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

 

Title: A Miner's Million
Author: John Monk Foster
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1500541h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  May 2015
Most recent update: May 2015

This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy

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

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

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

GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE


A MINER'S MILLION.

By

J. MONK FOSTER.


Author of "Carchester's Vengeance," "For Love and Gold,"
"A Poor Man's Tragedy," &c.

Published in The Adelaide Observer, S.A. in serial form
commencing Saturday 3 November, 1888.


CHAPTER I.—THE PLAY BEGINS.
CHAPTER II.—JACOB GRAY'S WILLS.
CHAPTER III.—FIVE YEARS AFTER.
CHAPTER IV.—LOST AND FOUND.
CHAPTER V.—WOOING.
CHAPTER VI.—URRARIRO CREEK.
CHAPTER VII.—"TWENTY-FIVES."
CHAPTER VIII.—THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL.
CHAPTER IX.—LOST BY A NECK.
CHAPTER X.—TESTING HIMSELF.
CHAPTER XI.—A FACE FROM THE PAST.
CHAPTER XII.—ALICE.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE SINS OF HIS YOUTH.
CHAPTER XIV.—IN THE OLD LIBRARY.
CHAPTER XV.—WALTER AND RUTH.
CHAPTER XVI.—A CUP OF TEA.
CHAPTER XVII.—A GLASS OF WINE.
CHAPTER XVIII.—AFTER THE MIST.
CHAPTER XIX.—A PILGRIM OF LOVE.
CHAPTER XX.—DEAR OLD PALS.
CHAPTER XXI.—DISASTER AFTER DISASTER.
CHAPTER XXII.—THE UNKNOWN FRIEND.
CHAPTER XXIII.—"If I were loved as I desire to be."
CHAPTER XXIV.—THE UNKNOWN FRIEND DISCOVERED.
CHAPTER XXV.—FINESSING.
CHAPTER XXVI.—ANOTHER CONQUEST.
CHAPTER XXVII.—A PERFECT WIFE.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—A SPECTRE OF THE PAST.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE OLD CABINET.
CHAPTER XXX.—WHERE THEN IS ALICE?
CHAPTER XXXI.—THE HOLE IN THE WALL.
CHAPTER XXXII.—UNDER THE PRIORY.
CHAPTER XXXIII.—THE SECRET STAIRCASE.
CHAPTER XXXIV.—HER LADYSHIP'S RETURN.
CHAPTER XXXV.—ALICE GRAY IS FOUND.
CHAPTER XXXVI.—COWARD CONSCIENCE.
CHAPTER XXXVII.—EACH LIFE IS A TRAGEDY AT ITS CLOSE.




CHAPTER I.—THE PLAY BEGINS.

Right in the very heart of Lancashire, where huge chimneys continuously belch forth thick columns of black smoke, where deep pits pierce the earth in many places, and where stacks of coal are more numerous than yellow cornfields, there is a town called Torleigh. Thirty years before the opening of this story Torleigh was a village, notable only because it possessed a fine old Saxon Church in an excellent state of preservation, a vicar who had written a tolerably accurate history of the shire, and a family, noble and ancient which had for many a generation contributed a member to the Tory Cabinet of the day.

In the short space of thirty years Torleigh had risen from a poor and almost unknown hamlet to a prosperous and well-populated little town. Half a dozen master-farmers and two score of agricultural labourers had been displaced by 100 capitalists and 10,000 workers in coal mine, cotton factory, and iron foundry. Streets of small houses, with shops and taverns at every corner, had taken the place of the pleasant green lanes; and where the weather-tanned, strong-limbed, healthful husbandmen once perambulated at their ease, there now hurried sallow-faced, crooked-framed, healthless creatures.

From its very inception as a town Torleigh had been decidedly Tory. Each of its ten Mayors had been follower of Peel, Derby, or Disraeli, and a great majority of the Aldermen and Town Councillors were politically similar. And yet, strangely enough, the man owing to whose exertions Torleigh's rapid rise was due, was an old Chartist; a demander of annual Parliaments, vote by ballot, paid members, and the rest of it. But for this man, Torleigh might still have been a green village, a pleasant place, if an obscure one.

Jacob Gray was what it is the fashion to phrase "a self-made man," although circumstances rather than any marked originality of character had been the cause of his success in life. The son of poor parents, he had received no education worth notice, and as his father chanced to be a pitman he was taken long before he reached his teens to work with his father and mother in the mine. Owd Bob Gray, as Jacob's father was called, was one of those strong-minded characterful men to be found so often amongst Lancashire pitmen, and although he was utterly devoid of larnin', as he termed it, "Owd Bob" was noted as one of the best miners in the shire. He had sunk more shafts and driven more tunnels than any other pitman within a score of miles of his native place.

To his father's mining ability Jacob Gray's success may be traced. "Owd Bob" taught Jacob all he knew of pitcraft, and the knowledge thus gleaned proved infinitely valuable in after years. At this time there was only one small pit at Torleigh, and at this colliery Jacob laboured in various capacities for nearly a quarter of a century. Going to the Moor Pit as a galloway driver he rose by slow stages to be the Manager, and shortly afterwards he became the owner of the pit he managed.

In his early manhood Jacob Gray was a big, handsome fellow, uncouth of speech, perhaps, but frank of manner, and bold as the proverbial lion. More than one workmate owed life or limb to Jacob's daring and strength, and once the whole shire and the Press had rung with his daring. The Moor Pit had got on fire, and with unexampled bravery Jacob had descended the pit and extinguished the flames. Soon after this he was installed as Manager.

But Jacob's daring did more than this for him—it won for him a wife. The owner of the Moor Pit had one child, a quiet-mannered and good-looking woman a year or two older than Jacob. Alice Wilson had long been attracted towards her father's employé. She took great interest in the career of the big, handsome pitman who was so shy in her presence, and her interest changed to something deeper when Jacob saved her father from ruin, and the shire was ringing with his daring.

When Jacob became Mr. Wilson's manager he was necessarily thrown much in Alice Wilson's company, and he soon learned sufficient from Alice's manner towards himself to make him propose for her hand. He was accepted, their marriage followed quickly, and soon after Jacob found himself, through his wife, a mine owner, his father-in-law having died.

At this time there was still but one pit in Torleigh. Local geologians and miners averred that there were no seams of coal at a workable depth save the one worked at the Moor Pit. But this was an opinion from which Jacob Gray had always stoutly dissented. Rich seams of coal and cannel were being got at Wigan and other places a dozen miles away, and he firmly believed that the same seams existed at Torleigh, and at a workable depth.

Soon after his marriage, Jacob commenced sinking operations on a large scale. He pierced the earth to the depth of half a mile, and there he discovered, not a thin and worthless seam, as had been prognosticated, but a seam of rich cannel fully a fathom thick.

'Twas a veritable gold mine to Jacob Gray. So confident had be felt of finding valuable seams that before he commenced sinking he had purchased the right of getting the coal for many a good acre, a right he had been able to purchase for a trifle, as no one believed there was anything worth working.

In ten years' time Jacob Gray was a rich man, and his riches kept steadily augmenting. He sank deeper still, discovering other rich seams, and many people wondered that the thing had not been done long and long before. The people who had sold to Gray the exclusive right of getting the coal under their property were, of course, greatly chagrined at his success. To these people there was something peculiarly annoying in the thought that for any number of years rich stuff had lain under their green acres, undreamt of, to be given away almost. Had Gray's venture turned out a failure and ruined him, these folks would have had cause to be satisfied, for then they could have congratulated themselves on the excellent bargains they had made.

After Gray's successful mining operations the rise of Torleigh was rapid. Whole streets of houses were needed for the miners; shops and beer-houses sprang up at street corners; fresh capital was attracted to the spot; cotton factories reared themselves in the air, and ironmasters founded works there because coal was to be had there cheaply for smelting purposes.

On a hill overlooking the town, Jacob Gray built himself a big, comfortable house. Unlike so many self-made men, he did not hasten to leave the place where he had founded his fortune. He loved to linger about the place that had made him opulent, and, to some extent, famous. It was pleasing to think that the thousands of houses, the cotton mills, iron foundries, the town itself, had been the result of his successful venture.

Jacob Gray identified himself so much with the place that he seemed part of it, and he never dreamt of quitting Torleigh save for a few days. He had been born there, there had he laboured and grown rich, and there would he die!

And Jacob Gray was dying.

In his quiet, dimly lit room, propped up with the softest of pillows, Jacob Gray lay. Tarnished and sunken eyes, pallid and hollow cheeks, clearly attested that "the reaper" was not far away. Half an hour ago a baroneted physician, a dapper little dandy, dressed in the most fashionable of garments, and hailing from the capital, had assured Jacob Gray that he had only a few days to live.

And the ailing man had received his physician's intelligence without words of regret. A faint, shadowy smile had even flickered over the worn face, as though death would not be unwelcomed when he came.

Jacob Gray had lived for near three score years and ten; he had drunk deep of the success men thirst for so hungrily, and he had also had his quota of care and sorrow.

His life had been a great success financially, but his domestic affairs had been less prosperous. Jacob and his wife were happy enough together, and probably would have known little trouble had they been childless.

A year after her marriage with her father's manager, Alice Gray had borne her spouse a fine male child. The little fellow was duly baptised, and the name given to him was Robert Wilson Gray. Jacob remembered his father reverently, and he called his first-born after him, and the child's second name was its mother's suggestion.

Mrs. Gray gave birth to several other children, but none of them lived long enough to toddle along unaided. The first-born seemed to have absorbed all his mother's vitality, for she was never the same woman after her first accouchement as before.

And Robert Wilson Gray grew up a vigorous lad; frank, healthy, and handsome, after his father's fashion, and, of course, he was fondled and spoiled, as only sons usually are.

Perhaps there exists no more wide-spread feeling amongst the uneducated than a belief in their dormant capabilities. Well-educated people whose faculties are cultivated know the extent of their power, and, when sensible, do not attempt what is beyond their strength. But the illiterate are not able to thus gauge their abilities. Their faculties are covered thickly with the cobwebs of neglect, and this very fact opens to them an imaginary realm to which the literate have got access. Every poor fellow dreams of what he might have done had he only been well educated. Old Jobson, the cobbler, who manufactured doggrel rhyme so fluently when carousing in the beer-vault with his brothers of the awl, firmly believes that he would have taken rank with Shelley, Byron, and Tennyson had he been educated, and I know fully a score of respectable people who stoutly support this belief. Then there is Bott, the blacksmith, who, having constructed a wooden engine in his youth, thinks himself an undeveloped Watts or Stephenson.

This belief in dormant capabilities was one of the articles of Jacob Gray's creed. Having succeeded so successfully as a master miner, he fancied he would have been equally successful in other lines had he only been educated. Lack of scholastic attainments had been a source of much trouble to him. By the exercise of much persevering study of an old Bible of his mother's he had managed to learn a smattering of reading and writing. This was in his early manhood, and afterwards in the excitement and hurry of success he had neither time nor inclination to extend his knowledge.

Lack of education, perhaps, more than its possession, teaches men its value, and Jacob Gray resolved that his son should not lack scholarship—at least, he should have the chance of attaining it. Robert Wilson Gray would be a very rich man some day, and his father wisely saw that a liberal education was necessary in order to fit him for the position he would one day occupy.

In his early years Wilson Gray had private tutors, and the rapidity with which the young lad picked up learning of all kinds gladdened his parents' hearts, and augured well for his future.

On reaching his teens young Gray was sent to Eton to mix with the sons of aristocrats and moneyed men, and though Wilson's success at the great public school was less than his parents anticipated, still nothing transpired there to give an inkling as to his succeeding career.

When Wilson Gray left Eton for Cambridge he was a splendid fellow. About this time Wilson brought home with him young Lord Hayburne, son and heir of the Earl of Arrodale, an ancient peer, if a poor one. The young men had been at Eton together, and they left at the same time, going to the same college on the banks of the Cam. Hayburne and Gray were fast friends, a modern edition of Damon and Pythias, and Wilson's father and mother were proud of their son's friend. Lord Hayburne was welcomed at The Platts, and he made a stay of some weeks, going down the pits and flirting with the Forleigh mill-girls when chance permitted.

Truly, writers in general and novelists in particular, have written much rubbish concerning the nameless grace and distinguished manner ancient lineage confers upon its children. I should like to have confronted one of these writers with Lord Hayburne and Wilson Gray, one the son of an earl whose remotest ancestor fought side by side with the Norman Robber at Hastings; the other an undiluted plebian, the child of an ex-pitman.

Into what an egregious blunder these gentlemen would have stumbled, imagining that they were confirming by actual observation what they had previously written. Not one of them all but would have taken plebian for aristocrat, aristocrat for plebian.

Wilson Gray was tall, elegantly shaped and handsome of face; Lord Hayburne was short, thick-set, and coarse-featured; the former was frank, generous, and romantic, distinguished in speech, gesture, and appearance; the latter was secretive, selfish, and worldly, with nothing uncommon about him.

But ultimately Jacob Gray and his wife had ample cause to regret the intimacy that existed between their son and the Earl of Arrodale's heir. At Cambridge the young men picked up with a wild lot of young fellows, sons of noblemen and great financiers, who cared little for scholarship and much for pleasure.

Studies were neglected, University ordinances broken, College dons laughed at, practical jokes played; there were feasting and drinking, and in the end the whole lot were rusticated.

Jacob Gray was annoyed by his son's ejectment from Cambridge, but he was not yet seriously alarmed for Wilson's future. He set the young man's escapade down to youth and high spirits, believing that he would become all that was desirable after he had had his fling.

After being rusticated Hayburne and Gray took up their abode in London, engaging apartments in a fashionable quarter, and prepared to take a still deeper draught of pleasure which they had promised themselves.

By nature and the quality of his expectations Wilson Gray was quite unfitted for the world into which he was thrown. An open-handed, kindly-hearted young fellow whose father is said to be a millionaire stands in need of much stricter supervision than one less generous, and whose prospects are not so promising.

The best society was open to the Earl of Arrodale's heir, and through Hayburne Wilson Gray had the entrée to plenty of good houses. The young men became members of fashionable clubs where high play was allowed, and in a little while Wilson Gray and his aristocratic comrade were going the pace with the best or the worst of their fellows.

'Twas the old, common enough story: a weak man unable to resist life's allurements. Wilson's allowance, generous though it was, was all too insufficient. Pleasure was ever so much pleasanter to follow than duty, and Wilson went to the Jews, who, of course, obliged him. At 24 young Gray was well known "about town" as the heir of the great Lancashire mine-owner, and he enjoyed a certain meed of fame. At race meetings he was pointed out; had a lord for a "pal;" was termed a "good fellow," and he figured as debtor in certain usurers' books to the tune of £10,000.

No need to prolong the story. 'Tis only told because it bears on the tale I have to tell. The crash came. A certain horse was bound to win a big race—but it did not. Wilson Gray laid heavy wagers on the result, expecting to win sufficient to clear off all his debts and set him on his feet. But the Gypsy was rather too slow, coming in second instead of first, and Wilson found himself entangled in a huge network of "debts of honour," some of which were scarcely honourable.

Escape from his difficulties presented itself in three shapes—suicide, flight, appeal. Suicide seldom commends itself to sane young men, no matter how "hard up" they may he; flight is uncomfortable when one has no money, so Wilson Gray humbled himself before his father; his debts were paid, he received a scathing letter denouncing him for his unmanliness and extravagance. He promised to reform, and twelve months after he was deep in the mire again—ay, deeper than before.

To appeal again was useless. Suicide was still unpleasant, so Wilson took to flight; but ere doing so he capped all his follies by forging his father's name for a large sum. Where the young man went to, his parents never learned. Jacob never made enquiry, though unknown to her husband, Wilson's mother employed a private enquiry officer to find out the lad's whereabouts, but without success.

Mrs. Gray died soon after, her life hurried to its close, and made miserable at its finish by her lad's folly.

This happened about fifteen years before the opening of this story, and soon after Jacob Gray was left a legacy in the shape of a little lad of 5 or 6, the only son of the mine-owner's brother, a widower just deceased.

Jacob adopted the lad gladly. The follies and flight of his son, and the death of his wife soon after, tore a large piece off a heart more generous and loving than many thought it. Having no taste for travel, nor wish for the society to which his wealth would have gained him admission, he hungered for something to fill the void in his heart, and his nephew did this.

He gave the lad a good education, and Walter Gray was now a fine lad of 21, by profession a mining engineer, and quite filled with his work at his uncle's pits.

The events of his life rolled slowly past Jacob Gray's mental vision as he reclined on his pillows. 'Twas a fine afternoon in early spring. The air was filled with soft warm sunshine; the sparrows were chirruping loudly and flitting from house to house, and outside the town the hedges and trees and fields were beginning to sprout.

The whirr of cotton-spinning machinery, the rapid revolution of the huge pulleys suspended over the coalpits, the boom of the hammers in the iron foundries half a mile away fell on Jacob Gray's hearing, but his ears caught only a soft continuous murmur like the roar of the sea softened by distance.

The rich coalowner, whom the world envied, was thinking how little of real happiness his great commercial success had brought him, when a tap was heard on the chamber door, it was pushed open, and Walter Gray entered, walking quickly but noiselessly to the bedside, where he seated himself.

"How are you this afternoon, uncle?" Walter said in a cheery tone. "Better I expect?"

"I'm no better, lad; about the same, I think," Jacob replied, speaking slowly. "What a time you have been, I've been waiting a good while for you."

"I have been down the new pit, or I should have been home an hour since. But a word would have fetched me. Did you want me?"

"Yes." Turning to the nurse who sat mutely by. "You may go for a walk, Mrs. Dobbs." Then he continued, "Yes, I want you, Walter. We must have a long talk together. You are my only relative, and all I have will be yours when I go."

"Don't talk like that, uncle," the young man cried earnestly rising partly from his seat. "You talk as if you were going to die, and I'm sure there's ten years life in you yet."

"Nay, nay, lad," Jacob replied, the faintest tremor perceptible in his voice, "I am bad enough, lad, I know, and I'd better make things square before I go."

"But I don't believe you are so bad, uncle," the young man persisted.

"Sir David told me that I couldn't last more than a day or two at the longest, and I feel that he spoke the truth. I'm gettin' old now, and may as well tell you now what I have to say as some other time—but give me a drink, Walter."

Walter Gray complied with his relative's request, then reseating himself he waited for Jacob to speak.

"Fourteen years ago, Walter, I made a will. 'Twas just after the death of your aunt that I made it—yes, I made it. The 'torneys did'nt help me to scrape my money together, and I thought I could leave it to somebody without them too. I made my will two or three weeks after you came here; I've never altered a word of it since then, and I'm as well satisfied with it now as I was the day I made it."

Jacob paused to regain his breath, and his nephew ventured to say—

"Pardon me, uncle, but you made this will of which you speak after my cousin Wilson went out of the country."

"Certainly," the old man replied somewhat testily; "what made you ask such a question?"

"Because I thought you had made it at a time when you were naturally vexed with my cousin's foolish mistake, and would be harshly disposed towards him. You will think more leniently of him now."

"Perhaps I do; but it doesn't matter now, I fancy. He must have been dead long enough, or I should have heard of him long since."

"Perhaps not, uncle. He may be still——"

"I don't want to talk about him, Walter—I'll not talk about him!" Jacob Gray exclaimed feebly. "I want to talk to you about the will. I want you to fetch it and read it to me."

"Where is it?"

"In the library, on the top shelf, in a book. There's an old copy of Tim Bobbin's works in that corner of the case nearest the door."

"I know where you mean."

"Well, go for it at once."

Thus commanded, Walter Gray left the room at once, and descending the stairs to the ground floor he entered a dark and neglected apartment dignified by the name of library. In his earlier and busier days Jacob Gray had used the room to transact his business in, but it had been unused for years. On one of the walls there was a large old-fashioned oaken bookcase, partly filled with books now read only by bookworms.

In the corner indicated Walter found the volume mentioned, and glancing along the shelf he saw in the other corner a copy of "The Pilgrim's Progress," bound in stout brown leather.

Lifting down the work he wanted, Walter tapped it smartly against the table, to shake off the thick coat of dust, and as he did so a slip of paper, which had once been white, fluttered to the floor at his feet. The top of the paper was exposed to his sight, and he could not help reading the following words as he stooped to pick up the paper,


"THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF

JACOB GRAY, MINEOWNER,

TORLEIGH, LANCASHIRE."


Few men would have been satisfied to read so much and no more of a similar document. The title of the paper would have acted as an overpowering allurement, and only the last word would have sated the curiosity the first few words had excited. Naturally Walter Gray felt more interest in his uncle's last testament than any other person could have experienced, except Wilson Gray. Walter had lived with his uncle for fifteen years; his cousin was regarded as dead by every one, and Jacob's nephew had always passed as his uncle's heir.

Walter felt strangely curious regarding the contents of the papers he held in his hand. Some words his uncle had dropped shortly before intensified this feeling, "You are my only relative, and all I have will be yours when I go." His uncle's words uttered only a few minutes before came back to him as he paused a moment or two with the will in his hand. At the time those words were spoken he had given them not the slightest thought. Loving his uncle sincerely he had felt only concern for his life. But the full meaning of the words dawned upon him now.

"All I have will be yours when I go." Could it be possible that his uncle intended to leave all his enormous wealth to him? As this thought passed through Walter's brain it suggested another. He could easily satisfy himself of the truth or falsity of his relative's words by reading the will his right hand tightly clutched. No! He would not satisfy his curiosity at the expense of his honour!

Sometimes a train of thought rises unsought, and darts through the mind defiant of restraint. So it was with Walter Gray. As he flouted the thought of reading the will a host of kindred thoughts bubbled up in his brain.

His uncle lay dying overhead; he was his heir, according to his relative's own words. But Jacob Gray had never mentioned such a thing before, and the will in his hand might be in favour of some one else. If his uncle died without a will he would be the heir, failing the return of Robert Wilson Gray, which was scarcely probable after all these years.

With an effort Walter shook his head clear of these unsought thoughts, which had taken scarcely half a dozen moments to think. He opened the volume from which he had just shaken the dust, placed the will between the leaves, closed the book, and walked quickly from the library, wondering greatly at his own thoughts.

How mean and selfish it was of him to ponder all these worldly thoughts while his ailing, perhaps dying, relative was anxiously awaiting his reappearance with the will he had made so many years before. Although Walter chided himself for his remissions, he could not help feeling that the thoughts were not his own. It seemed to him that some being at the bottom of his mind had uttered the thoughts, and that he had only listened to them.

"What's the matter, you fool? Is this the time or place to tear along like that?"

Walter Gray was addressing one of the younger servants. Coming out of the library he had been rudely collided against by a girl who was running down the lobby at the foot of the staircase. The girl's face was white and she trembled violently. She was either breathless or too frightened to speak, and Walter again demanded—

"What's the matter?"

"Master's dead! Master's dead!" she cried, at last finding speech.

"Dead? God forgive me if he is."

He pushed past the housemaid, feeling almost like a murderer. While he had dallied in the library his uncle had died. Quickly but quietly he mounted the staircase, crossed the landing, opened his uncle's chamber door, and paused on the threshold, the book containing the will tightly clasped in his hand, though at that exciting moment he had forgotten its existence.

Within the room all was still, save the gentle flapping of the window curtains, stirred by the soft spring air that stole through the slightly dropped window. Stretched out on the bed Walter could see his uncle's shrunken form, with the face turned from him.

A moment he paused to note if the body moved ever so slightly; to listen for sound of breathing, no matter how faint. But neither motion nor sound struck eye or ear, and unable to bear the mighty suspense any longer, he stepped quickly forward to the bedside, exclaiming in a low intense tone—

"Uncle, Uncle Jacob, I am here, speak to me. I have got the will!"

There was no response to his impassioned utterance. Walter's heart gave a mighty throb; a big lump rose in his throat; the book dropped with a clatter on the floor, and he fell on his knees by the bed sobbing like a child.


CHAPTER II.—JACOB GRAY'S WILLS.

"Is that you Walter! What a while you've been away—why you are crying! What is the matter with you, lad?"

"I thought—I thought," the young man stammered, rising from his knees and trying to hide his tear-stained face from his uncle.

"Thought what!" Jacob Gray interrupted, gazing inquisitively at his nephew.

Walter remained silent; he did not wish to tell his uncle he had thought him dead, and he was not a ready hand at coining lies or evasive answers. But Jacob seemed to understand what had been the cause of Walter's sorrow, for he said:

"So you thought I was gone, lad, did you, and you were crying? Well, never mind, Walter," he continued, evidently touched by his nephew's emotion, "I'm livin', you see. I dropped asleep as soon an you left the room. Did you find the will?"

"Yes, it's here," Walter replied picking up the sheet of paper from the floor, and handing it to his uncle.

When Walter Gray dropped on his knees beside the bed he felt convinced that his uncle had passed away. In the intensity of his sorrow he pressed his face against the side of the bed, the hot, bitter tears flowing freely and moistening the coverlet. Suddenly he was startled by his uncle's voice speaking to him, and he realized that his uncle was still alive. Afterwards he learned that the housemaid who cannonaded against him at the bottom of the staircase had peeped into the sick room, and all being deathly still in the chamber, and seeing Jacob Gray lying motionless on the bed she imagined her master was dead and fled from the place in affright.

Jacob Gray examined the will keenly for a few moments, then he handed it back to his young kinsman.

"I can see it's the will I made nearly fifteen years since, Walter, but I can't read it. My eyesight's goin' fast. Sit down, lad, and read it to me."

Walter drew a chair close to the bed, sat down on it, smoothed out the sheet of paper, and wondering how his relative had disposed of his vast riches, he commenced to read the "home made" will, which ran as follows:—


"THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF

JACOB GRAY, MINEOWNER,

TORLEIGH, LANCASHIRE."



I, Jacob Gray, being in sound health and mind, do freely give all I possess to my nephew, Walter Gray, the only son of my brother, James Gray, of Bolton, Lancashire. All my mines at Torleigh; all my railway shares; all my houses in this town; everything in which I have right, claim, or interest I give and bequeath to my adopted child, the above-mentioned Walter Gray, subject to the following bequeaths:—

To my housekeeper, Nancy Makins, five hundred pounds, free of legacy duty;

and to my old friend and workman, Adam Bates, a like sum, also duty free.

Should my son, Robert Wilson Gray, return to England alive he shall receive five hundred pounds a year as long as he lives from my nephew, Walter Gray.

"JACOB GRAY,

"DANIEL WATERS, Witness,

"JOSIAH BARNES, Witness,

"July 25,1850."

"It's not a very long will, Walter, is it? But I think it'll do, eh?"

"It's short enough, certainly," the young man replied, very quietly.

"Short and sweet, lad; short and sweet; and I did it all myself; but it took me a goodish while. I borrowed a copy of a will from old Mawton, the 'torney—you'll not remember him, Walter—and I managed somehow. What do you think about it, eh?"

"I do not like it at all, uncle."

"What? Not like it? Why, what's amiss with it?"

Jacob Gray's voice expressed great wonderment, and he glanced suspiciously at his nephew, who sat stiffly on the chair, gazing fixedly upon the will he had just read, and which he still held open before him.

"I dislike it, uncle, because I think it the outcome of an attack of resentment which was, perhaps, only natural at the time it was made, but is——"

"Outcome of resentment—what do you mean?"

"You say you made it nearly fifteen years ago—at a time when you were very much vexed and grieved by my cousin's behaviour, and you resolved to punish his follies by disinheriting him?"

"True, quite true, lad."

"Then don't you see that this will is unjust both to yourself and my cousin Wilson?"

"I don't see it, Walter."

"I see it plain enough. What you wrote many years ago in a fit of anger you are about to grave in adamant now. When my cousin capped all his follies by forging your name and leaving the country, it was but natural that you should make a will like this, but it would be both cruel and unnatural to adhere to a resolution made so long ago."

"But, Walter, the will you have in your hands meets all my wishes now. I was vexed when I made it, but I have no wish to change it at all. There's not a word I want alterin'."

"But surely, uncle," Walter said warmly, "you don't mean to give me so much and your son so little?"

"My son!" Jacob Gray burst out with feeble bitterness, "where is he? what is he? A broken down gambler, a forger, and God knows what beside. He disgraced me and killed his mother, but his Maker has very likely punished him for all his sins long ago."

"Don't agitate yourself, uncle. I will speak no more of this matter if it displeases you."

"It doesn't displease me, Walter, and you'll say whatever you like. I know that your words come right from your heart—who's that?"

There was a tap at the chamber door, it opened, and the nurse appeared in the doorway.

"Send her out, Walter, send her out," Jacob Gray exclaimed, "I've plenty to say to you yet."

"My uncle says that you may rest yourself a little longer, Mrs. Dobbs. I will ring when you are wanted."

The woman went away, and when the door closed behind her the great coalmaster continued the former conversation by saying—

"Go on, Walter; speak out. It's not every one that would stand in his own light as you are doin'. You ought to have spoken against Wilson, and not in his favour, if you had been thinkin' of your own ends."

"I prefer to speak my honest thoughts, uncle," Walter replied quietly.

"Well, well, go on, lad. You know I always consider what you say."

"What I have to say is this," Walter said in a low, emphatic tone, "I disapprove altogether of this will so far as it relates to me and my cousin. You've left me all and Wilson nothing. He may turn up some day, and what do you think he will think of you and of me when he finds that I have robbed him of what he naturally considers his birthright?"

"What will he think?—what can he say?"

"He will think and say that I have wormed myself into your favour by all kinds of low and despicable tricks. He will imagine that I have played the part of 'the good young man' who never went astray, thus affording you a contrast to his own follies in order to displace him in your will and affections."

"It doesn't matter what he thinks, lad. He has forfeited all claim to my respect and love, and as to money, he never helped me to get a penny of it, so he has not the least right to it. Surely a man can do as he likes with his own?"

"But the world will think with Wilson that he had the greater right to your fortune."

"What the world thinks, and what Wilson thinks," said Jacob irritably, "is nothing to me. The world has nothing to do with it, and Wilson has had a fortune already. I paid fifteen thousand pounds worth of his debts, and after that he forged my name for ten thousand more. That's five-and-twenty thousand he has had, besides his allowance. Isn't that enough, considering how shamefully he has behaved?"

"He is your son," was all that Walter answered.

"So he is, and on that account I forgave him for forging my name, when I would have prosecuted anybody else."

Uncle and nephew were silent for the space of ten seconds. The conversation seemed to have tired Jacob Gray, for he lay panting on his pillows, and Walter was walking thoughtfully about the bedside, his feet falling noiselessly on the thick carpet. Passing beside the bed, the young man said—

"Do you think of making a fresh will, uncle?"

"Makin' a fresh will? No. Why should I make one? Won't this do?"

"No!" rejoined Walter emphatically. "I don't want your money—I will not have it. It belongs to——"

"Tush! tush! lad, what rubbish you talk. Your cousin in dead long ago, or we should have heard of him before now——"

"I feel sure he is alive."

"If I were sure of it I wouldn't leave my money to him. Do you think that after I have worked and slaved all these years that I would let my money be wasted away in gamblin' and drinkin'—to be spent on bad men and worse women, and God knows what beside?"

"But Wilson may come back a better man. Give him a chance when he comes. Alter this will—or rather make a new one. Let Wilson and myself change places—five hundred a year will be as much as I shall ever need."

"You're a bigger fool than I thought you, Walter," grunted Jacob, shifting uneasily on his pillows, "It's a nice thing that I can't do what I want with my own. It's a nice thing, it is."

"Do you want Wilson to curse you when you are lying in your grave?" Walter demanded abruptly.

"Curse me when I'm lyin' in my grave?" the old man echoed, sharply, glancing at his nephew with frightened eyes, "No! no! certainly not; whatever made you ask such a question?"

"Because if you do not make a fresh will he will curse you if ever he returns. He is your only son, and, right or wrong, he expects to be your heir——"

"But, Walter——"

"Hear me out, uncle, and then I've done with this matter altogether. Wilson has not been a good son I know, but don't you think that he has been punished sufficiently already? Do not carry your vengeance to the grave with you. Forgive Wilson—let me telegraph to Manchester for your solicitor, Mr. Braile—or fetch a local attorney—and have a new will made. Give the bulk of your fortune to my cousin, put me in one corner, and I shall be satisfied. Then when Wilson returns—as he will return some day—he will bless instead of cursing you, and you will rest all the easier in your grave for his blessing. Don't you think so, uncle?"

"I think that I ought to have made a parson of you instead of a mining engineer; that's what I'm thinkin'," grunted Jacob.

"But you will have a new will made, uncle, won't you?" the young man persisted.

"I don't know," the elder man retorted in a tone which implied that he did not relish giving way.

"Shall I go for Mr. Mawton, or telegraph for Mr. Braile?" Walter asked. He perceived that his uncle was giving way, and he resolved to mould his relative to his wishes while he was in a plastic mood.

"You must do neither yet, Walter. I don't like the thought of having a new will made at all. If I do alter my mind it will only be to please you. It's all nonsense making a new will in your cousin's interest for he's been dead long enough, I know, or he'd have been at me for money before this."

"He may be hiding in some far away country—America or Australia?" Walter suggested.

"I doubt it," Jacob retorted querulously. "No country's big enough to hold a poor devil who's got a rich father save the country the father lives in. But you'll have your own way, I suppose. Well, I'll promise to think about what you wish me to do and let you know in a day or two."

"Sir David Manselle said that you had only a few days to live," Walter remarked quietly, "and a little while ago you remarked that you felt he had spoken the truth. Why not do the thing at once while there is time? A good action cannot be done too soon, as you have told me often. Who shall I fetch? Your own solicitor, or the local attorney, Mr. Mawton?"

"Fetch whoever you like," cried Jacob, wearied by the long talk, and overmastered by his nephew's pertinacity. "If you won't have the fortune at once it's your own fault, that's all."

"Then I'll go for Mawton at once," Walter said, glad that he had won his way. "He'll be able to draw up a new will as well as your own solicitor, I daresay."

"Don't fetch Mawton, Walter. Send for Mr. Braile."

"All right. I'll wire him at once, and he'll be here in an hour or two. I'll go to the telegraph office myself."

Walter Gray hurried from the sick room quite elated with his success. He experienced as great a satisfaction in having persuaded his uncle to leave his fortune to Wilson as most men would have felt in having won the fortune for themselves. Untainted yet with the slavish adulation of money which characterises the youth of the day, he felt a sincere pleasure thrilling him through because his uncle's many thousands were to be left to his cousin, Wilson Gray.

Half-an-hour after leaving the sick chamber Walter had handed to the telegraph clerk at Torleigh Railway Station the following message:—


"From Walter Gray, The Platts, Torleigh.

"To John Braile, solicitor, Market-street, Manchester.

"Come down here at once. My uncle is seriously ill. Wants to see you on business. Come to-day if you can possibly do so."

A couple of hours later a dapper little man of perhaps fifty, whose collar and cuffs were immaculate, and whose boots fitted him like the gloves of a lady of fashion, presented himself at the front door of The Platts, giving the door bell a quick tug. Then the gentleman gazed critically on his shapely feet, arranged his tie and cuffs, and complacently awaited the answer to his summons.

There was very little of the proverbial mustiness of the old lawyer, and much of the dandy about Mr. John Braile, solicitor. The man of law's weakest points were self-esteem and love of dress. He loved to be mistaken for a gentleman of fashion, and the royal road to his good opinion was easily reached by complimenting him on his taste, address, and appearance.

Walter Gray was expecting Mr. Braile, and the lawyer was shown into the room where the young man was awaiting him.

"You got my telegram, Mr. Braile?"

"Certainly, sir; that is why I am here. I trust that your uncle is better. His ailment is not dangerous, I hope."

"I fear that he will not live much longer. Sir David Manselle, who has been called in, says he won't last more than a few days."

"I need not say how deeply I regret to hear this. I suppose you know the nature of the business on which your uncle wishes to see me?"

"Yes. It is respecting a will."

"Ah, I see. Mr. Gray wishes to make one?"

"Yes."

"I thought so when I received your urgent message, and I may tell you that I have always thought it singular that your relative had not made one long ago. I consider it extremely foolish and hazardous on the part of a wealthy man to put off making a will so long as your uncle has done."

"But he has made one will already."

"Indeed?"

"Yes, so long ago as eighteen-fifty. He desires you to draw up a new one."

"May I ask if you have seen the old will?"

"Oh, yes. My uncle and I were discussing it at some length this morning."

"Indeed; and who drew it up, may I venture to enquire?"

"My uncle himself—here is the old will; read it and then we'll go together to my uncle's room."

The dapper lawyer remarked on the danger and folly of people drawing up their Last Testaments themselves; then he subsided into silence and bestowed his attention on the sheet of paper Walter had placed in his hands.

"Ah! just as I expected. The nephew made the sole heir—the son cut off according to his deserts. And now, I suppose, your uncle wishes me to embody the gist of this paper—pardon me, I can scarcely call it a will—into the new will I am to draw up?"

"Well, not exactly. The new will is to be like this one in every particular save one."

"And what is that, may I ask? Some legacy to some old friend, or some bequest to some charitable institution, I suppose?"

"No! I and Wilson Gray are to change places. He is to inherit the bulk of the fortune, I five hundred a year."

"Bless me!" ejaculated the solicitor surprised out of his composure, "What a change. Whatever has happened to cause your uncle to change his mind? You've been quarrelling, I suppose, and he's going to put you in his son's place for the same reason that he put his son there when he made this will. I must talk to him. If he leaves his money to his son there won't be a shilling of it in half a dozen years."

"I beg of you not to mention the matter to my uncle at all, Mr. Braile. I——"

"But I shall be able to convince him of his error," Braile interrupted.

"I do not want you to convince him," said Walter. "It was I who induced him to consent to the change, and I only managed to do so after a long talk."

Mr. Braile forgot himself so much as to stare in a manner he would have thought vulgar in another, and he blurted out—

"Do you mean to say that you persuaded your uncle to give the bulk of his fortune to your cousin when he had already made a will in your favour?"

"Yes. I thought, and still think, that my cousin has a nearer claim than I have, and I merely prevented a wrong being done."

"But, my dear sir——"

"We will not discuss the matter if you please," Walter replied, rising. "Shall we go to my uncle? Perhaps he will be awake now."

They left the room together, and on reaching the sick chamber found Jacob Gray still dozing. The nurse was dismissed, and then Walter said—

"We will not awake him. I think you had better make a draft of a new will, something like this one, only remember that Wilson and I are to change places; and when he awakes we can submit it to him."

"Yes, yes," said Braile as he prepared to do what Walter had suggested, wondering the while if this young man were quite sane who so pleasantly gave up a fortune.

Mr. Braile was busy writing by the window, and Walter Gray who stood beside him watching the progress of the draft of the new will, when they were both startled by a cough, and turning round they found Jacob, awake and regarding them intently.

"So you've got Mr. Braile here, Walter, I see," said Jacob.

"Yes," replied Walter, going to the bedside; "when we came in you were asleep, so we thought it better not to disturb you. I told Mr. Braile of the old will—in fact he has read it—and I've mentioned the change you contemplate making. I suggested that he should sketch the new will, making it something like the other, with the exception that Wilson and I were to change places."

"Change places?" Jacob muttered.

"Yes. Isn't that what you mean?" Walter asked.

"No! no! certainly not. I believe that your cousin is dead, and if I leave all to him, and he doesn't turn up, what then? That'll not do at all—come here, Mr. Braile."

"Yes, yes," replied the solicitor, and he was beside the bed in a moment. "What can I do for you?" he asked. "Am sorry to see you so ill."

"Hear what I've to say, then you'll learn what I want you to do. I want to leave my money and other things so that my son can have them if he's living, and if he's dead—which I believe him to be—then I want the will arranging so that all will go to Walter, here."

"I understand—I understand," murmured Braile.

"Wilson will soon turn up," Jacob Gray continued, "when he knows there's a fortune waitin' for him—that's if he's alive. If he doesn't turn up in twelve months after I die I want the will makin' so that all will go to Walter, with the exception of £300 a year to be paid to Wilson, supposin' he turns up after, which isn't likely."

"But, uncle," interposed Walter, "twelve months is not long enough. Wilson may be in some far away place, where the news of his heirship will not reach him easily, and I think he ought to have five years at least—don't you think so, Mr. Braile?"

"I think with you, Walter, that Wilson may be living, and, as you say, might not hear of the fortune he will inherit in a year's time."

"I differ from you both," Jacob exclaimed petulantly. "Twelve months is plenty long enough, but make it five years, or twelve years, if Walter wants you. He will have all the longer to wait, that's all."

"I am content," said Walter, "to give my cousin a fair chance. When he comes I shall not be ashamed to meet him, or hold out my hand to him."

A light table was carried to the bedside, and Mr. Braile seated thereat. After the expenditure of some time and considerable trouble the solicitor succeeded in drawing up a will to suit Jacob Gray. According to the new will Robert Wilson Gray was to inherit the bulk of his father's wealth, provided that he returned within the space of five years after his father's death, and his cousin, Walter, was to have a thousand a year for life, and if Wilson Gray died without issue Walter was to inherit the property.

If Wilson Gray did not return to claim his fortune within the specified time Walter was to take immediate possession at the expiration of that period, and if Jacob Gray's son turned up afterwards he was to receive a thousand a year for life.

These provisions, with a few bequests to servants and old friends, constituted the new will, and when it was made out and duly attested, both Jacob Gray and his young kinsman felt easier in their minds. Jacob Gray felt that he had played the closing part of his life well, and he awaited the coming of the "reaper" with composure.

Walter had done his duty to the cousin he had never seen, and his conscience was clear and easy, and that with him was everything.

Sir David Manselle's prognostication regarding his wealthy patient, the great Lancashire coalmaster, was not very far wrong. Jacob Gray lingered about a fortnight, then he died, gently and painlessly, like a child sinking to sleep after a hard day's tumbling on the grass or sands.

The Torleigh Telegraph appeared on the following Saturday edged with a broad border of deep black, and a large portion of its space was occupied by an exhaustive biographical notice of the deceased mineowner. Of course, the writer of this article—a new reporter who had never seen Jacob Gray in his life—dilated on the consummate mining talent and great perseverance of the dead man, pointing out how the very town itself owed its existence to his daring spirit.

The town honoured Jacob Gray's memory with a public funeral, Mayor, Aldermen, and Town Councillors following his remains to the grave, dressed in their newest black, and wearing their most respectable manners. Everybody talked to everybody else of the wonderful success which had crowned Jacob Gray's labours; his riches were often adverted to, and most people thought that the deceased must have lived and died a supremely happy man. He was rich, and to the poor riches and happiness appear synonymous.

A few weeks after his uncle's death, Walter consulted Mr. Braile. He thought something ought to be done to acquaint his cousin of the fortune that was awaiting him, and he wanted the solicitor to advise him as to the best means of finding Wilson.

"You know, Mr. Braile," said Walter, "that I wish my cousin to have his father's fortune if he is alive, and I want your advice as to how I am to find him, no matter in which part of the world he may be."

"I know of only two methods of searching for your cousin," said the solicitor, "and they are the employment of private detectives and advertising in the newspapers."

"And which method do you think the better one—but perhaps it would be advisable to use both?"

"I don't think so, Mr. Gray," the solicitor answered. "I fail to see of what use any number of detectives would be in this case. Your cousin has been away such a great length of time, and to attempt to find him by the aid of detectives would be expensive and——"

"What matters the expense!" Walter broke in warmly. "There's over a million awaiting my cousin's coming, and we need feel no hesitance about spending a few thousands to acquaint him of the fact."

"My dear sir," said Mr. Braile in his blandest manner, "permit me to conclude my sentence. I was about to say that the employment of detectives is not only an expense, but a clumsy method. What are detectives! Very common people, indeed, I assure you. The majority of those I know are dull, uneducated men, who having failed to master some handicraft or business through laziness or inaptness, join the police force, and thence wriggle into the detective department because the work is less and the pay better."

"Then we must advertise, I suppose?"

"Certainly. This case is exactly suited for advertising, and unsuited for the employment of detectives. When a criminal is wanted, of course, detectives must be used, for you cannot expect a murderer or a forger to answer an advertisement; but when you want a man to answer an advertisement for a large fortune, all that is necessary is to advertise extensively, and if he's alive it will reach his ears."

"Then we most lose no time in sending advertisements to all the principal papers in England, America, and Australia," Walter replied, "and I believe that in a few months, perhaps sooner, we shall have the pleasure of seeing my cousin."

"Then we had better draw up the advertisement now," said Braile, "and I will have copies of it dispatched immediately to the various papers in which it is to appear."

Walter signified his assent, the advertisement was made out, and shortly afterwards hundreds of people in various parts of the world were wondering where the fortunate individual was who was wanted for a fortune.

Curious people indulged in various speculations regarding the advertisement and the man to whom it referred, and to many an ambitious young novelist on the look out for a plot the advertisement suggested a novel of the sensational type.


CHAPTER III.—FIVE YEARS AFTER.

Five years and as many months had slipped into the gulf of time since Jacob Gray died, but the passing of that period had not brought Robert Wilson Gray to claim his inheritance.

Walter had felt certain all along that his relative was alive, and he felt equally certain that he would return within the stipulated time to possess himself of the million of money that awaited his coming. Only when weeks, months, and at last five years passed away did he abandon all hope of his cousin's return. For whole weeks together advertisements had figured prominently in the leading papers of England, America, and Australia, but with no fruitful result.

Robert Wilson Grays, from every quarter of the world, applied to Mr. John Braile, solicitor, for the fortune their father, Jacob Gray, had left them. But in almost every case the applicants were unable, through some unfortunate circumstance or another, to make themselves visible to the lawyer at his offices in Market-street, Manchester. One Wilson Gray was digging gold on the Pacific slope, and was too poor to make his way unaided to England; another was roughing it amongst the Boers in the Transvaal, loved the life, and preferred to stay on the banks of the Vaal; still another was sojourning in Italy, being in delicate health, and his physician would not permit him to change his abode; others there were who made similar excuses, and all the applicants were agreed on one point; each of them was hard up and needed help at once, but in no case were the impostors successful in obtaining money. A few questions, tersely put and never answered, settled the matter so far as the applicants were concerned.

When the five years were past Walter Gray found the fortune thrust upon him, and, perhaps, no man ever received a million of money less thankfully. How many thousands there are who would barter even their souls for the ease and adulation that a million will purchase. Adulation and ease were as yet unattractive to Walter Gray, and, consequently, he cared but little for that which would purchase them. In years to come he might learn to love gold and its concomitants; now, in the full vigour of early manhood, he cared for nought but work.

At 25 Walter Gray was a good-looking fellow, not extremely handsome, as heroes too often are, but pleasant-faced, which beauty-men seldom are. Your very handsome men and your beautiful women seldom escape the taint of personal vanity. They are human peacocks that strut about soliciting admiration for the result of an accident. Walter was strongly built, ordinary sized, fair skinned, brown eyed, and dark haired. A short, crisp beard covered chin and cheeks, lending a quiet, resolute look to his face, such as is seen in portraits of the old Romans.

Left an orphan at an early age, Walter had lost the gentle influence that parents alone wield. But his uncle Jacob had, as nearly as possible, taken a parent's place. The mineowner resolved to give his nephew an excellent education, and he did so, but great public schools, such as Eton and Harrow were to be avoided as pestilential. The experiment of sending his son to Eton and thence to Cambridge had failed so disastrously that Jacob determined to have Walter educated amongst commoner folks, so the lad began and finished his schooling at a grammar school within easy reach of Torleigh.

Early in his teens Walter was seized with a passion for reading. Books on all sorts of subjects were devoured with avidity, and his studious habits pleased his uncle much, and the mineowner gladly purchased any books his nephew desired. Of his own accord young Gray had adopted the profession of mining engineer, and ere he died Jacob Gray heard his nephew spoken of as a clever and most promising man.

In his early manhood Walter read as much and as eagerly as in his youth. His professional studies had bent his mind towards science, and he assimilated the writings of Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer with the enthusiasm of a proselyte. The daring speculations of these great lights of the scientific firmament filled his mind, and he readily subscribed to many of their opinions. Ever a devout believer from his childhood up he remained a sincere believer still. Scientific knowledge had only exalted his faith.

But the faith of his earlier years was sublimed into a purer and nobler faith. The wonders of the universe were invested with a new and higher wonder, and, though the mysteries of misery, evil, and pain perplexed his understanding, his faith enabled him to discern a light beyond the clouds—a light that was always shining for men to see. The main characteristics of Walter Gray's character were earnestness and honesty of purpose. Much reading of a grave nature had induced hard thinking, and even as he entered manhood Walter had discovered a touchstone wherewith to test his life and actions.

"He that satisfies his conscience in all things satisfies God," was the terse axiom into which Walter had summed up and crystallized the thoughts that dominated his life. To act so that his conscience should never be able to accuse him of wrong was his aim.

It must not be thought from these statements that Walter Gray was one of those disgusting persons who possess a habitually lugubrious visage, and are always preaching of the follies and wickedness of the world. He could laugh as loudly and as heartily at a good joke as any one; he was generous, used harsh words but seldom, and only a few people knew that he ever busied himself with the higher phases of speculative thought. He thought most of the mysteries of the universe when he happened to be rambling alone through the fields at sunset or sunrise. The calm beauty of a summer sunset induces grave thoughts, and the reflective mind turns naturally to ponder the mystery of being and the origin of things at such a time.

After his uncle's death, Walter devoted himself assiduously to his professional duties. He never had regarded himself as the probable possessor of the huge sum of money which awaited his cousin's coming—he was quite satisfied with his present position and the work he had undertaken.

About one thousand miners were employed at the Torleigh Collieries—most of the mines were deep, gaseous, and dangerous to work, and Walter Gray resolved to make "Gray's Pits" the safest in the shire. Soon after his uncle's death he commenced this work, descending the pit each day like an ordinary workman, his clear understanding and practical knowledge suggesting many improvements. Incapable officials were got rid of, and efficient men engaged in their stead, no expense or trouble being spared to make the pits as safe as possible.

To get to the hearts of the people one must rub shoulders with them. This Walter did. He knew most of the miners intimately; to them his manners were always pleasant and cheery; he listened to their grievances patiently and dealt generously by them. Wage disputes were rare indeed at the Torleigh pits, and it was a well known fact that "Owd Gray's men" worked less time and got better wages than any other miners in the shire of Lancaster.

This was all done in the five years following his uncle's death, and when the stipulated period had passed without Robert Wilson Gray's return, Walter found himself the possessor of a huge fortune.

What was he to do with it all. How should he act so as to merit such a fortune? These self-put questions he answered quickly and practically. An enthusiast in the cause of progress and education he had looked after the physical welfare of his miners by materially lessening the dangers of their hazardous work. Now, he would make it his business to care for their children's education.

When a man thinks clearly, has resoluteness of character, honesty of purpose, and the means to carry out all his plans, wonders may be done. Half a year after Walter Gray succeeded to his uncle's fortune a set of large and handsome schools were erected by him for the pitmen's children, who had all their schooling free, Walter defraying all expenses of books, schoolmasters, schoolmistresses, and teachers. This much done, Walter Gray felt that he had done something for the men whose labours had made the great wealth in his possession.

Walter's labours were not actuated by a love of praise, for though he was desirous of winning and keeping the good opinion of his fellows, the work he had done for his pitmen and their children was the outcome of the promptings of his conscience. He satisfied his conscience, and was content whether his work called forth praise or blame.

But had Walter been seeking praise he could not have desired greater success. The little town rang with his name, and feuilletonists chronicled his doings in crisp, readable paragraphs, so that Walter enjoyed a more than local fame. Sir Wilton Haigh, the member for South Lancashire, in which division of the county Torleigh was situated, manifested a great interest in Walter, repeatedly inviting him to his country house, but he had declined the baronet's invitations on the plea of having no leisure.

Olsham Hall, the residence of the Haighs for many generations, lay in the midst of a beautiful stretch of country about half a dozen miles from Torleigh, close to the border of Cheshire. Sir Wilton had married a fashionable beauty, a clever and accomplished woman, and the baronet occupied a much more prominent position in the fashionable world than he did in the world of politics. Rich, good-looking, and even-tempered, Sir Wilton was a lover of sport and good wine, and a hater of speech-makers; and his wife, Lady Haigh, was the pleasantest of hostesses, being still under thirty, and better looking than ever.

The Olsham coverts were noted for plump-bodied, strong-winged, shootable birds; Sir Wilton's cook was a master of his craft; the cellar at Olsham was famed for its wines, and each year, after the London season was over, the hospitable baronet's house was invaded by a host of guests, some of them attracted by the partridges, others by the perfect cuisine, and not a few were drawn to the Hall by the good company that Sir Wilton Haigh gathered around him.

At Olsham Hall, each September, one was certain of meeting clever men and pretty women. On rare occasions even royalty itself honoured the place with its presence. The baronet and his pretty wife possessed the rare accomplishment of being able to draw together a company of men and women who were certain to entertain and amuse each other. An author or two who had made their mark in fiction; artists whose works had drawn crowds to the Royal Academy; a popular scientist whose discoveries marked a new epoch; clever politicians who were striving for fame and office; minor poets who twanged their lyres to the tune of the "Religion of Humanity," and the "Abolition of Dynasties." These, with a few new beauties and men of fashion thrown in to brighten and leaven the mass, constituted Sir Wilton's guests; and to spend a week or two at the Hall was a favour much esteemed and sought after.

'Twas August when Walter got his new schools completed and the scholars in them, and when Sir Wilton Haigh renewed his annual invitation it was accepted, much to the baronet's surprise and pleasure. Sir Wilton had begun to think Walter something of a hermit and mysoginist, he had declined his invitations so regularly, and he desired no better pleasure than that of introducing Gray to society. The baronet, and Lady Haigh also, thought Walter ought to see a little more life than Torleigh could show him. A good-looking young fellow like Gray, with his great wealth, they argued, ought to do something besides dragging out his existence in a small dull little town.

So Walter accepts the baronet's invitation going to the Hall for a few weeks, leaving word at the collieries that he was to be consulted at once in case anything happened out of common. He felt some trepidation in having to meet Sir Wilton's guests. They were clever and accomplished men and women of the world, and he had mixed but little with such people.

But he came well through his trial, as Sir Wilton had predicted. A vulgar, ill-bred man, who is rich, soon makes plenty of friends, and when a man is good-looking and opulent, clever and amiable, he wins friends more rapidly still, and keeps them, which the former seldom does.

The days slipped pleasantly and quickly by, and Walter made many friends amongst his fellow guests. When the sportsmen returned, after a hard day's shooting, they would discuss during dinner and over the wine many topics of interest. Walter's neighbour at the repast might be a literary man, and they would chat learnedly about books, or perchance a politician, and they would discuss some much-needed measure of reform. And even if his neighbour happened to be a woman of fashion, his frankness of manner, freshness of idea, and clearly intoned, terse language never failed to interest his companion.

With one of Sir Wilton Haigh's lady guests Walter was deeply impressed. Lady Ruth Gordan was a wondrously beautiful creature. Small even for a woman, she had hands that would have crazed a pianoforte artist with envy, and her feet would have made an opera dancer famous, so prettily shaped and highly arched were they. And face and form were as exquisitely moulded as hands and feet. Brown skinned, brown haired, with melting almond-shaped hazel eyes, she was as beautiful as Nourmahal is said to have been, with a similar kind of beauty, and Lady Ruth had subdued as many hearts as Shah Afkun's peerless widow, but she was still awaiting the coming of her Jehanghire.

Her Ladyship came of a race which had always been richer in blue blood and pride of birth than the world's goods. The seventh child and fourth daughter of Baron Gordan, Earl of Ellsden, a nobleman whose impecuniosity had passed into a proverb amongst his fellow peers, Ruth Gordan's dower was scarcely likely to attract fortune-hunters. Her face was her fortune, and Her Ladyship felt serenely confident that her natural dower would some day win her a wealthy husband.

Novelists accomplished in the art of character analysis would have found a rare and difficult study in Lady Ruth. Rarely beautiful, well-bred, high-born, possessing solid accomplishments, and not a little ambition, she seemed fitted by nature to fill a high place in the world; but to counteract all these possessions was the damning influence of poverty. An ugly woman would have been satisfied to her heart's content with Ruth Gordan's beauty; an ignorant and low-born one would have rested content with her lineage, breeding, and acquirements.

But what she possessed only made Lady Ruth sigh for more. She thought that her beauty gave her a natural right to rarest diamonds, costliest furs, magnificent dresses—everything in the way of personal adornment, and that her birth and talents fitted her even for a royal alliance. She was annoyed beyond expression on seeing some ugly old dowager, or scraggy maid wearing diamonds whose rarity, splendour, and value set every one talking, and concerning which paragraphs were written in the society papers. And when she heard that some foreign prince or English duke had wedded the daughter of some American millionaire, whose brothers and sisters were navvies and washerwomen, she muttered something about social bathos, curling her red lips scornfully the while, and vowed to insult or ignore the newly married pair should she ever meet them.

In one respect Lady Ruth was ordinary and common. The general run of the order Bimana are what circumstances make them, though now and again a remarkable member of the species by sheer force of individuality and genius masters circumstances, and sometimes even creates a new set of events. To the latter kind of people Ruth Gordan in nowise belonged. Women with less talent than she possessed had won fame and done great things, but they had been actuated by noble purpose; but nobility of purpose was certainly not a characteristic of her ladyship.

Lady Ruth was a woman with a mission, but her mission attempted no loftier flight than a good marriage, which, of course, meant a rich husband; she was ambitious, but only for a life of sumptuous ease and gay pleasure. In her visions of the future she figured herself as the wife of a wealthy man, neither old nor ugly, who loving her madly, lavished upon her diamonds and every imaginable luxury without end. She saw herself queening it over a little world of her own, her name familiar as household words on the lips of the votaries of fashion, and her doings duly chronicled in the recognised journals of society.

To set her ladyship down as either a good or bad woman would be scarcely accurate; she was, in fact, an indifferent one. She could be generous and even kind when liberality and kindness cost her nothing, and she could be cruel as a tiger when necessity impelled her. She dismissed a maid for treading on the toes of her terrier, and an hour afterwards she had refused to see and pay her dressmaker, a poor girl who was hungry and ill.

Angel and devil enter more or less into every woman's composition. Sometimes good fortune brings the saint to the surface; at others, ill-luck discloses the sinner; so much depends on mere circumstances. A man who drops into a snug sinecure, the salary of which enables its possessor to gratify his tastes and keep square—a woman whose spouse is rich enough to gratify all her whims, is hardly likely to go far astray. In such a case the angel of one's nature generally dominates the life. But when one is impelled by high ambitions, be they noble or base; when failure damns every effort; when stress of poverty, pressure of pain, loss of love or hope tempts to wrong, then the devil blent in all humanity waxes strong and sways the existence.

So it would be with Ruth Gordan. There was indolence enough in her character to make her satisfied with a fair measure of social success; yet there slumbered in her breast more than sufficient of passion and vice to make her spurn and rise against failure. The evil in her nature might be drugged to sleep by the opiate of prosperity: haply, it might be stung to quick life by the stimulant of ill-fortune.

Beautiful women are, as a rule, quite conscious of the power they wield, and Lady Ruth did not fail to notice the impression she had made on Walter Gray. The young mine-owner's fortune had been augmented by rumour to twice its size, and, everything considered, he was perhaps the most eligible of all Sir Wilton Haigh's numerous guests.

Apart from his wealth Walter Gray interested her ladyship. Tired of beauty-men and their jargon, she found something especially pleasing in his frank, resolute face and earnest manner. Even from the first hour of their acquaintance she permitted him to see this, and Walter's feelings towards her soon assumed the colouring of passion.

The autumn days sped by; Walter became Lady Ruth's slave, and he was supremely happy in his thraldon. For the first time in his life he loved, and, like all young lovers, he loved with all the fire of his heart and soul. She was so beautiful, bewitching, and naive in manner and word to him that he was fascinated by her, and when her ladyship permitted him to see that his attentions were anything but distasteful to her, he felt that the world was hardly big enough to hold all his happiness.

The intuition of the lover—which sometimes errs—told him that his passion was reciprocated. Yet he feared to ask her to be his wife, she seemed so much above him on account of her great beauty and high lineage. But, according to a few of Sir Wilton's guests, who discussed the matter, Walter need not have felt any apprehension on this head, for they professed to be able to see that the "Gipsy," as the baronet's male guests termed Lady Ruth, intended to permit the young mine-owner to win her peerless self.

When Walter had been at Olsham Hall about a fortnight one of his colliery managers came to the hall to see him. After a few minutes' conversation the mine official departed, and when Walter returned to his friends who were assembled in the drawing room his host remarked:—

"I suppose you were not wanted for anything particular, Gray? Nothing, I mean, to take you away from us, eh?"

"I am afraid," Walter replied, "that I must go for a day at least."

"Something wrong at the pits?"

"Oh, no! That was one of my Underground Managers who was here, and he brought welcome intelligence. In one of my deepest pits—the Alley Mine—a large fossil has been discovered to-day, and he wished to know what I intended to have done with it. 'Tis a perfect specimen of a saurian, and still lies where it was found imbedded in the coal."

The words "fossil"—"saurian" had fallen on the ears of a man of science who was chatting with Lady Ruth on the other side of the room. He joined Walter and Sir Wilton at once, remarking:—

"What were you saying, Mr. Gray, about the discovery of a fossil saurian?"

"I was telling Sir Wilton that one had been found in one of my mines," Walter answered.

"Indeed!" and Professor Ruxton was all interest in a moment. "And may I ask where it is now?" the scientist continued, "and what you intend to do with it?"

"The fossil still lies in the Arley Mine where it was exhumed this morning. I feel great interest in it and intend to have it brought to the surface intact, if possible. I am thinking of leaving the Hall this afternoon in order to see it and make arrangements for its safe removal from the pit bottom to the surface."

A few others had now joined Walter and his friends, amongst them Lady Ruth, who manifested considerable curiosity regarding the saurian; but, of course, Professor Ruxton's interest was deepest of all, and more than once the scientist thought of treating those about him to a graphic account of the earth's condition at the time of the Carboniferous Epoch, when live saurians frisked amid the vegetation now forming coal.

"I should like to see this fossil just as it lies," the Professor remarked thoughtfully to Walter. "If you will permit me, Mr. Gray, I will accompany you this afternoon. This is an opportunity that I may never have again. Saurians are rarely found intact."

"I shall only be too glad to have you with me," was Walter's reply. "And if there's any one else who would care to see the fossil we shall be glad of his company. Suppose you go, Sir Wilton?"

"'Twould be quite an adventure," laughed the baronet, "and, by Jove! I'll go. Suppose you go too, Bandon?"

"I'll go if the ladies will accompany us," drawled Dick Bandon, the handsomest fellow and the best shot of all Sir Wilton Haigh's guests.

"I'm afraid that none of them will have the courage to face the black depths of the mine," laughed Walter, glancing at Lady Ruth as he spoke.

"I feel daring enough for the venture," her ladyship retorted, with a smile. "Perhaps some ladies will go also."

In the end a party consisting of a dozen ladies and gentlemen was organized to visit the mine that very afternoon, and a couple of hours later the whole party stood on the pit-brow of the Arley Mine, Torleigh, each one provided with a "Davy" lamp and all dressed, owing to a hint from Walter, in their shabbiest clothes.

It was about 4 o'clock, and the pits were almost all deserted, the miners having finished work an hour before, consequently they would be enabled to visit the fossil quietly and safely. The engineman was still at the engine, and Walter ordered the cage to be drawn up so that they could descend. The huge iron cage rose slowly to the surface, the whole party got in, then Gray shouted, "Let down, Bill," and the cage with its burden of living beings shot down into the pit's black depths at such a speed as to make their hearts leap to their throats.

In a while the cage stopped; they alighted. Walter lit the lamps, and when their eyes grew accustomed to the faint light they found themselves standing in a large vaulted cavern. Leading them along Walter went to the stables, geared a horse, and yoked it to some four or five small "tubs," or pit wagons, and telling his companions to get into them, the horse set off at a brisk trot.

The road along which they were going was about 6 feet in height and about double that in width. After a ride of about twenty minutes' duration the horse stopped, and they all alighted, glad to stretch their limbs after their uncomfortable ride.

"We shall have to walk the rest of the way," said Walter, "as the roads are too low now to admit of the horse going further. We'll leave it here till we return. The fossil is only a couple of hundred yards from here. Come along, and bend your heads, or you'll catch them against the roof."

On they went, Walter leading the way. There were numerous other roads branching out of the one along which they were travelling, and it would not have been an easy matter for a stranger to have found his way out of the mine. But Walter was familiar with every nook and corner of the pit, and they were nearing their destination when Professor Ruxton suddenly exclaimed:—

"What's this, Gray, and what does it mean?"

The whole party stopped, and looking round Walter saw the Professor attentively scanning a board suspended on a light fence thrown across the entrance to a collier's place. On the plate was painted in red DANGER, and this it was that had caused the Professor's interrogations.

Walter explained that there had been a mis-shot in that place that day, and that the danger-signal was placed there to warn any one from going near, as mis-shots sometimes went off after hanging fire for hours.

They resumed their walk. Lady Ruth murmured something about her boot having come untied, and she dropped behind to tie it. The fossil was soon reached, and all crowded round the huge reptile, the petrified memento of an age long past. Professor Ruxton let loose the lecture, which had been growing since its inception one or two hours before; and I am afraid that his oratory, replete as it was with technical phrases, dispersed the party, and he was left to contemplate in pathetic silence one of his remote ancestors.

Some of the party rambled about the colliers' working-places, wondering what kind of men they could be who could endure to pass their lives in those dark places; others seized hold of the colliers' picks and hewed bits of coal to carry away as mementos of their visit; and in a quiet corner handsome Dick Bandon was making love to pretty Olive Clair.

Then the party was got together, and suddenly it was discovered that Lady Ruth was missing. Walter Gray had missed her ladyship for some time, but, thinking she was with some other members of the party, he had not said anything. After much questioning, it was discovered that no one had seen Lady Ruth since the fossil was reached, and then Olive Clair suggested that when the missing lady had stopped to tie her boot she had sat down, and was awaiting their return.

But when they returned to the place where Lady Ruth had stopped she was not to be seen, and then it struck Walter that she might have returned to the "shunt" where the horse was left. Thither the party hied, and all were astounded to find that neither Lady Ruth nor the horse was there.

"Ha! ha! ha!" broke out Sir Wilton Haigh, with a merry laugh that rung along the low cavernous ways of the mine. "I see it all now, Gray, don't you? Lady Ruth made an excuse in order to lag behind unnoticed, or rather unsuspected. Then she returned here, took the horse, and now we shall have to walk all the way back to the pit shaft."

"A capital joke, too," said Dick Bandon, "but the worst of it is that we shall have to crawl back instead of riding. 'Twas a danced uncomfortable ride, Gray; but it was better than walking when a fellow keeps knocking his head against the roof."

There was a general laugh, though one or two did not relish Lady Ruth's practical joke. But there was nothing to be done save walk to the pit shaft, and they set off at once, reaching the pit bottom after a fatiguing walk, finding the horse there, but not her ladyship.

Some one suggested that Lady Ruth had gone up the pit, but Walter did not think so, as he felt certain that she would not understand how to signal to the engineman. He really began to be uneasy, fearing that she had got lost in the mine. But, perhaps, after all, she was up the pit and awaiting their coming. He would go up and see, and if the worst had happened he would descend again and find Lady Ruth. There was no danger even if she were lost in the mine. He and half a dozen miners would find her in an hour or two.

Signalling to the engine-tenter they were all drawn to the surface, and there they learned that Lady Ruth was still down the pit. Many of the party expressed fears concerning her ladyship's safety, but Walter assured them that that there was no danger.

"You will return with Sir Wilton to the Hall," he said, "and I will obtain help and descend to find her. She is in no danger. She will be annoyed and a little frightened by her mishap, but, believe me, there is nothing to fear—oh heaven! what has happened?"

As Walter spoke a low rumble like the sound of distant thunder was heard, and a mighty column of dense black smoke shot up the pit shaft high into the air. Walter's companions looked at each other with white, frightened faces, and their hearts lept to their throats as he cried in an agonised voice:—

"Good God the pit's fired! Heaven help poor Lady Ruth now!"


CHAPTER IV.—LOST AND FOUND.

When Lady Ruth Gordan dropped behind her companions, saying her boot had come untied, and she wished to re-tie it, she had not the remotest intention of playing a practical joke upon her friends. Her boot had come unfastened, and she stopped merely to refasten it.

The tying of the boot occupied only a space of a quarter or half a minute, yet in that short time the others were out of sight, a twist in the way having taken them beyond Lady Ruth's visive range.

Her boot tied, Ruth Gordan rose from her stooping position and sped after her friends, dashing right onwards, instead of taking the way to the right, along which the rest of the party were then journeying, unconscious of her absence. She sped along for some time expecting at each moment to overtake her friends, and failing to do so she increased her speed, but even this failed to bring her within sight or hearing of her companions. Then she stopped and listened intently.

But nothing save silence reached her ears. Her companions must still be a considerable way in advance, or she would have heard the sound of either their voices or feet.

Rising, she redoubled her former speed, and after travelling a considerable distance she again stopped and listened, with even more than the former intentness.

All was silent as before.

Suddenly a thought flashed with painful clearness through her brain, like a vivid streak of lightning cleaving the deep blackness of a starless and moonless night.

She had taken the wrong way.

She was lost in the mine!

She did not give vent to a shriek of terror, or sink senseless to the floor as these thoughts careered through her mind. A feeling of annoyance, rather than of pain or fear, possessed her. She knew that the others would soon miss her, and she felt certain that Walter Gray would find her quickly enough.

When Lady Ruth looked round her she felt quite sure that she had taken the wrong way. The way along which she had travelled in company with the rest of the party had a line of rails, for the pit wagons, running along it; and the way in which she now found herself had no such line of rails.

Lady Ruth possessed plenty of intelligence, and a glance at the floor of the mine confirmed her suspicions that her friends had not gone along that way. The floor was covered with a thick coating of fine black dust, and the most careful scrutiny revealed not the slightest impression of feet beyond the point she had reached, whilst behind her she could see the marks of her own feet quite plainly.

Turning round, her ladyship retraced her footsteps, walking quickly, though not so quickly as before, for her former exertions had told upon her, and she was of an indolent nature, always preferring to lounge in a comfortable carriage to footing it along the road. Besides, she was in no great hurry. She expected each moment to hear the voices or feet of her friends coming to look for her, led by Walter Gray, who would be so glad to find her all right.

Now that her ladyship came to think of it she was even glad of her mishap. Adventures were matters almost unknown to dull modern days, and it was something out of the common to have been really lost in a mine, and that mine the deepest in all England.

Such an adventure would make her in a manner famous. Everybody would be talking about the beautiful noble woman who was lost in a mine, and the papers would all have something to say about her. When she returned to London all her fashionable acquaintances would be asking her to relate her adventure, and, of course, she would detail her experiences with such additions thereto as her imagination might suggest.

Pleased with these thoughts, Lady Ruth sat down on a stone to rest. She was fatigued, it is true, but she did not stop on that account. She wished her friends to find her; she did not desire to find her friends. The latter contingency would rob her adventure of half its interest, so she rested herself, and patiently awaited the coming of her rescuers, with Walter at their head.

One thing only was needed to make her adventure perfect. If Walter Gray would only come by himself and find her there, she knew what would very likely happen. Overjoyed at finding her quite safe, his love would find utterance; he would ask her to be his wife, and she would consent.

Yes! She would permit him to win her. A millionaire who was young, tolerably good-looking, and certainly clever, was by no means a man to pass by. Besides, Walter Gray had got nearer her heart than any other man had ever got. There was something about him—she could not tell exactly what—that interested her despite herself. There was more of the real man about him, less artificiality, more truth and worth than the men she had been used to rubbing shoulders with.

These thoughts took up time, and it suddenly occurred to her ladyship that Walter Gray and her other friends were a long time in coming to her rescue, and this thought suggested another which was still less pleasant.

Suppose she was not missed until the party returned to the Hall? She would be left alone for hours, perhaps all night, and who knew what might happen to her in that time. She had foolishly underrated the danger of her position. Some of the terrible accidents of which she had sometimes read might happen to herself. The roof might fall and crush her to death, battering her beautiful face and frail graceful form out of all human semblance; or an explosion might take place and burn her to a cinder.

She sprang to her feet with a loud cry of fear. She had given the rein to her imagination, and fancied dangers had frightened her more than real ones.

She had now but one desire; to find her friends as quickly as possible; and with that intention she hurried along the narrow passage, stooping as she ran, for the way was low, and more than once Lady Ruth knocked her head against the roof.

Suddenly she stopped in her mad speed and dropped on her knees with a cry of affright.

There right in front of her were two ways; which was the right way? which the wrong one? Which way had she come? which way was she to go? When she rushed after her friends she had never noticed the way along which she sped, and, consequently, she had no remembrance of either of the ways which fronted her, and was at a loss which one to follow.

Suddenly she jumped to her feet with a glad cry. A yard or two down one of the ways in front of her was a board on which something was written in chalk, and on going to it she read the following:—


Walter Gray, August 9, 1871,


and above the writing was an arrow roughly sketched in chalk.

Lady Ruth was not aware that it is the custom for mine officials, when going through the mine, to write their names and date of visit on some convenient spot to show that they have been there. But she was aware of one thing. The mere fact of Walter Gray's name being on the board attested that he had been there only a few weeks before, and she also felt tolerably certain that he must have proceeded along the road in which the board lay, for the head of the roughly sketched arrow was pointed in that direction.

Cheered up by this discovery she picked up her lamp, having placed it on the floor when she found the board, and proceeded along leisurely. The excitement of the last few minutes had exhausted her more than all her previous exertions, and she would fain have rested, but the wish to see her friends once more overcame every other feeling, and spurred her onward.

She went along, listening now and again for evidence of her friends' whereabouts, but nothing pertaining to them revealed itself to her eyesight or hearing.

The silence pervading the low dark chambers and corridors of the mine was so intense as to appear to her like the roaring of the sea, as she listened with fast-throbbing heart, and wet, heated face. She wiped the big beads of perspiration from her face, and thrust her handkerchief into a fold of her dress, mistaking it for her pocket, and when she rose the handkerchief dropped to the floor.

She was in one of the main air-ways of the mine, and the swift ventilating current swept past her like a strong wind, playing with delicious coldness on her neck and face.

Her ladyship was thoroughly tired of her adventure now. She was intensely annoyed at her mishap, and much chagrined that her friends had not discovered her ere this. Surely Walter ought to have missed her at once, and lost no time in rescuing her from these dark, tortuous ways.

What a time it seemed since she had stopped to tie her unfortunate boot? How far had she travelled since then, and how much farther would she have to travel ere she found her friends again?

"What is that? They are coming at last!"

She jumped to her feet and listened eagerly. What was the noise she heard? What could it be, save the sound of her friends' feet, with Walter Gray at their head? They were coming at last to her rescue.

"Heaven help me—I am lost!"

This cry broke from Ruth Gordan's lips as she darted rapidly forward for dear life. The noise she had heard was the sound caused by the breaking of a wooden prop, which supported the roof close by where she stood, and when the prop broke with a crash, and a large stone fell with a great clatter, she gave vent to a terrible cry of agony.

It appeared to her that all the sides and roof were closing in upon her, and would crush her to death. A terrible fear rose in her breast, a cry of terror welled from her mouth, and she sprang forward to avoid, if possible, the awful fate that was menacing her.

In her hurry and excitement she did not notice a piece of timber which lay in the way; she trod upon it; it twisted under her foot, and in a moment she was thrown violently to the floor, her lamp flew from her fingers, struck against the hard ground with a clatter, and was extinguished.

For a few awful moments she lay in the darkness on the cold, hard floor, unable to either cry out or move. She expected each moment to feel the hard pitiless rocks fall upon her and batter her to death, and for the space of five seconds—though it appeared an hour to her—she suffered only as they can suffer who fear death, yet feel his icy knuckles on their throats.

But the slow moments passed, and she remained unhurt. All was quiet, saving the trickling of a few small fragments of the roof where the large stone had already fallen, and Lady Ruth rose to her feet with a prayer on her lips, which were usually strangers to holy words. Fear, and not love, was the mother of her devotion.

Even as she fell prostrate Lady Ruth had noticed a large hole scooped in the side of the way, and into this hole she dragged herself, her spirit broken, and physically exhausted. She sank in a heap in the cavernous place of refuge she had found, and the tears flowed freely down her soft cheeks, the saline streams cutting little channels through the dust which had gathered on her beautiful face.

As she sat there in the intense darkness and deep silence, a wave of pity swept over her ladyship's heart as she thought of the poor wretches who had to labour day after day all the year through in such a place. What an awful thing it would be to have to spend the rest of her life in such a prison?

As she lay huddled up in her hole with the strong air current sweeping past her feet, she manufactured many hopes and fears to cheer her one moment and frighten her the next. How long would her friends be yet? Surely, not long. Walter—dear Walter, now—would not lose a minute when her life was at stake. How glad she would have been to welcome his presence at that instant, with loving words and kisses, to have flung her arms around his neck and hailed him as her rescuer.

Yes, Walter would find her, but when? Perhaps he would come only to find her stiffened from cold in death. Already an age seemed to have fled since she had lost sight of her friends, and another might go by ere she was discovered.

Good God! how long was she to endure this terrible darkness and silence. Her brain would give way soon, and she would become hopelessly mad. Already her imagination began to people the dark corridors of the mine with monstrous shapes—great, terrible creatures, dragon-headed and eagle-winged—with slimy bodies and horrible gaping mouths, ready to swallow her up, and leave her fate for ever a mystery.

Was her life to end thus? Were all her dreams of sumptuous luxury and ease and social success to be buried with her, far from the light of day?

"No! no! no!" she shrieked out, and then she prayed earnestly.

But she did not pray for her soul to be saved for the world to come; she prayed for her body to be saved for the present life, and even as she uttered her fervent solicitations for help there rung on her affrighted ears what she thought the knell of her doom.

A report mighty as an earthquake shock ran along the corridors of the mine, she felt the ground tremble beneath her, and a tongue of flame mighty as a million lightning flashes hurled past the hole in which she crouched, its hot breath singing her hair and striking terror to her heart.

Then she sank into the merciful oblivion of a swoon.

"God help Lady Ruth now!" Walter Gray cried in agonized tones, "for nothing but heaven's help can save her now."

Sir Wilton Haigh, with white face, Dick Bandon, quite serious now, and the others exclaimed with one voice, "What's the matter?"

"The pit has exploded," Walter answered, "and it would have killed a thousand men had they been down the mine!"

"What's to be done?" cried Dick Bandon. "Surely something can be done to save Lady Ruth!"

"Yes! yes!" broke in the baronet, "we must do something, and at once. Tell us, Gray, what we must do."

"I fear that little can be done for Lady Ruth now," Walter answered in husky tones as he turned his head away to hide the tears in his eyes. "Of course," he continued, "I shall go down the pit at once and do what I can."

"We'll go with you!" the baronet and Dick Bandon cried in a breath.

"No! no!" Walter replied; "you would only be in the way. You know absolutely nothing of the mine, and you cannot help me. I shall have plenty of help in a few minutes. The noise of the explosion will have aroused all my miners, and the pit brow will be crowded before long, and I shall have plenty of able men to choose from."

Sir Wilton and Bandon expostulated, but Walter remained firm, and the baronet and his guests departed for Olsham with sad hearts and sorrowful faces, meeting as they went away crowds of men and women hurrying towards the exploded pit.

A quarter of an hour after the explosion the pit bank was filled with a crowd of excited men, many of whom worked down the pit that had fired. Everybody was asking everybody else if anybody was down the pit, and no one could give a satisfactory answer.

It was dark now; the last rays of day were dying out in the west behind Olsham Hall. Walter stepped forward amongst the excited miners. His presence stilled the clamour, and all waited for him to speak. A single glance around discovered many familiar faces in the throng, and then he spoke.

"Lads," he said, speaking quietly and clearly so that all of them could hear him. "You know that the Arley Mine has fired. There's only one person down the pit, and that person is a lady—one of my friends. How many of you are willing to help me to save her? Five pounds to everyone who goes with me. But I want no one to volunteer except those who know every inch of the mine. Step out those who are willing to go with me."

A crowd of volunteers answered Walter Gray's appeal, and it was not the promised reward that caused them to step boldly out from the crowd. Miners are perhaps the most ignorant class of workmen extant, but when human life is in danger they rank with the very highest. The soldier is brave who faces the mouth of the enemy's cannon, but he is braver still who enters an exploded mine.

Walter quickly selected a score of the hardiest of the volunteers—men he knew well, and could trust implicitly, and a descent was at once effected into the pit. On reaching the bottom Walter divided his men into two gangs, placing himself at the head of one, and a clever young miner (Jack Mathas), at the head of the other.

"You will go along the South Level, Jack," Walter said ere the gangs parted, "and work round towards the far end of the North Level, where I am going. Be as careful as you can, and if you meet with anything on fire let me know at once if it is dangerous."

"I will," Jack Mathas answered, and then the gangs parted, one going southward and the other northward.

To use a very hackneyed phrase, Walter Gray's feelings may be better imagined than described. His conscience was far from satisfied with his conduct of the last hour or two. He had been so remiss in his duty as to permit one of the party he had conducted to the mine to get lost, and in all probability his negligence would cost a life. But fate had punished him for his dereliction by taking the dearest being earth held.

All the members of the rescue party were fully aware of the dangerous nature of their work. A second explosion might occur at any moment and sweep them all away—even at that instant another explosion might be brewing in some far away corner of the mine.

Knowing their peril they were on their guard, going cautiously along. Walter's heart grew a little less heavy when he found that the ventilating current was sweeping along as usual. This fact told him that the explosion had not shaken down the roof so as to impede the inrush and outrush of pure air, without which it would have been impossible to enter the mine. If Lady Ruth had not been killed by the explosion there was a chance of saving her life if nothing interfered with the ventilation of the mine.

Walter and his party had not proceeded far when he stopped suddenly, saying—

"Hush, lads! Don't you smell something? I think the coal is on fire somewhere close by."

Several of the miners averred also that they could smell "Summat brunnin," and going cautiously onwards their suspicious were verified.

There in front of them blazed a glowing mass of fire. The rich coal splattered and flared like a big furnace, and the atmosphere was impregnated with a considerable amount of "fire-damp." In an hour or so, perhaps sooner, the atmosphere would reach an explosive point, and unless the fire was extinguished before that time another explosion would ensue.

Walter's mind was made up in a moment. The fire must be extinguished, if possible—at least, the effort to do so should be made. The coal was burning on the higher side of the way, and along the lower side a stream of water ran out of some disused workings. A score of willing men with buckets might yet master the fire.

"Every one of you run to the pit shaft as fast as you can go. There will be another explosion in a while if this fire isn't put out. You, Johnson," a grizzly old miner, "must go after Jack Mathas, and tell him what has happened. Bring Jack and all his gang back with you at once, and bring all the buckets you can find. You'll get some in the stables; there are others in the engine-house on the surface. Now go, and be quick back. I'll wait here for you. Perhaps a life depends on your speed."

Walter seated himself on a piece of coal a few yards from the fire as coolly as though he had been sitting down at Sir Wilton Haigh's dinner table. He did not underrate the danger, but he wished to inspire his men with courage, and his cool words and even cooler action had the desired effect.

The miners dashed away at full speed to execute his orders, each one eager to distinguish himself by quickness and daring. In a short time a score of men, most of them bearing a bucket, came upon their young master still seated, and coolly regarding the fire, which had greatly increased in size.

Walter jumped to his feet all vigour and eagerness now, and then the hot, hard work commenced.

"If we beat the fire we live; if it beats us we die," cried Walter, flinging off cap and coat, and seizing a bucket. "If we don't put the fire out in half an hour there will be an explosion—you know what an explosion means."

The sturdy miners had flung off all their clothes above their waists, and they worked as only men can work when they know their lives are at stake. In half an hour the fire was beaten. The workers had been reinforced by a new gang, headed by the Manager of the mine, and this facilitated the work.

After a few minutes rest the whole of the men proceeded to the far end of the mine—that part where Lady Ruth had been last seen. Walter guessed rightly that her ladyship had taken the wrong way when following them, after stopping to tie her boot, and had got into what were called the "back air-ways."

Walter had formed his own theory regarding the cause of the explosion, and on reaching the far end of the mine his thesis turned out correct. The mis-shot had gone off after hanging fire for hours, setting fire to a considerable quantity of "fire-damp," which had accumulated in the vicinity owing to a fall of roof.

On reaching this point Walter divided his men into three gangs, sending each gang in a different direction in order to scour all the old ways with greater facility.

Walter was now in a pitiable state. He expected each moment to come across the dead body of the woman he loved, for even if she had not been killed by the explosion the deadly "after-damp" or carbonic acid gas formed by the explosion would have smothered her.

All the men converged towards an agreed-upon point, and when they met none of them had been successful. Again the men parted, scoured a fresh portion of the mine, and still were unsuccessful. Again and again the men explored different parts of the mine, working their way from the far end towards the pit shaft.

Walter's heart began to glow with hope. There was a chance now of Lady Ruth being alive if she were so far away from the seat of the explosion when it happened, and a mute, eloquent prayer rose from his soul that such might indeed be the case. If his darling were alive he would be content; he cared not for the money the explosion would cost him.

Walter was going cautiously over a big stone that had fallen out of the roof and almost blocked the way, when his hand touched something soft. It was a handkerchief—Lady Ruth's he knew, for it bore her initials elaborately wrought in one corner.

"She can't be far away now," he cried joyfully, and he sprang eagerly forward, and his foot caught something hard which almost tripped him up. Bending down he saw a lamp. 'Twas the one he had lit and handed to Lady Ruth some hours before.

She must be close by. She could not have gone far in the dark, he thought, and glancing round he saw something lying in a hole in the side—a form lying deathly still.

"Good God! she is dead!" he cried in his agony, and stooping he lifted the slight form in his arms.

But Lady Ruth was not dead. She slept, and her slumber passed away as Walter pressed her convulsively to his breast, for he thought her dead, and he forgot that his men were standing by watching him, and even touched to tears by his passionate outburst.

Then Ruth Gordan's eyes opened; she recognised with a start the face that was peering so lovingly and anxiously into her own, and she flung her arms around his neck, crying in tones of passionate endearment—

"Walter! Walter! Thank God, you have saved me!"

Then, seeing the rough miners standing by, each of them looking sheepish enough now, she hid her burning face on her rescuer's breast, and the hot, thankful tears flowed freely down her cheeks.


CHAPTER V.—WOOING.

A day or two after the episode related in the last chapter, Walter Gray returned to Olsham Hall. Lady Ruth was still there, as were most of the other guests, and a few new ones had arrived.

When the rescue party and the rescued lady reached the pit bank Sir Wilton Haigh and other friends were found there anxiously awaiting tidings, and fervent words and hearty handshakings greeted the appearance of Walter Gray and Lady Ruth. The baronet pressed Walter to return to the Hall immediately with the others, but although it would have been very pleasant to do so, Gray declined. So he bade Sir Wilton and Ruth Gordan good night, promising to get back to the Hall as soon as possible, and then Haigh and his guests drove away.

When Walter and Ruth said good night to each other and shook hands there was a tenderness in their tones, and their hands met with a warm, clinging clasp, and unlocked themselves reluctantly.

Walter Gray declined to return to the Hall at once, because he had his own affairs to attend to. Though the explosion had not been as destructive as at first thought, still it had done a great amount of damage, and it would be a week or so before the exploded mine would be ready for the miners.

For a few days following the explosion Walter was down the pit often, helping his men with his coolness and courage, and quick, practical knowledge. The pitmen who had constituted the rescue party had received the reward promised them, and, of course, this liberality had enhanced Walter's popularity.

With Jack Mathas—the young pitman already mentioned—Walter was especially pleased, and he marked him out for some official capacity when opportunity offered.

When matters at the collieries resumed their ordinary course, Walter returned to Olsham Hall, eager to renew his acquaintance with Ruth Gordan. The visit to the mine, and the events arising therefrom, had given an impetus to Walter's passion for Lady Ruth. He was almost glad the explosion had occurred, for it had given him a glimpse of her ladyship's heart. The words she had uttered on finding herself safe in Walter's arms had been carefully preserved in his memory. The keen hearing of the lover detected more than the mere delight of being saved in Ruth Gordan's spontaneous cry on awakening from the slumber into which she had sunk after swooning.

Walter's appearance at the Hall was welcomed by Sir Wilton and his guests. The male visitors dubbed him a "decent fellow," and the ladies said he was nice. And "nice" is a very comprehensive term when used by a fair woman.

Lady Ruth was out driving in company with her hostess when Walter arrived at the Hall. But he found Sir Wilton Haigh lounging in the billiard-room, watching Dick Bandon and Professor Ruxton play.

"Hello, Gray, is that you?" cried Bandon, in his hearty off-hand fashion; "glad to see you again, and for more reasons than one. Every one of Haigh's fair guests has been pestering me for the last day or two for details of our adventure in your mine. And, of course, I could only tell them half the tale. Lady Ruth might have helped me out, but she wouldn't—couldn't get her to say a word about it, and that's strange, for I quite expected her to make much of her adventure—that's nine I've made Ruxton, two pots and in off the red."

Walter shook hands with his friends, and made some reply to Bandon's rattle. Professor Ruxton cannoned and inadvertently potted his opponent; then, giving a miss in baulk, he enquired:—

"I suppose the fossil was shattered by the explosion, Gray?"

"Oh, no! 'Twas not injured at all. I had it brought out of the pit yesterday morning, and it lies on the bank now in as perfect a condition as when you saw it. It has caused quite a sensation amongst the Torleigh folks, many hundreds of them having come to look at it; and the theories invented by the sightseers to account for its origin would amuse, if they did not instruct, men of science. Many regard the fossil as an accidental formation, but old Dog Dick—one of my workmen—stoutly asserts that it was washed down a big crack in the earth at the time of the Noachian deluge. And the shrewd fellow supports his theory by pointing out that a fault or break in the strata occurs close to where the saurian was discovered."

"And may I ask?" said the scientist, balancing his cue for a delicate stroke, "what you intend doing with it?"

"Certainly. I intend to offer it to the Curator of the Derby Museum."

"In Liverpool?"

"Yes."

"But there is a very good specimen of the saurian type there already."

"In that case I'll offer it elsewhere."

"If you don't think of keeping it yourself," said Ruxton, "I should like it very much."

"I shall be very much pleased if you will accept it," Walter replied at once.

Just then Gray glanced through the window of the billiard-room, and he saw an open carriage rolling up the drive. In it were seated his hostess and Lady Ruth Gordan. He muttered some excuse, and left the room rather hastily.

Walter was just in time to hand the ladies from the carriage. Lady Haigh spoke a few warm words of welcome, and then swept into the house, leaving Walter and Ruth alone.

"How shall I thank you for saving me the other day?" Lady Ruth said, when the other women had disappeared. "I cannot express the great debt of thanks I owe you. But I know you will understand me."

There was a something in the beautiful woman's tones that went right to Walter's heart, and the glad, shy look in Ruth Gordan's eyes was even more potent than her words.

"Not another word of thanks," he blurted out. "You repaid me amply when you mentioned my name."

"When I?" she began questioningly.

"When I found you after the explosion," he explained.

She remembered and blushed fiercely at the recollection of her unguarded utterance. He noted her confusion with keen delight, and he covertly suggested a stroll by remarking—-"How well the old garden looks, doesn't it?"

"Yes," she replied, and they walked slowly in the direction of the place he had named.

Olsham Hall possessed the usual number of glasshouses, in which were preserved plenty of foreign fruit-trees and rare flowering-plants. It had also a modern garden cut up in geometric patterns, each ablaze at the proper season with flowers, but besides these it had an extensive orchard, or old garden, as it was called, and it was a delightful place to stroll, lounge, read, dream, or smoke in, and Sir Wilton's guests did all these things there each according to his or her humour.

The old garden was all the prettier on account of nature having nearly all her own way there. A tall hawthorn hedge surrounded it, and under this hedge and about the foot of the trees long rank grass and delicate green ferns luxuriated. Here and there were to be seen rose-trees covered with cream-coloured and sweet moss-roses. Old-fashioned flowers, such as violets, sweet-williams, and marigolds brightened the sward and scented the air.

Here it was that Walter Gray and Ruth Gordan walked, one burning with love, and eager to declare it, the other in a mood for listening to such a declaration. Lady Ruth was in love, or nearer it than she had ever been before. Her pulse quickened when his hand touched her own, and when her eyes met his; and his low clear tones stirred her as no other man's voice did.

Walter pulled a late rosebud, broke off the top of a fern and offered the little bouquet to Ruth. She took it with lowly spoken thanks, their hands and eyes met, and Walter was on the verge of a proposal, when his matrimonial intentions were suddenly driven away by the appearance of several ladies and a gentleman who were lounging, some on garden seats, others on the grass.

Walter and her ladyship walked into this group ere they were aware of it, and it was no easy matter to get away again. So they made themselves comfortable on the grass, and Walter was introduced to a gentleman—one of Sir Wilton's latest visitors.

"Lord Arrodale, this is Mr. Gray, of whom we were talking yesterday—Mr. Gray, the Earl of Arrodale."

Walter bowed to his lordship, and wondered where he had heard the name before. He had heard the name before and often, it even sounded familiar in his ears. Of that he felt sure, but he failed to remember where and when.

Lord Arrodale was a little man of forty-five or fifty. There was nothing whatever distinguished about him save his flow of speech, and that was remarkable enough. He had a soft, fluent tongue; and a large and very varied experience supplied him with materials for speechifying. His lordship was a benedict, having ennobled a parvenu's daughter half a dozen years ago, and since his marriage his life had been easier than before. He was a noted raconteur, and he told one or two of his best stories to Walter, to whom he made himself very pleasant.

Presently the ladies made their excuses and disappeared. Lord Arrodale gave Walter an excellent cigar, lit one of his own, and said point blank:—

"So you are old Jacob Gray's nephew and heir?"

Walter was busy lighting his cigar, but he paused in the operation and stared at his questioner. But his lordship of Arrodale seemed to be communing with himself. Then Gray said:—

"Yes; I am old Jacob Gray's nephew and heir. Did you know my uncle?"

"Yes, and his son also. I wonder what became of poor old Wilson Gray. What sprees we have had together."

Walter remembered now. This then was one of his cousin's wild companions—the bosom friend of whom he had heard his uncle speak often and bitterly, for Jacob Gray always believed in his heart that his lad had been led astray by his aristocratic friends.

"I cannot tell you what became of Wilson," said Walter, "but I Imagine that he went away to some foreign country and died there."

"You think he is dead, then?"

"I cannot believe otherwise. When my uncle died some five or six years ago I advertised for my cousin in all the leading newspapers, and I think he would have seen or heard of the advertisement had he been alive."

"A fellow may ramble out of the reach of such things, and may perhaps ignore them if they come to his knowledge," said his lordship, reflectively. "When you advertise for a man his coming to order depends on what you want him for. And," continued Lord Arrodale in an apologetic tone, "you will pardon my saying that there was little to bring Wilson Gray back to England had he been alive, and aware that you wanted him."

"You are mistaken, Lord Arrodale, for there was much to induce my cousin to return," Walter replied curtly.

"Perhaps there was," the other retorted drily, "but I don't quite see it."

"You read the advertisement, I suppose?"

"Can't say that I did—wasn't in England five years ago."

"In that case your lack of perception is understandable. The advertisement stated that my uncle Jacob Gray was dead, and that his son was wanted as the heir of all his father's wealth."

"But I thought you were the sole heir?"

"Jacob Gray left his riches to his son provided he claimed them within five years of his father's death. After that I became the heir, or, rather, the possessor."

"Then poor old Wilson must be dead, sure enough, or nothing would have kept him away from his pater's million. What an unlucky devil he was to die and miss such a fortune. How we could have enjoyed life together had he only turned up. Wilson wasn't a bad fellow, I assure you. Many a hole he pulled me out of, and I never had the chance to repay him."

"You and Wilson were very intimate, I suppose?" Walter remarked to his lordship, who had fallen into a fit of reflection.

"Intimate! I should think we were. We lived in common nearly for several years. We shared the same school, the same college, often the same bed, and always the same purse; but I must admit that I dipped into Wilson's coffer more often than he did in mine. There wasn't an atom of selfishness in him, blow me if there was! And the handsomest fellow that ever stept in the bargain."

"You would hear of his sudden disappearance?"

"Yes, and I was aware of the cause. He dropped me a word before he went. He mentioned the great mistake he had made, and he regretted the act as soon as he committed it."

"Did he not write to you again to say where he was?"

"Never a word reached me, and I never learned where he had gone to—hillo! here's our host and a light of the scientific firmament. Try a cigar, you, too"—offering his open case with a graceful ease, the result of a quarter of a century of practice, "these of mine beat even your choice Regalias, Haigh."

The conversation became general when the baronet and Professor Ruxton joined them. Walter learned nothing more of his cousin, nor had his lordship anything more to tell him.

The mellow autumn days slipped away and time only increased Walter's passion for Ruth Gordan. To such a pitch had his love grown that he only waited for a suitable opportunity to reveal it, and his chance at last came.

One morning Lady Ruth strolled out alone in the old garden. She had with her Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, and selecting a comfortable seat on a clump of fern at the foot of a big shady chesnut, she opened her book and commenced to read. Lady Ruth added to her accomplishments a taste for, almost a love of poetry. She admired Swinburne for his warm, sensuous, and sweetly swelling lines, having read almost every line he had written. She did not concern herself at all with his philosophy; she cared only for the music he had created.

'Twas a splendid morning. The soft autumn sunshine poured through the foliage above Ruth, making a beautiful network of sheen and shadow about the bewitching gipsy who sat, or rather reclined, at the foot of the tree, apparently entirely oblivious of the pretty picture she made. She was nearer to Love's magical temple than ever, and she had sought and found amatorial verse. She was absorbing the mingled beauty and sweetness of "The Triumph of Time," and her beauteous face was eloquent with emotion and absolutely fascinating.

Sir Wilton Haigh's male guests were all supposed to be making havoc amongst his partridges; but one of them at least had taken mercy on the birds, for Walter Gray was strolling towards Ruth Gordan, his fowling-piece slung carelessly over his shoulder.

Walter stepped quietly along, the thick grass deadening the sound of his feet, and he reached the side of the woman he loved without arousing her attention. Enthralled by the poem Ruth read on, her full red lips quivering now and again as the passion of the verse moved her.

In silence he gazed upon her for a few moments, scarcely able to resist an impulse to take her in his arms and press his lips to hers. Then he spoke, and his feelings found expression in familiar and beautiful words. He quoted the words with which Adonais opens his master song—


"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
It's loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into—"

"Well, I declare! How long have you been here, Mr. Gray?" and Ruth stared at him with the prettiest expression of surprise in her big brown eyes.

"Well, perhaps half a minute."

"No longer?"

"Hardly so long; and I am sorry now that I disturbed you."

"Why?"

"Because you looked so—so——" and he stammered woefully.

"So what?" she asked in a charmingly naive manner.

"So bewitchingly beautiful," he exclaimed very warmly.

"Mr. Gray!" she said, with a deprecatory shrug of her pretty shoulders.

"It's true," he rejoined, still more warmly, taking a step towards her.

"I know that," she replied frankly; "still, you ought not to have told me."

"Why not?" he demanded.

"Really, Mr. Gray, your ignorance of womankind amuses me. Have you yet to learn that only plain women care for flattery? The strong hardly care to be told of their strength, and a really beautiful woman secure in the possession of rare personal attractions is indifferent to flattery."

"But I know more than one pretty woman who has no distaste for praise."

"No doubt pretty women may care for it, for almost all pretty women are vain, and often intolerably so. But you will remember that I spoke only of beautiful women, Mr. Gray."

"You are a witch, Lady Ruth!" he cried, devouring her with his admiring eyes.

"Is that your honest opinion?" she asked, playing with the tapering frond of a fern.

"It is; and you are the most dangerous member of all your sisterhood."

"Then I trust you will not turn witch-finder, and have me consumed at the stake, as my kinswomen were in the good old days."

"No fear of that, for modern witches have reversed the ancient process."

"Indeed! Do tell me all about it, Mr. Gray. You have quite interested me. Will you not explain the transition. I feel great interest in everything pertaining to my tribe."

"Well, in olden times the men set fire to the witches—to-day the witches set the men on fire. Is it not so?"

"Very clever, Mr. Gray; very clever, indeed," and she rippled forth a sweet, silvery laugh. "I had no idea that you possessed such a turn for epigram. Poor fellows, they will feel very uncomfortable in a blaze, won't they?" and again she trilled a low sweet laugh.

Walter Gray's blood was dancing furiously through his veins. This woman's presence; her incomparable face, and frank, audacious naivete, filled his heart and brain with passion, and he longed to crush her fiercely to his breast, and cover her beautiful face with hot kisses.

"Why have you deserted Sir Wilton Haigh and your fellow sportsmen, Mr. Gray?" she queried, for he was silently contemplating her as though he were meditating something of importance.

"Shall I manufacture an evasive answer to cover my real motive, or do you prefer to hear the plain and honest truth?"

"Of course, I'll have the honest truth."

"Then I'll give it to you. I deserted my fellows and the partridges to look for you."

The fascinating gipsy knew well why Walter had stolen away from the shooting party, but it did not suit her purpose to make this fact known to him, so she lifted a pair of big brown eyes, in which showed a pretty mixture of surprise and simplicity, saying:—

"You left them to look for me?"

"Yes."

"Well, you have found me!"

"Ruth!" he cried, seizing her hands, "do you not know how madly I love you?"

"Yes, I do," she answered, looking him full in the face when he had expected her to hide her face and blushes.

"And, you love me too, don't you?" he asked earnestly, playing with the soft, white fingers that lay passively in his hands.

"I am not quite sure yet, Walter. Oh, don't."

He had circled her soft yielding form with his arms and crushed her hungrily to him, and he was kissing her madly, as women love to be kissed.

Silence. Neither uttered a word to break the spell. Walter felt her heart beating against his own; her peerless face lay on his shoulder, and in the delirium of his passionate love he hissed her soft, full red lips with all a fond lover's keen delight.

A pause, and then he said:—

"You will be my wife, soon, Ruth, won't you, darling?"

"I will not."

"Why? darling, why?"

"Because you haven't a decent house to live in. Lady Haigh tells me that your house at Torleigh is little better than an old barn; fit for a Town Councillor, or an Alderman with small means, but hardly suited to the richest coalowner in Lancashire."

"You only object to the house, then?"

"And the shire. I am an exotic, and should fade away soon if permanently fixed in Lancashire soil. And surely you don't mean to bury yourself all your life in this dull, out-of-the-world place? You are ambitious, I know, and seem intended for a legislator. Why shouldn't you sit in the next Parliament as Sir Wilton Haigh's colleague, instead of the boorish ex-grocer who now degrades the seat?"

"If you will only promise to be my wife I will either buy or build you a palace in some of the southern shires, if half a million will do it. I have been very busy at Torleigh lately sinking new shafts and building schools for my workmen's children. But I have no intention of making Torleigh my home. My uncle was content to live in the town where he had built his fortune, and he never dreamt of investing his money in land. But I intend to do so for various reasons. There are several fine estates in the market, and I had already fixed on one of them. If it suits you I will purchase it at once. I saw it advertised in yesterday's Manchester Examiner. Here is the advertisement. I will read it for you. I tore it from the paper."

He read the following newspaper notice to Lady Ruth, who listened most attentively to it from beginning to end:—


"Messrs. Streetam & Newbon are honoured with instructions to sell by auction at the Mart, London, on November 24, at 2 p.m. (unless previously sold) the mansion, park, and estate known as Aldayne Priory, in Yorkshire, for several centuries the family seat of the Adaigh family (Lord Adaigh, temp. Charles I., Earl of Lhandale, temp. George I.) This magnificent freehold landed estate, with its numerous lordships and manors, covers an area of about 5,400 acres, chiefly fine pastures and rich farm lands. It is situate in the parishes of Aldayne, Yaxby, and Norcombe, and Aldayne Railway Station is on the estate. The metropolis is within half a dozen hours' journey of the house. The estate is divided into seventeen large farms and several smaller enclosures, with good homesteads and necessary buildings. Situate within the noble park of about 900 acres, freely adorned with lofty timber, and diversified with woods and coverts, is the mansion-house of Aldayne, named The Priory, a substantial stone building, at once massive, ancient, spacious, and attractive in character, which cannot fail to command the attention of the archaeologist and men of taste. The stabling is extensive, the outbuildings plentiful, and there are three approaches, with lodges, the principal one to the main entrance leading past the village of Aldayne and the pretty old Church of Mary Magdalene, and then under an arched way of stone of almost a defensive character, and so into the quadrangular space in front of the Priory door, with the beautiful park opening out a view of great charm. To the south-west, a few hundred yards from the house, is a lake of four acres, fed by the Trenk, a tributary of the noble Zorne, which is only a couple of miles away. The former stream runs right through the estate, washing the western wall of the Priory.

"On an island in the lake is an heronry, one of the few remaining in the country; the wild birds, with the herd of deer in the park have been from time immemorial attached to Aldayne. The manor houses at Yaxby and Norcombe are fine old stone-built appanages of the estate. The rent-roll at the present time, without the mansion, the shootings, and other sources of income, is about £7,450 per annum."

"Why," cried Lady Ruth when Walter had concluded, "it's Colonel Villier's place. What's the matter with him, I wonder, that he is about to sell it?"

"Won't be the same place, Ruth. Aldayne Priory is the family seat of the Adaigh family, according to this advertisement. I once met a Colonel Villiers."

"It was the family seat of that family, but the Colonel bought the Priory about ten years ago. Have you seen the place? I was was there last autumn but one."

"Haven't seen the Priory, but thought of doing so in a day or two. What sort of a place is it?"

"One of the prettiest spots I ever saw. The Colonel neglected the place a little, I daresay, still it was charming. It has one great fault, however."

"What's that?"

"It's distance from London. If Aldayne Priory were situated in one of the southern shires—say, Devon or Dorset—'twould be simply perfect."

"If Yorkshire doesn't suit you I'll look elsewhere, darling," Walter said with all a lover's enthusiasm, "I daresay there are places to be bought in the shires you mentioned?"

"Oh, don't let me influence your selection," Lady Ruth said with pretty emphasis.

"But I only care to please you."

"Then purchase Aldayne Priory."

"I will. And when will you become its mistress?"

"As soon as you make the Priory habitable. There—will that satisfy you? I ought to have stood out for a year's engagement, but I—yes, I'll admit it now—I love you, and will let you have your way?"

He drew her to him again, and she hid her fair face against his breast. Walter was very happy at that moment, and proud of the beauty he had won.


CHAPTER VI.—URRARIRO CREEK.

Christmastide—but what a Christmas! No fields snow-covered, no lakes and streams ice-roofed, nor hedges and trees glistening with delicate starry frost flowers; but plenty of ferns, an abundance of beautiful palms, wondrous-lined and curiously-shaped plants and flowers, bright-feathered, songless birds, and the thermometer standing at 85° in the shade.

An Englishman's notions of Christmastide are indissolubly associated with frosty winds and roaring coal fires—for the Yule log has gone out of fashion—overcoats, and plenty of good fare, and an Australian summer strikes him as strangely strange.

Urrariro Creek was a small mountain stream in New South Wales, far away from any town or settlement. A prettier spot than the Creek one could hardly imagine. Situated in a region where rain was not so very rare even in summer, the banks of the creek held within them a lazy flow of clear water even at the hottest season of the year.

Plant and vegetal life of the rarest and most beautiful kinds bloomed and blossomed in great luxuriance down to the water's edge, and animals curious as interesting passed their existence midst the still life about them. Mighty gumtrees reared their summits hundreds of feet in the clear air, and under them and about their base lesser trees flourished. A group of cabbage-palms reared their magnificent mass of fronds a score of yards overhead, and through their leafage a host of birds fluttered and chattered; the bronze cuckoo distinguishable by its melancholy whistle, the bell-bird by its clear tinkling note, and the regent-bird by its brilliant plumage of golden yellow and deep velvety black. Above the cabbage-palms a jabiru was winging its way towards some favourite salt marsh, his long legs pressed flat under him, and his glossy green neck ablaze in the sunshine. Two or three Christmas-trees stood on the margin of the creek, their deep-green tongue-shaped leaves contrasting vividly with their great clusters of red flowers, and 'neath the sheltering shade of these trees stood a clump of waratah, or tulip-trees, each one on fire with scarlet blossoms. Between a fine specimen of a pampas grass plant and a rice-paper tree rose a magnificent plant with a towering spike on which were bunches of big crimson lilies. Ferns of all sizes, from delicate filmy specimens a few inches in length to splendid plants twelve and even fifteen feet high, feasted the eye with their cool, delicious green; and amongst the rank grasses and ferns fronds death adders and yellow snakes lay coiled up asleep till the footfall of some unwary animal should rouse them to ireful wakefulness. On the bosom of the stream, far away down where it joined the Campaspe, a black swan was gracefully gliding through the water, and in a small cove amongst the tall bulrushes a pair of platipi were playing. Lemon verbena, acacia, orange, citron, and myall trees exuded their delicate fragrance, and the air was heavy with perfume.

But the beauty of Urrariro Creek was already beginning to disappear in places. The hurried feet of men eager for gold had trampled the green sward black, and many of the beautiful trees had been cut down to build dwellings and fires. A "prospector" had found gold in the vicinity of the Creek, and this discovery had caused a great rush to the place.

The southern bank of the Creek was already dotted with numerous habitations of man—dwelling-places far more picturesque than the every-day brick house, but much less comfortable. Drinking booths and gambling saloons had sprung up quickly as mushrooms, and an enterprising firm of Sandhurst bankers had opened a branch establishment at the Creek to purchase the gold unearthed by the diggers.

A "gold diggings" ranks even higher than a racecourse as an edifying and interesting spectacle. The power that impels men towards both places is the same, namely, lust of gold; but the influence of the auriferous fields covers a much larger area than the racecourse, and consequently presents a more varied and extensive picture of humanity and all its moods, passions, and vices.

The Derby or St. Leger draws men from every shire in Britain. The throng on Epsom Downs is composed of every kind of being the land boasts, or derides, or ignores. In the crowd the greasy rags of the pauper rub against the fashionable habiliments of the prince; the ill-fed workman who has slaved all his life and is deeper in the mire than ever crushes under his hobnailed shoes the patent leather boots and tender toes of the well-fed, sleek-skinned millionaire, who never did a hard day's work in his life.

The racecourse presents numerous extremes and strangenesses to the philosophic and observant mind, still it must yield to the gold diggings, for while the first collects an audience from the shires of Britain alone, the latter attracts men from every country on the face of the earth.

Teuton, Celt, Mongolian, negro, and every other branch of the human race possess at least one common feeling, namely, love of gold. Gold is the only god who has worshippers in every corner of the world. The Arab in the desert and the savage Zulu join hands with the cultured aesthete, philosopher, and scientist—the highest products of civilization—in their reverence of the yellow ore. There is but one magnet that attracts all men and repels none, and the vulgar name is "tin."

Every nation had sent a representative to Urrariro Creek. Jews, as a rule, do not love to dig for money; they are masters in the craft of huckstering, yet beak noses, olive-skins, and raven hair denoted that one or two descendants of Abraham had turned diggers. Gay, moustached Frenchmen, quick of word and profuse of gesture; bilious-looking Germans, slow of utterance and hard working; Spaniards, tawny-skinned, passionate and lazy; humourous Paddies; shrewd miserly Scotchmen; and stubborn John Bulls made up the colony on the bank of the creek; digging for gold; drinking maddening drinks, singing, gambling, and occasionally fighting.

"Rather warm, Sam, isn't it? It's enough to melt a fellow nearly. Can't say that I ever felt as warm in all my life."

"It's werm ernuff, Bob, but I've felt it o gud deol hotter when I was in 'Mericay. Tawk abeawt it bein' werm neaw, why, it's nothin'."

"Warm isn't the word for it Sam, if it was worse than this. It's like being shut up in an oven. I'm completely knocked up; I don't know how you feel. Suppose we knock off for to-day?"

"Just as yo' like, mate. Ah'm willin'. Win dum weel to-day, Bob."

"Pretty tidy, Sam. How much dust is there?"

"Abeawt four eynces. Wot time has it getten, Bob; ah'm feelin' peckish?"

"It's half-past 6."

"We'll finish fur to-day, then. Mooist o' tothers han gin o'er, too."

"Come along, then. We'll wash the rest of it to-morrow."

The speakers were two gold-diggers, engaged in washing alluvial deposits at Urrariro Creek. Bob Wilson and Sam Yates were chums. They worked a claim together and shared the dust found. These two diggers had little in common save their desire for gold, which actuated their delving and washing of the soft earth about the creek. Bob Wilson was handsome and well spoken, and men believed him when he claimed to have known "better days." Sam Yates was uncouth in appearance, and his speech was the broadest and quaintest of Lancashire dialects.

Sam Yates had come to the diggings to amass, if possible, sufficient money to take him back to Bolton, his native place, and enable him to become the landlord of some snug public-house. Why Bob Wilson turned digger no one knew, nor did he ever venture any information on that point. The hardy Lancashire pitman placed his earnings in the safe keeping of the Sandhurst Bankers, whilst his chum melted his dust at the bar and card tables at Mulligan's Hotel.

Gold digging is a very uncertain vocation in the way of wages. Often enough—too often, I daresay—not an ounce of yellow metal rewarded a week's delving. At other times the turning of a spadeful of dirt would disclose a goodly piece of gold. Bob Wilson and Sam Yates had their lucky days, but nuggets worth scores of pounds' sterling were not heavy enough to sink to the bottom of Bob's pocket and remain there. They melted away even faster than the dust, for when a "find" came in Wilson's way, he seldom left Mulligan's hostelry till the last coin had vanished, either in the Irishman's till or his fellow gambler's pocket.

And honest Sam never even thought of dissolving the partnership with his reckless chum. While Bob was gambling and drinking Sam worked on, always sharing all he found with his mate, and when Bob's exchequer "gave out" Sam kept him till fresh dust was revealed in the cradles.

The hut inhabited by Bob Wilson and Sam Yates stood a score of yards from the water on the top of a green shelving bank. Four trees formed the four corners of their dwelling, and the sides were composed of branches nailed from tree to tree. Roof there was none save that made by the branches and leafage of the corner trees through which glimpses of a bright blue sky could be seen in the day.

'Twas a light, airy, summer-house-sort of a dwelling, pleasant enough so long as no rain fell and frosty winds and snow kept away. Ferns and flowers and bright-leaved plants grew close by and luxuriant creepers hung about the hut's rough sides. The spot would have delighted the sight of romantic youth or maid who longed for some boundless contiguity of shade wherein to dwell apart from the "madding crowd."

Bob and Sam left their claim and turned into their hut. Bob lit his pipe, threw himself on a chump of wood and puffed away contentedly, and Sam began to prepare tea; lighting a fire in front of the hut on which he boiled a can of water into which he had thrown a handful of tea.

The rough meal was soon ready, as quickly dispatched, then pipes were filled with tobacco rather strong and the chums smoked in silence, Bob thinking what sort of luck he would have at cards that night, and Sam thinking of storing away a few more pounds and seeing the public-house coming nearer.

"How many ounces did you say, Sam?" queried Bob as he knocked the dust out of his pipe.

"There's abeawt four ah dersay," Sam replied, tumbling the gold found that day into his horny hand and weighing it. "Ah don't need tek it tut bank to-neet ah recken, do ah!"

"Why not?" Bob asked sharply.

"Well, ah thowt o' keepin' it till wa geet sum moour, that's aw."

"Oh, change it to-night, Sam, as soon as you can do so conveniently. Somehow or other I fancy my luck will change to-night."

"Yo' thowt so last neet, Bob."

"So I did, Sam, but I never felt so sure of it before. I mean to sweep out the pockets of the whole lot to-night."

"Ah'd chuck gammin' up aw't'gether if ah were yo', Bob. Yo'll ne'er win owt wi' it."

"I'll give o'er when I've made a fortune," Bob answered laughing. "And now, Sam, you go like a good fellow and sell the dust at once. I'm going to have a bit of a splash in the creek. I'll meet you at Mulligan's in half an hour or so."

"Aw reet," Sam answered, and, rising, they left the hut together.

"I shall clean out Riley, Buchner, and Montelle to-night, as sure as fate," Bob thought as he swung carelessly along up the creek. "A dip in the creek will freshen me up and cool my brain. I feel that I shall hold plenty of trumps to-night."

Bob Wilson had often bathed in the stream before and mostly at one spot where a magnificent tree fern grew close to the edge of the water. That evening he strolled further up the creek. He had re-filled his pipe and, determining to finish it before he bathed, he went further up the creek than he had ever been before.

By the time his pipe was empty Bob found himself about a mile or so from the camp. He paused at a spot where the gently shelving banks of the stream suddenly merged themselves into quartz cliffs rising sheer from the water for 20 or 30 feet. In the course of ages the stream had cut a path for itself clean through the rock, and the tall banks almost shut out the hot sunlight from the water.

Undressing, Bob plunged into the cool water, and it seemed delicious to cleave the clear sparkling liquid after his hot walk. 'Twas shady up the stream where the high banks rose from the water, and he swam leisurely along against the slowly flowing current.

About 50 yards ahead he saw the sunlight gleaming on the water where the cliffs again shelved down to the level of the stream. He swam right through the rocky channel and into the sunshine beyond. After plashing about for a while he turned upon his back and floated slowly along with the current, glancing as he drifted downwards at the ragged side of the gorge and the trees which overhang the top.

Half-way through the channel Bob suddenly twisted round and swam to the side.

What was amiss! What was the cause of his sudden stoppage and apparent apprehension?

Had he seen some loathsome water beast, or was one of the o'erhanging cliffs about to crumble into the creek and crush him to a pulp?

Swimming to the side Bob dropped to his feet and waist in deep water he stood closely examining the rocky sides of the gorge. Then he glanced around apprehensively like a thief who had found something and was afraid of being detected.

Great beads of sweat stood on Bob's brow, and he trembled like a wind-shaken leaf. And well might he tremble with excitement. What a discovery he had made.

There in the cliff side, close to where he stood lay a thick vein of pure gold, all tarnished and black, and scarcely distinguishable in many places from the surrounding rocks, but bright at one spot where a fragment had evidently been broken away quite recently.

Where was the fragment?

He would try to find it. Feeling about the rocky bottom with his feet he touched some object heavy and sharp cornered, and bending down he fished up a heavy piece of quartz, through which there ran a thick streak of gold.

Bob Wilson was not a praying man, but something as near a prayer as he could make came from his heart, and was moulded into half inarticulate words by his lips. But his face was white, and the blood jumped fiercely through his veins. Dreams of sudden wealth filled his brain. There in the rocks beside lay a fortune's worth of gold waiting for him. If that thick vein ran right through the cliff he might become a millionaire. A mountain of gold would hide all the errors of his youth, and he might return to his native land were he only rich enough.

A thought rushed through his hot brain and almost paralyzed him. Did any one else know of the existence of the gold? For a moment or two he felt prepared to murder any one who possessed that knowledge. So potent is the influence of gold that in a space of time comprising half a dozen moments Bob Wilson had uttered holy words and honest thoughts had filled his mind, then in a sudden revulsion of feeling he felt cruel enough to perpetrate the greatest of all crimes.

A moment's reasoning showed Bob that the gold was probably known to himself alone. From the cliff top no one could have perceived the glittering spot which had attracted him, and none of the diggers ever thought of swimming through the gorge as they bathed near the camp. And even he himself would never have discovered the existence of the gold had the fragment of quartz not been broken away.

Bending down Bob scooped up a handful of mud from the bed of the stream and dashed it against the bright yellow spot. It should attract no one else as it had attracted him. All the diggers at Urrariro Creek might invade the gorge now and never discover the precious vein of ore.

Would he know the exact spot again? Yes. Right over his head a great gum tree had fallen; the recumbent trunk gripping each cliff, making a rude kind of bridge. Yes, he would remember the exact spot.

Taking with him the piece of quartz, Bob waded along the cliff side till he reached his clothes, and hastily donning them he made towards the camp, but first looking round carefully to see if any one was about. But all was still, save a pair of laughing jackasses, who made the spot noisy with their shrill cries.

Reaching the hut Bob deposited the piece of quartz in his box, and went in search of his chum. In the canvas hostelry, dignified by the name of Mulligan's Hotel, Bob found his mate seated among some twenty or thirty miners, all of whom were drinking, many playing at cards, and two at billiards. Sam Yates was watching two rich diggers, who were playing at "all fours," £5 a game, and seven up.

"Bin a gud while, Bob, ha'n't yo'?"

"Rather, Sam. I felt a bit tired so I took time over my bath."

"Here's yer money—six peynd two an' sixpunce. There was jus' three eynces an' o hoff. If ah were yo' ah wodn't play wi' Riley to-neet, fur he's winnin' aw afoor him."

"I don't intend to play to-night, Sam."

"Yo' dunnut?"

"No!"

"Ah'm fain to hear yo' sey so, mate. Are yo' gooin' to gie gammin' up aw'together?"

"Perhaps, Sam," Bob replied pleasantly. "Suppose we have a stroll; this place is infernally hot."

"Will you play me, Wilson? It's my table, and I'll take ten from you for a sov'rin."

"Not in form to-night, Dawson. Come on, Sam, I want to speak to you."

They passed out together.

"Summut purtic'lar, Bob?"

"Rather, old fellow. I've found something which I wish to show you."

"Unother funny annaymul like t'other yo' fond?"

"Something even more interesting than a platypus. Ask no more questions. You can handle the thing in another minute."

Bob half dragged Sam into the hut, and lifting the piece of rock from his box he placed it in his mate's hand saying—

"What do you think of that, old fellow? Doesn't it make your teeth shoot water, Sam? Wouldn't you like to own a hundred lumps like it?"

Sam's eyes glistened with avaricious fire as they fastened themselves on the thick streak of metal running through the stone, and he blurted out—

"Wheerever did yo' ger it, Bob? Why, It's wuth twenty sov'rins if it's wuth o penny!"

"Nearer fifty, Sam. If I'm not mistaken there's a dozen ounces in that piece, and it's worth three pound ten an ounce."

"But wheer did yo' ger it. Bob? Is there anny moor wheer yo' geet it?"

"Enough to make us both rich," Bob replied, laughing at Sam's vehemence. Then he related how he had found the gold whilst bathing, and when he finished Sam begged to be taken to the spot. As there was still an hour or two of daylight Bob revisited the gorge, and his mate feasted his eyes on the vein of gold which could be traced for several yards along the face of the rock.

"An' wot do yo' inten' dooin', Bob?" Sam asked, as they walked slowly back in the gathering darkness.

"That is just what I am considering."

"Yo' mon be careful, lad, or somebody else will ger owd on't."

"You may trust me to be careful, Sam, I understand the value of the discovery, and I intend us to reap all the benefit of it."

"Yo' connot work it on't quiet, con yo', beawt tother diggers knowin'?"

"Certainly not. To get the gold out of the rock we shall have to hire a quartz-crushing machine, such as you have seen at work at Sandhurst."

"There's men at Ur'i'o Creek as wud kill us booath fur wot we know. How'll yo manage to keep it to yersel'?"

"Oh, easily enough. You know—at least it is the case whether you know it or not—that any one who comes across gold in a new locality is bound to make the discovery known to the proper authority. Well, to-morrow I shall go to old Ben Gotch, as he is the proper Government officer, and tell him of my find. We'll take him to the place and get him to recognise our sole claim to the discovery."

"There'll be a rush when the news gets out, Bob."

"So there will; but it won't make much difference to us. As 'prospectors' we can claim double ground, and pitch our claim where we like. I think you know, Sam, what spot we shall select?"

"Yiss. But, Bob, do yo' meean to say we're to share an' share alike? Yo' fo'nd it, an' yo' owt to ha' biggest share on't."

"We have worked together, and shared fairly for five months now, Sam, and we'll continue to do so. When you found that lump you didn't try to dodge and keep it to yourself, and when I was ill that week you shared every penny you'd got with me. You were a trump, old fellow, and we are going to go halves as long as we are chums."

"But, Bob," Sam stammered.

"Shut up, Sam, that's a good fellow. I've made up my mind, and it's settled. And Sam?" said Bob, pausing suddenly on the bank of the creek, and looking straight into his comrade's rough honest face.

"Wot, Bob?"

"I mean to be a better man. Among the rocks up yonder there's a fortune for us both if I can only keep my lips from the whisky and my hands from the cards, and I mean to do so. Drinking and gambling have made a sad ruin of my life up to this time, but it seems I am to have another chance. I've friends in England who would welcome me, I daresay, were I to show myself. Six months of manly self-denial, and we may leave this side of the world rich men. I'll master my follies, crush my vices if I can, and be no longer one of passion's slaves!"

"An ah expec' yo' keep yer word, Bob," Sam answered fervently, and two strong hard hands met in a fast grip.

"Remember, Sam, that you mention this matter to no one till I have brought Gotch to the creek, and our claim as 'prospectors' has been fully acknowledged. A word might cause us much trouble, perhaps lose us a fortune. The inhabitants of Urrariro Creek are not remarkable for a high code of ethics."

"I'll keep my jaws shut, yo'll see. Who's that! By God! Bob, sumbuady's bin watchin' us."

"Where is he? Who is it? I can't see any one! You are mistaken, Sam," Bob cried out.

"Ah'm not!" the other replied, doggedly and lowly, "theer he is gooin past that gumtree—don't yo' see him?"

Sam pointed excitedly towards the setting sun, and, following his extended finger, Bob perceived the distinct outline of a man's figure moving rapidly along in the direction they were going.

"I see him now, but I hardly think he has been following us. Some of the diggers who, having no money to gamble or drink away, has been having a quiet walk by himself."

"P'r'aps," Sam replied, "but diggers ar'nt o'er fond o' quiet wawks. Let's follow and see who he is?"

"Perhaps we had better do so; we can't be too careful, for if any one gets to Gotch before us he will not recognise our claim to the discovery."

The faint light of sunset still lit up the woodland, and they were able to follow the man easily enough. Whoever the man was, and whatever the object of his walk, he made straight for the camp, went past the scattered dwellings and into Mulligan's Hotel. Bob and Sam were not far behind when he entered that hostelry, and they followed him in. They saw the man pause in the middle of the one big room and look round. Then they recognised him.

"It's Dan Jolley!" Bob whispered.

"An' he's scamp unuff fur owt!" Sam answered in a low tone. "He's watched us sure unuff, and ah'll watch him."

They took seats in the quietest corner of the crowded and noisy saloon and called for drinks, never taking eyes for a moment off the big ugly-looking fellow Bob had called Dan Jolley. They saw him cross the room and talk to a little man with a face as cruel-looking and repulsive as his own. The smaller man was Mike Shehan, and the pair had the worst reputations of all the men at Urrariro Creek.

After a few words the two men left the room, and, without a word, Bob and Sam drained their drinks and followed him.

"The'r gooin' to their hut, Bob, and ah don't inten' gooin' to eaurs till ah see um o' sleep. Let's go past Tom Sharrock's claim an' they'll not see us if they look back. This way—mahnd that hole."

Even the suspicion of danger had aroused all the dormant strength of Sam Yate's character. He took the lead, and Bob Wilson followed quietly at the heels of his resolute chum.

Dan Jolley and Mike Shehan were mates. They lived together in a miserable shanty some diggers had deserted. They were too lazy to delve and dig for dust, so they gambled, cheated, and stole when they could, and somehow managed to live without washing any dirt. Jail birds both, they were ripe for any kind of knavery from cardsharping to murder, and the taking of a man's life would have caused them no more uneasiness than the taking of his money.

"This is the shanty, Bob—hush, they're in. Let's heeur wot the're tawkin' abeawt."

They knelt down and looked through the cracks in the hut's sides. An old oil lamp burnt with a faint flaring red light inside, and showed Dan Jolley and Mike Shehan talking earnestly. With fast throbbing pulse they listened, and heard the following dialogue:—

"An' ye are shure it's gowld, Dan?"

"As sure as there's a devil in hell, Mike."

"Did yez tist it fur yersilf?"

"I did. When I sees 'em go into the creek at that time o' night I sees somethin' was up, so I watches 'em, an' when they'd gone I goes myself, an' sees gold enough to fill a cart."

"An' what'll ye do, Dan, now. They'll be off in the mornin' to see old Gotch, an' thin all's up."

"One o' us must be there before 'em. You must be off to-night."

"It's a long tramp, Dan."

"There's a hoss in the stable behind the Bank. S'pose you borrow it Mike, an' off with you."

"An' I will, Dan. Shure yez lick the devil himsilf for cliverniss. An' I'll 'ave ould Gotch here in the mornin' by the time the're thinkin' o' goin' for him. Be the hooly Mary, there'll be great tares whin the pore devils foind thimselves licked. Let's take the lind of the baste immediately."

"Knock out the lamp, Mike—by God! who's that?"

"Owd Gotch!" cried a voice, and the door was dashed open, disclosing Sam Yates and Bob Wilson, each stern-faced and fearless, barring all egress.


CHAPTER VII.—"TWENTY-FIVES."

Mike Sheehan's hand was uplifted to knock out the lamp when the door of the hut flew open with a loud clatter, and both of the schemers started back as they recognised the men standing in the doorway. For the space of a moment there was silence, the four men looking fixedly at each other, and each pair considering what action to take. Then Mike Sheehan spoke.

"An' where the divil did yez l'ave yer manners, now? Shure yez might have knocked at the doour."

"We heard some of the lads saying that you and Dan were rather poorly," Bob Wilson replied, sarcastically, "so we thought we'd pay you a visit, and see how you were getting on."

"We're right enough, so get out, for I want to have a snooze," growled the bigger ruffian.

"You seem all right, Dan, and as ugly as ever. Don't you intend to borrow that horse you and Mike were talking about? Expect you havn't changed your mind, Dan?"

"I've not!" Dan Jolley cried passionately. "I'll have it out of the stable in less than half an hour, an'——"

"I'm glad to hear it, for after you've borrowed the animal I wish you to lend it to me. I'm thinking of going to Sandhurst to-night, and the distance is rather too far to walk. I want to see old Ben Gotch on business, and the horse will come in nicely, won't it, Mike?"

"Be the hooly Mary yez'll niver ride the baste this ave'nin'!" Mike cried, and suddenly stooping he seized a heavy block of timber and flung it at Bob's head.

Bob, fully on the alert for some such trick, sprang aside, and the wooden missile crashed through the side of the hut. Then Sam, who had been quietly watching all, cried out—

"Tackle Mike, Bob, ah'll manish Dan."

Bob needed no urging on. With a cry of anger he flung himself on the Irishman, and his chum grappled with Dan Jolley. Then ensued a terrible up and down fight. In a moment the four desperate men were tumbling about the shanty, all of them striving fiercely as tigers for the mastery. To two of the four it meant life or death, for, though neither Bob nor Sam ever thought of killing their opponents, they knew their lives would not be worth an ounce of dust were the others to get the upper hand.

Mike Shehan fought like a wild cat, and more than once his teeth met in his opponent's flesh; but Bob was too heavy and strong for the Irishman, and in ten minutes Shehan was stretched prostrate on the floor by a blow on the temple from Bob's fist.

Then Bob turned to help Sam, and his aid came not too soon. Sam had been noted in his day as a famous wrestler in the Lancashire fashion, and despite the difference in size between himself and Dan he would ultimately have beaten him but for an unexpected occurrence. In trying some feint Sam turned suddenly round and not knowing he was close to the cabin side his head struck against one of the rough corner timbers with such force as to daze him and he sunk on his knees at the mercy of his merciless antagonist.

With a hoarse bellow of joy Dan Jolley jumped to his feet, and seeing Sam on his knees helpless, he lifted his big iron-shod boot and aimed a mighty kick at Sam's face. Another moment and Sam's face would have been crushed in. But as Dan flung back his right leg for the kick, Bob tore the lamp from the side of the cabin and dashed it into Jolley's face. The iron bottom of the lamp gashed open Dan's brow, filling his eyes with blood. His lifted foot never reached Sam's face, and with the roar of a stricken bull he sunk to the ground stunned.

Sam jumped to his feet, ready again, but the fight was done. In the semi-darkness of the hut Bob and Sam stood over the beaten curs, but the vanquished were silent.

"Feel for the lamp, Sam, while I strike a match—you'll find it near the man it knocked down. Lucky for you I'd managed Mike. He would have battered your face to pieces."

Sam found the lamp on the other side of the hut where it had rebounded on Dan's thick skull. Bob found a match, lit the lamp, which was not quite emptied by the part it had played, and hanging up the light on a nail they surveyed the battle ground and the beaten.

"That's the warmest ten minutes I ever had in all my lengthy experience, eh, Sam?" said Bob wiping the sweat from his brow with his coat sleeve.

"It wur that," Sam replied, "an' wot'll wi do neaw?"

"Do. Why tie these scamps up at once, and then I'll be off to Sandhurst. I mean to borrow the horse at the Bank stable, and you must stop here watching them till my return. What are we to tie them up with?"

"Mattress," Sam suggested.

"It will do. Pull it out, and tear it into pieces. Be quick, or they'll come round before we've finished with them."

The dirty apology for a couch was torn up, and the pair of wretches bound hand and foot. Then they shook hands and said good night.

"I shall be back early in the morning," said Bob at parting. "You need not stay here all night; Sam Edwards, the Bank Manager, will lend me his horse, I know, and in a couple of hours I shall be well on my way to Sandhurst. Stay two hours, then go to our cabin."

"Mon ah untee 'em when ah goo away?"

"No; leave them as they are. Some one will set them at liberty in the morning, and I fancy they won't tell who licked them, and tied them up."

"Gud neet, Bob, an' God speed yo'. Be keerful, owd lad."

"Good night, Sam, old fellow; we shall be repaid for this bit of trouble."

Bob strode quickly away, and Sam seated himself on a piece of plank to keep his vigil. Mike Shehan had regained his senses, and his comrade was groaning noisily. In a little while Dan opened his eyes also, and when he remembered what had taken place he showered an awful volley of curses on Sam's head. Then he commenced to roll about the floor striving to burst his bonds.

"Best keep quiet, Dan," Sam said coolly, spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice in the big ruffian's face.

Dan ground his teeth savagely together, wishing he had them buried in Sam's throat. Then he made another desperate effort to free himself, but 'twas useless, and his impotency forced from his lips a hoarse shriek of anguish.

"Best keep quiet, Dan," Sam said again, and as coolly as before. "If one o' thoose strings happens to gie way it'll be worse fur you an' Mike, fur ah'll set the place on fyur. There's plenty o' dry grass an' bush aback o' th' hut; ah've o box of matches heur and yo'd best behave yo'resel, if yo' duunat want to be brunt to a cinder."

Though he spoke quietly there was a resolute look on his face and a dangerous glitter in his eyes. So Dan wisely kept quiet. Sam filled his pipe and smoked it empty several times, but he never relaxed his vigil till the red-and-gold rays of the rising sun filled all the eastern heavens with light. Then he went to his own hut, barred the door, and fell fast asleep.

When Bob Wilson left the hut he made straight for the house of the Manager of the Bank. Edwards was an Englishman, and he and Bob had had many a conversation together. The Manager perceived that Wilson was one who had known better things than digging, and was much above the ordinary run of diggers.

The Manager lived in a wooden house adjoining the Bank, and when Bob knocked at the private door it was opened by Edwards himself.

"I must ask your pardon for calling at this late hour, Mr. Edwards, but I think you will excuse me when you learn why I have called. I have been out prospecting to-day, have found a new field, and I wish to notify the same to Mr. Benjamin Gotch as soon as possible. I wish to go to Sandhurst immediately, and I thought you perhaps would lend me your horse."

"But why not go in the morning?"

"Because I fear some one may get to Gotch before me if I wait till morning."

Then Bob related how he and his chum had been watched by Dan Jolley, and he narrated all the subsequent incidents.

"You can have the horse," said Edwards, when Bob had finished, "and I hope your new 'find' will be a rich one."

The horse was quickly saddled, and Bob set out for Sandhurst. The roads were good, the night was beautiful, the moon being at full, and not a cloud visible in the starry expanse of sky. The big gum trees sighed lazily and the night birds in their branches rung out their peculiar cries. Not a sign of life was to be seen, and it was like riding in a new world illumined by a soft, white light.

Dawn was breaking over the mountains and housetops when Bob Wilson rode his jaded horse into Sandhurst. It was much too early yet to seek the Government officer, so he knocked up the landlord of an hostelry, ordered a supper and bed for himself and steed, dispatched his meal quietly, and went to bed saying he wished to be aroused at 7.

Bob found Gotch and stated his business, and they set out for Urrariro Creek an hour afterwards, reaching their destination just before noon. Then the two chums, accompanied by Gotch, visited the spot where Bob had discovered the gold. The Government officer recognised their rights as "prospectors;" they selected their own "claim," and obtained double ground.

Half an hour after the news spread through the camp like fire, and soon the narrow gorge up the creek was invaded by a host of diggers, some of them swimming, some of them wading, and all of them eagerly scanning the sides of the gorge for signs of the yellow metal. Gangs of men on rudely constructed rafts were to be seen chipping and breaking the sides of the cliffs, and gold was found in many places, but in no place was there found such a thick vein of pure ore as that which was visible to all in Bob and Sam's "claims."

The most intense excitement prevailed at Urrariro Creek. All the old "claims" were deserted for new ones which promised wealth, and men shifted their habitations nearer the new "claims." Fresh bodies of goldminers from Sandhurst came upon the scene, and in a week's time a little town of wooden huts and canvas tents sprang up. Some miner called the new place "Bobstown," and the name stuck.

A week after the evening that Bob swam through the gorge, the place was transformed. The clear sharp ring of steel tools striking against hard rock was heard where all had been so quiet before, and the thunder of men blasting the quartz rocks reverberated through the woods.

Hitherto the search for gold at Urrariro Creek had consisted in alluvial washing. The auriferous earth had been dug up out of gullies and holes, and was then washed out by the cradles. Henceforth a different course of working became necessary, for the gold had now to be extracted from the hard quartz rock in which it was found embedded.

Hearing of the discovery of gold-bearing quartz at Urrariro Creek, one of the gold-mining companies at Sandhurst sent a powerful quartz crushing machine to the spot. The auriferous rock got by the miners was floated down the stream on large rafts to the machine, where it was crushed at so much per ton.

The "claims" worked by Bob Wilson and his chum exceeded even their expectations. The vein of gold yielded scores of pounds each day, and it seemed likely to last much longer. Bob and Sam did little manual labour themselves. They engaged miners to work their "claims," and they supervised the getting of the rock and the extraction of the precious ore.

Weeks passed and they possessed a considerable sum in the Bank, and each day added to their store. Bob Wilson had touched neither card nor intoxicant since the day he discovered the gold. For a month he had restrained himself from handling the one and imbibing the other, and he earnestly prayed for strength to master his vices always.

The habits of a lifetime cannot be forgotten in a week, a month, or even a year. For a quarter of a century Bob had drunk and gambled, and habits of twenty-five years' formation and standing have roots in the deepest corner of a man's being—sometimes a man's habits are his very life itself; and so it was with Bob Wilson.

When he had mastered his vices and was a sober man and prosperous, he was not happy. He sighed for the excitements to which he had used himself. Reared in ease, and habituated to indulge every passion, he was fitted only for pleasure and fast living. His nature was all sybarite, not an atom of it Spartan, and his real nature asserted itself before long.

Suddenly their "claims" gave out. The rich vein disappeared, and there was nothing else in the "claims" worth working. When this happened Bob and Sam had about seven thousand pounds in hand. They looked round for a new "claim," and being idle Bob dropped by slow degrees into his old habits.

Larry Mulligan had moved to Bobstown, and the old gang, and a new one also, frequented his hostelry. As most of the new "claims" were yielding well there were more drinking and gambling than ever, and Mulligan's Hotel was seldom empty. Bob Wilson was the lion of the place, treating impecunious diggers to abundant drinks, playing billiards with the better sort, and gambling with any one and every one who would make a bet with him.

Sam Yates was satisfied with the snug little fortune he had amassed, and he tried to persuade Bob to leave at once for England. Bob's idea of a fortune did not tally with his humbler chum's, so he remained, determined to make his three thousand pounds tenfold greater ere he ventured to return to his native land. Sam did not like to desert Bob, so he lingered at the Creek taking another "claim," which yielded too small a return to draw Bob Wilson from the pleasant and exciting precincts of Mulligan's Hotel.

Bob Wilson was a clever, keen-witted man of the world. His experience was a large one, and he had acquired various accomplishments in his wanderings, which he thought he could turn to account at the Creek, in Mulligan's hostelry. An adept at all games of chance, he had previously lacked capital to carry on gambling operations on the grand scale he wished to pursue. Now, with three thousand pounds at his command he might set to work at once.

He calculated that there were about a thousand diggers at the creek, and earning on an average three or four pounds a week. Of all the money earned one-fourth at least was devoted to gambling purposes, so that a big sum of money was floating about the place, now in the pockets of one digger, next day in another; changing owners often. Most of the money finally drifted into the pockets of about a dozen rascals, manipulators of cards, dominoes, and dice, who delved not after gold, yet lived like opulent lords.

Bob determined that this weekly stream of gold should flow into his own coffers. He had noted the play of the dozen professional gamblers, and he knew not one of them could compete against him with success. He frequented Mulligan's Hotel, inviting all to play who cared, and the gamblers responded to his invitation. 'Tis a common feeling in gamblers for each one to think his play superior to every one else's, and when losses come they are attributed to bad luck, never to unskilful play.

Bob played pluckily, confident in his superior skill, and his winnings justified his play. One by one he cleared the other gamblers out, and his account at the Sandhurst Branch Bank was constantly augmenting. Amongst others Bob had played cards with and won every farthing from were Dan Jolley and Mike Shehan, and this did not increase either their love or respect for himself. It did not make them hate him more, because their vials of hatred were o'er-brimming before; but it caused them to put their heads together, and out of their consultations came a scheme to divest Bob Wilson of all he possessed.

Rather late one evening there came to Urrariro Creek a noted burglar, who having broken into a jeweller's store and carried off a bag full of watches, rings, bracelets, and similar gear for dighting the human form, made for Australasia with the proceeds of the job. Hearing of Urrariro Creek he went there. The first men he met were Dan Jolley and Mike Shehan, who were going home, having just lost every coin they owed to Bob Wilson, and the stranger accosted them with—

"'Cuse me, misters; this Urri'o Creek? Tell a feller where to get a night's doss?"

"Go to the devil, and get a night's doss in hell!" roared Dan Jolley, as he slouched along, mad with his bad lock.

"Dan Jolley, as sure's I'm kickin'."

"Why, cuss me if it's not Jack Jowter! What the devil's brought you to Australay? Cops after you, I reckon?"

"Just so, Dan, so I did a shunt. An who's yer mate? An' what's yer lay? Can't get a drink I s'pose 'bout ere?"

"There's a whisky shop, but I want no boose now. Got any tin, Jack?"

"A pocketful; ain't you none?"

"Not a copper, Jack. Mike an' me's been cleaned out by a feller on whose face I'd like to jump. Give Mike somethin' to get some grub, an' come wi' me to our shanty."

Jowter unearthed some money and Mike went for some provender, the other two going to the hut which had witnessed the fracas between Dan and Sam and Bob and Mike some months before. After feeding, Dan related the incidents of the last few months, telling Jowter of how he watched Bob and Sam in the gorge where the gold was discovered, and was finally outwitted and beaten in the bargain by the pair of diggers, winding up by relating how Bob had cleaned him and Mike out at cards.

"S'pose we drop across him some night, clean him out, and chuck him into the crick."

"No use, Jack, 'cause he banks all his 'tin.'"

"What'll we do then, Dan?"

"You must play him at cards—at 'twenty-fives.'"

"An' lose all my rhino?"

"I'll mind that, Jack. I know a dodge that'll clean him out. You rec'lect how we did that feller at the 'Dog and Rat'?"

"Do you think that dodge 'll do, Dan?"

"Sartin, but we musn't be seen together; an' to-morrer we'll 'ave a row in Mulligan's—a reg'lar shinty, an' then he'll never think there's any dodge between us."

"I twig you, Dan. He's as good as shaved."

One afternoon when Bob Wilson lounged into Mulligan's Hotel he noticed Dan Jolley playing cards with a man who seemed to be a recent addition to the population of Urrariro Creek. There was money on the table, and Bob would like to have put the newcomer on his guard against Dan, who was noted for his unfair play. But it was no business of his he told himself as he lounged to the bar, ordered a drink, and chatted with Larry Mulligan.

Presently the sound of angry voices smote Bob's ears. Turning round he saw the stranger and Dan Jolley with uplifted fists, menacing each other.

"Yer a cussed cheater," the stranger cried, holding a big hard fist close to Dan's nose. "You've reneaged twice this 'ere game, an' now I've kitched you with the ace o hearts on your knee."

"Yer a liar," roared Dan, "an' I'll knock yer head off if yer don't mind."

"Let's 'ave that sov'rin back, you've done me out of, will ye?"

"I'll let yer 'ave a clout," Jolley replied, and he struck the other in the face.

Then commenced a fair stand-up fight. The newcomer was a big built man, almost as tall and thick-set as his opponent, and it was soon apparent that Dan was the inferior in fistic science. The room was nearly full, and Mulligan's customers had no objection to witnessing a good fight, a feeling shared by the landlord himself. Dan flung out his long arms, but they seldom reached the other's face, and presently a quick heavy facer sent Dan to earth, his lips swollen and bleeding, and his face bruised in many places.

"Got enough, I reckon?" cried the stranger, spitting out a mouthful of tobacco, and refilling his mouth with the weed.

"I'd like to fight you with knives, so I could dig out your heart," Dan exclaimed, as he picked himself up.

"Yer too good to live long, mate," the stranger responded laughing. "Tip up that sov'rin, or yo'll get kicked out; that's sartin."

The coin was unpocketed and thrown on the table, and the stranger cried:—

"Drinks round, landlord, an' one for Dan, too. Jack Jowter's above board, anyhow."

"I'll drink with you, Jowter," said Bob Wilson, "because you have given Dan a good hiding, and he needed it so much that I had often thought of giving him one myself. Could do it easily enough."

Drinks were supplied, imbibed, and the late disturbance ignored. Bob Wilson and Jack Jowter had been conversing together anent Urrariro Creek and its resources. Jowter told Bob that he had picked up a thousand pounds and wished to lay it out to advantage. Thought of taking some claims and hiring men to work them. What did Bob think of it? Bob did not think much of it, and then Jowter proposed a game of cards.

"You play 'twenty-fives' I suppose?"

"Yes, but I'll play 'all fours,' 'pitch your own trumps,' or 'twenty-fives,' or anything you prefer.

"Twenty-fives' then, if it's all the same to you."

Cards were obtained, drinks also, and Bob and Jowter seated themselves on each side of a long narrow table. Dan Jolley seated himself next to Bob, and other loungers took seats likewise to watch the game. As the cards were being shuffled Dan said with a grin—

"I've got no cause to love you, Bob Wilson, but I expect you skin this feller of ev'ry blessed copper he's got."

"I shall not reneage or keep the heart ace on my knee whether I lose or win, Dan," Bob replied. "I play fair, and I expect others to do the same."

"I plays square, as I call on ev'ry one to see. I reckon I can play 'twenty-fives' with any man livin' and without dodgery too," retorted Jowter.

"What shall the stake be, Jowter?"

"Ten shillin's a game."

"Hardly worth playing for; say a pound, and twenty-five up."

"Too high for me, but go on; lift for the deal."

They lifted for the deal and Bob won, and he won the first game. Then Jowter won three, Bob the next, and his opponent the following half-dozen games. Bob suggested that the stakes be raised to five pounds. Jack Jowter was agreeable, as his success was almost certain. The dodge determined upon by himself and Dan was working beautifully, and there was not the slightest probability of it being discovered.

With raised stakes Bob was not more successful than before. If he won a game his opponent won half a dozen, and in a couple of hours Bob had parted with all his money, and more than one large cheque on the Sandhurst Branch Bank.

"Doesn't look, Dan, as if he was going to skin me, does it?" Jack Jowter cried with a loud laugh, as he pocketed a small heap of money and three cheques for a hundred pounds each.

"Plenty of time yet, my blossom," retorted Dan. "You've not skinned Bob Wilson yet, an' you'll turn yer tune before the mornin.' Ther's not a man in creation can beat Bob when he gets the cards. I know, 'cause I've played him oft enough."

Bob Wilson spoke not at all, devoting all his attention to the game. 'Twas evening now, and the place was full of miners, many of whom gathered round the two players. The game went on much as at first; Bob won occasionally and Jowter very often. Both men were skilful players, but all the luck seemed to be against Bob, and trusting that the luck would soon turn he played on, never making the slightest murmur when he handed over a hundred-pound cheque to his opponent.

"Shall we make it ten pounds a game?" said Bob, quite coolly, as though it were a matter of indifference to himself.

"Just as you like mate," Jowter responded, "I'm willin' to oblige in anythin'. I seem to be in luck to-night, so you can make it ten."

"Thank you," said Bob, and the game went on.

Again and again Bob lost, and again and again the stakes were raised, until they stood at £25 a game. The excitement in the place was great, nearly every one in the hostelry being grouped round the players, watching keenly every card played. Sam Yates was standing behind his chum, and his heart thumped fast against his waistcoat as he watched Bob's small fortune change hands. A few more games and Bob Wilson was "cleared out." He had lost every penny he possessed. Jack Jowter had won nearly £5,000. When Bob announced that he had lost all, Sam Yates cried out—

"Heeur, Bob, win yores back, or loous mahne too."

A murmur of applause ran round the room as Sam flung his Bank-book on the table. Bob took it up quietly, looked at Sam, and said—

"Haven't I lost enough, Sam, already? I'm out of luck to-night. If I play I shall lose all you have, and I don't wish to do that, old fellow."

"Play on," cried Sam, resolutely. "Skin Jowter, or ler him skin us boouth."

"Deal the cards, Jowter," said Bob, as he ordered a drink and drained it at a draught. "I suppose you don't care to double the stakes again?"

"Yer the coolest bloke I ever met since I puffed," exclaimed Jack Jowter, as he took up the cards and shuffled them. "Ev'ry time I doubles gies you a extra chance, but I don't keer, for yer a brick, whether I skin you or I don't, and it's not Jack Jowter as is afeered of anythin' at cards. Make it fifty, and, Mulligan, fill ev'ry cove a drink in the place."

Jack Jowter spoke boisterously to hide the agitation that was shaking his frame. He and Dan were playing a dangerous game—a game which might cost them their lives if discovered. So far the dodge had worked well, but prying eyes, directed by a suspicious mind, might detect the trickery any moment, and then farewell to the gold and cheques which filled his pockets. Jowter and Dan would have been pleased had the play ceased when Bob Wilson's exchequer was exhausted. Each was desperately afraid of detection, but when Sam Yates threw down his Bank-book Jowter was forced to continue the game.

In another hour the cards were thrown aside, and the players had gone away. Bob Wilson and Sam Yates had lost every coin they possessed to Jack Jowter, whose extraordinary run of luck was in every diggers mouth. Early next morning Jowter presented the cheques at the Bank. The Bank Manager had heard of the gambling of the previous night, and the cheques were honoured. A couple of hours afterwards Jack Jowter, Dan Jolley, and Mike Shehan were seen riding fast away from Urrariro Creek.

Nine or ten days later a sailor who had been seized with the gold fever and deserted his ship in consequence arrived at the Creek. Going into Mulligan's Hotel for a drink, he made enquiries for Bob Wilson, who happened to be in the place. On Bob making himself known, the sailor handed him a dirty envelope, which contained the following note:—


"Bob Wilson, you an me is quittes now hive got yer munnay an didint dig for it. Jowter and me don you cliver the row betwene us were a dodge I lukked in yer hand an tolld im yer cards with my feet; dig fur more dust and luk affter it nex time.

Yures trooley,

Dan Jolley."

What words will express the tempest of bitter chagrin and black passion which swept over Bob Wilson when he mastered the ill-written note the sailor had brought him? None! So the matter is left to the reader's imagination.

Bob learned that the sailor got the note from one of three men who set sail for America the day he left Melbourne.

"I'd give ten years of my life to shake hands with Dan Jolley," Bob muttered, and his chum Sam echoed the words some time after when he heard the note read.


CHAPTER VIII.—THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL.

A fierce antipodean sun was pouring its hot autumn rays on the pedestrians and thoroughfares of one of the chief cities of Australasia.

Along one of Melbourne's magnificent streets a pair of men were leisurely strolling. They were dressed more roughly than the majority of the men about them, and from the colour of their habiliments it was evident that they had come but lately from the diggings.

These two men were very dissimilar in appearance. One was fully ten years older than the other, and nearly a foot taller. The taller man's speech, manners, and face bespoke the possession of breeding and education, whilst his short, stoutly-built, and roughly-spoken companion was unmistakably a man of the people—a worker born and bred.

After losing their money at the card table at Urrariro Creek, Bob Wilson and his chum, Sam Yates, had not the heart to set to work anew to win another fortune. The loss of several thousand pounds seldom inclines a man towards hard work for which there is but poor prospect of adequate remuneration, and when the loss is occasioned by the prosecution of a folly, such as gambling, the loss is all the more bitter.

Men adjudge their vices according to the results they produce. When a man's crimes make him wealthy, powerful, or famous, he seldom thinks his offences more than venial ones. 'Tis only when an individual's moral shortcomings entail on him destitution and suffering that he regards his errors as they ought to be regarded. Want is the only monitor whose teaching reaches such men, and there are gamblers who will not even listen to him.

Bob Wilson had paid heavily for his gambling. It had blackened his early manhood, making all retrospect hideous, and it threatened to mar his existence to its close. He bitterly mourned the loss of the seven thousand pounds. He cursed often and vehemently the vice that led to his being swindled—but this is a common enough custom of gamblers after losses—still, had he possessed the means and opportunity he would have gambled again that instant.

Bob and his chum were on their way to a new goldfield just discovered. Urrariro Creek was nearly worked out, and being greatly wishful for a change of scene, the two chums, in company with many others deserted the creek and made for the new field, to reach which it was necessary to pass through Melbourne.

"It'a 'otun, isn't, Bob?" said Sam Yates, wiping the sweat from his face and brow.

"Yes, it's pretty warm, Sam," the other replied, "and I am confoundedly dry. Suppose we have a drink somewhere?"

"Ah'm dry, too, so we'll look for a' alehouse. Let's turn deawn this street."

"There's a place on the other side—Scott's Hotel—but I suppose it's too swellish a pub for poor devils like us, Sam. Come along, we'll find a commoner house down some of these side streets."

They turned out of Collins-street with its great width and magnificent buildings, and in one of the off thoroughfares they found a hostelry to suit their meagre funds and personal appearance.

"A bottle of stout for me, landlord," said Bob.

"An' a pint o' ale for me," exclaimed Sam; "an' I'll have a bit o' dinner, too."

"So will I—some bread and cheese will do for us."

Their wants were supplied, and they seated themselves by a small table to eat their meal at ease. There were a few others in the room, most of them assuaging the thirst originated by the intense heat of the day. At the next table two working men were seated, and one of them had evidently been making some purchase which he was about to show to his companion, for he was busy unfolding an old newspaper, and presently a pair of boots, not quite new, were disclosed.

"They're a good pair, Joe, aren't they?" cried the owner of the boots. "I gave Dick twelve and sixpence for them."

"Oh, they're cheap enough, Tom; but they seem plenty big enough for him."

"They hurt him across the instep, an' they're just my fit."

Bob Wilson and Sam Yates heard the foregoing dialogue, though they paid little attention to it, for they were munching their bread and cheese and drinking their ale and stout. When they had finished they pulled out their pipes, filled them, and Bob asked Sam for a match.

"I've not one," said Sam, "I gid yo' the last afoor. Ax thoose chaps for one."

Bob walked towards the other table, and said to the men who were still discussing the boots—

"Can any of you oblige me with a match?"

"I've not got one—I gave the last few I'd got to a chap in the street. Have you any, Tom?"

"Don't smoke—here, take a bit of this paper and get a light at the gas at the bar."

Bob Wilson tore a bit off the old newspaper and walked to the bar, where the gas was faintly burning. He lit the strip of paper, then his pipe, and Sam lit his pipe also. Quenching the paper Bob played with it abstractedly. First he rolled it up, then opened it out, fumbling with it as some men do with their coat buttons or watch chain.

In the act of smoothing out the fragment of paper Bob's eyes fell on it; something arrested his attention; he smoothed it out afresh, stared fixedly at it, his face assuming an ashen colour and his hands trembling violently.

"Is thar o five-peynd note yo'n getten, Bob?" Sam enquired with a laugh, as he watched his mate stare at the bit of paper.

"A five-pound note!" Bob answered mechanically, not aware of what he was saying, so great was his perturbation.

"If its o five-peynd note we'll spend it, eh, Bob?"

This interrogation roused Bob, and he said to his chum, who was still smiling—

"It's more than a five-pound note, Sam."

"P'raps o hunderd, Bob?"

"More than a hundred thousand!"

"Millyun, then!"

"No, only about half of it. I'm not jesting, Sam. I mean every word!"

"Why, it's only a piece o' owd newspapper——"

"Look there! read that!" Bob cried, flinging the bit of paper to his friend, and his head sunk on his hands as though to hide his emotion.

Taking up the fragment of newspaper, charred at the end where Bob had lit his pipe with it, Sam, with considerable difficulty, spelled out the following:—

"If J. B. will only return to his wife and——"

"Not that, man; not that!" Bob cried petulantly. "Read further down."

Sam stared at his mate, then again turned to the bit of paper, and slowly enunciated the following words:—


"Mr. Jacob Gray, mineowner, of Torleigh, Lancashire, is dead.
His son and heir, Robert Wilson Gray, is wanted immediately.
R. W. G., or any person knowing of his whereabouts,
will address or apply to Mr. John Braile, solicitor, Market-street, Manchester."

"Is that wot yo' meeun, Bob?" Sam asked after he had finished, for Bob still sat silent with bowed head.

"Yes, that's it, Sam."

"And wot does it meeun—ah know, Bob!" Sam exclaimed, a sudden knowledge of the truth lighting up his rugged face. "Yo're Robert Wilson Gray."

"Yes, I am Robert Wilson Gray."

"Well, ah'm blest!" Sam ejaculated. "Ah never thowt yo' wur owd Gray's son. Ah used to work at his pits afoor ah went to 'Mericay."

"And to think he has left me his money after all." Bob shut his teeth hard, and brushed something from off his cheeks.

Then he rose and crossed the room. The man had wrapped up his boots and was about to quit the house, when Bob stopped him and said:—

"Will you oblige me with that old newspaper in which that parcel is wrapped?"

"Not me," retorted the man gruffly. "If I do what'll I lap round my boots?"

"I'll give you a shilling for it!"

"You will?" with an incredulous smile.

"Yes—here it is."

"An' here's the paper. Let's have another drink now, Tom. Dick wouldn't have parted with the paper if he'd known it were worth a shillin'."

Bob went back to his seat, then he examined the paper he had just bought. 'Twas an old copy of the Daily News, and nearly six years old.

"I'm going to England, Sam!"

"To England, Bob?"

"Yes. My father has been dead close on six years, and I never knew before I read that bit of paper. There is something other than mere chance in all this. Only fancy what a variety of events have led to the discovery of my father's death, and the fact of my being his heir. If I hadn't lost all our money; if we hadn't dropped in here for a drink; if that fellow hadn't bought those boots, a hundred to one I should not have heard of his death for years—perhaps never have heard of it at all."

"Juss so, Bob; an' when are yo' thinkin' o' gooing' back to Englan'?"

"At once—as fast as a ship can take me."

"Then, ah don't think ah'll go anny further tort new field, Bob," Sam said slowly.

"Certainly not! You are going back with me, Sam. There is a biggish fortune waiting for me at home, and the first thing I do will be to hand over to you what I owe you."

"Yo' dunnot owe me owt, Bob."

"A trifle, Sam; three thousand four hundred and seventy-six pounds, which I lost to Jack Jowter. I'll pay you every penny and ten per cent. interest, too."

"When ah gied it yo', Bob, ah didn't expect it back again. Ah——"

"We'll not discuss the matter now, Sam. The thing to talk about is how we are to get to England. How much money have you?"

Sam counted his money, and said—

"Four peynd 'leven an' sixpunse."

"And I've about £3. Not quarter enough to pay our passage. We shall have to work our way home. Nothing else for us."

"If yo' showed the newspapper to some captain, an' towd him aw abeawt it, wouldn't he gie yo' a passage when he heerd yo' wur comin' into a fortin?"

"He'd set me down as an impostor, Sam. We'll work our way over."

And so they did.

* * * * * * * * * *

One fine morning in spring, a man entered the Black Bull Inn at Torleigh. He was a tall, well-built, pleasant-looking man of 40 or 50, apparently still in the prime of life, the lower half of his face showed traces of the hoar of age and care.

"Fine morning, landlord," said the man genially, as he walked into the low, old-fashioned, comfortable-looking bar parlour.

"Yiss, it's o bonny mornin'," responded mine host of the Black Bull, a true big-bellied, apple-faced specimen of the genus innkeeper.

"Bring me a pint of your best ale, and one for yourself, and oblige me with a clean clay pipe."

"Ay, ay," the landlord responded, and presently two jugs of ale and a long churchwarden were laid on the table.

"Good luck to everybody," said the stranger, as he tunnelled away through the white foam with his breath, and drunk deep of the good brown ale underneath.

"Them's my sentiments," said he of the inn, and he also hid his bright nose in a jug of beer.

"Does no one live now at 'The Platts?'" said the stranger, as he leisurely sucked the long clay. "I called there this morning on a bit of business, but no one answered the bell."

"O, there's nobbut owd Nanny Jonson livin' theer at present, an' hoo's gone o seein' sum o' her folk ut Manchister."

"How long has the place been closed? Ever since Jacob Gray died, I daresay?"

"Nowt ut sort. Yung Gray lived theer lung enuff after owd Jacob Gray died."

"Young Gray! Who's he? Did Jacob Gray marry more than once?"

"He didn't. Yung Gray's owd Jacob's nevvy. When owd Gray's own son tuk bad ways Jacob 'dopted his brother's chilt, an' he browo him up as his own; an' when owd Gray deed he laft aw he'd getten to Walter, his nevvy, an' the lad disarves aw he geet, for he wur a gud gaffer, an' everybody ud tell yo' t'same abeaut Torleigh."

"I thought Jacob Gray left all his money to his son," said the man with a start of surprise.

"Yo're reet. In a sense he did leeuv it to his son, but ah'll tell yo' aw abeawt it—not bad ale, is't?"

"Very good. Bring us two more jugs."

The jugs were brought, and the burly landlord resumed the conversation, evidently enjoying the chat.

"Owd Gray's will wur a rum un, an' no mistake. Ah've heerd it towked abeawt mony a time in this heeur parlo, and moour folk nor me thowt it a funny will."

"Tell me what you know of it," the stranger said, taking a drink of his ale.

In his quaint Lancashire dialect the host delineated the main features of old Jacob Gray's last will and testament. That document had formed the basis of countless discussions in the bar parlour of the Black Bull, and burly Jem Jones, the landlord, was acquainted with all its details. Before the landlord had finished his narrative his auditor was pacing about the room in an agitated manner, biting his lips, tugging at his beard, and muttering to himself—

"Too late! too late! after all!" stopping suddenly, he said, "so this Walter Gray stepped into his uncle's fortune about a year ago."

"Abeawt a heear sin'."

"Walter Gray would be glad enough, I daresay, for his cousin to keep away."

"P'raps, an' in my opinion, he wur t' reet chap fur it. Owd Gray's son wur wildish like, an' he ne'er did anny gud to annythin' or annybody, an' Walter——"

"Where's this Walter Gray now?" the man broke in almost fiercely.

"Somewheer in Yorksheer. He bowt a gran' place theer, ehey say, an' it cost him a pratty penny, ah know."

"Do you know what this place is called?"

"Halideen Priory, or summat ut sort."

"Aldayne Priory, the old country seat of Colonel Villiers, the sportsman!"

"That's it, sure enough. Well, he's bin theer nigh on three months."

"I'll say good morning, landlord, and thank you," said the man abruptly, and turning on his heels he walked quickly from the inn.

"I'd gie a thripennybit to know that theer chap's name," said mine host of the Black Bull, as he drained the good ale the man had left.

Aldayne Priory had thrown off the air of neglect which it had so long worn while it remained the property of a sportsman who cared only for fleet thoroughbred horses, beautiful women, and good wine. The late owner of the Priory, Colonel Villiers, had lost a fortune on the turf, and—paid it. Villiers was a member of a race, nearly extinct now, for whom the word honour had a meaning. When the Colonel found himself in a hole out of which he could not scramble with clean hands he sold every stick and stone he owned, divided the proceeds amongst his creditors, and then removed his brains with a pistol, leaving neither wife nor child to lament his rashness, and the fortune he had so effectually distributed.

When the poor sportsman made a target of his skull, or to use words of his own, "extinguished himself," his friends, some of them deep in the mire as he was, but too weak to face his fate, called him "fool" and "coward," and each asked the other if he remembered poor Villiers's favourite phrase, that "Every life is a candle, nothing more; lit at birth, and snuffed out for ever at death." Walter Gray had once met Colonel Villiers, and had been attracted to the handsome well-bred sportsman, whose cynicism and scepticism made him known as a deep and clear thinker, and whose sudden end originated columns of racy paragraphs.

Walter had bought Aldayne Priory as the future home of himself and peerless Lady Ruth. He had found the place so neglected that it reminded him of the deserted cities of classic times. But a few months of vigorous work removed the accretion of years of neglect. The broad shallow stream which flowed slowly through the western part of the estate was cleared out, and the water slid along with swift current, laughingly dashing against the grassy dell banks as though delighted at their freedom and purification.

A new boathouse was erected, the Trenk filled with fish; rooms were furnished, lawns clipped; the big chesnuts fringing the main avenues were shorn of their dead limbs; conservatories were repaired and stocked with fruit-trees and flowers, and the old place woke to life like a thing that had been sleeping deeply and long.

Walter Gray and Lady Ruth were to be married in June, and already April was half over. Walter had taken up his abode at the Priory, personally supervising all repairs and improvements. One afternoon a visitor called at the Priory, and asked to see Walter.

"Did he not send in his card," Walter asked of the servant who announced that a man wished to see him.

"No, sir."

"Of course, he sent his name?"

"I asked him to do so, but he didn't seem willing to tell me, sir."

"What sort of a man is he?"

"A middle-aged man, tall, and bearded, and very gentlemanly in appearance."

"You may bring him in here."

The servant went out, and in a few moments the visitor entered. Walter glanced at the gentleman critically as he motioned him to a seat, saying—

"A fine afternoon, isn't it?"

"Yes, but rather chilly, I think."

"Draw your chair to the fire. You did not send in your card."

"No. I had none to send," rather tartly.

"Lost your card case, I suppose?" Walter ventured to suggest.

"Yes, I lost it years ago," the man replied with a cynical smile, "and haven't found it again yet. I have just come over from a part of the world where cards are not yet fashionable—at least cards of the sort you mean are unknown, though there is another sort of card in plenty."

"Been abroad, I suppose?" queried Walter, wondering why the man did not get at his business at once.

"I have just come from the Australian 'gold-diggings.'"

"Indeed!"

"Yes, and I come on behalf of one in whom you ought to feel great interest."

"I?"

"Yes, you. You are Walter Gray, I suppose, nephew of Jacob Gray, of Torleigh?"

"Certainly; still I think you are labouring under some mistake. I am not aware that I am acquainted with any one in Australia."

"You know the man I represent."

"Who is he?"

"Your cousin!"

"Robert Wilson Gray?"

"Yes, Jacob Gray's son, but not his heir it seems."

"And is my cousin really alive?"

"There is not the slightest doubt about it, I assure you, Mr. Gray."

"And is he in Australia?"

"When I was in Melbourne some months ago he was there."

"And why has he not made himself known before this? I advertised for him in all the leading papers for a long time, and when years passed without any word from him, or of him, I was forced to think him dead."

"Your cousin was beyond the reach of newspapers. Until a few months ago Robert Wilson Gray was ignorant of his father's death. An old newspaper picked up accidentally in a Melbourne tavern told him that his father was dead, and that he was wanted as the heir. He left Australia at once, and when he reached England—Torleigh, he found he was too late. His father's fortune had passed into a stranger's hands!"

The man spoke bitterly, and looked straight into the other's face. Suddenly a thought flashed through Walter's brain, and he jumped to his feet exclaiming—

"You are my cousin, Wilson Gray; I always said you were alive, and would come back some day!"

"Yes," said the man declining Walter's extended hand with an icy bow, "I am he. The prodigal has returned. Wilson Gray, the ne'er-do-weel, the disinherited am I. What a dramatic scene this is? And you are the good young man of the play or romance, and I am the scapegrace who robs his father and breaks his mother's heart. You are the adopted child who drops into the money and does all manner of good things with it, and I am the wicked son who ought to have died but didn't, and turns up unexpectedly. Eh, cousin Walter, are you not glad to see me?"

Walter Gray spoke not a word while the man poured out this verbal torrent in the bitterest of tones. He was so amazed by the other's vehemence, and he remained silent when the man had finished.

"You have not welcomed me yet, cousin. Of course, you are glad to see me?" the man cried sarcastically.

"Certainly, but your appearance in the flesh made me forgetful of common courtesy. Indeed, Wilson, I am very glad to see you."

"Of course you are, but I regret to say that I shall not permit you to see me long. I believe I am entitled to a thousand pounds a year by my father's will?"

"The will entitles you to that sum."

"If you will give me a cheque for that amount I will rid your fine house, bought with my father's money, of myself."

"You have seen Mr. Braile, it seems?"

"No. I called at his offices in Manchester, but he had gone on a visit to some friends near London."

"But you have seen the will, then?"

"I didn't know where to find it, or I should certainly have seen it."

"You'll find it at the Probate Registry, Liverpool."

"I don't care to see it now. Its main features are so well known that a beerseller could tell me all about them. You take all, I a thousand a year. I'll take that thousand as soon as it suits you to let me have it."

"You don't seem to entertain a favourable opinion of me, Wilson?"

"Frankly, I do not."

"May I ask why?"

"Well, now I come to consider the matter, I don't see anything to bias me against you. As my father's son I had not the remotest right to his money. You as a more distant relative possessed the sole claim on him."

"Your sarcasm is lost on me. Now, look here, Wilson, you seem to think I have done you some great wrong, and you must not run with any such idea, for I looked after your interest more than my own."

"Indeed. I am sure I thank you for all you have done for me."

"You needn't sneer, for it is true. I can prove it in a moment."

"Don't trouble yourself. I have evidence enough already. You cared so little about your own interests that you dropped—unfortunately, I suppose—into half or three-quarters of a million, and you managed to get me a paltry £1,000 a year."

"It was your father's doing, not mine. I can——"

"Bosh! bosh!" Wilson Gray cried suddenly, bursting into a passion. "I won't hear any more. Do you think me fool enough to swallow everything you utter. Goody, goody folk are the most damnable rascals on earth, they worm themselves into favour and part father and son—even in the grave. You have stolen my birthright——"

"Hold!" thundered Walter, jumping to his feet and facing the other with white face and blazing eyes. "Hold, cousin, or by God I'll knock you down. Don't call me names, or I may recriminate, and, surely, my life will compare with yours. What fools passion makes of us all!"

With that Walter turned away and crossed the room. Stopping beside a bureau he unlocked it, bringing thence a small roll of paper which he flung to Wilson, saying—

"Read that and you will see that I did what I could for you. A short time before your father died he sent for me. He had made a will, he told me, and hidden it. After telling me where it was, he sent me for it, and I read it to him. You hold that will in your hand. I thought it was treating you harshly, and I told him so. He said you were dead, so it was useless to leave his money to you. I believed you were alive and would return some day, and I told him so often. I besought him to forgive your follies; to make a new will, and at last he gave way. But believing you dead he stipulated that I was to be sole heir if you did not return and claim your inheritance within five years of his death. He thought that if you were alive you would claim it before five years expired. After your father's death I advertised for you in all the leading newspapers. What more could I do?"

"Nothing, cousin, nothing. Forgive me for speaking so hastily and harshly. When I dropped unexpectedly upon your advertisement I thought myself the heir to a splendid fortune, and, thinking thus, I came to England and found I was a year too late. I don't blame you at all, but you must admit that it was an awful disappointment for me when I had been expecting a quarter of a million at least."

"'Tis more than a million now. Several new shafts have been sunk lately, and mining property increases in value each year. I don't understand your disappointment, though. Your fortune is greater to-day than it was six years ago."

"Your fortune, you mean?"

"I said your fortune, and I mean it. Surely you did not think I was going to stick to the literal reading of your father's will. I shall be guided by the spirit in which it was framed. Had you turned up a year ago the fortune would have been legally, as well as morally, yours. I care not for legal rights when they are at conflict with justice. I shall hand over all to you now as I should have done a year since, had you come to claim it."

"But I can——"

"We'll not discuss the matter now—at least, not till you have had some refreshment. Daresay you are hungry and thirsty, and I never gave the thing a thought. Let me remedy my discourtesy."


CHAPTER IX.—LOST BY A NECK.

Walter Gray rang the bell and ordered some refreshment for his relative, then he went out for a few minutes while the other ate.

As the young man strolled round the Priory he concentrated his attention on the new aspect of things. His cousin's appearance was likely to affect his own life to a considerable extent. Most of the plans he had formed would have to be given up. Aldayne Priory and the beautiful estate surrounding it must be handed over to his cousin, with the rest of the fortune he had called his own for one short year. All the beneficial schemes of reform he had intended to carry out on the Aldayne Estate and in Aldayne village would have to be abandoned, as would his dream of sitting in St. Stephen's and figuring as a legislator.

The yacht he had thought of buying for himself and Lady Ruth to cruise in during their honeymoon faded away into a mist, and he and his peerless bride would have to pass their honeymoon less expensively—that was all, for he and Ruth would be supremely happy wherever they might happen to be, or however situated.

And presently, as he walked along sniffling the sweet spring air, a new dream arose before his mental sight. He saw himself wedded to the beautiful woman he loved, and winning a fortune of his own. Young, clever, and ambitious, all things were possible to him. Why, the new life mirrored in his brain was even more pleasant than the future Robert Wilson Gray's return had destroyed.

Never even for a single moment did Walter think of retaining possession of old Jacob Gray's fortune after his cousin made his appearance. He had contemplated the return of Wilson Gray so often that his coming seemed quite natural after the shock of his sudden appearance passed off. The moment that Walter learned that his uncle's son was alive, that instant he ceased to regard himself as Jacob Gray's lawful heir, and was prepared to hand over everything to his cousin.

For a single moment alone did Walter regret his loss of fortune, and the regret was for Lady Ruth's sake, and not his own. He would have to be satisfied with giving her less costly presents and fewer luxuries than he had promised himself to give her, and Walter Gray was so much in love that he imagined that material things would have little influence over himself and his love.

"Does my cousin's return lose me anything of value?" He put this question to himself, looked at it all round, and answered frankly, No! In resigning the fortune which was legally his to his cousin he satisfied his conscience, and was thus satisfied himself. A clear conscience was of more import to him than any fortune, however large.

While Walter was communing with himself without the Priory his kinsman was similarly engaged within. After making an excellent repast of cold roasted fowl and claret, he filled his pipe from one of Walter's tobacco pouches lying by, and, lounging in a comfortable chair, gave himself to reflection.

Ere Robert Wilson Gray set foot in Aldayne Priory he had formed a definite opinion of the man who had inherited his father's money and possessions to his own exclusion. Such a man must of necessity be a designing knave, and everything else that was despicable, he had thought; but this hastily formed opinion of his cousin had undergone a vast modification, if not an entire change.

"Can it be possible?" Wilson Gray said to himself, "that this young fellow cares so little about the million that he intends to hand it over to me? It seems monstrous to think such a thing possible, and, yet, he seemed to be thoroughly in earnest. And if he were willing to do so, I should be a scamp to allow him. There's enough for both of us, and we'll share it. Bah! what an idiot I must be to think my cousin meant what he said. Walter Gray would not be human were he to hand over such a fortune when it is legally his own—but here he comes."

"You'll excuse me for being so long away," said Walter, as he entered the room. "I went for a walk in the park, and quite forgot that you were awaiting my return."

"I made myself comfortable," returned the elder man. "The fowl was toothsome, the claret excellent, and I helped myself to some of your tobacco, and made myself at home."

"There's some more of that wine in the cellar, Wilson. We'll try another bottle. And now let us settle the matter of which we were speaking before."

"You have decided what course to take, I suppose?"

"Certainly. Have I not already said that I intended to act in accordance with the spirit of my uncle's will. He wished you to have the money if alive, and he named five years because he thought you would turn up within that time or never. The mere fact of you turning up a few months after the time specified does not in the least invalidate your moral claim to the fortune."

"Am I right in understanding that you are willing to resign this splendid fortune which is legally yours, at least?"

"I am not only willing, but determined to do so. The fortune is yours, and you shall have it. Let the will take effect as though but a day had passed since your father's death. We will change places. You take the fortune, I a thousand a year. With that sum I shall be able to make my way in the world."

"You're a trump, Walter!" cried Wilson Gray enthusiastically, jumping to his feet and shaking his young kinsman vigorously by the hand. "You are a gentleman every inch of you. But I cannot take it all. Let us go halves. You are a mining engineer, I understand. Suppose you take the mines at Torleigh? What do you say?"

"Just as you wish. If it suits I am willing. I retain the mines; all else goes to you. I am glad we have settled the matter so easily. I will write to Mr. Braile and he will draw up the necessary papers—What amuses you?"

Wilson Gray had burst into a peal of laughter, and it was some time ere he spoke. Then he said:—

"This surpasses anything ever invented by writers of romance. My latest experience is the strangest of all. A splendid fortune is literally thrown into my pockets. I never believed that any man could act as you are doing. You are the noblest, as well as the simplest fellow I know. How do you know but what I am an impostor! I may be anything beside the man I claim to be."

"An impostor? Ah! I never thought of that. But no impostor would have dared to pursue the course you adopted. And you resemble your father so much that any one who knew him could tell you were his son."

"Still, you did not recognise me."

"True. But I was certain you spoke the truth when you revealed yourself. I saw the likeness at once."

So Wilson Gray took up his quarters at Aldayne Priory, and his cousin wrote to Mr. Braile requesting him to come to the Priory as soon as convenient. In a few days the solicitor put in an appearance, and he was shaken out of his legal composure by being introduced to the son of his old client, Jacob Gray.

In a few words Walter indicated the course he intended to pursue in reference to his cousin and Jacob Gray's fortune. The solicitor was surprised on seeing Robert Wilson Gray alive, but he was amazed when Walter intimated his intention of handing over the greater part of his fortune to his cousin. Mr. Braile requested to speak to Walter in private. This was granted at once. The man of law exhorted Walter to abide by the letter of Jacob Gray's will. He argued strenuously against such Quixotic generosity; but the young man was firm. He had a conscience, he said, and the only way of satisfying it was to pursue the way he had marked out.

So Mr. Braile gave way, and made out all the documents requisite to the fulfilment of Walter Gray's plans. Legally and irrevocably he made over everything to his cousin, with the exception of the mines at Torleigh and the old house in which Jacob Gray had lived and died. There Walter intended to live henceforth, as he had made over Aldayne Priory and estate to Wilson.

Walter had retained about one-tenth of the entire fortune of Jacob Gray. The pits at Torleigh were worth something like a hundred thousand pounds, and the revenue from them considerable, so that Walter was far from being badly off.

After completing the legal business Walter went to London. He had just received a letter from Lady Ruth, stating that she and her parents had just arrived in the metropolis, where they would be staying for the season, and asking him to call when he came to town.

At Euston Station Walter encountered Sir Wilton and Lady Haigh. His old friends pressed him to dine with them, and he accompanied them to their residence in Park-lane. During dinner he told them that Wilson Gray had returned, and that he had transferred the greater portion of his fortune to his cousin.

"Of course it is no business of mine, Gray," said the baronet, "still, I must say that I think you have done a rather foolish thing. The property was yours, and the least you could do was to keep one half. Why you must have handed over to your cousin more than half a million."

"About nine hundred thousand pounds. But I should never have been easy in my mind had I kept it. And, you must remember that I have all the mines at Torleigh, out of which my uncle made the most of his money."

"I think you have done a very noble thing, Mr. Gray," said Lady Haigh warmly, "but, like Wilton, I think you have been too generous."

"He's been a regular Quixote in his business," broke in Sir Wilton. "I expected to see him in the next Parliament, but there's no hope of that now, I suppose?"

"I fear not," said Walter, laughing at his friends' serious faces. "But I'd rather give Wilson Gray his own and remain outside St. Stephen's awhile. Some day I'll persuade the pitmen of Torleigh to choose me as their representative."

"You'll have to await some years, then, Gray," responded the baronet, "for nearly all your miners are unenfranchised, and can send neither you nor any one else to Parliament."

Then the conversation drifted into a political channel, but Lady Haigh turned it by saying—

"I daresay you have an engagement for to-night, Mr. Gray?"

"Not exactly an engagement, but I thought of going as far as Brook-street to see Lady Ruth. I suppose the family is in town?"

"Yes, but you'll not find them at home if you call, Gray," said Sir Wilton. "I met Ellsden at the Club last night, and he was saying that they were all going to the party the Duchess of Uxleigh is giving to-night. I suppose you don't know Her Grace?"

"No."

"And have had no card, so you will have to make shift without seeing Lady Ruth Gordan for to-night, and call early to-morrow morning," chaffed Sir Wilton. "Better go to the theatre with us and see Irving in Romeo?"

Walter accepted a seat in the baronet's box, and after dinner was disposed of they repaired to the theatre. A keen lover of Shakspeare's plays, and no mean critic, Walter was listening to the words spoken by Romeo shortly before the closing of act second:—


Ah Juliet, if the measure of thy joy
Be heaped like mine, and that thy skill be more
To blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath
This neighbour air—

when he felt his arm touched by Lady Haigh's fan, and turning he saw her glance to a box opposite, in which were seated Lady Ruth Gordan and her mother. As Walter looked his affianced raised her head from the stage and saw him.

The slightest inclination of Ruth Gordan's head indicated that she had seen him. Then with her fan she motioned for him to go to her. Making his excuses to Sir Wilton and Lady Haigh, Walter hurried off, and as the door of the baronet's box closed behind him, her ladyship said—

"I wonder what Lady Ruth will think and do when she hears that Wilson Gray has come back, and that Walter Gray has given away nearly all his fortune to his cousin?"

"Can't say, I'm sure," said Sir Wilton in answer to his wife. "Perhaps Lady Ruth is less mercenary than some of you women seem to think."

"I'll tell you what, Wilton!" said Lady Haigh in a positive manner, "she will throw Mr. Gray over, see if she doesn't."

"I hope not, Maggie. Aren't you just a bit prejudiced against the 'gypsy', as you term her ladyship!"

"Not prejudiced, only frank spoken, dear. We women can read each other better than you can read us."

"I must admit that. But I was under the impression that it was quite a love affair on both sides."

"Lady Ruth may love Walter Gray, but will not marry him when she hears of what he has done. That is my opinion—who is that! Ah! the Countess of Ellsden. So glad to see you; and how is Lady Ruth, and his lordship?"

When Walter entered the box which held Lady Ruth and her mother the Countess rose, and after giving her white finger tips to him departed, saying in excuse:—

"You'll excuse me, Mr. Gray, I know. My friends Sir Wilton and Lady Haigh are here and I wish to see them. I shall return before the play is ended, Ruth."

Walter was only too glad to get rid of his mother-in-law in prospective, and he and Lady Ruth were left to themselves. The second act had just ended, and as Ruth Gordan motioned her lover to a chair beside her she drew the curtains of the box together.

"Did you receive my note, Walter?" she said after permitting him to clasp her hand a moment.

"Yes," he answered, "that is why I am here. But I did not expect to see you here to-night. I dined with the Haighs, and they told me you were to go to some duchess's party."

"We went to the Duchess of Uxleigh's party, but the people there did not interest me much. The Duke is a scientist, I understand, and he is very gracious to his scientific friends, inviting them to his house whenever he gives a party, or rather when his wife does. These scientific folk are clever, can write deep books which everybody admire and few read, but they are not very entertaining when you meet them personally."

"So you came away?"

"Yes. The duchess saw that I was bored, so offered ma her box; she accepted it, of course."

As Walter made some complimentary remark to this he wondered what Ruth would think when he told her that his cousin had returned, and that he had made over nearly all the fortune to him. He had taken what he regarded as the only just course open to him, and he did not regret what he had done, but his heart throbbed faster as he realized, for the first time, that his fair dealing and love of justice might cost him beautiful Ruth Gordan.

But whatever the result he resolved to tell her then, so by way of getting to the subject he ventured to ask—

"Did you ever hear of a certain Wilson Gray, Ruth, who was much talked about some years ago?"

"Yes, I have heard of him occasionally from men of the 'old school,' as aged men of fashion love to phrase themselves. He performed some shady transactions about twenty years since, and then disappeared quite suddenly. That is all I have heard."

"'Tis the same man. You seem to know all about him, Ruth?"

"I know a little. And this Wilson Gray has turned up again quite unexpectedly, when everybody who had ever known him thought him dead!"

"Quite true," Walter muttered in amaze, "but, however did this get to you! I thought no one knew of his return save myself and Mr. Braile. My solicitor knows of our engagement, and perhaps he informed you of Wilson Gray's return!"

"Oh, no! I assure you that that item of intelligence is already public property. I myself got it from an evening paper—the London Echo. Some clever literateur has got hold of the story, and he has worked it up into one or two readable paragraphs. This is the paper; listen, and I'll read it to you."

From the pocket of her dress Ruth Gordan drew a newspaper neatly folded, and smoothing it out she commenced to read the following—


"An Honest Man."

'When Diogenes paraded the streets of ancient Athens by day lantern in hand, searching for an honest man, history does not inform us that his search was successful. A modern cynic bent on a similar errand would probably be more successful than his ancestor of the tub, as the following story will show.

'Some surviving members of the old beau monde will yet remember a certain Wilson Gray, who went the "full pace" more than a score of years ago. This Wilson Gray was the son of a Lancashire mineowner, who had by perseverance and indomitable energy acquired a vast fortune. In early manhood young Gray was rather lavish of his father's money, scattering it about freely, and much of his paper lined other men's pockets. Of course, the rich mineowner had to play the fiddler who played for his son to dance to. Father and son had a fierce quarrel, and the son suddenly disappeared.

'About fifteen years after the disappearance of Wilson Gray his father died, leaving behind him a splendid fortune in coal mines, Government bonds, and railway shares to the extent of a million. This fortune was left to the son, Wilson Gray, provided that he claimed it within five years of his father's death. But if the son did not turn up and claim the fortune within the time specified it was to go to his cousin, a young man Jacob Gray had adopted. The five years passed; Wilson Gray did not return, and Jacob Gray's great fortune went to his nephew, Walter Gray, a gentleman who is well known and greatly respected in Lancashire.

'The strangest part of the tale has yet to be told. A few days ago Wilson Gray reappeared as unexpectedly as he had disappeared so long before. Wilson Gray came back to claim his father's fortune, but it had passed into his cousin's keeping. Walter Gray, however, proved truly magnanimous. With a noble self-denial unequalled in all our long and varied experience, Walter Gray has handed over to his newly found cousin the whole of the fortune left by Jacob Gray. And it must be understood that Wilson Gray had not the slightest legal claim to the million which his cousin has handed to him.

'We understand that the man who has so generously given up a fortune will in the future personally manage the mines at Torleigh, out of which Jacob Gray is supposed to have made the bulk of his fortune. All honour to him for doing so. We wonder how many men there are who would give up riches and then turn to work. We trow not one beside Walter Gray. Actions less noble than his have been commemorated in brass.'"


The curtain had risen, and the third act was progressing. Mercutio was saying to Benvolio:—


"Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat; and yet thy head has been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. Thou hast quarrelled with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath wakened thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun——"

but neither Walter nor Ruth were listening to him. There was an unpleasant look on Walter's face. Lady Ruth had read the paragraphs relating to Wilson Gray's return in a light, sarcastic tone, as though the whole thing were a good joke.

"How the deuce did the fellow get hold of it?" Walter broke out in a vexatious voice. "Wilson must have let it out to some fellow connected with the Press."

"It is very interesting, isn't it?" laughed Lady Ruth, as she flung the newspaper into one corner of the box. "You will become famous at once and be lionized. Everyone will invite you out, and you will be paraded as the sole remnant of that almost extinct genus Honest Man."

"But it is quite true, Ruth, that Wilson Gray has returned," he remonstrated.

"I do not doubt it," she replied.

"Then why treat it as a joke? I fail to see its amusive side."

"I don't regard Wilson Gray's return as a joke. I was only thinking of the mistake into which the journalist had fallen."

"I don't know to what you refer."

"The paragraph says that you have handed over to your cousin all your 'splendid fortune,' as he puts it, and I know you would not do that. You have given to him, I suppose, the thousand a year his father's will entitles him to, and the journalistic imagination has magnified that sum till it reached half a million?"

"The journalist, whoever he may be, had accurate information. He has not drawn on his imagination at all. It is quite true, I assure you, Ruth, that I have given—no, not given, but restored, to Wilson Gray all that his father left him, with the exception of the mines at Torleigh."

Walter spoke quietly but firmly, and his fair auditor knew that he spoke the truth. Ruth Gordan stared at her lover as though she believed him mad. She thought he was not quite sane to do such a thing. Then she burst out—

"And have you really been guilty of this quixotic act? Why, this man had not even the shadow of a legal right to what his father left you?"

"He had every right but the legal one," Walter replied, firmly.

"He lacked the only right men care about nowadays. I suppose he bullied you into giving it up? Threatened to take legal proceeding, and so forth," she said almost jeeringly.

"Not at all. I gave it up freely. Wilson knew well enough that an action to recover his father's property would have been useless. The wording of his father's last will was too clearly against him."

"Then, why, in the name of goodness, did you abandon your fortune? You have gone against the very will itself," she cried almost dramatically, so real and intense was her agitation.

"I consulted the spirit and not the letter of my uncle's will. If Wilson Gray had turned up a year ago I should have had absolutely no right to the fortune at all, and I fail to see how another year's absence, after twenty, gave me any real claim to it."

"Did you do this mad thing—don't stop me, for it is nothing short of madness—did you do this thing to win the shallow praise of the shallow world? Do you want everybody to praise you, as the journalist does? Somebody says, 'tis Burns or some other rhymester, that 'an honest man's the noblest work of God.' Do you wish to be thought one of Deity's noblest creations? Such an ambition is worthless when even Godhead itself may be, as some philosophers say, but a figment of the brain!"

"Do not be irreverent, Ruth," Walter said quietly, attempting to draw her to him, but he was repulsed.

"I do not understand you, Walter," she said more quietly, "and I thought I knew every corner of your mind. You have parted freely with that for which the rest of the world works, schemes, plunders, and even murders to obtain, and left yourself penniless."

"Not so bad as that, Ruth. A man who owns half a dozen coal mines cannot be very badly off. And you must remember, darling, that my uncle laid the foundation of his great fortune out of those very mines. With prudence and energy I shall make a fortune in ten years, and neither of us are very old, are we?"

Lady Ruth was silent for a moment. Walter thought she was impressed with his words, and she was only considering a new method of attack. Presently she said:—

"Are you quite sure that this man is not an impostor!"

"An impostor. I believe him to be my cousin, Wilson Gray."

"You have tested him—put all kinds of questions to him, I suppose!"

"Very few, indeed."

"Some of his old acquaintances have recognised him then?" she queried.

"Not that I am are of," he answered.

"You have taken a bare word of a stranger and given him a fortune. What have you done to ascertain the truth of his statements?"

"I must admit that I have taken none of the precautions you name, simply because I did not doubt his word. I am quite satisfied that he is what he represents himself to be."

"But you may be mistaken," she argued, "and nothing short of the most absolute and positive proof ought to satisfy you in such a case. You know what men will do for money. The least you can do is to make this man produce his credentials, and at once. I shall not be surprised to find that you have handed over your fortune to some trickster."

"No fear of that, Ruth, still I will follow your suggestions and make him establish his identity."

"Where is he now?"

"At Aldayne Priory."

"Aldayne Priory!" she cried.

"Yes. It belongs to him, now."

A spasm of pain shot through Lady Ruth. She had been to the Priory soon after Walter purchased it as their future home, and she had been greatly pleased with the beautiful old place. Had even begun to regard it tenderly as the spot in which her life and that of her husband and their children would be spent. Her hatred of Wilson Gray increased tenfold after that.

"At Aldayne Priory!" she iterated. "When you return you will find he has decamped with everything of value he could carry away."

"Don't be so unreasonable, Ruth. Let us discuss this matter no more. Why, I had even forgotten that we were at the theatre and Shakspeare's most romantic play being enacted—'Tis the scene in Juliet's chamber and she and Romeo are on——"

"Let them go off again," Lady Ruth cried irritably. "Drop the curtain, and sit down. I don't mean to let this fellow plunder you quietly; and even if he is Wilson Gray himself you ought to obtain better terms for yourself."

"I am satisfied with what I have got. If Wilson had returned a year ago I shouldn't have got so much. I had no idea you were such a mercenary creature, darling."

"I am only looking after your interests, you careless fellow."

"Don't bother your pretty head about this thing any more," he said, drawing her to him, and caressing her with infinite tenderness. "Whatever you desire I'll win for you if you will only wait, darling."

His low, impassioned words went to her heart, and she realized that a man who had done such noble things as her lover might accomplish almost anything. For a moment she thought of giving way, as she felt Walter's arms about her and his lips against her own. Then she thought of Aldayne Priory; remembered that Wilson Gray was living there when it ought to have been waiting for her, and she resolved to press as hard as she could the man who had turned up so inopportunely to spoil her life.

"Do you know what this Wilson Gray was," she asked, "before he went away so suddenly?"

"I know that he was no saint. But that is no concern of ours. Why should we rake up his past? Wilson seems to be a decent sort of fellow. Has buried all his wildness, I suppose, and will settle down quietly."

"Before he went away Wilson Gray was a gambler, a tippler, and—something even worse. You couldn't trust a fortune with a worse man. In five years he will have squandered it all away."

"I hope not, and if he does I can't help it. I am sick of talking about it, Ruth. Let us talk of ourselves. I am going back to Torleigh in a day or two, and I shall devote all my energies to the development of my new mines, and in ten years—perhaps five—I will win a fortune for us both. With your help I feel able to do anything, Tell me, darling, that you love me better now that I am poorer!"

But Lady Ruth did not comply with his request. She slid her soft supple arm through his and drew him to the front of the box, flung the white lace curtains aside, and glanced towards the stage, saying—

"I declare we have missed the best part of the play—hush, Juliet is about to drink!"

In a moment she became deeply absorbed in the play. But Walter was not to be hoodwinked by Ruth's ruse. He perceived that she had evaded his question, and he turned suddenly sick with fear. Ruth loved him no longer—had never loved him at all; only his fortune. Good God! was he to lose her? His love was more to him now than life itself!

Hot words were forming in his brain, but he had no chance to speak them. The door of the box opened, and in sailed the Countess of Ellsden. She placed a chair in the centre between the lovers, and chatted glibly to each in turn. Walter had to smile when the countess smiled, and bandy the commonest of common-places with her, and he ground his teeth in an agony of suspense.

No opportunity offered itself till the play ended. When Walter saw the ladies to their carriage he whispered as he lifted Ruth in—

"You didn't answer my question, Ruth. Only say you love me still, darling!"

His pleading tones and eloquent eyes ought to have moved anything human. But Lady Ruth did not seem to hear him. She only said—

"Good night, Mr. Gray; where do you stay to-night?"

"At Sir Wilton Haigh's," he replied in almost inaudible tones. Then the carriage swept away, leaving the young man standing bareheaded on the flags, and wondering whether Ruth Gordan were angel or devil.

The following morning Walter received a daintily perfumed note, surmounted by a monogram in pale blue—


"Dear Mr. Gray," it ran,

"I am really sorry that we must part.
I am not all fitted for a poor man's wife.
I love you still, but luxury and soft living are essential to my nature.
You see I am honest with you.
Forgive, if you cannot forget.—

Ruth Gordan."


CHAPTER X.—TESTING HIMSELF.

Many there were besides Ruth Gordan who believed that Wilson Gray was nothing but an impostor, and like her ladyship, they gave open expression to their doubts. These doubters argued that Wilson Gray would never have stayed away from England for more than twenty years had he been alive and well when he was the only son of his father, and his father worth a million.

Again, they argued that the advertisements inserted broadcast in all the leading newspapers could not have failed to find Wilson Gray had he been alive. The man who posed to Walter Gray as his cousin was a clever trickster, who had in view, originally, only the thousand a year due to Jacob Gray's son in the event of his turning up after the passing of five years from his father's death.

But after an interview with Walter Gray the cunning knave's schemes expanded. A fortune was literally thrown at his head, or rather into his hands, by a young man who stripped himself of wealth in order to gratify an abstract idea of justice.

So society talked, for it had got hold of all the ins and outs of the story, and whilst there were a few who praised Walter Gray's conduct in having so promptly and ungrudgingly given his fortune to the returned man as noble in the highest degree, others there were who condemned his action as eminently absurd and Quixotic.

All this clamour and clangour of rumours many tongues filtered slowly down till it reached Wilson Gray's ears. He smiled when he heard what society said of himself, but the bitterest paragraph of some hostile feuilletonist never disturbed his equanimity. Wilson Gray was too experienced to be frightened by the flutterings of society. He had devised a method of establishing his identity beyond all question, and silencing all hostile criticism. Yet he did not think of taking any legal steps in the matter.

For a week or two Wilson remained at Aldayne Priory, rambling about the place and making himself familiar with the details of his new position. Then, when talk anent himself and his return had somewhat subsided, he returned to London, taking apartments in one of the fashionable hotels. His arrival in the metropolis revived the gossip about him, and this was just what he desired, as it helped on the scheme he was maturing.

In the days of his extravagance Wilson Gray's friends and associates had been legion almost. He set about discovering how many of them were still alive. He employed a private detective to help him, and the work was easily accomplished. One by one he gathered together the threads of his old connections. Of the many gay companions he had known not a few had disappeared altogether; others still remained who were as reckless, as jovial, and as hard up as ever, and would so remain to the end of the story; a small minority had settled down to the serious work of life and earned some meed of fame. Sir Dingley Donne, the well-known M.P. and barrister, had been expelled the University in company with Wilson; Mr. James Melicum, the very learned and respected physician, who visited his West End patients in a stylish turnout, had emptied more than one good bottle of wine purchased with Jacob Gray's siller; and Bevan Craig, the famous painter, whose symphonies in black and white fetched such fancy prices, had once owned a share of a racehorse that could not run, in conjunction with Wilson and others; then there was Harry Goring, now editing a society journal, whose love of turf speculations had so often to be sustained by Wilson's purse.

But more than all the rest, there was his old friend and boon companion, Lord Hayburne, now Earl of Arrodale, still living. After locating himself in London, Wilson Gray made enquiries after the friend of his youth, and he found that the Earl had married, and that he and his wife had been wintering on the Continent, but would probably return to London soon after the commencement of the summer season.

Lord Arrodale was at Monte Carlo when Wilson Gray returned to England, and the news of his unexpected return drifted to his lordship's ears. People who remembered the former intimacy of the earl and Wilson Gray, asked his lordship what he thought of the man who claimed to be Jacob Gray's son. To such questions Lord Arrodale replied—

"Haven't seen the fellow, so can't say. Shall return to London presently, and soon find out whether he is bogus or genuine. If he shirks me the fellow's an impostor; if he seeks to know me he's my old chum sure enough."

The very day that the society journals announced the return of the Earl and Countess of Arrodale, Wilson Gray dispatched a note to the Langham Hotel, where the Earl and his wife were staying. The note was addressed to his lordship, and it ran thus:—


"Dear Alic—

Am going to give a little dinner to a few old friends to-morrow evening. You used to know all the fellows I am asking to it. Have got together some capital cigars and wine. Come and try them. A master of his craft will manage the cuisine. Seven is the hour. Don't be late.

Yours fraternally,

Wilson Gray."

Now Lord Arrodale's first name happened to be Geoffrey, but Wilson Gray had dubbed him Alic, the nickname had stuck to him, and was used by his intimate friends.

"Cool enough, anyhow," Arrodale muttered as he read the note. "Gad, I believe it's Wilson after all. Will go and see anyhow."

Every old associate that Wilson Gray had exhumed received an invitation to dine with him, and at the time appointed the majority of those invited put in an appearance. All the guests had known Wilson Gray, and they accepted the hospitable offer of the man who was posing as Jacob Gray's son, for they had their doubts, and wished to satisfy themselves by proving Wilson Gray's identity or exposing the imposture.

Wilson had faith in his power to carry out his self-imposed task. He was one of those men who are but little changed by time. At twenty-five or six he was tall and bearded, and a score of years had but added a little portliness to his form and a suspicion of frost to his beard.

Wilson received his guests with the happy word and charm of manner which had distinguished him in his wildest days, and over a repast that would have charmed the soul of a gourmet he led his old boon companions back to the life they had lived more than a score of years before. He unearthed escapades which, though forgotten, came back vividly when he narrated them in his easy way; told them of their scrapes and amours, drinking bouts and gambling plunges; and ere the night was over he had convinced every man present that he was the Wilson Gray with whom they had gambled and drunk and made merry in their youth's mad days.

"Don't you remember, Alic," Wilson queried as he helped Lord Arrodale to some sparkling champagne, "the spree we had in my rooms just before the whole lot of us were rusticated? How the college dons stared when they forced in the door and found you fellows half drunk, with Sir Dingley there on the table addressing a meeting of his constituents and unfolding an elaborate scheme of reform which he had drafted? Ah! ah! ah! what merry times were those my masters."

"Of course, I remember," said Arrodale draining his glass, "you paid the piper that night, having just won a pot o' money on the Derby."

"So I had. I remember now you mention it that I backed the winner, and you lost ever so much on a horse that was never in the race."

"We were a devilish fast lot in those days," remarked Sir Dingley Donne as his plate was being refilled with dainties, "and my respected friend, Mr. Melicum, was as bad as the rest of us."

"Worse if anything," exclaimed Wilson pleasantly. "You'll not have forgotten that night he was to have eloped with the fair landlady of the Shovel and Broom; and how she rued at the last moment and told her spouse, who was going to kill our amorous friend."

"Well, well," laughed the fashionable physician, "lads will have their fling."

"By-the-by, Goring," said Wilson addressing the editor of the Metropolitan Journal, "what became of that epic and those ballads which were to make you famous? Don't you remember that they were to be published by subscription. I think I was a subscriber. Did your verses ever reach print?"

"Never," replied the editor laughing heartily as he remembered his limping verses and his youthful lust for poetic fame.

To every one sitting there Wilson had something to say of the past, and his memory served him so well that he never made a mistake. His guests ate and drank the good things he had provided, and converted his excellent cigars into white dust. The edge of a young summer sun was peeping above the rim of the eastern horizon when the party broke up.

Wilson's old friends resumed their respective positions in society and they effectually quenched all hostile criticism of Wilson Gray whenever it arose in their vicinity. And Harry Goring, especially, did his old friend good service. The editor of the Metropolitan worked up the dinner-party-episode into a readable leaderette, and presently society acknowledged Wilson Gray as himself. His adventures in Australia leaked out, and he became one of the season's lions; every house opened to him, and he and Lord Arrodale renewed their early intimacy.

But though Wilson Gray had succeeded in convincing his old associates that he was not an impostor, he had not convinced them that Walter Gray had acted wisely in placing half a million in his cousin's hands. They remembered Wilson Gray as a gambler and tippler, and they confidently anticipated that he would make ducks and drakes of the fortune in a very short time.

But Wilson did nothing of the sort, to the great astonishment of the prophets of evil. He lived well, enjoying life to the full, but he was neither extravagant in his expenditure nor excessive in his habits. A lover of pleasure, he went out a good deal. In the prime of life and still handsome, he was welcomed everywhere as an eligible man where there were unmarried daughters, and where daughters were not he was equally welcome on account of his charming manners and good humour, and in this fashion the summer months went by.

Wilson Gray was not by any means a bad-hearted fellow. In his youth he had been led away by his mad friends, love of pleasure, and thirst for excitement. His road to ruin, like the way to Hades, was paved with good intentions. He had drifted rather than run into evil habits; but he had paid dearly for his lack of moral restraint in the twenty years he had knocked about the world, often shabby and ill-fed, and never at ease with his conscience.

Mother and father are magic words even to the most unprincipled of men, and Wilson's conscience pricked him whenever he thought of his parents. He rightly attributed his mother's early death to his follies, and he knew that he had soured the latter part of his father's life.

Few men go wrong from choice. I am firmly persuaded that there is implanted in humanity a desire to succeed in life honestly. But all men do not possess the willpower necessary to keep them on the track they instinctively know to be the right one. Some all potent circumstance seizes on them, and they are drifted along by an evil current, out of which they are never able to struggle, owing to their lack of moral energy.

So it was with Wilson Gray. Half his life he had struggled weakly, and therefore vainly, against his follies. He had never ceased to regret his idle and dissolute life; had vowed to reform himself innumerable times, and his resolves had always melted at the approach of temptation.

When Wilson found himself, through his cousin's magnanimity, a rich man, with half a lifetime, or nearly so, before him, he again resolved to bury all his errors and become a better man. His past had some very ugly black spots on it, and he determined to wipe them out, or at least cover them with whitewash, so that his conscience would not see them so easily.

It is easy for a man to make himself famous as a good man and a public benefactor when his yearly income runs into tens of thousands. A few judicious strokes of the pen may confer happiness, or some measure of it, on many people, and entitle the opulent penman to an effigy in bronze. The world adjudges men by the fruit their actions bear; it seldom looks beneath the result to the core of the motive. The millionaire who has screwed his riches out of the blood and sweat of ten thousand workmen builds a hospital, or gives a public park to his native town, and instantly his crimes are forgotten. He is held up as a model for ambitious lads; becomes Sheriff of his shire, perhaps an M.P., and shortly a gracious sovereign dubs him Sir Doddleton Scrooge. And often enough the workmen themselves respect the millionaire more than they do some poor workmate who has been striving all his days to lift them out of their miserable arduous ways.

When the season was over Wilson Gray intended to take up his abode permanently at Aldayne Priory, become a model landlord, entertain a few choice spirits now and again, and thus drift comfortably down the river of life. But Wilson did not see the Priory for a year after the time marked out for his return.

Before the season ended he became ill; his ailment promised to be troublesome, probably dangerous if not attended to at once, and he went, at the recommendation of the physician he consulted, to France, choosing the pretty watering-place, Etretat.

There was more than a suspicion of consumption in the symptoms diagnosed by the doctors, probably inherited from his mother, and Wilson resolved to spend some quiet months on the seacoast.

Etretat was at its brightest when Wilson Gray was there. The pretty watering-place was much resorted to by French artists who had made some sort of fame for themselves. Painters, poets, and novelists, with their gaily dressed sweethearts, wives, and children, filled the hotels, and crowded the beach, which is as stony as Blackpool's shingly shore, and a source of great discomfort to those bathers who hug the strand.

Wilson located himself at one of the principal hotels, intending to pass some months in the vicinity. There were a few of his own countrymen and women staying at Etretat, but none he knew, or cared to know, and the time would have hung rather heavily on his hands had he not taken little pleasure trips now and again just as it suited him. Paris was within easy reach, but life in that gay city would have retarded his recovery, if not endangered his life.

So Wilson had to content himself with the most innocent of pastimes. Sometimes when there was splendid weather he would start and walk right along the coast for miles till he was tired. Then he would order dinner at some country house, dawdle the afternoon away in the village, hiring a horse or some primitive vehicle to carry him back to his hostelry at Etretat. At other times he turned his back on the sea and struck into the country, and very often some old Norman Church would reward him for his long ramble.

But it must be recorded that Wilson Gray had little love for either seashore walks or rambles in the country after quaint specimens of Norman architecture. These walks filled up the hours, and helped on his convalescence, and he longed to be back again at Aldayne Priory, having become really attached to that fine old place.

When there were no cold winds blowing along the beach, and blue skies and sunshine were abundant, the shore at Etretat presented an animated scene, and Wilson Gray spent many hours strolling about the steep beach, or seated under a cool awning smoking, watching the while the gay scene going on below.

An ordinary Englishman who had travelled little would have received a shock at Etretat. His insular notions of what is modest and moral would have revolted against the bathing customs of the French. In the sea at Etretat men, women, and children in all sorts of fancy bathing costumes tumbled and splashed about amongst each other in careless and gay abandon.

There, a ring of youngsters, boys and girls to the number of a score, gyrated in the shallow water, enjoying themselves heartily, and laughing boisterously when one of their number stumbled and sank overhead. Here a deft and white-limbed woman cleaved the water by the side of a brown-limbed giant, and the woman was a more graceful if less powerful swimmer than the man.

One bonny afternoon Wilson Gray stood on the beach ostensibly watching the bathers, but a close observer would have seen that his eyes glanced over the bathers near the shore and followed the graceful movements of one who had swum far out to sea, so far that the unaided eye could not tell the sex of the bather.

Sweeping the horizon with his glass Wilson came on the daring swimmer, and instantly his lorgnette stopped just where it covered the bather. The swimmer that Wilson watched was a slender brown-limbed woman with a dark beautiful-face—a face as perfect in every feature as it was marvellous in its rich colouring—a visage full of witchery and glamour that thrilled him even at such a distance.

He watched the fair swimmer turn shoreward and wondered who she was. He was still gazing seaward when his shoulder was tapped, and a familiar voice exclaimed, somewhat languidly—

"Gad, it's Gray!"

"Arrodale, by Jove!" They shook hands very cordially.

"What the deuce are you doing here? Got a cigar? My case is empty," quothed his lordship.

"Might say the same, old fellow—here you are; capital weeds, too."

"Well, I've just managed to slip away from the Countess, who is staying at Dieppe with some friends. Heard of this place, so came for a day or two. Am supposed to be in London transacting important business with a score of lawyers," granted Arrodale as he bit his cigar.

"Rather handy those lawyers for married fellows who wish to shake a loose leg, eh, Alic?"

"A fellow can't always be tied up, you know, Wilson. Thought of running over to Monte Carlo, but it's too far. May go to Paris. But what are you doing here?"

"Got rather shaky, so had to come here to recuperate my vital energies."

"And whatever do you do to pass the time? Seems dull?"

"Breakfast, dine, sup, and sleep—and watch the bathers. There's some pretty women here, I assure you."

"And I'll lay odds you were watching one of them when I came up."

"Yes. I was watching one of the handsomest women you ever saw. Splendid swimmer she is, too."

"Where is she?"

"There, coming to shore; just behind that boat. Who is she?"

"Can't see her plainly yet—lend me your glass. Ah!"

"You know her, I see?"

"Certainly; it's lady Ruth Gordan, Lord Ellsden's daughter. Know her, I suppose."

"No. Is she staying here?"

"Must be. Thought I saw her mother, the Countess, on the beach."

It was on the tip of Lord Arrodale's tongue to tell his friend of the matrimonial engagement which Lady Ruth had contracted with Walter Gray, and afterwards broken—why, all the world knew so well. Then it struck him that Wilson knew all about it, so he said nothing.

"Should like to know them. Can't you get me an introduction, Alic?"

"Shall be delighted to present you. Suppose you make the Countess's acquaintance at once? There she is on the far side of the beach under that red-and-black awning. Come along, if you want to know her."

"Dear Countess, will you permit an old friend of mine to know you. This is Mr. Wilson Gray, whom you know by repute already. Gray, the Countess of Ellsden."

Wilson lifted his broad soft hat and bent low to the little fair woman beside him. She motioned him to an empty seat, and he took it. He exerted himself to please and charm his new acquaintance, into whose eyes amaze had come at the mention of his name.

In a few minutes Lady Ruth rejoined her mother. She was swathed in a black-and-amber striped peignoir, and she looked ravishingly beautiful after her bath. She was introduced to the good-looking man with the big brown beard she admired so much, and into her eyes there came also amaze when Wilson Gray's name was mentioned.

Mother and daughter were equally surprised at meeting the man to whom Walter Gray had resigned his fortune.

When Lady Ruth broke off her engagement to Walter, she and her astute parent deemed it advisable to quit England for a few months, at least, until the gossip generated by Lady Ruth's action had died away. The Countess and her daughter had selected Etretat for two reasons. It was cheaper to live there than at Dieppe, and very few of their country people went there.

In the course of a week Wilson Gray and Lady Ruth were great friends. He gossiped and perambulated the beach with the mother, and flirted and swam in the sea with her fascinating daughter. At noon he and Ruth met accidentally on the sands, and went for long walks along the stony strand. Wilson mentioned the venerable architectural relics he had discovered in the interior. Lady Ruth expressed a desire to see them, and he acted as cicerone to her.

In a month Wilson was a suppliant for Lady Ruth's hand and heart. He was accepted.

"I suppose," said Wilson, some time after his acceptance, "that you will return to England to make arrangements for the happy event. Nothing less than a fashionable marriage at St. George's, Hanover-square, will satisfy you, darling."

"I should like of all things a quiet wedding," her ladyship answered. "We'll be married in one of those quaint old Churches if the Countess will permit us. Let us ask her to do so."

Wilson pleaded his cause eloquently, and as a quiet wedding agreed well with the exchequer of the Ellsden family, the Countess gave way, with much show of self-denial, and Wilson Gray and Lady Ruth Gordan were made husband and wife in a quaint old pile that had been erected when William the Robber left his natives shores to steal the English throne.


CHAPTER XI.—A FACE FROM THE PAST.

So beautiful and fascinating Lady Ruth was married at last, and her husband almost came up to her expectations. Good looking, very wealthy, and not old, Wilson Gray satisfied her ladyship in every respect save one, and his solitary deficiency did not cause her any great uneasiness, for her knowledge of the world and great intelligence told her that very seldom indeed do women win husbands who come up to their ideals in every respect.

From the moment that Lady Ruth was introduced to Wilson she resolved to marry him. He had never broken the cold crust of worldliness in which her heart was imbedded as a diamond is pent in a shell of common earth; but marriage with him promised her a life of refinement and luxury, rich jewels and splendid costumes, without which things she could not imagine any life worth living.

Lady Ruth had thrown aside Walter Gray deliberately, yet not without much regret. She was sorry for Walter's sake, and her own also, that his cousin had come back. Considering the matter shortly after meeting Wilson Gray she thought how pleasant it would have been could she have had the man she loved, and the good things that wealth brings also. How foolish her lover was to throw away a fortune, and thus force her to reject him.

At this period Ruth Gordan's love for Walter Gray must have been but a delicate, dwarfish passion, for it permitted her without a struggle to give him up and wed his cousin because of his fortune. With her love was not more than life—not even more than a life of splendid indolence.

Those who have felt the lack of affection hunger for love, just as those who have felt want's keen tooth hunger for riches; and so it was with Ruth Gordan. Poverty had been the ghost of her childhood, youth, and womanhood, and she hated the foul thing with a bitter hatred. Lack of gold had bred a love of it, and the possession of riches might set her athirst for affection's sweet draught.

Wilson Gray's wild youth had debarred him from making the routine tour of the Continent, and he resolved to do so during his honeymoon. To this idea Lady Ruth accorded a full consent, and the newly-married pair visited the beauty spots of Europe.

They spent a delightful week in Venice, the city of bridges and ruined palaces, wherein Shakspeare lays the scene of more than one of his plays. They visited Athens and Rome, around which so many classic memories cluster, and all this afforded a splendid opportunity to Lady Ruth of exhuming her classic lore. Lady Ruth had been to the Empire City half a dozen times at least; she was familiar with all its antiquities, and acting as cicerone, she pointed out the strip of pavement sole remnant of Titus' Baths; the plinths of the two columns now remaining of the portico of Nero's Golden House; the Temple of Venus; the Arch of Titus, where the best of Rome's emperors may be seen on an eagle rising to heaven, and they watched the superstitious Roman mothers bring their babes to the shrine of Sto Tho Solo.

Wilson Gray was very happy at this time. The easy luxurious life he was leading lulled conscience to sleep, and the glamour of his beautiful wife's presence lifted him above the past with its follies, troubles, and penuriousness.

And Lady Ruth was almost happy also. Wed to a man who loved her well enough to gratify every desire to which she gave expression, the first months of married life seemed pleasant indeed. Not so thrillingly sweet as the young girl's who has married for love alone, but still sweet enough to please exceedingly. She who had felt the damning touch of small means all her life, and had been cursed with a strong wish for those things which wealth alone can purchase, now found herself able to minister to each whim as it arose.

If Lady Ruth did not love Wilson Gray he never dreamt of such a thing. Handsome still, and as vain of his good looks and distinguished manner as he had been in youth, he felt certain that his wife adored him. He told himself with an inward glow of satisfaction that he had subdued Ruth's heart and won her affection the first time they met on Etretat's rough beach. Their marriage was quite a romantic affair—a pure love-at-first-sight event. Could not be otherwise or an Earl's daughter had not stooped to a commoner like himself.

Lady Ruth was fully aware that her husband cherished these illusions, and she did what she could to foster them. 'Tis so easy for a woman, especially a beautiful one, to simulate affection. Accord with one's likes and dislikes; soft words lowly spoken; quick glad glances from bright, lovely eyes; caressing touches of a little warm, white soft hand that thrill the recipient, and the thing is done. There are tricks in all trades, and even the gentle craft of love is not without them. Without an effort Lady Ruth did all that a loving spouse could desire. If she did not love Wilson she was grateful to him for lifting her above her previous shabby titled gentility, and gratitude is nearer to love than even pity is, though certain great writers aver the opposite.

Whilst their honeymoon was young Wilson and his wife received glad news. In a well which Walter Gray had ordered to be sunk for the Aldayne villagers a valuable seam of coal had been found, and already several mining capitalists had made offers for the coal. Further boring in the well discovered more coal seams, and Mr. Josiah Jellie, Wilson's steward, calculated that the Aldayne estate was enriched to the extent of a couple of hundred thousand pounds by the discovery.

Knowing that large fortunes were to be made out of coal mines, Wilson resolved to work the mines himself rather than let or sell them. Having full confidence in his agent's fidelity and business tact, he advised Jellie to engage a clever mining engineer to supervise the sinking of shafts to the coal, and all else necessary. He was advised by Lady Ruth to particularly state that the pits were to be sunk as far as possible from Aldayne Priory, so that the fine old place would not be deteriorated by their existence.

This fresh accession of wealth caused Wilson and his wife to stay in Rome longer, and live even more magnificently than before. They spent the winter in the classic city, returning to Aldayne Priory in the summer of the following year. Wilson felt better satisfied with the world and himself than he had done for many years, and he contemplated their return to England with pleasure. In the quietness of Aldayne Priory he would have his beautiful wife to himself, and abroad she was always surrounded by distinguished men attracted by her superb beauty.

After a strange, wild, hard, adventurous career, Wilson intended to settle down into a respectable country gentleman. In his earlier days he had often wondered how men could suffer themselves to be tied down to some quiet, out-of-the-world spot, and now he realized for the first time that he would be satisfied to let life drift by at Aldayne Priory, his sole companion his charming wife.

There was another reason why Wilson Gray and her ladyship should leave the Continent at the time when it was most attractive. An important family event was expected before autumn, and Lady Ruth was naturally desirous that her accouchement should take place at Aldayne rather than in an hotel abroad.

So they returned to England, and each of them wondered at the changes that had taken place since they left it a year or nearly so before. Lady Ruth left London to get away from the gossip caused by her matrimonial contretemps; had fled with her discreet mother to a quiet French watering-place; and then circumstance, taking the form of illness, drove the new owner of Aldayne Priory to her feet, and she had graciously permitted him to marry her.

Strangely enough Wilson Gray had succeeded his cousin in love as well as in fortune, but of the former fact Wilson was still unconscious; nor was it probable that Lady Ruth would remove his ignorance on that point. Very soon after their introduction she had questioned Wilson adroitly concerning his cousin, and she learned that Walter had not made his engagement known to his relative.

Aldayne Priory, Aldayne village, and the country around were looking well, if not their best. The lanes along which they rode from the station were fresh and green, as were the flower-speckled fields behind them. The village houses looked trim and comfortable, though each family in the hamlet had to live on something under a pound a week; and the newly whitewashed farmhouses seemed even more pretty than the village cots.

An afternoon sun was bathing the south-western side of the Priory in a bright flood of light, and the towering full-foliaged trees, the green well-kept lawn, the flower-beds ablaze with early flowers enhanced the beauty of the fine old pile.

"By Jove! Ruth, but the house looks well," said Wilson, as he helped her ladyship out of the carriage. "I had no idea the place was so pretty."

"I think it simply perfect, Wilson."

"It is, dear. My cousin showed his good taste in selecting such a place. That big-leaved ivy which covers nearly all the front wall is delicious. It would delight the very soul of one of those aesthetic fellows, wouldn't it?"

"'Twould move to rapture too deep for words that long-haired individual we met at Athens, who was continually treating us to monologues on the potency of the beautiful as a civilising agency," said Lady Ruth, smiling.

"Yes, yes, I remember him, darling," laughed Wilson. "But I always imagined that he thought more of your beautiful self than of any other abstract idea. Don't you think so. But let us go in. I am sure you must be fatigued with your journey. We will look round the Priory when you have rested yourself."

They passed in to the house, where a crowd of servants welcomed them, and after they had rested and refreshed themselves and removed the dust of travel from their clothes and persons, Wilson proudly showed his charming wife through the splendid place that henceforth was to be their home.

"I used to wonder and sneer at my early aristocratic friends when they professed to love their ancient homes and acres; but now I understand the feelings that prompted them. I have began to cherish a liking for the Priory already, Ruth."

"Indeed, I trust that you will give me no cause to be jealous," said Ruth, archly.

Wilson kissed his wife, and continued, "I can already fancy the Priory filled with our descendants."

"You've a fruitful imagination, Wilson."

"Yes, I have, Ruth. You seem to have given me a new lease of life. I have verified the Biblical text, 'Out of evil cometh good.'"

"Why, how do you make that out?"

"Oh, easily enough, my dear."

"Do tell me, Wilson."

"Well, if I had not fallen ill last year my physician would never have advised me to go to the Continent for a month or two, and then I should not have gone to Etretat, and have met, loved, woo'd, and won you there, as I had the good luck to do."

"I see, but still if you had not met me at Etretat you would, almost certainly, have met me elsewhere."

"But isn't it strange what trivial things produce great events? About eighteen months ago I was having a glass of ale in a beerhouse in Melbourne. I had no matches, so got a scrap of paper to light my pipe, and on it I found the intelligence of my father's death. After my father died nearly six years passed without my hearing of it. But for picking up that bit of paper I should probably be in Australia now, darling, far away from Aldayne Priory and your charming self."

"'A divinity doth shape our ends,' says Shakspeare, and in your case it seems true, Wilson, doesn't it?"

"It does, dear, and I am inclined to believe that it is so; but, as I was about to remark a bit since when you interrupted me, I was a terribly wild fellow a score of years ago, and an awful Radical as well. Now, I have changed entirely. I used to go in for Socialism and that sort of thing, but I like to think of the Priory as the particular appanage of our eldest son, Ruth, and his eldest son after him."

"All successful men incline to aristocratic Conservatism," laughed her ladyship.

"And I am certainly a successful one."

"Where is your kinsman, Mr. Gray?" said Ruth, turning the subject.

"Oh, he is down in Lancashire, I suppose, busy at his collieries. Do you know him?"

"Yes, I am acquainted with him. I met him at Olsham Hall, Sir Wilton Haigh's place, last year but one."

"Walter is a splendid fellow. Only fancy his handing over the property to me as he did. I hadn't the slightest legal claim to my father's belongings, but he didn't consider that at all. He's a noble fellow. I'll ask him to spend a few weeks here in the autumn for the shooting, eh, Ruth?"

"Certainly," answered Lady Ruth, but she did not relish the idea of meeting Walter Gray, and especially at Aldayne Priory.

"I have often wondered what prompted my cousin to purchase an estate out of his native shire. But I am glad that he bought the Priory. It does credit to his taste, doesn't it, darling?"

But Ruth vouchsafed no reply to her husband's interrogation. She knew what prompted Walter Gray to purchase Aldayne Priory, but she did not tell Wilson, as the information might not have been satisfactory. She it was who induced her husband's cousin to buy the Priory as their future home, and her conscience smote her as she remembered how basely she had treated him.

"I suppose, Wilson, you will be entering Parliament now. You might contest this division of the county next election."

"I don't think I will dear. I am quite contented to settle down as a country gentleman. I've not much taste for politics."

"But you are quite young yet, Wilson, and I know you are ambitious, and if you enter Parliament we could have a house in Grosvenor-square, or in Prince's Gate, and that would be very nice and convenient for you."

Shortly before his return to England from Rome, Wilson's agent had written to him saying that the shafts were sunk as he had ordered, and coal was being brought to the surface. The pits had been sunk at the very edge of the Aldayne domain, more than a couple of miles from the Priory, from the windows of which not a trace of them could be seen, as half a mile of lofty, well-timbered ground lay between the pits and the house.

The opening of mines close to Aldayne Village had stirred up the hamlet to sudden life. New rows of houses had sprung up for the miners who had flowed into the district, and several shops and beer-houses, all of which pleased Wilson much, for it meant so much more addition to his income.

The morning following their arrival at the Priory Wilson pressed his wife to visit the pits, but she declined on the plea of fatigue. So Wilson resolved to go himself, and kissing his wife tenderly, he whistled to his dog, Ajax, a magnificent mastiff he had given many pounds for, and passed out of the low window on to the lawn.

The morn was fine and warm, and the dog whisked joyously round his master's legs. Wilson's previous stay at the Priory had made him sufficiently acquainted with the country around to know where the pits were. The path lay along deep, shady old lanes, pleasant meadows, and green cornfields, and the bonny morning accorded well with Wilson's spirits. He was contrasting the past with the present, and was much satisfied thereby. After twenty years of hard, bitter experience he had drifted at last into a haven of peace, beauty, and plenty.

A few fields' breadths ahead Wilson saw a tall chimney, from which there issued a thick column of black smoke, and he knew the pits were close by. He was paying an unofficial visit to the pits, having informed neither his agent nor Mine Manager of his coming. It was a new sensation for him to feel himself the employer of hundreds of men, and the feeling was not an unpleasant one. After a quarter of a century of abject dependency, he found himself a big capitalist, a landowner—one with a stake in the country.

A little farther on Wilson met two colliers coming from the pits. His workmen, he thought, and as he passed the grimy-faced miners he greeted them pleasantly with—

"A fine morning, lads. Done soon, haven't you?"

"Too soon, mester, rayther," one of the men growled, "fur us to ha' getten anny money."

The other pitman spoke not, but stared at Wilson. Then sudden light came into his eyes, and he blurted out—

"Ah thowt ah knowed yo', yo're Bob Wilson; han yo' forgetten Sam Yates!"

"And is it really you, Sam? On my word, I did not know you with your black face." A white hand and a black one met.

"It's me sure enuff, Bob," Sam said, as Wilson shook his old mate heartily by the hand. "Wheer han yo' bin aw this time, an' what are yo' doin'?"

Wilson did not answer instantly. He was just awaking to an ugly fact. He had been an ungrateful dog, and all along he had plumed himself on his open-handed generosity.

"Ah s'pose yo' didn't get yo're fortin', Bob? Thowt yo' wouldn't. Yo're reet, mon, ah know, but fortins is hard to get howd on."

"I got the fortune, Sam, and I'm the most ungrateful wretch alive. Glad I've met you, for it's not too late yet. I suppose you work at my collieries?"

"Yo're pits?" stammered Sam.

"Yes, Sam, mine. Where do you live?"

"Int' village."

"You know where the Priory is?"

"Sartingly."

"Then go there and ask for me this afternoon at 3. But don't ask for Bob Wilson, Sam, or they won't admit you. Ask for Mr. Gray. Good morning, and don't forget to be there."

At 3 o'clock prompt the rough-clad quaint-spoken Lancashire pitman presented at the Priory. A gorgeous lackey showed him into a splendid room, which poor Sam entered as a sinner might enter heaven. Wilson and Lady Ruth were in the room, and he had evidently been relating his gold-digging experiences at Urrariro Creek to her, for when Sam came in, Wilson exclaimed—

"Ruth, this is my old chum, Sam Yates, who acted so nobly at the card table when I had lost every farthing I possessed, and when I lost his little fortune also he never even grumbled. Sam, this is my wife."

Sam stared for just an instant at the beautiful vision before him, then his eyes fell abashed. The woman beside him seemed splendid enough for an angel. Lady Ruth held out a soft white hand, and Sam pressed it tenderly in his hard-brown palm, almost fearing to crush it. Then Wilson said—

"I owe you, Sam, something over three thousand pounds—call it five with the interest. Here is a cheque for five thousand, payable to you. Take it and call us square."

"But," gasped Sam.

"Not a word against it, old fellow. I could give you fifty thousand instead of five, and not feel the loss. Take it, and I need not say take care of it. Rough, simple, and uncultured you may be, Sam, but I've learned more than one good lesson from my old chum, the Lancashire pitman."

Lady Ruth also pointed out that Sam ought to take the cheque as his due, and then, of course, he gave way. Her ladyship was very kind and gracious to Sam, without being patronising, a thing that he was quick to note. She even asked him to stop for a cup of tea, and what could the poor fellow do. So for once—perhaps the first time—Sam drank a cup of real tea. Perhaps her ladyship had reason for being so gracious to one of the villagers.

That day never passed from Sam's memory. Nor was he ever tired of praising his old chum and his angel-like wife. To Sam each of them was perfect. They were spotless suns to him.

Wilson Gray devoted himself assiduously to his varied duties, striving to be just and generous to all beneath him. The beautiful summer was succeeded by a beautiful autumn. Then Wilson Gray sent his cousin, Walter Gray, a hearty invitation to visit Aldayne Priory for the partridge-shooting, but the young mineowner declined on the plea of being very busy. Perhaps he did not like meeting Ruth.

Towards the end of September Lady Ruth was confined, and to Wilson's great joy the child was a boy. Ruth was strong though her babe was but weakly, and Wilson at once wrote to Walter telling him in exulting strains that a son and heir was born to him, and that he was going to call his lad Walter Gray to show how he esteemed his cousin.

Walter congratulated his relative on his accession to paternal honours; and after he had shown his wife his cousin's letter Wilson went for a stroll through the park adjoining and belonging to the Priory.

Wilson had not been very well of late. For weeks previous to Ruth's confinement he had been nervous and irritable, as though he apprehended some calamity. His wife noticed Wilson's brooding manners, and attributed them to her own condition, and when her babe was born he became more cheerful and his nervousness and irritability almost disappeared.

'Twas a beautiful autumn afternoon. The rich red sunlight fell through the brown-leaved trees, making a variegated patchwork of shine and shade on the green sward. But the beauty of the day was lost on Wilson Gray, for his eyes had a faraway look in them, as though he were mentally reviewing some incident of his wild, adventurous life. He strode moodily along; went on right through the park into the fields beyond. Under the shadow of a tall hedge, where the grass was green and luxuriant, he flung himself with a deep sigh, and, hiding his face in his hands, muttered "Strange that I could forget my vices for so many years, and that they should rise to trouble me now," and he brushed something like a tear from his cheek.

Along the path skirting the cornfield a young woman came slowly. She seemed about one or two and twenty, and was dressed in a plain brown dress and broad straw hat. But her simple attire did not hide her lithe and shapely form, and the untrimmed straw hat only set off her sweet face beneath it, as a fern sets off a rose. 'Twas a remarkable face, and once seen was likely to linger long in one's memory. About blue-veined temples and low-white brow there clustered soft curls of tawny yellow hair. Exquisitely moulded features, a pure white skin, and, singularly enough, jet black eyebrows, formed a strange and captivating face.

She came on till she reached the spot where Wilson sat; then she stopped. Right in front of her were two paths, one leading to Aldayne Park, the other across the fields. She hesitated as though considering which one to take, and perceiving Wilson she coughed slightly to attract his attention, and her cough had the desired effect. Startled from his reverie, Wilson looked up, and his eyes riveted themselves on the young woman's face with a fearful stare, as though he were gazing upon some terrible phantom, and not a comely being of flesh and blood.

She was so frightened by the man's manner that she could utter no word, and she gazed at him with distended eyes, and this seemed to make him worse.

With a bound Wilson sprung to his feet and with an awful cry exclaimed, "Good God! it's Alice! it's Alice!" and then he fell into a fit among the long rank grass.

The woman turned as though to flee from the spot, then seeing a man coming through the fields she shouted to him and he ran to her.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"This man is in a fit, I think. He was sitting here when I came along, and just as I was about to ask him the way to Aldayne Village he fell. Do you know him?"

"Yes, it is Wilson Gray, the master of Aldayne Priory," said the man bending over the unconscious figure. "Are you going to the village?"

"Yes?"

"Well, go along that way and you'll see some men working in a field further on. Tell them to come here at once."

The woman departed, told the men, and Wilson Gray was carried senseless to the Priory. The village doctor was called in, and when Wilson came out of the fit he was insane. He was not violent, but he recognised none of those about him, and he babbled continually to himself like a child.

Sweet Lady Ruth Gray did not go mad when she heard of her husband's disaster, as some thought she would have done, nor did she even faint when the eminent physicians from London told her that they had but slight hopes of Wilson's recovery, as his reason seemed quite gone. She made some show of sorrow, but her tears disappeared when the doctors left.

Ruth had never loved her husband. The only man she had ever loved was her husband's cousin, Walter Gray, and she wondered how she would stand supposing Wilson died. Had he made a will? How had he disposed of his vast fortune?

Thus she sat calculating, and thinking that if Wilson died and left her his fortune perhaps Walter Gray might again ask her to be his wife, and he need not fear that he would be jilted a second time. The pain she had caused him should be atoned for by a life of love. She would show him how a woman could love—how he had been loved all along. Circumstance, she said to herself, had parted her lover and herself, and it would perhaps bring them together once more. How fondly she hoped so.

Evil fortune, chance circumstance, call it what you will, was bringing out the devil in Lady Ruth's character.


CHAPTER XII.—ALICE.

A delicious wild tangle of sweet, green, living things. An old English lane, deep, narrow, and winding, flanked by ragged hedges composed of hawthorn, elderberry, hazel-nut, and many other trees; the hawthorns had shed their snowy blossoms, and the elderberry trees were dotted with bunches of bright red berries, whilst amid the rough leaves of the hazels green nuts nestled. Blackberry bushes laden with red fruit shot their long thorny arms up through the hedges, and here and there at intervals along the lane the trunk of a ripe-leaved, far spreading elm or beech was built up in the hedgerow.

On the eastern side of the lane there was high ground covered by yellow corn standing breast high; on the western a rich meadow in which the aftermath was knee-deep; and along the meadow side of the lane a broad ditch ran, clear as crystal in summer time and teeming with plant and animal life, forming a rare fishing ground for a naturalist on the hunt for microscopic objects.

At a bend in the lane, just where the stile showed the path through the meadow, the ditch widened into a pond. Here the rain which fell on the high lands gushed up in sparkling bubbles, each bubble a silver globe when the sunlight fell on it. A gnarled oak, with low-hanging full-foliaged limbs, overhung the pond, making a fretwork of shade and shine on the surface when the sun rode high at noonday.

Half the little lake was bordered by the hedgerow; the other was margined by a strip of sward, where soft white silky bunches of cotton-grass, foxtail, barren-brome, and bearded darnell luxuriated side by side with the toad-rush, whose bright-green threads, each tipped with an orange-coloured knob, glistened like topazes when covered with dew.

Where the long graceful leaves of the hammersedge hugged the bank a patch of duckweed, a living raft, dotted the surface, and beyond, just under the hedge, a delicate lady-fern raised its graceful fronds, which touched, as they waved in the breeze, the slender stem of a big red-cupped poppy, last of his clan that autumn.

At the foot of the hawthorns, and creeping all over the hedge-bank, was the ground ivy, its elegant green leaves dashed with red, setting off its azure flower; and while clusters of stitchwort mingled harmoniously with the red, deeply cleft petals of the ragged robin, a climbing plant with heart-shaped leaves and big white bell-like flowers hung in graceful festoons on the brambles and bushes, and already the delicate scent of the white campion stole through the air.

On the edge of the pond a man lay gazing into its clear depths watching a great spotted eft devour a worm he had just dropped in. A water flea running from the distended tentacles of a hydra came swiftly towards the man's face, and, thinking it was going to snap at his nose, he jerked back his head and disclosed the face of Walter Gray.

What was he doing idling there that fine autumn afternoon? Had he turned naturalist after being jilted? He had been hard hit, indeed, by lovely Ruth Gordan if it were necessary for him to take up some study in order to forget her peerless face.

After receiving his coup de grace so neatly from Lady Ruth, Walter Gray returned immediately to Torleigh, feeling certain then that the jilt he was unfortunate enough to love had ruined his life. There is no pain so excruciating while it lasts, no sorrow so black for a time, as that of being jilted by one we love dearly. Such an occurrence seems to blacken the sun, and all the world seems too small to hold our woe, which is magnified the nearer we hug it to our bosoms.

For a few weeks after reaching Torleigh Walter behaved in the orthodox fashion. He was sullen, melancholy and despairing; dubbed all women devils; resolved to become a cynic, a mysogonist, and such like absurdities. Luckily, for Walter, a serious accident occurred at his pits about this time, and in the consequent hurry and work his love trouble had to take a secondary place in his thoughts.

The brickwork in one of his new pits had given way, entombing a hundred miners whose lives were in great danger, and their rescue could only be effected by much labour and daring. This startling intelligence drove all thoughts of Lady Ruth from Walter's mind. He rushed to the pit where the accident had happened, and never left it for fully forty-eight hours, when each of his miners was rescued unhurt.

Then he went home and slept long and soundly, and when he woke his heart was almost purged of its love cares. The sun resumed its natural aspect, and he even began to think that some women might be true after all.

Walter had suffered keenly for a time, for he was deeply enamoured of the fascinating, brown-skinned patrician, who had trampled so mercilessly and in such a mercenary spirit on his holiest feelings. But time wore the edge off his trouble, just as it wears the edge off all other cares, and in a few months he was able to utter Ruth Gordan's name without a twinge of pain.

"I am not such a judge of character as I gave myself credit for," Walter would say when he thought of Lady Ruth, "or I should never have fallen in love with her. She is a proud, heartless jade, unfit to marry any honest man and be the mother of children."

If ever a shadow of regret for the loss of his great fortune came into his mind it was on one account alone. Though Walter had made light of the fact that he would not be able to go into Parliament, when speaking to his friends the Haighs, still it had been a great disappointment to him. Possessed of great natural ability as a speaker; an ardent reformer; blessed with keen sympathy and humanitarian impulses, the House of Commons would have been a fit arena for him to toil in, with the certainty of ultimate success.

The nobleness of purpose which led him to resign a fortune would have helped him onward in public life. The man of expediency, who twists with every fresh gale, may win an ephemeral fame, but only the man who is guided ever by love and right can win a name that will last.

As a capitalist Walter Gray entertained ideas to which few, perhaps none, of his fellow capitalists would have subscribed. He believed that the labourer had the first right to the thing his labour produced. Looking around him what did he see? A world literally teeming with good things unfairly distributed. He saw honest men in hundreds and thousands toiling as slaves never did toil; badly fed, ill-clad, and no nearer to prosperity after many years' drudgery.

Looking beneath the surface he traced almost all the misery, crime, destitution, and degradation to one source—want; and yet there was everything in the world that man could desire. He saw the great ones of the earth—kings, nobles, and plutocrats wrapping themselves up in the clothes they never helped to weave; feasting on the fruits they never helped to grow; drinking the wines they never helped to make; not soiling their hands with toil, but stalking about the earth like little gods, while men cringed and knelt before them. And the poor labourers, who spun the cloth, raised the fruit, and trod the grapes, he saw dying in gutters or miserable hovels of hunger.

Walter saw all this, as all must see it who look round with thoughtful eyes, and he was appalled by the great mysteries of misery and pain. Quick to note humanity's ills, he perceived that it would take a new Christ to discover the remedy for them. He saw that the world was governed by the merciless and inflexible laws of supply and demand, which treated men as mere machines of labour, and not as thinking, impulsive beings, in whose hearts and brains there lived strong passions and cherished ambitions.

Before the mountain of hopeless misery which his examination of society disclosed, he felt small and impotent. Still, he resolved to do, and did, the little good he could. His mines were bringing him in a handsome income, and he spared much of it to help the deserving poor. He never gave a penny to private charities, though often solicited to do so, because he knew that only a few shillings out of every pound subscribed filtered down to the poor, and that these few shillings often found their way into the pockets of the lazy and undeserving.

Though he had never helped to build a church, he fed many a sick miner's family, and if his name did not figure in subscription lists, 'twas known and revered by all the poor of Torleigh; and, perhaps, a place in the hearts of others is as good as the top line in a donors' list, though few people seem to think so.

Earnestly desiring the welfare of his workmen, Walter set in operation a scheme he had devised expressly for their benefit. Though his pitmen were better paid than most others in the shire, he resolved to set aside a portion of the handsome profits realised for them alone. And when he intimated to his men that henceforth every person in his employ would receive each new year five per cent. on all the money earned by them during the preceding year, a wave of astonishment spread through the county, and its pulsations were felt from John o' Groats to the shores of the English Channel.

Of course Walter's brother mine owners, and capitalists generally, deemed him mad or on the high road to insanity. But as the miners offered no objection to the new scheme, and as Walter was determined to try it, the experiment went on, being watched with great interest by many besides its originator. It was the first step towards the solution of the problem of the division of profits between capital and labour, and more than one social reformer perceived its value as a lever to raise the masses.

Walter had stipulated for sobriety and industry on the part of his employés, and a year's working of the scheme more than justified his expectations. 'Tis something wonderful to see how men will work and strive to obtain even a small reward. Thousands of sturdy-minded, honest, principled pitmen rise six mornings out of seven the year through at five, four, or even three o'clock, and plod through early sunshine in summer, wind and snow in winter, and, reaching the pit, strip themselves to the skin and toil, God knows! as men ought never to toil in such an era as this.

Down in the mine I have seen these simple fellows day after day for years working till big drops of sweat rolled down their bare and steaming hides, exerting themselves so that they crawled home with difficulty when the day's work was done. And what reward can the best of them hope to win? Food and clothing for themselves and immunity from county court edicts. Nothing more! And should sickness, bad trade, or strikes come, many of them whose big families have precluded all saving, are tortured by hunger, yet they would die rather than beg.

Walter's scheme was a great success. His men were steady, and each had a bonus to draw when the end of the year came. Walter paid the bonuses on Christmas Eve, many homes were gladdened by his generosity, and when the merry bells were ringing in Christ's natal day his health was drunk at many fire-sides where the pitmen and their friends were gathered.

And Walter was satisfied. He had pointed out the way capital must take to earn the love of labour. Besides, the experiment had cost him but little. The coal trade was in a flourishing state, and the industry of the miners increased the output so much that Walter was recouped for all he paid in bonuses.

Wilson Gray had written to Walter informing him of his failing health, and also of his intention to go to France for some months. Soon after this letter came another containing the startling intelligence that Wilson Gray had become a benedict. But Walter was literally amazed when he learned that his cousin had espoused Lady Ruth Gordan, the woman who had made a football of his heart only a month or two before.

But this fresh evidence of Lady Ruth's heartlessness and mercenary nature was impotent to cause him a moment's pain. His affection for the splendid gipsy had disappeared as completely as if it had never lived, and not even a vestige of the ruined passion remained. 'Twas only when she handled him so roughly that he was able to read Lady Ruth's character aright. The glamour of love gone, the veneer of beauty failed to hide the selfish, calculating brain and stony heart beneath, and he appraised her at her true value only when she became valueless to him.

"Well," Walter ruminated, as he regarded the open letter thoughtfully, "her ladyship persuaded me to purchase Aldayne Priory, and perhaps she thought herself entitled to become its mistress. I wonder what Wilson would think of his dear wife if he knew that she jilted me because I gave his father's fortune to him. Perhaps he knows all, and resolved to have the woman who forsook me as well as the fortune I had forsaken. Yet I think he's not so unprincipled as to do a thing like that. Ten to one he knows nothing of our engagement, and she has fooled him as she fooled me."

About the time that Wilson Gray and his charming bride reached Aldayne Priory, a new element entered Walter's life. One of the mistresses of his schools had died, and he had advertised for a successor. Among the numerous applicants for the vacant place was one named Alice Wilson, whom he finally selected for the place.

Perhaps one out of every hundred women, or even men, can be so described in words as to convey a definite picture to the mind. Ordinary people are so much alike that if a woman were taken haphazard from a crowd the most brilliant descriptive writer who ever handled pen could not so limn her that a painter could take her portrait from his words. 'Tis only the extraordinary woman who can be painted on paper with the pen, but of every thousand women there is perhaps one whose face is rare enough to make pen portraiture of it possible.

Alice Wilson was such a woman. She was not one of those commonplace pretty girls so plentiful now in every crowded street, but a singularly striking woman, and beautiful too with a rare kind of beauty. Delicate features perfectly moulded and clear carven as a cameo; pure dead-white skin untinged with the faintest flush of colour, save when excitement sent the warm blood o'er her cheeks; short, full, vivid red lips; big, dense black eyes; clearly defined eyebrows as dark as the eyes; whilst about the broad brow and blue-veined temples short crisp curls of the tawniest yellow hair clustered thickly; all forming a rare and strangely beautiful face—one of those that steal quietly into a poor fellow's heart, and seldom leave it again.

Many connoisseurs of female loveliness would have said that Alice Wilson's face was a rare rather than a beautiful one. The dense dark eyes and eyebrows offered such a contrast to her pure white skin that at first one was struck with their rareness and not their beauty.

Miss Wilson seemed to be alone in the world. She took up her abode with some respectable people, and discharged her duties in a quiet, effective manner. She seemed quite unconscious of her singular beauty, and certainly never dreamt of the magnetic power of her face, which was enhanced by her kind, retiring nature.

Walter was attracted to Miss Wilson from the first moment he saw her, and soon he learned to love her with a pure steadfast devotion. His first love matched with his later passion was—


As moonlight unto sunlight, as water unto wine.


One afternoon, three or four months after Miss Wilson came to the school, and about a week or two before her ladyship was confined, Walter determined to make confession of his love to his schoolmistress, and ask her to become his wife. With that intention he strolled down the lane leading to the school along which he knew Miss Wilson walked homewards each afternoon, and waited by the pond near the stile.

The merry scholars came trooping noisily along the old lane, then he met the schoolmaster, and just as he was beginning to think that he had missed the one he sought he saw Miss Wilson come round a bend far down the lane, and he waited by a gap in the hedge, where a path led through the fields, for her coming, his handsome face flushed, and his heart throbbing tumultuously.

"Good afternoon, Miss Wilson; a splendid day, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is a fine afternoon, Mr. Gray," she replied, looking anywhere but at him, while he had fastened his eyes on her sweet face.

"You are not in a hurry, I suppose?"

"Well—no."

"Then we'll go through the fields along by the brook. It's not much further, and I want to speak to you."

They walked on in silence. Walter switched fiercely at the cornheads and his companion plucked twigs from the hawthorn hedge.

"Can you guess what I want to speak to you about—Miss Wilson?" Miss Wilson came out with an effort, as though he had thought of saying something different.

"Yes. You want to ask me about Tommy Marsh, whose father was injured last week, Mr. Gray."

"No, it's not about him."

"Then it is about Mrs. James's girl, Polly, whom you were thinking of send——"

"You are wrong again."

"Then I most admit that I do not know, and that I can't guess."

"Well, it's about you that I wanted to speak."

"About me?"

"Yes—no—no; it's about myself," he said confusedly. "I wanted to tell you that——"

"Is not that a lady fern?" she said, suddenly interrupting him. They had just come to a brook, and she stopped to look at a plant that nestled close to the water on the other side.

"Yes, it's a lady fern," she continued; "I must come for it some afternoon. I am so fond of ferns." Her usually pale face was pink; perhaps with bending, perhaps with the words that Walter had not spoken.

"Shall I get it for you?"

"If you please, Mr. Gray."

He leapt lightly across the water, uprooted the fern tenderly; plucked some long grass and wound it about the root so that Alice might carry it without soiling her soft, white fingers.

"What will you give me for this fern, Alice?" he said, as they resumed their walk.

"I have nothing to give you."

"You have plenty—you don't know how much. Give me a——" he paused abruptly. He had thought of asking for a kiss, but he changed his mind and said, "Give me a bunch of those hawthorn berries for it."

She plucked a bunch of red berries from a hawthorn that stood by the edge of the little stream, and held it out to him.

"Fasten them in my coat," he pleaded.

With a sweet blush mantling her perfect face Alice placed the berries in his buttonhole, fastening them with a pin. As she bent to her task her head almost touched his breast and a swift incontrollable wave of passion surged through his veins and he crushed her to him, kissing her again and again.

"Alice, I love you—have loved you ever since you came to Torleigh. I came purposely to-day to tell you. You'll forgive me? You're not offended, and, don't you love me?"

She shrank back from him as though his caresses were loathsome, hiding her face in her hands, and he again exclaimed in passionate imploring tones "Alice you love me, don't you—won't you be my wife?"

"I cannot be your wife—'tis impossible!"

"Why? Surely you are not married already, are you?"

"No! no! not that," she exclaimed passionately, bursting into tears.

"What, then? You love somebody else?"

"No! no! I love you a thousand times better then you love me," she said bitterly.

"Then, why can't you be my wife, Alice?"

"Because I am not fit to be your wife—or anybody's wife!" she said with passionate vehemence, and she sank on the grass, crying as if her heart were breaking.

"Hush! darling! hush! Do not cry like that. You'll make me cry too," and there were big tears in Walter's eyes as he bent lovingly beside the woman he loved so tenderly.

"Alice, tell your trouble to me," he said as he sat down beside her. "If you are free—I care for nothing—I'll marry you. Hush, darling, and tell me."

"I'm nullius filius—nobody's child. I knew my mother but not my father—in plain English I am a bastard!" she cried bitterly.

"But why use such an ugly word, darling? If that is your only fault, I hold you faultless. We are never consulted as to how, when, or where we will be born. It it were so, we should all choose to be born in the highest circle, at the happiest time, and most suitable place, and we should be all talented, virtuous, and wealthy."

"You are generous to-day," she said, as she freed herself from his embrace, "but you will think differently in a year or two. You will move in good society some day, and you would not like a wife whom people shunned and talked about on account of her ignoble birth."

"You mistake me, Alice. I love you—shall always love you, and will marry you next week if you will let me!"

"No, no! I will not consent now. If you will ask me again in a year from to-day, I will be your wife, gladly, Walter."

"Say three months, Alice."

"No!"

"Six months then, darling? I cannot wait longer than that, Alice."

"Not a day less than a year, Walter. A year will soon pass, and if you stand the test we shall be all the happier for our twelve months' probation."

"Be it so, then. But won't you tell me your history? I feel such a deep interest in all that concerns you."

"Yes, I will tell you, though I haven't much to tell. My mother was left an orphan very early in life, and was brought up and educated by an uncle, a farmer in Derbyshire. She was a very beautiful woman, and when about nineteen she met a gentleman who was staying with some friends close by. They loved, and he persuaded her to elope with him, and, according to my mother, they were married at some village in Yorkshire."

"But don't you think that they were married?"

"I fear not, for my mother was never able to recall the name of the village."

"But hadn't she her marriage certificate?"

"No. She said that some time before I was born my father left her to go home, taking with him their marriage lines and her portrait. It appears that my father had been a wild fellow, and his father had stopped his allowance, and he was going home to plead for forgiveness, but how he fared she never heard, for she never saw or heard of him again."

"I will not trouble you with an account of my mother's struggles. She managed to give me a tolerable education, and she died nearly a year ago. Some day I will show you my mother's portrait, and that of my father. I have them both in a locket that mother gave me. This is all I have to tell you."

"And your story has only made me love you more than ever. It is like a page from an old romance. You will not make me wait a year will you, Alice?"

"I must. I should never forgive myself if you married in haste to repent at leisure. 'Twill be better for us both to wait a year."

"'If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well it is done quickly.'"

"Citing Shakespeare will not affect my decision, Walter. Let us go. Mrs. Barton will fancy I have run away. See—why you've crushed and scattered the bunch of berries I plucked for you. I must get another bunch."

"And you have trodden upon your lady-fern and mutilated a beautiful frond, but never mind I'll get you another to-morrow afternoon, for I suppose that, although you have forbidden me to talk of marriage for a year, you will permit me to show you the walks about Torleigh now and again, and call you Alice when we are alone, won't you?"

"Yes, for those are pleasures that I cannot deny myself."

A day or two after the occurrence related Alice Wilson chanced to meet Walter, and she asked for a few days leave. "I want to visit a friend of mine who is going to America. She was only married a month ago and she and her husband are going to America in a week or two."

"Where does your friend live?"

"At Aldayne village, in Yorkshire."

"That's a goodish journey, and it will be rather expensive for you. Shall I advance you your quarter's salary?"

"No, thank you. It will do at the proper season. I shall get back for Monday morning."

"And mind that you keep your heart free of all Yorkshire tykes."

"I want neither Yorkshire tykes nor anybody else," she cried petulantly.

"Why, darling? why? What is the matter?"

"Nothing at all," she exclaimed rippling forth a pleasant laugh. "Why should I want anybody when I have you?"

"You pretty rogue to frighten me so. If we were not in the street I'd extort from you recompence in the shape of a score of kisses."

"Sir, I defy!" she said with a mock gravity, and her black eyes sparkled with an alluring, mischievous light.

Walter Gray glanced hastily up and down the thoroughfare, only a few noisy urchins were in sight, and he kissed her once, twice, thrice as a penalty for her impudence.


CHAPTER XIII.—THE SINS OF HIS YOUTH.


Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth,
Blasted with ecstasy.

Hamlet.

Six weeks have passed since Wilson Gray experienced that terrible shock which had unseated his reason, and the passing of that time had produced no change for the better in his condition. The demented man was not confined to his chamber, and he wandered aimlessly about the Priory and park adjoining, apparently oblivious of everything passing near him.

Wilson was never violent and the doctors permitted him his liberty, but a close watch was kept on all his movements. One phrase he babbled continually, as a child iterates and reiterates some word just added to its growing vocabulary.

"It was Alice! It was Alice!" he muttered in hushed tones, through which a tremor of awe ran. His poor, twisted brain was dwelling on some past episode of his life, and he could think of nothing else. At times there came to Wilson brief snatches of semi-sanity, during which periods he could remember in a hazy sort of way his life prior to the shock.

Lady Ruth had paid great attention to her stricken mate, and everyone thought her the most devoted of wives. She was wondering if Wilson had made a will, and if so, what that document contained. So far as her knowledge went, Wilson had never made a will, had not even mentioned such a thing; still, she thought it possible he might have made one privately and hidden it, as she had often heard of men doing.

She walked about the Priory with him, and when people were praising her watchfulness and love, sordid motives filled her mind. But if she expected her husband to unearth some testamentary document in his rambles she was disappointed, and unable to rest without the knowledge she desired, she wrote to Mr. John Braile, who was Wilson's solicitor, asking if he had ever drawn up a will for her husband.

The solicitor answered, no. Partially satisfied, Lady Ruth twisted her clever brains about till she had devised a method of ensuring Wilson's great fortune to herself in case he died, and an opportunity of setting her scheme in motion came quickly.

Unaided, she prepared a document bequeathing all her husband's belongings to herself solely. She was very careful in drawing up this paper; days were consumed in thinking it out and putting it on paper. But it was done at last, and all that was required to make the document legal, and herself Wilson Gray's heiress, was her husband's name, and the names of witnesses. She knew her power over Wilson when in his right senses, and she prayed that the cloud might lift off his mind for one short hour just to stamp her scheme with the required signatures.

When next Wilson Gray obtained a snatch of sanity he found himself in his wife's pretty boudoir. She was reclining on a low luxurious chair—upholstered to match her rich complexion—and he was seated on a buffet at her feet. He awoke to his senses to find his head in her lap; her magnificent arms thrown caressingly around his neck; her peerless face bent lovingly down to his own, and her soft liquid brown eyes were brimful of tears.

"Thank God, darling! you are better again. It seems heaven to see sense in your eyes once more. Your misfortune made my life a hell, for, Wilson, I thought you were going to die, and what should I have done then, but die too. But it is over now. You will soon be well again."

She spoke in a deep, fervent tone and her shapely form thrilled, her soft arm clung to him convulsively, and the first thing that he realized clearly was his beautiful wife's devoting to himself and his own absorbing love for her. His first words were a compliment to her.

"I would almost suffer anything to win such devotion," he said with a faint smile.

"Hush!" she remonstrated clasping him closer and closing his mouth with her sweet red lips. "We have both suffered enough already. You must get better immediately."

"I feel half dead, darling—what's the matter? Where have I been?"

"Don't agitate yourself now, dear, I will tell you all soon. Best where you are! Isn't your head easy there?"

While she spoke thus she was thinking of the matter nearest her heart. How was she to get Wilson to sign the will she had prepared? She was enduring agonies of torture. Any moment he might relapse again and his name still unwritten. How was she to obtain her end without showing her hand? While these thoughts filled her brain she was kissing and clipping the man at her knees and presently he put an end to her difficulty.

"I have been very ill I know," he said, "and might have died and have left you unprovided for. How thoughtless of me not to have made a will before. I will do so at once!"

She chided him gently for his hastiness; vowed that she did not want his money, and admitted in the same sentence that she would like their child to inherit all his father's wealth. He was firm, even obstinate, in his resolve to draw up a will there and then. She pointed out that a will was unnecessary, still he was determined, and began to talk incoherently, and she saw that his senses were going. Now was Lady Ruth's time. She seized it. The paper was bought out, Wilson Gray wrote his name; a couple of servants were called in. She placed her husband tenderly in the low chair, and when the simple domestics came in said:—

"There is a paper on the table your master wishes you to sign at once. Oblige me by doing so. You first, Simmons—now you, Williams. Your master is much better to-day and will have tea with me here. Am so much obliged to you both—please close the door."

The servants left the room and Wilson Gray was fast sinking into idiocy again. One moment a gleam of love and pride shone in his eyes as he looked on his wife; the next the light left them and looked on other things. Suddenly he shook himself as though he had been a wet dog. He was trying to shake his brain clear, and, partially succeeding, cried out:—

"Send for my cousin—send for Walter! I must see him Ruth." Then he dropped back on the chair from which he had half risen.

"I will telegraph instantly," she cried. "Do you want him particularly?"

"It was Alice! It was Alice!" he answered in reply, his reason gone again.

Lady Ruth walking about the room, her pulse beating fast, and her face flushed with the gladness of success. Satisfied with her cleverness which had made her sole heiress to nearly a million of money, she scarcely noticed the idiot babbling in her chair. She was in the midst of a world of her own creation, where all her ambitions were successful. In her imagination Wilson Gray was dead and tombed, and she was again wed, and to her old lover, Walter Gray.

The devil in her ladyship was developing rapidly.

Wilson Gray had taken very little food since the disaster, and a few days after signing the document Lady Ruth had prepared, he was confined to his bed, being still quite unconscious. The physicians held out no hopes of his recovery. They attributed his loss of reason to some great shock, but were unable to say what particular thing had occasioned it. His wife and child were doing well at the time he lost his senses, and all his mines and other financial speculations were in a satisfactory condition.

At length Wilson became so enfeebled that his death was daily, almost momentarily expected, and still he remained dead to all about him. One day, about two months after his attack, Wilson regained his senses, to the surprise of his attendants, who each moment expected him to relapse into his previous deranged condition.

Wilson gazed wonderingly around the room like one suddenly awakened from a long deep sleep. He looked about with expectant eyes as though looking for some one.

"Do you want her ladyship?" said the nurse. "She only left the room a few minutes ago. Shall I send for her?"

"No! no! I don't want my wife. I want my cousin—my cousin, Walter. Where is he?"

"I do not think that your cousin is here, but we can send for him if you want him."

"Walter not here? Why it seems weeks ago since I told Ruth to send for him. Are you sure that he is not here?"

"No. But I will enquire. Perhaps he may have come."

The nurse rang a bell, and of the servant who answered her summons she enquired if her patient's cousin, Walter Gray, was staying at the Priory, and she received a reply in the negative.

"The servant says that Mr. Gray is not staying at the Priory," said the nurse.

"Then he must be sent for at once," replied Wilson irritably. "Tell my wife that I want her at once."

In a few moments Lady Ruth came into the room beautiful as ever, and with the prettiest possible simulation of surprised joy upon her countenance.

"You want me, Wilson, don't you? How glad I am that you are better. You will soon get strong again. You may leave us, nurse, for a while. What is it, dear?"

The nurse left the sick chamber, and her ladyship took a seat, looking bright and beautiful as an angel, beside her husband, who had aged terribly during his illness.

"Hasn't my cousin come yet, Ruth?"

"Your cousin!" she said, opening her eyes with the most perfect assumption of surprise, "why, he has not been sent for, has he?"

"Not been sent for? Why I told you to send for him, didn't I?"

"No! no! I assure you——"

"I know that I did, and you promised to send at once."

"You must have been mistaken, dear. In your late condition you might easily imagine that you did, but I assure you that you are mistaken."

"I feel confident that I was right, but its no use talking about it. I want to see Walter at once. I will send a telegram to him immediately. Where is my man, Williams?"

"I will see about it going, Wilson. Do not let it trouble you," said Ruth, with sweet solicitude.

"No, I'll send it. Send for Williams."

When his valet came, Wilson dictated to him the following message:—


"Dear Cousin—Come to the Priory at once, I am dying. Must see you. Have much to tell you."


"Lose no time in dispatching the message, Williams," said Wilson. "It will reach Walter in half an hour, and he'll get here some time to-night." The valet departed on his errand, and then Lady Ruth expected that her husband would have told her why he wanted his young kinsman so particularly, but he said not a word, and soon after fell asleep. After waiting a little Lady Ruth crept from the room, wondering still what Wilson wanted to tell Walter, and if she would get to be present during their conversation.

The telegram reached Walter late in the afternoon, and he was amazed at the intelligence it contained, for he had not had the slightest intimation of his relatives illness.

Walter at once started for Aldayne, reaching the Priory a little before nine. He found Wilson anxiously awaiting his coming, quite sane now, but looking terribly ill.

Lady Ruth was with her husband, and she expected that her old lover would have been confused and awkward upon meeting her again. But Walter met her quite coolly. His eyes met hers frankly, as though they had never been "more than kind" to each other. Her crafty ladyship had been beside her husband for the last hour, thinking that if she were in the room when Walter came Wilson would not ask her to leave whilst he conversed with his relative. But her scheming did not serve her. To her intense chagrin her husband requested her to withdraw, and she had no choice, so obeyed.

"How long have you been ailing?" said Walter as he seated himself by the bed. "Your telegram amazed me. But, you are not so bad as you imagine, Wilson?"

"I'm bad enough, Walter, and feel that I shan't get over it. But is it true that you had not heard of my illness before receiving my telegram?"

"True enough, I assure you; but you have not been ill long, have you?"

"It is strange that Ruth didn't send you word of my attack. I have been ill since a few days after my wife was confined, and almost all that time have been unconscious. No one is aware of my attack, but I will tell you. I was always inclined to scepticism—I flouted the idea of ghosts and such things, but I believe them now."

"Never mind talking about it if it troubles you," said Walter, thinking that Wilson was wandering again though he looked sensible enough.

"But I must tell you. But, perhaps, I had better begin at the beginning. Well, you know, Walter, that I was a wild fellow when young. I did many disreputable things, but the worst of all is that of which I am going to tell you. A few months before I left England so suddenly, so many years ago, I had been on a visit to Elmhurst, a place in Derbyshire kept by a friend of mine, Captain Comyns. While there I fell in love with a very beautiful girl, who lived at a farm close by, and she returned my affection. After a great deal of persuasion I induced her to elope with me one night, and we were married in a little village about forty or fifty miles away—I forget its name."

"Strange you don't remember the name of the village, Wilson?"

"I don't remember the name at all. It is such a time since, and we did not stop in the place long, only a few days."

"But, at least you recollect the Shire you were married in?"

"Certainly, it was in Yorkshire. I remember that well enough. But why do you ask, Walter?"

"I thought the knowledge might be useful to me afterwards."

"Oh, certainly. Well, as I was telling you, we were married, and we lived very happily together for a short time. I believe I could have settled down and been a better man had my father but given me another trial. A short time before I was married my father had stopped my allowance, and my credit was bad, and you will understand that soon after the wedding we became very hard up. I determined to make one more appeal to my father, and this time personally. So one day I set out for Torleigh, taking with me our marriage certificate—my parents did not know of my marriage—and my wife's portrait.

"When I arrived at The Platts I found no one in the house but the servants. My parents had gone to spend a week or two with some of their friends in Chester. I was undecided what to do. I could not follow them to Chester, so at last I decided to wait a day or two for them. I placed the marriage lines and my wife's portrait in an old volume at the top of one of the book frames in the library, and probably it remains there to this day. I suppose you still live in the old house?"

"Yes. I live there still."

"Well, I only stayed a day. Then I went away, and being almost penniless, in a desperate moment, I forged my father's name. I was about to return to my wife, who was enciente, when it struck me that my father might take harsh measures against me, and I fled to America. I sent some of the money to my wife, thinking of returning some day to England. But years rolled away and I did not return, and I should not have been here to-day but for that scrap of paper I picked up in Collins-street, Melbourne.

"You know the rest of my story up to the time of my illness. The thought of what I had done in my youth troubled me a great deal after my marriage. I was constantly thinking of the woman I had deserted, and a day or two after Ruth's confinement I saw the ghost of my wife, as fresh and as beautiful as the day I first met her. I fainted away, and they say that I became insane.

"Now I think that either my wife or her child is alive, and I want you to look them up. I want to make what atonement I can, and I shall have a will made leaving the bulk of my property to my first wife and her child, if they are alive."

"If your first wife is still living, her ladyship will be placed in a painful position, and her child will be illegitimate."

"Yes, but it cannot be helped now, and I am determined to do justice for Alice and her child. You will hunt them up for me?"

"Yes, I will do all I can."

Then followed a few moments of silence. Wilson was fatigued with his recital, and Walter was deeply absorbed in thoughts, originated by his cousin's story of his early sin. Somehow the narrative had reminded him of that other story he had heard from his schoolmistress a short time before.

Could it be possible that his cousin was the father of Alice Wilson? It was not probable, or her name would have been Alice Gray. Yet, their stories looked so much alike, and—the thought flashed through his mind—perhaps his cousin had not married in his own surname. He would ask Wilson, who had not mentioned it in his conversation.

"I suppose that you married in your own name, Wilson?" Walter ventured to remark, assuming an indifferent tone.

"Oh, no, I had forgotten to mention it to you. I was married in the name of Robert Wilson. Lord Hayburne persuaded me not to use my surname, and I followed his advice, though I can scarcely tell you why, for I loved Alice Mayburne, and never intended to desert her as I did afterwards—what is the matter, Walter?"

Walter had risen excitedly on hearing his cousin say he had not married in his surname. He felt almost certain now that Alice was Wilson Gray's daughter, but would it be advisable to mention the matter to his cousin in his present condition, and after all he might be mistaken.

"What is the matter, Walter?"

"I believe, Wilson, that the child of your first marriage is alive," said Walter, reseating himself. "I am not certain, but I think so."

"Alive! Where? and where is his mother."

"Do not agitate yourself, and I will tell you. But your child is a daughter, and her mother is dead, if what I believe is true."

As clearly and as briefly as he could Walter related what he knew of Alice Wilson's history, and Wilson was convinced that the schoolmistress was his daughter.

"You must not be too sanguine, Wilson, for after all Alice may not be your child, though I feel quite satisfied that she is."

"There is not the slightest doubt about it. You must bring her here at once, and then I can satisfy myself as to whether she is Alice's child or not."

"I will return to Torleigh by the first train that I can get, and bring Alice to you."

"Yes, do. I am eager to see her. You have put fresh life into me, Walter, and I feel that I shall not die till I have seen her. And you say that she is the mistress of your school?"

"Yes, but she is something more to me than my schoolmistress, she is to be my wife."

"I am glad to hear that. My father's fortune will be yours after all. How strange all this is."

"You talk as though you were dying. Cheer up. You are worth a hundred dead men yet. You are better than you think."

"My constitution is gone, Walter. I ruined myself physically, as well as financially and morally in my wild days. What time do you think of leaving Aldayne? Lose no time."

"By the 5.30 a.m. train, which is the first to pass through the village. We shall get back to the Priory about noon to-morrow."

"Well, get back as soon as you can. Don't forget to look for the marriage certificate, and the portrait on the top shelf of that book frame near the west window. I think I placed them in an old copy of 'The Book of Martyrs.'"

"I'll find them if they are there. Some of the books have not been disturbed for the last twenty or thirty years."

"Ten to one they are there still."

"I suppose, Wilson, that you never presented your wife with a portrait in miniature for a locket, did you?"

"I remember giving her an ordinary sized portrait, I remember that I gave her a small gold locket—but why do you ask?"

"Because I remember Miss Wilson telling me that she had a locket given to her by her mother, which contained both her parents' portraits."

"Have you seen the locket?"

"No. She promised to show it to me, but I had forgotten all about it till you mentioned your wife's portrait just now."

"Miss Wilson's locket will settle all. Perhaps my wife had a miniature portrait taken from the one I gave her. What sort of a girl is this schoolmistress of yours Walter?"

Walter described Alice as well as he could, and his cousin said "You might have been describing my wife, Alice Mayburne. I feel certain Alice Wilson is my daughter. And now, Walter, you had better get an hour or two's sleep to get ready for your journey."

"Yes, I think I will I will drop in again before I go to see how you are getting on."

"You need not call again before you go. Very likely I shall be asleep, Walter. But mind that you don't sleep too long and miss the train. You know how I want to see her?"

Walter promised to mind the train, and he left the room, his mind filled with many strange thoughts. The story to which he had listened seemed more like an old romance than a tale of real life.


CHAPTER XIV.—IN THE OLD LIBRARY.

Leaving his cousin's room, Walter met one of the men-servants whom he ordered to awake him in time to catch the first train from Aldayne to Torleigh. It was well that Walter thought of this, for he was sound asleep, and would have missed the early train had not the servant called him, arousing him from a strangely mixed up dream, in which his cousin, Lady Ruth, and Alice Wilson performed all sorts of fantastic actions.

Hastily dressing, Walter glanced into Wilson's room, when the nurse cautioned him to be quiet, as her charge was asleep.

"I will not wake him," said Walter. "A good sleep will do him good. When he wakes you can say I looked in before leaving."

Then he donned his overcoat, for the morning was chilly, and set out for the station, and twenty minutes brisk walking took him to it just as the train rolled up to the platform. It was near nine when Walter Gray arrived at Torleigh. He at once hastened in the direction of the school, and he met Alice Wilson going to her duties.

"Good morning, Mr. Gray, you look tired and agitated. There is nothing the matter, I hope," she said.

"But there is something the matter, Alice, and you agreed to drop the Mr. when we were alone, didn't you."

"I forgot. But is there anything wrong at the collieries."

"No, nor anywhere else."

"But you said there was something the matter, didn't you?"

"Yes, but I didn't say there was anything wrong. The matter I alluded to has reference to yourself, Alice."

"To me, Walter?"

"Yes, to you. I suppose you still adhere to your resolve to make me wait a year?"

"Yes, but you know my reasons, dear," she said, looking at him with apprehensive eyes, as though she feared that he was about to declare he would not wait a year for her.

"And you allege as your reason the mystery surrounding your birth."

"Yes, that is the reason."

"But supposing that I had discovered your father, what then?"

"If he were my mother's husband I would marry you to-morrow. But, Walter, you have not discovered anything relating to my father, have you?"

"I believe that I have. Yesterday afternoon I was called to the bedside of a man who believed himself dying. He told me a story corresponding with the one you told me. He had met a beautiful country girl in Derbyshire; he had induced her to elope with him; they were married in Yorkshire; he left her a few months after their marriage to go to his parents, taking with him their marriage-lines and her portrait, just as you related. There is not the slightest doubt about him being your father."

"But are you sure that they were married? Did he tell you the village where the wedding took place?"

"He had forgotten the name——"

"Ah; I thought as much," said she, with much bitterness.

"But he told me where to find the certificate and the portrait. They are both in my house at present."

"In your house, Walter?"

"Yes—at least, he said I should find them there."

"Who is he?"

"He is my cousin, old Jacob Gray's son, of whom you have doubtless heard often enough since you came to the village."

"Yes, I have heard of both father and son. But my father's name was Robert Wilson—at least that was the name he gave himself."

"And my cousin told me that he married in that name. His wife's maiden name was Alice Mayburne."

"That was my mother's name."

"That sets all doubt at rest, then. You must go with me, and we will see if we can find the certificate and portrait—and you have also your parents' portraits?"

"Yes I have them at home in my box. I have not had courage enough to look at them since my mother died."

They were now beside Walter's residence, and entering, they at once made for the library, which looked very dreary and solemn of aspect when they entered. The library floor was coated with dust, and it had never been used since Jacob Gray's death. The room was much too large for Walter, who had not been in the chamber since the memorable occasion when he had fetched the first will his uncle had drawn up.

As Walter entered he glanced towards the wall on which the bookcase had stood, and a look of dismay filled his eyes. The bookcase and books were not there. When and where had they gone?

"Both case and books are gone," gasped Walter, turning his surprised face to Alice.

"Perhaps Mrs. Johnson has removed them," she suggested.

"Possibly, but it's strange she never asked me for permission to do so. We'll soon see what she has done with them."

They left the musty place together, and went to the kitchen, where the housekeeper, Mrs. Johnson, was getting some breakfast ready for her master.

"It'll be ready in a minute, Mr. Gray, shall I poach your eggs, or will——?"

"Just as you please—but where have you put the old bookcase and the books that were in it?"

"Old bookcase and books, Mr. Gray?" she queried, turning away from her culinary operations and facing her master.

"Yes, where are they?"

"I don't know what you mean? Your bookcase is right in your room, and so is the books, leastways I saw 'em there a bit since."

"I don't mean my case and books, but the old case and books which were in the room called the library."

"You must be mistook, sir. There never was any there, leastways, not while I've been here. That I do know!" she said emphatically.

"Not there when you came, Mrs. Johnson?" Walter cried in astonished tones. "Are you quite sure of that?"

"Sartin, sir, quite sartin. I was in ev'ry room the first day I came here, an' there was no case or books in any room but yours. I am sartin of what I say."

"Then where can they be? What can have become of them? How irritating this is," Walter cried, turning to Alice, who stood silent beside him. She regretted the loss of the books and case much more than it was possible for him to do. She had been building great expectations on the marriage-lines she expected to find in some of the old books belonging formerly to Jacob Gray, and now, neither the volumes nor the certificate were to be found.

"Who was your housekeeper before Mrs. Johnson came here?" Alice asked.

"Old Nanny Jones, as she was called. She got too old to manage the work, and then Mrs. Johnson came. We'll go to old Nanny at once; she lives somewhere in the town. Perhaps she may know something of the books."

"Just what I was thinking when I spoke of your former housekeeper. Whereabouts in Torleigh does she live?"

"Somewhere near the Wesleyan Chapel, anyone will tell us where old Nanny lives. Let us lose no time in finding her."

"I heard them say as old Nanny Jones was very badly," said Mrs. Johnson, as her master and his sweetheart were turning to leave; "and wasn't expected to get better. P'raps she'll be better again now."

Walter and Alice exchanged a quick glance of dismay. Each understood how much depended on the ailing woman. It seemed that she alone knew where the books had gone to, and if she were unable to tell them, they knew not where to look for them.

"Don't give up yet, dear," Walter said tenderly, "all will turn out right yet. Old Nanny has very likely stowed the books away somewhere thinking they were useless, because no one ever read them."

"But if she does not know where they are, what then? The marriage certificate and portrait will not be found, and my life will never be quite as bright as other girls are, whose fathers and mothers were married."

"I thought we agreed never to return to this subject. I care not whom your father may have been, and I could not love and respect you more if he were King of England."

His brave words cheered her heart, and the pressure of his strong hand brought the glad colour to her pale face, making it surpassingly beautiful. She rewarded him with a loving look of her big black eyes.

The very first wayfarer in the vicinity of the Wesleyan Chapel pointed out the house where old Nanny Jones resided with her daughter, a respectable woman, the mother of a large family, whose husband worked as a tunneller in one of Walter's pits.

Knocking at the door shown they were surprised to find themselves confronted by his old housekeeper in person. Old Nanny Jones, for she was thus known by all the older Torleigh folk, was a plump, good-looking old woman of 55 or 60; a cleanly, good-natured, hard-working woman, who had struggled bravely to bring up a large family, one or two of whom had been good for nothing.

"Why, Peg," said old Nanny, addressing her daughter, "it's Mester Gray. Cum in an' yo' too Miss an' sit deawn. Ah'm gradely fain to see yo'."

"I am glad to see you all right again, Nanny. We heard that you were very ill, but you seem as right as ever."

"Ah'm aw reet Mester, thank yo'. Oud Nan u'll see monny o lot whoam yet. Wus yo' wantin' to see eawr Jem abeawt that theer tunnel yo' wan't drivin'?"

"No. I came purposely to speak to you. You remember the books which were in my uncle's library! I have heard you grumble many a time about the dust they collected."

"An' so they did. I remember 'em well enuff, Mester," she said sinking into a chair.

"They are not in the library now, Nanny, do you know what has become of them?"

"Wot's come on 'em!" the old woman stammered growing red in the face, and trying to hide her confusion, which Walter was quick to notice. "Heaw should I know that?"

"I care nothing about the books themselves," Walter said, "but there is something in one of them that I must find, no matter what it costs me. If you do not know I must employ a detective to find out where they have gone, and how they went."

Nanny's behaviour had aroused Walter's suspicions, and his last words had the effect of making the old woman look uneasy. After trying to look Walter in the face she failed miserably, and began to sob behind her apron.

"If you know where the books are, tell me. I don't care whether you have sold them or given them away so that I can get them back. Only tell me at once if you know where they are."

Then Alice went to Nanny's side and tenderly exhorted her to tell where the books were, for that she knew was apparent. After a little persuasion Nanny ceased to cry, dropped her apron, and told what she knew of the books. It appeared that soon after Walter left Torleigh to reside at Aldayne Priory, one of Nanny's sons, a lazy vagabond, had got into some trouble, and so went to his mother, who was still living in the house which her young master had deserted for a grander abode.

Jack Jones wanted money to get away to America; he frightened his poor old mother by saying the police were after him, and when he got to know that Walter Gray had gone to live for good in Yorkshire he saw his way clear to some money. He pressed his mother to sell something belonging to her master, pointing out that very probably Walter would never enter the house again, and at last Nanny gave way and the books and bookcase were sold to some one in Liverpool. Two or three weeks after Jack Jones sailed to America, being still there.

"So the books are in Liverpool—or were there?" said Walter. "Do you remember the man's name who bought them?"

"Ah don't know his name, but he lives somewheer neart Museum. Yo' connot miss t'place."

In half an hour Walter was speeding towards Liverpool, and ten minutes after reaching Lime-street Station he was standing in the old second-hand book shop which lies just between the Derby Museum and Scotland-road. He knew the place at once when Nanny Jones mentioned it, and he marched straight to the shop.

The proprietor of the old book store was a little skinny old man with bright black eyes, and the tones of his voice were sweet and low as a woman's, though he was as old as some of the rusty well-bound tomes on his well-filled shelves. Walter was in a hurry so went right to the matter at once.

"You bought some books a few months ago from a person at Torleigh, I think. Do you remember it?"

"Will tell you in a minute," the little man piped pleasantly as a lark singing. "Buy so many that I can't remember all I buy, but I've some idea of getting some books at a place of that name. Are there plenty of coal pits at Torleigh?"

"Half-a-dozen or so all close to the town," Walter replied.

"It's the place then, but I'll tell you for certain in a minute." He hobbled to the farther end of the long shop, getting with some difficulty through the piles of books and magazines which littered the floor. Walter watched him into a little den, and in a few minutes he returned bearing in his hands a ledger.

"Well," said Walter impatiently, "did you buy them?"

"Yes. Here is the entry of the purchase. 'Bought of Mr. Walter Gray on twenty-fourth of March, 1872, one lot of books,' for which I paid——"

"I don't want to know what you paid for them. Have you got them still?"

"Most of them, and think I shall have for a long time; they were only a poor lot."

"Did you find anything inside any of the books?" Walter asked.

"Yes, I did," the old fellow replied, his black eyes twinkling mischievously; "Ha, ha, I see now what you are after—an old love letter, eh? I kept it, and you can have it. I haven't had time to look through all of them yet."

"'Tis not a love letter I'm seeking, though I should like to look at it. There were a few large volumes in the lot; have you got them still?"

"Every one but a fine copy of 'Fox's Book of Martyrs.' I sold it to Mr. Holden, one of our town councillors."

Walter rummaged through the remaining books, not a few of which he recognised as early acquaintances, but he could not find what he was seeking. Then he remembered Wilson saying the marriage certificate and portrait were in a large volume with clasps.

"Had the volume that you sold Mr. Holden clasps to it?"

"Yes, and fine massive ones they are, too."

"Where does this Mr. Holden live?"

"At Gladstone Villa, West Derby—good morning, if you're off."

There were plenty of cabs close by, and hailing the nearest, Walter jumped in and told the cabby where to take him. In half an hour he was ringing the bell at Gladstone Villa, and he was so fortunate as to catch the town councillor at home. Mr. Jonathan Holden was a big, red-faced, sandy-bearded man, very farmer-like and pleasant-looking. Walter liked his looks, and spoke out:—

"I believe you have lately purchased an old copy of 'Fox's Book of Martyrs' which once belonged to my uncle—perhaps you knew him, Jacob Gray, of Torleigh. I believe the book contains a marriage certificate and a portrait, which are of great value to me."

"Quite true; I bought the book, but haven't had time to look through it yet. I'll fetch it, and if there's anything in it you are welcome to what there may be. I will not be an instant."

He was back again quickly, bearing in his hands a stout old volume, with heavy brass clasps, which seemed familiar to Walter. The book was handed to the young man, who was trembling with excitement; he undid the clasp, shook the volume, and there tumbled on to the floor an old envelope. Seizing it, he turned out its contents, and discovered a marriage certificate and portrait. A hurried look at the picture revealed the face of his sweetheart, Alice Wilson; the same fair skin, perfect features, deep black eyes and eyebrows.

Then Walter turned to the gentleman beside him, saying:—

"I have no time to explain matters now, Mr. Holden. Here is my card. Some day I will tell you more. Permit me to thank you heartily for your kindness, and wish you good morning."

"Good morning, Mr. Gray," the other replied, "I am glad to render you a service—good morning."

Walter was out of the villa and entering the cab almost before the other had ceased speaking. He told the cabman to drive quickly to Lime-street Station, caught a train there soon after, and was soon back again in Torleigh. Then with glad eyes he hastened home where he had bade Alice await his return, and even as he raised the knocker the door opened, his love confronted him with expectant face, and he placed the portrait in her hands without a word.

"It is my mother! It is my mother!" she cried, kissing the picture, and letting big tears drop on it.

"A week since I should have said it was you, darling. How you resemble each other? Come in."

"Yes; but let me see the certificate, Walter. Let me satisfy myself that mother was an honest woman, and that I have no reason to blush on her account or my own."

He handed the paper to her and she scanned it attentively.

"Yes, yes, it is all right, and I always doubted my mother. How much she must have suffered God alone knows."

"We must lose no time, Alice. Your father is dangerously ill and is eager to see you. We will go for the locket containing the portraits, and then set off at once for Aldayne Priory. I promised my cousin to bring you back with me."

"Does my—my father live at at Aldayne Priory?"

"Yes. You are a great heiress now, and you will be jilting me, I suppose?"

"Isn't Aldayne Priory in Yorkshire?"

"Yes, and it is a very beautiful place."

"You remember me asking you for a few days leave to visit a friend of mine who was going to America? She lived at Aldayne."

"Yes, I remember."

"Well, a remarkable thing occurred during my visit there—at least, it seemed very singular to me."

"Indeed, what was it?"

"On reaching Aldayne railway station I found that I was nearly a mile and a half from the village. I asked the way, and was shown across the fields. I went on right enough till I came to two paths leading out of the one I was in. Not knowing which to take I paused, and glancing around saw a man seated behind a hedge a few yards from where I stood. He had not noticed my approach and stoppage beside him. His head was sunk upon his knees as though he were asleep or deeply reflecting. I was about to ask him which of the two paths led to the village when he looked up, and seeing me standing quietly beside him appeared greatly startled. Before I could speak a word he jumped excitedly to his feet, and gazing upon me with strange wild eyes uttered my own christian name, and then fell senseless to the ground. A strange thing, wasn't it?"

"It wasn't so strange as you think it. Poor Wilson mistook you for your mother, and you resemble her portrait so nearly that it was no wonder he did so."

"It was my father, then, that I frightened, Walter?"

"Yes; he thought that you were his first wife's ghost. That was the origin of his present illness. The shock turned his brain?"

"His first wife! Why, is my father married again?"

"Yes, he is married again, and his wife has a son. But his second wife is his wife in fancy only, for he married her while your mother was alive."

"I suppose that my father's second wife did not know that he had been married before, and that his first wife was then living?"

"Certainly not!"

"And if I go to the Priory she will learn that she is a dishonoured woman, and that her child is illegitimate?"

"She will become aware of her real position, that is all."

"Then I will not go. I am satisfied to know that my mother was an honest woman, and that I have no reason to be ashamed of my birth, and my appearance in my father's house would only bring misery and shame upon this woman and her child."

"But you must go, Alice! Your father is dying, and, surely, you will not refuse to see him now! Give him a chance of making some atonement for the past."

"But the amends my father intends to make is to be made at the cost of his second wife and child. To make restitution to me others are to be sacrificed. 'Twere as well to let the old wrongs remain unrighted as to perpetrate fresh wrongs."

"Have some pity on your father—think how he longs to see you. At least go and see him, Alice."

"I will go to him, but I do not pretend to understand the love that has lain dormant for so many years. I will go to the Priory, but my identity must be kept unknown to all but my father. I will not injure this woman and her son."

They were now beside the house in which Alice lived. They went in together, and when she fetched the locket the portraits it contained only afforded further proof of Alice Wilson's identity, as Walter had expected. The locket proved beyond all question the problem of Alice Wilson's paternal relative, for the male portrait it held was that of Wilson Gray, and the other likeness tallied exactly with the one found in "The Book of Martyrs."

Having procured all that was necessary, Walter, accompanied by Alice, at once set out for Aldayne Priory.

Walter was far from being satisfied with Alice's decision to retain her incognito at the Priory, and to permit Lady Ruth to believe herself the wife of Wilson Gray, and he determined to enlighten her as to her ladyship's real character.

"I suppose, Alice," he began, "that you know that the large fortune now possessed by your father once belonged to me. You will have learned so much from the Torleigh gossips."

"Indeed, I never heard a word about it. I have only heard vague allusions to Jacob Gray and to his wild son. I haven't been in Torleigh long, you know. But how was it that the property changed hands, Walter?"

"I will tell you. When my uncle Jacob died he left the bulk of his fortune to your father—whose whereabouts were then unknown—provided that he turned up in five years. But he did not turn up, and the property became mine."

"And he came back after, I suppose, and you gave it up to him?"

"Exactly. Well, at the time I held the property I was engaged to a beautiful, high-born woman. When your father appeared I gave him his own, and when I told my affianced of what I had done, she ridiculed me for doing so. She said that I was not just, but Quixotic. I was mad, she averred, to hand over such a great fortune to a drunkard, a gambler, and so forth, and, finally, she jilted me."

"Poor fellow. But you soon got over your erotic troubles it appears."

"I know now, Alice, that I never loved her, and it appeared that she didn't care about me, for in a few months afterwards she married a rich man, who was old enough to be her father."

"Who was she?"

"A Lady Ruth Gordan, and the man she married was your father, to whom I had given up a fortune."

"What! after jilting you and calling him drunkard and gambler?"

"Yes. What do you think of her. And this is the heartless woman for whom you are thinking of doing injustice to yourself rather than injure her fair fame."

"I do not think much of her ladyship, certainly. Still, it is certain that she would never have married my father had she known that he had been married before and that his first wife was still alive at the time."

"What you say may possibly be true, but it makes Ruth Gordan—for that is what she really is—no better woman. She married your father from the vilest of motives—a mercenary one—and she deserves whatever dishonour and discomfort her notions may bring upon her. Don't you think that she does, Alice?"

"Perhaps? are you not quite sure after what I have told you?"

"I think, dear that you are a little bit prejudiced against Ruth Gordan, as you persist in calling her."

"Why do you think so?"

"Because she jilted you," she said with a merry laugh.

"But, Alice, do you still adhere to your resolve to go to the Priory and after seeing your father come away without letting Lady Ruth know her real position and your own also?"

"After what you have told me I do not see that her ladyship deserves that I should practise any self-denial on her behalf. What do you think, dear?"

"Certainly not, Alice. That is what I have argued all along."

"Then, I shall remain at the Priory if my father desires that I should do so, and claim my right to be considered my father's daughter. I cannot say that I feel very sorry for the woman with whom my father committed bigamy, for she seems to be a heartless woman of the world, but I pity her child, for the poor little thing is quite blameless, and it will have to suffer for the folly of its parents."

"I am glad that you have come to that conclusion, for even if you had remained firm in your resolve to let Lady Ruth still think herself your father's first and only wife it would have been of little avail."

"How do you make that out, Walter? Do you think that my father would have told all the facts of the case to her ladyship? I hardly think that he would have done so when he learned that I did not desire to be known to the world as his daughter."

"Most probably your father would have been guided by your wishes in the matter, Alice."

"How, then, would my wish to spare her ladyship have been useless?"

"Because I would have related all I knew to her, and I would have made the world acquainted with all the ins and outs of the case. So you see that your mercifulness would have been thrown away."

"You hate this woman, and I thought you incapable of aught save love."

"I will not spare her, Alice. Such women as Lady Ruth spare no one and themselves deserve no mercy—here we are at last," he added as a rusty-throated porter shouted:

"Aldin! Aldin!" and the train came to a stop.


CHAPTER XV.—WALTER AND RUTH.

It was near midnight when Walter and Alice reached the little country station at Aldayne. They found a carriage awaiting them with the driver fast asleep inside, apparently as comfortable as though he were in bed. Walter roused the man and asked him how long he had been waiting.

"Since noon, sir," the coachman replied, rubbing his eyes. "Master gave me strict orders to wait till you come, an' they've kep sendin' men from the Priory to see if you'd com'd."

"Is your master any better?" Walter asked, as he helped Alice into the vehicle.

"Wuss, so Marby says, sir."

"Drive as fast as possible," said Walter, as he seated himself and drew up the window to shut out the chill November air, "but mind you don't turn us over, for the lane is full of holes."

"Truss me," the driver replied laconically, and his long whip lash shot out with a sharp crack, and the horse, a powerful bay, shook his stiff limbs and broke into a swift pace.

Alice Wilson sat quiet in her cushioned corner thinking of the father she was about to see for the second time, and filled with a strange mixture of gladness and regret. She was glad to think herself the possessor of an unsullied name, yet regretted to discover her father so near his death. Looking back to that morning, how long it seemed since she met her lover on her way to school.

Into the last twelve hours of her life had come more of romantic incident than in all her previous years. She and her mother had struggled for years to support themselves respectably, and the elder woman had sunk quietly to rest thinking fondly even to the last conscious moment of the handsome, pleasant-tongued man who had woo'd her so hotly, won her so easily, and deserted her and her little baby girl so quickly afterwards.

Alice had become so habituated to narrow means and the practice of self-denial that she had modified all her earlier ambitions, and her airy castles were but commonplace edifices of brick. Now, however, the future seemed to promise a new life to her. Her father was almost a millionaire; she was a poor orphan no longer. Then a quick sharp pain smote her as she remembered that her mother had died so poor and even her honour overshadowed.

"We are near the Priory now," said Walter, as he put his hand through the window and glanced ahead. "See, it is there, over the trees."

The moon had just fought through a dense bank of cloud, and Alice could see the old house plainly. Lights showed through a few windows as if some of its dwellers were still awake. Presently the carriage came to a standstill, they alighted quickly, and as they passed through the entrance hall to the foot of the staircase leading to the sick man's room, Lady Ruth met them.

"So you have come at last, Mr. Gray," her ladyship said to Walter, looking critically and curiously at his companion. "Wilson has been inquiring for you ever so often."

"I am sorry I have been so long away," Walter answered touching the tips of Lady Ruth's fingers, which had been extended impulsively to him. "Is my cousin any better?"

"He is much worse—is greatly agitated about something or other, but he is still quite conscious."

Lady Ruth still scanned Alice inquisitively, and Walter deeming it best to keep the latter's identity yet unknown, introduced her by saying:

"Your ladyship will permit me to introduce my cousin, Miss Wilson. Your husband wishes to see her. I'll see if he is ready to receive her."

"I am delighted to know your cousin, Mr. Gray," Lady Ruth said in her most amiable manner, "I am sure we shall be great friends. You must be fatigued with your journey; let me remove your cloak and offer you some refreshment, Miss Wilson."

While Alice was submitting herself to the hands of her fair hostess, Walter hurried away to the sick-room. He found Wilson Gray awake and anxiously awaiting his arrival, and the latter was evidently disappointed when he saw his kinsman enter the chamber alone.

"You have not brought her with you, Walter!" the sufferer cried querulously. "She is not my child then, after all!"

"I have brought her, Wilson. She is waiting now to see you, and there is not the slightest doubt about her being your daughter."

"You found the certificate and portrait!"

"Yes, but not where you placed them. Still, they are here, and I have also obtained the locket I told you about."

"Let me see them, Walter! Let me see them!"

Walter handed the articles to his relative, and with trembling hands and eager eyes Wilson examined the document and portrait he had placed away so many years before. Then he opened the locket and gazed upon his own features, and opposite his own face smiled that of his beautiful wife.

"I remember the locket well. 'Tis the one I gave her. Where is she! Let me see her."

"Do not excite yourself, Wilson. I will fetch her in a few moments. And prepare yourself for a surprise. She resembles her mother so exactly that these portraits seem to be hers. She it was who frightened you that day in the fields, when you thought you saw your wife's ghost."

"How, Walter? How? Tell me."

"I will send her to you, and she will tell you how it happened."

"Yes, send her to me. And, Walter, go to Ruth, and tell her all. It will be a great blow to her to learn that our marriage was illegal, and that her child is illegitimate."

"I will tell her, and I had better take these portraits and marriage lines to confirm what I have to say."

Walter left the room, went for Alice, took her to her father, and leaving them together returned to the chamber where Lady Ruth sat, looking as superb as she did when first he met her at Sir Wilton Haigh's. Walter felt quite at ease in Ruth's presence, but he scarcely knew how to commence telling her what he had come to say.

Lady Ruth seemed to be a little composed, and she glanced furtively, now and again, at her old lover. She had really loved Walter when they were engaged, and she loved him even now with a depth of passion he thought her incapable of feeling. Lady Ruth firmly believed that her old lover still cherished his former passion for her, and she imagined that he had sought her company for no other purpose than to pass the time near her whilst the cousins were closeted together.

The proceedings of the last twenty-four hours had puzzled even her astute ladyship. She had wilfully ignored her husband's request to send for Walter Gray because she knew that her old lover's presence at the Priory boded her no good. The physicians were agreed that Wilson Gray could not possibly recover, and she wanted no visitors until her husband died. Then she would be safe, but while her husband lived she wished to keep him and his kinsman apart.

After getting Wilson's signature to the document she had prepared, Lady Ruth thought all her scheming and working were done. But Wilson unexpectedly regained his senses, and persisted in telegraphing for his cousin. Then Walter came, and was closeted with Wilson for a long time. Then Walter went away again, and was expected back once more. At last Walter returned bringing with him a beautiful woman, whom he had presented to her as his cousin.

All this puzzled her ladyship very much. What had passed between her husband and his cousin during their long interview? On what errand had Walter gone when his return occasioned Wilson such anxiety! She could not find the answers to these questions, and strive she ever so adroitly Wilson would not answer them for her.

Weak to the last, Wilson Gray dared not tell the story of his youthful sin to his wife. He knew her strong passionate nature, and he feared the edge of her keen invective. He took refuge in his illness, and relegated all explanation to a tongue other than his own. So Lady Ruth still remained uncognizant of the storm which was silently gathering around her.

When Walter returned to the Priory with Alice, her ladyship's bewilderment was intensified. The sudden appearance of a beautiful cousin hitherto unknown, and even unsuspected, added fresh elements of confusion to the mass of incidents which defied her ladyship's brain to unravel.

When Walter left the two women together Lady Ruth was especially kind and charming towards Alice. She placed her in the cosiest chair in the warmest corner of the room, drew up a small table, ordered a dainty and appetising supper, and poured out some wine for Alice with her own jewelled hands, chatting all the time, and adroitly offering Miss Gray, for such I must now call her, every opportunity of explaining everything about herself.

But her ladyship's strategy was not blessed with the success it deserved. Alice might have unburdened herself to Lady Ruth had not Walter come into the room just then, saying that his cousin wished to see Alice at once. She rose immediately from her unfinished supper and left the room, and Walter Gray accompanied her to the door of the sick chamber. She went inside, closed the door behind her, and Walter returned to Lady Ruth to acquaint her of certain facts.

There are many things that women only recognise with great difficulty and a few that they will never acknowledge at all. A woman can never bring herself to believe that a man who has once been her slave can think dispassionately and indifferently of her even after the lapse of years. So it was with Lady Ruth. She felt certain that her old lover needed but a little encouragement to become her adorer once more, and that encouragement she was fully prepared to give him.

Her cruel treatment of him made her feel a little uneasy now that she was face to face with Walter again. While they were exchanging trivial common-places, she was making a quick mental calculation as to which would be the better thing to do—to make some apology for her past conduct towards him, or ignore the matter altogether. Ultimately she decided on the latter course. That settled, she resolved to squeeze some information out of Walter regarding his fair cousin, and this was the one subject he wished to discuss with her.

"How lucky you are, Mr. Gray," murmured Lady Ruth in the sweetest of drawls, "in having such a splendid cousin. I think Miss Wilson is the most beautiful girl I ever met." Here she glanced complacently at herself in a mirror opposite.

"I think so too," Walter replied curtly, disdaining to pay a compliment to Lady Ruth, though she had given him such a palpable opportunity. "And she is as good as she is beautiful, your ladyship."

"You admire your fair kinswoman, I see, Mr. Gray?" darting a swift look at him.

"I do more; I love her. She is to be my wife before long, I hope."

"Indeed!" and a jealous pang smote her heart. "It is strange that my husband never told me that he had relatives besides yourself, Mr. Gray."

"But he had, you see."

"So it appears, and he seems to take a great interest in this beautiful relative of his."

"And well he may."

"Why?"

"Because, my dear Lady Ruth, she happens to be his daughter."

"His daughter?"

"Yes."

"Poor girl, I pity her. No wonder he did not tell me about her. What she must suffer. The fruit of an old liaison, I suppose?"

"Your supposition is quite wrong, I assure you. You need not pity Alice, for she was born in wedlock. Of that there is not the slightest doubt, my dear Lady Ruth Gordan."

"Are you quite sure of this?"

"I am positive, Lady Ruth Gordan."

"Why do you persist in calling me by my old name? You seem to recollect only what I was, Mr. Gray," she said almost tenderly.

"Pardon me, but I rather remember what you are."

"What I am?"

"Yes, what you are!"

"Have you forgotten that I am Wilson Gray's wife?"

"I once thought you his wife, but I was mistaken, as you appear to be. You are simply Lady Ruth Gordan only."

"Are you jesting with me?"

"No! I simply state a plain matter of fact."

"You speak riddles. Explain yourself at once. Let us have done with all this nonsense."

"Certainly. Well, the explanation is easy enough. When Robert Wilson Gray married you, his first wife was alive. Really, you ought to have been more discreet."

"So that I am merely this man's mistress, and my child is illegitimate?"

"You use unnecessarily hard words, I think; but I must admit that they exactly represent the facts of the case."

"You are satirical."

"No, only truthful."

"And do you expect me to believe these things that you have told me?"

"I shall not be surprised if you say that you do not; but what I have told you is nevertheless true."

"It may be as you say, but I need more than your bare word. What evidence have you to substantiate your story?"

"I shall be able to satisfy you in that respect. But first I had better tell you the history of my poor cousin's first marriage."

Walter gave Ruth a brief, yet clear account of his cousin's early marriage, and how he came to leave his wife. Then he related how Alice Wilson's identity had been established by the locket, and the portraits, and it was evident that his story had impressed Lady Ruth, for when he showed her the marriage lines and other articles, she expressed herself as satisfied.

"And I suppose, Mr. Gray, that it is intended to make this knowledge public?"

"Yes. It is absolutely necessary, in order to establish Miss Gray in her true position."

"And I am to be dishonoured—to be made a theme for the gossip-mongers. Cannot I be spared all this shame? Cannot you devise some scheme to help me out of this unfortunate predicament?"

"I do not see that anything can be done. Wilson's first marriage must be made public."

"But the world need not know that his wife was living when we were married."

"True, no one needs know that."

Both were silent for a few minutes, then she said, "Do you think that your cousin will recover?"

"I fear not. He looks much worse than he did yester morning. He appears to be sinking fast."

"The doctors hold out no hope of his recovery. Yesterday he sent for Sir Anthony Thornton, and that great physician said he would not recover."

Again a moment or two of silence, then Lady Ruth rose to her feet, and confronting Walter in all her radiant beauty, with heaving bosom and flushing eyes, said, in a low, earnest voice:—

"Walter, no one knows but you who Alice Gray is. You have in your possession all the materials upon which she depends to prove her identity?"

"Yes! yes! certainly."

"Wilson Gray is dying. In a few days I shall be free. I love you Walter! I have always loved you. Destroy the marriage certificate and the portrait, and then Miss Wilson will be unable to substantiate her claim. Then we could claim all between us, and in a while we could be married!"

Lady Ruth's daring scheme amazed Walter; he was silent for the moment and she thought he was giving way.

"Destroy them at once, Walter. Don't delay a minute. Be quick before any one comes!"

"'Twould be useless to destroy them if Wilson has made a will."

"Ah! so it would. What can we do? You do not care for this woman, do you?"

"Just a little—how little you may fancy when I tell you that I would rather marry her penniless than have you with Wilson Gray's fortune."

"You've made a mistake, Walter—you mean you would rather take me penni——"

"I mean what I said, I cannot tell you how I loathe you—yes, loathe you. You are even more despicable than I thought you. I will not spare you now, for you deserve no mercy. To-morrow every servant in the place shall know that you are, to use your own words, nothing but a mistress, and your child a bastard."

Walter Gray uttered these scathing words in a deep scornful tone. Amazed by her perfidious proposals, he felt that he could not express all his contempt for her in words. He concentrated all the loathing and passionate scorn he could command into his voice, and his hot burning words burnt themselves into her brain.

For a moment she gazed at him with stupified face; then anger blazed in her big brown eyes; her full lips curled scornfully; her white teeth met viciously—for a moment he thought she was going to tear him with tooth and nail—and a mad desire swept through her to kill him, and then she swept like an empress to the door uttering not a word.

But she did not leave the room. After half-opening the door she pushed it violently to again, rushed back to where Walter stood, and flung herself at his feet in a storm of passionate tears.

"Walter! Walter!" she sobbed, clinging about his knees, "do not drive me to despair. Have some pity on me. I cannot live if you make me a theme for gossip-mongers and the newspapers. I love you now as only a mad woman can love. You loved me once; for the sake of the old days spare me this disgrace. See, on my knees I implore you to spare me."

Lady Ruth never appeared more fascinating and ravishingly beautiful than at that moment. Her thick, long brown hair had torn itself loose and hung about her neck and shoulders; her superb face was wet with tears and eloquent with passion, and her soft voluptuous form shook with emotion. Long enough afterwards Walter Gray remembered the picture she made, pleading to him as Iphigenia pleaded to her sire.

Walter was as adamant. He was human enough to cherish a bitterness against the woman at his feet. As he had suffered she was suffering. He was just tasting of vengeance's sweet cup; he would drink deeper still. He spoke, and his words and action drove every atom of womanliness out of Lady Ruth's heart, leaving her a veritable fiend.

Passion makes sad tools of all human beings at some time or other, and Walter Gray was only mortal after all. Bending low till their faces were almost level he looked steadily in her eyes. She thought he was about to kiss her, for his eyes were lit with a warm amorous light. Suddenly his face assumed a sneering expression, a mocking laugh broke from his lips and he cried:—

"The English language contains no one word foul enough to describe you. Mercenary as a Jew, cruel as fate, and wicked as the devil himself, there is nothing womanly about you save the fair form. God help the man you marry, and the children you bear? Such as you disgrace all the sex—even all humanity. I will not spare you!"

As he ceased speaking he pushed her from him, and she sprang to her feet and faced him. He expected a storm of passion, but she was strangely calm. A shiver passed over her frame, as though a chill wind had smitten her and congealed all her passion and feeling. She was regarding him fixedly, as though she had only just awakened to his real character. She thought she knew every nook and cranny of Walter Gray's mind, and lo, he was an enigma to her. Expecting fervent love, she had discovered implacable hate; instead of pliable wax he had proven unmalleable steel.

"Have you said all your harsh things, Mr. Gray?" she asked quietly.

"Not all I could say, but I think I have said enough."

"And do you still intend to publish my misfortunes to the world—to make me the talk of all the town?"

"I do; so there's an end of it," he retorted emphatically.

"And may I ask you why my misfortunes are to be punished so severely?"

"Your 'crimes' would be the fitter term."

"I fail to see wherein my criminality lies," she rejoined. "When I married your cousin how was I to know that he had a wife living. Even his fortune would not have tempted me to marry a bigamist."

"The motives which led you to marry him were base enough I know, and what has followed is but a just retribution for your sin. What a tit-bit of scandal is in store for the ladies of your acquaintance!"

"I remember you telling me once that in everything you did you strove to satisfy your conscience. Can you honestly say you are doing so now?"

He was silent. He felt the bite of her quiet sarcasm. He was removed by the remembrance of an old wrong, and not conscience.

"Spite prompts you to disgrace me. You cannot either forgive me for jilting you or forget what you suffered. But yours was not all the torture. Will nothing but repayment in pain satisfy you, and wipe off the debt? I am sorry. What more can I offer? What more can you ask?"

"Sorry, are you?" he cried, laughing that taunting laugh which almost maddened her, though she remained outwardly calm. "And do you think that I shall be satisfied with your expressions of regret. I brought to you a whole heart filled with noble thoughts and lofty aspirations. I thought you only a degree beneath the angels. You gave a new colour to my life and moulded my ambitions. And what was the end? I was discarded, because I resolved to be honest. And, now, you express your sorrow and expect to be forgiven. Half a dozen words are to be the atonement for the agony I felt—each agony as only mad, loving fools feel when their hearts are half broken by heartless jades like you!"

"Don't play the heroic. You have mended your broken heart it seems already, so there was not very much harm done. But perhaps you have attached yourself to Miss—Gray, I suppose I must call her—for the reason that I attached myself to her father."

"What do you mean?"

"Need I explain?"

"I hardly understand you."

"Miss Gray's father is wealthy. Perhaps her father's fortune influenced your choice of a sweetheart, Mr. Gray?"

"Dare you even impute mercenary motives to me? How many men would have done as I did?"

"Very few indeed; perhaps none. And I imagine that you would act differently were the chance to come again. Fortunes are too precious to be wasted on abstract ideas of justice."

"A satisfied conscience is better than riches."

"That is copybook morality, manufactured by starving wretches for the edification of dirty lads to be forgotten soon after in the fight for existence. Had you been less honest how much happier we might have been." Here a little of the old passion came into her voice and eyes, and she continued: "Don't you regret the splendid existence we have missed—lost through your foolish love of honesty?"

"I regret nothing, your ladyship," he replied, hardening his face and heart against her soft words and appealing looks. "Nay, I am even glad of what has happened."

"I need to think you were too noble to rejoice in the disgrace of anyone."

"I like to see justice done to all, and things have worked themselves out wonderfully, just like the end of a novel. 'Tis a fitting punishment for the beautiful and unprincipled schemer to have become the paramour of a bigamist, when she plotted to be the wife of a wealthy man."

Lady Ruth's shapely bust rose and fell quickly, and a dangerous glitter made her big brown eyes tigerish in their look, but she mastered her passion, and said quietly—

"You love to say ugly things, Mr. Gray."

"And you do them."

"I used to think once that you were too noble to cherish animosity against any one, let alone the woman you once loved—for I know you loved me once, if not now. You have no idea of the horror the thought of being poor gave me. I loved you—don't interrupt me—but my training and nature revolted against love in a cottage. The hell of aristocrats is poverty; their satan is work; and rather than fall into this hades and become a toiler I would have committed suicide. The God the upper ten worship is gold; the heaven they aspire to is self-indulgence. I adopted the creed of my people, and, acting according to its teachings, married a man of fortune—a high priest with yellow marks of divinity about him. I——"

"Stop! stop! of what use is all this?"

"Hear me out. You will understand me better soon. When I jilted you you thought me a shallow and heartless woman. You never dreamt of the tortures I endured; of my desires, ambitions, and love. I was between two stools, and if I preferred a luxurious existence rather than a life of love, had I not some excuse to offer? What induced me to follow the course pursued? My nature and training. And can you rationally blame me for doing that which my very nature and education forced me to do? I always said there were only two things worth living for—wealth and love——"

"And as I made over to my cousin that which you valued the more of the two you went to Wilson for it?"

"I must admit the truth of what you say. A year ago I made the mistake of ranking riches higher than affection. To-day I know that love is more than life itself, for love is that which sweetens existence. I have erred and would make atonement if you think that I have not been punished sufficiently already. The mistress of a bigamist, the mother of a bastard, do you wish to make me something lower still? If you publish my disgrace to the world I will kill myself, and will your conscience, which you always strive to satisfy, be satisfied then? This shire and your own ring with tales of your goodness; show a little of it to me. Let the story of your cousin's other wife remain unknown to the world. If you will do this I will leave the Priory as soon as possible, and Miss Gray will be sole heiress to all her father's wealth. I only wish to go away to some quiet spot with my child and try to become a better woman, and live a higher life. My baby is guiltless; do not brand him with his parent's sin."

She spoke eloquently; her voice was low, sweet-toned, and passionate; her big brown eyes seemed o'er-brimming with unshed tears, and the beautiful face had grown inexpressibly soft and womanly when she pleaded for her child. Walter had been greatly incensed by Lady Ruth's daring and base proposal to destroy all evidences of Alice's parentage, and he had a score against her for jilting him, but he was too large-hearted and generous-natured to withstand a woman's appeals. She noted the change and said—

"Well, what do you say?"

"It shall be as you wish," he replied. "Perhaps I have been rather harsh and unjust."

"Thank you. I will try to deserve your generosity. I will go now. If Wilson wishes to see me I shall be in my room." She was turning to leave the room when her eyes fell on the remains of Alice's repast, and she remembered that Walter was probably fatigued, and she had not been over hospitable to him. "I am sure you must be tired and hungry," she said, turning to him, "and I have not asked you to refresh yourself. May I order some supper for you?"

"I should like a cup of strong tea and a bit of something to eat, if it would not be too much trouble."

"Wouldn't you prefer a drop of wine?"

"No, thank you. I shall stay up all night, and a cup of strong tea will help to keep me wakeful."

"I will order you some at once," she answered, and left the room.


CHAPTER XVI.—A CUP OF TEA.

Lady Ruth left the room as quietly and apparently as unconcerned as if she had just concluded an interview with her dressmaker. But her full red lips hid sharp white teeth viciously clenched, and behind her smooth brow there lay a clever brain at that moment ablaze with thoughts of rejected love, humbled pride, mad, vengeful schemes, all jumbled together under that crown of bonny brown hair.

Just outside the door her ladyship paused a moment, then she walked towards the chamber in which Wilson Gray lay. In the passage leading to this room she found the hired nurse seated, reading, quite complacently, Wilkie Collins's "Woman in White." The door of the sick chamber was closed, and Lady Ruth said:—

"What are you doing here, Mrs. Gregson?"

"Readin', your ladyship," the nurse replied, as she closed the book, keeping one finger between the leaves, and mentally resenting her ladyship's intrusion at a time when her novel was most interesting.

"How long have you been away from your patient?"

"Ever since the young gentleman and lady came, your ladyship."

"And you know that my husband is not fit to be left for so long."

"He ordered me from the room, and when I tapped at the door a bit since I was told to wait outside a bit longer. The young lady is with Mr. Gray yet."

"Were they talking?"

"Yes."

"What about?—you know your patient must not be agitated."

"I couldn'n hear what they were talkin' about, but the young lady seemed to have been cryin', her eyes were so red and swelled like."

Without another word Lady Ruth retraced her steps till she reached the door of the room in which she had left Walter Gray. Tapping the panel with her white knuckles she turned the knob and entered. Walter was seated in an easy chair, his legs outstretched smoking and waiting for the bit of supper her ladyship had promised him. When the door opened he thought his repast was coming and was evidently surprised to see Lady Ruth again.

"You will think me a bad housewife, Mr. Gray, for keeping you waiting so long for supper," she said smiling. "Mrs. Bayley was asleep and the kitchen fire was nearly out. But the tea will be ready in a few minutes now. You might have had some wine while the tea was getting ready."

"I'll wait, thank you," Walter replied. "I'm rather sleepy now, and wine would only make me worse."

"I'll send her with the tea the moment it is ready," and with that Lady Ruth again left the room.

Then her ladyship went into the housekeeper's quarters, finding Mrs. Bayley and another of the servants seated before a cosy fire, and chatting amiably over an excellent supper. There was a suspicion of something stronger than beer in the warm atmosphere of the room, and the faces of the women were flushed with—perhaps the heat of the big fire. If her ladyship noticed the strong scent she did not speak of it, simply saying—

"Your master's cousin, Mr. Walter Gray, wishes to have some supper. Will you get him something, and make him a cup of tea at once?"

"Can have some supper and tea ready in a minute, your ladyship—where shall I take it?"

"You'll find Mr. Gray in the morning room."

"Yes, your ladyship, I'll find him," said Mrs. Bayley, as she put the bright copper kettle on the fire, and then Lady Ruth left the kitchen, going thence to her own room.

A bright fire was also burning in her ladyship's boudoir, filling the low chamber with light though the gas was turned down. Closing the door, she drew a low chair on to the tiger-skin rug, dropped listlessly into it, and stared moodily at the glowing coals.

Her face had a strange look of repose on it, but her big brown eyes were fairly alive with light, denoting the fierce working of her mind. She was reviewing the incidents of the last hour; her passion and humiliation; Walter's indifference, and her love; and his intense scorn of her actions and character.

Again she listened to his harsh, unloving words telling her that all her scheming had been worse than useless—that she was only Wilson Gray's paramour and her offspring illegitimate. In the ruddy glow of the fire she saw herself kneeling to Walter, asking him to spare her the pain and shame of exposure, and her frame quivered with passion as she remembered the contumely he had heaped upon her.

How much had she lost in one short hour. Before Walter's return with Alice Gray, Lady Ruth believed herself to be the wife and heiress of Wilson Gray, and the only woman in existence for whom Walter Gray ever cherished a warm thought.

Now she had learned that she was no wife at all, and there was small prospect of her inheriting Wilson Gray's possessions. In the sick chamber from which she had been so effectually excluded was the new heiress, and doubtless Wilson Gray had already made a new will in favour of his newly-found daughter.

Lady Ruth's even teeth clenched viciously, and a wave of evil passion swept over her heart as she recognised of how much Alice Gray had robbed—yes, robbed her. Of husband, home, wealth, and lover she had been deprived by this white-faced intruder.

For a moment a murderous impulse mastered that beauteous creature staring so intently into the fire. She was seized with a mad longing to dig her fingers into her rival's fair face; to drag out her hair in handfuls, and to beat her to death. Gentle rare-faced Alice Gray would not have been safe just then in the same room as that splendid tigress.

"He will not expose me!" she murmured slowly, her lips curling scornfully. "How thankful I ought to be. I am to drag myself away quietly to some spot and amend my ways. Wilson will die, then they will be married, and all I hoped to possess will be this woman's. Love, riches, and social pleasures for them, neglect, poverty, and social outlawry for me!"

For a moment she paused, silently contemplating the picture her words had conjured up. Then she cried out, springing to her feet:

"No! no! no! by heaven this shall not be. I'll kill myself first, and them too!"

She was walking about the room now. All the passion in her concentrated on one thing, vengeance—balm for all her pain and humiliation. To satisfy her two objects must be attained. She must have Wilson Gray's wealth and Walter Gray's love. What was life to her shorn of luxurious ease and passionate affection. Wilson Gray's money would purchase the first, Walter's heart would supply the other.

These things she desired and would have at any cost! They were as requisite to her existence as meat and drink to plodding mortals.

"But how was she to get them?"

She asked herself that, and for a time she failed to find an answer. She had so little time and room to work in. The situation seemed to defy all her cleverness. Any way out of the difficulty would be acceptable now. There she was idling in her room, and the current of events was drifting her away further and further from her hopes.

The devil in her nature was awake now and inciting her to action. Circumstance had called forth all her worser passions, and she was daring and wicked enough now to become a Borgia.

Suddenly she stopped and dropped into the chair beside the fire. The idea had come at last. A minute's reflection and her cunning brain suggested all the details necessary for working it out.

Then she jumped to her feet again, crossed the room, and turned up the gas. Not a moment to lose or her idea might be valueless and impracticable. Even now she might be too late. How long had she been in her room? What! only ten minutes, and it seemed so long. How much she had thought and suffered and schemed in that brief period. Mrs. Bayley would not have made Walter's tea yet, and if she were quick there was still time.

In one corner of Lady Ruth's boudoir stood a massive piece of antique furniture, evidently several centuries old; a kind of ancient chest with many drawers, and tall carved back. On coming to live at the Priory Lady Ruth had found the old chest in one of the rooms, and she had it carried to her private chamber, explaining to Wilson that she loved old oaken furniture.

Lady Ruth had seen a similar chest somewhere, apparently the work of the same hand, and she remembered that its possessors had pointed out a secret drawer in which had been found several rare and valuable MS. She was eager to see if this chest found in the Priory contained a similar feature.

It did; and its contents greatly surprised her. The discovery had never been made known to any one; the contents of the old chest had a powerful attraction for her, amounting almost to fascination. What she had found in the secret drawer she had handled often, wondering much as to who had hidden the things there and for what purpose. There was a halo of mystery about the matter, and this had proved irresistible to her ladyship.

She was glad now that she had kept the discovery to herself. She would test the contents of the drawer at once.

Bending down beside the chest she placed a finger-tip on a knobby portion of one of the chest's carved feet, pressed firmly, and the side of the chest moved slowly out, disclosing a wide tall bookcase-sort of chamber, with shelves five or six inches in depth. On the lower shelves were several curiously shaped phials, on the higher ones a few rusty books, and some sheets of yellow manuscript.

'Twas but the work of a few moments to open the chest, and pick up one of the phials labelled Phthoxania, draw the tight-fitting glass stopper, and turn some of the contents into her palm. Then she closed the door of the secret chamber after replacing the phial, and left the room, going towards the housekeeper's quarters at a quick pace.

"Am just taking the supper up, your ladyship," said Mrs. Bayley, apologetically, for she thought Lady Ruth had come to hurry her on with Mr. Gray's supper. "Have made him a good cup of strong tea, which he'll like—does he take milk with it?"

"Let me see the tea, Mrs. Bayley," said Lady Ruth pleasantly. "Mr. Gray is very particular about his tea—doesn't like it stewed, you know."

"It's just drawn off, your ladyship."

"It will do nicely; give me a drop of it; I feel rather thirsty, and it will help to keep me awake."

Mrs. Bayley went for another cup, the other servant had departed, and Lady Ruth quickly dropped the small portion of tea-like stuff she held in her hand into the pot. Mrs. Bayley came with the cup, poured out some tea, sweetened it, and gave it to her mistress, who sipped it, or appeared to do so.

Mrs. Bayley hurried away with Walter's supper, and Lady Ruth tossed her mugful of tea behind the big kitchen fire, where it hissed and sputtered as though it were declaiming against such treatment. Then she went back to her pretty chamber, dropped into the luxurious chair, placed her feet on the fender, her elbows on her knees, her hands under her chin, and reverted to her old occupation of staring into the red mass of coal, fashioning with her fancy pictures there.

She had taken a dangerous step. What would be the result? Perhaps success; and the fruition of all her ambitions—perhaps discovery and punishment. But the latter was hardly probable. No one in the Priory—perhaps no one living—knew of the existence of the drug she had mixed with Walter Gray's tea, and which he had very likely partaken of by that time.

What if the drug failed to do what was claimed for it? In that case all her daring would have been wasted! She knew nothing of the stuff, some one had called Phthoxania, save what she had learned from the yellow manuscript in the antique chest. The writer might have overestimated its properties, and the whole thing prove a farce.

Then another thought came, sending a sharp pang through her. Suppose the power of the drug had been understated, and its effects were fatal? Good God! Perhaps she had killed him! That would be a fearful ending to all her daring scheming!

This thought forced big beads of sweat to her ladyship's brow, and she rose to her feet pacing uneasily about the room. What was Walter doing at that moment? Had he drunk the tea. She could not withstand the suspense much longer. If no word came soon she must go and see what had been the result of her scheme.

Another turn or two about the room, then she heard sounds of feet in the corridor outside, next a hurried knock at the door. Hastily turning up the gas she flung herself into the chair previously occupied, assumed a negligent attitude, and said, languidly:—

"Come in."

Mrs. Bayley entered, white-faced and too fluttered to find speech easy. At last she managed to exclaim: "Mr. Gray! Mr. Gray!"

"What of him? What is the matter, woman? Speak, can't you?"

"He's in a fit or something?" Mrs. Bayley gasped.

"Where is he?"

"In the room where he had his supper."

"Who's with him?" This was asked as Lady Ruth hurried out of the room with the scared housekeeper at her heels.

"Mrs. Gregson. I told her first and she sent me to you."

"Go and awake some of the men at once. Send one of them for Dr. Fleming, and let some of the others come to move Mr. Gray."

Entering the chamber in which she had left Walter less than half an hour before, she found the nurse bathing Walter's forehead with cold water. He lay on his back on the carpet, an overturned chair beside him and a broken teacup a few feet away. He seemed to have been seized whilst at supper, for some fragments of meat were on the table and the cloth was wet with tea.

"What is the matter with him, Mrs. Gregson?" Lady Ruth said tenderly as she bent over Walter, laying her soft white hand on his burning brow.

"Seems to be only a fainting fit, your ladyship."

"Nothing worse?"

"Think not. Anxiety, trouble, or something like that. He'll come round in a bit."

"What must I do. A doctor must be sent for, of course. I have told Mrs. Bayley to rouse the servants and send one of them."

"I don't think a doctor is wanted, my lady. See, he's comin' round now."

Walter began to show signs of animation. He lifted his arms, twisted on the floor, but his face still remained deadly white with a strange expression on it. Presently he opened his eyes for a moment, stared about him vacantly, but did not seem to recognise either Lady Ruth or Mrs. Gregson.

"Mr. Gray," cried Ruth tenderly, "You are better now, you will be all right soon. Speak to me."

"He'd p'raps like a drop of brandy, my lady," suggested the nurse, but Walter did not take the slightest notice of what either of them said. He closed his eyes again, was as quiet as before, but breathing heavily like a tired sleeper.

"He's sleepin' now," said the nurse. "Couldn't do better. Sleep's better than physic. Let him be put to bed, and he'll be all right when he wakens. See if he isn't."

"Perhaps it will be the best thing to do," her ladyship murmured, her voice denoting great concern. "The servants are here now."

Just then Mrs. Bayley and two men-servants entered. Lady Ruth bade them carry Walter into one of the nearest bedrooms. When the men had carried Walter out she turned to Mrs. Bayley, saying to her—

"Has any one gone for a doctor?"

"Not yet, but Mr. Williams will be here in a minute. I told him to be quick."

"He need not go now. Mrs. Gregson says a doctor is unnecessary. Mr. Gray has only fainted, and will be all right in the morning after a good sleep."

"He'll be all right when he wakens," Mrs. Gregson iterated.

"How is your patient, Mrs. Gregson?"

"Must be all right—I mean no worse, or the young lady would have let me know. She's been with him for nearly an hour now, and it's time he had his medicine."

"Do not tell your patient, or the young lady, of Mr. Gray's illness. 'Twould only upset them, and matters are serious enough already. You go, Mrs. Bayley, and watch by Mr. Gray for awhile; and you, Mrs. Gregson, had better return to your patient; he may need you any time."

"So I was thinking," said the nurse, and she moved towards the door.

"I wish to see my husband the moment he is at liberty, Mrs. Gregson. Let me know the moment he is alone."

"I won't forget, your ladyship," and then she returned to 'The Woman in White.'

Left alone in the room, Lady Ruth walked to the table, took up the teapot, lifted the lid, and looked inside. About a cupful of tea still remained in the pot. It must be got rid of immediately. Whilst she was considering how to get rid of it there was a tap at the door, and then some one entered. The blood rushed to her face, and she confronted the intruder guiltily. 'Twas Williams, Wilson Gray's valet.

"Mrs. Bayley said you wanted me, your ladyship," he said very humbly.

"I did want you, Williams, but I don't need you now. If I do require you I will send for you."

She spoke very pleasantly to the valet, and he left the room. Then she seized hold of the pot, placed it under her arm, and the lace shawl thrown over her shoulders was pulled down to cover it. This done, she returned to her boudoir. There, she thrust her slim hand into the pot, pulled out a handful of leaves, and examined them close to the gaslight.

The tea leaves were plainly distinguishable by their serrated edges, and among the dark mass of tea leaves were to be seen small atoms of crimsoned-coloured matter. 'Twas the drug she had dropped into the pot, and whose direful potency Walter's condition fully attested.

She was very glad she had brought the teapot and its contents with her. No telling what might have been discovered had she left it in the morning-room. She placed the handful of leaves among the hot coals, allowed every drop of liquid to drain from the pot, then she cleaned out the remaining leaves, and dropped them also on the fire. After cleaning out the pot she put it away in the secret recess of the antique chest.

The teapot was a pretty bit of Wedgewood, quaint shaped, and rare, and Mrs. Bayley would be hunting high and low for it. It was not very probable that the housekeeper would find her piece of crockery.

Walter Gray had been put to bed, and there he lay still asleep, and breathing heavily. His face was rigid and ashen-hued, and a strange expression hovered over his features. Mrs. Bayley was seated by the bed and Lady Ruth was standing beside it, gazing intently on the pale face of the man she loved so passionately.

"Has he never regained consciousness?" Lady Ruth asked.

"No, he's never stirred since they put him there. His face would frighten me if he did not breathe so hard. I think he's very bad."

"Perhaps it would have been better if we had sent for Doctor Fleming." Lady Ruth stooped low till her lips almost touched the sleeping man's face.

"Perhaps," returned Mrs. Bayley. "But Mrs. Gregson said he would be all right, and she's had lots of experience."

"Will you get me a drop of wine or something, I feel tired and faint. I'll wait here by Mr. Gray till you return."

"Certainly, your Ladyship," and the housekeeper hurried away.

Walter Gray's clothes were thrown over a chair-back. Walter was still slumbering, and as the door closed on Mrs. Bayley Lady Ruth picked up Walter's coat, felt in the pockets and drew forth the marriage lines, the locket, and portrait he had shown her a while before. She had noticed the pocket in which he placed them, and found them at once. She glanced over them to make sure she had got what she wanted, then she thrust them into her pocket.

When Mrs. Bayley came back she found her mistress sitting quietly by the bedside. Lady Ruth drank the wine with a great show of pleasure, and appeared to be greatly benefited thereby. Then she rose, thanked the other, and said:—

"You will let me know how Mr. Gray goes on. I'll send someone to relieve you as soon as I have been to see my husband."

"I'll let you know, my lady, and you don't need to trouble about any one. I can manage till morning."

"Reading still, Mrs. Gregson?"

"Yes."

"And the young lady and my husband?"

"Are still together."

"What does this mean? Wilson is too seriously ill to be neglected for such a length of time. You ought to have returned long since."

"I'm only a servant, my lady, and he gave me positive orders not to enter the room till I was called for."

"But I cannot allow him to endanger his life to gratify this woman's whim. Very likely she is telling him something of an exciting nature, and who knows what may be the consequence. I will wait no longer. Come with me—hush!"

They paused by the door of the sick room and listened. All was still within. Not a word or sound of any kind fell on their attentive ears.

"Shall I knock?" said Mrs. Gregson.

"Is the door locked?"

"No!"

"Then we'll go in," and they entered, Lady Ruth opening the door and going first. Just inside the chamber they paused and glanced towards the bed, and their eyes met an unexpected sight. There in a chair sat Alice Gray asleep, and Wilson Gray seemed to be slumbering also. Overcome with fatigue, probably, Alice had laid her head against the chair-back and dozed off in a moment.

"Poor thing, she's quite knocked up," said Mrs. Gregson, and Lady Ruth stepped lightly across the room, and touched Alice on the shoulder. She started up, and for a moment or two did not know where she was. Then she remembered.

"How neglectful I am," she cried, "to fall asleep; but I was so tired. He is still asleep, it seems; and when he was dozing off he told me not to leave him. A long sleep will do him good, won't it?"

Wilson Gray was laid on his side with his face turned from Alice and the other two. Alice spoke very low so that he would not be awakened.

"Yes, it will do him good," Lady Ruth answered.

"Much good, indeed," Mrs. Gregson ventured to remark.

Then Lady Ruth went up to the bed, bent low over Wilson, and looked into his face. Suddenly she sprang upright with a cry of dismay.

"What's the matter!" Alice asked, rising from her chair.

"He is dead!" her ladyship answered in a low, awed tone.

"Dead!" cried Alice and the nurse in a joint whisper.

"Yes, dead. He is quite cold now."

"God forgive my neglect!" cried Alice, the tears filling her eyes, "for when he was dying I slept."

"And I wasn't at my post," sighed poor Mrs. Gregson. "But it wasn't my fault."


CHAPTER XVII.—A GLASS OF WINE.

When Walter quitted the room, leaving father and daughter together, neither Wilson nor Alice spoke for a moment or two. The sight of Alice's face had brought to Wilson Gray his youth with all its wildnesses, follies, and its one pure passion. The sweet maid he had wooed 'mid Derbyshire's beautiful peaks and dales lived again in her equally beautiful daughter.

"A sad meeting this, my dear," said Wilson, through thick sobs. "'Tis sad enough when the father has to bemoan his child's sins and follies, but it is a thousand times sadder still when a child has to weep over and excuse a sire's moral shortcomings. How can I ask of you to think of me as your father—how expect you to reciprocate the love I already feel? How can you think but harshly of me when I deserted your mother ere you were born, staying away from England for more than a score of years; and during all that time, little caring and seldom enquiring how either of you were faring. And even after I came into possession of my father's fortune, I never thought of seeking my wife and child. I only did so when frightened to it."

"Walter says it was you whom I saw that day in the fields, and as true as there's a God above us, I thought you your mother's ghost. Perhaps heaven sent you to me as a warning. I am thankful now for it. We meet late in life, dear, but not too late. There is yet time for contrition and restitution—contrition for your mother's suffering, and restitution for her child—and mine.

"I cannot hope to ever hear you call me father. I have sinned too much, and my punishment must be in proportion. Father is a blessed word I shall never hear from lips of child of mine, and I—I deserve it all."

His words came slowly and his tears fast. He covered his pallid face with his lank hands, and the big, bitter tears trickled through his fingers. His weak frame shook with emotion, and he presented a powerful picture of intense shame and passionate regret.

Alice Gray had come to Aldayne Priory with no great love in her heart for the father who had deserted his wife and child. She was no romantic young lady, eager to fling herself into a new-found father's arms. Her reason told her that her sire was a weak, foolish, and erring mortal—if nothing worse—and she had told herself that in such a case as hers parental love could not be born in a day.

But her father's tears melted all her reserve and his appealing, sorrowful words awoke all the sympathy in her big womanly breast. Her eyes grew moist, filled with tears, a big lump rose in her throat, and she burst out:—

"Father! dear father, do not cry so. Forgive me for being so undaughterly. Father, let me comfort you—let me kiss you!"

Need I record it that Wilson Gray permitted his rare-faced child to kiss and kiss him again and again. And those warm kisses made father and daughter feel much better and easier of mind. They conversed more freely after that.

"And now, darling, tell me something about yourself. When did your mother die?"

"Last Christmas. I buried her in a pretty cemetery just outside Manchester."

"She died broken-hearted! Good God! what I have to answer for!"

"No, not broken-hearted. But her life was not what it deserved to have been."

"She thought me all bad, like the rest of my friends thought me?"

"No! no! She believed in you to the last moment. Robert Wilson was the last name on her lips. I doubted you, but she never swerved in her belief."

In his weak, failing voice he plied her with many questions. She had to relate in detail all her early life, her mother's struggles to clothe, feed, and educate her child respectably. How her mother had stitched away all day to buy them bread, and taught her to read when work was scant.

He lay contentedly on his pillows, Alice's hand lying between his own damp palms, watching every varying expression of her sweet rare face, discovering every moment some new resemblance in it to that of the maid's he had loved, wooed, won, and deserted in the wild, mad days of his youth.

"There is one thing, Alice," said Wilson fervently, "which gives me great satisfaction. You are to be my cousin Walter's wife?"

"Yes," she answered shyly, a blush lighting up her pale face and making it irresistibly sweet and alluring.

"Had I all the world to choose from he is the one I would name as your husband. There is not his like in all the land—what's that?"

"Some one at the door."

"Send them away, then. Don't let any one come in. We can't be disturbed by anybody—only Walter."

She went to the door. The nurse was there, and Alice told her to wait awhile. Then she returned to her father's side, and the interrupted conversation was renewed.

"How fortunate it is, dear, that you and Walter are sweethearts. The fortune my cousin gave up so nobly will be his again, and my child's too. I've made no will yet, but I'll make one to-morrow. Perhaps a will is unnecessary, but we had better be sure."

"Don't let it trouble you, father."

"Now, I won't, but to-morrow I must. I am tired now—quite sleepy. If I fall asleep don't leave me. I like to think of you watching by my side."

"Let me fetch Walter."

"He is busy I daresay."

"Busy, father?"

"Yes, dear. He is breaking the news to Lady Ruth of my first marriage. To-morrow I must arrange about her and the child. Don't leave me, Alice; don't leave me. I am so tired."

She promised, and he fell quietly asleep. She struggled awhile to keep awake, but she had been awake long and the incidents of that eventful day had tired both body and mind. In a few minutes more her eyelids sunk on her cheeks, her head pillowed itself against the back of the chair, and she also slumbered.

The touch of Lady Ruth's hand roused Alice to wakefulness, and, waking she found that whilst she slept her father had passed peacefully and painlessly away.

"Where is Walter? Where is Mr. Gray?" Alice cried, turning from her father's stony face.

"Come to my room—come at once; this is no place for either of us."

Lady Ruth placed her arm round Alice's waist, and led her unresistingly away. Her ladyship was evidently greatly moved, thought Alice, by Wilson Gray's death. Her eyes were full of tears, her voice thick with emotion, and Alice felt very kindly towards Lady Ruth for evincing such sorrow at her father's death.

Lady Ruth had well considered the terrible task she had set herself. The part she had to play was both difficult and dangerous, but she had commenced the work, and was resolved to carry it through. The first half of the scheme had succeeded grandly, and she had no doubts as to being able to succeed with the rest.

Lady Ruth led Alice from the chamber of death, and outside the room the latter again enquired for her lover. Just then her ladyship wished to be rid of Alice, as she wanted to speak to Mrs. Gregson, and she addressed one of the men who helped to carry Walter to bed, who happened to be loitering about.

"Here, Simmons," she said, "you know Mr. Gray's room, show this lady there. You must excuse me, my dear, I have so much to arrange. This is a sad business, but we must meet it bravely. I will see you again in a few minutes."

Alice and the servant went away, then Lady Ruth turned to Mrs. Gregson, her big brown eyes still full of moisture, and her voice tremulous with suppressed emotion.

"This is a great trial for me, Mrs. Gregson," she murmured, placing one hand on the nurse's shoulder for support. "My husband dead and his relative taken seriously ill. Mr. Walter would have been a great help to me had he been well. I hardly know what to do. It is the first time death has ever come so near me. I know you will help me, and I will not be ungrateful. You have had experience of these sad things, and will advise me."

"I will do all I can, my lady," cried the nurse warmly, quite won by Lady Ruth's amiable words.

"I know you would, Mrs. Gregson; I knew you would not desert me. I shall telegraph for my mother the first thing in the morning. And until she comes do whatever you think best. The servants are all at your disposal, and will do whatever you may wish done. My housekeeper, Mrs. Bayley, is almost as unused to these sad things as I am, and she will be glad to help you."

"Don't let it trouble you, my lady; I'll take charge of everything till the Countess comes."

Lady Ruth's troubles seemed to have affected her greatly; she still lingered with Mrs. Gregson, and said presently in quite a friendly tone—

"Poor Miss Wilson! I am so sorry for her, she seemed greatly affected, didn't she?"

"Is the young lady named Wilson?" asked the nurse.

"Yes, I am so sorry for her."

"She seemed greatly put about, my lady; she did indeed."

"And no wonder, poor girl!"

"Indeed! Why?" the nurse ventured to ask, for Lady Ruth had spoken in a tone which almost asked for, and certainly invited questioning on the subject of Alice Wilson, as her ladyship had called Alice Gray.

"My poor husband was her father."

"Her father, your ladyship?" Mrs. Gregson blurted out.

"I must admit that such is the case. She is illegitimate, of course—the child of some poor ignorant girl Wilson led astray in his wild, young days. Still, she is his child for all that, and I respect my husband's memory all the more for wanting to see her before he died, and placing her above the reach of poverty."

"Well, I must say I never should have thought of such a thing!"

"Very few people know about it, and there is nothing to be gained by letting the world know. I know I can trust you. Miss Wilson will be going away early—the sooner the better, don't you think so? for people might begin to wonder who she is."

"Just so, your ladyship, for people will talk, you know, if they got the chance."

"Those people who did not love my husband would only be too glad to get hold of anything against him to blacken his memory. But I will not give them the chance. And if the matter became generally known it would make Miss Wilson's position very uncomfortable, wouldn't it? She is not to blame for her mother's weakness, and I will do what I can to hide the knowledge of her ignoble birth from the world."

"There's not many would have done so much as you, my lady."

"I am only doing my duty. I'll go now. I am so tired. Good night, and thank you very much."

Lady Ruth walked slowly away, and the nurse looked after her, thinking what a good creature she was. Her ladyship had good reasons for telling Mrs. Gregson so much. 'Twas a detail of the daring and elaborate scheme she was working out.

So far all had gone well. Walter Gray was out of the way for the present; Wilson Gray was dead, and she was heiress to all his wealth if he had not made a will within the last twenty-four hours. Whether the man had made a will or not she would soon learn from Alice Gray, who was certain to know.

Luck, or circumstance, call it what you will, seemed to favour Lady Ruth, and she was eager to complete her work. The greatness of the prizes for which she was working precluded the possibility of turning back. She was fully prepared now to go to any length to accomplish her ends. All the better instincts of her nature were dead for the time. A devil was in her heart, and guiding hand and brain.

She had set herself a goal, and would reach it, no matter what she had to trample under foot on the way. She had a right to use all her force of intellect to further her own ambitions; statesmen and warriors did so, why not she also? In the "struggle for existence" the weak must necessarily suffer. 'Twas only natural that the strongest should survive.

There were a few holes in Lady Ruth's moral code, and she attempted to fill them with bits of philosophic putty.

* * * * * * * * * *

Simmons took Alice to the door of the room, in which Walter lay, and pointing to the closed door said—

"Mr. Gray is there, ma'am."

Then the man went on his way. Alice tapped at the door, and some one, not Walter she felt sure, said—

"Come in."

She opened the door and entered. She glanced round the room, saw a bed in which somebody was laid, and a woman sat beside it. She started back in confusion, saying—

"Pardon me! I have made a mistake. I wished to see Mr. Gray, and one of the servants sent me here in mistake."

She was on the threshold of the room, her hand on the door, ready to retire when she was startled by hearing Mrs. Bayley, the woman seated at the bedside, say—

"Mr. Gray is here, Miss."

"Here? Where?" Alice cried.

"In bed, poor thing, and looks likely for remaining there for many a day."

"My God! What is the matter with him?" And the affrighted girl started to the bedside, where she gazed with tearful eyes and tender loving looks on the white senseless face she saw there.

"He's very poorly, my dear; very poorly indeed. Had a fit or something of the sort; didn't you hear about it?"

"Not a word, not a single word! When did this happen?"

"Perhaps half an hour since, or maybe three-quarters. He was taken sudden like while having some supper. I was serving him and went out of the room for a minute, and when I got back I found him lying white and senseless on the floor."

"And what does the doctor say of Walter's sudden attack?"

"No doctor's seen him."

"How's that! Surely one ought to have been sent for immediately."

"Mrs. Gregson—the woman who is nursing master—has seen lots of such cases, she says, and it's only a fainting fit, she thinks. She says he'll be all right after a good long sleep."

"This looks more like death than sleep. The woman may be mistaken, and he may be seriously ill—may perhaps die. A doctor ought to be sent for at once."

"Just as I think, Miss."

"Does your mistress know of this?"

"She does. I fetched her first when it happened."

"And why did she not send for a doctor?"

"She wanted to do so, but Mrs. Gregson said 'twasn't any use. He'd be all right in the morning."

Just then the chamber door opened and Lady Ruth glided in. There was a look of sadness hovering o'er her face, and her eyes seemed red with crying. She went up to Alice, saying sorrowfully:—

"How cruel it was of me to let them bring you here. I forgot that you did not know of Mr. Gray's attack. I am so sorry for my negligence. What a terrible shock it would be to you to come here and find him lying there like that."

"It was. How deathlike he seems? Don't you think that a doctor ought to be called in to see him?"

"I thought so at first, but was advised by Mrs. Gregson not to send for one, as Mr. Gray's attack was only the result of fatigue and would pass off after a sound sleep. Still, if you wish it I'll send for a doctor at once."

"I do wish it!" Alice cried firmly. "I shall feel much more satisfied when a doctor is in attendance on him."

"Mrs. Bayley, go at once and order Williams to fetch Doctor Fleming. I shall feel easier myself when a medical man has seen him."

The housekeeper went on her mission, and then Lady Ruth said:—

"Will you allow me to show you to your room now, Miss Wilson? I know how tired you are with all to-day's anxieties. I am almost dead myself from sheer fatigue."

"I would rather stay here," said Alice quite naively.

"Here?" Lady Ruth exclaimed in great surprise.

"Yes, here," Alice replied firmly. "He seems to be seriously ill, and my place is near him, your ladyship."

"Whatever makes you think so, my dear Miss Wilson. True Mr. Gray is my husband's cousin, but that is no reason why you need kill yourself by watching by his bed."

"Oh, I forgot!" Alice stammered, her pale face reddening with sweet shame. "Perhaps you do not know that Walter and I are engaged."

"Engaged?"

"Yes; did he not tell you?"

"Certainly not. And even if you were engaged that will not justify your staying here alone. My servants do not know of your engagement, and would not think too well of you for your self-denial."

"Still——"

"Not a word now, Mrs. Bayley is returning. In any case it is better not to stay here. You will be ill yourself shortly, and one dead person and another ill one are quite enough. Come with me, I have much to tell you."

Mrs. Bayley came in and announced that Williams had gone for the doctor, then Alice and Lady Ruth went out of the room together. At the door her ladyship remarked:—

"I have had a room prepared for you and some slight refreshment. I will accompany you there and we can have a chat. How you surprised me when you said that you and Mr. Walter Gray were engaged. From what he told me I should never have dreamt of such a thing."

"What did he tell you?" Alice asked, looking suspiciously at her companion. But Lady Ruth did not answer Alice just then.

"This is the room, Miss Wilson"—opening the door. "They've lit a fire, I see. An old room but a comfortable one. Excuse me a moment, my dear, I'll be back directly."

Alice went into the room and dropped into a chair on one side of the fire burning in an old-fashioned grate. Lady Ruth saw Alice seated, then she darted away to her boudoir. Going in, she locked the door, crossed the room to where the antique chest stood, dropped on her knees, and opened the secret chamber. Again she took up the curiously shaped phial, drew the stopper, and shook out a small quantity of the tea-like stuff it contained into her hand.

Then she put back the phial, closed the secret door, jumped to her feet, unlocked the boudoir door, and in half a minute more she was seated in an easy chair opposite Alice.

The room in which the women sat was one of the oldest-looking in the Priory. Most of the other apartments had been renovated according to modern ideas of beauty and comfort. But this chamber had been left its oaken wainscot and floor, yet it did not look an uncomfortable place, with a big fire glowing cheerily in the grate and casting shadows about the corners and behind the chairs.

A thick carpet of some rich, soft Turkish stuff covered the polished floor, and some ornaments on the carved mantelpiece, and a few pictures relieved the room from gloominess. The gas was burning low when Alice entered the room, and it was still turned down when Lady Ruth returned. The half light made by the fire accorded with Alice Gray's thoughts just then, and it suited her ladyship's purposes admirably.

"This is a strange experience for you, and a sad one, Miss Wilson," said Lady Ruth as she seated herself. "I understand that you have seen your father for the first time to-night. Strange and sad that the first time should be the last time also."

"Walter told you then that Wilson Gray was my father?"

"Yes, he told me all there was to tell, I think. I was very much surprised, of course, and, perhaps, a little hurt at first to think that Wilson could have done such a thing. But his death has swept all my petty anger away. Believe me, Miss Wilson, I could not respect you more were you the daughter of a duchess. You are not to be held responsible for the weakness and folly of your parents. We are all mortal, and the best may err. No doubt your father will have dealt fairly by us all in his will. You are his child quite as much as mine is, and have equal moral if not legal claims upon him."

"He has made no will. He said so only a short time before he died. He said he would make one to-morrow, never thinking the end was so near. But," Alice continued, looking at the other, "I hardly understand what you mean when you speak of me not being held responsible for the weakness and folly of my parents? And again, when you spoke of equal moral, if not legal claim's upon my father!"

"Really, Miss Wilson, I do not care to speak more plainly. It is such a delicate matter that one can hardly hope to touch it without giving offence. Surely you know what I mean?"

"I do not. I fancy you are labouring under some mistake. But tell me plainly what you mean?"

"You leave me no choice, so I must. Well, then, my husband and your mother were, unfortunately, never married, and, consequently, you are—well, illegitimate."

"I used to think so until yester-morning. But I know now that my father and mother were married before my birth. Who told you they were not?"

"Mr. Walter Gray."

"Walter Gray told you?"

"Yes."

"I know you must be mistaken, for it was Walter who proved their marriage. He has their marriage certificate with him now. My mother and father were married in the year of 1850 at St. John's Church, in the parish of Roxforde, in Yorkshire."

"If so, whatever induced Mr. Gray to tell me a deliberate falsehood?"

"Walter could never have told you such a thing. You must have misunderstood him entirely."

"That he told me I am sure, and what makes me more confident still is this. After pointing out that you were illegitimate, he said that you would not be able to claim a penny of your father's money unless he made a will in your favour. This incident makes me certain that I am correct."

Her ladyship rose, and going to the table poured out two glasses of wine. Alice was staring into the fire, wondering if it were possible that Walter had told Lady Ruth that she were illegitimate. After filling the glasses Lady Ruth turned, and seeing that she was unnoticed, dropped something into one of the glasses. Taking the other in her hand she returned to her seat, and after sipping from it placed it on the mantelpiece.

"Won't you take a drop of wine? See, I've poured you out some. It will refresh you."

"I cannot believe that Walter would tell you this—I will not believe it until I hear him say so myself," said Alice, ignoring Lady Ruth's latter words about the wine.

"I have been lying then, have I? Many thanks for your courtesy."

"You must have been mistaken," Alice again replied emphatically.

"The mistake is on your side, I fancy. And you have made more than one mistake. A short time ago you stated that Mr. Gray and you were engaged—to be married, I suppose. Whether you spoke the truth or not I do not know, but I do know that he gave me to understand that he was quite free and had not the slightest notion of marrying you."

Alice jumped to her feet and faced Lady Ruth, saying warmly—

"I am convinced now that you lie. You are telling me all these falsehoods with a purpose. You wish to estrange us from each other. But he told me all about you, and I am on my guard. He is too good and true to be guilty of any mean act."

Lady Ruth now rose to her feet, and going to Alice placed her hand gently on her shoulder. Her ladyship was no mean actress; deep womanly sympathy showed in her eyes and face, and her gestures and tones were extremely tender as she said—

"How sorry I am for you, Miss Wilson. How deep your faith in him is, and how little he deserves it. If I were to jest on such a matter I should be a fiend, not a woman. I am sorry now that I have told you. Forgive me for doing so."

Alice was stunned and beaten by Lady Ruth's words and action. She reeled back and would have fallen but for the table. She steadied herself with an effort; then seeing the full glass of wine close to her fingers she seized it, carried it eagerly to her hot parched lips and drained the last drop. The wine gave her new life for the moment. With quivering heart and imploring look she turned to Lady Ruth, crying in her fierce agony.

"Have you spoken falsely or truly? For God's sake tell me the truth!"

"As true as there's a heaven above us," said Lady Ruth slowly, quietly almost, but with intense dramatic power in her voice and gesture, "I have spoken the truth."

Alice uttered not another word. With a low moan of pain she sunk on the carpet at Lady Ruth's feet.

"My God, I've given her too much! She is dead."


CHAPTER XVIII.—AFTER THE MIST.

Winters white harvest lay soft and thick on everything about Aldayne Village and Priory—thatching the homes, carpeting the fields, and draping the hedgerows and trees in a beautiful fairyland sort of fashion. Far as the eye could reach there was little to be seen save snow. There was snow everywhere, and snow still falling, and it seemed almost a desecratory act to trample under foot the pure, fleecy mass.

'Twas the time between school hours, and in the village street lads were vigorously, noisily, and to all seeming joyously pelting each other with white missiles, turning their attention to such pedestrians as happened to be passing, and if the white-coated wayfarer chanced to possess a top-hat, the joy of the youngsters was ecstatic, for there is nothing a snowballer, be he young or old, loves to pelt at better than that ugly headdress of modern days.

Christmas was still a week or so distant, and in many houses Christmas fare and festivities were obtaining much attention. Is there any place in the world where Christ's natal day is celebrated so joyously as in this country of ours? Is there any other season so redolent of happy gatherings, good cheer, kindliness of spirit, and real benevolence?

Aldayne Priory looked as pretty in winter's soft, white muslin as in summer's gorgeous-hued silks. A snowfall beautifies the most ugly spot, and it can scarcely fail to add some features of attractiveness to a pretty place. The big-limbed chestnuts towering above the Priory seemed huge white-robed giants, every limb and twig covered thickly with clinging snowflakes; the lawns were white as diaper sheets, and the glow of big fires fell on many of the Priory windows, telling much of the comfort and warmth within.

In one of the rooms belonging to the Priory, Walter Gray was sitting. His low, well-cushioned chair was drawn on to the skin hearthrug in front of the huge fire, for the day was chilly and Walter was hardly himself yet. Traces of his recent severe illness were to be seen in his thin, colourless cheeks, sunken eyes, and the air of feebleness still hovering about him.

For many hours after his sudden seizure Walter had remained in a heavy, slumberous condition, his face like the face of someone dead—so stonily pale was it, and breathing in a thick, stertorous manner. At mid-day the watcher by his bed—Mrs. Gregson—saw colour steal slowly over the pallid countenance, life seemed to move gently into the motionless frame, and soon afterwards Walter opened his eyes.

But the look in his eyes startled Mrs. Gregson. She had seen some men look similarly often enough before, but they had all been demented more or less, and the nurse watched the newly-awakened man with much more interest than before, expecting each moment to hear her patient utter some wild, unmeaning cry.

Opening his eyes slowly, and emitting a deep sigh, Walter Gray struggled to a sitting posture, and stared about him. His eyes wandered over the woman beside the bed, but no glance of recognition lit them up as they rested for half a moment on her. The wide, meaningless orbs of sight told their own tale plainly. That vacant stare bespoke only too truly a blank, unhinged mind.

He muttered something about pits and then sunk back on the pillow, apparently still much fatigued, protruding a white swollen tongue with which he attempted to moisten his parched lips. Mrs. Gregson held some cooling drink to his month, and rising again to a sitting posture he drank greedily, draining every drop in the glass held to him.

After drinking Walter seemed desirous of quitting the bed, but the nurse detained him, and he permitted himself to be forced gently back on to the pillows, saying in a tone of of remonstrance:—

"Well, well, Hawkins, I'll never mind to-day, but I must certainly go down the Arley mine to-morrow."

He lay there quiet as a child, talking to himself of his mines, and staring vacantly about the apartment. Seeing that Walter made no further attempt to rise, Mrs. Gregson placed the empty glass on the table, and pulled at the bell-cord. In a few moments a girl entered the room on tiptoe, with awed eyes and solemn aspect. Wilson Gray's death was known now all over the Abbey and the village, and already preparations were being made for his interment. All the window blinds were down, and the denizens of the Priory moved about with muffled tongues and feet.

"Where is her ladyship?" Mrs. Gregson enquired of the girl.

"I see 'er a bit since with the doctor."

"Go to her at once, and tell her to come here. You can say that Mr. Gray has come round. Be quick, now."

The domestic left hurriedly, and in a minute or two Lady Ruth and Dr. Fleming entered, the former anxious and flurried, the latter cool and self-possessed. In a moment her ladyship was beside the bed, exclaiming—

"How glad I am, Mr. Gray, to find you recovered once more. A little rest will put you all right again. Good heavens! what's the matter with him? He does not know me—see how he stares at me!"

"The Arley Mine is not safe, I tell you, Hawkins. I shall certainly go down to-morrow. I must go down to-morrow."

"Mr. Gray, speak to me—don't you know me?" Lady Ruth cried, bending over the bedside. But Walter Gray made no sign of recognition. His wide opened eyes lingered not a moment longer on the beautiful anxious creature beside him than they did on the chairs and other furniture of the apartment. Then Lady Ruth turned again to Dr. Fleming, who was standing close by the bed regarding Walter intently:—

"Whatever can be the matter with him? How strange he looks. He does not know any of us are here."

"Strange case—very strange case, indeed, your ladyship. His brain is evidently deranged," muttered the medical man, still watching Walter with great show of interest. "Cannot account for his condition at all unless he has received some terrible shock. And you tell me he was quite well when he came here last night."

"He seemed perfectly well a few minutes before he had supper—a little tired, perhaps, with travelling, that was all. As I told you, I was with him five minutes prior to Mrs. Bayley finding him lying on the floor insensible."

"Strange—very strange indeed. Thought it was more than an ordinary fit. Mental anxiety or bad news causes this sort of thing—how long has he been awake, Mrs. Gregson?"

"Not many minutes—he awakened when I sent for my lady."

"Was he conscious when he awoke?"

"No; just like he is now. He said something about pits and wanted to get up, but I stopped him."

"Quiet it seems; just like your poor husband was—ah!" the doctor cried as though a new idea had struck him and stopped.

"Yes," murmured Lady Ruth gently, "he reminds me of poor Wilson. So quiet, yet completely demented. This is a terrible thing. Poor Wilson dead and his cousin lying here in this awful state."

Lady Ruth hid her face in a small cloud of snowy cambric and sobbed audibly. She was already attired in sable-hued garments, and her look and manner showed how deeply she was suffering. Dr. Fleming did not notice her ladyship's latter remarks. Suddenly he asked:—

"Pardon me, my lady, but did you ever discover the cause of your husband's seizure?"

"No; and I am still unable to imagine anything to account for it."

"Did you ever, during his intervals of sanity, enquire of him as to whether he had received some great shock or not?"

"I did so once, but the matter seemed very distasteful to Wilson—he was greatly agitated by my alluding to it, so I allowed the matter to drop immediately."

"Humph!" murmured the doctor reflectively, adding, after a moment's pause, "Were any of your husband's relatives remarkable in any way—eccentric or possessed of strange habits? Believe me, I have none but professional motives in asking these questions."

A gleam of intelligence lit up lady Ruth's eyes for a second, as she perceived the medical man's idea. 'Twould suit her well to have Dr. Fleming and any other of his fraternity who might be called in to think in the groove indicated by the doctor's questions. Such a theory would divert all suspicion from herself, and when she spoke her words focussed Dr. Fleming's suspicions into a belief.

"Your unflagging zeal in the past exonerates your questions from all suspicion of curiosity," her Ladyship replied in grateful accents, "and now that you allude to it, I remember poor Wilson telling me that one of his relatives, an uncle, was a most erratic character, and that for the last few years of his life he was demented."

"An uncle," the doctor was beginning when Lady Ruth broke in abruptly—

"Why Wilson's uncle must have been Walter Gray's father, for I have heard Wilson say often that his father had only one brother!"

"If that is so, I feel quite satisfied that both your husband's strange attack and this gentleman's present condition had their origin inherited very probably from some demented ancestor. I can account on no other grounds for your husband's mental derangement and this gentleman's seizure, for neither of them appear to have received the great shock necessary to unseat a healthy undiseased reason."

"It must be so!" Lady Ruth murmured sadly. "What a terrible legacy to inherit? And perhaps my dear child may go mad some day. God help him from such a fate!"

Doctor Fleming made no reply to her Ladyship. He was bent over Walter feeling his pulse and gazing keenly on his white expressionless face. Presently he rose to an erect posture and said—

"His pulse beats as regularly as my own, and he seems of a vigorous constitution. He may regain his reason as suddenly as he lost it. These obscure diseases of the brain are beyond the reach of pharmacology, and I can only recommend quietness and care."

"He is in no danger then?"

"At present I think he is as strong, in a physical sense, as ever he was. Something is clouding his mental faculties now, that is all, and as he is young and vigorous the cloud may lift at any moment. As he has had no food since last night, I think you may venture to offer him something of a light nature soon, Mrs. Gregson."

Then the medical man went away, promising to call in again before night to see if any change had taken place in his patient. After Dr. Fleming's departure the nurse offered Walter food, but he refused to touch it, and when the doctor returned in the evening he found his patient lying just as he had left him, babbling on his pits and pitmen, and glancing now and again round the chamber with dull expressionless eyes.

Despite the great trouble her ladyship was suffering under, she was often in the demented man's room, exhorting the nurse with kindly word to take zealous care of her patient, and intimating to the doctor that no expense would be deemed too great were Walter Gray's reason to be restored. But Dr. Fleming pointed out that the physician who made brain diseases a speciality would be of little utility, as was proved in her lamented husband's case, and unless his patient changed for the worse he would advise no change of treatment.

In a few days Robert Wilson Gray was buried in a quiet, unostentatious fashion, the body being conveyed by rail to Torleigh, where it was interred in the cemetery beside the remains of his parents. It was her husband's wish, her ladyship said, and his wishes were law. A few weeks afterwards a handsome monolith of white marble marked the final resting place of old Jacob Gray's erratic son.

Walter Gray's insane state lasted for several weeks. Whilst autumn was merging into winter he lay there unconscious of what was going on about him, eating scarcely anything, and gradually getting weaker each day. Dr. Fleming was beginning to fear for his patient's recovery, when one morning as the wind was driving the first big snowflakes past the windows of the Priory, the cloud lifted from his clouded mind, and he awoke to life again.

"Where am I? What is the matter?" he asked feebly of Mrs. Gregson. His mind seemed empty just then, and for some minutes the past had no existence for him.

"You are at the Priory. You've been very ill, but you'll be strong again soon," the nurse replied, and then she touched the bell-cord. When the maid appeared, Mrs. Gregson whispered, "Go to your mistress at once and tell her Mr. Gray's come to his senses," and the servant hurried away.

Slowly at first, then quickly, Walter's memory came back to him, and he remembered his coming to Aldayne Priory with Alice, taking her to Wilson's room and leaving them together, his interview with Lady Ruth whilst Alice was with her father, his having supper, then he remembered no more.

The memory of these incidents generated a host of other thoughts, and he was almost to put a string of questions to Mrs. Gregson, when the chamber door opened and Lady Ruth came to the bedside, a look of pleasure illumining her face, and making her sombre habiliments seem strangely out of place. A look and a motion of her hand sent the nurse out of the room, then her ladyship seated herself beside the bed, saying, in glad, sympathetic tones—

"How glad I am to see you are so much better, Mr. Gray. When you lay here unconscious week after week, I began to fear that you were going to die, too."

Her ladyship's unexpected appearance had stopped the stream of questions Walter was about to put to the nurse, and he saw that her ladyship's eyes were full of gathering tears. Then he noticed her mourning dress, and a quick pain shot through him. "Die, too!" Who, then, was dead? Some one, evidently, from the tenor of her words and the evidence of her dark robes.

"What has happened?" was all he could manage to articulate, whilst his gaze was fixed on all he could see of Lady Ruth's face, for she had covered it with her hands as he spoke.

"Wilson is dead—he died the same night you were stricken senseless—soon after you were seized by your strange illness. I—I——"

She seemed unable to proceed; he saw her bosom rise and fall quickly, and low sobs caught his quickened hearing. Then big tears trickled down her cheeks and fell noiselessly on the thick carpet. Her ladyship's emotion touched Walter. He was thirsting to learn a hundred things, but he was loth to break too rudely in on the bereaved wife's sorrowing. She must have cared for Wilson; her grief was so deep and sincere.

"How long have I been ill?" he asked. "When is Wilson to be buried!"

"He was buried many weeks ago," she said lifting her tear-stained face to him; "in Torleigh, beside his mother and father. It was his wish. You have been ill a long time. It is now the tenth of December."

"The tenth of December?" Walter cried, in amazement. "Why, it only seems last night that I and Miss Wilson came to the Priory—where is she? Has she gone back?"

"No," Lady Ruth answered, showing signs of returning distress. "Miss Wilson left the Priory the same night she came here."

"She has gone back to Torleigh?—to the school, I suppose?" Walter queried.

"No, I think not," she returned slowly.

"Where is she, then? Surely you did not send her away?" he demanded, almost angrily.

"Do you think so badly of me as that?" she said, looking at him for a moment with tear-reddened, reproachful eyes. "Miss Wilson left the Priory of her own free will, and without even informing me of her intention. Had she told me she was going I should have tried to persuade her to stay."

"But where is she?" Walter again asked "You know where she is, of course!"

"I do—but I cannot tell you now—you are not in a fit condition to hear!" she exclaimed, in tones of tenderest sympathy.

"Surely I am strong enough to hear of the whereabouts of the woman who is to be my wife," he answered, with a feeble laugh. "That knowledge will strengthen rather than weaken me. I cannot understand why Alice is not here now. She must have had strong reasons for going away. If you do not tell me where she is I shall have to get the knowledge from someone else. Why will you not tell me?"

"Because you are weak and I wish to spare you all the pain I can. But if you are determined to know where she is I would rather tell you than that you should have to ask the servants. But I implore you to let this matter rest—for a few days at least, till you are stronger. I am sorry, Mr. Gray, but there is painful intelligence in store for you. If you hear it you may suffer a relapse. Again I entreat you to let this matter rest till you are a little stronger."

"I must know at once?" he said resolutely, his mind filled with all kinds of vague fears by her strange allusions. "A knowledge of the worst that can have happened her will be less painful than suspense. Where is she, and what is the matter with her?"

"Remember you have forced me to tell you. I would have spared you if I could. Miss Wilson left the Priory with my husband's valet. They eloped the same night that Wilson died, and you were stricken down."

"My God, I will never believe it!" Walter cried vehemently, rising with an effort to a sitting posture. "'Tis some trick of yours to drive her away and rob her of her rightful inheritance. If you don't tell me the truth I'll expose you and your child to the world as soon as I can crawl from this bed. Confess that you have maligned her shamefully, or as true as there is a heaven above us I'll let the world know what you and your child are!"

Exhausted with the vehement nature of his utterances and the excitement Walter sank back on his pillow. Lady Ruth rose slowly from her chair, a look of pity rather than anger on her saddened beautiful face, and her words were calmly reproachful as she said:—

"You forced me to speak, and now you disbelieve me. I will say nothing more—I will not even reproach you for the cruel words you have used. If you think I have lied to you ask the servants, but if they tell you the same thing you will say that I have taught them what to say. When you get strong again and leave the Priory you will learn whether I have spoken falsely or truly, and I think you will regret the harsh words you have used. I will ring for the nurse, Mrs. Gregson; she will tell you all you want to know; but if you speak to her you may expect to have your feelings hurt very much, as none of the inmates of the Priory have any idea of what Miss Wilson was to you."

With that her ladyship left the room quietly, and in a few moments Mrs. Gregson returned. Walter's throat was dry with thirst, and he asked for a drink. The nurse gave him some delicious cool draught, and he drained every drop in the glass. Then he lay back on his pillow pondering what he had heard. Not a doubt of his sweetheart's purity and fidelity crossed his mind, yet her ladyship's manner and words had made some impression on him. There must be a terrible mistake somewhere—a mistake he would quickly clear up when he was all right again.

A slight cough from Mrs. Gregson reminded Walter of her presence, and he remembered that Lady Ruth had said she would tell him all he cared to know. He looked at his attendant placidly reading the Moonstone, and he resolved to hear all that she could tell him.

"Have you been here long, Mrs. Gregson?" he asked in a tone of assumed indifference. "I think I have seen your face before. I remember now. You were attending my cousin, Wilson Gray, when I visited him?"

"Yes, sir. I 'tended the poor gentleman to the last, and have 'tended you since then."

"Did anything unusual happen on the night Mr. Gray died?"

"I think something unusual did happen, sir. Why just before your poor relative breathed his last you was took with an awful fit. You laid like dead for hours, and everybody thought——"

"Did nothing else happen worth mentioning."

"Oh, yes. Just before Mr. Gray died some young woman came to see him. Miss Wilson her name was. Well, when morning come, this young woman and Williams, Mr. Gray's valet, was missing, and a lot of money had been taken out of a safe."

"Who were the thieves?"

"Well, everybody said it was Williams and the young woman has 'loped with him, and it certainly looked like as if it was them, didn't it?"

"Were the suspected thieves followed?"

"Not then. Her ladyship, poor woman, had enough of troubles just then, and wouldn't hear of the police being sent for to catch them. And, of course, they got away all right and safe, instead of being sent to prison as they deserved."

Walter asked no more questions. What he had heard had not diminished his love for and faith in Alice Gray. Whether her ladyship and the nurse were deceiving him with a trumped-up story he was unable to decide. Mrs. Gregson had spoken in a natural enough way, and Lady Ruth's manner and words were just the same. A great mistake had clearly been made, and he could not expect it to be cleared up till the return of his health and strength.

Walter did not see Lady Ruth again that afternoon, but in the evening he heard her soft musical voice asking Mrs. Gregson how her patient was getting on, and he thought her ladyship's words seemed very tender and sympathetic. Early the morning following as he lay awake, but with closed eyes, wondering where his cousin Alice was, he heard a soft footfall in the chamber, and through his half-opened eyes he saw it was Lady Ruth.

Her ladyship's hands were full of bright flowers and cool green leaves and bits of ferns from the conservatories. Convinced that Walter was sound asleep she glanced once towards him, then she arranged the flowers and ferns in a pretty vase. Mrs. Gregson was snugly asleep in her comfortable armchair, probably dreaming of one of Wilkie Collins's novels, and her ladyship stepped towards the nurse as if to awaken her.

Instead of doing so she bent over the bed and gazed on Walter for a few moments, then she stole noiselessly away, leaving the chamber full of the sweet fragrance, and Walter regretted the harsh words he had used to her on the previous day. He was young, and not stoic enough to receive the delicate attentions of a woman so beautiful as her ladyship without his pulse quickening.

During the day Lady Ruth again visited the sick chamber to enquire how Walter was getting on. Mrs. Gregson made some excuse, and left the room. Then Walter apologized for what he had said the day before.

"You must forgive me," he said contritely, "for the harsh things I said yesterday. I was excited, and scarcely aware of what I was saying. There is some terrible mistake about Miss Wilson going away. She would not do such a thing, I am sure. Will you tell me all you know about it?"

"I will not talk of that painful affair at all," she replied, "until you are well again."

"Why not?" he pleaded. "The suspense I am suffering is worse than the truth can be."

"I will say no more," she answered quietly but firmly, "till you are on your feet again; then I will tell you all I know. Even then I shall not have much to tell you."

"I shall be as strong as ever in a week!"

"Then in a week we will speak of this again," and he was unable to persuade her to satisfy his curiosity then.

In a week Walter was far from being as strong as he had predicted, still he was on his feet again and out of Dr. Fleming's hands. On the day described at the opening of this chapter he was waiting for her ladyship to return from her morning drive in order that he might learn what she had to tell him of his sweetheart's disappearance. Drawing his easy chair nearer to the fire Walter settled himself comfortably in it, and tried to read the newspaper.

But there was nothing in it of sufficient interest to make him forget that the sweet girl he loved so tenderly had disappeared in a strange manner—for he never believed a word of the stories he had heard accounting for her leaving the Priory—and he was only waiting for any information he might be able to gather from her ladyship ere he set to work to find Alice Wilson, or Alice Gray, as he now knew her to be. In a few days at the longest he would leave the Priory, and where he went to depended on what her ladyship had to tell him.

Since his recovery he had often thought as to how his cousin Wilson had disposed of his property. If no will had been made then Alice would be able to claim all that her father had left. But Walter felt almost certain that a will had been made by his late cousin in Lady Ruth's favour, or she would scarcely have remained at the Priory so long after his death. The latter was too delicate a matter to be put to her ladyship for solution, and Mr. Braile would be able to tell him whether Wilson Gray had died intestate or not.

Presently Walter's reflections came to an end abruptly. There was a quick, light patter of feet outside the room, and Lady Ruth entered, looking bewitchingly attractive in her splendid sables. The drive through the sharp bracing air had flushed her cheeks with colour, and he thought she had never looked so beautiful as when she came up to him, with bright eyes full of tenderest concern, as she said—

"How well you look this morning. How I wish you had been out with me in the carriage. It is quite warm now after the snow, and the drive would have done you so much good. We came back through the village, and I stopped the carriage to watch the school-lads fight a regular pitched battle with snowballs. I know you would have laughed to see them. Have you lunched yet?"

"No. I have been waiting for you——"

"Then I'll order it at once and we'll have it here, this room seems so cosy." Then she rang the bell, and ordered lunch to be served there.

"I have been waiting," Walter resumed, "for your coming that you might tell me all you know of my cousin's disappearance. You promised to tell me to-day, and I must hold you to your promise, for I am thinking of going away in a day or two."

"So soon? You are really not fit to move from here yet. It will not be safe for you to travel till after Christmas. You will at least stay till then?"

"I cannot promise to do so, as I may wish to go at once after hearing what you have to say."

"What do you know already?"

"Nothing but what I have heard from you and Mrs. Gregson. You said she had eloped, Mrs. Gregson told me with whom, and she said the runaways had taken a lot of money with them. For God's sake tell me that this story is all a farce?"

"I wish that it were so," Lady Ruth returned solemnly. "But so far as I know it is true. I wish it were false for your sake. God knows I do!"

The lunch was laid and the servants left the room, but neither of them seemed hungry. Walter poured out a couple of glasses of wine, drank one and resumed his seat, and then her ladyship said:—

"What I know of this sad affair I will tell you as briefly as possible. I am not quite sure that Miss Wilson has gone away with Williams, but you will soon see whether I am not justified in believing so. The very night of poor Wilson's death and your seizure, my husband's valet and Miss Wilson left the Priory, and soon after one of the strong boxes was found open and several hundred pounds missing. During the day I learned that Williams and a woman answering to the description of your cousin had left Aldayne Station together by the 6.25 a.m. train and they had booked to Liverpool."

"It seems they made no endeavour to disguise themselves or hide their destination."

"Not the least; in fact, they made their ultimate destination known to me. At first I was inclined to disbelieve the relationship you claimed for Miss Wilson, but I am convinced now that she is your cousin and my husband's daughter."

"Why do you think so now?" Walter added, as her ladyship rang the bell and ordered her maid to fetch a packet from her room.

"Because she believed that the fact of her being related to both of us in a way would prevent all pursuit of them, and that accounts for what followed. Three days after leaving the Priory Williams and Miss Gray were married at St. George's, Liverpool." Just then her ladyship's maid handed her a small packet, and as she left the room Walter exclaimed—

"Married! Do you expect me to believe this?"

"Here is a copy of the Liverpool Mercury for November the 5th, and in it you will find an announcement of their marriage. Here it is. Do you believe it now?"

Taking the newspaper from her ladyship's hands he endeavoured to maintain his composure, but his pale face had become even paler still, and there was a strange fear growing up in his breast as he took the paper in his hands and prepared to read what her ladyship was pointing out. In the column headed births, marriages, and deaths he came upon the following:—


"Williams—Gray.—November 4,
at St. George's, Everton, Liverpool,
by the Rev. Samuel Thorley, M.A.,
James Williams, of Aldayne, Yorkshire,
to Alice Gray, of Torleigh, Lancashire.
The ceremony was authorized by common licence."



CHAPTER XIX.—A PILGRIM OF LOVE.

"Even now I cannot believe it!" Walter cried as he read the marriage announcement and reseated himself with quickened pulse and agitated countenance. "How did this paper come into your hands? You do not take it, I think."

"Certainly not. It came to me a few days after they went away. Here is the wrapper in which it came. You will see that it is addressed to me, and that the paper bears the same date as the postmark."

"And who sent it?"

"That of course, I do not know. I can only form conjectures, and they may be wrong."

"What could have prompted them to send this paper to you?"

"Williams was aware of your sudden illness, and your cousin's death, and that may have been the reason of the paper being addressed to me."

"I mean why was it thought necessary to send it to any one at all, if they wished to keep their whereabouts unknown?"

"You forget that no attempt at hiding themselves was tried. I have often wondered why they wished it to be known to us that they were married. Williams must have sent the paper, I am certain, for the writing on the newspaper wrapper is similar to that in an old memorandum found since in his old room. His object in sending it I can only guess."

"What do you think that object was?"

"To prevent pursuit, as I intimated before. If Miss Wilson was your cousin's daughter Williams would know all about it, and he would naturally think that none of us would hunt down our relatives."

"But," asked Walter quickly, with something like suspicion in his voice, "is it not singular that both Williams and my cousin did not prefer to remain behind, considering that she was the child of so wealthy a man. They could have been married without running away, and Williams must have been extremely short-sighted to take my cousin away. They don't seem to have cared much for any of Wilson Gray's great wealth. You must remember that Miss Gray could have claimed all her father's riches."

"She could have claimed nothing—not a penny, and Williams was aware of that, for he was one of the witnesses who signed Wilson's will, which bequeathed everything he had to me, and before he signed the will it was read up to him."

Walter was silent for a few moments. His mind was filled with all sorts of doubts and fears; all his objections and questions had been met so conclusively that he was at a loss what other objections to raise, though he was still far from believing all he had heard. Hearsay evidence would not convince him that the sweet girl he loved so tenderly was the deceitful creature she appeared according to Lady Ruth's story. Nothing short of actual proof would shake his belief in Alice Gray's purity and fidelity.

During the pause in the conversation her ladyship had helped herself to lunch, and almost mechanically Walter followed her example. His brain was already busy maturing a scheme to solve the mystery of his cousin's disappearance, and when he resumed the conversation his question was put to gather information for future action.

"Do you happen to know what part of the country Williams comes from?" he asked, helping himself to the wine, which spoke well for his late cousin's taste.

"I think I remember hearing Wilson say that his valet came from somewhere in Derbyshire—Monsal Dale, I believe it was, but of course I am unable to say where he came from with certainty."

"Some of the servants will know, I daresay. Do you remember any of your domestics with whom Williams was on intimate terms? I want to know, particularly, where Williams came from as it will be of much use to me in the future."

"I remember that Jackson, the coachman, was very friendly with Williams," she answered, wondering what mode of action Walter was contemplating; "shall I send for him here?"

"If you please. I wish to know at once, as I shall leave to-morrow, probably."

She rang the bell, and sent for the coachman, remarking that Walter would be extremely unwise to undertake a long journey in his condition. But he was firm despite her warm words and sympathetic glances. When the coachman came Walter learned that Williams came from Monsal Dale in Derbyshire, and that most of his relatives still lived thereabouts.

Walter thanked Jackson for the information, and when he and Lady Ruth were again alone she ventured to say:—

"I suppose you will return to Torleigh when you leave here, Mr. Gray?"

"Yes, I shall go there for a few days to see how things are going on. After that I shall sift this strange business thoroughly no matter what time and trouble it takes."

"I trust that you acquit me of having anything to do with this painful affair? I have told you all I know, and I have given you all the information I possessed freely. You are prejudiced against me now, and I know that somehow or other you hold me responsible for some one else's shortcomings. Some day you will learn how much you have misjudged me."

Her words and manner had their effect on Walter, and suddenly it struck him that after all she might be blameless. This thought caused him to apologise to her ladyship for anything he might have uttered of a harsh and offensive nature, and his apology was accepted as freely as it was offered.

The following morning brought a visitor to Aldayne Priory in the person of the Countess of Ellsden, who had just returned from Italy at her daughter's solicitation. Walter had not the pleasure of enjoying the Countess's amiable chatter long, for he left the next morning, going to Torleigh.

There he was forced to remain until the end of the year, so many matters needed his personal supervision. There was the usual percentage of the year's profits to be divided among his workmen, and as the coal trade was just then flourishing to a degree unprecedented, Torleigh was preparing to hold high festival at Christmas and New Year.

That Christmas was the most miserable Walter ever spent. Still far from possessing his old health and strength, and Alice Gray's disappearance yet a perfect mystery to him, his mind was full of painful reflections, and he longed to get away from Torleigh at once, to satisfy himself whether it were true or false that his cousin had become the wife of her father's valet.

Hearing of Walter's return to Torleigh, Sir Wilton Haigh ran over to "The Platts" to express his pleasure at Gray's recovery. The genial baronet exerted all his powers of persuasion to get Walter to spend Christmastide at Olsham Hall, where a host of guests were enjoying themselves mightily, but in vain. It was impossible for Walter to enjoy himself in the least until he had bottomed the mystery surrounding the girl he loved. So Sir Wilton had to return alone.

Walter stayed in Torleigh not a moment longer than he could help. When the new year was a few days old he went to Liverpool, and it might be months ere he returned to Torleigh. He was determined to follow Williams and his wife, and rest not till he discovered who was the ex-valet's spouse.

It was mid-day when he reached Liverpool, and after lunching at the North-western Hotel he ordered a hansom to take him to Canterbury Villa, the residence of the Rev. Samuel Thorley, M.A., the clergyman who had officiated at the wedding reported in the Liverpool Mercury. He had kept the newspaper containing the marriage announcement, and by consulting a directory at the hotel he had learned the Rev. gentleman's address.

Walter had the good fortune to find the curate of St. George's at home and disengaged. The clergyman was young and pleasant-looking, and Walter lost no time in making his business known.

"The matter on which I have called to consult you, Mr. Thorley," said Walter, "is one in which I have the greatest possible interest. On the 4th of November last I think you officiated at the marriage of James Williams and Alice Gray. According to the date here given in the Liverpool Mercury, the marriage took place on a Friday, and as it was by common licence you will probably remember it."

"I remember it quite well, sir, mainly through the reasons you have intimated and partly from another cause. The day after the marriage the clerk found a locket in the Church which I had noticed the young lady wearing. The locket is a gold one, and it contains two portraits; one of a man, the other probably that of the lady herself, for I fancy it resembled her."

Walter's face became pale and his heart leaped to his throat as the clergyman mentioned the locket and the portraits it contained. Almost instantly he connected it with the locket Alice's mother had given her, and which he had somehow lost during his recent illness.

"Have you the locket still?" he asked.

"Yes. I advertised it in several of the Liverpool papers, but no one ever answered my advertisements. So I concluded the young married couple had left Liverpool. Would you like to see it, Mr. Gray?"

"Very much—wait a moment. Is this locket heart-shaped, richly chased on one side and plain on the other with the exception of the word 'Mizpah' engraved in quaint letters?"

"You have described it exactly, sir. Excuse me, I won't be many moments."

The clergyman left the room, leaving Walter sick at heart and almost despairing, for he began to fear that proof of his worst suspicions was about to be adduced. Then Mr. Thorley returned with the locket in his hand, and he gave it to Walter, saying:—

"Here it is, I am sure you must have seen it often before from your description of it."

Without replying Walter eyed the locket attentively for a moment, and to all appearance it was the one he had first seen in Alice Gray's possession. But the similarity did not prove the identity of the two, and yet he feared to open the locket and settle all doubt one way or the other.

Then with an effort he controlled himself and opened it, and as he glanced at the portraits it contained he could not repress an exclamation of pain, for his worst fears were confirmed. The portrait of the female was that of Alice Gray's mother—Wilson Gray's wife—and the other portrait was one of Wilson Gray himself. For a moment or two his mind was all confusion. Then he shook his brain clear and said—

"I suppose you will permit me to retain this locket, Mr. Thorley? I am the cousin of the young lady who lost it, and I prize it highly."

"Certainly, sir, certainly. I am sure I am happy to have come across a relative of the young lady who lost it."

"You will permit me to make a donation towards the relief of your poor, as some acknowledgment for the trouble I have put you to. Good day, sir, good day; I cannot say how much I am obliged to you."

He left the villa and walked quickly down the red path through the little cheerless garden to the gate where the hansom was awaiting him, and telling the cabman to take him back to the North-Western Hotel, he sank into one corner of the vehicle, and bit his lip to check the moisture that was gathering in his eyes. For the first time his measureless belief in Alice Gray was shaken, and the shock of such an unexpected occurrence had wrung his heart with pain. For the second time it seemed that he had been cruelly jilted.

But even yet he could not bring himself to think that Alice Gray had married her father's valet. Despite all he had heard from Lady Ruth, and the evidence of the marriage announcement which the Rev. Samuel Thorley had substantiated, he would believe her to be the victim of some cruel mystery until indisputable proof to the contrary was forthcoming. And nothing would satisfy him that Alice Gray was a heartless jilt save one thing. When she acknowledged herself to be William's wife, then only would he believe her false to himself.

To solve the mystery and prove the truth there was only one way open to him. He must follow Williams, no matter where he had gone to, and see for himself who was the valet's wife.

Walter engaged apartments at the North-Western Hotel for a few days, as the scheme he had determined on would necessitate his remaining in Liverpool for that period. It was almost certain that Williams and his bride had left England, and to discover where they had gone to, he sent the following advertisement to the Liverpool papers:—


"To Liverpool shipping clerks and others, £5 Reward.
Wanted, the destination of Mr. and Mrs. James Williams,
who left Liverpool about the fifth of November last year.
Address 'W. G.,' North-Western Hotel, Lime-street."


The same day the advertisement appeared Walter received the information he sought. One of Messrs. Cunard's clerks called on him at the hotel during the afternoon, and from this clerk Walter learned that a couple of intermediate passages to New York were booked on the sixth of November to a Mr. and Mrs. James Williams. Glad to have obtained the desired information so soon, Walter handed the clerk the proffered reward with pleasure and thanks for responding so readily.

But to what part of America Williams intended going Walter was yet ignorant, and the only way of learning that was to go to the valet's relatives in Monsal Dale, and to try to obtain from them the necessary knowledge. He had doubts about learning Williams's final destination as he might not have communicated with his kinsfolk since leaving the Priory, and even if he had written them he might have enjoined silence as to his whereabouts.

The next morning Walter went to Manchester, thence to Monsal Dale. At the White Horse Inn, on the edge of the village, he dropped in for refreshment, and there he learned that a family of the name of Williams kept a farm about a half a mile away. A little adroit questioning satisfied Gray that they were the people he wanted, and half an hour afterwards he was seated in widow Williams's kitchen.

The long low room, with its big fire and clean sanded floor, looked comfortable, for it was freezing keenly outside, and Walter warmed himself in the cheerful glow of the fire before he made his business known to the big buxom-looking dame who was seated on the other side of the fireplace. He had decided on acting boldly, and presently he began:—

"I have already told you, Mrs. Williams, that my business is of the greatest importance, but I must first make sure that you are the lady I want. Have you a son named James, who was valet to a gentleman named Gray, who lived at Aldayne Priory in Yorkshire."

Mrs. Williams answered in the affirmative, so Walter continued:—

"Now that I am certain, I may tell you my business at once. About three months ago your son married a young woman named Gray, didn't he?"

"A think 'e did, sur," she answered. "Ah war no' theer, yo' know, but ah heerd on't. Jim sent me a papper wit' weddin' in't, an' ah geet a letter fre' him too. Ah neer thowt o' 'im gerrin' wed, for a didn't know us 'o war coortin, at aw."

"Well, soon after his marriage your son and his wife went to America, and I want to know to what part of America they went. Someone belonging to your son's wife has left her some money, and I want to learn where they are so that I can send it to them. I suppose you can tell me where your son and his wife are?"

"Ah con tell yo' wheer he sed they wur gooin', if that'll do," she answered. "Ah'll fotch yo't letter an' you con read it yoresel."

She left the kitchen, and Walter heard her ascending the stairs. In a few moments she returned and handed him a letter, and he at once recognised the writing as identical with that in the memorandum book and the address on the newspaper wrapper. The missive was only a short one. Williams had something to say about his sudden marriage, but nothing that enlightened Walter, though there was something in it that puzzled him. In one place the valet spoke of his sudden marriage being caused by some misfortune, and this statement bothered Walter considerably.

Then the letter went on to say that the newly-wedded pair were going to start business in Virginia City, Nevada, and the missive concluded with notifying the sending of a five-pound note. Handing the letter back to the widow, he said—

"I suppose you have had no other letters from your son, Mrs. Williams?" She had not, and he added, "I am very much obliged to you for what you have told me. I shall be able to find them if they are in Virginia City, and I will not trouble you any further. That is for the information you have given me. Good morning—good morning."

Walter hurried away, leaving widow Williams on the threshold of her kitchen, watching the visitor's retreating form. When a bend in the lane hid him from her eyes she glanced at the yellow coin lying in her chubby palm, and she wondered how much money her son's wife had come into.

A few days later Walter Gray was on board one of the steamers of the Inman Line bound for New York. Of late a feeling had been growing within him that all his labour would be futile, and that the only recompense he would receive for his trouble would be the certainty of Alice's falsity to himself. This feeling was the outcome of the evidence he had gathered, and in the face of such evidence he felt that it was useless to prosecute his enquiries.

But a dogged spirit of resistance kept him to the work he had set himself. He would cherish a belief in his sweetheart until he knew the end, and that could not be long in coming, as, if all things went smoothly, he would be in Virginia City in a fortnight. At times when Walter thought of what the end of his journey might prove he grew sick with a great pain. God help him if he found in the valet's wife his love, Alice Gray.

The City of Florence made an uneventful voyage in the usual number of days. It was afternoon when Walter landed, and putting up at the European Hotel he sketched his route for the following day. Next morning he was being carried towards the Silver State, and after a journey of many hours' duration he reached Virginia City.

Selecting the best hotel in the place Walter located himself there, and then began to look about him. At this time Virginia City was only a small place with a few thousand inhabitants. The famous silver mines belonging to Mackay and Fair were just being developed, and gave abundant promise of the immense riches they afterwards realized. The great Irish millionaire was still looking after his mines personally, and his irascible spouse had not yet had her portrait painted by a great French artist to afterwards thrust the offending canvas in the fire; nor had the little niece of the "Exile of Erin" the faintest idea that she was destined to wed a prince of Italy's most ancient and noble race.

Virginia City was a go-ahead place. Few towns in the world were so lively, and the lively nature of its inhabitants manifested itself in frequent shooting affrays when things were getting slow and monotonous. Like all new settlements in America, the habitations were almost all built of timber, and it seemed to Walter that every other shop he passed was a drinking saloon, and in most of them were established "hells" for the carrying on of the popular game of "faro." Drinking, gambling, sensuous indulgence, and fighting were the favourite amusements of the inhabitants.

The two principal streets ran parallel to each other, the first being composed of stores, shops, "faro hells," and drinking saloons—the latter outnumbering all the rest combined; whilst the other consisted mainly of houses of ill-fame kept by white, red, black, yellow, and every other possible shade of cortesans. These ladies and the "faro hells" divided most of the silver miners' earnings between them, and as the miners' wages then averaged five pounds a week, they were reaping a bounteous harvest.

Virginia City was liveliest in the evening after work at the mines had been finished for the day, when the miners sported their white, or "biled" shirts, as they phrased them, whilst the wealthier sort paraded diamond studs and wondrous massive gold watch-guards; and then the better-looking of many-hued Phrynes were busy plying for customers. Not infrequently these ladies of the street fought with each other as savagely as did their patrons, and whenever such a fight took place in the open the bystanders cheered lustily for their favourite.

At the hotel where he was staying Walter had not made enquiry regarding Williams. Now that he was on the spot he preferred to investigate and find what he wanted himself, and with this end in view he frequented the street regularly for a few days, attentively scanning the names over stores, gambling saloons, and drinking shops, but failing to find the name he sought.

Then he began to drop into the latter places and study the faces of their habitués as critically as he had previously done the names of the shopkeepers of Virginia City. Often during this occupation he forgot for the time why he was there at all. In a "faro hell," on the edge of a circle of excited gamblers, his purpose was forgotten in the reflections engendered by the novelty of the scenes and the halo of romance hovering over all he witnessed.

Away from England for the first time the strangeness of the place and the diverse nationalities of the men about him were interesting to Walter, and he witnessed several exciting scenes which, although quite new to him, would be stale to the general reader. Drinking saloon after drinking saloon he visited, "faro hell" after "faro hell" he lounged in, till every saloon and hell in Virginia City seemed familiar to him, and yet he had neither seen nor heard of the ex-valet and his wife.

Then he began to make enquiry; first of the hotel people without success, and afterwards of various bar-keepers, and so forth with like results. Just as Walter was beginning to think his mission was about to prove abortive, he met with the information he sought. In his frequent perambulations about the place he had often noticed a tall, gaunt-faced old fellow who was popularly known as Peggy York, whilst the miners who were intimate with him simply addressed him as "Peggy."

An etymologist would have instantly noticed the relationship existing between this soft designation and the timber leg its owner had won in the American Civil War. Peggy York was said to have a pension, and somehow he managed to exist well enough without tying himself to any regular employment. He was a great favourite with most of the old miners, who treated him to unlimited whisky when luck had smiled on them at the "faro" table, and in return for this the old soldier did all sorts of odd jobs for his patrons.

Peggy York was as well known in Virginia City as were Mackay and Fair, the mineowners. He had been there any number of years and knew all about its history, and he seemed to be personally acquainted with every store, bar, and "faro hell" keeper in the place.

Meeting this individual one morning in the street it struck Walter that if Williams had been to Virginia City old Peggy York would know. So he resolved to enquire from him, and knowing there was only one royal road to the maimed warrior's favour, he said—

"Good morning York, rather dusty, isn't it? Suppose we have drinks?"

"Reckon on me, boss, ef its drinks yer mean," answered the Yorkee, and without more ado they entered the nearest drinking saloon.

Being morning the place was nearly empty, as Walter had expected, and after calling for drinks they talked about everything except the matter that was uppermost in Gray's mind. Peggy York was brimful of information. He knew how much Mackay and Fair were making every day; how long their mines would hold out, and he knew a good thing for a stranger wishing to invest in silver. After the glasses were emptied and filled again Walter ventured to say, speaking slowly, and in a tone of indifference:—

"Now I suppose, York, that you don't know any one of the name of Williams who is living here at present?"

"Guess I dew, boss," the Yankee replied. Then he paused, took an appreciative sip at his liquor, and after wiping his lips with the back of his brown, long hand, he went on—"I'm the walking direct'ry of this ere State, you may bet on that, an' if I don't know who lives in this ere city the things unknown. I calcilate as you mean Sue Williams, the little gal from Boston who keeps a——"

"No," Walter interposed. "The Williams I mean is a man."

"Makes no difference whether he is a man, female, or child, for I reckon I know ev'ry critter that's stept into this ere State on this side of the war. Is it Bob Williams yer want, then, whot had a hole drilled through him by Dick Slevin for waxin' the cards?"

"Wrong again, York," said Walter, laughing to show that the matter was of little importance to him. "The man I mean was a Britisher who only left England last autumn; he was married, and his wife came with him. I understood that he was coming here to open a drinking saloon, and as I am here I thought of calling on him if I could find him."

"I reckon I know him, boss, now as you mention the bar keepin'—same again for me. A young Britisher an' his wife of that name kem here about the end of last fall, an' he used to run the bar Dan'l Shargoe keeps now—I reckon that's him, boss?"

"I think so. Where are they now?" said Walter, striving to maintain his demeanour of indifference.

"I calcilate as that is more than I know—at least, I don't know whar one of em is; tother aint so far away, I reckon." The Yankee paused again, lifted his glass and contemplated it for a moment, then drained it slowly. Walter was burning to hear more, but he smothered his impatience, ordered Peggy another drink, and then asked coolly—

"Where is the one you know of?"

"'Mong the square-faces over thar. The young woman didn't take kindly like to bar 'tendin' an' the civileezeation of this ere State, and when her pardner was smit with the 'faro' fever the thing was bust up d'rectly. This ere friend of yourn was cleaned out of ev'ry dollar by Mardy and his gang. After that the Britisher tried his hand in Mackay's mines, but I guess it didn't fit him, an' soon after his poor wife died he skedaddled away from Virginy City."

This unexpected intelligence almost startled Walter out of the manner or indifference he had assumed, and he said, addressing the the other in a quick earnest:—

"You are certain the name was Williams, and that they came from England?"

"Sartin is jest the word, boss, an' I reckon thor ain't any mistake neither. I remember the Britisher well when you let out about the bar keepin'. It's him, I guess, an' his missis is gone dead for sartin, cos I seen her put under. I'd many a drink at that bar o' theirn, and they war goin' on right stick till the Britisher got dead set on the keeards. Then they bustted up as I've telled you."

"Would you know the woman again—I mean would you be able to recognise her portrait?"

"Calcilate I would—Whar is the picter?"

"Here it is. Is that anything like her?" Walter asked in low tremulous tones as he handed the heart-shaped locket to the American, having already opened it.

"Jest the spit of her, boss!" cried Peggy York, looking at the portrait of Alice Gray's mother. "But this ain't a dot like her pardner, I reckon," he added, pointing to the likeness of Wilson Gray in the opposite side of the locket.

Walter closed the trinket and returned it to his pocket. He was silent for a few moments, permitting his voluble acquaintance to rattle on without interrogation. The intelligence that Alice Gray was dead and buried had come upon him with a terrible shock. He had tried to think Peggy York was mistaken in the person, but the readiness with which the American had identified the portrait dispelled such a hope.

But Walter was resolved to follow the matter to the end, and ordering another drink for Peggy York he first ascertained the name of the clergyman who had performed the last said rites over the remains of the girl he had the ill-luck to love so well, then he went in search of the address the American had given him. With little trouble Walter found the Rev. Silas J. Rickford, and the clergyman corroborated Peggy York's narrative in all its details.

With a sad heart he thanked the clerical gentleman and went away. In the course of his rambles about the place he had noticed the little graveyard on the outskirts of the town, and thitherward he went to pay his respects to the fair girl who slept there. Going along one of the principal streets in the direction of the burial ground his mind filled with painful reflections, and thinking what a terrible mistake Alice Gray had made in preferring the valet to himself, he was startled from his reverie by a tap on the arm.

Looking round he saw standing beside him a plump, good-looking girl whom he had seen several times in company with dissolute miners, and the blood rushed to his face. He thought she was about to ask him to accompany her home, and he was turning away with disgust, when she said—

"Excuse me, sir, but I've just been speaking to Peggy York, and he told me that Mrs. Williams was a friend of yours. Before she died she was very poor, and I bought this from her. I thought you would perhaps like to have it."

She held out a small gold brooch studded with pearls, and Walter's heart jumped to his throat as he saw it. He took it in his hands and examined it attentively, and then he felt satisfied that the dead woman could be none other than the girl who had won his heart while mistress of his school, and who afterwards promised to be his wife. 'Twas a trinket he had bought in Liverpool, and presented to his sweetheart soon after they became engaged, and it bore their initials interwrought.

He hurriedly made a bargain for the brooch, then feeling an intense longing to be alone he strode on, never abating his pace till he reached his destination. The little burial ground seemed terribly desolate and dreary that winter day. The dead blown grass lay thick on the little mounds, and the bare limbs of the trees shook sullenly in the wind. Treading reverently among the graves Walter went towards the southern boundary of the cemetery, where he had been directed by the clergyman, and there he found a mound bare of even dead grass—at its head a rude wooden cross, on which was rudely graven:


ALICE WILLIAMS.


Reverently Walter bared his head and knelt on the cold earth. His brain seemed bursting, and hot, bitter tears streamed down his cheeks. At that moment his mind was filled with pity and love for the girl who slumbered peacefully beneath the brown soil.


CHAPTER XX.—DEAR OLD PALS.

"Jack Mathas, I declare!"

"Yes, it is I, sure enough, Walter. But I never expected to meet you in Nevada."

"Nor did I ever dream of seeing you in Virginia City. What's gone wrong at Torleigh? Something, I know, Jack, or you would not be here now. Tell me?"

"I'd rather say nothing about it," said the young miner, sullenly.

"But you must say something—you have only just arrived I suppose?"

"That's all."

"Then you must come with me—I am staying here at present. You must have something to eat and drink, and then we can have a talk—don't say you won't come, for I mean to know what has driven you from Torleigh, and pretty Nannie Harcliffe."

The young miner permitted Walter to take him into his hotel, and there the new arrival was glad to partake of the excellent repast that was soon prepared for them. Returning from his sad visit to the burial place of his lost love, Walter had stumbled against his old friend and workman, Jack Mathas, and he felt instinctively that he had not left Torleigh without something unusual having happened at the pits.

In the earlier pages of this story little or nothing has been said of Walter Gray's early friendships. Like the majority of lads he had an abundance of comrades, and these were composed of the sons of the tradesmen and shopkeepers in the little town who went to the same school as himself. The disastrous failure of the experiment of making his son a gentleman and scholar by sending him to the great public school and afterwards to the University made Jacob Gray resolve that the lad he had adopted should begin and finish his education in Torleigh.

At fifteen Walter left school and commenced to learn mining engineering at his collieries, under the tuition of Jacob Gray's consulting engineer. The lad liked the work, and day after day for years he was at the pits with clock-like regularity. He went down one or other of the pits each day, and soon became as well acquainted with his uncle's mines as the oldest miner on the ground. Walter's kinship with the mineowner ensured him the notice of the pitmen, in whose working places he was a familiar object, and his own manliness of character and amiable nature won the respect of all he came into contact with. With the sturdy pitlads he was an especial favourite, for he had fraternized with them below and above just like one of themselves.

To one of the lads who worked in his uncle's mines Walter had been attracted from the moment he had first seen him. The dark, handsome face of Jack Mathas, his quiet nature and studious habits, had seemed so singular in a pit lad, and Walter had been surprised to find that Jack was quite as well informed as himself outside of mining matters. The intimacy had gone on as the lads grew to manhood; they had attended the Mining School in Wigan together, and this intimacy was strengthened by an incident that occurred shortly before Jacob Gray's death.

At this time Jack Mathas was fireman in one of the Torleigh Mines, and he and Walter were going through the mine together when the affair happened. There had been a great outburst of fire-damp in one part of the pit, and Walter went to see it. Despite Jack's remonstrance he had ventured into a place quite full of the noxious gas, and being "struck," as the miners term it, he had fallen senseless to the floor. Without a moment's hesitation Jack extinguished both their Davy lamps and dragged Walter into a purer atmosphere, where he soon recovered his senses, when, of course, he thanked the young man heartily and vowed eternal fidelity to him.

And Walter had always meant to do something for his humbler friend. He knew that Jack would make one of the cleverest miners in Lancashire in a few years, and he had always intended to use all his influence with his uncle in getting him some official position. And, yet, when his uncle had died leaving him master of the collieries and a fortune beside, he had forgotten all his good intentions in the hurry and excitement of his new position. And now the man he had intended to do so much for had been forced from Torleigh to seek a better fortune in Nevada.

All these thoughts ran through Walter's mind as he sat opposite Jack, and his utter neglect and forgetfulness stung him to the quick. But he resolved to make some atonement, and at once. During dinner only commonplace topics were touched, but when the remnants of the meal were cleared away, a bottle of excellent wine emptied, and a couple of cigars glowing fiercely, Walter began—

"Now, Jack, look here, I am just as fond of your friendship now as I was ten or twelve years ago, and I mean us to talk freely to each other as we used to do then. I may be better off than you as regards brass, but that is owing to luck and not ability. You are clever—shut up till I finish—and I always meant to give you a chance of making your way. I know you are one of those fellows who detest being patronised, and you know I don't intend it. You'd rather own everything to yourself, I daresay, but if a friend is to do nothing but cherish good intentions what's the use of friendship?"

"Have you some idea of granting me a pension on account of our friendship?" asked Jack smiling.

"I've some intention of making you Manager of the collieries when old Birley gives it up," replied Walter. "Have you obtained a mine manager's certificate yet!"

"Yes, I sat last December and passed rather easily."

"As I always said you would. Well, tell me why you left Torleigh. Surely Nanny Harcliffe and you haven't quarrelled?"

"That's not it."

"What can it be, then? Come Jack, out with it. I think you may trust me."

"Well, if you will know, your under-Manager, Fairhurst, and I couldn't agree. Everything I did was as wrong as it could be, so thought I might as well shift at once. A miner who used to work at the Torleigh pits is here in the silver mines, and seeing a letter he had sent in which he stated that he was getting five pounds a week, I made up my mind to come here too."

"What made Fairhurst treat you so badly?"

"Cannot imagine, unless it was jealousy. You know he had tried to get a certificate several times and always failed, and after I got one he became simply intolerable, and never lost an opportunity of humbling me before the workmen. I could stand it no longer, so I shunted."

"About time too, I think, Jack. Some one will have an unpleasant half-hour when I get back."

"But what brings you to Virginia City, Walter? You are thinking of investing in silver mines?"

"No, not that, Jack," said Walter in an altered voice, and with all the genial light extinguished in his face, whilst his eyes were dimmed with moisture. "No, Jack, I came here on a pilgrimage!"

"A pilgrimage?" was all the miner could say so surprised was he by the other's sudden emotion.

"Yes, a pilgrimage," Walter answered rising and going to the window to hide his face. "You remember the mistress of the school at Torleigh—Alice Wilson?"

"Certainly, Walter; you told me of your engagement."

"She is dead!—she married another, and came here to die. I was returning from her grave when I met you in the street."

There was a few moments of awkward silence. Jack was too sensible to put any further questions to Walter as he knew they would only increase his friend's embarrassment. He had been astounded to hear of Alice Wilson's death and never before had he seen Walter so much moved. Presently Walter regained his composure and he came forward saying:—

"Well, Jack, my business is finished here, and I am thinking of setting out to-morrow morning for England. Are we to return together?"

"I am sorry to have to say no to you, Walter," replied Jack quietly, but firmly. "Now I am here I mean to see what the place is like."

"That is only another and polite way of saying that you refuse my help. Well if you prefer to stay here in a hell-hole like this, among strangers too, rather than return to your friends, it is no affair of mine. I should like to know of what use your certificate is here?"

"None whatever. But that didn't bring me here, and it won't take me away. I mean to see what silver mining is like, I tell you."

"And you refuse my help because it comes too late, I suppose?"

"I never had cause to reproach you, Walter, for anything, and believe me I thoroughly appreciate your generous offer. I mean to stay here a bit, and if I don't like the place, or the work, I'll go back to Torleigh and place myself at your disposal at once. That ought to satisfy you."

"You were always so devilishly independent, Jack, and I'm not sure that I don't like you all the better for it. Well stay here as long as you like, or come back to Torleigh as soon as you may, you will always find me ready to welcome you."

"I thought so," said Jack smiling, and they shook hands warmly.

The next morning Walter Gray was speeding away from Virginia City, and his friend, Jack Mathas, was seeking employment at the silver mines.


CHAPTER XXI.—DISASTER AFTER DISASTER.

One of the first things Walter did on reaching Torleigh was to write to the mistress of Aldayne Priory informing her of the result of his expedition to America. Though he was still convinced that Lady Ruth was a cruel, heartless woman, and altogether mercenary in nature, yet he felt that he had charged her falsely in attributing Alice Gray's disappearance to her machinations. So he sent an ample apology to her, telling her of Alice's death also, and saying that he was satisfied no one was to blame for what had happened save the dead girl.

Her ladyship sent a note in reply, thanking him for doing justice to herself, and expressing the greatest sorrow for Alice Gray's unfortunate end.

Then Walter strove to concentrate all his attention on the serious business of life, which meant for him now the development of his collieries, which had been anything but prosperous during his illness at Aldayne and his absence afterwards. And Walter almost felt glad that his affairs needed a strict overhauling, for such employment afforded him some relief from the pain of disappointed love which still troubled him.

He smiled bitterly whenever his thoughts strayed to his unfortunate heart troubles. Surely no man had ever loved to less purpose than himself? Twice had he loved, wooed, and won a promise of marriage, and just as often had he been cruelly jilted. After such an experience it were small wonder if he swore never to permit another woman to befool him. The unfortunate end of his later love had somewhat toned down the bitterness of his feelings, for he felt it impossible to think very harshly of the dead girl.

Her sudden disappearance and falsity to himself would always remain a mystery. He still thought tenderly of her when the sweet pale face rose before him as he had last seen her that night at the Priory, just before she had gone to her father's room, and only a few minutes prior to his strange and sudden attack of illness. And somehow he always thought that but for that seizure he would not have lost sweet Alice Gray.

Just about this time Walter learned that Lady Ruth's little baby had died, and he thought rather bitterly that the huge fortune his uncle had toiled for had gone into hands that the old mine owner had never dreamt of. Soon after his return from America Walter had paid a visit to the Probate Court, York, to examine the will made by his cousin, Robert Wilson Gray, and he found that everything he possessed had been devised to his widow, with no reservation whatever.

But soon Walter had all his work in looking after his own affairs. The shadow of evil days had fallen on him, and despite all his care and perseverance things went wrong at the collieries. The valuable seam of cannel which had laid the foundation of his uncle's fortune was now quite exhausted, and none of the other seams of coal were half so profitable as that had been. In addition, these seams of coal being wrought at a greater depth were more difficult to work, and, consequently, more expensive.

And the decline of the golden age of mining had set in. Lured by the immense profits made in mines hundreds of capitalists had a couple of years before this invested in collieries to such a degree that already the markets were suffering from plethora, and prices were rapidly falling. Even at this early stage of the reaction not a few were deploring their hasty investments in mining property.

But the evils of a depressed trade were the least of Water's troubles. In one of his mines a fault had been unexpectedly met with throwing the seam of coal many yards lower, and this had necessitated the driving of a long tunnel, which cost several hundred pounds, besides the loss entailed through the miners having to cease work.

Some of the seams of coal at Torleigh were extremely gaseous, and the utmost care had to be exercised in working such mines. Despite this vigilance, however, a small explosion occurred in the "Trencherbone" seam, killing several poor fellows and maiming many others. This deplorable disaster entailed a loss of considerable extent on Walter, but the sacrifice of life caused him far greater concern than the forfeiture of a few thousand pounds.

But his trials and losses did not end here. When the green corn stood breast high and was just beginning to turn brown in the warm sun-glow, when the old earth was looking its best and happiest, another disaster occurred, striking dismay and despair to Walter's heart and startling all England.

One day at noon, when Walter was just finishing dinner, he heard a hurried knock at the door, then somebody enquiring for himself, and presently a man—one of his own workmen he could see—was shown into the room. The man was perspiring profusely and quite out of breath, and Walter had to ask him what he wanted before he spoke, then he managed to blurt out—

"Watter's brokken in, an' pits flooded!"

"Which pit?" cried Walter, jumping to his feet and thrusting on his hat, and hurrying from the house even as he spoke.

"They sen it's th' Arley pit, bur a dunnot know reetly. Mester Birley sent me fur yo' when fust lot o' men comed up."

When Walter reached the collieries he found everything in confusion—a large crowd of excited people filled the colliery yard and the banks of the various pits. Amongst the crowd were to be seen many miners, some of whom were only partially dressed, and all of them as black as negroes. These were the men who had escaped out of the inundated mine, and about each of them was gathered a knot of people who clamourously asked all sorts of questions as to where the water had broken in, who was lost, and who saved!

On finding the Manager Walter learned that most of the miners had escaped; how many still remained in the mine was as yet unknown. A party of volunteers was immediately organized and a descent made at once into the inundated mine. From the statements of one of the escaped miners, Dan Jordan, it appeared that the water had burst through in his place, which was being driven towards the old workings, which were known to lie on the Wigan side of the Torleigh district. But these old workings were supposed to lie a considerable distance from the point where the water had burst through, and it was evident that the lessees of the disused mine had wrought the seam much beyond their boundary.

The exploring party at once made for the point where the water was coming through, which lay in the very highest part of the seam, and the huge volume of water suddenly freed was fast filling all the low lying parts of the mine. From the higher part of the seam all the miners had been able to escape, but it was feared that the others who worked in those places where the water was still rushing like a mountain torrent would be hemmed in and lost.

Walter and his party soon reached a point about fifty yards from the place burst through. It was impossible to get nearer owing to the swiftness of the current, and seeing that it would be useless to attempt to impede the inrushing waters, Walter and most of the others returned to the shaft. A couple of men were left to watch the inundating torrent, and to notice whether it increased or decreased in volume, in which case immediate word thereof was to be taken to the pit bottom, where Walter or some of the officials would be.

Walter had told his Manager, Mr. Birley, to remain on the surface in order to ascertain, if possible, how many miners remained in the mine, and Birley was at the pit bottom when Walter returned there, and he asked the managers if he had been able to learn how many miners had not been able to escape.

"I have seen every man who worked on the north and south sides and up the jig brows, and about twenty of those who worked in the higher part of the down brow. There are twenty-three missing yet, and about that number in the bottom shunt."

"And is there no possible way of getting to them, Birley?" cried Walter. "Many of them will be alive still, I think, if we could only get to them. They would be certain to run to the highest places about them when they heard the water rushing down the brow."

"I think so, too, and I fear that it would have been better had they faced the water, for some of them would have managed to get out, and now the water has risen halfway up the down brow, and they are shut in."

"Have you any idea where the men would make for?"

"I think they would rush for Garvin's place, which is being driven upwards towards the pit shaft."

"Towards the shaft? And how far will the face of Garvin's place be from here?"

"Between forty and fifty yards thick."

"Of solid coal?"

"Yes."

"That would take too long to cut through before we could reach them that way, the water might rise upon them, and perhaps they are not there."

The water was still pouring into the lower workings, and it was maddening to think that most of the imprisoned were still alive, and that there was no way of getting to them. The Torleigh pits had always been noted as peculiarly dry mines, and consequently no pumps had ever been needed save in one mine, and the pump there could not be brought to bear on the inundating flood. To lay down plant for pumping out the water would be a matter of weeks of work, and it seemed all hope of saving the imprisoned miners must be given up.

Whilst Walter and his officials were consulting together, one of the miners belonging to the exploring party cried suddenly:—

"Hush, lads! Ah thowt ah hurd somebody knocking t'other side o'th' coal!"

Every tongue was still in an instant; each man held his breath, and every ear was strained to its utmost. And presently the hot blood was sent rushing through every heart there, for a faint tick! tick! tick! was heard by all. The knocking sounded a long distance away, but there was no mistaking the source whence it came. The sound was continuous, and by placing the ear to the coal the knocking became much plainer.

"The men are in Garvin's place," cried the Manager. "I thought they would make there."

"We must cut through to them then," cried Walter. "Now, lads," addressing the miners, "get your picks and start here at once. A pound a shift for all who work to save them."

The men rushed away to find their tools, and in ten minutes fragments of coal were flying in all directions. Two powerful pitmen, naked to the waist, were smiting the coal with all their strength, and behind them were others ready to take their place when they tired. 'Twas a herculean task they were attempting, but they bent to the work willingly, knowing the lives of their comrades were at stake. And over the rushing of the water was heard the sharp ring of the steel picks as they crashed into the coal, and the splinters fell fast and thick around.

Walter had ordered Birley and the other officials to go and pick out the very best coalgetters amongst all the Torleigh pitmen, and bring them at once to the help of the others. In an hour or so a score of fine pitmen—young fellows of 25 or 30—hard as iron and strong as bulls, were on the spot. The men worked only for half an hour at a spell, straining their powers to the utmost during that time, and then giving way to others.

At midnight seven yards had been cut in the coal, a feat Walter had thought impossible before then. That was over two feet an hour, and calculating on this basis it would take at least two whole days more to reach the imprisoned men. The knocking on the other side was still kept up continuously, and the miners said that the men were working to meet them.

By noon the following day eight yards more had been driven, and still the work went on without the least cessation. The men had now been formed into four gangs, and each gang worked six hours in its turn. In each gang there were eight men, and these worked at the coal in their turns till their shift expired, and eight fresh miners took their place.

The Government Inspectors of Mines for the district had now arrived on the scene, but they were unable to suggest any method of rescuing the imprisoned men save that which was being so energetically pursued. The inundating stream had now lessened in volume, and this gave hope to all. By measuring the height to which the water had risen in the down-brow they were enabled to ascertain that it must still be twenty or thirty yards from the imprisoned men. And as it was now rising slowly there was less fear of their being drowned, but it was doubtful whether the limited quantity of air shut in with them would not be exhausted before the coal was cut through.

The excitement felt by all of those below was equalled by that of the crowd who still filled the colliery yard. News of the disaster had been flashed all over the kingdom, and every fresh item of intelligence was eagerly seized by the special correspondents present on the pit bank, and immediately transmitted to their various papers. The fate of the imprisoned miners had stirred the nation to its centre, and the interest grew in intensity as the news spread that the rescue party were rapidly approaching them. Here and there amid the crowd at the collieries wandered the relatives of the unfortunate men and lads, trying to elicit the smallest atom of news regarding the fate of their loved ones. And it was pitiful to see how eagerly they clung to the least shred of hope; and the crowd in its ready sympathy cheered them with kindly words and such news as their hearts delighted to hear.

Below, the fierce hard work still went on. The sturdy half-naked miners never ceased to rain a shower of mighty blows upon the coal, each man working as if his life depended on the result. And through the long hours the sharp heavy picks went crashing into the coal; and down the black hides of the Titans who wielded them so well the hot sweat ran in perpetual streams. In after times the miners often descanted on the mighty feats done then.

It was midnight again, and now twenty-five yards had been cut. Never once since the disaster occurred had Walter left the spot. Despite the wishes of his men he had remained there, helping when he could, and stimulating the miners by his quiet words and resolute manner. Since noon, no knocking had been heard on the other side of the coal. Whether the men were exhausted by lack of food and drink, or had succumbed to the foul atmosphere, it was impossible to tell. But it seemed certain that the poor fellows were no longer able to do anything towards releasing themselves.

By this time all their lamps would have become extinguished, and, if alive, they would be awaiting their fate in the dark. Shortly after midnight the knocking was resumed for a few moments, then all was silent again. This was reassuring, for it showed that some were still alive, and the men bent to their work again with lighter hearts.

Slowly the hours dragged along, and still the miners carved their way through the coal. Walter had taken especial notice of one of the miners, a young man named Morgan. He was a splendidly built fellow, with the chest of a Hercules. The muscles of his brawny arms stood out like bunches of iron bands as he swung his great pick round and buried its point in the coal as though it were only salt he were hewing, whilst the splinters fell like hail about him, and the hot steam rose from his reeking body. Each man there was master of his craft, but Morgan was more like a machine than a man, and his iron arms never seemed to tire.

Feeling interested in the man, Walter made enquiries regarding him of one of the miners standing behind, and then he learned why Morgan bent so willingly to his work. His father and two brothers were among the imprisoned men, and he was carving them a way to safety.

When midnight came round once more, forty yards had been cut, and a few hours more would finish the work, and alive or dead the prisoned men would be reached. No more knocking had been heard for many hours, and it was feared that the poor fellows had been either suffocated by the foul air they were breathing, or drowned, for the water was still rising slowly in the lower parts of the mine, and in a few hours more would be on to the rescue party.

Suddenly the knocking was resumed behind the coal, work was discontinued for a few moments, and then a feeble shout was heard. Morgan, who was standing near, said he could recognise his brother's voice, and he shouted back, asking if they were all alive. Very faintly, but distinctly, the answer came through the coal. They were all still alive, but quite done up by breathing the bad air, and the water was slowly rising upon them.

'Twas now a race between the miners and the water as to who should first reach the imprisoned men. A couple of hours, and they would be safe, if the water kept back so long. And the men surpassed even their former feats, working shorter spells, and straining every nerve. The imprisoned could now be heard quite plainly. Another yard, and they would be free. Morgan was at the face, working like a steam engine, and every stroke of his pick lessened the wall of coal. Walter could scarcely repress his admiration, as he watched those iron arms slowly breaking down the wall of coal that kept his sire and brethren from freedom.

Suddenly there arose a terrible crash like the bursting of a cannon, the wall of coal was swept away like chaff, and Walter and those beside him were covered with a fierce hail of flying splinters, and many of them were cut seriously. The inundation had swept before it a volume of air, and, as the water increased, this air had become compressed, thus keeping the water from the men. The moment the wall of coal became too thin to resist this pressure, it was swept away with fatal result, for when they approached the hole a few moments later, young Morgan was found dead, his breast beaten in by a large fragment of coal.

The bitter tears started to Walter's eyes as he saw the brave young miner stretched out in death. In his noble effort to save father, brothers, and friends, he had lost his own life. The poor fellow was carried away by his mates, who were sobbing like children at their comrade's tragic fate.

All the imprisoned miners were alive, but many of them were unable to crawl through the hole owing to exhaustion. No time was lost in bringing them all out and sending them to the surface; for now that the pressure had been removed, the water was rising rapidly in the place where the men had been.

In half an hour the mine was abandoned, and one of the last to ascend the pit was the owner, Walter Gray. How he had stood the wear and tear of all that terrible time was a mystery to himself as to all. A hot summer sun was blazing down on the heads of the great crowd gathered about the pits, and as the last cagefull of men came out of the pit a mighty cheer welled up from the throats of the multitude, for the word had gone forth that all were saved.

And all were saved. But one of the best and bravest of the rescuers lay dead on the pit bank, the pitiless sun rays beating upon his poor blackened form, and the father and brothers he had done so much towards saving were bent in anguish over his remains. Walter knew that the disaster had ruined him, but the tears that ran down his face were not due to his losses, but were a tribute to poor Morgan's bravery and sad fate.

And the crowd cheered again, all unconscious of the afflicted ones, and then as Walter turned to walk from the bank he felt himself seized by a sudden giddiness. He stumbled, and would have fallen, had he not been caught by willing hands. Then he became unconscious.


CHAPTER XXII.—THE UNKNOWN FRIEND.

The swoon into which Walter had fallen was succeeded by a deep regenerating sleep, and he awoke not till another day's sun was shooting its warm light into his chamber. On reverting to the stirring events of the last few days his first feeling was one of gladness when he remembered that the imprisoned miners had all been saved; and a wave of utterable regret passed over him as he recollected the brave young Morgan's untimely death.

After this he naturally began to reflect seriously on his own affairs. He knew that the inundation meant almost certain ruin to himself coming as it had done on the heels of other losses, and a still falling trade. Calmly he reviewed his position, but the closest scrutiny revealed little cause for satisfaction, or even hope.

The Torleigh collieries consisted of six separate shafts. Two of these were sunk to the cannel seam, and out of which old Jacob Gray had made the most of his money. But they were useless now, for the valuable seam of cannel was exhausted, and the shafts were only used to aid in ventilating the other mines. Of the other four pits two were sunk to the Trencherbone seam, and in this mine a fault had thrown down the coal, and most of the miners were out of work owing to that cause. The remaining shafts were sunk to the Arley mine, and now that seam was flooded.

The inundation was clearly traceable to the owners of the Marbrook colliery, through them having driven their workings far beyond the authorised limit, but as that Company had been defunct for more than a score of years, it was impossible to obtain compensation from it. To extract the water from the Arley mine would entail an expenditure of several thousand pounds; a large portion of the tunnel being driven in the Trencherbone seam was yet unfinished; the coal trade was still falling rapidly; many of the coalowners were again reducing their miners' wages, and to enter the same markets as these proprietors, Walter would be compelled to reduce his workmen's wages also; in the various coalfields many pits were lying idle altogether, and could be bought for an old song, and in face of all these facts it was useless to involve himself in debt in order to keep Torleigh collieries at work.

So the word was given that "Owd Gray's pits" were to remain idle till the return of more prosperous times. This intelligence was received in Torleigh with general regret. Many of the miners would have to quit the place altogether as only a few of them would be able to find employment at the other collieries in the district. Many of the pitmen had been born and bred at Torleigh, and it would be a sore trial to them to bid goodbye to their native place.

It had pained Walter to stop the collieries, but it was the most honourable course he could follow. After he had squared up his affairs he found himself just free of debt, and the property he had built himself in Torleigh would suffice for all his wants. He might have realized several thousand pounds by selling the extensive plant at the collieries, but he had resolved to start the pits again whenever fortune enabled him to do so.

But even in the midst of his losses and troubles stray gleams of sunlight came to him. The story of his resolute endurance in remaining in the flooded mine till all were saved had been taken up by the journalists and his fame spread through the land, and a few weeks after the inundation he and several others were presented with the Victoria Cross.

When summer had merged into autumn Sir Wilton Haigh sent Walter a pressing invitation to join him and a few guests at Olsham Hall for the partridge shooting, but Walter had begged the genial baronet to permit him to decline his hospitable offer.

The very day that Sir Walter had written to Sir Wilton declining his invitation, he received a visit from his old friend the Manchester solicitor, Mr. Braile. Walter was just about to have tea when Mr. Braile called, and at Gray's solicitation the lawyer joined him in his afternoon meal. Walter was wondering to what he owed this unexpected visit, and presently he was enlightened.

"Rather surprised, Walter, to see me, eh?" said Mr. Braile, addressing his host in the old friendly manner, and helping himself to the mushrooms and toast. "Well, I may say that I am here on business, pure business, and it is extremely pleasant to me too. I was extremely sorry when I heard that your mines had been flooded and you had finally to close them through losses and the depressed state of the coal trade. But——"

"Have another cup of tea, Mr. Braile?"

"Yes, thank you. Well, I was going to say that there is a fair prospect of you starting the collieries again."

"As soon as trade improves I may do so."

"Trade is not likely to mend just yet, still I venture to say that the Torleigh collieries will be in full swing again before Christmas."

The lawyer paused for a moment to sip his tea, and Walter seemed a little surprised by his cool words, but he said nothing, for he knew that Braile spoke to some purpose, and presently the solicitor continued:—

"You are surprised I should say so, eh? Well, you will be more surprised still shortly. I say the Torleigh collieries will be working again before Christmas, if you wish it."

"I only stopped them to prevent myself being involved in debt. Under the circumstances to have continued them would only have ended in utter failure. It was very painful to me to see many of the miners—most of whom had worked for my uncle—forced from the town. If there was the slightest prospect of working the pits to a profit I would start them to-morrow. But that is not possible."

"Why?"

"Well, in the first place, I should have to borrow several thousand pounds, all of which would have to be expended before any considerable amount of coal could be raised, and in the present condition of the coal trade the interest on the money borrowed would swallow all the profits."

"But if you could have the money without paying any interest at all?"

"Then, of course, the collieries could be worked to a profit. But," continued Walter smiling, and glancing at the other, "where am I to find the benevolent individual who lends money for charity's sake? Perhaps," here he exploded into an incredulous laugh, "you know his address?"

"I do, but I cannot oblige you with it," Braile replied quite coolly. "However, that does not matter so much as long as the money is at your disposal."

"You are jesting surely, Mr. Braile?" cried Walter, looking inquisitively at the solicitor.

"Was never more serious, Walter," the other answered, laying down his cup, and bending towards Walter. "If you desire it, ten, or fifteen thousand pounds are at your disposal to-morrow, without interest, and to be repaid in five, ten, or fifteen years, whichever you prefer."

Walter was literally struck dumb for a few moments with astonishment. The proposal seemed too Quixotic to be real, and yet he could not doubt the solicitor's word. Then Mr. Braile continued—

"Before you reply to that proposal hear others I have to make. The client for whom I am acting is prepared to enter into partnership with you, or will purchase the collieries outright. If you decide on entering into a partnership, he will pay you down in cash half the value of the colliery plant; and, if you choose, you may act as managing partner at £1500 a year, with an addition of 5 per cent of the profits realized."

"Who is your client?" demanded Walter, putting his chair from the table and standing beside the fireplace.

"That I cannot tell you, nor do I see that it is necessary you should know."

"He is mad, surely; no sane man would make such proposals. To enter into such engagements would be little short of robbery."

"My dear Walter, what are you talking about? Because my client chooses to act generously by you he is a fool, or insane; and you are polite enough to hint, indirectly, that I am lending myself to a piece of jobbery. Now, do be practical and look at the matter sensibly. You know that rich men are whimsical, and the only pleasure they desire from life lies in the gratification of their whims. So long as they can afford it who has any right to grumble?"

"I have no right, certainly. But I cannot understand why any one should wish to do me such a generous turn."

"That is no adequate reason for quarrelling with the doer of the generous act. Now, look here, Walter. In the first place, you must understand that the proposals I have mentioned were not due to me in any way whatever. They are the outcome of the generous feelings of the man who desires to befriend you. Suppose you were to avail yourself of ten or fifteen thousand, on the terms named, what harm will be done? My client could afford to pitch half a dozen such sums into the fire and never feel the loss. If you are not quite mad you will do as I advise you."

"But——"

"D——, your buts!" cried Braile, now thoroughly exasperated. "Begad! this is just what I might have expected from one who persuaded his uncle not to leave him a fortune, and who afterwards handed it over to another. You've ruined yourself through your generosity, and now you won't permit any one to be generous save yourself!" and he paced the room irritably.

"Not another word, dear old friend," said Walter, crossing the room to Mr. Braile. "I will accept your client's generous offer of a loan, whoever he may be. But I think it hard—singularly hard indeed—that I should not know to whom I owe so much."

"I have pledged my word not to tell you, and I think my client is all the worthier for preferring to do such an act in the dark. And I want you to promise that you will not endeavour to find out the name of your unknown friend."

"Of course, if you wish it, but I trust to learn some day."

"And what sum will you require? I think you had better have sufficient at once. Suppose we say £15,000?"

"Half of that would be sufficient to start the collieries. Well, if you persist I will take that sum, but it is more than I need, I assure you."

"Then that amount will be placed to your credit at the County Bank, Manchester, to-morrow. There is nothing to sign. You will pay the money back when it suits your convenience. All I want is a note from you saying you have availed yourself of the money—a few words will do. And, now, was I not right in predicting that the Torleigh collieries would be working again before Christmas?"

The dapper lawyer indulged in a loud hearty laugh; then they shook hands energetically and parted. The following day Walter received a letter from the Manager of the County Bank, Manchester, notifying him that £15,000 had been placed to his credit. And the same afternoon the intelligence flew through Torleigh that Owd Gray's pits were to commence working immediately.

The old officials were glad to accept re-engagements, and soon the old pitmen came back also when they heard the news. The miners were started at once in the Trencherbone seam, and soon a mighty steam pump was throwing a continuous torrent of water out of the inundated mine. The old workings of the Marbrook Colliery had long since been exhausted of their watery contents, and the water had not risen at all in the shaft. In a couple of months most of the miners had resumed work, and in another month the Arley seam was free once more from water.

And now fortune began to smile again on Walter Gray. He had devoted all his energy and ability to the work of making the collieries pay, and he succeeded beyond his expectations. He obtained several advantageous contracts for supplying certain railway companies and gasworks with coal, and whilst many of the other pits in the Lancashire coalfields were working short time the Torleigh miners could not get sufficient coal to meet the demands of their master's markets.

There is no need to tell in detail the success that flowed in on Walter. Everything he touched prospered, and twelve months after the inundation of the mine he again stood forth a prosperous man, owing nothing, and with a respectable balance at his banker's. Of the fifteen thousand pounds he never had occasion to use more than half, and his success was so great as to enable him to repay the entire sum placed to his credit within a year.

When Walter handed the money to Mr. Braile he asked the solicitor if he might not know the name of the man to whom he owed so great a debt of gratitude. But Mr. Braile replied that his client still wished to remain unknown. And the solicitor urged Walter to make use of the money for another year at least, as its payment might put him to inconvenience; but as Walter was able to pay it, he did so, saying he would avail himself of it again if necessary.

Three months of trouble, failure, excitement, and ultimate success had done much to clear away all his love troubles. The memory of Alice Gray had lost all its bitterness now, and he was able to smile at himself having been twice jilted. Sometimes in his quieter moments, when he was, perchance, strolling through the fields at twilight, a sweet, pale face would rise before him, and a sharp pang of regret would surge through him. His affection had been deep and tender, and he thought he would never love again another woman as he had loved the girl who had been mistress of his schools.


CHAPTER XXIII.—"If I were loved as I desire to be."

Midsummer again, and how beautifully fresh and green the old world seemed once more. About Aldayne Priory the warm months had wrapped their verdant loveliness; the big trees were covered with luxuriant leafage; the numerous hawthorns and hedgerows about the village were so many masses of white fragrant blossom. In the bosky glades of Aldayne Park the innumerable wild flowers were looking their best, and there also a new growth of beautiful ferns had pushed its way through the old dead fronds to please the eye with their deep green feathery foliage.

Amid all this natural loveliness, the fair owner of Aldayne rambled almost each day admiring the splendid timber, plucking the bright wild flowers and pretty ferns to be afterwards flung away from her in a fit of sullen despair. She thoroughly appreciated the value of her wealth, and her beautiful home had no warmer admirer than herself, and yet those facts seemed to make her more discontented with her position. Her skilful scheming had brought her a splendid fortune; she fared sumptuously, dressed regally, and was able to gratify her every whim and wish but one. The very things she possessed now once covered the whole area of her ambition. In the days when she was only the unwed daughter of an indigent nobleman she had fancied that life's greatest happiness lay in having the power to dress more brilliantly than her set—a splendid home to which intimates might be invited, and a regal revenue to sustain the luxurious tastes of herself and friends.

All these she possessed, and yet she felt less contented with life than when her former aspirations were unfulfilled. Success never brings entire satisfaction; it only creates new ambitions. As one mounts the ladder of aspiration the range of mental vision is expanded, new desires appear on the horizon, and every ambition achieved begets a fresh longing. Thus the goal is pushed continuously onward.

So it was with her ladyship. A year or two ago her ambitions had been material ones, and those satisfied she craved for the consummation of a new aspiration which her heart had given birth to. The feeling she had once considered hardly of any importance now claimed all her thoughts and attention. In the days of her indigence the wish to be loved had been the ambition she least cared to have gratified, but now it was the greatest. Unless the mind be occupied with greater schemes a woman turns to love, naturally, as a plant leans towards the sun, and having secured wealth and every material luxury she desired, Lady Ruth's fancy, not lightly, but deeply and earnestly, turned to thoughts of love. And there was nothing unusually strange in the irony of fate which made her crave with a passionate intensity for the love of the man she had jilted.

By her consummate cleverness she had warded off from herself indelible disgrace and the world's scorn—her adroit and unscrupulous brain had won for her a paradise of wealth, luxury, ease, and position. But hers was a loveless paradise—her Eden an Adamless one, and till her Adam came to share her garden its fruits, and flowers, and sweetnesses would yield no happiness unto her.

Lust for power and gold will make one dare much, but the feverish passion of love is more powerful still. For siller a man will wade deep in sin—even take the life of his fellow, and afterwards squander the gold on the woman he loves. And even the powerful statesmen who sway the destinies of nations are plastic as unbaked clay in the palms of the fair creatures they adore.

Lady Ruth loved Walter Gray with a passion that was shoreless and unfathomable. Her love was grown into a disease that would kill her unless it were gratified. She had risked much already to win the affection for which she craved, but Walter seemed no nearer to her than when he left the Priory more than a year and a half ago to search for his missing sweetheart and cousin, Alice Gray.

All the sweet months of summer her ladyship wandered along the green banks of the river, often sitting on the margin of the pretty stream, gazing on the beauteous image mirrored there, and wondering if her beauty had lost all its old power over Walter Gray; she loitered about the deep green lanes and luxurious meadows, asking herself often if Walter would never return to his first love, and in the fernery hollows and flowery nooks of her own park she lounged for hours, an unread novel beside her, while her brain was inventing all sorts of schemes to compass her great desire.

A Jesuit in philosophy, she cared not how she won back the love she had once rejected, so that she regained possession of it. Hers was the love of love, and she was of the few who might truly have said with the poet:


Love was and is my lord and king,
for she was one of those—
Passionate souls,
Plunged in themselves, who demand
Only to live by the heart—
Only to love and be loved.

Since her first coming to Aldayne Priory as its mistress Lady Ruth had never been away from it for more than a few days at a time. Her friends and relatives had been there frequently, and not a few of them wondered why the rich and beautiful widow chose to bury herself there all the year round. Everybody expected her to make a brilliant figure in society after the expiration of the orthodox number of months of mourning, but Lady Ruth disappointed those who cherished such a hope, and gave not a little offence to her needy relatives by such a procedure. The Earl and Countess of Ellsden naturally expected to reap some benefit from their daughter's good fortune, as without doubt they did, but no amount of persuasion of theirs could induce Lady Ruth to take a house in town and live there during the season. The amiable countess was puzzled by the change in her daughter. She had feared that Lady Ruth would have contemplated entering into the gaieties of society sooner than was advisable after her husband's death, and she was astonished when her daughter preferred to spend the second season after her bereavement as she had the first at the Priory.

The sprightly countess was worldly from foot to crown, and she thought herself ill-used, and robbed of her fair share of fame by Lady Ruth's declining to make the noise in society that she might have done with her wealth, beauty, and position. The Earl of Ellsden did not care a fig where his daughter spent the season so that she continued to help him when his creditors became unduly clamorous.

Was it not the younger Disraeli who scathingly said that women only turned to God when men turned from them? Perchance, a kindred reason makes others of the sex charitable. Without being unusually kind-hearted, Lady Ruth enjoyed the reputation of a Lady Bountiful. Her tenants having a bad harvest, she, in a fit of generosity, returned half their rents. Of course the journalists got hold of this, and a nice little paragraph appeared first in the London and afterwards in the provincial papers. Does the feeling that prompts an act matter so much after all, if the act itself be good? What beggar would prefer a penny from the best-hearted fellow living to a crown from the cruellest scoundrel?

One fine afternoon in July Lady Ruth was seated idling with a book in a shady corner of the park, dwelling as usual on her unfortunate passion, and wondering how she was to win back Walter Gray's love, when a new scheme presented itself to her. She turned it over in her mind several times, feeling more convinced of its feasibility every time she did so, and finally she resolved to put her plan into motion that evening. If the method she contemplated pursuing did not rekindle in Walter Gray's breast the love of her that once possessed him, she might for ever cease her attempts to win him.

That evening she was shut up in her boudoir for some time, writing two letters; one short and formal, the other long and friendly. The first was addressed to "Walter Gray, Esq., The Platts, Torleigh;" the other was addressed to "John Braile, Esq., solicitor, Market-street, Manchester." The respective missives were enveloped and addressed to the persons for whom they were intended, and, to prevent mistake, Lady Ruth, in company with her maid, went down to the village and posted the letters herself.

Then she returned to the Priory feeling somewhat anxious as to the result of her scheme. A good many days would have to pass before she would be able to learn whether success or failure would bless or damn her efforts. So she resigned herself with what patience she could muster to wait for whatever the future had in store for her.


CHAPTER XXIV.—THE UNKNOWN FRIEND DISCOVERED.

Among his letters one morning Walter Gray discovered an epistle bearing Aldayne on the postmark. Instantly his thoughts flew to Lady Ruth, as he knew no one else there, and wondering what she could have to say to him, he broke open the envelope, and read the following strange missive:—


"My dear Sir,

"Having a lively remembrance of the kindly advice you have been good enough to favour me with on various occasions, I should like to have the benefit of it again, as I am wishful to purchase a farm lying adjacent to the Aldayne estate, and which I hear the owner is desirous of selling. If it will not interfere with your business nor put you to any inconvenience I should like you to spend a few days here. There is plenty of ground game to amuse yourself with, and I have heard that the Yenke is worthy a fisherman's attention.

"You will remember my directions with reference to the collieries at Torleigh. I suppose you have not breathed a syllable to any one as to the action I thought fit to take when Mr. Gray was ruined through his mines being inundated? I never wish him to know that it was I who enabled him to re-start the mines at Torleigh. Something convinces me that he would not like to think himself indebted, even in the slightest degree, to me, and I trust you will never let him know that I had aught to do with the business. I even think it would be safer if you were to lead him to think that he owed his return to fortune to the generosity of some of his gentleman friends. You might hint that Sir Wilton Haigh was the person who advanced the £15,000 free of interest, and thus divert all suspicion from myself. Anyhow, be careful that you never utter a word even to your most trusted friend about my connection with the matter.

"I want you to come as soon as possible as Tarbuck says someone else is after the farm, and I do not want to buy it without first consulting you. Trusting you will get here on Friday or Saturday, I remain,

"Faithfully yours.

"RUTH GRAY.


"John Braile, Esq."

On reading the first half of the letter Walter felt surprised and a little disgusted at Lady Ruth's liberty in daring to ask him to the Priory, but those feelings changed quickly to astonishment as he read on and learned that Lady Ruth was his unknown friend and benefactor.

He sat staring at the open sheet in his hand, pondering over the startling intelligence he had just gathered, and mixed with his amazement were warmer feelings—those of respect and admiration, if not something warmer still. He had often longed to know to whom he owed the recovery of his position, that he might show the depth of his gratitude. He had set down his unknown friend to be Sir Wilton Haigh, and never had he dreamt of the possibility of Lady Ruth being the one to whom he owed so much.

Just then he would have preferred being indebted to any one rather than to her ladyship. He had set her down as cold-hearted and mercenary, a woman incapable of doing a generous action, and he was a little chagrined to think he had so misread her character. A man can never wholly forgive a woman who jilts him, and he was forced to admit now that he had totally misjudged her.

The name at the bottom of the letter showed Walter to what kind of a mistake he owed the intelligence that had surprised him so much. He had received a missive intended for Braile the solicitor, but how came Lady Ruth to address the envelope to himself? A little thought told him that her ladyship must have been writing to both Braile and himself, and that she had made the mistake of placing the wrong notes in the envelopes, sending the solicitor's letter to himself and his letter to the solicitor. Thus Lady Ruth had revealed by mistake the secret she wished so much to be kept from Walter.

If this were the right solution of the matter, Walter knew that he might expect confirmation of it soon, for if Mr. Braile had received the wrong note, he suspected then the solicitor was certain to forward it at once to Torleigh. During his breakfast that morning and afterwards when he went to the collieries he was thinking of the new character in which Lady Ruth now appeared to him. Instead of being mercenary and selfish she had been generous to a degree unparalleled in his experience, and, what redounded still more to her credit, had done good in secret, and would blush to find it fame.

The afternoon post brought Walter a letter from Manchester. Before he opened it he felt sure it was from the solicitor, and this conviction was confirmed. Inside the envelope were two missives, the first was from Braile and ran as follows:—


"My dear Mr. Gray—Through some mistake or other a letter meant for you was received by me this morning. I cannot imagine how her ladyship has made the mistake, but shall write her to-night. I enclose the letter, and trusting that you are quite well, remain,

"Obediently yours,

"JOHN BRAILE."

The enclosed missive ran thus:—


"Dear Sir,

Will you permit an old friend like myself to express her satisfaction on learning that you have been able to withstand the grave losses entailed upon you by the recent disaster in your mines? Despite the past, I am sure no one can wish you every success more heartily than

"Yours faithfully,

"RUTH GRAY.


"Walter Gray, Esq."

After reading both the letters Walter reflected for a few minutes. If the solicitor wrote to Lady Ruth she would know that the letter meant for him had been sent to Gray, and would be intensely annoyed on learning that her secret was known to him through her own mistake. Walter resolved to save her this annoyance by keeping all knowledge of the mistake from her, and to effect this he at once dispatched a telegram to the solicitor, requesting him not to write to Lady Ruth but to come immediately to Torleigh as he could explain the mistake.

Walter received a telegram in reply saying that Mr. Braile would visit him on the following morning, and the solicitor kept his promise. After the usual greetings Walter commenced his explanation by placing the missive he had received in mistake in the lawyer's hands. Mr. Braile read the letter carefully, pausing now and again to express a grunt of surprise, and when he had finished reading he looked at Walter with eyes of enquiry.

"I think, Mr. Braile," said Walter, "that that letter explains all you wish to know?"

"It does. I see now that her ladyship sent each of us the wrong letter in mistake. I am sorry it has happened, though, thank goodness, it is through no fault of mine. She will be extremely annoyed I know."

"When she learns that I have found out my unknown friend?" interrogated Walter, smiling.

"Yes. You cannot imagine how fearful she was of this thing getting to any one's ears—and of yours particularly. She's exhorted me times without number not to let a suspicion of a hint escape me, and now she has let out everything through the deplorable mistake. She will be furious."

"But she never needs to know about it."

"Why not? Would you keep the knowledge from her, Mr. Gray?"

"Certainly, if it would annoy her to know."

"Perhaps it would be better?"

"I am sure it would, Mr. Braile. If you take your own letter, I mine, and we act as though we had received them in the ordinary way neither her ladyship nor any one else will learn anything about it. There is no harm done, for I think I ought to have known long since what I have only discovered by mistake. Even her ladyship need not fear to be the recipient of gratitude such as her generous action may call forth."

"No! no! certainly not; but you must respect the motive which induced her to keep herself unknown."

"My respect is intensified by that fact. I might have refused to avail myself of the money you placed at my disposal had I known its source."

"Well, well, I suppose we had better do as you suggested. I shall write to her ladyship as if I had received my letter direct, and you will do likewise. As you say, such a course will do no harm, and it will save her much annoyance. Well, I must be off," said the solicitor, glancing at his watch. "I am rather busy just now, and I want to get a few business matters settled before going to Aldayne. I shall accept her ladyship's kind invitation and spend a day or two there. I think a holiday would do you no harm, eh? You are not looking so well as you might do?"

"I am just thinking of spending a week or two with some friends of mine—Sir Wilton and Lady Haigh, of Olsham Hall. The baronet has invited me for the first of September, and I think I shall go. Good morning if you're off—Good morning."

Nothing of importance happened to any of those concerned in this story between the date of the interview just recorded and the first of September, unless I chronicle as such the gradual change in Walter Gray's mental attitude towards his dead cousin's wife. The knowledge of Lady Ruth's generous action, and her evident desire that he should never know what he owed her, had dropped into his mind like a fruitful mental seed, generating a progeny of generous thoughts.

Convinced that he had misjudged her, he now ran the danger of going to the other extreme, and all her former transgressions were wiped out by a single great act of generosity. It was impossible for Walter not to ask himself on every occasion what he thought of Lady Ruth's act, what had induced her to take such an interest in his affairs? To this he could only form one answer, and that was that Lady Ruth had not yet outgrown her old attachment.

On the first September Walter went to Olsham Hall, meeting there many of those he had met during his previous visit, now four years ago. Professor Ruxton was one of the first to greet him, and Dick Bandon, handsome as ever, and just as happy and witty as of old, was also enjoying the hospitality of the baronet.

Sir Wilton and Lady Haigh's guests were, as usual, numerous, and composed of both sexes. The gentlemen were out shooting most of the day, and the ladies were left to discuss matters of dress, the novels of the last season, and the latest items of society gossip. After dinner there was a general move towards the drawing-room, and a little singing, and dancing, and flirting whiled the evenings away pleasantly.

Dick Bandon was in great request after dinner. He was equally at home in the most comical of ditties and the most heart-breaking of love threnodies. Among Sir Wilton's guests was the young Marquis of Ormsbury, a handsome youngster of twenty-two, rich as a Rothschild, and already well known on the turf as the owner of the famous mare "Bulpup." Several of the fair spinsters staying at the hall had made high resolves as regards the young sportsman's subjugation, but he seemed to fight shy of everyone who either couldn't or wouldn't talk of horses.

Walter was only an indifferent shot, but he enjoyed the sport quite as much as any of Sir Wilton's friends. One evening at dinner, Walter was astonished to see the Countess of Ellsden at table, and a moment after he saw her daughter also. He bowed rather coldly to the elder lady's salutation, but his nod of recognition in answer to Lady Ruth's was warm as her own.

Walter thought that the mistress of Aldayne Priory had never looked so beautiful as then. The splendid colouring of her rare, dark face seemed to have caught a richer bloom; her big brown eyes were more lustrous than before, and her bust and arms were simply bewildering in their perfection of colour and shape. After dinner, in the drawing-room, he had ample opportunity of observing the brilliant widow unobserved. Lady Ruth was seated on an ottoman a dozen yards from the corner in which he was lounging, pretending to be much interested in some rare engravings.

The Marquis of Ormsbury was being presented to Lady Ruth, and Walter saw a quick shadow of annoyance pass over the brilliant countenance as the young nobleman seated himself beside her. In addition to her ripened beauty Walter was quick to notice other changes in her ladyship. She was still bright and sociable, but her clear silvery laughter was heard only very seldom. She appeared to have become thoughtful, and spoke less than when he had first met her under that roof.

The Marquis seemed smitten by his companion's charms. He hung about Lady Ruth most of the evening, and his action was noticed all the more as he usually preferred some one of his own sex with whom he could discuss the merits and demerits of well-known hunters and racers. Lady Haigh asked Lady Ruth to sing them something, and she at once complied, Ormsbury following her to the piano to turn the music.

But the young nobleman's help was not needed, as Lady Ruth played and sang without the aid of the printed notes. She chose an old Scotch song, one of Burns', and she sang it with marvellous effect. Her voice was a soprano of singular purity and compass, and each word fell from her tongue clear and sweet, and thrilling with passionate emotion. A murmur of pleasure went round the room as she finished, and half a dozen voices asked for another song from Lady Ruth.

Without any pressing she complied, selecting Moore's "Love's young dream." Again every voice was hushed, save the singer's, as she trilled forth the bard of Erin's silver rhymes, and more than Walter noticed the passion that breathed through the words—


No—that hallow'd form is ne'er forgot
Which first love trac'd!
Still it lingering haunts the greenest spot
On memory's waste.
'Twas odour fled, as soon as shed;
'Twas morning's winged dream;
'Twas a light that ne'er can shine again
On life's dull stream;
Oh! 'twas light that ne'er can shine again
On life's dull stream.

The last words died away in a long passionate wail of sweet sound, and when Lady Ruth rose suddenly from the piano her beautiful smiling face struck the company as something like a bathos after the intense sorrow she had forced into the concluding words of her song. The momentary hush was suddenly broken by Dick Brandon—

"I feel as solemn as my uncle the vicar of Daneshill, always looks. Your ladyship has thrown us all in the dumps with your sentiment, and everybody's going to be miserable unless I rouse 'em up with a comic song, so here goes."

Dick dropped into the stool Lady Ruth had just vacated, and his rich baritone was presently rolling forth the latest absurdity in the way of comic ditties, the chorus of which consisted of several repetitions of the words, "Mother says I musn't;" nevertheless, it sent the young Marquis into quite a fit of laughter.

After Bandon's song came to an end Walter went out to smoke a cigar on the lawn. There were a few iron chairs on the edge of the green sward, and into one of these he lounged. The night was warm and clear, for a full moon rose high in the heavens, and Walter could see away over the undulating lands that lay to the right of him.

His cigar was one of his host's choicest weeds, his reflections were not unpleasant, but his enjoyment of both were presently interrupted by a murmur of voices behind him, and turning he saw Lady Ruth step out of the drawing-room window on to the lawn, still followed by the young Marquis.

They strolled to and fro on the soft springy turf, and Walter heard Ormsbury say—

"Surely, Lady Ruth, you must be fond of hunting?"

"I am not, I assure you," he heard her reply quite coolly. "I think hunting and racing are only fit pursuits for those who are unable to think."

Then they passed out of hearing, and Walter resumed his cigar and his reflections. For the latter her ladyship of Aldayne supplied the principal pabulum, and he asked himself again, why had she taken such an interest in him and his affairs as to place £15,000 at his disposal. Now that he was so near her ladyship he felt somehow that it would be vanity to attribute her action to love of his unhandsome self. So he turned to other and less perplexing thoughts, and finished his cigar in peace.

The next few days and evenings passed just as the one described. The only matter calling for notice was the continual and persistent manner in which the noble turfite played cavalier serviente to Lady Ruth. Her ladyship did not appear particularly pleased by the Marquis's attentions, but she tolerated them, and that was sufficient to satisfy Ormsbury. Everybody saw that he was "clean gone," and meant business, but no one felt certain that Lady Ruth intended to become Marchioness of Ormsbury.

At first Walter had smiled with the rest of Sir Wilton's guests on noticing Ormsbury's attentions to Lady Ruth, for he felt it was a matter of indifference to him who wooed and won her. But the persistency of the Marquis, or perhaps her ladyship's toleration of his worship, had a singularly irritating effect on Gray. It reminded him so much of his own brief passion for the same woman, and the phases of the young nobleman's passion were similar to those he had himself experienced whilst enjoying the Haigh's hospitality a few years before.

If it were possible to be jealous without being in love then Walter was jealous of Lady Ruth's wooer. Nothing less than a perfect stoicism will enable a man to watch with pulseless veins another man woo a lovely woman he has once kissed and fondled himself. Walter was no stoic, and Ormsbury's idolatry of the mistress of Aldayne almost prompted him to enter the arena against the Marquis.

Lady Ruth and Walter had said little to each other yet save formal words of greeting. She had heard from Mr. Braile that Gray was to be at Olsham Hall in September, and had got herself invited there in consequence. Her first meeting with her old lover showed her that there was a kinder light in his eyes for herself, and she knew then that her little scheme had been productive of good.

She had come to the Hall with the sole purpose of winning back Walter's love, and to gain that end she was willing to sacrifice anything. Out of a million of women there will be perhaps a dozen who deplore that iron law of custom which decrees that in love affairs the male sex alone may take the initiative. Those dozen women will love in secret with a fierce lava-like passion, but it has to be smothered up, for they are bound down by a law made for creatures in whose veins runs ice instead of hot, quick-pulsing, passionate blood.

And her ladyship was such a woman. Sometimes she thought her consuming passion was a curse sent upon her; and it maddened her to think she had once rejected the man she now loved with such a passionate adoration. She permitted Ormsbury to hang about her only because she thought such a course would stir up any passion that might be slumbering in her old lover's breast.

But when Walter was near the poor Marquis was mercilessly snubbed, whilst her graciousness to Gray and the deference with which she invariably addressed him contrasted markedly with the sarcasm she poured upon her noble adorer. She felt certain of winning the affection she craved could she break through the reserve Walter showed in her presence, and the friction of their constant meetings was gradually rubbing off the stiffness of his manner, and the cold formality of his words. She saw that he watched her, thinking himself unobserved, and a wave of joy pulsed through her whenever she noticed this.


CHAPTER XXV.—FINESSING.

"I think, my dear, that we have reason to be pleased with our visit, for Sir Wilton and Lady Haigh never got a nicer lot of people together. I have passed quite a pleasant week, and you, Ruth, have even greater cause to be satisfied with our stay here than I have."

"Why do you think so, mama!"

"Nonsense, my dear; what makes you ask such a question? Surely you are aware of what every one else is talking about."

"You mean the attention the Marquis favours me with."

"Certainly, what else can I mean?"

"Then I see no reason in that to be thankful for in coming here. I have tolerated the poor fool that is all. He would be quite contemptible were he not so rich and well born. But I cannot tolerate his nonsense any longer."

"Tolerate!" almost shrieked the Countess. "Why you may be Marchioness of Ormsbury whenever you please, Ruth. Such chances come only once in a life time."

"And that is more than enough for me," replied Lady Ruth quietly. "It is quite certain, mama, that I shall never be Marchioness of Ormsbury. One marriage of convenience is quite enough for one lifetime. If ever I marry again it will be for happiness not position. I feel tired, and shall go to bed. Good night, mama."

The Countess saw that it would be useless to argue with her daughter, so she bade her good night, and sought her own bedroom, thinking Lady Ruth was mad to throw away the prize that was being offered her.

The following evening, as Walter was contemplating a retreat to the lawn to enjoy his usual cigar, he was joined by Lady Ruth. She had just been singing and having finished she walked toward the window where he sat, and glanced out on the moonlit lawn. They had been rather intimate during the day, and she said:—

"How warm this room is, Mr. Gray! What a splendid night, and how deliriously cool it must be outside."

"I was just thinking of going out myself to smoke a cigar on the lawn. Suppose we take a few turns on the lawn together!"

She thanked him with a quick glad flash of her splendid eyes, and picking up a shawl he wrapped it round her shoulders. The windows opened on to the lawn and they passed out together, Ormsbury watching them jealously and biting his lips with vexation.

Walter lit his cigar and they walked slowly to and fro past the drawing-room windows. Their talk for a time was of the most commonplace things; the geniality of their host and hostess, the bonhomme and characteristics of their fellow-guests, the fineness of the night—everything save the thoughts uppermost in their minds. Something of the old feeling was faintly stirring at the bottom of Walter's heart. She was so fascinating in the fullness of her wondrous beauty; so deferential to him in word and act and look; and behind all these things lay the knowledge that the peerless dame who hung on his arm and smiled so pleasantly in his face had made him her debtor for ever by her generous deed.

Was he not justified in thinking that her ladyship felt the highest possible interest in himself? And he thoroughly appreciated the delicacy that had made her wish to keep all knowledge of her interest in him unknown. Presently Lady Ruth ventured to touch on a matter more personal than their previous topics of conversation had been; but there was a tone of hesitation in her voice which seemed to apologize for her boldness.

"Mr. Gray," she began, turning frankly towards him, "you must let me say how sorry I was to hear of your bad luck last year when your pits were flooded. Do you know that I read every word of what transpired afterwards? How your workmen had to cut through the coal to free their comrades; and how you remained in the mine all that terrible time."

"It was nothing—at least my share of the work wasn't much," laughed Walter. "I only sat there while the men worked."

"I read all about it, and I know you would blush to hear all the newspapers said about your daring. I know you never left the mine for three whole days, and that must have been more terrible to endure than any physical work could be. I wonder it did not kill you."

"If your ladyship continues in this strain I shall begin to think myself a hero of the first magnitude," laughed Walter.

"You are," she answered, dropping her voice slightly. "I think I never read a nobler thing—and others thought so too," she added, "for I heard you had received the Victoria Cross from Her Majesty."

"Yes, but there were others unrewarded who deserved them more—look there," he added, turning the conversation, "isn't that red glare rather picturesque for Lancashire? One can almost fancy himself in Naples watching an irruption of Vesuvius."

With his disengaged hand he was pointing towards the sky over Torleigh where the red hot metal being run from the furnaces made the heavens seem on fire.

"Yes, it is rather pretty," she answered, as they paused a moment to view the phenomenon. Then as they turned to resume their walk she said in a voice grown suddenly tender, "Do you know, Mr. Gray, that in all my reading I never came across an incident so touching and tragic as the death of that poor collier, Morgan. I cried like a child when I read of it."

They were passing the window as she spoke, and in the broad stream of light that fell on her face he saw her eyes were full of moisture. He was surprised that she could remember the poor fellow's name, and he thought better of her for it. His own voice dropped and saddened as he said:—

"Yes it was a sad thing to lose his life in the act of saving those of his relatives and others. The keenest pang of agony I ever received was that I felt when I saw the poor fellow was dead. His father and brothers are still working in the same mine."

There was a few moments of silence after this, and as they reached the edge of the lawn they paused a little, for Walter was lighting a fresh cigar. Just then the soft mellow chimes of the Church clock in Olsham village striking 11 came floating through the still air.

"I daresay I am keeping you out?" he said, questioningly, as his weed kindled, they turned to recross the green turf.

"Oh no, it is early yet, and the night is so very beautiful. See there are Lady Haigh and Mr. Bandon coming out to admire the starlit sky and test the accuracy of Tennyson's simile:—


The Pleiads rising through the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.

which is a pretty conceit enough if rather exaggerated.


CHAPTER XXVI.—ANOTHER CONQUEST.

Walter Gray was finding his tâte-à-tâte with Lady Ruth rather pleasant, and not wishing to end it yet he turned towards the rustic seat in which he usually smoked his cigar of an evening, and depositing his companion therein he leant over the tall back. She submitted to this gladly, a sweet pleasure thrilling her the while, and he wrapped the shawl more closely about her shoulders and bosom—


The bounteous wave of such a breast,
As never pencil drew.

There she reclined, now watching the face bent over her own, now scanning the starlit heavens, and as the soft mellowed moonlight fell lovingly over her, lighting up only half of her face and leaving the rest in shadow, she appeared—


A perfect form in perfect rest.

"You'll forgive me for bringing you here," said Walter, his eyes flashing audaciously. "I didn't want Lady Haigh and Bandon to disturb us."

"I'd forgive you anything," she answered, in a low intense whisper. She was staring straight into the sky's starlit depths, and her magnificent form never stirred as she spoke. He could not see the dreamy look that was in her eyes, and he said half laughingly:—

"You will hardly forgive me for displacing his Lordship of Ormsbury? Did you not see how he scowled at me when I brought you out?"

"For that alone I grant you absolution for any and all the sins you may commit. The poor fool is becoming an annoyance! I cannot tell you how thankful I am that you asked me to come on the lawn with you. I ran from the piano in order to get away from the Marquis."

"I had no idea my company was so desirable," he said in a bantering tone; but his voice grew deep and earnest as he added, "I have reason to be thankful for the great interest you have shown for myself."

"The interest I have shown in you?" she asked, half tuning in her seat to glance at him for a moment with enquiring eyes.

"Yes, I shall never forget it, and it is equally impossible for me to ignore it!" He was speaking warmly now, and his eyes were fixed on her face.

"You allude to the note I sent you expressing my satisfaction that you had tided over your losses. Well, I was glad to hear of it, and I said so. Perhaps it was indiscreet of me to write with our past before me. You are prejudiced against me, as I have a right to expect."

"I never respected you so much as I do now!" he cried fervently. "I have reason t——"

"No! no! You cannot possibly do other than detest me after what has passed between us. I shudder to think how cruel and heartless I must appear to you. To you I shall never be anything but a vile, mercenary creature who bartered her beauty for luxury, and——"

"You are really mistaken, I assure you," he replied, as she suddenly averted her face, sitting straight up in the chair now. He was almost sorry for having ventured to speak on matters personal, but he had no idea that his words would lead to the raking up of the past. A dense bank of clouds had drifted over the moon, and they were far enough away from the house to be unseen and unheard. Far away across the dark sward could be seen faintly the white shawl Lady Haigh was enwrapped in. There was half a minute or so of silence after Walter spoke. Her ladyship was bent forward, her face still turned away, and he ventured to say:—

"I am sorry if I have pained you by my clumsiness. I had neither wish nor intent to rake up the past. I think anything of you but harshly. I respect—even admire you. May I tell you why?"

"Do you know?" she exclaimed, disregarding his question and suddenly rising in front of him with white face and flashing eyes, "that I would gladly give up everything I possess only to recall all that has passed since the autumn we first met here—to meet you again as I met you then."

She turned and sank into the chair covering her face with her hands. She had been unable to repress that passionate outburst, and had flung prim decorum to the winds. Her hot, regretful words had startled Walter, sending the blood surging through his veins, for he knew then that Lady Ruth had never ceased to love him. Now he knew why she had befriended him in the dark.

"Does it matter so much after all?" he whispered, bending towards her, "that a few years have passed? You and I are here the same as then."

"No! no! Not the same, for you loved me then, and now you respect and admire me. Why you should do so much I cannot understand."

"Isn't it natural that the starving dog should love the hand that feeds it? Am I less grateful than a brute would be?"

"What do you mean?" she asked, turning a white sad face to him for a moment.

"Only that I was the starving dog and your's the hand that fed it. In plain English, I know now whose thousands enabled me to restart my mines and retrieve my ruined fortune."

"Who told you this? Braile?" she demanded almost fiercely.

"No, not Braile."

"Who, then?"

"Yourself!"'

"I? No! for I would have cut my hand off rather than you should know?"

"You told me all unwittingly. I received a letter intended for your solicitor, and he received a letter you meant for me."

"Ah! I understand now. What a poor fool I must have been to make such a blunder. And now you despise me more than ever!" And her voice was touching in its sadness.

"Despise you! No, I adore you more than ever I did in that autumn four years ago. I never knew how true a woman you are till now. Do you not love me a little still?"

All the old passion had sprung to sudden life again. He was speaking to her in low, amorous tones such as she had long craved to hear, and he was bending tenderly beside her. With a low, intense cry of joy she flung her arms about his neck and burst into a flood of tears. Again and again she thanked God for having won back his love at last, kissing him passionately with those full red luscious lips, and her splendid bosom rising and falling quickly against his own.


CHAPTER XXVII.—A PERFECT WIFE.

Before the end of October there was a grand wedding in the little church at Aldayne. Walter had pressed for an early day, and Lady Ruth was willing, so before all the trees were leafless they were united, and the great ambition of her ladyship's life was gratified.

A dark wintry morn had ushered in the wedding day, but that did not seem to affect the spirits of either the bride, bridegroom, or guests. The Earl of Ellsden, a tall dignified-looking man of 60, with thin, sharp features, and the true aristocratic nose, the habitual leanness of whose purse had almost destroyed a nature originally genial and generous, was there to give away the bride.

The Countess of Ellsden was there also, and her prattle was as incessant as usual. Lady Ruth's mother had set her face sternly against the marriage when she was told of it. The Countess had noticed how Lady Ruth had slipped away from Ormsbury and gone to the window where Walter Gray was sitting. She had seen them go out together, and had noticed the length of their tâte-à-tâte.

When Lady Ruth came in she at once retired to her rooms, and suspecting that something was brewing the Countess followed her. The elder lady remonstrated with her daughter for being so indiscreet as to pass an hour in walking about the lawn with a young man like Mr. Gray, who was nobody, even poor, now. She was damaging all her fine prospects by such a course, and she might play with the Marquis till she lost him altogether.

Lady Ruth had listened patiently, even smilingly, till her mother had done, then she went to the Countess, kissed her tenderly, a thing she had not done for years before, and informed her quietly that she was going to be married.

"Married! To whom?" the Countess had blurted out, less angrily than she might have done but for that unexpected kiss.

"To the only man I ever loved, and ever shall love, mother," Lady Ruth replied. "To Walter Gray, without whose love I would hardly wish to live at all."

"But consider his position," said the Countess. "He has nothing whatever to offer you. Neither money nor name."

"He has love, and that is a thousand times more to me than either. Do not attempt to dissuade me from it, for I would marry him now were he a beggar and I penniless. You can never imagine how I love him—how I have hungered for his love until I was losing my reason nearly. We shall be very happy, and I mean to do something for you and papa."

The Countess would have preferred to see another fortune united to that of her daughter's and herself a Marchioness, but knowing Lady Ruth would marry whom she pleased, she succumbed with what grace she could muster, and ventured to ask what was in store for herself and the Earl at their daughter's hands.

"Have you any idea of the extent of my father's debts—mortgages and everything?"

"Twenty thousand would cover all I think, Ruth. Why do you wish to know?"

"Because on my wedding-day I mean to present him with a cheque that will free him from his financial difficulties, and then the rest of the property will be handed over to my husband."

"It all, Ruth?"

"Every penny."

"Surely you ought to retain possession of something in case of eventualities?"

"Every inch of the Aldayne estate—every penny that Wilson Gray left to me belonged to his cousin before and would have been his now had he cared to retain it. I am resolved it shall go back to the man to whom Jacob Gray left it."

The Countess remonstrated a little longer, but her daughter was firm, and seeing that the Earl and herself were likely to benefit greatly by the marriage, she finally approved of it. Lady Ruth had given the Countess carte blanche as far as the marriage arrangements went, only stipulating that the wedding was to take place in the little church at Aldayne, and this did much to pacify the clever little worldly woman.

Never since the days when Lord Adaigh had feasted the Merry Monarch and a host of other noble tipplers in a right royal fashion had the old Priory seen such a throng of jovial guests. Walter's friends, Lady Ruth's friends, the Countess's and the Earl's friends were present in numbers beyond computation.

The sun did not shine on the bride, but for all that a more beautiful and happier wife never stepped forth from church, 'mid the cheers of a thousand lusty throats. The mines at Aldayne and Torleigh were to be idle for the rest of the week in honour of the wedding, and in Yorkshire village and Lancashire town numberless barrels of good brown ale were tapped and drunk that day by the sturdy miners.

The wedding breakfast was an ornate feast, and reflected great credit on the Countess. The meal was at length got through. Sir Wilton Haigh proposed the health of the newly-wedded pair in a few well-chosen words, the toast was drank with great acclaim, Walter responding as well as he was able, and then bride and husband, the Earl and Countess of Ellsden, and Mr. John Braile repaired to a private room for a few minutes.

The lawyer had everything prepared. Lady Ruth signed a cheque for twenty-five thousand pounds which was handed to her father. Then she signed another document, her parents and the lawyer attached their names thereto also, and then Walter Gray had regained possession of the fortune he had in a similar manner handed over to his cousin Wilson Gray a few years before.

Next followed the leave-takings, and then wife and husband were alone in the carriage that was to take them to the station, and Lady Ruth was sobbing in her husband's arms, behaving more like a young bride of seventeen than a twice-wedded woman.

The honeymoon lasted a month—Paris, Berlin, and several other famed continental cities being visited, and the wedded pair were extremely happy in their new existence. Walter was proud of the superb woman he had won, and his wife's wondrous beauty was the talk of every place they visited. Every house was thrown open to receive the rich Englishman and his peerless bride, but most invitations were declined, for Lady Ruth preferred her husband's society to that of all others.

Rich now, and abroad for the first time on pleasure, Walter wished to pass the winter on the Continent, thinking of visiting all the famed cities of which he had read so often. But Lady Ruth pleaded that she was tired of the Continent and the travelling it entailed; she wished so often to return home to Aldayne, where they could live quietly and contentedly away from the bustle of the world, that he gave way.

The snow lay thick on the Yorkshire wolds when the master and mistress of Aldayne Priory returned home, and as they drove from the station up the long lane, with its deep hedges encrusted with the white showers, and through the village, where the noisy youngsters were once more pelting each other with amusing vigour, Walter's thoughts went back to another such a day, nearly two years before, when he had left the Priory to go in search of ill-fated Alice Gray.

How things had changed since then? At that time he had believed Lady Ruth to be one of the worst creatures alive; a woman who had sold herself to his cousin that she might gratify her luxurious tastes, who would stoop to any meanness to satisfy her ambitions, and now he was the husband of that woman. Moreover, he felt quite satisfied with the change. He flattered himself that he had never known her ladyship's true character till now. Since their union Lady Ruth had developed a tenderness of character and a nature so lovable and thoughtful that had surprised and pleased him.

Walter had been surprised when the honeymoon was but a fortnight old to hear his wife wish they were back at Aldayne. He had imagined that she would have desired to spend all the winter on the Continent, passing from one gay city to another in a continual blaze of triumph, creating admiration in a thousand hearts by her wondrous beauty, and striking all beholders by the lavishness of her establishment and the regalness of dress and equipage.

He had prepared for all this, for since the death of Robert Wilson Gray the fortune left by him had greatly enhanced in value, and but little of the revenues of the estate had been spent by her ladyship during the period of her widowhood, owing to the retired life she had lived at the Priory. But instead of desiring to display her beauty and their wealth, and making a great figure in foreign circles, as she might have done, she longed for quietness and privacy, refusing most of the invitations that were offered them.

During the short honeymoon, and after it Lady Ruth comported herself more like a love-sick maiden in her teens than a woman well on in the twenties, who had been a wife, a widow, and was now a wife again. She loved to be alone with her husband always, to stroll or drive with him after the sweet fashion of courtiers, and with her wedlock did not soon rub off the bloom of love.

So they settled down at the Priory, and the new existence was pleasant to both. Walter had a splendid fortune and a peerless wife, and between them his hours were fully occupied. The collieries at Aldayne had now grown into an extensive and wealthy property, and Walter began to take interest in their further development. He also introduced among the Aldayne miners the system of giving them a certain percentage of the year's profits, as had been the case at Torleigh collieries for years, and this made him intensely popular with the miners.

A week or two after their return to Aldayne Walter had paid a visit to Torleigh, and whilst there he had made enquiry as to whether his old friend and workman, Jack Mathas, had yet returned from America. From Jack's relatives he learned that Mathas was still in Nevada and doing well, and intended to remain there some time yet. Walter left word that Jack was to go and see him at the Priory whenever he returned, and then he hastened home to prepare for the advent of Christmastide, for a host of guests were invited to pass that merry season within the old walls of Aldayne Priory.

Among the guests who accepted Walter's hospitality were many of those he had first met under Sir Wilton Haigh's roof, and the splendour with which he entertained his friends won him graceful acknowledgments at their hands. The last week of the year was passed in a whirl of pleasure. The lake was frozen over with a thick sheet of ice, it had been swept clean, and there the younger of the guests disported themselves during the day, and sometimes at night when the moon permitted. And after dinner each evening a general move was made for the old hall, a room big enough to quarter a regiment of dragoons in, and there some one played a few dances, and nimble feet were soon beating time to the music.

The first day in the new year the Priory was suddenly deserted, and once more the master and mistress were left to themselves. Lady Ruth expressed her satisfaction at this, for though she loved to be surrounded by her friends, she loved her husband's society better, and it was impossible for her to have much of that when the house was filled with guests.

The first delicious bloom of wedded life had now worn off, and Walter had grown accustomed to his wife's great beauty, and yet he was more satisfied, even than at first, with his marriage, and his passion for Lady Ruth was slowly growing into a pure and steadfast love.

Her love was like a sweet spring, ever gushing forth, and always fresh. He often wondered what there was in himself to call forth such adoration, for her love of him was nothing short of worship. He could not explain the matter to himself, but he was quite content to leave the matter unexplained. Such devotion from such a woman was a treasure few men had the good fortune to possess, and he was not likely to underrate its value.

And the winter days drifted by and the current of their wedded lives flowed calmly and happily along. Never a cloud darkened the domestic horizon; never a whisper of anger or discontent disturbed the peaceful atmosphere of the Priory. He was known as a kind master and generous friend. She as a perfect wife and hostess. And still the fierce, passionate adoration of her husband went on, and at times he had to chide her for her very devotedness to him. But she only smiled when he told her she loved him too much, saying she would die without his love.

Walter was delighted to notice that among the poorer people of the village Lady Ruth had many friends. Owing to the extension of the collieries the village had greatly increased in size, and among the miners' wives her ladyship had established a great reputation for generosity. Nor did she permit her popularity to decline, for she still disbursed her charities with unsparing hand.

Now that Walter was settled down and his fortune established firmly an old ambition of his began to assert itself. This was the desire to enter public life as a politician, and on mentioning it to Lady Ruth he was rather surprised when she attempted to urge him to give up such an idea for the present.

"Do not think of such a thing yet," she pleaded, "for it would break up our quiet lives. And you would be away for months at once!"

"But you forget, Ruth, that we could live in town and be together just as much as we are now?"

"I could not bear to live away from the Priory now," she answered. "I have grown to love it so that I shall never leave it for long at once."

"You once wished me to enter Parliament," he replied. "Do you not wish me to make some name for myself, dear?"

"Of course I do, Walter, but there's no need to be in a hurry about it. Wait a little, and then I shall be able to spare you. I cannot bear to let you go away from me yet," she pleaded, and he kissed her and let the matter drop.

But Walter had no idea of resigning all hope of entering St. Stephen's, even to please his lovable and beauteous spouse. Sir Wilton Haigh had alluded to the matter the last time they met, and the baronet wished to have him as his colleague. But Walter had given no decisive answer, and there was some time yet, as twelve or even eighteen months might elapse ere the dissolution took place.

In the meantime Walter began to prepare for the Parliamentary arena by studying the burning political questions of the day, and the months of winter were devoted to this occupation. Remembering that her ladyship had once exhorted him to enter the House of Commons, and to take a house in London for themselves during the Parliamentary season, he often wondered what had changed her desires so much.


CHAPTER XXVIII.—A SPECTRE OF THE PAST.

Walter Gray was sitting bolt upright in bed, staring straight before him with wide distended eyes—eyes in which were reflected such a look of terrified surprise as one might expect to see only in the orbs of those who are gazing on some fearful spectacle such as the dead arisen to life, or some dear one suddenly smitten with an awful death.

And the dead had arisen to confront Walter Gray. Only a moment or two ago there had stood by his bedside the form of Alice Gray, but whether it was real flesh and blood that he had seen or only a phantom wrought up by his disordered brain he was unable to decide. He was half asleep still, but the fact or fancy, which ever it might be, seemed to have burned itself into his brain.

He closed his eyes and tried to think it all a dream, he shook his head and tried to clear his mind of the impression, but the pale sweet face rose vividly before him, those big coal black eyes seemed to be yet staring into his own, and he shuddered as he remembered that he had felt, or seemed to feel, her warm breath play upon his cheek as she had bent over him ere he started suddenly up in the bed and she had glided away.

It was a beautiful night in February, and the soft moonlight was flooding the apartment. The centre of the chamber was light as day almost, only those corners near the window being in the shadow, and he almost feared to see the object of his alarm step therefrom to again confront him. He held his breath while he listened for the sound of hurrying feet, but nothing struck his listening ears save the soft breathing of his wife, who was fast and peacefully asleep beside him, and the gentle rustle of the window draperies where the soft night air came stealing in through the slightly dropped window.

But the chamber door was wide open, and noticing it he suddenly remembered that he himself had closed it ere retiring to rest. How had it come unopened? He knew it was impossible for almost anything save hands to open it, for the spring catch was particularly strong, and the fearful thought grew upon him that what he had seen was not all a dream.

Then he remembered that some one else might have been in the room on some thieving business, and that might account for the open door. To satisfy himself he crept quietly from the bed, so as not to disturb Lady Ruth, and went to the mantelpiece on which he had placed his watch. It was there still, and on the dressing-table were several valuable trinkets belonging to her ladyship, so it was clear that no burglarious prowlers had been in the room.

Who then had opened the door?

Hastily thrusting on his trousers he crept from the room and went downstairs. It was not quite 2 o'clock, and everything was gloomy and still below. The slow tick! tick! of the big case-clock standing in the entrance hall was all he could hear. He stood for a few moments in the semi-darkness at the bottom of the staircase, and suddenly he seemed frozen into stone with terror, his eyes were distended again with that look of unutterable horror in them, and he could neither cry nor stir from the spot where he was rooted like a statue.

There within arm's reach of him was Alice Gray again; the white face turned to his own and the deep black eyes seemed burning into him. He saw nothing but the face before him; for aught he knew there was no body to it, for during those few terrible moments his eyes were fixed on the well-remembered countenance, and all volition had left him.

Without sound or warning of any kind the spectre had risen before him as though it had sprung from the ground at his feet; for one or two seconds—though it seemed to him an hour—that strange white face faced his own; and then it was gone just as suddenly as if it had melted into air.

For a few moments longer he stood there spellbound like one under the influence of a foul nightmare, and he had to struggle fiercely before he could break the heavy icy fetters that seemed to crush down his will.

Then he was free once more, and all he could hear was the loud tick! tick! tick! of the big old clock.

"My God!" he cried hoarsely, "am I going mad? or am I still dreaming?"

He sat at the foot of the stairs for half a minute while his brain cleared a little. Then he rose and went right along the corridor into the furthest room, searched it, and found nothing. Every room below stairs that he found unlocked he entered and searched thoroughly, but all were empty of living or dead occupants with the exception of a cat and her ladyship's mastiff, "Cato."

Then he remounted the stairs thinking seriously, for the first time since attaining manhood, that the supernatural might not be impossible after all, and believing now that there was more things between heaven and earth than he had dreamt of in his philosophy.

As he reached the top of the staircase he heard the clock striking 2. He had been down stairs less than ten minutes and it had seemed to him hours since he had slipt out of bed. He crept back into bed without awaking Lady Ruth, and he lay there thinking of his dream and his subsequent experiences.

He had been dreaming a strange weird dream just before he saw, or fancied he saw, Alice Gray standing by the bedside. He and his schoolmistress were again lovers—they were being united in a strange old church, and just as the marriage ceremony was completed a terrible demon with tail, hoof, and immense black wings had suddenly swooped in through one of the open windows and carried off Alice Gray, and the face of the demon was that of Lady Ruth's.

In an instant all was changed, and he and Alice were afloat in a boat on a river. Swans were gliding slowly in and out among the water lilies, and Walter saw Alice bending over the side to gather a flower. Suddenly he missed her, and glancing down into the clear water there he saw, far away down in the green pellucid depths, amid a forest of strange plants and a host of huge fishes, his love clutched tightly by the circling fore-leg of a monstrous crocodile, that was crushing its way through the green growth and the other slimy things. And again, as he stared in mute motionless agony at the horrid beast, its head changed to the fair resemblance of Lady Ruth.

Then he awoke with a sigh of relief that changed to a low sob of awe, for there bending over him was the white face of the girl he had lost in his dreams, and so close that he felt her warm breath playing on his cheek. Before he could rouse himself to move or speak the face was gone, and the room was empty. His subsequent experiences have already been related.

After creeping back to bed Walter had lain for a long while pondering his dreams, and what had followed them, hardly knowing what was fancy and what was fact, and in his excited frame of mind it seemed possible to him then that the face he had seen twice that night was not a phantom created by a disturbed brain.

In the morning he awoke rather later than usual, and he still looked a little heavy. Lady Ruth enquired tenderly if he had slept well, and he put her off with an evasive answer, which she did not notice, as a kiss accompanied it. It was not likely under the circumstances that he would narrate to his wife dreams about an old sweetheart, and now that the light of day was about him, and his intellect clear and unexcited, he was inclined to set down all his experiences of the previous night as dreams or fancies pertaining to a similar source.

But an incident of the most trifling character supplied "confirmation strong as proofs of Holy Writ," that all he remembered of the past night was not fancy. After putting on his trousers Walter was unable to find one of his short straps belonging to the front part of his braces. He distinctly remembered having unbuttoned the missing tackle before retiring at night, but he was not able to find it now. Lady Ruth had gone below, and he searched the apartment thoroughly without success.

Going down to breakfast, something bright at the bottom of the staircase caught his eye, and stooping he picked up the missing strap. He knew how it had got there, and he knew also that he had not dreamed of descending the stairs in quest of some midnight prowler. It was at the bottom of the staircase that Alice Gray had appeared to him the second time, and he did not feel so certain now that everything of the past night's experience was a dream.

After breakfast Walter went for a walk through the park. He asked Lady Ruth to accompany him, but she had something to attend to, and he was glad, for he wished to be alone that morning. He was uneasy in his mind about last night's experiences, and he wished to be alone that he might review and consider what had transpired—what was fancy and what was fact, or whether all he remembered was pure hallucination.

It was a calm, soft morning. Wintry February was nearing its close, and the warmness of the air predicted a fine spring. A soft, warm wind shook the bare limbs of the trees, and the thick brown grass, amid which a few rabbits were gamboling, drawn from their lairs by the mildness of the weather, and quite unconscious of the contiguity of a deadly foe, in the shape of a hungry weasel, which was creeping slowly and stealthily towards them.

The beauty of the morning had something to do with the view that Walter ultimately took of the matter he had come to consider. Out there amid the trees and grass, with the warm sunlight beating on him and surrounded by grace, light, and life, it was impossible to seriously believe in ghosts, and the idea that he had seen one seemed to be ridiculed by the soft wind, waving grasses, and rustling trees.

No one was less superstitious than Walter. His scientific training and the bent of his after studies had made him relegate all supernatural agencies to the limbo of incredibility, and nothing short of the experiences of the previous night could have induced him to seriously consider whether it was possible that he had seen a ghost. Pondering the matter carefully, and looking at it from all sides, it seemed to him that his strange dreams were the cause of the phantoms he had afterwards seen. Alice Gray's face had been so vividly impressed upon his brain by the dreams that it had risen before him again the moment he thought of her. Even now in the broad day he could bring her face vividly before him by merely closing his eyes.

This was the only conclusion he could arrive at, yet it was far from being satisfactory. He knew that the face he had seen while dreaming was not exactly like the face he had seen afterwards. The face of the girl who had been by his side in church and on the lake was the calm, pale face of his old schoolmistress, whilst the face he had seen bent over the bedside and at the foot of the stairs wore a strange, wild look, and instead of the soft masses of curls clustering about temple and brow which he remembered so well, the hair of the spectre, phantasm, or whatever it might be, was unkempt and straggling, and even the face had seemed unclean. This difference of aspect meant much, for Walter argued to himself that if the face he had seen by his bedside and again at the bottom of the staircase were a phantasm only, then it ought to have been exactly similar to the face he had seen in his dreams and as he remembered it of old.

And there also remained the fact of the open door, and no feat of even the most powerful imagination could account for that. In the end Walter saw that it would be useless to attempt arriving at a full and satisfactory explanation of the matter. He was unwilling, nay, unable to believe that he had seen a ghost, and nothing short of such a belief would permit him to account for all that had transpired.

So he attempted to dismiss the unpleasant affair from his thoughts, but was scarcely able to do so. He found that his thoughts persisted in straying back to the events of the preceding night, and he shuddered as he remembered the nameless horror that had smitten him dumb and powerless when that white-faced spectre or phantasm had so suddenly arisen before him.

Returning to the Priory shortly before noon Walter found a telegram from Torleigh awaiting him. It was short, and ran as follows:—


"Pits all stopped here. Men on strike,—David Morgan."


Wondering what was wrong at Torleigh, and why one of his miners, instead of his Manager, had informed him of the matter, Walter resolved to run down to Lancashire and see. He had nothing of importance to attend to at home, and the journey would perhaps drive all thoughts of dreams and ghosts from his mind. So he decided to set out that afternoon after lunch.

Enquiring for Lady Ruth he was told she was in the old room, and he went to tell her of his intention of visiting Torleigh. Her ladyship had two rooms devoted to her own special uses, and they were known commonly as the old and the red rooms. The first named was one of the oldest in the Priory, and whilst almost all the other apartments had been altered to suit modern taste, this chamber had been left untouched, and its fine old wainscoting was said to be several centuries old. There was a fine oriel window looking west, and this was one of her ladyship's favourite rooms; when Walter was out or away, much of her time was spent there reading or writing, for it appeared from her own observations to her husband that the world might be startled some day by a great romance from her pen.

The red room was the lovely lotus-land in which her ladyship loved to lounge with her mate, passing the hours in dalliance sweet, and


With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a holy dream;
To dream and to dream.

The room owed its tinted appellation to the colour of its garniture, all the hangings, draperies, carpet, and upholstery being in different shades of crimson, and the apartment was well suited to the sybaritic tastes and dark wondrous beauty of the syren, who had made it her love-den. There her splendid voice breathed forth love's tenderest ditties for the sole delectation of her lord.

Walter made his way to the old room, which was on the ground floor at an angle of the Priory, but he found the door fast, and no one answered his repeated knocks. Lady Ruth often fastened the door, when she left her MS.S. loosely scattered about the desk, for fear some of the servants might displace or destroy it, and thinking the domestic had been mistaken in the apartment he went to the red room, expecting to find his wife there.

But the chamber was empty, nor did it appear that her ladyship had been there that morning, for the piano was closed, and not a book or couch out of its place on shelf or by the wall, where the chambermaids would persist in putting them. Thinking Lady Ruth had gone out for a short stroll, unnoticed by the servants, he was going to his own room, when meeting his wife's maid he asked if her mistress had come in yet, and was surprised to hear that her ladyship had not been out that morning, and that she was then in the old room, having been there most of the morning.

Going to the old room again, Walter found the door still closed, but it opened to his hand, and there in a deep easy-chair in the window was Lady Ruth reading, or pretending to read, Swinburne's "Chastelard." As he entered she looked up, saying:—

"Ah, Walter, just listen to this; and she read about a dozen lines, ending thus—


Then there was some low, fluttered talk i' the lips,
Faint sound of fierce, soft words caressing them—
Like a fair woman when her love gets way.
Ah! your old kiss—I know the ways of it;
Let the lips cling a little: take them off,
And speak some word, or I go mad with love.

"Isn't that bit delicious, dear?" she asked, putting down the book and going to him. "No poet is able to interpret love in all its phases—its softness and heat—as Swinburne is. I think, dear, that he must have loved some one—as I love you."

"I doubt it, Ruth," he said, kissing the red lips held up to him and smiling. "Now won't you admit that he is rather too warm at times, and now and again guilty of iteration and reiteration? Don't all his women have beautiful passionate bodies, heavy white limbs, lips full of lust and laughter, cruel red mouths, like venemous flowers, whose kisses bite and burn?"

"He only makes all his women beautiful, as all women ought to be, and he but gives full play to the passion inherent in every woman, but only developed in a few—Well, did you enjoy your walk?"

"Very much, and I think you might have accompanied me, for I believe you've only been dozing here all the morning."

"My dear, I've been working," she replied, pointing to some sheets of MS.S. lying on her desk.

"But I was here a few minutes ago and the door was fastened, and I believe you were dozing, for I knocked without disturbing you."

"Well, I admit the crime—did you get that telegram? It came soon after you went out; I expect it is nothing to take you away?"

"The telegram is from Torleigh, and singularly enough, it has not been sent by Mr. Fairhurst, the Manager, but by one of the miners, David Morgan, the father of the poor fellow who was killed. The pits are stopped and the men on strike it seems, and it is remarkable that Fairhurst has not informed me of it. I am thinking of running over there after lunch, and I shall most likely get back for dinner. You know this Fairhurst is the new Manager whom I appointed when Mr. Birley resigned, and I fear he is too harsh with the men. I have been prejudiced against him for some time, and the men dislike him I know."

"Then why did you appoint him?"

"Well, the man is clever enough, understands the mines thoroughly, having worked there many years, and as he had worked hard to qualify himself for the post and was next to Birley, I gave him the place, thinking he would take a hint from me and try to make himself more popular with the workmen."

It was still early in the afternoon when Walter reached Torleigh. The railway ran past the collieries, and he saw that the great pulleys hung motionless over the pits, and that little work of any sort was going on. The station was half a mile or so from the collieries, and on alighting it occurred to Walter to call on old "Daff" Morgan, the sender of the telegram, as he would have to walk past his door on his way to the pits.

Old "Daff" Morgan was one of Walter's oldest and favourite workmen, having worked for his uncle a long while, and he was one of those sturdy-minded, respectable, unlearned fellows found not infrequently among his class. Even as a lad Walter had liked the old miner, and since the death of his son he had treated the old fellow generously.

Reaching the house Walter found the door open, and he walked without ceremony into the clean little kitchen, with its spotless floor sprinkled with fine red sand. Mrs. Morgan was busy getting "baggin" ready—as the afternoon meal is termed in Lancashire—when Walter entered and enquired for her husband. "Daff" was in the back yard busy among his pigeons, and he did not seem very much surprised by the sight of his visitor. Walter took a cup of tea with the old folk, and presently he asked what was up at the collieries.

"Hannot yo' seen Mester Fair'u'st?" asked the old miner.

"No, I have only just come from the station, and I dropped in to see why you had sent me word of the stoppage. I hadn't heard of it before I received your telegram this morning. How long have the pits been idle?"

"On'y sin' yister mornin'."

"It's strange Fairhurst didn't send me word."

"Haply he didn't want yo' to know abeaut um bein' stopt, bur ah meant tellin' yo', an' ah thowt yo'd be here sometime to-day."

Walter sat sipping his tea, while Morgan, in his quaint Lancashire tongue, narrated the origin of the strike. It appeared that the Manager had tried to reduce the wages of a miner named Kirke, and the men had struck in a body against it, fearing that it was only the thin edge of the wedge, and their wages also would be reduced if they permitted it. This was the ostensible reason of the strike, but it seemed that the Manager was greatly detested by the miners, as he was always fining some of them heavily for all sorts of petty offences.

But it appeared from Morgan's tale that the Manager had been persecuting Kirke for some months, wishing to drive him away from the place, that Kirke was a successful rival, having won many years before a pretty milliner with whom Fairhurst had been in love; and it seemed that the Manager was now paying off the debt of hatred he owed the man who had married his sweetheart.

This story tallied somewhat with Jack Mathas's case, for it was Fairhurst who had driven him to America, and Walter resolved to get rid of the Manager at once if, on investigation, he discovered old Morgan's story to be true. Getting Kirke's address from old "Daff" Walter went there, and what the miner told him corresponded in every way with what he had previously heard. In every possible way Fairhurst had vented his spite on Kirke; fining him repeatedly; throwing him idle by stopping his place; and, finally, had taken threepence per ton off the price paid him for getting coal.

Thence Walter went to his Manager, and wished to know why he had not been informed of the stoppage of the collieries. The answer received was most unsatisfactory, and then Walter told Fairhurst what he had heard of his persecuting Kirke. Guilt showed itself in the confused speech and heated face of the Manager, despite his vehement denial of the charge. Walter was satisfied of its truth, still he went to the other officials of the colliery, who might be assumed to be independent witnesses of the matter, and from them he obtained confirmation of the story Morgan and Kirke had narrated.

The same evening the Manager received notice of dismissal, and Walter returned to Aldayne. But before leaving Torleigh he called upon Jack Mathas's relatives to enquire how he was getting on, according to his letters, and he was pleased to hear that Jack was thinking of returning in a month or two.

Then it struck Walter that he had now a capital opportunity of doing something for his old friend. In a month a new Manager would be required for the Torleigh collieries, and no one was better fitted for such a position than Jack Mathas; for apart from his cleverness as a miner, he was intimately acquainted with every one of the Torleigh mines, as he had worked in them for many years as a boy and a man.

Glad of the opportunity to do Jack a good turn, he obtained his address in order that he might write to him, and after dinner the same evening, he penned and dispatched a missive to Virginia City, bidding Mathas to get back as quickly as possible to claim the Managership of the Torleigh Collieries.

When he penned that letter he had naught in view but the benefiting of a friend; he never dreamt that Jack Mathas's return to England would be the first step towards the unravelling of a long tangled chain of mystery and sin.


CHAPTER XXIX.—THE OLD CABINET.

After Walter's return from Torleigh, a few days passed uneventfully away. Though he still thought often of his dreams and the hallucination following them, he had never made the slightest allusion about the matter to any one. Of course, he now regarded the whole thing as the creations of a disordered brain, and he was strongly inclined to set down the opening of the bedroom door to the score of some prying and thievish domestic.

With the view of verifying this opinion, he made enquiry of the housekeeper, Mrs. Bayley, as to the characters of the various servants. He knew her to be shrewd and honest, and he trusted her implicitly. But Mrs. Bayley expressed herself as thoroughly satisfied of the integrity of the domestics. She had suspected some of them once, and had watched them carefully, with the result that she was then more certain than at first of their probity.

"And may I ask, Mrs. Bayley," said Walter, "of what you suspected them?"

"I suspected them of theft, Mr. Gray," she answered.

"Theft!" he iterated, his suspicions beginning to revive.

"Yes, sir. I had noticed that portions of the provisions kept disappearing in a strange and unaccountable way. I mentioned the matter to her ladyship, and she told me not to take any notice of such a trifle. But I am responsible for such things, and I know, sir, you will excuse me for disregarding her ladyship's orders."

"But is this all you suspected the servants of, Mrs. Bayley?"

"Yes. I never had reason to suspect any of them in any other way, and I am sure that I cannot say that they are to blame for the disappearance of the food."

"Probably some of the servants have poor relatives or friends in the village, and the food goes to them," said Walter. "I think we can spare a little food, Mrs. Bayley, and you need not let the matter trouble you."

One morning, about a week later, whilst Walter and Lady Ruth were at breakfast, there came among the letters one from Ellsden, Devonshire, addressed to her ladyship. Gordan Court, the old family seat of the Gordans, was situate at Ellsden, and the letter was from the Earl. Lady Ruth did not seem pleased with the contents of her communication, and Walter remarked:—

"I expect you've received no bad news, Ruth?"

"Mamma is ill," she answered.

"Not dangerously, I hope?"

"Pa says she is very poorly indeed, and wants to see me. He wishes me to go over some time this week."

"I am sorry to hear the Countess is unwell. You will go, of course?"

"Yes, I think I will," she answered somewhat reluctantly. "But it is such a distance from here, and I am afraid that there is nothing seriously wrong with ma. She is whimsical, you know, when her health is concerned. But I suppose I must go."

"Yes, you'd better go, dear. If she is not very unwell you won't need to stay long. Will you go to-day or to-morrow?"

"I think I will go this afternoon," she replied.

After breakfast Lady Ruth made ready for going, and immediately after lunch Walter drove her to the station. He waited to put her into a first-class compartment, and just as he closed the door and stood by until the train started she put her head out of the window looking extremely annoyed at something.

"What is the matter, Ruth?" he asked. "Have you forgotten something?"

"Nothing of importance, Walter," she answered. The look of annoyance merged into a smile now. "I have only forgotten to lock up the old room, and I am afraid some of the servants may interfere with my books and papers."

"I'll look to that, dear," he said, smiling. "We mustn't have posterity robbed of the fruits of your labours."

"Lock the door, Walter. You'll find the key on my dressing table."

Then the graceful head was drawn in, the train rolled away, and Walter turned from the platform. He drove leisurely home, but quite forgot her ladyship's request regarding the old room till after he had tea. He had filled his biggest pipe, drawn up a large easy chair in front of the glowing fire, for the weather was rather chilly still, and was turning to one of George Meredith's last published works when he remembered his wife's request.

So he laid down the novel, and went upstairs for the key, thence to the old room. He was thinking how annoyed Lady Ruth had seemed on remembering that she had forgotten to lock up the room. He was surprised to see her vexed so by a trifle, and he resolved to have a look at the MS.S. of which she was so careful.

The door was closed, but unlocked, and entering the room he found a small heap of manuscript lying on the top of an old cabinet besides a few books of poetry and fiction. He turned the closely written pages carelessly over looking for the commencement of the story, and presently he came upon it.

Lady Ruth had called her story "Venus and Satan." This strange title aroused Walter's curiosity, and, standing there, he read the whole of the eighty or ninety pages without moving. It was a strangely weird tale of a woman's passionate adoration of a black-souled scoundrel with the form of an Adonis. The story—or so much of it as was completed—was told in a vivid and graphic manner, and it seemed to Walter that his wife had projected herself upon her pages.

After reading that thrilling fragment of her story he seemed to have got a clearer view of Lady Ruth's characters—he seemed better able to comprehend and fathom her great love for himself. He would induce her to complete the novel and have it published. If his wife had any ambition that way, he felt certain she might take a high place among the writers of prose fiction.

He placed the manuscript away in one of the drawers of the cabinet, when, turning to leave the room, his foot caught against one of the quaintly carven feet of the old piece of furniture, and he was flung to the floor. The thickness and texture of the carpet saved him from hurt, and, smiling at his awkwardness, he jumped lightly to his feet again.

"By Jove! what's this?" he cried, as he bent down to examine one side of the old cabinet.

His foot had struck against the knob-like projection which opened the secret recess and disclosed its contents to his view. Intensely surprised by this accidental discovery, he dropped on his knees on the carpet the better to inspect what the strange chamber contained.

He first drew out and examined the few musty books resting on the higher shelves. Most of them were very old, and all alike treated of the old poisoners and their poisons. Glancing through the volumes he saw that instances of slow poisoning had been collected from the Greek and Roman writers by one author; another had dealt exhaustively with the well-known Sir Thomas Overbury case; a third treated of the notorious La Spara and her deadly "drops;" another gave a long critical account of the clear, tasteless liquid La Tophania manufactured and spread through Italy under the ironical designation of the "Manna of St. Nicholas of Barri;" and the remaining volume dwelt on the awful crimes perpetrated by Sainte Croix and his debased mistress, the Marchioness de Brinvilliers, by means of their terrible "succession powder."

Then he took up the curiously shaped phials and inspected them one by one. Each of them bore a yellow time-stained label, and the contents of the phials were evidently dissimilar, in kind, for one-half of them were labelled "Phthoxania," whilst the remainder had "Anti-Phthoxania" written upon them. The small bottles were made of colourless glass, and Walter could see that their contents appeared to consist solely of dried and curled-up leaves, such as might have been mistaken for tea by a careless observer.

Though the labels on the phials said nothing as to the nature of their contents, he felt pretty certain they were of a poisonous character, after having glanced through the musty volumes. He placed the phials back in their places, and then turned to the old sheets of manuscript. The writing on the paper was much faded, but was still distinct enough to be read without much trouble. The heading of the MS.S. explained why it had been written, and it ran thus:—


TO THE EDITOR OF THE "UNIVERSAL MAGAZINE."

Sir—From the earliest times down to the present the art or mal-practice of administering noxious drugs to obnoxious individuals has been greatly esteemed by cruel, avaricious, and ambitious personages. The ancients appear to have been skilful in the concoction of murderous draughts, but their successors in that odious craft, the Italians, were more feateous still, for whilst the poisons of the Greeks and Romans acted so quickly on the victims as to often lead to the detection of the criminals, the preparations of the Italian poisoners acted so slowly and quietly upon the human system as to lead to the belief that death was the result of natural causes. And at one time the French made themselves as notorious as the Italians as slow-poisoners.

But neither the "drops" of La Spara, nor the Aqua Tophania of the murderess of that name, nor the deadly powders of Exili and Sainte Croix are so fearsome in their nature and results as the plant I wish to describe. While I was in South America, where I spent a dozen years, I made the acquaintance of a native who seemed very much superior to most of his race. He was quite learned as to the properties of many of the native herbs and plants. One day he told me of a singular shrub which was sometimes found on the mountain sides, and which he in his own language called mad-tree. He assured me that if any one ate of its leaves he would go mad.

I expressed some curiosity to see such a wonderful plant, and one day he brought me a goodly quantity of its leaves. The leaves are much like those of the tea-plant, only they are not serrated, and when they are steeped in any kind of liquid they become of a bright-red colour. Without doubt this plant is most malefic and dangerous, and will certainly destroy the reason of any one that is so unfortunate as to partake of it.

Such a noxious drug as the one I have been describing is a powerful instrument of evil in the hands of those persons who may be criminally disposed, and it is to put the unwary on their guard against such people that these words have been penned. Who can say that this drug has not already been used? It may have been, and I would persuade all those who have kindred or friends with deranged mental faculties to use the antidote I have at last discovered. While I was in South America I tested the noxious plant on several animals, which were affected by it in a strange fashion. I once gave some, amongst other food, to an intelligent dog of my own, and the poor brute lost all its intelligence on the instant. It would no longer obey my commands, seemed not even to know, and it no longer ran about as formerly.

Believing firmly in God's great wisdom and goodness, and that he had created an antidote to every noxious plant, I made diligent search, and at length found a leaf that cured my dog, and by a strange ordinance of Providence I found the good plant beside the baneful one, which affords a striking testimony to the Creator's foresight, and———

The writing ended here, and it seemed it had never reached its destination. He placed the MS.S. back in its place, and then he lifted out from the lower shelf of the secret recess a small, pretty, and quaintly shaped teapot. He took it in his hands and somehow it appeared familiar to him. He felt quite certain he had seen that bit of blue-and-white china before; it was a four-squared pot—both pattern and shape were uncommon—and he remembered them quite well. But, of course, he had only seen one like it somewhere.

But a teapot seemed a strange thing to hide away in a secret place. Yet, it might have been used for brewing some of the drugs in the phials, and had been placed there so that it might be used for no other purpose unwittingly. But the pot did not seem to be near so old as the yellow sheets of paper. It was as white as if it had just come from the pottery.

Suddenly Walter remembered where he had seen the teapot, or one like it before, and the remembrance filled his mind with a host of horrible suspicions. On the night of his cousin's death, just before he was seized by that strange illness which had deprived him of his senses, the housekeeper, Mrs. Bailey, had served him with tea in such a pot as the one he held in his hands.

With the rapidity of an electric flash this remembrance connected his illness with the contents of the phials before him. Could it be possible that his illness owed its origin to this drug; and, if so, who had administered it to him? Mrs. Bayley had brought the tea to him, but had she made it? And if the pot in his hands was the one out of which he had had tea that night, how had it got to her ladyship's boudoir and inside that old piece of furniture?

All these questions were generated spontaneously by his quickened brain, and an answer to each arose involuntarily also. Everything pointed towards Lady Ruth, and he was forced to suspect her of robbing him of his reason for a time by using the drugs in those phials. This then was the reason why she was so careful to have the old room locked when she was out of it. Her writing and reading there was only a ruse to avoid arousing suspicion.

Then it struck him that he was permitting his suspicions to run away with his reason. He was certain of nothing yet, and his wife might even be ignorant of the secret recess in the old cabinet and its contents. He lifted the lid and glanced inside the pot, and there at the bottom were several fragments of dried tea leaves and two or three crimson flecks.

He ran his fingers round the interior of the pot to dislodge any additional leaves that might happen to be adhering to its sides, and then he shook the pieces into his palm, examining them closely. Besides the easily recognised tea leaves, were several filmy atoms or some thin red leaf, and remembering what he had read in the old sheets of MS.S. he was satisfied that the teapot had contained the deadly drug.

But, for aught he knew to the contrary, the pot might have been used by the person who had written the MS.S. How was he to discover if the pot were the same as the one he remembered? He pondered a few moments and then he settled on a plan. He would show Mrs. Bayley the piece of crockery. He rose from his knees and placed the pot under his coat before leaving the room. He did not close the secret chamber in the cabinet for fear he might be unable to open it again, but he locked up the room, and then went straight to his own chamber.

Then he rung the bell and sent for the housekeeper. When she appeared he said:—

"Close the door, Mrs. Bayley, and take a chair. I want to speak to you. You remember telling me a short time ago about missing certain articles of food occasionally?"

"Yes, sir, I remember quite well."

"I suppose you never missed anything else but provisions?"

"No, sir. I can't say that I have missed anything but what I told you."

"No spoons, cutlery, or crockery?"

She shook her head thoughtfully.

"Then I must be mistaken, and you have not lost anything like this?" as he spoke he drew the teapot from where he had placed it out of sight, and handed it to the housekeeper, who, after examining it for a few moments, said:—

"Yes. I remember missing this teapot, now that I see it. I had quite forgotten all about it, sir."

"You are certain it is the same?"

"Oh, yes, I can tell it by this black mark at the bottom, and by its having a bit chipped off the inside of one of the feet—here, see. I remember it well because of its queer shape, and its the only one of the kind I have seen since I came here—in fact, I never saw one like it."

"I suppose you don't remember when you first missed it?"

"No, sir, I don't. It's a long time since, but I can't say exactly how long."

"I've just discovered it quite accidentally. But, somehow, I fancy I have seen it before. Perhaps, it was during the time I lay here ill?"

This hint had the desired effect. A gleam of intelligence flashed in Mrs. Bayley's eyes for a moment, and she exclaimed:—

"I remember now when I missed it, and when I last used it. It was the night you were taken ill. Don't you remember me bringing you some tea in it? I never saw it after, and I thought it had got broken in the confusion caused by your sudden attack."

"I believe I remember something of it," Walter answered, assuming the air and tone of indifference. "That must have been the time on which I saw it. He must have taken it from the room after I was taken ill. Don't mention the matter to any one, for your mistress will be very much offended if it gets to her ears. That will do, thank you."

The latter part of this speech was intended to cause the housekeeper to attribute the disappearance of the teapot to any one save her mistress, and it had that effect. Mrs. Bayley left the room believing that some of the servants had either purloined or mislaid the piece of crockery in question, but it was no business of hers if her master chose to ignore the matter.

Walter remained in the study only long enough to enable Mrs. Bayley to return to her own quarters, then he returned to the old room, taking the precaution to close the door behind him. He then replaced the teapot, as he had found it, on the lower shelf, afterwards taking up the phials, one by one, and inspecting them, to see if any of their contents had been used. He found one phial labelled Phthoxania almost empty, and another labelled Anti-Phthoxania only half-full.

That was just what he had expected finding, and it squared with the theory he had already formed as to the cause of his loss of reason, which he only remembered as a blank, and his recovery afterwards. For some reason of her own Lady Ruth had put the drug in his tea, and had afterwards cured him by means of the antidote. He believed this as firmly as if he had witnessed the whole transaction. He tried the stoppers of the full phials and found them quite fast, whilst the stoppers of the other two phials were quite loose, as if they had been drawn lately.

Everything pointed to his wife as guilty of administering the dangerous drug to him that night, and when Walter remembered that poor Wilson had also lost his reason he could not help suspecting Lady Ruth of being responsible, to some extent, for his death.

He placed the two phials amongst the others, arranged the books and manuscript as he remembered finding them, and then carefully examined the spring, by means of which the secret recess was closed and opened. After searching for some moments he found the knob which moved back the spring when pressed, and then he shut up the contents of the little chamber which had so excited his thoughts and aroused so many painful suspicions within the last hour.

He then locked up the old room and placed the keys in a drawer of Lady Ruth's dressing table. That done he put on his hat, and went for a walk in the park, there to ponder the situation and consider his future action.

Out there among the bare trees, with the dead leaves rustling about his feet, and the cool wind playing about his face, he was able to review the whole thing calmly. Lady Ruth had made him a perfect wife; her love for him was great beyond all comparison; were he but sure that she had had no hand in Wilson's death he could forgive her the rest. He shuddered when he thought his beautiful wife might be a murderess.


CHAPTER XXX.—WHERE THEN IS ALICE?


"Dear Walter—I regret to have to say that mamma is much worse than I expected to find her. She is very bad indeed, and I fear I shall have to stay here a day or two at least. I can do no good here, and I would rather be back at Aldayne. But both pa and ma wish me to stay, and I cannot well refuse, however I dislike it. So, I suppose, I must bear to be away from you for a little time. Will write you again soon, and you must drop a line to

"Your loving wife,

"RUTH GRAY."

Walter received the foregoing letter on the morning following his wife's departure, and he was glad she would be absent for a day or two. His mind was still filled with the strange discovery of the preceding day, and a kind of antipathy towards his beautiful spouse was already growing up in his breast.

He could not restrain the growth of the suspicions the discovery of the cabinet's contents had planted in his mind, though he told himself often that Ruth might be innocent of the charges he had been forced to entertain against her by the discovery of the fearful drug, and the piece of Wedgewood-ware in her boudoir.

After breakfasting he tried to forget the disquieting matter for a time at least by reading, but his thoughts would persist in rambling from the pages before him, and he found himself running into all sorts of conjectures. He would have gone out for a walk, but the rain was falling in thick incessant streams. So he filled and lit his pipe and gave rein to his thoughts, and soon his brain was as full of strange imaginings as the little cosy room was of smoke.

A sharp knock at the study door startled Walter from his reflections, and he bade the knocker to enter.

"A gentleman wishes to see you," said the man who entered.

"What name?"

"Mathas, sir."

"Mathas? Not Jack Mathas, surely? Send him here, Blakely. Can't be Jack, of course," he added, as the servant left the room, "because he'll only have got my letter about now. Some commercial traveller, I suppose," and he settled back again in his chair.

In a few moments he heard feet outside, then the room door opened, and glancing up he saw an old familiar form and face standing on the threshold.

"Jack Mathas, by Jove!" cried Walter, rising at once and rushing to greet his old friend.

"I guess it is," Mathas answered, shaking the proffered hand warmly.

"I never was more glad to see any one, Jack. Draw that chair up to the fire and make yourself comfortable—not wet, are you?"

"No, I was lucky enough to get a cab at the station, so I came here in it."

"Indeed? Strange I didn't see or hear you coming up the drive. You look well, old fellow—handsomer than ever, and I suppose there'll be a wedding soon at Torleigh. I expect you'll ask me to it, and you may expect me to attend without the possibility of failure."

"But you didn't ask me to yours, Walter," said Mathas, smiling.

"Well, no," said Gray, laughing. "I suppose you'd be surprised to hear I was married?"

"Rather, I must admit. But I heard wonderful tales in Torleigh about her ladyship's beauty and goodness. Is she not at home?"

"No, she went away yesterday to her mother's, who is very poorly. Am sorry I can't introduce you to her. Confound it! What a deuced inhospitable fellow you will think me in not asking you to have something after your journey in this miserable weather. Was so glad to see you that I forgot all about it. What will you take? A glass of wine and something to eat, eh, Jack?"

"Nothing to eat, thank you; but I am rather thirsty, and don't mind a glass of wine. I suppose you don't keep ale in such fine places as this?"

"Don't we, though. I am fond of a glass of ale myself, and so is Ruth at times. You shall have some of the best you ever tasted." He rang the bell, ordered the beverage, then added, "And when did you get back?"

"Yesterday afternoon."

"I suppose they told you that I had been enquiring about you when I was at Torleigh a fortnight ago?"

"Yes, but I should have come to see you independently of that."

"Glad to hear you say so. You couldn't have come back at a better time. I suppose you'll have heard of the bother at the collieries? Well, Fairhurst finishes in a week or two, and the place is yours if you'll have it."

"Have it!" echoed Mathas. "I shall only be too glad of the chance."

"Then it's yours. You've got back sooner than you expected, haven't you? When I was at your folks they didn't expect you back for some months. So I got your address at Virginia City and wrote saying that the Managership of the Torleigh Collieries was at your disposal. Of course you can't have got the letter, because you would be crossing the Atlantic when my communication reached Nevada."

"Yes, I returned rather sooner than I expected," said Jack, as he took a deep draught of the fine brown ale. "I should have been there yet, very likely, if I had not accidentally discovered something of great importance to yourself."

"Something of great importance to me?" Walter exclaimed questioningly.

"Yes,—at least, I thought so then," said Mathas, rather confusedly.

"Why then instead of now?"

"Well, I did not dream of your having married, and I daresay you will not care so much about the matter now as you did when last I saw you."

"I am quite at a loss, Jack, to understand to what you refer."

"I was alluding to your old—schoolmistress, Miss Wilson."

"What of her! Have you discovered why she went away? Tell me!" Walter cried, excitedly, for Mathas appeared reluctant to divulge anything he might know.

"I think Walter," Jack said slowly and awkwardly, "that it would be better now if I did not tell you what I happened to learn quite by accident."

"Why should I not hear everything you may have to tell me respecting my old—schoolmistress, as you call her?" Walter spoke rather irritably, for he was quite puzzled by Mathas's words and manner.

"Because what I have to say may cause great unhappiness between you and your wife."

"I understand what you mean. Lady Ruth was the cause of Alice Wilson's disappearance from the Priory!"

"Well—yes," Jack answered reluctantly. "But, perhaps, it doesn't matter much, now that you are married to her ladyship. I dare say you don't care for Alice Wilson now?"

"She was very dear to me once, but I am only mortal, I suppose, and one cannot help forgetting the dead a little."

"Alice Wilson is dead, then?"

"Of course; have you forgotten what I told you in Nevada? I had just left her grave when I met you."

"But that was another woman altogether, Walter," said Jack, looking fixedly at his friend.

"What?" burst from Walter's lips, and he rose from his chair.

"Don't you know that the schoolmistress never left England? It was another Alice Gray entirely who went away with Williams, your cousin's old valet."

"Jack, are you sure of this?" Walter asked in a low, earnest tone.

"I am certain—anyhow, Williams himself told me so!" Jack replied in a tone of conviction. "Have you not heard of Miss Wilson since you returned to England?"

"No, nor did I ever think of enquiring about her. I was satisfied that she was dead and buried in Virginia City. Tell me, Jack," he pleaded, "how you have learned this—tell me all you know." Then he sank back in his chair, his brain filled with many strange thoughts.

"Well," Jack began, "you remember what you told me, just before you left Nevada, of the business that had taken you there. Soon after I got into conversation with a wooden-legged Yankee—perhaps you remember him?"

"Peggy York?"

"Yes. Well, it seems he had seen us together, and he afterwards told me of the enquiries you had been making with respect to Williams and his wife. I heard now and again of this Williams from the miners, but none of them knew where he had gone to. But one evening, about a month ago, as I was having a drink in one of the saloons, Peggy York came up to me saying that Williams had returned to Virginia City; that he had seen him and spoken to him, and knew where he was staying."

"I understand why he told you," said Walter. "York would remember my enquiries, and knowing you were a friend of mine he naturally thought you would like to see the valet."

"Just so. Well, from what York said it appeared that Williams was in a destitute condition and was very ill; so I went with the Yankee to the miserable hovel in which Williams was staying. The poor devil hadn't a copper, he was almost naked and dying of hunger. He had been somewhere in the South among the Indians, and had contracted some disease or other. I took pity on the poor fellow, took him to my own lodgings, gave him some of my clothes and a good feed.

"You can never imagine how grateful the poor fellow was, and how he promised to reward me for my kindness when he got strong again. I felt that he would never be strong again, but I didn't like telling him. But he sank gradually, and at last was confined to bed. I engaged a doctor to attend him, but the medical man told me, privately, that he could do nothing for him. His death was only a question of days.

"Of course, we had many conversations together, in which frequent allusion was made to your cousin, Wilson Gray, her ladyship, and yourself. He was surprised to learn that I was on friendly terms with his old master's cousin; and, as you may imagine, he was more surprised still to hear that you had been in Virginia City making enquiries after him and his wife. Remembering what you told me regarding Williams's wife, and knowing you were anxious to learn why Miss Wilson had eloped so unexpectedly with the valet, I questioned him as to how long he had known his wife before they were married."

"Well, and did he tell you?" Walter asked, as Jack Mathas paused in his narration to refresh himself by a deep draught of the sparkling beer at his elbow.

"Yes, he told me," Jack replied. "He said that he met her first soon after he went to live at the Priory, and after that he had met her often secretly. I was puzzled to know how the schoolmistress could manage to meet him often seeing they lived so far apart, and I ventured to ask him how and when they met. I still thought that Williams had married Miss Wilson, you understand, and when he told me that he met his sweetheart of an evening in a wood somewhere between Oxleigh—the village in which she lived—and Aldayne, I saw at once that there was some mistake somewhere."

"Well, well, Jack, what did you say then?" Walter asked eagerly, for the narrative was intensely interesting to him, and he was hungering to know all.

"I invented a little ruse in order to discover Mrs. Williams's parentage. I said to Williams, 'Doesn't your father-in-law keep a public-house in Oxleigh?' and he answered, readily enough, that he did not, but was a farmer and kept the Brookfield Farm. I then asked him if his wife's maiden name was not Miss Jackson, and if she was not a teacher of music or something of that sort. My ruse was again successful, and he answered that her name before marriage was Ashford, and that she did nothing but look after her father's dairy——"

"I believe I know this Ashford," Walter interposed. "A farmer of that name came after one of my farms a month or two ago, and I think he said something about keeping the Brookfield Farm in Oxleigh. But go on with your story."

"We had several conversations after that, and the poor fellow told me all about it himself. After I had finished work for the day I used to sit beside him, and every night I could see a change for the worse in him."

"You ought to have sent me word, Jack," said Walter, "when you found Williams. I would have given anything to have seen and spoken to him."

"I thought of that, but you could never have reached him in time. The doctor said he might live a fortnight—he lived just ten days—and I thought it would be useless to write you."

"So it would have been. I suppose you never thought of asking him why they left England so suddenly?"

"Oh, yes; and he said that his mistress had kindly found him the money to go away with."

"Did he say that Lady Ruth found him the money?" Walter demanded.

"He did."

"You are quite certain of that?"

"I am as certain of it as that I met you in Virginia City," Mathas replied firmly. "I made sure about it by asking him time and again. He also received money from her ladyship after he arrived in America."

"And did you enquire as to the probable cause of such liberality on the part of his mistress?"

"I did, and he told me. It seems that Ashford, the farmer, had discovered that his daughter was meeting Williams secretly, and that she was compromised by him. About a fortnight before your cousin Wilson was taken ill the farmer had gone to the Priory and told him of his valet's doings. Wilson very likely promised to speak to the man about the matter, for he did so the same evening, and induced the valet to promise to marry the unfortunate girl."

"But this has nothing to do with her ladyship!" muttered Walter.

"Have a little patience, and you will see presently the connection of the whole thing. From what Williams told me it is evident that his mistress had been informed of the farmer's visit to the Priory, and of its purpose, for on the very evening that you took some young lady to the Priory to see your cousin, Wilson, just after you had been seized by some strange illness, and had been carried away senseless, and put to bed, Williams said he was sent for by his mistress. He went to her, and she told him she had heard of Miss Ashford's condition from her father, who had sworn that he should never marry his daughter. She advised the valet to persuade his sweetheart to elope with him at once, giving him a hundred pounds on his promising to do so, and he left the Priory that very night unknown to any one save his mistress."

"I am beginning to understand it all now," Walter cried bitterly. "But go on with the story."

"Well, the next night Williams and Miss Ashford went to Liverpool together, where they were married by common licence as soon as possible. Williams had to swear he had resided in the parish a certain length of time before he could get the necessary licence, and immediately after the wedding they went to America."

"Did Miss Ashford marry in her own name?" Walter enquired, adding, "Perhaps you did not ask that question?"

"I never thought of putting such a question to him, but he volunteered the information. Miss Ashford was married in the name of Alice Gray."

"Did he say why she married in that name?"

"Yes, it was done in accordance with her ladyship's instructions. She said it would prevent her being pursued, and she promised to give them a hundred pounds more if they followed her advice. To show they had done so a copy of the Liverpool Mercury containing the announcement of their marriage was forwarded to the Priory, and they received the money promised them. Williams was always much affected whenever he spoke of his mistress's great kindness to himself and wife."

"Did Lady Ruth present any trinkets to Miss Williams that you are aware of?" Walter asked, remembering the locket he had received from the Rev. Samuel Thorley, curate of St. George's, Liverpool, and the brooch he had purchased from the handsome courtezan in the street at Virginia City.

"Now that you speak about the matter, I remember Williams mentioning a locket and brooch that his mistress gave him for his wife. But it seems that she—Mrs. Williams lost the locket even before they left England, and he did not know what had become the brooch."

"I never heard a word as to Mrs. Williams's confinement," said Walter, "whilst I was in Virginia City. Did she die before she was confined?"

"No. She was confined prematurely soon after they landed in America, the child being stillborn, and the mother was never quite well after."

"Did Williams hold any further communication with her ladyship after he reached America?"

"When his wife died he said he wrote a letter to her, but he never received any answer to it, and he seemed to think that his missive had miscarried."

"I suppose he would write to his own and his wife's relatives."

"I believe he said as much, and I think he said also that his letters to the farmer were not answered. The day before he died he asked me to go or write to his mother and the farmer. He gave me their addresses, and I promised to do as he wished. The following afternoon when I came home from work he was dead. He had expressed a wish to be buried beside his wife, and I managed to carry out the poor fellow's last desire."

Jack's words brought vividly before Walter's mental sight a vision of the dreary little graveyard outside Virginia City, and he remembered the very colour and shape of one mound there over which he had bent in such bitter agony.

Walter had no more questions to ask, and Jack had no further information to offer. The former pushed his pouch towards Mathas and bade him have a smoke. He complied, and a short silence fell on both. A mass of dark and fearful suspicions filled Walter's mind, and he wanted to ponder a moment as to what he should say to his friend regarding the disappearance of his old schoolmistress, Alice Gray.

Jack knew that her disappearance was somehow due to Lady Ruth, but he would never think of suspecting her ladyship of the crimes of which Walter felt her to be guilty, and until those suspicions were verified or disproved he wanted the whole matter to be kept to themselves. It was now noon, and Walter ordered lunch to be served to them in that room. During the repast they discussed matters not germane to this story, and it was only after the meal was done, the remains taken away, when they had again filled their pipes, and a second bottle of excellent wine had been opened, that Walter ventured to again touch upon the subject uppermost in his mind.

"You will understand, Jack," he began, speaking in as light a tone as he could assume, "that this unexpected intelligence of yours has placed me in a rather delicate position?"

"I fully comprehended that at first, Walter," Mathas answered readily, "and that was why I should have preferred not to have told you."

"I cannot say that I at all regret having heard it. There is no great harm done, and it is rather flattering to think that such a rich and charming woman as her ladyship should think so much of me as to plot to win your humble servant. Of course, you understand as well as I do what has transpired. Lady Ruth must have told the schoolmistress some pretty story regarding my own faithlessness; Alice must have been convinced that I did not love her; she would depart in a huff, and while I have been mourning her as one dead she has been enjoying herself among her friends."

"Very likely," Jack replied laughing. He was glad to find Walter taking the matter so comfortably. Yet it was only what might have been expected, for Lady Ruth was his first love after all.

"Of course, you will know that I wish all this to be kept quiet. It would be rather uncomfortable for her ladyship and myself if the affair were to leak out. I know that I may trust you never to make even the slightest allusion to it?"

"Certainly, if you wish it," Jack answered, promptly.

"You have not yet written or seen either Mrs. Williams or Farmer Ashford, I suppose?"

"No. But I was thinking of seeing the farmer, as I was so near."

"If you will permit me I will see him instead. I shall be going that way this afternoon or to-morrow morning."

"I shall be glad if you will do so, and I can write to Mrs. Williams when I return to Torleigh this afternoon."

"Are you in such a hurry to get away. Excuse me, Jack. I had quite forgotten that you had only just got back from America. Well, you must run over again soon when you can spare the time, and don't forget to invite me to the wedding. What time do you wish to leave here?"

"There's a train due in half an hour or so, and I should like to catch it if possible."

"You can do that easily enough. It's still raining cats and dogs, so you must take the carriage."

A few minutes afterwards Jack Mathas was on his way to the station, and Walter was left to himself, to solve as best he might, the problem that Mathas's intelligence had created. If Farmer Ashford's daughter was the valet's wife, Where then was Alice Gray? was the one absorbing question that filled his mind.


CHAPTER XXXI.—THE HOLE IN THE WALL.

"Where then is Alice?" Walter iterated, but no answer suggested itself to him. The startling intelligence Jack Mathas had brought him made quite clear what had appeared so dark the day before. He understood, now, why Lady Ruth had put the noxious drug in his tea. She had deprived him of his senses that he might be out of the way whilst she got rid of Alice, and by the time he regained consciousness and strength her ladyship had been informed that the valet's wife was dead and buried, and that any search he might make would prove useless.

She had laid her plans skilfully, and only an accident had caused them to be discovered. Of what had become of Alice Gray he had not the faintest idea. He trusted that her ladyship had done nothing worse than deceive the school mistress. He hoped that his old sweetheart had been driven away from the Priory that night by some monstrous fabrication of Lady Ruth's, and that she was then well and happy somewhere.

He wished that this might be the case only because he was afraid that something worse might have happened to her. Knowing, now, how cruel and unscrupulous his wife could be, when her interests and desires were imperilled, he feared that she might have taken Alice Gray's life. It was possible that she was safe somewhere, but if so it was strange she had never upbraided him with his supposed falsity to her.

But it was not likely that Alice would believe implicitly in any story that Lady Ruth might tell her as to at once quit the Priory and never afterwards seek an explanation from him. It seemed all the more improbable when he remembered that he had put Alice on her guard by depicting Lady Ruth's character to her during that memorable journey to Aldayne.

There was another important reason why Alice should not leave the Priory so suddenly, for it was evident that she had been got away somehow on the very night of her visit. He had succeeded in convincing her that she was Wilson Gray's legitimate offspring, and he knew it was her first ambition to establish the honourableness of her birth. But that could be done only by staying in her father's house and claiming her rightful position as his daughter. By going away so stealthily and abruptly, she had forfeited almost every chance of establishing the legality of her birth.

Who would believe that she was the daughter of a wealthy man whose house she had fled from? And Walter could not bring himself to think that Alice no longer cared whether or not the world knew that she had been born in holy wedlock. It was not likely that any girl would rush away from a just discovered father who was dying, and willingly face ignominy and poverty by so doing, when by remaining she could have proved herself honourably born, and might have claimed some share of her parent's wealth. For even if Lady Ruth had been left everything belonging to Wilson Gray, she would gladly have made ample provision for his daughter on condition that Wilson's first marriage was not made public.

For an hour after Jack Mathas's departure Walter sat in his study pondering the problem of Alice Gray's disappearance. He looked at the whole affair as impartially as was possible; examined it from every side; trying to satisfy his conscience that Alice was safe, and that his wife had been guilty of nothing worse than falsehood. But his discovery of the previous day precluded his arriving at such a conclusion. When he remembered the contents of the old cabinet, his own strange illness, and his cousin Wilson's death, he shuddered, and a black terrible fear filled his mind.

Was it possible that such a beautiful, tender, and lovable woman as Lady Ruth could stoop to the perpetration of such despicable meanness and murderous acts as he imagined? It was easier to believe that some mistake had occasioned all his dark imaginings, and that his peerless wife was innocent. Could it be possible that the Williams Jack Mathas has spoken of was not the ex-valet?

It was hardly probable, but he clung to the hope such a possibility presented. He wished to believe that Alice was dead and his wife guiltless, for the opposite belief was unendurable, and until the worst was proved he resolved to think and hope for the best. He determined to go to Brookfield farm that afternoon and to satisfy himself as to whether or not the ex-valet of his cousin was the Williams who had married farmer Ashford's daughter.

Ordering a horse to be saddled immediately he turned to an escritoire in the room, unlocked one of the smaller drawers and took therefrom the heart-shaped locket containing the portraits of Wilson Gray and his first wife. No matter whom the ex-valet had married, it was certain that his wife bore some resemblance to Alice Gray, for the Rev. gentleman who had married them had, when restoring the locket to Walter, mistaken one of the portraits it contained for the likeness of the woman he had united to Williams. And afterwards at Virginia City the Yankee vagrant, Peggy York, had identified the same portrait with the wife of the ruined saloon keeper.

With the trinket in his possession he rode quickly in the direction of Oxleigh. He intended to show the portrait in the locket to the farmer, and if he recognised it as his daughter, then it would be certain that Williams had married Miss Ashford, and that it was she whose grave he had visited in Virginia City. But if the farmer had declared that the portrait bore no likeness to his child, then Walter would be satisfied that Alice Gray had married her father's valet, was then sleeping peacefully in her tomb, and that his wife Lady Ruth, was blameless.

The short wintry day was waning by the time Walter reached Brookfield farm. The clatter of his horse's feet in the paved yard brought a burly red-whiskered man of fifty or so to the low doorway opening on the same, and in him Gray recognised the man who had visited the Priory some time before with reference to taking some farm.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Gray," said the farmer, holding the horse's head while Walter dismounted. "You're a stranger about here. I expect you've come to tell me I can have that farm we were talkin' about?"

"No, I've not come about that, Ashford. I want a few minutes private conversation with you, if you can spare the time."

"Certainly," the farmer answered, and calling one of the farm-hands to take charge of the horse, Ashford led Walter into a low old-fashioned parlour, which looked cheerless and sombre on that wintry day with its fireless grate and old oaken furniture.

"Some time ago I made a journey to Virginia City, Nevada," Walter began, "and a friend of mine has just returned from that place. I daresay you know why I tell you this?" He watched the farmer's face as he spoke, and he saw a white pallor rise under the bronze.

"Yes, my daughter is there—did you see her?"

"No, but my friend saw her husband. Did she not marry a James Williams, who was once the valet of my cousin, Wilson Gray?"

"She did. But didn't your friend see Maggie? Wasn't she with her husband?"

"You have received letters from your son-in-law, I suppose?"

"I never got any letters from America but one from Maggie. How was it she wasn't with her husband? Had the scamp deserted her? or is she——?" The farmer's voice died away in a hoarse whisper, and he stared with appealing eyes at the visitor.

"Do you know who this is?" Walter asked, placing the open locket in Ashford's hands.

"It's Maggie! but this isn't her husband. No! it's not Maggie, but it looks a good deal like her! It's not my daughter, because there is no mole on the chin, and the hair isn't as dark as her's."

Walter's heart sunk at the farmer's words.

It was evident now that Alice Gray had not married Williams, and again the fearful question arose in his mind—Where then is she? The voice of the farmer awoke him from the reverie into which he had fallen.

"Do you know anything about my lass, Mr. Gray? If you do, I implore you to tell me?"

"I fear, Mr. Ashford," Walter replied in a sympathetic voice, "that she and her husband are dead!"

"God forgive me if they are, for I drove them away! Tell me—tell me, Mr. Gray."

Walter briefly narrated what he knew concerning Williams and his wife, and their unfortunate end. Of course, he made no allusion to anything affecting Lady Ruth and himself. His narration finished, he left Ashford to his sorrow, and his own heart was heavy enough as he rode slowly home through the fast gathering darkness.

On reaching the Priory Walter had tea, drinking much, but scarcely touching any food. His life had not been a dull and eventless one, but he felt quite unable just then to grasp the tangled threads of the complication in which he, Lady Ruth, and Alice Gray were involved. In his excited state he could not think clearly as to his future action. His brain was full of confused thoughts and plans which crossed and interrupted each other continuously, and, yet, through all this mental mist and storm one thought, "Where is Alice," stood clearly out.

Towards eight or nine o'clock Walter put on his overcoat and hat and went for a walk in the park. His head was burning hot, and aching with a heavy throbbing pain. It was a clear frosty night, and the crescent moon and the numberless stars shone forth in all their beauty. A light wind crept through the trees bare far-reaching limbs, making a soft melodious wail that rose and fell as the breeze waxed and waned.

He lifted his hat and swung it on his hand as he walked thoughtfully along. The cool wind rushed through his hair, beat upon his heated temples and brow, abating his headache and clearing his brain. Then he tried to look steadily at the future and mark out some line of action.

What steps was he to take to discover what had become of Alice Gray? The easiest way of learning that was to ask Lady Ruth for the information, presupposing that her ladyship was willing to divulge what she knew. But it was hardly probable that his wife would help him to the knowledge he sought, he thought it likely that she might indignantly repudiate all acquaintance with the matter, and, in such a case, he would gain nothing, whilst she would know that he had discovered something of the deception practised upon him.

To make the faintest allusion as to Alice's whereabouts would be to put her ladyship on guard, and she might preclude him from discovering anything of the missing woman. So he finally resolved not to mention the matter to his wife, but to go to work in secret. If he failed to unearth Alice Gray by his own endeavours, he could then demand the knowledge at her ladyship's hands.

Walter's feet had now nearly circled the Priory in his walk. On the eastern side of the house a clump of rhododendrons and several trees grew close to the Priory wall, and seeing a garden chair standing beside the shrubs named he dropped into it, having just decided that on the morrow he would send an advertisement to several of the London and provincial papers offering a reward for Alice Gray's address.

If Alice were in England somebody would supply him with her address in a few days; and if the advertisements failed to bring forth the desired information, he would not hesitate to divulge to his wife all he had learned of her schemes, and force some explanation from her as to what had become of the girl she had spirited away.

And then he thought for a moment of his wife's return. How much had transpired since her departure the previous day? What an astounding discovery he had made since then in her own particular sanctum? What a revelation concerning her ladyship's character and schemes had been brought to him by Jack Mathas from the other side of the Atlantic?

Since he had put his beautiful wife into the railway carriage on the day before, when she had told him to lock the door of the old room, what excitements he had endured? what thoughts had peopled his heated brain! and what a black suspicion had risen up between him and her ladyship? making him think of her as no man ought to think of the woman who bears his name and shares his bed and life.

How easily and quickly an old, almost forgotten passion flames anew and waxes again as of old when it is discovered that its object has been vilified and misrepresented, and how, inversely, a newer love is swept away by a youthful passion when the later love is revealed as base and unworthy.

So, at least, was it with Walter Gray. He had never ceased to think tenderly of the quiet, even-tempered sweet-faced schoolmistress he had wooed that fair summer two years ago, and when it was revealed to him that he and Alice had been forced apart by falsehood of the most unscrupulous kind, the old affection was cherished once more, and a feeling of hostility arose against the woman who had crushed, or caused it to be crushed out of his existence.

He thought with feelings of repugnance of his wife's return to the Priory. He had began to regard and fear her as a cunning and beautiful tigress, and he vowed, mentally, to share her bed no more till he had been satisfied of her guiltlessness. He wished that Lady Ruth might be detained at her mother's for some days longer, so that he might have time to make the necessary enquiries about Alice Gray.

Something behind the chair attracted Walter's attention. Was it the trees above his head shaking their bare limbs in the breeze? or was it the thick green leaves of the rhododendrons flapping lazily against each other? He hardly knew, but he turned his head towards the shrubs and a cry of horror froze on his lips.

There just behind his chair, peering over the high back was the face of the spectre he had seen twice before. The same white face, the big staring black eyes, the rough unkempt hair hanging loosely down; nothing changed, everything just as he remembered having seen it before.

He could neither cry out nor move. His arms hung limp and nerveless by his side. He was under the magnetism of that strangely weird-looking, yet familiar face, and it seemed as if he were turned to stone. He could only stare with distended eyes at the face beside him.

Then a mist seemed to pass before his sight, and when he again saw clearly the face was gone. He could hear nothing and see nothing but the trees. Save the murmur of the wind all was still. In the unclouded heavens the horned moon rode high and the stars scintillated.

Was he going mad, or was he only dreaming again? He struck his hand against the rough wooden arm of the chair, and the shock of the blow made his arm tingle. Not dreaming; was his reason then becoming affected? Had the excitement and mental strain of the last two days been too great, and was his brain really giving way.

By an effort he forced himself to think of a difficult problem in Euclid, and he worked it out mentally in a few minutes. That convinced him of his sanity. But why did these phantasms keep recurring to him? Was it the spirit of his old sweetheart crying to him to avenge her death?

He rose suddenly from the chair, and crawled under the clump of shrubs growing close to the wall. As he crept forward under the shrubs his hands struck some hard, heavy substance, and by the faint light that stole through the thick veil of leaves he saw a small heap of stones against the Priory wall, and as he crept closer he saw a hole in the wall itself.

He put his head into the hole, but could see nothing within owing to the darkness, and all was still as death. He felt in his pockets for a match, but could find none. How long had that hole been there? Where did it lead to? What would he find within?

These questions could not be answered then. If he were to attempt to investigate the matter that night he might arouse the attention of the servants, and he resolved to wait till morning.


CHAPTER XXXII.—UNDER THE PRIORY.

Early on the following morning Walter was astir. The morning post brought him another note from his wife, and it was not entirely satisfactory to him to hear that the Countess was improving and that if the improvement continued, Lady Ruth expected to get back to the Priory very soon—perhaps some time that day.

The short letter concluded with many protestations of love, her ladyship avowing that she could not bear to live away from him, and she would have been astonished mightily had she known how unwelcome her return would be to the man she loved with such fierce consuming passion, and how he looked forward to it with feelings of fear and repulsion.

After making a hasty breakfast, Walter repaired to the spot where he had discovered the hole in the wall on the previous night. He rested a few moments in the garden seat to see that no one was watching him either by accident or design. But there was no one visible, and he quickly crushed his way through the rhododendrons and in a couple of seconds stood beside the hole.

The hole was just large enough to admit a man's body, and by examining the stones from it which lay at his feet he could see that the aperture had been recently made, for the upper sides of the pieces of masonry were quite clean and white-looking, and he knew they could not have lain there long or they would have been overgrown with moss.

Walter had no fear that any one would see him. The tall, thick clump of shrubs hid him completely from the view of any servants who might happen to pass that way, and the only windows overlooking that place belonged to the rooms of himself and Lady Ruth.

On examining the wall around the hole he discovered traces of an old doorway of an arched kind, but it appeared to have been built up for a great length of time, the masonry of the built up archway having assumed the same tint and aspect of age as the wall of the Priory.

Inside the aperture all was dark and silent as when he first thrust in his head, for the tall shrubs nestling close to the Priory wall kept back much of the light of day. But he had brought matches with him, and kneeling on the edge of the hole he struck one, and the feeble flickering light was just sufficient to reveal a flight of steps leading abruptly downwards.

He struck several matches and dropped them, but none of them showed him the bottom of the steps. He had never dreamt of finding anything like this, and consequently had possessed himself of only a box of matches. What he needed was a lamp of some kind, and he must have one from somewhere.

Peering cautiously through the leaves to see if any one was near he saw no one, so crept out and went to look for the desired article, having not the slightest idea as to where he would find it, for the Priory was lit throughout with gas, and he did not remember just then of having seen a lamp used by any of the servants.

But after bepuzzling his brains for a few minutes he suddenly remembered the carriage lamps. Just the thing he wanted. He was soon in the coach-house, where one of the stable hands was busy at work. Walter sent the man on some trifling errand, and while he was away he abstracted from one of the lamps the small metal receptacle in which the oil and wick are placed.

By shaking it he found it was nearly full of oil, and in a little while he was once more kneeling on the edge of the hole. There he lit the lamp, and holding it out before him he crept through the aperture on to the stone landing at the top of the steps.

A moment's pause, and then he commenced to descend the stone stairway, wondering what he would find, and feeling that a little fear was blent with his curiosity. It was impossible for him to dissociate his present quest from the events of the last two days, and, most of all, the phantom of the preceding night. He was there owing to that apparition, and he felt that he was on the verge of making some discovery relative to the fate of Alice Gray.

He had now descended more than a score of steps, but could not yet see the bottom of them. The stairway was only just wide enough to permit the turning of a broad shouldered man, and it seemed to be wrought into the wall of the Priory.

At last the steps ended and Walter found himself in a low vault-like room, at the other end of which an open bolt-studded door was rotting away. He knew that he was many yards below all the habitable rooms of the Priory, and he had expected to find the atmosphere of the place fetid and dangerous to inhale. But the lamp burned brightly enough, and he found no inconvenience from breathing the air.

He went forward slowly, glancing from side to side as he proceeded. Beyond the decaying door he found a long, high-arched passage, and at intervals along this he saw other iron-bound doors slowly dropping to pieces, each doorway leading into a low, square cell-like chamber.

He entered each of these old apartments as he came to it; all had vaulted roofs, and in several he found the remains of rough wooden chairs and bedsteads. Presently Walter came upon a passage at right angles to the first. He turned to the left, and went right along till the passage terminated in a blank wall.

Then he retraced his steps, and in this passage were the old doorways of numerous other small chambers. Into these he also entered, and made an inspection of their contents, but found nothing of importance. Not a ray of daylight entered any of the cells, and yet, judging from the fragments of decayed chairs and bedsteads he had found in them, they had evidently been dwelt in some time, and their inhabitants had probably been the Franciscan monks who once held the Priory.

It took up some time to enter and glance around each of the score or more of the cells he had already found. The passages and apartments seemed to run under the whole area of the Priory, and not knowing how far they might extend Walter took the precaution to mark the way he had come by placing a match at the corner of the first passage he had found, and at every fresh passage he entered.

In the further corner of one of the cells he had just entered he saw a heap of something lying, and on going up to it he started back with a cry of horror, for the object was the crouched up form of a man or woman—which he could not tell.

"Good God! What is this? Can it be Alice?" he exclaimed, as he sprang back, and in his excitement he forgot all about the lamp, which fell with a clatter on the stone floor and was extinguished.


CHAPTER XXXIII.—THE SECRET STAIRCASE.

For a few horrible moments he stood there in the dark unable to move. A cold sweat bedewed his face, for his active imagination had endowed that heap of dead humanity in the corner with the white face and big staring black eyes of the spectre he had seen the night before.

As he stood there in the dark amidst the intense stillness of the place, he felt that he had been led there by supernatural means to discover that rotting body. He knew whose form it was, and his teeth clenched firmly, for the tears were rising in his eyes.

Then his momentary fear and irresolution passed away. He bent to the floor and groped about for the lamp, found it, struck a match, and relit the lamp. Then with a sickening feeling upon him he stepped boldly forward to the corner where the crouching figure lay, held the lamp above it, and examined it closely and eagerly.

The form was crouched up so that he could not perceive its face, but the dress denoted its sex. It was a woman, he noted, and who could it be but Alice? He held the lamp aloft with his left hand, and with his right seized hold of the figure by an arm to drag it from the corner so that he might see it better.

His fingers closed firmly, and a cry of disgust escaped him as he felt the cloth sleeve melt beneath his hand and he clutched nothing but a dry fleshless bone which his jerk detached from the body. He dropped the bone with a shudder, and it fell right through the rotten garments of the dead.

He touched the mass with his foot, there was a clatter as of dry sticks striking the hard floor, a cloud of strong pungent dust rose from the corner, filling his nostrils and obscuring his sight for a few moments. When the dust settled, all he could see was a heap of dry bones, and at his feet was a white shining skull, its orbless eye-sockets turned up to meet his gaze.

As he stared at it he fancied it bore some resemblance to the face of the spectre he had seen so lately, and it required a strong effort of his will to restrain his imagination. Then he took up the femoral and other bones and examined them. He knew a little of anatomy, and he was satisfied the bones were those of a woman. But whom that woman had been it was impossible for him to say with any degree of certainty. He could only make a guess, and there was absolutely nothing to tell whether his guess was right or wrong.

He moved the bones and poked the dust with his foot, but found neither trinket nor article of any kind. There was nothing to indicate how the poor creature had got there, and what had been the cause of her death.

Then he turned away from those dry white bones, and left the cell slowly, pausing a moment as he passed the mouldering door. He held up the light and glanced ahead along the passage. The feeble light penetrated only a few yards in advance, and the corridor seemed to extend much further. There might be other passages yet, and many other chambers to explore, but he had had enough of them just then.

He was thinking of retracing his steps, when his eyes alighted on something which caused him to advance quickly. Half a dozen strides took him to the bottom of a flight of steps, very similar to the one he had descended some time before.

He at once commenced to ascend, wondering if some new discovery were in store for him, and if he would be able to make his exit that way. Up, up he went, and at length he reached a landing. But there was no visible means of egress. Before him was a wall of stone, behind him a stairway; to the right was a continuation of the wall in front, but on turning to examine the side to the left he found it composed of strong, age-stained oak.

It was evident that the staircase must have had an exit somewhere. Perhaps it was through the wall, and the doorway had been built up like the other one. But the closest inspection of the wall failed to reveal even the faintest traces of any old doorway, and then it struck Walter that entrance to and from the old stairway might have been effected by means of a doorway to the left, which had since been boarded up.

But the oaken boards seemed almost as firm as the stone wall; they were joined so closely that he could find not the slightest crevice and there was no appearance of any boarded up doorway.

Suddenly his eyes discovered a round iron knob in the corner where the masonry joined the boarding. He gave a strong tug at it, but nothing moved, then he pushed forcibly, and, instantly, a broad stream of bright daylight flashed upon him, blinding him for a moment, for his eyes had grown accustomed to the dim light of his lamp. The next instant he was in the darkness again. He had taken his hand from the iron knob, and the door or panel had sprung back to its place.

But the knob was pressed again, and in a couple of seconds afterwards Walter was standing in Lady Ruth's favourite sanctum, the old room.

Quite bewildered by this last discovery Walter dropped into a chair, asking himself if his wife knew of the secret staircase communicating with the passages and chambers under the Priory. He believed she did, though he could assign no reason for the belief. It arose solely from the suspicions he already entertained respecting her ladyship.

If the skeleton he had found was that of Alice Gray, and if her ladyship was responsible for her death, as he imagined, then the secret stairway would account for the disposal of the body in the cell. But he was not satisfied that the remains he had discovered were those of his old sweetheart. A body could not, he thought, have become so completely decomposed in the short space of two years.

Walter had no idea of returning by the way he had come, nor could he have done so had he wished. The secret door had sprang to when he crept through, and he could not again open it. He attempted to discover the means whereby it was opened, but failed, so he gave up the search.

Then he went to the oriel window and looked out to see if any one was about. A servant was passing, and he waited until he disappeared. Then he pushed up the window and sprang lightly out on the grass, afterwards pulling down the window before he walked away. Then he went to his study, taking with him the lamp, which he thought he might need again on the morrow.

His adventure of the morning had tired him; he was thirsty and hungry, and after he had washed the dust from his hands and face he had lunch, for it was now noon. When he had refreshed himself he turned to his desk, wrote out the advertisement offering a reward for Alice Gray's address, and this was forwarded to an advertisement agent, along with instructions as to the newspapers in which he wished it to appear.

Later on in the afternoon Walter received the following telegram from Lady Ruth:—


Mamma is much better. Shall return to-morrow certain by the 3.34 p.m. train. Meet me at the station,—Ruth.


CHAPTER XXXIV.—HER LADYSHIP'S RETURN.

At the time named in the telegram Walter was at the station, waiting for his wife with the carriage. He had decided at first not to go himself, but after considering the matter on the following morning he resolved to act as though nothing had happened of an uncommon nature whilst Lady Ruth had been absent from Aldayne.

Any other course would have set her ladyship on guard, and by comporting himself in his usual manner he could watch her unsuspected. He had resolved to learn to what extent she was guilty, and was prepared to dog her footsteps, and pry into all her actions, if by doing so he could obtain the desired knowledge. He would fight her with her own weapons.

Lady Ruth was most profuse in her greetings. She was as demonstrative as if she had been away a year instead of only a couple of days, and he submitted to her warm words and caresses in a manner not likely to arouse her ladyship's suspicions, or to cause her to ask awkward questions.

"Is the Countess quite well again?" Walter asked, as he placed his wife in the carriage and seated himself opposite her.

"Not quite well, Walter," she answered, "but out of danger, or I should not be here. And now tell me how you have passed your time since I went away. Have you been very dull, and did you wish me back again!"

Whatever might be this woman's faults beside, marital disaffection was not included among her sins. Every gesture and look, each tone of her exquisitely modulated voice betokened the presence of the yearning, tender, fierce passion she cherished for her husband.

"Dull!" he iterated, remembering the exciting incidents of the past forty-eight hours. "No, I've been anything but that—of course, I wanted to have you back again as soon as possible."

She flung her arms about him and kissed him for those words. She never dreamt that her caresses had lost their sweetness to the only man she wished to think them sweet, and he was likening her lithe light body, and soft, amorous arms to the coils of some beautiful, dangerous snake.

"Did you find the key?" she asked, after a pause.

"Of the old room? Oh, yes, and I locked it up as you desired. I placed the manuscript away in one of the drawers—not, however, before I had read it."

"Well, what do you think of it!"

"It is clever—even brilliant. It will make you famous."

"I am glad you like it. I must get it finished. I shall commence at once when we get home."

Some other conversation of trivial nature followed, and soon the Priory was reached. Walter noticed that the coachman was carrying into the house a small box of rough wood, and its contents appeared to be heavy. Some articles Lady Ruth had brought from her mother's, he thought, and dismissed the matter from his mind.

For an hour or two after Lady Ruth's return husband and wife were together. Then Walter got away to his study on the plea of having some letters to write, and she averred that she longed to give an hour to her story. Immediately afterwards she went to the old room, and thither Walter saw one of the servants carrying the small wooden box that he had previously noticed.

His curiosity was instantly aroused, and he resolved to watch her ladyship. The early spring day was fast drawing in, and it was almost dark outside. He thrust on his hat, lit a cigar, as though he were only going for a few minutes' stroll, and passed quickly out.

Clear of the house, he at once made for the western side of the Priory, where the old room was situated. The sward deadened the sound of his feet, and he was soon standing beside the big oriel window. He could not see into the room, for the thick tapestry hangings were drawn close.

He could see that the gas was lit from the streaks of light that came through the top of the curtains, which showed that they had been hurriedly drawn. But he could hear no one moving inside. He had decided what to do, and, reaching up, he tapped on the pane several times, saying aloud:—

"Are you busy, Ruth? Come out for a walk."

There was no response, so he knocked again, and more firmly. But all was still as at first. Her ladyship had evidently left the room, and it seemed she was not so very eager, as she wished him to think, to get to work on her story. He connected her absence with the box she had brought back with her, and there appeared to be little probability of him seeing its contents.

Suddenly he remembered having unfastened the window on the day before. Had she re-fastened it? No. He placed his hands on each side of the window-frame and pushed upwards; it slid up gently, and in half a minute more he was standing behind the thick heavy curtains.

He listened a moment or two; all was quite still; then he pushed the hangings aside a little and peeped cautiously out. The room was empty, as he had expected. A bright fire burned in the low, wide grate, casting a genial glow over the whole place; the gas was lit and turned on to its full extent, and from where he stood Walter could see the key in the closed door, and on the other side of the chamber was the little wooden box.

Where was Lady Ruth? She had probably left the room for a few minutes and might return any moment He could see that the box-lid had been removed, for it lay on the carpet, and he felt great curiosity as to its contents. It would spoil all if Lady Ruth were to catch him there, but his curiosity was too strong to be resisted, so he stepped from behind the hanging and in an instant was beside the box.

He could scarcely resist an exclamation of surprise, for the box was empty. What had its contents been? Where had they gone? Had her ladyship taken them out of the room with her? Then he turned to the old cabinet, expecting to find the manuscript lying on it. It was not there, and he found it lying in the drawer where he had placed it. Why had she been so eager then to get to the old room? The remark anent the story was evidently only an excuse. A thought flashed through his mind, and he ran to the door. It was locked—the key inside; Lady Ruth had not left the room by the door. She must have gone through the secret panel, and was then in the old chambers under the Priory.

He would watch and see if his surmises were correct. The thick hangings were drawn straight across the oriel window and hung in a line with the wall on each side, and in the half-circular chamber thus formed Walter resolved to wait her ladyship's reappearance. The window was still open, and he let it remain so, that he might spring out suddenly if necessary.

He had to wait half-an-hour or more before he was rewarded for his patience. Then he heard a quick creaking sound, the panel flew open, and his wife was in the room. He had arranged the hangings so that he could see every part of the chamber without disturbing them further, and he could see that her hands were much soiled, and in one of them she still held a small lamp that was yet burning.

It would have been very convenient for the watcher had Lady Ruth forthwith commenced to soliloquise—as most persons are apt to do in dramas and novels—on her past schemes, present purpose, and future intentions. But, unfortunately, she spoke not even a word to herself, and he was left to watch and form his own conjectures.

She first extinguished the lamp and placed it in one of the drawers of the cabinet, which she afterwards locked. Then she unlocked the door and rang the bell. When a domestic appeared she ordered the removal of the empty box. The servant took up the empty box and lid and disappeared. Then she returned to the cabinet, opened one of the top drawers, took out the manuscript and some blank paper, and flung them on the desk.

She was going to write, he thought. No. She walked slowly towards the fire, stood on the rug a few seconds, then she turned, and he feared she was coming to the window. He prepared to spring out the moment she touched the hangings, but he was mistaken. She had turned down the gas and left the room, locking the door behind her.

He only remained in the room an instant longer than his wife. The turned down lights showed she had no intention of returning for some time, and he leapt out, closing the window after him. Relighting his cigar, he strolled back towards the house, meeting Lady Ruth in the entrance hall.

"They told me you had gone out for a walk in the grounds, and I thought I'd join you," she explained. "We have half an hour yet before dinner. Is the evening warm, dear?"

She had wrapped a thick fleecy mass of crimson wool about her neck and shoulders, and it set off her gipsy face to perfection. The thoughtful look she had worn when in the old room a short while before had fled, and she was bright and amiable as usual. She thrust her slender arm through his, and they turned into the "grounds," as the walks lying immediately round the Priory were called.

"It is quite warm," he answered; "but I thought you had been seized a little while since with cacoëthes scribendi?"

"I mistook my own wishes for the divine afflatus," she replied smiling. "You know Walter, that geniuses are erratic, and work only when the fit is on them."

"So it appears; and you have been lazying in your room all this time?"

"Certainly, and you might have gone there to help me, for the moment my back was turned you went out to smoke and moralise. What of your letter!" she demanded, stopping for a moment, and thrusting her beautiful saucy face close to his own. "Did you write it?"

"No," he said, just touching her soft brown cheek with his lips. He could not help himself, she was so beautiful and fascinating. Beauty is a power for ever, as well as a joy, and her old influence over him was not yet quite lost. "I felt a little lazy," he added, "and came out for a smoke."

"You might have asked me to join you."

"Would have done so, but I thought you were anxious to be scribbling. And what have you brought me back?" he asked, thinking of the empty box.

"Nothing—yes, myself."

"Is that all?"

"All! What more could you desire, you avaricious fellow? But I have brought you something—some new songs, which I shall sing for you after dinner."

"But there are my letters."

"You can write them in my room, or leave them till to-morrow. You did not tell me that you had had visitors while I was away?"

"I had only one, an old friend of my young days, who is to take charge of the Torleigh Collieries, I had forgotten all about it."

"Who is he?" she asked, indifferently.

"A miner, named Mathas."

"Indeed!"

"Yes. He has but lately returned from Virginia City, Nevada."

He watched her closely as he spoke, and he saw her change ever so slightly. The features seemed to fix themselves for a short space, and the eyelids lifted quickly. But in an instant the surprise had vanished, and a laughing face looked straight in his own saying:—

"I expect," she said, "that he was not one of those who were standing by when you found me asleep in that hole. Fancy me kissing you as I did, and all those men standing there. And I daresay they would tell their wives and sweethearts about it."

"Undoubtedly, they would," he answered, and a comical frown of displeasure distorted her face for a moment. Then she asked:—

"Had Mr. Mathas been in America long—Nevada is in America, isn't it?"

"Certainly. No, he hadn't been there long; something over a year, I think."

"He emigrated, I suppose, and did not get along very well?"

"Something of that sort, I fancy. He went to the silver mines, and I daresay the work did not agree with him. But he's engaged to a very pretty milliner in Torleigh, and that may have brought him back. Anyways I am glad he has come, for he is remarkably clever as a miner."

He knew very well what had prompted her to make those enquiries, and his answers had completely satisfied her. It was now dinner time, and they went in.


CHAPTER XXXV.—ALICE GRAY IS FOUND.

It was always near noon when the London morning newspapers reached Aldayne Priory, whilst the Liverpool and Manchester journals came with the morning post. The usual servant had just brought the Daily News, and as her ladyship happened to be by when he came in she took it from him to glance through before sending it to Walter, who was busy, or supposed to be so, in his room.

She took it with her into the old room where she had been writing a short time previously. Dropping into her favourite easy chair by the fire she glanced casually over the front page prior to turning it out. But something arrested her eyes, and she read it carefully over more than once. Then she permitted the paper to fall into her lap, whilst she stared thoughtfully into the fire.

There was a strange puzzled expression in those big brown eyes. The full red lips were drawn tightly together, and a trace of the indecision then troubling her was apparent from the manner in which her soft lithe fingers interlaced themselves and then unloosed again.

Half a minute's further pondering and she had made up her mind what to do. He would mention the matter if she did not. It would have to be faced, for he would scarcely miss such glaring letters, and by taking the initiative she would do much to allay or disarm suspicion.

She rose at once, and with the paper in her hand went to her husband's study. He looked up when she entered, but did not seem surprised, for she went there frequently. As she seated herself after pushing the door to, he asked—

"Is that the Daily News? Are you done with it?"

"I have only just looked at the first page, which contains an advertisement which will surprise you, I think."

"An advertisement? What is it like? But read it up, Ruth."

"I will; here it is," and she commenced to read the following:—


"£50 REWARD. This sum will be given to any person
who supplies the present address of Alice Wilson,
who was, about two years ago, headmistress of the Colliery
Schools, Torleigh, and who prior to that was under-mistress
at St. Biddulph's Church Schools, Manchester. The above reward
will be paid to any one forwarding the address required, or
supplying such information as will lead to the discovery of the said
Alice Wilson.

Address John Snow, advertisement agent, X 91, Fleet-street."

He had never taken his eyes from her whilst she read the foregoing. But to judge from her countenance she might have been reading a prosy speech by some obscure politician. Then she put down the paper, saying:—

"It is strange, isn't it?"

"Rather," he answered, quite coolly, with his eyes still fixed upon her face.

"But you don't seem much surprised," she returned, never flinching in the least beneath his steady gaze.

"Because I had read it before—here it is in the Manchester Examiner, and the Liverpool Courier also."

"Then why did you let me read it to you?" she demanded, looking annoyed.

"Because I wanted to hear it again. As you say, it is strange, and I hardly know what to make of it."

"I think no one will forward the address required," she said, quietly.

"Perhaps not."

"Why, you know that it is impossible," she exclaimed.

"Why impossible?"

"Because she is dead. Did you not learn that when you went to America?"

"I only learned that the wife of James Williams was dead and buried. It is quite possible that his wife was not Alice Wilson, or Gray, whichever you choose to call her."

"No!" she answered promptly and frankly. "But are you quite sure she is dead?"

"I did not see her die, of course; nor did I see her body after death. But short of that my evidence seems conclusive."

"Indeed. You have not mentioned this to me before."

"Have you asked me? You have not. This matter has never been mentioned between us since our marriage. I will admit that it has been often in my thoughts, as, I daresay, it has in yours, but I think neither of us liked to be the first to mention Alice Wilson's name. Is that so?"

"Yes, I thought of mentioning the matter several times, but was prevented from doing so only by feelings of delicacy. But what makes you feel so confident that she is dead?"

"Her husband wrote me a letter in which he stated that she was dead. What more do you desire?"

"Williams said, I suppose, that his wife was dead?"

"Precisely."

"But, you see, we are not certain that he married Alice Gray."

"Not certain, as you say, but haven't we the strongest presumptive evidence that such is the case? First, they went away from the Priory at the same time, then there is the announcement of their marriage in the newspaper; nothing could be clearer, I think."

"The first might have been accidental," he answered drily, "and a marriage announcement could be easily managed."

"What do you mean?" she exclaimed. "You know something? Tell me what you have discovered! you know how anxious I am to hear anything about her."

She had rushed to his side and dropped on her knees beside him. For a moment he thought of telling her all he knew—all he had discovered. But he mastered the impulse to do so, and only said—

"I have discovered nothing—I know nothing but what you have told me. I could understand Alice Gray deserting me, but I cannot comprehend her leaving her good name, if not wealth behind her."

"The wealth was mine had she stayed," she answered coldly.

"You know she is Wilson's daughter—my cousin. If you know anything of her I implore you to tell me. It is unbearable for me to enjoy all this wealth while Alice may be starving or struggling for a bare living. If you know where she is tell me."

"I know what I have told you, no more!" she cried, and standing haughtily before him.

"Will you swear that?" he demanded, going towards the bookshelves.

"I will!" she answered, after gazing for a moment at him indignantly.

He handed a Bible to her; she kissed it solemnly and swore that she knew nothing of Alice Gray but what he had already heard her say. Then she turned upon him with tears in her eyes, flung the Bible at his feet, and, saying he knew where to find her when he was prepared to apologise for his shameful behaviour, she rushed weeping from the apartment.

Despite all the knowledge he already possessed it almost seemed impossible that his wife was playing a part, and he half turned once as if to follow her and beg her pardon. But the evidence against her was too strong to be overturned by her beauty and apparent affliction, and now that Lady Ruth had disappeared the solemn asseverations gradually lost their influence over him.

Those beautiful, soft, brown eyes over-brimming with spontaneous moisture appealed to Walter as eloquent witnesses of his wife's innocence, but when she left the study so abruptly the memory of her tears was not sufficiently powerful to stem back the flood of facts he had gathered from such various sources within the last few days.

It was impossible for him to disbelieve the intelligence Jack Mathas had brought from America, more especially as that story had been corroborated in every particular by farmer Ashworth. It was certain that Alice Gray had not left England with Williams, as Lady Ruth had made it appear, and it was equally certain that her ladyship knew more than she wished to reveal of the schoolmistress's disappearance.

He felt that to question his wife further anent the matter would be useless. It was a mistake on his part ever to have imagined that she would make confession to him of what she had said and done with regard to Alice Gray, for by such an avowal she would have stigmatized herself as a deliberate liar, and a cruel and unscrupulous creature, if nothing worse still.

As there was no hope of Lady Ruth throwing light on the mystery, would the advertisement do so? He feared not, for having in mind his cousin's death, his own illness, and the remains he had discovered under the Priory, he still feared that Alice Gray might have suffered deadly harm at her ladyship's hands.

But he knew nothing definite yet. The advertisement would find Alice if she were alive, and if no news of her was obtained in a week or so his worst suspicions would be intensified, if not confirmed. Then he would hesitate no longer from feelings of compunction for his fair wife. He would speak, and plainly. Going to Lady Ruth he would say, "I have discovered that Alice Gray never knew Williams; the valet's wife was farmer Ashford's daughter; she was married in the schoolmistress's name, owing to your influence and bribes and in order that you might mislead me afterwards; the contents of the cabinet in the old room are known to me; you drugged me senseless that I might not interfere with your plans. Alice Gray is missing. Where is she? You know. Tell me, or I cast you off and make the public acquainted with everything I have learned!"

What would be the issue of such a declaration he could neither guess nor foresee, for Lady Ruth was daring and cunning enough to face or evade anything. But that it would be made was certain, in the event of the contingency named, nor would he hesitate to act in accordance with such an affirmation.

Walter had to lunch alone, and even at tea time her ladyship did not make her appearance. An imaginary headache kept her in her own room, and he was not in the humour just then for dispelling such an ailment by going to her. He was rather pleased than otherwise that she had shunned him, for he hardly cared to meet her yet. Their future relationship to each other would depend on what her ladyship told him or what he might discover. He had nothing further to say to her till the mystery of Alice Gray's disappearance was cleared away. The following morning, after breakfast, Walter repaired to his own room, but his mind was too perturbed to permit him to kill time and stifle thought by smoking and reading. Casting about for something diverting, it occurred to him that he might finish the exploration of the places under the Priory, and he decided to do so at once. Just then he needed the excitement that pursuit would supply.

He obtained the lamp used on a previous occasion from the drawer in which he placed it. It was still more than half full of oil, and would keep alight for two or three hours. Placing it in his coat-pocket with some matches, he lit a cigar and strolled leisurely out. Meeting Mrs. Bayley in the hall he remarked—

"If your mistress enquires for me you may tell her that I have gone out for a walk, and shan't be back for an hour or so."

He was soon beside the mass of shrubs behind which lay hid the hole in the Priory wall. He dropped into the garden chair for a few minutes to finish his cigar; then he threw the lit fragment away, watching for a couple of seconds the sparks that flew when it struck the dry hard path.

The next moment he was under the rhododendrons. The morning was foggy, but he could afford to be careless, so he did not light his lamp until he stood inside the hole on the landing at the top of the steps. Then he quickly descended the narrow stairway, going right along till he reached the bottom of the steps leading to the old room, where his previous explorations had terminated.

Beyond the foot of this latter staircase was new ground, and he went along more cautiously, but he discovered for a time only the same arrangement of passages and cell-like chambers, none of which contained anything noteworthy.

What was that? His foot had struck and driven before it something that emitted a sharp clamorous sound. He saw it lying in the dust a little farther on, and picking it up he scanned it attentively. It was a round tin case, such as is commonly used for the preservation of foreign meats and fruits. The label on it was quite whole and clean, and it was plain that it had not been there for any great length of time.

Throwing away the case, he went along, wondering how it had got down there, and if it were in any way connected with the visit he knew Lady Ruth had made to those old underground chambers since her return to the Priory. No ordinary circumstance, he was certain, could induce a woman to come there, and it was apparent that those silent old-world places contained something of engrossing interest to her ladyship. What had drawn her there he could only conjecture, but he resolved, to watch——

"Good God! It is here again!"

His cogitations ended abruptly, and he was transfixed to the spot. The lamp fell from his nerveless fingers, and was extinguished in the dust. The old horror was upon him again, for the strange, white face, the weird, wide, black eyes he had seen so often of late were again before him. Yet, with all that sudden awe filling his mind, he was able to remember that, although his lamp had gone out, he could see that spectral face quite clearly.

How long he remained in that trance of terror he never knew; it might have been a few seconds, though it seemed an hour to him. When the nightmare of fear and torpor passed away, the astounding revelation awaiting him almost unseated his reason. What he had mistaken for a spectre was Alice Gray herself!

"Alice! Alice!" he cried wildly, "thank God I found you alive!"


CHAPTER XXXVI.—COWARD CONSCIENCE.

"Alice! Don't you know me! I am Walter Gray! Speak to me!" he cried again, for she had taken not the slightest notice of his previous exclamations. She spoke now, but her speech annoyed him more than her continued silence could have done.

"Divide," she began, speaking in clear ringing tones, "nine millions, eight hundred and forty-seven thousand, one hundred and thirty-one, by seven millions, five hundred and thirty-six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-four."

On commencing to speak she rose from the old chest on which he had found her seated, and turning to the wall behind her she traced there with her forefinger the figures she was giving out. Then she dictated a similar sum in multiplication, her finger still following her tongue, and this latter task, finished she reseated herself.

"Alice! Alice!" he repeated going to her, laying a hand on each shoulder, and gazing earnestly into her face. "What is the matter with you? How long have you been here? Surely, you have not forgotten your sweetheart, Walter Gray?"

But his low passionate entreaties evoked no satisfactory response. The white face was lifted mutely to him, and those big weird black eyes stared into his own, with a dull, vacuous stare. Then she broke into a simple childish song which he remembered having heard the Torleigh school children sung.

"Good God! She is mad!" burst from his lips as the truth flashed upon him. "This is Lady Ruth's work! By heaven! if it is she shall suffer for it!"

She permitted him to take her hands in his own, and play with them without the least resistance, and when he impressed his lips impulsively against her thin white cheek it was not withdrawn in the least, nor did the slightest flush follow his tender caress. He seated himself beside her, and spoke gently and lovingly to her, but she was insensible to all he could do and say.

Like an old stream that has been shrivelled up by a long summer drought, and is afterwards filled again by a rainstorm, the current of Walter's love was turned into the old channels, and he loved Alice Gray once more with all the old tenderness and passionate intensity.

With the old fire glowing again within him he wondered how he had managed to live and enjoy existence without Alice's love. What reproaches he heaped upon himself when he reflected that whilst he had been living in luxury and ease his poor enmaddened kinswoman had been dragging out her unconscious existence in that drear, unhealthy underground region.

And as his suddenly awakened affection for his old sweetheart was the "love of love," so was his intense loathing of Lady Ruth the "hate of hate." As he pictured Alice sitting there in the dim twilight, singing the simple songs she had taught the miners' children, and dictating sums to her imaginary scholars, while the dead black hours drifted into days and weeks, the weeks into months and years, a lump rose in his throat, the moisture stood thick in his eyes, and a mad lust for retaliation seized him.

More hellish work than this her ladyship had wrought it was impossible to imagine. To compass her own ambitions she had driven each of them mad—probably on the same night—and she had only given him back his senses because of the fierce sensual passion she cherished for him.

But poor Alice had fared worse than he. It seemed a miracle that she was still alive after being incarcerated for two years in such a dungeon. She was living probably, because her ladyship was too cowardly to take her life, trusting, and preferring that disease might finish the cruel work she had begun.

And he feared that Alice's constitution had been already endangered. She was a little more than a skeleton, and a yellow unhealthy pallor tinged her cheeks, while her eyes seemed to have become unnaturally large and protuberant. Perhaps she might never recover her reason and health again, but he vowed to devote his life and his fortune to the task of winning them back.

In moving from her side to look about the place his foot caught in something, and he was flung to the floor. Rising, he looked for what had thrown him, and found it was a thin chain, such he had seen used for securing large dogs, and the end over which he had tripped, was fastened to a ring in the wall. Then he discovered with a thrill of indignant surprise that the other end of the chain was fastened to a thick leathern dog-collar that encircled Alice Gray's ankle.

He felt in his pockets for his knife to remove the obnoxious band of leather, but could not find it, having left it in his room or lost it. Bending down to examine the chain and collar closely he saw that they were quite new. Then the thought flashed through his mind that these were the articles Lady Ruth had brought with her from Ellsden in the wooden box. He scanned the chain and collar closely, looking for the maker's name, but failed to find it.

The collar was fastened by a little hang lock of brass, and happening to turn this over he saw some small letters on the back. The light was too dim for him to make out their meaning, but on striking a match he was able to read the following:—"John Smith, ironmonger, Ellsden." His surmise was then correct, and it was doubtless to chain up her prisoner that Lady Ruth had paid that visit to the underground chambers on the first evening she returned to the Priory after being at Ellsden.

Of course, Walter felt certain now that what he had previously mistaken for mental hallucinations were glimpses of Alice Gray's real self. And it seemed that her ladyship was aware of the mad woman's wanderings, or she would hardly have taken the precaution to stop any further divagation by chaining her up.

Wondering whence came the dim light that faintly lit the long low chamber in which he had found Alice, he went to that part of the cell where the light seemed greatest, and found himself standing on the edge of a small circular sheet of water which was level with the floor, and the overflow trickled down one side of the passage. Looking upward he perceived a round shaft-like aperture in the roof, which seemed several yards long, and far above he could discern a small patch of leaden-coloured sky. There was an old disused well standing in the yard behind the Priory, and he must now be at the bottom of it.

Despite the loss of her reason it appeared that Alice was cognizant of the well, for presently he saw her walk straight to the edge of the water, when kneeling down she bent her lips to the surface and drank greedily. Happening to be standing near the big old chest he lifted the ponderous oak lid, and a glance at the contents answered a question he had just in his mind.

The chest was nearly full of all sorts of preserved food. There were tins of Australian mutton, cases of corned beef, jars of preserved fruit of many kinds, tins of salmon and lobster from American fisheries, half a cheese, a few bottles of wine of the same brand that he and her ladyship preferred, and a large quantity of various sorts of biscuits, such as he had seen used at table, and all were thrown together in a heap.

It was clear now what had become of the food Mrs. Bayley had complained of having missed so frequently, and it was also plain to Walter who the offender was. For upwards of two years the mad woman had been incarcerated under the Priory, and her jailer had been feeding her in secret for that period.

How daring and cunning Lady Ruth had been; and yet it seemed that there were limits to her unscrupulousness and cruelty. She had not faltered for a moment when the time came to sweep from her path such a dangerous rival as Alice Gray threatened to be; she had drugged her to madness, had buried her alive in those dark and gloomy chambers, and yet had refrained from staining her conscience with murder.

To Walter it seemed worse than murder to first rob of reason and then imprison Alice there. To the world—even to herself—the mad woman was dead, and though the world might be disabused of its error, the muddled brain might never become clear, perhaps Alice would never know herself again.

"What is that? By heaven she is coming!"

Glancing round he saw a faint red star glimmering afar down the passage, and as he watched it for a few moments he saw it was rapidly approaching. What should he do? Stay and face her, and charge her with her crimes? Or hide, and watch her?

A moment's reflection and he decided to hide. But where was he to conceal himself? No sheltering hole or door presented itself, so he ran to the farther end of the chamber, where the dim light that fell down the old well did not penetrate. He stumbled over empty tins and cases, which literally covered the floor, and when he crouched in the angle of the damp walls he was about half a dozen yards from the chest on which Alice had just reseated herself.

With his heart throbbing fiercely, and beads of sweat standing thick on his brow, he awaited the coming of Lady Ruth. There was nothing to hide him from her but the semi-darkness of the place, yet, he thought he might escape detection, as it was not probable that she would come near enough to see him.

In a few moments he heard her low footfalls, then he saw her figure between him and the light. She had placed her lamp in the passage, and he was still safe. He saw her glance slowly around the place, then she crossed the chamber, and seated herself on the chest beside Alice.

Walter's eyes had now grown accustomed to the dim light, and from the corner in which he crouched he could see his wife sitting bolt upright on the chest, her hands lying in her lap, staring straight before her, apparently oblivious of the mad woman's presence, and evidently steeped in profoundest contemplation.

He watched her intently wondering what was stirring in the depths of that strange, fair, and passionate creature's mind. Had remorse something to do with her reflections, and was she relenting? As he watched and pondered he saw that Alice was playing with Lady Ruth's hair; the thick, soft, brown mass had come unfastened and the demented woman was plaiting the loose tresses, humming to herself some song as her deft fingers moved mechanically in and out among her ladyship's hair.

Then he saw Lady Ruth rise and bend down to the other's feet. He heard the clank of the chain, and he knew that she was seeing if her prisoner was still secure. When she rose from her stooping posture she stood before Alice, and he saw the light flash for an instant on the bright blade of a large knife she held in her right hand.

Good God! she was going to kill her!

His heart leapt to his throat, and he clenched his teeth to repress an exclamation. Quickly, yet noiselessly, he rose to his feet, a heavy tin case poised above his head, ready to dash in Lady Ruth's face the moment the knife was lifted against Alice, who sat there crooning, unconscious of any danger.

"I'm a coward! I cannot do it!" he heard her exclaim passionately. Then she turned abruptly away. She flung the knife from her; he saw it flash in the air, heard it splash in the gutter; then he and the mad woman were again alone.

He dropped the case with a deep sigh of relief, and striding forward watched the receding light until it disappeared. Then he went to the gutter and fished out the knife, and a shudder ran through him as he felt its keen edge and remembered the purpose for which it was intended. Going to the old chest he seated himself, and tried to decide his future line of action.


CHAPTER XXXVII.—EACH LIFE IS A TRAGEDY AT ITS CLOSE.

After some minutes' deep reflection light poured in on Walter Gray's cogitations, and he had resolved what to do. It was unsafe to leave Alice there alone any longer, for Lady Ruth might return at any moment with more courage to carry out her murderous wishes.

He would wait there till nightfall, and then take Alice away without being observed. One of his lodge-houses was kept by a handsome young widow, whose husband had been killed in the Aldayne Mines, and he had decided to take Alice there for the present. The North Lodge in which Mrs. Joule lived, along with an elder spinster sister, lay on a part of the estate little frequented, and he knew he could trust the widow to keep Alice's presence a secret. Both the sisters were respectable women, of religious tendencies, and they were deeply grateful to him for having found them a shelter. He felt he could not place Alice in better hands.

With the knife Lady Ruth had cast away, he cut the stout leathern collar encircling Alice's ankle, but she evinced no desire to avail herself of her freedom. She sat there munching a cake; now and again assuming imaginary tutorial duties, and sometimes crooning to herself a familiar air.

Feeling hungry and thirsty he lifted Alice from the chest, and she permitted him to do so without the slightest struggle. He took from the chest some of the biscuits and a bottle of wine, and made a tolerable meal. His companion did not seat herself again. She lay down on a heap of straw beside the old chest, and presently her deep regular breathing told him she was asleep.

It was now two o'clock, and he had yet to wait four hours before it would be dark enough for them to quit the prison Alice had tenanted so long.

Slowly, very slowly, the time went by, and he sat there in the silent twilight busy with his thoughts. After he had delivered Alice into Mrs. Joule's care, his first work would be to secure the contents of the old cabinet. He believed that her recovery depended on the contents of the phials labelled "Anti-Phthoxania;" for it appeared probable that they contained the only antidote to the terrible drug administered to her.

All the holy relationship of man and wife was ended forever between him and Lady Ruth. He would never again touch those soft red lips of hers with his own; never glance with fond admiring eyes on her wondrous and dangerous beauty again. Henceforth she was a creature to be feared not loved; loathed not admired; condemned instead of cherished.

What would be the final outcome of the present complication he could foresee in a dim vague way. He would not confront his wife with her crimes yet. He would wait until Alice Gray had recovered her reason; he would permit Lady Ruth to think that her prisoner had escaped from confinement, and had wandered away to get lost and probably destroyed; then when his cousin had regained her senses he would bring his wife and her victim face to face.

What would follow this he was unable even to imagine. He was only certain of one thing. After such a denouement he and her ladyship would part forever. If she did not leave him in peace he was determined to make public every detail of her criminal schemes and acts.

And, even if Lady Ruth was sensible enough to retire from the Priory at once and live in seclusion for the rest of her life, he saw no prospect of happiness for himself. His old passion for Alice had now grown stronger than ever, yet, with his guilty wife living there was no hope of their being united.

Slowly the twilight of the place deepened, and before it became dark, he struck several matches and searched for the lamp he had dropped some hours before. Finding it he lit it, and waited till the old well-shaft grew black with the darkness of night, then he prepared for their departure.

Alice still slumbered on her rough bed of straw; he awoke her, and in a few minutes she was following him, submissive as a child, her hand clasped in his. In a little while they were standing in the cool evening air, beside the clump of rhododendrons. Not a soul was stirring, and, after a minute's pause, they stole quickly through the trees in the direction of the North Lodge, their hands once more clasped firmly together.

In half an hour Walter and his cousin were seated in the cosy kitchen of the Lodge, and he was telling the sisters that Alice was a poor relative of his who had been crazed by brutal treatment, and if her presence there was not kept a secret her people would fetch her back. The sisters were glad of an opportunity to show their gratitude; they listened to all his instructions attentively; and soon after he left, feeling that Alice was in safe keeping.

When Lady Ruth left her husband so abruptly after their discussion regarding the advertisement, she did so with a troubled mind, despite her effective show of virtuous indignation. She feared that Walter had made some discovery, and she felt certain that he was responsible for the advertisement offering a reward for Alice Gray's address.

For the rest of the day she kept to her room, eagerly listening for her husband's familiar footfall; but when the afternoon dragged on, and then evening, without him appearing to ask the forgiveness she was hungering to grant, her suspicions and uneasiness became intensified a hundredfold. He had discovered something. What could it be? How much she would have given to know. And all that night she was tortured by the demons her conscience had already created.

The next morning after breakfasting, Lady Ruth went to the old room, and soon after she learned that Walter had gone out for a walk. She sat there staring into the fire, her brain busy with a host of thoughts. Was it possible that he had discovered that Alice Gray had never left England? If he had caused the advertisement to be inserted in the newspapers, then it was certain he must have discovered that his cousin was not the valet's wife. How was she to learn the source of the advertisement. Who beside her husband would care to pay fifty pounds for Alice Gray's address? No one! It must be Walter!

She sat there thinking, and the little clock on the mantelpiece struck ten, then eleven, and twelve, and yet her husband had not returned. He was taking a long walk, indeed. Then sudden light flamed in her eyes as a thought flashed through her brain. The walk was a ruse to allay her suspicions while he worked in secret. Her husband was then probably miles away from Aldayne.

She rose abruptly from her chair, left the room, and in a couple of minutes was standing in her husband's study. She ransacked the writing-desk and every unlocked drawer, but could find not the least scrap of writing pertaining to the advertisement. Vexed with her unsuccess, she flung the envelopes and paper into the open desk, and a newspaper cutting fluttered to her feet.

After closing the desk she picked up the cutting and glanced casually at it. As she read the few words it contained her teeth clenched suddenly, and her face became grey with the shock. Her suspicions then were true. It was Walter who had originated the advertisement. It was almost certain now, from the cutting she held in her hand, which ran thus—


"ADVERTISE! ADVERTISE! ADVERTISE!"

"All who wish to advertise should write John Snow,
advertisement agent, X91, Fleet-street."


Here was strong presumptive evidence that Walter had been in communication with the agent named in the advertisement, or why had he taken the trouble to cut out his address? She replaced the cutting in the desk, then she returned to the old room in a more uneasy frame of mind than she had left it.

It was nearly 1 o'clock now, yet Walter was still absent. Where was he? What was he doing? she asked herself, her mind filled with gloomy fears. If he had contrived to learn that Alice Gray was not the woman who had married Williams, he might discover something worse still, if she did not prevent him. "I ought to have rendered impossible such a contingency long ago," she murmured, and a desperate resolve began to grow in her mind.

She would do it. She had gone too far now to turn back. She had been too merciful—too careless of the great secret on which all her happiness depended. Her safety was menaced; nothing but prompt and effective action could secure her and preclude discovery. One strong blow was all that was needed to avert the ruin menacing her. Was she daring enough to strike? Yes, and not a moment should be lost.

She rose, and went to the housekeeper's room, and having found what she desired, she retraced her steps. Some minutes after she was under the Priory with a murderous purpose in her mind, but, as the reader has already learned, at the critical moment she lacked the nerve necessary to effect her desperate design.

So she returned to the old room, and Walter was absent still. While he was waiting for nightfall in order to remove Alice without being seen, his wife was on the rack tortured by her guilty imaginings. Hour after hour she sat there, till the daylight faded into gloaming, the gloaming into night; and just before the clock struck 8 a servant came to tell her that Walter had returned and was then in his own room.

She saw him not that evening, nor on the following day. She kept to her own room in the morning—he to his, and when she came down at noon he was again out, being absent all the afternoon. In the evening when he returned he did not even look at her, but went right on to his own room, where he remained till bed time.

Day after day passed in this fashion, and the anxiety was eating out Lady Ruth's heart. She was losing, she felt, Walter's love, and what was life to her without it! His silence was worse to her than anything else could be, for it left her to grope about in the dark not knowing what danger was threatening her. She could face aught beside the nameless fears her silence engendered.

One evening a murderous fit again seized her. Fully resolved, now, to take her prisoner's life she repaired to the cell to find Alice gone. She flew from one cell to another in search of the mad woman; passage after passage was explored in vain. There would have been an abrupt ending to Alice Gray's existence had Lady Ruth found her there. But she was gone, and in a while her ladyship discovered the hole in the Priory wall through which Walter and Alice had made their exit.

Lady Ruth believed that Alice had made her escape unaided. The knife she had flung away was lying beside the severed collar, and it appeared that her own imprudence had led to the mad woman's release. She reviled her folly, and hoped that Alice might kill herself in her wanderings. But what if she had fallen among kind people, and supposing Walter got to hear of it?

Her cheek blanched at the thought of such a contingency and its consequences. But what could she do? Alice had gone, she was powerless to avoid what had happened. Why had she been such a coward a few days before. She ought to have struck then, and by one swift blow prevented even the possibility of her schemes being discovered and ruin heaped on herself.

So a fortnight had passed and husband and wife had become strangers to each other. Never a word had passed between them since the morning the advertisement had been discussed. Every evening Walter absented himself for an hour or two. She noticed this, and one night she dogged his footsteps, resolved to know where and for what purpose he spent hours out every evening.

Through the park he struck at a quick pace, and amid the trees just behind she followed almost at a run. In a while he stopped beside the North Lodge; knocked, and was at once admitted. A fierce pang of jealousy shot through her as she saw him enter. It was with the pretty widow, then that he entertained himself each evening. Still keeping among the trees she crept towards the lodge. Suddenly the door opened again, a stream of warm light fell on the gravelled path, and then Lady Ruth saw the elder of the sisters come out and go towards the village.

"She was in the way, so she's left the lovers to themselves, but I'll stop their cooing!" her ladyship cried, almost mad with jealous passion, and the lodge door had scarcely closed before she was beside it knocking savagely. Presently it was opened, and her husband stood hatless in the doorway.

"You here! What do you want?" he demanded angrily, his face white and stern.

"I want you!" she retorted, forgetting everything in her jealous rage. "So this is where you spend your evenings with a shameless woman. Was it for this that you extended your charity to the widow. Let me pass! I'll kill her!"

"Go away at once," he said, baring the way, "or you will regret it."

"You would add violence to desertion?" she exclaimed, and again she strove to force her way past him.

"Go away I tell you!" he cried, thrusting her back rudely. "I have neither time nor wish to quarrel with you now. Go, before I fling the door in your face?"

"Do! and I'll rouse the village with my cries. I'll go in if you kill me for it!"

"Come in then!" he answered, and as he stood aside she sprang past and darted into the inner room, eager to rend the woman whom she expected to find there.

In the middle of the room she stopped, glanced around, and was transfixed with sudden horror. There, in one corner of the room, between the spotless sheets of a pretty little bed her late prisoner was peacefully slumbering, her face almost as white as the snowy coverlet. Lady Ruth's heart seemed to cease its action; she could neither speak nor move. She could only realise that she was ruined—that all was lost. His voice broke the spell.

"You are surprised," he said lowly. "I thought you would be. What have you to say for yourself now?"

"What need I say? I am mistaken, that is all," she answered promptly, even defiantly. She was determined to face the danger boldly now that it could not be evaded.

"Mistaken? Yes; you did not expect to find your victim here."

"My victim! What do you mean?" she demanded, with drawn-up figure and flashing eyes.

"Let as have no humbug!" he hissed, in that low fierce tone beneath which she had once quailed before. "Your game is nearly up! I know all! You are a vile, murderous criminal!"

"You'll excuse me asking what all this noise is about?" she said with great show of calmness. "Really, I do not quite understand you."

"You will understand me soon. If she dies, you will have to answer for her life; for as sure as there is a heaven above us I'll charge you with her murder! I know who sent the valet to America, and that his wife was farmer Ashford's daughter. I have learned who drugged me senseless and drove Alice Gray mad. The contents of the old cabinet—the drugs, the antidote, books, manuscript, and teapot are here in this room. I sent the advertisement to the papers. I was under the Priory that day when you went to kill your victim, but was too cowardly to do it. And, to think that you are my wife! Oh God! why was such a woman ever created?"

His words drove all the courage from her breast. Her eyes drooped beneath the wrath in his gaze, and when he finished she was grovelling at his feet, the tears streaming down her face, pleading passionately for mercy.

"Walter! Walter! Forgive me! Forgive me! It was for you that I sinned! I could not live without your love! Mercy! Mercy! My love has been a curse to me!"

"And a blight to others," he answered, coldly, and there was not the faintest ray of pity in his dark, stony face. Then his voice grew suddenly tender, and moisture showed in his eyes as he added, "They say she will die, and if she does, I'll try to hang you!"

"Walter! Walter! Have you no pity?"

"None for you. What you have given you shall receive."

"Think of how I have loved you."

"Think of the reason you have destroyed—the life you have blighted!"

"You will not save me?" she cried, becoming strangely calm, and rising to her feet.

"Save you! No! If word or act of mine could save or damn, you would be accursed forever!" he cried vehemently.

"I will kill myself if you do not forgive me!" she said in a low, intense voice.

"Do!" he retorted, "and so lessen by one the world's curses!"

She spoke no more. For some moments she stared silently upon him; her face white as the sleeping woman's, her brown eyes glowing like live coals. Then she turned from him; he heard a deep sob-like sigh well up in her throat, and she had passed out into the darkness of the woods. That look and sigh never faded from his memory. In after life whenever he thought of his wondrously beautiful, and strongly passionate wife he remembered her as he had last seen her that evening in the North Lodge.

It was near nine o'clock when Water returned to the Priory. He went at once to his own room, not wishing to see his wife. Towards eleven Mrs. Bayley came to him, saying that her mistress had gone out about seven o'clock, and had not yet returned. She had said she was going out for a walk, but no one had seen her in the grounds.

This intelligence made Walter feel uneasy. Could it be possible that Lady Ruth had carried out her mad threat, and destroyed herself? or had she only left the Priory to seek the protection of her parents' home? He hoped she had taken the latter course, for he felt that if she had destroyed herself his hard words had driven her to it.

He waited till midnight, still she came not. Then all the male servants turned out to scour the park in search of the missing lady. But they found not their mistress; and when morning came Walter despatched the following telegram to Gordan Court:—

"Ruth went out last night, and is still missing. Is she with you?"

"No," was the answer he received soon after noon. Then he ordered the lake to be dragged, a sickening fear filling his breast. An hour after Lady Ruth was found in the lake, her body beautiful even in death, and despite her sins no one cried more bitterly than the husband she had loved with such a fierce, passionate, and changeless devotion.

No one suspected that the unfortunate woman had drowned herself, and Walter was careful not to dispel this opinion. There was scarcely a dry eye in the village when the news spread, for she had won every heart there by her kindness and generosity, and, when she was buried in the quiet little churchyard, a thousand prayers for her salvation arose from humble throats. And, perhaps, those honest prayers would have more influence on the heart of the Great Unknown than her misdeeds.

A year and some three or four months have passed since Lady Ruth was buried. Through Aldayne Park a lady and gentleman are walking slowly. The green leaves quiver in the sunlight; scent of wild flowers and the drowsy drone of bees fill the air. Well again in mind and body, Alice Gray is listening once more to the story of her cousin Walter's love. And the summer seems to have smitten the lovers with its gladness, for there is sunshine in their eyes and love brims o'er in each heart.

And down in the village the gossips are saying that the master of Aldayne Priory will marry again before the summer is past.


THE END

This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia