you lie."

"We will not discuss that," Ailsa went on. "There is a man upstairs. He is there for no good purpose. Who is he, and what is he doing here? I am quite certain that you can give me the desired information, and I mean to have it. Tell me without any further prevarication who that man is and what he is after!"

"Nobody there," she muttered. "Nobody at all. Everything is changed, dearie, changed out of recognition. You'll want a candle, sure."

A glimmer of light flashed across Ailsa's understanding. Surely Susan was under the impression that she was talking to the man upstairs. He had had occasion to strike a match, as if he missed some familiar landmark in the dark, and here was Susan suggesting that somebody or other would certainly need a candle. From the bottom of her heart Ailsa wished that Thomas was back again. Old Susan might be seriously hurt, and yet, on the other hand, there might be nothing serious the matter with her.

"What is he looking for, and where is it?" Ailsa demanded, suddenly.

"The case," Susan said with a sudden flame of reason. "Behind one of the panels in the old Blue Room. Only it's not called the Blue Room now, dearie, it is missie's studio. But you'll never find it—he's too cunning for that."

There was sense in the speech, as Ailsa did fail to recognise. The swiftness of her question had caused Susan to betray herself. But the latter part of her speech was obviously addressed to somebody other than Ailsa. The old woman was wandering in her mind now between two people. Her head sank on her breast again, and she slumbered once more.

She was suffering from both mental and physical shock, as Ailsa could see. But she would have to be left to herself for a moment, as Ailsa's duty was upstairs. She was not in the least afraid now, she was going to see this thing through. That man was looking for something in her studio, at one time called the Blue Room. Painting was Ailsa's one joy, the blessed occupation that preserved her reason. Without it she would have passed into a green and yellow melancholy. The studio was all her own, nobody ever went there.

She had gathered the furniture together from different parts of the house: a Persian carpet from here, a statue from there, a suit of armour from another place. There were trophies of arms on the oak-panelled walls, old china and pictures of price. Ailsa's studio would not have disgraced the house of a distinguished and popular R.A. Even now there was a new interest added to the place in the presence of a man who was seeking for something there. Without the slightest suggestion of fear, Ailsa mounted the stairs again silently as ever in her bare feet;—she was not going to surprise the man, she had no intention of asking his business unless she was compelled to do so. But that he was going to take anything away without her consent, Ailsa denied. Probably he was in the studio by this time.

Ailsa's conclusions were absolutely correct. The man was moving about the studio muttering to himself as he came in contact with one unfamiliar object after another. He appeared to be at home, and yet he was very much abroad. A trinket fell to the floor with a crash, and the intruder swore aloud, than there was a grunt of satisfaction as the man's hand encountered a gas-bracket on the wall.

"Time enough, too," he muttered. "Well, I'll risk it. Better than breaking my neck and getting the house about me. I wonder what Colville would say if he could see me here at this moment. What on earth did I do with my matchbox?"

Ailsa slipped behind a screen by the doorway. The match flared out, there was a hissing of gas, and the soft pop of the flame as the vesta touched it. The light was very dim and low, for the gas was shaded by an opaque pink globe with a shade over it. Ailsa preferred a number of small subdued lights to one or two glaring large ones—the effect on the perfectly finished studio was much more artistic. The light was very faint, but it enabled the marauder to see what he was doing.

"I'll not light any more," he muttered. "This one is quite sufficient. By Jove, what a contrast to the last time I saw this room! Colville's ward is evidently a lady of very pretty taste. And she can paint, too, if that landscape yonder is an example of her work. Pretty things everywhere, the touch of the dainty feminine hand. Reminds me of the day when I was fit to enter decent society. Heavens! How long since was that?"

There was a tone of regret in the speaker's voice, the voice of a gentleman, as Ailsa did not fail to recognise. As she had felt from the first, this man was no vulgar midnight thief. He was on familiar ground; he was here for some definite purpose, no doubt, but Ailsa liked his voice. With his thick black hair and beard, and low hat, he looked a formidable ruffian enough; but somehow Ailsa was not in the least alarmed. She was watching the stranger through the carved scroll-work of the screen, in deep fascination.

"Where shall I begin?" he muttered. "I shall have to take these panels one by one. I hope I shan't make too much noise removing those gentlemen in armour. It may be behind the looking-glass over the fireplace. That will be a tight job. What a lot of photographs, and what pretty frames! I wonder which of those girls is my hostess. The one with the dark eyes and the serious face, perhaps. A very pretty girl, too. And here's a man. Don't like the look of him, anyway. And, good Heavens! who's this?"

The stranger's voice suddenly become hoarse and emotional. Evidently he had experienced a sudden shock of some kind. Ailsa could just see that his face was twitching. His hand trembled, too, as he took a small photograph in a gold frame from the shelf. Ailsa knew quite well whose portrait it was—a young man, with clean-shaven face and dark, fearless eyes. The chin was, perhaps, a little weak; but it was a pleasant, open face, and belonged to a man that most girls would like to call their own.

"To think of it," the stranger said, with the same pained thrill in his voice. "How did it get here? And who in the name of fortune—well, it's painful, very painful, and yet not without a suggestion of diabolical humour. Better to laugh than to cry over it."

The stranger commenced to laugh horribly. The mirth was so palpably forced that it hurt the listener crouched behind the screen. Ailsa, acting on the sudden impulse of the moment, stepped out and confronted the intruder, who had carefully replaced the portrait again. Already he had begun to tap the panels with his knuckles.

"What are you doing here?" Ailsa asked. "Why do you come at this time of night, when my guardian is away from home? And what are you interfering with my portraits for."

The man fell back as if something had stung him. Ailsa could not see his face, a part of which was masked with sticking-plaster as if he had been in some accident.

"I am very sorry," he said, "it would be too long a story to tell you. And I am afraid that you would not quite believe me. As to your portrait, I was only looking at the counterpart portrait of one whom I knew very well years ago."

Despite his rowdy, dissipated appearance, the man was a gentleman. He might have, indeed, no doubt he had, descended very far down the scale of respectability, but the fact remained.

"Ronald Braybrooke," Ailsa said with some hesitation. "Yes, I heard what you said when you looked at the picture. Ronald Braybrooke was an old friend of mine. But it is hard to believe that he could also have been a friend of yours."

A curious smile flitted over the face of the stranger. He appeared as if about to reply when the distant, sudden banging of a door sent him back in alarm. There was a cold draught of air, followed by a footstep on the stairs, and a man with a grey, somewhat forbidding face came into the studio. Before he had entered the room Ailsa was aware of the fact that her guardian was at hand. She also became conscious of her bare feet and the equivocal nature of this midnight adventure. Like a flash she darted behind the screen again, leaving her visitor alone. He hesitated just a moment, and then he stole across the room in the direction of the gas-bracket. But he was too late; Archibald Colville was already upon him.

"You here!" he cried, in a deep, pained voice. "You here, above all men. I would have given ten thousand pounds, poor as I am. And this is what you've come to, Ronald Braybrooke."

The name seemed to sting Ailsa like the lash of a whip. This Ronald Braybrooke?—this the man to whom she had years ago———? Oh, impossible! She stepped from behind the screen.

"There is some mistake," she said. "I am Ailsa Lefroy. And you are not Ronald Braybrooke."

The man hesitated for a moment. Some struggle seemed to be going on in his mind.

"No," he said, slowly. "You are quite right. I am not Ronald Braybrooke, because he is—dead——"


III.—JOHN STERN.

All the mystery of the dreadful old house was forgotten for the moment. The look of grief and unhappiness in the eyes of Ailsa was not lost upon the intruder. He gave one searching glance upwards, and then his own gaze fell. There was a suggestion of shame about him; he had lost his insolent audacity.

Ailsa's heart was beating almost to suffocation. She had had a very trying day, and she had passed a still more trying evening. Her courage had been put to a high test, and it had not failed her. But now that help was at hand, womanlike, she felt as if she were going to break down altogether. But there was the dreadful suggestion of Archibald Colville to sustain her.

What did he mean by calling this shabby and disreputable intruder by the name of Ronald Braybrooke! That was the name of Ailsa's lover—the manly, central figure of her one romance. Ronald had been tall and strong and brave—a cavalier sans peur et sans reproche. It seemed almost ridiculous to connect him with the shuffling figure hanging back there beyond the light of the lamps.

Archibald Colville turned to Ailsa and motioned her away. He intimated pretty plainly that this was no place for a young girl. But Ailsa did not move. There was more than one suspicion uppermost in her mind. Why was Colville here at this moment, when he had actually telegraphed old Thomas to meet him in Birmingham? And why did he come home to his own house like a thief in the night?

"Go away," he said. "Go away and leave me to settle with this gentleman. This is no place for you. Don't be afraid for me. I assure you that the fellow is not likely to do me a mischief."

The man keeping out of the shadow of the lamps laughed. He seemed to be more or less sure of the ground on which he stood.

"There is some mistake here," Ailsa said, in a voice that was indifferently steady. "My dear guardian, why do you speak of this man as Ronald Braybrooke?"

"Because that is his name," Colville said, hoarsely. "Otherwise he would not be here at all. It is true that my personal knowledge of Mr. Braybrooke is not great. I have not seen him for some years, but we have frequently corresponded. It seems to me——"

"That there is some dreadful mistake here," Ailsa interrupted. "I knew Ronald Braybrooke intimately. Up to four years ago, when my parents died, I saw him every day. I was only sixteen then, and he was quite a man, but I liked him; we were great friends. Liked him! Nay, I loved him, though no word of love ever escaped my lips. I regarded him as a model of all that a man should be. And when you call that man Ronald Braybrooke, why, my heart laughs the suggestion to scorn."

The deep contempt in the girl's young voice seemed to disturb the intruder. The sullen red of his face deepened, but he kept his eyes fixed on the ground.

"Ronald Braybrooke is dead," he said, sulkily. "It may be a shock to the young lady's feelings, but as the truth is told there can be no good done by hiding it. I won't go so far as to say that Ronald Braybrooke was a friend of mine; as a matter of fact I have been his greatest curse. But circumstances over which neither of us had any control threw us much together. I tell you he is dead, I was present at his funeral or what passed for it. He was washed off a smack and died at sea. I saw it done. And I can prove the whole thing if you give me time——"

"I am quite sure that this man speaks the truth," Ailsa faltered.

A thin sneer curled Archibald Colville's lips. He shook his head doubtfully.

"I am not convinced," he said. "With so much mystery in the air, I shall want all the proof you can give."

"I am sick and tired of mystery," Ailsa cried passionately. "The house reeks of it, the unlucky No. 13 stifles me. You, my guardian, tell me that you could not possibly return till the morrow, and yet you come into your own house like a thief in the night. You were surprised to see me here—your face had a look of guilty fear on it. And then old Susan meets with an accident. In her delirium she discloses certain things. On the top of it I find this man, this derelict of humanity, who tells me that the only one I ever cared for is dead. Why do you come back like this, guardian? why is this man here? What does he seek? It is not as if he were a stranger—he knows the house as well as I do. What does it mean?"

Colville shook his head slowly like one who relinquishes a difficult position. But his face grew hard again as he turned to the intruder.

"I can't explain," he said. "It is too long and pitiful a story. And as to this man, I do not know what to think. I could have sworn—but then he asserts that he is prepared to prove what he says. Let me tell you something concerning the fortunes of Ronald Braybrooke. Never mind how, but he suddenly became possessed of a large fortune. Braybrooke was poor and ambitious, and would have given much for the money to carry out his designs. And if he were alive now he would be the master of £100,000. On business connected with this money I have been away. But I had to return to-night secretly. Do you hear what I say, fellow? Ronald Braybrooke has become entitled to £100,000. If he likes to come forward and claim it, the money is his to-morrow."

Something in the tone of the speech seemed to madden the intruder. He lifted a pair of eyes that glowed like living coals to Colville. His hands were clenched so tightly that Ailsa could see how the knuckles stood out like white seams on his brown hands. He trembled as if in the grip of some great physical pain. But all the same he kept his face in the shadow, half hidden as it was by the plaster on his cheeks.

Ailsa held her breath. Not for a moment had she credited anything that Colville had said; indeed, it seemed to her that he was acting a part. In her heart of hearts the girl felt that this human derelict could in no way be connected with her own Ronald Braybrooke. She recalled his face and form vividly to her mind now. Oh no, it could not be as Colville had said.

And yet here was Archibald Colville putting him to the test. If that crouching figure really was Ronald Braybrooke, then he had fallen very low indeed. He looked as if latterly he had lacked the bare necessaries of life. And here was Colville offering him—provided he was Braybrooke—a handsome fortune. It was enough to tempt even the noblest and most honourable of men!

"What nonsense all this is," Ailsa cried. "Do you think that I should fail to recognise Ronald Braybrooke, even if he were so utterly changed as—I mean in any circumstances? I should recognise him anywhere. And yet you, who say that you have not seen him for many years, pit your opinion against mine!"

"You don't know what you are talking about," Colville said, roughly. "I have seen men so changed in a few years that their own mothers did not know them. I know a case in which a father refused to recognise his own daughter. I merely repeat what I said before: Ronald Braybrooke is not dead, and this man knows it. For some purpose of his own he is acting a part. Produce Ronald Braybrooke, and let him come forward and claim the fortune of £100,000."

"Braybrooke is very fortunate," the stranger said. "If he had only known that a few days ago he would never have been drowned in the North Sea. And as to his ambitions, you are perfectly correct. This money would have been a god-send to him. But he lies at the bottom of the German Ocean, and there is an end of him."

"Strange," Colville muttered in a sarcastic tone. "Very strange indeed! Still stranger that a nameless vagabond like you should come and give us this information this night of all nights. Stranger still that you should be here at all, strangest of all that you should be familiar with my house. Braybrooke was—as a boy."

"And Braybrooke might have told me things," the intruder said, defiantly. "Yes, you have summed up my character quite correctly. I am a nameless vagabond, who was once a gentleman. It matters little that I have come so low as this—I who used to pride myself upon my honour and integrity. Call me John Stern, for want of a better name, and hand me over to the police if you like. But why I am here and what my business is, I shall not say if I hang for it."

There was a curiously dry smile on Colville's lips as he listened. It was quite plain that he did not believe a word that Stern was saying. "You had better come down to my room and talk the matter over," he said. "There are certain circumstances that make it desirable to keep the police in ignorance of what has taken place here to-night. Otherwise I should have given you into custody without the slightest hesitation. I want to be convinced that Ronald Braybrooke is really dead. There is a way—but stop. I have another idea. Write the facts shortly, and on a sheet of notepaper, and sign them. Have you any paper and pen here. Ailsa?"

Stern gave a short quick laugh that sounded like derision. If there was a trap here he saw it quite plainly. Ailsa shook her head—there was nothing of the kind in the studio.

"I will fetch everything necessary from my room," muttered Colville. "I don't think our friend is likely to run away or do any harm to you, Ailsa."

Stern laughed in his quick, derisive way. Something seemed to amuse him scornfully.

"I am not going to run away," he said between his teeth, "and I am not in the least likely to do any harm to the young lady. Besides she was disposed to be fond of a man whom I liked. A man who might have done better had he had a better chance. Get your writing paper, old fox."

Colville slipped out of the room quietly. There was a painful silence for a moment.

"Are you concealing something from me?" Ailsa asked. "The thing is so amazing that I have not recovered from my surprise yet. It is amazing that I should have told you, told anybody, that I cared for Ronald Braybrooke. But he was so handsome, and so noble; he was the only young man I ever knew in my quiet vicarage home. It was only a girlish dream, but when I knew he was dead, I felt it was more than a dream. And I told you because I have a curious fancy that you were once a good man, and that all good feelings are not yet dead in you. Did you care for Ronald?"

"I was at once his greatest friend and his greatest enemy. And because my good feelings are not yet dead, and because the sound of your voice and your simple faith have brought back many things to me long forgotten, I am making a tremendous sacrifice. If you only knew the sacrifice I am making to-night you would pity me and be sorry for me. I want you to believe this as I never wanted anybody to believe anything in the world before."

There was a ring of passionate sincerity in the speaker's voice that touched Ailsa.

"I believe you," she said, with a sudden impulse. "Do you know you have almost caught poor Ronald's trick of voice. If I may inquire the nature of the sacrifice——"

"No. I do not want to speak curtly, but I cannot give you the slightest indication of it. That would spoil everything. Some day, perhaps, I may tell you more fully. I have been a bad man, but I am not going to be a bad man in future. And you are responsible for the change. But I was almost forgetting. You guess or you overheard something of my errand. I implore you to say nothing whatever about it to your guardian. There are reasons why—pressing reasons why——"

Stern's voice died in a murmur as Colville's shuffling feet were heard again. He had an alert and business air as he returned to the room, and the cynical, dry smile was still on his lips. He cleared a table of a mass of artistic litter, and placed pen and ink and notepaper thereon. Then he drew a chair up to the table.

"What I want you to do is simple," he explained. "Please write the bald facts of Ronald Braybrooke's death on half a sheet of notepaper and sign it. My ward shall witness the document. And after that is done I will not seek to detain you. A little more light——"

"Not on my account," Stern said, hastily. "Since my accident my eyes are not as they were, and any strong light affects them. All you want, I suppose, is the name of the smack and the owner, the date of the catastrophe, and just how it happened?"

Colville nodded in the same dry way. He looked like some criminal lawyer who has just seen his witness with his head in the trap. But the smile faded and the irritation deepened on his face as Stern took up the pen in his left hand.

"Why do you do that?" he asked sharply. "You are not necessarily left-handed. I could see that by the way you arranged the paper on the table."

"Which proves nothing," Stern said, coolly. "My right hand has suffered also, so that for the present I am compelled to use my left. Won't you sit down—it is rather a long process."

Colville sat down, biting his thin lips. It was a tedious process, and Stern crumpled up one sheet of paper after ten minutes and thrust it in his pocket. The next effort was more successful, and the sheet was handed to Colville.

"Yes, it seems all right," he said, speaking with the air of one who disguises his vexation. "I don't think I need detain you any longer. Perhaps you had better append your address, and then my ward may sign it. Thanks."

With a gesture Stern motioned Colville to the door. As the latter passed out of the studio Stern took the crumpled paper from his pocket and handed it to Ailsa. She covered it with her hand very quickly. She closed the door on the others, then she opened the paper.

"I had to trick the old man," it said. "There was no time to tell you. You have been very good to me to-night, and you will never regret it. Be discreet and silent; never let Mr. Colville know why I came and what I was looking for behind the panels of your studio. That must be the secret between us. I have a feeling that we shall meet again. And until we do so have no curiosity as to what was wrong with old Susan to-night. Never let her know that you suspected or knew anything. And God bless you for a good and true woman, who has come near to saving a lost soul to-night."

Ailsa read the carefully-disguised hand twice thoughtfully, then she tore the note in shreds and dropped them one by one into the fireless grate.


IV.—THE LADY NEXT DOOR.

Ailsa stood there with a feeling that the events of the night were not yet over. She had forgotten pretty well everything besides the fact that Ronald Braybrooke was dead. The news had been a great shock, and it had left a dull aching pain behind. Ailsa's mind had travelled rapidly back over the bridge of years to the time when she had been continually happy in her country home-life before her father died and left her to the care of Mr. Colville. Those had been happy days indeed, for Mr. Lefroy had been a dreamer and scholar, and he had been in the habit of leaving his sixteen-year-old daughter very much to herself. Hence the great intimacy which had grown up between the girl and Ronald Braybrooke. Ailsa had always looked upon him as her beau-ideal of what a man should be; from a child she had unconsciously loved him. Perhaps she had not known it then, but she did now.

And yet no words of love had ever passed between them. It was a kind of beautiful idyll, rudely shattered by the sudden death of Mr. Lefroy. Ronald was away in London at the time, with some vague idea of making his fortune, and Ailsa had written to him. Probably he did not receive the letter, for no reply came. And then Mr. Colville came upon the scene and took Ailsa to town with him at No. 13, Vernon-terrace.

What a vast number of years ago it seemed to her now. And there had come no further signs of Ronald. Still the girl had gone on trusting him; she had never doubted him for a moment. And now the end had come, and the knowledge of it all in such a strange, wild way as this.

Ailsa was inclined to believe the story of John Stern. Outcast and despised as he appeared to be, there was something about the man that did not repel Ailsa. That he was no common thief she felt certain. She also felt that his right name was not John Stern, and that he had some very powerful reason for writing that message with his left hand. Ailsa wondered what part her guardian was playing in the drama. She had read much of rascally guardians and the fortunes of their wards. But, then, she had no fortune, and Mr. Colville did not in the least resemble a guardian of melodrama.

Still, he was acting a part; of that Ailsa felt certain. Also, why had he crept back to his own house like a thief in the night, when he had expressly telegraphed that he could not possibly get back from Birmingham?

Ailsa put the whole thing out of her mind now as she suddenly recollected the plight in which she had left old Susan. But perhaps her husband Thomas had returned. On the other hand, he might have gone by the mid-night train to Birmingham; it was just possible that Mr. Colville desired to get his henchman out of the way.

Anyway, Ailsa felt that she must find out for herself. Mr. Colville's study was closed as he passed along, and sounds of subdued voices came from the room. Ailsa could not hear anybody talking in the basement. She found that old Susan had crossed over to a deep beehive armchair, where she had fallen asleep. Old Thomas was nowhere to be seen. Beyond doubt he had proceeded to Birmingham as arranged. Ailsa shook the sleeping figure and the aged woman muttered in her dreams.

"Are you better?" Ailsa asked. "Is there anything that I can get for you?"

The old woman opened her eyes and looked around. Ailsa was relieved to see that there was nothing really serious the matter. The woman had had a physical shock of some kind, but there was mental terror behind it all. She did not seem to recognise Ailsa.

"Where is your husband?" the girl demanded. "What has become of him?"

A spasm of sudden terror set Susan's wrinkled old features trembling like a harp-string. She looked about her in a cunning, hopeless kind of way.

"Gone," she whispered. "Put out of the way, my dear. Oh, he is a deep one is master. But he's afraid of Thomas same as I am and everybody else. Thomas could tell some strange stories if he liked. Ask John Stern."

The latter sentence was as sudden as it was unexpected. Ailsa promptly asked who John Stern might be. But the woman had a glimmer of reason, and she only smiled. It was quite evident that though she was not hurt very much, the shock had affected her reason for the time. Still, it was possible to learn a good deal.

"Who is John Stern?" Ailsa asked again. In the circumstances her curiosity was quite pardonable. "Susan, you are going to tell me that."

The old woman shook her head. The puzzled vague expression was on her face again. Ailsa would have given much to know whether she was acting or not. Be that as it may, old Susan had the name of the midnight intruder pat enough. Ailsa made one more bold attempt to get at the truth.

"I have asked you a question and I insist upon an answer," she said. "Now listen to me, and don't pretend that you fail to understand. You said just now that the name of the man was John Stern. He told your master so, but your master refused to believe anything of the kind. Mr. Colville mentioned quite another name, do you guess what it is?"

Ailsa could see that old Susan was listening now. Her lips were parted, and her breath came with quick, painful gasps between them. The girl perceived her advantage. She took for granted that Susan understood.

"He addressed the stranger as Ronald Braybrooke," Ailsa went on. "The dead Ronald Braybrooke I knew a year or two ago as one of the handsomest of men. Have you heard of him before?"

The old woman shook her head and averted her eyes.

"No, no," she cried. "There must be a mistake somewhere. Ronald Braybrooke is dead; he was drowned in the North Sea. I swear to you that he is gone, and that he will never be seen again till the sea gives up its dead. And as to John Stern, I have never so much as heard of him."

"Why you have just used his name," Ailsa protested. "Have you lost your memory entirely, or are you merely lying to me."

The dogged, sullen look came into her weary, lined old face again. It was quite evident to Ailsa that she was going to get no more information. And yet she could not but feel that the old woman was actuated by some queer kind of negative friendship for her, or why did she dribble out these pellets of information from time to time? There was nothing for it now but to wait for some more favourable opportunity.

"I am going to take you to bed," Ailsa said firmly. "Come along, you can lean on me. This way."

Quite obediently old Susan struggled to her feet. The vacant look was still in her eyes, and undiluted terror distended in them. Verily there were more mysteries in this strange house than Ailsa dreamed of. And she had suspected nothing wrong before. A sharp, quick laugh breaking from behind the study door sounded strangely out of place there. But the old woman seemed to hear nothing of it.

It was by no means an easy business to get her up the stairs, for she was heavy and drowsy with the sleep that lay upon her. Ailsa had to ask three times before she could ascertain the direction of the bedroom. She paused on the threshold in astonishment.

"Not here, surely," she protested. "Susan, this is not your room. Impossible!"

"Nobody else's," Susan said, with a sudden glimmer of reason. "Think I don't know. Oh, my dearie, why did you ever come here? A house of sorrows, if ever there was one. And all the purple and fine linen in the world will never make it anything else."

Ailsa led the way without further expostulation. She was getting accustomed to these surprises. It struck her now for the first time that ever and anon Susan displayed suggestions of refinement of speech as if she had seen better days. Certainly she had no reason to complain on the score of comfort in her room. The place was magnificently furnished, the suite of ebony, inlaid with ivory, fit for the room of a duchess. Ailsa was struck by the thickness of the carpet, the beauty of the pictures. And on the dressing-table stood a splendid array of flowers in Bohemian glasses.

The old woman slept here beyond doubt. She was in a position to indicate this thing and that which she needed. There was an ivory comb and a pair of silver-backed brushes. Ailsa wondered that she had never seen these wonders for herself before. And yet Susan seemed to take it as a matter of course.

"Get me into bed, dearie," she said, "for I am very tired. I don't know who you are, but you are very kind to a poor, worn creature like me."

It was strange how the speaker lapsed from sense to childishness and back again. She had been badly knocked about by somebody, but she had been terribly frightened at the same time. She lay heavily on the bed as Ailsa undressed her. Under her coarse black dress was the finest lace and linen, and on her breast hung a gold locket, with the features of a beautiful little girl inside. Ailsa wondered more and more. There was every suggestion of luxury and refinement here, and yet Susan's hands were hard, and red, and knotted with the toil of years. There was some strange mystery here, and Ailsa meant to get at the bottom of it. She had her aged burden comfortably between the sheets at last.

"And now you are going to sleep peacefully till morning," she commanded. "Is there anything that I can get for you before I go to bed myself?"

The figure between the sheets opened her eyes and looked around. Just for a moment she was absolutely clear and sensible.

"No thank you, Miss Ailsa," she said, quite briskly. "I met with an accident—caught my foot in the stair-carpet. It is a good thing that he is not in the house. He would have said that it was entirely my own fault. Just as if anybody can prevent accidents of that kind! But you should not have come here, miss."

"Why not?" Ailsa asked. "Somebody had to put you to bed. Why not?"

"I don't know," Susan replied, lapsing into her vague manner again. "But don't you tell him anything about it, and don't you trust to the other one whatever you do. It is the sixth panel from the floor, counting 16 from the picture of the lady by Holbein. And don't you make any mistake about that. Oh, she's a deep one, she is!"

So there was another woman in this maddening business somewhere, Ailsa told herself. Ailsa would have liked to get something more from Susan; but she had really fallen asleep by this time, and it seemed a pity to wake her. Also it might not be policy to arouse her suspicions more than was necessary. Very quietly Ailsa crept down the stairs just in time to hear the sullen bang of the front door as Colville let out the strange guest. He was in the hall as Ailsa passed along. He said "Good-night!" in his usual cold, distant manner, as if nothing out of the common had taken place.

"I am going to bed," he said. "It is nearly three o'clock. If you have not quite finished down here, will you turn out the gas as you come up?"

"I will see to that," Ailsa replied. "Mr. Colville, who was that strange man? And what did he want in the house in so questionable a manner? Above all, do you think he was telling the truth about Ronald Braybrooke?

"It is impossible to say," Colville replied. "I am as misty and uncertain as you are. One thing is in favour of the man's story: it is to his interest to produce Ronald Braybrooke alive and in the flesh. More than that I cannot say; I had quite forgotten that you knew Mr. Braybrooke in your younger days. He must be quite thirty now."

"Quite that," Ailsa said, thoughtfully. "Where does he derive his fortune from?"

"It is a long story, and I cannot possibly tell you now, my child. There are many reasons why I cannot tell you. Good-night."

There were no further questions to ask in face of his stern manner. Ailsa stepped up the stairs presently, having put the lights out. She did not feel in the least desirous of bed; she would go and paint in her studio for an hour or so before retiring. But she was too restless to work; the exciting events of the evening filled her brain, to the exclusion of everything else. She thought over old Susan's story and the way she had betrayed her secret. And then, suddenly, what had been said about the panel flitted to her mind.

If there was anything concealed there it would be easy to find with such explicit instructions. Sixteen panels from the fine old picture by Holbein was soon counted, and then six from the floor. There was the panel at last, with a little stud in the centre. There was no dull stud like it in any other panel. With a quickening of her pulses Ailsa pressed upon it. And then a whole series of panels in the form of a doorway shot back. Beyond was a hanging of old leather, and between the folds a brilliant flare of light. The light was warm, and the whole atmosphere was one of perfumes and flowers. A man's voice called something, and a woman replied in a languid kind of way. Ailsa pushed the curtain aside to catch a glimpse of the back of a woman in evening dress as she left the room. Near the curtain was a writing-table with a pair of electric lamps upon it. There was no letter to be seen, but only an envelope with a half-written address upon it, not quite dry. It was impossible for Ailsa not to see the portion of the address. She repressed a cry as she read:

Ronald Braybrooke, Esq.,

16, High-street.—


V.—BEHIND THE CURTAINS.

In any other circumstances Ailsa would have retired discreetly. But that strangely-addressed envelope under her very eyes fascinated her strongly. The man who until recently had been little more than a pleasant memory to her had suddenly become a strange reality. And only a few hours before Ailsa had heard that Ronald Braybrooke was dead.

But was he really dead? Or had John Stern purposely lied to her? Despite the questionable way in which Ailsa had made Stern's acquaintance, she could not bring herself to believe that he was wholly bad. Perhaps he had his own urgent reasons for concealing the truth; perhaps Ronald was not dead, after all. Anyway, that envelope pointed to the latter conclusion. But, on the other hand, it was possible that the writer had yet to learn what had happened in the North Sea.

Perhaps there was a letter on the writing-table. Ailsa felt that she must know. It was not a very pretty thing to do, she told herself, but it was no time for nice scruples. With a sudden boldness, Ailsa stepped from behind the curtains into the room. The perfect appointments of the place were not lost upon the girl. She noticed the silken hangings, the delicate curtains and carpets, and the expensive flowers. The furniture belonged to the Empire period, and was elaborately upholstered in old brocade. There was enough old Bow and Chelsea china there to realise a fortune. Evidently No. 14, Vernon-terrace, was occupied by people who lacked neither money nor taste.

The house appeared to be full of people, too, for below Ailsa caught the sound of frivolous conversation and light laughter. She remembered now what a number of carriages had driven up there earlier in the evening. From a distance came the soft strains of a band. Evidently some big function was in progress at No. 14. And what a contrast it all was to the house next door! There all was gloom and mystery, here all light and pleasure, as if there was nothing to conceal and no skeleton in the closet.

But what was that envelope lying on the elaborately carved Louis Seize writing-table on a silver-mounted blotting-pad, with a gold-mounted fountain pen by its side? Ailsa felt that she must get at the bottom of that at all hazards. She rapidly crossed over to the table; but there was nothing besides the envelope and the address, and that was by no means complete. High-streets abound everywhere, indeed, few towns are complete without a High-street or two, and the half-finished address conveyed nothing. The clue was abrupt as it was puzzling. Ailsa stepped back presently whilst in the act of searching the blotting-pad, for outside she could hear the rustle of a silken dress. Like a flash the girl was behind the hanging again.

She was only just in time, for the woman who had been writing returned with a gay air, and the fragment of an opera tune on her lips. She was very tall, and dark and handsome, a beautifully dressed woman of some six-and-thirty years. But the tune died away and the dark face grew hard as the room was reached again. The half-addressed envelope was snatched up and hastily hidden under the blotting-pad as a man entered.

He was in evening dress, a man whose face and carriage did not lack distinction, save that it was so terribly marred by traces of dissipation. The shaky lip and unsteady hand told their own tale. He flicked some cigarette ash over the writing-table contemptuously.

"What are you doing here?" he asked. "Why aren't you downstairs with your guests? Had to write a letter? Who to? Look here, I'm not going to put up with any more of this. Sir George Altamont's wife has something to live up to."

"She has indeed," the woman said wearily. "Your debts and your reputation keep one going. You go your own way, and leave me to go mine. I married you with my eyes open, and I'm not going to whine about it. I have saved you from a gaol more than once already. All I ask you is not to interfere. You get your pocket-money, more than enough to muddle what little brains you have left with champagne. You are not sober now—your insane suspicions will spoil everything. Go away and leave me in peace."

"Oh, I know how cursedly clever you are," Sir George Altamont sneered. "And there's a good deal in what you say. We float on top of the wave, and people envy us. But if they only knew what a sot of adventurers we are——"

"But they never need know if you have the sense to keep your tongue still. Your part of the bargain is complete, the business of life you can leave to me. Go back to the smoking-room. You are seriously interfering with my plans now."

"What are those plans? As your husband I have every right to know."

"You have no rights at all. You have drowned them in brandy. Go back, I say. There are times when I feel disposed to leave you. I could easily invent a pretext for a separation. And I should be Lady Altamont still. I could carry on my brilliant schemes without your jealous interference. And what would become of you? You would rot in gaol in six months."

The man standing by the table made no response. Probably he felt the truth of his wife's words. Ailsa could not understand it at all. It was a new phase of life to her. Everything looked so solid and substantial here, and so like sterling worth. Lady Altamont stamped her foot.

"Will you go?" she demanded. "Your presence is needed downstairs. I shall not be many minutes. I tell you I have a most important letter to write."

Sir George shuffled away. His uncertain footsteps could be heard stumbling down the stairs. A burst of laughter came from somewhere, the strains of a band began again, Lady Altamont stood by the table tapping her heel irresolutely. A moment later, and there came the soft, subdued sound of a whistle. It sounded low and continuous like a signal. A hoarse voice asked somebody to put out the lights.

With a little cry that sounded like disappointment, Lady Altamont flicked out the lights. Ailsa felt that there were two people in the room; she was not long kept in doubt.

"What on earth does this mean?" Lady Altamont whispered. "Where did you come from? How did you manage to pass my guests without observation?"

"I didn't," a strange voice came out of the darkness. "I am not exactly in party dress, and I should probably have been kicked off the steps if I had insisted upon an audience. I came here quite modestly by the roof."

"From the roof! Surely that was a most indiscreet thing to do."

"Not at all. It was either that or falling into the hands of the police. The chase was pretty hot just for the time. An empty house and a skylight does the trick. Luckily for me, I have been over the same ground before. All the same, it's just possible that I have been spotted. If so, you must hide me."

"Then am I to understand that you have failed to-night?"

"Yes, my dear friend, I have failed, and, strange to say, I am not sorry. It may be news to you that I have suddenly developed a bad attack of uneasy conscience. Something has happened to me to-night that I need not discuss in detail. I have been a fool, but I am not going to be a fool any longer. Henceforth the game it not for me."

Ailsa thrilled from head to foot. She was in the thick of the adventure, and she had no mind to turn back. It seemed to her just for a moment that Fate had appointed her as an instrument to right some great wrong.

Besides this, she recognised the voice of the speaker. It was a little different from when she had heard it a short time before—more hard and contemptuous, but the same ring dominated it. That man was John Stern!

What was he doing here, Ailsa wondered. But then there was so much for her to wonder at that this question became of minor importance. It was, perhaps, not a nice thing for Ailsa to do, but she resolved to hear this to an end. She heard Lady Altamont laugh in a scornful kind of way.

"What has come to you?" she asked. "You were always showy and electrical, but I never saw you in a mood like this before. You speak like a man who had suddenly grown rich, and beyond the reach of temptation."

"I could be rich if I liked," Stern muttered. "I have only to stretch out my hand and the money drops into it. I was not born bad."

"Perhaps not," Lady Altamont sneered; "but at any rate, you took to bad ways fairly early. No agonies of remorse in your case, eh? But let there be an end of all this nonsense. You came here——"

"To warn you that you are in danger. I took great risks to get here. And what I said just now is perfectly true. I've done with the wrong for good and all. I daresay I shall know what it is to taste the bread of adversity; but that will do me no harm. Henceforth you are not to look to me for anything. You and that drunken husband of yours must go your own way."

"Oh, nonsense," Lady Altamont cried, impatiently. "You are out of sorts; you are moody, like you were when we first met. And you have had bad luck. A failure like yours——"

"My dear lady, there was no occasion for me to have failed. I had the thing at the tip of my very fingers. Call me a fool if you like, but I've done with it."

Ailsa wondered if she had been through it all before. She had that peculiar feeling that comes to us all at times. The voice seemed to be so strangely familiar, and yet Ailsa could not recollect where she had heard it before, at least before to-night, when she had encountered John Stern. Before Lady Altamont could reply, there was a little cry of dismay from the brilliantly-lighted rooms below, followed by a calm official voice asking questions.

"What did I tell you?" the voice of the stranger said. "The police, right enough. They are asking permission to search the house. Put me somewhere, and go down and reassure them."

Lady Altamont hustled her visitor through an inner door and turned the key. She flashed up the electric lights again, and tripped down the stairs as if the whole thing amused her. Ailsa could hear her tones presently in the distance.

"It is a mistake, of course," she was saying, with easy haughtiness. "Search the premises, by all means, beginning with the bedrooms. You are not likely to find your man down here. If any stranger had come down the stairs, I must have seen him, since my boudoir door has been open all the time I was writing."

There were heavy feet tramping overhead now, and presently a police-officer looked into the boudoir. Lady Altamont was evidently scornfully amused.

"He is not here," she said. "He is not in that room beyond, for the simple reason that I always keep the door locked. And not even the most skilful burglar can close a door behind him and lock it on the outside. See."

Lady Altamont smiled as she tried the door. The officer looked puzzled, but satisfied.

"We can't find a trace of anybody, my lady," he said. "We have been all over the house, and there is certainly no intruder here at present. Very sorry to trouble you, my lady, but we are only doing our duty. And that skylight was not fastened."

"Oh, quite so," Lady Altamont said, good-naturedly. "I'll see that the skylight is properly secured in future. Is it some noted character who——"

"We can't say, my lady. Probably it is. I'll take my men away now."

The officer touched his hairnet and moved in the direction of the door. Lady Altamont followed, on hospitable thoughts intent. She could not permit these thoughtful police to go away until they had all had something. The officer protested awkwardly as he followed his hostess down the stairs.

Almost immediately the door of the boudoir was opened and a young girl came in. She was very sweet and slender. She had deep-blue, pathetic eyes, and there was a scared expression on her perfect features. Ailsa watched her with a certain languid curiosity. The events of the night were so many that one more or less made no difference.

The girl came in much as a thief might have done. But here was no common thief, as Ailsa decided, if she was any judge of faces. Still, the girl was looking for something, and it was evident that she was fearful of being discovered. She started back once or twice, as if she heard something, then from outside came the swish of Lady Altamont's dress again.

"One minute," she called to somebody. "Let me finish my letter in peace."

The pale, slight girl wrung her hands impatiently. Evidently she would have given much not to be discovered there. A great distress was on her face.

"It's too late," she moaned. "I shall be caught. And if I arouse the suspicions of that odious woman—— Ah! if there was any place to hide!"

She backed against the hanging, actually touching Ailsa as she swayed in her distress. Ailsa acted on the impulse of the moment: she jerked back the curtain and dragged the dazed girl to her side at the same instant that Lady Altamont came smilingly into the room.


VI.—AT THE WINDOW.

The young girl uttered no cry; she was altogether too frightened for that. Some instinct seemed to tell her that she had found a friend in the hour of her need. Ailsa could feel that she was trembling like some frightened animal. She just clung to her protector whilst Lady Altamont entered her boudoir. She was not alone, a clean-shaven man, with an unmistakable legal air, accompanied her.

"I assure you it is quite a mistake," she said. "Mr. Cecil Wanless has never been here at all. He promised to come round to-night; but I expect that something detained him. I saw his sister in the conservatory a little time ago."

The legal-looking gentleman did not appear to be altogether satisfied. He walked round the room with a suggestion of admiring the many works of art with which the apartment was furnished. Ailsa watched him a little curiously as he approached the locked door behind which Lady Altamont's mysterious visitor had been secreted.

"Your pictures are perfect," the stranger said. "Have you others here?—er, I beg your pardon."

In an absent-minded way the speaker tried the locked door. Lady Altamont laughed and said something about a Blue Beard's chamber. She could promise her visitor nothing more romantic than a staircase beyond.

"I suppose that is where the draught comes from," the stranger said. "Upon my word, it is enough to cut one's head off. Look at those curtains."

Ailsa grasped the danger at once. It was no time to hesitate. The draught evidently proceeded from the opening between Ailsa's studio and the boudoir. Very gently she pulled the girl backwards, and shut the secret door. They were absolutely safe now, and Ailsa turned up the gas. Everybody had gone to bed by this time, so that the girls were safe from interruption. The closing of that thin partition had made the position as safe as a fortress.

Ailsa was quite enjoying the situation. Her dull, colourless life had not fitted her for this kind of thing; but all the same she felt the spirit of adventure glowing in her veins. There was a smile on her face as she turned to her pretty companion.

"There is nothing in the least to be afraid of," she said. "We are practically alone in this house, which is No. 13. Perhaps you may have noticed it."

"I certainly have," the girl said. "Once or twice, when calling on Lady Altamont, I have been struck by its desolate appearance. But seeing that you were in the next house——"

"Well, I was and I wasn't. It's rather a long story, and perhaps I had better not tell you too much, as the secret is not entirely mine. It was only to-night, more or less by accident, that I discovered the passage; I was seeking something entirely different when I more or less blundered into Lady Altamont's boudoir. I never suspected the means of a communication between the two houses, nor did anybody else here, I fancy. But I am not sorry that I made the discovery."

"For my sake I am glad, too," the other girl said, with a shudder. "I am afraid of that woman. Not for worlds would I have been found prying into her room."

Ailsa looked thoughtfully at her companion. The stranger was an exceedingly pretty girl, whose face was none the less attractive because it was so very pale. And she did not look like one who is in the habit of doing sly and underhand things. Still, she had been undoubtedly prying in Lady Altamont's boudoir, much as an inquisitive lady's maid might do in the absence of her mistress.

Ailsa had not much knowledge of the world, or she would have been colder to her unexpected guest, and taken steps to get rid of her as soon as possible. For all she knew to the contrary, the girl might have been no more than a clever thief. But Ailsa would have repudiated that idea with scorn. She would have refused to believe such an accusation against a girl whose face was so pure and whose eyes were so steadfast.

On the contrary, her heart went out to the other. She turned away with a pretence of being busy at a table. She wanted the girl to recover herself.

"At any rate, you are quite safe here," she said cheerfully. "This is my very own room, where nobody comes, and where I am absolutely alone. To make quite sure, perhaps I had better lock the door."

"No, no," the other girl protested. "There is no occasion for that. I must try and get accustomed to dangers, for I have so much before me. It is very good of you to trust me. It is very good of you to trust me in this implicit fashion."

"I could trust your face anywhere," Ailsa said, gently.

The other girl smiled in a grateful kind of way.

"That is very good of you," she faltered. "If you knew everything you would be sorry for me. By the sheerest good fortune you have saved me to-night. I tremble to think what would have happened to me to-night if you had not been close at hand."

Ailsa nodded gravely. Fate and opportunity had given her a pretty fair insight into the character of the woman who called herself Lady Altamont. Still, she would have restrained her curiosity had it not been for a sight of that mysterious envelope.

"It was touch and go," she said. "I was never more surprised in my life than when I found myself on the other side of the wall. The hangings hid me, or I should most assuredly have been discovered. I was about to go back when I saw an envelope, partly addressed to a friend of mine. The ink was not yet dry, the address was unfinished, as if the writer had been called away. I was all the more confused and distressed because only just before I had been informed that the person written to was dead——"

"I saw the letter," the girl cried, "or, rather, I saw the envelope. I was too engaged with my own trouble to notice much. But it all comes back to me now. The envelope was addressed to Ronald Braybrooke. Was he a friend of yours?"

"Yes," Ailsa said, without any feeling of surprise. It began to seem quite natural to her now to learn that everybody seemed to know Ronald Braybrooke. "He was a great friend of mine, perhaps the greatest I ever had. I knew him years ago; he was so good and kind to me. And when he vanished out of my life, and I—I——"

"Did not cease to care for him," the girl said, quietly. "I know exactly how it is. You believed in him, even though he proved himself worthless."

"I have yet to learn that he had proved himself worthless," Ailsa said.

The other girl appeared to feel instantly Ailsa's change of manner.

"Forgive me," she said quietly. "I am sorry that I had to speak thus, but it would be far less cruel to go on in the long run. But perhaps I had better tell you my name and some of my history. I could not possibly justify my story unless I do so. And when I have finished we shall have to discuss some scheme for my getting back to No. 14 without attracting attention. My name is Grace Wanless, and I come from Washington. I am quite sure that you are going to be a friend of mine, Miss——"

"Ailsa Lefroy," was the reply. "Yes, I think that I like you already. You are so pretty and so dainty, and you look so true. Though you are naturally timid and nervous, you are doing a plucky thing to-night for the benefit of somebody else. Do sit down."

Grace Wanless sat down and smoothed out the dainty folds of her evening dress. She looked like some pretty little fairy in her gossamer robes.

"It was for my brother Cecil's sake," she explained. "We were a very happy family before Sir George and Lady Altamont came along. They were supposed to be travelling for the sake of Sir George's health. As a matter of fact, he is a poor, dissipated creature, who is kept in the background by his wife, whom I know to be no better than a brilliant adventuress. There were some queer tales told at Washington. We had not heard them then, and we became very intimate. I have no father, and my mother, who is a confirmed invalid, is very rich. My father gave her a deal of priceless jewelry; indeed my mother's jewels were known all over the States. Of course, we had no suspicion of the class of people with whom we were dealing. My brother was infatuated, but I did not know it. My mother was fascinated, too, and when Sir George proposed a voyage to England for a long rest and some yachting in the North Sea, the thing was settled at once. My mother was delighted with the idea, and we came here.

"We had not been long here before I began to suspect things. My suspicions became realities once we were away on the dingy old tub that Sir George called his yacht. I know that my silly brother was madly in love with Lady Altamont, and that she was merely using him for her own set purpose. There was another man on board the yacht, and I am afraid I am going to hurt your feelings by alluding to him—Mr. Ronald Braybrooke."

"I shall be greatly obliged if you will speak quite frankly," Ailsa said. "It is quite evident to me that you did not care for Mr. Braybrooke."

"My dear, kind friend, I hated him. He was not a nice man. He might have been a gentleman and a man of honour at one time, but he had surely deteriorated. He lured my brother to drink, and won large sums of money from him. I did not dare to say anything to my mother; I was all the more terrified to find that she had all her jewels on board. I found also that this was brought about by Lady Altamont."

Ailsa put up her hand and stopped the speaker in the full flow of her narrative.

"Just one moment, please," she said, quietly. "I am deeply interested in your narrative, and I shall hope presently to hear the conclusion of it. I hope also that in future we shall become great friends. I am so lonely that I would give anything for a girl friend. But, first of all, I should like to know more of Ronald Braybrooke."

Grace Wanless's face grew cold and a little hard. She hesitated before she spoke.

"I am so sorry to give you pain," she murmured at length. "All the more sorry because you have been so kind to me. But I cannot say anything that would redound to the credit of Ronald Braybrooke."

Ailsa felt her heart sinking within her. She had clung to the memory of her lover. His image had been the one bright spot in her life. She had always felt that he would come back to her some day and explain the cause of his strange silence. And yet from two different pairs of lips, within a brief space of time, she had heard everything that was to the discredit of the man who held her heart.

"Just another moment," she said. "Ronald Braybrooke is by no means a common name, and yet there may be more than one man so called. Will you be so good as to look at that photograph on the mantelpiece? Is he anything like the Braybrooke you know?"

Grace glanced carefully at the photograph, and shook her head.

"That is a handsome, clean-living man," she said. "No. I see no likeness. Still, I have known a few years' dissipation wreck the fairest face."

"I beg your pardon." Ailsa said. "I see there is a mistake somewhere. I interrupted you at the most interesting stage of your story."

"And now I am coming to the point. I was up late one night and could not sleep. I heard a violent quarrel between my brother and Ronald Braybrooke on deck. There was a squabble, and Mr. Braybrooke was knocked overboard and drowned. In the eyes of the law my brother would have been judged guilty of murder. And I saw it with my own eyes. It was a terrible moment, and I suppose I fainted. At any rate, I uttered no cry, and when I came to myself I was lying on a coil of rope on deck. Lady Altamont knew what had taken place, as I could see by her treatment of my poor, unhappy brother. It was given out that a passenger of ours had fallen overboard and been drowned, and there was an end of it. Cecil said nothing to me, and I dared not mention the matter to him.

"But I could see that he was getting tired of Lady Altamont, and ready to break with her. Alas! he could not do anything of the kind—that infamous woman knew too much. I daresay you can guess what she was after—she wanted my mother's jewels. And when we got finally to Hull the jewels were missing. Of course it was all put down to the wretched man Braybrooke. My mother did not know what happened; as a matter of fact, she does not know still. We have agreed to keep the matter from her on account of her health. All the same, I have taken the precaution of laying everything before the people at Scotland Yard, and they are moving very quietly and secretly in the matter. That is all I can tell you at present."

"You feel quite sure that your brother is at the bottom of this?" Ailsa asked.

"There can be no question about it," Grace said. "I found the fragment of a letter to him from Lady Altamont that removed all my doubts. I gathered from the letter that somewhere near that boudoir the key of the mystery lay. That is why I was there to-night at the risk of betraying the fact that I knew anything."

"Perhaps the key lies in the room beyond." Ailsa suggested. "Let me tell you what I saw before you came creeping into the boudoir. It may help you."

Grace Wanless listened with a flattering interest. She seemed greatly excited about something.

"Tell me something," she demanded. "I take it that this house is precisely like the one next door. You have a room here and another room beyond corresponding to Lady Altamont's boudoir. Where does the room beyond lead to?"

"A staircase that gives on the garden," said Ailsa after a minute's consideration. "The houses here are back to back, if you understand what I mean. There is only a trellis-work between our wilderness of a garden and the one next door. From the garden you can get a pretty good view of the wing where the boudoir lies.'

"Then I should like to go down to the garden and have a look for myself," Grace cried. "Could you manage it for me without disturbing anybody?"

Ailsa thought that she could—there would be no difficulty in the matter at all. The two girls crept silently down the stairs and into the garden. They could see the brilliant lights shining behind the crimson blinds in Lady Altamont's boudoir, and a more feeble glimmer of light behind the room of the locked door. Somebody seemed to be crouching and hiding in the shrubs of the next garden: his face showed for an instant.

"Inspector Burles," Grace whimpered. "The man from Scotland-yard who has my mother's jewel affair in hand. Perhaps he has got a clue. If you think——"

Grace stopped as Ailsa grasped her arm vigorously. Ailsa was looking upwards with her eyes fixed on the window of the locked room next door.

"Look," she whispered in a frozen voice. "What is that at the window?"


VII.—INSPECTOR BURLES.

Quite suddenly a light had gleamed in the window of the locked room adjoining Lady Altamont's boudoir. It was a brilliant light, and cast two shadows, clear cut as crystal, on the blind. First came the outline of a man smoking a cigarette. He held in his hand a bottle, obviously containing champagne or some other sparkling wine, for he could be seen to cut the wires and expel the cork. It seemed to the girls watching him from below that they could hear the pop of the cork as it left the bottle.

"Are you sure that is the room leading from the boudoir?" Grace asked.

"Absolutely certain," Ailsa replied. "You see these two houses are identically the same. Look at No. 13 and see how the windows are similarly placed. I am positive that in our house the room leading from what corresponds to Lady Altamont's boudoir is a small one giving on to a secondary staircase. It is not a good room. I am quite certain that the apartment was empty when Lady Altamont hurried her mysterious visitor into there. From their conversation I judged that she did not want anybody to know that the man was in the house. The lights were extinguished before he entered the boudoir. I could see nothing, and yet the tones of that man's voice were quite familiar to me. You may take it that my acquaintance with scoundrels is very limited."

"But what makes you feel so sure that the man is a scoundrel, Miss Lefroy?"

"I judged by the tone of their conversation. If I could not see I could at any rate hear all that was going on in the room. I should say that the man was a rascal of the very worst type. And yet he was refusing to complete some act of crime which apparently he had undertaken cheerfully enough some time before. He said that he had had a shock, or seen a vision, or something of that kind. Then the police came and put an end to further conversation. That strange man's repentance seems to have been very fleeting."

It would seem so, Grace Wanless thought, from the shadows on the blind. The man was drinking champagne and smoking a cigarette, his head was thrown back from time to time as if he were enjoying some joke uttered by some unseen companion. There must have been somebody else in the room if the man's gestures meant anything.

"Ah, I thought so," Ailsa exclaimed, a few minutes later. "A woman is there. See how she comes forward. Is not that a fan she carries in her hand? I suppose there is no mystery here, and she is Lady Altamont?"

"That she isn't," Grace said, in an excited whisper. "Lady Altamont is taller and stouter, and she wears no flowers in her hair. Yonder woman has roses on her head, and she carries a fan. What an exquisite fan it is!"

It was an exquisite fan, for the woman had seated herself on the window-ledge with the fan held high above her head. It was a lace fan with two angels in the middle holding up the monogram L.C.P. The exaggerated shadow showed this clearly.

"Not an Englishwoman, I should say," Grace said, with a quickness of perception that excited Ailsa's silent admiration. "There is a strong suggestion of the Spaniard about her. Look at the easy way in which she carries her fan with the fingers outside. Most of us hold the thumb outside. The woman is in evening-dress, too, which points to the fact that she is one of Lady Altamont's guests. I should like to see into that room."

"You can do the next best thing, Miss Wanless," said a slow, cutting voice, so close to the speaker's elbow that she started. "You can enable me to see."

Grace turned round suddenly, and a sigh of relief escaped her. Ailsa could see that there was nothing wrong, so that she, too, felt her courage returning.

The speaker had all the air and manners of a gentleman; he was dressed in a dark reefer suit, he wore a soft hat and a black tie. All the same, he looked quite like one to the manner born.

"I had quite forgotten you, Mr. Burles," Grace said, "though I did catch sight of your face as we entered the garden. Miss Lefroy, this is Mr. Burles, the gentleman whose services Scotland Yard placed at my disposal. Miss Lefroy knows everything, and I should not wonder if we found her a valuable ally, seeing that she lives at No. 13. It appears that there is a secret door between the two houses, but perhaps I had better tell you exactly how I came to make Miss Lefroy's acquaintance."

"If you will," Burles murmured. "I came here to-night to test a little theory of my own. But I hope you have not been doing anything imprudent. Remember that you have a very clever foe to deal with. Still, that discovery of the secret passage may be of immense service to us. I should like to hear your story."

Grace related the story of the evening's adventure in a few words. Then it was Ailsa's turn to speak. It was clear that the two narratives made a great impression on the detective.

"Well, you have had a rare stroke of luck to-night," he said in his gentlemanly voice, "if Miss Lefroy is disposed to be your friend. Thank you very much. Then Miss Lefroy and myself must map out a plan of campaign together. This looks like becoming the most interesting case I ever investigated, and I have had many since I left the navy.

"I was very fond of my profession, the roving, exciting life appealed to me. But unfortunately I could never get over those awful bouts of seasickness. I fought the trouble till it nearly killed me, and then I gave up. I had always been interested in crime and criminals, so my friends got me into Scotland Yard. I found myself quite at home there. But this is rather a curiously personal kind of conversation in a garden at midnight, is it not? Miss Wanless, I mean to get a sight of those people up yonder if you will help me."

"I will do anything you desire," the girl said. "What is the scheme?"

"Well, I am going to help you over the trellis-work into No. 14 garden. It will than appear as if you had simply come out for the sake of fresh air. You can give a loud scream for help, and pretend that you have hurt your ankle. If you scream loud enough I feel quite sure that those people will have the curiosity to raise the blind."

Grace declared that she was ready to do anything that Inspector Burles desired. She was fighting for the reputation of her family, whose honour was at stake. Very carefully Burles helped her over the trellis, and then stood back where he could get the best view of the room next to Lady Altamont's boudoir. He gave the signal.

A piercing scream broke from Grace's lips—a scream repeated two or three times. Surely enough the blind of the upper window was pushed aside and a woman looked out. There was a glimpse of a brilliantly-lighted room beyond, with pictures on the painted walls, evidently a room furnished in a most luxurious style of fashion. It was only for an instant, then a man's hand stole out of the shadow and pushed the woman away.

"A certain amount of success and a certain amount of failure," Burles muttered. "I fancy I should be able to recognise the Lady again; but it is the man that I was most anxious to see. However, it is not too late yet—crouch down, please."

Figures suddenly emerged into the garden next door, men in evening dress with cigars in their hands. A broad band of light streamed from somewhere.

"Miss Wanless," one of the men said. "We were in the smoking-room when you called out. I hope that you have not come to harm."

"It is very good of you," Grace murmured. "I think that I am more frightened than hurt. I came out for a breath of air, and, not knowing the garden. I stumbled down those steps. I thought that I had broken my ankle. Positively I am ashamed of myself."

Burles murmured approval that Miss Wanless was playing her part very well indeed.

She was laughing in a nervous kind of way, as if ashamed of the trouble she was giving. A door closed somewhere, and the broad band of light vanished.

"I suppose there is no more to be done to-night," Ailsa said, half-regretfully. "But there is one thing that I shall have to get you to do for me, Mr. Burles. If I am to help Miss Wanless I must have her address so that I can write to her. If I could see her to-morrow——"

"That is quite easily arranged," Burles interrupted. "I will ask Miss Wanless to meet you in the square gardens to-morrow afternoon at three o'clock. It is very quiet there. But the evening's adventures are not quite over. I am going to see the inside of that room."

Burles spoke in the quiet tones of a man who has not only made up his mind, but sees a way of carrying his determination into effect. He smiled as he saw that Ailsa was looking at him with inquiring eyes.

"Nothing easier," he said. "If the navy did nothing else for me, it taught me the art of climbing. I can get up that waterspout quite easily, and there there is a good broad ledge to the window. The rest is only a matter of knowledge. I have a little preparation in my pocket that softens putty almost instantly. With it I shall loosen a pane in the window and open the catch. See, the light has vanished from the window. You say the stairs only come this way. Would you watch till I come back to see if anybody leaves by the door? I am very loath to so far trouble a lady, but in the circumstances——"

"Do not apologise," Ailsa whimpered. "I am as curious as you are yourself."

The room next to the bedroom was in total darkness now. Ailsa watched breathlessly as Burles pushed his way up the pipe and on to the ledge of the window like a cat. Presently he removed a pane of glass and pulled back the catch. He vanished from sight altogether; there was a glimmer of light in the room as a lantern flashed out. It seemed an interminable time before Burles reappeared again. A little time was lost in replacing the window pane, and then Ailsa held her breath as the inspector slipped gently to the ground.

"I expected you to break your neck," she whispered. "Did you discover anything?"

"The room was empty," Burles panted. "One of the most extraordinary things I ever saw in my life. You saw the pictures on the walls and painted panels. It was no delusion. And that room was bare as to the walls as the back of my hand; there was nothing but long rows of empty bookshelves with leather hangings. I never was more astonished."

"I saw the pictures and the painted panels as clear as possible," Ailsa said.

"Well, they have vanished. Nothing but an empty champagne bottle and a cigarette end to prove that we are not both out of our senses. Did anybody come out by that door?"

"Nobody came out," Ailsa said. "Perhaps they went back the other way by means of Lady Altamont's boudoir. Did you think of that?"

"I did think of that. And the door was locked on the inside. I tried the handle, the key was in the door. The mystery deepens, Miss Lefroy."

"It does indeed," Ailsa said, thoughtfully. "We can do no more at present. And now, if you have no further use for my services, I will wish you good-night."


VIII.—IN THE EARLY MORN.

Ailsa crept back to the house again and up to her studio. She was not in the least afraid of being found out. Nobody at No. 14 was likely to hear of her escapade. The place looked more than unusually dreary and desolate in the small hours, but the girl was not afraid—she had too much to occupy her attention.

More than once she had fought rebelliously with the dreary solitude of her life. She had pictured herself as going mad in that desolate place. For days together she had only her own thoughts for company. True, she could go in and out as she pleased, but what was the use of that, seeing that she did not know a soul in London. There was the butler and his wife, but usually they were so taciturn that they hardly spoke a word to each other. And there seemed to be a gloomy cloud hanging over the life of Archibald Colville. It did not matter much whether he was at home or not, so far as Ailsa was concerned.

The most perfect pleasure she had was that of bygone recollections. And Ronald Braybrooke had filled up the measure in that way. Ailsa had long felt sure that she would meet the only man she had ever cared for again. And now he was dead. His death had been confirmed by two independent authorities within the space of a few hours. It was very, very singular, Ailsa thought, and not a little startling. But the sting came in the knowledge that Ronald Braybrooke had fallen from his high estate. It was disturbing to Ailsa that he had died as a common felon.

Ailsa sat in her studio thinking all these matters over. Late as it was, she had no desire to go to bed. After the humdrum life of the last four years, the painful events of the evening had driven all sleep from her brain. Usually she was only too glad to retire and see the back of another humdrum day. But to-night it was different.

The girl tried to do a little work, but her hand was shaky, and the colours became a confused mass before her eyes. She wandered restlessly about the room, touching up the flowers and arranging her knick-knacks again. Her eyes turned at length to the shelf upon which Ronald Braybrooke's photograph stood. Then Ailsa rubbed her eyes in astonishment. The photograph was no longer in its place—somebody had stolen it.

The thing seemed amazing, incredible. Ailsa felt sure that the frame was there the last time she had entered the studio—was there when she found the secret panel leading to the next house. And now it had vanished. That being so, somebody must have crept into the studio during Ailsa's absence and purloined it. But who in the house could want the photograph of a perfect stranger? Ailsa thought of John Stern and his cynical enjoyment of the discovery of that picture. If he had come back and taken it for some purpose of his own? But then Ailsa had heard Stern let out of the house and the front door fastened behind him.

How this took place was as disturbing as it was puzzling. It was just possible that somebody had come in from next door. Ailsa tried the secret panel, but it did not seem to have been tampered with. Very quietly the panel was opened. But there was no stud to be seen on the far side. Pushing aside the hangings, Ailsa found herself in Lady Altamont's boudoir. The room was in darkness now, but the electric light glared brilliantly on the staircase, testifying to the fact that the family had not yet retired. Most of the guests had evidently gone, for there was no clatter of conversation, though Ailsa could distinctly catch the smell of fresh tobacco. A listless footstep dragged across the marble-paved hall, a door somewhere banged suddenly. Then somebody laughed quietly, as if faintly amused about something. Ailsa stood there listening intently.

It was all very wrong, as she knew perfectly well, but she could not resist the temptation. She ought to have gone back, but the situation fascinated her. In the light of the corridor Ailsa could see the various objects of art lying about in the boudoir; on a little table lay a fan carelessly flung down there—a black lace fan that attracted her attention. She thought of the fan that she had seen some time before so clearly defined in the lighted window of the room next to the boudoir.

There was no great chance of interruption or of the means of retreat being cut off, so that Ailsa had ample opportunity of examining the fan. She spread out the dainty cobwebs of lace on its jewelled sticks and held it up to the light. It was the same fan, surely enough, and Ailsa forgot everything for the moment in the pure artistic beauty of the thing. She had never seen anything like it before. In its way it was a perfect dream. Once seen it was not likely to be soon forgotten. Every detail of the dainty thing was photographed on Ailsa's mind. She relinquished it with a sigh of envy and pleasure.

One thing was certain, if she ever saw that fan again she was not likely to forget it. She was debating in her mind as to whether or not she should go back again when she was startled by the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside. The footsteps were so close that Ailsa had not time to reach the curtain before the door of the boudoir was closed and locked on the outside. Some servant, Ailsa thought, part of whose duty it was to close and lock the door, and who probably had come down in her stockinged feet to do so. Anyway, the door was closed quietly, locked, and the key removed. There was a fanlight over the door so that Ailsa could see the electric lights were still left burning.

Anyway, the girl was powerless for further mischief now. The best thing that she could do was to close the secret panel and see that it was securely fastened. Then suddenly there was a sound like a heavy blow, followed by a piercing scream in a feminine voice. An oath followed, and then another blow, and the sound of rushing feet below.

"What is it?" a man's voice said hoarsely. "In the name of Heaven, what is it?"

"It is nothing," a woman's voice replied. Ailsa seemed to recognise the insincere tones of Lady Altamont's voice. "She is at her old games again. I wish she were dead, or that she was safely out of the way. Go to bed."

"I shall not go to bed," the man muttered. "I ain't very particular, but I'm not going to have any violence here. I draw the line at that. Ay, you're a clever one, but you'll get yourself into trouble one of these days. Let me see."

"Again I tell you, go to bed," Lady Altamont said. "Go to bed, George. Upstairs at once and leave that cursed brandy alone. You're nearly drunk now, and if ever a man needed a clear head in the morning you do. Take my advice and go to bed."

The hoarse, unsteady voice of the man trailed off into a growl. Perhaps he had taken the advice of the woman, for Ailsa could hear him staggering along the corridor, and presently a door closed with a sudden bang. No more sounds came from the house; there was a quick snap, and the lights in the corridor gave way to pitchy darkness. Very carefully Ailsa fumbled her way in the unfamiliar room till she reached the secret panel. With a thrill she wondered what might happen if a sudden draught forced the catch to. The mere thought of such a thing sent her back breathlessly to the studio again.

She breathed more freely to find herself on familiar ground again. Only a little time ago she had complained to herself of the dreariness of life. And all at once she was plunged up to her neck in a thrilling mystery. But she must not play the vulgar spy, Ailsa told herself. She must not open that secret panel again except in case of necessity. And she would go to bed, her head aching terribly.

Ailsa might go to bed, but she could not sleep. Vainly she tossed and turned until daylight came, when she took a bath and proceeded to the studio, there to make herself a cup of coffee over her spirit-lamp. It would be nine o'clock before breakfast was ready, for Susan was not an early riser, and Ailsa made her way down to the larder in search of bread-and-butter or a little piece of cake. There seemed to be a lot of people outside for that time of the morning. Close by, somebody was blowing vigorously on a police whistle. Police whistles were alarming enough in the dead of night, but they have no terrors in the broad light of day—probably some accident, Ailsa told herself, as she stood yawning in the larder. She could hear a noise and a tramp of feet outside, but she had sort of curiosity on the subject. The noise outside increased, a hoarse voice was commanding somebody to move on, there came a long ring at the front-door bell. It would be some time before old Susan was down yet, and Ailsa decided to answer the bell herself. A trim telegraph boy stood on the doorstep with the familiar message envelope in his hand. Was there any reply?

Ailsa glanced at the address—"A. Colville, 13, Vernon-terrace." Evidently the message was for her guardian. She ran up the stairs and knocked at Colville's door. A sharp voice asked what was wanted. Ailsa explained that it was a telegram.

"Open it, read it to me," Colville said, "I don't suppose that it is of any importance."

Ailsa tore off the covering. The message was simple and to the point.

"It only says, '16, High-st.,' and nothing more," the girl explained. "Is there any reply? Tell me and I'll write it on a form."

"No reply, thank you," Colville said. "Call Susan to get me some breakfast as soon as she possibly can. There is nothing more, my child."

Ailsa felt glad of that. She did not want to say anything at present. The gist of the simple message came to her almost as a shock. For the address was precisely the same as the one she had seen on the envelope addressed to Ronald Braybrooke in Lady Altamont's boudoir—simply "16, High-st.," and nothing else. It might have been no more than a mere coincidence, this urgent message to an old man who wanted his breakfast an hour before his proper time, but Ailsa knew better. These were all links in the grand chain of the mystery. Ailsa passed downstairs into the hall, where the boy was waiting. She could see a silent, curious crowd outside, white-faced and eager. Somebody pushed eagerly through the crowd, and Ailsa recognised the dark face of Inspector Burles.

"Is there anything wrong here?" Ailsa asked the telegraph boy. "There is no reply, thank you."

"Murder, or something like, next door," the boy said. "'Orrible discovery on the part of a housemaid a little time ago. Lady with her 'ead smashed in they tell me. See all about it in the evening papers. Don't often get that in a toff's house."

The boy touched his cap, and hurried away. Ailsa stood there with her eyes on the crowd; she could see a policeman's helmet here and there as the curious throng passed. Presently an officer stepped up to Ailsa with a note in his hand. It was obviously a note written on a sheet of paper torn from a pocket-book.

"Beg pardon, miss," the officer said. "But if Miss Lefroy—oh, you are Miss Lefroy—I was to give this into your own hands from Inspector Burles. You were to say 'Yes' or 'No'."

"Yes," Ailsa said as she read the pencil scrawl. "Say I'll do it at once."

She read the paper once more as she hastened up the stairs. It was a pregnant message:


"In exactly five minutes from now, be close to the secret panel. If I knock twice on the wall, open; if once, wait for further instructions. Be discreet and silent—Burles."


IX.—THE SNAKE RING AGAIN.

Inspector John Burles passed quickly into No. 14 as if the whole thing had been part of his daily routine. As a matter of fact he had made special application for investigation directly the information of the tragedy had reached Scotland-Yard. For once in his life Burles had lost a deal of his neatness. He looked as if he had been up all night, his clothes were dusty and full of seeds, there were large damp patches on the knees of his trousers. He seemed tired and sleepy.

As a matter of fact he had called in at "the Yard" for something at the same time that the tragedy at No. 14, Vernon-terrace, was reported. He had professed himself to be utterly tired and worn out. Then he had pricked up his ears again and dashed into the fray.

"This is sheer good luck," he told his chief excitedly. "I feel pretty sure now that Mrs. Wanless's missing diamonds are at No. 14, and I've got a most important clue. That is why I have been up all night. Let us have the job, sir; you may depend upon it that one business fits nicely into the other."

The chief inspector thought that probably this might be so. Anyhow, no harm could come of placing the investigation into Burles's hands. A little while later and he was face to face with Lady Altamont in the dining-room of No. 14. Lady Altamont was looking a little pale and distressed: otherwise she was quite herself. She was quite ready to give Mr. Burles all the information he required.

"I think we had better begin at the beginning, my lady," Burles said in his best professional manner. Nobody would have suspected him of being a gentleman by birth now. "I am quite in the dark. They told me some lady here had been murdered, and that is all. A guest of yours?"

"Well, no," was the extremely unexpected response. "An absolute stranger. But perhaps I had better begin at the beginning, too. A little time ago my maid came to me in a great state of agitation, saying that she found a lady, covered with blood, and quite unconscious, lying in the little room beyond my boudoir. The thing sounded so absolutely unnatural that I went to see for myself. And there it was, or rather there she was, lying on the floor with a scalp wound, from which the blood flowed freely. Naturally I was greatly shocked; I was still more shocked to find the lady was a perfect stranger to me."

"You mean that you had never seen her before?" Burles exclaimed.

"Exactly. Undoubtedly the stranger is a lady. She is very well dressed, and has a quantity of valuable jewelry, so that plunder was not the motive for the crime. But the great point is that the lady is a perfect stranger to me. How she obtained access to the house I cannot tell. The door of my boudoir was locked last night, and the key was taken away by my maid. There is no other way to the inner-room, where I keep a lot of my dresses."

"There in no other exit from the room, my lady?" Burles asked.

"Not now, but there was at one time. However, the other exit had been fastened up. The whole thing sounds like the dream of some extravagantly imaginative novelist."

Burles sat thoughtfully for a moment. Had Lady Altamont known what was passing in his mind, she might have been less easy in her own.

"Perhaps I had better see the body," he said. "Would your ladyship show me the way? At the same time I should like to examine the boudoir and the room leading from it. The body——"

"Oh, there is no body; at least, not in your sense of the word, as yet," Lady Altamont cried. "I understand that the poor creature is not yet dead. There are no hopes of her recovery, of course, but she was not dead a few minutes ago. This way, please."

Lady Altamont preceded Burles along the corridor. A thin, professional-looking man was coming out of one of the bedrooms. Doctor was written large all over him. Questioned as to his patient, he was very reserved. There was practically no hope. He had done all he could for the sufferer, he was going off now in search of a nurse. The poor woman was still unconscious, and she was likely to remain so for some days. Meanwhile, nourishment had been administered, and the patient would do very well till the nurse came.

"This is Inspector Burles, of Scotland-yard," Lady Altamont explained. "He says he would like to have a look at your patient. Is there any objection?"

There was no objection at all so long as the detective made no noise. As the doctor hurried away, Burles stood aside for Lady Altamont to precede him into the room. She shook her head and shuddered slightly. There was no occasion for her presence, she said. She had a peculiar horror of this kind of thing. The boudoir door would be unlocked, and Inspector Burles would be free to go anywhere. No objection would be placed in his way in investigating the tragedy. Lady Altamont moved away with the air of one who wipes her hands of the business.

"Clever woman that," Burles told himself. "How well she carries it off! Hasn't the remotest idea who the mysterious lady is! Well, well, anyhow it is a very pretty case."

One of the blinds was pulled up so that a little light fell on the wax-like countenance on the bed. It was a dark, Southern face, with coal-black hair, still fastened back by an old-fashioned tortoiseshell comb fashioned like a harp. As Burles gazed at the fixed features, one of the arms moved in a quick, convulsive way, and lay on the couterpane. The hand was clenched; but something tiny shone beneath the curled-up fore-finger. Very gently Burles extracted the glittering object. He gave a little grunt of satisfaction as he disclosed a quaint ring set in diamonds and rubies. He slipped the ring promptly in his waistcoat pocket.

Then he studied the woman again. There were little round flat objects in her hair, one or two of them had lodged in her corsage; a closer examination disclosed the fact that they were confetti. There were other discs on the floor, some of them were by the door and others along the corridor. Burles traced them here and there to the boudoir; quite a little trail of them carried as far as the curtain behind which the secret entrance from next door lay.

Burles's eyes glistened. He felt that he was getting on now. The would-be murderer had vanished, leaving no sign of a trace behind. What if he had come from next door? Certainly the loose confetti, like a boys' paper-chase scent, pointed to the fact. Burles thought a moment, and then hastily scribbled something on a leaf from his pocket-book. This he despatched by a constable to Miss Lefroy, impressing upon the messenger that he was to deliver it into Ailsa's own hand and get an answer from her lips.

The detective laid his watch upon the table once his messenger had retired, and carefully ticked off five minutes. Then he closed the door of the boudoir and fastened it with a couple of wedges.

The constable had strict orders to stay outside and see that his chief was not disturbed. The sixth minute was nearly over before the curtains drew back and Ailsa stood disclosed.

"Is there anything very dreadful?" she asked. "They told me that it was murder that—— But perhaps I had better come no further into the room. If there is any risk——"

"There is no risk whatever," Burles hastened to say. "And as yet it is not possible to determine whether murder has been done or not. Only that I have made a discovery that I want to tell you about. I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance for but a little while, Miss Lefroy, and it is strange that you have become involved in the mystery in so short a time. I have an idea that the would-be assassin entered this house by that secret passage."

"But that is impossible!" Ailsa cried. "I was here nearly all night, I went to bed——"

"It might have been done before or after you went to bed," Burles interrupted. "The assassin might have come this way without you being any the wiser. He might have concealed himself in this house and returned by the way he had come."

"But when I came down this morning all the doors were fast."

"Yes, but the skylight way may not have been. I have been making a careful examination of the body of the unconscious victim, and I have made a startling discovery. May I come into your studio for a moment, or is it too risky?"

Ailsa hesitated a moment before she replied.

"I should say that it would be quite safe for the next half-hour," she said. "Old Susan is never down before eight, and her husband is away; she is the only servant in the house. I should like to see what you have to show me. Come this way, please."

Burles followed quietly. His face had grown grave, he held a little object in his hand.

"You told me a story last night, you also had a nocturnal visitor who gave the name of John Stern. You will recollect telling this to Miss Wanless and myself. You were surprised to discover that your visitor was wearing a unique ring of rubies and diamonds which you felt quite sure belonged to your guardian. But, strange to say, when your guardian turned up unexpectedly he was wearing the ring. For some reason or another your guardian chose to ignore the very questionable appearance of John Stern in the house, he even invited him into his study to discuss certain matters. After the discussion John Stern left the house, presumedly still wearing that strange ring. Is that so?"

"So far as I could say, yes," Ailsa replied; "but what has this to do with it?"

"A great deal, as I am going to show you. Now Lady Altamont says that the Lady who was so mysteriously done nearly to death in her house is a total stranger to her. She is prepared to swear that she has not the remotest idea who the stranger is. Personally, I have my doubts, but let it pass for the moment."

"What is she like?" Ailsa asked, with pardonable curiosity.

"Dark, and foreign-looking. Very prepossessing, and fairly young. They laid her on the bed just as they found her; her dress and hair apparently were very little disordered. As far as her coiffure was concerned, she might have come straight from her dressing-room. I first noticed little round coloured discs in that lovely hair and in her corsage. Then it seemed to me that the poor creature's dress partook of the nature of a costume more or less likely to be worn at a fancy-dress ball. The little coloured discs puzzled me for a moment, until I made them out at last. They were confetti."

Ailsa looked up in a puzzled kind of way, as if not quite understanding. Burles went on.

"It was confetti, beyond question," Burles said. "I noticed further traces of it along the corridor, and into the boudoir. Now that unhappy lady must either have been carried from the boudoir, though she was not found there, or she must have walked along the corridor, with the bits of confetti dropping off her dress. But then I made the discovery that the confetti led like a scent up to the curtain here, which induced me to believe that she came from your house, or, if she didn't, the assassin did. That is why I asked you to open the door for me. I have something else to tell you presently. As to the poor victim——"

"Foreign-looking did you say?" Ailsa exclaimed; "that reminds me. Have you forgotten that very striking shadow on the blind? The Southern-looking woman with the peculiar fan and the strange comb like the shape of a harp in her hair. Did she remind you——"

"Why, it's the same woman," Burles said in an excited whisper. "Would that I had your feminine mind for detail! The comb was still in her hair. And the woman who is lying at death's door so close to us was the lady of the fan. And, but for you, I should never have made this vital discovery."


X.—THE MESSAGE FROM HIGH STREET.

A pleased expression passed over Burles's face. Here was an important clue that he would never have discovered for himself. He had taken pretty good stock of the shadow on the blind the night before, but the peculiarity of the woman's comb had escaped him. But he was quite sure now that it was the same woman.

"You have been of the greatest possible service to me, Miss Lefroy," he said. "But for you I should most certainly have missed a most important piece of evidence. We shall have to consider the thing in a new light altogether. Lady Altamont says that the victim of the outrage is an utter stranger to her——"

"But surely you don't believe such a ridiculous thing as that?" Ailsa said.

"Not quite," Burles admitted. "But one can never quite tell. I find it best, as a rule, to believe people till I prove their statements to be false. But there are circumstances in this case that alter one's deductions. You see, I know what kind of character Lady Altamont bears. Still I should have found it very difficult to prove that her ladyship knew nothing of the stranger. Now I know better. That 'stranger' was in Lady Altamont's house early in the evening, she was seated in a room leading from Lady Altamont's boudoir and drinking champagne with some person unknown. Therefore, we must take it for granted that Lady Altamont knows who her visitor is. It is worth knowing this. Only I am going to keep this knowledge to myself."

"You were going to say something just now about a ring," Ailsa suggested.

"Oh, yes; I had quite forgotten that for a moment. Your clever discovery put the thing clean out of my head. The ring you saw on the hand of John Stern. It does not in the least matter who John Stern is for the moment. We can come to that later. You said that the ring was exactly similar to one worn by your guardian. Was it like this?"

Very quietly Burles produced a unique piece of jewelry from his pocket. He laid it on the table so that Ailsa could examine it carefully, which she did. He wanted to be quite sure that there was no mistake. In every respect it was identical with the one usually worn by Archibald Colville. It was all very puzzling.

"I regarded that ring as unique," Ailsa said; "indeed, my guardian has always told me so. More than once he has permitted me to examine it carefully. Anything that is artistic and beautiful always interests me. And the more I look at the ring the more I feel sure it is the same one—the engraving on the inside of the three coils is identical. And yet it can't be the same, for Mr. Colville never removes the ring."

"Unless it has recently been removed by force," Burles said significantly.

"No, I should say not. Less than an hour ago I had to take in a telegram to my guardian's room. He was in bed, and he asked me to read it to him. He spoke quite in his usual level, emotionless voice. If any violence had been offered him, he would never have been so quiet and self-contained. Unless something has happened within the last half-hour——"

"You can disabuse your mind of that," Burles hastened to say. "Emphatically, this is not the ring belonging to Mr. Archibald Colville. I took it from the hand of the woman who has been nearly murdered next door. It was tightly clasped in her palm, and only a minute flash of the diamonds showed. It seemed to me to be an important clue, so I removed it. Of course, I need not ask you to keep this a profound secret."

"Then there are two, if not three, of those rings," Ailsa exclaimed. "My guardian has one, the man called Stern has another, and here is the third. It is very amazing."

"Perhaps not quite so amazing as on the first blush it would seem," Burles replied. "There is no reason why there should not be two of these rings. Very few things are absolutely unique. But there is no occasion for there to be a third. My theory in that this ring is the one that you saw on the finger of the man called John Stern."

Ailsa started. Her mind had been framing something of the same kind.

"This is what I mean," said Burles, gravely regarding the ring on the table. "John Stern knew the secrets of this house. He was searching for the panel leading to next door. He did not find it, but he managed to get into the house all the same. My idea is that John Stern is the man that you saw in the boudoir after the lights were put out—the man who was locked in the inner room. His unfortunate victim was there already, they had a bottle of champagne together. There was a struggle or something of that kind, and that is why I found the ring in the woman's hand."

Ailsa did not care to contest this theory. It seemed quite logical.

"I can't make it all out," she said. "Can you explain to me how that room altered from a luxuriously-furnished apartment to a dingy receptacle for a woman's clothes? But perhaps you will say that I'm getting on too fast. Is that some of the confetti?"

Ailsa asked the question quite abruptly. Two or three of the tiny, gaudy little discs lay on the table by the side of the ring. Burles nodded as Ailsa picked them up in a fit of idle curiosity. There was not much chance of a clue being found here. All the same, Ailsa's face lightened.

"This is rather curious," she said. "The only time I have ever been abroad was at the Nice carnival one year. It was the spring that my father died. I was in the thick of that riot, indeed I have some confetti that I have preserved as a memento ever since. But that confetti was made of paper. This is not paper at all, but something much heavier. It looks to me as if it were rice or starch or something of that kind, coloured. Did you ever see anything quite like it before, Inspector Burles?"

Burles was fain to admit that he had not. It seemed to him that Ailsa had missed her vocation and that she should have been a detective. The more he came to examine the confetti the more sure he was that it was not of the ordinary variety.

"There is some suggestion of the theatre about it," he said. "The stuff is heavy, and inclined to stick. Made for some special purpose, I should say. We will imagine the comic man in some musical comedy, if you like, emerging from a wedding or something of that kind covered with this stuff. That is what is called 'business,' I believe. We are getting on, Miss Lefroy. Thanks more to your acumen than mine."

"We had better gather all this stuff we can find," Ailsa suggested. "Oh, there is another point which I had almost forgotten. You will, of course, remember that wonderful fan. When my curiosity led me back into the boudoir once more I found there. It was lying on the table, and I held it to the light to make sure. Now, the fan was so valuable that the woman was not in the least likely to leave it about. And we know that the door leading into the inner room where the woman was locked. How did the fan come to be transferred from one room to another? Was that done before the crime took place or after? You may possibly think that this has an important bearing on the case. This is for you to decide. But it is pretty certain that somebody knew of that woman's presence—somebody who had the keys of both doors, or the fan would have been found by the side of the injured woman. Let us collect all the stray confetti."

Burles agreed. He had already formed a plan for discovering where that particular make of confetti came from. In the excitement of the moment the ring lay neglected on the table. It did not take long to gather up the scraps of tell-tale confetti, and once more Ailsa and her visitor were in the studio again. There were signs about the house as if somebody was moving, a fact that Ailsa pointed out to Burles.

"I shall have to leave you," he said. "I do not desire that your old servant should find me here. Strange that that aged servitor should know of that secret door! If you will give me the ring——"

"I haven't the ring," Ailsa replied. "It was placed on the table there by those pieces of confetti. You will recollect that I laid it down."

Burles did recollect it; he also remembered vividly that he had had left it on the table. But there was no sign of it now. Vainly the inspector searched his pockets, in vain Ailsa did the same. But both were quite sure that it had been left on the table in the excitement of the moment. In the circumstances there was only one thing possible—somebody had stolen in during their absence and purloined the ring. It seemed incredible, but there it was.

"This is disturbing," Ailsa said. "There is nobody in the house besides my guardian and old Susan. And they could not have been here at all. To make sure, I will go and see."

Ailsa sped from the room, only to return with the information a minute later that Mr. Colville was still in bed and that old Susan had not left her room as yet. All the same, the ring was gone, and it could only have vanished by human agency. It was rather disturbing to think that perhaps the whole of that private conversation had been overheard.

"This is maddening," Burles said, with a quick indrawing of his breath, "Really, a most disturbing element in the case. I must go now; indeed, I have stayed here far too long already. Miss Lefroy, I will ask you to watch carefully. Pretend that you are not more than usually interested in what is going on, but keep your eyes open. I will see that you get an appointment to meet Miss Wanless this afternoon. And I will not fail to let you know when I desire to see you again. Will you close that door behind me?"

Burles vanished into the boudoir, and Ailsa carefully closed the panel behind him. She was anxious and disturbed now that she was once more alone; the loss of that ring was an event that frightened her. It was so mysterious and audacious.

There was nobody in the house, so far as Ailsa could discover. She heard old Susan come down presently, muttering and talking to herself. The woman had not recovered yet, evidently. As she came down the stairs she walked in a confused way into the studio. Ailsa, coming from one of the corridors, saw this move and wondered. She crept in just in time to see Susan pick up a packet from the floor and place it on the table. It was an envelope with a seal in red upon it; something seemed to stand out inside the cover.

"Where did you get this thing from? And why do you put it here?" Ailsa demanded.

There was a cunning flash in Susan's eyes, then her face grew wooden and expressionless once more.

"Ask no questions and you'll be told no lies," she said. "Leastwise, I don't quite mean that. Only keep your mouth shut or he'll kill me. Don't let him know that I have had anything to do with it. I picked the parcel up on the landing. I saw it was addressed to you, and so I brought it in here. But don't let him know or he'll kill me."

The woman was evidently under the spell of a great fear. Without another word she shuffled away down the stairs. With a feeling of curiosity Ailsa tore open the envelope. The writing was for her, but she had never seen it before. It ran:


"If you care for the memory of Ronald Braybrooke, if you would save him and those he loves from lasting disgrace, I pray you call at the above address and ask for John Stern without delay. Heaven will bless your kindness. And as evidence that I am in deadly earnest I ask you to look at the enclosed."

Ailsa started. The address was 16, High-street, Chelsea—the address of the mysterious letter in the boudoir of the equally mysterious telegram. And from inside the envelope, to Ailsa's utter astonishment, there dropped—the missing ring!


XI.—AILSA'S QUEST.

Ailsa had no impulse to destroy this strange note and pitch it into the fire with the contempt that it deserved. On the contrary, if she had any inclination at all, it was to go. The emotion was quite illogical, as Ailsa very well knew, but there it was. And the request was made by a man who had given every indication of a scoundrel.

But was he a scoundrel? Common-sense said yes, but that strange instinct which is one of woman's greatest gifts said no. Ailsa had met John Stern under very suspicious circumstances, he had forced his way into the dreary old house like a thief in the night. And yet there was something about the man that rang true. It had occurred to Ailsa that he was suffering for the faults and vices of somebody else.

But perhaps the whole thing was a hoax. The ring might be a copy procured for some dark purpose, perhaps it was a sham. But it was no sham, as Ailsa quickly determined. She had a fine eye for things of this kind, and certainly the ring was no forgery. Equally sure it was the ring so lately in Inspector Burles' possession, and which he had taken from the clenched hand of the unfortunate woman next door.

Ailsa was sure of it, she had examined the ring very carefully when Burles had handed it to her. There was a queer V-shaped scratch on the inside that had not escaped her attention. It was the same ring, without a doubt. And if so, how had the thing been managed? It had only been missed for a few minutes, and here it was picked up in an envelope, with a note, and the envelope had been elaborately sealed with red wax. Old Susan had pretended to find the packet on the floor, but doubtless she had acted as messenger in the matter. So far as this was concerned, Ailsa meant to find out for herself. She would obey the letter, for the sender had trusted in her. If he had not been in deadly earnest he would not have enclosed the ring. It was a desperate venture, and Alisa's heart beat a little faster as she thought of it, but she would go.

But not without a bold attempt to get some light on the mystery. Thomas was away, and his wife perhaps would speak more freely in his absence. No sooner was the dreary breakfast over than Ailsa took her way to the kitchen. Archibald Colville had not spoken at all during his meal: he seemed to be entirely engrossed in it; he answered a question or two in an absent way. Clearly he had a very faint idea of what was taking place in the home.

It was dim and dusty and depressed in the kitchen, as usual; a solitary jet of gas made a ring of light in the desolation. Old Susan's head was still tied up, though Mr. Colville did not appear to have noticed it at breakfast time. She was crooning some silly song as Ailsa entered. There was just the suspicion of a frown in her sidelong glance.

"I want to speak to you," Ailsa said firmly. "I have a question or two to ask you. Who is John Stern, and what is he doing in this house?"

The old woman looked blankly at her fair young questioner. All the same her hands were trembling, as if with some sudden fear, as Ailsa did not fail to notice. She followed up the question by asking it still more firmly than before.

"Nobody cares for me and I care for nobody," Susan droned. "Take a child and bring it up in the path——"

Ailsa grasped the speaker by the shoulders and shook her vigorously. The result was astonishing. Old Susan collapsed into a chair and began to cry feebly in a wailing kind of way.

"There you go," she said. "I know I'm stupid; but I should not be half so stupid if you did not knock me about so. Some day I'll put a knife into your ribs, Thomas, and then there will be an end of it, Thomas. Bless and preserve me, what am I talking about? What do you want, miss?"

The old woman seemed to have come back to her senses suddenly once more. Ailsa had no intention of relinquishing the advantage she had gained.

"I asked you a plain question, and I mean to have an answer," she said. "Who is John Stern, and what does he want here? What has become of him?"

Susan repeated all these questions as if she were trying to grasp their meaning. As a matter of fact she was gaining time, and the fact was not lost on Ailsa.

"John Stern," she repeated impatiently. "The man who was here last night, looking for something behind one of the panels in my studio. John Stern, with the marks of an accident on his face. John Stern, who came here a little while ago and gave you that package for me—the package that you pretended to pick up on the studio floor."

The old woman was listening now with a vague terror in her eyes. Her lips had grown white and ashy of hue. Still, she shook her head obstinately.

"Very well," Ailsa said, as if she had finished the conversation. "Then I shall have to put the same questions to my guardian. Probably he will answer me more truthfully."

A queer, gasping cry broke from old Susan's lips. She clutched at Ailsa's skirts.

"Don't you do it, miss," she whispered hoarsely. "It is more than my life is worth to speak. I dare not. If you only knew what a life I lead between those two! There's danger for me, and there's danger for you, if you go too far and ask too many questions. So long as you stick to your painting and your brushes, and don't want to know too much, you are safe. But you never saw him yet when he was put to it; and I hope you never will. There are things here that frighten me. I wake up of nights in a muck of sweat. If you must, you must, for youth will be served, and I dreamt last night as you came like an agent from heaven to put things straight. But don't you say nothing to him about John Stern. I had a girl like you once and I like you and your pretty ways. But I dare not show it for the life of me. I'm that frightened of Thomas. You're going to do things—I can see it in your face. But don't say a word to him, if you value your safety."

The words came with a torrential rush, a hoarse whisper, with one eye on the door. In spite of her suspicions, Ailsa was impressed.

There was no trace of madness about the woman now; she was obviously truthful and sincere. Ailsa pushed her advantage.

"I don't want to do you any injury," she said. "But John Stern was here to-night, for I saw him. And he has been here again to-day, or I should never have received the packet that you pretended to pick up on the floor of my studio. Did John Stern give you that packet?"

"I dare not say," the woman replied. "I am afraid to. And I am on your side, too, if you only knew it. Just do as you are told and ask no questions. Whatever John Stern is, he is worth a thousand of your Archibald Colvilles, so there!"

There was not much more to be done here, Ailsa thought. The woman was on her side, and would have helped her if she only dared; but she was obviously under the influence of some great terror. She was materially afraid of both her husband and Archibald Colville. And yet between the lines she had spoken quite favourably of the John Stern who had come like a thief in the night, and who had vanished as mysteriously as he had arrived. Ailsa was still more determined to obey the summons of the letter. It never occurred to her that she was outraging the proprieties by calling on this man; she only thought of the allusion to Ronald Braybrooke, the only man she had ever cared for.

"Very well," she said, "I will not ask you anything further. Some day you may help me."

Susan's eyes flashed strangely. Ailsa could see the dull colour mounting to her face.

"Aye, I may," she said. "The mouse and the lion and the net! You know the fable. And maybe some day I may be able to speak without the fear of death before my eyes! Let old Thomas and old Archibald Colville look to themselves then. But there! what is the use of my talking? I am a feeble old woman, frightened of my shadow, and fainting at a thunder-clap. Don't you come down here again, miss. It may be dangerous."

Ailsa crept upstairs feeling that her time had not been altogether wasted. Hitherto she had regarded No. 13 as being no more than a desolate old house, attuned to the humour of a lonely old man given over to books and researches of a scientific nature. But Susan had more than hinted at some tangible danger, and the peril of a curiosity carried too far. The more Ailsa thought over these things the more determined she was to see John Stern. And he had been a friend of Ronald's. Therefore he could not be altogether a bad man.

Archibald Colville had gone out leaving a note for Ailsa on his study table, saying that he had been called to Greenwich for the day, and should not be back before dinner time. This was quite in accord with the usual routine of things, but to-day the message filled Ailsa with satisfaction. She would be there to hear if anything more came from Inspector Burles, and if not she had made up her mind to call upon John Stern before luncheon.

Half an hour later came a message from Burles by a special messenger. The letter was to be delivered into Alisa's own hands the boy said. So far it was tolerably satisfactory. The lady next door was not dead; the doctor expressed no opinion one way or another; anyway, a few days must elapse before the crisis came, so that Burles was free to pursue his investigations as to the woman's antecedents. He hoped to do something with that special make of confetti; and, busy as he was, he had found time to see Miss Wanless, who hoped to meet Miss Lefroy in the square garden at three o'clock that same afternoon. A word in the affirmative would be sufficient.

Ailsa gave the desired assurance, and dismissed the messenger. It was not difficult to locate the address, 16, High-street, Chelsea, in the "Kelly" on the library table, but Ailsa was by no means pleased to find the locality anything but a desirable one. Still, a burning curiosity overcame all other feelings, and Ailsa crushed down her fears. She left the house presently very plainly dressed, as if going for a walk, but in the square gardens she donned a thick veil, and thus disguised, took her way in the direction of Chelsea. Her courage came back to her as she walked along the mean streets, hoping that she looked like a lady clerk or something of that kind. She asked her way once or twice; the policemen were curt and uncourteous. It was all as Ailsa had anticipated, and her spirits rose accordingly. She came at length to her destination, a small, mean street with little shops at the one end and huge tenement houses at the other. She stopped presently before one with a huge 16 painted on the fanlight. A great number of dirty children were playing in the gutter, the atmosphere was close and unpleasant. A one-eyed man sat in a kind of rabbit hutch, and Ailsa rightly guessed that here was the familiar janitor of the house. A timid request to know if Mr. John Stern lived there was replied to with a growl and much thumbing of a dirty pocket-book.

"Right you are, young woman," the one-eyed man said, jocularly. "They comes and they goes so often as I finds it hard to keep tally with 'em. Party by the name of John Stern came here last Friday, and pays for two rooms, week in advance. Third floor, and turn to the right, and the door is at the end the corridor."

"I suppose the gentleman is in?" Ailsa asked, timidly.

"You can suppose anything you like," the one-eyed man said, graciously. "It is no business of mine. He may be in or he may not, he may be alive, and he may be dead. All I know is that he's paid his rent for the week, and that's what my bosses think of most. Go and knock at the door, and see for yourself. If he ain't in you can leave your card in the vestibule."

Ailsa passed up the many stone stairs until she came to her destination. She knocked timidly twice before any reply came, and then the door was opened by the man she sought. Her face was in deep shadow; he gave a little grunt of surprise and pleasure.

"Heaven bless you for this," he said, hurriedly. "Will you be so good as to come in."


XII.—IN CONFIDENCE.

Ailsa's cheeks flamed as she followed Stern into the room beyond. She had half-expected to find something in the way of comfort, if not luxury; but nothing of the kind presented itself to view. There was a shabby linoleum on the floor, a couple of chairs, looking very much the worse for wear, a table, and a cheap clock over the shelf. In a corner cupboard, Ailsa felt quite sure, John Stern kept his cooking utensils.

The room was very dark, being faintly illumined by a small window, so high up that it was impossible to see out of it, so there was no opportunity for a close examination of John Stern's features. In any case the green shade that he wore over his eyes would have precluded anything of the kind. He brought one chair forward.

"This is very good of you," he said, in his hard, terse tones. All through the interview he seemed to be fighting down some terribly strong emotion. "I cannot find words to express my sense of your generosity. You must be a very good woman."

"Or a very curious one," Ailsa said, unsteadily. "Mr. Stern, I should not have come here at all. It was very wrong of me. Even if I had known you well——"

"Instead of seeing me for the first time yesterday. Did ever a meeting take place under more tragic circumstances? You may laugh at me when I say that it was all preordained. It was a direct intervention of Providence. That is why I took my courage in my hands and asked you to come here."

"But I did not come here for your sake," Ailsa said, firmly. "Let me be quite candid. I am only a girl, who has seen little or nothing the world, and I have merely my own instincts to guide me. Do you suppose that if I had a mother I should have been here to-day? No, you are not to interrupt me, please; let me finish first. I met you last night under extraordinary circumstances. You came as a thief in the night bringing me strange tidings. You spoke of a man I once cared for——"

"Once cared for! I did not gather that the feeling of affection had been killed."

"Well, say that I still care for," Ailsa went on. "How singular that I should be talking to a perfect stranger in this familiar way. Ronald Braybrooke was my friend. As a girl I loved him, though I did not know what that feeling meant till lately. And you came to me and told me that he was dead. Well, I shall get over it in time."

John Stern turned his head away as if in respect for the girl's sorrow. It was a delicate, tactful thing to do, and Ailsa silently thanked him for it.

"Really it was to hear more of Ronald Braybrooke that I came here," she went on. "I want to know how he died, I want to know how he lived."

"Better not," Stern said, hoarsely. "How he died I have already told you. But as to how he lived, eh, that was a very different matter. I knew that man; I was his intimate friend. I knew him when he had pride of place and honourable ambition. I watched his ambitions spoilt and ruined, I saw him fall away from good things to bad. Perhaps there was a weak spot somewhere, perhaps he drifted into the wrong set. Dear lady, it is such an old, bitter story. Mind you, I am not defending Ronald Braybrooke. Lack of money is no bar to success if a man has the right stuff in him, and Ronald went over the brink with his eyes open. He did everything that was bad and wrong—if he had not forgotten you as he did. But you are far better without him: you would have had to turn your back on him in any case."

Ailsa's eyes flamed. This was not the love that she had fostered. There was no cold and worldly reason about her. She half-rose from her chair.

"That I would not," she said. "I waited for him, perhaps without knowing it, but all the same I waited for him. No word of love had ever passed between us, for I always felt that he knew. And if I had known I would have gone to him in spite of everything. I would even have waited for him outside a gaol. However low he had fallen I would gladly have shared his lot. I would have won him back to good things again, and Heaven would have helped me. Oh, the inherent goodness and nobleness that lay in that man!"

Ailsa's words seemed to carry her listener away. He seemed on the verge of some surprising confidence, then changed his mind, and wandered agitatedly up and down the room.

"If Ronald Braybrooke were here now would you say that?" he asked.

Ailsa's deep blue eyes answered for her. She had not the slightest doubt that she would.

"My presence here speaks for that," she said. "And yet I came because I trusted you; my instinct tells me that you are not wholly a bad man."

"You would not think so, if you only knew how far I have fallen," Stern murmured.

"What of that? On our dead selves we may climb to higher things! I feel sure that you are of that class of man. If any good woman had ever cared for you perhaps——"

"But one does," Stern cried eagerly. "You bring her vividly back to my mind. For her sake I am going to climb over my dead self to better things. But she is not going to know; I shall never tell her till I feel that I can take her in my arms and not sully the purity of her life. Already for her sake I have made the first tremendous sacrifice. I am ambitious, but bitterly poor. That poverty I can put aside by the saying of a single word. But that would spoil the sacrifice and ruin the career I have planned out for myself. I shall not touch that money. But I am not quite safe, and here it is that you can help me. I suppose you know that I was looking for something at No. 13 last night?"

"So I guessed," Ailsa replied. "I judged this to be valuables of some kind. I am afraid that you rather suggested a thief in the night when——"

"I hope you will believe me when I say I was nothing of the kind," Stern murmured.

"I do believe you. Worldly people would laugh that belief to scorn, but there it is. You were looking for something that concerned yourself. I do not went to pry into your secrets——"

"They are not entirely my secrets, Miss Lefroy. They belonged to another. I was there for the good name and honour of Ronald Braybrooke."

"I am afraid that I do not quite understand," Ailsa said, simply.

"And I am afraid that I cannot tell you—everything," Stern resumed. "Did you ever regard Archibald Colville in the light of a possible enemy?"

"No. Reserved and taciturn—mysterious, if you like; but, I take it, a gentleman."

"A gentleman we will allow, save on one point. In one or two ways, Colville is not sane. From the bottom of his heart he hated Ronald Braybrooke. It is the bitter result of a disappointed love affair. But that man hated Ronald with a hatred that verged on madness. He did much to spoil his career. If Ronald had not died, Colville would have had the grim satisfaction of seeing him in gaol. That pretty scheme is impossible now. Mind you, it was Ronald's own fault; the proofs of his folly still exist, and they are hidden somewhere in that old house, for use, if necessary. The old house is familiar to me, and I made up my mind to obtain those proofs and destroy them. I have a deeper scheme in my mind, but let it pass for the present. The great thing just now is to gain possession of those proofs. They are somewhere in your studio—only four innocent-looking cheques purporting to bear Archibald Colville's signature. I would give five years of my life for them."

"Forgeries!" Ailsa said, in a shocked tone. "Do you mean to say that Ronald——"

"Indeed, I do, Miss Lefroy. I told you that he had fallen very low indeed. And that is the rod that Colville had for the back of the young man whom he so hated. Would you have taken Ronald to your heart after that disclosure?"

"Yes, I would," Ailsa said, simply. "If I once love, I love always."

"Heaven bless you for those words," Stern said, in a tone of great agitation. "After that I am sure that you will help me. Try and find those papers if you can. They are somewhere near the secret door leading to No. 14."

"Oh, then you know all about that," Ailsa cried. "And Lady Altamont——"

"Lady Altamont is a vile woman," Stern said, quietly. "I told you just now that I knew the old house well. Later on, we will bring Lady Altamont to her account and expose one of the most dangerous adventurers in society. With my knowledge of the old house——"

"But with so intricate a knowledge of the old house, why don't you do this for yourself?" Ailsa asked, naturally. "You seem to come and go as you like. You were there this morning, or there would not have been that strange mystery over the ring. That being so——"

"Yes, yes," Stern said, impatiently. "But for the present I cannot, dare not, move from here. There are reasons that keep me rooted to the spot. I must not leave here for an hour."

"But I am quite sure that Mr. Colville knows where you are," Ailsa said.

"Mr. Colville knows where I am! Impossible! My dear young lady, if that is so——"

"But I assure you that it is so," Ailsa cried. "A telegram came early this morning for my guardian. I took it up to him in his room. He asked me to read it. The telegram contained only three words, but those three words were—16, High-street!"

Stern moved up and down the room as if terribly agitated. It was some time before be spoke again. Evidently something had gone woefully astray with his plans.

"I did not expect this," he said. "It was the very last thing that I desired. I may ask you to do something for me presently, something that will be more for Ronald Braybrooke's sake than for mine. Do you know the secret passage?"

"Oh, yes," Ailsa cried eagerly. "I found it out from old Susan. She did not mean to tell me, but that does not matter. Quite by accident I found my way into Lady Altamont's boudoir last night. Which reminds me. She was writing a letter. I could not find the letter, but I read the partially addressed envelope, the ink of which was wet. It was addressed to Ronald Braybrooke, Esq., 16, High-street; and that was all. There was some mysterious man there who seemed to be up to no good. Then the lights went out, and I heard no more—at least, I heard no more that concerns you in any way." Ailsa concluded, mindful of her secret. "Yes, that is all."

Stern looked up quickly, then his eyes fell again.

"You have been brought into a tangle, and you cannot get out again," he said. "Is there anything now that you want me to tell you?"

"Only one thing," Ailsa said. "It is the mystery of that ring. I placed it on the table in my studio; when I came back it was gone. Then the ring reappeared in a sealed envelope with your letter. And yet I am certain that it was the same ring that Inspector Burles took from the hands of the unfortunate woman who was nearly murdered at No. 14."

A hoarse cry broke from Stern. Ailsa could see that he was white to the lips.

"What sort of woman?" he inquired. "Never mind the other details. A foreign lady——"

"A foreigner, yes. With a curious comb shaped like a harp, and a fan with angels holding up some twisted initials. In her hand was found the ring which was lost in my studio and returned to me by you as an evidence of good faith. That same ring Inspector Burles took from the fingers of the foreign lady. Are you ill?"

For Stern had fallen forward on the table with his head buried on his arm.

"O Heavens!" he moaned. "It's true, then. How my own sins have found me out!"


XIII.—"LA BELLE ATALANTA."

Inspector John Burles had lunched comfortably in his own rooms, where he was enjoying a cigarette before commencing the work of the afternoon. He had a case after his own heart; the thing was working out very well, and on the whole Burles was satisfied with himself. His methods were not quite those of the ordinary detective, which perhaps accounted for the success that usually attended his efforts. It was no bad thing to be a gentleman and a man of education, and Burles was a specialist in crime.

But up to now he had had few cases so much after his own heart as the mystery at No. 14, Vernon-terrace. The thing was so complicated and so apparently inexplicable that Burles was fairly revelling in it.

And Ailsa had been wonderfully useful. It was she who pointed out the unusual nature of the confetti found at No. 14; it was she who had recollected the peculiar comb worn by the victim of the outrage. The more Burles thought the matter over the more convinced was he that the injured woman had something to do with the stage. If so, she would be missed, and a description of her published in the papers. Anything connected with an actress, be she ever so small, was always welcomed by a certain section of the Press. But Burles was not disposed to wait for this: he did not want a fuss over the matter. If his suspicions were correct, he had his own way of keeping the Press quiet. He finished his cigarette and then went off in the direction of Covent-garden. It was here that most of the big theatrical supply stores did their business.

Of course they all supplied confetti, but it was of the average class. Burles hunted the whole place in vain. At Mason's, for instance, where everything could be obtained, from a stick of grease paint to a complete travelling scene dock, the manager shook his head.

"But haven't you ever seen anything of the kind?" Burles asked. "I'm not seeking information out of idle curiosity. I'm a police officer from Scotland Yard, and this matter is important. If I can find out where that confetti came from it may be the means of unravelling one of the most startling of recent crimes. Of course you are at the top of the profession and all that kind of thing, but I suppose you don't disdain to call in the services of clever outsiders sometimes. New ideas, for instance, such as a novel way of lighting up a fairy wand, or something of that kind. Come!"

The manager admitted the soft impeachment. Of course they were always prepared to purchase new ideas from clever journeymen, who were mostly foreigners. Sometimes a manager came along, especially at Christmas times, and asked for something fresh.

"That's it," Burles said eagerly. "That's what I'm after. Give me the name of some of these people, and I'll ferret them out for myself."

The manager jotted down a few addresses on a slip of paper, and Burles departed. It was nearly tea-time before he began to feel that he was hot upon the track. One Nona Gui, an Italian, who lived in a garret off Drury-lane, was accounted one of the most ingenious workers in the profession. But he was generally drunk, so Burles gathered; but as it was near the end of the week and money comparatively scarce, it was possible that he might be sober.

The little Italian was sober but morose. He had a bad headache, also, having nothing to pawn and no tobacco, he did not display the usual politeness of his nation. Burles lighted a cigarette and filled the room with its fragrance. He passed his case over to Gui, and asked him to take a few. The Italian's dark eyes lit up gratefully.

"I want to put you in the way of earning a sovereign, if possible," the detective pushed his advantage. "I want to know if you recognise this. It is a superior kind of confetti. Never mind whether it is your make or not; so long as you can find out where it comes from the sovereign is yours. Aren't those boxes of confetti on the window-ledge?"

Nona Gui laughed softly. The tobacco had soothed him, the prospect of the sovereign conjured up visions of unlimited Chianti. He reached to the window-ledge and pulled the lid from a little cardboard box and scattered some bright coloured discs on the table.

"Anything like that, signor?" he asked. "Yes, it is a little idea of my own. But for the wine and the gay company I would have been a great chemist. As it is, I keep myself to the little things that please the little minds. They pay, you understand?"

Burles eagerly compared the brilliant discs with his own. They were precisely the same. He laid his own few scraps of confetti on the table.

"Do these happen to be your manufacture?" he asked.

"Assuredly, signor," the Italian responded. "Mix them up with those on the table, and you will not know the difference. They are thick, and what you call greasy. They were made for a countrywoman of mine, a lady on the stage. She came to me, and wanted a new idea, a fresh effect. It is worth ten pounds to me if I get it. And I laugh to myself, for it is so easy. Something of the toyshop about it, something that will be sentimental at the same time. And I invent that special confetti."

"You have only disposed of it to one lady?" Burles asked.

"One, most assuredly, signor. It is only since Wednesday that the thing is complete. It is so good that the lady would not give it away. She had but one engagement in a small hall south of the Thames, but before long she will be the rage all over London. She is beautiful and a lovely dancer, I do not deny, but she owes much to me."

"How did you happen to come in contact with her?" Burles asked.

"A countryman of mine, he sent her to me. And she went away delighted with the beautiful confetti. But you do not quite see the beauty of it. Look here!"

Gui took up a piece of asbestos cloth and affixed some scores of confetti to it by means of pressure. Then he proceeded to rub the little discs hard, and almost immediately the whole design spurted out in a brilliant sheet of many-coloured flames. It was so startling and so beautiful that Burles exclaimed in admiration.

"That is very fine," he said. "I think I see what you mean. The lady is covered in confetti, and at the proper moment she is enveloped in those flames. Rather dangerous is it not?"

"Not in the least, signor. Not more dangerous than the man who walks the tightrope enveloped in fireworks. The dancer's dress is fireproof, and there is very little heat from my confetti. This is a scene, an Italian wedding, when the bride in her full wedding robes dances for the pleasure of her husband. The onlookers shower confetti over her, confetti of the usual type, mine being already affixed to her clothes. Then friction is applied, and the bride bursts into those sheets of flames, finishing off with a mad dance. Then she rushes from the stage before the flame dies away. I tell you it is great."

Burles could quite understand that it was. If the woman was pretty and a really good dancer, she would have all London at her feet before long. The detective felt pretty sure that he was on the right tact by this time.

"Well, you have earned your ten pounds, which you no doubt have drawn in spirit," he said. "And, what is more to the point, you have earned the sovereign that I promised you. Tell me where the lady is to be found, and you shall have it."

Nona Gui held out his hand and grinned. The information was at the disposal of the signor. The lady in question was called La Belle Atalanta, and she was to be found for the present at the South-Eastern Palais Royal, proprietor Samuel Cohen.

With a pleased sense of an hour or two well spent, Burles hurried off to the Palais Royal. A matinee performance was just over, for crowds of people were coming out. The face of the proprietor did not altogether indicate that he was satisfied with things. He was so short and curt with Burles that the latter was compelled to disclose his social status. The shabby figure in the resplendent fur coat apologised suitably. He had every reason to be annoyed, he said. Confound those women! For instance, there was his great new draw—La Belle Atalanta. True, she was not under contract, because Mr. Cohen had not deemed it necessary so long as La Belle Atalanta was to get two pounds for each performance, matinees extra. And to-day the ungrateful hussy had not turned up. Doubtless she had been lured away by some other manager. Burles felt that he was getting hot on the scent.

"Have you sent round to her rooms?" he asked. "Perhaps she has been taken ill?"

"Not she," Cohen growled. "Of course I sent round to her rooms in the Waterloo-road, and they said that she had not been home all night. Oh, it's just my luck; some other manager has nabbed her. Engaged her for the West-end at a big salary. That's the way they get spoilt. What a fool I was not to have a proper contract!"

Burles expressed a proper commiseration with the unlucky Cohen.

He knew that he was on the right trail this time. Very cleverly he fished out the address of La Belle Atalanta from Cohen, and walked off thoughtfully in the direction of Waterloo Bridge. A little while longer, and he would be able to definitely say who was the unhappy woman now lying at No. 14, Vernon-terrace. A dingy-looking maid-of-all-work presented herself at the door of 746, Waterloo Bridge-road, and demanded to know what Burles required. Then a plump female, in a faded a silk dress, appeared, and Burles followed her into a stuffy parlour. His manner was serene now.

"I have come about a lodger of yours," he said. "A lady called La Belle Atalanta. Here is my card, I want to look over the lady's sitting-room."

The detective's card had the desired effect. The woman in the silk dress hoped that there was nothing wrong. The lodger had not been home all night, but the landlady had not worried much on that score. Such goings on were not infrequent amongst her lodgers. If there was any robbery or that kind of thing——.

"Nothing of the sort," Burles said promptly, "I am acting in the interests of your lodger. Will you be so good as to come into the sitting-room with me? Lead the way, please."


XIV.—A LETTER OF IMPORTANCE.

The sitting-room was typical of its kind. On the mantelpiece was a box of the peculiar confetti, flanked by a photograph of a pretty dark woman with a peculiar comb in her hair. Burles gave a searching glance at the picture. He suggested carelessly that it was very like La Belle Atalanta, to which the landlady replied that it was. Burles smiled at the success of his question. A heap of unopened letters were stuck in the flyblown overmantel, and these Burles proceeded to read. One of them especially took his attention. It was headed 14, Vernon-terrace, and was dated two days before. It was short and to the point.


"Dearest Belle," it ran,

"Don't forget my fancy masked dance on Friday night. Come in your full warpaint. Perhaps you can look in to-morrow night and talk it over. But you must come to the dance.

Yours ever,

"VIOLET ALTAMONT."

"By Jove," Burles said, sotto voce. "Here is the whole thing in a nutshell. And this is Friday, the night of Lady Altamont's fancy dance. Masked dance! This is a direct intervention on the part of a discerning Providence. By Jove, I'll go!"

* * * * * * *

Ailsa was looking forward now to her meeting with Grace Wanless. Unless she heard anything to the contrary, she was to repair to the square-gardens, at three o'clock, where it had been arranged that Grace could await her. Archibald Colville had gone off saying that he should not return all day, and Susan had fallen back on her old surly silence again. She refused to say anything further, either as to her accident or the events of the previous evening. She served Ailsa's lunch with not so much as a word said on either side. And yet the woman was frightened about something—Ailsa did not need to be told as much.

The dingy, dusty old house seemed to have lapsed into its usual silence again. Ailsa could not hear a sound as she sat painting in her studio. She would go out presently and keep her appointment without saying anything to Susan. In a way, she felt that the old woman was on her side; but she was going to give Susan no confidence.

The clocks were striking three as Ailsa passed into the square-gardens. She had not long to wait on her secluded seat, for presently Grace Wanless joined her. The latter looked pale and worried; she gasped as if she had been walking very fast.

"I have not much time to spare," she said. "It is imperative just now that I should keep an eye on my brother. And I fancy that I have made a discovery. I shall know more about it before I sleep to-night. As I have thought all along, the key to the mystery lies at No. 14, Vernon-terrace. We go there to-night."

"Surely not," Ailsa exclaimed. "You have forgotten that poor woman. Lady Altamont could not entertain with the shadow of a death over her house. You have forgotten that."

"I have forgotten nothing," Grace said, with some contempt. "You don't suppose that a little thing like that would make any difference to Lady Altamont. She was lunching with us to-day, and I mentioned the sufferer in question. My dear friend, it might have been no more than a sprained ankle. Lady Altamont brushed it aside, saying that the mysterious intruder had been removed to an upper room where she could not be disturbed by the noise of the dancers. She still professes not to know who her involuntary guest is."

"Which is false!" Ailsa cried. "We know it to be false."

"Of course we do. But it suits me at present not to ask any pertinent questions. I am going to keep my eyes open—things are going to happen to-night. Ailsa, I am going to ask you a favour. You don't mind me calling you Ailsa? I have very few girl friends, and I feel that you are going to be loyal and true to me. I have taken a desperate resolution, which I shall try and carry into effect to-night. It may be imperative that I shall want some means of escape. There is no better way than——"

"Than the secret door leading from my studio into Lady Altamont's boudoir," Ailsa cried. "You can have no safer means than that."

"Precisely what I was going to suggest," Grace said, gratefully. "Only that means a great deal of trouble to you. You would have to sit there all the evening waiting for the signal, and even then it may not come at all. I don't like to ask so much."

"But you are really asking very little," Ailsa urged. "As a matter of fact, I live in my studio. I love the place, and I have nowhere to go. I go there directly after my dinner, and stay there till bedtime. And I am not very early to bed, either. From nine o'clock till midnight I am always in my studio. You are asking me really nothing. If you like, I will leave the catch unfastened so that you can come in at any time."

Grace thanked her new friend effusively. It was a bit of a risk; but, as Ailsa pointed out, she was pretty sure to be in the studio in any case. And she was as deeply in the affair as Grace. There was some great wrong being done at both those houses, and it was just possible that these two girls could right that wrong. Archibald Colville was mixed up in it in some strange way, too. Ailsa needed no spur to push her on.

"Then that is settled," she said, firmly. "You can rely upon me implicitly for everything. And you have my best prayers for your success. I hope that you will regain possession of your mother's jewels, and that you will free your brother from the toils."

"I shall never do that so long as he stands accused of the murder of Ronald Braybrooke," said Grace, mournfully. "You have forgotten that."

Ailsa admitted that she had. But even here the situation was not quite so hopeless as it looked. John Stern might be in a position to clear up that mystery. Ailsa pondered over the matter thoughtfully as she made her way home. On the tea-table was a note for her from Archibald Colville, saying that he would not be home for dinner, and that if he had not returned by nine o'clock he should not come back before morning. Many of these notes Ailsa had read in a listless, indifferent way; but this one had a new force and significance of its own. What mischief was Archibald Colville up to now? the girl wondered. And were his energies directed towards John Stern, whose address had come to him by telegram that morning? Still, there was consolation in the fact that Archibald Colville was out of the way for the evening. Old Susan came in presently with a bedroom candlestick in her shaky, knotted hand.

"The master is not coming back to-night," she said. "Nor Thomas either. What's become of Thomas I don't know, and I might say as I don't care. Still, as there's nothing to do, I'm going to bed. Good-night, Ailsa, and Heaven bless you!"


XV.—A SUDDEN FEAR.

The latter words of old Susan's were spoken with softness and feeling, so that Ailsa was astonished. Before she could say anything suitable in reply the old woman was gone. Ailsa heard her door close presently, and a dead, heavy silence hung over the house. With a sense of the necessity for all due precaution Ailsa went to the front door, and bolted and locked it. Usually the front door was left on the latch, for the master of the house had been known to come home unexpectedly and late after he had written not to expect him. It was just as well not to neglect anything, Ailsa thought. If Colville came back and tried to get in, it would be quite easy for Ailsa to say that she felt nervous, so had secured the door.

To say that she felt nervous was no figure of speech. She could not settle down to anything in the studio, and presently she resigned her brushes with a sigh of despair. A book failed to keep her attention arrested, so she threw it aside and looked out of the landing window into the street. The moving crowd below was company to a certain extent.

A brilliant light from No. 14 streamed across the pavement on to the row of carriages by the kerb. A bevy of beautifully-dressed women came and went, for by this time the dance next door was at its height. The usual curious loafers had gathered on the other side of the road. They are to be seen any night outside a great house in the London season; but Ailsa had not often witnessed the spectacle—she looked at it with the keen eye of the artist. A man with a pilot cap pulled well down over his ears stood on the fringe of the crowd. There was something familiar to Ailsa in the way in which he scraped his clean-shaven chin with his fore-finger. A policeman calmly moving the little knot of people on hustled stranger into the gutter, so that the glittering rays of a brougham lamp shone full on his face.

Ailsa started, and her heart beat a little faster. For there was no mistaking the features of the man who stood there grimly watching the crowd fluttering up and down the steps of No. 14. Ailsa's eyes did not deceive her. The man below was Archibald Colville.

"What did it mean?" Ailsa asked herself the question wearily.

There was a smile of grim amusement on the face of Colville; he suggested a spider watching a fly struggling in the web. Then he turned and walked away with his hands behind him. At a little distance came another figure, and Ailsa divined at once that the second figure was dogging the footsteps of the first one. As the spy came past the flaring carriage lamps Ailsa felt no more than a thrill as she recognised the outline of John Stern. Both figures vanished into the night and were seen no more. Ailsa crept back to the studio, and locked the door.

In a strange unreasoning way she was frightened. She felt the desire for company more than she had ever done since first she came under the ban of No. 13. She was close to the heart of the mystery, and yet it was so dark all round that she could see nothing. The more she thought the matter over the more confused she became. Colville had never given the slightest signs of interest in his neighbours; he professed not to know any of them by name. And yet it was quite evident that he knew all about the occupants of No. 14. At the same time, Ailsa felt quite sure that he was entirely ignorant of the passage connecting the two houses. But why was Mr. Colville skulking about like a thief in the night, hiding here and there, when all the time he had a comfortable roof over his head?

And why was John Stern following Colville in that furtive way? Ailsa thought it over until her head began to give way, and the various things in the studio took new and fantastic shapes. A clock somewhere near boomed out the hour of twelve. Very faintly Ailsa could hear the sounds of music next door. Very quietly she opened the panel leading to Lady Altamont's boudoir, and then sat down to listen. She could hear the sounds of music much more plainly now, and they had a soothing effect on her frayed nerves. She would have liked to be up and doing something—the inaction was maddening. It seemed to her that she could hear somebody in the boudoir moving about in a stealthy fashion. She had half a mind to look——

Then the door swung open, and Grace Wanless almost fell into the studio. She rubbed her hand to her eyes, as if the light dazzled them; she was very pale, and trembling in every limb. A dazzling stream of fire seemed to hang from one of her shaking hands. As Ailsa rushed forward, Grace pointed to the door behind her, as if she were incapable of speech. The great desire seemed to be that the door should be firmly closed. Ailsa pushed it to silently, and steadily, and then came back to Grace, who had fallen almost fainting into a chair.

"What is the matter?" Ailsa asked. "Is there anything that I can get for you?"

"Nothing," Grace whispered. "I shall be better presently. I have had a great shock to-night, so great a shock that I marvel that I did not break down and expose everything; but now that I am safe I am getting better. To think of the dreadful tragedy going on in that house, with all those people dressed like characters on a stage and knowing and suspecting nothing of what is taking place. Look here."

Grace held up the living stream of flame that Ailsa recognised now as a string of diamonds forming part of some priceless necklace.

"Some of my mother's," the girl explained. "As I anticipated, they are not all there. But I must have the lot or none; I must put this back if I cannot recover everything. When I passed through that door in a state of collapse—what is that?"

Both girls started violently. A steady, peremptory knocking on the panel leading to the house next door. A silence of some minutes, and then the knocking once more. It had begun quite quietly, now it had grown hard and peremptory, as if some masterful force was there.

"Is it a signal or a discovery?" Ailsa whispered. "What shall you do? Open it?"

"Wait," Grace said, hoarsely. "Wait a moment. I can't open it yet. I dare not!"


XVI.—WAITING ON EVENTS.

Perhaps it was because her companion looked so terrified that Ailsa lost her nerve for a moment. At that instant she would have found it hard to open the panel. There was something almost senseless about that knocking—it was so different from what might have been expected.

"It sounds so different to what one has expected," Grace said, with a want of logic that Ailsa could have deemed to be laughable in other circumstances. "Of course, I have no reason for saying it, but it looks as if somebody had found us out."

Ailsa nodded in sympathy. Her heart was still beating very fast, though the knocking seemed to have ceased altogether.

"I know exactly what you mean," she said. "I don't know, for instance, that Inspector Burles would knock like that. All the same, Grace, it seems to me that we are permitting ourselves to become frightened and nervous. We shall have to take the risk."

"I suppose we shall," Grace admitted, dubiously. "After all, we are quite justified in the assumption that nobody besides Inspector Burles and ourselves knows of the passage from one house to the other. But I dare not do it."

"Then if you dare not, I must," Ailsa said, firmly. "I, too, have had disturbing elements to alarm me, of which you know nothing. But we will discuss that presently. I daresay I can manage to satisfy myself yet."

Ailsa crossed the room in the direction of the secret panel. Very patiently and gently she opened it the width of a sheet of paper. She motioned to Grace to extinguish the lamps, so that the room was left in absolute darkness. This being accomplished, Ailsa returned with more boldness to her difficult task.

"Rapid as we were, it has seemed a long time to us since that knocking began," Ailsa whispered to her companion; "but as a matter of fact only about two minutes have elapsed. Now that knocking was either a signal from Inspector Burles or it was a bold attempt on the part of somebody else to draw us. It is quite clear that the person who knocked has gone away again, either baffled or defeated, and convinced that there is no way between the two houses. On the other hand, the baffled individual may be Inspector Burles. It is to make sure of this that I am going into the next house."

"You don't really mean to do that!" Grace cried.

"Indeed, I do, my dear. Don't you see how impossible it is that he can remain in doubt any longer? And, alter all, there is not much danger, seeing that I shall always have open to me so excellent a channel for escape. Look there."

With a wave of her hand, which, however, was quite lost on Grace in the darkness, Ailsa indicated the fine slender slit of light penetrating from the boudoir on the other side of the panel. As the panel was gently pushed back for another inch or so, it became quite clear that the luxurious boudoir was empty.

"You can see for yourself that there is no immediate danger," Ailsa went on. "Now before I go I want you to do something for me. Come to the window—this window where I have drawn the blind up. I drew the blind up a little time ago, so that I might amuse myself by watching the arrival of the people next door. Whilst I was doing so I made a little discovery of my own—I wonder if he has gone! No, he is still standing there on the edge of the pavement. Do you see that thin, tall man yonder?"

"I see him," Grace whispered. "He seems to be studying the arrivals next door. But what has he to do with you and me?"

"He is my guardian," Ailsa proceeded to explain. "I feel pretty sure that he knows a deal more about Lady Altamont than he would like to say. Now, he sent me a note about dinner-time telling me almost definitely that he should not be home to-night. He is a most secretive man, and his comings and goings are wrapped in mystery. All the same, I was greatly surprised to see Mr. Archibald Colville standing there when I looked out of the window just before you came. He has all the air of a private detective watching some criminal."

"Is he a bad man?" Grace asked with a little shudder. "His face looked so hard and patient, like an animal waiting for his prey."

"I can't tell you," Ailsa said. She sighed impatiently. "I don't know whether he is a good man or one who is inspired with a relentless hatred of others. Sometimes I have one opinion, and sometimes I have another. Judging from the few remarks that old Susan drops, I should say that he is thoroughly depraved. But that is not the point. What I want you to do is to keep your eye as long as possible upon Archibald Colville."

"I'll do all I can," Grace faltered. "But suppose he comes into the house—suppose he comes into this room and finds me here? If I only had your courage!"

"Your courage is all right," Ailsa said, reassuringly. "If it were not, you would not be here at the present moment. There is not the slightest chance of my guardian coming into the room; in fact, he never does so. If he does come back he will go direct to his own room, and take it for granted that I have gone to bed. But we are wasting the precious moments, Grace. You forget what I have to do."

Ailsa turned away from the window and walked towards the boudoir. She was blaming herself now for not boldly opening the panel when the knocking first began. But then Grace's tears had sadly infected her for the moment. There was no terror in her heart now as she stepped boldly into the boudoir and slipped the oak panel to behind her. The brilliant room was empty; from below came the chatter of gay voices and the music of light laughter. It seemed hard to identify a house like this with crime and mystery, and yet it existed only a few yards away.

Ailsa argued that nobody was likely to come upstairs just for a time, and the servants would have plenty to do in their basement. Therefore it would be safe enough for her to go boldly along the corridor so long as she did not encounter Sir Charles or Lady Altamont. And Ailsa had this advantage: the host and hostess were known to her by sight, whilst, on the other hand, they knew nothing of her identity. To the rest of the guests who happened to wander upstairs Ailsa would pass as one of the upper servants—a lady's-maid or something of that kind. The girl congratulated herself upon her plain dress and white collar. She advanced along the corridor till she was in a position at length to look down into the hall.

It was thronged with guests, the hostess being prominent. Ailsa could hear the whole of the conversation quite distinctly. She saw a footman in livery come presently to his mistress, and say something to her, for she turned in annoyance and waved her hand. Then Lady Altamont whispered something to the man by her side, and after that made her way up the stairs. Ailsa could see that her face was white with anger.

It was no part of Ailsa's plan to return to No. 13 until she had discovered something definite. She looked about her now for a hiding-place. She could see a curtain hanging before one of the bedroom doors, and behind this she secreted herself. From behind the friendly shelter of the curtain it was easy to see what was taking place.

"Where are you?" Lady Altamont exclaimed. "I am waiting for you."

A door opened exactly opposite Ailsa's hiding-place, and a woman came out. She beckoned Lady Altamont down a side corridor. So far as Ailsa could judge, the stranger was dressed in some kind of nurse's livery; probably the woman who was attending on the lady of the fan, the watcher thought. The pair stood at the turn of the corridor, so that their conversation was quite plain to Ailsa. The girl did not hesitate to listen.

"Well, how is she now?" Lady Altamont demanded. "Why did you send for me? Is there any great change for the worse in my—in that poor creature?"

It seemed to Ailsa's fancy that the question was asked eagerly, and as if Lady Altamont would have been positively glad to hear bad tidings. The nurse appeared to realise this also, for a grin came over her hard face.

"No, there isn't," she said, almost rudely. "If you ask me my opinion I should say that she is a great deal better to-night; there is a great deal less wandering in her mind, and not so much blabbing of secrets—dangerous secrets. At least, they might be dangerous secrets in the hands of people who did not know your ladyship's high character."

Lady Altamont laughed gently. She did not seem in the least to mind the stinging sarcasm in the woman's speech. She glanced a little impatiently now along the corridor; she was evidently anxious to get back to her guests.

"We need not go into that," she said. "You did not send to me merely for the purpose of informing me that your patient is better. What is it?"

"Well, it's Sir Charles," the nurse said. "I tell you plainly that if he keeps pottering in and out of the bedroom I shall not stay. So long as you pay me well I can be as discreet and silent as anybody. What my patients say in their delirium always falls on deaf ears, so far as I am concerned."

There was a deep, hidden meaning in the last few words which was not lost on Lady Altamont. She smiled in a sinister fashion, as Ailsa could see.

"I quite understand," she said. "And you may rest assured that you will have nothing to complain of in the way you are treated. Is Sir Charles there now?"

"That's why I sent for you, my lady. He seems to be always there. If you would fetch him out once and for all I shall be glad."

"The fool!" Lady Altamont said between her teeth. "The besotted fool! But I can very soon put a stop to that kind of thing. Who has been in my boudoir and left the lights on? But never mind that for the present. Lead me to your patient's room at once, nurse. I can promise you that this kind of thing shall not happen again. Is that you, Grace?"

The last exclamation fairly started Ailsa. Looking back to the brilliantly-lighted boudoir, she could see a white figure flitting there, the figure of Grace Wanless. No reply came as Lady Altamont turned down a side corridor in the wake of the nurse. Then Ailsa felt that she must take the risk and expose herself. She must know at once what Grace was doing there, and why she had defied her instructions.

She emerged from behind the curtain and fled along the corridor in the direction of the boudoir. She could see that Grace's face was very white and agitated, and that she appeared to be waiting in an agony of suspense for somebody.

"Oh, you have come back at last," she whispered. "I had to risk anything to follow you. Mr. Colville has come back home, and he——"

"Could do no harm," Ailsa exclaimed. "What are you afraid of?"

"He is calling for you, Ailsa. He is knocking at your bedroom door. Come at once, or all will be discovered!"


XVII.—BURLES ON THE MOVE.

What measures of success he had achieved. Burles undoubtedly owed to the zeal he had for his profession. The adventurous life was made for him; he delighted in the thing that possessed both finesse and danger. That there was an element of danger here he had not concealed from himself. He was dealing with utterly unscrupulous people who were not likely to stick at anything. On the other hand, Lady Altamont's masked dance was likely to be fruitful in discoveries, and the risk had to be taken.

It was a daring scheme that Burles had in his mind. Some instinct told him that this masked dance was intended to be something more than a mere social function. In the first place, Lady Altamont had a reputation for smart and original entertainments; therefore she was not likely to fall back upon so ancient an idea as a masked ball unless she had some special object in view.

For this reason alone Burles had made up his mind to be present. He meant to go in the guise of a guest, and an invited one at that. He could trust his native audacity to get him into the house, where he might pass muster with the rest; but this was not quite good enough for Burles, whose methods were nothing if not thorough. His idea was to personate somebody who was going.

It would be comparatively easy to forge a telegram and keep a certain guest away, but Scotland Yard looked with a cold eye on strategy of that kind. Burles would not to have hesitated, had he been working in a private capacity, to kidnap a guest and steal his clothes, but such a course was out of the question. There were better ways than that.

For instance, there were many men moving in what passes for London Society who were under the eye of the police, shady, aristocratic swindlers, and the like, who had not yet been found out, and many of these were known by name to Burles. He knew also that in all probability the names and descriptions of Lady Altamont's guests had already been supplied to the fashionable papers, and set up in type for publication on the morrow. It was the only way in which social functions could be properly reported.

Burles began to see his way fairly clear by the time he had finished his luncheon. Late in the afternoon he took his way to Whitefriars-street, where lay the publishing offices of the "Morning Herald," a daily journal that made a feature of recording the doing of the upper classes. There he asked for Mr. Hardstaff.

Mr. Hardstaff was busy, but he could give Inspector Burles a few minutes. Burles made it a point of keeping on good terms with the better type of journalists. A little man in glasses looked up and nodded as Burles entered.

"Morning," he said. "Glad to see you. Anything in our way? A nice, fat bridge scandal or something of that kind? Member of the Upper House caught stealing the spoons? We are very quiet just now, Burles."

"I fancy I can put something very good into your hands later on," Burles said, thoughtfully. "I'm on the track of a scandal after your own heart. Only the thing has to be led up to very cautiously. It was because I was thinking of you that I came here. Are you giving any space to-morrow to Lady Altamont's masked dance?"

Hardstaff was of opinion that he was. He whistled up a tube to a certain Miss Verity, who had that class of thing in hand. It appeared that Miss Verity had arranged for a full column for the function in question. It was likely to be a smart affair.

"In that case, you will have been supplied with a list of those invited," Burles suggested. "I should like to see a list of guests, if you have it in type."

Hardstaff was curious and inquisitive, but Burles refused to be drawn. He would give the editor a pretty sensation later on. With one of the office cigarettes in his mouth Burles went very carefully through the list. There were one or two high-sounding names there, the owners of which would have felt uncomfortable had they realised how much Burles knew about them, but not one of those suited the detective's peculiar requirements. But one name at the bottom of the list caused him to smile.

"I've found what I wanted," he said. "Let me have a look at your directory. Thanks. I'll not forget to give you the first news of the coming sensation."

Burles made a note of the address in his pocket-book, and strolled away. A little time later, and he was calling at a certain house in Brook-street, and asking if he could see the Hon. Rupert Lancaster. Mr. Lancaster had come in after luncheon, and was just preparing to go out again. Would the gentleman send in his name, the neat-looking manservant asked, and state his business?

"No occasion," Burles said, laconically. "Mr. Lancaster is an old friend of mine. Delighted to see me, and all the rest of it. I'll announce myself."

And Burles strolled past the neat manservant who consoled himself with the reflection that he had not allowed a creditor to get by him. A hawkish-looking man with an eyeglass and a languid manner rose from a smoking chair as Burles came in. His manner was cool and a trifle insolent as he extended two fingers.

"Eh, Burles," he drawled. "Haven't seen you for ages. Not since we were together in the old Aphrodite, in fact. I've cut the service since then."

"And stuck to the cutting of packs of cards ever since," Burles suggested.

The other man winced slightly. There were stories afloat and mysteriously hinted as to the why and wherefore of Lieut. Lancaster leaving the navy.

"Better than being a policeman, anyway," he sneered. "Do they really allow you to wear patent leather boots? By Jove! Thought you had to don the regulation beetle-crushers. What do you want?"

The question was pointed, but Burles did not mind that.

"I've come to see you more or less on business," he said. "You are going to the masked ball given by Lady Altamont to-night?"

"That is my intention," Lancaster drawled. "That is, of course, if you have no objection. Perhaps you would also like a description of my dress."

"If you don't mind," Burles said coolly. "In fact, I should like to have a look at it. It may smooth matters later on."

"Well, you're a cool hand and no mistake," Lancaster said, with a forced laugh. "Come this way, and your curiosity shall be gratified. I believe the whole thing is laid out on my bed this present moment—what do you think of that? Portrait of a soldier, by Rembrandt. Copied from the National Gallery. Neat get up, that—does not interfere with the freedom of one's limbs. I should say it would fit you very well."

"Quite excellently, in fact," Burles said; "our figures are very much alike. I think that I will borrow that costume for to-night and put it to a use of my own."

"And meanwhile I am to get something else for Lady Altamont's dance, I suppose?"

"My dear sir, there is no occasion for you to do anything of the kind, for the simple reason that you are not going to Lady Altamont's dance. It is absolutely necessary that I should be there on official business connected with a certain guest who shall be nameless. I find out that you were invited, and that is why I came here. I am going in your stead, and you will remain quietly at home all the evening so as to avoid complications. But perhaps we had better understand one another."

"Upon my soul, I think we had," Lancaster said in a voice hoarse with passion. "Come back to the dining-room, and I'll pitch you out of the window."

"No, thanks," Burles said slowly. "Lead the way, please. With your leave, I will take another cigarette and a seat. That's better. You want me to explain, and I will do so in a few words. Do you recollect the Warburton Castle affair?"

Lancaster nodded, without reply. But his face had grown a little paler.


XVIII.—AN UNEXPECTED VISIT.

"Warburton Castle and the loss of the countess's jewels," Burles went on. "The loss was supposed to have taken place when the family were at dinner. Only there were no ladders or wedges or anything of that kind. But you were staying in the house, I recollect."

Lancaster nodded again. He turned his head away so that Burles should not see his face.

"A most mysterious affair," the detective went on. "I had some hand in the investigation. It is quite certain that the servant knew nothing about it; also I am quite sure that the house was not entered from the outside. On the night of the robbery you were dining at Peterfield Barracks with the officers there. You left rather early because you were not very well that night, and you walked back."

"What has all this to do with your visit here?" Lancaster demanded, hoarsely. "Perhaps you will accuse me of taking the jewels next?"

"Nothing of the kind," Burles said, with a peculiar smile. "Only there are coincidences. The first is that you took up three bills a week later, when you had actually been served with a bankruptcy notice. Also one of the missing diamonds was sold to a dealer in Paris for £800 next week, and the dealer can identify the seller. About that time you found a sum of £800 to save yourself from being warned off the turf. Also a certain actress is wearing one of Lady Warburton's bracelets at the present moment, and she doesn't mind saying who gave it her. Eh, what?"

But Lancaster said nothing. There was no disguising his fear and terror now. He looked at his tormentor with dilated eyes, and his lips were ashy.

"What are you going to do?" he said, hoarsely. "Let me have it."

"I am going to do nothing—for the present, at any rate," Burles said. "The rest lies in your own hands. You will send the costume round to my rooms by eight o'clock, and ask no questions. Then you are going to dismiss your man for the evening, saying that you intend to dress yourself. After that you will stay in and amuse yourself as best you can. If there is any fiasco I shall take the blame. But there is not likely to be any fiasco. And you are not to say anything to anybody, least of all to Lady Altamont. If you drop any hint to her I also shall send an intimation to the man in Paris who purchased that diamond, and then you will be sorry that you spoke. And I think that's all."

Burles rose, and Lancaster rose also. The latter was quite downcast and dejected.

"I'll do as you suggest," he said. "Give me your card, and I'll see that you have the costume all right. And you need not be afraid that I shall speak."

"I'm not in the least afraid of that," Burles said, drily. "You have it in your own hands now to get yourself out of a very tight mess. Good-day."

Burles strolled away feeling that he had by no means wasted his evening.

As he had expected, the parcel arrived in due course. The calling in of a working tailor made all the little alterations in the dress quite satisfactory, so that it looked as if it had been made for Burles when he came to don it later on.

"Capital," he murmured, as he looked at himself in the glass. "Couldn't be a better fit. I'll ring the bell for a cab and be off. Perhaps I had better make sure of my friend, the Hon. Rupert Lancaster, before I go any further."

Burles was by no means the class of man who takes anything for granted. He was playing for a bold stake, and Lancaster was one of the necessary pawns in the game. Still, it would be just as well to make sure that Lancaster had not played him false. No suspicion could be aroused by a call at the latter's rooms in fancy dress. Burles got out of the cab and ran up the steps.

He did not go through the ceremony of knocking at the door; on the contrary, he coolly turned the handle and walked in. Lancaster had changed his attire; he had not dressed for dinner. On the contrary, he wore a kind of yachting suit, with a cap to match, and rubber-soled shoes. It was quite evident that he was just on the point of leaving the house.

Lancaster entered, and showed signs of confusion as Burles came in. There was an angry glitter in his eyes, too, as Burles did not fail to notice. The latter dropped into a chair and reached out for a cigarette.

"I thought that I would come round and show how nice I look," Burles said. "I had another motive also, which should be apparent to a man of your understanding. Can't you guess what it is?"

"I'm not much good at that kind of thing," Lancaster growled.

"You don't do yourself proper justice," Burles laughed. "I suppose you thought that, being a gentleman, you could play it as low down for me as you liked. Did I not say most emphatically that you were not to go out to-night?"

"Who is going out?" Lancaster demanded, angrily. "Why should I allow myself to become a puppet in your silly games? I wasn't going out!"

"It is a senseless lie," Burles said quite coolly. "Five minutes later, and I should have had to drive here for my pains. That yachting suit of yours is not at all a bad idea, and it gives me a good notion, too. To be quite plain, do you suppose that I was going to trust to your bare word? If you had left the house to-night you would have been watched, and if you had made the slightest attempt to communicate with Lady Altamont it would have been so much the worse for you. As sure as my plans miscarry, I'll lay you by the heels, and don't you forget it. You understand that."

Lancaster nodded sulkily. Burles's concluding words were hard and cutting; there was a glitter in his eye that bespoke a stern determination.

"You are a great fool," he concluded. "Why should you worry about Lady Altamont? She would throw you over, and see you dying in a ditch if it suited her purpose. And she is bound to come to grief in the long run. But we are wasting time here. As you have a fancy for going out, you shall come along with me, and I will make sure of you. Capital idea of yours, that yachting rig. Lead the way."

With a muttered execration, Lancaster strode down the stairs. The cab was still waiting at the door; on the other side of the road a man who was selling papers stopped and put a match to a fag-end of cigarette in his mouth.

He stood there as if he were shielding the match from the wind.

Burles whistled in an apparently casual, inconsequent manner, and the man crossed the road, dropped his match, and instantly saluted. Then he pulled his shambling figure together and walked with a brisk air down the street. Burles smiled at his companion.

"One of my code of signals," he explained. "The paper-seller was a man of mine in disguise. I don't mind saying that he was told off to keep an eye on you. I have given him the tip that the siege is raised, and that he is free to tell the others so. Therefore, you see that you would have had little chance of making a fool of yourself."

Lancaster inwardly congratulated himself that things had taken the proper turn. He was quite subdued and meek, and ready to do anything that Burles told him. By the time the cab had reached Vernon-terrace the usual crowd had gathered on the pavement to idly watch the stream of guests. The cab pulled up at length and Burles alighted. His quick eye roamed over the crowd till his glance fell upon one man who was standing a little apart from the rest. He gave a chuckle of satisfaction.

"I felt quite sure that I should be able to make use of you," he said. "You see that man standing over there watching the coming of Lady Altamont's guests?"

"Of course I do," Lancaster muttered. "It is Mr. Archibald Colville, he lives at No. 13. I happen to know all about him."

"But does he know all about you? No! So much the better. Keep your eye upon him till I have entered the house, and then go up to him and accost him by name. Call yourself what you like, and make any excuse you will. All you have to do is to ask the man if he can give you the address of Ronald Braybrooke. You need not say why, you need not do any more. If it so happens—ah!"

Burles broke off suddenly and vanished up the steps of No. 14 as if eager to overtake somebody.


XIX.—THE MASKED BALL.

All the same, it was with a feeling that all was going well that Burles had hurriedly descended from his cab and crossed the strip of red cloth leading to No. 14, Vernon-terrace. His dress was an efficient disguise, and the black mask on his face precluded any chance of discovery. Therefore it was that he gave the name of the Honourable Rupert Lancaster without hesitation. The name seemed to be well-known there, for the man marking off the list of guests did not so much as ask for the card of invitation.

Burles passed up the stairs with the air of a man who is quite at home with this kind of thing, as indeed he was. The only unmasked figure there was Lady Altamont, who stood smiling on her guests at the top of the stairs. Burles bowed gallantly, and would have passed on, only Lady Altamont stopped him with a gesture.

"I am glad you have come," she whispered. "I was afraid that you were going to back out of it."

Burles denied the insinuation gently. Evidently Lady Altamont had been told beforehand what Lancaster's dress was going to be. It was all part of some conspiracy. From the very first Burles had thought that there was something more than mere pleasure behind the dance.

"You fill me with pain," he murmured. "What have I done that you——"

"Oh, shut up that nonsense," Lady Altamont said sharply. The fascinating smile had not left her face for a moment. "Have heard it all before. Ah, you have no flower. Permit me to decorate you with one of mine."

"That is very good of you," Burles murmured. He was careful to imitate Lancaster's voice as well as possible. "All the same, I don't quite know what I have done to deserve this favour at your hands. If you only knew that I still value the privilege——"

The woman laughed, half-scornfully. As a natter of fact, Burles was talking the most cheap and trivial society nonsense for the purpose of gaining time and feeling his way. With his usual good luck he had hit upon the man most likely to advance his opportunities. He had chosen to personate Rupert Lancaster for the simple reason that the forces of chance had placed that particular person in his power for the time being. He had regarded Lancaster as no more than an intimate acquaintance of Lady Altamont's, but the woman's gestures and hints proved that Lancaster knew a great deal about her inner life.

Therefore if he felt his way very carefully, he might find himself in possession of some really useful information. He decided to be as inane as possible, so that he might perhaps provoke Lady Altamont's anger, and then cause her to betray herself.

"Rooms look very nice," he drawled. "Decorations quite unique in their way. Same old crowd for the most part, I see. By Jove, if most of the people here knew anything they would have something to talk about, eh?"

The woman laughed, but she said nothing that Burles could turn to account.

"We shall see what we shall see presently," she said. "I am glad you changed your mind and came to-night, Rupert, because I may have need of you. I am told that a certain party is much better to-night."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Burles said, with the gravity of an owl.

"Yes, it's a pity, isn't it? But one never can tell. And, as I said before, you have forgotten your flower, so you must have one of mine."

Burles murmured something appropriate. He noticed that Lady Altamont was wearing a large mass of white violets in her corsage. She plucked at them, and a tiny wired bunch came away in her hand, leaving the larger quantity intact. The bunch of white violets appeared to consist of clusters of smaller ones.

"There," Lady Altamont whispered as she finished. "Now we shall know each other without the bother of trying to recollect costumes, and make yourself as agreeable as possible till the time comes."

Burles passed on, feeling that the last few minutes had by no means been wasted. The fun was growing fast and furious now, there was always plenty of freedom under the root of Lady Altamont's house. An excellent band was discoursing music from behind a bank of palms in the ballroom. A pretty little soubrette with a pink crinkled paper mask invited Burles to dance. There was nothing but to accept the challenge gracefully, and keep an eye open for further opportunities. Burles knew that he had the whole evening before him.

He resigned his partner presently to a tall man in the dress of a dragoon, and passed, more or less idly, along in the direction of the refreshment-room. There was a good deal of laughing and talking going on here, for most of the men seemed to know one another, in spite of their masks. Burles could see that two of them wore bunches of violets like his own, and that they glanced more or less furtively at him as he came in. But Burles had no desire to speak to these men as yet; there was plenty of time for that. He called for coffee and a cigarette, after which he took a seat and pretended to closely scan his programme.

A man most realistically got up as a tramp came and took a seat at the same table. He made a chance remark or two concerning the decoration of the rooms: his head was thrown back, as if he were a little bored with the whole proceedings. His words were quietly spoken, but they were startling enough.

"Lady Altamont loves surprises," he said. "I wonder what she would say if she could see behind the mask of Rupert Lancaster the features of Inspector Burles!"

Not a muscle of the detective's face quivered. He sat there, enjoying the flavour of his cigarette.

"You are certainly not a fool," he said. "If you think that you are going to make anything out of this——"

"I am not here for that purpose at all," the stranger said. "On the contrary. In proof of that, I am going to tell you my name. You have heard of John Stern?"

"I have," Burles said; "and I should be pleased to know more to the credit of the gentleman. How did you come to find me out?"

"Principally because I have been keeping an eye upon Lancaster—never mind why. I knew that he was coming here to-night, and I knew his dress. I was outside the house when you called at Brook-street to-day; I saw you come out again, and subsequently saw Lancaster's man carrying a brown-paper parcel to your rooms. I began to guess then what was in the wind. When I saw the sham Lancaster emerge from your rooms I was certain of my ground. Never mind why I am here, and why I have assumed this disguise. I shall be able to help you presently."

"That is very good of you," Burles said, drily. "Still, it is a feather in your cap that you should have found me out in this fashion, and I give you all the credit for it. You say that for reasons of your own you are keeping an eye on Rupert Lancaster. Therefore, I will ask you to be so good as to answer a question for me, if you don't mind."

Stern appeared to deliberate a moment before he replied. When he spoke at length it was very slowly and deliberately. Burles broke in impatiently.

"I'll trust you if you'll trust me," he said tentatively. "I came into the business professionally, and what I am after here does not in the least matter to anybody, because——"

"It does not in the least matter to me," John Stern replied, "because I know already. You have come upon the scene at the instigation of Miss Grace Wanless, who is exceedingly anxious to recover her mother's jewels without the old lady being worried over the business. Well, I have not the least doubt that I shall be in a position to give you great assistance so far as that is concerned a little later on. I have very good ground for assuming that the gems in question are not very far off at the present moment."

"Do you mean that they are in the house?" asked Burles, eagerly.

"We will let that pass, there is plenty of time for that. May I assume that you are here to-night personating the character of Rupert Lancaster?"

"That is about the strength of it," Burles said, with a grin. "Really you ought to join the force—a man with an insight like yours is lost anywhere else. Now I should like to know how you got to find that out."

Stern made a gesture of contempt. Apparently he was thinking of something else.

"We are wasting time," he said. "Important events may take place here to-night. And, if so, you may count on my assistance."

Burles only remarked that he was glad to hear it. He also inquired if it would not be possible to address his companion by a more fitting name than John Stern.

"Don't give me away," the latter said hoarsely, "I see you have discovered more than I had anticipated. Believe me I am acting with the very best intentions. I am fighting to regain my lost hold on society. I am trying to be worthy of the affection of a good woman. If you only knew what it has cost me to——"

"I know what it has cost you very well," Burles replied. "I have not been inquiring into that yachting mystery in the North Sea for nothing. If you help me now you shall find a good friend in John Burles. Tell me what is going on here to-night."

"That is more than I can do at present," Stern said. "It has something to do with a man called Terry, and a big swindle of some kind is at the bottom of it. If we could only ascertain the identity of the woman who lies unconscious upstairs?"

"That is already done, my friend. The lady is professionally know as La Belle Atalanta."

"Good Heavens," Stern said, suppressing a desire to cry aloud, "you are a wonderful man, inspector. I congratulate you warmly. I might have guessed that. But it is my turn to tell you something. I suppose you don't happen to know who La Belle Atalanta really is?"

"I don't," Burles admitted. "I would give something to know."

"Well, she is Lady Altamont's sister. Lady Altamont was on the stage, too, at one time. And the poor creature upstairs is her sister. If I can do anything——"


XX.—BEYOND THE BARRIER.

Stern suddenly paused and picked up a paper, with which he proceeded to cover his face. The reason became apparent, as Burles looked towards the door. Lady Altamont stood there, a queer, hard smile on her face. Despite her smile she seemed anxious about something. She sauntered on, exchanging a word with one and another, until she came to Burles' table. Then she made a significant gesture in the direction of the door. Burles sauntered after her.

"Up to my boudoir," the woman whispered. "Wait for me there. I have had news."

Burles nodded and strolled along the hall. A moment later and he was waiting for his hostess. At the same moment she was laughing and talking with a little knot of men as if she had not a trouble in the world. Burles remarked it, and admired the courage of the woman. He found his way to the boudoir, he had not long to wait till Lady Altamont came in. Her face had lost its smile now, she looked very anxious and uneasy. She did not close the door.

"Better not close it," she said. "In case people should come in. It looks far less conspicuous to have the door open. Rupert, there is some bad news from Paris."

Burles had almost forgotten for the moment that he was posing as Lancaster. He appeared to be very properly concerned. It was not his cue to say anything; he had to wait for further particulars. But for the present Lady Altamont seemed to have lost her nerve. She could do no more than walk about the room with agitated strides, muttering that the news from Paris was bad.

"Nothing wrong with Terry, I hope," Burles suggested, recollecting the name which had been given him by John Stern. "Don't say that he has come to grief."

"It's a fact," Lady Altamont whispered. "Take your mask off, Rupert."

"Better not," Burles said. "Think how suspicious it would look if anybody popped in. Besides, I couldn't possibly remove my mask. If you will look you will see that it is not one of the usual wobbly kind, but a little idea of my own made out of black court plaster. The blessed thing will have to be soaked off with hot water."

Lady Altamont allowed the point to pass. She seemed to have lost all her old audacity.

"Terry has been arrested by the Paris police," she said. "One who can be relied upon has just sent me a telegram to that effect. Terry is never contented with one thing at a time—he must needs go and mix himself up with some local affair, and he has been arrested."

"Not in connection with that little business of ours?" Burles asked.

"Oh, no. Nobody knows anything about that. The old woman's jewels are all right."

"By the old woman, I suppose you mean the American lady, Mrs. Wanless?" Burles suggested.

"Who else do you suppose I mean?" Lady Altamont said, impatiently. "I told you that I should send Terry to Paris with the stuff to get rid of. It appears that old Farmer, the receiver, was away at Marseilles, and Terry waited for him. But Terry could not lie low in the meantime; he must needs be up to some game of his own. And the consequence is that he has been picked up by the Paris police. If they find out where he lives, and if they search his lodgings—well, I don't like to think of it."

"I quite see the difficulty," Burles said, with meaning. "What are you going to do?"

"Do? Why, send a messenger at once to O'Brien, asking him to go over to Paris and see Terry, who will tell him where the diamonds are hidden. Already I have written that letter. But O'Brien will not move unless he has your consent—he hates me. I want you just to scribble at the bottom of the letter a few words to O'Brien."

Burles could have fairly hugged himself with delight. His enemies at Scotland Yard were wont to declare that he was the luckiest man in the force, and at that moment the happy detective would not have been disposed to quarrel with the definition. Here was everything playing directly into his hands. To every outward appearance, he seemed to be greatly disturbed at all that Lady Altamont had to say.

"All this is dreadfully bad," he said. "This comes of trusting to a man like Terry."

"And whose suggesting was that?" Lady Altamont demanded, fiercely. "It was nothing but your silly persisting that brought it to that, and you can't deny it."

Burles murmured something that seemed humble and contrite. He felt that his elation at his own good fortune was carrying him too far.

"You are right," he hastened to say. "You are always right, as usual. It was a most fortunate thing that I changed my mind and came here to-night. Do you happen to know where O'Brien is to be found at the moment?"

"Of course I do—at the old address. You can put it on the letter if you care——"

"But why bother O'Brien at all?" Burles ventured to suggest. "We have had worry enough from trusting those things to subordinates. Why should I not go over to Paris——"

Lady Altamont burst into a scornful laugh.

"You have gone out of your mind," she cried. "Why, you would be arrested before you had set foot in Paris two hours. You seem to have forgotten that Montmartre affair. But there is no reason to dwell upon that unhappy business. You always said it was an accident."

Burles shook his head, sadly. All the same, he would have given a great deal to know what Lady Altamont was alluding to. She tapped him angrily on the arm, and asked him if he meant to stand gaping there all night or get to work at once.

"Right you are," Burles said, briskly. "Get me a quill pen. I must have a quill pen. Go at once. There is nothing to be gained by the delay."

Hardly had Lady Altamont departed when Burles was out of the room. He fled along in the direction of the refreshment-room in search of John Stern. But the latter had vanished. One of the attendants behind the bar handed Burles a note explaining that it had been left by the gentleman who was so cleverly made up as a tramp. There were only two or three words on the letter, indicating that Stern had answered an important call elsewhere. Burles bit his lip in sheer vexation. He wanted a messenger at once and without delay. A desperate idea came to him. So far as he could see it was that or nothing else.

He was back in the boudoir again before Lady Altamont. She came presently with a letter in her hand, which Burles professed to scan with a solemn manner. All the time his brain was at work; he began to see his way.

"I think that's all right," he said. "I daresay O'Brien will understand what to do. As you suggest, I had better add a few words. Got the quill pen? Thanks. Now, I should like to have a dip of violet ink. I always write to O'Brien in violet ink so that he may not overlook the envelope. Besides, it's a kind of code between us. Sorry to give you so much trouble, but I must have violet ink."

Lady Altamont went off muttering with vexation. There was no violet ink in the house except that used by her maid. It was the vulgar colour that ladies'-maids frequently used. She should say that she would be quite five minutes gone.

"Just what I want," Burles chuckled to himself. "Now for it. If they are waiting there, why——"

The detective passed behind the curtain and proceeded to knock on the panel that separated the room from Ailsa's studio. He knocked again and again more loudly. And he could hear Lady Altamont's skirts as they came swishing up the stairs. The panel begin slowly to move.


XXI.—SUSPICIONS.

Ailsa stared almost stupidly at her companion. She had not expected anything like this. Never before had Archibald Colville asked for her at any time in the day, and for him to want her now roused all the girl's suspicions. At any rate there must have been something radically wrong for Grace to run such a terrible risk and fetch her out of No. 14 like this.

And only a little time before Ailsa had seen Archibald Colville standing in the street and gazing at the house next door as if he had been an entire stranger to the locality. Ailsa had asked Grace to keep an eye upon him, especially as Colville had deliberately gone out of the way to tell her that he was not coming home to-night.

"What did Mr. Colville do after I had gone in next door?" Ailsa asked.

"Oh, does it in the least matter?" Grace demanded impatiently. "You say that you mistrust that man, that he is capable of doing you some deadly injury, and yet all the time you stand here heedless of some great danger that may be looming over you. Can't you hear him knocking?"

Surely enough there was an impatient knocking at a door somewhere overhead. Ailsa had recovered her presence of mind now, and shrugged her shoulders curtly.

"Let him knock," she said. "He is bound to come to the conclusion presently that I am not in my room. I couldn't get to my bedroom without passing him. If he makes sure that I am not there he will be suspicious. Therefore I am going to let him come here and find me. I can merely say that I did not feel inclined for bed, and there will be an end of the matter. Don't you think that that is a much better plan than making a fuss, Grace?"

Grace was bound to admit the cleverness of Ailsa's reasoning. It was far better to avoid the suggestion of anything beyond the level of the community. Grace had recovered her courage, too, seeing that her way was once more clear before her.

"I am not so brave and steadfast as you are," she admitted. "It was such awful work being shut up here in the creepy old house, not knowing what was going to happen next, and the feeling all the time that you might have found yourself in serious trouble. The mere idea of it made me feel like yelling aloud for help. But the feeling was ten thousand times worse after your guardian came in."

"You have not told me what happened after I left," Grace said.

"Oh, nothing very much," Grace proceeded to explain. "I stood at the window watching Mr. Colville for some time. He appeared to be keeping a keen eye for somebody, for he hardly moved. Presently a man came up and accosted him."

"Oh, indeed. What was the man like, how was he dressed?"

"He had on a kind of yachting suit and cap. The figure was in a way familiar to me, but I could not give the man a name. Anyway, he looked like a gentleman. He said two or three words to Mr. Colville, and then the latter came at once into the house. He went up and knocked at what I presumed to be your bedroom door, for he called you by name, the same as he is doing at this moment."

Surely enough, Colville's impatient grumble could be heard. The old man was muttering to himself as he came down the stairs. He had made up his mind that Ailsa was not in the house; therefore it was necessary to disabuse him.

"I must call him in here," Ailsa whispered. "He must not believe that I am anything but the innocent child he has always taken me to be. Get behind that screen, Grace. I am going to turn on the lights once more."

Grace was ready to do anything now that she had a companion to give her courage. She slipped very quietly behind the screen at the end of the room whilst Ailsa advanced to the door. She called aloud to know if anybody was there.

"So it's you," Colville grumbled, whilst there was a note of relief in his voice. "I have been trying to wake you up for some time past, naturally thinking that you had gone to bed."

"I'm very late sometimes," Ailsa said. "There are nights when I am nervous and do not feel like going to sleep. But you wrote to say you were not coming home to-night."

"I have changed my mind," said Colville, curtly. "Have you been out to-night?"

Ailsa resented the brusqueness of the question. Her face coloured with annoyance.

"Why do you ask?" she demanded. "Do I ever leave the place at nights? And what house could I go to if I did so? Why do you ask me?"

"No matter," Colville said. He appeared to be satisfied with her reply. "I was going to put certain questions to you, but I have changed my mind. What is that?"

The dreaded unexpected had happened, and somebody was knocking on the panel leading into the boudoir next door. Ailsa felt that her heart was beating fast; there was a lump in her throat that prevented her from replying for the moment. Doubtless here was Burles trying to communicate with the two girls.

"Next door!" Ailsa managed to stammer at length. "They have some kind of a party in progress at Lady Altamont's. The walls are so thin that I sometimes believe there was only one room here at some time. Perhaps somebody is hammering something."

Greatly daring, Ailsa crossed the room and drummed smartly on the panels. As if her signal was understood, the knocking on the other side ceased.

"I expect I am right," Ailsa went on. She marvelled at the way in which she controlled her voice. "Those people have stopped as soon as they see that they are annoying me with their noise. But you have not told me what you were going to say to me."

Colville appeared to be quite satisfied. He muttered something to the effect that he had changed his mind.

"It will keep till to-morrow," he said. "Perhaps I have made a mistake. But then I have so many enemies that I can never be quite certain. I'm sorry that I disturbed you in this fashion. Mind and put out the lights when you go to bed."

"But you will see to all that downstairs," Ailsa suggested.

"I will if you like, if you don't want to go downstairs again," said Colville. "As for me, I am going out again. I only came back for something that I had forgotten. I've got my latch-key in my pocket. I shall see you in the morning."

Colville slunk off with the air of a man who has been worsted in some way. He made his way downstairs, and presently Ailsa heard the sullen clang of the front door. The old man had turned out all the lights before his departure.

"You can come out again now," Ailsa said. "Mr. Colville has gone. I'll just run downstairs and slip the latch of the front door, so that it may appear to have gone wrong by accident if my guardian takes it into his head to return. In that case he will have to ring, and we shall be ready for him."

Grace shuddered as she remembered the knocking on the other side of the wall. It was so near a thing that the girl did not like to think of it.

"How well you managed that," she said admiringly, as Ailsa came back once more. "I feel quite sure that I should have fainted on the spot."

"Oh, no, you wouldn't," Ailsa smiled. "When the pinch came you would have acted quite as well as I did. All the same, it was a terrible fright, and my heart is still beating fearfully fast. One consolation—I am quite sure that Mr. Burles understood."

"But my dear Ailsa, you could not be altogether certain that it was Mr. Burles."

"Oh, yes, I am," Ailsa said confidently. "It was Mr. Burles, and he understood my knocking to mean that there was something wrong on this side of the wall. If it had been anybody else, he or she would not have desisted so suddenly. It was a signal to us, and I signalled back that caution was needed. All the same I nearly betrayed myself. You see, I was more or less expecting a knock all the time, it was the one danger that I had to fear, and I could not bustle my guardian out of the studio without arousing his suspicions. Still, I flatter myself that he noticed nothing wrong, and in any case he is totally ignorant of the fact that there is a way of communicating with next door. On the whole, we have gained rather than lost by our recent fright."

"I don't see that we have gained much," said Grace. "Really, Ailsa, I do not think I had better stay here any longer. I have been absent from the next house for some time, and it is just possible that I may be missed. Don't you think that I had better go back again? I do not wish to leave you if there is any necessity——"

"A little longer," Ailsa pleaded. "Mr. Burles evidently wants to see me, or he would not have tested the panel. I am certain that he will return when he feels that the coast is once more clear. As for me, I do not feel in the least like bed. And I really do not think that you will be missed."

"Don't you?" Grace said, doubtfully. "In that case I dare say—oh!"

The girl started, and her face grew pale. Once more there was a knocking on the panel, at first very gently, but growing in force and volume.


XXII.—THE LADY OF THE FAN AGAIN.

The strain was evidently beginning to tell on the girls, for they stood looking at each other with dilated eyes. For once in her life Ailsa was inclined to shirk the inevitable, she had an hysterical doubt just for a moment that a friend might be making a signal, rather she was under the delusion that Lady Altamont knew of the secret passage. All the time the knocking was growing louder and more imperative. Ailsa shook off her fears.

"At any risk the thing must be done," she said, taking her hands. "If it is a friend, why we have no further cause for anxiety. If it is an enemy——"

Grace looked white and nervous, but she made no objection. With a sudden resolve Ailsa dashed across the room and pulled back the panel. Burles fell through and snapped the door behind him. Then he drew a deep breath of relief.

"I was afraid I was going to miss you," he said. "You acted just in the nick of time. Another minute, and it would have been to late. Lady Altamont was actually on my heels when the panel opened. Was there some danger here when I knocked a little time ago?"

"I felt quite certain that it was you all the time," Ailsa explained. "But the summons came so suddenly. My guardian came in here—a thing he has never done before. And Miss Wanless and myself had been discussing an important matter. It seems that she had actually found a portion of the missing jewelry in Lady Altamont's house. She came here to tell me. If you like to have a look at what has been found and search for the rest."

"It would be a wasted effort," Burles interrupted. "I, too, have been hearing things about the missing gems. At the present minute the great bulk of Mrs. Wanless's jewels are in Paris. It is to keep in touch with them that I am here at this moment. The whole thing is working out like a stage play; indeed, fortune has been very kind to me. But I need a messenger without delay; I thought I had found one next door, but apparently he had an axe of his own to grind, and he has vanished. I am at my wits' end to know what to do. I dare not leave the house next door as things are at present, and yet it is absolutely necessary that Lady Altamont's messenger should be followed. I am going to make an extraordinary request, but in the circumstances I can do nothing else. Will one of you ladies act for me?"

The girls looked at one another helplessly. Ailsa was the first to speak.

"I will do anything in reason," she said. "Anything to throw light upon that den of mystery and intrigue I will undertake. I am to follow a messenger. But how do you know that the messenger is not already gone, and, if not, how could I possibly identify him?"

"I will see to that," Burles said. "Positively I am ashamed to hand such a task to a lady. But what can I do? I must not leave No. 14, and the messenger must be followed. He is going to take a note somewhere. I dare not ask where to, because Lady Altamont takes me for another man who is supposed to know. That is where my good fortune comes in. My bad fortune consists of the fact that I have no confederates at hand."

"I quite understand," Ailsa said quietly. "But if the messenger has already gone?"

"The messenger has not gone yet. Lady Altamont cannot send the letter till she has seen me again. I dare say she is looking all over the house searching for me. I will take the risk and go back again. Then I will ask you, Miss Lefroy, to wait on the step in the shadow till my man starts on his errand. Probably he will be a footman, but of that I cannot be quite certain. I shall stroll into the hall casually and see him off just as if I wanted to get a breath of fresh air. If you hear anybody sneeze twice you will know that it is me, and that the man passing is the one you have to follow. If you will do this for me——"

"Why not?" Ailsa asked eagerly. "Surely there can be no possible objection or danger. I have only to follow this man, and make a note of the house where he goes."

"That is all," Burles replied. "Merely to find the house and the address. It looks very simple, but in these cases one never knows quite. When you have done this, please come back here and I will trouble you no more to-night."

Grace Wanless had been listening quietly to Burles' instructions. She was wondering what was to become of her. But Burles had thought of all that.

"You had better remain here, Miss Wanless," he suggested. "You are quite safe as far as this house is concerned, and besides, Miss Lefroy will require somebody to let her in when she comes back from her errand. I cannot sufficiently apologise for——"

"I do not want apologies at all," Ailsa smiled. "Really it is very little that you ask. I have only to put on a cloak and veil and walk a little way. If my guardian does return in the meantime, he will go straight to bed without coming in here. He always carries a latch-key, and will probably fasten the door behind him. If I find this has been done, I shall knock lightly on the door and Grace will let me in."

Grace promised to do the best she could in the circumstances, and Ailsa crept up to her room to don a black hat and veil and a cloak. She looked in and nodded as she passed the studio; the next moment the street door closed gently. Burles crossed the room and quietly opened the secret panel. He signified that the boudoir beyond was empty, and that Grace had better close the door behind him. No sooner was this done than Lady Altamont came into the boudoir anxious and bewildered.

"Where have you been?" she demanded. "I have been looking for you everywhere."

Burles made some ingenious excuse. After all, it did not matter in the least where he had been. It was no use to stand bickering there when the letter had not gone. And Lady Altamont had been a long time finding the quill pen. Burles scribbled his few words at the bottom of the letter. He took an envelope from the ormolu paper-case.

"Better address it," he said. "You put the address on; it will look more natural. And our friend will know that the thing is urgent, coming from you."

It was a pretty trap to gain a knowledge of an address that Burles did not know and did not dare to ask for. But Lady Altamont put the suggestion aside.

"Addresses are dangerous," she said. "I shall only write the name. If the note is lost no harm will be done. I'll get one of the footmen to take it. He's down in the hall waiting for it now. Well, what is it?"

A maid came into the room wanting something. Burles reached carelessly for the letter. The opportunity was too good to be lost.

"There is no occasion for you to hurry," he said. "I'll give this note to your man. Did you say he would be waiting in the hall? By the way, what is the number of the house in——?"

"Charles has made a note at it in his pocket-book," Lady Altamont said. "Yes, you may give the letter to him. He has all his instructions."

Baffled again, but by no means dismayed, Burles strolled down into the hall. A young footman, hatted and coated, as if waiting for somebody, stood there. Burles placed the note in his hand, and the man touched his hat. Burles strolled to the open door. As the footman passed from the house Burles sneezed gently, twice. He had the satisfaction of seeing a slight, dark figure in black, apparently spring out of nothing, and follow the footman at a discreet distance. Burles was quite satisfied with the success of his stratagem. There was nothing for it now but to hang about the house till such time as Ailsa might return. After that, there would be plenty of work to do before daylight. Burles went thoughtfully up the stairs again, and back to the boudoir, just as Lady Altamont was leaving, followed by her maid. She looked vexed and disturbed, and not too well pleased at being called away.

"Some bothering business," she said. "Everything seems to be going badly just at present. Wait here for me, for I have a lot to say to you yet. I shall not be more than twenty minutes."


XXIII.—THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS.

Burles resolved to stay. Some cigarettes stood on the table, and he helped himself to one; it was very quiet up there, the band below had ceased, and from the crash of plates it seemed to Burles that the guests were at supper. It was no bad opportunity to examine the mysterious room leading out of the boudoir. As Burles crossed to the door it opened in his face, and out of the darkness beyond emerged the figure of John Stern. He made a sudden dash at Burles and caught him by the throat. Apparently the sudden light had dazzled his eyes, and he took Burles for an enemy rather than a friend. The detective hastened to reassure him.

"Pardon!" Stern panted. "I could not make out who you were for the moment. I dare say you wondered what had become of me. But I have not been idle. And a precious good thing it is that I came here to-night. Something like a murder is being done."

"Actual crime?" Burles asked. "More mysterious women assaulted, eh?"

"Not quite in that way," Stern whispered. "But if anybody happened to be lying at the point of death, and if those responsible deliberately left her to die, what would you call it?"

"Well, it would be manslaughter, to say the least of it," Burles replied. "What do you mean?"

By way of reply Stern signified to his companion to follow him into the room beyond. It was pitch-dark in there, but Stern seemed to know the way. He fumbled along to the fireplace—a large, open type of grate, and whispered to Burles to listen.

From somewhere came the sounds of somebody moaning. It was a long, low moaning, as of somebody who is in trouble, a woman's voice asking for something. Burles listened for a time, and then demanded to know what it all meant.

"The woman upstairs," Stern explained, hoarsely. "The stranger who was nearly killed here. She is in the room overhead. They have discharged the nurse, on some ingenious pretext, and that poor creature is all alone. Horrible, I call it. If you expose these people——"

Burles nodded; he knew exactly what John Stern was going to say. Only he wanted a little more definite information to work upon.

"All in good time," he said. "I want you to tell me what makes you so sure that these people have discharged the nurse. That looks pretty black against them, of course; but I want to be sure of my ground before proceeding further. If you can give me any evidence——"

"If you are not disposed to believe me," Stern interrupted curtly, "ask Miss Lefroy. She has been in this house once already to-night—in fact, she has been making herself au fait with the corridors, just as I have been doing myself. I saw her there, and I also heard what took place between Lady Altamont and the nurse. I dare say it was a put-up job between her ladyship and that precious besotted husband of hers. Anyway, the nurse complained that Sir Charles was always pottering in and out of the bedroom, and that she was not going to stand it. She also intimated pretty plainly that she knew things were not quite as they should be, and that she would keep her mouth shut if it was made worth her while."

"This is exceedingly interesting," Burles muttered; "please go on."

"Well, the rest is more or less if deduction," Stern admitted. "Lady Altamont went off with the nurse to the sick-room, where there seemed to be high words, and at the expense of Sir Charles. A little while afterwards a cabman fetched the nurse's box, and she went off, not angrily nor sullenly, but like one who has done a good stroke of business. You can make what you like of that, Inspector Burles."

"Quite so," Burles agreed. "I make a good deal of this. On the whole, I see no reason to regret the action that brought me here to-night."

"But you are taking it pretty coolly," Stern protested. "It seems to me, inspector, that you can practically expose these disgusting people——"

"So I can—in time. But anything premature would ruin all my plans."

"Quite so," Stern proceeded; "and that is why I am going to spring a little sensation of my own. Go downstairs for a little time and see that Lady Altamont does not come up here. As a detective, you can manage that. Then come back again, and you will find the secret panel leading to the next house not quite fast. Go into Miss Lefroy's studio, and you will see what you will see. It's a desperate game, but I'm going to try it."

Burles abandoned himself to the impulse of the moment. If this man could do no good, at least he could do no harm, Burles reflected.

He passed down the stairs and lingered in the hall, so that Lady Altamont could not pass without his being aware of the fact. A quarter of an hour passed, and there was no sign of the mistress of the house. It would be quite safe for Burles to go up again now and see what Stern was doing on the other side of the panel. The secret door was not quite closed, so that Burles had little difficulty in passing beyond it into the more congenial atmosphere of the studio. The lights were up there. Grace Wanless was bending over a still white figure on a couch, and Stern was looking on with a smile of grim satisfaction on his face.

"So you have come," he said to Burles. "I managed it all right. There will be a fine commotion next door when they discover what has happened. I stole into the poor creature's bedroom, and brought her in here without anyone being a little bit the wiser, though what I am going to do with her now that she has come I know no more than the dead. Have you seen her before?"

Burles bent with unusual eagerness over the unconscious figure on the sofa.

"Well, if this does not beat anything!" he cried. "It's La Belle Atalanta!"


XXIV.—A CLOSE CALL.

Ailsa had no cause to hurry over her errand, The footman walked along in front of her, with no sense of the importance of his mission. Evidently he didn't realise the value of haste. All the same the walk was a long one, and Ailsa was feeling that she had gone quite far enough when the footman crossed Waterloo Bridge. The girl had had no sleep the night before, and, moreover, she had endured a very trying day. She wondered if it would not be as well to call a cab and keep the footman in sight; but she dismissed the idea as being likely to arouse suspicion.

But it is a long lane that has no turning, and Ailsa was getting her reward at last. Presently the footman stopped and consulted an address written in a pocket-book. Then he crossed the road and began scanning the numbers on the other side. There was plenty of light for Ailsa to see by; therefore she remained on her own side of the roadway. She had naturally heard from Inspector Burles of La Belle Atalanta, and of the lodgings to which the detective had tracked that popular favourite, and it struck Ailsa as a little strange that Lady Altamont's footman should be going to what might prove the same address. This little coincidence added to Ailsa's adventure, and she fought her feelings of fatigue. She began to feel that there were developments at hand.

The footman stopped at length before a dingy-looking house of the cheap-lodging type, and consulted his pocket-book once more. Then, apparently satisfied that he had come to the right address, he pulled the bell. Ailsa could hear the cracked sound of it as she stood in a doorway on the far side of the road. So far as Ailsa could see the whole place in darkness, and the bell was pulled impatiently two or three times before a feeble light lit up one of the bedroom windows. In the rays of the gas-lamp Ailsa noted the peeling front of the house, the dingy brasses, and the dirty curtains. A little later, and she had a glimpse into a shabby hall, with one oil-lamp swinging at the far end of it. A tall man, in a faded dressing-gown, stood and regarded the footman suspiciously.

"Well, young fellow," he said, "and what may you be wanting at this time of the night?"

"I don't know that I particularly want anything," the footman returned, crisply. Evidently he was not in the confidence of his mistress, Ailsa thought. "I was told to come here with a letter, to which there is no reply. This is 746, ain't it?"

"Got it first time," the man in the dressing gown said. "Hand the letter over. If it ain't for me, you are not likely to get an answer, as there's nobody else in the house at present. For one of the lodgers, most likely."

The speaker proceeded to regard the envelope with a suspicious eye. As far as Ailsa could gather, he pronounced it to be for one of the lodgers. He would give it to the gentleman when he came in, but he could not say any more than that.

"All right, my lord," the footman responded. "I've done my share of the business. Good-night, and pleasant dreams to you. Nice place to live in, ain't it?"

The footman lounged away, and the door closed, but not quite securely. Somebody came shuffling down the street and paused before No. 746. The stranger hesitated only a moment, and then he passed into the house as if he had been there before. With a certain instinct, or perhaps a strong feeling of curiosity, Ailsa waited. She did not know what she expected to see, but she certainly expected something out of the common. The door had not been secured behind the newcomer, a blast of wind blew it wider open. There was a sudden murmur of voices, the cry of a man in pain, and, like a flash, the dingy hall showed two or three figures struggling, two of them only partially dressed, the other clad in frock-coat and tall hat, and looking like a gentleman.

The struggle was short and decisive, for the odds were far too great for the man in the frock-coat, and he reeled back before the onslaught of the others. The sound of sickening blows came to Ailsa's ears, the quick thud meant murder. Heedless of her errand and the danger to herself, Ailsa screamed for assistance.

The cry rang clear on the night air, but nobody seemed to heed or hear it. Once again Ailsa called out, and this time the noise of her cry struck the ears of one of the men opposite. He paused and listened; he said something to his confederate in a hurried, low voice. The next minute the man in the frock-coat was bundled into the road, and the door closed upon him. Ailsa saw the tall figure totter and reel, and then fall headlong on the pavement. There was nothing else for it now but to go to his assistance. It was impossible to leave the poor man lying there to the mercy of the night. The man lay on his back, with his face staring up at the lamp under which he had fallen. Ailsa bent over him.

She started back with a stifled cry of horror and amazement. But she had to look again to see that she had not made a mistake, that her nerves had not played her false. No, she had not made any mistake; it was no chance likeness—the figure before her was that of Archibald Colville. The whole thing was maddening, but there it was.

So far as Ailsa could gather, the man was not badly hurt. All the same, he was quite unconscious, and lay there as if asleep. He might open his eyes at any moment and recognise who it was that was bending over him. And if he did so he would be quite sure to believe that Ailsa had been following him, and this was the very last thing that the girl desired.

It was very quiet there, and not a soul was to be seen. There was very little chance of Colville suffering from the exposure, for it was a warm night, and a policeman would surely come along before many minutes had passed. Ailsa's first impulse was to leave Colville there—anything so long as he did not come to his senses and recognise her. Would it not be better to leave him there? she wondered. But there was no time to think now, for a little knot of noisy young men of the medical-student type came laughing and chatting from a house close by and almost stumbled over Ailsa and the unconscious figure before the girl could fully make up her mind what to do. A sudden lull fell on the little group.

"Hullo!" one of them cried. "What have we here? Elderly gentleman of respectable appearance lying prostrate in the gutter. Sudden indisposition or intoxication—probably the latter. Is this gentleman a friend of yours, my dear lady, or——"

Ailsa rose to her feet. Her face was warm, but she spoke coldly enough. She felt that she had to be cautious, that it would not, perhaps, do to call attention to the scene of the outrage, or it might lead to developments calculated to upset all Burles' pretty schemes.

"I was going along the road," she said. "I had occasion to be out very late. And just here, as you see, I found the gentleman lying unconscious. It was only a moment or two ago. I was hesitating what to do when you came up."

The grin on the faces of the youths vanished as soon as they realised that they were talking to a lady. A helmeted policeman walked impassively into the group and asked questions. A whistle sounded shrill and clear, and assistance came up. At the same moment Colville opened his eyes and look fearfully around. Ailsa wandered into the background.

"It's all right, sir," one of the policeman said. "You have met with a bit of an accident. Don't think it is anything serious, but one never can tell. Lift him up, Bill, and we'll get him as far as the nearest station and call in a doctor."

"No occasion to do anything of the kind," the patient said, eagerly. "I—I felt a bit faint, and I must have stumbled against a lamp-post. Carry me as far as my house, and I'll give you a couple of sovereigns each. It is quite imperative that I should get home at once. Come, a couple of sovereigns are not earned as easily as that."

"Might as well take the gentleman home as not," one of the officers suggested. "Then we can give a call on the telephone to his own doctor. What's the address, sir?"

"Thirteen, Vernon-terrace," Colville muttered. "You can run me along on that trolley of yours. I'm afraid that I've hurt my left leg rather seriously."

Ailsa was not slow to realise the danger. If Colville was taken back to his house now, the place would be roused and old Susan called down. That being so, goodness knows what discoveries Colville was likely to make. In a way it was providentially that he did not feel equal to entering a cab. Evidently these policemen were going to pull him all the way home on the ambulance. Ailsa strolled away till she came to the shadows, and then she fairly raced over Waterloo Bridge, and made her way now slowly to the Strand. A cabman more than half-asleep raised an interrogative finger, half-expecting a fare. Ailsa stepped into the cab.

"Corner of Herring-street," she said. It occurred to her suddenly that it would be as well not to drive up to No. 13. "Get along quickly, please."

The old night-horse was shaken into a gallop, and presently Ailsa found herself before No. 13. She had the consolation of knowing that she had gained a good twenty minutes' start over the men with the ambulance, and, therefore, she had plenty of time to get into the house and clear out the others from her studio before the sick man arrived. She would put out all the lights, she decided, and then retire to her own room. Once the noise of those outside trying to get in came she would slip down in her dressing-gown and open the door.

All this Ailsa had arranged speedily in her own mind. She felt that she had done well, and that she had made what might prove to be a valuable discovery for Burles. The old house loomed dark and forbidding before her as she tapped on the door. She tapped again, and yet again, and nobody replied. She began to feel vaguely alarmed. Had anything happened to Grace? Were those people still in the studio? The situation was getting strained.

Evidently something had happened upstairs. It was impossible to gain admission to the house without making a disturbance, and at any time now the ambulance might arrive. In sheer despair, Ailsa tried the basement. She discovered, to her delight, that the door was not quite secured. With an effort that cost her a finger-nail, she pushed up the sash and reached the kitchen. As she looked up she could see the ambulance coming up the street. In blind haste, Ailsa stumbled up the kitchen stairs and into the hall. From a long lane of light that fell from the place above she could see that the gas was not out in the studio; it seemed to her that she could hear voices—at any rate, she could clearly distinguish the sounds of the band playing next door. At the same moment the hall-door bell clanged loudly.

"Get away at once," Ailsa cried. "At any risks you must go. Mr. Colville has met with an accident and they are bringing him here on a police ambulance. Can't you hear the bell?"

The words were uttered in a little more than a whisper, and yet they sounded hard and clear, and very distinct in the silent old house. Still no response came, and once more the hall-door clanged its message by the medium of the bell. The strange confused murmur of voices upstairs in the studio suddenly stopped. Somebody laughed harshly.

"Ronald Braybrooke," a hoarse voice said, with a quick burst of hysterical laughter. "Ronald Braybrooke, as I am a sinner. Ronald——"

"Say that name again," another voice whispered, "and I'll strangle you, you hound."

Again the hoarse laughter, again Braybrooke's name. Ailsa wondered what it meant. And all the time the front-door bell was clanging still more loudly.


XXV.—A GLIMMER OF THE TRUTH.

Just as if he had been doing the most natural thing in the world, John Stern laid the body of the unconscious La Belle Atalanta on the couch. He breathed heavily with the effort, a deep indignation blazed in his eyes.

"You don't understand," he said. "Nobody understands. That will all come presently. But that woman was being done to death; she was left neglected and alone; I carried her in here from the next house, as you know. I dare say the fiend who was supposed to give her shelter could find some ingenious excuse, but it was slow murder all the same. As if I did not know!"

"Still, I must ask for an explanation," Burles said. "That poor woman is known on the stage as La Belle Atalanta. By some means or another she found her way into the house of Lady Altamont next door, and there she was murderously assaulted by some person or persons unknown. As a perfect stranger to Lady Altamont——"

"Pshaw!" John Stern burst out passionately. "Stranger, indeed! Why those two women are sisters! I told you so before to-night. Yes, I shall be able to prove that when the time comes. And yet Lady Altamont denies all knowledge of her involuntary guest. She would give much to see that poor creature in her coffin, and she has taken steps to that end."

"You suggest," began Burles, "that more violence——"

"No," Stern said. "Not violence, but neglect. The woman is not so ill as she appears to be, but she wants careful attention. And that is exactly what she is not getting. Her nurse has been dismissed, ostensibly because she could not stand Sir Charles Altamont's interference. Nobody has been near the poor creature the last hour or so. Cannot you see the diabolical cruelty of it? The woman dies of her wounds, and nobody is the wiser. But Lady Altamont forgets that servants can be bribed, and I have my spies in the house who made the matter of this removal easy for me. I want to frighten Lady Altamont; to strike a blow that will break down even her strong nerves. And this is the way I have done it."

Stern looked round as if for approbation. Burles shook his head. Grace Wanless was looking at the speaker with distended eyes. She seemed as if she were going to break out with some passionate utterance, then she changed her mind.

"You might have left it to me," Burles said. "I might have moved through the medium of Scotland Yard without exciting Lady Altamont's suspicions, and at the same time putting her on her guard against anything of that kind. Do you see what you have done?"

"Yes," Stern said, sullenly. "I have saved a life whilst your official routine would have lost it."

Burles was fain to admit that there was something in the statement.

"But what are you going to do?" he asked. "The poor woman cannot stay here. The owner of the house may be back at any moment now; he will naturally demand an explanation."

"Not if I told him who the woman was," Stern said, with a queer smile. "You are keen on the solution of a plain mystery. I am after the solution of a score of them. If you only knew the web of intrigue that you are drawn into! But Archibald Colville need never know. This house is large, and Colville only lives in a small part of it. I was going to ask Miss Lefroy to nurse this woman. At my instigation old Susan will help, and Colville will be none the wiser. I wish I could tell you more, only I dare not speak. I implore you to let it be as I say, and you will never regret it. By my scheme I strike a blow at Lady Altamont. Imagine her feelings when she finds that her visitor has disappeared. She will not know what to do; her guilty knowledge must betray her sooner or later. Let me tell you, this victim has had no food or attention for two hours. Let her stay here for the present. If you only knew what I know! But my tongue is tied for the present. One moment."

Stern disappeared from the room with the air of a man who is perfectly familiar with his surroundings. He had scarcely gone before Grace Wanless seemed to wake from her walking dream. Her eyes were bright and glittering now; she looked like one who has a weight taken from her mind.

"Let me go back to the other house for a moment," she said. "I have something that I must do without delay. Will you open the panel for me, Inspector Burles? I assure you that I will be very cautious. But I must go—I must indeed. It is a matter that affects the happiness of one who is very dear to me."

Burles complied with the feeling that they were all mad, and that they would all come to their senses presently. All the same, he was going to see that the coast was clear before he allowed Grace to depart on her errand. There was no danger, as he ascertained for himself, and Grace was allowed to depart by means of the boudoir. She would come back very soon she said, and knock gently on the panel when she desired re-admittance. Only a few minutes elapsed before the signal came, and Grace reappeared, followed by a handsome man with a weak face and a good, clear blue eye. There was no mistaking the likeness between the two.

"My brother," Grace said, simply; "Mr. Cecil Wanless. I fetched him from the party next door. I particularly want him to see the gentleman who calls himself Mr. John Stern. Cecil, whatever you do here to-night or whatever you see, you must give me your word of honour to say nothing of."

Wanless gave the desired assurance. In spite of his rather weak, good-natured face, he looked very haggard and unhappy. He asked no questions and sought no information; he was too bewildered for that. There was a sound of shuffling feet, and John Stern entered.

"I have managed exactly as I thought I should," he said. "I have enlisted a powerful ally on our side. I can promise you that without boasting. La Belle Atalanta shall be carefully looked after here by those competent to nurse her, and that Mr. Colville shall be none the wiser. It is far better to do as I say. Because there is another thing I can promise you—when La Belle Atalanta is herself again the whole mystery will be cleared."

Burles nodded his approval. All this was horribly unprofessional and unbusinesslike. But there was a deep earnestness in Stern's manner that was impressing. Burles was about to say something when a deep, hoarse cry broke from Cecil Wanless. He was like one demented, like one who is torn between fear and a wild, unreasoning joy.

"Ronald Braybrooke," he yelled. "You can tell me all about Ronald Braybrooke. So you knew everything there was to know all the time. Oh, you scoundrel! And to think that I should have suffered——"

Stern whirled round suddenly, conscious for the first time of Wanless. His eyes blazed in a murderous fashion; he advanced with clenched hands.

"Silence, you fool," he whispered. "Utter that name again and I will kill you. Forget for the present that Ronald Braybrooke ever lived. Surely he suffered enough at your hands without you coming here and spoiling everything like this. If you do not want me to utterly ruin you——"

Wanless uttered the name again with a cackle of hysterical laughter. Stern checked a wild desire to fall upon the man and silence him. There was another interruption as the door opened, and Ailsa rushed into the room, agitated and shaken.

"Somebody was speaking of Ronald Braybrooke," she whispered. "They said he was not dead, and——"

"He is dead," Stern said, sternly. "He will never be seen again. Pray calm yourself. Miss Lefroy, something has happened—I can see it in your face."

The icy cold words recalled Ailsa to herself. She held up a hand to impose silence.

"There is a danger close by," she whispered rapidly. "I performed your errand, Inspector Burles. I followed the messenger to 746, Waterloo-road—the address to which you tracked the woman who is called La Belle Atalanta. I thought it was a strange coincidence, but there is more to follow. I saw my guardian turned out of that house. I saw him flung headlong into the street. And I stood by his side, scarcely knowing what to do. But I am wasting time. Mr. Colville is close by on an ambulance; in another minute the police will be here knocking for admittance, and I shall have to let them in. There will be need for a doctor. I implore you all to go away before the summons comes."

"That sounds like good advice," Burles exclaimed. "I shall be able to see you and hear your story to-morrow, Miss Lefroy. Meanwhile, we had better begone. Ah, there it is!"

A furious peal at the bell sounded discordantly through the old house. Stern smiled.

"The programme is just a little defective," he said. "It is true that we could all discreetly disappear and leave Miss Lefroy to admit her uncle. But we can't take that with us."

The speaker pointed to the unconscious figure on the sofa. He had managed to get the poor woman away from No. 14; but to get her back was quite another matter. Besides, Stern was in no mind to do anything of the kind. All the same, he had not anticipated such a return on the part of Archibald Colville as this.

And meanwhile the bell below was clanging uproariously. Even Burles was at his wits' ends to know what to do. It was Stern who settled the matter.

"Leave it in my hands," he said. "Return to No. 14, all of you. Suppose that whilst we are wasting time chattering here Lady Altamont comes back to her boudoir and cuts off your retreat. That would be a pretty business. Leave it to me."

"It is not by any means an easy situation," Burles pointed out.

"It isn't," Stern said, coolly. "Far from it. But Mr. Colville never comes here; indeed, he could not if he would, to-night. And that poor woman is as unconscious as the dead. I promise that she shall be well looked after; indeed, I have already arranged for her safety. Will you go, or are you going to stand there all night?"

Burles pulled back the panel, and a smile of assurance passed over his face. He beckoned to Wanless and his sister. The coast was clear. He was the last to leave, himself. Already Ailsa had extinguished the lights in the studio. She procured a dressing-gown from her room and crept downstairs to the front door. She was quite ready to play the part allotted her now.

There was not much the matter, one of the policemen assured her. The gentleman had met with a bit of an accident. A feeble voice from the ambulance confirmed the optimism. All that Colville wanted was some warm water and a glass of brandy. He was in his bedroom at length; he had dismissed the officers, and told them that he wanted nothing in the way of a doctor. He seemed very shaky and agitated, Ailsa thought, but he would accept no assistance at her hands. Ailsa heard him lock the door behind her after he had turned her out of the room.

With a deep sigh of relief, Ailsa flew along the corridor in the direction of the studio. When she got back there the lights were burning once more, but the place was empty. It seemed to Ailsa that she could hear stealthy footsteps overhead. Out of the gloom the figure of John Stern came towards her, his finger on his lips.

"Go up to old Susan's bedroom," he said. "She needs you there. You need not have the slightest anxiety about me—I know exactly what I am doing. Good-night."

"Stop one moment," Ailsa said. "There are one or two things that I must say to you. It was quite impossible for me not to hear what passed just now between Mr. Cecil Wanless and yourself. Is there any mystery about Ronald Braybrooke that I do not know? I ask you to tell me honestly and fairly if anything is being concealed from me. I have trusted you up to now—trusted you when I might have been excused from doing anything of the kind——"

"I know it," Stern murmured. "It was your faith in me that touched me to the core. It was that which gave me back my lost manhood. Because there was a good woman who trusted me I resolved to be worthy of her consideration. Believe me, I am acting for the best; I am doing all I can to right a great wrong. But you have asked me a plain question, and I will give you a plain answer. Things are being kept back from you—it could not possibly be otherwise. I could have deceived you with one or two cunning words, but I prefer not to do so. Won't you trust me a little further?"

Ailsa hesitated to give vent to the speech that rose to her lips. It seemed almost absurd that she should be putting her trust in this outcast, and yet there was something about him that held her with a kind of magnetic attraction. The man was palpably in earnest, and his voice was quite sincere.

"You try me very hard," the girl said. "My knowledge of the world is so little, and I have seen so small an amount of wickedness. Why cannot you confide in me?—what do you know about Ronald Braybrooke that you cannot tell me?"

"Are you prepared to wait for a week?" Stern asked. "It would ruin my future life if I were to speak now. It is not so very much to ask."

"Vary well," Ailsa said, with an effort. "Whatever your faults may be, you are brave and strong. Without another word I will wish you good-night."

Stern vanished with the air of a man who has a plan before him, and the means to carry it out. Ailsa crept up the stairs to old Susan's bedroom. The gas was full on, the perfect appointments of the room showed up in the light. On the bed, with its silken hangings, lay the figure of the unhappy La Belle Atalanta. Susan turned with a smile.

"Come and help me, dearie," she said. "We can manage without a doctor for the present. No, we are not going to be found out."

"And if Thomas—if your husband suddenly comes back?" Ailsa suggested.

"Good Heavens," old Susan groaned. "I had not thought of that—I had not thought of that!"


XXVI.—OLD SUSAN COMES OUT.

It was hard to be satisfied with information as meagre as that; still, the trouble with Thomas could be dealt with as it arose, it was not perilously imminent, but Ailsa asked no further questions. The strange spectacle of old Susan in this new light was sufficiently astonishing. She seemed to have lost all her old timidity and taciturnity. It was evident also that she knew everything about the mystery of No. 13.

"I don't want to be unduly curious," Ailsa ventured to say at length. "I don't want to know why the dangerous experiment of moving that woman here has been undertaken. The insinuation is that she was not properly looked after, but there is something more than this. If the poor creature should die, what is our position then?"

Old Susan smiled grimly. She was making the unconscious form on the bed comfortable. Ailsa could not but note the dark beauty of the stranger. She was not quite so young as she had seemed to be at the first blush, but she was still strikingly handsome.

"She is not going to die," Susan muttered. "She doesn't come from that kind of stock, I am a bit of a nurse myself, and I can tell. If she does die——"

"If she does die we shall get into trouble," Ailsa said. "Questions will be asked. You cannot get rid of bodies in that easy way in England. The thing must come out, and there would be an inquest. Susan, for our sakes we must call in a doctor."

Susan responded cheerfully enough that that would be all right. Ailsa was not to give herself the least anxiety, for she, Susan, would take all the blame. She was going to save a life and not sacrifice one. As to Mr. Colville, it would be quite easy to throw dust in his eyes. To all of this Ailsa listened with some feeling of anxiety.

"That is all very well," she said, "but I am not satisfied. There is a mystery here; unless I am greatly mistaken, there is crime also. Why does my guardian come and go in this mysterious fashion? why does that man John Stern have the run of the house? My guardian does not know him except as a friend of Ronald Braybrooke, and yet he manages to come here just when and how he pleases. For all I know he may be a scoundrel of——"

"No, no," Susan cried. There was a ring at passionate sincerity in her voice. "Do not believe that; there is nothing of the scoundrel about John Stern. Disabuse your mind of that idea. More sinned against than sinning. The same with Ronald Braybrooke. I knew him well, and I can testify to that. Ronald Braybrooke would have been a good and true man to-day but for the vile and sinister influence of this dreadful house. Ay, a good and true man, in spite of everything. You cared for him and he cared for you, no matter how he lived or died. And if he came back to you now from beyond the tomb you would still care for him?"

"It makes no difference," Ailsa said, wearily. "I loved Ronald Braybrooke. If he came back to me now and said that he had seen the error of his ways, I should believe him, and my heart would go out to him as before. I should trust him again and again. It is strange that John Stern inspires me with almost the same degree of confidence."

Old Susan's eyes gleamed, and her withered face flushed with pleasure.

"God bless you for those words," she said, huskily. "You will be glad some day to think that you uttered them. Dearie, dearie, we are all going to be happy yet."

The strange vague words had an uplifting effect on Ailsa. It was quite illogical, but she could not resist the feeling that Susan was concealing something good. She was glad, too, to find that her estimate of John Stern was a correct one. The girl's common-sense returned to her.

"Let us not altogether forget the present," she said. "Yonder poor creature is very ill. However clever you may be, she will require the services of a doctor. How can you manage that?"

But apparently Susan had thought of everything. Freed from the terror of her husband, she seemed to have become a different woman.

The doctor had already been arranged for, she said. She would call him in the first thing in the morning to see her niece. She had had a niece come to see her on more than one occasion, and Mr. Colville had raised no objection. He never raised any objection to anything so long as he was left in peace and quietness. Ailsa could see the logic of it all, and she was comforted.

"And your husband?" Ailsa asked. "What will he say if he comes back?"

Again the same strange gleam came into old Susan's eyes. She seemed to be struggling with some great emotion. It was some time before she replied.

"He is not coming back, at least not just yet," she said. "He may never come back any more. Thomas is a bad man, how bad a man I hope you will never know. But, clever and cunning as he was, he has met his match at last. If he does come home—but we need not dwell too much on that."

Ailsa asked no further questions. She had grown strangely tired. An overwhelming desire to sleep came over her. And yet she felt that she could not leave Susan to undertake the duties of the sick-room quite alone. If she could only get a few hours' rest it would be all right.

"I am going to bed now," she said. "Susan, I am determined to help you in this matter. I feel that my future happiness is more or less bound up in this mystery. And you could not possibly undertake the task alone. You have your duty to do. It will never do to arouse the suspicion of Mr. Colville. I am going to bed for four hours. At the end of that time please call me, and I will take your place. I should like to be of all the assistance I can."

Susan murmured her thanks. She would be very grateful, she said. Somewhere about four o'clock she would arouse Ailsa, and get an hour or two's rest for herself. Ailsa almost staggered to her bed, and threw herself down half-undressed. She was too fatigued to take anything else off; no sooner had her head touched too pillow than she was asleep. She felt as if she would never be able to wake again; her slumber was deep and peaceful.

Perhaps it was the knowledge of what was required of her but she opened her eyes in the lurking light of day, feeling quite sure that it was past four o'clock. As she lay there collecting her senses and recalling the vivid events of the previous night, a clock somewhere struck the hour of four. Alert and vigorous once more, Ailsa was out of bed.

A cold bath freshened and buoyed her up. The old house was intensely quiet for a time, and then it seemed to Ailsa that she could hear the sound of whispering in the corridor. By this time the light was growing stronger, the day was coming at last. Ailsa stepped out of her room noiselessly and made her way to the corridor. She rubbed her eyes with astonishment. Talking placidly together were old Susan and her hated Thomas!

There was not the slightest suggestion of enmity between those two people. Just for a moment it occurred to Ailsa that old Susan was playing her false. The woman was a consummate actress, who was using the girl for her own ends. And yet it could not be the case, there could not possibly be any acting about the way in which Susan had spoken of her husband. She had always appeared to be afraid of him; her aspect of relief when she had said that he was never coming back again was genuine. And yet these two were talking as if they were the best of friends.

Ailsa could not make it out at all. She felt justified in watching for a time. The conference was long and earnest, then at length Thomas walked down the corridor and took his way into Ailsa's studio. She could hear him looking about for something there. And she had never known Thomas to enter the studio before; it was not to be tolerated for a moment. Whatever happened, Ailsa was not going to have anything of this. She followed quickly into the studio. Thomas was making some calculations on paper; he had a foot rule in his hand with which he was measuring the wall.

"What does this mean?" Ailsa asked coldly. "I thought it was quite understood that you were not to come in here. Go out at once, please."

The man turned with a start. Then he smiled as he saw Ailsa. It was rather a pleasant smile, as Ailsa did not fail to note, so unlike anything she had ever seen on the face of Thomas before.

"I thought you had gone away," Alias said. "What does it all mean? Explain at once, or I shall fetch my guardian in here. And if he sees you——"

The voice was not the voice of Thomas, but it was that of John Stern. Its cold, hard, and yet very strangely familiar ring was not lost on Ailsa. She waited for the explanation in silence; she was long past all feelings of astonishment now. At every turn she was met with something new and strange. She expressed no sense of amazement as she confronted Stern.

"I must ask for some kind of an explanation," said Ailsa, coldly. "Not that I expect to learn much. Really, it would perhaps be better if I told my guardian everything that I have gathered. You are, beyond question, Mr. John Stern, as your voice tells me, but your likeness to Thomas is amazing. It deceived me for the moment. Whether it will deceive Mr. Colville——"

"I am going to run that risk," Stern replied. "Mr. Colville is a man of few words, and fortunately for me and my scheme his eyesight is anything but good. It will be a case of Essau and Jacob. And I implore you to say nothing, Miss Lefroy. You have helped me more than once already; you have been so good as to tell me that you believe in me. I pray you to keep your eyes closed a little longer, and you will not be sorry for it. It you do betray me now, you will be sorry for it to the last of your life."

"I am getting a little tired of these mysteries," Ailsa said. "They come too thick and fast for me. And I feel that I am being treated as a child in the matter. Inspector Burles trusts me, and regards me quite as an ally of his, but in our case I am to have all the faith and you are to say nothing. How do I know that this unwarrantable liberty of yours——"

"I admit that it is a liberty," Stern said huskily. "It is a most unpardonable liberty of mine to steal into your studio like this and act as if the whole place belonged to me, but there are powerful reasons for my conduct. Let me ask you a question before you proceed any further. Do you trust old Susan now?"

Ailsa hesitated a moment before she replied. She had had occasion to change her mind very considerably about old Susan of late. There was a time, and not so very long ago, that she and the ancient servitor had been very far apart.

"I have come to her way of thinking," she said. "Susan is strangely secretive, but I am gradually finding my way into her confidence. She has been very good about the poor creature who came here from next door, and I rather gather that old Susan hitherto has been acting under the influence of her husband. She seems to be terribly afraid of Thomas. But what has all that to do with it?"

"Everything, as you will see a little later on, if you have patience," Stern replied. "I implore you to wait and trust that I am acting in your best interest. Ask Susan if she does not think exactly the same as myself."

Ailsa sighed just a little impatiently. It seemed so hard to have to give everything, and yet get practically nothing in return. Perhaps John Stern saw this, for his face grew eager.

"I implore you to continue your noble confidence," he cried. "I swear to you that you shall find us all in every respect worthy of it."

Again was the ring of sincerity in the voice of the speaker that had impressed Ailsa, despite herself, more than once before. She would go a little further with the business, she decided. She bowed her head coldly and went along the corridor. She said nothing to old Susan as to what she had seen; she took her place quietly by the injured woman.

"She's sleeping beautifully," Susan whispered. "She'll want nothing for a long time yet. I'll go and get a bit of rest in the dressing-room."

There was silence in the house again, a silence that was likely to remain undisturbed for the next few hours to come, for breakfast was rarely earlier than ten o'clock at No. 13, and Susan was seldom about before nine. Ailsa closed her eyes for a moment; she was not quite so fresh and vigorous perhaps as she had imagined. Anyway, she closed her eyes, and presently she slipped off into a delicious, dreamy sleep. It was the healthy sleep of youth; the minutes and the hours ticked off, and yet Ailsa did not move. When she came to her senses again the sun was high overhead, there were sounds of people moving in the house, then a passionate upraising of voices in the dressing-room beyond. With a thrill of guiltiness, Ailsa recognised the tones of her guardian. She felt that in some way she had betrayed her trust. She gave one hurried glance at the bed whereon the patient was still sleeping peacefully; then she crept over to the door of the dressing-room, which was not quite closed. Beyond it she could see the white passionate face of Colville and the dogged features of old Susan. They were both breathing very loudly.

"You are a fool," old Susan muttered. "A jealous, unreasoning old fool, and you have been one all your lifetime. I tell you you are mistaken. I tell you that you shan't go into my bedroom, if I have to drive you out with this knife. What do you mean by it?"

By the way of reply Colville held up a tortoiseshell comb in his hand. With a thrill Ailsa recognised the harp-shaped comb that the injured woman had been wearing on her arrival next door before the dreadful assault had taken place.

"I picked that up in the corridor," Colville said. "There is no other like it in the world. You lying old wretch, what have you done with—my wife?"


XXVII.—CONSTERNATION!

So quickly and smoothly had everything happened that the people next door were utterly ignorant of all that had taken place during the progress of the festivities at No 14. Lady Altamont had managed to get the nurse out of the house without arousing the suspicion of anybody. The whole thing had been most skilfully worked out in that wily brain. In the first place, she had procured a nurse after her own heart—a woman cold and calculating, and ready for anything, provided that she did not run any personal or physical danger.

She had been well paid for her slender services, and was now ready to leave at any time. Lady Altamont had paved the way for her. The nurse had complained that she could not look after her patient properly, seeing that Sir Charles was nearly always in the way. Therefore she had offered at any moment to resign if Lady Altamont was not satisfied. Lady Altamont was not quite satisfied, so that the nurse had resigned her position and gone. In case of any authoritative inquiry, such as an inquest or the like, that would read well in the papers.

And Lady Altamont would have the excuse that it would have been impossible to engage the services of another nurse at a moment's notice; she could further plead that she was in ignorance as to the really critical condition of the stranger.

Quite callously and unfeelingly she had gone back to her guests again. She knew nothing of the coming and going of Grace Wanless and her brother, and of the man whom she firmly believed to be her friend, Rupert Lancaster. The note had been duly despatched to the man O'Brien, and doubtless by this time he had made his plans for crossing the Channel. On the whole, Lady Altamont felt no cause for alarm. It only wanted a little boldness now to pluck the dower of safety from the nettle of danger. The festivities were still at their height when Lady Altamont returned to the salon. She looked about her in vain to get a glimpse of the fictitious Lancaster, but he did not appear to be there. As a matter of fact, Burles had slipped into the street just for a moment after he and the Wanlesses had returned to No. 14, and there held a hurried conference with a man who stood patiently in the region of a pillar-box. The interview was brief but pregnant, and after it Burles returned to the house feeling that he had not wasted his time. It was getting very late now, and the streets were quite deserted; otherwise Burles's costume might have attracted unpleasant attention.

He came back now and took his seat by the side of Lady Altamont. Already most of the guests were awaiting the announcement of supper, which meal had been set out in the double room. At supper every one would be expected to unmask.

"Are you going to take me in?" Lady Altamont asked. "I have several things that I want to say to you, and I have kept myself back on purpose. Didn't you tell me that your mask would not come off without water?"

"That was the idea," Burles said, coolly. "I daresay you could manage to let me have the use of a dressing-room for the time being. To tell the honest truth, I had much rather not stay to supper at all. Practically nobody has recognised me, and as things have turned out it will be just as well if we are not seen much together for some time. Besides, I am not quite satisfied about the note which you sent by one of your footmen. It would have been far better if I had taken it myself."

"Always cautious and timid," she said, scornfully. "Always afraid of some imaginary danger! Do you suppose that the unmasking of your face to-night will cause such a sensation as all that comes to?"

Burles suppressed a chuckle. The detective had a very pretty humour of his own, and he could well imagine what the stripping off of the mask would mean. Still, he knew that such a course would be expected of him sooner or later, and he was clearing the ground now for a premature departure. There was a good twenty minutes before him still in which to mature his course of action.

"There is no question of being afraid," he said. "You are a little bit too courageous and daring for my taste. And you can't deny for a moment that this action of Terry's has got us into trouble!"

"Very likely," was the careless reply; "but O'Brien will get us out again. If there is anything to be done with the jewels he will make a good bargain for us."

Burles felt that he dared not ask any more, for fear of betraying himself. A slight slip of the tongue and everything would be ruined. The butler appeared at the door, and made a sign to Lady Altamont, who immediately stood up.

"Supper in ten minutes," she said. "You had better follow me, and I will show you the way to the small dressing-room near mine, where you can remove your mask. I don't see any reason why you should have made it so secure."

Burles could have given a dozen cogent reasons, but discretion forbade. He followed his hostess willingly enough up the stairs, for he had a little scheme in his mind which it was just possible to put into effect. If the scheme miscarried it would be an easy matter to slip out of the house when the hungry guests were going in to supper, and call a cab. He set about preparations for removing his mask quite busily. He turned on the hot water into the marble basin, and then stood listening eagerly.

He heard the voice of Sir Charles Altamont calling hoarsely to his wife, as the latter trailed her silken drapery down the stairs. There was a note of apprehension in the voice of the baronet, which was by no means lost on the detective.

"Oh, what are you bothering about now?" he heard the lady say, impatiently. "The patient again. Anybody would think you had the patient on the brain. She's all right."

"No, she isn't," Sir Charles said. "When you sent the nurse away a little time ago——"

"Just as if you don't know why I sent the nurse away! You can leave all these things quite safely to me, without muddling your head up worse than it is. What did you say?"

"Oh, I'm not so drunk as all that," Altamont muttered. "I suppose I can believe the evidence of my senses! I tell you the girl has disappeared!"

"Disappeared! The man is mad! You have one of your attacks coming on again. The best thing you can do is to get to bed at once, and send for your doctor."

"I tell you I'm speaking the truth," Sir Charles yelled. "I'm as sober as you are yourself—who would not be after a shock like that? The girl's vanished."

There was something in the passionate strain of the speaker's voice that caused Lady Altamont to pause in her descent of the stairs. She came back along the corridor, as Burles could tell by the swish of her draperies.

"Don't make that noise," she whispered, vehemently, "or you'll rouse the whole place. Try and tell me what you have to say quietly, like ordinary people."

"There is very little to tell," Sir Charles growled. "When I ascertained that the nurse was gone for good, I went to have another look at the patient. There was no patient to see—she had vanished! Oh, you may laugh and curl your lip in that scornful way, my lady, but it's the gospel truth. Come and see for yourself."

Burles chuckled to himself as he listened. He knew how true Sir Charles's statement was. There was a sudden break in the whispered conversation, and then a knocking on the door of the dressing-room. Burles slipped out and asked what had happened.

"She's gone," Lady Altamont said, with a face as white as ashes. "Vanished without leaving a trace behind her. Don't stand staring at me in that stupid way, but try and suggest something. You know who we had in the house. The police think that she was a total stranger to me, but you know better. What is to be done—eh?"

"Let me have the facts a little more plain," Burles said. "She has vanished. In that case had you not better ask the nurse to explain?"

"But there is no nurse," Lady Altamont cried. "She went an hour or two ago for good. And I am quite sure that the patient was all right then, for with my own eyes I saw her lying asleep in her bed. I cannot understand it at all."

"She must have got up and wandered away in her sleep," Burles suggested.

"Oh, impossible! Really, Rupert, you are more fatuous than ever to-night. I tell you, my—I mean that poor creature was sick to death. She lay in a most critical condition, she was at death's door, and yet she has vanished like this. It was impossible that she could have got away without human agency."

"Which seems utterly impossible in the circumstances," Burles said, thoughtfully. "That would mean an ambulance and a cab, and the help of two or three servants. I am afraid that we have a clever enemy close by who understands the position of affairs. This is a very serious matter. What had we better do?"

Lady Altamont stood there biting her lips with vexation. It was clear that she was horribly disturbed by this unexpected turn of events. She was utterly at a loss what to do. She glanced from her husband to her guest impatiently.

"The woman must be found," she said, suddenly. "We shall never induce the police to believe our story of her disappearance. She cannot be very far away. Go and find her."

"What, in my present disguise?" Burles exclaimed. "I really must change first."

"Well, go and change, and lose no time about it. Employ some really reliable private inquiry agent to assist you. The unexpected development has fairly stunned me for the moment. The cleverest man or woman in the world could not have foreseen this. But we are wasting the precious moments idling here. Away with you."

Burles was nothing loath to do Lady Altamont's bidding. He had been anxious for some little time to get away from the house, and here was a possible opportunity without the trouble of inventing some ingenious excuse. He made his way down the stairs, and ordered one of the many footmen lounging in the hall to call him a cab. As Burles ran down the steps he made a signal to the loafer who was lounging by the pillar-box.

Once arrived at home, Burles lost no time in ridding himself of the fancy dress. By the time he had finished and was down in his sitting-room again, the loafer by the pillar-box was waiting there to meet him.

"Anything to report, Sims?" he asked, briefly. "I suppose you got Lechmere to keep an eye on Mr. Rupert Lancaster, as I instructed?"

"That's all right, sir," Sims responded. "Mr. Lancaster went straight home again after he left you outside Vernon-terrace, and the gentleman had not stirred out again; at least, that is the message my runner brought to me. I hope you had a good night of it, sir."

"Capital!" Burles responded. "Couldn't have been better. It's a case of killing, not one, but half a dozen, birds with the same stone."

Sims rubbed his hands gleefully. He was a most efficient officer.

"I have been hearing all kinds of things I didn't expect," Burles went on. "I suppose you people have lost sight of O'Brien?"

"Indeed we have, sir," Sims admitted regretfully. "O'Brien seems to have vanished as utterly as if the earth had swallowed him up. I would give something for a sight of his face again."

"Well, you are going to have it before you are many hours older, unless I am mistaken," Burles said, in his most cheerful manner. "I have come upon the track of O'Brien by the greatest of good luck. At the present moment he is at 746, Waterloo-road."

The eyes of the listener sparkled. He appeared to be exceedingly pleased about something. He listened with interest to all that Burles had to say.

"We will go off at once," Burles concluded. "I should say that the two of us would be quite sufficient to effect our purpose. There is one thing that you must bear in mind, Sims: we are not going to arrest O'Brien to-night. We shall have to locate the fellow, and, if necessary, follow him to Paris, for which city he will be bound in a very short time. When we are ready we will just pick our man up, and there will be an end of it."

"I am game, sir," Sims replied. "I ask for nothing better than to work with you in this matter. But I don't quite see how we are going to get into the house at Waterloo-road. The place has a very evil reputation. There's a back door leading into a lane behind, so that we might manage a surprise in that direction."

"What are they?" Burles asked. "Coiners and that kind of thing?"

"Well, something of the sort. It's hard to say, as so many cosmopolitan rascals frequent the house. A dangerous gang, too. There's very little doubt that poor Pearson of the City Division met his death there four years ago, though his body was found some way off. Still, it's worth the risk if we can only get hold of O'Brien."

Burles appeared to be of the same opinion. A little later, and the pair were crossing Waterloo Bridge, on the way to their destination. Silently Sims pointed out No. 746 to his companion. So far as it was possible to judge, there was not a light in the house. Sims smiled grimly, as he pointed the fact out to Burles.

"Double blinds," he explained. "I shouldn't mind making a small bet that there are at least a score of people in yonder at this moment. The best thing we can do is to try the house from the alley at the back. Come this way, sir."

Burles followed without reply. They came at length to a miserable little lane, with squalid houses on both sides. Presently Sims turned up a dark entry, so narrow that the two men had to proceed in single file. At the end of the lane was a wall about 6ft. high, over which Burles and Sims scrambled, the latter leading the way in a manner that testified to the fact that he knew his ground to an inch.

They were in the yard of No. 746 now. There were no heavy blinds at the back of the house; the window of a small room was open, and within sat two men who were smoking cigars and drinking something that looked very much like champagne. Sims drew a deep breath as his eyes fell on one of the occupants of the dingy apartment.

"That's O'Brien, sir," he said. "The man with the felt hat and overcoat. It is quite evident from the bag by his side that he is ready for a journey. I don't exactly know who the other fellow is, though his face is quite familiar to me. I should like to know what you propose to do next."

Burles hesitated just for a moment. He had not made up his mind. He decided to stay there for a few minutes, until he could mature his plan of campaign. As he stood there the door of the room opened, and a woman came in. Burles grasped the arm of his companion in an excited manner.

"We will wait on events," he whispered. "That woman is Lady Altamont."


XXVIII.—TRYING IT ON.

There was no mistaking that tall, graceful figure. Beyond question, Lady Altamont had managed to reach the Waterloo-road almost as soon as Burles and his companion.

"That is a most wonderful woman," Burles said, admiringly. "Really, she is so clever and full of resource that she deserves to succeed. I had better tell you a few things that you do not know, Sims. In the first place, that is Lady Altamont. She is the wife of Sir Charles Altamont, who lives at 14, Vernon-terrace, and she is one of the smartest and most unscrupulous women in London. She has contrived to get hold of a large amount of jewels belonging to an American lady, Mrs. Wanless, and it is my business to try and regain those stones. I suppose you know O'Brien's pal Terry?"

"Oh, I know Terry right enough, sir," Sims replied. "I have had my eye on him for some time past. You can go on, sir."

"Well, your eye has not been troubled very much of late, seeing that Terry has been in Paris for some days. After the robbery of Mrs. Wanless's jewels, Terry was sent to Paris to dispose of them. Terry had a little game of his own to play, and has managed to land himself in the hands of the French police before he had time to dispose of the booty. This has rather upset the calculations of Lady Altamont, and she is in a terrible stew about it. O'Brien is to go to Paris without delay and try to get hold of those stones. And that is where we come in."

Sims nodded admiringly. Burles seemed to be working his case out very well indeed. It was quite a pleasure to be identified in a case with a man like this.

"And that is all I can tell you; indeed, it is all I know for the present," Burles concluded. "What I particularly desire now is to overhear that conversation, if possible."

The thing was not entirely out of the question, though it possessed many risks. Sims silently indicated an open window on the first floor, and a rainwater pipe alongside of it. With a chuckle Burles moved along till he stood just outside the window of the room where Lady Altamont and her co-conspirators were talking. It was impossible to hear a single word outside.

"I must risk it," Burles muttered. "I've got my revolvers with me, Sims. You had better stay outside. In case I give the signal you will raise the alarm at once. This is a case where audacity is likely to pay best."

Sims expressed no opinion on the subject at all. He had only to obey the instructions of his chief and wait upon events. There was no difficulty before Burles in the matter of the waterpipe. His naval training stood him in good stead once more, and presently, without making the slightest noise, he was seated on the window-ledge.

From that coign of vantage he peeped cautiously into the room. No sign of a light was there, nothing beyond a slit that came from the landing where a paraffin lamp stood. So far as Burles could see he was in a bedroom. There were two beds, and on each of them lay the figure of a man fast asleep. Neither man had removed his clothes, and one of them was snoring soundly. Greatly daring, Burles crept across the bare floor and opened the door a little wider, so that he might get the full benefit of the lamp. Then he proceeded to examine the faces of the sleeping men.

"Well, this is a find," he told himself, as he made his way into the passage. "We'll just come and pick those two up as soon as I have finished this little business."

The landing was quite clear, so that Burles had no difficulty in reaching the hall. At the doors, which were open, in one room four men were playing bridge. Very softly Burles opened the door leading to the yard. He wanted to have a means of ready exit if possible, and it was just as well, if the worst came to the worst, to leave without being identified. He signified to the vigilant Sims what he had done, and the latter coughed gently.

Burles was feeling cosier in his mind now as he returned to the dingy hall. By standing at the bottom of the stairs he could see into the room where Lady Altamont was closeted with the man called O'Brien. The latter had every appearance of being a gentleman; he was neatly and plainly dressed in a dark lounge suit, his linen was spotless, he had no kind of jewelry about him whatever. His clean-shaven, clever face was frank and ingenuous; indeed, one of the most potent weapons in O'Brien's armour was his innocent appearance.

"Well, it can't be helped," he was saying, in his gentlemanly voice. "It is our misfortune that Terry is always too clever. If he has found himself in the hands of the Paris police, as you declare, then they will search his rooms in their methodical way, and not so much as a false tooth will escape them. If this has been done already, then you can say good-bye to your share of the Wanless diamonds."

"That is exactly what I am afraid of," Lady Altamont replied. "I sent you a letter to-night; but after that was despatched I decided to come and see you. At the present moment I am supposed to be at home, looking after my guests. I came because I felt that you would not care to run any great risks for my sake."

"I don't," said O'Brien, candidly. "Your ladyship is not sufficiently honest for my taste. You may laugh at my remark, but you know perfectly well what I mean. Twice I have pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for you, and each time I have been done out of my share of the booty. I don't think much of Lancaster either—he has the instincts of a rogue without the pluck to put desire into execution."

"It pleases you to be epigrammatic to-night,' Lady Altamont sneered.

"Quite so," O'Brien replied, imperturbably. "It is a reminiscence of my Oxford days. Seems funny to think that once I was a fellow of my college with every prize the university had to offer before me! Is crime a disease, I wonder? Am I not more an object of pity than contempt? Really, that is a problem that is worth working out."

"Meanwhile," Lady Altamont said impatiently, "we are wasting time. I am bound to be missed if I stay here any longer. And yet you are chatting all the time as if the hours were nothing. Will you be so good as to get to business, please?"

O'Brien laughed as he lighted a fresh cigarette at the end of the old one.

"Softly, softly," he said. "That imperious manner of yours does not impress me in the least. And I have not yet promised that I would take a hand in the business. Past transactions with you have not tended to prejudice me in your favour."

Lady Altamont choked down the bitter words that rose to her lips. She could not afford to quarrel with the man—at least, just for the moment.

"I suppose you want to make me feel my position," she said. "Well, I am ready to offer you any apology that you require. I will give you £500 if you will put this matter through for me—at least, I will give you the money when you recover the gems."

"Oh, indeed, that is very good of you. I am to take all the risks for an absurdly small share like that! It never seems to occur to you that if I am successful I shall come back to England with the diamonds in my pocket. If the desirable takes place I shall be in a position to take everything and give you nothing. You could not say so much as a single word. And, not to unduly trample on your feelings, that is exactly the way in which you would serve me."

"I am entirely in your hands," Lady Altamont said, bitterly. "You may laugh and jeer at me as much as you please. I presume you would not do so unless you had decided to take the matter up in earnest. If those stones have not fallen into the hands of the Paris police——"

"Oh, but they have. You may make up your mind on that score. I feel quite sure that they have already been found; they are practically advertised by this time."

"Then that is all in our favour," Lady Altamont cried, exultantly. "If they are advertised in that way, they are not likely to be claimed. Perhaps you had better have the full facts of the case."

"It would perhaps be as well," O'Brien said, drily.

"Well, it is like this: Sir Charles and myself made friends with Mrs. Wanless, a rich American lady, who is a chronic invalid. We knew, of course, that she had a fine collection of diamonds, or we should never have gone to the expense of hiring a yacht, and all that kind of thing. I began to see my way to a successful issue from the very first. Mrs. Wanless has a son who is very weak and impressionable——"

"Oh, I can imagine all that," O'Brien said, with a smile. "A really young calf of a boy in close contact with a lovely woman like yourself, who has a husband who is not in sympathy with her. It is an old, old game, but it is none the less reliable for that. So gradually you got round the young fool, and in the course of time the diamonds were yours."

"You have guessed it exactly," Lady Altamont said, without a blush. "But I am pretty sure that the girl, Grace Wanless, suspects. The mother has not been told of her loss, because she is not in a fit state of health to stand the shock. As soon as possible I placed the stones in the hands of Terry, so that he could dispose of them. And now you know everything. Can't you see some way out of the difficulty? You are a perfect master of the art of trick and disguise. A man so clever as yourself must surely——"

"Oh, I am indeed a man of intellect," O'Brien said, bitterly. "And see what my brilliant brain has brought me to. I am disowned by my relations, I am an object of scorn for all honest men. I might be in the possession of a good income to-day; I might be envied of many. And here am I, hiding in this dingy den, with not a solitary five-pound note to call my own. Truly, as the Psalmist says, 'The ways of the transgressor are hard.'"

"A fit of conscience!" Lady Altamont sneered. "Does that mean an extra share for you?"

O'Brien passed his hand across his eyes, as if trying to wipe out some mental picture.

"I was forgetting myself for the moment," he said. "We will not discuss an ethical point that you are not capable of understanding. You want me to think of some plan whereby the missing gems may be restored to you. As to my payment, I shall make my bargain when I am in a position to command my own terms. As to the rest, the matter seems easy. Could you get me a pretty accurate description of the lost property?"

"As it so happens, I can," Lady Altamont explained. "I imagined that you would require something of the kind, so I brought the list with me. It lay on the top of the case when the gems came into my possession."

She handed over the paper, which O'Brien proceeded to scan carefully. As he did so the sad expression left his face, and he smiled. It was evident that he was beginning to see his way quite clearly. The clever brain was at work.

"Very well," he said, at length. "I will undertake the business. Only I cannot possibly go to Paris before the day after to-morrow. I have something in hand that may turn out to be worth thousands to me."

Lady Altamont made a gesture of passionate impatience.

"You must go!" she cried. "It is absolutely imperative that you should do so."

"Not at all, my haughty lady—not at all. I either work the thing in my own way or I have nothing whatever to do with it. You come to me because you cannot get anybody else, and there is no love lost between us. As I said before, I have a big thing of my own, and that I cannot possibly leave till the day after to-morrow. We are probably agreed that the missing property has already fallen into the hands of the French police, so that a day or two makes no difference. We are also of opinion that the advertising of gems is not likely to produce an owner—at least, it will not produce an owner till I put in an appearance."

"You are going to claim it?" Lady Altamont asked, eagerly. "You have already evolved a plan. Do tell me how you mean to go to work?"

"Well, I'll give you an outline of the idea," O'Brien said, coldly. "I am a rich French gentleman, and my perfect knowledge of the language will enable me to play the part. I have had a great deal of trouble with an English nephew lately, and I fear that he has gone astray. My nephew will be very like Terry; in fact, you will already have guessed that it is Terry for whom I am looking. As he is in the hands of the police, naturally I find him. I will give him the tip, and he will see exactly what I am driving at. I shall tell him to put off the police, and if he returns the gems all will be well. If he denies all knowledge of the stones, then I shall know that in that respect he has successfully evaded the police. If he pretends to be ashamed, why, then I shall know where the diamonds are. And I shall not give a full description of them, but I shall produce the receipts. It only requires a little audacity, and the thing is as good as done."

Lady Altamont laughed aloud for the first time.

"Capital!" she said. "It could not be better. The scheme is sure to succeed."

"And no danger to you at all," said O'Brien, cynically. "You see, there can be no danger in delay. And now it seems to me that you had better be going."

Lady Altamont rose from the chair in which she had been seated and made her way towards the door. As she did so Burles slipped into the yard. He was on the best of terms with himself and exceedingly pleased with his evening's work. Peeping through a crack in the door, he could see O'Brien letting Lady Altamont out. A moment later there was the sound of a cab whistle and the jingle of harness.

O'Brien came back presently, meditatively smoking his cigarette.

"I fancy we are finished for to-night," Burles whispered to his confederate. "At any rate, you can go, Sims, only you had better come and see me at my rooms after breakfast to-morrow morning. I shall have plenty for you to do then. Good-night!"

"You are not coming yet, sir?" Sims asked. "If there should be any danger——"

"Oh, there is not likely to be any danger now," Burles replied. "I am going to stay a little longer, because a little idea has just occurred to me. Now you be off."

Sims saluted obediently, and departed quietly in the direction of the narrow entry. Burles could see that O'Brien was busy writing now. The house was very quiet, and its outward appearance did not denote that it was the headquarters of a dangerous gang of criminals. As Burles stood there in the black silence he suddenly started. Somebody was ringing the front-door bell of the house, for the ripple of noise came clearly to the detective's ear.

Apparently it was expected, for O'Brien did not start or look guiltily about him. On the contrary, he carefully and leisurely finished the sentence he was writing and lighted a fresh cigarette before he rose in a curt way from the table.

The front door opened presently, and a figure came in, following behind O'Brien. As the figure came into the light the detective whistled softly.

"Now, I should like to know the meaning of this game," he muttered. "I should indeed."

For the newcomer was none other than John Stern!


XXIX.—A WINDFALL.

Ailsa stood outside by the door of the bedroom after hearing Colville's astounding question, listening to what was going to happen next. If she expected any signs of confusion or hesitation on the part of old Susan she was mistaken. She stared at Colville for a moment, and then broke into a strange laugh.

"Well, that's a queer question for you to ask me," she said. "What have I done with your wife? What did you do with her yourself ten years ago? Do you suppose that I have forgotten that awful winter's night and all that occurred then? And from that day to this you have never so much as mentioned the name of your wife. And now you come asking me what I have done with the poor creature. You are madder even than I thought."

But this merciless satire did net seem to move Colville in the least. Through the open door Ailsa could see his white, dogged face glaring at Susan. The old man shaded his eyes, as if the light of day was too strong for him.

"You are fooling me," he said, in a level, passionless tone. "You know that my eyesight is going—going slowly, but surely. I can't make out that hard face of yours; everything seems to have become misty. But my wife came here, I know."

"How do you know?" Susan retorted. "Have you been looking for her?"

"Perhaps it has become necessary to do so. I asked too many questions, perhaps. But there were some men who fell upon me and half-killed me. It was in a house in the Waterloo-road. But that is beside the point. Where is my wife?"

Again Susan laughed. The jarring mirth seemed to sting Colville, for he took a step forward.

"I believe you know where she is," he said. "I must find her—there are reasons that I cannot tell anybody. She is in your room, I am certain of it. And I am going to see."

Susan resolutely barred the way. "Nothing short of violence should make her move," she said.

"There is somebody in my room," she muttered. "My niece. She has been here before, as you may well know, and you made no objection then. Besides, she is not well. I am just going to send for a doctor for her. Maybe the trouble is something catching. I've been your servant for long, but I'm not going to be your slave. Go away."

"I don't go till I have seen what is in that bedroom," Colville said doggedly. "Let me pass."

The two stood glaring at each other for a few moments. The sound of their voices echoed in the dull, silent old house. Then, with a scornful laugh, Susan fairly pushed her employer out of the room and locked the door behind him. Ailsa could hear him stagger into the corridor. She heard him come round as quickly as possible to the bedroom door. She slipped out herself so as not to be seen. But it was too late, for she came almost violently into collision with Colville as he made for the open door. Ailsa could hear the second key grate in the lock and the mocking laugh of Susan.

"You in it, too!" Colville exclaimed. "What are you doing here, Ailsa? If I thought that you had any connection with this business——. Go down to your studio, I shall have something to say to you presently. Susan can look to herself."

"I am afraid I don't quite understand what you are talking about," Ailsa said coldly. "You have been so strange in your manner lately. If you think that I am engaged in some vulgar intrigue with one of your servants, why—but it is impossible. I have learnt very little of you during the past few years, I have learnt still less of your domestic staff."

"Then what are you doing up here?" Colville asked, in the same suspicious manner. "What are you after at the top of the house? Answer me that?"

But Ailsa declined to do anything of the kind. She was not exactly acting a lie, but she had an uncomfortable feeling that she was suppressing the truth. She wondered if it would not be better in the long run to speak freely of all she knew. And yet, on the other hand, she felt that such a course would be playing into the hands of the enemy. That old Susan was engaged in some good purpose she felt certain. Or why had old Thomas been spirited away, and why had John Stern personated that queer servant?

"I am going down to my studio," Ailsa said, with dignity. "It would be idle to pretend that I am not aware that strange things are taking place under this roof. Whether they are criminal or not, I could not say. But I do not allow my curiosity to ask questions. When you are in a frame of mind to talk properly to me again, I shall be glad to see you."

Colville smiled grimly.

"Very well," he said. "I will come down in half an hour. And I shall put some pertinent questions to you. As to your future, for instance. The discussion of your prospects has been postponed from one cause or another. I dare say you are curious on that point. Have you any idea what fortune you came into on your twenty-first birthday?"

"I have not the slightest idea," Ailsa said. "Enough for my simple wants, I presume."

"Not one penny," Colville cried. "That much I can tell you. The small sum your father died possessed of has been exhausted. And you have no claim on me; rather it is the other way about. I could turn you out into the street; I could wash my hands of you altogether. You have been brought up to nothing useful or practical. I doubt if you could earn a mere pittance by that beloved art of yours. Think it over; ponder over what may become of you if you run counter to me. And mind, it is ruin if you choose to thwart my wishes."

Colville had raised his voice to a scream. His voice echoed through the silent house. Out of the shadow emerged the figure of the sham Thomas. He took Colville by the arm much as if he had been a headstrong boy in a fit of passion, and piloted him down the stairs. Spite of her indignation Ailsa could not restrain a feeling of pity for her guardian. She could see how he fumbled his way down the stairs by the aid of the balusters. His blindness seemed to have become suddenly worse. Ailsa could hear him grumbling as he went along.

But she had other things to occupy her attention. Colville's statement as to the position of affairs had come quite as a shock. That her guardian had a single spark of affection for anybody but himself she doubted. She was under the impression that her stay it No. 13 was a mutual convenience based on a monetary consideration. And here she was a pauper dependent upon the caprice of this mysterious old man.

For an hour or more Ailsa sat and looked the situation squarely in the face. She could not stay here any longer, she told herself. She would have to go away and seek her own living.

Her mind was still on the rack when the door opened, and Colville came in. He had a small harp-shaped ornament in his hand, and Ailsa recognised with a thrill that it was the comb belonging to the unfortunate woman upstairs. It must have dropped from her head the previous night when John Stern had carried her from the next door. There was no mistaking the look of cunning and enmity on the face of Archibald Colville now.

"I am not going to waste your time," he said. "When I was looking here for something this evening, quite by accident I stumbled on this. It lay on your table here. I have been examining it by means of a powerful glass. I have established beyond all doubt the fact that this comb belonged to my wife. I have also established the fact that my wife has been lately in London. Who she is and why I am no longer living with her matters nothing to anybody but myself. But the point remains that my wife has been lately here in a room which one has regarded as your private sitting-room."

"Which private sitting-room you have been rummaging about," Ailsa retorted.

"I am not going to deny it. I was in search of certain papers, I found this instead. You know, you must know, how it got here. Tell me and I will be lenient with you. Defy me and I will turn you out of this house like a dog."

Once more Colville's voice rose to a scream. Ailsa's courage rose also.

"I don't know who the comb belongs to," she said. "I am going to say nothing. And as to my stay in this house, you can put an end to it when you like. Anything would be better than existing in a mouldy grave like this. You have only to say the word——"

A torrent of words seemed to rise up in Colville's throat and choke him. There was a strange gleam in his eyes that suggested the cunning of madness. It was in her to call for assistance, but she was a little too proud for that. And it seemed to her that she could hear footsteps outside. The footsteps came nearer, and then, without any ceremony or any kind of apology, the sham Thomas entered room.

"Everything is ready," he said in a voice dry and hard, and so like the voice of the man he was representing that Ailsa was moved to admiration. "What are you doing here? Why waste your time here when there are other things to be done? Come along."

"I'm coming," Colville said, with a sudden change of manner. "But I mean all that I say. I tell you I am as hard as the nether millstone when I am thwarted. And if you don't tell me the truth before you go to bed you pass no second night under my roof. I——"

But Thomas dragged the speaker away. Behind his mask of paint and assumed indifference the eyes of John Stern had a deep gleam in them. Silently he conducted Colville down to his own room and placed him in a chair.

"I have something to show you," he said. "It is a copy of a document that came whilst you were at Birmingham. You told me to open all letters, and I did so. It is a pity you had not seen that document before you made an enemy of Miss Lefroy."

"She is deceiving me," Colville growled. "She, a pauper on my bounty. Wait till that money of Ronald Braybrooke's comes into my hands, wait till——"

"Are you quite sure that it ever will come into your hands? Stay here a moment."

Stern returned presently with a sheet of blue official-looking paper in his hand.

"This is a copy of an original document," he said. "It relates to Ronald Braybrooke and to his affairs. What date did Braybrooke come into all that money?"

"Nearly a year ago," Colville replied. "We advertised for him, we searched for him everywhere. And he is dead; we have the evidence of John Stern to prove it. He fell off a yacht in the South Sea, and was drowned. And the money reverts to me."

"Under ordinary circumstances, yes. But suppose that during the last few months Ronald Braybrooke had made a will leaving his money elsewhere? Suppose the will had been properly attested and deposited with a firm of solicitors? What then? Who would the money belong to?"

"To the person to whom it was left, of course," Colville said helplessly. "And that paper——"

Stern's eyes gleamed as he handed over paper and a strong magnifying glass to the man whom he chose to regard as his employer. Colville started and his lips grew white.

"What is this?" he cried. "The thing is a forgery."

The old man was trembling from head to foot, so that Stern was almost sorry for him. But the sham Thomas had a stern purpose in his heart, and was not going to be deterred from it on any condition. He shook his head whilst Colville held the paper to his twitching face, and tried to make himself the full master of its strange contents.

"I am getting old and feeble," Colville muttered. "There is not a soul about me that I can trust."

"That is because you have never trusted other people," Stern said. Just for a moment he had forgotten that he was playing a part, for his voice was very harsh and hard. "You have always played for your own hand regardless of the feelings of other people. And now that you are getting old and feeble and past relenting, you whine about it."

"What do you mean, Thomas?" Colville asked. "What do you mean by speaking to me in this fashion? You have never done so before. Anybody would think that you were quite an honest man who had heard you address me in this fashion."

Stern changed his ground quickly. He had quite forgotten himself.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he said. "I did not bring you here to quarrel with me. But you told Miss Lefroy just now that she had not a penny in the world, and I asked you to come here and dispute it. If the truth was only known, it is you who do not posses a penny in the world, while that young lady——"

"Thomas," Colville almost screamed. "My good Thomas. Seeing that Ronald Braybrooke died without making a will, why——"

"But he didn't, sir. In your hand you hold Ronald Braybrooke's will. He leaves every penny to Ailsa Lefroy. You will find the thing is quite legal."

With a despairing cry Colville buried his face in his hands.

"Then I am ruined," he murmured. "Ruined beyond hope of——!"


XXX.—A REVELATION.

"The thing is no forgery," Stern said in a deep voice. "It is a copy of a will—the original being in the possession of a respectable firm of solicitors—by which all the money Ronald Braybrooke died possessed of becomes absolutely the property of Ailsa Lefroy. In other words, Ailsa Lefroy gets everything, and your claim is worth nothing. In other words, again, Ailsa Lefroy is a great heiress, and you are a pauper. This very house belongs to her. The thing is, what are you going to do next?"

With a deep groan Colville buried his face in his hands.

Archibald Colville glared at the paper as if it contained something deadly. He looked up swiftly at the pseudo Thomas as if he meant to read his inmost thoughts. But Stern had slightly turned away his head as if he had seen something interesting out of the window.

"What do you think of it?" Colville croaked. "I cannot see your face. I cannot see anybody's face now, and that is why you get the best of me. Is this genuine?"

"I should say that there is not a doubt of it," Stern replied. "Apparently, the copy of the will came from a respectable firm of solicitors. Stupidly enough I mislaid the letter that came with the document, but those people are sure to write again."

"Get the original," Colville whispered. "Pay them handsomely for it. Let them run up a big bill of costs for investigation—I don't care if it is £1,000. Let them know that Ronald Braybrooke died an outcast and a pauper. Nobody but you and me know that Braybrooke had benefited under the will of a man who was a comparative stranger to him. Above all, we must not let Ailsa Lefroy know."

"No," Stern cried. "I'll be no party to fraud. You and Thomas—who is myself—have done enough mischief from time to time. Besides, it is too dangerous. Braybrooke knew what he was doing when he forwarded that will to a firm of solicitors. It proved that he did not trust you. How do you know that he did not warn the solicitors against you? You are mad to think of such a scheme!"

Colville sank back on his chair, muttering to himself. He could see the plain logic of the suggestion. Stern followed up his advantage.

"You are making a most dangerous suggestion," he said. "It would be an ill thing if two old men like ourselves found the inside of a gaol for the next ten years. Of course, this has come as a great shock to you, but it cannot be helped."

"But what is to become of me?" Colville moaned. "Within half an hour or so I as good as told Ailsa Lefroy that she was a pauper, and that I was going to turn her out of the house. I have made an enemy of the girl, and she will be only too delighted to have the opportunity of paying me out with my own coin. I can imagine what her face will look like when she realises that the tables are turned, and that she is the one with money and I am the pauper."

Stern turned away his face, so that Colville could not see the disgust written upon it.

"Nothing of the kind," he exclaimed. "I am perfectly certain that Ailsa—I mean Miss Lefroy—would be the last person in the world to act like that. She has too noble and refined a mind for anything of the kind. She will not even take the trouble to remember the hard words you said to her just now. She will bid you stay here as long as you live; she will act generously in the matter of money."

Colville faced round upon the man whom he took to be his servant, and laughed bitterly.

"You are going mad," he cried. "Your brain is softening. Have we not agreed again and again that there is no such thing as kindness and generosity in the world. Did we not come to the conclusion that any action was based on self-interest. And now you are talking to me like a chapter from some silly novel."

"All the same, I feel that I am right," Stern persisted.

Colville laughed once more. Then his voice sank to a hoarse whisper.

"Conceal it," he said. "Take the risk and destroy the cursed thing. Do what I ask you and half that noble fortune is yours."

"Conceal nothing," Stern replied. "Tell Miss Lefroy everything. Beyond all question she will find herself mistress of £100,000 before long. And you have threatened to turn her out of the house because you fancy she is concealing something from you. You did not find the girl cringe and bend as you expected—she accepted your mandate in silence. And now the trick of fortune has placed a large sum in her hands."

"The sum that would have been mine but for a lucky chance," Colville muttered. "The way in which I have angled and schemed for it. With that money I could have retrieved my fortunes, and taken a pretty revenge on my enemies. I could do it now, if you stood by me."

"No," Stern said coldly. "Your faithful servant has stood by you pretty well in the past. But I am not going to do this. The danger is far too great. Call the girl in and tell her."

With an angry oath Colville declined to do anything of the kind. He raved and swore, he reviled Stern, but all to no purpose. The latter refused to listen to anything. He stood there quite unmoved, until the tempest of anger had passed away.

"If you don't tell her, I will," he said. "Fool, do you think we can work in the dark? Tell the girl, make much of her, apologise for your harsh conduct, keep her in the house. She is but a child in the ways of the world; in a few days she attains her majority. Then you will have the girl under your own eyes, and her fortune to manipulate. And yet, knowing all this, you are prepared to risk a criminal prosecution."

"You are cleverer than me, far cleverer than me," Colville croaked. "You are right, Thomas. Send the girl to me, and I will tell her everything. I dare say I shall be able to persuade her that I was speaking rashly just now. Go and send her to me."

Stern departed without another word. There was a grim smile on his face as he walked along the corridor in search of Ailsa. He found her in the studio engaged in painting, as if nothing had happened. But there was a glow on the girl's face and a sparkle in her eyes that told of the working of a brave and independent spirit.

"Mr. Colville wants you," Stern said. "He has some news for you. I fancy you will find that his views and his ideas have changed in the last half-hour. He will practically apologise for his conduct and ask you to stay here. It will be for you to say whether you do or not. But I implore you to be guided by me. For the sake of your happiness and for the sake of others, I ask you to remain for the present."

This with a deep passion and sincerity in the speaker's words. But Ailsa listened coldly.

"I do not like these mysteries," she said. "And if you only knew what a prison-house this place is to me! But I need not go into that. The point is, why should I stay here?"

"That I cannot tell you—at least not at present. But it will not be for much longer. You will bitterly repent it after if you do not stay. Go and learn what Colville has to say, and I will wait for you here, for I have a favour to ask at your hands. If you will grant that favour you will be doing me a great service."

Ailsa went away feeling that she must do as the man asked. She knew nothing about him. She met him first under the most suspicious circumstances, and yet there was something in his personality that greatly fascinated her. She did not stop to ask herself questions: she shut her eyes to the last disguise—the impersonation of old Thomas—feeling all the time that he was one who was her friend. She did not want to stay in the house; but at the same time she knew in her heart of hearts that she would do exactly what Stern had suggested.

She listened without the faintest emotion to what Colville had to say, save that there was something soothing and uplifting in the knowledge that Ronald Braybrooke had never forgotten her, even in his most degraded moments. The will Colville spoke of came as a kind of message from the grave; the material advantages did not strike Ailsa at all.

"This money will be all yours, to do as you like with," Colville said. "Once the formalities are over, you will be a great heiress. Strange that Braybrooke should make that will, when he had not the least idea that he would ever possess a penny piece!"

"I fancy I can understand why the will was made," Ailsa said softly. "And if that will had not been made, where would the money have gone?"

"To me," Colville said, with a sudden hiss in his voice. "To me, child. But I am forgetting. I have to ask you to forget and forgive what I said just now in the heat of the moment. I have been greatly worried lately. I am not at all well. If you will leave me now——"

"Then I remain here for the present," Ailsa said. "I shall be glad to do so, guardian. I shall have to get you to look after my affairs."

Colville croaked out something, and returned to the paper that he was reading by the aid of his powerful magnifying-glass. Ailsa found Stern pacing up and down the studio waiting for her.

"Well?" he said eagerly. "Have you done as I suggested? Yes, I can see by your face that you have. And you have decided wisely. A little longer and you will be sure of it."

"I am by no means sure of it now," Ailsa said, coldly. "I have only your word for it. I put my trust in you because something impels me to do so. Not that I have forgotten my promise to Miss Wanless and Inspector Burles. So long as I can be instrumental in the righting of a great wrong I shall stay here. But I hate this mystery."

"The mystery will not last much longer," said Stern, eagerly. "I pledge you my word for that. And now I am going to ask you a favour. It is a very prosaic favour, and I am afraid that it will not raise me in your estimation. You will be very rich before long, so that money will be no great object to you. I want you to lend me twenty pounds."

Ailsa promised the desired favour without the slightest hesitation. She had little more than that sum in the house; she liked to feel that she had something in case of anything happening. All the same, she rather wondered why Stern wanted the money, as he counted the shining sovereigns in his hand. He touched her fingers with his lips and was gone. It seemed to Ailsa that he had been unable to express his thanks.

Stern slipped out of the house presently, shorn of the disguise of old Thomas, and made his way in the direction of High-street, Chelsea. There he called at the house where Ailsa had seen him first, and made certain payments. As a matter of fact, Ailsa's twenty pounds had been the means of preventing John Stern from being arrested for debt.

Than Stern made his way westward. He had effected some improvement in his dress; he looked fairly good class in a frock-coat and top hat. He came presently to some of the streets leading off St. James's Park, and, stopping at a certain number, asked for Mr. Cecil Wanless. Mr. Wanless, it appeared, was just finishing his breakfast, and had given orders that nobody was to see him but his tailor. Stern smiled meaningly at the servant as he pressed half-a-crown on him.

"Then I have come at the right moment," he said. "I'll announce myself, please. First floor?"

It was the first floor, a luxuriously furnished set of apartments giving every evidence of expenditure and extravagance on the part of the occupier. A white-faced, sickly-looking young man sat before a more or less untasted breakfast with a cigarette in his hand, and a glass of brandy-and-soda before him. He smiled slightly as he looked at the intruder.

"What the deuce do you want here?" he asked. "And what is your confounded name?"

"You can call me John Stern for the present," was the quiet reply. "I don't suppose that you have ever had the pleasure of meeting Mr. John Stern in the flesh before, at least not till last night, when you came face to face with me at No. 13, Vernon-terrace. You were so good as to confound me with somebody else last night."

"I had been drinking a great deal of champagne," Wanless said, sulkily. "I have been worried. And in some funny way I took you for Ronald Braybrooke. Goodness knows why. But you know when a man is drunk how frequently his brain flashes what are wonderfully like inspirations. That is why I called you Braybrooke. Of course, now I am in my sober senses, why—have a drink."

"I don't think so, thanks," Stern replied. "At one time I took that kind of thing in the morning, but that is all past and done with. As a matter of fact, I came to see you about Braybrooke. As his best and worst friend I know a deal about him. It was very unfortunate that you should have tumbled him over the side of the yacht, and it is still more unfortunate that it should have been the yacht of Lady Altamont, who knows the whole business, and who uses her knowledge to blackmail you and force you to rob your mother. I have no wish to be personal, but I fancy that any remaining sentiment of affection that you have for her ladyship——"

"I wish that she was rotting at the bottom of the sea with Braybrooke," Wanless cried, passionately.

"Just so. Now, suppose I can show you a way whereby you can get the better of your foes? I know that the unfortunate Braybrooke affair was an accident; I know that there was no malice in it. If I can help you, will you help me?"

"It's a bargain," Wanless cried, "and there is my hand on it. Only let me get my mother's jewels back, and be free to snap my fingers in my ladyship's face, why——"

He paused significantly. Stern crossed over, and locked the door. Then he proceeded to pull down the blinds. Finally he asked if he could use Wanless's dressing-room for a moment. Wanless nodded assent. He waited and smoked half a cigarette before Stern came back.

"Your servant," he said, gaily. "John Stern, very much at your disposal."

Wanless looked with a cry of amazement. His cigarette dropped on the tablecloth and smouldered there. He felt absolutely sick and dizzy with emotion.

"My God," he cried, "Ronald Braybrooke in the flesh—good old Ronald Braybrooke!"


XXXI.—A LEAF FROM THE PAST.

On the whole, Burles decided that there was no reason for him to remain in Waterloo-road any longer. It had come as a surprise to him to find that John Stern was in any way connected with O'Brien; but then Stern was to be trusted, as the detective felt sure. He had been of considerable service in the past, and was likely to be so again. And it would be easy on the following morning to tax Stern with his visit to O'Brien's and get from him the reason which he had for calling in the Waterloo-road. Burles sleepily made up his mind to the candid course. He went off softly, leaving the two men alone together. He would have been a little surprised, perhaps, had he, after all, decided to stay and listen.

John Stern threw himself down in a chair and gazed at his companion. Then he burst into a bitter laugh—a laugh of self-contempt and dislike.

"Well, this is a merry meeting," he said. "Dennis, what would you have said to anybody who had foretold this two years ago?"

"I should have put him aside for a liar," O'Brien said. "And so you are not dead, after all, Ronald! The whole thing was told me in such a way that I could not but believe that you had perished at sea."

"So I did to all practical purposes," Stern rejoined. "Young Wanless's murderous attempt on my life was real enough in all conscience. I went over the side, and there, to all intents, was an end of me. I believe the whole thing was arranged by your late visitor."

"Whom do you mean by my late visitor?" asked O'Brien, uneasily.

"Why ask the question? Let us be perfectly candid. Up to the present it has suited my humour to call myself John Stern. I am the poor, miserable outcast, Ronald Braybrooke; but I have buried my proper name till I can decently dig it up again. I am going to tell you why presently. But don't try and pretend that Lady Altamont has not been here with you quite lately, for I saw you putting her into a cab. Dennis, would you like to become an honest, God-fearing man again?"

The last question was asked almost fiercely. The energy of it caused O'Brien to stare at his companion. His lips twitched in an uneasy way.

"I see you are in earnest," he said presently. "We were always good friends, Ronald; we had very few secrets from one another. It is all very well to be cynical and pretend that there is no goodness in the world; but deep down in our hearts we know better. I would give five years of my life to find my feet on the pedestal again."

The speaker spoke in tones of quivering sincerity. He meant every word that he said. He was quite different from the cynical scoundrel who had been entertaining Lady Altamont a little time before. Then he laughed bitterly.

"There!" he said. "I have made my confession. I never expected to speak like that to a soul again; but I know you so well, and there is a look in your eyes that draws me on. But it is all to no purpose, Ronald—it is too late for both of us. The woman I loved threw me over for another three years ago, and I let the fact spoil my whole life. She is dead now, and her husband is dead, too, and I have promised to look after the child. She is a dear little girl, and she has got round my heart in her pretty way, and so that she can have all she wants I am compelled to live my disgraceful life. Otherwise I should have put a pistol to my head five years ago. But why rake up these things?"

"I'm not cheaply sentimental," Braybrooke said. "It is not merely to play a shady part that I have called myself John Stern. Do you see any difference in me, Dennis?"

"Well, yes," O'Brien said, after a critical examination of his companion, "I do. Your dress is very seedy, and you bear unmistakable signs of having come down in the world; but you no longer look the dissipated wreck that you were when last I saw you. If you were properly dressed, and had your hair and moustache trimmed, you would pass anywhere for a gentleman. What I mean is, your skin has cleared, your eyes are bright and wholesome. I should say that you had not touched anything intoxicating for some days."

"I have given it up entirely," Braybrooke exclaimed. "Never again does a drop of intoxicating liquor pass my lips as long as I live! And this is all for a girl's sake."

"You don't mean," O'Brien cried, "you don't really say that the child you used to——"

"The child has grown into a lovely woman, Dennis. I saw her quite recently for the first time for over three years. It was a dramatic and entirely unexpected meeting; but, thank Heaven, she did not recognise me. But the name of Ronald Braybrooke was mentioned, and words passed that proved to me that Ailsa Lefroy was still faithful to the memory of the gallant lad she used to know. She still loves the Ronald Braybrooke of three years ago. Heavens, I seem to have lived a century in torment since then!"

O'Brien nodded in sympathy. He was more moved than he cared to admit.

"Go on, old fellow," he said. "The whole story will do me good."

"I am certain it will, Dennis. It was after I was supposed to be lost at sea. I had my own good reasons for permitting my death to be taken for granted; even at that moment I had a vague idea of leading a good life. But I doubt if it would have come to anything had I not gone to No. 13, Vernon-terrace, that night."

"The residence of your guide, philosopher, and friend, Archibald Colville, is it not?"

"The same. But Archibald Colville has been no friend of mine; on the contrary, he has proved himself to be my worst enemy. That fellow has hated me all the time. There is an old love affair at the bottom of it which I need not go into. Colville is almost a lunatic in his way, and my strong likeness to my father fanned his passions.... But we need not labour the past. As I said before, I came back to London under the name of John Stern. I was penniless and desperate; but I resolved to keep off the old life altogether. Some considerable time ago I forged Colville's name to some cheques and obtained the money. Of course, he found it out directly the cheques came back to him through the bank, and he has held them over me ever since. I don't quite know why he never prosecuted me—perhaps he was trying to think of some peculiarly malignant revenge.

"You can understand the reason why I wanted those cheques back. I have a very good friend in Colville's household in the person of Susan, his cook. She has an old rascal of a husband of whom she stands in mortal terror. All the same, the woman managed to communicate with me from time to time, and finally she let me know that the cheques were hidden somewhere behind the panels in one of the rooms. That same room Ailsa Lefroy has turned into a studio.

"I only gave a passing thought to the girl. I recollected her as a very pretty child who had been very fond of me and all that kind of thing. I found my way into the house the other night when Colville was away, and began to ransack the studio. The first dramatic surprise I had was the sight of my photograph on the mantelpiece. Heavens! I hardly recognised it, Dennis. It seemed impossible to believe that I could have been as clean and fresh and wholesome as that.

"That photograph gave me a greater shock than I could hardly explain to you. A great wave of shame came over me; I could have cried over that picture. Then I turned and saw before me a lovely vision—the sweetest, prettiest girl in the whole world. I did not need to ask who she was—it was my little sweetheart Ailsa grown into a woman.

"Thank God, she did not recognise me, Dennis. She took me for some vulgar burglar; she was not in the least afraid. As we stood there parleying, Archibald Colville came in. He seemed to know me by some subtle instinct, for he called me by name. I was looking at Ailsa at the time, and she was fairly staggered. I could see by the look of horror in her eyes that she was contrasting the old Ronald Braybrooke with me. In that instant the whole plan came to me in a flash. I would repudiate the old life, I would become worthy of the girl who still loved the real Ronald Braybrooke. So I denied my identity, and vowed by all the gods that Braybrooke was dead.

"The girl believed me, but Colville did not. He told me that, owing to the death of a relative, I was entitled to a fortune of £100,000. Fancy that, to a man who was literally on the verge of starvation. I tell you the sweat stood out of my forehead like beads. Never was man face to face with a more terrible temptation. It was open to me to take the fortune and regain my position after. But one further glance into Ailsa Lefroy's eyes told me that I had done the right thing. I stuck to my story as I have stuck to my new-born resolution—Ronald Braybrooke was drowned in the North Sea, and I am John Stern. I had to lie myself out of a desperate situation; but I managed it all right. And with the help of God I am going to see the light."

"And what about your fortune?" O'Brien asked.

"That is already arranged for," Braybrooke explained. "Before Ronald Braybrooke died he left a will in favour of Ailsa Lefroy. The will was genuine enough because I signed it myself. It looked as if Ronald Braybrooke had not forgotten Ailsa after all; nobody is hurt by the deception, and Ailsa is placed beyond the reach of poverty and beyond the spite of Archibald Colville. With my eyes wide open I have divested myself of my property. I have given everything to the woman I love—to the one who will make the best use of it."

"It is a noble thing to do," O'Brien said quietly. "But what about yourself, Ronald?"

"Oh, you need not worry about me. I am going to bring about my restoration in my own way. In the days to come I shall go to Ailsa and tell her the whole truth. And if she still cares for me, if the pure flame of affection burns as brightly as it did a few days ago——"

Braybrooke paused, he found some difficulty in speaking.

"I can quite understand your feelings," O'Brien said. "I will be as candid with you as you are with me. If you can do this thing there is no reason why I should fail."

"Delighted to hear it," Braybrooke cried. "I was sanguine of touching you when I came here to-night. But you must give up that expedition to Paris."

"Oh, so, then, you know of that?" O'Brien exclaimed. "Do you know what I am after?"

"Of course I do, my dear fellow. I had my suspicions before, and these suspicions became certainties when I met Lady Altamont outside to-night. She got that young fool, Cecil Wanless, to carry all his mother's diamonds to her, and now they have been lost is Paris by Terry, who seems to have got himself into trouble over there. As I was in the yacht part of the time, I know all about the affair of the gems. What are you going to do?"

"Well, I'll tell you what I mean to do, seeing that you have been so very candid with me," O'Brien explained. "I was going to recover the gems and put the proceeds in my pocket. Lady Altamont would have been powerless to say or do anything, and my notion was to ship for America and take the child with me, and start a new life, or rather a comparatively new life. But this conversation of ours has changed my point of view entirely. I shall still carry out my plan of obtaining possession of the diamonds in such a way as to cause no scandal. But when those stones come into my hands I shall give them to their owner."

"Excellent!" Braybrooke cried. "This is exactly what I hoped for. But if you don't mind, I would rather you gave the stones to me. As a matter of fact, the proper owner does not as yet know of her loss. She has an exceedingly pretty and loveable daughter who has behaved with great courage in the matter. If she had been in the yacht at the time, I doubt very much if the robbery would have taken place;—but that is by the way. Now, how do you propose to lay your hands upon those missing stones?"

"I'll tell you," O'Brien replied. "I'll tell you the scheme that I explained to Lady Altamont in this very room an hour ago. I flatter myself that it is an ingenious idea—the best of the kind that I am ever likely to put into practice."

O'Brien proceeded to detail his scheme at length. He was not so proud of it now as he had been at its conception; but Braybrooke approved.

"I think it is the best way," he said, after a thoughtful pause. "It avoids anything like a scandal. And for the sake of Grace Wanless I should like to see her brother shielded. I am going to see her again in the morning, on a little matter of business connected with that will of mine, and I will get a few extra particulars. But I hope that I shall not have to come to this house again, Dennis."

O'Brien shrugged his shoulders. The den of thieves was a good port in a storm; but it began to jar upon him now. And there was danger here.

"I leave it to-morrow for good and all," he said. "It is a mystery to me that the place has not been raided by the police before now. I keep myself very much to myself here; but I know that some queer things go on under this roof. And, by the way, let me tell you something before I forget it. Archibald Colville was here to-night. He was told that a certain person he wanted was not on the premises, and he was foolish enough to make a disturbance. I believe that he was flung out without ceremony, and rather seriously hurt."

"He was," Braybrooke cried. "I came straight from his house here. As a matter of fact, I am at present impersonating old Thomas, his servant. I can imitate Thomas's voice exactly, and as Colville's sight is failing, I pass for him easily."

"But where is the real Thomas?" O'Brien asked.

'"Oh, I have managed to get him out of the way. He has gone off on a wild-goose chase, from which he cannot possibly return for some days to come. When he does get back he will be utterly powerless for further mischief."

O'Brien smiled to himself as he stood up and lowered the gas. Then he made a sign for Braybrooke to follow him into the hall. In a room on the far side four men were playing cards. With his hand on Braybrooke's arm, O'Brien indicated one of the players who sat on the far side of the table with the light full on his face. Braybrooke would have given vent to a startled cry had not O'Brien checked him. Then the friends returned once more to the sitting-room, and O'Brien put up the light.

"Well," he asked, "are you quite satisfied? I felt quite sure that I had seen one of those card-players before. You recognised him?"

"Of course I did," Braybrooke replied. "It was old Thomas himself. Unless we get him out of the way again everything will be ruined!"


XXXII.—NEARLY LOST.

Ronald Braybrooke's face implied his astonishment and annoyance. He had been scheming very carefully for an end of his own, and here was one of the pawns in the game turning up and upsetting his calculations.

"What on earth is the fellow doing here?" he demanded of O'Brien.

The latter shrugged his shoulders. Many cosmopolitan rascals came to the house in the Waterloo-road and the Irishman could not profess to know all of them. It was only by an accident that he had seen old Thorns and identified him as the body-servant of Archibald Colville. For the rest, he knew nothing.

The men were so deeply engrossed over their game of cards that they had not the least idea they were being watched. Ronald Braybrooke was turning over a dangerous experiment in his mind. At all hazards Thomas must not be allowed to go back to No. 13, Vernon-terrace for the present. He beckoned to O'Brien to follow him back to the room whence they had come.

"This is a most unpleasant surprise to me," he said, when they were secure from observation once more. "I had very powerful reasons for getting that man out of the way. I thought that I had placed him beyond the reach of harm for some time to come. And here he is playing cards as if he had never been out of London, although I fancied that he was in America. I should like to know how long he has been hanging about here."

"Well, I can very easily ascertain that for you," O'Brien replied. "The landlord here has a high opinion of me, and he will tell me anything. I'll go upstairs and have a few words with him in his own private room. I won't be long."

O'Brien returned a few moments later with a deal of interesting information. It appeared that old Thomas had been in the house some four days, during which time he had scarcely left the premises, except for half an hour or so after dark. He had paid his way quite regularly—in fact, he had been in the habit of using the house at intervals for years. More than that the landlord could not say.

"It was very annoying," Braybrooke muttered. "I particularly wanted that fellow out of the way just now. Perhaps so long as he has money in his pocket he will stay here and stick to his card-playing. Can you suggest any way out of the difficulty?"

"Not off-hand," O'Brien said after a long pause. "Of course, it is possible to get somebody to put him away, but in the first instance we have to find out something to his discredit; besides, I don't want to bring trouble in the house. Bad as he is, and bad as he will be to the end, the owner has been a good friend to me. But why are you so anxious that that old man should keep away been Vernon-terrace?"

"Because there is somebody there that he must not see," Braybrooke replied. "I had perhaps better tell you the whole story. You must have read in the papers all about a woman who was discovered under such extraordinary circumstances at No. 14, Vernon-terrace. Yes, I see you know all about it. But do you know who that woman is?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said O'Brien. "I regarded the whole thing as being exceedingly suspicious when I read it, knowing as much as I do of Lady Altamont. The idea of a poor creature being found nearly done to death in a fashionable house sounds pretty preposterous in any case, and I wonder the police did not ask a few awkward questions. I know that I should have done so."

"The police are a little dazzled by the exalted position of the lady," Braybrooke observed. "They regard Sir Charles and Lady Altamont as being people utterly beyond suspicion. Only Inspector Burles, of Scotland Yard, has an idea of the true state of things, and as he is privately engaged upon the recovery of Mrs. Wanless's jewels he naturally does not desire to arouse suspicion before he has accomplished that affair. Thus it is that Lady Altamont's statement that the injured woman is a stranger to her passes muster for the moment. But cannot you give a guess as to the identity of the poor creature?"

"Not to save my life," O'Brien admitted candidly.

"Well, you have heard of La Belle Atalanta. A success on the variety stage. Would you be surprised to hear that La Belle Atalanta is Lady Altamont's sister?"

"Of course she is," O'Brien cried. "I had forgotten that. But my dear Braybrooke, do you really mean to say that La Belle and that poor creature——"

"Are one and the same person. That is precisely what I do mean to say. As far as I can gather, the actress—she has not been long in England—found her sister out, and tried to get money from her. This did not exactly suit Lady Altamont's book, especially as she happens to be in desperate need of cash herself just at present. All the same, she wrote a note to her sister asking the latter to call and see her, which note is now in the possession of Inspector Burles. My theory is that a quarrel took place, and that Lady Altamont, in a fit of passion, made a murderous attack on her sister. She thus placed herself in a desperate situation. The happy idea occurred to her of leaving her sister in a dying state and professing to know nothing about it. The simple yet sublime audacity of the scheme was very nearly successful, especially if we had known nothing and the woman had died."

"But there is not the least likelihood of her recovery," O'Brien suggested.

"There was no chance a little while ago," Braybrooke intimated, darkly. "But I have changed all that. I was present to-night at Lady Altamont's masked ball, disguised as a tramp. I found out that Lady Altamont had a scheme on foot to dismiss her sister's nurse, and thus hasten the poor girl's end. The nurse was actually dismissed; in fact, it was a put-up thing between the woman and her employer. But servants can be bribed, and I laid my plans accordingly. It so happens that there is a means of communication between No. 13 and No. 14, Vernon-terrace, and upon that information I acted. I had Miss Lefroy on my side, and I knew that I could count upon old Susan so long as her husband Thomas was not in the house. I took the bold course of carrying the Belle Atalanta from one house to another."

"I see," O'Brien said, thoughtfully. "And if old Thomas goes back?"

"Precisely. He will find out exactly what has happened, and tell everything to his master. And now I am going to surprise you. The real reason why Archibald Colville is to know nothing of this is the fact that La Belle Atalanta is his wife."

O'Brien broke into exclamations of surprise. He had not expected anything half so dramatic as this. He waited for Braybrooke to proceed.

"Now you see what a complicated state of affairs it is," the latter said. "No. 13 is a big, dreary old house, and Archibald Colville is fast losing his sight. In ordinary circumstances, he would know nothing about the extra guest—that is, so long as Thomas is away. I spent every farthing I could rake together to get Thomas out of the country, so that I could play his part and have the run of the old house. Mainly, I was after those forged cheques. I should have gone on perfectly secure had I not come here to-night. And now, can you show me some way out of the grave difficulty?"

O'Brien professed himself to be absolutely at a loss to know what to do. He could see the necessity of getting Thomas out of the way clearly enough.

"Let us go and listen to those fellows again," he suggested. "Maybe, we can get a hint that will prove of use to us. Meanwhile I'll try and worry out something."

The two returned to the passage again and then watched the progress of the card-players. They were evidently in deadly earnest, for their faces were grim, and they scowled over their cards. Presently old Thomas had played out his hand and got up with an oath.

"That cleans me out," he said. "Did anybody ever see such cursed luck? I got here three days ago with fifteen pounds in my pocket, and there's my last shilling. Let's have another rubber. Lend me a pound or two to go on with, Billy."

"Not me," said the man addressed as Billy, with a grin. "Trust nobody, is my motto. Besides, who are you to come borrowing money in this lordly way? Think we're a lot of toffs playing at a swagger West-end club. If you can't pay, stand out."

"You've had all my money between you," Thomas growled. "Do you mean to say that not one of you will lend me a few shillings?"

The silence that followed was eloquent enough of the feelings of the listeners. Thomas rose from his seat with a passionate outpouring of rage.

"Very well," he said between his teeth. "I'm not the man to be done like this. You just stay here till I come back. I'll be here presently with more money than most of you have ever seen. And we'll play for gold, gold, I tell you."

The other men laughed and exchanged glances. O'Brien smiled, too, as he pulled Braybrooke back in the direction of the sitting-room.

"The fellow is a born gambler," he whispered. "One of those men who cannot leave cards alone so long as they can keep their eyes open, and have a shilling left. I am afraid this rather precipitates matters, Ronald. These fellows will wait till your man comes back, for the simple reason that they are confederates, who are cheating him. I could see that with half an eye. Of course, you can guess where your friend Thomas is going?"

"I am afraid that I can't," Ronald said.

"Why, as far as Vernon-terrace, of course. It is getting very late, but doubtless the fellow has a latch-key. He is either going to rob his master to continue his card orgie, or, what is more probable, he is going to wake up his wife and demand some of her savings. And all this will be exceedingly awkward for your scheme."

"You may well say that," Ronald Braybrooke murmured. "At any cost this must not be allowed to take place. That poor, unfortunate creature, La Belle Atalanta, is in the very room where old Susan sleeps. If necessary, I must resort to violence. I must be at No. 13 before Thomas gets there."

"Loiter on the doorstep and follow him into the house," O'Brien suggested.

"Oh, I can do better than that, as far as getting into the house is concerned. As I am at this very moment personating the man I wish to get out of the way, you will not be surprised to find that I also have a latch-key. But I must go, Dennis. I must try to scheme out something on the way. Will you lend me some small silver—I lack the means to pay for a cab?"

O'Brien cheerfully handed over a handful of coins. A cab was crawling along in the direction of the bridge as Ronald Braybrooke emerged into the street. In a little time he found himself on the steps of No. 13. He let himself quietly into the dark house with his latch-key.

The house was exceedingly quiet, so quiet indeed that Ronald could hear his own heart beating. He had not the least idea what he meant to do—at all hazards he was going to prevent Thomas from going upstairs to his wife's bedroom. Very quietly Braybrooke made his way to the studio. Once there, he struck a match and glanced around him. Probably Lady Altamont's guests had all gone by this time, for he could hear no sound whatever proceeding from the house next door.

Here was a chance to have a look round for the missing cheques. It would be quite a question of an hour before Thomas arrived, seeing that he had to walk. Braybrooke moved as softly as possible across the floor, and proceeded to tap a panel here and there. He started presently, as the sound of a footstep struck on his ear. Then Ailsa came into the room.

She was dressed in some white wrap; her long shining hair hung over her shoulders. She looked like some virgin decked for the festival as she came in with a candle in her hand. Her face was a little cold and stern as she looked at Braybrooke.

"I suppose there will be an end of the mystery some day," she said. "Why do you come and prowl about my studio at this time of the night?"

"Believe me, I am doing no harm," said Braybrooke. "If you only knew everything, I am quite sure that you would forgive me. And you promised to help me."

"I certainly did," Ailsa said coldly. "And there are moments when I regret the fact. Will you be so good as to pass me that bottle of eau de Cologne? After that I will leave you to your search and say nothing further."

"You are acting with great wisdom if you only knew it," Braybrooke said. "I trust that there is nobody ill in the house."

"Only the mysterious patient—your legacy to us to-night. She complains of a pain in her head. I thought perhaps the scent might alleviate it."

"You are always so good and kind," Braybrooke exclaimed. "There is danger coming to you. Do you happen to know the proper name of your patient?"

"Yes, I have had it from the lips of Archibald Colville himself. I don't think he intended me to hear, but the fact remains. From what quarter does the danger come?"

"From old Thomas. He is back in London. I made the unpleasant surprise a little time ago quite by accident. At the present moment he is on his way here with the intention of getting money from his wife; at least, that is the only view I can take of it. And I am here to prevent a meeting of that kind."

"He must not go upstairs," said Ailsa, eagerly. "At any hazards that must be prevented. Even at the risk of personal violence, you must stop that. Do you think there is time for me to get Susan into another room?"

"I'm afraid not," Braybrooke said. "If I had only thought of that before! If there is——"

The speaker paused and started, for as his lips moved there was the soft rattle of a key in the street door. Acting on the impulse of the moment, Braybrooke made his way downstairs and turned up the light in the hall. He was just in time to prevent Thomas from going up the stairs. The latter regarded him with a sneer on his gnarled face.

"Who are you?" he asked. "Get out of the way, I tell you. Get out."

"I am John Stern," was the quiet reply. "You may have heard of me, perhaps."

"Oh, oh," Thomas laughed. "So that is what you call yourself at present. Ask Miss Ailsa, who stands there at the top of the stairs. Ask her who is the man is who comes here and tells us that he is John Stern. As if you could deceive me——"

The rest of the sentence was never finished, for Braybrooke caught the old man by the throat, and bore him heavily to the ground.


XXXIII.—A COMPLICATION.

In the dim light Ailsa watched the swaying bodies as they struggled to and fro, with a spasm of terror at her heart. She could see that the man she knew as John Stern was in deadly earnest, that he was prepared to go to any length to prevent Thomas from uttering the words which had risen to his lips.

But Ailsa checked the cry that struggled for utterance. She could not resist the vague feeling that here was a man who was fighting her battle for her. And, again, she was not blind to the knowledge that the presence of Thomas at this particular moment, was little less than a catastrophe. If only he succeeded in reaching his wife's bedroom, goodness only knew the mischief he might accomplish.

All these things flashed through Ailsa's mind, and brought her courage back to her. She stood there still and rigid, filled with a hope that John Stern would get the best of the contest. But from the first the issue was never in doubt. The merciless grip on old Thomas's throat never relaxed until he ceased to struggle and lay on the mat dazed and frightened. He was being paid back in some of his own coin, Ailsa thought, not without satisfaction.

Then his assailant bent over him and whispered a few words in his ear that Ailsa could not catch. Thomas struggled to his feet in a dazed kind of way and nodded humbly enough. It was quite evident that all the fight had been knocked out of him. The younger man sternly pointed up the stairs, and Thomas disappeared up them discreetly.

"But this is folly," Ailsa protested. "You are actually bringing about the very thing that you are most anxious to avoid. If Thomas sees his wife——"

"Thomas is going to do nothing of the kind," Braybrooke panted. "I think I have succeeded in thoroughly subduing Thomas. He is an inveterate old bully, and I have treated him quite in the proper way. He is afraid of me now for more reasons than one. As a matter of fact, I have told him to go and wait for me in your studio. You will pardon me if I take your permission for granted, but I am anxious to dispose of Thomas now and for all. Though I had succeeded in doing to by stratagem, the old man's love for cards defeated me. Believe me when I say that I am acting for the best."

Ailsa sighed passionately. She was sick at heart of this ceaseless mystery.

"I promised to trust you, and I will," she replied. "Everything had been very black against you from the first—you have not forgotten our original meeting? Though you came here like a thief in the night, I trusted you. And why? Because you remind me in some subtle fashion of the man I used to love——"

"Used to love?" Braybrooke echoed. "Then you no longer care——"

"No, you are quite mistaken. My heart remains true to a memory. And you remind me more than ever of Ronald Braybrooke to-night. Somehow you look different. Your eyes are ever so much clearer, and the expression of your features has grown more refined. Heavens, to think that I should be standing here like this discussing such questions at this hour in the morning! And yet I have need of your services. When you have disposed of old Thomas, may I have a few words with you?"

"A thousand, if you like," cried Braybrooke, eagerly. "It is the one pleasure of my life at present to be of service to you. Ah, if you only knew what I am doing on your behalf!"

Braybrooke appeared as if about to say more, then checked himself, suddenly. He would get rid of Thomas without delay, he intimated, after which he would be ready for Ailsa.

"Very well," she said. "I will go up to my room again and keep the door open. When you are quite ready I will join you in the studio."

Braybrooke turned up the lights and confronted the discomfited Thomas, who stood there doggedly before him. The old man was still shaking from his rude handling. Braybrooke closed the door; it was some little time before he began to speak.

"So you recognised me," he said at length. "You were always a great deal cleverer than your master, Thomas. He has no idea of my identity, and the same remark applies to Miss Lefroy. You were going to blurt out the truth to her when I grasped you by the throat just now. Knowing what I know about you you had best be silent."

"I don't want to make any mischief," the old man muttered, sullenly.

"Well, I will give you every credit for good intentions," Braybrooke smiled. "I have the strongest possible reasons for keeping my identity a secret for the present. Also, there are strong reasons why your presence in this house can be dispensed with for the present. Why didn't you go to America, as arranged?"

"Because I lost my money," Thomas said, with his eyes fixed on the floor. "I was robbed, and I was ashamed to confess it. But I had to come back at last and tell my master what had happened. I have been staying with friends——"

"You miserable old liar," Braybrooke exclaimed. "You started gambling, and you lost a part of your money that way. Gradually you lost it all. You did not come here to-night with the slightest intention of seeing your master, but to bully your wife out of some of her hard-earned savings, so that you could go back to your companions."

Old Thomas looked up in confusion. He hastened to deny the accusation, but he could not meet the steady contempt in Braybrooke's eyes.

"Don't try to deceive me," the latter went on. "I'm going to give you a few pounds, or, rather, I am going to give you their equivalent in value. Then you can go back to that house in the Waterloo-road again and lose every penny of it. You are a very cunning and clever old man, and think you know everything, but you did not see you were being cheated to night. What have you got to say to that, Thomas?"

"You are too clever for me, sir," the old man muttered. "Much too clever. And yet, there was a time, not so many years ago——"

"Ah, yes, I expected you would make that retort. There was a time, not so many years ago, when I was an upright, honest lad, with all the world before me. I did not know then I had a guardian who hated me, and who had long before made up his mind to bring me to ruin. He very nearly accomplished his purpose, but not quite. There was only the matter of some inch or so between me and the utter destruction of my soul. But that inch sufficed to save me, to save me in this very room. But that is a sacred matter that does not concern you in the least. All you have to know is that your efforts and the efforts of your master have failed. But during all the time that it was part of your business to lure me on to destruction you did not keep clear of crime yourself. Shall I recall one or two of these instances to your mind, Thomas? Suppose that I recall them to the police! You know perfectly well that I can land you in a gaol if I like. As sure as you stand in my way I'll do it. You may make up your mind quite easy on that score, Thomas."

"What do you require me to do, sir?" the old man asked humbly.

"To do nothing. To go back from whence you came, or anywhere else you choose, to be discreet and silent, and not to show your face here again till I send for you. I'll give you the ring—your master has one exactly like it. You can pawn it for £20. Do as I tell you, and you will be quite safe."

The old man muttered something under his breath as he held out a shaking hand for the ring. He appeared to be quite cowed and broken down for the moment.

"Very well, sir," he said. "I didn't suppose that I should ever see you again. I didn't suppose that you would become so clever a man, Mr. Ronald. But it's all as you say. Me and the old man did our best to ruin you between us. And now you've come into a big fortune——"

"Hush," Ronald said, sternly. "You are absolutely mistaken. Ronald Braybrooke is dead. Whether or not he will ever come to life again depends on circumstances. But the man we are now speaking of is at the bottom of the North Sea, and before he perished he left a will bequeathing all he had to Miss Ailsa Lefroy. That will was duly signed and witnessed, and is in the possession of a respectable firm of solicitors. Then will be no chance of my mad guardian playing any of his tricks on Miss Lefroy. But understand firmly that Ronald Braybrooke is dead. If you bring him to life again he is pretty certain to reveal some of your past episodes with very unpleasant consequences. Now you can go."

The old man crept out of the room and down the stairs, closing the front door carefully behind him. A minute afterwards, and Ailsa entered the room. She wanted to have a good look at the features of her suitor now, but he kept his face absolutely in the shadow.

"The old man has gone?" she asked.

"Yes, he has gone quietly enough. You need not fear his return."

"I am glad of that," Ailsa said, with a sigh of relief. "Old Susan heard the noise and came out to see what had happened. I was bound to tell her. And she has been shaking with fear ever since. What shall I tell her?"

"Simply tell her that Thomas has gone. Say he will not come back, that he dare not come back without my permission. And in the circumstances, that is not likely to be granted. That wicked old rascal is absolutely in my power."

"It is a great relief to know this," Ailsa murmured. "But I am getting so sick and tired of all these mysteries, Mr. Stern. Is it actually true that that poor woman upstairs is the wife of Archibald Colville? Tell me the story."

"I am afraid that I cannot tell you the story, for the simple reason that I do not know it," Ronald replied. "But the facts are in the possession of old Susan, and she may tell you. It is a sad business altogether. Is she any better?"

"The doctor seems to think so," Ailsa explained. "He says her magnificent constitution is all in her favour. She seems to have something on her mind that causes her to ramble a great deal. She is always talking about some papers and documents that she seems to have lost. But tell me before I forget—is it absolutely true that Ronald Braybrooke left me his fortune before he died?"

"He certainly seems to have left a will in your favour," Ronald said, evasively. "That seems to be a kind of grateful and loving remembrance of you. But at the hour of Braybrooke's death, he certainly did not expect to come into a large sum of money. Still, there is the fortune, and there is the will, and there is no getting away from it. You are mistress now of a handsome income which makes you independent of your guardian. If you will permit me to advise you, I should suggest getting away from this house as soon as possible. Happiness is impossible here."

"That is so," Ailsa admitted, sadly. "But for the sake of common humanity I have to remain with old Susan for the present. Did you hear that?"

A long wailing cry came from somewhere upstairs, then a door was heard to close and the plaintive noise ceased.

"The poor creature has been troubled in her mind like that for some time now," Ailsa explained, "I feel quite sure that when she was stricken down she had important papers in her possession. Was she robbed of them, or were they lost? Every now and then she is quite clear in her mind for a few moments; for instance, she seems to recognise that she is in a strange house. And then she asks for her papers. Now, is it not just possible that they may be in the bedroom next door where she lay?"

"Anything seems possible in connection with next door," Ronald replied. "The spirit of adventure is upon me, and I cannot rest for the moment. Suppose I go and see?"

Ailsa had not expected a response as prompt as this, and she hesitated for a moment. After all there did not appear to be any very great danger. The house next door was quiet enough now; doubtless everybody there had gone to bed long ago.

Ronald pulled back the secret door gently and looked into the boudoir beyond. There was nothing but a velvety fragrant darkness flavoured with the scent of cigarettes. Not so much as a single ray of light shone from anywhere.

"I'll risk it," Braybrooke whispered. "I know the way of the house pretty well by this time. You had better go to bed and leave me to my own devices. I can let myself out of the house, and I daresay I shall have an opportunity of telling you my adventures in the morning. I can revert back to my disguise as old Thomas again now in safety."

"All the same, I should like to know," Ailsa said. "I feel so restless and sleepless. A little later on I should like to go to some quiet cottage by the sea and sleep there for a whole week. If you only knew how wearying this all is to the nerves!"

The girl looked sad and weary enough as she spoke. Ronald longed to comfort her, but he had to suppress himself sternly.

"All right," he said. "Stay here, if you like and close the panel behind me. I don't suppose I shall be more than five minutes at the outside."

He stepped into the darkness and the panel closed behind him. He was fairly familiar now with the geography of the house, and he had no difficulty in finding his way to the room where the unfortunate woman had been lying. He shut the door and lighted a match. But, search as he would, he could find nothing in the way of documents or papers. He began to give it up presently as the hallucination of a disordered mind. It was absurd to stay there hunting for a thing which palpably did not exist.

The last match was extinguished, and the end dropped into Braybrooke's pocket, and very quietly he stepped into the corridor again. As he did so, he heard the sudden click of an electric light switch somewhere close by, and a portion of the corridor was flooded with light. A subdued voice, which, nevertheless, Braybrooke recognised as that of Lady Altamont, was heard asking for someone to follow her.

"We shall be much quieter in the boudoir," she said. "Come up."

A furious exclamation rose to Braybrooke's lips. He was just too late to enter the boudoir before the mistress of the house, and therefore his retreat into No. 13 was entirely cut off. There was nothing for it but to hang about till the conference was finished. Braybrooke wondered who it was that was asked to come up to the boudoir.

"I suppose that it is all right?" the other voice asked.

"Of course it is; come along, Cecil. It is very late; but still, seeing that you have something so very important to say to me, why——"

Braybrooke felt his pulses beating a little faster. For Lady Altamont's companion was none other than Cecil Wanless!


XXXIV.—SIR CHARLES COMES OUT.

It was an awkward business altogether, as Ronald Braybrooke was fain to admit. He was more than a little curious to know what Cecil Wanless was doing here at this time of the night, and he had not the smallest scruple in listening to the conversation. It was just possible that he could hear something to his advantage.

On the other hand, his retreat at No. 13 was cut off altogether. He could not get back there, except by means of the boudoir, and until he returned he felt quite sure that Ailsa would not retire to rest. There was, of course the chance of creeping quietly down the stairs, and then into the street by means of the front door, after which it would have been a very easy matter to enter No. 13 by the aid of a latch-key.

On the whole, Ailsa would have to wait, Braybrooke decided. He meant to hear all there was to be heard now. Possibly, Lady Altamont felt secure in the knowledge that the whole household had retired long ago, for she did not take the trouble to close the door of the boudoir. She flung herself down in an armchair with an air of weariness, and took a cigarette from a silver tray by her side. Braybrooke could see all this as he sat on an old chair in the window. He felt quite safe in the thick darkness.

"Really, this is very good of me," Lady Altamont said. "In ordinary circumstances I should have been in bed long ago. And yet I sit up here waiting for you to return after taking your sister home, and all to hear what you have to say."

"I have a good deal to say," Wanless said quietly.

All the same there was a ring of firmness in his voice that astonished Braybrooke. He had hitherto regarded Wanless as a weak kind of creature who could be easily led and swayed by anyone a little stronger willed than himself. Lady Altamont noted the change also, for she elevated her handsome eyebrows and smiled.

"Really," she said. "Well, as I cannot go to bed until Sir Charles returns, I am quite at your service. My husband went off with one or two of his choice companions, and they will bring him home presently—probably in cab. My husband's dissolute habits is the cross that I have to bear. To avoid scandal I stay here and wait up for him, and administer the drug that keeps him quiet. Some day I shall forget myself, and give him too much. I have my limitations the same as other people."

There was a cold contempt in the speakers words that was not lost on the listener. She was capable of it too, he felt quite certain. A woman who could leave her own sister to perish from neglect would be capable of anything.

"I am sorry," Wanless said politely. "During the time I was on the yacht with you I had a good chance of seeing what you had to put up with. But I did not come here to discuss the shortcomings of Sir Charles Altamont."

Lady Altamont laughed again, harshly and unpleasantly. There was a strange gleam in her eyes as she closely surveyed her companion.

"How strange your manner is!" she said. "You are not at all like the nice boy who has been so good a friend to me. What is the matter?"

"I am not a boy at all," Wanless responded. "Let me assure you that my education has been progressing very rapidly lately. I know you look upon me as a fool, and I am equally sure that I have given you plenty of evidence of the fact. But I am not going to be a fool any longer, as you are about to discover."

"Really! Well, I congratulate you. Pray proceed. The threat in your voice——"

"I am sorry. I did not mean to use threats towards you. All I want is a clear understanding. In the first place, I require my mother's diamonds."

"Your mother's diamonds! And yet you appear to be perfectly sober! What can I possibly know about your mother's diamonds? Do you suppose I stole them?"

"I did not desire to put matters quite so bluntly," Wanless responded. "It is not a pretty word to use to a lady. But since you will have it so, let the thing pass. By a trick, or a fraud, or what you like to call it, you obtained possession of the gems in question, which you proceeded to convert to your own use. I have come to demand those stones back again. My mother begins to have a suspicion that everything is not quite as it should be, and I desire to spare her as much pain as possible. I should not like her to know, for instance that I had been guilty of such criminal folly."

Lady Altamont laughed aloud. A deep red spot burnt on either cheek, as Braybrooke could see from where he was seated. The woman laughed again.

"My dear Cecil, you have taken leave of your senses," Lady Altamont said. "Or you are the victim of some singular delusion. You cared for me once——"

"Ay, I did," Wanless said bitterly. "What a fool I must have been! No wonder you regard me as being possibly of a weak intellect! And yet the game has been played many a time before, it will be played many a time again. The silly boy who knows nothing of the world and the lovely woman who is allied to a brutal and dissipated husband! The interchange of sympathy, the tears, and the confidences! Add to that, moonlight talks on a yacht, and the picture is complete. I ought to know, for I have been through it all before. The mere thought of it fills me with disgust."

"Then you no longer care for me, Cecil?"

"Did I ever care for you, I wonder? Looking at the thing now in the cold light of common sense, I should say not. The disparity in our respective years for one thing——"

"Now you are going to insult me," Lady Altamont cried, a note of tempest in her voice. "You have come here to break the chain, of course. That you may do, and I shall not have one word of reproach for you. But do not insult me; try and remember that your late years have been passed in the company of ladies and gentlemen. Perhaps in our position——"

"You are adopting the wrong tone," Wanless interrupted. "You want to remind me that my father was a self-made man, who came from the gutter, and I won't deny it. He was a much better man than I am likely to be, and I am not in the least ashamed of him. But please do not play the patrician dame with me, for it is wasted on me. I happen to know where you were born a matter of forty-two years ago. I know all about the little house in New York; in fact, I have had your whole history told me lately. In plain English, you are a nameless adventuress of the very worst type. You married a drunken swindler who happened to possess a title, and the venture has up to now proved successful. You cultivated us because you discovered that my mother was a very rich woman; in fact, you made up your mind to get those gems from the start. That yacht of yours was chartered for the purpose. It is jut as well to speak plainly, and I am doing so. All this information has only come to me quite lately. I was compelled to be polite to you before, because my hands were tied by circumstance. Give me those jewels back and I will spare you the rest."

"You are not mincing matters," Lady Altamont said, with ominous calm. "Are you prepared to prove all that you say, young man?"

"Oh, yes. I am not to be deterred. I can swear an information against you and put you in the dock. And then I can give a graphic account of your past life. You are so clever that you can appreciate what that would mean to Lady Charles Altamont."

Braybrooke listened with amazement and admiration. He himself had recently placed a weapon in the hands of Cecil Wanless, but he was not prepared to find the young man using it quite so freely. Lady Altamont had risen to feet, genuinely moved at last.

"You miserable boy," she hissed. "And this is the way you are prepared to repay all my kindness to you! You dare to assume that I had a hand in the loss of your mother's gems! If you stir a hand to drag me into the police-court——"

"That is exactly what I propose to do," Wanless said coolly. "Oh, I am not going to play the coward any longer. I know that those jewels are in your possession, and you know that I know it. Why, then, continue this petty farce? Unless we come to some understanding to-night I shall lay all the facts before the police to-morrow, and you will take the consequences. I know that I shall cut but a sorry figure when I come to tell my story, but I have reckoned up all that. But if I come out of this thing badly, what of yourself? Everybody will know your story; you fill find every door in London closed upon you. All your little schemes for getting rich at the expense of other people will fall to the ground."

The speaker paused and looked at the resplendent figure in the chair opposite. Lady Altamont's face was white with anger, and her eyes were gleaming like living coals. She was holding herself well in hand, but the hidden fire below burned hotly.

"I see I had underestimated your strength," she said. "Let me admit freely that I looked upon you as a boy whom I could treat as I pleased. At the same time I feel sure that there is somebody behind you in the matter. So, unless I give you the jewels, you are pledged to ruin me socially?"

"It is not a threat—it is an act of self-defence."

"Very well. Call it by any name you like. It is all the same to me. I have listened with great patience to all that you have to say, and now I will ask you to hear my side of the question. I admit that I have obtained possession of your mother's gems. What then?"

Wanless shrugged his shoulders; he did not quite understand what was coming next.

"There is a confidence for you," Lady Altamont smiled. "I stand before you a thief, self-accused and self-condemned! It you had a witness now you could condemn me to a long term of penal servitude. Are you satisfied, or do you desire to hear more?"

"I can see that there is more to come," said Wanless. "Pray continue."

"Thank you very much, Mr. Wanless. Those jewels came into my hands owing to your own folly and vanity. But you say that you are quite prepared to admit that, when the time comes to give evidence against me. Very good. Doubtless you have a vivid recollection of the night in question. An important part in the transaction was played by one Ronald Braybrooke, who had a fancy at that time for calling himself John Stern. All the same, we knew who he was. Sir Charles and myself and one member of the yacht's crew could tell the rest of the story. You might say that the drowning of Ronald Braybrooke was an accident; on the other hand, we could prove that it was either manslaughter or murder. Now, perhaps you see the drift of my remarks? If I am to suffer, you shall suffer too. If I go to gaol, you accompany me. Perhaps you may be hanged. At any rate, your punishment is likely to be heavier than mine. And that is why I can stand before you and cynically admit possession of your mother's jewels, and at the same time defy you to do your worst. Have you anything more to say?"

The last words rang out in a strain of triumph. But if they were intended to bring Wanless to his knees they singularly failed in their effect.

"I am not afraid," the young man replied, with a quiet smile. "Let us fight it out to the bitter end, seeing that we have gone so far. I'll tell my story in one police-court, and you can tell yours in another. And as this painful interview has already lasted long enough, I propose for it to come to an end. I shall have the pleasure of seeing you in another place in the course of a few hours, unless you like to comply with my request and give back my mother's property."

The woman was moved at last. She was obviously frightened and ill at ease. Here was a quiet determination that nothing could break down. And after her last declaration she had quite expected to see Wanless grovelling on his knees before her. On the contrary, there was a quiet smile on his face that looked as if he were amused about something.

"You had better take care," Lady Altamont said between her teeth. "It is evident to me that you do not realise the seriousness of your position. A word from me——"

"As many words as you like, dear madam. Really, you are not at all as clever as I had imagined. Let it be a duel to the death between us. Good-night."

With a bow, Wanless turned towards the door. Lady Altamont changed her demeanour altogether. What did this young man know, she wondered? And only a little time ago he had professed himself ready to do her every bidding. She must find out at all hazards.

"Stop!" she cried. "Let us see if there is not some way out of—— What was that?"

A loud ringing of the front-door bell, followed by the noise of hoarse laughter, and then the rattle of a latch-key in the front door. A minute later two or three men were in the hall. There was the noise of a falling body and more laughter.

"I know what it is," Lady Altamont said in deep contempt. "It is my husband come home with a few of his dissolute friends. It frequently happens like this. If he is very intoxicated he will give us no trouble; if not, why——"

The woman shrugged her shoulders. The babel downstairs increased.

"He's all right now," a strange voice said thickly. "He is talking a lot of silly nonsense, but he is quite capable of looking after himself. Pity to arouse her ladyship."

"Won't hurt if he sleeps on the doormat," another voice said. "It's very warm to-night. Come along, Jim; no need to keep the cab waiting any longer."

The door banged noisily, there was silence downstairs for a moment, and than the dissipated master of the house began to yell and shout in tones of fear. He came clattering and stumbling up the stairs, yelling miserably for his wife. Braybrooke stepped aside into the doorway of a bedroom, for he had naturally no wish to be seen.

Sir Charles blundered into the boudoir, and swayed backwards and forwards, looking into space, as if he saw some frozen horror there. He pointed to the wall opposite; so far as he was concerned, Cecil Wanless did not exist at all.

"I've found it all out," he screamed, "discovered the whole thing by accident. You think that you are confoundedly clever and that I am a fool. I tell you I've found it all out! We'll get her back again before many hours are over, and close her mouth for her."

Lady Altamont glanced anxiously at Wanless, for she knew quite well what was apparent in the mind of her husband. She laid his hand on her lips.

"Be quiet," she said. "You are worse to-night than I have ever seen you before. There is nobody missing; it is all your imagination."

"It isn't," Sir Charles yelled. "I say I know where to find her. Found it out by accident. Now, you come along with me, and see for yourself."

The speaker staggered across the room and commenced to beat upon the panels by which Braybrooke had entered the house. The latter stood there, thrilled from head to foot. Suppose Ailsa recognised this as a signal, and opened the secret passage!


XXXV.—COLVILLE INTERVENES.

It was just possible that the vary loud banging on the door would have the opposite effect to the thing that Braybrooke dreaded. Ailsa should give him credit for not making such a wholly unnecessary noise. There was comfort in the idea, but uneasiness in another direction. It was plainly evident that Sir Charles had become possessed of some clue as to the whereabouts of the missing woman.

In the short time at his disposal Braybrooke racked his brain for some sound solution of the problem. How had that poor drink-sodden brain succeeded when the quick wit of Lady Altamont had absolutely failed? But there was no time to discuss this nice point, for Altamont was still loudly pounding on the panels, and declaring that he had discovered some secret. Lady Altamont watched him with contemptuous disgust. It was quite evident that she had regarded all this as the mere ravings of a drunken mind.

"Will you be silent?" she demanded. "What is the meaning of all this folly?"

Sir Charles didn't seem to mind. He ceased his monotonous drumming on the panels for a moment and faced round upon his wife. He looked wild enough, but there was a certain kind of determination in his dull, bloodshot eyes.

"I tell you she's next door," he said. "I don't know how they managed it, but there she is. I saw her not five minutes ago looking out of the window. It isn't safe."

"What isn't safe?" Lady Altamont demanded. "What is the man raving about? And who is it that they have got next door?"

"As if you didn't know," Sir Charles muttered. "Call her La Bella Atalanta. Call her anything you like, so long as you can understand plain English. She's next door, I tell you. I saw her looking out of a window upstairs. Saw her with my own eyes as I was coming in just now. My head is so queer, or I could tell you more.. .. They're after me again."

The flask of reason seemed to leave the speaker as quickly as it had come. The look of comprehension departed from the unhappy man's eyes; they were filled with a nameless horror instead. He commenced to beat the air with his hands as if to fight off some terror that was terrible to the other two. He sprang at Cecil Wanless, who had been watching him in a fascinated way. There was mischief in the air.

Evidently the demented man mistook Wanless for one of his foes. Strange to say, during his few moments of absolute sanity he had never seen Wanless at all. Now he caught him by the throat and bore him backwards against a table.

"Oh, you devil," he hissed. "So I've got you at last. I've been waiting years for this. Ever since I was a boy you have dogged my footsteps. You came and sat at my bedside and kept me awake with your hideous faces. But I could not grapple with you, because you were a ghost then. But now I am going to hold you by the throat till the blood fills your head and it bursts. After that I shall have peace."

The words came quite plainly and slowly. It was evident the speaker was in deadly earnest. Cecil Wanless recognised that and braced himself for the fray. He knew that he was in the grip of a dangerous lunatic. Still, he was not afraid. Youth was on one side, a constitution impaired by drink on the other.

"Hold his right arm," Wanless murmured. "I don't want to hurt him. If you take hold of his right arm I can force him to the floor."

Altamont laughed wildly as if he fitfully understood. He threw the weight of his body forward, the terrible grip on the throat of Wanless increased. There was one fact the latter had quite overlooked—the terrible power of the insane. But he was beginning to realise it now; it was coming to him that quite unexpectedly he was being called upon to fight for his life. And it was quite clear also that he had nothing to expect from Lady Altamont.

She stood there with a simulated terror on her face. She could have helped Wanless with no harm to herself, but she did not move. She was playing a part, as Ronald Braybrooke could see. As yet he had no more than a dreadful suspicion as to what that part was.

Wanless managed to free his throat for a moment. He could see the white face of his antagonist set in an expression of grim resolution.

"If you are too frightened to help me," Wanless gasped, "ring the bell, go on ringing till some of the servants come down. Or go and rouse them. The demon is stronger than I expected. Do you want to see me murdered before your eyes?"

But Lady Altamont made no kind of reply. She was dumb with terror. She could only stand there and watch the struggle in fascinated horror. Cecil Wanless would be killed, and for the rest of his life the unhappy madman would find his life bound by prison walls. It would be a dreadful thing, and everybody would be profoundly sorry for Lady Altamont; yet, on the whole, it would be a blessing in disguise. For that clever woman would be rid of a drag of a husband, and free from the threatened exposure of Cecil Wanless at the same time.

Or so it flashed upon the sharpened intelligence of Ronald Braybrooke. The woman was playing a part. In reality she had nerves of steel and a courage as great as her audacity. Accident was finding her a way of getting rid of her husband and a dangerous foe at the same time. How cleverly she could tell that story in the witness-box afterwards. Sir Charles in confinement and Wanless dead! And the cold-blooded wretch was playing up for that.

The last thing in the world Braybrooke wanted was for his presence in the house to become known. Still he could not stand there and see murder done before his eyes. The pluck of young Wanless was beyond question. But the odds were terribly against him. He was sinking to his knees now; the red stars were beginning to dance and whirl before his eyes. And that woman looked on with just the faint suggestion of a smile in her eyes. The knowledge fairly maddened Braybrooke. He strode forth out of the thick darkness into the boudoir, and without a word of warning dealt Altamont a crashing blow on the side of the head. Without a groan he collapsed on the floor.

"I fancy I have arrived just in time," Ronald said coolly. "Another moment and I should have come too late. How are you feeling now, Wanless?"

Wanless had staggered to his feet and was standing gripping the edge of the table fighting for his breath. His face was almost black, a great moisture stood on his forehead. He pointed with a shaking finger to a bottle and a glass that stood on the cabinet close by. Presently he managed to get a few drops of water between his dry lips. Meanwhile, Altamont lay like a log where he had fallen, nobody seemed to take the faintest notice of him.

"I hope you are not hurt," Lady Altamont managed to say.

"I fancy I'm all right now," Wanless gasped. "I had no idea that Sir Charles was so strong. If you had not turned up I should have been done for, Braybrooke."

The ease with which Wanless uttered the name was not lost on Lady Altamont. She recognised at once that these two men must have met quite recently. She had quite counted on the fact that Wanless had regarded Braybrooke as a dead man, the victim of his own passion. She could see now why Wanless was in a position to defy her. But what was Braybrooke doing there at all at that time of night? And how had he contrived to get into the house? Lady Altamont was puzzled, and she did not like that feeling.

"Now that Wanless is all right, perhaps it would be just as well to have a look at Sir Charles," Braybrooke said, coolly. "I was sorry to have to deal him that tremendous crack; but the situation was too critical for any half-measures. Why didn't you interfere?"

The last question was flung at Lady Altamont almost rudely. She started, and a little colour came into her cheeks. She fully understood the hidden meaning of the question.

"I lost my nerve," she stammered. "Just for the moment I was so terribly frightened that I could not move. Unless you had appeared, I am quite sure that my unhappy husband would have killed my very unfortunate guest. And yet I was powerless to avert the tragedy."

"I quite understand," Braybrooke said drily. "We will discuss the matter at greater length presently. In the meantime I'll see that Sir Charles is coming to."

The baronet stirred uneasily and opened his eyes. All the signs of his late passion had gone. He passed his hand wearily across his forehead.

"Why can't I sleep?" he moaned. "I have not slept for a week. Give me some of my stuff."

Lady Altamont made a rapid sign to Braybrooke to lift the speaker and help to carry him to his own room. Once there, he flung himself on the bed and held out his hand for something. Lady Altamont seemed to understand, for she took a medicine bottle from a cupboard and poured a measured quantity into a glass.

"Drink that," she said, as she held the stuff to the wretched man's lips. "It is your own drug. I ought to have given it to you directly you came in."

Altamont greedily swallowed the medicine. He lay quiet for a little time, with nothing to show there was anything wrong beyond the horrible twitching of the muscles of the face. Then gradually the features became composed, and the figure on the bed really slept.

"He's pretty well gone," Lady Altamont whispered. "Of late that medicine is not quite as potent as it used to be, and I am afraid to increase the dose without the doctor's authority. Would you mind keeping an eye on him for a few moments, Mr. Wanless?"

"Just whilst Lady Altamont lets me out," Braybrooke suggested. "I have a few words to say to her. And you are not likely to be taken by surprise again."

Lady Altamont led the way downstairs, but she did not go as far as the door. On the contrary she turned into the dining-room, and invited Braybrooke to follow her. Here she turned up the lights, and faced round on her companion.

"I fancy that we had better be quite candid with each other," she said. "In the first place, will you tell me why you are hanging about the house to-night. Also whether it is your good pleasure to be known as John Stern or Ronald Braybrooke?"

"You may call me by whatever name you like," Ronald said, indifferently.

"Very good. Then we will stick to your proper name. Still, I am not sorry that you came to-night, because it has opened my eyes to one or two things. So you have chosen to reveal your identity to young Wanless, and let him know that you are not at the bottom of the North Sea, as he supposed."

"I had to do that for reasons that we will not go into," Ronald replied. "I fear that you have used the fact of my supposed death to good purpose, so far as the Wanless diamonds are concerned. Still, it is never too late to mend, and I fancy you found Cecil Wanless a hotter antagonist to-night than you had expected. He is going to fight you to the finish."

"Ah!" Lady Altamont cried. "Then you listened?"

"Yes, I listened," Braybrooke said, coolly. "I must confess that I was rather pleased with the young man. As I told you before, I have done with the dark past, and that henceforth I am going back to the clean life again. Therefore you will quite understand my anxiety to see those gems back in their owner's hands again."

"You have to prove that they are in my possession first," Lady Altamont said with a scornful laugh. "But you have not told me why you are skulking here to-night. I shrewdly suspect that you would have kept your visit a secret had it not been for the sake of young Wanless."

"You may take that as an act," Braybrooke said, quite coolly. "But for Sir Charles's outbreak you would not have been aware of my visit. I had to declare myself."

"For the life of me I can't see why."

"Oh, yes, you can. You know perfectly well Cecil Wanless had put you into a tight place; in other words, he was going to ruin you. You tried playing off my supposed death against his strange words, but yours was quite spoilt by the knowledge that I am still alive. I did not want to let you know that he was aware of that; but Sir Charles's action left me no alternative. At the same time, Sir Charles's conduct suited you splendidly. I could see that from your face. You stood there pretending to be so overcome by terror that you could not stir. But I was looking you straight in the face, out of the darkness, and I read you like an open book. This was a wonderful chance for you. You had only to stand and watch the tragedy played to a finish. Sir Charles would have disposed of the most dangerous enemy you possessed, and he would have been kept out of your way for the rest of his life by the State. All that passed through your brilliant brain; it came to you like a flash. And there was I in the darkness, reading your thoughts as they flashed over your face. I waited until I did not dare to delay any longer. At any hazards the crime must be stopped, and I stopped it. And you can't look me in the eye, and deny that all I say is absolutely true."

Lady Altamont laughed, but she could not meet Braybrooke's eyes. If desire could have done anything, he would have been dead at her feet that moment. In the past she had regarded her present antagonist more as a fool than anything else—now she began to realise the full extent of the forces allied against her.

"You are exceedingly clever," she sneered. "But all you say is merely supposition, and does not prove anything. And the fact remains that you are acting the part of a burglar. What is to prevent my calling in the police and giving you into custody for——"

There was a sudden cry, a crash, and the sound of swiftly running feet overhead. Wanless was crying for assistance. Lady Altamont grasped the situation in a moment.

"I know what has happened," she laid. "That drug was not strong enough. It has failed more than once lately. Let us go and see what has happened."

Sir Charles had risen from his bed and put Wanless aside as if he had been a child. Then, as if his mind had taken up the thread at the old place, he rushed into the boudoir and had commenced to hammer at the panels, crying that some person was next door, and that she must be fetched away from there at all hazards.

The man's frenzy rose with the sound of his own voice. With reckless strength and indifference to pain, he dashed himself against the panels till they gave way and he fell headlong into the studio on the other aide. The crash seemed to shake the two houses to their foundations, but no sign came from No. 13. Altamont stared stupidly about him as anyone does who stands suddenly and unexpectedly on strange ground for the first time.

It was just as this happened that Lady Altamont and her companion came up with the madman who had brought all this mischief about. Their first impulse was to drag him back into the boudoir and do what they could to temporarily repair the mischief. But Altamont seemed to divine this, for he darted on, almost into the arms of somebody in the doorway.

"May I ask what all this means?" a voice said. "My eyesight is not what it was; therefore I shall be glad of an explanation."

Braybrooke dropped back, for he recognised the voice of Archibald Colville.


XXXVI.—NO THOROUGHFARE.

All these developments were so quick that Ronald Braybrooke had hardly time to follow them. The cleverest man in the world would have been powerless to save the situation, and it now looked quite likely to become a catastrophe.

Archibald Colville stood there shading his eyes with his hands and trying to make something out of the tangled knot of figures before him. Braybrooke inwardly congratulated himself that Colville's eyesight was not likely to lead to his detection. He was not at that moment made up to play the part of old Thomas, therefore it seemed to him only discreet that he should keep in the background as long as possible.

And, indeed, there was no reason why he should not do so, for the present at any rate. Altamont did not appear in the least to know what he was doing. Just for the moment he seemed to have lost his passion; he was less wild than he had been, and not so dangerous-looking. His eyes were fixed on vacancy, like one in a dream.

Colville came closer, and repeated his question.

"This is nonsense," he said peevishly. "I am not well, in fact I am a long way from being well. I have recently met with an accident that gives me considerable pain. One of the consequences is that I cannot sleep. I am just dropping off when I hear a great noise, and I get up to inquire. The noise ceases, and I go back to bed again. Then it seems as if the whole house is going to collapse, and I hastily dress. I came in here and found that I have unexpected visitors. Please explain."

"She's here!" Altamont cried. "I saw her just now at one of the windows. If you listen you can hear her crying out in one of the bedrooms."

Surely enough, there was a faint noise overhead, followed by something that sounded like a slight groan. Braybrooke bit his lips with vexation. It was perfectly maddening to think that all his delicately laid plans should be frustrated by a drunken wretch like this. If the matter was investigated all would be lost.

"Then is nobody here besides my ward, Miss Lefroy, and my housekeeper," Colville explained. "I understand that my housekeeper has a niece staying with her who is an invalid. But there is nobody else in the house except, perhaps, Thomas, and Thomas comes and goes much as if the place belonged to him. I wish the rascal were here now."

But Braybrooke remained silent, and as far away from the light as he could get. He could see that Lady Altamont's eyes were flaming.

"You will pardon me if I ask you a question," she said coolly. "But can you speak definitely as to this niece of your house-keeper's?"

With a sudden cry that ended in something like a snarl, Colville jumped forward. In a moment the whole man had been transformed. He came quite close to Lady Altamont and laid his hand sternly on her shoulder.

"So it is you?" he said in a voice hoarse with passion. "It is some years now since we were face to face, and I am not likely to forget the circumstances. And, knowing what you do, you have the temerity to come here like this! Go away, you Jezebel, go away. Bad as I am, I am fair by the side of you."

But the woman made no attempt to move. Something like a laugh escaped her.

"Go on," she said. "I can stand all your abuse. I am used to it. All the same, I should like to see the niece of your old housekeeper. If you are telling me the truth, I fancy I could astonish you."

"Would you be able to recognise the truth if you saw it," Colville sneered. "What a hapless fool I am with my eyes going like this! And where is that rogue Thomas? He would soon make short work of the lot of you. You are a very clever woman, Lady Altamont, but you are not quite so clever as you deem yourself to be. I dare say you thought it was a coincidence that brought us so close together, but I have had a careful watch on you for some time. And so, perhaps, you will tell me how you got here?"

"The explanation is quite simple," Lady Altamont said coolly. "My husband has hallucinations——"

"Your husband is a besotted idiot whose brains are rotted by drink," Colville cried. "He is a poor tool in your clever hands, and worth nothing beyond his title. But all this does not explain his unwarrantable intrusion into my house."

"You must make allowances, my dear Mr. Colville. We have lost a valued inmate of our house, a friend who was ill. Whether or not she wandered off in a moment of delirium, taking advantage of the temporary absence of the nurse, it is impossible to say. At any rate she has vanished, and her loss has given us great trouble. My husband is especially upset——"

"Oh, I can quite believe it," Colville said, with a savage grin. "He has a kind and tender heart for the sufferings of others. But please go on."

"Rightly or wrongly, my husband believes that the missing girl is here. He is prepared to swear that just now he saw her looking out of the bedroom window. I was inclined to regard the whole thing as a delusion until——"

"You can go on regarding it in that light," Colville interrupted. "Your friend is not here. Will you tell me how you got into my house?"

"My husband forced a way in. You can see for yourself that there is only a panel between this room and my boudoir. Sir Charles beat down that panel in his inspection——"

"Inspection! In his drunken, besotted fury, you mean! And so I am to be disturbed like this because a drunken ruffian on the verge of delirium tremens chooses to believe the evidence of his eyes! Begone, the whole lot of you, and don't let me see you here again! To-morrow I take steps to prevent a repetition of this disgraceful con——"

Suddenly Sir Charles jumped from the sofa on to which he had fallen. His eyes were gleaming now as if he had seen something invisible to the rest. He dashed from the room, shouting that he was going, to see what was taking place upstairs. Braybrooke—who had fondly hoped that the whole thing was going to fizzle out quietly—dashed after him. At all coats the besotted baronet must be stopped from going up those stairs. The two men closed together and struggled on the landing.

"Come back, or I shall have to use force," Braybrooke exclaimed. He had forgotten the part that he was playing in the excitement of the moment. "Come back, I say."

Colville had followed the two flying figures in a helpless kind of way. It was no moment to appreciate the nice difference in the shade of a voice, and the old man's first idea was that Thomas had come suddenly to his assistance.

"Hold him, Thomas," he cried. "Bring the rascal back. Use force if you like. Only don't let him go upstairs."

Lady Altamont smiled. She knew a great deal more than Braybrooke imagined. She saw the error into which Colville had fallen. Braybrooke's real identity was not known to the old man. It was something to go upon.

Meanwhile the struggle on the floor continued. There was no great noise, but the thing was in deadly and grim earnest all the same. Then a door overhead opened, and a man came down the stairs, followed by old Susan. The elderly woman dropped back and vanished. The stranger now stood on the landing, rolling his eyes in astonishment.

"I beg your pardon," he said vaguely, "but I am Dr. Maddison. I was called in here by telephone a little time ago to see a lady who is very ill upstairs. I was asked to come very quietly, because there was another invalid in the house. Really, sir——"

The doctor paused as if he lacked words to proceed. Here was a welcome ally for Braybrooke, and he embraced the opportunity without delay.

"My unfortunate friend has been drinking," he gasped. "You will see for yourself that he is on the verge of a bad attack of delirium tremens. He is Sir Charles Altamont, who lives next door, at No. 14. He managed to break down a partition between this house and the next. He insists that some friend of his is hiding here, and altogether he has made a great disturbance. You will quite see, doctor, how important it is to remove at once the source of so much danger to your patient."

The stranger nodded curtly. There was no occasion to point out all this to him. He watched Sir Charles struggling in the arms of his antagonist; he could see at a glance that it was even as Braybrooke had said.

"Fortunately I can deal with the matter out of hand," he said. "I came here to-night prepared to grapple with a dangerous form of delusion. My patient is quiet now, and it is quite critical that she should not be disturbed. One moment."

The doctor opened his black bag and produced a hypodermic syringe. He gave a sign to Braybrooke, who forced Sir Charles to the ground and tore open his sleeve. A moment later, and the syringe had done its work. Only a few seconds elapsed before the baronet collapsed altogether, and lay like a log on the carpet.

"No more trouble with him for the next four-and-twenty hours," the doctor said cheerfully. "So he must be got to bed and his clothes removed. Will you help me, sir?"

"I will help you with the greatest possible pleasure," Braybrooke said grimly. "Indeed, I am vastly obliged by your ready assistance. You take his head, and I'll take his feet. I fancy I can pilot you up to his room all right."

"Man of wonderful resources is Thomas," Colville muttered complacently.

Lady Altamont laughed unpleasantly, and Braybrooke noted the mirth with apprehension. Things were going his way now, but he was not out of the wood yet. It would never do to leave Colville and that woman alone together, yet at the same time it was impossible to do anything until the body of Sir Charles had been properly disposed of.

The latter's bedroom was reached at last, and the unconscious form deposited with much ceremony on the owner's bed. A few moments later and he was stripped and made comfortable.

"He is likely to do pretty well now for some time to come," the doctor said. "If the fellow goes on in the same way, I wouldn't give a month for him to live. Altogether, you seem to be a queer lot in these parts."

"We are," Braybrooke said grimly. "We are a very queer lot on both sides of the party wall. But tell me, how is your patient next door getting on? I understand that she is a niece of the old housekeeper. Is she better?"

"She is in a pretty bad way," the doctor exclaimed. "Still, she only wants rest and quietness to pull her round. It isn't for me to ask too many questions, but I should be inclined to doubt the statement that my patient is the niece of that old lady. But I really must be getting along. I shall be glad if you can see your way to letting me out of the house. I'm pretty well done up for want of sleep, and I don't want to stand there answering a lot of silly questions."

"Nothing easier," Braybrooke said. "I can let you out of the front door here and fasten it behind you. Then I can go back next door by the way we came."

Five minutes later and Braybrooke was back at No. 13 once more. He returned very quietly—so quietly that Lady Altamont was not aware of his presence. He was about to say that he had got Sir Charles comfortably in bed when a word of the conversation arrested him. He drew back in the shadow, and stood there listening intently.

"I say you are wrong," Colville muttered. "You know nothing about it. You say that I turned my wife out of my house, and I am not prepared to deny it. But you do not know, nobody will ever know, what provocation I had. Your sister was as great an adventuress as yourself. And you are not asking all these questions out of any affection that you feel for her. Oh, I know a great deal more than you imagine. You little know how carefully I have had my eye on you for some considerable time past. I could tell you pretty well everything that took place at your masked ball. A woman comes to your house who is a perfect stranger to you, and she meets with a strange accident there. I read all about it in the papers. How I laughed when I read the report: 'Lady Altamont, who was greatly disturbed, could give no account of her mysterious visitor, or how she came to be injured.' Oh! Oh! 'Lady Altamont, with her usual kindness, is doing all she can for the sufferer. A trained nurse has been engaged, in fact everything that could possibly be done,' etc., etc. And all the time there were two of us close together who could have told the whole truth, if necessary."

"I might have guessed something of this," she said. "I shall have to be more or less candid with you. The woman in question has disappeared, and she has vanished from my house as completely as if she had never existed. That must have been the work of some deadly enemy of mine, of course. And when Sir Charles came in and declared that he had seen her face looking out of one of your bedroom windows I felt quite certain that——"

"Pshaw," Colville exclaimed impatiently, "the thing is ridiculous. Fancy a clever woman like you taking the faintest notice of the fancies of a sot like Altamont. Do you suppose that a thing like that could be done without my knowledge? Do you suppose either that I would have that creature in my house under any circumstances? There is an invalid here, but she is the niece of my old housekeeper, and there is an end of it. Thomas, my servant, will be back from your house in a moment or two, and you can ask him."

Lady Altamont laughed again, this time more naturally.

"Oh, I had quite forgotten Thomas," she said. "So you suppose that your faithful Thomas was here helping you this evening? Well, Thomas shall speak for himself when he comes back. Oh, I see somebody coming down the stairs; surely, it is Miss Lefroy. She is evidently going down to the kitchen on an errand of mercy for the invalid. Will you be so good as to call her in here, Mr. Colville?"

Colville complied, muttering that he should like to know what his visitor was driving at. Ailsa came into the room, surprise and indignation written on her face. She wanted to know what Lady Altamont was doing in her boudoir at such an hour.

"I am sorry to intrude," the clever woman said, sweetly. "But I fancy that I have a little surprise for you both, when old Thomas comes back. You will appreciate presently why I have gone so far out of my way to assist you. But Thomas is a long time."

"I am afraid I cannot stay," Ailsa said.

"Oh, just a moment. I am sure that you will be glad afterwards. It is always such a pleasure to me to give pleasure to other people."

Braybrooke stood there with firm lips and anger in his heart. He knew what was going to happen—Lady Altamont was about to betray his real identity to Colville and—Ailsa.


XXXVII.—NEWS FROM PARIS.

Ailsa confronted her visitor with a steady eye. The girl knew by some subtle instinct that Lady Altamont meant mischief. Otherwise there had been no kind of occasion for her presence. It all flashed on Ailsa in a moment as she stood there bracing herself for the fray. If Lady Altamont had not actually discovered the fact that her late guest was now sheltered by the roof of No. 13, at any rate she had some shrewd idea as to what had happened.

"I am at a loss to understand what you are doing here," Ailsa said, coldly. She wanted a little time to mature her plans. "How did you come? And who let you in? I did not hear the front door bell ring, I——"

Ailsa paused suddenly as her eye took in the broken panels leading from the studio to the boudoir in the next house. It was a relief, at any rate, to know that the secret of the panel had not been discovered.

It was Cecil Wanless who came forward and relieved the tension of the situation. He quite favourably impressed Ailsa. The last time she had seen him, he had not appealed to her in the least favourable light.

"We all owe you an apology," he said. "This is a most unwarrantable intrusion. It was Sir Charles Altamont who was to blame. He came home in a very excited state——"

"I understand," Ailsa said, quietly. "I have heard of Sir Charles's little weakness in that direction. But that does not excuse——"

"Pardon me," Wanless resumed. "I happened to be sitting with Lady Altamont in her boudoir, late as it was, discussing some very important business. It was business connected with some jewels belonging to my mother."

Ailsa bowed politely. All this might have seemed superfluous to an outsider, but the girl understood quite plainly that Wanless was speaking between lines and desired to convey to her that she enjoyed his confidence.

"You are a little diffuse, but pray proceed," Ailsa said, indifferently.

"I am sorry to bore you with unnecessary details," Cecil Wanless went on. "Sir Charles came back, as I was explaining to you just now, in a very excited condition. He declared that he had seen the figure of a woman at one of your bedroom windows."

Ailsa nodded, her heart was beating a little faster. This had been no hallucination on the part of Sir Charles, as the girl could have told the listeners. But it was not for her to do anything of the kind. She knew quite well, now, that Wanless was talking for her information, and he was playing his part vary well.

"Would there have been anything very singular in that?" Ailsa asked. "Surely the spectacle of a woman at a bedroom window at this hour of the morning is not so unusual that anyone should get excited over it."

"It all depends on who the woman is," Wanless said drily. "At any rate, Sir Charles was terribly excited, and insisted on coming here to see. He forced his way through the panels from the next room into here, and—and there you are."

"Is that all you have to say?" Ailsa asked.

Wanless intimated that it was. Lady Altamont came forward.

"Perhaps you will allow me to say a few words," she began. "My husband is unfortunately addicted to intoxicants—indeed, he is fast killing himself in that way. There are times when it is not safe to be in his company. I have never seen him more violent than he was to-night. At the same time he had an excuse for his excitement. As you are aware, a very strange thing took place in our house a short time ago. I am alluding to the unfortunate woman who was found next door seriously injured and so badly hurt that there was little chance of her recovery. When I say that the poor creature was a perfect stranger to me——"

"But is that a fact?" Ailsa asked coldly. "You were going to give me some information just now about a certain inmate of this house. That was very kind of you, and I have to thank you for your interested motives. It would be a curious coincidence if I could give you some facts as to the unfortunate woman you speak of."

Lady Altamont's eyes flashed. She had not expected all this coolness and courage in a mere girl like Ailsa. She had forgotten all about Ronald Braybrooke now, as the latter could see to his great satisfaction.

"I should not be in the least surprised if you could," Lady Altamont rejoined, with just the faintest suspicion of a sneer on her face. "You asked me just now why the appearance of a woman at this hour of the night should have such an effect on my husband. But you see he declared that it was our unfortunate guest."

"But how could your unfortunate guest get here?" Ailsa asked.

"That is the very point that I am most anxious to clear up. She vanished in the most amazing manner. She could not have gone far, because she was not in a position to be moved without great risk. And to-night we discovered that there has at one time been a means of communication between the two houses. Is not that a very singular coincidence in the face of recent events?"

"Hadn't you better make your meaning clear?" Ailsa challenged.

"Perhaps it would be as well," Lady Altamont retorted coolly. "I will put it as plainly as you like. I will suggest that the old housekeeper here has no niece, or, at any rate, that she has no niece at present under this roof. In other words, I should like to see the invalid you mention. May I be permitted to do so?"

"Certainly not!" Ailsa cried. "This is unwarrantable. Are we to be disturbed and insulted at this time in the morning to gratify the curiosity of a drunken reprobate who imagines these kind of things! According to your own story, your late visitor is nothing to you. You told the police that she was a complete stranger——"

"And I told the police no more than the truth, my dear young lady."

"Very well. In that case, why worry about her? She is nothing to you. And therefore if she has disappeared in this singular manner, why, you have a troublesome visitor off your hands. Still, I promised you certain information, and I will not withhold it. You may inform the police if you like that the poor creature in whom you seem to be so deeply interested all at once is known to fame as La Belle Atalanta. Let the police look up the pedigree of this variety actress, and they will make some startling discoveries. So far as I understand, La Belle Atalanta has a sister who is married to a member of the British aristocracy. Need I tell you any more?"

There was a challenge in the last question, but Lady Altamont chose to ignore it. She began to recognise that she had a foe worthy of her steel here. But to the listening Braybrooke it all sounded horribly indiscreet on Ailsa's part. Still, it had the desired effect, for Lady Altamont turned towards the broken panel.

"I am very sorry, for it's the truth," she said. "No doubt Sir Charles has made a mistake. If Miss Lefroy does not mind, I should like to see her to-morrow and discuss the matter fully. In the meantime we are keeping each other up. If you lock the studio door, Miss Lefroy, you will be as safe as if that panel had not been broken."

"I will take good care of that," Ailsa said. "As to the rest, I shall be pleased to meet you at any time to-morrow you like. My information is quite at your service."

Braybrooke drew a deep breath of relief as Lady Altamont vanished. He knew perfectly well that Lady Altamont had meant to betray his real identity to Ailsa for some purpose of her own. But Ailsa had been too clever for the woman; she had forced her hand and compelled her to defend herself on quite different grounds. But, all the same, it seemed to him that Ailsa had been very unwise to let Lady Altamont know that she had learnt so much. It was putting the woman on her guard at the very moment when it was most necessary to lull her suspicions to sleep. But the mischief was done now.

Lady Altamont vanished with an uneasy smile on her face, but with an angry feeling of defeat in her heart. Wanless lingered behind to say a few words to Ailsa.

"I am acting entirely for the best, if you only knew it," he said. "After what has happened to-night, it has become necessary for me to see you without delay. It will look less suspicious if you come and call on my sister to-morrow afternoon, say at three o'clock."

Ailsa nodded and held out her hand. She did not see Ronald Braybrooke slip by her at the same moment. The studio was empty at length, and Ailsa turned the key on the outside of the lock and put it into her pocket. She had no fancy for Lady Altamont to be prying about at her own sweet will. In the corridor Colville stood, surly and suspicious.

"What is it all about?" he asked. "What were you two fencing over? And who is the woman whom all this fuss is about. Tell me."

"You know already," Ailsa replied. "I am no longer a child to be treated in this simple fashion. You are to ask no questions, you are to do as you are told, and be discreet and silent. Above all, you are to make no attempt for the present to see the woman who is in bed upstairs. I am a woman of fortune now, and you have nothing. You have to rely on my clemency and good nature entirely. I hate to have to speak like this, but you force it on me. Now go."

Colville grumbled and snarled to himself, but he went all the same. All danger was averted now, and it was possible for Ailsa to return to her room with a comparatively light heart. But there were problems in her mind that kept her awake for a long time, so that it was late when she came down the next morning to find that the patient was better.

"It's all right now," Susan said. "So long as he doesn't interfere."

"You need not trouble about that," Ailsa replied. "The tables are turned now, and the time has come when Mr. Colville has to do what I tell him. If he attempts to interfere, let him know what I told you. It is all coming right in a short time, and we are going to be happy yet, Susan—or, at least, as happy as I can ever be in the circumstances."

Susan's lips moved as if she were about to say something, but she changed her mind. She recollected that she was pledged to secrecy. But it was hard to hold the secret back with Ailsa's sweet, sad face before her.

It was just after three before Ailsa left the house and made her way to keep her appointment with Cecil Wanless at his mother's residence.

Mrs. Wanless was not down; it was one of her bad days, Cecil explained. And Grace had gone as far as Bond-street to do some shopping. She had left a message to say that she would not be long, and that Ailsa was to stay to tea.

"I shall be very glad to see Grace," Ailsa said. "And now, what did you want to see me for? Have you quite broken with Lady Altamont?"

"Absolutely! Indeed, I can't see why I was so infatuated. Of course, she had a hold on me."

"What possible hold could she have had on you?"

"Well, it was like this. I had parted with the jewels, and did not dare to ask for them back. You see, it was I who was responsible for the death of Ronald Braybrooke. But I see you know something about it. I can't speak definitely, for I am pledged not to go too far. But I have more than a strong suspicion that Ronald is not dead at all."

Ailsa fairly gasped. She was conscious of the painful beating of her heart. When she had sufficiently recovered herself, she pressed Wanless for further details.

"I can't give you them," he said, half-sadly. "As I said before, I am pledged to silence. But I feel that I know enough to defy Lady Altamont. I told her last night that unless the whole of the gems were returned I would lay everything before a magistrate, and expose her, at whatever cost to myself. I had just convinced her how deeply in earnest I was, when Sir Charles came back and made the scene that you know of. My intention is now to tell everything to that clever Inspector Burles that my sister called in and act just as he suggests. I wanted to see you to-day, just to convince you that I am not quite the feeble creature you took me to be. I know that appearances were terribly against me."

"We need not go into that," Ailsa said gently. "At any rate, you are playing the man now. I am always ready to try and forgive anybody who makes up for the past. And as to the rest, you cannot do better than be advised by Inspector Burles. But I should like to know what makes you think that Ronald Braybrooke is not dead."

"Won't you wait for a few days?" said Wanless pleadingly. "I can quite understand what your feelings are in the matter. For the Braybrooke you used to know and the Braybrooke who was my friend are very different people, Miss Lefroy."

"Oh, I know, I know. I am quite prepared for that. But the heart of a woman takes no heed of change. I would welcome Ronald back in any guise. I know now that the last few years have been no period to be proud of; I understand that my lover had stepped back terribly. But I also understand that the fault is largely due to Mr. Colville. It is some story of disappointed love and the vengeance being wreaked upon the son of the woman who turned her back on Archibald Colville. All this Mr. Stern told me. But it would make no difference to me. If Ronald returned and I could read in his eyes that he meant to lead a good life in the future, I would welcome him, and stand by his side to give him strength and resolution."

What more Ailsa would have said was cut short by the entrance of Grace. She seemed to be rather excited about something; she had met Lady Altamont, she said. Lady Altamont had suggested coming there to tea to talk matters over, but Grace had declined.

"There was a nasty glance in her eyes," the girl explained. "I am sure she meant mischief."

The nasty glance was still in Lady Altamont's eyes as she set homewards. It was ominous of the time when a gentle girl like Grace Wanless could be so cold to her. Everything seemed to have changed for the worse the last few days.

Lady Altamont turned moodily into her boudoir. She could hear her husband calling for her. Sir Charles had not long come to himself, and was now seated in bed reading a telegram that a servant had just brought up to him. As his muddled senses grasped the purport he cried out for his wife. She came into the room impatiently.

"Read that, my girl!" Sir Charles said, hoarsely. "What do you think of it? Take my advise and go over to Paris at once. Terry has deceived you. It will take all your infernal cleverness to get out of that."

Lady Altamont read the telegram with a white face and shaking hands. Then the paper flitted to the floor and she stood looking helplessly at the haggard figure on the bed.


XXXVIII.—A BAFFLED GUEST.

Lady Altamont shook her husband passionately by the shoulder.

"Can you fully understand what has happened?" she asked. "Is that drink-soddened brain of yours in a fit state to comprehend? Oh, if you were only a man! It seemed to me to be a good thing to marry you—I thought with your old name and my brain we could have accomplished great things. But from the very first you have been a drag on me. I have had to watch you when my whole attention was needed for more important matters. And, after all, this is the result."

"I see," Altamont said. "I'm not quite such a fool as you took me for. Terry has played you false, if that telegram means anything at all. It was a mere precaution on your part to have that fellow's movements spied upon. What are you going to do now?"

"Why, see O'Brien at once, of course, and if necessary proceed at once to Paris myself."

"But you don't know but what the telegram is all a blind," Altamont protested. "It may be a mere trap to lure you to Paris and so bag all the birds with one shot. Give me a stiff brandy-and-soda that I may pull myself together, and then I'll get up."

With a glance of passionate contempt for the speaker, Lady Altamont complied with his request. The woman was more anxious and nervous than she would have thought it possible to be. She was playing a bold game, but success was not crowning her efforts.

"I shall have to go to Paris," she said, after a long pause. "I need not be any more than a couple of days. I want £50."

Altamont laughed stupidly at the request.

"Then you'll have to want, my girl," he said. "I'm absolutely broke. I should have the very greatest difficulty in putting my hand on a fiver. I've had a dreadful time lately, and the run of the cards has been terribly against me. And people are beginning to whisper about my play. If anything does creep out and I have to leave my club it would be all up with us socially, and you know what that means."

Lady Altamont was silent for a little time. It was no use wasting her energy in reproaches heaped upon the head of this poor creature. She had married him with her eyes wide open, and she had to put up with the consequences. And in any case he could not last very much longer. Lady Altamont calculated coolly upon this contingency as she looked at the feeble, shaking creature on the bed.

"It is so like you to fail me in an emergency," she said. "Still, I must have some money, and I care very little where it comes from. I've pawned everything of value that I possess. Come, can't you think of some way of raising the needful supply?"

"Of course I can," Altamont chuckled, "It's a bit risky, but the thing has been done before, and it will be done again. You want an expensive wedding present for a friend. Go and bluff it as far as you can with one or two of the big jewel merchants, and get them to send something on approval. Once you've got the stuff, ask the people to send in the bill—they will be quite helpless. Then you can trot off to the pawnshop with the swag and raise the needful on it. Nothing could be more simple."

Lady Altamont looked at her husband almost with a glance of approval. The plan was very simple, and yet so likely to succeed.

"I'll do it," she said. "And I'll send O'Brien a telegram asking him to meet me at one of the lunching places in Bond-street. And try and keep off the brandy till I come back again. I may want your advice once more."

Altamont's plan proved quite successful. After all, the reputation of the family was not wholly lost, and more than one enterprising tradesman was ready to do business with the handsome, well-dressed woman whose carriage was so perfectly appointed. Lady Altamont's name was well known, too. A little while later and half a dozen green leather cases reposed on the opposite seat of the brougham. A little later still they had been transferred to the custody of a leading pawnbroker, and Lady Altamont, who had not made the slightest secret of her identity, was the richer by some hundreds of pounds.

She was taking a much more cheerful view of the world now. She was even thinking of her husband without contempt. She would go over to Paris the same evening and set matters right. But first of all it was necessary to see O'Brien. If he had not already departed on his errand, he was pretty sure to come in answer to the telegram.

O'Brien did come at length. He was cool and collected as usual; he had no objection to Lady Altamont's suggestion that he should lunch with her. They managed to secure a secluded table in the small restaurant where they would not be overheard.

"Anything particularly wrong?" O'Brien asked.

"A great deal," the woman replied. "Everything is wrong. As I have often told you, I don't put very much trust in Terry."

"Did you ever put much trust in anybody?"

"Very seldom. But there were reasons why I had to take Terry into my confidence. Things were so critical that I could not leave London. And now I get information that Terry is playing me false. One my of spies tells me the news."

"Oh, indeed! So whilst you are prepared to distrust Terry you are giving your most implicit belief to a mere spy creature of whom you know little or nothing. That is an illogical position that nobody but a woman could take up."

"You are very clever," Lady Altamont sneered. "All the same, I want your opinion."

"Oh, you can have that and welcome. Who is the spy? Do I happen to know the fellow?"

"I dare say you do. It is Henri Harris. He used to be in the Lyons police force."

"Oh, I know the little sot. So you took the precaution of putting him on to dog Terry. Let me tell you something that you don't know. Terry and Harris are deadly enemies. There is nothing that either would not do to injure the other. I dare say I shall put that right when I go to Paris to-morrow. I could not possibly go to-day."

"I am glad to hear that you are going," Lady Altamont said, with tones of relief. "I began to think that even you were going to play me false. I intended to go to——"

The speaker paused abruptly. She was about to inform O'Brien that she had made up her mind to cross the Channel; but, perhaps, on the whole, it would be better to keep the information to herself. Her mind moved rapidly to conclusions. She would disguise herself more or less effectually, and keep a watch on O'Brien. If he failed, she could slip away, and nobody be any the wiser. Whereas, if he succeeded, she would be close at hand to recover the spoil.

But she had reckoned without her companion. He marked the unfinished sentence, and fully understood the meaning of the unspoken words.

"Have you any money?" he asked suddenly.

"Plenty," Lady Altamont said, quite taken off her guard for the moment. "I mean I shall be having some before long. Do you lack the means?"

"I daresay I can manage," O'Brien said, after what appeared to be a thoughtful pause. "But there is one little thing you seem to have forgotten."

"What is that? You have only to mention it and it is done."

"It is in the matter of those papers. I can do practically nothing without them. You have been promising them to me now for some weeks, but they have not come to hand. I cannot move without those papers."

"They are in my possession, if I could only find them," Lady Altamont stammered.

"You are not telling the truth," O'Brien said coolly. "The papers are in the possession of your sister. Perhaps you will tell me that you don't know where she is?"

"If I said so I should not be telling a lie," Lady Altamont protested. "I am ready to swear to you that I have not the slightest idea where my sister is."

"You mean that you have not seen her for some considerable time past?"

"That is exactly what I do mean," Lady Altamont said, uneasily. "It is a fact."

O'Brien smiled as he stretched out his hand for a fresh cigarette. He knew exactly whom he had to deal with, and he was prepared to treat her accordingly.

"Why do you lie to me in this ridiculous manner?" he said. "Do you think that you have a fool like your husband to deal with in me? Though we have not seen much of each other lately, I have not lost my interest in your movements. For instance, it has occurred to me more than once lately how awkward it would have been had your sister come to London unexpectedly and claimed your hospitality."

As O'Brien spoke his eyes fixed with a queer expression on the face of his companion The women's eyes fell before his scrutiny.

"It would here been very awkward," she forced herself to say.

"Exceedingly awkward. But a thing almost as awkward did happen. I am alluding to the unhappy woman who nearly succeeded in getting herself done to death in your house. I believe that I am a bit of a novelist in my way; anyhow, I made a plot out of the incident. And what do you think was the idea that occurred to me?"

"How could I possibly tell?" Lady Altamont asked, impatiently.

"Well, the absurd notion came into my head that the poor creature was your sister. Let us say she has come back to London and had commenced to annoy you. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that she called herself by the old name La Belle Atalanta——"

Lady Altamont started. She recollected suddenly now that Ailsa Lefroy had spoken of La Belle Atalanta. And here was O'Brien pursuing the same line of argument.

"Better go on," she said, hoarsely. "Take another cigarette."

"You are very good, and I will not scruple to avail myself of your generosity. You write a letter to your sister, asking her to come and see you on the night of your party. Everybody is masked, so that it gives you just the opportunity you require. The woman is taken up to the little room that leads from your boudoir, and there you see her. You are a very strong woman, Lady Altamont, and your sister is comparatively fragile. We will suppose that the tragedy took place within a few moments. You go back to your guests as if nothing had happened, and——"

"What nonsense!" Lady Altamont cried, angrily. All the same, her face was very white, and O'Brien could see that she was trembling violently. "How can you insinuate——"

"I am insinuating nothing. I am only stating a situation that is quite possible, and pointing out a course of action that you are quite capable of taking. But whilst you were about it you might have gained possession of your papers."

"Oh, I might," Lady Altamont said, with a forced laugh. "If we grant, for the sake of argument, that things were as you say. But then you forget one thing—the woman it is your fancy to regard as my sister vanished from our house as mysteriously as she came."

"But that may be part of the game," O'Brien grinned. "You may have had your own very powerful reasons for getting rid of your troublesome sister."

"That is where you are absolutely and entirely wrong," Lady Altamont said, seriously. "We don't want to go into a long discussion as to who the woman is or who the woman isn't. But I am prepared to swear that the woman has vanished, and that I haven't the least idea where she has gone."

O'Brien regarded the speaker with a searching gaze. She met his look now steadily.

"I believe you," he said, presently. "If I were in your place this disappearance would fill me with dread. It would show me that I had powerful and daring enemies who knew everything. Without in any way desiring to annoy you, I may say that, till the woman is found, we are not in the least likely to put our hands on those papers. Therefore she must be found."

Lady Altamont had nothing further to say. A sudden idea had come to her, and she meant to put it into effect before she was many hours older. It would necessitate the postponement of her journey to Paris for twenty-four hours, and also necessitate losing sight of O'Brien for that time; but she could not help that. She rose from her seat and called for the bill.

"I fancy I can see a way out," she said. "Don't do anything till you hear from me again. It is not a question of any length of time. And it is just possible that if you are patient I may place those papers in your hands to-morrow."

"Very good," O'Brien said, with a fine show of indifference. "I will meet you here at the same time to-morrow if you like. Good-bye."

Lady Altamont drove in the direction of home in a thoughtful mood. She began to apprehend many dangers now that had only looked like small annoyances a day or two before. She was glad to find that Sir Charles had dressed and gone out, she wanted the house to herself. She not only stayed in all the afternoon, but she dined quietly at home. She had not dressed for dinner, on the plea of a headache; she was wearing a dress of some soft black material. As she moved about the room she made no sound.

It was getting quite late when Sir Charles returned, bringing a couple of men with him. The master of the house had evidently been dining freely, but he was not objectionable, as usual at that hour. The male party adjourned to the smoke-room, but Lady Altamont did not follow. Sir Charles lingered to pass a few words with her in the drawing-room.

"What's up?" he asked thickly. "What are you staying in for, dressed like a sick parlour-maid? Is there anything particular in the wind?"

"You'll know all in good time," Lady Altamont said, impatiently. "Go back to your boon companions, and if anybody wants me say that I have gone to bed."

Sir Charles lounged away. No sooner had he gone than Lady Altamont crossed to her boudoir. Once there, she locked the door behind her. Then she coolly proceeded through the broken panel into the studio beyond and put up one of the lights. From the pocket of her plain black dress the intruder produced a large bunch of keys, which she fitted one by one into the locked door. It was close on midnight now, and the occupants of No. 13 had assuredly gone to bed.

"One of them must fit," the amateur burglar muttered. "What a good thing that the key has been removed from the other side! Oh, I thought so!"

The patience of the intruder had been rewarded at last; a key turned in the lock, and the door opened into the silent and dark corridor beyond. Instantly Lady Altamont put out the light and felt for her box of matches.

She had to light one presently, for she could only just feel her way. She held the match above her head and looked around. A white, set face came into the circle of flame.

"Is there anything that you want?" a voice asked. Lady Altamont recognised the face of Ailsa Lefroy. "What can I do for you, Lady Altamont? This is a strange hour to call, but then this is a very strange household, you see."


XXXIX.—THE WRONG WOMAN.

Lady Altamont looked at Ailsa doubtfully. She could not quite make up her mind what policy to pursue. And Ailsa's face gave her no indication of the right line to take. Ailsa was quite calm and collected. She wondered at her own temerity in facing so bold and powerful an enemy as this, for she knew full well that Lady Altamont was capable of anything. But her disgust and contempt for the woman gave her courage.

"I dare say you will wonder what I am doing here?" Lady Altamont said.

"Really, I don't do anything of the kind," Ailsa retorted. "I have long ceased to wonder at anything. The rapid march of events dazzles me. I assure you that when I was passing this door a little time ago and heard the rattle of keys I was not in the least astonished."

"You waited with the full assurance that you were going to see me?"

"Something of the kind—yes. I did not know exactly whom I was going to see, of course. But I knew that somebody was trying to burgle the house."

Lady Altamont's face flushed a little.

"That is rather a strong word to use," she protested. "I hope you will give me credit for possessing a very good excuse."

The woman was trying to gain time, and Ailsa knew it.

"Ordinary politeness compels me to give you the benefit of the doubt," the girl said coldly. "Every nocturnal intruder has an excuse. But I fail to see yours. You must have thought out all this carefully, and why that large bunch of keys in your hand——"

Lady Altamont was still unconsciously playing with the keys. She could have cried aloud with vexation. She was losing all her cleverness and resource. And to be played with by a mere girl like Ailsa was a little less than maddening.

"Very well, then," she said. "Take any view of my conduct that you like. I am no more than a common burglar, with a vulgar desire for your silver. You would not find many people to believe that of Lady Altamont."

"Perhaps they don't know Lady Altamont quite as well as I do!" Ailsa retorted. "I think that it is quite as well for us to understand each other. You were pleased to make certain insinuations last night. You suggested that an invalid who is at present in the house is not what we suppose her to be; in other words, the poor creature upstairs is identical with the woman who met with the strange accident in your house. I suppose you came here to-night to make sure."

The attack was so fearless and direct that for the moment Lady Altamont was staggered. She would have given a great deal to know exactly how far Ailsa's knowledge went. The latter was quite cool and contemptuous; a foe now worthy of her steel. And yet she was a mere child, after all, and physically Lady Altamont's inferior.

"You had better take care," she said, with just a suggestion of passion in her voice. "Have a care lest you push me too far. You are only a child, whereas I am a hardened woman of the world. If you impute motives to me——"

"I am imputing nothing," Ailsa interrupted. "What is the use of standing here splitting words in this fashion? You came here like a thief in the night, you came with all your tools deliberately selected. Is this the way that a lady of title usually pays a visit to her neighbours?"

"I admit the point," Lady Altamont replied. "Let me go further and say that I did not altogether believe what you said about your invalid."

"And so adopted this way of making certain of your suspicions? Very good. Still, if your late visitor was the perfect stranger to you that you say, why do you worry about her? Why do you run the risk of being locked up for a felony?"

"That is my business," Lady Altamont said, acidly. "I have found out one or things which seemed to arouse my suspicions. For instance, it has occurred to me as a strange thing that my husband's comparatively negative violence should have broken down the panels between this house and mine. Making inquiries, I find that two of the houses were one some century or so ago. After finding this out, I look at the panels again, and discover that there was actually a passage from one house to the other. Being of a naturally suspicious nature, I began to put things together. How had my visitor so strangely disappeared. She was very ill, she was badly hurt, in fact. She could not have been removed from my house except by means of an ambulance. People don't come in and out of a house with appliances of that kind without the servants knowing. I had my suspicions last night when I heard of your invalid——"

"I know it. You did not hesitate to put your suspicions into words."

"Certainly, I did. And I was backed up by my husband, who declared that he saw my strange guest at one of the bedroom windows in this house. I am forced to the conclusion that that was something more than one of Sir Charles's fancies."

"Which I am quite prepared to admit," Ailsa said, quietly. "In a moment of delusion, the thing Sir Charles saw actually happened. What then?"

"Why, then it confirms my suspicions," Lady Altamont cried, triumphantly. "My visitor has been spirited away here. I believe that you must have known all about that secret passage for some time past."

"Oh, I have," Ailsa said, coolly. "I have known all about it for some little time now. And more than once I have availed myself of your hospitality, as you are doing now. That is one of the reasons why I am not in the least afraid of you, Lady A. When the time comes you will find that I have not lost anything by my visits to you."

She was speaking quietly and coolly, and every word told. In a sudden fit of passion Lady Altamont reached out and grasped Ailsa by the arm. But she was not in the least afraid; her clear blue eyes met those of the older woman fearlessly.

"I would not be violent if I were you," she said. "Don't let your passion carry you away again."

"Again? I don't quite understand what you mean."

"I fancy you do," Ailsa went on in the same quiet way. "I should think that your passion has got you into trouble more than once. I am particularly alluding to the evening when the mysterious woman came for the first time."

"I did not see her," Lady Altamont protested. "I did not see her till I found her lying on the floor, almost done to death in some inexplicable way."

"And that you ask me sincerely to believe? You did not know that she was is your boudoir? You did not know that she was shown into the room beyond, the green room with the brick walls, that changes its aspect by pressing the spring? You did not know that she was in that room with a man, or that they shared a bottle of champagne together? You know nothing about the curious fan and the peculiar comb your guest wore? Oh, indeed!"

Plucky as she was, Lady Altamont was conscious of a sinking feeling at her heart now. She did not dare try to bully and browbeat Ailsa any longer. The girl knew too much and, besides, she was utterly fearless, she was so certain of her ground.

"You are talking enigmas so far as I am concerned," Lady Altamont said, thickly. "I challenge you to prove a single one of your statements."

"Your challenge is certainly a bold one," Ailsa retorted. "All the same, I am quite ready and willing to meet it in a police court, when my friend, Inspector Burles——"

Ailsa paused, conscious that she was going too far. She had all the impetuosity and impulse of youth, and she was exulting in the fact that she was getting the better of this woman. The knowledge caused her tongue to go a bit too far. It was quite evident from the expression of Lady Altamont's face that the name of Inspector Burles was not strange to her.

"Go on," she said, with the suggestion of a smile. "Why stop so suddenly?"

"Because I am saying too much," Ailsa replied quite frankly. "In fact, I have said a great deal too much already."

"Or you have not said enough," Lady Altamont took up the thread. "You must see that after your hints and insinuations things cannot rest here. In my turn I accuse you of having stolen from my house the body of a woman for some reasons of your own. Unless you comply with my moderate request immediately, I shall place the matter in the hands of the police."

"Really!" Ailsa also laughed. "That is very kind and considerate of you. Perhaps you will be so good as to tell me what you need?"

"I was just coming to that. I demand to see your patient."

It was some little time before Ailsa replied. It looked on the face of it as if Lady Altamont had played an exceedingly clever game. She was getting exactly what she desired without any risk to herself. But Ailsa began to see the other side of the model. She was strong in the knowledge that she also possessed a hand to play.

"Very well," she said. "It shall be as you suggest. Come this way." Lady Altamont's eyes fairly blazed with triumph. After all she had overrated the strength and ability of this bit of a girl. The victory was going to be quite easy. She followed Ailsa up a second flight of stairs, and before a bedroom door the girl paused.

"Wait here a minute," she whispered. "I must see if the patient is asleep. If she is awake, then I must ask you to postpone your curiosity. Not that I have any fear on that that score, as the doctor administers strong narcotics at intervals. Stay here a moment."

Lady Altamont waited, not without suspicion that some trick was being prepared for her. But the calm expression on Ailsa's face as she came out and into the corridor again dissipated that idea. She stood aside for Lady Altamont to pass.

"You will be quite quiet," she whispered. "The poor creature is asleep. There she lies."

Lady Altamont approached the bed and looked down. There was no emotion or feeing of any kind to be detected on her face. She might have been no more than a casual visitor examining some curiosity in a museum. She drew back presently; she was making up her mind what she was going to say. Before she could finally decide Ailsa drew her into the dressing-room, and closed the door.

"I judge from your face that you have not found what you expected," Ailsa said. "After all, I don't see that it can matter in the least. She is going to die."

"You are sure of that?" Lady Altamont asked hoarsely.

"The doctor tells me so. He is quite certain that she can't last very much longer. Still, she has had her occasional moments when her mind is clear, and she has told us many things. In addition to that there are certain papers——"

"Papers?" Lady Altamont cried. It was those very papers for which she was in search. "Where are they? What has become of them?"

"They are quite safe," Ailsa said quietly. She did not fail to see how Lady Altamont had betrayed herself, though in the excitement of the moment the latter was absolutely unconscious of the fact. "They are in secure hands, and will be used when the time comes. But you will admit that all this has nothing to do with you. You will not contend after what you have seen to-night that our patient was the one you lost."

The trap was plain before Lady Altamont's eyes now; she dared not step into it. In all her own brilliant career she had never brought off anything more clever than Ailsa's scheme.

"I fancy you will see exactly what I mean," the girl went on. "If you choose to claim our patient, why, then the matter must go into legal hands, and those documents must be read. Also it will be my duty to tell you what the sufferer has told me. But I am quite sure that you are ready to admit your mistake and apologise for all the trouble you have caused me."

There was no help for it, no other way out of the difficulty at all. Lady Altamont's face changed from white to red and back to white again, her eyes burned like points of flame. It was a bitter pill to swallow; it was a shameful humiliation to be defeated by a child like this; but then there was no alternative way out.

"I am afraid it is exactly as you say," she replied. The words came slowly and painfully, as if they had been dragged from her. "I fancy that I have made a mistake, and all I can do is to tender you my most sincere apology."

"And I accept the apology in the same spirit in which it is made," Ailsa replied. "I don't think I need trouble you any further. To prevent this kind of thing happening again I mean to have a proper partition between the two houses fixed up to-morrow."

"It would be just as well," Lady Altamont said bitterly. "It will prevent mistakes and the like. I don't think I need trouble you to come down."

"I have to lock the studio door," Ailsa, said, "and leave the key in the lock on this side."

Lady Altamont had no retort ready, so that the last retort was with Ailsa. For the first time in her life the elder woman was utterly beaten and cast down. She went up defeated to her own room. She stripped off her clothes recklessly, and threw herself on the bed. She tried to sleep, but her brain was too reckless and excited for that. Usually she fell asleep directly her head touched the pillow, but to-night she tossed and turned in vain.

"To be beaten by a mere child like that!" she muttered over and over again. "And she was so cool and collected, and took it all for granted! I must find some way to humiliate her. I must see that she is beaten down to the last——"

Sleep came to the weary brain at last. It was quite late when Lady Altamont awoke to find her maid ready to dress her.

It was fine and clear; a good breakfast gave Lady Altamont another view of life. She felt that she was looking her best and she passed presently to her boudoir. She rejoiced, too, in the fact that she was in possession of a large sum of ready money. It was now but necessary to get to Paris without delay.

"Any letters for me?" she asked her maid. "Any callers to-day? If anybody comes, I am not to be seen till luncheon-time. Alceste, tell the footman that."

Alceste came back presently with the information that there had only been one caller, and that he had said he would call again later on. Lady Altamont did not seem to hear. She was deep in her correspondence. Then a footman came up with a card on a tray.

"The gentleman has come back again, my lady," he said. "He tells me that it is absolutely necessary that he should see you for a moment."

"All right," Lady Altamont gasped. "Say I may be ten minutes. Ask him in the drawing-room, and give him a paper to read. Good Heavens! What does it mean?"

The last words came in a whisper. For the card bore the name of Inspector Burles.


XL.—FLIGHT!

Bold and audacious as she was as a rule, Lady Altamont felt that she could not meet the detective at this moment. How much he knew so far as she was concerned was merely a matter for conjecture. Naturally, the name of the inspector was known to her, but she had never come into contact with him personally.

And yet he was interested in her and her doings, for inadvertently Ailsa had mentioned his name, and here he was, not to be put off, and evidently determined on an interview. A cold shiver passed over Lady Altamont as she realised that perhaps Burles had a warrant for her arrest in his pocket.

She tried to calm her fears by arguing the matter out. What could Burles possibly know to her detriment? Vary likely he had come to ask some question as to the missing victim of the extraordinary outrage. In fact, he might have come on a dozen or more different errands. There was nothing to be afraid of.

But the woman was afraid, all the same. As she sat there she remembered with mad force all that Ailsa Lefroy had told her. Ailsa knew all about La Belle Atalanta, all about the letter to the actress, all about the mysterious room beyond the boudoir, and the bottle of champagne partaken of there.

And if the girl knew all this, how much more was Burles likely to know. And he was calmly waiting in the dining-room at the present moment.

"Coward that I am, I dare not go down," Lady Altamont muttered to herself. "I never felt like this before—it is dreadful. And yet I must go."

She lingered on all the same, making up her mind to go, and knowing all the time that she was not going to do anything of the kind. Finally, with a sigh for her own weakness, she rang the bell for her maid to come.

"I want you to go to Bond-street for me," she said. "Go to Madame Latour, and bring back a parcel from there, and you are to go at once, please."

The maid departed obediently enough. Now that Lady Altamont had her out of the way, she felt easier in her mind. Then she crept into her dressing-room, and assumed a simple black dress with a straw hat and veil. She was in reality a criminal flying from justice, only she would not have owned to the fact.

She was going off to Paris at once. She congratulated herself on the fact that she had more than sufficient of ready money. Thanks to her husband's unexpected burst of cunning intelligence, there was no anxiety on that score. In any case she would have to go as far as Paris before long, and why not now? If Burles wanted anything, Sir Charles could let her know; if the detective wanted nothing, why, then no harm was done.

Still, argue as she would, Lady Altamont could not rid herself of the feeling that she was playing the coward's part. And hitherto she had always had such a contempt for the coward. She had half a mind to turn back.

But it was too late, as she told herself. The one idea uppermost in her mind was to get out of the house without being seen. It was easy to slip down the kitchen stairs and into the basement. Most of the servants were overhead at this hour of the day. Nobody was to be seen save a footman sitting over a paper, and he did not give the figure in the dark dress and veil so much as a glance. A moment later and Lady Altamont was hurrying along in the direction of Bond-street. She had no luggage of any kind; but then she had some hundreds of pounds in her pocket.

It was no use to think about Paris for some hours to come. The evening train from Charing Cross was far the best for that purpose. Besides, it was impossible to travel without an outfit of some kind, however terrible. Lady Altamont had often wondered what it meant to feel like a fugitive from justice, and now she knew.

She procured her outfit here and there, and then conveyed it all to the cloakroom at Charing Cross. When this was done she still had some hours to wait. The process of killing time proved to be somewhat difficult, and after lunch Lady Altamont had nothing to do. She walked about aimlessly in one direction and another, and came by instinct at last to Vernon-terrace. Dressed as she was with her veil down, she was not afraid of being detected. A sudden impulse seized her. She crossed the road, and rang the bell at No. 14.

A servant languidly demanded to know her business. In a small and humble voice Lady Altamont asked if it was possible to see Sir Charles. The speaker had a message from Lady Altamont which she had promised to deliver to Sir Charles direct.

Fortunately, Sir Charles was at home, and he had his own reasons for desiring to hear from his wife. A little time later and Lady Altamont was sitting on the edge of one of her own drawing-room chairs and pretending that the place impressed her. Sir Charles himself came and desired to know what he could do for the visitor.

"I am quite safe, then, seeing that you do not recognise me," Lady Altamont said as she pushed back her veil. "Give me a cigarette, as I haven't dared to smoke one since I left the house this morning. Has anything happened?"

"What a clever one you are," Sir Charles said, admiringly. "I should never have known you had you not put that veil up. Your voice was different, your very figure has altered. And yet the whole thing is so delightfully simple."

"Oh, never mind my figure," Lady Altamont exclaimed, impatiently. "A visitor came to see me very early this morning, who gave me the name of Inspector Burles. He came from Scotland Yard, and I had reason to believe that he was in possession of certain information. At any rate, I had not the courage to see him; so I managed to get out of the house disguised as you see me. I meant to have gone straight to Paris, and advised you by a sure hand from there. Then it struck me that I should like to have something more definite before my journey, and it further occurred to me that I could get into my own house first. Did you see Burles?"

"Oh, I saw Burles right enough," Sir Charles explained. "He got tired of waiting, and rang the bell to see if you were not ready for him. Then he was told that you had probably forgotten all about him, and gone out. After that he asked to see me."

"Well? How slow you are! Do get along with the story!"

"My dear girl, there is very little story to tell. I thought that the man seemed to be very much annoyed at first, but he soon got over that. He asked a great many questions about our late visitor, and of the way in which she had vanished. He made more or less a point of seeing all over the house, and, of course, he had to have his own way. But, then, that may have been a blind to conceal the real object of his visit here. I did not know what had become of you. But I guessed that you had some little scheme on. Perhaps, after all, Burles knows nothing."

"Make no mistake about that," Lady Altamont interrupted. "He knows everything. From what I could gather last night, Burles seems to be quite a friend of Miss Lefroy's——"

"But you did not see Miss Lefroy last night?"

"Indeed, I did. But I had forgotten all about that in the excitement of the moment. I meant to have kept you posted with all the recent developments, but this visit of Burles's put everything else out of my head. But I did see Miss Lefroy last night."

"The deuce you did! I should like to know how that came about."

"Well, I was very anxious to know whether or not that face you professed to see at the window in the next house was a delusion. You were certainly not in a fit state to speak definitely, so I made up my mind to decide for myself. In the first place, I discovered that there was a panel leading from the house next door, and that aroused my suspicions. It was really you who made the discovery in a way that you should recollect."

"I remember it," Sir Charles muttered. "Rather awkward, was it not?"

"It might have landed you in serious trouble. Still, we need not worry about that. There was the panel right enough in the woodwork, and here plainly before my eyes was the way in which the woman could be conveyed from one house to another without causing any suspicion. The house was full of guests, the servants were all busy downstairs, and there you are. And on the top of this there was your declaration that you had seen a woman's face at a window next door. Surely enough, there was a strange woman next door. Of course, that might have been a mere coincidence, but I was not leaving anything to chance. I made up my mind at the first opportunity to see this strange invalid for myself."

"And I bet you succeeded," Sir Charles said admiringly. "Trust you to find a way if the thing is humanely possible. This is interesting. Go on."

"Well, I decided to put my plan into execution late last night. I waited till I thought that all was quiet next door before I began to try the lock of the studio with my lot of keys. I managed to get one to fit at length."

"Good! And the rest was easy, I suppose?"

"Indeed, it wasn't. There was Miss Lefroy waiting for me."

"Really! She is a pretty girl, but a mere toy in hands like yours."

"Ah, my dear Charles, that is just where you are absolutely mistaken. That girl is as clever as she is beautiful, and that is saying a great deal. Of course, she took me absolutely by surprise. And there she began at a considerable advantage. I suppose she had made up her mind how to act, whilst I was still fumbling with the lock of the door. She probably guessed by instinct that I was the burglar before she saw me. At any rate, she was quite cool and collected, and not in the least afraid."

Altamont chuckled. All this was very amusing. But he had sufficient confidence in his wife to feel that the ultimate victory would be with her.

"Go on," he said. "I want to know how you managed to get the better of her."

"But I didn't get the better of her," Lady Altamont said with some heat. "I was beaten all along the line from the very first. That girl knows everything; she knows all about my letter to the victim, all about the masked dance, all about the room beyond the boudoir and the meeting there with Terry's brother. She even knows all about the bottle of champagne. And when she mentioned Inspector Burles in the same connection I had a rare fright. I could have strangled the child. We were practically alone in the dead of night and my escape would have been easy and certain. I could see the very spot on her white throat where I could——"

"Don't," Altamont said, with a shudder. "I hate to hear you speak like that. Besides if others knew, what would have been the good?"

"I thought of all that. But I could not have done it in any case, for the girl was not in the least afraid of me. She looked at me with those great fearless blue eyes of hers, and I could not meet her glance. And then, when I thought I had an opening, she actually offered to show me her patient."

"Ah, that was playing into your hands with a vengeance! What happened then?"

"Why, I took the chance—you may be certain of that. I tried to find out if the victim had had any papers about her, and was told that she had, and they were in the hands of those who would know how to use them when the time came. Of course, I knew then beyond all doubt who the victim was, that those papers were outside our possession for all time. It is a terrible bother, because O'Brien wanted those papers before going to Paris for me to try and retrieve the mess that Terry has made. But as I wanted to make assurance doubly sure, I accepted Miss Lefroy's offer. You were quite right, Charles—on the bed lay the woman that we both knew so well."

"Ah! Did you find out how it was all managed?"

"I didn't. I didn't dare to ask. But you can quite see that I pretended that I had never seen the poor creature before. I had to say that she was not in the least like the poor woman who met with the accident in our house. If you ask me if Miss Lefroy believed me I should say not, because, you see, she knows that her invalid and ours is one and the same person."

"Does she know anything more?" Sir Charles asked uneasily.

"How can I say? Does she not know enough? And what is the use of our denials in the face of what that girl is in a position to prove? And now that I have told you everything you will see for yourself how to act. Before I go any further I should like to have a few words with O'Brien. I don't want him to be informed of the fact that it is my full intention to go to Paris this evening. It is far better that he should not be aware that I am to a certain extent spying on him. I will stay here till you come back. I shall be perfectly safe, seeing that my disguise deceived my own servants, and they still regard their mistress as being absent from the house. Go and find O'Brien, and bring him here, if you have to seek all over London for him. It is important that we should meet before he goes to Paris."

Sir Charles raised an objection or two, but his wife waved them aside impatiently. She sat down to kill the time as well as possible; it seemed so strange to her that she should be hiding in her own house in this fashion. Nobody was likely to call, and if they did they would be told Lady Altamont was out.

An hour passed, and no sign of Altamont. Very impatiently the woman began to pace up and down the room. She stood behind the curtains so that she could see what was going on in the road. Presently a cab drove up to No. 13, and a girl got out. With a bitter smile Lady Altamont recognised the girl as Grace Wanless.

"The plot is beginning to thicken," she told herself. "It looks as if the net were getting tight. Well, we shall see. I wonder how those two girls got to know each other? I wonder—but what is the use of wondering about anything?"

The cab remained for a few minutes outside No. 13, and then Grace Wanless returned, accompanied by Ailsa Lefroy. The two girls drove off together, and scarcely had they departed before the doctor called, the doctor who was attending Ailsa's patient. He stayed perhaps half an hour before he departed, and then Archibald Colville appeared on the steps of the house and placed a cab whistle to his lips. The old man appeared to be going somewhere, for he had a portmanteau on the steps.

"I wonder it he has been found out also?" Lady Altamont mused. "We seem to be getting exposed all round. Thank goodness here is Charles at last."

A hansom came flying up the road, and Sir Charles tumbled out. He appeared to be greatly disturbed about something, for he left his stick in the cab and had to go back for it. He came into the drawing-room at length and dropped into a chair.

"What is the matter with the man?" Lady Altamont cried. "Have you seen a ghost? Or, what is more to the point, have you seen O'Brien?"

"Oh, I saw O'Brien right enough," came the thick reply. "Mad dance he led me. But I saw him down at the Savoy at length, where he was having coffee and cigars after a good lunch with a friend. And when I tell you who the friend was you won't be any too pleased, my dear."

"Out with it, Charles. Let me know the worst at once."

"Well, then, it seems to me as if O'Brien has sold you. For the man he was so thick with over the coffee was no other than Inspector Burles."


XLI.—A FRIEND IN NEED.

Lady Altamont might have had need for further uneasiness had she only been in a position to overhear the interview between Ailsa and Grace Wanless. The latter had arrived whilst Ailsa was having a very late breakfast. The girl looked pale and anxious, and as if she had not had her proper rest lately.

"I dare say you will think me terribly lazy," she apologised to Grace; "but all this mystery and excitement is telling on my health. I did not get to bed till nearly day-light."

"Are there any fresh developments?" Grace asked, eagerly.

"There are fresh developments every day, so far as I can see," Ailsa replied. "But I had better, perhaps, tell you what happened last night."

The girl went on to tell her story, to which Grace listened with deepest interest.

"But I am sure that we are coming to the end of it now," Ailsa concluded. "We have established the fact that our poor invalid is the sister of Lady Altamont, and at any moment that woman may be arrested by Inspector Burles—indeed, I can't quite understand Mr. Burles's action in the matter."

"Our friend the inspector is taking his time," Grace smiled. "I expect he wants to have his evidence quite clear before he takes definite action in the matter. And besides, he has more than one matter to clear up. There is the question of my mother's jewels, for instance."

The point had escaped Ailsa for the moment; she had forgotten all about the jewels.

"And that brings me to the purpose of my visit," Grace went on. "It seems that Inspector Burles has been anything but idle for the past few days. He wrote me a guarded note, that I received to-day, to the effect that the jewels are in Paris at the present moment. It is just possible to get them back without putting a deal of expensive legal machinery in motion, and, indeed, I should prefer that way myself. In the first place, it would spare my brother much humiliation."

"Are you quite sure that he deserves to be spared?" Ailsa asked.

"My dear Ailsa, after all, he is my brother. Mind you, I am not excusing him for a moment. He has brought most of this on himself, and he should be punished. Still, in justice to Cecil, he is doing his best to make amends for the past; he is prepared to tell the whole story in a witness-box if necessary. And would it not be better to save all that if we could?"

"I dare say," Ailsa smiled. "And yet that dreadful woman escapes——"

"Indeed, she doesn't," Grace said, eagerly. "If she were tried for both crimes, she would not get a longer sentence. And Burles will look after her so far as the matter of the injured woman is concerned. He wants me to go to Paris to-day so that I can be at hand to identify the diamonds if necessary. My mother is not sufficiently well to go, and Cecil is detained on important business."

"But surely he could put that off for you, dear. It seems so selfish——"

"Indeed, my dearest Ailsa, it is nothing of the kind," Grace protested. "Cecil cannot go. Some of these days you will know why, and you will respect his reasons. If you could only understand—if I only dared to tell you, it is for your sake that Cecil remains in London for the present. But my lips are sealed."

"Is it anything to do with Ronald Braybrooke?" Ailsa asked.

"Well, it has. Oh, I pray you not to ask me any more. For the present let us only remember that I have to go to Paris, and that I have not one friend in London who would care to accompany me, but you, Ailsa. I came here to-day to ask you if you would go along. It will be no new thing to me, there will be nothing to be afraid of. Do say that you will come along!"

Ailsa hesitated. On the whole, the offer was a tempting one. And the girl longed to be away, if only for a few hours, from the dreadful atmosphere of No. 13. If only old Susan could manage to do without her, the thing might be done.

"Don't hesitate," Grace said, as she eagerly followed up her advantage, "but say at once definitely that you will come. You will never regret it."

"Very well, then, I will come it I can possibly manage it," Ailsa said, with a smile. "Only I must consult old Susan first."

Susan heard the proposal with her usual stolid indifference. She could manage perfectly well, she said; she was not afraid of anything happening, and, after all, it was only a question of a day or two. The old woman became quite solicitous as she regarded Ailsa's white face and black-rimmed eyes.

"Perhaps you had better go, dearie," she said. "I'm too old to need a change, and I shouldn't know what to do with it if I had it. But it must be weary work for a pretty young creature like you. We shall manage all right with the aid of the doctor. And you are pretty certain to be back by the end of the week."

So the thing was settled to Grace's satisfaction. There was little needed in the way of clothing, but presently another difficulty occurred to Ailsa.

"It is the question of money," she said. "They tell me that I am an heiress now, though I would stand penniless to see Ronald back again. Still, my fortune has not brought me anything so far. Positively, I have not the money to pay for my ticket."

"Oh, that is all right," Grace said, cheerfully. "You are going as my guest. Pack a small bag, taking as little with you as possible, and let us start directly. I have a cab still waiting outside for us. Now come along."

Ailsa was young and strong; her spirits rose once she found herself on board the boat, with the cliffs of Calais in the distance. Her eyes were shining, and the dark rings under them disappeared as she shook the evil influence of No. 13 from her shoulders. It was good to be away from that dark house, if only for a little time.

"Is Inspector Burles already in Paris?" she asked.

"Really, I don't know," Grace proceeded to explain. "At any rate, the note I got from him this morning bore the London postmark. He wanted me to start separately, so as not to be identified with him in any way. I should not be at all surprised to find that he is at present on this very boat, probably in a disguise of some sort. I was to go direct to Paris and put up at a certain small hotel in the Rue St. James. It is not a very good locality; but I shall have no fear, seeing that the inspector is keeping an eye on me. I had a hint also to the effect that I might have further instructions when we get to Paris. But we need not worry about that yet."

Vague and disquieting as the whole thing was, Ailsa enjoyed it immensely. The sense of constant peril was lost for the moment; she was quite sorry when at length they reached Paris. The whole spectacle was strange and confusing to a degree. The clatter of a strange tongue bewildered Ailsa, and she would have felt intensely lonely if she had been by herself. But, like most Americans, Grace was a born traveller, and she had the language at the tips of her fingers. Ailsa rather wondered at the easy, cool way in which her companion directed everything, and managed without trouble to get their modest luggage into a fiacre. A little later on and they had reached their quarters at the hotel in the Rue St. James. They seemed to be expected, for a grimy porter almost winked at Grace.

"Oh, yes, but there are plenty of rooms," he said. "Two bed and one sitting-room on the second floor, the best in the house. If the ladies will only follow me! Be assured that we have exactly the room that you want. No other will do."

The man was allowed to have his own way. The rooms were not particularly good, but they were passably clean, and this made up for much. Dinner was served presently in a dingy little salle-à-manger on the ground door. There were no English present besides the two girls and a florid-looking man addressed once or twice as Monsieur Terry. Presently another man came in and sat at the same little table as the two girls. He was old and bent, and his eyes were hidden behind glasses. He seemed to be very deaf, too, for the waiter had to shout what he desired to convey into his ear.

"Why is that vulgar-looking Englishman staring at you?" said Ailsa.

"Because he thinks that he recognises me, and is not quite sure," Grace replied. "I return his stare with a blank look, as if I had never seen him before. But I knew him as soon as I heard his companion call him Terry. He is a dreadful creature, who is more or less a tool of Lady Altamont, and for one night he was on the yacht. But as I was in evening dress then, and looking very different from my present humble self, I am in hopes that I shall pass merely as a chance likeness. Besides, Mr. Terry would not look for Grace Wanless in a place like this."

"It is certainly not very inviting," Ailsa smiled. "Still, I suppose Inspector Burles had some good reason for sending you here."

"Indeed, he had," the old man on the other aide of the table whispered. "Pray go on with your talk, and pretend to ignore me. I will drop you my instructions from time to time as I get the chance."

The girls could hardly repress their feelings. For the voice was that of Burles. He had not once looked up from his soup, which he was drinking somewhat noisily. Probably he was quite satisfied with the completeness and security of his disguise.

"Pretend to be talking," he went on under his breath. "Don't even so much as glance in my direction, and I will let you know all that is necessary. You are quite right in supposing that yonder swaggering fellow is a friend of Lady Altamont's, and that his name it Terry. At the present moment he is supposed to be in gaol here; but the charge was only a very trifling one, engineered by the fellow for his own ends, and he is free again, as you see. And now I am going to astonish you, though you must not display your feelings. That vulgar rascal was the person selected by Lady Altamont as the proper man to dispose of your mother's diamonds, Miss Wanless. He came to Paris with them for that very purpose, but from the first he made up his mind what to do. He has not the slightest intention that Lady Altamont shall benefit a penny by her scheme. We know that this fellow has the diamonds somewhere, and the problem is how to get them. I have a kind of partner in my programme in the person of Mr. O'Brien, who was brought to me by Mr. John Stern, but my partner's pretty scheme was thwarted by the fact that Terry is no longer in the hands of the police. Therefore we had to change our plan of campaign at the last moment. I wanted you here to identify the diamonds if they had fallen into the hands of the police. As they have not done so, the best thing you can do is to get away as quickly as possible."

"But can't we stay and see it out?" Grace pleaded.

"I had far rather you didn't," Burles replied. "From the first I have had my misgivings as to bringing you into the house at all. Let me tell you at once it is anything but a desirable residence for two young girls like yourselves. Still, it is just possible that you may be useful, and I shall have an eye upon you all the time."

"In that case, I hope you are staying here," Ailsa murmured.

"Of course. I have another ally staying here with me; but it has not been deemed prudent for him to show himself as yet. If you will take my advice, you will go off to some place of amusement directly you have dined and keep away till quite late. I will be certain to see you somewhere quietly to-morrow morning and tell you everything. Meanwhile, the less said, the better. Now, please ignore me."

The girls did as they were told, and the rest of the meal passed in silence. It was quite late before the girls got back to their hotel; most of the inhabitants had retired, and the whole place was silent as the grave. A figure passed from the dining-room and disappeared along a corridor. Grace grasped Ailsa's arm.

"Did you see who that was?" she whispered. "Didn't you notice his face?"

"The figure occurred to me as familiar," Ailsa replied. "But I did not see the face. Who was it, Grace? And how you are trembling!"

"I'm frightened," Grace admitted. "I am bound to confess that all this gets on my nerves. The man who has just gone down the corridor is John Stern. I expect that he was the ally that Inspector Burles was talking about."

Ailsa was conscious of the fact that her own heart was beating a little faster. It was very strange, she thought, that the presence of John Stern had this effect on her. The two girls stood chatting for a moment by their respective bedroom doors, as if loath to part. Then Grace laughed in a quick, hysterical kind of way.

"I had better own at once what a coward I am," she said. "I don't dare to think of the idea of sleeping alone in this house. Let me come into your room and share your bed. I daresay you will think that this is very weak and foolish on my part."

"Indeed, I don't," Ailsa said, earnestly. "I am very glad that you mentioned it. Come into my room, as it is larger and a little brighter."

The arrangement was at once concluded, and a little later the door was locked, and the thin little candle extinguished. Despite her nervous fears, Grace was soon asleep, as Ailsa could testify from her regular breathing.

There were sounds in the house now, as if somebody was moving about, the creak of a door, and then a sudden draught. Ailsa could feel the cold air streaming over her face and stirring her curls. Then it seemed to her that she could hear a sound that drew every drop of blood from her heart. She touched Grace, who turned over unconsciously in her sleep. A moment later, and the girl was as wide awake as was Ailsa herself. She caught Ailsa by the arm.

"What is it?" she whispered. "Where does all the cold air come from?"

"Not so loud," Ailsa replied under the bedclothes. "Not so loud. Don't move. I am quite sure that there is a man in the room!"


XLII.—AN UNEXPECTED ALLY.

The two girls held their breath to listen. There became no longer room for doubt that some strange person was there. It was possible now to follow the cautious tread of his footsteps; he muttered something to himself as he stumbled against some unseen object, and made a noise. It was a terrible position for the girls.

"What are you fooling about here for?" a husky voice asked.

"I'm not fooling for anything," another voice whispered. "One of those girls is asleep here, so I'll trouble you to keep your ugly mouth shut. If she wakes up and makes a noise we are done, and there's an end of it."

"All right," the other man said, "but why you are such a deuce of a time——"

"Didn't I tell you that everything had been moved? Naturally, I thought that when I got back here to-night I should have the same bedroom. I left all my traps here, but they changed my room, confound it!"

"All right. In that case, why not wait till the morning?"

"Morning be hanged! That will be too late. Burles is in Paris, and, unless I am greatly mistaken, he is after us. That's why I can't wait till the morning, my lad. And I dare not strike a light."

"I suppose that's so. But can't you recollect where you put the stuff?"

"Somewhere by the fireplace under a board. But in the dark I can't find the confounded fireplace. Keep a close eye on that door, and let me know if anybody happens to come along. Here's the bed, anyway. Ah!"

The speaker had come close to the bed by this time. He was so near that Grace could feel his breath on her face. As he groped with his hand he touched her arm. Flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and Grace called aloud. There was a savage oath in reply. Then a lantern flashed out. A hand behind the lantern was holding a revolver.

"Not one girl, but two of 'em," a hoarse voice said. "So you young ladies have been listening all the time. Now, I don't want hurt you or to cause you any inconvenience, but I'd like to point out that you would be all the better for taking it quietly. Jim, come and keep guard here."

The other man lounged into the room and took the lantern. The girls could say nothing. They could only suffer this indignity in silence. Ailsa would have liked to call for assistance, but she dared not. For some time she watched the first intruder searching about the floor by the fireplace; she saw a board come up presently and a couple of green leather cases in the man's hand. He gave a great grunt of satisfaction.

"Here they are," he said. "Come along Jim. And if one of you girls calls out before you can count two hundred I'll come back and shoot the pair of you. After that you can make as much noise as you like——"

The speaker never quite finished the sentence. He stood facing the door with the leather cases under his arm, his figure standing out dim in the light of the lantern. All at once there was the sudden rush of a heavy body, and another intruder had him by the throat. There was a queer, strangled laugh, and a cry of fear, something flashed white and dazzling in a circle, and the man with the cases fell to the ground. There was a confused sort of struggle for a moment or two, then the first intruder vanished, and the man recently in possession of the cases lay on the floor.

"I'm done for," he groaned. "Fancy that devil being here in Paris. He must have been following me all along. And he's got the diamonds."

From below came the sound of a great disturbance. Grace could stand it no longer, and from her lips came cry after cry for assistance. The man carrying the lantern made a threatening gesture, but it was too late. Doors were opening now, and lights flashing up; the room seemed to fill with people. Above the din came the welcome voice of Burles. He was no longer in his disguise.

"You are all intruding on the ladies," he said. "Give them a chance to get up, so that they can afford us an opportunity of telling what has happened. Hullo, who have we here? My old friend Terry, and evidently a bad case."

"I'm done for," Terry groaned. "Get me away from here. I'm sorry to disturb the ladies, but there was no help for it. That devil has finished me. Get my clothes off, and let me die in peace."

It was no time or place to ask for further explanation. The unfortunate man was raised from the ground and carried away; the bedroom was left in peace. A doctor had been sent for, and meanwhile Terry lay on a couch in the dining-room moaning and declaring that his end had come. Like most ruffians his class, he was a veritable coward where physical danger was concerned.

"You're not so badly hurt as you think," said Burles. "What were you doing in the same room with those ladies?"

"It was generally my room," Terry groaned. "They had changed it, and I came back too late to get my own. There was something of mine which I had to get at once——"

"I know," Burles exclaimed. "Mrs. Wanless's jewels. They were hidden in the room, and some treacherous confederate was watching you all the time. When he deemed it safe he made a murderous attack upon you and got off with the gems."

"That's it," Terry said, in a stifled whisper. "Wonderful chap, you are! Guess anything, I should say. But you can't guess who took the stuff."

Burles admitted that he could not. There was something like a grin on Terry's face.

"Then I'll tell you," he said. "It was Sir Charles Altamont. Guess I've astonished you this time. You look upon Altamont as a drunken sot with no kind of brains. He was very different to that when I first met him, and he has times now when he could give points to many a detective. Unfortunately for me, just at the present time he happens to be a dangerous lunatic."

Burles made no reply; he waited for Terry to continue. The latter appeared to be in a communicative mood, and evidently had more to say.

"He's mad," Terry went on, after a pause. "I tell you this so that the sooner he is looked after and locked up, the better. I see you know all about the jewels, and I need not go into that matter. I had the jewels to dispose of, and I meant to have the full benefit of them for myself. I put it about that I had fallen into the hands of the police here, and to a certain extent I had. But I was out of their clutches as soon as I was in them, only Lady Altamont didn't know it. I had the gems here, and when I came back to get them I found that my usual room was already occupied. I was a little surprised to meet Altamont late to-night, and he insisted upon coming here to have a drink. There was a strange gleam in his eyes that I did not like, but I brought him here. He pretended to drink, and appeared to fall asleep in the dining-room. He must have followed me to the bedroom. Anyway, he attacked me without a word, and here I am. If you want those jewels, Mr. Burles, you'll have to get them from Altamont."

"Does he happen to be staying here?" Burles asked.

"No, he isn't. He's at a place called the Maison Bleu, in the Quai d'Henri. But I dare say you will be able to ferret it all out. Thank goodness, here comes that doctor at last! But he's too late."

Burles slipped away to the dining-room, where Ailsa and Grace awaited him. The girls had not very much to tell. Naturally, they were greatly alarmed, and both declared that they could not sleep under that roof any more. Burles was in a position to allay their alarms. The case had taken a most unexpected form, but, as far as Burles could see, his work was done. He had met criminal lunatics of the Altamont type before, and knew how to deal with them. Probably that dulled brain had one last flash of intelligence, and Altamont had seen his way clear to the end. At any rate, his plan had been successful, and he had the diamonds. Probably he would lie low for a few hours and chuckle at his own cleverness. Also, it was probable that he would not drink during that period, that he would stay his appetite for strong waters until the jewels were in safe custody. And that safe custody would probably take the form of Lady Altamont.

Burles could see his way quite clear now. Certain things would have to be done to-morrow, after which it would be necessary to return without delay to London. And circumstances had saved Burles a good deal of trouble.

"Please don't worry any more," he said. "Try and get some sleep on the couches here, I will stay in the ante-room till daylight. Afterwards I will tell you all that I have found out, and we can return to London together."

"I shall be delighted," Ailsa declared. "I am tired of all this mystery. The excitement gets on my nerves. I hope you will return with us, Mr. Burles."

Burles gave the desired assurance, and the girls composed themselves to sleep. It was midday when they awoke greatly refreshed by the few hours of rest. It was during breakfast that Burles told his story.

"So you see there is no occasion for me to stay here any longer," he concluded. "I have to verify certain facts, and then we can get back to London without further delay. I feel quite certain that by this time the diamonds are on their way to Lady Altamont. It is hardly probable she will receive them, for now telephone from Paris to London is working, I can give my views on the subject to Scotland Yard. Within a few hours I shall have the pleasure of restoring your mother's diamonds, Miss Wanless."

"I am sure it will be an equal pleasure for me to receive them," Grace said, with a long-drawn sigh. "I shall be only too glad to get a little peace and quietness once more. But you are not going to leave us here?"

"By no means, my dear young ladies. I will settle up here, and we can drive about Paris and see the sights. I have to go to the Police Bureau, and from there to a place called the Quai d'Henri, after which we can lunch quietly, and get to Calais in time for the evening boat. Now come along."

Burles's business took him first to the police, who gave him every satisfaction. After that, he proceeded to the Quai d'Henri. There was a little trouble then to find the whereabouts of Sir Charles Altamont; but the spot was discovered at last. Bidding the girls to remain in the fiacre, Burles went upstairs.

"The gentleman is here," the porter said. "He frequently comes here. A rather gay gentleman, to be sure. When I say he is here, I do not mean that he is actually on the premises. You see, the police an hour ago took the body away."

"Took the body away?" Burles cried. He had said nothing at the police quarters as to Sir Charles Altamont, for that had been no business of theirs. "Took the body where?"

"To the Morgue. But I see monsieur does not know all about Sir Charles Altamont, so I will tell him. Sir Altamont only came yesterday, and he asked for his old rooms. We gave them to him, and he dined here—very quietly he dined. He did not drink as usual of the brandy, and there was a strange gleam in his eyes. He came back very late, and he seemed very pleased with himself. Also, he had a little of brandy. There was a brown paper parcel that he put up, and I was to register it to-day, and to send it off to London. Also, there was a letter with a blot on it."

"Handwriting decidedly shaky," Burles muttered. "Did you note the address on the parcel?"

"No, m'sieur. But the letter was addressed to Lady Altamont. I posted that and the parcel early to-day. You see that it was impossible——"

"One moment," Burles whispered. "What was the parcel like?"

"A parcel with brown paper and tied up with blue string. It was sealed at the ends with a signet ring. That is all I can tell."

Burles nodded; he was perfectly satisfied. He waited for the porter to speak.

"At the usual time I go to take Sir Altamont his breakfast, or what he is pleased to call his breakfast. I knock at the door and get no reply, so that I go in and find Sir Altamont on his bed fully dressed, as if he had not taken his clothes off. He is quite dead; he has been dead for some hours, so the doctors say when they came. And there is ample evidence that Sir Altamont has committed suicide. It is the third case of the kind in the house during the last three months."

"So the police took the body away to the Morgue," said Burles. "No doubt Sir Charles had thought the matter out; indeed, it looks as if he had written to his wife to say what he was going to do. I need not trouble you any longer."

In the fiacre Burles told the girls what had happened. Then the cab drove away to the General Post Office, where Burles was for some time engaged. He came out presently with the air of a man who is pleased with himself, and who has by no means been wasting his time. From there he proceeded to the telephone chief office, and here once more the girls had to wait a considerable time for him.

"And where are we going now?" Ailsa asked presently. "I hope your business has been altogether satisfactory, Mr. Burles."

"Exceedingly so," Burles said, drily. "We are now going to the station, then to take the first available train to Calais. I have finished everything, and in a few hours, as I said before, Miss Wanless will have those jewels back."

"You really know where they are?" Grace asked.

"Indeed I do. At the present moment they are in the London General Post Office—there they will stay till we arrive in London."


XLIII.—SUICIDE.

Burles was heavy with fatigue and want of sleep, for he had come direct from Paris to Scotland Yard. But, at the same time, he did not look like a man who is displeased with himself. A telegram had just been passed over to him from the office of his chief. He almost staggered into the road, and called a cab, which he directed to proceed as far as 14, Vernon-terrace.

"Your visit is quite superfluous," Lady Altamont said. "There is no element of mystery about the case at all. Sir Charles committed suicide last night. I must go to Paris for the inquest. The thing has, of course, come as a great blow to me, as you can understand."

"I only came home from Paris to-day," Burles said. "All the same, this is not precisely what I came to see you about. Unless I am very much mistaken, you were prepared for something of this kind."

Lady Altamont sat up, and her face grew alert for the first time. There was something in the incisive tones of Burles's voice that suggested a man not to be trifled with.

"I don't quite understand you," she said. "Sir Charles was violent at times. I daresay it was no secret that he has been drinking heavily lately. But as to the letter, why——"

Lady Altamont shrugged her shoulders carelessly. Burles regarded her in an utterly indifferent way.

"I must ask your ladyship to tax your memory," he said. "There are features about the case calling for investigation. Did you not receive a letter from Sir Charles, who had gone to Paris connected with certain business, saying that he was sick of life, and that he was going to end it all?"

Lady Altamont's dark face grew pale and troubled. Her fingers clenched her fan as if it had been a dagger. But she shook her head doggedly.

"That is unfortunate," Burles murmured. There was no mistaking the sarcastic tone. "A letter addressed from the Maison Bleu, in the Quai d'Henri, on the hotel paper. There was a blot on the left-hand corner, I think."

Suddenly Lady Altamont sprang to her feet. Her eyes were blazing now with impotent fury.

"You devil!" she screamed. "What are you driving at? Go on, you devil! If I were only a man——"

"A blot on the left hand corner," Burles said, as if nothing had happened. "The letter contained the information that the man called Terry was going to play you false. He had gone off with your money on a mission of his own. At the last moment he had failed to carry out his designs in regard to the Wanless jewelry; but he did not tell you this, because Sir Charles's action saved him at the trick. Sir Charles came out at the last in a way that nobody expected. His letter to you told you where the jewels had got to, and that they were at once despatched by registered post to you. All the information was in the letter with the blot on it. Now I have known that Terry was in this business for some time, and I have had him watched. The Paris police arrested him on another charge, and he told certain things. That is why I went to Paris to see him. I found that Terry was disposed to say a great deal, especially as I was in a position to help him with the Paris police. Come, as I have just told you, I know all about the attack on Terry by Sir Charles, and what became of the diamonds. After that you can guess why I am here to-night."

"What do you want?" Lady Altamont asked hoarsely. "What are you driving at?"

"Surely you know perfectly well; I want the Wanless diamonds. At least, I don't want them, because they are in the possession of the Post Office. The hotel porter in Paris told me all about the letter which Sir Charles wrote to you—the one with the blot on it, I mean. Probably he got a glimpse of it just before it was sealed up, and just before Sir Charles had proposed to take his own life. If it had not been for the murderous attack on Terry, I should have known nothing of this. I don't want to make a scandal if I can possibly avoid it—that lies in your hands. The mystery of Sir Charles's death shall remain as such if you will only listen to reason. You must see that you are utterly in my hands. If it comes out that you were once plain Leona Clair, your career will not be propitious. As the widow of Sir Charles, as Lady Altamont, there is a future before you. To a clever woman like yourself I need not say any more. Still, if we go into the matter of that strange attack on your sister, who in your own house——"

Lady Altamont stood before Burles with eyes burning like coals.

"You are a devil!" she said, with burning intentness—"a devil I should like to slay. I'll tell you as much as I know. I hadn't the least idea whether or not Terry had executed his commission till I got Sir Charles's letter. I sent Terry away with the stones a little later on the night of the masked dance."

"That is so," Burles replied. "The night that mysterious lady was here, the lady who was found nearly dead in your inner room. I heard just before I came here that La Belle Atalanta was getting better, which is a good thing for you. You came near to being charged with murder over that business. Still, if the lady is getting better——"

"I assure you she is getting better," Lady Altamont replied. "She—she is going to recover. She will make no charge against me. But something has happened that keeps her out of full possession of her senses for the time. I saw her yesterday. I went into No. 13, or proposed to do so. But I see you know everything. So I have no alternative, you see, but to speak out."

"I see," Burles replied, with a face that did not move a muscle. "Your sister is not fit to speak of her accident yet! The world in general is as much in the dark as ever."

"I hope so," Lady Altamont replied. She was quite at her ease again. "Of course, it has been rather a trying time for us, but, really, humanity demanded nothing less. Still, the doctor says that it is merely a matter of time. Honestly, do you know how my sister met her accident?"

Burles replied that he was in full possession of all the necessary facts. He had a theory of his own which he was rather anxious to test. He would like to see the unfortunate lady for a few minutes. And Lady Altamont was quite ready to do anything that Burles desired. She would accompany him next door. To save trouble, Burles coolly proceeded to the boudoir and took his way into the next house by means of the broken panel. He had reason to know that Colville was not at home. Burles called for Susan, who came. She seemed a little startled, but she said nothing.

"Don't be frightened, my dear good Susan," he said, cheerfully. "Only tell me the truth, and nothing is likely to happen to you or anybody else. Perhaps I had better tell you, Susan, that I am Inspector Burles, of Scotland Yard. You are not a bad woman, on the whole, and you could have been better still but for the evil influences of that rascally old husband of yours. Lady Altamont tells me that she got nervous yesterday, and says that her nerves broke down. She says she came to you and confessed everything. I am going to make a bargain with Lady Altamont whereby she will not be charged with half-murdering her sister, who is really the wife of Mr. Colville, in a fit of passion. But you know all about that, Susan, of course! I take it that Mrs. Colville was not better than she might have been."

"She had a good deal to put up with, sir," Susan murmured.

"I dare say," Burles went on. "She found her sister here in what appeared to be a great position, and she began the game of blackmail. Then the quarrel came, and something like attempted murder. It wasn't a bad idea and it nearly came off, but for a lucky little stroke of mine."

"He is a devil!" Lady Altamont hissed. "A devil that I should like to kill."

"And yet I am proving your friend all the time," Burles said, pleasantly. "I might have had you arrested. Oh, you need not smile. You recollect that conversation you had on the night of your masked ball with the Honourable Rupert Lancaster? Well, I was the Honourable Rupert for the occasion. You see, I had a hold on Lancaster. So great was my hold that I literally forced him to play into my hands. I'm told that he found it policy to hold his tongue. But I am getting away from the point—the point that I know everything. You might just as well confess that your sister suffered violence at your hands as let the case go on and have the facts out in court."

"You knew all the time that she was my sister?" Lady Altamont gasped. "Did not I say that you were a devil? Perhaps you can tell me what my sister came to me that night for?"

"Of course I can. I was not likely to come here until I knew everything and had all my facts. As I said before, your sister came to try and get money out of you. It is a very easy and simple explanation. And I should not try and blackmail Mr. Cecil Wanless any further if I were you, because it will be useless. You can't demand hush money for a murder that is no murder at all. But I believe he has already defied you to do your worst."

Once again Lady Altamont muttered something about a devil that she would like to slay. But there was no sting in the words for Mr. Burles. He went on quite smoothly.

"Mr. Wanless is free from you now," he said. "Don't try it on again. You have puzzled me a good deal over this matter, but you have been puzzled in your turn. But I am going to enlighten you. It is a little strange that your sister should turn out to be the wife of Mr. Archibald Colville."

"Yes, I know that. And strange to say, Colville lives next door. But I never met Colville, though he is my neighbour. All I know is that he married my sister out of pique, and that they seemed to quarrel violently. She left him years ago, and because she left him he wanted her back again. But she will tell you all this, I dare say, if you ask her. Seeing that she is going to get better——"

"She is ever so much better to-day," old Susan said. "Had you not better see her? I don't think that there is very much risk about it. When your ladyship came here yesterday, I had not seen the doctor. But his report to-day is so satisfactory that you may see her if you please."

Burles opened the door of the studio, and led the way up the stairs of the mysterious No. 13. Silenced and quite broken in spirit now, Lady Altamont followed him up the gloomy stairs and into the elaborately-furnished room at the top of the house, where, on the bed, the figure of La Belle Atalanta was lying. Old Susan was not far off preparing some lemonade. Susan looked up eagerly and quickly. There was an air of expectation about her that was not lost on Lady Altamont.

"I suppose you are all against me," Lady Altamont said, bitterly. "I have no friend here."

"There you have only yourself to blame," the figure on the bed said faintly. "I came to your house that night because I was hard up, and you refused to see me. I made my way into your inner room and I found a bottle of champagne there. Also I found a man called O'Brien there. But O'Brien did not want you to see him, especially as he had pressing business with me that did not brook delay. O'Brien was hiding in the room, he heard you coming, and he had to keep out of the way. You came in and lost your temper. I told you that you would murder somebody sometime in one of your tempers, and you came near to murdering me. You denied knowing who I was, and you tried to starve me to death after. Your idea was that I wanted to compel you to give me money to hold my tongue over that old Berlin business. Well, I needed money, but I should not have done you any real harm if you had waited to hear what I had to say. But you tried to kill me, and it was no fault of yours that you did not succeed. I should have died in your house if it had not been for Mr. John Stern."

"Curse him," Lady Altamont cried. "Curse him for a scoundrel. And he defied me that night and said he was going to lead a proper life. And so he is at the bottom of all my misfortune! And what is he doing now? I saw him last night singing outside a public-house for a few coppers. He looked starved and ill-fed, and I was glad to my soul. So much for your honest men!"

Susan had said nothing all this time. She touched Burles on the arm, and whispered to him.

"John Stern must be found," she said. "If I have done you any service, repay it by finding John Stern."

XLIV.—FOUND!

No expression of shame, no word of regret, came from Lady Altamont. She turned away in the direction of the door. She was beaten all along the line, and she knew it. It was nothing to her that she had practically been accused of the attempted murder of her own sister. She made no attempt to deny that she would have been guilty of that to hide her crime. At the same time, she was puzzled and baffled. She had not been entirely told how her enemies had got the best of her. Burles followed her thoughts with a grim smile on his face.

"It seems to me that you are very well out of this," he said. "You are lucky not to be standing in the dock to answer a most serious charge. We will not detain you any longer."

"That is very good of you," Lady Altamont sneered. "Will you kindly show me the way back again?"

Burles expressed his willingness to do so. An awkward silence followed the exit of the two. Then, before anybody could say anything, the door burst open, and Colville came in. Ailsa followed close behind.

Ailsa had come straight back after seeing Grace home. She had tarried just long enough to make sure that Burles's was no idle boast as to the diamonds. Surely enough the brown-paper parcel had reached the General Post Office all right and Scotland Yard had already taken steps to prevent its being delivered.

"And now I can go back with a fairly easy mind," Ailsa smiled. "What is your next move, Mr. Burles? Are you going my way?"

"I am most certainly going next door to you," Burles responded, grimly. "The time has come to have a little interesting conversation with Lady Altamont. I should not wonder in the least if we met under your roof before many hours are over."

It was a different Ailsa from the pallid, shrinking girl who had left the house a few hours before. She felt strong enough now for anything. Only she was just a little taken aback to see Colville enter the house just before her. The old man had gone straight to his own room; he had carried some papers in his hands; he seemed to be greatly disturbed about something.

But Ailsa's first care was as to the invalid. She was going up the stairs in the direction of the bedroom when Colville preceded her. He was so put out and disturbed that he didn't seem to see that Ailsa was there at all. And what did Colville mean by going up like this straight to the invalid's bedroom?

The old man was muttering to himself; he seemed to be angry about something. He did not know that the girl was so close behind him.

His face was white with passion, his grey hair was ruffled over his forehead. So threatening was his aspect that Ailsa drew instinctively nearer to the figure in the chair.

"So I have got to the bottom of this business at last," Colville foamed. "For the last week or two you have been nursing my wife in my own house. As to you, Susan, you can pack up and clear out at once. Your husband has come home. It will be sufficient punishment for you to meet him again."

But old Susan trembled at the name of her husband no longer. She smiled softly.

"I have friends who will look after me now," she said. "I am not likely to act as a domestic drudge and slave any longer. I shall be glad to go back to my own sphere of life. If I had not had the misfortune to marry a scoundrel, I should never have come down to this. My secret is known now; the history of my husband is not a secret to the police. I am never going back to Thomas again; he can go his own way for me. Tell him so, if you like. Tell him that, if he attempts to see me, I shall say only one word to Inspector Burles, of Scotland Yard, who is now in this house, and then Thomas can look to himself. And look to yourself also, Archibald Colville. Do you suppose I have been in this house all these years for nothing? Do you suppose that I could not tell a tale? Ay, you may sneer, and suggest that I have played the eavesdropper; it does not hurt me. But I know enough, and more than enough, and you are aware of it. I care nothing now that I have powerful friends behind me. And this poor wife of yours——"

Colville suddenly changed his manner. He glanced from Susan to the lady in the chair in a vague and undecided kind of way. It was quite evident that he had met his match.

"Everybody is against me," he said. "I am the victim of conspirators, whose names even are utterly unknown to me. Thomas was lured all the way to America by an ingenious fraud, and then kept out of the way by my enemies. Everything played for their hand, even the fact that my eyesight was failing. And that rascal, John Stern, posed as Thomas and learnt everything there was to learn. Then the real Thomas comes back to-day, and he finds things out for me. Though, why my wife should hide here——"

"She didn't hide here," Ailsa said. "She was brought here at the point of death. When she came I had no idea who she was, but Susan knew everything. And this she told me. Your poor wife told me her history, too. It is wonderful that she looks so young, considering what she has had to go through. She married you expecting a good home; she did not know that you married her out of pique at the loss of another woman. She was young and pretty then; she was just beginning to make progress on the stage. And by your neglect and your tyranny you drove her from you into the streets. She was hardly herself at that time; she was hard pushed to it to live for years. Not that you cared whether she lived or died! Then your sins began to find you out. You lost your money in reckless speculations. Only you and your tool, Thomas, know how you tried to retrieve the situation. Then it came to your knowledge that your deserted wife was likely to become the possessor of £1,000. That is why you looked for her again, little thinking that the irony of circumstances was likely to bring her back under your own roof. And yet I am told that you were a good man at one time, before you let your evil designs choke your better nature. You persecuted the son of the woman you loved years ago; your bitter hatred of him led you to do things that might have landed you in the grip of the law. But he died and disappointed you."

"Yes, he died," Colville snarled. "I had everything ready for him."

"We will go into that presently," Ailsa said, coldly. "It is a matter between you and me only. What do you propose to do in the future?"

"Clear the house of all of you," said Colville. "Kick you all into the street."

Ailsa led the way towards the door, Colville following her. She pointed in the direction of the studio, and he seemed to discern exactly what she wanted. She closed the door behind her.

"Sit down," she said. "I have not much to say to you, but that little is to the point. You never told me that this house belonged to me, and that it was part of my fortune. It is for me to say whether you stay or go. For the present you can remain. I dare say you and old Thomas can get a more or less questionable living between you. But this house and all it holds was part of the fortune that Dr. Bramwell left to Ada Braybrooke's child—to Ronald. You knew that some day or other the child of the woman who rejected you would come into this fortune. But you did not tell him that; you hated him too much. He was too like his father. You lured him on to be extravagant; you caused him to forge your name. That was the hold you had on him; that was the way in which you were going to keep his money. But he died, and before he died he left a will bequeathing everything to me. Ronald is beyond your reach now, so that your forged bills are useless. Whereabouts in this room are they concealed?"

Colville answered nothing for a moment; he was too utterly taken aback by the extent of Ailsa's knowledge. For all this time she had played her part, and played it well. With the aid of Burles, and prompted quite lately by the unhappy La Belle Atalanta, she had discovered everything. And Colville knew that he was beaten.

"I don't quite understand you," he stammered. "This is mere hearsay."

"It is useless to lie to me," said Ailsa, coldly. "My information is too certain. Those forged cheques are somewhere in this room. Give them to me, and I'll pay you £1,000. Refuse, and things shall take their course."

"What course?" Colville blustered. "I don't understand you at all."

"Oh, yes, you do. We will leave Inspector Burles to settle it. Give me those papers."

Without further protest Colville rose and made his way across the room. He fumbled for some time behind one of the panel pictures in the wall, and then his shaky hand drew forth thin oblong strips of pink paper. With a scowl he handed them over to Ailsa.

"See that they are correct," he said. "There are three altogether. To think that I should fall so low as this, to be beaten by a girl. You can take them, and I shall console myself with the fact that I have sold them very well. I think that is all."

Ailsa made no reply; she did not attempt to detain Colville as he fumbled his way from the room. The sound of voices came from the hall presently, the voices of Colville and his satellite Thomas; the front door closed with a sullen bang. For some time Ailsa sat looking at these fateful slips of paper. She took a match presently and reduced them to ashes. It was getting late now, and the lights from the street lamps were shining into the room. But Ailsa did not move; she sat there thinking over the past till Susan came with the information that dinner was ready. There was a ring at the front-door bell presently, and Grace Wanless came in.

"I want you to come round to my house," she said. "My brother has something to say to you, Ailsa, something that is on his mind. It has to do with John Stern."

Ailsa's conscience reproached her violently. She had altogether forgotten John Stern. And Lady Altamont had triumphantly declared that he was an outcast singing for bread in the streets. Something must assuredly be done for John Stern.

"I ought to be ashamed of myself," Ailsa cried. "I will come at once, Grace. That mysterious John Stern, whom I like so much in spite of everything, has done us all a wonderful service. But for him you would never have seen your dear mother's jewels again."

"And now they are safe in the custody of the bank," Grace smiled. "Lady Altamont has been defeated; indeed, I'm told that she is leaving England as soon as her husband's funeral is over. And in some way she has lost her power over my brother Cecil. I am sure that something wonderful has happened, though he will not tell me what it is. He says that he can tell nobody but you—he is quite a different boy the last two or three days."

"It must have something to do with John Stern," Ailsa said, thoughtfully. "But for him we should never have got the best of Lady Altamont; but for him your mother's jewels were gone. And she does not know anything about it?"

"She knows nothing, Ailsa. She is absolutely in ignorance of everything that has taken place. And she is going to learn nothing from me. It is far better thus in her present state of health. She must never learn how foolish Cecil has been. But put on your hat and come with me. I believe you are going to hear something of great interest to you."

Ailsa had a feeling that way herself. At any rate, at any cost, John Stern must be found and rescued from his present position. His past might be shady; indeed, Ailsa felt pretty sure that it had been; but the fact remained, and made no difference. He had tried lately to get an honest living, and he had failed, as better men had failed before him; and to think of his singing in the streets for coppers! Horrible!

Ailsa thought it all over now as she walked along the brilliantly-lighted streets with Grace. She would put detectives on his track at once. Stern should be told that he had come into money; it would be done in some delicate kind of way, so as not to hurt his feelings. They came at length to the great square where Mrs. Wanless had taken up her quarters. In the distance someone was singing a song. It was a pretty, pathetic song, in a grand, dear tenor, and Ailsa stopped to listen. The ready tears had risen to her eyes.

"I have not heard that for years," she said. "It was an old lullaby peculiar to the dear old West Country where I came from. I did not think that anyone knew it in town. And Ronald Braybrooke used to sing it to me. He wrote two extra verses at the end. I should like to stand here and hear the song finished, Grace."

"Better come inside," Grace said, "and listen more comfortably near the fire. Evidently the singer is making his way in this direction. Come along."

Ailsa suffered herself to be led away into the house, where Mrs. Wanless made much of her. Cecil had not come in yet, Grace said, but he would not be long, seeing that he had sent her round to bring Ailsa to Bruton-square. Outside the roll of traffic was getting less; the voice of the singer struck into the old lullaby again, and Ailsa listened, with eyes that were very tender.

"He's going to sing an extra verse, too," she said. "Why, it is the same that Ronald wrote! 'My heart is a rose, and my love is the thorn.' Grace, Grace, it is Ronald come back to me from the grave?"


XLV.—GATHERED THREADS.

To go back to Lady Altamont for a moment. Naturally enough, Society had been thrilled by the tragic death of Sir Charles Altamont, who had been more or less of a prominent figure in Society, owing mainly to the beauty and fascination of his wife. Many stories had been told in relation to the suicide, but nobody really knew anything of the facts of the case but Lady Altamont, and she was not likely to betray herself.

On the whole, she could not regard herself as otherwise than fortunate. It was true that she had lost the great stake that she had played for, and that the Wanless jewels were now quite beyond her reach. But, on the other hand, she might have been prosecuted over that business and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. But an action like that would have meant public exposure to Cecil Wanless, and in the end for Mrs. Wanless to know the very thing that her son and daughter were most anxious to keep from her. Yes, things might have been worse.

Lady Altamont sat in her drawing-room thinking the matter over. She was dressed in the deepest and most becoming mourning; she had recently come back from Paris, and Sir Charles was at rest in the family vault. Much sympathy had been felt for Lady Altamont, and she had responded gracefully. There were inquisitive people who wanted to know what she was going to do now; but Lady Altamont intended to be too grief-stricken to decide for the moment.

At a matter of fact, the woman was in desperate want. She had practically no money; Sir Charles had left nothing behind him but his debts, and now the income which he had derived from his family estate had passed to another. To all outward seeming, Lady Altamont was quite to be envied; in reality, she was a pauper.

But, at any rate, she had escaped a criminal prosecution, and that was something gained. She was free to make a fresh start in life, with a magnificent wardrobe and a title to her name. She sat in the drawing-room now, turning the matter over in her mind. A footman came up presently with the information that a gentleman desired to see Lady Altamont. Her ladyship smiled, for she was expecting this visit.

"Show the gentleman in," she said. "My dear Mr. O'Brien, this is very kind of you."

O'Brien smiled significantly as the footman closed the door behind him. There was a significant change in the man, which Lady Altamont instantly recognised and by no means approved of. O'Brien was dressed like a man who is going on a journey; the spick-and-span frock-coat were no longer his. He sat down, and smiled again.

"It was very good of you to come and see me," Lady Altamont proceeded. "We have worked together on a good many occasions to our mutual benefit, and——"

"Pardon me," O'Brien said. "I join issue with you as to the mutual benefit. As a matter of fact, you have treated me very badly in every instance. I have usually done all the work, and you have obtained all the plunder. If you had trusted me instead of Terry, you would have done better for yourself."

"I recognise that now," Lady Altamont said, with a flash in her eyes. "But it is no use to cry over spilt milk, and Mrs. Wanless has got her jewels back again. I did not think that Terry would dare to play me false."

"Why not? You couldn't have done anything in any case. At the last moment you fell back on me, and I went to Paris more or less on your behalf. It came as a revelation to me that Sir Charles Altamont could be so clever. Evidently he had really a brilliant brain when it was not clouded with alcohol. Fancy his working out that cunning scheme, and getting the best of Terry in that way without saying one word of his intentions to anybody. But for the astuteness of Inspector Burles, who divined pretty well what happened, those jewels would have come into your possession again. I had a little scheme of my own to work in Paris; but your husband's action, followed by the promptness displayed by Burles, put me out of action, so to speak. But one thing let me tell you—if I had been successful you would never have seen those gems."

"Meaning that you would have kept them for yourself," Lady Altamont said, with a sneering laugh. "That is a candid confession, at any rate."

"I shouldn't," O'Brien went on, quietly. "I meant to return them to their owner. I don't say that such was my intention at first. For a long time I have been utterly sick of this life I am leading. What fools clever men like myself are to be criminals whilst they could do so well as honest men."

"There are no honest men," Lady Altamont sneered. "There are some people who don't do wrong because it pays them to keep straight, and there are others who have more than sufficient for their needs. These are only negatively honest men. But you don't mean to say that you are going to join the respectable classes?"

"Indeed, I am," O'Brien went on in the same quiet way. "I may say that I have already done so. I came here on purpose to give you this information."

"And I had a little scheme in my mind by which we could have made thousands," Lady Altamont cried. "I looked upon you as the one man to help me in the transaction. Do you mean to tell me deliberately that you mean what you say?"

"Ay, indeed I do. What has all my cleverness done for me for the present? No more than keep me out of gaol. At times I have had money, which I have squandered; at times I have come near to starvation. At times I have had to herd with men who were utterly loathsome to me—take my last residence in the Waterloo-road, for instance. For a long time, it has been coming to me that I might do better, but I did not make a final decision till after the night when you came from here in all your silks and diamonds to see me in that squalid Waterloo-road den. I was in the balance than, but I did not tell you so. And after you had gone, John Stern came."

Lady Altamont started perceptibly, and her face grew a little paler.

"So you know him," she asked. "A poor creature at the best."

"No, I do not quite agree with you. A foolish fellow, who was deliberately led towards his ruin to gratify the malice of old Colville. In happier circumstances, John Stern would have turned out a good man. But, of course you know all that."

"Indeed I don't," Lady Altamont protested. "I found the fellow useful, and that is all."

"Why palter with me in this way?" O'Brien cried, contemptuously. "As if I did not know quite well who John Stern really is. Do you want me to believe that you are living here next door to Archibald Colville quite by accident? As if you did not know John Stern is Ronald Braybrooke in disguise. He was on your yacht in the North Sea when those jewels were stolen; he was a useful creature of yours at one time. And now you profess not to know him. You knew that he had come into a fortune; you knew that Archibald Colville was his guardian. You knew of Colville's feelings in regard to his ward, and how he acted towards him."

"And how should I know all this?" Lady Altamont protested.

"Became Colville's wife was your sister; Mrs. Colville, La Belle Atalanta—call her what you like. There was a time when you and your sister were friendly enough—a time when you used to work together. Then your sister quarrelled with Colville, and in a fit of passion he turned her out of the house. That put an end to the scheme you had in hand for getting hold of certain documents that might have proved useful. You did not want to see your sister any more; but she turned up unexpectedly and began to pester you for money. She knew too much, didn't she?"

"You seem to know a great deal, also," Lady Altamont flashed out. "But go on; I should like to hear all that you have to say to me."

"Well, I am not likely to detain you much longer. Your sister wanted money at a most inconvenient time, and your one idea was to get rid of her. But she held some very strong cards in her hand, and you hardly knew what to do. For instance, with certain documents in her possession, she could have made it very awkward for you with the authorities in Berlin over that bogus matrimonial agency you ran then some ten years ago. Your sister found you in apparently a splendid position, and she made up her mind that she was going to benefit by it. You made up your mind that she should not do anything of the kind. That it why you got her to come to your house here and made that attack upon her. The audacity of your denial of all knowledge of your sister was magnificently splendid. But I knew all about it, for I was in the house at the time the attack was made."

"You were actually here?" Lady Altamont cried.

"Yes, why not! Was I not with you a year or two ago, when you took this house? Did I not go over it with you when it was empty? And did I not design the idea of the revolving walls in the little room, so that we could hide ourselves away from the police and transfer a gambling saloon into a respectable dressing-room, with hiding-places behind the shelves, at a moment's notice. The big scheme never came to anything, but the room has been very useful on one or two occasions, as you know."

"I owe you one for that idea," Lady Altamont said grudgingly. "But what has all that to do with the attack on my sister?"

"I am glad to hear you admit the relationship, and decline to continue the farce with me," O'Brien went on. "I was in the room that night for purposes which I need not go into, and I heard all that I wanted to hear. It was a murderous attack you made, and no fault of yours that it did not end fatally. I think that it was from that moment that I made up my mind to change my life. I tell you what you don't know. I may say that it was John Stern, alias Ronald Braybrooke, who stole the body of your sister away, and took her into the next house. And you have been aware for some considerable time there has been pretty free access between the two houses for some time. To one of your natural astuteness I need not say more than that. In fact, I need not have come here at all. I might have left you to your own devices; I might have ignored your letter. This it the last time that I am likely to see you; in all probability we shall never meet again. But you are a woman, and it is my duty to do what I can for you. You think that you are free to do what you please in future; you think that your sister will say nothing as to that murderous attack, and that so long as Mrs. Wanless has got her jewels back that chapter is closed also. But there are other matters which have come to light arising out of your past. Let me tell you that Captain Stone is in London; he arrived from Chicago on Friday. He saw you yesterday, and recognised you. You know what that means. He will have no mercy on you, as you know. He will put matters in the hands of the police, if he has not already done so. That is why I am here to-day—when I come to warn you before it is too late. If this information had not come to my ears, I should have ignored your letter."

Lady Altamont made no reply for a moment. All the colour had left her face; she had lost her hard defiant manner. She was face to face with a crisis now, face to face with an old enemy whom she had almost forgotten, but one that she knew for an implacable foe all the same. There was not a moment to be lost. She must gather together all she had and fly to the Continent without delay. She rose slowly from her seat.

"I owe you something for this," she said, between her teeth. "It's a pity I have not another day. Then I could have disposed of the furniture here; as it is, I can only discreetly disappear. Good-bye, my friend—perhaps your determination to lead an honest life is the proper way, after all. As you say, we are not likely to meet again. Good-bye."

O'Brien turned and left the room without further delay. With wonderful celerity, Lady Altamont got together all she required. It was an hour later that she stood at the drawing-room window making up her mind as to the best way to act. She was quite ready to fly now. She was not going to take much with her. She could trust to her wits to replenish her wardrobe, once she was safe across the water.

Then she drew in her breath with a sharp hiss. Coming across the road was a tall man with a tuft of hair on his chin.

"Wilson, of Pinkerton's!" she gasped. "And coming after me! Why did I not get away at once? Why did I waste the precious moments like this? And now I am caught like a rat in a trap—caught after all these years! If I could only think of a way out of the difficulty! Oh, I have it; my wits are failing me. The next house—the secret panel leading to No. 13. There is safety there!"


XLVI.—TOWARDS THE GOAL.

It was all the work of a moment. It was well for Lady Altamont that the broken panel that led from the boudoir to the studio had been repaired. She closed the panel behind her and breathed more freely. She felt comparatively safe now. The Pinkerton detective could not possibly know of the connection between the two rooms; he would make a close search of No. 14 and be forced to the conclusion that the bird had flown. He could see all Lady Altamont's belongings gathered together, he would be able to guess that she had early information and vanished.

At any rate, the critical danger was averted for the present. But Lady Altamont felt that she could not remain where she was for any length of time. On the other hand, she dared not return to No. 14 till the coast was quite clear. And how was she to ascertain that fact? With the solitary exception of O'Brien, she had nobody in London that she could rely upon. If she could only gain possession of some disguise matters might be easier. But no disguise was at hand, and it was too dangerous a game to walk boldly out of No. 13 into the street as if nothing had happened. Possibly the Chicago detective was not alone, and he might have left some person in the street who was able to recognise the more or less familiar figure of Lady Altamont. All these things had to be considered.

Still, there was no time to think now, and Lady Altamont devoted herself seriously to the problem. A course of action began to shape itself in her mind.

She would take the bull by the horns and act boldly. She crept from the studio on to the landing, and looked eagerly about her. The house was strangely silent. Presently the intruder could hear certain sounds as if somebody was sorting a lot of papers. Into the corridor presently came Archibald Colville, followed by the figure of old Thomas. They carried between them a large basketful of papers, which they proceeded to place in the big grate in the hall. Lady Altamont had not had an opportunity for some time of observing Colville so closely, and she was struck by the way in which he had aged.

The flames from the paper began to roar and flare up the chimney presently; a moment later and outside came the sound of cab-wheels. Then the door opened and Ailsa came in. The two old men glanced at her, and then hung down their head.

"There is no occasion for that," Ailsa said coldly. "So far as I am concerned, you two can stay here as long as you please. In a day or so I am going away. The house is yours——"

"The house is yours," Colville said, doggedly. "It is part of your property under the will of Ronald Braybrooke. I have told you so before."

"I shall never take it," Ailsa replied. "Never! I have been too abjectly miserable here. Whenever I think of this melancholy house it will always depress my spirits. You tell me that you have practically nothing left, and I am bound to believe you. But I am going to make provision for you, and the old house is going to be part of it."

"We don't want it, miss," old Thomas said, cringingly. "We are going abroad. My wife has more than once expressed a desire to be rid of me, and she's going to get her way at last."

Ailsa replied positively that she was exceedingly glad to hear it. For the last few days she had noticed a decided change for the better in the manner of old Thomas. It was hard to account for the reason, but there it was. Perhaps the man was in fear of the police, and desperately anxious to be out of the country. Perhaps John Stern had been able to change the old savage into the semblance of ordinary humanity; but the fact remained.

"I came to take you with me," Ailsa went on. "There are certain legal formalities to be complied with before my solicitor, and he needs the presence of you both. I understand that you have witnessed a number of documents from time to time, Thomas. It is a matter of necessity that you also should accompany me. The cab is still at the door."

Neither man raised any objection. It was strange to see how humble and meek they had become in the presence of this girl, and equally strange to notice Ailsa's firmness of manner and severity of tone. A minute or two later the trio had vanished in the cab, and Lady Altamont was once more alone.

The silence and loneliness of the place begin to oppress her. She was longing for something in the shape of human companionship. Some instinct seemed to lead her up the stairs in the direction of the room where her sister lay. The door opened and Susan came out. She had a cheerful air and manner; she was no longer the confused, tired old woman that she had been for so long. Her voice was strong and clear.

"I won't be any longer than I can help, my dear," she said. "Now that old Thomas has gone, I feel that I can leave you here quite safely. I'll get back in an hour or so."

"All right," the voice inside the room replied. "I shall be quite safe, and I am not in the least afraid. Take your time over it, Susan."

Susan vanished, and presently the hall door closed softly behind her. And Lady Altamont knew that she was quite alone in the house with the woman that she had used so badly. She hesitated just a moment on the threshold, and then entered the bedroom. The figure on the bed looked up at her with speechless astonishment, but with no suggestion of fear.

"So you have come back again," the invalid said. "Well, so far as you are concerned, you could not have arrived at a more fitting moment. I am absolutely alone in the house, and therefore you can do what you like with me. If you murder me, nobody will be able to place a finger on the criminal. It is a fine opportunity of completing your desire."

Something like a laugh came from Lady Altamont's lips. She sat herself down on the foot of the bed in the most friendly fashion.

"You need not be afraid," she said. "The temptation is past, and in any case I would not benefit myself now by your death. You came and tried to get money out of me at a very critical moment when I saw a large fortune within grasp, and that stirred up all the evil passions in my nature. I have many of them, as you know."

"We both have, for that matter," La Belle Atalanta replied. "I have. So you thought to get me out of the house once and for ever. I have made up my mind to pay you out when I got well, but I see that you are not so sure of your fortune as you were. Anybody would think that the police were after you from the expression of your face."

"And so they are," Lady Altamont returned. "I had been very lucky up to now, but I look as if I had come to the end of my tether at last. I should have been taken red-handed if O'Brien had not come along and warned me."

"You don't mean to say that it is the old Berlin affair, after all this long time?"

"No. It was you who were going to start the Berlin people on my track unless I gave you as much money as you needed. It's that Chicago mess and Captain Stone. He always swore that he would be even with me, and now he has come to England. That is why I made my way from my own house into here. The Pinkerton man may be at No. 14 still, for all I know. I can't pop out of the house, as it is so close to my own. I came here to ask you if you could find me some kind of disguise. I daresay they have fetched all your belongings from your lodgings by this time. But tell me, why is that old Susan allowed to have these luxurious rooms to sleep in? A mere servant like her——"

"She is not a mere servant," La Belle Atalanta went on to explain. "She is a half-sister of Archibald Colville, of my husband, I should say. Thomas was a sort of clerk at one time to my husband's father. Why Susan married him, goodness only knows. But I daresay that Archibald Colville managed to bring that about for certain purposes of his own. But you may retort by asking why I became the wife of Archibald Colville. Perhaps I thought that he was richer than he turned out to be; perhaps I was under the delusion that I had a silly, weak old creature to deal with. At any rate, we were both mistaken, and I was not sorry to go back to the old life again."

Lady Altamont shrugged her shoulders, hopelessly. A feeling of depression weighed her down.

"What strange, unprofitable uses we have made of our lives!" she said. "Without conceit, I may say that we are both handsome women, both clever, and are full of audacity. And yet you are getting a precarious living on the stage, and I am a fugitive flying from the police. I begin to think that O'Brien was right after all when he said that honesty pays best. He tells me that he is going to try that himself in the future."

"I am glad to hear it," the figure on the bed said. "But you must not stay here. Fortunately, all my belongings have been fetched from my lodgings, so that I can give you nice yellow wig, and a sailor hat with a veil to it. If you hang about here for an hour or two, you can slip away from the house in the dark and call a cab. But don't let old Susan see you in the house; she is very prejudiced against you, and may feel disposed to call in the police. Fortunately she will not be back for an hour or more, so that I shall be able to rig you out respectably, and put the finishing touches on your make-up. Pull that trunk over there as near to the bed as possible, and I will tell you where to find things."

At the end of half an hour Lady Altamont stood before the long cheval glass contemplating a figure and face that she felt hard to believe belonged to herself. When the veil and the sailor hat came to be donned, the disguise was absolutely complete. She knew now that she need never fear recognition anywhere. But she was going to wait till the dark came; she was too clever to take risks.

"Your task has been a veritable triumph," she said.

"Yes, I flatter myself that it is pretty clever," La Belle Atalanta replied. "All you have to do now is to wait till it is quite dark, and than walk out like a parlour-maid who is got up for conquest. It's a pity you could not have managed to get your wardrobe away, but you are too used to escapes like this to mind."

"Oh, that is a trivial matter, comparatively speaking. The thing that troubles me most is the lack of ready money. I am practically penniless, though, of course, I've got as much jewelry as I can find stowed away about my person. I've treated you vilely, and you have behaved in a way that does you credit. Won't you go further and let me have enough gold to take me as far as Paris, for instance?"

La Belle Atalanta responded that she had not a shilling in the world. The matter was still under discussion when the front door was tried and old Susan had returned. With her finger on her lips, Lady Altamont darted away, and before Susan came up the stairs she was hidden once more in the dim recesses of the studio.

The light was beginning to fade now; one by one the lamps flared up in the street. Somewhere close by a clock was striking the hour of seven. It was quite time to go now, Lady Altamont decided. Very softly she crept down the steps into the hall; the big door opened without a sound; a moment later the fugitive was in the street.

She was not afraid of being recognised. She was quite sure of her disguise. Therefore she started and almost cried out as a hand was laid on her arm. With a sense of great relief she turned round to recognise O'Brien.

"Don't stand," he whispered. "Walk quietly on and I will keep a yard or so behind you, so you can hear all I say. I saw the detective turn towards the house, and I guessed by instinct that you would think of the secret panel and make use of No. 13. I thought I recognised you, and I chanced it. I suppose your sister helped you out. But have you any money?"

"That is exactly what is troubling me," Lady Altamont replied. "I have absolutely no cash whatever. If you could lend me some——"

"I am going to do so; I managed to get a few pounds on purpose. No, there is no time to explain as to how and where I got it. Put your hands behind you and I will drop ten or a dozen sovereigns into your palm. And now good-bye for I have other work to do."

O'Brien turned away without waiting to be thanked. He quickened his pace presently when he came to Piccadilly, and then outside one of the big hotels he waited with a patient air.

Presently his patience was rewarded, for a young man came down the flight of marble steps and turned up his collar as a protection from the thin rain that was beginning to fall. He stopped as O'Brien accosted him. "What do you want?" he asked. "What can I do for you?"

"Very little, Mr. Wanless," O'Brien said. "Never mind who I am. I understand that to-night Miss Ailsa Lefroy came to spend the evening with your people; in fact she is going to stay with you. I know what you are after and what you are in search of. If you will do as I ask, you will not take a cab, but walk home. Take my advice and you will find the man you need—Ronald Braybrooke!"


XLVII.—"THE SONG THAT REACHED MY HEART."

A thin sleet was beginning to fall as Cecil Wanless turned out of his club. It was early yet, too early to go home, as some of his friends had reminded him, but there was work before the young American. He had not dined at his club except for business purposes and to get his letters, and he had business reasons for seeing Ailsa Lefroy to-night. It was not likely to be altogether a pleasant interview; but Wanless had been asking many pertinent questions lately, and he had decided that at any cost right must be done. And he was free to speak now, for Lady Altamont was penniless, and the jewels had been saved.

He had behaved very badly indeed—he did not disguise the fact from himself for a moment. He had been the cause of much distress and misery to his sister Grace; it was no fault of his that his mother had not shared the trouble. But his infatuation for Lady Altamont was a thing of the past now; he could only look back with shame and humiliation upon it. He recognised the woman now for an adventuress, which she really was. And how near he had come to wreck the happiness of the family over her!

At one time she had had him in a deadly grip; she had possessed herself of his mother's gems, and he could say nothing so long as there was a possibility of a charge of murder hanging over him. But the jewels were all recovered now and the danger had passed. It was true that Wanless had been bound down more or less to secrecy, but he was going to speak all the same. That was why he was going home to discuss the events of the past months with Ailsa Lefroy. For that purpose he had asked his sister to get Ailsa to come round and spend the evening with her.

There was only one thing that stood in the way now, and that was the strange disappearance of the man who had elected to call himself John Stern. He seemed to have vanished suddenly after that sensational evening when he had come to Wanless and made a proposal to him that the American could not resist. How that proposal had been turned to Ailsa's benefit the reader already knows. Wanless might not have troubled any more about the matter had not Grace betrayed the fact that Ailsa Lefroy had always cared for Ronald Braybrooke, and, after all, he owed a deep debt of gratitude to the so-called John Stern. Ronald Braybrooke had been a bad man, but at the same time there had been plenty of good in him, as Cecil Wanless knew very well. And good or bad, Ailsa Lefroy had never wavered in her faith in her lover. If John Stern could only be found now!

Wanless turned the collar of his coat up higher as he walked along, obedient to the suggestion made so strangely by O'Brien. The more he thought of the task before him, the more he dreaded it. He was going to make a clean breast of the whole thing, he was going to appear in anything but a pretty light before Ailsa Lefroy's eyes; but he kept doggedly to his purpose. After all, he was playing a higher part than he knew. Once this was done, he had made up his mind to leave no stone unturned to find John Stern, who was probably a mere nomad in London. Perhaps he was like the man who was singing on the other side of the road. It seemed dreadful to think about; all the more dreadful as Wanless's thoughts dwelt upon the secret that he had to tell Ailsa. He glanced curiously at the singer. In the lamplight he looked like a man who had seen better days. His face caught the glare of the gas.

"Got him," Wanless said hoarsely. "What a slice of luck! I may be a bit of a coward morally, but there's nothing the matter with my physical pluck. And if he shows fight I'll knock him down and drag him home. Here, my good fellow."

With his face in the shadow Wanless held out sixpence. The singer hesitated to show himself, but he crept forward presently with his head on his breast. He took the sixpence with a mutter of thanks. Wanless could see that his knuckles were blue with cold. The man was thinly clad, but he looked scrupulously clean. The next moment Wanless had him by the arm.

"So you don't recognise me," he said. "I know you, John Stern, which is much more to the point. And I know all about you. Don't pretend that you fail to recognise me. I dare say you think your conduct is brave and deserving of all praise, but I regard it as slightly quixotic. Come with me."

In spite of the cold John Stern laughed. There was a sardonic gleam in his eyes.

"I did not want to meet you," he said. "I should not have come quite so close to your house if I had given it a moment's consideration. I have just been singing a song that I used to sing to a girl I loved years ago.. .. There were verses of my own to it.. .. And the girl came into my mind. A girl actually did come to a door opposite, and call to me, but I hid myself behind a pillar. Sounds very comical to you, I suppose? Let me go, Wanless. Let me go and keep my secret. You know the girl I care for. And, perhaps, in years to come, when I am really worthy of Ailsa, I might——"

"It sounds improbably painful and sad," Wanless said. "Look here, my friend, you evidently regard me as the mixture of knave and fool that you used to know as Cecil Wanless. All that has changed. I have managed to retrieve my character more by good luck than judgment, and I have turned over a new leaf. That is why I am looking for you, Ronald Braybrooke. Man, your mania for self-abnegation is killing you."

"Ronald Braybrooke is dead, and you know it. You promised to keep my secret. I am starving, but I take a favour from no man. I shall get something to do soon. And you promised, when you witnessed that so-called will of mine, not to tell Ailsa that——"

"I know I did. But if ever a man is justified in breaking a promise, I am. You are Ronald Braybrooke, with a fortune of £100,000, and yet you are getting a living by singing in the streets. Getting a living is a mere figure of speech in your case. Why don't you——"

"Oh, I know what you are going to say," Braybrooke broke in, impatiently. "Why don't I try something that is more commensurate with my talents? Wait till you find yourself stranded in London with no money in our pocket, and a shabby coat on your back. I could get a living in the old way; I could drop back into the old set and prey on society. But I am not going to do anything of the kind. I swore that on my oath the night I met Ailsa Lefroy in Colville's house, the night Colville told me I had come into £100,000. I was passing then as John Stern, Braybrooke's peculiar friend, who used to disappear so mysteriously when he was not wanted. The disguise of John Stern was very useful to me, and, as I am a born actor, I carried off the character so well that nobody suspected me. Perhaps some trick of voice betrayed me that night, for Colville called me by my proper name in Ailsa's presence. And when I saw the look of utter horror and disenchantment on that girls face, I realised what I was. It came to me like a flash. I knew that that girl had always cared for me, but till that moment I did not realise how deeply. Then, as God is my witness, I resolved then and there to lead a better life. I denied my own identity. I would never go near Ailsa again until I could take her hand as a man of honour and integrity and ask her to share my lot. That she still loves me, in spite of my fall, I have heard from her own lips. I tuned my back on the old life, and I have kept my word. Ah, but it was hard—that getting back into the fold again! I am waiting for a friend who gets home from Australia next weak, and then I shall be all right. I shall return to Australia with him. And, mind, not one word of this is to be told Ailsa."

"I am going to tell her everything," said Wanless, coolly. "And you are going along. By heavens! I will not let you go, struggle as you may. Physically, I have the pull of you. That fortune of yours no more belongs to Miss Lefroy than it belongs to me."

"You forget, my friend, that Robert Braybrooke willed the money away before he died."

"But he is not dead," Wanless urged. "And why was that bogus will made? Why did you disclose yourself to me and make me witness it? So that your money should not fall into the hands of Archibald Colville. The will was made by you, and I was a witness to it some weeks after you were supposed to be dead. It was more or less of a forgery. But I shut my eyes to it for the sake of the girl. You had to come to me and betray the fact that Ronald Braybrooke, whom I was supposed to have murdered, was still alive, and we concocted that will between us. It was supposed to be dated some few days before you fell off the yacht, or I pushed you off, or something, and I pretended that I witnessed the document in due course. The little scheme had the desired effect so far as Miss Lefroy and the will were concerned, but it did not do away with the fact that you are alive and well, and that the fortune is yours."

"I don't want Ailsa to know of it yet," Braybrooke said doggedly. "I want to prove to her that I am a changed man. Perhaps when I return, in a few years' time——"

"And I am to be a party to a lasting fraud like that," Wanless cried. "Time heals many wounds, it may heal Ailsa Lefroy's. And she may marry another man. And he may turn out to be an unworthy blackguard who is living on your money. Braybrooke, you are not fair to Miss Lefroy, and you are not fair to yourself. Come and tell the truth and then if you like go away and prove your manhood."

"I can't," Braybrooke groaned. "You will keep my secret Wanless?"

"Not I, my dear fellow. I have talked it all over with my sister, and we have decided what to do. Miss Lefroy shall know everything before she sleeps to-night; indeed she has come round to my mother's house for that purpose. I am a stronger man than you are, and I am going to carry you home, if necessary. Come along with me."

Just for a moment Braybrooke resisted furiously. But want of proper food and exposure were telling on him, and he laughed weakly. A sort of passing unconsciousness gripped him, his mind had gone back to the past again, and his voice burst out into a song. It was the same song that had so greatly agitated Ailsa. The last verse was still on his lips as Wanless bundled him through the front door of the house into the hall. At the head of the stairs stood Grace.

"What is it?" she whispered. "Ailsa is here. She has been looking for somebody round the square who——"

"I've got him," Wanless replied. "I've got Braybrooke. The poor beggar is half-starved and nearly done for. Keep Ailsa Lefroy up there for a little time. Keep her quiet. And when I whistle bring her down to the dining-room."

Grace seemed to understand, for she nodded and vanished. Wanless closed the dining-room door and put up the lights. He pulled Braybrooke across the room and forced him into a big armchair before the cheerful blaze of the fire. The grateful warmth seemed to put fresh strength into his tired limbs. He would have refused a glass of wine, but Wanless insisted.

"I daresay you have given it all up," he said, "but this is medicine. I daresay I can find you something to eat—some meat extract or something of that kind. Drink that port."

Braybrooke gulped down the old port eagerly. Another glass and a few spoonfuls of meat extract warmed him and thrilled him to new life again. With the full flare of the electric lights on him, Wanless could see what a change for the better had taken place in the old Ronald Braybrooke. The wanderer might have lived hard, he might have been close put to it to obtain the necessaries of life, his wardrobe needed replenishing, but he was a man again. The handsome face looked hard and resolute, the grey eyes were clear and sparkling. All traces of dissipation had absolutely vanished. Here was a man whom any girl might be proud to call her lover.

"The discipline may have been hard, but it has done you heaps of good," Wanless exclaimed. "I thought that I was looking better, but you! Come along with me, and I'll put you into a decent dry suit and clean linen. Fortunately, we are about the same size. I see you have managed to get yourself shaved every day. Come along."

With the warmth of the fire and the food in his veins, Ronald Braybrooke followed. It was good to find clean and glossy linen, again to stand up in good boots, clad in a good suit. He looked at himself in the glass and smiled. This was the crowning touch of his returned manhood. In a dreamy way he followed Wanless downstairs, till he found himself at length in a perfectly-appointed drawing-room, and under the shaded lights two girls seated. They rose quickly as Wanless and his companion entered. It seemed to Braybrooke that one of the girls was calling his name in broken and tender accents.

Wanless laughed as he came forward, holding Braybrooke by the arm.

"My sister," he said; "also Miss Lefroy, who will be very glad to see you. My dear girls, let me have the happiness of presenting to you my friend Ronald Braybrooke!"


XLVIII.—PEACE.

Ailsa stood with her hands on the arm of her chair, in the attitude of one who wakes from a dream. Braybrooke gazed at her with eyes half-filled with tears, and lips that trembled. It seemed to him that he had never seen Ailsa the woman before. She was dressed in white, with a single flower at her throat, looking much as he had seen her look in the past, and yet so different. Braybrooke had half-expected that she would turn from him, but she did nothing of the kind.

"Are you not going to speak to me, Ailsa?" he asked at length.

The girl passed her hand unsteadily across her eyes.

"I am trying to," she said. "It was such a shock to me to know that you were not dead. Grace asked me round to-night so that she could tell me; but there was no time—I heard the old song in the street, and it filled me with sweet and bitter memories. You can imagine how it brought old times back to me. And when I heard those extra verses, I knew that you had come back from the dead. Was the song a message to me?"

"No," Braybrooke replied. "My—my memory was wandering a little. You see, I have been having a very hard time lately. I suppose I burst into that song unconsciously. Then Cecil Wanless found me and dragged me here."

"I am glad of it," Cecil laughed. "I had to use force, Miss Lefroy."

Everybody laughed; it seemed to relieve the tension a little.

"I am still in a fog," Ailsa said. "I was looking for John Stern; I was told that he was in hiding, singing in the streets. I wanted to find him because he had been very good to me; it was necessary to my conscience to do something for him. It seems almost impossible to believe, Ronald, but I presume you are John Stern."

"That is so," Ronald explained. "There was a time in my existence when I required a double. I had to disappear every now and then, leaving John Stern to take my place. Nobody ever saw us both together. I was always fond of acting, as you know—I had a genius for make-up. A little paint and sticking-plaster, a silk thread here and there, and Ronald Braybrooke was transformed into John Stern. If you ask me which was the greater blackguard of the two, I cannot tell you. And yet I must tell you the whole of my past——"

"No, no," Ailsa cried. "I decline to hear it. Let the dead past bury its dead. I always trusted you, I always said that I would come to you, whatever the trouble and whatever the disgrace. And you have reformed, Ronald; I blame myself that I did not recognise you in John Stern, but you had so altered. Your face——"

Ailsa paused, as if not liking to proceed. Braybrooke took up the thread.

"My face told its own story. There was no disguise about the face and features of John Stern. He looked like a dissipated wreck; his eyes mirrored his life. Do you recall the moment when Colville addressed me as Ronald Braybrooke?"

Ailsa nodded her head. She recalled that moment vividly enough. She recollected the painful shock and the thrill of horror on the mere reflection that John Stern and her gallant lover were one and the same man.

"I can see that the feeling is not forgotten," Ronald went on quietly. "Disguised as John Stern I came to No. 13, Vernon-terrace, to look for something. You discovered me there, and Colville discovered me also. I must have betrayed myself for one moment, or Colville would never have addressed me by my proper name. And then I saw your face, Ailsa. If you had not been there I should have owned my identity and taken the fortune that fate offered me. But the expression of your face, the loathing, the contempt, the pity, showed me what I had become more than anything else could have done. Then it came to me to play the man. I would pretend that Ronald Braybrooke was dead; he should lead a new and better life. Colville still suspected me, and he proved that when he asked me to write a brief account of Ronald Braybrooke's death. That is why I used my left hand, as you remember. But my story worked out perfectly, because as Ronald Braybrooke I was supposed to be drowned. As John Stern I had the idea of blackmailing Cecil Wanless here, and making a good thing out of him. But after the night I am speaking of I sternly put every other idea out of my head beyond keeping straight. Once I was clear of No. 13 I would sin no more. And I have sinned no more. I can look at myself in the glass and feel that I am an honest, clean-living man again."

The words rang out clear and true; the bright eyes and brave face were eloquent of the truth of Ronald Braybrooke's words. Ailsa felt her heart swell within her.

"But you did not stop there," she said. "You exposed the disgraceful conspiracy."

"Oh, I did. You see, at one time, John Stern was an accomplice of Lady Altamont. I knew exactly what was going on; I can explain everything to you. But there is no need to do anything of the kind to-night. Your guardian's unfortunate wife, who——"

"That is the one thing that I do not understand," Ailsa said. "Why did Mr. Colville marry a woman like that?"

"He married her out of pique—to punish her as well. You see, Archibald Colville loved my mother; it was the passion of his life. But she never cared for him, though I believe they were partly enraged at one time, and my mother broke it off. Mind you, the woman called La Belle Atalanta is a great deal older than she appears to be. She is the daughter of a Spanish officer, who used to live in the village where I was born. Colville always had the idea that she was responsible for him not marrying my mother, and so he married her out of pique. If she had played him any tricks, she paid for it. Ask old Susan, who knows everything. She will no longer be afraid of that old blackguard of a husband of hers, and she will tell you all. As I grew older Colville vented all his hatred on me; he hated me as he had done my father. He gave me every chance to go astray; he almost induced me to forge his name. His hatred of me amounted to insanity. But old Susan always kept me warned, and that is how I escaped. It was only when Colville, grown very poor and needy, discovered that his wife had inherited a few hundreds that he decided to find her again. It was I who found her, as matter of fact, and induced her to call on her sister, Lady Altamont. She helped me indirectly to start Burles going, and to put him in the way to regain possession of the Wanless jewels from that fellow Terry; but I did not anticipate the tragedy that was to follow. The rest is pretty clear, I fancy."

There were just a few questions to be asked and answered, and then the little group grew silent again. Suddenly the blood flamed into Ailsa's face.

"How stupid, how cruel of me," she exclaimed. "I had forgotten the best part of it. Ronald, it was very noble of you to make so great a sacrifice for me."

It was Ronald's turn to colour up now. He spoke sternly and grimly, with his eyes on Alisa's face.

"I do not regard it as a sacrifice at all," he said, "Ronald Braybrooke was dead; he was going to retrieve his good name, and live a clean life. As a matter of fact he did not dare to turn up with those forged cheques hanging over his head. I was going to turn my back on that fortune, and forget it, so that I could come home and claim the girl I had never ceased to love. The love was merely choked by evil life; but I know that it was there directly I saw your face again. Then in my other role of John Stern I found that Colville was up to his old games. I decided to make a will in Ailsa's favour. I made it out and dated it a week before I was supposed to have perished in the North Sea. But there was a difficulty in the way. There were witnesses required to the will. The name of John Stern was added for one, but the law requires two witnesses to every legal will. I decided to call on my friend Wanless here, and disclose my proper identity and make him bear witness. It was a daring thing to do, but it came off all right, and Colville was baffled. Ailsa was an heiress, and beyond the reach of that gloomy man's vengeance. My idea was that Ailsa should keep that money, and some day I should come back, when I felt that I was fit for her, and tell her the whole of the past. Wanless stopped that to-night——"

"Oh, I am so glad!" Ailsa exclaimed. "It was so good of him! I might never have seen you again, Ronald. I should have mourned my sorrow——"

"Would it have made all that difference, dear?" Ronald asked.

"Ronald, it would have made all the difference in the world. In any case, I should still have loved you. I should have brought you back to the right path again. But the sheer happiness and delight in feeling that you have fought the good fight for yourself, without aid from anyone! Nobody but a really good man could have carried the idea of turning his back on £100,000 and going out without a penny to make his way up in the world again. It was the act of a hero."

"Oh, please don't!" Ronald said, with an unsteady laugh. "I don't deserve it. It was only that my better self came back to me after seeing your face once more. We will share that money between us, Ailsa, and try to do good with it. But don't forget that one weapon still remains in Archibald Colville's hands. He will be furious when he knows the truth, which he is bound to know before very long. With so powerful a dagger——"

"The dagger no longer exists," Ailsa said. "I convinced my guardian that I was absolutely mistress of the situation. It was a question of £1,000. Those forged cheques were given over into my hands, and I have already destroyed them. Once I can see my way to leave the dreary old house, where I have passed so many unhappy hours——"

"Not altogether unconnected with my brother," Grace observed. "Is he going to escape without any blame after the anxiety he has caused me? You have both come out of it better than you deserve. Ailsa, you are going to stay here with me. But for you, goodness knows how much longer my misery might have been dragged out. Come and stay, bring your faithful old Susan along, and let us try and forget the past. We have taken a house in the country for Christmas. Will you come along?"

There was nothing for it but for Ailsa to express her heartfelt thanks and accept. But meanwhile there was a great deal to be done. She must go home, she said, happy that it was for the last time. There was nothing to fear now, nothing to be afraid of. Ronald had taken the measure of old Thomas, who had been so cleverly got out of the way by the now mythical John Stern, there was no dark shadow any longer hanging over the old house.

They were very quiet and very happy as they walked home arm-in-arm together; their hearts were too full for words. Nothing was said until Ailsa passed at length under the porch of No. 13. A brilliant light gleamed in the hall behind her.

"Susan is making the most of her liberty," she smiled. "I shall get her to pack up all my belongings, and leave in the morning, so that we can turn our backs on the place to-morrow. I have been very lonely and unhappy there, but still, I should be ungrateful to the old house if I did not recognise that my happiness came back through those shabby doors. And you are not going to leave me any more, dearest?"

For the first time Ronald stopped and kissed the shy red lips of the speaker. He held her close to him for a long time.

"Would not if I wished, sweetheart," he said. "The fates have been too strong for me. And I am going to prove to you what a man I can be. And all that money is yours, dearest. I shall not have any temptation to forget that."

Ailsa laid her hand lovingly on Ronald's lips. She would hear no more of that.

"Mine is thine," she whispered. "Mine is thine, dear love, to the end of our lives."


THE END

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