Title: Judith of the Red Hand
Author: J Monk foster
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JUDITH OF THE RED HAND.

By

J. MONK FOSTER,



Author of "A Pit Brow Lassie," "The Queen of the Factory,"
"A Slave of the Ring," "Through Blood and Flame,"
"The Looms of Destiny," "The Forge of Life," etc., etc.




Published in the Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW: 1888 - 1954), Saturday 8 August 1908, (this text),
and previously in the Burnley Express (Burnley, England), commencing 9 November, 1901.




CHAPTER I.—THE HILL END MINE AT SAXILHAM.
CHAPTER II.—JUDITH TRAFFORD AND GABRIEL BLACKWOOD.
CHAPTER III.—THE BACHELOR AND HIS SISTER.
CHAPTER IV.—A SUBTERRANEAN DELUGE.
CHAPTER V.—FACE TO FACE WITH THE FLOOD.
CHAPTER VI.—A GRIM FIGHT FOR LIFE.
CHAPTER VII.—THE TEMPTATION OF GABRIEL.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE WOE OF FAIR JUDITH.
CHAPTER IX.—RODERICK NORBURY'S GREAT NEWS.
CHAPTER X.—THE PASSING AWAY OF NANCY.
CHAPTER XI.—FAIR WIDOW AND HANDSOME WIDOWER.
CHAPTER XII.—'TWIXT LOVE AND AMBITION.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE RED HAND.
CHAPTER XIV.—"DURING HER MAJESTY'S PLEASURE."
CHAPTER XV.—THE MASTER AND HIS FORTUNES.
CHAPTER XVI .—THE RETURN OF THE RED HAND.
CHAPTER XVII.—THE NEW GENERATION.
CHAPTER XVIII.—OVER THE WALNUTS AND THE WINE.
CHAPTER XIX.—A YOUNG MAN BENT ON WOOING.
CHAPTER XX.—SOME SCHEMES AND DREAMS.
CHAPTER XXI.—GABRIEL BLACKWOOD AND HUGH CHESTERS.
CHAPTER XXII.—CRAVEN DIVULGES THE SECRET.
CHAPTER XXIII.—"THE BLACKEST OF LIES."
CHAPTER XXIV.—MR. CRAVEN WOOS THE MOTHER.
CHAPTER XXV.—IN LONDON TOWN.
CHAPTER XXVI.—LAURENCE BLACKWOOD'S FOLLY.
CHAPTER XXVII.—THE MINE OWNER'S GENEROSITY.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—A DISCOVERY AND A DECLARATION.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE RUSH TO BLUE GUM CREEK.
CHAPTER XXX.—THE MAN FROM SAXILHAM.
CHAPTER XXXI.—STRANGE NEWS FROM HOME.
CHAPTER XXXII.—THE COMING OF DISASTER.
CHAPTER XXXIII.—THE SHADOW OF THE REAPER.
CHAPTER XXXIV.—A DYING MAN'S PROPOSAL.
CHAPTER XXXV.—THE RETURN OF THE WANDERER.
CHAPTER XXXVI.—THE MEETING OF THE COUSINS.
CHAPTER XXXVII.—THE LAST WORK OF THE DEAD MAN.
CHAPTER XXXVIII.—THE WOMEN OF THE RED HAND.
CHAPTER XXXIX.—THE WORK OF THE NEW MASTER.
CHAPTER XL.—MR. CRAVEN WOOS JUDITH AGAIN.
CHAPTER XLI.—THE RENDING OF THE VEIL.
CHAPTER XLII.—A GHOST FROM THE PAST.
CHAPTER XLIII.—THE NEW MASTER PLAYS A DEEP GAME.
CHAPTER XLIV.—THE RETURN OF RODERICK NORBURY.
CHAPTER XLV.—THE MAN FROM BLUE GUM CREEK.
CHAPTER XLVI.—THE RULING PASSION.
CHAPTER XLVII.—A DECLARATION OF WAR.
CHAPTER XLVIII.—RODERICK NORBURY AND EDWARD CRAVEN.
CHAPTER XLIX.—EDWARD CRAVEN'S TERMS.
CHAPTER L.—A TRUE WOMAN'S CHOICE.
CHAPTER LI.—WITH THE GLOVES OFF.
CHAPTER LII.—SOME OLD PHOTOGRAPHS.
CHAPTER LIII.—THE STORY OF THE RED HAND.
CHAPTER LIV.—GATHERING OF THE PROOFS.
CHAPTER LV.—PLAYING THE TRUMP CARD.
CHAPTER LVI.—THE END OF THE PLAY.


CHAPTER I.—THE HILL END MINE AT SAXILHAM.

The village of Saxilham lay in the midst of a broad shallow Valley, through which a sluggish stream, named the Saxe, flowed lazily—save in wet, wintry seasons, when its swollen waters surged turbidly between its banks of grass and gravel and under the low-arched, old-fashioned bridge of stone, over which the village highway ran.

To the north and south of Saxilham the country rose in green, softly-swelling uplands, cultivated to the highest ridge on either hand, and dotted here and there with farmhouses. Trees were scarce on the uplands, but down in the valley there were many umbrageous clumps of elm, ash and sycamore and the lush meadows lying on either side of the little river, the fruitful orchards, spread here and there about the village, gave the place a most pleasant and countrified aspect.

Yet Saxilham folk were in no sense an agricultural community. Of the two or three thousand souls the busy little village contained, not more than half a hundred of them earned a livelihood either on the land or from it. Of those, perhaps, a score of villagers won their bread and cheese as farm labourers; and in the proper season the wives and daughters of those rustics eked out the earnings of their husbands by lending a helping hand in the fields when the hay was shorn, the corn garnered, or the rich root crops were gathered in.

But for the remaining four or five hundred of workers in the village there was an abundance of employment in the neighbourhood. Beyond the green uplands to the east lay the prosperous town of Saxilford, not more than a couple of miles away, and there one might find plenty to do in the cotton-mills, the iron foundries, the coal pits, the score and one different workshops with which the thriving old borough abounded.

Hence, it followed that there was each morning, winter and summer, fair weather or foul, an exodus of toilers from the village to many points of the compass—many of the Saxilham men and youths faring forth to one or another of the different collieries in the district, some of them seeking the town's workshops, wherein they plied their trades; and quite a crowd of Saxilham women and maidens going to the cotton mills at Saxilford.

There was one colliery in the village, but all in vain a stranger might have looked for the towering headgear, the big engine-house, the great pulleys, and the thin snakelike steel ropes, which almost always mark the spot where coal is wrought.

That colliery was known locally as "Old Haliburton's Colliery," but out of the village itself the name of the mine was the Hill End Colliery. The mine itself was a small, old-fashioned concern, situated a quarter of a mile or so outside the village at the foot of the green swelling upland; and it consisted, not of a shaft, but of an arched tunnel, adit, or day eye, driven right into the heart of the hill side.

At the mouth of the tunnel the coal cropped out under the green sod, sloping down beneath the earth somewhat steeply; and here some teens of years before the winning of the seam had been commenced, in the clumsy and inefficient manner common to those days. But when the present proprietors came on the scene things had been altered for the better in every way, and now in the year 1869, when our story begins, the Hill End Colliery was almost all that one could expect in a mine of that character.

The mouth of the tunnel was six feet in height and about seven feet wide, a narrow line of tramway running from the surface to a point half a mile distant under the green hill. Save for the unnecessary headgear, there was everything about the mine usually found at more important collieries.

A low engine-house stood, a score of yards from the mouth of the tunnel; inside it was a powerful pair of "coupled" engines, which let down the gangs of empty tubs or boxes in the tunnel and hauled back the gangs of full tubs; there were shoots and screens, whereat carts for "land sale" and waggons for "foreign sale" could be loaded; there was a banksman who looked after all the coal that came out of the seam; there were surface labourers and half-a-dozen pit-brow girls running the small pit waggons here and there, accompanied by the usual clang and clamour, dust and bustle of a pit in full swing; while below, the wide fertile valley lay pleasantly in the sunshine, the picturesque old village slumbered or went quietly about its business, and the green slopes on either side Saxilham nurtured their crops of grain and roots.

One afternoon in May, shortly after the Hill End mine had ceased working for the day, a miner and a miner maid came down the sloping road together, making for the village, where both lived. She was young, tall and finely built, and the sun struck ruddy gleams from the masses of hair showing in front and below her soft bonnet; he was some seven or eight years older than his companion—perhaps six-and-twenty—and his big muscular frame, and his short black beard, added to the grime of the mine he had just left, gave the man a somewhat dour appearance.

"Well, Judith Trafford," the man said, presently, "and how are you? I reckon you'd be a bit surprised to see me back in Saxilham; but glad I expect?"

"I'm all right, Roderick Norbury," was the girl's quiet response, a certain vein of hardness apparent in her voice. "And to tell the truth, I was surprised to see you here, and not in any way glad. Aren't you frightened that the police will be after you for that poachin' business?"

"Never a bit, lass," he cried jauntily. "They collared the rest, and my mates were too staunch to give me away. The police will never bother now, and even if they do, I couldn't help coming back, Judith."

"To look after your mother, I dare say?"

"My mother! Not at all, Judith. It was yourself I was thinking about. You know what I mean."

"I have told you once for all, Roderick Norbury," the pit-brow girl said firmly, "that I do not care for you—that I never will care for you—and, surely, that should be enough for any man of spirit like you."

"Enough for a milk-sop," he cried, doggedly, "but not for me. You know what I think about you. I mean to have you for my wife some day—and if all the men in Saxilham come between us and if you say 'No' a hundred times, I shall only ask you again. That's the sort of man and lover I am, Judith Trafford!" And he bent slightly to put his black face close to her own fair one.

"Then I'm only sorry for you," she answered, with a curling lip, and tossing back her head.

"Why sorry, Judith?" he demanded, almost fiercely. "I want your love—and your pity, and by—I'll have it too!"

"I think not, Roderick Norbury," was the girl's quietly emphatic rejoinder, as she swung along by her rough wooer's side, her undisturbed face showing her unconcern. "But perhaps you haven't heard that I am keeping company now with Gabriel Blackwood?"

"I've heard, but I don't care a curse for that, Judith! It's a fine thing, I daresay you think, to have Gabriel Blackwood at your heels. His father is manager of Old Haliburton's Colliery; Gabriel himself is underlooker there, and may be manager some day. Well, you're flyin' at big game, wench, but I'm not afeard that Gabriel will ever wed you!" and the big, coarse-grained pitman laughed brutally.

"Not marry me! Who's to stop him, Roderick Norbury, if he wants to? And don't I tell you that we are keepin' company now."

"I'd stop him if I could!" he snarled savagely, "but it's not likely he'll need stopping, Judith," he added, in a meaning undertone.

"What do you mean now?" she demanded.

"I mean that Gabriel Blackwood will never marry you, although you say he is courting you. That's what I mean, Judith Trafford. And it stands to reason that I am right. Now just look at things as I see 'em," he urged. "You're the handsomest wench that ever stepped in Saxilham, and Gabriel Blackwood is the finest chap, I suppose. So far you are mates; but there all ends. You're a pit-brow lass, an' are likely to remain such all your days; but with Gabriel things are different. He means to be a manager someday—will be one too, I believe; and do you think that a man that's ambitious an' handsome, an' clever, like young Blackwood, will saddle himself for ever with a wife—no matter how beautiful she may be—who is nothing but a pit-brow lass that can hardly spell her own name?"

"I do believe it!" she cried. "Gabriel has pledged his word to me like a man, and I believe he will keep it like a man. What makes you say he won't? Has Gabriel ever said anything? Why I hardly believe he would thank you, Roderick Norbury, if you stopped him in the public street now."

"Perhaps not," and he snarled, grimly. "But before I took to snaring a few of somebody else's rabbits an' hares, Gabriel an' me used to be sort of chums. I've not forgotten all he told me then. He's no common chap is Gabriel; if he can rise in the world, he means to; no plain, poor lass like you will satisfy him; and for your own good, Judith Trafford, I'm telling you now to chuck him and stick to a man who would lick the dust from your clogs!"

"I can't do it! I won't do it!" she muttered. "With me to choose once is to choose for ever! Sink or swim, come better, come worse, I stand by Gabriel!"

"You'll rue it some fine day, Judith."

"Whenever I do I shall not come crying and complaining on your doorstep, Roderick Norbury."

"If ever you do I shall be ready to take you in."

She curled her lip at that, and at the edge of the village they parted unceremoniously, and went their different ways.


CHAPTER II.—JUDITH TRAFFORD AND GABRIEL BLACKWOOD.

On the evening of the same day on which we saw Judith Trafford and Roderick Norbury coming down the hillside road together, the pit-brow girl was to be seen making her way along the inclined path towards Haliburton's Mine. It was midway between half-past seven and eight; there was a ruddy glow in the west, and a glimmer of iridescent hues to mark where the sun had lately sunk; and the valley, village and river lay in the hush of peace and gathering twilight.

Gone now were all traces of the somewhat grimy occupation the girl followed; soft bonnet and short breeches and skirt had been replaced by a straw hat and bright print gown; even the little wooden shoes had given way to more orthodox leather footgear; and the comely pit-brow maiden was now as fresh, sweet, and pleasant as the green valley lying around her.

At eighteen years of age, Judith Trafford was probably as strong, healthy, and handsome a specimen of budding womanhood as one could have found in all England. She was an inch or two taller than most women; was slim-built, lithe as an untamed animal, had a flowing bust for a girl in her teens still, and a great sheaf of ruddy hair, which had in it the mixed shimmer of copper and gold and chestnut.

Judith's origin was of the humblest. She was a worker, sprung from a race of workers, and had no ambition to live and die out of the sphere wherein she had been born. But her face was as perfect in its way as any a great painter could have desired to limn. It was a sweet oval, broad at the brow, and pointed and velvety at the chin; her warm complexion, downy and velvety in texture, matched well with her red-gold tresses and her big grey eyes, with dark glints in them, firm finely-moulded nose, and that pretty scarlet bow of a mouth, the lips just full enough and pouting slightly had made many a young fellow's heart leap and hunger for their owner's smile.

Judith Trafford was alone in the world. Her father had been a collier, and her mother a pit-brow woman in her day; an only child, the lass had been left parentless, and homeless, too, shortly after entering her teens. Jack Trafford had been both a hard worker and hard drinker; and then an explosion of firedamp burnt him almost to a cinder, he left some debts but no savings to the widow and daughter bearing his name.

In a month's time Mrs. Trafford had broken up her home; had gone into lodgings with her ten year old lass; had gone back to the pit-brow to earn food and shelter for them both; and just three years later, when Judith was earning four shillings a week on the pit bank, a short illness carried her mother away.

At seventeen Judith had gone to work at the Hill End Mine. Even then, though tall and scraggy beyond her age, she had beauty of an uncommon kind, and great promise of future rare comeliness. Between eighteen and nineteen she had developed a wondrous beauty of the most florid type, and Gabriel Blackwood, the underlooker at Haliburton's Colliery, and further, only son of the manager there, had been one of the very first of the Saxilham young men to admire and appreciate Judith's budding charms.

Judith and Gabriel had known one another all their days; had even been the best friends always; and when the lass turned her eighteenth year nobody in the big village seemed surprised when it became known that the young underlooker and the handsome pit-brow lassie had commenced to walk out together.

Even at sixteen Judith Trafford had given her heart and all its holiest affections to Gabriel. But the gift had been all unsought then. She had come to look upon the big, handsome miner as everything that was best and most desirable in manhood; and when Blackwood told her that he loved her, and begged her to meet him in the adjoining town one Saturday evening the previous winter, it seemed then that all happiness was found and that earth had nothing more to offer.

Half-way up the sloping, winding, unpaved way which led to the Hill End Colliery, Judith paused. A couple of hundred yards in front was the mouth of the black tunnel, the squat engine-house, the wagons and so forth; and men were moving about the place. Turning, she swept the valley for a moment, where the shallow Saxe flowed lazily, then walked slowly back, her gaze on the upland road she had climbed. And there below, coming to meet her, was the man she wished to see. She went down slowly, he swung up quickly, and in half a minute they were face to face.

"Judith! What brings you up here, lass?" he demanded, with a pleasant unceremoniousness. "Not coming to waylay me, surely, dear?"

"That's just what brought me, Gabriel," she said simply.

"But how could you know that I was to work to-night?"

"I heard your father and Mr. Haliburton saying so this afternoon when they were at the colliery; and—and I wanted to see you, Gabriel!" she stammered, her fresh face flushed now with the crimson tide of confusion.

"Well, you see me now, Jude," he cried airily. "What is it, my dear lass?"

"I heard them saying that the work might be dangerous. You're to try to tap all that water that lies in the old Slackey Brow workings, and I wanted to ask you, Gabriel—dear Gabriel, to be careful, for my sake!"

"I will be careful for my own too, Judith. But there is nothing much to fear. And was that all you had to tell me, sweetheart?"

"Not all——" and she paused in sudden doubt. "But I'll tell you again when we meet on Saturday night."

"No; tell me now! What is it?"

"I was talking to Roderick Norbury this afternoon—he would walk home with me, Gabriel, and—and he said things."

"Making love to you again eh?" and the shadow of a black look flitted across the man's face. "Curse his impudence! Doesn't Norbury know that you're my sweetheart now?"

"I told him; and—and he said nasty things, Gabriel. That's what made me come out to meet you."

"What did he say?" he demanded, in a hard tone. "Nothing serious, I hope, or it may be necessary for me to punch that thick head of his again."

"Oh, don't quarrel with him!" she pleaded, her grey eyes fixed for a moment on his dark ones. "Roderick is a dangerous man, and he might do something—might lame or kill you, dear—and then run away."

"I don't fear such rats! But what did he say? I must know, Judith! If you don't tell me I won't go to town on Saturday night. Now, what is it he said?"

She looked up in his face steadily for a moment, and saw it was glooming and serious. The woman's whole soul was in her eyes then, and that her life and welfare were in this man's keeping it was easy to see. Of his own feelings towards the maiden his own face gave no proof.

That Judith Trafford loved this man was no wonder. He was in the very prime of virile manhood—five-and-twenty or so—was tall, powerfully-framed, though not unduly burly, had a thick, black moustache, eyes, hair and skin all in keeping, and his face was handsome and strong enough to have won any woman's heart—especially the heart of such a one, who loved strong men who were daring, clever, ambitious, and had a spice of daredevilry in their characters.

"If I must tell you, Gabriel,"—she murmured.

"You must—or manage without me on Saturday," was his sharp rejoinder.

"Then he told me this. He said our keeping company was all a mistake—that you would never marry me; that you were too clever and ambitious for that; that you meant to get on in the world; that—that—but you can guess all the rest, Gabriel."

There was a little break in her voice which showed him that tears were not far away, and his own tones softened wonderfully as he laid one big hand on her shoulder caressingly, remarking quietly:

"Yes, I can guess, Judith. But Rod Norbury is a liar—my dear lass, I love you more than I care about the world, my ambitions, everything! Say that you believe me before I run off to the mine."

"I do believe you Gabriel! That is why I determined to tell you at once. But you will say nothing to that man?"

"I will say nothing to him—yet. But if he doesn't toe the line squarely I'll soon bundle him neck and crop out of the Hill End Mine. Now one kiss and I'm off."

She raised her face, and he drew her to him, kissing the sweet red lips passionately as a lover will. Then he hurried to the mine, and she went back to the village happy.


CHAPTER III.—THE BACHELOR AND HIS SISTER.

Saxehurst, the residence of good folk who owned the Hill End Colliery, was a big, plain, unpretentious house of grey stone, which stood on the eastern side of Saxilham; and, as its name denoted, it was near a grove of trees—was, in fact, almost surrounded by old trees—and the front of the house looked down into the green fruitful valley to the river which gave the place its distinctive name.

Here one Sunday afternoon in May the two Blackwoods—father and son, manager and underlooker—were taking tea with the bachelor and his spinster sister, who owned the mine in which old Seth and young Gabriel Blackwood earned their living. This quartette of employers and officials were now partaking of the afternoon meal in company—were enjoying themselves too—and while they sip the cup that cheers, and not inebriates, and munch the solid delicacies set out for their delectation, let us glance at the group.

Gabriel Blackwood the reader has ready met. But between Gabriel in his rough mining garments, and the same young chap with his Sunday suit on, there was a vast difference. Now the young underlooker was at his best. His well-cut suit of grey tweed set off his fine stalwart figure to advantage; there was a clean, healthful glow on his strong face, a sparkle in his dark eyes; and Miss Nancy Haliburton was thinking at that moment, as she sat opposite Gabriel, that it was not to be wondered at after all that this bonnie lad was reckoned the handsomest fellow in all the village and district.

Seth Blackwood was a man of fifty-one or two—big-boned, rough-spoken, honest-hearted, swart-skinned, iron-grey—in almost all things a roughly-hewn copy of his son. Seth had never cultivated any of the softer graces of manhood; all his days he had been a hard-headed, practical worker; and it was enough for him to know that he had the repute of being one of the shrewdest pit-men in England.

Silas Haliburton was about his manager's own age; he was a thin-faced wiry little fellow; had generous impulses at odd times, as will be seen shortly; and that he was not devoid of business aptitude and worldly prudence, his somewhat remarkably successful career will show. His sister Nancy, was some nine or ten years his junior; she was short and plump, apple-cheeked, and not at all bad looking; was more consistently generous and impulsive than her brother, and those sentimental—even romantic—notions sometimes found in old maids were common to her.

The rise of the Haliburtons to their present satisfactory position as owners of the Hill End Colliery may be set forth in a few words. They were the only children of their long dead parents, and the elder Haliburton had been a grocer for many years in Saxilham village. For years the provision dealer in question had contrived to eke out a decent living for himself, his wife, and two children by supplying with food, on the credit system, from one fortnightly pay day to another, the local miners and other workers.

Those were the days of long credits and fat profits; and when the Haliburtons—mother and father—shuffled off this mortal coil, they were enabled to leave to Silas and Nancy, in equal shares, the shop and all interest and goodwill therein, a row of cottages in the village, and the better part of two thousand pounds in the bank at Saxilford.

Silas was thirty-five then, and apparently a confirmed bachelor; Nancy seemed no more desirous of marrying than her brother; and so, for seven or eight years more the twain of them kept the old shop, being more careful even than their parents had been, and each year adding to the nest-egg in Saxilford Bank.

Then a depression in the coal trade and a local strike had closed the Hill End Colliery, and made its owner bankrupt. At the sale which followed, when the mining plant at the little mine was to be broken up and scattered piece-meal to the country's ends, Silas Haliburton, after a momentous consultation with his sister and others, took a decisive, and for him, a great step.

He bought the Hill End Colliery just as it stood; opened it out again a month later with Seth Blackwood as manager, and for ten years now working operations had proceeded with more or less success. That the venture on the whole had been a satisfactory one to all concerned may be gathered from the fact that the Blackwoods were still at the mine, and that the Haliburton's nest-egg of less than a couple of thousand had grown slowly, but steadily, year after year, until it now stood at near six thousand pounds.

For that much-to-be-desired result of their mining venture both Silas and Nancy Haliburton had always felt that Seth Blackwood was greatly to be thanked. In season and out he had stuck to his work at the mine committed to his care; when necessity or urgency demanded the man had even wrought like a common miner in the seam committed to his charge; lately the son had displayed the same painstaking and sterling qualities as his father; and this Sunday afternoon the dual master and mistress of the Hill End Colliery were in the humour to mark their appreciation of the service rendered.

Tea was finished. Silas Haliburton had pushed back his chair, risen, and gone to the low, broad window opening on to the lawn. Outside the sun was shining gloriously, the air was soft and sweet, the muffled and melodious murmur of the bells at Saxilham Church, calling the evening congregation to service, came through the unfastened casement.

"Come outside for a smoke, Seth," Mr. Haliburton said, as he turned to the manager. "I've lot to talk to you about, and it'll be nicer outside. And you, Nancy and Gabriel, had better come too for you are both of you mixed up in it. But first, Nancy, tell one of the servants to bring some chairs and a table outside. And then while me and Seth smoke, we can all sample a drop or two of that elderberry wine of your's, eh?"

"All right, Silas, it shall be done in a minute," and Miss Nancy rose with a pleased alacrity to see that her brother's wishes were carried out.

The mine-owner and ex-grocer pulled back the hinged window, and, with a jerk of his head to the elder Blackwood, Silas stepped on to the green turf. Then both men lit their cigars—the master having unearthed a box of weeds—and for five minutes they passed to and fro, saying little, their eyes on the sun-kissed valley below, the lazy, meandering Saxe a ribbon of glistening metal, while the softly-swelling, green, tree-dotted uplands beyond rose to the skyline.

The sight of young Blackwood and Miss Nancy sitting in the shadow of the house, near a small table containing a bottle and some glasses, drew the smokers to the pair of vacant chairs. Blackwood senior sampled a tumbler of elderberry wine with a wry mouth, mentally observing that a drop of whisky or a glass of beer would have been more to his palate, and then the master of Saxehurst remarked:

"And how long do you say it is, Seth, since you first came to the Hill End Colliery?"

"Just ten 'ears, the fifteenth o' last month," was the stolid answer, as Blackwood sucked at his cigar.

"Ten 'ears; and you don't regret comin'?"

"I don't; if I had I should have been away before this I reckon."

"That's so, Seth, for you're a chap of that sort; but the fact of you stopping on shows, I take it, that you were satisfied with your shop, Blackwood?"

"I was, and I am still."

"That's good; and you, Gabriel?"

"My father's opinion is my own, exactly, sir," was the young miner's immediate and hearty rejoinder. "I liked the Hill End Colliery when I first started in it as a youth, half-a-score of years ago, and I like it better to-day."

"And neither of you never think of leaving the place, eh?" Haliburton next questioned, with a look which embraced in its sweep both of his officials. "I only ask," he added suavely, "because you've both done so well for me and Nancy here that I thought somebody else might be asking you to follow them and do better elsewhere."

"I'm satisfied, master, if you are," was Seth Blackwood's phlegmatic response.

"So am I, sir," Gabriel chimed in.

"Then hear what I have got to tell you both. Nancy and me have both talked it over, and we mean it, too. Now how would you like to become a sort of partners in the firm? You've done well for me, and I want to do well for you two. Besides, I've been considering some other things, Seth. If you both had an interest in the firm I should be able to keep you always here; I've an idea, too, that there's other seams of coal under the Hill End Seam; and if we could all put our heads and money together we might open other mines, take on more men, stir up the village and, likely enough, all make a tidy bit of money over the job."

Seth and Gabriel stared sharply at one another at the instant their employer made that startling suggestion. In a flash each realised the tempting nature of Haliburton's offer. Their faces showed their eagerness now.

"Your plan's a good one, Master Haliburton," Seth remarked slowly, deliberately, "and I'm your man if it can be managed that way. But what about the money, eh? I've got a bit and our Gabriel has a bit too—but not enough, I think, to make us partners with you and Miss Nancy."

"What can you lay hands on within a month, Seth?"

"Happen 12 or 13 hundred pounds—the savings of a lifetime," was the quiet answer. "I've had no wife to keep for 'ears, no chick nor child 'cept Gabriel there, and so I've been able to scrape middlin' together since I begun to wear your livery, Master Haliburton."

"And you, Gabriel?" Silas asked quietly.

"Oh, I've a hundred pounds in an old stocking somewhere," the young man cried, laughingly; "at least I've something like that in the Saxilford Bank."

"That's 13 or 14 hundred," quoth Haliburton with a thought-wrinkled brow. "Well, now, look here and I'll tell you what I'll do. You two shall find fifteen hundred pounds between you, shall put it into the concern, and between you shall have one-third interest in the Hill End Mine. What do you say to that? You agree, Nancy?"

"I agree with pleasure, Silas," responded the smiling spinster, with a swift side look at Gabriel. "All along it was my wish for some arrangement of the kind, you know."

"Here's my fist on your offer, Silas!" cried old Blackwood, jumping up. "I'll find the money—fifteen hundred pounds—and put it in your hands in a month—or less!"

"And you'll sign an agreement—you both—that you will not quit Hill End for ten years?"

"Twenty years if you want!"

"Right. Here's my hand on it. And I'll get my 'torney to draw up the deed of partnership at once."

They all four shook hands; the three men lit fresh cigars. Miss Nancy poured out fresh tumblers of her home-brewed wine; there was an animated general conversation for an hour or so, and then the Blackwoods went homeward.

"That job's a good one, Gabriel," Seth remarked to his son as they went towards the village. "It's better nor five 'ears work done for us both. Lord! but Silas is a brick after all. Only to think I'm going to be a colliery owner at last!"

"Will Haliburton stand to his word, father?"

"Won't he! No doubt o' that. But there's something else you might see, Gabriel, if you'd only one eye wide open."

"What's that?"

"A whole third share instead of half a one. Haven't you gumption enough, lad, to see that it's Miss Nancy's scheme? That you pick up a few thousands for a soft word or two? That there woman hasn't eyes for anything, Gabriel, when thy bonnie brown face is near her!"

"What nonsense!" and Gabriel's dark face flamed redly. "Why, Miss Nancy is nearly old enough to be my mother."

"Rot! She's forty, you're nearly thirty, and she's good-looking, too. She's worth five thousand if she's worth a penny, and there's only you in the runnin'."

"There's another woman to consider, father," Gabriel said coldly.

"What, that lass Judith? That's nothing. I told Miss Nancy there was nothing between you and the pit-brow lass. But think it o'er, Gabriel. Think it o'er, lad. A third share in a payin' colliery won't knock at thy door every day in a week."


CHAPTER IV.—A SUBTERRANEAN DELUGE.

Some two or three days after the visit of the Blackwoods to the house of their master, a man from the Hill End Colliery sped hastily through the village, and coming to the end house near the river bridge, where manager and underlooker lived, he beat a sharp rat-tat on the closed door. It was opened almost immediately by the housekeeper, Mrs. Sampson, a clean old dame of fifty or so.

"What is it, Bradshaw?" she demanded of the man.

"I want young Blackwood at once."

"He's in bed asleep; was working all last night, and only got home at 8 this morning. I don't like wakening him, unless it's something very particular."

"It's very particular," the man cried. "Both master and old Blackwood sent me. There's been an accident at the colliery, and Gabriel is to come at once."

"All right, come in and wait then."

In half a minute the woman was bombarding the door of young Blackwood's sleeping chamber; in a minute he understood why he was so summarily disturbed; in five minutes he had tossed on his working clothes, and was speeding towards the colliery with the man Bradshaw, who was answering the other's swift questions.

"The water's broken in; that's all I can tell you, Blackwood. It must be the water from the Slackey Brow workings, where you and the others were boring last night. It happened about half-past eleven they say, and it's only dinner time now. Your father and Master Haliburton were in the engine-house when about a dozen colliers and lads came rushing up the tunnel. Then Seth and Silas went down the tunnel, after telling me to fetch you at once. That's all I know. But I hope to God it is nothing serious; for my lad works in the mine."

"That is my hope, too, Bradshaw!" Gabriel cried, fervently. "Well, we shall soon know the best or worst, and I am right glad you fetched me at once. But I wish our old man and the master hadn't rushed into the mine at once. How many have come out, did you say?"

"Ten or a dozen."

"Were all the hands at work this morning?"

"I heard your father tell Master Haliburton that there was five and forty men an' lads at work this mornin'," the man replied.

"Forty-five—only a dozen or so out," Gabriel muttered. "That looks bad enough, Jack. But we must hope for the best. Perhaps more of them are out by this. Surely, the outburst could never be so thick and strong as to force them all back. Anyhow, we must do all we can."

While talking the speakers had been forging along the hillside road, and in a minute or two were standing on the levelled space near the tunnel's mouth. Here a score or so of men and youths—miners and surface labourers—were congregated; also a cluster of pit-brow women who worked there. Among them Gabriel described the tall, supple form and red-gold head of Judith Trafford. But he had no time then to do more than throw her a swift glance.

All work was suspended for the nonce, full and empty boxes were scattered about the adit's mouth, the shoots and screens were abandoned, and steam was blowing off near the engine-house.

"Any more men come out, Paxton?" Gabriel cried, addressing the long, lean, leathern-visaged banksman.

"Not since Master Blackwood and the gaffer went down the tunnel, sir."

"How many have come out?—how many are in yet?" the underlooker asked, sharply.

"Eleven out—thirty-four in!" was the prompt reply.

"Who brought the news of the water breaking in?" and Blackwood cast his eyes over the miners present.

"It was me, Gabriel!" and a black-faced, crop-headed man stepped from the crowd. "The water's broken in at Ned Watkinson's place—where you was boring—and we had to make a rush for our lives."

"I want two or three to go with me into the mine. Who will volunteer? A day's wages for each man that goes."

Three men stepped out promptly at the young fellow's words, and in five minutes they had lit their lamps anew, and at Gabriel's heels were plunging down under the hill along the black void of the tunnel. For about four hundred yards the underlooker flew on and then came to a sudden stop, with his hand to his ear.

His followers did the same, and then on the hearing of all there a dull thunderous roar of tumbling, surging waters broke. It was as if an underground sea was pent up there—as if a subterranean torrent was racing through the mine's galleries—and the miners looked blankly at one another for an instant.

Then Gabriel sprang forward once more, the miners at his heels, and when they all paused again it was on the marge of the freed flood, which was splashing and boiling, gurgling and eddying at their feet.


CHAPTER V.—FACE TO FACE WITH THE FLOOD.

The point at which Gabriel Blackwood and his three companions had paused, finally, in their swift headlong rush down the tunnel, was probably about six hundred yards from the mouth of the adit or day-eye. And there, before the four miners, was a fiercely whirling mill race of a stream of black water, swashing and babbling riotously almost underfoot.

The disimprisoned flood was gushing out of a narrow gallery on the right hand side of the down brow, the noisy torrent was nearly half-a-yard deep, and its sweep was so rapid, its might and strength so considerable, that a man venturing into the flow would have been swept away like a cork, swirled helplessly along, battered to death against the rocky floor or sides, and whelmed to eternity in that underground flood.

Gabriel understood well whence the dark tide came. Only on the previous night he had been along that narrow road, boring for the sea of water pent up for years in the half-worked-out and abandoned workings of the old Slackey Brow Colliery. But the series of boreholes driven in the coal had failed to reach the water, so that it could be tapped and let off gradually, and now by some curious chance the prisoned flood had burst its bonds and was deluging the Hill End Mine.

"How was the water when you came through it, Birchall?" Gabriel asked sharply, addressing the crop-haired miner to whom he had spoken at the adit's mouth. "No wonder you made a rush for it if it was crashing all before it like this."

"The watter wasn't boilin' out like this when we scrambled through it, Gabriel," Birchall replied. "But if we'd stopped to warn the other men down the brow you can see what chance we should ha' had of our lives."

"Just so; and what of all the men and lads now?" young Blackwood cried gloomily. "Strange we have not seen or heard some of them trying to get out. And there's my father and our master," he added, in a hushed voice. "What has become of them? Did any of you hear them say which way they were going?"

"They only left word that you were to follow 'em," one of the miners answered.

"Good God! but I wish they had waited! How am I to follow them if I don't know which way they've taken? But they can't have gone up there," pointing a hand to the slightly inclined gallery out of which the clamorous stream was plunging; "and to go down there," indicating the flooded brow in front, "was to go to their death. By heaven! we must do something lads! Here, Birchall, grip my hand; all the others link fists, and let's see whether a chap can stand in this infernal flood or not."

Blackwood clasped like a vice the grimy fingers extended to him, and the remainder gripped horny palms and extended themselves out like a chain, then the underlooker dashed into the dark, icy-cold torrent sweeping down the brow, and the next instant a cry of horror and fear rang out above the splashing thunder of the inundation.

Gabriel had been whirled off his feet immediately; for a deadly, thrilling, intense moment he was sprawling there in that mad mill race of sucking water; and only that linked chain of flesh and bone, thew and sinew, behind him snatched him from a sudden and inglorious death.

The venturesome underlooker was hauled back to dry land like a great soused dog, and he shook himself after the manner of one, laughing grimly the while. He had been within arm's clutch of death; but that fact only made him set his teeth more doggedly, and resolve, cost what it might, to pluck every man and lad, manager and owner too, from the watery grave which seemed to hang over them.

"What next?" Blackwood muttered lowly, and more to himself than to the rest. "The down brow is closed to us yet, till that out-gush of a torrent slackens; it is of no use forcing a way to where the water has broken in, even if we could manage it; and what other road is open to us? Somewhere beyond that tide some four and thirty men and lads are waiting; and ten to one our old chap and Silas Haliburton are with them as well. Father and Master would rush down to warn the men; then they would find the flood too strong to face, and the question is what would be done then?"

"I've got it, Gabriel," the miner called Birchall cried, in a voice that denoted that a revelation had just swept through his brain. "Frightened by the flood they would all rush for the highest workings on the north side. That's about it, boss!"

"God knows that I hope it may be so!" Gabriel whispered fervently. "And now to reach them is our aim. How's that to be managed, Birchall?"

"Try the return air-way. There's air-doors and a cut-across just above there, Gabriel."

"So there is! Heaven knows I'd forgotten that!" Blackwood exclaimed, jumping erect and alert again. "I owe thee a quid when we get through this. Now," he went on quickly, "you will come with me, Jack; you two will wait here to watch the water, and report at once if you see it slacken or if you see anybody. Now, Birchall!"

Underlooker and collier sped back along the brow for a distance of a score of yards, till they came to a side opening and in half-a-minute they were rushing through a pair of heavy wooden doors, set a dozen yards apart, which swung to behind them with a deep boom. Ten strides more carried them into another brow running parallel with the one they had left; but it contained no line of rails, was swept clear of all dirt and other obstacles, and to an experienced eye was plainly a return air-way.

Downward along this Blackwood and Birchall plunged headlong. It was between four and five feet in height, a fathom in width, the sides were of roughly walled stone and hewn rock, and here and there, where old cross galleries had been, were walls now built up tightly to keep the ventilating current intact back on its way to the small upcast, sunk not far from the mouth of the tunnel.

Twenty, fifty, a hundred or more yards the two men sped, and they had long passed the parallel point in the main brow where the two men were watching the surging inundation, when again Gabriel drew up suddenly with a muttered curse of annoyance.

The cause of his abrupt pause needed no seeking. The loud splash of his flying feet had told both that the inundating tide was here, too; and standing there on the edge of the black shining water, with their Davy-lamps aloft, both Blackwood and Birchall could discern that the water stretched forward and downward as far as the faint light would carry their vision.

Then without a word Gabriel strode into the stream, his lamp poised on high, so that no splash might extinguish the tiny flame. Each stride he took along the downward sloping gallery plunged him more deeply into the flood. When he had advanced half a score of yards, the water was at his knees; at a score the icy liquid was girdling his belt; and a dozen paces further it buried his brawny shoulders, leaving only his neck, head, forearm and lamp poised clear betwixt the flood and overhanging roof.

Then he retreated—despair in his heart, yet satisfied in a way with what he had done and seen. The water was roofed in the return air-way, a few fathoms beyond the point to which he had ventured; and hence it must have reached a similar level in the main down-brow.

He mentioned that fact to his companion in an awed whisper. All hopes of reaching master, manager, miners, or lads by means of either brow was now impossible. And to pump out the devastating sea would take many days—perhaps weeks. The small steam pump used to keep the main brow clear of water was now buried far below; to erect a more powerful one would be a work of some time; and, in the meantime, there were many lives hanging in the fateful scales of dread death and joyous life.

The two miners retraced their steps and rejoined the two miners in the main road. They were sitting moodily on the marge of the tossing rivulet, but had seen nothing, heard nothing, and the inundating tide showed no sign of abatement, still rushing out of the side gallery with a swashing clamour, and dashing itself into spume against the other side of the main brow ere it swirled and leapt down the declivity to join the silent waters pent there.

Gabriel had passed a few words with the men, had told them how matters stood in the air-way, and had seated himself, dumb and beaten, on the edge of the torrent of tumbling waters. He was at his wits' end; was stunned by this calamity he could neither evade nor master. He was praying dumbly for higher aid, as men so placed will sometimes pray, when a heaven-sent inspiration flashed through his tortured brain.

"I have it! I have it, lads!" he cried loudly, flinging himself swiftly to his feet. "I knew there must be a way to get to those men, and it maddened me to think I was not able to find it. But I know now. What of the old south air-way disused more than a year ago? If the men and lads have flown for their lives to the highest parts of the seam, they will not be far from the end of the old air-way. We must try to reach them that way. You stay here, Bates, till you are relieved; Birchall and Saunders come along with me. Cheer up my lads, for there's plenty of chance yet of saving many lives. And may it please God that my dad and Haliburton are among the saved!"

Then Blackwood and the two miners he had named made their way back towards the mouth of the tunnel, leaving one man grimly watching the flood.


CHAPTER VI.—A GRIM FIGHT FOR LIFE.

It was night now, and darkness had fallen some two or three hours ago over the wide green valley in which the village of Saxilham lay, but the villagers were not all wrapped in slumber as was their wont. In not a few cottages there were sleepless eyes—eyes red with sorrowing—and aching hearts were sharply throbbing under many humble roofs.

Many a long hour ago the news of the disastrous flood at the Hill End Mine had flown over the countryside, and the intelligence that thirty odd miners and lads were either lost or missing—the manager and owner among the rest—had sent an electric shock of poignant pain through the breasts of all those who had bread-winners and kinsfolk among the submerged or imprisoned toilers.

Now at ten o'clock—half-a-score of hours after the calamity had occurred—little more was known of the fate of the missing ones than had been known at noonday. The crowd that had flocked to the tunnel's mouth in the afternoon had tired itself with waiting; had drifted homeward in deep woe; and by the big cresset fire burning near the cavernous entrance to the mine there were standing, lounging, or walking, now, only the banksmen and a few other men.

But down below there, under the dark hillside, strong, earnest, daring pit-men were steadily boring a way towards one point near which it was thought most or many of the missing souls would be found; and that all might be rescued—mine master, manager, miner and lads—was the voiced or unvoiced fervent prayer of all.

Like a flash of inspiration that thought of the old disused southern air-way had flashed through Blackwood's mind. It was a long, circuitous, dilapidated route, which started a few score yards from the mouth of the adit; it had been abandoned on that account, and a new air-way made; it was likely that the gallery had fallen and caved in at various points, but it was the only path that could be used to reach the imprisoned miners, and on quitting the flooded down-brow the young underlooker at once rushed thither.

It was only midday when Gabriel had rushed up the brow with Birchall and Saunders at his heels, leaving Bates watching the flood; and speeding towards the ever-expanding speck of silver which marked the mouth of the tunnel, they paused when a few score yards from it, swept to the left, darted through another pair of heavy doors, crossed the return air-gallery, and in five minutes were in the abandoned air-ways.

Then Gabriel paused a minute to think. The road to the miners—dead or alive—was there in front of him, but a path would have to be swept, cleared, carved out with pick and hammer and spade. So he despatched Birchall to the surface with orders to bring more men, told Saunders to fetch tools for the work to be done, and then, stripping to the waist, he prepared for the grim struggle with circumstance.

Half an hour later that long deserted gallery was alive with human voices, astir with energetic men, and the clang of the hammer and pick and spade echoed along the neglected, ruinous old road, where heaps of debris or tumbled rocks, barred the progress of the would-be rescuers.

For some four hours Blackwood and his men, now increased to six, picked and delved and shovelled a path onward. Slowly but surely they were fighting their way in the direction in which the face of the old southern workings lay; and at six o'clock, after burrowing like rabbits through half a hundred small falls and subsidences, the underlooker and those with him found themselves at the face of a collier's working place.

"Now," cried Gabriel, as he knelt down near the upright wall of unwrought coal, "I feel certain we must be right opposite some of the highest places which were being worked from the south jig; and if the men and lads fled before the flood, as I think they must have done, then they must be on the other side waiting for help."

"Waitin' for help, Blackwood?" one of the sweating miners broke in. "And how long will they have to wait with that wall of coal between us?"

"God knows! But I hope they are there all the same. Better to wait hours, days, a week even—than be drowned in that black flood. But from what I have heard my father say, the wall of coal between here and Mark Pender's place can't be more than a dozen or twenty yards thick."

"Twenty yards thick, Gabriel," Birchall muttered. "Why even if they're on the other side if might take a week to cut a road to 'em. They'll all die or be choked to death before then."

"Not at all," Gabriel cried, cheerily. "It might take a week to cut twenty yards in ordinary times, but you forget how men will work—can work, too—when lives are at stake. Now hush you all and we'll soon get to know if there's anybody alive on the other side."

All voices were hushed at once, and seizing a pick Gabriel swung it over his shoulder and rained a sharp volley of quick heavy blows upon the splintering and flying coal. Then all listened intently, but nought was to be heard, save the laboured thumping of their own hearts. Next Blackwood raised the heavy double-headed "metal" hammer, and with it pounded fiercely upon the face of crumbling mineral; then every man held his breath while he strained his attentive ears.

And then came a sound which made all hearts there leap joyously. Rat-tat! rat-tat! rat-tat! came faintly but clearly through the barrier of solid coal, and all then knew that living beings were on the farther side, answering their signal. But to make belief positive Blackwood hammered on the wall of mineral again and again; and every time his signal was answered in the same way.

Now was the time to act, not think merely. The young underlooker did both.

"The men and lads are there behind the coal," he cried. "At all costs we must have them out. You men are all fagged out; you must go. But here I stay till the coal is cut through. You, Hyland," addressing one of his day-wage men who had joined him during the afternoon, "attend to what I say. Go to the village and send in at once three of the best colliers in Saxilham. Tell them they shall have a pound each for every four hours they work. And at ten o'clock to-night—it is only six now—send three other good men to relieve them on the same terms. I don't think this barrier of coal between us and the caged men is more than a dozen yards thick, and I mean to have it cut through before I stir an inch. Now go quick, Hyland; do your best, my lad, and I'll never forget you!"

The man went away, leaving Blackwood alone, and for a minute he crouched there, gloomily reflective. Then he seized the hammer and signalled anew; and when his summons was answered he fell to with the pick upon the wall of coal, marking out the narrow tunnel which he meant to have driven with all possible speed. And then, as if they fully understood his wish, and what was to be done to save them, he heard the steady and incessant thud! thud! thud! of a pick on the farther side.

In less than an hour three miners—each one a famed hewer of coal—had joined the underlooker, and were soon stripped and hard at work for a short spell, each of the trio relieving the other in turns. The seam was a soft and friable one, the road to be cut was only a yard in width and two feet six high, and working as only brawny expert pit-men can work when the reward is a sovereign for a short shift of a few hours, and when lives are at stake, the heavy picks crashed into the coal, splinters flew like sparks from a blacksmith's anvil, dust hung in the air, and slowly, but steadily, the narrow tunnel was literally bitten out of the solid mineral. And all the while pick answered pick from each side of the barrier.

Hyland had come back with the miners, in his hands food and drink for Blackwood, in his mouth news. The outburst of water had practically subsided; but the main brow was filled with the flood, and the back brow was the same. The only path to the imprisoned miners was that then being hewn out by the pick.

It was nearly ten o'clock at night when the second set of coal hewers came to relieve the first three, and by that hour a narrow gallery over five yards deep had been eaten out of the wall of mineral. Urged by Blackwood, the new-comers fell to work with a zest, the picks of the workers on the other side never ceasing, and the sound of them growing plainer with the passing of each hour.

At five in the morning, when the sun was rising over the quiet valley of the Saxe, when the village workers were faring forth to toil, and the relatives of the missing miners were struggling back to a knowledge of their woe, the picks of the excited hewers splintered through to each other, and a swift rush of wind hissed through the jagged hole.

Then black fists were thrust in the aperture, rescuers and saved called out prayers and each others' names; and then above the heart-felt babble of tongues Gabriel Blackwood's voice rang out.

"Silence for a minute, men! Now let me know how many of you there are!"

"Four-and-thirty!" a voice sang back, which Gabriel recognised as that of Roderick Norbury.

"Where's Seth Blackwood and Silas Haliburton, then?"

"We don't know! Can't tell! We've never seen 'em. But four-and-thirty of us are all here safe. Quick! Make the hole bigger, so we can all come through! The lads are famishin', and the men nearly dead!"

In a quarter of an hour the hole was enlarged, the lads and miners had crawled through, and were on their way home; and all men knew by then that the only two lives lost by the flood were those of the manager and mine-owner. Exactly how they had met their fate no one could tell.


CHAPTER VII.—THE TEMPTATION OF GABRIEL.

Three or four weeks had slipped away; it was now the middle of June, and once more work at the Hill End Colliery was going on very much as usual. But from the old stone house on the eastern slope of the valley its former master was missing, and the old day-eye mine and village knew Seth Blackwood no more; for both mine-owner and mine-manager were then sleeping their last sleep in the pretty and peaceful God's acre lying around Saxilham Church.

For nearly a month Gabriel Blackwood had been hard at work almost night and day. After the plucky and arduous rescue of the miners and lads, the young fellow had found heaps of other work lying ready to his hands. He was chief official about the place now; Miss Nancy Haliburton had urged him to take charge of everything—do everything necessary to be done—and with the ardour of a young man, the grip, and clear-headedness of a strong and capable leader, Gabriel had grappled with his task.

In a few days a powerful pumping engine was erected and at work, draining the inundated workings; in a week the bodies of the unfortunate owner and manager were recovered in a side gallery—a cul-de-sac—where they had evidently fled for shelter from the raging flood; and after the inquest upon and the burial of the two men, the village had settled down to its ordinary work-a-day existence.

By the time the mine was freed from the deluging water, and coal was being wrought again, Gabriel Blackwood had become the best-liked and most talked-about man in Saxilham. To his hardihood, daring and cleverness, every one of the rescued miners was inclined to attribute his own salvation; and the splendid and ungrudging way in which Gabriel stuck to his arduous duties afterwards won from all the men the warmest words of approval.

For the space of three weeks the young underlooker seemed scarcely ever to be away from the hillside colliery. While the great pump was being erected; when thousands of gallons of water were being dragged out of the tunnel hourly and poured down the green slope to flow into the lazy Saxe; when the still forms of the elder Blackwood and his employer were found and carried reverently forth; and, later, when the wreck and ruin wrought by the flood were being made good again, the clear-headed, iron-framed Gabriel was ever at his post, working, sweating, suggesting, ordering the work of all.

During the past few weeks Gabriel and Miss Nancy Haliburton had been thrown much together. Some portion of every day had seen him at Saxehurst. So far nothing had been definitely settled as to young Blackwood's future position. But Miss Haliburton had given him a free hand in everything. Her brother's death, intestate, had left the comely soft-hearted old maid mistress of everything; and in an informal way she had constituted Gabriel her general agent, manager, confidential adviser, and private secretary too.

One Sunday morning found our young miner at Saxehurst, and Miss Nancy with him, in the room where the two Haliburtons and the two Blackwoods had all met together, that Sunday afternoon, when Silas had talked of a partnership. Occasionally Gabriel's thoughts had returned to that arrangement which death had prevented from being carried out; and sometimes, also, his mind had reverted to the pregnant hint his father had dropped in his ears regarding the spinster's ardent fancy for himself.

"I hope, Gabriel," Miss Nancy began presently, "that my wish to see you—on business, of course—didn't drag you away from any important business?"

"Not at all, Miss Haliburton," he answered cheerily. "Thank goodness everything is square again at last, and work at the colliery is going on smoothly. But was there something special you desired to see me about this morning?" and he looked the trim, simple, comely-faced little woman in the eyes fairly, noting, with some astonishment that somehow she seemed much younger and fresher than he had always thought her.

"Yes, there is something special, Gabriel." She had always used his Christian name and it did not appear singular now. "There is nothing settled between us yet, and I want everything to be settled to your satisfaction. What you have done for me since that dreadful accident I shall never forget, but I feel I must reward you, too."

"I have only done my duty, Miss Haliburton," he answered simply, but with a swelling breast.

"Your duty, Gabriel; ay, and how much more? Was it part of your duty to give those brave men, who cut through the coal that night to save the others, a pound each out of your own pocket? There! I have heard about it; and it only made me respect and admire you more than ever—it only added another obligation to the many I owe you, Gabriel."

"I am pleased if you are satisfied, Miss Haliburton."

"I am more than satisfied. No! I am not satisfied. I wish to do something for you—what can I do? Now would you like to have your father's place?"

"I should love and feel honoured to serve you in any position, Miss Haliburton."

"Then you shall!" she cried warmly; and he felt himself reddening under her warm looks and soft words. "You shall be manager, agent, everything; and you shall fix your own wages."

"I can hardly do that," he murmured.

"What did poor Silas pay you and your father?"

"Father had two pounds a week; I had thirty shillings."

"Then you shall have two hundred and fifty a year, and sole control of everything. I have consulted my solicitor, and he named that sum as a reasonable remuneration for the man who had charge of my colliery. I ask you to take it, Gabriel."

"It seems too much—much more than I ever hoped to receive, Miss Haliburton; but I will take it, as it seems your wish."

"It is my wish," she cried. "And I want you to promise me that you will stay with me always, Gabriel."

"Stay with you always!" he echoed.

"As my manager and adviser, I mean," she explained. "I am only a woman, with no knowledge of business; and what can I do with the thousands of pounds in the bank, the cottages in the village there, and the colliery also, unless I have someone at my elbow always ready to advise me?"

"I shall always be happy to serve you," he cried.

"And then there is another matter I wish to speak about, Gabriel. You recollect the partnership which my poor father mentioned that Sunday?"

"Of course; but they are both dead now—God help them! And that must fall through, Miss Haliburton—I suppose?"

"Why should it fall through, Gabriel Blackwood?" and again her soft, warm eyes held his own for a moment. "It was my brother's wish—it was mine as well—that the Blackwoods should join the Haliburtons in the Hill End Colliery. They are gone, but why shouldn't we be partners?"

"I have only a few hundreds—you have thousands! The thing doesn't seem possible," the young man faltered.

"But if I say it is possible, Gabriel?" and her voice fell to a low, warm, amorous whisper.

"If you say it is possible it must be so, Miss Haliburton," and his strong tones grew uncertain, while he felt that he dared not look her way.

"I say so, then, Gabriel. You shall be my partner. That is to be your reward. I would offer you more—colliery, houses, money, everything—but I dare not do it."

"Nancy."

Gabriel had sprung to his feet with that word on his lips, and if his eyes were not burning with love they were aflame with desire and worldly ambition. In a flash he had realised all that the woman had left unsaid. She loved him; hungered to give him all she had to give; and for a moment her riches made her seem passing fair. For an instant only he hung in the balance. Then he cried,

"Nancy! Nancy! Will you be my wife?"

Next instant she was sobbing in his arms, and even while he soothed her with warm words and cold kisses, he was thinking of Judith Trafford.


CHAPTER VIII.—THE WOE OF FAIR JUDITH.

"My dear Blackwood, how glad I am to meet you so opportunely. And now, I suppose, you will allow me to congratulate you on your luck or good fortune?"

It was dusk; the local medical man and the young manager of the Hill End Mine had just run across one another in the village street; and although he seemed in a hurry, the man addressed paused and grasped the other's extended hand.

"Glad to see you, Dr. Brayton," Gabriel remarked. "But what's that you say about congratulating me? And what, in the name of goodness, do you mean by hinting at my good fortune?"

"Oh! oh!" and the man of physic laughed loudly. "Surely, my dear fellow, you needn't play innocent with me. Don't you know that I am Miss Nancy Haliburton's medical attendant? Well, I was there this afternoon, and she told me all about her forthcoming marriage. There! The fat is in the fire now."

"The deuce she did!" Gabriel snapped out. "Well, I wish she hadn't told you, doctor. It was understood that we should keep that matter to ourselves."

"Fancy a woman keeping such a business to herself. But it shall go no further, man! Miss Nancy urged me to secrecy, and you can trust me, Blackwood. Again I congratulate you. Your future wife is one of the best-hearted and most sensible women I ever met."

"Thanks! And you are right, Brayton. Nancy is a good woman, and I mean to make her a good husband."

"I know you will; and the woman simply loves the very ground you walk upon. Well, good evening; and the best of luck. But a moment, please, Blackwood, there is one matter I, perhaps, ought to mention. Miss Haliburton seems in the very pink of health, but, as her future husband, I must warn you that she is not strong. There is some slight affection of the heart. You understand, and will take care of her?"

"She is a good, true, and noble woman," the miner cried earnestly, "and my life shall be spent in her service. Good evening, and many thanks for your warning."

While Blackwood and Dr. Brayton were holding that whispered conversation in the Saxilham main street, the pit-brow girl, Judith Trafford, was loitering on the bank of the river some quarter of a mile away. That afternoon when the lass got home from work she had found a brief note from her lover awaiting her. That note ran so:—


My Dear Judith,—

"I must see you this evening. I have something of great importance to tell you. Shortly after dusk walk along the bank of the Saxe, somewhere near the Old Quarry Bridge. Do not tell anyone, dear, where you are going, or that you have to meet me. But do not fail to be there, and if I am a bit late you must wait till I come.

Gabriel Blackwood."


She was awaiting now for her lover, with his note nestling inside the bosom of her gown, and wondering what such a summons might mean. The dusk was merging into summer night, the riverside was quite deserted, and only the soft swish of the Saxe disturbed the warm stillness. Then she heard quick footfalls, a dark form loomed up in the thickening twilight, she was in Gabriel's arms, and they were lip to lip.

"Judith! How glad I am you are here! Come let us cross the bridge."

They went along the river's edge a few yards, crossed a low, wooden bridge, and in a few minutes were sitting in an old disused quarry, whose tall, crumbling sides made the deep dusk deeper still.

"What is it, Gabriel?" she asked presently, for he sat there silent, with a gloomy face.

"I scarce know how to tell you," he murmured, "and there is so much to tell."

"It is not trouble, Gabriel?" and her voice was soft and low with a note of anxiety in it, while her small hand stole out to clasp his great palm.

"Trouble for you, Judith, but glory for me," he whispered huskily. "But I have taken the plunge, and I—we—must abide by it now!"

"Whatever can you mean, dear Gabriel?" and the lissom fingers interlinked themselves with his own.

"I only mean this. While I was engaged to you, I have asked another woman to be my wife!"

"What woman? And her answer?" and her clinging fingers loosed his like a hot stone.

"The woman is Nancy Haliburton, and her answer was yes!"

"Oh, my God! And you loved me, Gabriel! What made you do this thing? You have sold your manhood to that woman for a mess of pottage. Why have you done it? Why did you bring me here?" She sprang to her feet then, and flung her hands to her face.

"I came to tell you the truth, Judith. You must not go. Better hear the truth from me now, than lies from others later. As God is my Judge I never loved a woman but you. Nay, I love you still! But I was powerless—I am so still—against the temptation that came in my way. This woman offered me so much! I was to be her manager, agent, everything. I was to have a share in the mine—all of it! Herself, too, if I cared to take her. And loving you with all my soul I grasped at the power and glory of being rich and powerful, a master of mines and men!"

"Oh, Gabriel, how base! How can you marry that woman when you do not love her! Roderick Norbury was right! He knew you better than I did. For ambition, money, power, you will ruin my life, act a loathsome lie—live one for ever with Miss Nancy! Let me go now!"

"Stay! Sit down Judith!" and his sharp words thrust her back on the big unhewn stone. "I could not help it," he went on more calmly. "My very soul was pulled two ways. I hunger for you, and I hunger for what that woman can give me. Why should I slave for years for a few hundred pounds when I can step into thousands by gratifying this dear, good, true-hearted old maiden's fancy?"

"Your manhood should rise against it!" she cried. "Her womanhood would if she knew the truth. Why shouldn't I tell her the truth, Gabriel?"

"Because I tell you not to, Judith," he whispered. "Remember that I love you still, and shall always love you. Besides, you are only a child still; I am but a few years older; and who can tell what may happen in a little while? As true as death, Judith, if I were a rich man now I would marry you, and thank God for your beauty and love. But I am only poor and ambitious. Yet in a year or two I may be rich and free. Do you understand?"

"No! What would you have me understand?"

"This!" and his voice fell to a low sibilant whisper. "Coming to meet you I met Dr. Brayton. He is Miss Haliburton's medical man, it seems. He had heard of my—of what I have told you, and he offered me his congratulations. But he told me something else. Miss Nancy is not strong. She is affected with heart disease. Now do you understand?"

"Oh, my God!" she cried again. "And you ask me to wait for another woman's shoes, till she is dead and they are empty! Gabriel! Gabriel! what evil thing must you think me! Heaven knows I never thought the man I loved—my man of men—could ever fall to such baseness!"

"I love you Judith, and that is my excuse!" he growled. "It seems base—is base, but I will never give up all hope of winning and owning you some day. That is why I am here. I want you to promise me that no word of our sweethearting shall ever pass your lips! I want you to promise that you will never look kindly on another man! I want you to promise that you will wait for me one year—five years if need be—till I am rich and free!"

"I will make no such unholy promise!" she cried, rising with a set white face. "But you needn't fear that I shall go prating about our sweethearting," she went on bitterly. "I am not one to carry my woe on my face that the village gossips may laugh at or pity me, and God knows, Gabriel Blackwood, that take me or leave me no one shall ever learn the truth from me!"

Her voice broke ere she finished, and she fled from the gloomy quarry; but he heard her sobs and he called after her once. She either heard not or would not heed. And then he heard her feet pattering on the wooden bridge.

As he paced homeward with a grim face he scarce knew whether to be glad he was rid of her so easily, or sorry he had so rudely rent asunder all ties that bound them together.


CHAPTER IX.—RODERICK NORBURY'S GREAT NEWS.

One morning in July, just on the verge of noon, the pitman Roderick Norbury swung through Saxilham village taking the steep road leading to the Hill End Colliery. While he was still halfway between village and mine the shrill scream of a steam whistle rang out over valley and green upland, denoting that the dinner hour had arrived.

When he gained the level space at the adit's mouth the place seemed deserted. Banksmen, pit-brow women, surface labourers had vanished; and striding to the rough cabin a few paces away Norbury peeped in at the doorway. Women and men were eating and babbling; but he missed one face he sought, so turned away and glanced around.

Half a minute, and the miner was standing on the sward near a tall clump of elderberry bushes. Under their shade Judith Trafford was sitting, swallowing her midday repast. If the girl had heard the man's approach, she paid no heed; and for some moments he regarded her closely, silently.

"Good morning, Judith," he cried, presently.

"Good morning, Roderick. Not working to-day?" She had only half-turned her head at his greeting, and at once resumed her meal, unconcerned.

"Not to-day," he answered. "I slept too long this morning; and I'm glad now it happened so." She offered no comment, and he went on, "I've just discovered something, Judith—something that concerns you and me—another man and woman, too—and I thought I might as well come and tell you all about it, lass. You're not vexed I've come?"

"Vexed! Why should your comings and goings either vex or please me, Roderick Norbury? If your news concerns me I'll thank you for telling it; if it doesn't concern me I don't see why you've come here."

"It does concern you!" he cried. "And more than any other body in the world. Before this day ends, all Saxilham will be full of gabble about it. That's the gospel truth, Judith."

"But your news, Roderick?"

"You shall have it, lass. But do you recollect what I said to you one afternoon in May? I told you then that our young gaffer would never marry you—that he was clever and ambitious and would pick and choose a wife not from the pit brow. That was what I said, and you laughed at me, Judith."

"I laugh no longer. You were right and I was wrong," she said quietly.

"You know then?"

"Gabriel told me himself that he meant to marry another woman. That was some weeks ago, Roderick; so your news is no news to me."

"But the woman! Did he tell you that?"

"He did—the woman who pays him, and all of us, our wages."

"My God! He told you that and you never winced—never even made a sign, as so many lasses would have done. A word from you, Judith to—to her, might have spoiled his game! You did nothing?"

"There was nothing for me to do," was the quiet response. "Isn't a lass well rid of a man when he tells her that he's going to wed another woman?"

"That's so, and I'm glad, Judith! But you never really cared for him, lass," and his hard tones softened.

"Never cared for him!" and she turned on him swiftly, with a heaving bosom and flashing eyes. "My God! do you know that I would have given my body and soul to——" She stopped suddenly, became stonily calm again and added meekly, "Well, it is all over now."

"Yes, it is all over," he cried triumphantly. "And the best part of my news will be news even to you!"

"Have you more news to tell?"

"Only this. Gabriel Blackwood and Miss Nancy Haliburton were married in the village church less than an hour since. It had been kept quiet; I only heard it from old Thomas Barton, the verger, by chance. But I saw the wedding! I was there! They're off now for the honeymoon. Soon the bells will be——. Why, there they go now!"

Even as the pitman spoke the sweet clangour of merry bells sung and eddied through the sunny air of the green uplands, coming in soft melodious sweeps from the peaceful valley below. He watched her, but no word broke from her lips. She was sitting rigidly upright, her meal forgotten, her hands clenched, her sweet face the hue of grey stone.

What vivid pictures swept through the girl's mind then! Those peals she heard were for Gabriel, yet not for her; she saw him standing at the altar and another woman at his side; their ways had parted, and for ever now a wide black tide rolled between them.

"You had quarrelled Judith!" he suggested, and his voice dragged her to earth again.

"Yes; say it was that, Roderick."

"And this is his revenge on you!"

"Haply so; and God grant that his revenge may not lie more heavily on his soul than it lies on mine!"

"Why not curse him?" he demanded fiercely. "Give me the word, Judith, and I'll shame him—cut him to the very heart—some day before the whole village and his wife!"

"No! No! Let him go his way in peace. The woman is not to blame. Against her I harbour no grudge; and to shame him, to make any sign, would be only to lay bare my own naked heart."

She spoke to herself more than to him—seemed as if oblivious of his presence; and when he spoke, presently, his words roused her as from a mental stupor.

"Judith! You have not forgotten that the village is full of honest lads, strong men, who would lick the dust from your feet for a word or look. Is no man ever to pick up what Gabriel Blackwood has cast away? I have spoken twice—may I speak again?"

"Not now! Not now, Roderick! Is this the time to talk of that? Would you speak of love to a widow whose husband has just been lowered into his grave?" and her white face flashed on him for an instant.

"In a month—a year then," he said, doggedly. "Shall there be no cakes and ale, no loving and giving in marriage, because black Blackwood has played the part he has? And things are different now, Judith. What if I can make a lady of you now? I can and will! That old grand-dad of mine has left me some money. Marry me and I'll make you landlady of some nice little pub!"

"Roderick! Can't you—won't you understand?" Her voice was softer then than he had ever known it when addressing him. "In a month—a year, you shall have my answer. Now go, and leave me in peace!"

He turned away, and went moodily down the hillside, leaving her crying quietly. In a few minutes she went homeward also, pleading illness; but the week was out, and all the village was tiring of talking about the marriage of Gabriel Blackwood and Nancy Haliburton, when Judith went back to her work again.


CHAPTER X.—THE PASSING AWAY OF NANCY.

A year and some two or three months have passed since we chronicled the woe of Judith and marriage of her old lover. It was autumn now; the cornfields were shorn and the grain garnered; the dried, sapless leaves were beginning to fall; and the quiet, humdrum life of Saxilham was going on much as usual.

Judith Trafford was still at work at the mouth of the Hill End Mine. That time she had named to her would-be wooer, Roderick Norbury, had come and gone many weeks since, and the man had got his answer. That it was not to his liking may be gathered from the fact that the pitman had been on the spree lately; was rougher, gruffer, and more lawless than of old; and that he and the handsome, red-haired pit-brow lassie passed without speaking.

Of her own tribulation never a whisper had crossed the deep-hearted, strong-willed girl's lips. To all gossip, fanciful or truthful, she had paid no heed. The sympathetic or curious queries of her best friends had been ignored; nor was she ever known to speak a harsh word of the man who had abandoned her, or the woman who had taken her place.

Nor did Judith either seek or evade the new master of Saxilhurst, and his happy, gentle-natured wife. In the village street, or at the colliery where they came together occasionally, the maid of the mine never betrayed herself by word or sign—even when soft-tongued Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood addressed her. If her heart was on fire, her brain reeling, she was stone to all seeming, and this iciness of demeanour made folk say that the girl had never really cared for her lost lover.

Outwardly, Judith's life was ordered much in the fashion of former days. She was more chary of speech and sadder-eyed, she had no gossip for her workmates, and never laughed at their womanly jests and sallies; her evenings were spent mostly at home, and the Sabbath often saw her at Sunday school or church.

By this time everybody knew, or seemed to think, that a fierce quarrel had sundered Gabriel and Judith. Norbury had got that story bruited about and no one had dreamt of questioning its truth. Blackwood had done well for himself; but the lass he had given up was far and away the handsomest of all the lassies in the neighbourhood, and Gabriel's espousal of his old master's daughter had been the signal for honester, if less comely lads, to lay their love and service at Judith's feet.

Her answer to them was that given to Roderick Norbury. She loved no man on Earth—and never loved one; and would never marry until she did. Her suitors left her humbled, disappointed, and wondering why God had made so gloriously beautiful a woman with so little heart. No wonder Gabriel Blackwood had gone elsewhere to wed.

The passing of that year and three months had brought a wondrous change in the old manager and new master of the Hill End Colliery. His marriage seemed to have cast him into a position for which nature had expressly moulded him. One born to the power he now wielded, the money he had at command, could not have carried himself with more grace, dignity, and self-possession.

Within a month of his wedding Nancy Haliburton he had ceased to be manager merely of the Hill End Mine; he was master thereof, and all men knew it; while a new man was filling his former position. This had been his wife's urgent wish; the tender-hearted creature could not bear to think that this big, handsome demi-god she called her husband, should face the perils of the pit when there was no need; and he had given way with a good grace.

But the loving and trusting woman had done much more than that. When her wedded life was only some few weeks' old she insisted upon her lord becoming absolutely master of all she possessed. It was the utmost she could do or think of to testify her unbounded love and faith, and his mild protests were perhaps not intended to dissuade her. Even her solicitor's strenuous advice was ignored and soon Gabriel Blackwood was not master in name merely, but in fact as well.

To do Gabriel no more than justice, it must be written that the implicit trust of his doting spouse was never betrayed. If he did not love her passionately, he respected her greatly. He was a tender, courteous, deferential lover; in the course of their short wedded life he never occasioned Nancy a moment's anxiety or pain; and when she bore him a son, 15 months after marriage, the loving, simple-hearted woman's cup of joy was full to overflowing.

From the outlet discerning men of business were led to expect great things of Blackwood. He was a born leader of men; had the persuasiveness and personal charm which made men eager to follow him; was shrewd, clever, resolute, self-controlled; had a quick and fertile intelligence; was full of ideas and plans for the future, and with only such measure of success as he was entitled to expect, the future was certain to hail him as one of those whom Carlyle was fond of designating Captains of Industry.

And soon the people of Saxilham were furnished with evidence of Blackwood's enterprise and intentions. In less than half a year after Gabriel became a Benedict he had held consultations with the different landowners in the village and neighbourhood; had secured the option of working all such seams of coal as might be found under the soil; and that wise provision made, boring operations were forthwith begun in various quarters by skilled workers.

Hitherto, it had been held by most miners and mining engineers that the only profitable seam of coal in the vicinity was that then worked at the Hill End Mine; but Silas Haliburton, Gabriel's father, and others, had thought differently, and now our new master was resolved to put the matter to the proof.

Old fogies of the mining world had smiled or sneered at Blackwood's rashness; and talked about putting a beggar on horseback and letting him ride to the devil; but when, after some two or three months' work, it became known that the earth-borers had discovered a couple of valuable seams of coal, and that Gabriel had obtained the right to work them on most favourable terms, the erstwhile scoffers had all wry mouths.

The mantle of comparative opulence and power which had fallen so suddenly upon Gabriel Blackwood became him well, and fitted him like a second skin. Handsome, cheery of speech, warm-natured and open-handed, even his workmen had good things to say of him. For once the old saying that an ex-workman makes the worst employer proved wrong. Some slight concessions granted to the Hill End miners had earned their good will, and the half-hundred of sinkers and labourers working at the two new pits being sunk within a stone's cast of the old adit were ready to swear to a man that they had never known a better master.

One night, between eleven and twelve, it chanced that Judith Trafford was making her way home along the Saxilham high-road, just outside the village. The late autumn was fast verging into winter now; dead leaves lay thick underneath the trees; a full moon rode high in the blue-black vault of heaven; and save herself, not a wayfarer was visible in the quiet, light-flooded lane.

The pit-brow girl had been on a visit to one of her friends and workmates who was lying seriously ill; various matters had detained her much longer than she had anticipated, but the beauty of the night and the shortness of her homeward journey had made Judith refuse an escort.

Passing the entrance to Saxilhurst, Judith chanced to glance that way, and saw lights burning in the big stone house beyond the trees. Then she remembered that Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood was said to be seriously indisposed.

With an irrepressible sigh she hurried on, quickening her pace, and she had gained that point where the highroad sloped down into the valley, over the bridge and into the village, when a man's form loomed up in front. He was coming towards her slowly but with the moon at his back his face was in deep shadow, and they were abreast before she recognised him. It was Gabriel Blackwood.

"Judith!" he cried, in a strange, hard tone. "You here and at this hour! Where have you been?"

"What is that to you, Gabriel Blackwood?" was her angry retort. "Are you my keeper? Cannot I go and come as I wish?"

"I had forgotten, Judith," he said, humbly. "Forgive me, won't you? I have been terribly upset—I rushed out of the house to cool my brain!" and as he spoke he swept his hand over a sweat-dewed brow.

She made as if to glide away; but he stopped her by flinging wide his arms, asking in a tense, nervous, excited way, as he stooped towards her:

"Do you know what has happened, Judith?"

"What can happen now to concern me?" She flung those words in his face like stones, adding sharply. "Get out of my way, Gabriel Blackwood! I have no wish to be seen with you at such a time as this!"

"Judith!" and his voice sank to a whisper, "I am free! I am free! Poor Nancy is dead; died in my arms half-an-hour ago. And you are single still! Judith! Judith! Have you no word to say to me?"

Next instant he had clasped her in his arms, drawn her to him, and was raining fierce, hot, swift kisses upon her face and lips. When he released her she was white with anger, sobbing with shame; and darting past him she ran quickly towards the village, leaving him there, half-ashamed, too, at his own vehemence.


CHAPTER XI.—FAIR WIDOW AND HANDSOME WIDOWER.

"My dear Blackwood! This is indeed a pleasure. I was more than half afraid you would not be able to come; and I take it as a great compliment to myself and party that you are here. And how have you been enjoying yourself?"

"Very nicely, thank you, Mr. Ackersleigh. But your worship will be kind enough to understand that it was after midnight when I arrived, and—well, the fact is that a goodly number of your friends and guests are not at all well known to me."

"That, sir, is a matter which we can easily remedy. Not a few of the ladies and gentlemen present will be glad to know the coming man of Saxilham, eh? And that reminds me, Mr. Blackwood, that one fair dame in especial has already asked me to introduce you to her. But that will keep for a little while. Now, suppose we have a glass of wine together?"

"With pleasure, your worship."

Gabriel Blackwood and the Mayor of Saxilford strolled arm-in-arm from the big, well-lighted, and gaily decorated ballroom. At the refreshment bar they sipped their wine together, nodding one or the other to those about them they knew, and meanwhile they cast an eye over the music-flooded place and the crowd of pleasant-looking, well-to-do folk who filled it.

It was mid-January and the occasion was the Mayor of Saxilford's ball. Such gentry as the borough could muster were now assembled here. A local banker or two were present; owners of cotton-mills, mines, and workshops, were hob-nobbing in the hall; prosperous tradesmen, of the better class only, with their wives, sons, and daughters, were taking their pleasure, not sadly but with a relish; and the body of the hall, set apart for dancing, was now swaying under the gliding feet of a hundred and fifty couples.

"And this fair dame in especial, Mr. Ackersleigh," Blackwood resumed, presently, "who was kind enough to desire my acquaintance. Some local lady, eh?"

"Of course; and if you do not know her already, you will know her by repute. She it was who first drew my attention to you; and her comment then would have made many a young fellow's heart dance if applied to him."

"I am not vain, my dear Ackersleigh, but you stir my curiosity," quoth Blackwood. "But her comment?"

"Was that you were the handsomest man she had ever seen. Then I told her who you were, and the rest you know."

"And the lady?"

"Is Mrs. Warren Lathom."

"Mrs. Warren Lathom!" And Gabriel Blackwood made no attempt to hide his surprise. "Yes," he went on more calmly, "I have heard of the lady. A great beauty, I believe, with a most romantic history behind her."

"That is so. But there's a vacant corner over there, Blackwood. (A small bottle of cham, Sanders.) And now, my dear fellow, we can talk comfortably." The sparkling wine had been emptied into the wide-mouthed glasses, and mayor and mine-master had toasted each other ere the former returned to the subject.

"Mrs. Warren Lathom is a really fine woman, Blackwood; and as you suggest, her history is quite romantic. She was a mill girl first, I understand, in this very town; and after that became head barmaid at the Royal Hotel. It was there old Warren Lathom, the factory master, met her. You would know him, of course? No? Well, he was an old curmudgeon of a bachelor; and he quite lost his head over this woman; who, by the way, was a girl of one or two and twenty then. That was eight or nine years ago, and she has been a widow nearly two years.

"But this is what I wanted to tell you. Old Warren Lathom—he was thirty years her elder—married the girl, made a lady of her, showered every manner of luxury upon her, and when he died left her every penny he possessed. That was just what most people expected—for he had no near relatives, and was too hard-fisted to give a copper to any public institutions. When he was gathered to his fathers he left a widow, young, beautiful, with some dozen thousand pounds at her back and the Old Victoria Cotton Mill. That is the lady who wishes to make your acquaintance, Mr. Gabriel Blackwood."

"I am eager to pay her my compliments, Mr. Ackersleigh."

"So you shall. Half-a-score young men in town would jump at the chance of giving Mrs. Warren Lathom a new name, but she is witch enough to tell them all frankly that she means to marry for love next time. Hello! the dance has finished. Now, my dear fellow let us seek the charming widow."

A few minutes later Gabriel Blackwood and Mrs. Warren Lathom were made known to each other. From the first moment the young mine-owner was strongly impressed by the marked beauty and individuality of his latest acquaintance. The widow was a magnificent brunette of the regal type, cast in the mould of the heroines of classic story, with massive white arms, throat and bust, a clear, olive complexion, and piled masses of ebon hair.

The good impression seemed mutual. Mrs. Warren Lathom was charmingly naive and frank; one soft, ungloved hand had clasped his warmly, her big languorous black eyes had melted and flashed as they rested approvingly on his own for an instant; his worship had glided away, she had made room beside her on the red plush-covered couch, and in a minute the young widow and widower were chatting together with the ease and pleasure of old friends.

Then the strains of a lovely waltz floated through the ballroom; Gabriel begged for the dance, and it was instantly given to him, though promised to another gallant an hour before; and presently the big, handsome man and his stately partner were footing it neatly, with the throng, their height and comeliness making them the cynosure of many scores of eyes.

A little later our two friends were sitting in the quietest corner of the curtained space set apart for the refreshment of the revellers. Mrs. Warren Lathom was daintily consuming an ice Blackwood had brought her; he was sipping a glass of wine and closely following every movement, word, and look of the glorious creature at his side.

"Do you know, Mr. Blackwood," she remarked, frankly, "that I have heard ever so much of you and your doings out there at Saxilham, quite lately? That made me desire to know you; and when his worship pointed you out I begged him to bring you to me."

"That was very fortunate for me," he said, pleasantly. "I also have heard much of your charming self of late; and if there was one lady in our neighbourhood whom I desired to see, meet, and know, more than another, it was Mrs. Warren Lathom."

"That was very nice of you—if quite true, Mr. Blackwood," she murmured, as their eyes met and their looks challenged each other for an instant.

"It is quite true, and I don't mind telling you so."

"My doubt has vanished," and she smiled amiably, showing twin rows of perfect white teeth. "Besides, it is so easy to understand why we should take such an unusual interest in each other."

His look of mild wonder was a question she made haste to answer.

"There is so much in our histories so singularly alike, you know," she explained. "A year or two ago you were working at the mine; and not so many years since I was in the mill, and later a barmaid. Marriage altered our lives and made us both, I think."

"That is quite true—at least, of me!" he answered gravely.

"More true of me," she cried, with a saucy laugh. "And there is one other point of resemblance in our experiences, Mr. Blackwood, which strikes me. But I dare not tell you what that is. With all my audacious frankness I shrink from mentioning it, because I fear your disapproval."

"I am not easily shocked. Pray tell me!"

"Confidence for confidence, then?"

"I shall only be too happy to exchange anything with you, my dear madam."

"It's a bargain, then! Now what I mean is this. You must have heard why Mr. Warren Lathom married me, just as I have heard why Miss Nancy Haliburton married you. Shall we tell one another?"

"We will!" he cried, laughingly.

"Your confidence first then!" and her big black orbs flashed with merry mischief.

"Well, I have been told, madam," he said gravely, "that Mr. Warren Lathom was won over from his miserable bachelordom by his wife's wondrous beauty and charm."

"And I, sir, have heard it whispered," she answered with dancing eyes, "that Miss Haliburton would have died a spinster had she never set eyes on the big, strong, manly comeliness of the man who managed the colliery. Confession is good for the soul, they say, so I plead guilty to your charge."

"So do I to yours."

"But I promise never to repeat the offence, Mr. Blackwood," she went on with charming audacity. "Whenever, if ever, I wed again it will be for love!"

"That thought has been in my mind some months now," he responded, his tones so thoughtful, his face so grave that she watched him closely. He was thinking then of a younger and fairer woman; a woman he loved—Judith Trafford. It needed the alluring widow's voice to rouse him from his involuntary fit of meditation.

"Let us hope we shall succeed in our enterprise," she lightly cried. "And now, Mr. Blackwood, I wish to beg a favour. In a week or two I am having a party at my house—The Limes, you know. May I hope that you will make it convenient to come. Say yes, please!"

"My dear Mrs. Warren Lathom," he whispered gallantly, as he bent towards his companion and looked fixedly into her deep dark eyes, "I think that if you were at the end of the world and you asked me to come, I should be bound to join you there."

"Be careful!" she whispered back. "I may ask you to do that some day." Then the merriment left her face as she added in a fresh voice, "Oh, what a nuisance! Here comes my partner for the next dance; and I've just disappointed him by giving you his waltz. Now, pardon me. But I shall hold you to your promise, mind."

With a nod of her queenly head and a wave of her hand she was off on the arm of the young gentleman who had come to claim her. Blackwood sat there for some minutes, watching her disappear amidst the throng, and mentally comparing, contrasting the fine woman he had met that night with the fair girl he had so long known.


CHAPTER XII.—'TWIXT LOVE AND AMBITION.

On a sunny morning in spring Gabriel Blackwood left Saxehurst, and sauntered towards the village. Again he was pondering a problem which had engaged his thought much of late. That problem had to do with the world and two women. In brief, he was hanging in doubt between his love and his ambition. His heart, his soul, all that was best in him, was urging him in one direction, while lust of the world, its pomps, vanities, ambitions, and gilded glories, were pulling him elsewhere.

At present the problem had so far resolved itself as to lie in the choice between two women; one young, sweet, fair, unspotted from the world, but poor; the other sweetly fair also, if some ten years older, worldly, wise as well, accomplished in a way, and even richer than himself by some thousands of pounds.

Which woman was it to be? Judith Trafford, whom he had loved ever since he understood what love meant, or this splendidly dark beauty of a woman, Mrs. Warren Lathom—first met at the Mayor's ball, yet seen often since, and whom he might win if he wished?

Little more than two years before it had been the summit of Blackwood's ambition, the dream of his life to call himself master of a few thousands, and the husband of Judith Trafford. That had been his dream then—it was half of his dream still.

He loved the girl still, and hungered to possess her; it was a black nightmare to him to think of any common workman—any man—winning this rare, fresh, simple young damsel he had so long prized; and yet he hesitated to take that one decisive step which would settle everything, and which for years he had so happily and complacently regarded as one of the aims of his life.

But that first deep draught of success had not only sobered Gabriel's fancy, but had enlarged his vision and his ambition also. Already the social heights he had mounted over-topped the desire of his early manhood, yet, like an eager mountaineer, he hungered to climb the higher places daily expanding before him.

He had attained much, but how much more remained for him to achieve! He was well on the summer side of thirty; was tall, strong, comely, shrewd and free. He had a balance at his bankers of some thousands; was owner of the old Hill End Mine, and the two new pits. In a few years, with only such success as he might reasonably expect, he was likely to become one of the wealthiest men in the district. And with fortune what other dignities might—nay, were certain to come!

And was Judith Trafford, a mere collier woman, no matter how lovable, the one to mate with such a man—a veritable favourite of Fortune? For the quieter and humbler walk of life one could not have desired a truer, sweeter, and more fitting mate; but for the high places he meant to storm, the honours and dignities he meant to win, Judith's simplicity and lack of learning would unfit her in every way.

How different was the case with the stately Mrs. Warren Lathom! Her fortune would aid him materially in the task he had set himself to master; her beauty would grace any position to which he might be called; her sprightliness, her wit, her knowledge of the world, would adorn the mistress of any house; and her unfailing charm and amiability would win the good will of all whom it might ever be necessary to influence or conciliate.

Yet it was with a sigh that Gabriel half-decided, as he walked through the village, that his future wife must be the widow of the old cotton-spinner, and it was a wrench to resign, even in imagination, all hope of ever possessing Judith. In a way he stormed mentally at Fate for so ordering events. That night in the old quarry near the river, when he had spoken of his approaching marriage with Miss Haliburton, he had protested his unchanged love, had commanded her to wait, and she had waited. That other night, later, when he had encountered her by chance in the high-road, and spoken of his wife's death, he had clasped her in his arms, had kissed her reluctant lips, and spoken again of his love and freedom.

And now poor Judith! He crushed back that thought with a black frown, and swung into the upland path leading to the old adit's month. And halfway along it he came suddenly face to face with the woman of his thoughts.

"Judith! You here. Where are you going?"

"To the village, sir," she said, quietly, with bent head. "Ned Bennison is off work, and as we are short-handed the banksman is sending me for him."

"Why do you use 'sir' to me, lass? You are Judith to me still, and I want to be Gabriel to you always. Have you forgotten what I told you that night in the lane?'"

"Not forgotten; but I wish I hadn't heard, sir," she answered slowly, her eyes still on the ground.

"It would perhaps have been better if I hadn't spoken," he said, quietly; "but my heart was full, and I spoke. I told you to wait, and you have done so. Judith is it necessary to tell you again that I love you and am free?"

"God knows that I didn't wait for that poor dead woman's shoes!" she cried, her face flaming, then paling as quickly as her eyes met his.

"They are empty, and must be filled soon," he cried.

"I am going, sir. Good morning."

"Wait! I have much to say to you—but not here and now. Be at the entrance to Saxehurst this evening at nine, Judith."

"I do not wish to come," she murmured.

"You must!" he cried. "If you don't come, I shall visit where you live. Good morning. Nine, remember."

* * * * * *

It was 9 o'clock. The evening air was chilly, and the highway was quiet. In the shadow of the trees near the Saxehurst gates Gabriel Blackwood waited, smoking. Presently the whisk of a woman's skirts and the quick patter of light feet rose on the air, and next moment Judith Trafford was standing before her old lover.

"Judith! I knew you would come!" he whispered, offering a hand, which she refused.

"And I prayed to God for strength to keep away," she retorted, almost bitterly.

"And you couldn't. Well, I am glad you've come," was his triumphant response.

"What is it you want? Quick! Tell me and let me go."

"What nonsense! But come along the drive where we will not be seen. On my honour, Judith, I will not keep you more than a couple of minutes."

Thus urged, she followed him through the open entrance, and they paced in silence for some moments under the dark trees. Suddenly he spoke, in the sharp, eager manner customary with him when strongly moved.

"Judith," he began, "I feel that the turning point—the deciding point of my life has come. How I act depends very much on you. What I wish you to do is this. At Whitsuntide, the mines will be idle for a week nearly. I mean to take a holiday then, and you must go with me. You have friends in Manchester I believe; and you must let it be thought that you are going there. Do you understand?"

"I understand, and I will not go!" she cried.

"You must! I say you must! Now when I want to do the honest thing will you balk me? But you shall not give me your answer now. You have more than a week to think over what I suggest—nay, command you to do! We will go to London—Wales—Scotland—anywhere you wish. But we must go! Here is money to prepare for the journey. Now, good night."

In a moment he had slipped away, disappeared, leaving the girl in the thick shadow of the trees, with some rustling notes in her trembling fingers. She called his name once, but there was no answer. Then she stole homeward as quietly as she had come.

Ten days after that Gabriel Blackwood and Judith Trafford were spending a fateful holiday in Scotland.


CHAPTER XIII.—THE RED HAND.

The Limes, the residence of Mrs. Warren Lathom, was a substantial and unpretentious house of brick, which stood well back from the highway, almost midway between the village of Saxilham and the town of Saxilford. There was plenty of green timber about it, and a well-kept lawn in front; behind were shrubberies and trim flower beds, all gorgeous in their seasons.

Here Gabriel Blackwood and the stately mistress of the place were walking leisurely one afternoon early in June. The rhododendrons were ablaze with pink and red blossoms; set in the green sward were rainbow-hued patches of sweet-scented flowers; the warm air was tempered by a breeze redolent of lush meadows; and coming to a little rustic summer-house almost buried with climbing plants the strolling pair sought coolness and rest therein.

"Do you know, my dear Mrs. Warren Lathom," Blackwood remarked presently, as he flicked the white ash from the tip of the cigar he was smoking, "that one of your sweetest charms is your absolute frankness with your friends, combined with your entire lack of all affectation."

"I love frankness, Mr. Blackwood," she said, pleasantly, with her wide dark eyes upon him, "and affectation is my especial scorn."

"Then you will not mind me being very frank now?"

"I love frankness more than all else in big, strong, masterful men, who move and influence that corner of the world, big or little, which they live in."

"You remember that night we first met?" he asked.

"I shall always remember it," she replied.

"So shall I; but there is a special reason in my case."

"Indeed. What is it, Mr. Blackwood?"

"Yourself. Do you know that on the evening of the ball the Mayor gave I had almost made up my mind to do one thing. Then I had the pleasure of meeting you, and when I went away later, I had quite resolved to do one of two things."

"How remarkable!" she cried. "But one may not ask, I suppose, what was the single object which became doubled afterwards?"

"I am going to tell you. Before I married, when I was a poor and obscure pitman merely, I loved one belonging to my own walk in life—a pit-brow girl in her teens, very simple, honest and beautiful, and one who was well fitted in every way for a decent workman's wife. When I was free again and well-to-do, that liking of mine was, I found, still alive in me; and when I went to the ball that night I had almost decided to marry her."

"A pit-brow girl!" she cried, with wide eyes. "You marry a woman of that class? The thing seems impossible. No matter how true and pure and beautiful she might be, she was no wife for you!"

"So I thought—and, hence, my indecision."

"That, then, was the one thing in your mind when you went to his worship's party. What of the two things—one of which you had resolved to do, when you went away?"

"I swore then that if I did not marry you, Mrs. Warren Lathom, I would marry my first love—the pit-brow lassie of whom I have told you."

He tossed away the end of his cigar as he finished speaking and leant across the table between them, his eager look challenging her. She laughed lowly then, and her fine eyes sparkled with audacious mischief.

"Your frankness is delicious," she murmured. "How I love you for it! Now let me be equally frank with you, Mr. Blackwood. I, too, made a solemn vow that night, when I first met and danced with you."

"One may not inquire as to the nature of a lady's vows?" he queried.

"You may," and for the first time her eyes fell before his.

"Tell me, then!" he cried.

"Gladly. Well I vowed in my heart that night that if I did not marry Gabriel Blackwood I would remain a widow all my life."

"Margaret! You mean this?" he asked, and as the words fell from his lips he jumped to his feet.

"Heaven knows I do, Gabriel!" she said solemnly, as she also rose.

"And you will marry me?"

"Whenever you wish."

She placed her white hand in his own strong brown one, and he drew her to him, warmly kissing her unreluctant lips. It was quite a minute later ere he spoke again.

"And when shall our wedding be, Margaret?"

"As soon as you desire, dear Gabriel."

"The last Wednesday in this month then. That will not be too early, dear?" he asked.

"No day can be too soon!" she whispered, as she put her shapely arms about his neck and kissed him of her own sweet will.

* * * * * *

The month of June was nearing its end, and the village of Saxilham was enjoying a holiday. The Hill End Mine was closed for that day, Wednesday; the two new pits close by were lying idle also; the hundred and fifty or so of village miners, the half-hundred of surface hands and pit-brow women were "playing" as well; and the talk that bright morning in almost every house was the marriage to be solemnised at eleven o'clock between Gabriel Blackwood and Mrs. Warren Lathom.

The mine-owner would have preferred that his second wedding should have been marked by the simplicity and quietness which characterised his first marriage; but the betrothed lady on this occasion had other views, Blackwood had fallen in with them, and the miners had been accorded a day's idleness. The ceremony in the church was to be an imposing one, and the bridal feast was to be on a most elaborate scale.

Shortly before eleven o'clock the little church at Saxilham was well filled with expectant villagers; married folks and marriageable youths and maids being crowded into the old-fashioned pews nearest the altar, a low animated murmur of conversation filling the sacred edifice, until stately bride and handsome bridegroom filed along the aisle with their friends promptly at the stroke of the hour.

Behind the rest of the sightseers and quite alone, a woman sat stiffly upright in a pew. She was plainly dressed and closely veiled, but there was a shimmer of russet hair under her bonnet, and now and again one or two of the villagers would turn to glance her way.

The ceremony went on; the soft droning of the clergyman's words could be heard through the church; the responses of the bridal pair were less distinct; then knees were bent, the last words were spoken, and Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood passed into the vestry with their friends, to set their names in the register there.

Some minutes later husband and wife, bridesmaids and groomsman, filed back along the aisle homeward. And then in an instant the holy calm of God's house was converted into a scene of confusion and horror.

That veiled woman sitting alone had jumped to her feet as the newly-wedded pair neared her, had cast back her veil as they came abreast, had taken a swift step forward, and plunged a knife into the bridegroom's back. Next moment she had stabbed herself and tumbled to the flags, even as Gabriel Blackwood fell.

The dramatic episode was over in a moment and ere anyone could interfere. Then men shouted, women screamed and fainted, and all pressed forward to scan the stricken man and his assailant. The bride had not fainted, but she had fallen on a seat, ashen-faced and quivering with horror. And just at that moment the voice of a Hill End pit-brow woman rang through the church.

"It's Red Judith!" she shrieked. "Red Judith!"

"Yes, it's Red Judith!" a big, dark-faced pitman—Roderick Norbury—shouted passionately. "Red Judith—Judith o' th' Red Hand now! An' it serves him right, by heaven!"


CHAPTER XIV.—"DURING HER MAJESTY'S PLEASURE."

The sensational incident which had marked the conclusion of the wedding ceremony in Saxilham Church was for many days the one absorbing topic of conversation among the gossips of village and town. The stricken bridegroom had been conveyed to Saxehurst by his wife and friends—being still unconscious then; the wedding feast for which such grand preparations had been made was not celebrated; the invited guests went away with sad faces; and for a week or more Gabriel Blackwood's life was in danger.

The mine-owner's old sweetheart and would-be murderess had not even succeeded in taking her own life. Her own wound was even less dangerous than that she had inflicted upon her ex-lover, the weapon having merely torn a wide hole in her left breast; and after being carried by Roderick Norbury into one of the nearest cottages, a doctor had attended her, and pronounced her life in no great peril; and on the evening of the same day the police authorities had conveyed the pit-brow girl in a cab to a workhouse hospital in the neighbouring town, where she was tended and guarded.

That desperate attempt at murder and suicide had startled and shocked most, it not quite all, those people who had known Judith Trafford all her life. The young woman's great loveliness had made her a general favourite; the quietness of her ways, the decency of her life, the strenuous manner in which she had worked and striven to keep herself above the common level of ordinary working-class notions of respectability—added to the fact of her latter-day religious leanings—had made the possibility of such a mad act seem utterly foreign to her nature.

And not a few decent folk who knew Judith and Blackwood well were inclined to endorse that passionate statement made by Norbury in the church while the assailed man and his fair assailant lay bleeding on the flagged aisle. The colliery-master had been Judith's sweetheart when they were both poor, but he had thrown her over to marry two rich women in turn; and those facts were enough for the mothers and daughters of the village, who sided with Judith in her affliction.

Of the real facts which had led up to and precipitated that dramatic and well-nigh tragic encounter no one knew save Judith and Gabriel. The lass had never worn her heart on her sleeve for rustic babblers to peck at; she had ever been reticent and shy, chary of words, respecting her love affairs; even when Gabriel had blasted her love dream by that cold-blooded announcement of his intended espousal of Miss Nancy, she had borne her woe in silence; and when, many months later, they met in the highroad and he spoke of his wife's death, his old love and renewed freedom, she had gone away with his passionate kisses on her lips, hugging a hope to her heart she never cared to voice even after that holiday in Scotland.

Of all these matters the gossips knew nothing, and ere long it seemed more than probable that the whole truth would never be known. The public simply regarded Judith as a jilted woman; she had loved strongly, her disappointment had been terrible, and in the frenzy of hysterical passion she had struck those blows which had outraged the law.

In a week Judith was sufficiently recovered from her hurt to be formally arraigned before the county magistrates on the joint charge of attempted murder and suicide. Gabriel Blackwood was still unable to put in an appearance, and the proceedings were only of such a character as to justify the remand asked for.

But the court was crowded with townsfolk and villagers; and all eyes were centred on that pale, handsome innocent-looking young woman sitting so mutely, patiently, and pathetically indifferent in the dock. Already a whisper was running round the house of justice that Judith Trafford's reason had been quite unhinged by the sensational event in which she had played the part of scorned love's avenger; and when it was seen that the accused woman either could not or would not answer any of the few questions put to her, those present began to wonder what the result of the case might be.

Some weeks later, when the trial took place, the principal witness and sufferer, Gabriel Blackwood, was present. He had not yet quite recovered from the effects of the blow which had struck him bleeding to the floor, but he was well enough to tender his evidence, which was given so reluctantly that all were compelled to notice it.

In the interval no change had been wrought in the mental condition of the fair prisoner. She was strong physically, and her smooth, softly-moulded cheeks had regained much of their normal and radiantly healthful glow, but her eyes had that aimless, vacant look which bespeaks the distempered mind, and her talk, when urged to speak, was the incoherent babble of a witless person.

Gabriel Blackwood's look was that of a pained and sorely-troubled man as he sat there in court. Had he been on trial himself his face could not have been paler, his anxiety more manifest, his distress more palpable. At first he had been afraid to glance at that sweetly-beautiful countenance, that quietly pathetic figure, sitting so innocently in the dock with a policeman at hand.

Then he had plucked up sufficient courage to glance towards Judith; their eyes had encountered, but there were no signs of recognition in her own. The regret, remorse, shame, love, or passionate hatred he had expected to read in those soft grey orbs were missing.

She knew him not at all; to her he was no more than any other person in court; her cheek had not blanched or crimsoned at the meeting of their eyes; not a muscle of her face had moved under his eager, questioning, remorseful gaze, nor had there been the faintest quiver of red lip or uplifting of eyelid.

Then he knew indeed that Judith's sanity had left her, and a hot flood of poignant pity and consuming remorse surged through his breast. He alone was to blame for it all, he knew that it was so; and feeling like a coward who had brought a pure and honest woman to shame and disaster, he cowered mentally, cringed and winced figuratively, before every eye that fell upon him.

The counsel for the prosecution did not press the case against Judith. The facts were stated, and evidence called to substantiate the same, and then counsel for the defence set forth his plea briefly. He did not question the attempt at murder and suicide, but there were extenuating circumstances in the case, which he set forth for consideration.

The accused and the gentleman she had unlawfully wounded had lived in the same village for years, had been lovers for some time, and when he married elsewhere that event seemed to have preyed on the prisoner's mind to such an extent that she would appear to have resolved to kill her old lover and herself also. But the attempt made in church was only a clumsy one after all, and what they might expect such a hitherto reputable young woman as the accused to make.

The weapon used was an old carving knife, taken from the dwelling where she lodged, the man she had stabbed in a fit of jealousy was now well, and in court; she herself had quite recovered from her self-inflicted wound; but he suggested to them that the accused was not of sound mind—that she was not now, and had not been then, responsible for her actions.

His plea was one of insanity. While in hospital the prisoner had been examined as to her mental condition by the medical men attached to the police; later, during her incarceration in gaol, the same doctors had subjected her to further investigations, and on both occasions had testified to her mental derangement. All that unquestionable evidence could only point to one conclusion and sentence.

Five minutes afterwards the case was ended. The sentence of the court was that Judith Trafford be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure.


CHAPTER XV.—THE MASTER AND HIS FORTUNES.

Five years and two or three months have passed away since Judith Trafford raised her hand in a mad frenzy against Gabriel Blackwood's life and her own. In the interval much of moment has happened to those personages round whom this story centres, and it is necessary to a right understanding of the narrative that follows that some of those happenings should be set forth here.

Just three weeks after the pit-brow girl's conviction and sentence of detention during her sovereign's pleasure, news had reached Blackwood from the place wherein Judith was held in gentle durance; and the tenor of that intelligence respecting his old love had been as balm of Gilead to the sorely wrung soul of the conscience-tortured man.

Through the kindly offices and influence of his friend, the Mayor of Saxilford, there had been little difficulty in making arrangements that information of Judith's mental state should be forwarded regularly to the town and that first news was all that Gabriel could desired.

The formerly demented woman had quite recovered her sanity, and there was absolutely no reason to anticipate a relapse. At first she had been horror-stricken and overwhelmed by the bitterest anguish on remembering what she had attempted; but her tribulation of spirit had rapidly given way to a more satisfactory frame of mind on being assured that the man she had struck down was hale and as well as ever.

That information had lifted a great load from Gabriel Blackwood's conscience. He was not all villain by any means; he had loved Judith passionately, as the reader is aware; and it had ever been a bitter drop in his cup of joy and success to think that one fair, sweet, and honest woman's life should be clouded—wrecked for ever through an act of his own.

A few more weeks brought more startling intelligence still. Judith Trafford was missing—had escaped—disappeared—and not the least trace could be discovered of her, although the whole neighbourhood had been carefully scoured. It was thought that the young woman would endeavour to make her way back to her native village; and, in case she did, the authorities at Saxilford and Saxilham were to communicate immediately with the governor of the asylum where she had been detained.

That surprising news had impressed Gabriel Blackwood strongly, for it opened out contingencies and possibilities he did not care to consider too closely; and for many days he waited in suspense, ever expecting to hear of Judith's return to her former haunts, even anticipating with a shudder of shame, a chance meeting with her at any hour; but the days, weeks, months, years, fell fast, and the shadow of the woman he had loved, deceived, and lured to sin—almost tragic crime—did not darken Saxilham.

Meanwhile, the master of Saxehurst was amply justifying and fulfilling the prognostications of those shrewd folk who had spoken early of his destined greatness. Every year that had elapsed since his second marriage had seen his fortune increase literally by leaps and bounds.

The three or four years following the Franco-German war, and the inauguration of the French Republic, had marked an era of unparalleled prosperity among the coal-miners and coal-owners of the United Kingdom! It was in truth the Golden Age of coal-hewing, coal-selling, and coal-owning. Thousands of colliers were earning then a golden sovereign for each shift of work they plied the pick; youths of seventeen or twenty were receiving two and three pounds a week; coal merchants were pocketing their hundreds of pounds monthly; colliery masters were enriching themselves to the tune of five or ten thousands a year; and the poor British workman, to keep his kitchen fire going, had to submit to be plundered by rapacious dealers, who were charging a sovereign, thirty shillings, or even two pounds a ton for coal.

In three years Gabriel Blackwood netted the comfortable sum of five and twenty thousand pounds sterling. When the tide of fortune set in he was fully prepared to take it at its flood. The old Hill End Mine was still finding employment for half a hundred persons all told; the two new pits had been opened out, fully developed, and a couple of hundred of coal-hewers, datallers and surface hands were employed there—the mine-owner having built a hundred new cottages in the village, to find accommodation for his new employees.

When the flood-tide of prosperity began to ebb the young mine-owner was a rich man—that is if the possession of fifty thousand pounds can be called wealth in these latter days of multimillionaires. Nor was he a mine-owner merely then. The old cotton mill in Saxilford, once owned by Mr. Warren Lathom, and afterwards bequeathed to his stately widow, had been pulled down, and a magnificent modern mill, with all the latest improvements in cotton manufacturing machinery, had been raised in its stead.

As husband and wife, handsome and successful, Gabriel Blackwood and the dark, beautiful and charming Margaret, had been more than comfortable together. She had borne her lord and master a couple of children—a boy and a girl—but neither of them had lived.

That had been a sore disappointment to Mrs. Blackwood—Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood, as she loved to be called—for the really fine woman was honestly and deeply enamoured of her second husband, and desired above all things to bear him children, to crown her own life, and to inherit the splendid name and fortune he was making. And perhaps this perfectly natural feeling was intensified by the fact that the son Mrs. Nancy Blackwood had borne her husband was a fine, comely youngster now, with something in his face that was reminiscent of both his parents.

That dramatic incident which had taken place in the church on the morning of the union had, fortunately, led to no ill blood or feeling between Gabriel and Margaret. If the shrewd woman of the world ever suspected that more lay underneath the surface of the episode than met the common eye, she had too much common-sense to even hint at such a possibility.

Besides, had not Gabriel himself, that afternoon when he asked her to marry him, confessed that if he did not marry Mrs. Warren Lathom he intended to marry the pit-brow girl he had loved? Blackwood was glad afterwards that he had made that confession, as his wife was glad—for it appeared then that he had really taken Margaret into his confidence; and, as she had scorned the idea of his marrying a lass from the mine's mouth, how could she rationally grumble afterwards at the consequences of the act she had urged and aided him to do?

A year or so after that deplorable incident Gabriel had made, at his wife's suggestion, considerable alterations at Saxehurst. Another storey and a new wing had been added to the old stone mansion—Blackwood and his wife living meanwhile at The Limes—additional land had been purchased and the grounds extended and well laid out; and when all the improvements were completed Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood set herself to play the role she had resolved to fill.

Margaret was as ambitious as she was lovely and attractive. She was never tired of urging upon her husband the absolute necessity of his entering public life. His fortune was as good as made, and he ought to think of making a name. He must enter the town council at Saxilford; become mayor of the town; in a year or two he might even aspire to become one of the parliamentary representatives of either the borough or that division of the county; and beyond those small honours and dignities were not knighthoods and even peerages being picked up every year by the great commanders of industrial undertakings and the generals of commerce?

Gabriel Blackwood had ambition too, and it suited him to fall in heartily with his "dear Margaret's views." Summer and winter his charming spouse entertained freely at Saxehurst; quite the very best people in the district made a point of coming readily to her afternoon garden parties and her enjoyable evening "At Homes"; her husband identified himself with one of the great political parties in the town; gave generously to its depleted funds; was in due course elected to the borough council chamber; and already there were rumours afloat that the rising mine-owner of Saxilham might be elected Mayor of Saxilford next November.

Thus matters stood with Gabriel Blackwood six years, and as many moons, after this story opened. In that brief period he had done more than most men are able to achieve in a long life. He was three and thirty only; was in manhood's very prime, and handsome still; had a charming wife, a fine home, and a comely son; could count his fortune by tens of thousands; was the owner of three mines; and a half share in a prosperous cotton-mill; and the world, the future, life itself, lay spread out before him like a fair land of promise.

Behind him lay one black shadow—one sinister thought that ever rankled—Judith Trafford! What had become of her? Had the great world swallowed her up for ever? Were they to meet no more until the Judgment Day? Even as he mused the Fates were drifting them face to face.


CHAPTER XVI .—THE RETURN OF THE RED HAND.

One afternoon in September the master of Saxehurst was leisurely strolling about his grounds, a good cigar in his mouth, and an expression of thoughtfulness on his strong, dark, handsome face. Nearly an hour age a deputation of aldermen and councillors from Saxilford had called upon him, and had only just gone away, almost satisfied.

The mayoralty of the borough for the following year had been offered to him; and he had been earnestly requested to accept the honour of chief magistrate by his fellow council men, but had declined to give them a definite answer until he had consulted his wife. Mrs. Blackwood was then spending a half-day at the seaside with his son, and when they returned they should have his decision at once, and doubtless it would be all they desired.

After pressing another glass of wine and a good cigar upon his friends, the deputation withdrew, and a few minutes later we find the mine-master sauntering through his grounds considering their proposal. Presently he found himself at the end of the walk, where his little demesne had been extended on its north side, and glancing over the low thickset hedge the big old grass-grown quarry lay below him.

His thoughts rushed then to a certain twilight time years ago, and in fancy he was again sitting down there, telling Judith Trafford that he meant to wed her employer. His face clouded, and he was about to turn away, when his gaze fell on the figures of a woman, and a child of four or five, walking hand in hand across the old wooden bridge towards the disused delph.

Next instant his heart leapt to his mouth, and a cry of wonder was strangled in his throat. The woman was Judith Trafford—"Judith o' th' Red Hand," as Roderick Norbury had nicknamed the lass that morning in church, and as many of the villagers were wont to call her still.

Pale-faced, rigid, he stood there; woman and child advanced into the quarry, and soon were sitting below him munching some food, wholly unconscious of his presence. The event so long dreaded had chanced at last. What was he to do? In an instant he had decided; and creeping away, he scrambled through the hedgerow at a lower point, tripped down the green slope almost to the margin of the river; and in a minute he was standing before woman and child.

"Judith!" he cried. "What brings you here?"

He was agitated, she was quite calm; his approach had scarcely made her start; and he noticed that the only apparent change in her was a paleness, a deep gravity, which suffering seemed to have stamped on her sweet face.

"We were tired; hungry; we wanted to eat and rest, and the memory of an old time drew me here in passing. But why do you ask? Does this old quarry belong to you? If I had only thought that——"

"You know what I mean!" he cried, his tremulous tones contrasting strongly with her low, even speech. "Why have you come back to Saxilham? Don't you understand what your coming here must mean to us both?"

"It means much to me or I should not be here," she answered quietly, still munching her bread and cheese. "What it means to you Gabriel Blackwood, I do not know or care. And why should I not come to Saxilham? I was born here, reared here, and here I mean to die. I have deserved no shame, and I do not fear it."

"But the—the people—those who had you in their keeping?" he stammered. "They sent word here of your disappearance—your escape. The authorities will—will——"

"I do not fear them. I am a free woman now, thank God! I have earned my liberty. This is my charter of freedom," and she pulled from her bosom a sheet of blue paper. "I am free now, purged of my sin, and you cannot send me back."

"Heaven forbid that!" He murmured. "But I do not understand. We have heard nothing for years—nothing since you—since you ran away."

"Yes, I ran away, but I went back after three years. Then I told the governor all my story; I had found work, shelter, friends, and I had a fair record to show. So I won my liberty, and I am back here with my child."

"Your child! You have been married then?"

"I am a mother, but no wife—a widow; but I never was churched or parsoned. My Judith," and as her even, motionless flow of words ceased she bent, drew the pretty child to her, and kissed it warmly. "My Judith," she went on, "that is the pretty village where we are going to live. There long ago your father lived when he was only an honest pitman. Now he is rich and mighty; has pits, a factory, and a fine wife. He will never want you to know him; but you shall know him, dear, in God's own good time."

"My God! is this true?" he asked, hoarsely, with blanched cheeks. "How was I to know? Why was it kept from me? You have now come to humble me to the dust!"

"It is true, Gabriel Blackwood," was her unmoved response. "If you want proof make inquiries where I have been. I ran away because I did not want my child to be born in that place. And when I went back there I told the whole truth; earned my liberty, and came away."

"And now you have come back here!" he almost groaned.

"Yes, come back to dear old Saxilham. But I did not mean to come. When I told the truth at that place, I begged them to keep my secret. That is why you never heard. I wanted to forget the past, myself, the village, you—everything. I intended then to bury myself for ever in some quiet place. But the Lord set my feet, my thoughts, my wishes this way; and I am here."

"God knows that I am sorry for what has happened," he cried, "but I wish you had not come. I am to blame for it all; you were blameless and have suffered; but what is past cannot be undone. Does anyone know that you are coming back to Saxilham?"

"No one knows. I have spoken to no one I know save you. And I did not seek you, Gabriel Blackwood," she rejoined readily, but without heat. "Come, Judith, we will go now," and she rose from the stone.

"Stay! You must not go yet," and his hand raised in protest caused her to sink back to her seat. "Why go back to the village at all?" he suggested. "If no one expects you, there is no necessity for you to go."

"I must go there. I have made up my mind to go," she answered quietly, but in a tone which boded ill for his fierce, overmastering wish.

"But why?" he insisted. "Have you considered all you will have to face there? The vulgar gossip-mongers will rake up all that is dead and buried—all that is well nigh forgotten of your past and mine."

"I am ready to face it all. I must go."

"If you will not think of yourself or the child, in the name of mercy think of me and mine. There is my wife—my son, Laurence! They are as blameless as you—as this child here, Judith!" his voice thrilled at that name he had not uttered for years, and her composure seemed stirred at the word; "I implore you not to do this thing! It will be better for us all—better for you a thousand-fold, if you listen to me!"

"Listen to you, Gabriel Blackwood!" and for the first time her softly-intoned words had an edge of searing scorn. "I am here because I did listen to you. And now for your sake, for the sake of your second wife, who sold herself to an old man for his money, for the sake of the son whose mother took you from me with her money and her mine, I am to turn back and never set foot again in the village that once knew me!"

"How will you live there?"

"As I lived ere I left it. On your pit-brow—or some other pit-brow, if you deny me work—I can work to keep myself and the child God sent me!"

"Leave this place—go away—settle elsewhere—a dozen, a score of miles distant, and you shall never need to set hand again to work," he pleaded. "I will give you a hundred—five hundred pounds to leave this place for ever; and while you live I will settle upon you one hundred pounds a year. As God is my Judge, I will," he concluded, with dramatic solemnity.

"It is too late! too late now, Gabriel Blackwood! I have made my bed and I will lie upon it. Your money! Why, food bought with it would choke me. And my child, born in shame and degradation, shall never owe anything to the father it does not know."

"Your child and mine," he cried, questioningly, stung to retort by her quiet bitterness. "How am I to know that the child is—is——What proof have I, save your mere word?"

"I have told you where to seek proof when you need it. But there is proof here! 'Judith of the Red Hand,' they call me now, I have heard. Well, my daughter is Judith of the Red Hand, too, look here!"

She had drawn the child to her and slipped open its garments with deft fingers, laying bare its white flesh. And there, underneath its right shoulder, was a vivid splash of colour, blood-red and palm-shaped.

"My God," he cried, and turned away his gaze.

"I am going," she said some moments later. "But you need not fear me. For my own sake—the child's too—I shall keep my secret yet awhile. Some day—soon or late—I will speak, Gabriel Blackwood. Now, Judith, let us go."

He did not speak again. He watched mother and child leave the quarry, cross the bridge, walk along the river side and then he hurried away also, his heart heavy, his eyes full of tears.


CHAPTER XVII.—THE NEW GENERATION.

On a certain sunny morning in summer, in the year of grace 189—two young fellows were walking indolently along the Saxilham high road, smoking and chatting, laughing now and again at their own lively sallies, casting their glances here and there, and in general comporting themselves after the fashion of two well-dressed, good-looking healthy youngsters who were at peace with all the world.

The village was but just awakening into stirring life as the pedestrians sauntered through it, and the villagers made comments upon them as they swung past, one or two of the men and women even speaking or nodding pleasantly to the younger and darker of the two, who smiled, shouted back a cheery good morning, and made low observations to his companion.

As these two early walkers have much to do with the course of events set forth in this story, a few paragraphs may be devoted to their appearance and antecedents. The younger and darker was Laurence Blackwood, son of the man who owned Saxehurst and the Saxilham mines; his friend, who was much fairer-skinned and slightly older, was Mr. Hugh Wynne Chesters who came from a poor but somewhat aristocratic stock in Yorkshire.

Young Blackwood was rising one-and-twenty; a few months would see him attain his majority; and his chum was nearly three years older; but Chesters, on account of his blonde skin, sunny brown hair, and thin wisp of straw-coloured moustache, seemed scarcely a day older than his swarthy-faced and dark-haired comrade.

The young men had been fast friends for half a dozen years or more; had been to a famous public school at the same time, and had afterwards met at the University; whence Chesters had come away with a fair degree, while Blackwood had left the temple of learning with no degree at all—save such as a sunny nature, a generous heart, a love of life and sport, and a general all-round excellence in athletic pursuits would confer upon him in the estimation of all high-spirited young men and damsels.

Five feet ten in their stockings, handsome, healthy, strong-limbed and honest-hearted, there was much in common between the rich mine-owner's son and the only son of the dead brother of a Yorkshire baronet. There was, indeed, the most singular resemblance—facially and physically between the young men; but only a patient observer would have noticed it, owing to the fact that one of them was as pronounced a blonde as the other was swarthy.

Both Laurence and Hugh had brown eyes, that only varied by a fine shade; their strong, well-shaped noses were almost identical, as were their mouths, firm jaws, and the whole contour of their features. If an artist had painted a portrait and its replica, only making one swart, the other fair, those picture's would have been like Laurence Blackwood and Hugh Wynne Chesters. But few people ever seemed to notice that strong, but latent, likeness, for to the ordinary observer it was hidden under that great disparity in complexion—the eye of the beholder being caught mainly by the contrast presented in the hair and skin of each.

In most other things the two friends differed widely. The one was the son of a parvenu, with fortune and a position in the world assured him; the other had in his veins some of the best and noblest blood in England; had a remote chance of succeeding to a baronetcy some day; but for the present he was poor, had no profession to fall back upon, and saving his brains and education, which his uncle had paid for, had little to face the world with.

"Well, Hugh," Blackwood remarked, as they mounted the high road trending northward at the foot of the uplands on the western side of the village, "what do you think of Saxilham now that you see it again?"

"What I first thought, Lawrence," Charles answered, cheerily. "It is quite one of the pleasantest places I have ever seen. I like that pretty valley there; the old village and church; the folk, too; and no one would ever think there was a busy manufacturing town a couple of miles over those green hills to the east, and that pits and pit-folk are plentiful in the neighborhood. But hasn't the village grown a lot since I was here a couple of years ago?"

"I suppose it has. Father has sunk two new pits since you were here last; has built some four or five more score of cottages to accommodate his new workmen and their families; and Saxilham is quite a place of importance now. All told, I daresay something like a thousand odd workmen are employed at the collieries over there, and from what father says there are to be more developments and extensions soon."

"You and Mr. Blackwood were born under a lucky star," Chesters remarked, almost with a sigh. "Your father is practically lord of the whole village; he has the lives and welfare of some thousands in his keeping, Laurence; and one day his high place and responsibility will devolve upon you."

"What rot!" young Blackwood cried, genially. "Tell these independent pit-men that, my dear old chap, and they'd chuck up their shops and go elsewhere. But don't bore me with your socialistic fads this sunny morning. Keep them till you and the pater get talking philosophy together. Tell me, rather, Hugh, what you think about Mr. Edward Craven. He also is a newcomer since your last stay at Saxehurst."

"Mr. Craven is your cousin, Laurence; and on that account alone I am bound to be favourably disposed towards him," was the guarded answer.

"Oh, hang the favourable disposition," Blackwood cried: "I want your opinion. Honestly, I don't care for him much. Mr. Edward is altogether too quiet and sly—too good altogether for my money, Chesters."

"Let us hope your cousin will improve upon acquaintance. How long has he been at Saxehurst?"

"About eighteen months. He comes from South Wales, you know. Father's sister was married out there; Edward was clerk, cashier, or something at a colliery in that quarter, and when aunt died—she had been a widow for some years then—the old man brought him here and made him something in the office."

"Craven seems rather clever, I fancy; is undoubtedly quiet and prudent, Laurence; and I should not wonder if he turns out to be a good servant to both his cousin and his uncle," was Chester's comment.

"Much too quiet and prudent, hang him!" Laurence exclaimed boisterously, but with no bitterness. "Those goody-goody traits of him make my own peccadilloes and escapades as black as the devil himself by contrast."

"The moral is—Be good then, Laurence!" Chesters retorted, with a smile. "But his position is so different from your own, remember, for you are heir to the throne and he is only a nephew and dependent. By Jove, old man, who is this pretty girl? Not a villager, surely, or I should have heard about her before this, eh?"

Through a turnstile set in the low wall, a score of paces ahead, a tall slip of a lass, gowned in dark print, and wearing a big straw hat, had just come; and ere Blackwood could answer his friend's queries, young men and maiden were abreast, and as he paused on the narrow unpaved footpath and raised his hat, the young man was greeting the girl with the ease and freedom of an old friend.

"Good morning, Miss Trafford. Not forgotten me, I suppose? So delighted to meet you. Been hunting for ferns, eh? And, oh, Miss Trafford, this is my dear old friend and chum, Mr. Hugh Wynne Chesters; Hugh, this is Miss Trafford."

They all shook hands then, and Chesters was surprised to find the lassie's small brown hand so hard and firm in his willing fingers. And meanwhile, he noticed every detail of the maid's face and figure, while she and his friend were exchanging greetings.

That tall, plainly-garbed slip of budding young womanhood was the child the reader saw that afternoon in the old quarry with her mother and Gabriel Blackwood. Fifteen years almost had drifted away since then; young Judith was between nineteen and twenty now, and her comeliness was greater—of a rarer and more refined type—than her parent's had ever been.

She was as tall as her mother, and although most shapely in form, was slightly less robust. But the girl's features were as near perfection as one could desire; nose, chin, and mouth, big, soft, dark-grey eyes being all models of womanly loveliness; the complexion, which in the older Judith had been inclined towards ruddiness, was pale, ivory-tinted, and of a creamy velvety texture in the daughter.

Hugh Wynne Chesters, gazing at the lass with rapt but not rude eyes, could not quite decide upon a name for that peculiar shade of hair the girl possessed. It was some bright tint of deep lustrous chestnut, bordering on ruddy auburn in some lights, and russet gold in others; and it clustered in crisp tendrils and curls about her shell-like ears and broad white brow, being bunched up in a great knob behind.

In other ways than beauty the young girl was the mistress of her mother. In a thousand matters the elder woman had made smooth the path of her child. Education had been given to young Judith; books had been hers when her teens were attained; and in a multitude of little things the daughter had found life sweeter, easier, and brighter, than the mother had done.

"Now, Hugh, old fellow, tell me honestly what you think of our village Venus?" Blackwood remarked, as the girl went towards Saxilham, and he and his friend resumed their walk.

"She is a villager, then?" Chesters cried. "Well, I am ready to swear, my dear Laurence, that Miss Trafford is one of the sweetest and handsomest girls I ever set eyes on. But where does she live? Who are her people? If it can be managed, I should like to know them."

"I am not quite sure about that, old fellow," Blackwood rejoined. "She lives in the village there with her mother—who, by the way, is nearly as handsome as her daughter. And it will interest you to know that the mother was formerly a pit-brow woman—may be one still for all I know to the contrary—and is known in local parlance as Judith of the Red Hand."

"You amaze me, Blackwood!" Chesters exclaimed. "That girl with the sweet face and pure eyes the daughter of a pit-brow woman; and the mother to be known by such a curious name! What is the key, my dear Laurence, to this engrossingly romantic puzzle?"

"Can hardly tell you that, Hugh. Have known young Judith years, and always liked her, but the folk I have bothered with questions about both daughter and mother either didn't know much or would not tell me. But suppose we pump my cousin. A hundred to one that suave, quiet, shy Edward Craven would ferret out every village secret before he'd been here many weeks."

"I will ask Mr. Craven," Chesters remarked, quite gravely.

"Do; and he'll tell you something to astonish you further. But I can tell you that."

"What is it?"

"That this girl who has impressed you so much is a pit-brow girl herself."

"Good heavens! A girl like that condemned to earn a living on a pit-brow!"

"Why not, my dear, old, sentimental Hugh Wynne Chesters? She's been on or about my father's pit-banks for some five or six years, and you see yourself that the work has neither degraded her nor injured her sweet comeliness," was young Blackwood's smiling response. "But come along. To-morrow, or some day this week, we'll pay a visit to the pits and you shall see this village Venus of ours in the wooden shoon and breeches common to all pit-brow lasses."


CHAPTER XVIII.—OVER THE WALNUTS AND THE WINE.

Gabriel Blackwood, his son and nephew, and his guest, Mr. Hugh Wynne Chesters, were just finishing dinner at Saxehurst. They were sitting in that room wherein the mine master, his father, and the Haliburtons—sister and brother—had all taken tea together more than a score of years ago, and the warm yellow light of the westering sun was flooding the lawn and valley outside.

The past fifteen years had not treated the master of Saxehurst unkindly, although they had not passed him by without scathe. He was handsome still, portly and dignified, and prosperity was written in his pose as he sat, in his stride as he walked, in every tone of his voice, in each line of that strong face, with its iron-grey moustache and hair whitening about the temples.

Gabriel had been a widower for the second time nearly half a dozen years, a frightened horse and an overturned carriage resulting in the handsome brunette's sudden death. In the meantime he had drunk to the full of fortune; had had some taste of honours, too; had been in regular succession Town Councillor, Alderman, Mayor, Member of Parliament for Saxilford; had sat in St. Stephen's for several years; and then on being defeated, later, had aspired no more to political dignities.

"By the way, Mr. Chesters," Edward Craven began presently, as he carefully cracked a nut, "may I ask how you like Saxilham and our villagers? Well, I hope—for I rather think that both place and folk are excellent in their way."

The speaker was a tall, attenuated man of five or six and twenty, lean-visaged and eager-eyed, swart too like his kinsmen, but his complexion was pasty, and turbid, not warm and clear like that of his uncle and cousin. He spoke with a certain gravity and deference always, which was meant to be marked; and which made Laurence declare that his relative was always posing.

"My opinion on those matters, Mr. Craven, is exactly your own," Chesters replied readily. "But I know Saxehurst and village rather well, you must remember; for I have enjoyed Mr. Blackwood's hospitality on many occasions."

"And yet, dad," Laurence broke in with pleasant unceremoniousness, "well as Hugh here knows our place and its folk I gave him a big surprise this morning."

"A pleasant one, I hope," Blackwood, senior, remarked. "What was it, Laurence?"

"Well, while out walking this morning, we chanced to run against one of our village beauties—the chiefest of them all, I think; and when I introduced Hugh to the damsel; and told him afterwards that she worked on one of your pit-brows, he refused to believe me until I took my solemn affidavit that it was true. Isn't that so, Chesters?"

"I know who the girl was," Edward Craven broke in, eagerly for him, and his deep-set dark eyes were gleaming. "It must have been young Judith Trafford. She is quite a remarkable girl, and the Five Feet Mine was idle to-day."

"Yes; it was Judith, Edward!" Laurence cried. "Young Judith of the Red Hand, as I told Hugh."

Only one of the young men present was cognisant of the momentary confusion which seized Gabriel Blackwood when the talk took that sudden and unexpected turn. His nephew noted the involuntary frown, and divined the shaft of pain beneath it; but he turned quickly to the others, who had evidently noticed nothing unusual, and the mine-master drank his wine.

"You are quite right, Mr. Craven," Chesters said warmly. "This Judith Trafford is one of the most remarkable young women I ever saw; and I honestly confess, sir," turning to his now composed host, "that I was astounded at first to think that such a sweet, fair, and even refined-looking woman, could by any possibility work on a pit top. The conditions under which these people work, Mr. Blackwood, must be much more favourable than I had thought formerly."

"That is so, Chesters," and the mine-owner helped himself to more wine.

"But I've more to tell you, dad!" Laurence again broke in. "My old chum here is an out-and-out socialist, you know; and his brain is simply simmering with all sorts of social schemes intended for the redemption of toiling humanity. You are lord of all you survey from Saxehurst; the lives and welfare of all your work-folk are in your hands; and if you'll only take my philosophic and philanthropic friend into your confidence and counsels, he'll tell you what ought to be done for your kingdom and subjects. Isn't that so, old chap?"

"In some things I am not a little Socialistically inclined myself," the master remarked gravely, after the general laugh at young Blackwood's sally had subsided. "In a village like this, where one employs most of the workers, not a little might be easily done for their improvement. I'm half-minded to do it, too, Chesters. But some day we will have a good chat together over the matter."

"I shall be happy to have your confidence, sir," the young man addressed said, modestly; "but I'm afraid you will find, Mr. Blackwood, that you will profit but little by our exchange of ideas on this matter."

"That's rot, dad!" was Laurence Blackwood's interjected comment. "Hugh is up to the neck in all socialistic literature, and I believe he has sat, and not figuratively, at the feet of some of the modern prophets of that discontented ilk."

"You have grossly maligned and libelled me and my opinions, Laurence," Chesters retorted, with a smiling face. "I am not the out-and-out believer in Socialism your son would have you believe, Mr. Blackwood. In some things—many—I am as strongly individualistic as most men. Didn't a statesman declare not long since that we are all Socialists nowadays?"

"It was Harcourt," Craven remarked.

"Well, I took his statement to mean this," Chesters resumed. "All sensible men, not mere politicians alone, seem agreed as to the value of such socialistic or communal ventures as are exemplified in the municipalisation of tramways, gas-undertakings; waterworks, and so forth. But what is your opinion, Mr. Craven?"

"I am an individualist of the individualists," the lean, eager-eyed young man answered. "In every department of this big workshop—the world—the leaders are all individualists. So far all that we have worth having has been won owing to the freedom of the individual and personal initiative; and I cannot believe that it will be for the general welfare in the end to interfere with either."

"That is the crux of the whole thing," the elder Blackwood cried, as he rose. "Well, I'm going to let you young fellows crack the nut yourselves. I am of for a smoke on the lawn."

"So am I," Laurence cried, jumping up and following his father through the open window. The others soon followed suit, and presently four smokers were pacing the velvety sward.


CHAPTER XIX.—A YOUNG MAN BENT ON WOOING.

"Now, my dear Edward, what is the matter you wish to speak to me about? Some favour you desire me to grant you, eh? Well, speak out, for I'm in a good humour to-day, and you are my only nephew. Besides, I am bound to admit that you have been simply invaluable to me since you came to Saxehurst. Laurence will not settle down either to business or anything else; and I hardly know what I should do without you, Edward. Now, what is it?"

The speaker was Gabriel Blackwood; the man he addressed was Edward Craven; the time was some days after the incidents set forth in the preceding chapter; and the place was Saxehurst. An hour before Laurence and Chesters had gone forth for the evening to the adjoining town.

"I have been thinking, uncle," Craven said, with even more than his wonted deliberateness of speech, "of settling down soon—marrying, sir, if you see no objection to that idea. I am six-and-twenty now, and if you see nothing against the course I suggest, I——"

"My dear lad, of course I see nothing against such a laudable wish. How should I? Six-and-twenty. Why that was my own age when I first married. Yes, marry—Edward; and accept my congratulations and best wishes. But—the lady? Who is she, my lad?"

"She lives in the neighborhood, sir; she is poor, even a work-girl—but she is very fair and good, the soul of honour, intelligent beyond her class, and I love her, uncle."

"Then you shall marry her, Edward. But do I know her, my lad?"

"I think—I know you do, sir!" and the young man's voice faltered a little, his keen eyes fell before his kinsman's gaze, even his pasty cheeks paled somewhat, as he realised the task he was confronting.

"Then tell me her name."

"Judith Trafford, sir—the pit-brow girl of whom Laurence and Mr. Chesters were speaking the other evening."

"The girl! My own——" and the mine-owner's swarthy, ruddy, face blanched as he checked the words on his tongue. "Judith Trafford!" he went on after a moment's struggle to regain his composure. "How came you to set your love on her. Do you know that she?—have you heard?—Edward, tell me what you know!"

It was an urgent command now, not a suave request. The younger man faced it bravely, his eyes alight, his face open, frank, honest.

"I know that Judith is sweet, pure, honest, and I love her. I know also that she is my cousin, and your daughter."

"Your cousin, and my daughter!" Gabriel Blackwood muttered. "How came you to know that?" and for some moments the strong man's face lowered darkly, a glint of suspicion flickering in his eyes.

"I will tell you the God's truth, uncle! I have wanted to tell you for many days. Heaven forbid that you should think I have been playing the part of a mean, low, skulking spy. It all chanced in this way. From the moment your kindness enabled me to come to Saxilham, I have been interested in this Judith Trafford. I suppose her beauty drew me at first, and then her quietness of demeanour, her intelligence, all so different from that of the other village girls, made me love her. Then I went to the mother like a man, asked her permission to pay my addresses to her daughter, and she told me all."

"Told you all, Edward; and, of course, she would not spare me?" Blackwood muttered harshly.

"She never uttered a word against you, sir," Craven cried. "Nay, more; she even swore me to secrecy in the matter she confided to me, sir."

"That is quite in keeping with all her doings since her return years ago. That woman has taken her revenge upon me in a strange fashion. She spurned all my offers to help, yet, came here under my eyes when another woman would have sought the other end of the world. And to spite me she went back on the pit-brow—took her child—my daughter—there also. And now to wound me further she tells you all! But does young Judith know what you know?"

"She does not know, uncle! Had it been otherwise would she have pledged me to secrecy?"

"Thank God she does not know. And, yet, she must know some day. And Laurence, Edward?"

"His talk the other evening was sufficient to prove that he neither knows nor suspects."

"He must never know!" Blackwood cried. "At least, not yet."

"From me he shall know nothing, uncle—until you tell me to speak. And the marriage, uncle?"

"Has my heartiest approval, Edward. After all, the Fates have not arranged the strange business amiss. And let the wedding come when it may, lad, you and Judith shall have cause to remember and thank me every day of your lives."

"God bless you for that, uncle!" and the young man's eyes were moist and his voice quavered as he bowed and withdrew.

Half an hour later, while Laurence Blackwood and Hugh Chesters were laughing at some love comedy on the stage, another little comedy of real life was being enacted at Saxilham. In the dusk of the summer evening Mr. Edward Craven was standing at the door of the cottage where the Traffords lived, and the slender figure and rare pale face of the younger woman was framed in the open doorway.

"Is your mother in, Miss Trafford?" he asked, suavely.

"She is over the way in a neighbour's house, Mr. Craven; but I will fetch her if you want her."

"No; do not trouble, please. You will do. May I come indoors a few moments?"

"Of course."

She flung wide the door, he entered the clean, plainly furnished kitchen, and she handed him a chair. A lamp was burning on the mantel, the blind was drawn, and the girl was wearing that dark print gown of the other morning, with her bright hair hanging in a heavy rope behind.

"You remember, Miss Trafford, when I first came to live with my uncle at Saxilham?" he began.

"Very well, Mr. Craven."

"Did I not from the very first treat you with the highest consideration and respect?"

"Always, sir," she said, warmly.

"That was because I saw that no woman in all the place was your equal; because I saw that you were as far above all the other village lasses on the pit-brow as I may be said to be above a common pitman. But it was not only because you were so beautiful, Miss Trafford. I saw that you were good, and pure, and intelligent, too; and my interest, my admiration grew the more I saw you—the more I came to know you."

"Spare me, Mr. Craven," the girl cried, her pale face crimsoning under his dulcet flow of praise and his ardent eyes. "You asked for mother first; was it to tell her all this you came here?"

"That and more. I am here to tell her that I loved you, and to ask her to allow me to pay my addresses to you. Judith!" and he rose now, with burning eyes and outstretched hands. "I love you; will you be my wife?"

"No! No! I cannot, Mr. Craven!" and she shrank back from him, amaze, fright, on her sweet face.

"My sudden avowal has surprised you, dear. But I will not take your answer now. Think it over; tell your mother; let me see her! Think of my position and all that it means to you. Besides, my uncle, the owner of all those pits, approves of our union."

"No! no!" she cried again, and backed towards the door. "I do not love you, Mr. Craven—I feel that I never shall!"

"I love you—worship you, Judith; and you shall love me some day! But I will not press you further now," he added, as he followed the girl to the open door. "Think of what I have said, confer with your mother and you shall give me your answer in a week—a month—whenever you please. Now goodnight."

"Good night, sir."

Their fingers met for an instant ere he strode away scowling in the dusk.


CHAPTER XX.—SOME SCHEMES AND DREAMS.

Mr. Edward Craven was at the colliery offices one warm misty morning in July, poring over his ledgers and accounts, and now and again snatching a momentary respite from the orderly rows of figures before his eyes to give a thought to the fair lass who had received so unkindly his hasty proposal; and the same morning Hugh Chesters was out alone, sauntering first lazily through the village and afterwards meandering with a certain curiosity and interest about the old Hill End adit and the other Saxilham pits; while at home on the lawn Gabriel and Laurence Blackwood were sitting smoking, and preparing themselves, mentally, for a serious talk.

A hint from the father at breakfast had kept the son at Saxehurst for the nonce, leaving his chum to follow his own devices for the time being; and the big, handsome, happy-hearted, and somewhat careless young fellow was just then pondering what his sire could have to say to him. Presently, the elder man begun by remarking,

"You're a man now, Laurence—twenty-one; and I should like to hear what are your notions, your wishes, your ambitions with regard to the future—your future, my lad."

"I shan't be one-and-twenty till next September, dad," the young man replied; "and as for the future—my future, as you put it, I don't know that any special thoughts of it have given me any serious trouble yet."

"Serious trouble!" Mr. Blackwood cried. "Why, when I was little older than you it was a glory to me, and not an anxiety, to dream of what the future might hold in store for me; of what a strong, clear-witted, patient and determined man could pluck from the world, and keep!"

"Well, I should say, dad," was the easy response, "that you've done ever so decent—eh?"

"Yes, I've done fairly well, Laurence. At your age I was working, sometime without a shirt, in that old mine you can see upon the hillside yonder; and now I daresay I could call myself master of a quarter of a million, if I cared to sell out of all my undertakings. And I mean to do something more. What if I win a title for you to inherit after me with all the rest? That brings me to the question I was to put to you, my son, this morning. You see what I have managed to do with my poor start; now what are you going to do, with your splendid opportunities?"

"The Lord alone knows, for I don't!" was the young fellow's half-serious, half-jocular rejoinder.

"But you must have ambition, Laurence!" Blackwood cried in his insistent way. "It may lie dormant as yet in you, but as a son of mine you must have it. Nay, have you not shown it already? The pluck and strength that make a man noted on the racing track, the football field, the river, are based upon a sort or ambition after all. The desire to shine among one's fellows is there; all we have to do is to transplant the ambition to nobler things."

"Oh, I'm fond of athletics—anything with some rough-and-tumble work and a spice of danger in it; but I'll be hanged, dad, if ever I cared a snap of my finger for the prizes."

"The desire for the prizes will come, lad, when you settle down to the sober business of life and its higher pursuits. You are only a youngster yet, and you see things through a young man's eyes. But the change will come when you are a few years older, and I want you to prepare yourself for the battle I hope to see you win."

"I want to battle with neither anything nor anybody," was Laurence's answer. "I like all the best things life can give one, and I like to take them pleasantly. Besides, why should matters be different? You've succeeded wonderfully, and so there's no reason to fight for what you've won. You have done all you could for me, given me the best schools and teachers, and all I seem to have profited by it so far is this; I've picked up a gentlemanly air, a gentlemanly slang, a few gentlemanly vices, and a gentlemanly desire to take things easily in that groove which your fortune and God's will have placed me."

"Let it stand at that, then Laurence!" Gabriel Blackwood said earnestly. "If the training you have had so far has imbued you with the tastes of a gentleman the soil is prepared for the crop I would see raised thereon. Now, if I am not boring you too much, I should like to tell you the future I have in view for you."

"I am honestly interested in all this talk, father, and am not bored in the least," the young man cried, with honest warmth. "I am no fool, I think, and I should like to do something some day, if only to justify your expectations. But my heart would have to be in the work, sir, if I am to succeed."

"I believe it will be. Now listen to what I propose. My desire is that you shall succeed as much as I have done—but in another fashion. The money is all right, and it will go on multiplying itself; but you are to aim at honours, not wealth."

"I see no reason why I shouldn't, but how to manage it? That is the thing, sir."

"There are two ways, Laurence; one by scattering tens or scores of thousands discriminately in the right quarters; the other by means of political influence, exerted from the benches of the House of Commons. Now I've no notion of donating fifty or a hundred thousand of my hard won money on anybody or anything; and I purpose that you shall make some figure for yourself as a member of Parliament."

"Oh!" and Laurence Blackwood's face lengthened. "Why, I hate politics, and detest the speechifying, the dodging, the beastly chicanery to which, my friends have often declared, all candidates have to submit ere a seat in the House can be gained."

"Much of that could be avoided in your case, Laurence. I would see to all those matters."

"But I have got no aptitude for the work. Make it something else, dad, please. I couldn't make a speech if you offered me a dukedom; and to qualify one's self for the political game means reading, studying, poring over dull books. All for what? Why even you, sir, have grown tired, it seems, of the political business."

"My case was so different from your own, Laurence," Gabriel Blackwood explained. "You were going to school still a dozen years after the age I started working in the pits; and no matter however successful a man may have been as miner, mine-manager, mine-owner too, he is bound to discover when he tries it that a score of years of lucky money-grabbing in a small village or provincial town is no fit and proper equipment for one who enters the British House of Commons, where he has to meet gentlemen, as well as some of the keenest and best trained intellects in the land."

"Won't all that apply to me equally well?" Laurence retorted. "If you thought the political game a failure what must be my record, dad?"

"You start from an entirely different standpoint, Laurence. In the first place you will have all the prestige and influence of my wealth behind you; secondly, you have had the right training, and will do well enough when you get launched and set going; and, most important of all, perhaps, you are young, good-looking, have that bonhomie and easy good nature which would make you hosts of friends, and I feel that you must succeed."

"And I feel just as certain of my failure," Laurence grunted.

"That's only because of your diffidence, lad. Once you found your feet you'd forge ahead right enough. And think of the splendid marriage you might make with M.P. tacked on to your name. Even among the daughters of the highest you might pick and choose. If I am worth a quarter of a million now, my dear Laurence, what shall I be worth in ten or twenty years? Half a million—nay, a million with a bit of my old luck."

"I don't care for the programme at all, father," the young fellow muttered doggedly. "You should have had a son and heir like my chum, Wynne Chesters. I'm not built that way, somehow. Perhaps, dad, you have exhausted all the working energy and ambitious blood of the family."

"If you had the pluck, the ambition, the clear brain of your friend," Gabriel Blackwood cried, "I would make you an earl before you were my age. But let me tell you that part of my scheme which you will like. What I have laid down so far is only to be begun five or six years hence. Until you are five or six and twenty, I shouldn't care to see you inside Parliament——"

"Come, that's better!" Laurence broke in joyously.

"And before you even think seriously of wooing any constituency I intend you to spend several years in travel. You shall know London as well as you know Saxilford; spend some months in different Continental cities; and make a speciality of visiting and studying on the spot those great possessions of the British Empire in Canada, South Africa, and Australia. If you have anything in you, that will bring it out, Laurence."

"By Jove, father, I am with you now heart and soul!" young Blackwood cried with boisterous joyousness. "If I have one passion it is to travel. Say when I am to begin."

"This autumn, if you wish."

"I'm on, then. But—oh! What is to become of Hugh Chesters? I'd forgotten him. And Hugh, dad, is part of my life itself. I cannot make you understand all he is to me!"

"I think I know, and I am glad it is so, Laurence. I have the very highest opinion of Mr. Chesters. He is a young man with ideas; his vigour of intellect and body; some of the ambition you lack, my lad; and his influence upon you cannot be but for your good. Even his connection with a titled family must prove of use. You agree then to all this, if I make Hugh Chesters your travelling companion?"

"Agree? I should think I do, dad! With Hugh at my side I am ready—nay eager, for this jaunt round the world."

"It is not to be an empty, frivolous stampede, mind! You must use your eyes and wits—take notes, even, of all that strikes you; and when you finish your tour you might make a bit of a book out of your experiences, eh?"

"Of course, Hugh and I will see to that business. And now I am off. Shall I tell Chesters of all this?"

"Tell him that I wish to consult him this evening after dinner. You may mention my scheme, but leave the explanation of details to me, Laurence."

"Quite right, sir. Well, good morning. Chesters is down at the collieries, I fancy, and I am going there. We'll get back for lunch."

"Do. Good morning."


CHAPTER XXI.—GABRIEL BLACKWOOD AND HUGH CHESTERS.

Dinner was over at Saxehurst, the postprandial conversation had dwindled to a thin, uninteresting current of trivial remarks, and father, son, nephew, and friend were thinking of making a move, when Laurence Blackwood turned somewhat eagerly to his cousin.

"What do you say, Edward, to a game of billiards? Haven't had hold of a cue for days now, and I'll give you five and twenty in a hundred for a shilling. Now what do you say?" and the speaker rose and stretched himself.

"Don't mind if I do, Laurence," Craven answered. "But I'm no adept at the game, and you know you can concede me fifty points if you wish. Perhaps Mr. Chesters will mark the game for us, while he smokes a cigar?"

"Shall be happy——" the young man began.

"No, don't go, Mr. Chesters," Mr. Gabriel Blackwood interrupted, "for I want a word with you. Excuse us, Edward, and we will join you later. Now, sir," turning to his son's friend, "just another glass of wine with me."

The cousins withdrew, Craven wondering not a little to find his younger kinsman in such an amiable mood, and wondering also as to what his uncle had to say to Chesters of a confidential nature. Meanwhile, host and guest were left to themselves, and the former settled himself comfortably in an easy chair.

"Laurence would mention, I daresay, Mr. Chesters, that I desired to consult you on a somewhat important matter."

"He did hint at something of that kind, sir," the other made answer.

"That was why he inveigled his cousin away, I imagine," Blackwood said with a smile. "But did he give you any notion of what we were to talk about?"

"Not in the least, Mr. Blackwood; but I hope it is not that matter of Socialism we were discussing some time ago?"

"Certainly not. Yet that is a business I shall set myself to some day. But the immediate matter comes more nearly to me and Laurence—to you also—and I want to talk frankly with you Mr. Chesters."

"I'm only too happy to receive your confidence, sir, and to offer my own."

"Well, now, to begin, as you are to be mixed up in a certain scheme of mine—that is, of course, with your own entire consent and approval—I am going to take the liberty of an old friend to ask you a few plain questions. May I?"

"Certainly."

"Thanks. Now tell me the unvarnished truth, Mr. Chesters, so far as your prospects are concerned."

"I will, sir. I am the nephew of a Yorkshire baronet, who has two sons living, and the sum total of my fortune, invested in Government Stock, brings me in something over a hundred pounds a year. If my uncle's sons die before I do I may inherit, some fine day, a title and perhaps three thousand a year. That is the honest truth, sir."

"And your career? What of that. Have your hopes, desires, ambitions taken any definite shape?"

"Hardly. My uncle urged me to take up the law—but my acquaintance with certain briefless barristers, who are keeping body and soul together by means of their pens, kept me from that fate. Then Sir Stephen Wynne Chesters suggested the army; but I have no desire to put folk to the sword or be put to it myself; so there only remain to choose from, journalism or a life of adventure abroad."

"With a strong inclination toward the latter, I suppose?"

"That is true, Mr. Blackwood. Literature—even the literature of journalism requires brains and training, and not one in a hundred succeeds, I believe. But overseas, out in Canada, South Africa, or Australia, there is room for young men with square heads and willing hands, and one may do well there. I shall strike at that chance, I think, sir."

"But you have ambition, Mr. Chesters?"

"I had, would be nearer the truth, Mr. Blackwood. Had I been situated as your son is I should have thrown myself heart and soul into politics."

"That is practically what I told Laurence!" the mine-master cried. "Well, now what do you say to going to all the places you have named with my son? To the Continent, as well?"

"I would go with Laurence Blackwood to the ends of the earth if need be!" was Chesters' quick answer. "But what is your idea, Mr. Blackwood?"

"This. I mean my son, your friend, to figure in politics and society. He has the necessary ability, I believe, and I want you to help me to turn him into the right groove. But he hates books and study—all the parliamentary game—as it is commonly played to-day. We must teach Laurence to play the game in another way, Chesters."

"And your plan, sir?"

"You know London, I fancy. You have friends among the men and women of the world there. You shall spend a month or two at the capital together; take a tour of the Continent later; and after that you shall visit in turn, spending half a year or so in each—Canada, South Africa, Australia; and winding up your globe-trotting in three or four years, write a book setting out your joint experiences. That is my scheme. Now what do you say to it?"

"It is glorious! What does Laurence say?"

"He is enthusiastic. Was ready to pack up his traps at once when I told him that you were to accompany him. So you agree, Chesters?"

"Agree! I should think I do, Mr. Blackwood!" was the emphatic response.

"Then you shall name your own terms."

"I refuse to name any terms, sir. That, and all else, I should prefer to leave to you."

"Then I will take you at your word. Now this is how I have figured the thing out. I want you and Laurence to travel and live in a quiet, comfortable, and gentlemanly fashion, but I wish all undue display and extravagance to be carefully avoided. My son is at a most impressionable age, and all foolish excess in spending would be just as silly and injurious as excess in other things, Mr. Chesters."

"That is exactly my own view, sir."

"I am pleased to hear it is so. Well, I have decided to allow for your expenses a hundred pounds a month, with an additional fifty now and again to cover the cost of voyages. Do you consider that ample?"

"Ample enough in every way, sir!" was the young man's emphatic reply. "For some considerable time now I have been living on less than three pounds a week; and, surely Laurence and I can get along together anywhere on five and twenty pounds a week."

"I shall not draw the line at an extra hundred or two, in case you need it; and your own salary I have set down at two hundred and fifty a year. That, of course, you can draw upon as you wish, but I purpose handing over to you at once, say, half a year's remuneration, to enable you to fit yourself out for the tour."

"No! You shall not do that, Mr. Blackwood. I have sufficient for all my present needs and if I require more I will let you know."

"Yes; do. And so you fall in with my wishes in every way?"

"In every particular, sir. If there is anything I feel inclined to grumble at it is your generosity."

"That is a fault I am seldom guilty of," Blackwood said with a smile, "and I can afford it now. Shall I put our agreement in writing?"

"Not at all, sir! Your word is sufficient. And when do you wish our travels to commence?"

"There is no immediate hurry. In a month or two we will arrange matters finally. I am not tired yet of having Laurence and you at Saxehurst. Now try one of these cigars, and we'll see how that game of billiards is progressing."


CHAPTER XXII.—CRAVEN DIVULGES THE SECRET.

Hugh Wynne Chesters had now spent between three and four weeks at Saxehurst, and that month or so had been one of the pleasantest periods in his life. As the reader will have gathered this was not his first visit to the home of his bosom friend, and then, as now, he had sauntered through the green, fruitful valley of the Saxe, had idled and talked and made observations in Saxilham village, had visited the mines also, and watched the agile, quaintly-garbed women and girls at work on the surface of the mines.

But his pleasure and interest now were of a different character to what he had formerly experienced. Previously, Laurence Blackwood had been almost ever at his side during all his wanderings and musings; now, whenever opportunity offered, he was out of doors alone, and if hitherto he had been drawn towards all miner-maids in general, he now felt strongly impelled to the study of one pit-brow lassie in particular.

Since that sunny morning when he and his friend had chanced to meet Judith Trafford, Hugh had found, even made, other opportunities of seeing the fair girl frequently. That one so handsomely formed, and refined in face, speech, and bearing, could take kindly to the rough life of the pit bank he was much inclined to doubt; was even inclined to believe, later, that his first impression of Judith's striking beauty had been a false one.

In a week or two all the folk in the village and about the mines knew Chesters' as the friend of young Blackwood, and the honoured guest of the rich mine-owner. There was that, too, about the handsome, fair-faced, smiling visitor which drew most men and women to him; he had a nod or a word for all he knew; children in the village would run to him; their mothers would give him a blithe greeting as he passed; sometimes in one or other of the Saxilham taverns he would drop in for a glass of beer and pass a few words with the pit-men gathered inside; and about the collieries he was seen so often that folk soon ceased to remark on his coming and going.

In the course of a few weeks Hugh Chesters and Judith Trafford had become quite friendly. He would saunter across the brow where the girl worked; loiter near, if she were not busy, chatting to her with the freedom of a friend and equal, his every word and look the perfection of gentlemanly courtesy. At first she had been shy and reticent, her answers mere monosyllables; but his unfailing pleasantness of manner, the honest candour of his voice and eyes, his frank, handsome face and that nameless, undefinable personal charm, won upon the girl day by day, just as his first impression of her beauty and winsomeness was stamped deeper and deeper on his mind at each meeting.

In the course of time Chesters came to know the elder Judith Trafford, who was a woman now of over forty or so, and very handsome still, but with a certain hardness and pride and dry bitterness about her that the young man could not understand.

It did not strike Hugh as singular that he had never heard the older woman addressed or spoken of as Mrs. Trafford. In a village like Saxilham the villagers commonly used one another's Christian names in conversation; and once on the pit-brow Chesters had thrilled momentarily on hearing the girl say to him, "Don't call me 'Miss' here please. It seems strange here, and the others stare so on hearing it. On the pit top I am just 'Judith' to everybody, you know."

But one matter had puzzled our young friend not a little. What had Laurence meant when he spoke of "Judith of the Red Hand"? What a singular name to bestow on a woman. How had the mother come to have such a striking nickname tacked on to her? And, occasionally, he had heard the daughter spoken of in the same phrase.

That some romantic episode lurked under that most suggestive appellation Chesters felt well-nigh certain, but respecting the nature of the incident or cause he could form no feasible surmise. Laurence had suggested that his cousin would be able to tell him about the matter, but, somehow, Hugh did not care for Edward Craven overmuch, and was loath to approach that gentleman on the subject.

Then it had struck the young man that his kindly host would be able to settle all his imaginings. As one who had lived in the village for the far greater portion of his life, Mr. Gabriel Blackwood was almost certain to know everything pertaining to the Traffords—mother and daughter. Yet he hesitated to broach the topic to the master of Saxehurst, for by this time he had come to regard the younger Judith with feelings much warmer than those of mere friendliness, and, manlike, he shrank from making manifest his interest to the pit-brow girl.

An almost similar reason had kept him from tapping the founts of information locked up in the breasts of all the ancient Saxilham folk, and ultimately he fell back on Edward Craven for what he wished to know. But it was chance, rather than set purpose, which led to him speaking to the mine-master's nephew on the subject.

Sauntering idly about Saxehurst one Saturday afternoon, Chesters came across Craven, who was reading and smoking under the shade of a big elm. He dropped beside him on the rustic seat, offered his cigar-case, and after some general converse remarked in a casual way.

"By the way, Mr. Craven, I heard the other day a most remarkable observation made, and it applied to both the Traffords."

"Indeed! What was it?" and the young clerk was all eagerness in a moment.

"The remark was 'Judith o' th' Red Hand'; and I've been cudgelling my wits ever since to discover why both mother and daughter should be so named. Now is there really any reason why either one or the other should be so called, or is it merely one of those nonsensical nicknames so often given to people?"

"In this case there is a reason—the best of reasons, Mr. Chesters!" Craven answered in his most judicial manner. "And singularly enough, it applies with equal force to both the older and the younger woman—but from absolutely different causes."

"You know the ins and outs of the whole business, I daresay?"

"As well as I know my own history!"

"Is it a matter that you are free—you care to speak upon, Mr. Craven?"

"On one condition only. If I do speak, you must pledge me your word of honour, Mr. Chesters, that what I tell you shall never be divulged to another soul—at least not for years!"

"Then I give you my most solemn assurance," Hugh cried, his interest and wonder increasing greatly, "that your confidence shall not be broken."

"Thank you. It is a strange story, but I can give you the main points of it in a few sentences. Twenty-one years since, the older Judith Trafford was almost as beautiful as her daughter now is; and at that time she was engaged to a young man in her own sphere of life. There was love on each side, but the man did not marry her. Prompted, probably, by worldly considerations he married an older and a wealthy woman; and soon was a widower. Then he seems to have turned to Judith again. And again she was put aside for a beautiful and rich widow. But the second marriage seems to have upset Judith's mind—for in church, after the wedding was solemnised, she plunged a knife into her false lover and herself."

"Good heavens! I see now why she got that name," Chesters exclaimed. "But how did the thing end? Did the man die?"

"No. He recovered, as Judith did. She was proved to be insane, and ordered to be detained in an asylum during Her Majesty's pleasure. When she recovered her reason and liberty she came back here with her child—young Judith—and they have lived here ever since."

"And the man?" Chesters demanded, with kindling eyes, "Where is he? Who is he? You have mentioned no name. Is that a secret also?"

"The greatest secret of all, Mr. Chesters!" and Craven's face and voice were those of a judge for gravity.

"May I not know him?"

"You may—but remember that solemn pledge, sir. The man is a friend of your own—my uncle, Gabriel Blackwood."

"Good God!"

Those two words were wrung sharply from Hugh's lips, and the half-burnt cigar in his fingers fell to the gravel unheeded.


CHAPTER XXIII.—"THE BLACKEST OF LIES."

"A most singular story, is it not?" Edward Craven asked quietly, as that exclamation of wonder fell from Hugh Chesters' lips.

"A most singular and deplorable story!" the latter cried, in tones of deepest commiseration. "If I had not heard it from your lips it would have seemed incredible. Even now it seems impossible that a man so kindly natured, so generous, gentlemanly, and considerate in every way should have allowed himself to be guilty of such a selfish thing."

"I imagine," Craven replied with composure, "that I can guess the motives which prompted my uncle to pursue the course he did. Of course, Mr. Chesters, all that passes between us on this grave matter is purely and strictly confidential. Well, I have already indicated what reason or series of reasons made Mr. Blackwood act so."

"I scarcely fellow you, Mr. Craven," Chesters observed.

"Did I not say that my uncle was probably actuated by worldly considerations when he married first one rich wife and then another? I am sure of it, sir. He loved Judith Trafford, but his ambition would not allow him to gratify his affection. The result is what we see to-day."

"It seems singular to me," Chesters remarked, "that the woman who should have been Gabriel Blackwood's wife should still be working about his mines; and a thousand times more strange that his own daughter should do so."

"That is the fault of Judith Trafford alone. When she came back to the village she refused his assistance and has declined it ever since."

"A strong and noble-minded woman evidently; but, for the daughter's sake, it is to be regretted she saw fit to take such a high view of the matter. And the villagers seem to be ignorant of the relationship between these two remarkable women and your uncle, Craven?"

"Saving ourselves, and the parties concerned, no one knows. Of course folk suspected at first, but the admirable, splendid way in which the woman kept her secret satisfied the most suspicious in the end that there was no relationship between my uncle and young Judith. Who could keep on believing for years that a pit-brow girl was a wealthy mine-owner's daughter, at work on her own father's brow?"

"Does young Judith know?"

"She does not! Of that I am positive."

"And how came the younger woman to be called 'Judith of the Red Hand' too? Why should the mother's nickname be applied to the daughter?"

"There was—is an excellent reason for that," Craven answered gravely. "It is said, and with truth, I believe, that the daughter bears on her body the brand of a red hand. The villagers are ready to swear to that, for when Judith was a child many of them saw the birthmark; and not a few of them set the mark down as a punishment for the sin of her mother."

"I am deeply interested, Mr. Craven, in all the details of this strange romance of real life," Chesters observed warmly, "and I thank you for telling me so much. And, if I am not boring you overmuch, or taxing your patience, there are a few other questions I should like to discuss with you."

"I shall be pleased, Mr. Chesters," Edward Craven replied in his most amiable way.

"Then what just struck me was this: All the villagers seem ignorant of what you have told me—you yourself said a moment ago that saving ourselves, and the persons concerned, no one knew. Now——"

"How did I come to know!" Craven broke in, with one of his saturnine smiles. "That is what you were going to ask me, Mr. Chesters?"

"It is."

"Then I will tell you honestly. Even from the first week of my coming here I was as greatly interested in these two women as you seem to have been. I suppose the singular name applied to them sometimes, in anger or derision by the villagers, must have struck me; and then the uncommon comeliness of both was very striking. A pitman, Roderick Norbury could tell me nothing save the first part of the story. He is a man of five and forty, I daresay, and in his early days had been a lover of the elder Judith, but she had scorned him for the man who afterwards threw her over. But Norbury could tell me nothing save that part of the drama which ended with the attempted murder and suicide. For the whole truth I had to go to Judith Trafford herself."

"To Judith herself? Surely, you never dared to drag out of the injured and betrayed woman the secret she had kept from the whole village at her own sore cost?" Chesters cried.

"I was hardly so indelicate and brutal as that, Mr. Chesters," Craven replied, a faint smile illuminating his thin, dark, eager features. "I obtained the poor woman's secret in all innocence. Before I had been here many months I had learned to love Judith Trafford, the younger, with an honest, disinterested affection; and like a man I went to the mother, to obtain permission to pay my addresses to her daughter. Now you will understand?"

"Not quite, Mr. Craven," Chesters replied, and the unsteadiness of his voice, the faint quivering of the muscles of his face told a tale to the other's keen eyes.

"Let me make myself plain then," Craven said, in clear, decisive tones. "When Judith Trafford heard that it was the desire of my life to woo and marry her daughter she was curiously stirred. I leave you to imagine the thoughts that must have moved her. Here was the nephew of the man who was the father of her child desiring to espouse that child. At first she attempted to dissuade me from pursuing my desire. She pointed out that the nephew of a wealthy colliery master could not fitly mate with a girl who worked on the pit-brow; that my uncle was certain to object to such a match; that the carrying out of my plan would, in all likelihood, injure my future prospects. But I was too much in love to heed her counsel. I pressed my claims warmly, would not listen to her advice, and at length, with tears, she confessed that Judith, her daughter, was in sober truth my own cousin."

"She sanctioned your wooing then, Mr. Craven?" Chesters asked, in a low, hard voice.

"She did, I am happy to say."

"And the daughter herself?"

"She was agreeable, of course; but she stipulated that one condition was absolutely necessary, sir."

"And that condition, Mr. Craven?"

"Was this, Mr. Chesters. Young Judith Trafford consented to become my wife only on the understanding that my uncle was quite agreeable to the match. That stipulation, of course, I readily accepted."

"And does your uncle know?"

"He does. I went to him only the other week, and told him the whole truth; said that I loved my cousin Judith, and he not only sanctioned the match, but made me such promises as to ensure our future welfare."

"I congratulate you, Mr. Craven," Hugh Chesters remarked in no congratulatory tone. "You have won for a wife one of the handsomest women I have ever met. And when, may I ask, is the happy union to be consummated?"

"There is nothing arranged so far as to that, my dear Mr. Chesters," was the answer. "Nay, more; our engagement is not even known beyond five persons—the Traffords, my uncle, yourself, and I. Even my cousin Laurence does not know; and I desire you not to tell him yet. It is my sweetheart's wish that our engagement should be kept a secret for a month or two. She thinks that when the villagers hear of it they will say that she has thrown herself at me because I was the nephew of Gabriel Blackwood. You understand?"

"I do; but I cannot imagine a woman like the younger Judith Trafford throwing herself at any man. But, Craven, your future wife ought to work no longer on the pit-top."

"She refuses to quit it until our engagement is made public in the autumn. But here comes Laurence! Not a word to him, if you please, Mr. Chesters!"


CHAPTER XXIV.—MR. CRAVEN WOOS THE MOTHER.

The discriminating reader will already have discerned that Mr. Edward Craven was not a gentleman who confined himself to the utterance of the strict truth when half a lie, or a whole one, would suit his purpose better.

In making the confession of his love and hopes to his uncle, Edward had not allowed the limits of veracity to bound his remarks, as will be seen later; and during his long conversation with Hugh Chesters the mine-owner's nephew had permitted himself a similar freedom of conversational latitude.

In the latter case Mr. Craven had not contented himself with the half-truth, which, according to the late Poet Laureate, is ever the blackest of lies, but had been guilty of a deliberate falsehood. He had told Hugh that Judith Trafford was willing to become his wife, provided his uncle had no objection to their union; whereas, as the reader knows, the beautiful lass had almost peremptorily refused even to give his proposal her consideration.

In one respect Edward had lied to both Gabriel Blackwood and Hugh Chesters. His knowledge of Judith Trafford's parentage had not been obtained from the girl's mother, but from another source and in a more questionable way.

Some papers of his elder kinsman, placed aside and forgotten, had come into his hands. Among them were two copies of letters written years before by Gabriel Blackwood to his former sweetheart, offering to make ample provision for her and young Judith if they would both leave the pit-top and settle down in comfort away from the village. And with the copies were replies from the woman herself.

Those letters were poor, badly written documents, but they told Edward Craven everything. Judith Trafford refused to take anything from the rich man who had deceived her. She would work at his pits so long as she was able to work, and his daughter should do the same. She had kept his secret and her own so long faithfully, and would keep it still, unless he compelled her to make it public. But no bread of his, not honestly won, should ever enter her own or her daughter's mouth.

Before that revelation Edward Craven had stood astounded for a time. Judith Trafford his uncle's illegitimate offspring and his own cousin! Then it had flashed upon the keen-witted and not over scrupulous young man, that this discovery of that turned-down page in his kinsman's life might be used to his own immense advantage. Not in the way of blackmail, oh no!—but in a quite legitimate way, and one eminently satisfactory to all concerned.

On first coming to Saxilham village Craven had been strongly impressed by the sight of the wonderfully handsome pit-brow girl; and the passing of day after day, week after week, had only served to intensify the passion the lass had inspired in him.

Whatever his intentions may have become afterwards, the motives which impelled Edward Craven towards young Judith at that time were not honourable. He had made small advances to the lass from the first; had treated her with a studied consideration that he showed to none of the less comely women at his uncle's pits; but, somehow, she had treated his warm looks and complimentary phrases with a coldness and thinly-veiled disdain.

But when Edward discovered that the fair young maiden was in sober truth his cousin, both his attitude and his thoughts changed—even that which had been passion hitherto was changed into a selfish sort of affection.

He must marry this Judith Trafford. Apart from her great beauty, the fact that she was his uncle's daughter, although but a natural one, made her his equal in every way. And how such a match would redound to his own material advantage was easy to see. His kinsman had loved Judith's mother in his early manhood, and was a very wealthy man now; was it likely that he would not well endow his own flesh and blood when he saw her comfortably married to his own nephew.

For many a month Edward Craven had thought over that project, and the way in which it was best to be consummated. The coming of handsome Hugh Chesters to Saxehurst, and the warm way in which his cousin's friend had spoken of Judith had forced his hand, as we have seen.

He had played two cards; had approached his kinsman and been entirely successful, had made an offer of marriage to Judith Trafford and been contemptuously refused. But the game was not played out yet. Edward Craven had many qualities besides astuteness. He had determination, courage, a clear brain; and when he made up his mind to do a thing—set his whole soul and hopes upon it—he was a man to be reckoned with.

He had resolved that Judith Trafford, junior, was to be Mrs. Edward Craven some day, and the way in which he had swept Hugh Chesters—a probable rival—from his path, showed that few scruples would be allowed to come between him and his great aim. He had tried the daughter and failed; he must approach the mother next. By hook or by crook Judith must be won.

Early one afternoon Craven again approached the door of the Trafford's cottage. He had heard that the elder woman was somewhat indisposed, and slipping away from the colliery he determined to strike a blow he had contemplated for weeks. In answer to his knock the door opened and the handsome, pale-faced woman of forty-one or two stood on the threshold, scarcely a detail of the old Judith missing.

"What is it, Mr. Craven?" she asked, quietly enough, yet evidently surprised by the other's appearance there.

"I heard you were not quite well to-day," he answered, speaking in the most ingratiating manner he could assume, "and as I had something of importance to communicate to you I thought you would pardon my coming here."

"What is it?" she asked curtly.

"What I have to say I would rather say indoors. May I come inside, please?"

"Come in if you want, then."

Her manner was hardly gracious, but he did not mind that. She stepped aside, he entered, and when the door was closed, and they were seated in the small kitchen, he began by saying:

"I believe you will remember my first coming to Saxilham, two years ago?"

"I do, sir."

"Since then, and you have seen me almost every day, have you seen or heard anything wrong of me?"

"Nothing."

"I have done my duty by everybody; have never seen fit to oppress or hamper any of the workmen or workwomen at the collieries, and have made things better for them all whenever I could, eh?"

"So folk say."

"And you have no fault to find with me?"

"Only one," she said quietly.

"What is that?" he cried in some wonder.

"That you are the son of Gabriel Blackwood's brother, Mr. Edward Craven."

"I could not help that, madam, and I hope you will overlook the fact that my uncle is a man you dislike."

"I didn't say I disliked your uncle!" she exclaimed. "But what brings you here? He hasn't sent you?"

"No one has sent me. I come here of my own free will. I love your daughter—have loved her ever since I set foot in Saxilham—and I want to marry her. I am here to-day to ask you to allow me to pay my addresses to my cousin—my uncle's daughter—Judith Trafford."

"Your cousin! Your uncle's daughter!" she cried, jumping to her feet. "How do you know that?"

"I know; I pity you, and would do all I can to put right an old wrong!" he cried in his turn. "Only say that you will help me to win your daughter—my cousin—for my dear wife."

"Does Gabriel Blackwood know of this?"

"He knows that I love Judith; is fully aware that I know all your lamentable story and his own; and I come here with his full sanction, nay more, with his blessing—to ask you to let your daughter, his daughter and my own loved cousin, marry me. I implore you to do all you can to bring this marriage about. Think of all it will mean for Judith and me. We shall be happy, for my uncle will surely enrich us both. She will enjoy the happiness and comfort denied to you, and the old wrong will be wiped out at last."

"The old wrong can never be wiped out!" she cried. "Go back to your uncle, Edward Craven, and tell him that! The blood of the Blackwoods shall never again mix with the blood of the Traffords. There is the door, sir. Now go, and never darken this threshold again!"


CHAPTER XXV.—IN LONDON TOWN.

It is winter now, and the scene changes from pretty, sweet, green Saxilham village to the busy heart of the great capital of England. For three months or so the bosom friends and sworn companions, Laurence Blackwood and Hugh Chesters, have been located in London, and there they are still residing, in cosy and luxurious chambers.

It had pleased the wealthy mine-owner, Gabriel Blackwood, that his loved son and heir, and that son's dear comrade, should see something of the stirring and varied life the vast metropolis could show them ere they commenced on their tour round the world; and so for the period indicated the two young men had been "warming their hands at the fire of life;" had been drinking deeply of the gaieties and shows, the pleasures and excitements, with which earth's greatest human hive abounds.

Each of London's famous show-places had been visited in turn; the Cathedral, art galleries and museums had been explored, not without interest; Westminster Abbey had given them an hour's delight: the House of Commons, sanctified by the memories of great orators had been wandered through; and Fleet-street, redolent of almost all that is worth remembering of English literary life of the past and present, had been walked in, dined in, wined in.

And when all the "shows" had been exhausted or our young friends had tired of seeing them, they had found other pleasures ready to their hands and purses. Hugh Wynne Chesters was not quite unknown in town, and ere a month was passed he had introduced his friend to quite a number of gay young fellows; some "men about town," a Member of Parliament or two, a few authors and artists, with journalists and actors galore; good chaps all, and most of them taking life as it came to them.

Laurence Blackwood was one of those sunny-natured youngsters who find delight in the society of their fellow men. Soon he had made himself a great favourite with all who knew him; and the knowledge, which was soon whispered about, that he was the only son of a wealthy mine-master made lots of folk eager to form his acquaintance.

Occasionally, Laurence gave a supper party at one of the famous restaurants; and at these festive gatherings were to be met the better kind of bohemians which every profession furnishes—young poets who had yet to startle the world with their epics; authors whose great works no publisher would touch; briefless barristers who were earning bread and cheese by hanging on to the skirts of literature; actors who had yet to make a name; and not a few of the gay damsels of the footlights, whose beauty formed their main claim to figure upon the stage and dub themselves "star artistes."

Among the latter was one gloriously beautiful blonde, for whom Laurence Blackwood had formed an intense and senseless infatuation. She was a music hall artiste, Pauline Lorraine by name, and according to that portion of the press devoted to "The Profession," was a coming "star."

Pauline was several years older than her "latest catch," and, suspecting her motives, Hugh Chesters had warned his chum more than once against her. Of course, his advice was ignored; the moth was eager to singe its wings against the blaze that seemed so alluring, and once or twice the friends who had never had a wrong word before, were on the verge of an open rupture concerning the fair damsel.

It had been arranged, originally, that Laurence and Hugh should not prolong their stay in London more than six weeks or two months, yet the passing of three months found them still there. All in vain had Chesters implored and protested, and once he had even written to Saxehurst on the quiet and suggested that Mr. Blackwood should threaten to stop supplies unless his son put his temptations behind him forthwith by quitting the Metropolis for the Continent.

But the mine-owner had written back, pointing out that there was no immediate danger. Laurence was only a young man, and it was perhaps as well that he should have his fling early in life and get it over for ever. He thanked Chesters for his warning, but he had faith in his son's manliness and common-sense; in the course of a few more weeks he would sicken of London's frivolous dissipations, when they could start on the tour arranged.

Thus matters stood one morning in December when Laurence and Hugh sat together in their Chambers. It was two hours before noon and the friends were at breakfast—the latter making a hearty repast of the good things spread out on the table, whereas his younger companion merely toyed with the eatables, doing little save sip his coffee.

At length the mine-master's son pushed back his chair with a muttered imprecation, and going to a couch in the room flung himself upon it.

"Hullo, Laurence! What's wrong now?" Chesters cried, as he poured out another cup of coffee. "Is the breakfast off, or is it only yourself?"

"Everything's off!" young Blackwood grunted.

"Humph! And so the fair Pauline, 'the rising star of the Music Hall stage' to quote 'The Era,' was unkind last night. Is that why you are sick, my dear chap?" Chesters asked in his light bantering way.

"I am sick, Hugh! Thoroughly sick of everything!" Laurence cried; and there was a note of poignancy in his tones which denoted a deeper distress than mere ennui.

"Sick are you, old man? Well, do you know, it may strike you as unfeeling, but I am glad to hear it. By the way, did you ever hear that old distich of Rabelais? How does it run?


"'The devil was sick, the devil a saint would be,
The devil was well, the devil a saint was he.
'"


"Don't chaff me, Hugh," Blackwood pleaded. "Honestly, I am in a hole; and I want your advice, not your chaff. How I wish now that I had listened to you earlier, and left this charming and accursed London six or seven weeks ago."

"We can quit it to-morrow if you like, Laurence," Chesters returned, as he left the table and walked to where his friend was reclining. "You have but to say the word and I'll wire your father at once. And that reminds me of something I have done without your knowledge. It may seem mean to you, but I did it for the best. I think you will forgive me, old boy."

"What was it, Hugh?" Blackwood asked moodily. "Nothing much wrong, I'll swear. Heaven knows that I'd give something to have your sense and clear mind!"

"I wrote to Saxehurst a few weeks ago," Hugh went on, "suggesting to Mr. Blackwood that both of us had had about as much of the city at one spell as would do either of us any good; and I even asked him to stop supplies till we shook the dust of the place from our feet. What do you think of your old comrade for doing that, eh?"

"I know why you wrote; and the old man refused, Hugh?"

"He did. Said you were to have your fling, Laurence."

"And I've had it; and I wish to heaven I hadn't!" was Laurence's cry. "If dad had only done as you asked him I shouldn't be in this hole now!"

"Is there really something wrong, my dear Laurence?" Hugh questioned, in a suddenly changed voice, as he dropped on the couch beside his friend. "Is it some squabble with this fair Phryne I have warned you so often about, or is it really a serious matter?"

"It is serious—God knows, Hugh!"

"Then tell me the honest truth, Laurence!" Chesters exclaimed. "Now, what is it?"

"I have got into the hands of the Jews through that woman, Hugh; and I have forged my father's name to a cheque for five thousand pounds! I have been an ass! A fool! A regular Johnnie! But heaven alone knows what made me stoop to forgery!"

Laurence Blackwood broke down utterly then, and hiding his face in his hands wept weakly, as a man will when he has sinned and has to face the consequences.


CHAPTER XXVI.—LAURENCE BLACKWOOD'S FOLLY.

For quite a couple of minutes after Laurence Blackwood had made that startling confession of criminal folly, neither of the young men spoke a word. The sinner was silently eating out his heart in bitterness at his own inexcusable sin, and the friend he loved, and who loved him so well in return, was grimly confronting in imagination all the consequences of his companion's rash act.

To Hugh Chesters the moment seemed more pregnant with evil for him than for the wrong-doer. Laurence's father was a wealthy man, and his wrong-doing would be overlooked quickly, but for him what excuse was there to be made? In a sense he was in charge of the other; had been engaged to accompany him in a tour round the world; and here on the very first stage in the journey the very worst calamity had come to pass.

What was to be done? That was the momentous problem Chesters was trying to riddle out. Only one sound and valid excuse could he adduce in his own favour. He had been remiss in his care of his friend, had allowed him of late to follow his own devices too much; but it was true that he had warned Gabriel Blackwood that his son had got among the wrong set, and the mine-owner had answered, "Let the lad have his fling."

Well, he had had his fling, and had flung a stone that would hit his own father somewhat sharply in the face and pocket. But there was only one thing to be done, and he meant to do it—and do it quickly.

"Look here, Laurence, old man," he said sharply, but in no unkind voice, "sit up and let us face this thing straight together like men. A cheque for five thousand pounds, you say—and besides that the Jews. Now about how much do you owe them? Tell me straight. We are in this business together and must face it together."

"Hugh, old chum, you're a brick!" Blackwood cried, as he sat erect and grasped his friend's hand, evidently greatly cheered by the other's firm words. "With interest, the Jews' business will run to about five thousand, too."

"Ten thousand!" and Chester's face lengthened. "A small fortune gone in less than four months. What in the name of thunder have you done with it, Laurence? You know that I am in a way responsible for your good behaviour, and now, what am I to say for myself?"

"You shall say nothing, Hugh!" young Blackwood cried. "I am responsible for all, and I will stand the brunt of my own cursed foolishness!"

"But how in the name of goodness did you manage to get through all that money, Laurence?"

"In a hundred ways you had no idea of, Hugh. There was that white witch Pauline—who was ever clamouring for money or jewels; then there were those fine suppers and wine for the gang; and often enough, when you had come here and were sleeping, I was in one of the clubs with the boys, where high play is winked at; and I suppose the whole cursed lot of them would be eager to fleece a jay like me whose governor was said to be a millionaire."

"But the forgery? How came you to descend to that? The Jews are bad enough, but that is terrible. My God! it is enough to make your father go mad and shut his door for ever in my face. Whatever could you want all that money for, Laurence?"

"The Jew had bitten me pretty deeply, I can tell you; quite a crowd of them held my bits of paper, and not a few were ready to hint that they would like to see my cash; and then, when I thought of that cheque I saw my way out of it all."

"That cheque! What cheque in especial do you refer to, Laurence? The one, I suppose, by means of which the forgery was committed. It must have been drawn, I suppose, upon your father's bank, or it would not have been cashed quite so readily. But how did you manage the business? This is really a criminal matter, as you must know; but I want to understand the thing thoroughly."

"Oh, there is no mystery in the thing at all, Hugh. This is exactly how the whole affair was contrived. Before we left Saxehurst last September my father gave me a blank cheque, saying that if we happened to run short of cash at any time unexpectedly, I was to use it."

"And had he signed his name to it?"

"Of course; and all I had to do was to fill it in for the sum of five thousand, as I tell you. I'm awfully sorry now that I didn't place the cursed thing in your hands, Hugh, and then this terrible trouble would never have come to me."

Chesters had jumped excitedly to his feet and was wringing his comrade's hand ever so warmly, shouting with glee in his relief, and almost ready to kiss the other in his intense joy.

"What is the matter now, Hugh?" Laurence queried, in some wonder at the other's joyous manifestation.

"Why, you great donkey, don't you understand? You almost frightened me to death with talking about forging a cheque for five thousand pounds, and now it seems that all you have done is to fill up a cheque—a signed one too, which he had given you to use. Laurence, you ought never to have startled me so. Can't you see that what you have done is not forgery at all?"

"Yes, of course; I see that, now I come to think of it," the younger man answered, glumly. "But apart from that fact the damage remains the same. I knew very well that dad gave me that slip of bank paper to fill in some day in case of need for fifty, a hundred, say a couple or five hundred at the outside. And now I have played upon his generosity to the tune of fifty hundreds."

"It doesn't matter," Chesters cried jubilantly, "even if it were a hundred hundreds—for even then it would be a thousand-fold less than a crime. You have been a great ass, Laurence Blackwood, but you have reason to thank God that it's only folly and not crime you have been guilty of. Your father will pull a wry face as it is, but how would he have felt if you had made a criminal of yourself."

"That's all very, well, Hugh, but things are bad enough yet," the other groaned. "I've put dad in for a cool ten thousand by my crass stupidity, and the honest truth is that I daren't think of how he'll take it. Ten to one that contemplated world's tour of ours will never come off at all."

"That is what I fear; but this matter must be faced," Chesters remarked gravely.

"But what are we to do?" Laurence asked. "I have about five hundred of the money left yet; what do you say if we strike out for ourselves—see the other side of the world, and seek our own fortune like real adventurers? That is more in my line, Hugh. Are you game?"

"I am game for returning to Saxehurst and putting the whole truth of the matter before your father," was Chester's firm reply. "To do less would be dishonourable; and to run away like a craven hound is not in my line. We must wire to Saxilham at once and say we shall reach there to-morrow."

"I cannot go! I will not go! I dare, not, Hugh!" young Blackwood cried in distress.

"Then I shall go alone!" was the dogged retort. "I owe a duty to Mr. Gabriel Blackwood, and it shall be performed. I do not hold myself quite blameless in this mad business, Laurence, and not to let your father know at once how matters stand would but make them worse later."

"But couldn't you write to him, Hugh, and explain? That's what I thought of doing. Do—there's a good chap, and it may all blow over."

"I prefer to face Mr. Blackwood. He has treated me like a gentleman, and I am going to behave like one. Don't you see, Laurence, that it will be ever so much better to get the job over now?"

"That is so, but the job is so deuced uncomfortable a one," the other answered with a grimace.

"Well, I always believe in grasping your nettle, and the shortest way out of a difficulty is straight through it. Now wait while I write and despatch a telegram, and then, we'll talk over the rest."

This is the message Chesters sent along the wires:—


"Blackwood, Saxehurst, Saxilham.
Shall be with you to-morrow about noonday.
Have important but unpleasant news.
Chesters."


That work done and off his mind, the elder man again turned to his friend.

"Now, Laurence, I want to know exactly how much you got in solid cash from the Israelites."

"Five hundred pounds each from five different Jews," the young man answered. "I might have obtained the whole two thousand five hundred from a smaller number of the fraternity, but I thought that might mean some close inquiry, which I wished to avoid; so I took the smaller sum from the number of Jews named."

"And promised to pay just a hundred per cent. for each loan. Rather a nice rate of interest that, eh? Now give me all their names and addresses. I have an idea that Mr. Gabriel Blackwood will make those money-lenders take a trifle less than their bond. If not, there will be rumpus and an exposure of the sharks in the whole press of the United Kingdom. Now, Laurence, their names."


CHAPTER XXVII.—THE MINE OWNER'S GENEROSITY.

On the morning following that stirring and rather dramatic conversation between the two friends in their joint chambers in London, Hugh Chester might have been seen making his way along the highroad leading to Saxehurst and Saxilham village. He had been set down a few minutes before this at the small station close by, and was now on his way to meet Gabriel Blackwood, as arranged by telegram on the preceding day.

It was an hour or so before noonday and as Hugh swung along the quiet country road his face was grave enough and his thoughts were none of the cheeriest. A big, red, wintry sun hung low in the southern leaden-hued heavens, a crisp, frosty breeze tingled about his ears, and the unpaved footpath rang out beneath his feet.

He was nearing the entrance of Saxehurst, when he noticed a man coming towards him. He was a big, brawny, black-bearded fellow of middle-age—evidently a miner or workman of some sort, Chesters thought; and after a brief glance, and when they were only a dozen paces apart, our young friend had left the footpath to cross the road for the house he sought, when a cry from the stranger stopped him.

"Good morning, young fellow. Just a word with you, if you please."

"Certainly, sir what is it?" Hugh answered; amiably enough, and next moment the two were face to face.

"Are you young Blackwood—Laurence Blackwood, I mean?" the man asked, a certain morose savageness underlying his speech.

"What makes you ask that, my friend?"

"Well, you look like him, anyhow; and I saw you making for that place. I've been away from Saxilham for a year or two, and so you'll excuse me if I'm mistaken."

"I am not Laurence Blackwood, but I am a friend of his, and a friend of Mr. Blackwood, too," was Hugh's smiling response.

"You are, eh?—why I recollect you now. You're the young gent that used to come here with Blackwood's son years since. Isn't that true?" the black-visaged man demanded eagerly.

"I have been here before several times, sir."

"And you're going to the big house now?"

"I'm going there to see Mr. Gabriel Blackwood. I don't see why I should satisfy the curiosity of a mere stranger, but on the other hand there is no reason why I should not," Hugh said coldly.

"Stranger, eh? But I'm no stranger to Gabriel Blackwood. Him and me used to work in the pits together; him and me used to love the same woman; but she wouldn't touch me with a long stick, and he made a plaything of her. My name is Roderick Norbury and I'm turning my back on that village for ever"—jerking his head backward towards Saxilham—"all on account of one fool woman, and one rich wastrel—curse him!"

"I am afraid that I must go now, Mr. Norbury," Hugh said. He remembered now that he had heard of this man before. He was an old lover of the elder Judith, who had quite evidently refused him again.

"One minute, young gent! Will you take a message from me to Gabriel Blackwood?"

"If it is such a one as a friend may carry."

"It's this. Tell him that Roderick Norbury curses him and his for ever—till doomsday, mind! And that black work will come home some day. Good morning!"

Without another word the big black fellow swung past the young man, who in some amaze, watched him trudge determinedly in the direction of Saxilford. Then he went through the entrance to Saxehurst, and a minute later the mine-owner was shaking him heartily by the hand—his fine, strong face wearing hardly a trace of the anxious look Hugh had expected to see printed upon it.

Shortly afterwards, when they were in Gabriel Blackwood's own private room, and were smoking a cigar and taking a glass of whisky and soda together, the master of Saxehurst remarked in his pleasantest way.

"And now, my dear Chesters, what about your telegram and reasons for paying me this flying visit? I think you said that your news was unpleasant as well as important. What is it? Has that young lad of mine run away with somebody's wife or taken it into his wild head to marry a ballet-girl?"

"Nothing quite so bad as that, sir," Chesters answered, unable to resist a smile, and relieved beyond measure to find the other in such good humour, "but it is serious enough for all that, I can assure you."

"Is Laurence well?"

"Never better; and never in a more tractable and penitent mood, Mr. Blackwood."

"Ah! It is a matter of money then, Chesters?"

"That is the very thing, sir."

"Have you had sufficient?"

"Laurence has made use of more than enough," Hugh remarked, speaking very gravely.

"What has he done?"

"Gone to the Jews and pledged his credit, or yours, to the extent of five thousand pounds."

"For what?"

"Debts incurred at cards."

"Have the money-lenders fleeced him, too?"

"I call it by that name. They gave him half of what he owes them. Here are their addresses."

"Thanks; you are a man of business, Mr. Chesters. Well, I think these gentlemen will accept something less from me. And now, is that all?"

"No. The most serious matter of all, perhaps, has yet to be mentioned, Mr. Blackwood."

"What is it?"

"You remember a signed blank cheque you presented Laurence with on the eve of our departure? Well, he has made it out for no less a sum than five thousand pounds, cashed it, and wasted the money on a beauty of the Music Hall stage."

"The young ass!" Blackwood muttered. "But does the loss of money cover everything? Is there no further entanglement, my dear Chesters?"

"None, sir, I am certain! Laurence knows that he has been fooled, and is honestly and heartily ashamed of his folly."

"Then the money was, haply, not badly spent. Besides the blank cheque was his own, to fill up as he saw fit. And now, what have you to suggest?"

"First of all, that you accept my resignation of the task you were kind enough to entrust me with," Hugh said humbly. "I have proved myself unfitted for the work, and I cannot hope any longer to retain your confidence, sir."

"Nonsense! I am sorry Laurence has made an ass of himself, but frankly, I cannot blame you. Unless you insist, I will not free you from our arrangement."

"To tell you the honest truth, Mr. Blackwood," Chesters remarked, with evident emotion, "I am genuinely sorry for what has happened, and I should be more sorry to part company with your son; but after what has taken place how can I stay?"

"I wish you to stay. My confidence in you is undiminished. Let us say no more about the matter. I know the great ties existing between Laurence and you, and I do not wish them to be severed," Mr. Blackwood said very kindly, and his warm words and look dispelled all the young man's gloom. "I want you to stay with my son," the mine-owner went on in the same tone, "for entirely selfish reasons of my own. You have more influence with him than anyone I know, and there are elements in your character, Mr. Chesters, if you will pardon me for saying so, which I like, and which I should desire above all things to see engrafted on Laurence. Your constant presence with him must be for his good. Now tell me you will let things go on as if nothing unusual had taken place."

"If you wish it, sir."

"That is settled then. Now for the future. Will you and Laurence start on your tour as arranged?"

"I would not suggest that, sir!"

"What then?"

"Life in gay cities will do little for Laurence, as yet, I think. What he needs more than all else is action—rough action, too. Instead of pampering him by sending him on tour over the Continent—the world—like a gentleman, why not let him rough it like a man? There are sterling qualities in him which such a course of life and travel would certainly develop. I know him, sir, and I know also what he would like."

"There may be something in what you suggest, Chesters," Blackwood murmured thoughtfully. "Upon my word, it shall be as you wish! But would you go with Laurence?"

"Most certainly. A year or two of glorious adventure in different parts of the globe is what we are both dying for. That's the sort of life, Mr. Blackwood, to knock the corners off a man and all the nonsense out of him, sir."

"You are right. Well, it shall be so, Chesters. But tell him there's to be no more money-lending Jews. Why should my son go to them? And ten thousand or so in less than half a year. Why, such doings would break the Bank of England. Well, wire him and let him come home for a few days before you set out on your adventures."

"I am afraid that Laurence is too deeply ashamed of himself to care for facing you yet, Mr. Blackwood. I cannot make you understand how he broke down when he told me of his folly."

"Then I'll respect his blushes," the mine-owner cried with a smile. "But wire him and say that he is forgiven this time, only don't let it occur again. Yes, you shall strike out on your own; and when you are hard up you will have to send to me for the needful. But you, Chesters, and I will arrange all that to-morrow. Yes, you must stay here a day or two. My nephew is away in North Wales, examining a small colliery I am thinking of purchasing there, and so we shall be left to ourselves. Now, come along, sir. Lunch will be waiting us, and this trouble over that foolish young dog of a son of mine hasn't quite destroyed my appetite."


CHAPTER XXVIII.—A DISCOVERY AND A DECLARATION.

During the luncheon that followed, Hugh Chesters' thoughts reverted once or twice to that chance meeting of his with the miner, Roderick Norbury, opposite the Saxehurst gates, and the somewhat curious and interesting conversation that ensued.

But he felt that to convey Norbury's last message to the man he hated, and had, apparently, such cause to hate, was entirely out of the question. Knowing what he did of that strange past, wherein mine-owner, miner, and Judith Trafford had each played their parts, he feared to open out a matter which was almost certain to end in showing that Blackwood's secret was known to himself and others.

So he held his peace, and, the repast finished, he hastened to despatch a telegram to his anxiously waiting chum in London. His wire was to the effect that all was well, that Blackwood had taken the ill-news like a gentleman, and that he—Chesters—would join Laurence in a couple of days.

That done Hugh sauntered back towards the village. Ever since his return to Saxilham one thought had been running through his mind. How was the engagement between Judith Trafford and Edward Craven progressing? Had intelligence of it been made public by this time?

Craven had told him that the autumn would see him publish the fact to the world, and as that season had long passed perchance he had done so. And yet, Blackwood had spoken more than once of his nephew, and had never hinted at such an event. What was he to conclude from that? That the engagement was still sub rosa. As the uncle of one of the lovers and the father of the other, was it not certain that the mine-owner would have told him, had their engagement been a matter of public knowledge?

Strangely elated at that thought, Hugh Chesters sauntered through the village. He loved Judith with every fibre of his honest heart, every pulse of his blood; and he could never understand how such a woman could determine to place her love and life in the hands of such a man as Edward Craven. God be thanked even now if something had happened to prevent their union!

Lounging about the village taverns Hugh noticed several miners, and then he remembered that Blackwood had mentioned that two of the pits were idle owing to some accident. Further up the street he saw a tall womanly figure standing on a doorstep, and instantly he recognised the elder Judith of the Red Hand. At almost the same instant she recognised him, and a move of her head drew him to her.

"Come inside, Mr. Chesters. I want a word with you."

He followed without speaking. She closed the door, placed a chair for him on the snowy hearthstone, and while he seated himself, expectantly, she remained standing.

"What did that man say to you?" she began sharply. "I mean that man Roderick Norbury, who stopped you this morning near Saxehurst. Tell me what he wanted with you."

His face flamed in his confusion, and her sharp eyes shot him through.

"Am I to tell you the truth, madam?" he asked. "I'd rather say nothing, but if I must speak it will be no lie."

"I want the truth, Mr Chesters."

"Well, at first he mistook me for young Laurence Blackwood; and when I said I was only Laurence's friend he said many strange things."

"What did he say?"

"He said that he and Gabriel Blackwood used to work in the same pits; that they loved the same woman; that the woman had used him badly, and that Blackwood had treated the woman like a scoundrel. He ended by asking me to take his curses to the master of Saxehurst."

"He spoke the truth, God knows! Did you understand him?"

"Madam, I did understand," he said quietly.

"You cannot know?"

"Madam, I know all."

"And what must you think of me?" she cried. "You a gentleman!"

"I think you are one of the noblest women God ever made!" he exclaimed, with all the intensity of honest passion.

"And my daughter?" she moaned.

"Your daughter is one of the loveliest and sweetest girls a mother ever was blessed with!" was his fervent response. "And, madam, the great wrong will be atoned for somewhat soon!" he added.

"What do you mean?"'

"I was alluding to Judith's engagement to Edward Craven."

"Who told you that?"

"Edward Craven himself."

"The sly black-hearted liar!" she hissed. "He came here pleading for my Judith—his cousin, he said—and I showed him the door. He said his uncle would make them both well off, and bless the match. He had asked Judith, too; and she treated him with scorn, as I did. I told him that the Blackwoods should never mix again with blood of mine. That is the truth, Mr. Chesters."

"The mean, lying hound!" Hugh cried, rising to his feet. "But for his infamous lies I—I——" and he stopped suddenly, blushing like a lad, and sat down awkwardly, her eyes asking him questions. "Madam," he begun anew, "do you believe that I am a gentleman? Do you think that if I loved a woman I would honour her and cherish her to the death?"

"I believe you would, sir."

"Then I love your daughter. But for Craven's lies I should have come to you sooner. I am poor and have few expectations, but some day, when I can offer your daughter a home worthy of her, may I ask her to share it with me?"

"You may, Mr. Chesters. Ever since I first saw you, years ago with young Blackwood, I liked you. I believe that your heart is sound at the core, and that is what is wanted in a man. I knew another man once, and his heart was sound then. But money and worldly desire spoiled it. He—but Judith is here, and you can ask for yourself."

As she spoke there was a light footfall on the step outside, and the next moment young Judith Trafford came smiling into the cottage, her big, soft, grey eyes opening wide with pleased wonder when she saw who was standing there by the fire.

"Judith, I think you know Mr. Chesters. He was passing when I asked him in. Now, sir, you must excuse me if I run away for a minute."

The elder woman tripped away through the back door as she said this, and Hugh Chesters and the pit-brow girl were left together. For a brief space neither spoke. He was gazing upon her rare, fresh young loveliness, thinking she looked just as he had first seen her; and the girl, with his tenderly ardent eyes upon her, was crimsoning visibly.

"Are you not pleased to see me, Miss Trafford, in your home?" he asked slowly.

"Oh, yes; but I thought you and young Mr. Blackwood had gone away on a long voyage, Mr. Chesters. Everybody was saying so in the village."

"We ought to have been away long ago, but were kept in London. Next week, however, will see us on our way to either America, Australia, or South Africa, and it may be a year, or two—perhaps three—before we set foot in Saxilham again. Do you wish that we—that I, Miss Trafford, may come back safe to the village again?"

"Oh, with all my heart I wish that!" she cried, and her shy sweet face was raised to his for a moment.

"Judith," he said next, "do you know what I have just been telling your mother?"

"How can I guess?"

"I have been telling her that I love the best and sweetest girl in all England, and that some day I hope to make her my wife. But I am poor now; still, in a year or two, when I come back from abroad, I may be richer. And, dear, that girl's name is Judith Trafford. Darling, dare you whisper one word of hope to me? Your mother is with me; dare you say you are with me too? Judith, dear Judith! don't you love me a little?"

"Hugh! Oh, Hugh, dear! I love you much!"

Then she looked up, and he saw the love light burning in her great eyes. He put his arms about her, drew her to him, and kissed her many times.

When the older Judith Trafford returned she saw that her daughter had met the man of her destiny; and that it might prove a happier one than her own had been was the mother's deep prayer then.


CHAPTER XXIX.—THE RUSH TO BLUE GUM CREEK.

Nearly a couple of years have slipped away, and in order to follow the fortunes of certain important personages in this story, it is necessary that the reader should cross the wide seas and journey halfway round the earth to an upper room in a well-known hotel in Rockhampton, the chief port of Central Queensland, North-eastern Australia.

It is morning, and two young fellows are breakfasting. Through opened windows of the apartments one can catch glimpses of the numerous vessels lying in the Fitzroy River, and with a good glass the dancing waters of the great South Pacific might be discovered.

Those young fellows sitting there were Laurence Blackwood and Hugh Chesters—or, as the two friends had seen fit to call themselves during their adventures and travels, Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne. They were in splendid health and seemed happy as larks; and their constant exposure to all sorts of weather in the course of the past twenty-odd months had tanned their faces to the colour of brown leather, had hardened their hands and inured their stalwart frames to hardships, and their striking physical and facial resemblance was more accentuated now than ever, when winds, rains, and ardent suns had merged the swarthiness of one and the fairness of the other into a common terra cotta hue.

Since we last saw them, the chums had roughed it in various quarters of the globe. After quitting England they had first touched at Cape Colony, and had spent a couple of months there. Then they had proceeded up country to Kimberley, had sought and obtained employment in the diamond mines there, and for three or four months had stuck to their work like men and earned their keep honestly.

After that they had gone on to Johannesburg; and in the famous town of gold, they had remained for a quarter of a year, working among the lithe-limbed, ebon-faced Kaffirs, living amidst the course, phlegmatic Boers, meeting honest workers, society's outcasts, swindlers, company promoters, and millionaires daily, and learning not a little of the world from all they saw and noted.

Then they had gone back through Natal to Port Elizabeth, sailing thence to Cape Town, where they had taken steamer to Australia, and, landing at Melbourne had wandered through Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, and we now find them in the sister colony at breakfast.

During the course of all that exhaustive rambling the two chums had contrived to eke out a comfortable existence without troubling Mr. Gabriel Blackwood for a remittance. On quitting Saxehurst the mine-owner had insisted on Chesters taking from him a cheque for a hundred pounds, and that sum, joined to the five hundred his friends possessed, had been ample for all their needs. Now, after nearly two years seafaring and wayfaring, their joint purse contained something over a couple of hundred pounds.

Now and again both Laurence and Hugh had written to Saxilham, but no letters had been sent to them, as their constant change of quarters was a bar to interchange of correspondence; and so, of course, while those at home knew how the young men were getting on, they had no means of knowing how the others were faring. So far Hugh Chesters had kept his love affair from his friend, but he had written to the Traffords frequently, and was looking eagerly forward to the time when he would be able to return to the village to claim the fair woman he loved.

Breakfast over, Mr. "Lance Blair" seated himself at the open window, where he commenced to smoke a cigar, while his friend, Mr. "Hubert Wynne," busied himself with that morning's edition of the local newspaper, the "Rockhampton Morning Bulletin." Suddenly he glanced from the newspaper to his companion, a pleased light in his eyes, a glad cry on his lips.

"What do you think of this, old man?" Wynne cried. "Just the very thing for us both, I think! Listen, and I'll read it out."

He smoothed out the sheet, cleared his voice by coughing, and then commenced to read as follows:—


ANOTHER QUEENSLAND GOLDFIELD.

According to information just in hand from the Thomson River district of the colony, what promises to be a valuable addition to our mineral resources has just been discovered by prospectors. Alluvial gold in paying quantities has been found in the bed and along both banks of the Blue Gum Creek, one of the head waters of the river mentioned; and already, though the first panful was only cradled last week, some two or three hundred diggers are at work, washing out from two to ten and twenty ounces each, per day. If this should last we may expect a rush to Blue Gum in a week or so.


"Well, what's wrong with Blue Gum Creek, Wynne?" the smoker queried pleasantly. "Are you thinking of joining in the rush, or what?"

"That's just what I am thinking about Lance. We are out here for adventure and experience, and this gold rush comes very luckily in our way. But there's another reason, too," the speaker went on earnestly. "A haul of gold means little or nothing to you, but it means everything to me now. Before I came away from the Old Country I had asked a woman to be my wife some day, and I don't mean to go back to her empty-handed."

"The devil! Why, you never said a word about it, my dear chap. Who in the name of wonder can the woman be?"

"It's the truth, Lance. I'll tell you all about it some fine day, and I promise you one of the biggest surprises you ever had in your life. But that will keep. Now the question is: Are you game for this rush and a bit of real, genuine, gold-digging on our own?"

"Fit and game to follow you anywhere, Wynne!" was the ready and quite hearty response. "Come along; let's get all our arrangements completed, and be off before Blue Gum Creek gets gobbled up."

"I've a letter to write, Lance; and you, also, had better write to Saxehurst. When we've done that we'll sally forth, get to know the lay of the land, purchase diggers' outfits—everything we shall need, and then head for the dust, boy!"

A week later we find our two young gentleman diggers comfortably established at Blue Gum Creek, living, working, roughing it, like a thousand other gold-seekers. They had purchased their miners' licences, had staked out their claim, had washed a few pans of red earth, and, sitting at the entrance of the small tent they had brought along with them, eating the rude repast Hubert Wynne had cooked, they looked a pair of typical adventurers, handsome, stalwart, bronzed, their slouch hats, red shirts, rough trousers and heavy boots making them as striking and picturesque a couple of young fellows as one could wish to see.

Blue Gum Creek was a broad, shallow stream running northward towards the hills which divide the Flinders and the Thomson rivers. On either side the stream was a gently sloping bank of clayey gravel, a score of yards wide; and beyond the sweeps of bare earth were dense grass, thick bush, scrub and trees, growing with the profusion and luxuriousness of a jungle.

For a quarter of a mile or more on each side of the sluggish creek swarms of men were boring into the earth like industrious rabbits or moles; and from all sides came the clangour of work and the hubbub of voices; the rocking of the cradles, the swash of the water in the stream, filled the long green valley with a continuous, and not unpleasant murmur of sound.

Here and there diggers were sinking great holes on the very edge of the slowly-flowing water; others, waist-deep in the little river, were dredging the muddy or sandy bottom of the creek; and others, again, stripped to the skin, were diving, plunging overhead in the deeper holes, to fetch up a scoopful, or even a handful, of the ore-laden earth.

And now and again a thrill of excitement ran through the miners' camp, shouts, exclamations, and whispers ran from one end of the diggings to the other, when some fortunate finder of a decent-sized nugget made his discovery known; and the luckless delvers of the auriferous soil would pour from all around, to view the lucky digger and his lump of gold.

It was a strange scene, and a deeply interesting one to the young wanderers. For thrice ten thousand years that green valley in the Australian wilderness had slept in the vivid sunshine and unbroken peace, seldom, perhaps never, trodden till some weeks ago by a white man's foot; and now, as if by a miracle, a village, a town, nay, a city of canvas and wood and sheet-iron had sprung up like a mushroom.

In long lines, alongside the rank grass, bush and trees, the cone-shaped tents spread themselves out, giving one an impression that a small army had pitched its camp there. On the edge of the beaten track leading to the creek there were large marquees where stores of all kinds and liquors of every degree of deadliness might be purchased.

The mounted constables who were policing the settlement were building a rude but substantial log house for the temporary incarceration of any possible offenders, and two banks—the one from Rockhampton, the other from Charters Towers—had already established branches on the spot, where the diggers could deposit their dust and convert it into solid coin of the realm.

Apart from the bustle and excitement, natural and fitting to such an occasion and place, all was quiet and orderly as in an old English town. Men of many nationalities were swarming together—Europeans, Americans, Asiatics, Blacks—but not a knife or pistol was to be seen, nor would the wearing of arms have been tolerated; and so far not a single breach of the peace had occurred.

And still the rush continued. Daily, hourly, fresh batches of men, bitten with the gold-fever, came rolling in to Blue Gum Creek. Some were on horseback, others rode in light carts, or upon mules and donkeys, some even wheeling barrows on which tools, tents and cooking utensils were packed; and the new-comers as they arrived spread themselves along the creek, marked out their claims and pitched their tents near at hand.

"Well, Lance, what do you think of this?" the elder of the chums asked as he knocked the ashes out of his briar and refilled it.

"Think of it, Wynne? Why, it is just glorious!" was the younger man's enthusiastic response. "This is something like life, my dear old chap! Better, eh, than rusting and rotting at Saxilham, or going the pace in London or Paris?"

"Just what I was thinking. Now, all I crave for to make the whole thing perfect is to 'strike it rich,' as these chaps say; so that I can take a hatful of gold back to a certain young woman we both know."

"Which woman, Wynne?"

"Have patience, my lad, and you shall have her name some day soon."


CHAPTER XXX.—THE MAN FROM SAXILHAM.

It was Sunday morning and the neighbourhood of Blue Gum Creek was wrapped in peace and quietness—at least in such comparative peace and quiet as could ever be expected to prevail in such a hot-bed of human passions of the lower kind.

The waters of the river rolled along almost undisturbed; not one solitary digger, out of the two or three thousand now located on the spot, was at work on his claim; and the ever increasing host of canvas dwellings shone out in the flood of mellow sunshine under a cloudless arch of deep blue.

It was an unwritten law at the Creek that all digging was to be suspended on the Sabbath. At first there had been promise of great trouble over that question of Sunday work, for a number of Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Portuguese had been minded to work on that day just like any other day, but the protests of Britishers, Australians, Americans, and Germans, who formed, conjointly, the vast majority of the diggers, had caused the police to veto digging during the Sabbath, in order to prevent fighting and bloodshed.

But if gold-seeking was suspended for the day, the valley was not altogether wrapped in idleness. Down on the edge of the creek some scores of miners were washing their shirts and stockings and spreading them on the grass or hanging them on the scrub to dry, and several industrious and cute Orientals were reaping a rich harvest by washing the garments of those diggers who had no relish for such work.

Here and there along the valley scores—even hundreds—of miners were strolling, inspecting the different claims; scores of others were seated at the entrances to their tents, mending their clothes, smoking, reading, or repairing their tools; some knots were sitting in the grass card-playing; others, thirsty miners, were moistening their gullets in the drinking saloons; and in the centre of the settlement, near the Rockhampton Branch Bank, one pious digger was holding forth on spiritual things to a cluster of fellow diggers.

On the grass in the shade of some trees near their tent the two chums, Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne, were reclining. They were taking things very comfortably, for they were smoking and had half-a-dozen newspapers on the grass.

An enterprising newsagent had brought a cart-load of weekly and other journals to the camp; and the newspapers from Rockhampton, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne even, had sold like hot cakes at half-a-dozen times the usual price. There was plenty of bottled beer to be obtained at the saloons at the rate of a sovereign a dozen, and so, after investing thirty shillings in literature and liquor, our young friends made shift to pass the third Sunday at Blue Gum pleasantly.

And those two or three weeks of gold-digging had been neither unpleasant nor unprofitable to the two gentlemen diggers. Their good looks and unvarying amiability had made them general favourites with everybody; their striking resemblance had caused them to be nicknamed "The Twins"; and, though they had been in no way abnormally successful, each day had seen some ounces of gold added to their store in the bank.

So far their earnings had averaged about ten pounds a day; and that fact had filled the older man with rosy dreams of the future. A few months of such work and Wynne would hie him back to England to claim the lovely girl waiting for him there; and in the hope of such fruition to his labour he was happy beyond measure.

Suddenly, a voice—a deep, harsh, bass voice—with a certain unmistakable twang in it, aroused both men from their papers. Looking up, each saw a man he recognised—a big, burly, black-bearded fellow of middle age, who was closely regarding them with manifest wonder.

"I say, you chaps just know how take things comfortably, don't you? You might welcome a man from your own corner of the world, and ask him to have a bottle of Bass with you, eh, my lads?"

"Help yourself, then," Wynne answered, with a swift, meaning look his friend. "But who are you, anyway? And what do you mean by saying that you hail from the same corner of the old country as ourselves?"

The man did not answer for a minute or two. Availing himself of the speaker's offer, he lifted a bottle of beer from the bucket of icy water in which it rested, drew the cork deftly, and then, disdaining cup or glass placed the bottle to his mouth and drained it at a draught.

"What's that you were saying youngster? Where do I hail from, and who am I? Well, Saxilham is the spot, and Norbury—Roderick Norbury's my name. And you don't know me, you two? Why I spotted you at once!"

"There is evidently some mistake, sir," was Wynne's prompt response. "Norbury. No; I've no recollection of the name. But, if you fancy you know us, give us the names."

"The names; certainly. One of you is young Blackwood—the other is his friend who used to come and stop with him at Saxehurst. Oh! I have it now. It's Chester—isn't it? But I can hardly tell which of you is which. Yes! I have it. You're black—like your father," pointing to the younger man; "and you, sir," nodding at Wynne, "are the young fellow I stopped that day at Saxehurst gates."

"Will you look at that?" Wynne cried, as he drew out the joint licence of himself and friend. "That, if you can read, will tell you who we are."

"Oh, oh!" said Norbury, reading. "So you are doing the thing on the quiet, eh; and are Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne here? Well, that's your own biz, and none of mine. Now, will you have a wet at the saloon with me, just to show there's no ill-feeling?"

"I'd rather not, thank you, Mr. Norbury—if that is your name," was Wynne's answer.

"And I'm too comfortable to think of moving a peg," was the other young man's remark.

"Well, so long, youngsters. If you get back to Saxilham soon you can tell all inquiring friends that Roderick Norbury is still living. Don't think I shall trouble Blue Gum long. There's another rush somewhere on the Thomson River, and, as the best things are all swallowed up here, I fancy I shall drift that way. Well, so long!"

"Good morning," both friends cried.

"Do you know him, Wynne?" Lance asked, as the man strode away and vanished among the tents.

"Of course. But who would have thought of running up against a Saxilham pitman here? But this Norbury hates your father like poison, old man; and, honestly, I am bound to admit that there seems to be some reason for his deep hatred."

"How's that, Wynne? This Norbury used to work for the old man, and I don't understand why he should hate him so."

"When they were young men your father and Norbury were both in love with Judith of the Red Hand. But your father was the favoured one, and when he married your mother, and after her death another woman, she tried to kill him and herself, and so got that strange name which once puzzled me, Lance, so much."

"You amaze me!" the younger one cried. "Strange that I never heard the story before. But folk would keep the truth from me, I suppose. But how did you learn all this? And why have you kept it from me so long? And, after all, are you quite certain the tale is true, Wynne?"

"As absolutely positive of its truth my dear fellow," the older man cried solemnly, "as I am certain that young Judith Trafford is your father's daughter and your own half-sister."

"Good heavens, Hugh! Surely you are jesting now?" And the speaker glared in wide-eyed, open-mouthed amazement at his friend.

"I was never more serious in my life, Laurence!" was the emphatic reply. "You never knew me to tell a deliberate falsehood, did you? Well, I am speaking now with all the deliberation of which I am capable, and I tell you again—I am ready to take my oath upon it—that Judith Trafford is your sister and your father's daughter."

"I must believe you—and yet, my sister, his own flesh and blood, working on his own pit-top!"

"Because a deceived and greatly wronged woman would not have it otherwise."

"It seems impossible. Does father know?"

"He knows, and would have had things different. But the woman was iron, and kept her own way unswervingly. Why, even your cousin, Edward Craven, knows it. He it was who first told me. The elder Judith herself admitted the truth to me. It is a strange story, but true enough, God knows. And, Laurence, I ought to tell you now that the woman I love, the woman I am hoping to marry when we go back to Saxilham, is your sister, Judith Trafford."

"Thank heaven for that!" the younger man said heartily. "I used to be half afraid that Craven was setting his cap that way. But tell me the whole story, Hugh. My sister! And I have known and liked Judith—have liked both mother and daughter all these years without ever suspecting the truth. Tell me everything, Hugh."

"I will. Empty us a bottle of beer each, while I fill my pipe, and you shall have the story as it came to me."

Corks were drawn, the famous beer brought so far over the ocean was sampled, and with their pipes lit, the two friends composed themselves on the dry grass, one to tell the curious tale, the other to listen attentively.

In half an hour the younger man knew everything that his companion could tell him; knew that his chum had learned to love Judith Trafford almost from the moment he had first introduced them to each other; knew that his cousin had lied deliberately in order to hoodwink and keep at bay a possible rival, and that a fortunate chance had at last given Hugh Chesters the opportunity he hungered after.

"What a mean, lying, contemptible hound my cousin must be!" the rapt listener cried when the other had finished his recital. "How glad I am to know that Judith is really my half-sister, and that you two intend to make a match of it, Hugh. Why, if you hadn't run against Roderick Norbury, that day when you went to consult my dad, you might have come away from Saxilham fully believing that Craven and Judith were in love with each other, and were to be married."

"Most certainly I should, Laurence. But what is to be will be, you know. That burst of asinine folly of yours in London wasn't all waste and dead loss, you see, old boy. But for that I should not have gone back to Saxehurst; I and Norbury would not have met as we did; and the whole truth regarding Craven's lies would not have come out. Well, all's well that ends well, say I. Now, all I want is five or ten thousand to pour into my sweetheart's lap when I go back."

"I don't see why you need bother about the money," Lance Blair grunted. "If you love and marry a sister of mine, is it at all likely you will ever be short of the needful? I think not; the old man would never allow that. With all his faults, there's a good deal of the genuine, full-blooded man and a Christian in Gabriel Blackwood!"

"Of the truth of that no man is more certain than I am," was Hubert Wynne's hearty response. "But I've my own notions of what is becoming in a man who asks a woman to be his wife, and I have no idea, my dear brother-in-law to be, of living on your father's bounty."

"Just so! Just so, Wynne! Well, be quick and scrape those thousands together, and then we'll run away home."


CHAPTER XXXI.—STRANGE NEWS FROM HOME.

One evening, some three or four weeks after that unexpected appearance of Roderick Norbury at Blue Gum Creek, and his equally sudden and debonair disappearance therefrom, the two chums chanced to quit their tent and stroll through the mining encampment.

It was sundown; all the diggers had knocked off work for the day, and the principal street, or avenue of log-houses in the place—where the banks, police-offices, general stores, drinking saloons, and restaurants were situated—was crowded with miners, some of them hurrying into the banks to weigh in and deposit their gold-dust, others hanging about the stores to lay in provender, buy clothes, or purchase such odds and ends as they needed while the big majority—luckless diggers and very fortunate ones—were crowding into the drinking bars, to treat and be treated.

Entering "Marooney's Hotel"—the biggest place of its kind at Blue Gum—Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne ordered their bottles of Bass, tendered the half-crown demanded for the ale, and then fell to talking, laughing, and jesting with the crowd of loungers, most of whom they knew.

Things were lively at Marooney's that evening, for the enterprising proprietor had shipped a billiard table all the way from Rockhampton, and was reaping a small fortune by charging half-a-crown for a fifty game; and just then eight or nine diggers were deep in a game of "shell-out," playing a sovereign a ball.

Lance Blair, as an old billiard enthusiast, pressed eagerly forward to watch the game, while his friend picked up yesterday's "Rockhampton Bulletin" and glanced in a casual way way along its columns.

Suddenly some item of news caught Hubert Wynne's eyes, and in an instant he was absorbed in what he was reading. Once he glanced up, caught sight of his chum, and was on the point of calling out to him. But another thought prevailed, and he turned anew to the paper, read one part of it again even more closely than at first, and then folding the journal and placing it away in his capacious jacket pocket, he strode to where Lance Blair was standing.

"Lance, I want you at once. Come along quick."

"Oh, wait, Wynne, there's a good fellow," the other cried. "The game's nearly up, and I want to have a cue in the next one. Some of these Johnnies can't pot for nuts, man; and I am going to pick up a pocketful of quids."

"Come along, I tell you. It is really important, Lance. In ten minutes you can come back if you wish."

His chum's manner more than his words seemed at last to impress the younger man, and he followed the other reluctantly from the place. When they were outside and some distance from Marooney's Hotel, Wynne pulled the newspaper from his pocket, thrust it into the other's hand, and pointing with an extended finger to a certain paragraph, surmounted by a striking headline, he cried,

"Read that, old man, and tell me what you make of it."

Without a word Lance Blair read what follows, the light of sunset being still sufficient to enable him to make out the printed matter.


NOTICE! NOTICE! NOTICE!

If this announcement should chance to catch the eyes of either Laurence Blackwood, of Saxilham, England, or those of his friend, Hugh Wynne Chesters, both of whom are supposed to be somewhere in Australia at present, they are requested to cable home at once and to return as quickly as possible. Matters of the most urgent and pressing nature call for Mr. Laurence Blackwood's immediate return.

Any person who may know of either of the young men here named are urged to bring this advertisement under their notice; and all papers published in any of the Australian colonies, are earnestly requested to copy. G.B. and E.C.


"Well, what do you make of it?" the man who called himself Hubert Wynne asked anxiously, as the other finished reading.

"Make of it. Why, this, Wynne. The old man is getting awfully anxious because we are away so long; and probably puzzled too, because we haven't been dipping into his purse lately. That's all I can see in it."

"I fear there may be more in it than that. He has heard from us every month or two, and here we have this notice signed with your father's initials and those of your cousin. My dear boy, you must leave Blue Gum at once, cable home when you reach Rockhampton, and then take ship for England as soon after as may be."

"I am ready to go when you are, old chap."

"I cannot go yet. Altogether our balance in the bank here won't run to more than a couple of thousand, and I mean to have five thousand before I turn tail on this one chance of my life. But there is no reason why you should stay. Go, I beseech you, Laurence!"

"I am going when you go, and not a minute sooner. There is nothing in this, believe me, old chum. Let me stop to help you to scrape that five thousand together, and then we'll be off."

"I would rather you went now."

"And I refuse to leave without you."

"You must write then at once. Why, you might even arrange to have a cablegram sent, from either Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne."

"And so I will, if that will satisfy my dear, anxious, grandmotherly old friend. But it's too late to-night. To-morrow I'll attend to all that. Now let's get back to Marooney's, for I'm just dying to handle a cue. You'll just watch me pocket those balls and rake in the spare quids of those greenhorns. Now, come along."


CHAPTER XXXII.—THE COMING OF DISASTER.

It was an hour or two after midday, and work at Blue Gum Creek was going on in its customary fashion. The tens of hundreds of miners were in or about their claims, prosecuting their quest of the precious fragments of yellow metal; many of them were deep down in their yawning holes delving the auriferous gravel; their chums were on top, winding up the dust-laden earth to the surface in buckets or small wooden tubs, and hundreds of others were down on the banks of the creek or near their claims, rocking their cradles of earth and water, to free the gold of the earthy dross in which it lay buried.

Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne were at work among the rest; the former down the wide, gaping pit, plying pick and spade industriously, while, standing on the little staging of planks above, his chum was turning the handle of the small windlass, to hoist bucket after bucket of the gold-bearing, clayey gravel out of the deep trench, so that when a small mound was won both of them could wash the stuff together.

"The Twins" had pitched their claim in what was considered to be a most favourable situation. Water, and plenty of it, is one of the prime necessities of alluvial gold mining and bearing that in mind, Wynne had selected a spot within a dozen feet of the edge of the slowly-flowing water. Here they were enabled to wash the dirt in comparative ease and comfort while those working farther from the creek had to either carry water to their holes or the dug earth to the stream, in order to wash it.

The claim of our two gentlemen diggers was a double one—as were all those where two miners worked together. It resembled nothing so much as a deep trench, such as may be seen in our streets when men are making excavations for sewers. It was about eight feet wide and sixteen feet long—eight square feet being allowed per man—and it was now, after two or three months' labour in it, between four and five yards in depth.

The sides of the great hole were kept from bulging or caving in by strong planking and stout cross-beams, placed at suitable intervals of space; and over all this was the wooden staging already mentioned, on which stood the little windlass with its roller and few yards of thin iron chain.

It was a matter of common knowledge and experience among the miners of the Blue Gum Valley that the finds of dust and nuggets were richest the nearer the bedrock was approached; and as the stratum of quartz upon which the mixture of clay, gravel, and soil rested, ran from fifteen to twenty feet in depth, our friends were now in hopes of "striking it rich" daily.

That had been one of the strongest reasons which had determined Wynne to remain some time longer on the scene, even after he came upon the urgent notice in the newspaper signed by the initials of Gabriel Blackwood and his nephew. And that decision had been justified in every way, for day after day since then the cradle had discovered ever increasing hoards of shining dust and small pieces of gold; and one afternoon a lump of golden ore, nearly thirty ounces in weight, had sent a thrill through the hearts of the two comrades.

Now the passing of every sunrise and sundown brought Wynne nearer to the great goal at which he was aiming. Living frugally, working arduously and regularly, and still buying all they required with the money they had brought with them to the creek, our friends saw their balance at bank augment day by day, week by week, until on that bright sunny afternoon in January 189—, it had totalled up to the snug sum of something over four thousand pounds.

That was a matter to feel intensely proud of and satisfied with, but it was not all. The claim was "panning out" richer every four and twenty hours; the bedrock was still some four or five feet down, and during the month's work that it would take them to lay bare and scrape clean the smooth hard floor of the quartz, there was no saying what further store of treasure might be unearthed.

Standing there in the vivid sun-glow, with his thoughts lingering tenderly round the sweet face and gracious figure of a beauteous and honest lass in far away Saxilham village, Wynne, with his strong brown hands gripping the iron handle of the windlass, made a most effective living picture.

His well-poised sunny head was covered with a big, wide-brimmed, soft hat; his red shirt open at the throat displayed his strong, well-formed neck and deep chest; even his rough nether garments of tough corduroy and heavy laced boots, all earth-stained, as were his bared arms and face, could not entirely disguise the good blood in the man—his native nobility and fine breeding.

Just then his chum's voice rang out from the big hole, scattering his dreams of the pit-brow lass and another mining village in England.

"The bucket is full, Wynne; pull it up, old chap."

"Ay! ay! All right, Lance!" Wynne cried back.

Then the drum of the windlass whirled round a few times, the thin, small-linked chain coiled itself about the wooden roller, and when the square box or bucket of gravel appeared on the surface, Wynne scotched the wheel of the windlass with a thick iron pin, and raising the load of auriferous earth he emptied it in the little heap waiting to be washed. That done he called down the trench to his chum.

"You'd better come out of that, Lance, my boy. We have three loads here now, and we had better wash them."

"Right you are, lad. Send down the bucket."

The bucket was lowered at once, the digger below seated himself inside it, called out, "All right, pull up, Wynne!" and again the drum of the windlass turned round, but more slowly now, for Lance Blair was a heavier load.

Then suddenly, without the slightest premonition of danger, a most startling incident occurred. The bucket had been raised almost to the surface of the pit, the head of the man sitting inside it was on a level with the staging, when there was a sharp snapping sound; a link of the small chain was rent asunder, the man at the crank handle flew back on his haunches with an oath; the man suspended over the gulf gave a cry of alarm, and then bucket and miner crashed back into the hole with a deep thud and rattle.

In an instant Wynne was on his feet again and on his knees at the edge of the trench and was peering into the hole and crying out in anxious tones:—

"Laurence, are you hurt, old chap? The cursed chain has snapped right in two. Speak, Laurence; tell me you are not hurt!"

Only a muffled groan answered him. He could see his dear chum lying all of a heap across the wooden box, and with his heart in his mouth he swung himself over the edge of the hole, and with hands and feet gripping and resting upon the side planks and cross beams he swiftly lowered himself to the spot where his friend lay.

Lance was still unconscious, was breathing deeply like one under the influence of strong drink, and now and again low moans and groans issued from his lips. Lifting the stunned man from the wooden bucket across which he lay, Wynne placed him in a reclining position against the side of the deep excavation.

Then he sped up the hole again, striding from the cross timbers as agile as an acrobat; and speeding first to the tent and then to the creek, he dropped back into the hole with the means of reviving his chum in his possession. Pouring a small quantity of brandy into a tin cup he mixed it with water and then forced it into the other's mouth, repeating the operation until at last poor Lance slowly struggled back to his senses.

"That's better, old man!" Wynne cried, with a heart-felt sigh of relief. "You've got a nasty knock, but will be all right again soon. That infernal chain snapped right off—just above the bucket—and you were gone in a crack, ere I could think of grabbing you. How do you feel now, Lance? Have you any pain at all, and where?"

"I feel dazed yet, but have no pain, Hugh," was the slow reply. "But I feel strange, somehow—a sense of heaviness and numbness in my lower limbs."

"That's with the shock," the other cried cheerily. "In a little while you will be yourself. Now swallow this—it is a drop of brandy and water, and will put new life into you."

The injured man swallowed the liquor, rested awhile, and then tried to scramble to his feet. Wynne helped his chum to stand, propping him against the corner of the oblong hole, but when he turned aside a moment for something, the other collapsed all in a heap at his feet.

"I can't stand, Hugh," Lance moaned. "There's something wrong with my back. I feel a numb, dead sort of pain there."

Behind his clenched teeth the other groaned in mute anguish. He was beginning to fear that his chum was seriously injured after all, and he cast about him for means to haul his mate out of that hole.

Then he bethought him of a plan. Lifting Lance, he placed him in the shallow box, and sped up aloft to lower the chain of the windlass, he tried its strength by swinging on it again and again, and then, cursing that false link deep in his throat, he knotted it about the hook from which the rude bucket swung, and five minutes afterwards he had his chum on the surface and safely housed in their little tent.


CHAPTER XXXIII.—THE SHADOW OF THE REAPER.

It was midway between noonday and sunset; the ardent sun was still flooding the valley with light and heat; the bustle of the great army of gold-seekers was in the air; and within his tent, stretched out on as soft a couch as his chum could make him, Lance Blair was lying pallid and quiet while his comrade paced the grass outside with the doctor he had picked up by chance at Blue Gum Creek.

The medical man had just finished examining the injured man; had shaken his head gravely during the operation; had promised to do what he could for the sufferer; and medico and friend were now holding a whispered consultation outside.

"Well, Dr. Rance, what is your opinion of my friend's condition?" Wynne asked, speaking as cheerily as he could, though his heart was heavy with vague fears.

"It is very grave, indeed, Mr Wynne," the doctor answered. "His spine is seriously injured—perhaps broken; and in this case we can only anticipate the worst results."

"You are not certain his spine is broken?" Hugh asked in a husky voice.

"Not certain, sir, but well nigh it," was the hope-destroying reply. "He has absolutely no use in his lower extremities—they are either dead or dying, I fear; and that, my dear sir, can mean only one thing."

"My God! and can you do nothing?—can I do nothing to save my dear friend's life?"

"All I can do shall be done. But what can you do?—what can either of us do, sir, if a man's spinal column is snapped asunder?"

"Could I not move him to Longreach, the nearest settlement? He would have good nurses about him there—tender, patient, soft-hearted women—and some of the things a settled and civilised community can give one."

"Longreach is 30 miles down the river, and your friend is not fit to be moved. Besides, what have we here to move a weak and broken man in? Rough carts that would jolt him to pieces when driven across a lumpy grassy country, where there is scarcely a track for human feet to follow. No, I certainly cannot advise you to move your friend to Longreach. Besides, you would find no medical man there who could do more for him than I can do."

"What must be done then," Wynne cried in impotent desperation. "Surely there must be something I can do to save a life as dear to me as my own? Is there no great doctor—no well-known specialist, I can fetch, send for, or wire to?"

"I know of no one nearer than Rockhampton, and the port is over 400 miles from Longreach. It seems a forlorn hope to fetch a man so far, and your friend may be dead even before the specialist can reach here."

"Give me his name!" Wynne muttered doggedly.

"Dr. Harman Dennison, of East-street, Rockhampton. If you wire from Longreach that will find him. But how are you going to get to Longreach, Thomson River, this evening?"

"I will borrow or steal a horse and ride there," was the answer. "If I go will you stay here, to watch my friend until I get back?"

"With pleasure, sir. I only wish you were about to set out on a less forlorn undertaking."

"While there is life there is hope," Wynne murmured, unconsciously using that old time-worn phrase. "Here is money for all my friend may need, doctor," and he poured some gold pieces out of his leathern purse into the other's hand. "Now, just a word with my friend before I am off to Longreach."

Wynne and the medical gentleman passed into the tent together, and the injured man received them both with an inquiring glance and a wan smile on his pale, handsome face.

"Lance, old man," Wynne said, speaking rapidly, but tenderly, "Dr. Rance here says that your condition is really very serious, and I mean to have other advice on the case. There's a man in Rockhampton who may be of use, and I'm going to ride down the creek to Longreach to wire for that man. The doctor here has kindly promised to stay with you till I return; and—and, Lance, you'll try to keep up your heart till I get back?"

"God bless you, dear old chap! Yes, I will keep up my heart, lad. But I don't think you need go, Hugh," the younger man said quietly.

"But I am going all the same. Well, good-bye for the present. With luck I ought to get back some time before morning."

"So long, old chap, and God bless you!"

With tears in his eyes Wynne ran out of the tent; and five minutes later he was laying his case before the local Superintendent of Police, whom he had chanced to come across in the street near the post office. At once that kindly-souled officer placed a horse at Wynne's disposal, and a quarter of an hour after that he cantered out of Blue Gum Settlement, following the track southwards along the edge of the creek.

Shortly after sundown, a tired horse and rider, sweating and dust-stained, drew up beside the Station Hotel at Longreach, the Thomson River terminus of the Central Railway. Putting up his jaded beast he rushed to the telegraph office near at hand, and in five minutes had dispatched the following message:


"Harman Dennison, M.D., East-street, Rockhampton.—Come at once to case at Blue Gum Creek. Can name your own fee. Must not delay. Horse waiting you at Station Hotel here. Am awaiting answer. Reply prepaid.—Henry Rance, M.D."


Wynne had ordered a slight repast while putting up his steed, and he had concluded his meal, and was making arrangements with the hotel proprietor for another horse, which the doctor from Rockhampton could bring back from Blue Gum Creek on the following day, when Dr. Harman Dennison's reply telegram was brought to him.

It was brief, but to the point. The medical specialist would come to Longreach on the first morning train—was leaving Rockhampton at midnight, and might be expected at Blue Gum Creek—if a horse was in readiness for him—some time before noon.

Somewhat cheered by the far-away doctor's prompt response to his wire, our young friend paid his bill, drank a bottle of beer, and set forth on his thirty mile ride back through the grassy wilderness to his injured friend, wondering the while how things had fared with poor Lance during his absence.

The night had quite fallen by the time Hubert Wynne cantered out of Longreach, but innumerable hosts of starry lamps were aglow in the deep blue arch of heaven, and a full moon was flooding, with its chastened refulgent light, the wide sweep of the Thomson River, the quiet deserted track running alongside its eastern shore, and the great rolling downs and vast sheep runs that spread out in the apparently limitless green wilderness.

And as the fresh horse galloped easily along the white, dusty track, the rider's thoughts flew first to that little tent on the bank of Blue Gum Creek, where his maimed companion was lying, perchance to rise no more; and next minute his fancies were away thousands of miles beyond the Australian shores in dear old England, where an anxious father was awaiting the return of his wandering son, and where a loving woman was counting the days which divided her from her absent lover.

"How will it all end? How will it all end?" he murmured sadly, as he bent over his horse's neck, with a full heart and dim eyes. And then a sudden qualm of fear thrilled him like some premonition of impending ill; and raising his hat in a momentary fit of piety he whispered with a bent head, "Oh, Lord, Thy will be done!"


CHAPTER XXXIV.—A DYING MAN'S PROPOSAL.

It was midnight again, and over the length and breadth of Blue Gum Creek the beauty and glamour of an Australian night were sleeping. Luna rode on high with her attendant galaxies of glittering orbs, many of them mirrored in the silvery ribbon of the stream, and over water and grass and gold diggings, scattered tents and trees, the soft light lay, and a faint breeze whispered gently.

Here and there at the open entrances of canvas dwellings were to be seen splashes of red or yellow glow, where some of the miners were not yet abed or were playing late at cards, and in the heart of the settlement, where the drinking saloons still remained unclosed, were heard at times through the quietness the sounds of loud laughter and revelry.

Inside the tent of the two chums a different picture was presented. From the tall pole in the centre of the bell-shaped structure a small oil lamp was suspended, and its glimmer lit up the interior. On an extemporised couch Lance Blair was lying, a look of patient resignation on his pallid, handsome face, and by his side Wynne was sitting, crouched in a heap, with his head resting on his hands.

At midday the doctor from Rockhampton had arrived at Blue Gum; had visited the tent and examined the injured man; had delivered his verdict, pocketed his twenty guinea fee, and after a stroll through the mining village with Dr. Rance, had mounted the hock from Longreach and started on his long journey home.

Dr. Harman Dennison's stay at the Creek had covered less than an hour, yet between his coming and going one man—two men—had heard the sentence of death pronounced on one of them. Lance Blair was doomed; his injury was incurable; his spinal column, if not actually ruptured, had been so terribly injured by his fall, that a cure was next to an impossibility, and his decease might be expected any day—any hour even.

What words written by human pen can depict the woe produced by that authoritative judgment! In different ways both of the young men were prostrated by poignant grief. They had been to one another much more than brothers; for years they had almost lived in common, sharing joy and sorrow, hopes and dreams, bed, bite, sup, and purse; and now the dread fiat had gone forth that one of them was never to return to England.

Was it a wonder that love of life, the world, and all its good things, should be strong in the dying man? He was only on the very threshold of manhood; with the cup of desire at his lips it was dashed away and broken beyond repair; young, handsome, rich, he was to die.

Had sentence of death been pronounced on some near and dear kinsman of his own, Hubert Wynne could not have sorrowed more. All that was truest, tenderest, and strongest in himself had been quickened by his great affection for his friend. He had looked forward joyously to a long life of close communion; and now the Reaper with the Scythe was rearing his gaunt shadow between them. It was bitter—the quintessence of all bitterness—such a cup of gall and wormwood as only the young can feel the full taste of.

But it was midnight now, and the fierce agony of the fatal knowledge had worn much of itself away by this. Of the two the condemned man was much the calmer, for his face had a strange sweetness upon it now, while occasional surges of impotent, passionate pain swept through the other still.

"Hugh," said the invalid, quietly, "I have something here for you. While you were away at Longreach, I got Dr. Rance to write it out; and then when Lesford, the Superintendent of Police, dropped in, I signed it, and the others were witnesses. Take it—keep it—for it may be of use some day."

Wynne look the paper wearily. It was his friend's will, written on a sheet of notepaper, and at its foot it bore the names of the testator and the two men he had named. In that brief document the dying man bequeathed to his chum all he possessed at that moment, or might ever have a claim to.

With a full heart and wet eyes Wynne put the paper away, not daring to trust himself to speak. And then in a few moments Lance spoke again.

"Do you know, Hugh, of what I have been thinking ever since I heard the truth?"

"How can I know, Laurence?" Wynne murmured huskily.

"I have been thinking of home—of dear old Saxehurst and Saxilham; of father and cousin, of you and young Judith Trafford, my sister and your promised wife."

"What of them, my dear lad?"

"This, Hugh. When I am gone I have been thinking of what will happen. You know what a sly, designing, lying and selfish sneak my cousin, Edward Craven, is. I hate him, you must dislike him, too, and yet he will be my father's next of kin when all is over. But I do not want Craven ever to stand in the place that should one day have been mine. He must not stand in my shoes, Hugh, and you must help me to keep him out of them."

"What can I do, Laurence, to help you?"

"Everything! You yourself must take my place!"

"How can I do that? I do not like Craven, it is true; but I do not see how I am to stand between him and your father."

"It can be done easily enough. Haven't I told you that you must take my place! Hugh Chesters must die, and not Laurence Blackwood. Now you see what I mean?"

"I see it," Wynne cried with a start, "but the thing is impossible, Laurence!"

"No! It is quite possible—even easy. Nature herself has even done her utmost to assist us in this thing. Don't the diggers here call us 'The Twins?' Didn't Roderick Norbury, who had known me from boyhood, mistake you for me? Haven't a thousand people in our wanderings been puzzled to distinguish between us? And don't we, Hugh, resemble one another now more than ever?"

"It is impossible, Laurence!" Wynne cried again. "Strangers might be taken in, hoodwinked that way, but what of your father and Edward Craven?"

"A little disguise and they would never know—never suspect. You know all my little tricks of speech and gesture; even our voices are but a little different. Darken your hair, adopt my mannerisms, and no living being could tell that Hugh Chesters was not his poor chum. I tell you, old man, that you must do this thing to please me!"

"And I tell you, Laurence, that it cannot be done! Have you thought of all this scheme means? You ask me to deceive your own father; to play the part of a great impostor; to lay myself open to the charge of being a daring and unscrupulous swindler! I beseech you, dear old friend, to think of what would happen if I played this game and got found out."

"There need be no fear of that. If you care to take the necessary measures of precaution you can make detection next thing to an impossibility. And, Hugh, for a dozen sound, moral reasons—reasons of justice, honesty, social good, you ought to do this thing—must do it!"

"Give me one reason, Laurence, apart from your deep, and perhaps natural hatred of your cousin."

"I can give you a score!" the sick man murmured. "In you my father would find the son he ever desired me to be. You are clever, ambitious, and have a brain stocked with social schemes and dreams. You would make your mark quickly, and fill my father's heart with joy and glory. And you would soften his heart as well, and make him do something that would sweeten life for the drudges who have helped to pile up his scores of thousands. Only think of all that, dear Hugh!"

"I can only think of posing as a criminal impostor!" Wynne exclaimed lowly, with a set face. "What has made you think of such a wild scheme. In pity's name do not trouble yourself more with it, my dear Laurence."

"But I must!" was the dogged response. "And there is justice—there is common sense at the bottom of what you call my wild scheme. But how changed you are now, Hugh. Once you were fond of talking about altruism and all its practice might do for the world. Here I offer you a plan which might enable you to work a complete social revolution at Saxilham, and the selfishness of a more theoretical altruist keeps you from putting your hands to the work. What becomes now of all your fine theories as to the necessity—the righteousness of sacrificing oneself for the good of others?"

"I have not changed my opinions Laurence," the other muttered, "but this scheme of yours would make me an impostor—a living lie—a swindler—a criminal, who must end his days in gaol!"

"Wait till I tell you how I see things Hugh," was the sick man's firm retort. "You are in love with a lovely, an innocent, a greatly wronged young woman. That woman, Judith Trafford the younger, is my sister—my father's daughter. My father has wronged both mother and daughter in an irreparable, and inexpiable way. If my father had been true to himself; if his ambition to be rich and great had not made sad havoc of all his nobler and better impulses, what would have happened, Hugh?"

"How can I say? I do not know!"

"You must know!" the other cried irritably. "But for those things I have pointed out, my father would have acted like an honest man; he would have married the good woman he must have loved and yet allowed himself to betray; and the lassie you love yourself, and intend to marry some day, would have had no need to be ashamed of her birth and our common father."

"It is true, Laurence! It is true!" Wynne murmured. "All you say now I am compelled to believe."

"And you shall believe the rest yet," was the younger man's answer. "Next to myself, Hugh Wynne Chesters," the invalid went on solemnly, "who has the strongest claim upon my father. Is it my cousin, Edward Craven, or my sister, Judith Trafford? Hugh, answer me that!"

"It requires no answer. It is your sister—young Judith! Craven has no claim on your father at all; but his daughter, and the woman who ought to have been his wife, have the strongest of all earthly claims on Gabriel Blackwood!"

"There spoke my dear old chum! In the sight of heaven the elder woman is my father's wife, and her child is my father's own flesh and blood! And yet you would let Edward Craven come between them and my father's fortune. Tell me, Hugh, that you will not do that."

"What can I do?" was the whispered answer.

"Do exactly as I tell you. Take my place; stand before my father as his own son, and when you are strong enough to tell him the whole truth, is it not likely that he will see the justice of what you have done?"

"Laurence, I will do it!" Wynne said solemnly as he sprang to his feet. "After all, this thing you suggest is not wrong. Next to your father's son, his daughter must stand. I will do it! I will do it! In the end I can tell him the truth."

"Will you swear to keep your word, Hugh?"

"I will swear it if you wish."

"Then kneel here beside me; put your hand in mine, Hugh; and swear to keep this vow."

The strong man knelt by the infirm man's couch, clasped his friend's right hand in his own, and slowly, solemnly, whispered the following words:—


"Before heaven, I swear to fulfil the solemn promise I have made to-night. So help me, God!"


"I am satisfied now, Hugh. Satisfied!" the bedridden man cried wearily, weakly. "I am tired, too; ever so tired. Give me a drink, Hugh, and then I'll try to sleep."

Wynne gave his friend a drop of brandy and water; he turned his head to the pillow, and soon was sleeping. Then the other stole out for a breath of air, and stood at the tent entrance some little while, viewing the splendour of the night and the moonlit valley.

When he moved softly back into the tent a low hoarse cry of horror burst from him. It was a white dead face he was staring at. His chum had gone to sleep for ever.


CHAPTER XXXV.—THE RETURN OF THE WANDERER.

THREE or four days after the death of his friend, the man who, henceforth, was to be known as Laurence Blackwood, prepared to shake the dust of Blue Gum Creek off his feet. Within 24 hours of his decease, the unfortunate Lance Blair had been buried in the name of Hugh Wynne Chesters; his own chum digging his grave back amidst the bush and trees not many yards from the spot where he had lived and died; and the digger of pious and preaching tendencies had officiated as clergyman.

The same evening the surviving member of "The Twins" had written and despatched an account of the accident to the "Rockhampton Bulletin"; and that done, next day the young gentleman digger had disposed of the unfinished claim, tools, accessories, tent and fittings, to some new-comers for a few pounds, and then, after making arrangements with the local bank to cash his balance at the head-quarters at Rockhampton, he paid a last sad visit to the green mound, marked by a rude wooden cross, where all that was mortal of "Lance Blair" lay.

He cried then like a child; and his eyes were red and wet still when he took his last lingering look at Blue Gum Creek, the serried lines of canvas tents, the saloons, stores, banks, offices, and the rest, ere he rode sadly away southwards in the direction of Longreach.

Next day the traveller was in Rockhampton, and engaging rooms at the hotel where he and his dead friend had formerly stayed, he ordered a meal, sallied forth to the bank close by, drew the several thousand pounds due to him and for which he produced his vouchers, and that task finished he went back to the hotel, and while he was eating in his own rooms he eagerly scanned that morning's paper.

The note he had sent to the editor of the "Rockhampton Bulletin" had been inserted as a news item, and ran thus:—


SAD ACCIDENT AT BLUE GUM.

YOUNG GENTLEMAN DIGGER GETS KILLED.

From advices just to hand from Blue Gum Creek, the new mining settlement on the head waters of the Thomson River, where alluvial gold is being worked, we learn that a deplorable accident has occurred to one of the miners there. One of the claims was being worked by a couple of young gentlemen diggers, who called themselves Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne. They had sunk their hole about fifteen feet and had extracted several hundred ounces of dust from it, when the deplorable mishap took place. The young diggers raised their wash stuff by means of a windlass and chain and it was while being wound up by his chum that the chain snapped and hurled Lance Blair to the bottom, injuring his spine so badly that all efforts of the local medical man, Dr. Rance, and the Rockhampton specialist, Dr. Harman Dennison, were unable to save him.

The injured man died early on Wednesday morning, and was buried at Blue Gum yesterday. As we have said already, the unfortunate miner was known as Lance Blair, but we are now informed, on the highest authority that his real name was Hugh Wynne Chesters. He was an Englishman and was well connected, his uncle being a well-known baronet in the county of Yorkshire. The dead gentleman digger's companion, who was present when the accident happened, is, we understand, the only son of a wealthy coal-owner, Mr. Gabriel Blackwood, Saxilham, England, who for some years represented Saxilford in the British House of Commons. The two young men had been engaged on a tour round the globe for two or three years, and had taken up gold-digging in a vein of sport and amusement. The sad termination to their venture is greatly deplored by all who knew the deceased.

The surviving gentleman, Mr. Laurence Blackwood, is to return to England at once.


After carefully perusing that somewhat elaborate account of his dear comrade's death, every particular of which the reader had himself supplied. Laurence Blackwood, as we must now call him, was plunged for some minutes in grim reverie.

He had taken the first step in that scheme of impersonation to which he had solemnly pledged himself at the bedside of his dying chum, and he was speculating then as to what the last step might be. For a moment he wavered as he weighed coolly the consequences of his undertaking; but next instant, his purpose steeled itself when he thought of the wrongs and iniquities the Traffords had borne so long and patiently.

And a thought of Edward Craven nerved him to the work he was to face. Should such a sly, lying cur step between the mine-owner and the moral rights of mother and daughter? No! Come what might of it, he would stand fast by the promise he had sworn.

So he went forth into Rockhampton's streets, obtained half a dozen copies of that day's "Bulletin," and later stored them away carefully in his trunk for future use. Next day he left for the capital of New South Wales, and a week later he set sail from Sydney on one of the great ocean liners for England.

It was the middle of March, when the "Oratavia" touched at Southampton, on her way to London; and landing at the southern port, Laurence Blackwood made his way to the general post-office there and despatched the following telegram:—


Blackwood, Saxehurst, Saxilham, near Saxilford. Have just arrived by the "Oratavia" from Australia. Am well and hearty, but have lost my friend, H.W.C. I send you Queensland paper with account of accident. Am going on to London but hope to reach home early on Friday.

Laurence Blackwood.


A minute after sending off the foregoing wire, the late voyager had posted a copy of the "Rockhampton Bulletin"; and then, having snatched a hasty repast in one of the hotels, he caught the first train to the capital, there to prepare for his descent on Gabriel Blackwood, Edward Craven, and Saxilham.

It was an hour or so before nightfall when our friend sent message and journal to Saxehurst, and next morning, between ten and eleven o'clock, our other acquaintance, Mr. Edward Craven, chanced to take a stroll through Saxilham village.

It was a sharp day, and the main thoroughfare was well nigh deserted; only here and there a villager or a village housewife hurried to and fro on business, and it was not until Craven had paced the whole length of the street that he encountered any person or persons he knew well enough or cared to speak to.

And then suddenly, at the corner of the highroad, he met the two Traffords face to face. Both mother and daughter were looking their best just then. They were warmly clad, were even attired with considerable taste and care; and the grave, handsome face of the mother, the sweet, fresh and lovely features of the daughter, were each radiant with the glow and exercise of their long walk.

He had raised his hat in his most gentlemanly manner; had smiled in his most ingratiatory way; had even paused on the footpath as they approached; but they would have passed him with the curtest of nods had he not raised his voice and cried meaningly,

"You will pardon me, ladies," he said, smiling in his cold superior way, "but I thought you would be pleased to hear that I have just had news from my cousin, Laurence Blackwood."

"From Laurence!" the elder woman cried, showing signs of suddenly aroused interest. "And his friend, too—Mr. Chesters—I daresay."

"I have news of Chesters also," he answered gravely. "I had a telegram and a newspaper from Southampton this morning, and if you desire it I will show them to you. But the street is scarcely a place——"

"Will you step into my house for a minute, Mr. Craven," the mother asked quickly. "I shall be pleased—Judith will be pleased, too—to hear of Laurence and his friend; and I am sure we both thank you for mentioning that you have had news of them."

A minute later they were all inside the small cottage; the elder woman had divested herself of bonnet and cloak and was poking the fire into a cheerful blaze, her daughter stood with her back to the window, statuesquely beautiful, and her heart all in a glow, while Craven was taking the telegraphic message from its brown envelope.

He read the message in cold, clear tones, and both women started, and a low, strangled cry fell from the daughter when he read that ominous sentence—"Am well and hearty, but I have lost my friend, H.W.C." He knew that the younger woman had dropped upon a chair, but he never glanced her way, and read on to the end.

"What can Laurence mean by speaking of losing his friend?" the older Judith asked, in a voice that quavered despite all her efforts to keep it steady. "Does he mean that Mr. Chesters has not returned—that he has stopped in Australia?"

"This Australian newspaper, which my cousin has sent, will tell you all, madam. Will you read it yourself?" and he held the paper out to her, "or shall I read it?"

"You read it," was the woman's cold, hard response, and he saw her flash a reproving glance at the quivering girl sitting dumbly near the window.

Without a word of comment he read out the account of the accident at Blue Gum Creek, his voice cold, clear still, but with a note of subdued triumph running through it; and when he had read every word, and glanced first at the mother and then at the daughter, neither spoke a syllable for a space, but he could catch the deep, tense breathing of them both.

"Can it be true, sir?" the mother cried at last; and again that meaning look shot past Craven to her girl.

"There can be no doubt of that," he answered. "Note how exact all the particulars are. I shouldn't be surprised to find that my cousin Laurence himself supplied them. And, besides, this telegram confirms the newspaper report. Poor Chesters! Of course, I am awfully sorry to hear of his death, for he was quite gentlemanly in his way, and rather a decent sort of fellow."

The woman glared at the superior and supercilious speaker with burning eyes. The mother's face had grown white now, and the face of the daughter was livid. But save for that deathly paleness, and the small hands lying clenched in her lap, young Judith gave no sign of the terrible agony she was mutely enduring. Then the older woman burst out.

"Quite gentlemanly, was he, Edward Craven?" she said. "Ay, a thousand times more of a real man than some gentlemen I know and have known! Hugh Chesters was one of the best and noblest souls I have ever known, and I would have given my own life freely to have kept him living!"

"Well, he is gone, poor fellow; and, of course, we are all very sorry," he replied. "But after all he was only an acquaintance of ours. I fear, however, that my cousin will miss him sadly."

"I shall miss Hugh Chesters more than your cousin!" she cried. "And my daughter will miss him, God help her! More than us all!"

"Why—why should Judith miss Chesters?" he exclaimed, suddenly stung to fiery words.

"Because I loved him! Because Hugh Chesters was my promised husband!" Judith said coldly, proudly, as she rose and faced him, her eyes aflame, her face like grey marble, her form rigid as stone.

He glanced from one to the other in a sheepish way, and saw that written on the face of each which bade him go hence; so, with a queer, dry, hard laugh, that sounded in the women's ears like a sneer at the loved dead, he tossed newspaper and telegram on the flagged floor, muttered a good afternoon, and passed out.

Not before the door had closed on the latch, and Craven's footsteps had died away, did young Judith's stoical fortitude desert her. Then the stone became wax—a living palpitating, suffering girl, who collapsed on the chair, sobbing piteously,

"Mother! mother! Hugh is dead! Can it be true? Oh, God if Hugh is dead, let me die too!"


CHAPTER XXXVI.—THE MEETING OF THE COUSINS.

WHEN the London express thundered into the station at Saxilford and drew up there snorting and puffing for a five minutes' rest, a tall, well-built young gentleman, quietly dressed in grey tweed, grey overcoat, and soft hat, with a handsome, strong, deeply-tanned face, black hair, and short, pointed, closely-trimmed beard and moustache alighted from a first-class carriage.

He had a brown leather travelling bag in his hand, was smoking a cigar, and standing there on the platform, a somewhat distinguished figure, he glanced carelessly hither and thither as if he expected and was looking for someone. Presently the train rumbled away on its journey, the platform cleared, and then the Stationmaster came bustling up to the loitering man.

"Excuse me, sir, but aren't you young Mr. Laurence Blackwood?"

"Right you here, Symington; what is it?"

"I'm blest if I was sure about you at first, sir," the station-master went on. "Two or three years have made such a change in you, Mr. Blackwood. Just back from abroad, eh? Well, your cousin, Mr. Edward Craven, was here half an hour since, and he left word that you were to please wait for him at the Royal Hotel, sir."

"Thanks, Symington. Kindly get somebody to carry my bag."

"Thank you, sir," and the red-faced man's fist closed like a vice on half-a-crown. Then he called out down the platform, "Hi! there, Bimson! Gentleman here wants you."

Handing his bag to the out-porter, Laurence Blackwood sauntered to the hotel the railway official had named, and dismissing the man with a shilling, he gave his name to the manager of the Royal, engaged a private room, and had scarcely tasted a small Scotch and soda which he had ordered, ere a smart maid tapped at the door, entered, and announced:—

"A gentleman to see you, sir, Mr. Edward Craven."

Laurence Blackwood rose quite coolly and faced his cousin, who stood there smirking, as tall, as lanky, as turbid-skinned, sharp-eyed, oily, and cunning as of old. For some seconds both men regarded each other mutely—closely. Then in a rush, Craven spoke, as he came forward with extended hand.

"My dear Laurence, how pleased I am to see you back again. How weather-beaten you are. And yet in the very pink of condition, I see. And a beard, too. Well, I declare that it becomes you wonderfully."

"Oh, I am all right, thank you, Edward," the bearded man answered quietly, as he grasped the other's hand for a couple of moments. "Well, I'm glad you've come, for I'm dying to get back to Saxehurst. And how is dad? Quite well, I hope. And how are you, Edward?"

"Quite well, thank you, cousin," was the response. "But if you are in no great hurry to get away. Laurence, we will have some refreshment; and then we can have a talk together. I have really a good deal to tell you."

"Certainly. What will you take?"

Craven named his drink, the other rang for the maid and ordered a couple of Scotch whiskies and soda, and when they were brought, and they were alone, he again turned to the other.

"Now, Edward, what have you tell me?"

"Ever so much; but first let me ask about poor Mr. Chesters. Is it really true that he is dead—was killed at the diggings?"

"True enough, God knows!" was the husky response, and Craven saw that the speaker's eyes had filled with tears. "But we will not speak of my dead friend, if you please. I cannot bear to think of it yet. And that newspaper I sent you tells all there is to be told. Besides, Edward," and the soft thick speech cleared and hardened a little, "Hugh Chesters was hardly a friend of yours."

"In which way not a friend of mine, Laurence?" was the amazed response. "I always thought we got along nicely together, and so far as I know, Chesters and I were the best of friends. Have you any reasons for thinking otherwise?"

"The best of reasons, Edward, I regret to say."

"What is it, Laurence? Something Chesters told you about me?"

"Yes; something he told me. You had led him to believe that you were in love with and engaged to Judith Trafford. That was a lie, Edward—or the half-truth, which is worse than a mere common falsehood."

"It was a mistake, I admit, Laurence; but I was in love with Judith, and I fully believed that she would in time accept me as her future husband."

"Yet my poor chum told me that your matrimonial offer had been refused by both mother and daughter; and that he himself had discovered your mis-statement just in time to make Judith his promised wife before he left England. Is that true, Edward?"

"So I understand," was the half-sullen reply. "I saw the Traffords yesterday as I was passing through Saxilham, and I happened to mention that I had news from you and information respecting your friend, Mr. Chesters."

"And what then?"

"The mother asked me into their house, and I read them your wire, and that account of the accident as well, which was in the newspaper you sent to Saxehurst."

"Great heavens! Why, Edward, it was enough to kill the young woman. Surely, man, your common-sense ought to have kept you from doing that!"

"It seems imprudent, unfeeling, Laurence, I know; but do not forget that I knew nothing of any arrangement Judith Trafford and Mr. Chesters had come to ere you both went away. Had I known I should certainly have been more guarded."

"Poor lass! And how did she take the sad news?"

"Very bravely, I thought afterwards. But she was cold as a stone, even when she threw it in my face that she had been Hugh Chesters' affianced wife."

"Brave girl! How I pity her, Edward. Heaven alone can tell, I suppose, what she will have to suffer now."

"I saw no trace of suffering, cousin," was Craven's cynical retort. "I am glad she took the blow so calmly. Now that your unfortunate friend is dead, Laurence, your own kinsman may have a chance."

"You love her still, then?" Laurence Blackwood queried. "Now I should have thought, Edward, that a man of your position and attainments would have thought twice—nay, a score of times—before he seriously desired a marriage with a mere pit-brow girl. She is very handsome, I grant; but, after all is said, Judith is but a mere worker on a pit-bank; and, then again, her birth must stand out blackly against her."

"Judith is a pit-brow girl no longer, Laurence!" Craven exclaimed. "She and her mother left the pits soon after you and your friend went away, and since then they have lived comfortably in that cottage of theirs, just like a couple of retired, well-to-do ladies! I have wondered—everybody has wondered—how they were able to manage it, cousin."

"Shall I tell you, Edward?" the bearded young titan asked with a quiet laugh.

"If you please, Laurence."

"Then it was all managed owing to my friend's forethought and unselfish generosity. His fortune amounted to something over one hundred and some few pounds a year, derived from some investment his mother left him at her death. As a man and a gentleman, Hugh Chesters felt that he could not go on a tour round the world, eating, drinking, living, travelling, and spending like a gentleman, and leave the woman he loved and intended to marry working for her bread on a pit-brow. So he transferred his income to Judith and her mother, and he willed it to them at his death. Yes, Edward Craven, my poor dear friend was a man!"

"It was noble of him," the other remarked grudgingly; "yet I would have done the same. But this Judith Trafford, Laurence, was never a common pit-brow girl, and you, of all men, should never speak in a slighting way of her birth. There is one thing that your friend did not tell you, cousin."

"Many, perhaps, Edward. But I did not speak of Judith in a way that was not respectful. I alluded merely, to the blot on her birth—for which she is in no sense to blame. But what was it poor Chesters did not tell me?"

"Who Judith Trafford really is, Laurence. He did not tell you that? And yet he knew. Surely, your noble friend was not ashamed in any way of the woman he was going to marry?"

"He was not ashamed, Edward. Yes, he told me all—told me what I ought to have known years ago. Judith is my sister—your cousin—my father's daughter! When I see him, and reason with him, he shall acknowledge her, Edward!"

"Your father will never acknowledge her now, Laurence," Craven muttered in a low, changed voice.

"I say he shall—he must!" the other snapped out. "Why should he refuse? He is a reasonable man; a good man, too—sound at the core; and he will do this act of justice when I urge him to it, Edward."

"He will not do it!" Craven answered sadly.

"Edward, what do you mean?" Blackwood demanded. "He is well, I hope, and anxious to see me. Hasn't he forgiven that mad folly of mine in London? What a silly young ass I must have been! Did he tell you about the Jews fleecing me? And what made you send that alarming 'Notice! Notice! Notice!' which appeared in the Australian papers?"

"He was indisposed then and anxious to have you back at Saxehurst," Craven said gravely. "Why did you not come when that cabled message reached you?"

"Because my poor chum wanted five thousand pounds to bring back to his sweetheart, and I stayed on to help him to win it, Edward. But you got my letter?"

"Yes, we got your letter, Laurence," was the sad answer. "But we wanted you—and have been waiting for you ever since. Ah, cousin, why did you not come?"

"In heaven's name, what is wrong?" Blackwood cried, as he jumped to his feet. "What is it, Edward? Is my father not well? Speak, man!"

"Mr. Blackwood is not well, Laurence. Has nobody told you anything? Have you not heard?"

"What could I hear? From Southampton, I went right on to London, and I have only just landed in Saxilford. But there is nothing seriously amiss with father, is there?"

"His case is most serious, cousin. He will never be well again. Had I known your address I would have wired——"

"Good heavens! So bad, and we have been talking here all this time. Get a hansom, quick, and we'll drive to Saxehurst at once. In heaven's name, Craven, why did you not let me know the worst at once? Now, man, stir yourself and let's be away."

The excited speaker made as if to rush from the room, but the other, without moving from his chair, held up his hand impressively, warningly.

"It is too late now, Laurence. My uncle is dead. He died just three weeks before your last letter reached home."

"Good God! Dad dead! My poor friend dead, too, and I am left here!"

Then the young man dropped like a helpless log on his chair, and covering his face with his brown hands, sobbed convulsively. For a moment or two Craven gazed in some sort of puzzled silence at the distressed man, evidently surprised by that unrestrained and perfectly genuine outburst of deep feeling.

Then he rose quietly, made some excuse for leaving the room, and saying he would be back again shortly, he stole away.


CHAPTER XXXVII.—THE LAST WORK OF THE DEAD MAN.

FOR an hour or more Laurence Blackwood was left to himself and his thoughts in that private room of the Royal Hotel, wherein he had met Edward Craven, and the news of Gabriel Blackwood's death had been broken to him. The suddenness of the intelligence, its unexpectedness, had been overwhelming for the moment, and his sorrow, confusion, and pathetic outcry had been honest as the man himself.

A little later only, when he had recovered his composure, and was able to view matters calmly, he could not avoid the thought that Luck, Fate, Circumstance—call it what one will—was playing into his hands, and making easy the consummation of his dead friend's great scheme.

He was sorry beyond all words of phrasing his sorrow, that it had been ordained that the mine-owner and his kin should pass away within a few days of each other; and yet, underlying all that, was a great sense of relief that he would not be called on to face the one man, of all men on earth, whom he had most reason to fear in the deep game of imposture which he was playing.

When Edward Craven returned he found his young kinsman pale, grave, but master of himself.

"When did father die, Edward?" he asked.

"On the night of the 22nd of January."

"Just one week before poor Chesters! And what was the nature of his fatal illness?"

"A severe cold—an attack of influenza—which none of us considered serious. But it developed into a mixture of pneumonia and pleurisy, and the end came suddenly."

"Did father die at all contented, Edward?"

"I believe he did, all things considered. Of course, he was upset at first because you and Chesters were away, but one thing he did seemed to have made his mind much easier, Laurence."

"What was that?"

"A few hours before the end he sent me for Judith Trafford and her daughter."

"Did they come?"

"They did; and stayed with him a considerable time."

"What happened then?" the bearded man asked, with an interest and eagerness he made no attempt to hide.

"I cannot tell you that," was the answer. "The three of them were left to themselves. Even the nurse was requested to leave the sickroom for a time. What transpired only the Traffords themselves can tell you. But I saw and spoke to them before they went away, and I could see that both had been crying."

"Thank heaven for that, Edward!" Blackwood murmured fervently. "Before he died my father made peace with and obtained forgiveness from the two women—God bless them!—who ought to have been for the last twenty years or more the two dearest creatures on earth to him."

"Yes, he made his peace with them, Laurence. What took place I do not know—can only guess. But under their grief one could see something which showed that a deep satisfaction—a great contentment—had come to them both that night."

"How pleased I am to hear all this, Edward. Even at the last hour repentance and reparation count for much. But," and the speaker faltered awkwardly for an instant, "did father make a will?"

"I have reason to think he did, Laurence. A few days before his illness became acute Mr. Stanley Marshall, the Saxilford solicitor, you know, was with him at Saxehurst the better part of one afternoon. That could only mean one thing, cousin."

"Yes; but has the will not been read?"

"No. Your letter came then, and at the funeral the lawyer in announcing that a will had been left by your father, stated that it would not be read until your return, Laurence."

"Does Mr. Marshall know that I am back, Edward?"

"I met him to-day and told him I was expecting you. He is coming to Saxehurst to-morrow; but if you wish it I will run over to his chambers now."

"No, no! That matter will keep. If he is to visit us to-morrow that will be early enough. Now, cousin, get a hansom and we will go home."


CHAPTER XXXVIII.—THE WOMEN OF THE RED HAND.

SINCE the return of the young master to Saxehurst, nearly a week had passed away, and that brief period had proved a busy one for the man who had slipped into Gabriel Blackwood's shoes. For a day or two scarcely anyone had seen Laurence outside of his own house and grounds; but later, he had passed through the village frequently, had spent hours in the colliery offices and wandering about the different pits, making himself conversant with all the details of the great mining industry that Gabriel Blackwood had built up.

And not a few who had known the rich mine-master's son in the old days were wondering what this unexpected burst of activity and interest might mean or portend. Hitherto young Blackwood had seemed utterly careless and indifferent to the source from which a large fortune had been drawn; but now he was eager and earnest to know all that he could pick up about the mines, miners, pit-brow hands, clerks in the office, even—in fact, everything about the place.

It was as if instead of stepping into a big fortune ready made to his hand, the new master was setting about making one. For a day or two Edward Craven had been puzzled like others by this unexpected activity on the part of his kinsman. Then he had laughed to himself in that quiet, sly, under-the-surface way of his when pleased.

The pomp and glory of his new power and place had stirred his cousin for the time being, and under their influence he had been galvanised into this fit of spasmodic energy. But how long would the spell of interest and industry last? Probably less than a month at the longest, and then happy-go-lucky Laurence Blackwood would tire of coal and colliers and all things pertaining thereunto, would be content to take life easily, and spend some of the many thousand a year which were his, and then he would be glad to leave the management and control of things, commercial and financial, in his cousin's hands.

That was what Mr. Edward Craven concluded, and certainly in his case the wish was father to the thought. Since his uncle's death Edward had had complete command of all the business arrangements connected with the five different mines, and he had no desire to see himself displaced from his seat of authority even by his own relative and master.

His position was worth some five hundred pounds a year, and as his cousin's agent, manager, viceroy, it might be made worth a thousand or two with the "pickings." And Mr. Craven had quite made up his mind that all he could win as the business manager of a rich and careless young kinsman, should be won. Wasn't Laurence wealthy enough already, and hadn't he—Edward Craven—his own fortune to make?

On the day following his reappearance at Saxehurst, the heir had met the lawyer, Mr. Stanley Marshall, and shortly afterwards, in the presence of himself and cousin and all the domestics in the big house, the last will and testament of Gabriel Blackwood had been read.

Only mention of the general features of that document need be made here and now. With the exception of various bequests to all his servants at Saxehurst, to half-a-dozen old pit-men who had worked in his mines a score of years or more, in addition to five thousand pounds bequeathed to his nephew, Edward Craven, and the sum of ten thousand pounds he had devised to his daughter, the younger Judith Trafford, of Saxilham, child of himself and "Judith of the Red Hand," the dead mine-owner had left the whole of his great fortune to his son, Laurence Blackwood.

Leaving all the technical part of the business in the capable hands of Mr. Stanley Marshall, the new master made it his own special business to pay over every bequest of his dead sire's with his own hands. In the bank of Saxilford there was a balance of over fifty thousand pounds lying, so the young man wrote out cheques for the servant's and miners, presented them to the fortunate devisees with a few earnest and kindly words, and those few hundreds of pounds disposed of he turned his attention to the man and girl who had inherited small fortunes, under his father's will.

Edward Craven's face was a perfect picture of smuggest contentment when his cousin handed him that draft on the Saxilford bank for five thousand sterling. He was oily, unctuous, all smiles and soft words; and yet, in his heart of hearts, he was thinking that his uncle might have rewarded an honest, industrious, and faithful servant and nephew in as ample a fashion as he had seen fit to recompense the daughter of an old flame of his.

On the day after the will was read the new master of Saxehurst sent a short note by one of the servants to the elder Judith Trafford with instructions to bring back an answer. The note contained a few lines and was worded thus:—


Madam,—If you and your daughter can spare me half an hour or so, I shall be glad to see you here. My business with you both is of considerable importance, and should be attended to at once. In case it is not convenient for you to come here it will afford me pleasure to visit you at your cottage. Please reply per bearer of this note.

I am, madam, your very obedient servant,

Laurence Blackwood.


It was between two and three o'clock when the foregoing note was despatched, and the writer of it waited somewhat anxiously for such reply as might be made to it. Edward Craven was away at the collieries, and was not likely to leave them for some hours at least, so that, in case the mother and daughter thought fit to come to Saxehurst, they need not fear meeting him. He would have liked to point that out in his note, but had refrained, thinking it might show a greater knowledge of events on his part than it was wise to disclose as yet.

In twenty minutes, the housemaid was back again with an answer in her hand. Eagerly he took the closed envelope and tore it open, to find inside the appended communication, which the younger woman had evidently written. Even ere he fully mastered all the written words, Laurence Blackwood pressed his lips to the name of Judith Trafford set down at the foot of the short note. The epistle itself ran so:—


Dear Mr. Blackwood.—Thanks for your note. I am sorry that my daughter and I cannot come to Saxehurst. She is not well enough to come out. If you really wish to see us, why not come here?

Yours respectfully,

Judith Trafford, sen.


Ten minutes after reading those words the new master was donning overcoat and hat and preparing to quit the house. As he turned from Saxehurst, sauntered through the grounds and out into the high road, a new light was shining in his eyes, and if his face was gravely thoughtful, and a trifle pale under its deep tan, it was not owing to any fear he harboured.

What the young man's thoughts and feelings were like may be safety left to the imagination of the reader who has followed this story carefully. As he passed through the village with that easy, careless swing his dead friend had ever adopted, was it a wonder that his reflections turned on the events that had happened since he last set his feet in Saxilham?

More than two years ago he had stood in the cottage to which he was then making his way, and mother and daughter had bared their hearts to him, as he bared his inmost soul to them, and now he was about to face again both the women of the Red Hand.

But he was not coming to them as he had long hoped to come. He was seeking them in a strange guise now; was playing a deep game that had been none of his planning in the beginning; and yet, though he felt occasional qualms of conscience, was it not for their sakes that he was sailing under false colours, rather than seeking his own aggrandisement?

When he tapped at the well-remembered door of the cottage it was pulled upon at once by the elder woman who lived within. She stared a little at her visitor, perhaps marvelling at the change which two years and a few months had wrought in the son of the man she had loved. But she was pleasant in her manner to him and soft voiced, and she led him into the simply furnished kitchen at once.

Beside the fire the younger Judith was sitting in a rush-bottomed rocking chair, her fair face almost as white as the snowy woollen shawl which swathed her slender figure, and looking ill, sad-eyed, and weary. But to the man who looked at her it seemed that her poignant sorrow had added a rare and spiritual beauty to her fine face; and his blood tingled, his heart leapt out to her, as he stood there, apparently unmoved.

"Judith, this is Mr. Laurence Blackwood. Oh, sir, how greatly you seem altered, somehow. At first I hardly could tell you myself with that beard."

"Yes, I am changed a bit," he answered thickly. "Two years and more, you know, under an African and an Australian sun burns one to the colour of brick. But my heart is not changed," he added, trying to speak genially, amiably, as he took a chair with his back to the window. "And both of you must admit that I always liked you very much, and that I never was at any pains to disguise the great interest I took in you."

"That is so, Laurence," the younger woman cried lowly.

"It is true, sir!" the mother added more warmly, "and in spite of your father, everything, I always had a liking and respect for you."

"I am glad to hear that," he said. "But what I wanted to say is that now, when I know all, I admire, and honour you both more than ever."

His words rang true and clear, and for an instant both women regarded him mutely, with humid eyes. Then the mother cried questioningly,

"You know all, Laurence Blackwood?"

"Know all it is necessary I should know. I am here to tell you that—and more. I have come to claim Judith as my sister—my father's daughter, and to say that I glory in that knowledge and admission!"

"Thank you. Even your father was fain to acknowledge my daughter before he died."

"You will find that Judith is not forgotten now that he is dead!" was his solemn answer.

"But how long have you known the truth, sir!" the mother asked, as she bent over her daughter and drew the soft, warm wrap more closely about her shoulders.

"I have known it for two years. My poor dead friend—God rest his dear soul"—and his voice vibrated with deep feeling then, "told me many things."

"What did he tell you, sir?"

"That Judith was my sister; and that Edward Craven had deceived him for a time by leading him to believe that he—my cousin—was to marry Judith. Nor was that all. Poor Chesters told me of what he had done to take you both from the mines, and place you in a position of independence, for which you were fitted in every way. His great desire was to come back to you both with five thousand pounds in his possession; and I did my best to help him win the money. But for that noble and worthy desire of his he might have come back safe."

"Oh, my God!" fell in a hoarse whisper from the younger woman's dry lips. "Money! Money! What did I care for all the gold in the world so long as Hugh came back to me? And now he is dead! Dead! Mother, you have known what suffering is, but the man you loved did not perish in a far-away land in the flower of his manhood!"

For some moments after that hysterical outburst from the girl there was silence in the cottage. An aspect of pained gravity was clouding the suntanned face of the handsome, dark-bearded visitor; and the uncontrollable woe of the fair lass was planting daggers in his heart. And yet his agitation, so strenuously suppressed, was not all pain. It was something to know that this girl had not forgotten her lover; that she was plunged in blackest woe owing to his fate; and that she mourned the loss of him as a true and pure heart ever mourns for its missing mate.

"I came here to-day, Madame," the young master remarked presently, "to talk over some matters of business. But, if you wish it I will go now and visit you again."

"No, stay, Mr. Laurence," was the mother's reply. "Judith is better now, and I have so much to ask and tell you yet. What am I—what is my daughter to do if folk question us? I love Saxilham, we both love it, and do not wish to go away. But the villagers are gossips and curious, and will ask questions, you know."

"You must tell them the truth," he said, firmly. "The secret you have kept all these years is no longer a secret. The shame of it all was not yours—it was my father's! And what the whole of Saxilham must have suspected for years will be made plain to all—confirmed in a short time now."

"How? Why, sir," she asked.

"Have you not heard? Well, the servants at Saxehurst must have kept faith with me, for I told them all to say nothing. But the truth is this. In his will, made only a little while before he passed away, my father has made special and particular mention of his daughter, my sister, your child, Judith Trafford. When that will is proved and its contents made public all the world will know!"

"What had he to say of Judith?" she cried, her handsome face flushing, then paling, as she stood before him, her clenched hands dropped by her side.

"Only that which is true and generous," was his quiet response. "Under my father's will, Judith there comes into a fortune of ten thousand pounds which he has bequeathed to her; and that sum has already been placed to her credit in the Saxilford bank. It was to tell you this that I desired to see you."

Neither woman spoke; their hearts were too full for mere speech. They had flashed a swift look at each other, and then the mother had dropped into her chair. Now both women were weeping softly.

"That tender and generous thoughtfulness of the dead man," he went on warmly, "will place you beyond the reach of want all your lives; and it shows, after all, that my father had not forgotten the true woman who should have been his wife, and the daughter who should have borne his name."

"My daughter has always borne her father's name!" the woman exclaimed, proudly, through her tears. "At Halifax, where she was born, she was christened in the name of Judith Blackwood Trafford."

"I am pleased to hear it, madame. And now let me give you one more item of good news before I go. When my dear old chum met with that terrible accident at Blue Gum Creek we had been rather fortunate at the diggings and had between us nearly five thousand pounds in the local bank. Half of that belongs to Judith, as well as that small investment Chesters possessed."

"No! no!" the older woman cried. "She cannot take the money!"

"She must. It was his wish. Why, he even left a paper, which I have at home somewhere, willing all his belongings to the woman he intended to marry. Yes, she must take all. I will see to all that. You two are alone in the world now, and if you find that you have too much wealth on your hands there are hundreds of poor souls you can help. Now I am off. I will come again some day if you will let me. Good afternoon."

He had risen abruptly and the door had slammed behind him ere either of them could say a word.


CHAPTER XXXIX.—THE WORK OF THE NEW MASTER.

THREE or four weeks had slipped away, and the soft warm winds and rain of a genial spring-tide were wooing into green life the countless myriads of tiny red-sheathed bourgeons on bush and tree and hedgerow, while the fields and meads, lately so sodden and dead-looking, were quickening again and putting forth tender shoots of green.

Laurence Blackwood and Edward Craven were still residing together at Saxehurst, and the Traffords were still living at their cottage in the village close by. By this time the new master had settled down, more or less comfortably, in his home; and folk were beginning to tire of discussing that carefully turned-down page of Gabriel Blackwood's earlier life, which the published synopsis of his last will and testament had so plainly revealed.

Of course, the gossip-mongers and the curious had mouthed at and wondered ever that tardy acknowledgement of his daughter, and the magnificent reparation he had made at the close of his life.

Those few weeks in their passing had done much towards disabusing Edward Craven's mind of one opinion he had firmly held. His young kinsman had not grown tired of the pits and pit-men so quickly as he had anticipated; every detail of colliery work had still an interest for him; he seemed as anxious as ever to know the ins and outs of mining life—how much the coal hewers and others earned; what were the prices contracts for coal were made at; how much revenue the five pits produced for their owner in a year.

The business affairs of the late Gabriel Blackwood had been left in perfect order. Everything was clean, clear, easy to be understood; and in a week or two the new master had a fair comprehension of the various properties, undertakings, and interests committed to his care.

In the company of the late mine-owner's lawyer, who was now his own legal adviser, the heir had gone carefully over every item of value he had inherited; and after each bequest was made allowance for, the value of his inheritance had been returned at considerably over a quarter of a million sterling.

What was he to do with that wealth? Double it in ten years or twenty, as the dead man would have done, or remain contented with the dozen scores of thousands his predecessor had heaped up? Or should he set himself to the work of winning fame and glory—of founding a family and earning or purchasing a title—which had been Gabriel Blackwood's dream in his later life?

Society was open to him; the doors of Parliament were ajar; the world itself was at his feet. But for neither one nor the other of those things did he care greatly now. His old ambitions had undergone a change—had been transmuted into simpler, plainer, but higher and infinitely nobler ideals.

The vast fortune Gabriel Blackwood had amassed should be expended near the spot where much of it had been plucked from the bosom of Mother Earth, and those who had helped to win it from the rocks should share some of the ease and comfort and pleasure its judicious and generous expenditure might bestow upon them.

Early after his home-coming Laurence Blackwood had hinted something of his intentions to his cousin, and Mr. Edward Craven had not grown at all enthusiastic over his kinsman's schemes of social redemption and regeneration. In a month or so all the village—nay, all the countryside and adjacent town—was discussing the spirited programme of work which the young master had laid down for himself.

Among the proposals set forth by the new dictator of the Saxilham collieries were two which had moved the whole village to its very centre, and had given rise to endless talk, discussion, agitation, quarrels even, among the miners themselves; and perhaps this was only natural when one considers that Laurence Blackwood's propositions were certain to affect the work and earnings of every man and lad, woman and girl, who worked at the place.

Just three weeks after his return, our young friend had caused to be posted on the different pit-heads, check-weigh cabins and offices, printed notices to the following effect. The placards stated that the owner of the pits believed in the eight hours day, for which the miners of the kingdom had been agitating so long, inside the House of Commons and out of it.

Now the coal-hewers of Saxilham were to be allowed to adopt the shorter day if they cared to do so. They were to have till the last week in April to consider the matter—to discuss it amongst themselves when and how they would—debate the business carefully in their clubhouses, union lodges, and ultimately decide the affair by vote on that date.

But it was laid down clearly that only those who were paid by results—who worked by contract, or were "paid by the piece," should have the right to vote. It was certain that all those who were paid so much per "shift," irrespective of the amount of work done, would go in for shorter hours of labour, and so such toilers were not to have the franchise; but in case the hewers of coal, drawers, contractors, and metal-men adopted the eight hours day, all day wage hands were to work a shift of similar length without any reduction of wages.

How the matter would result it was impossible to say as yet, for while some of the pit-men would have adopted the shorter day at all costs there were many others who saw or thought that less labour would spell less pay, and who preferred to toil just as long or as little as they chose.

But young Blackwood's second proposal was one which everyone jumped at readily, and cried "Ay! ay!" to without demur. It was no less than an offer to make each person who laboured in any sphere either in or about the Saxilham mines a participant in the profits earned each year by the concern. To begin with, a premium of not less than five per cent. would be paid to every worker on the following New Year's Day, the percentage to be calculated on the earnings of each individual during the intervening period; so that, to give an instance of what was intended, if a person's wages ran up to fifty pounds at the year's end, a bonus of fifty shillings would be paid to that person, or more or less in proportion.

The remainder of the young enthusiast's schemes were to be devoted principally to the amelioration of the conditions under which the children of labour lived. Schools were to be built forthwith, wherein the sons and daughters of the toilers would receive a sound elementary education free; and night schools should be attached thereto, where those who cared to do might pursue and continue a further and higher training.

For the grown folk the enterprising young social reformer had his plans also. One of the last important moves in Gabriel Blackwood's life had been the purchase of a large strip of land in Saxilham, which extended for half-a-mile or so on each side of the village, running south and north along the valley of the Saxe, and stretching for some hundreds of yards on either side of the river.

In making that purchase of real estate the dead mine-owner had been prompted solely by commercial considerations. Coal was being swept out from beneath that tract of territory; in a while surface subsidences might be expected; and it had been in order to divert building operations, or protect himself against being mulcted in damages by such as chose to erect property, now at their own risk, that the long-headed mine-master had acquired the land.

Now, however, his successor resolved to convert that long slice of meadow and pasture land to a useful purpose. It was to be made into a sort of park and recreation ground for the people of Saxilham. In one part of it, where there was a broad sweep of level sward, on the western side of the river, and almost opposite Saxehurst, a great bowling green, one of the largest in the country, was to be laid down, where two score of miners might trundle their biased spheres of wood at one time.

For the youngsters an out-door gymnasium was to be set up in a quiet corner of the shelving hillside, and here swings, flying-rings, giant-strides, horizontal bars and ladders, and so forth, were to be erected for the muscular development and physical training of the rising generation, while elsewhere a quoiting ground and a skittle alley were to be laid out, for those who cared for these old English games.

Nor was this the whole of the high emprise the new master of Saxehurst had undertaken. The Saxe was to be dredged and widened in places, dammed at its lower end to make the old stream suitable for boating. A commodious club-house also was to be built at the lower end of the village, where the men might gather together in winter or during inclement weather, and spend their leisure pleasantly and innocently over a game of billiards, dominoes, clicks, or draughts; while others of a more intellectual taste might turn to newspapers, magazines, and books in the small library to be established there for the use of the inhabitants of Saxilham.

"It is a fine scheme, cousin, but will it all work out right? And then just look at, and think of, the large sum of money it will all cost you. Ten thousand pounds at least, and perhaps more. And all for what? To earn the good word of a lot of ignorant colliers and villagers—the most thoughtless, thankless, and ne'er-do-well class in the world. If I were you I'd think twice—nay, a dozen times, before I embarked on this scheme."

It was a warm evening in the latter half of April, half an hour before dinner-time, and the young men were sitting on the lawn at Saxehurst smoking. The master had just been explaining some details of his social plans for the betterment of the Saxilham folk, and this had occasioned the comments set forth above.

"You are half right in what you say, Edward," Blackwood replied, "but all the same I mean to give this thing a trial, even should it cost me twenty thousand pounds. You know how dull and hard are these folks' lives, and, surely, no effort can be quite wasted which is honestly intended to purify and elevate, brighten and sweeten their existence?"

"Oh, I don't find fault with the aim, Laurence, which is really noble, I think, but I am thinking about the result. If so many of these folk were not so shiftless and thriftless they might really do a lot for themselves, you know."

"Then that must be due to their ignorance and lack of right training, Edward. Well, I will give them a chance—set them an example—and who knows what developments may ensue? I hold that not a village of any size in the kingdom ought to lack a library and club of the kind I mean to found, such means for out-of-door sports and pastimes as I mean to establish. Only consider what good such institutions would work in the course of a generation or two."

"Granted, my dear cousin; but shouldn't social movements be under taken by the public bodies—Town or District Councils—and not by private individuals?"

"The men composing such bodies are as great dullards as the folks themselves. They will not move till they are forced, and private individuals must set them an example. I for one mean to do it, Edward."

"And I for one wish you all success in your work, my dear Laurence!"

"Thanks. And that reminds me, Edward, that while I am about to attempt so much for the community here I must not forget my own kinsfolk. You are my only relative, and as I cannot expect you to remain at Saxehurst always, I have determined to do something for you also. What of that small colliery at Leeswood, North Wales, which my father bought two or three years ago? It is doing fairly well, I believe?"

"Very nicely, indeed. It cost my uncle less than three thousand pounds, Laurence, and last year it cleared over five hundred pounds. Besides, it is capable of considerable development whenever the coal-trade improves."

"Good. Well, now what do you say to going there to look after the business personally?"

"To stay there permanently?"

"Of course. I mean to make a free gift of the colliery at Leeswood to you, and your own interests will take and keep you there, Edward."

"You really mean this, Laurence?"

"I do, Edward. I may say that I have already instructed my solicitor, Mr. Stanley Marshall, to draw up the deed of transfer. When you are ready to sign it the place is yours."

"How can I thank you?" Craven cried. "My dear uncle did so much for me, and now you are adding to my eternal debt of obligation by offering me this splendid gift. Of course, I accept it with unspeakable thanks!"

"That's all right, then. See Marshall, Edward, and the business can be completed any time."

"There is one matter I should like to mention, my dear Laurence. Have I your permission to marry my cousin—your half-sister, Miss Judith Trafford, if she consents?"

"Certainly, Edward—certainly. You treated my friend somewhat shabbily, you know, but he is gone now, poor chap! Yes, marry Judith if she is willing. Why should I stand between you?"

"Thank you! Thank you a thousand times, dear cousin! I shall be in Wales in less than a fortnight, and when I leave Saxilham, I shall go away, I hope, as my cousin Judith's promised husband!"

"Edward, I wish you the best of good luck!"

"Thanks! Many thanks! I shall never forget your splendid generosity, dear cousin!"


CHAPTER XL.—MR. CRAVEN WOOS JUDITH AGAIN.

MR. EDWARD CRAVEN had not been entirely pleased by all that had transpired in the course of that interview with his employer and kinsman; but he was too shrewd a gentleman—had an eye too wide open where his own interests were concerned—to dream of allowing one single word of dissatisfaction to fall from his tongue.

He had seen clearly enough, what his cousin had scarcely made an attempt to hide, that his presence on the scene—his further residence at Saxehurst and sojourn in the village—was not all to Laurence Blackwood's liking. Exactly why the other desired to be rid of him he could not quite understand; but his native wit had told him all along that he had never been more than quietly tolerated by his uncle's son, and so, in the absence of other apparent reasons, he had attributed his quite courteous dismissal to that cause.

But there were drops of honey in the somewhat unpleasant cup Mr. Edward had been asked to swallow. The small colliery in Wales was a decent fortune in itself, if rightly worked, and capably and economically managed. He had purposely understated the price the Welsh mine had cost, as well as the profits derived therefrom; and the knowledge that this foolishly generous relative of his intended to hand over that mine to him filled him with a delightful thrill.

In imagination Edward Craven already saw himself growing into a wealthy man. He had not been without a thousand or two ere his uncle left him those five thousand pounds, and this gift of Laurence's would practically double his possessions. With his money, opportunities, and cool calculating astuteness, who was to say what he might not do in ten, a dozen or twenty years?

Gabriel had started from no better beginning, yet he had died worth over a quarter of a million. And mixed up with those visions of future opulence and pomp was a thought which gave our crafty and selfish young man scarcely less satisfaction. While he would be piling up a fortune, his cousin—this silly dreamer and planner of socialistic fads and follies—would be scattering his inheritance. Already had Laurence put his hand to work, which would swallow a fourth or a fifth of his fortune.

And beyond all those, soul-moving imaginings was another, more soul-stirring still. There was Judith Trafford—with her rare, fine, young loveliness, which was enhanced a hundredfold now in Craven's sight by the ten thousand sovereigns her dead father had bequeathed to her.

The young schemer's passion for the girl was now greater than ever. Her great beauty had inflamed his desire from the first, and as his uncle's daughter, his own cousin, she was fit to make a wife of, for was it not certain that she would come into something handsome one day?

He had been right all along. With the foresight of a seer he had realised what must happen in the ordinary course of things, and now Judith Trafford had a fortune as large, if not larger than his own, to add to her incomparable beauty, and to make her a fitting mate for any man in England.

Edward Craven thought with a wry mouth of those scornful rejections of his suit which he had already received at the hands of mother and daughter. But he was far from being hopeless. His proposal had been scorned because parent and child had set their fancies and affections on Hugh Chesters. Now, however, that he was out of the way for ever, that princely bequest made by his uncle had wiped out all the bad blood existing between the Traffords and Blackwoods; and her lover dead, might not Judith accept the cousin who had been man enough to claim kinship with her years ago?

It was possible, and he meant to try again. Laurence had given his consent, and that card might be played so as to help in the game. But Craven was too cautious to make the least move until he was secure against mishap. He waited a week or two; made preparations for his departure to Wales; but not before that deed of gift had been executed, and the Welsh colliery was his beyond all power of recession, did he venture on the next great step.

One afternoon at the beginning of May, Edward Craven sauntered through Saxilham. As he passed over the old stone arch spanning the Saxe, he saw that some scores of workmen were busy in the valley on either hand, beginning to give some shape and substance to his mad kinsman's social schemes. With a sneer on his thin, eager, hard face he strode on and presently was tapping with his clenched knuckles on the door of the cottage he knew so well.

In a few moments it opened and the elder Judith stood on the threshold. She seemed somewhat surprised when she saw the young man, but her manner was in no way offensive to him, and her soft speech was even amiable.

"Good afternoon, madam," he remarked, urbanely, as he raised his hat.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Craven. What is it, please?"

"Is your daughter in the house, may I ask?"

"Judith has gone out for a walk towards Caversham village till teatime. Did you want to see her, sir?"

"Oh no. I can tell you. I want first of all to tell you madam, how pleased I was to find that my uncle had fulfilled his bounden duty to you both. His last generous act will, I dare to hope, have swept away all bad feeling between you, your daughter, and my uncle's relations!"'

"Gabriel Blackwood," she answered coldly, but without bitterness, "never did fulfil his duty either to me or my daughter, sir. Even the atonement he made at the last was selfish in a way. By leaving my daughter—his child, that money, wasn't he trying to make his peace with God and the world?"

"Perhaps so, madam. But it is something to know that Judith and yourself are provided for now, and that you can, in a way, take your right place in the world."

"We can never do that, sir. He is dead; I was the mother of his child, and I can never be his wife!"

"Well, I always did my utmost," he answered. "What I ventured to say to my poor uncle must have influenced him, ere his end, and you must admit, madam, that I claimed kinship with my cousin as soon as I knew the truth, and would have been happy to make our relationship nearer and dearer still."

"Yes, I know. I thank you, sir, for that."

"But is the door of my cousin's affections ever to be closed in my face?" he cried slowly, and with a tremble of passion in his tones. "I am rich now—richer even than Judith—and the dream of my life is to call her by the name of wife. Is that great desire of mine beyond all hope?"

"I cannot tell you that, Mr. Craven. My daughter is a woman now, and must answer for herself. But I may tell you this. Judith loved a man dearly, had hoped to be his wife, and she loves his memory yet. She has suffered, too, and I fear it would be unwise to speak to her at present.

"I must speak to her soon," he said doggedly. "In a few days I must leave for North Wales, where I have just come into possession of a colliery. Well, I will go now, madam, but I will call again some day. Good afternoon."

"Good day, sir."

He raised his hat again and went on his way through the village towards Caversham. She stood on the step and watched him for a moment, a sad, half-smile on her gravely handsome features. She knew what a wild-goose chase Craven was pursuing, and she felt no sorrow for him. The unerring intuition of the woman had compelled her dislike, and she had no fear now that her daughter would ever do other than spurn him.

Meanwhile, Craven paced along the high-road in the direction he knew Judith was likely to return. His sharp features were set in a hard black frown, and his thoughts were bitter. The attitude of the mother was ominous. She had not even asked him to step indoors; had given him scant hope that her daughter would look kindly on his second wooing; but he was to leave Saxehurst in a few days, and he meant to know the best or worst before he left.

Half-way between the village of Saxilham and Caversham he saw a woman approaching. Soon he was able to recognise Judith, and he slackened his pace. When they were abreast he paused, yet she would have passed on with the curtest of nods had he not addressed her.

"Miss Trafford, a moment, please."

"What is it. Mr. Craven?"

"I have been to your house specially to see you, and your mother told me where you had gone, so I came along to meet you."

"Well, what is it?" she asked again, her pale face hard and immobile, her eyes cold and half-veiled, her whole pose and manner one of undisguised indifference.

"We are cousins, Judith, and I want you to remember that I claimed kinship with you long ago—even before my uncle had claimed his daughter."

"You did not visit the cottage, and you have not come to meet me, Mr. Craven, to tell me this."

"That, and more. I love you; and I will never rest contented until you are my wife. No, do not go away. I am to leave for Wales in a short time, and I want you to say that you will think of me kindly, lovingly, before I go. I have thousands of pounds in the bank, Judith. I have a colliery in Wales also, and I can give you a position worthy of you. Even my cousin—your half-brother, Laurence Blackwood—is willing that I should pay my addresses to you, Judith. Nay, more—your mother said that you might choose for yourself. Give me one word of hope, dear. Say I may speak to you again in a month—a year's time."

"I can give you no hope, Mr. Craven; and I ask you never to speak to me again on this matter. I do not love you, I feel that I never shall, and I ask you not to trouble me with attentions I do not like. I speak plainly, sir, because I think it is better to do so."

"May I walk back home with you, cousin?"

"Oh, no! Spare me that, Mr. Craven. I am not well, and I would rather be alone. Now good afternoon, sir."

"Good afternoon. Judith."

She walked quickly away in the direction of Saxilham, glad to be rid so easily and quickly of her importunate wooer, and with a scowling countenance and compressed lips, he turned in the other direction. He was repulsed again, but he swore that he was not yet beaten.


CHAPTER XLI.—THE RENDING OF THE VEIL.

ANOTHER MONTH had fled away along the shoreless river of time; genial May had worn itself into June, and the month of roses and odorous hayfields made Saxilham and all the wide countryside sweet in one's nostrils and more than pleasant in one's appreciative eyes.

Nearly three months had come and gone since the day when the new master of Saxehurst had come home; and that brief period had not proved barren of incidents and matters for grave cogitation. So far Laurence Blackwood had come in a creditable manner through the ordeal he had set himself.

He had assumed a position of vast wealth and great responsibility, and his integrity and good faith had never been called into question. He had faced Edward Craven, Gabriel Blackwood's solicitor, the two Judith Traffords, and each one of the four had accepted him unreservedly as that which he pretended to be.

In many matters the master of Saxehurst found ample justification for what he had done and was doing; in one respect alone was he troubled. His schemes for the betterment of the social conditions of the village were prospering; the miners at his pits had adopted the Eight Hours Day he had suggested, his system of profit-sharing as well; his plans dealing with the valley of the Saxe were rapidly progressing; and, perhaps of greater importance than all the rest, sly, unctuous, crafty Edward Craven had been induced to take himself away to Wales.

His trouble was of his own making, but that made the difficulty no more palatable. He had come from Australia with the intention of marrying Judith Trafford, and, to further another purpose, he had led both mother and daughter to believe that Hugh Wynne Chesters was dead.

He had succeeded quite easily in tying a Gordian knot, but how was it to be untied? How was he to let the Traffords know that Hugh Chesters lived and yet keep all others ignorant of that fact? How was he to marry the woman he loved while he posed before the world as Gabriel Blackwood's son and heir? To keep possession of the dead man's estate it was requisite he should figure as Laurence Blackwood; and as Laurence Blackwood he stood before all as Judith Trafford's half-brother.

What was to be done? As daughter of the dead mine-owner Judith's moral claim to her father's fortune was greater than that of her cousin Edward Craven. For her sake he meant to keep it, too, could it be done. But whether the great estate were lost or kept, he meant to marry Judith some day, for her love meant more to him than all the wealth in the world.

But how was the problem to be solved? He had pledged his word to his dear, dead friend that this thing should be done, and he meant to keep his vow. But how to attain both of the great objects he aimed at? But amidst the Australian wilds this difficulty had not presented itself; even on his coming to Saxehurst it had only lurked vaguely in the background of his thoughts; but ever since he had met Judith Trafford face to face, and had marked her deep, inconsolable woe, it had lived with him day by day.

For weeks he mused over the matter in sore mental travail. His scheme had led him into a cul-de-sac—an impossible barrier fronted him, and he must hark back. That course meant one thing only. The two women he had deceived so innocently must be undeceived—taken into his confidence—made aware of the whole truth.

That line of action decided on he at once matured his plans for carrying it out effectively. The news must be broken gently, the secret divulged discreetly, to mother and daughter. One morning he wrote and dispatched by a trusted messenger, the following letter to the elder woman:—


Saxehurst, June 10, 189—

"Madam, I have news of the greatest importance to convey to you and your daughter; and as I do not desire to be seen near your cottage I wish you both to come here this evening at dusk. You can come without fear of being seen by anyone, for the house will be quite clear of all the servants. I am giving them all an evening off; have given them all tickets for the Charity Concert at Saxilford; so that I shall be alone from half-past 7 until half-past 10. I will wait for you at the gates in the high-road at 9 o'clock. You must come. I have a great secret to make known to you; and that secret concerns my friend, Hugh Chesters. I dare not write the truth here, but what I have to tell you will fill you both with a great joy. You may even tell your daughter to hope. Send a word of reply by bearer, but let not a living soul save you and Judith know a word of what I have written.

Laurence Blackwood."


That evening, at the hour named in his note, the master of Saxehurst was hovering in the shadow of the big full-foliaged trees near the entrance to the grounds. The sun had set shortly after eight, it was dusk now, and the lane was quiet. Word had been sent back to him that the Traffords would come; and the waiting man lurking there was listening for the patter of light feet.

Presently he glanced round the corner of the open gates towards the village, saw the dark-draped figures approaching quietly, and in a few moments the mother and daughter were at his side, both closely veiled, and each of them palpitating with an intense eagerness their muttered greeting revealed.

With a whispered word he led them along the dusky avenue and through a side-door into the house. All was silent within; in the hall and various rooms lights were burning dimly; and when he paused and the women drew back their veils they were in a small chamber, cosy and snug, and luxuriously furnished, which the master had converted into his study.

He offered the visitors a glass of wine, each looking meanwhile at his face, which was paler than usual and had some hidden meaning and mystery stamped upon it. Then he turned to them suddenly, with the air of one who faces a difficulty and means to master it.

"What did you think of my note?" he asked, fixing the mother with his intent gaze.

"What could I make of it, sir?" she said. "It bothered me—troubled me, too; and even now I don't know what to think."

"And you, Miss Trafford?" he queried, looking at the pale-faced girl for a moment.

"I dare not tell you all I thought, Laurence Blackwood!" she answered slowly. "You said you had a great secret to reveal to us—a secret that concerned Hugh Chesters. And you said also that I was to hope. Hope for what, sir? I am here to learn what you can mean."

"It means much," he said gravely; "even more than you could have thought, Miss Trafford. You have been ill; you are not strong yet. Even now the truth might injure you, kill you."

"Kill me!" and the girl smiled wanly. "The news of Hugh's death did not kill me, and, after living through that, what is there to fear, sir?"

"But what if I say that Chesters may still be alive?"

"Say it, mean it, and I would go down on my knees to thank you!" she murmured; "would thank God and you all the days of my life!"

"Then I ask you both to keep a close grip upon yourselves while I tell you the truth. You must not faint, cry out, or make a scene, Judith Trafford!" he said impressively. "If you feel you are not strong enough to bear a great revelation I will not speak now."

"I am strong, cool, brave, sir!" she answered. "See! Am I the soft, shrieking schoolgirl you think me?" And she stood up facing him, white but rigid, one hand clasped in her mother's.

"Then Hugh Chesters is not dead, I think. He lives, and you may see him soon."

"You mean this? You are not jesting? You will swear it, Laurence Blackwood," she asked, her face a stony mask still, save for those burning eyes.

"I am ready to swear it—to prove it!" he said.

"But what of your own words, sir? What of the newspaper? What of the accident at Blue Gum Creek?"

It was the mother who spoke now, for the daughter had sunk back on the chair near her parent, and although her lips quivered, and she had grown even a shade more livid, she was composed outwardly still.

"I told a lie for a good purpose, madam;" he answered deliberately. "That account in the 'Rockhampton Bulletin' was concocted for the same end; and, though there was a fatal accident at Blue Gum Creek diggings, it was not Hugh Wynne Chesters who had the misfortune to get killed."

"Who then was it?" both women asked in a breath.

"It was Laurence Blackwood."

"And you."

"I am Hugh Chesters."

"Mother! What did I say? It is true! I feel it! Oh, Hugh! Hugh! Hugh!"

The girl had sprung to him, had cast her arms around his neck, and was sobbing softly in his arms. He kissed her once on the lips ere he led her back to her seat.

"You are not Hugh Chesters!" the elder woman cried in sore doubt. "He was fair-skinned—fair-haired! You, are black—as Gabriel Blackwood was in his prime!"

"A little dye and this beard make all the difference," he remarked, half-sadly. "And I can convince you in a hundred ways that I am what I say. Ask me where and when I first met and spoke to you. Shall I tell you what we said to each other that day two and a half years ago, when Roderick Norbury spoke to me outside Saxehurst? Shall I tell you of the letter I wrote when I and Laurence left England, urging you and Judith to quit the pit-brow for ever and use the little income I had until I returned to claim my wife?"

"Then, if you are Hugh Chesters, what are you doing here pretending to be Laurence Blackwood?" the mother asked sharply. "In the name of goodness, what does all this shamming and make-believe mean? Tell me that!"

"I mean to tell you, madam. This is why I asked you to come here," was the grave response. "I know that I stand in a false position—that I seem, nay, am an impostor! But when you have heard all I think you will both forgive me. It was poor dead Laurence Blackwood's wish that I should do this. On my knees beside his deathbed he made me swear to do it. He was thinking of you and Judith, and I took an oath to do this thing for your sake."

"I don't understand, sir!" the elder Judith said, wonderingly.

"You shall understand. Laurence Blackwood knew that he was dying; knew that Edward Craven would inherit all his father's money, unless he was prevented; and he wanted his sister, Judith here, to inherit through me. Now, can you understand? Who had the strongest claim, in the sight of God, to Gabriel Blackwood's fortune? His daughter or his sister's son?"

"I am in a maze!" she cried. "I must know all. You will tell us everything?"

"Everything! Drink up that wine, compose yourselves, and you shall hear all there is to tell."


CHAPTER XLII.—A GHOST FROM THE PAST.

ONE DAY in the middle of June the young master of Saxehurst received a great surprise while strolling through the Market Place at Saxilford. Business had brought him to the town shortly before midday; he had seen and consulted the local architect who had charge of the New Schools, Club House and Library, at Saxilham; he lunched later at the Royal Hotel, and was now walking along the principal thoroughfare of the borough ere he returned home.

By this time our friend was a fairly well-known figure in the town, and business men, councillors, aldermen, employers, nodded to him pleasantly as he sauntered on smoking. Presently the new mine-master's attention was drawn to a knot of people—three ladies and two gentlemen—coming along the other side of the street. They were all stylishly, even loudly dressed, were talking somewhat loudly, too, and had that unmistakable air, manner, and carriage which ever denotes the "pro.," the "artiste," who swaggers and brazens out life in the glare of the "footlights" of third-rate theatres and music-halls.

Instantly Laurence Blackwood's gaze was fastened on the face and figure of one of the three women. She was taller than her companions and built on more voluptuous lines; was in every way a most striking person, with her fair skin, handsome, hard worldly face and piled masses of yellow hair.

Who was she? Where had he seen her before? That comely mask and form were as familiar to him as his hand; and yet for the moment he could not give them a name. He turned an instant to watch the woman, and the cool insolence of her gait, the poise of her shining head flashed the truth upon him.

It was Pauline Lorraine, the shameless and avaricious music-hall singer who had made such an ass of his friend in London. It must be she, he could not be mistaken in that fair face and form. Yet, if so, what was the pet of the Metropolitan music-halls doing in Saxilford?

He swung hastily across the Market Place and was soon standing in front of the "Alexandra Music Hall," the only place of its kind the town possessed. And then all his doubts resolved themselves at once. There on a gorgeous poster in flaming letters was the name of Pauline Lorraine "the great London star," who had been brought down to the provinces at enormous expense, and who would positively appear at the Alexandra for six evenings only.

As our friend turned away his handsome face was set in a black frown. He had ever condemned the handsome artiste; had taken no pains to hide his loathing; had done all he could to turn his chum from her, knowing that greed, not love, had caused the fair vulture to fasten on him. Well, his poor friend was now beyond the sweep of her griping fingers.

One afternoon, two days later, Laurence Blackwood received an unexpected visitor at Saxehurst. He was in his study making out a list of books for the projected village library, when he heard a tap on the door ere a smart maid entered.

"A lady to see you, sir."

"Who is she, Davidson?"

"Can't tell you, sir, but quite a lady, finely dressed, and very handsome; and I was to say it was a very old friend you would pleased to see, sir."

"You can show the lady in here, please."

The maid went away, but was back in a few moments, and when she closed the door again Pauline Lorraine was standing on the threshold. He looked up from his writing, saw her, and his face flushed scarlet. In an instant he realised where he stood in relation to this fair, hard-faced woman of the boards. In stepping into his dead chum's shoes and claiming his future, he had saddled himself with his past, its mistakes, and its responsibilities.

"Laurence! Aren't you glad to see me again?" she cried as she came forward. "How changed you are—and yet handsomer than ever, I declare—with that French beard. May I sit down please?" and she dropped on a chair indolently. "Only think of meeting you again after all these years. When I came to Saxilford I quite made up my mind to see you. So I made inquiries and got to know that your dad as you used to call the old man had left you half a million. How comfy you are here, Laurence. And unmarried yet, eh?"

"Why have you come here?" he asked, coldly.

"Give me a drink and I'll tell you, dear. My walk has made me thirsty as a comic singer. And, Laurence, do look pleasant. Once, you know, you didn't welcome me in this fashion."

"I was a fool then, Pauline!" he said shortly, as he poured out a small soda and filled up the glass with whisky. "But I am no fool now," he added. "And now, perhaps you will tell me what has brought you here? I should have thought you would have been ashamed to meet me after bleeding me as you did?"

"I came to see you, Laurence," she pouted, "and you don't seem at all glad to see me. Why you haven't even shaken hands with me yet."

"I am busy, and you are keeping me from work. Tell me what you want and be going, please."

His curtness, even brutal plainness of speech, made the fair beauty's eyes blaze, but she kept her temper. After half-drinking her whisky and soda she turned upon the man she took to be her old lover, speaking in an altered voice now.

"I came here to do you a favour, Laurence Blackwood, and you treat me like dirt!" she sneered.

"What favour can you do for me, pray?"

"I thought you might care to have those letters you——"

"You swore to burn them, you jade!" he thundered.

"Well, I kept them, you see. There's about a score of letters, notes, billet-doux, invitations to lunch, supper, parties, what not. How much are they worth to you, my dear? If I was not hard up I'd keep 'em till you got married and then sue you for breach of promise. But I won't do that. I always liked you, dear, and I'll let you down easy."

"How much?" he asked laconically.

"Five hundred—and dirt cheap at that."

"Where are the letters? Have you them now?"

"No; but you shall have them to-morrow. I will bring them here if you please."

"No! It's a bargain, but you must come here no more. I will see you in town at three to-morrow afternoon. Ask for me at the Royal Hotel then."

"Honest business, Laurence, old boy?" she queried as she rose.

"I will give you five hundred for the letters, Pauline," he remarked, "just to show I harbour no ill-feeling. Here's my hand on it, too."

She grasped his hand, shook it, smiled archly at him, and then went away.


CHAPTER XLIII.—THE NEW MASTER PLAYS A DEEP GAME.

LAURENCE BLACKWOOD had been both astonished and annoyed when his supposed old flame, the vocalist Pauline Lorraine, had shown up so unexpectedly at Saxehurst, but when she had gone he saw in a flash that the reappearance on the scene of this woman, who meant to take advantage of a former lover's folly, was more of a blessing than an evil.

It was certain that the fair singer had been satisfied that he was the man she had made such an ass of in gay London, and, owing to the coldness of her reception, she had held over his head in menace those undestroyed letters for which he had promised to pay the sum of five hundred pounds.

Well, they were cheap at the price, for the incident was decided proof of a kind he needed—or might need some day. Who so likely to know Laurence Blackwood as an old flame of his? And here she had come to extort money from him. Yes, the money would be well spent, for her evidence would be worth much in case any person ever said he was not what he pretended to be.

Next day, a quarter of an hour or so before the time fixed for the appointment, the new master of Saxehurst entered the Royal Hotel, Saxilford, and being well known in the town by this time, he passed through the bar and into the small, semi-private snug behind, which was kept select for the higher class of customers.

Ordering a lager beer, Blackwood asked the handsome barmaid who served it if anyone had been inquiring for him, and receiving an answer in the negative, he was assuaging his thirst with the light, iced-drink—the day was a hot one—when, to the drinker's amaze, who should saunter into the room but Edward Craven.

"My dear Edward!" he cried, laying down his glass and jumping to his feet, "what on earth brings you back to Saxilford. I was under the impression that you were far away in Wales."

"And so I was, Laurence, this morning," the other replied, a thin smile on his dark, hard face, and extending a hand, which his kinsman had forgotten to do.

"And what brings you back here, Edward? But, pardon me—what is your drink? Miss Landon, please."

The smart barmaid came at the young master's call; Craven ordered his drink, and a minute later, when the young men were left alone, the newcomer remarked:

"What brings me back here, Laurence? What a question to ask of one's cousin. It almost looks as if you don't care to see me, eh?"

"No! no! Not that! Edward," Blackwood said hastily, realising in an instant the tactical mistake he had made. "I was only astonished to find you here when I thought you far away."

"Oh, I have made up my mind to make my permanent residence here, cousin, but, of course I shall spend only my weekends in Saxilford, devoting the remainder of my time to the colliery at Leeswood."

"You have reasons, I daresay, for that course, Edward," was the other's indifferent rejoinder.

"I should think so. I have set my mind on making a certain lady my wife, and I desire to be near her as often as I can manage it. Could I have a better reason?"

"Judith has not yet consented then?"

"Not yet, Laurence; but I am not without hope. Faint heart never won fair lady, you know, and when she and her mother see that my love is genuine, unselfish and deep-planted, I anticipate the best results," was the resolute reply. "You, of course, will not work against, if you do not work for, me?"

"I have given you my word and I will not interfere. Edward. Go in and win if you can."

"I mean to, I will undertake——"

"A lady to see you by appointment, Mr. Blackwood," the barmaid said, whose entrance at that moment had interrupted Craven's speech.

"Show the lady into a private room, Miss Landon, please; ask her what refreshment she will take, and say that I will be with her in a few moments."

"By George, what a splendid woman! Who is your handsome friend, dear cousin?" Craven remarked in an undertone as the barmaid withdrew. Through the open door and the bar-window beyond he had had a good view of the strange lady, and her ripe florid beauty had at once appealed mightily to him.

"Who is she? Thereby hangs a tale, Edward," was Blackwood's dry and studiously bitter reply. "Look here, Edward, I will tell you all," he added, in a sudden burst of confidence, as an idea seized him. "The lady is a famous or notorious music-hall singer with whom I got entangled between two and three years ago, when poor Chesters and I were in London. Her name is Pauline Lorraine, and she is the star turn at the Alexandria this week."

"Here in the town, eh?" and Craven's sharp eyes lit up.

"Yes; but that's not what I want to tell you, Edward," Laurence said, sinking his voice. "I once made an ass of myself over this woman, and it cost me some thousands—or at all events it must have cost dad a few, for he would have to settle up with the Jews—to get rid of the fair Pauline."

"Uncle told me about it; in fact, I was deputed to meet the money lenders," Craven whispered. "But she is here now—and by appointment, Laurence?"

"After a few hundreds more, that is all, dear cousin," the other dryly remarked. "She holds a few foolish notes of mine and I'm to give her five hundred for them."

"Blackmail!"

"Not at all. It is merely business. She called at Saxehurst yesterday, and my reception of her was scarcely cordial, as you will understand. Then she was kind enough to suggest that those letters she held wouldn't be at all pleasant things for me to think about in case I ever made up my mind to marry another woman. You understand, Edward?"

"I do."

"So I offered her five hundred for them, purely in the way of business, and we are here to settle the matter. Now drink up and I will introduce you to the music-hall star."

"I have no desire to intrude, Laurence."

"But I wish you to be present, Edward," Blackwood replied as he rose. "I mean to end this folly for ever, and you can act as witness, you know."

"If you insist."

"I do; come along, that's a dear chap."

Not at all reluctant, although his demeanour made it appear so, Craven followed his kinsman, and soon they were standing in the cool, quiet apartment overlooking the busy thoroughfare where the handsome serio-comic vocalist was sitting. She was seated near the bay window; at her elbow was a small table, and upon it was a small empty bottle of champagne and a wide-rimmed glass still half-filled with the generous sparkling wine.

A momentary look of wonder and suspicion sat on her artistically rouged and powdered face as she saw that her old lover was not alone; but it vanished instantly as she arose and bowed slightly to Blackwood, waiting for him to speak.

"My dear, Miss Lorraine," Laurence said suavely, as he went forward unabashed, "you will pardon me, I am sure, for not coming alone. My friend desired to make your acquaintance, and I took the liberty of bringing him without asking your leave. Miss Lorraine, this is my cousin, Mr. Edward Craven; Edward, allow me to present you to the light of the music hall stage."

His easy banter set the others at their ease at once; they smiled and bowed; Craven seemed fain to grasp the hand graciously extended to him; and then they all seated themselves; Blackwood rang up the maid and ordered a large bottle of champagne, and after toasting one another, a general conversation followed for a little while.

"And now to business, my dear Miss Lorraine," Laurence remarked presently, still as smooth-tongued and easy-mannered that he might have come there to receive half a thousand sterling instead of to give it away. "I ought to tell you first," he went on, "that my cousin knows everything that has passed between us—knows that you were at Saxehurst yesterday, and that I am here to-day to pay you five hundred for those letters. You have brought the letters, I suppose?"

"They are here, Mr. Blackwood," the woman answered, her face aglow now, either with the wine or her natural avariciousness, and she drew a small packet tied with blue ribbon from a neat handbag at her side. "But before you receive them give me the money."

"The money is here," and Blackwood placed a bundle of notes on the small table; "but you must sign this paper first."

"What is it?" she demanded, her suspicions aroused again.

"Only this. It is to show that you accept the sum of five hundred pounds in complete discharge of all or any claim you may have upon me at this moment. Read the paper, sign it, my cousin will witness it, and then, my dear Miss Pauline Lorraine, you can count these Bank of England notes, and leave the hotel a richer woman by five hundred pounds."

Blackwood held out to the singer a slip of paper he had written that morning; she took and read it, expressed her satisfaction with it and then Craven fetched pen and ink from a side-table and both he and the artiste attached their signatures at its foot. Later she counted the bundle of ten pound notes with dancing eyes and quivering fingers, while Blackwood was examining those odds and ends of epistolary folly which his dear dead friend had written.

"And now, gents," the overjoyed artiste cried, "suppose we try just another bottle of good old fiz. You've been a gentleman, Laurence, my boy; and you might have had those charming love letters of yours for a fiver. Touch the bell, Mr. Craven."

"I am sorry, but I cannot stay, Miss Lorraine," Blackwood remarked as he rose.

"And I also must be going," Craven said, rising also.

"Then you will do me the favour to sup with me and a few more of the girls this evening after the show is over?"

"So sorry, but I am good now," was Laurence's laughing response. "Some other time, perhaps."

"Then so long!"

Both men shook hands with her ere they hurried away. Blackwood glad to have done with the star of the footlights for ever, while Craven was thinking that she was "a deuced fine woman" after all.


CHAPTER XLIV.—THE RETURN OF RODERICK NORBURY.

On the morning following the incidents set down in the foregoing chapter a letter reached the master of Saxehurst as he sat at breakfast. The handwriting was not familiar, yet the post mark showed that it had been posted in the town. On breaking the envelope he found the following note:


Saxilham, June 16, 189—

My Dear Laurence,—I have been greatly troubled for the last day or two, and at last I have made up my mind to see you about it. It may be a trifle—God knows I trust it is—and yet I cannot tell you how much it has preyed on my mind. What it is I think it better not to say in writing. You are aware how careful we have to be. Didn't you yourself impress that point upon me? Well, I want us to meet as if by accident, you understand, and then I can unburden my heart to you. Can you make it convenient to be strolling towards the village to-morrow afternoon just at 3 o'clock? Then we could meet casually, you see, and as we are brother and sister we could stop and talk, even walk together, and nobody would think it strange. Do, Laurence dear! I think you will understand.

Your loving sister,

Judith."


"Silly little puss," the reader soliloquised, mentally, as he placed the letter aside. "Now what can be troubling my dear Judith, I wonder. Ten to one it is nothing but her usual fears that I shall one day be denounced, arrested and tried as an impostor, and either hanged or transported for life. All the same, I must meet my darling."

At the hour Judith had named in her note the master of Saxehurst was descending the sloping highway leading to the village; and on the stone arch crossing the river he came face to face with the lovely and tastefully dressed daughter of the woman so long known as Judith of the Red Hand.

They greeted each other quietly but warmly, looked into each other's eyes as if they were probing one another's soul, and for some minutes remained on the bridge talking, their eyes set northward along the valley of the Saxe, where some hundreds of workmen were busy fashioning into concrete form the young master's scheme.

Of late days Laurence and Judith had met often, and every meeting had been open and in public that all might see. They knew that no one would think it strange that a brother and a sister, whose kinship had only been recently revealed, should be seen together occasionally and show a liking for one another's society.

Folk did notice these meetings, and the manner in which Laurence Blackwood ever treated his newly-found relative caused the highest praise to be bestowed upon that young gentleman. Many people would not have been surprised had Gabriel Blackwood's son turned the cold shoulder upon her, and even accorded her nothing but scorn and contumely.

"Which way shall we go, Judith," he remarked presently, "ere we begin to discuss this great trouble of yours?"

"Past the workmen there, along the river side," she replied. "But don't laugh, dear, at that which has caused me so much real anxiety."

"Come along, then," he cried contritely, "and I will try to keep a grave face until you have unbosomed yourself of this great load of woe."

They turned back alongside the parapet of the bridge, turned to the right, and followed the river's edge where it was bounded by a wall. On their left, masons, bricksetters, and labourers were hard at work on the new club and library, while further afield a crowd of other workmen were laying the bowling green and levelling a space for the open-air gymnasium. When out of earshot of all the others Judith said suddenly:

"Hugh, dear, is it true that you never loved another woman before you met me?"

"Judith, do you wish me to swear it again?" he cried. "If you do I am ready. But why ask such a question?"

"Then who was the lady who visited you at Saxehurst on Wednesday afternoon?"

"Ha! You mean Miss Pauline Lorraine," he said, a smile overspreading his handsome face.

"I do not know her name, Hugh; but on that day I met a very handsome and stylishly-dressed lady opposite the entrance to Saxehurst, and she had a multitude of questions to ask about you. Why was she there?"

"What a sweet little simpleton you are, Judith!" and he playfully punched the arm near him. "Now the truth is, dearest, that the woman—who is no lady, but merely a good-looking, heartless, and unprincipled music hall singer—never asked one single question about me."

"I tell you she asked a hundred!" she insisted.

"Yes, about Laurence Blackwood, but I happen to be Hugh Wynne Chesters," he whispered.

"Oh, how stupid I have been!" she exclaimed in sweetest confusion and contrition. "But, what did you do when she met you?"

"My dead friend got entangled with this woman shortly before we set out on our wandering. She cost him hundreds, perhaps thousands—and it was in consequence of that that I came back to Saxilham to square matters with Gabriel Blackwood. I have blessed that business a thousand times, darling, for it was that which brought us together heart to heart. Don't you remember, Judith, that it was then I first learned that Edward Craven had no claim upon you?"

"Yes, I remember, dear. But this woman—tell me of her."

"Well, Miss Pauline Lorraine is appearing at the Saxilford music-hall this week, and knowing that poor Laurence came from this quarter, she would make inquiries; would hear of his father's death; of her old lover's great wealth; and so she visited Saxehurst to squeeze a few more golden drops out of the poor lad she had fooled to such purpose. Besides, she had a few silly love letters written by my friend, which she, cunning rogue, thought he would like to get back at any price."

"And when she met you—what then, dear?"

"What could I do but fool the woman to the top of her bent? I did. She identified me at once, but I gave her the cold shoulder, and then the letters were mentioned. So I offered her five hundred pounds and made arrangements to meet her next day at the Royal Hotel, Saxilford, for that purpose."

"Did you go?"

"I should think so; and in the hotel I met your admirer, Mr. Edward Craven—who, it appears, has not yet given up all hope of winning his dear cousin. Then an idea came to me, and I acted upon it. I told Craven all; told him that Miss Lorraine had come to blackmail me; and when I handed her the money, and received poor Laurence's letters in return, Craven was a witness to the transaction."

"Why did you take that course, dear?"

"Because I wanted to fool him, Judith—as I had fooled the woman. Both are morally certain now that I am what I seem, and if either ever had a doubt of it I fancy that doubt must be removed for ever."

They had come now to that point of the river crossed by the old bridge leading to the disused quarry, and here they paused. In a little while as they stood there Judith remarked with her pensive gaze cast across the sluggishly moving stream,

"Do you know dear, that my very earliest recollection of Saxilham is mixed up with that old quarry there?"

"Why so," he asked.

"It was the first time I ever set foot hereabouts, and I remember that mother and I had been walking along the river side from Caversham. It was a day something like this, and we were tired and hungry; so we crossed the bridge, sat down in the quarry, and began to eat some bread and cheese. Then I saw a gentleman coming down the quarry side from Saxehurst way. I told mother, but she never stirred, and when the man—it was Gabriel Blackwood—came near, he stopped, and I fancy they must have quarrelled, for I remember mother suddenly pulling down my dress to show him the birthmark of the red hand on my back."

Her voice was tremulous with emotion as she spoke, and her eyes were moist as she thought of that far-away time. There was silence for a space, both being busy with their own thoughts, and when she thought again it was of the present, not the past.

"Hugh," she said suddenly, regarding him lovingly with her great shining eyes, "do you think it is wise to spend all that money there?" her hand indicating the valley where so much change was being wrought.

"Wise, eh? And why not, pray? Ever penny I am expending has come out of the people—has been sweated or wrung, extorted or won, out of their bones; and can it be wrong to allow a little of a vast fortune so scraped together to drift back to those who helped to make it?"

"I was not looking at the matter in that way, dear," she answered soberly. "I was thinking rather of you now and what happen any day. You are here standing in a dead man's place, and who can tell what may take place at any moment? I know that your intentions are of the noblest possible kind—by now all the village men know that—all this work going on there goes to prove it, dearest. But—and this is what frightens me so—suppose Edward Craven were to discover the truth? What then? Wouldn't he move heaven and earth to send you to penal servitude for passing as his cousin and spending his money?"

"Most likely he would—for there is no love lost between us, and he knows it, I think. It was to keep him at a distance—to get rid of him, that I gave him that colliery in Wales. But I have put my hand to the plough, dear, and I will not turn back. It was my dead friend's wish that I should do this thing, and it is my wish now to continue it. But you talked of spending Edward Craven's money, Judith."

"Wouldn't the law call it his, dear?"

"I daresay it would, but there is a law higher than man-made law—God's law—and I hold it all in virtue of that. In the sight of heaven and the highest morality you are next of kin to Gabriel and Laurence Blackwood; one was your father, the other your brother; and as both are dead, I hold the estate in your name. Had Gabriel Blackwood known that his son would not live to inherit after him, I believe you would have been made his heiress; and, so believing, I will keep the place I have taken!"

"Well, perhaps, you are right, dear—I feel you are, and yet I cannot help being afraid. Besides, what need is there for you to run all these risks of detection and punishment, Hugh? What is all the vast fortune to us? Have we not more than enough already to keep us all in comfort, dearest?"

"True! But there is something else, Judith. To quit would be to place Edward Craven in power here. To swell his fortune he might grind the faces of these people. Say no more, dear, for I mean to stay—will stay, come what may!"

"But, there is one matter you have overlooked, dearest," she remarked, speaking lowly, timidly, and placing her hand on his sleeve for a moment. "If you still pose in your present character we can never—how can we?—I mean, dear——"

She stammered confusedly, her sweet face flamed to the hue of a scarlet rose, and with one swift appealing look in his face, she paused.

"I think I understand, dear Judith," he said, tenderly. "As Laurence Blackwood I stand before the world as your half-brother, and as such our marriage is impossible, you think. I have thought of that, too, dear, and at first with pain and perplexity; for I would sooner call you wife than be master of Saxehurst, the collieries, everything. We must wait a little. We are young yet, and I have much to do. And if we can't find out a way, God will help us. But what does your mother say about this phase of the matter?"

"Like me, she has confidence in you, and would like you to follow whatever course may seem best to you. We have talked it over many times and that is what we both thought."

"Then I shall do as I have indicated, Judith!" he exclaimed with fresh assurance. "Pray, tell your mother that, and add that I have no fear of what may follow. I have thought, dear, that one way out of the difficulty would be for you and me to go away with your mother and be quietly married somewhere. But that is a matter, Judith, for you and your mother to decide."

"No! no!" she cried, blushing fiercely. "I will not consent to that. I can wait, dear Hugh! I can wait!"

"But tell her what I say, darling, and we will be guided by her decision. Now, if you are ready we will return."

They went back along the river, and in a few minutes were again standing on the old bridge, Blackwood facing the long, white, dusty village street flooded with the yellow sunshine. Judith with her back to Saxilham and her gaze fixed on the sloping upland highway which led past the entrance to Saxehurst.

"There is one thing, dear, which I have forgotten to mention," she remarked, in the manner one speaks of a matter overlooked.

"What is that?" he asked.

"Don't you think that now mother and I are ever so much better off we ought to leave the cottage and find a better house elsewhere?"

"Most certainly; but I shouldn't like you to go far away."

"Bank House, along Caversham-lane, is to be let furnished, and mother wants to take it. It is only ten minutes' walk from here, and is quite a nice place, with little grounds and gardens of its own. What do you think, dear?"

"Just the very place, Judith!" he cried warmly. "Tell your mother to secure it at once. It will suit our plans in every way. Here, in the midst of the village, our comings and goings are overseen by everyone; there, I could come and go as I wish."

"Then I will tell mother—oh, Hugh!"

"What is it dear?" he asked in some wonder, for she had gasped out his name, had seized his wrist in a tight grip, and was staring along the highroad with alarmed eyes.

"Don't move," she whispered. "Keep cool and prepare yourself for a shock. Roderick Norbury—the man you said you met at Blue Gum Creek is back—is coming now—will pass us in a minute!"

"Good heaven!" he cried. Then he laughed. "What of that?" he added. "Norbury won't know me—at least he cannot know that I am not Laurence Blackwood. I only saw him for a few minutes at Blue Gum, and he will not know who it was who died there."

They went on conversing, apparently unmoved, and presently the heavy footfalls of the approaching man fell on their ears; now he was at hand, was swinging past, and as the tall, burly, black-bearded man strode by he cast a cool, scrutinising stare at each of them. Neither of them flinched, and each of them gave him stare for stare. A dozen paces beyond them the man turned suddenly and strode back to where they stood.

"Excuse me," he said, with rough civility, his eyes on the girl, "but aren't you young Judith of the Red Hand?"

"I am Judith Trafford, Roderick Norbury!" she said coldly.

"And you, sir? Seems to me I've seen you before somewhere, but without that beard, eh?"

"Certainly! You must have seen me hundreds of times, Norbury!" the young man answered with a laugh. "Have you forgotten young Blackwood—Gabriel Blackwood's son?"

"Thanks! Your pardon!" and the man trudged away.


CHAPTER XLV.—THE MAN FROM BLUE GUM CREEK.

THE MASTER of Saxehurst and Judith Trafford remained standing there on the bridge some minutes after Roderick Norbury left them. They watched him stride onward right into the centre of the village, and neither spoke until they saw the miner's stalwart figure turn sharply and disappear in the entrance of the "Red Lion."

Then they faced each other, Judith's face pale and anxious, her soft grey eyes filled with an alarm that bespoke her feelings more eloquently than mere speech; and the smile on his features was not pleasant, and the little laugh he emitted was dry and hard.

"Laurence, dear, I am afraid of that man," she cried. "He suspects something. Did you notice how he stared us both through and through? And why should he have turned back to question us as he did?"

"Oh, that is Roderick Norbury's way, Judith," he answered, trying to speak lightly, though she was quick to detect the note of concern in his tones. "What can he suspect? You and your mother would never have known the truth had I not told you; even Edward Craven, sharp and crafty as he is, has taken me for what I seem. And what can this Norbury know? He saw me and my friend for only a few minutes at Blue Gum Creek, and was even then on his way to some other diggings. No, my dear little woman, there is really no reason to feel upset about this man's reappearance. He was surprised to see us together, I daresay; and you know what deep interest he has always taken in you and your mother."

"You may pretend to be easy, but you are not, dear," she replied doggedly. "This man's coming now is most unfortunate. I am uneasy and I cannot help it. Now, I must hurry home to tell mother that Roderick Norbury is back again."

"Yes, tell her at once. We must all be on our guard now more than ever. I am a little anxious also; but we are not all going to run away at the first suspicion of trouble or danger. And there is one thing you and your mother must do as quickly as possible. Move into your new home immediately. At Bank House it will be safer for us all to meet at night than here, where a hundred eyes and a score of windows command your cottage doorstep. And both of you keep your eyes and ears open, and watch Norbury whenever you can."

"I will not forget, dear. Good afternoon."

"Just one moment, Judith," he said as she held out her hand. "Has this Norbury any relatives in the village? I was wondering where he would stay."

"A brother and a sister—both of them married; but it is hardly likely he will lodge with them, for their cottages are small, and they have large families."

"Thank you. Well, good afternoon, and hope for the best."

She tripped away, and he watched her for a moment or two, and then strolled thoughtfully back to Saxehurst. In spite of himself the young man could not feel otherwise than anxious at the new complexion put upon things by Norbury's unexpected return to his native village. His coming might mean nothing—probably did mean nothing out of the ordinary run of events; but there was no disguising the fact that it might mean much.

But, as he went homeward his jaws clenched themselves and stiffened like one scenting difficulties and dangers to be met and mastered. He must keep cool, and prepare for the worst that could happen. He and the Traffords must exercise the utmost care and prudence. In a few days this feared peril might be dissipated; in a week or two the village rambler might quit Saxilham as suddenly as he had drifted back to it, and then, when all danger of discovery was past, what would happen then?

How were he and Judith to solve the problem of their supposed relationship? How were they to marry in the face of the world which deemed them children of the same father? How that Gordian knot was to be untied he had not yet found out. But it could be cut, if not unravelled. If no other way offered he could dispose of the estate, collieries, Saxehurst, everything, and he and the Traffords might go away and settle down where they were unknown.

One by one the days drifted by slowly, and with the passing of each one a sense of security returned to the three persons mainly interested in that innocent and righteous scheme of personation. When a fortnight had elapsed Judith and her lover could almost afford to laugh at their former fears; and when the thunderbolt did fall it was out of an apparently clear sky.

Roderick Norbury was still in the village, and was lodging with an old workmate of his. He had sought no work since his return; it was said that he had come home with pockets well lined with Australian gold; and every day he was to be seen lounging about the village watching the builders and labourers who were engaged in the club and library and young Blackwood's other schemes, or taking his glass of beer in the public-house among his old friends and former workmates.

In one striking respect the miner seemed to have changed for the better. He was much less passionate and quarrelsome than of old; he never got tipsy now; seemed to be settling down into a respectable member of the community; and, better than all, the man appeared to have mastered his ancient passion for the elder Judith Trafford—for, since his home-coming, he had even avoided her.

Often enough during that couple of weeks the master of Saxehurst and Norbury had run across one another. The young man had always made a point of nodding amiably enough to the big, black-bearded giant, who had returned his salutation grimly, but they had exchanged no words since that afternoon on the bridge.

And yet Laurence Blackwood never felt quite comfortable when Norbury was near. It chilled him to see the man prowling about the various works then in progress in the valley; somehow, he had made himself believe that the other was watching him; that he was making sly, cautious, underhand inquiries concerning him; once or twice he had caught the other regarding him closely with set face, and a curious, peering, dubious look on his dark visage.

At the beginning of July the Traffords had moved into their new quarters, and soon after, one night after dark, Laurence had visited them there. The little villa in Caversham-lane was an excellent change in every way. It was roomy, yet not too large for the daughter, and a servant-of-all work. But the great thing was that Bank House stood a hundred yards from its nearest neighbour; there was a walled garden in front and trees on either side and behind; while straight across the valley from Saxehurst there was a convenient path through the fields.

Here unobserved, and unsuspected by all, he might go and come as he chose. So the young man thought; and yet when he passed into the house on that first visit he was watched by a man lying in the grass behind the hedgerow opposite; and when he came forth again, an hour later, he passed within an arm's length of the big sprawling figure and bearded face of Roderick Norbury.

Next morning a letter reached Saxehurst addressed to "Mr. Laurence Blackwood." Curious, but in no way alarmed, the master of Saxehurst scanned the envelope and superscription for a moment ere he slit it open. The handwriting was rude and unfamiliar; it was evidently the work of some person to whom clerical tasks were not customary; but a cry, half of surprise, half of alarm, fell from his lips when, on tearing off the cover, he saw the name appended to the foot of the enclosed note.

The note itself ran thus:—


"Saxilham, July 5th, 189—.

"To Mr. Laurence Blackwood.

"Dear Sir,—I should like to see and a talk with you some time when it is convenient to you. I have just come back from Australia, you know—from Blue Gum Creek, mind—and I dare say you will like to hear what I have to tell you. To save you the trouble of writing back to me I will call at Saxehurst on Wednesday night about nine o'clock. It will be getting on for dark at that time, and nobody needs to see me. If you aren't in I will call the following night at the same time. How sad it was that you should lose your chum at Blue Gum so soon after I saw you both. I think I know something about him that nobody else knows. That's what I am going to tell you about when I see you. Hoping you won't think I'm taking a liberty in writing,

"I remain, yours truly,

"RODERICK NORBURY."


A host of mixed feelings shot through the young man's brain when he had perused the foregoing missive. At last that which he had half-expected for many a day had come. What could this man have to talk about save one thing? Those pointed allusions to Blue Gum and his dead chum could only mean one thing. And yet how could Norbury know anything of what had really taken place?

Still, he was sorely perplexed by that discomposing epistle; and leaving his morning meal almost untouched he went out of doors to pace the lawn and smoke and think. Once he was minded to go down to the village at once, find his correspondent and demand to know what he had to say; then an impulse seized him to rush away to the house on the far side of the valley, to take counsel of the two women whose lives and interests were now so closely identified with his own.

But a little temperate reflection caused him to scout the idea of doing either of those things. To seek Norbury would only be to play into his hands, and betray his own anxiety and fear; and it would be time enough to alarm the Traffords when real, open, and not merely suspected danger, showed itself.

So he kept to the house and grounds all day, and prepared himself carefully for the impending ordeal. When the summer twilight fell, half an hour after sunset, he left the big house quietly and went towards the entrance gates, smoking a cigar. He was quite calm now, his nerves were tensely strung, but completely under control, and he felt like a soldier eager for battle. It was nearly nine now; Norbury might turn up at any moment, and as he strode up to the open gates he came face to face with the man he was expecting.

"Hullo, Norbury, that you?" he sang out, pleasantly. "So glad you are prompt to time."

"Yes, it's me, Mr. Blackwood," was the gruff response. "I hope my business didn't keep you from any of your own, sir?"

"Oh, not at all, my dear man. I had no engagement for this evening, and I was curious to know what you wished to see me about—what you had to tell me. Shall we talk here, or would you rather go in the house."

"I think inside will be better, sir."

"Then come along. What beautiful weather we are having, eh? Well, I am glad of that, for it enables the men to push along with all that work down there in the village. You smoke, I suppose? Here, try this cigar."

Thus chatting lightly, the young man led the way to the house, and entering by the front door which he had left ajar, he and his visitor passed into the master's private room. Here the gas was lighted, the blinds were drawn, there were glasses and whisky and soda on the table. As a preliminary to their interview, Laurence Blackwood mixed two stiff glasses of liquor and mineral water, and toasted his companion.

"Your very good health, Roderick Norbury. So glad, I am sure, to see you back in Saxilham. And now, I suppose, tired of knocking about the world like a bird of passage, you intend to settle down in the village for good?"

"I may stop in Saxilham, and I may leave it at any time," was Norbury's phlegmatic response, as he sampled his drink and struck a match to light his cigar. "That all depends, sir."

"Depends on what?"

"How things turn out, I mean."

"Just so," remarked the younger man, as he settled himself in his armchair. "But what about this thing you had to tell me—and what do you mean about Australia and Blue Gum Creek?"

"I mean when I met you and your chum there."

"But if I tell you I was never there——"

"If you did, I shouldn't believe you," Norbury interrupted with a dogged quietness. "Surely you don't think I was fool enough to be taken in by those fancy names you and your chum had tacked on to yourselves? Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne, eh? Well, you see I could read that all right; for you had both kept your right initials if you had transmogrified the names. Didn't I recognise you at once. But you wouldn't let on, though."

"My dear Norbury, you are labouring under a strange delusion, I assure you."

"Chuck that! Strange delusion, you call it. Recollect, mind, that I'm no greenhorn and all the village could tell me about young Blackwood and his chum being off for a year or two on a voyage round the world. If you won't own up now that it was you and your friend that I ran against out on the Blue Gum I might as well close my mouth and skedaddle at once!" the bearded man said, morosely.

"If I do admit it, what then?"

"You needn't put it that way, for I know. I have proof that can't be denied that the two diggers who called themselves Lance Blair and Hubert Wynne were nobody else but Laurence Blackwood and Hugh Wynne Chesters. Is that good enough?"

"Yes, it is good enough," the master of Saxehurst replied, after a momentary pause of reflection. "It is true. My friend and I went travelling under altered names; and it was a great blow to me when my poor friend, Hugh Chesters, met with that fatal accident at the Blue Gum diggings."

"Oh, I heard all about that," Norbury remarked, dryly. "Two days after you were quit of Blue Gum I turned up again there; and by that time all the diggers in the saloons were talking about the unfortunate death of Lance Blair."

"It was a most deplorable accident," the young man answered with a genuine emotion. "I did all I could for my poor friend, but it was a hopeless case from the first. Dr. Rance, at the Creek, could do nothing, and I rode all the way to Longreach to wire for a specialist at Rockhampton. My only consolation now is that he died painlessly and in peace. Poor Chesters!"

"Poor Chesters!" the other echoed, but in such a singular, half-cynical, mocking tone that it caused the master of Saxehurst to turn on him sharply.

"Norbury," he cried, "what do you mean by speaking in such a manner of my dead friend?"

"I was only wondering," was the startling, but quite phlegmatic answer, "if it was poor Chesters that died."

"Good heavens, man, what is in your mind?" And the speaker rose suddenly to face the other. "You wonder if Chesters died? What tomfoolery is this? I am here, and my dear dead chum lies out in the wilds of Queensland."

"So everybody supposes—but your humble servant," was the dogged and biting retort. "Now, there's no cause to fly off into a passion, young man," and the cool, black-haired giant held up a big brown hand in a placable way. "I think what I think, and I'm going to tell you what I know—know, mind—for there's no thinking about that."

"What is it you know?" the master demanded, sternly. Then he laughed, as if this thing were a good joke, and, draining his drink, threw himself into his chair.

But Roderick Norbury was in no way disturbed; he drank his whisky and soda very deliberately, placed his extinguished cigar on a corner of the table, and then turned to his host with clear, low speech and resolute face.

"I know this, sir," he began. "You and your chum were as like as two peas—only that one of you was dark and the other was fair. Who should know better than me? Haven't I seen you both together many a time here at Saxilham? Didn't I meet you both at Blue Gum Creek? And though the sun had tanned you both to the colour of brick, it hadn't changed your hair, eh? Now, Laurence Blackwood was as dark as his father; it was a dark man who died at Blue Gum Creek; yet I come back and find a dark man playing the boss at Saxehurst. That's what I know, sir."

"There has been a great mistake somewhere, Norbury. Do you mean to say that I am an impostor."

"I don't know what a judge would call it, but I know you are not Laurence Blackwood!" was the deliberate retort. "You've done the thing cleverly, and I don't blame you. But it's no use trying to fool me. Don't try it on!" and there was a grim menace in his voice. "Everybody at the Creek could tell me it was a light-haired man who left it; Dr. Rance told me the same thing; that doctor at Rockhampton said so as well; and any smart chap can dye his hair and whiskers any colour when it means a round quarter of a million to him!"

"By heaven, Norbury, I cannot stand this!" and the young man sprang to his feet again, his face pale, his whole form quivering.

"Don't shout or somebody will hear us; and I don't want that. If you don't own up like a man, I may turn nasty. Now you can prove it in a minute if you are what you pretend to be. Dare you pull off your left boot and stocking? That will settle this job for ever. Then, if I am wrong, I will beg pardon and stump up a hundred pounds for my blunder."

"What madness is in your head now?"

"Madness, eh? Wait a bit and see. A good few years since, when Laurence Blackwood was a lad of eight or nine, he and a lot of village lads were bathing in the river near the old quarry. I saw them all running about the grass naked, and somehow or other one of the lads rolled a big slab of stone on young Blackwood's left foot, crushing it so badly that his little toe had to be taken off. It was Dr. Mason, of Saxilford, who took the toe off, and he is still living. Are you short of a toe, too?"

For the space of ten seconds the younger man sat there as if thunderstruck. His face had blanched to the colour of his cigar ash; his lips were set; and had his life been at stake he could not have faced the other's hard leering countenance for the time being. Then he rose suddenly with an effort, filled the glasses again with whisky and soda, and half-drained his own ere he turned to Norbury.

"You are right!" he said, with a preternatural calmness; "I am Hugh Chesters. But you do not love the Blackwoods?"

"I hate everything that carries that name!" the bearded man hissed venomously.

"Then listen and I will tell you all. When you know why I am here you will not blame me, I think."'

Then in a low, rapid voice the young man explained all the circumstances which had induced him to play the part of the dead mine-master's son.

"That's all right, and I don't blame you!" was Norbury's laconic comment. "Young Judith of the Red Hand is Gabriel Blackwood's lass, and she ought to have his money. But where do I come in?"

"How much do you want?" was the terse question.

"Five thousand pounds! Not a copper less! If you can afford to chuck away money on the pit-men, waste fifteen or twenty thousand on that show down there in the village, and give the other five thousand to the Saxilham Infirmary folk to build a new wing to their place, you shouldn't grudge me what I want, when you know what I know and could do."

"You shall have the money."

"Honest!—Straight!—Fair!"

"You shall have it, I say."

"But when?"

"To-morrow night, if you will call here at the same hour."

"I want no paper, mind! None of your cheques for me, that can be stopped and fooled with!"

"You shall have the sum you name in Bank of England notes—even gold if you wish."

"Good notes will do, thank you."

"You shall have them. And when you bank your money don't choose the Saxilford Bank. If you bank there they will recognise the notes. Now finish your drink, take a handful of these smokes and go, Norbury. I want to be alone."


CHAPTER XLVI.—THE RULING PASSION.

JUST two days after Roderick Norbury's visit to Saxehurst, that worthy was to be seen sauntering through the village. He finally came to a standstill on the bridge crossing the river, and resting his elbows on the stone parapet of the structure, puffed away complacently at one of those cigars Blackwood had given him, his gaze wandering the while along that side of the valley where the workmen were engaged.

The ex-miner and gold-digger was looking unusually well that pleasant July morning. He had had his hair cut and his voluminous beard trimmed; a new hat of brown felt sat almost jauntily on his head; and a new suit of dark grey tweed robed, not ungracefully, his big, athletic, raw-boned frame.

A light footfall on the white dusty road caused Norbury to turn his head slowly. It was young Judith Trafford. She had a small basket on her arm, was tastefully attired in a well-fitting dress of some shade of pale brown and looked fresh and sweet as a rosebud.

"Good-morning, Miss Trafford," he said amiably, touching his hat gallantly. "Off to Saxilford Market, I daresay?'"

"Yes; good-morning, Mr. Norbury," and the handsome lass passed on, wondering what had come over the erstwhile sullen pitman to make him courteous to her.

He watched the slender, agile form of Judith till it was lost to view over the top of the rise in the highway; and then, still smoking, he sauntered back through the village, mounted the inclined road, turned to the right, and paced along the lane leading to Caversham, pausing only when he was ringing at the front door of Bank House.

He told the neat maid that he had come to see her mistress, and not having been put upon her guard against callers, the servant ushered him into a cool, comfortably-furnished morning room. There a minute later the woman of the Red Hand joined him, her still sweet and handsome face glooming somewhat when she recognised her visitor.

"Good-morning, Mrs. Trafford," he said, pleasantly. "I hope you won't think it wrong of me in coming to see you. I have been back in Saxilham nearly three weeks now, and I've never troubled you before."

"Oh, it is quite right, Mr. Norbury," she replied, recovering her composure and ease of manner. "I am glad to see you, and you were never looking better. I heard of your coming back, and the villagers say you have done very well in Australia."

"I should think I have," he cried earnestly. "See here. What do you think of these and this?"

He drew from an inner pocket of his coat as he spoke, first a thick wad of bank notes, which he spread out for the woman to see; then a bank book which he opened at the page where a deposit of a thousand pounds had been entered.

"Why, you are quite a moneyed man now, Roderick," she exclaimed, after a cursory glance at his treasures.

"No need to work any more, anyhow," he said proudly. "If you'll count these Bank of England notes you'll find that there's just 50 of them—for a hundred apiece. And here in one of the Saxilford banks I'm good for another thousand. That makes six thousand, Judith Trafford; and it's all for you!"

"For me, Roderick?" the woman stammered, her wide-open eyes full of a deep questioning wonder.

"For you when you marry me, Judith!"

"When I marry you?"

"Yes; and why shouldn't you?" he demanded. "I have loved you half my life, have knocked about the world for your sake, and I love you now more than ever. Again, I say, why shouldn't you marry me? We are both of us still in the prime of life; you, I think are handsomer than ever; I am respectable now and rich; I can keep you like a lady; and now that Gabriel Blackwood is dead and gone what's to prevent you?—what stands in your way?"

"No! No!" she cried. "I shall never marry now. If I have remained single and true to my first love—my only love, all these years, do you think I can change now?"

"You must change, Judith," he thundered. "And haven't I been true too. You must give way now. This foolish nonsense can stand between us any longer."

"Nonsense it may be, but I cannot help it. Don't press me any more, please. I do not want to hurt your feelings, but I can't marry you—I won't! I never loved you, Roderick—I can't love you. Leave me in peace, go your own way, and some day I may learn to respect you."

"I don't want your respect," he growled, his anger rising, his sullen obstinacy increasing. "I want you; and you shall marry me and learn to love me after!"

"Don't talk like that, please!" she retorted, her eyes flashing. "You have used such words before, and you know how it ended. I don't love you. I will not marry you, and that's the last of it. Now, Roderick Norbury, you can go!"

"Not yet. And that's not the last of it," he muttered. "Now, listen to me. You see these five thousand pounds worth of Bank of England notes. Do you know how and where I got them?"

"I neither know nor care. What is it to me?" and she rose and stood there white-faced and handsome in her soft matronly comeliness.

"Wait till I have done. I got this money from the man who calls himself, Laurence Blackwood. Who he is I happen to know, and these notes are meant to close my mouth. They will close it, too, unless you force me to talk. Now, do you understand what I mean, Judith Trafford?"

She understood, but she had no response ready. That second pregnant sentence of his had caused her to sink back on her chair and she sat there, mute and fearful, her comely face as white as the nape of her shapely neck, her hands clenched on her knees, and her eyes staring beyond him. Dropping his voice to a whisper, he went on:

"Hugh Chesters told me all, and I rather like him. He is playing less for his own hand than I thought at first. There's some sort of rough and ready justice in what he is doing. But he loves your daughter—Gabriel Blackwood's daughter—and intends to marry her. Will he? Not unless I marry you. What will happen if I go to Edward Craven and tell him the truth? Whether I go or not depends on you!"

"You must not go!" she whispered thickly, finding her tongue at last. "Will you betray that noble young man's confidence when you have taken his money?"

"His money or somebody else's," he said, with a sneer. "But that is nothing to me. In a game of this sort every man has the right to play for his own hand. But it rests with you. Now, for the last time, Judith, what am I to do? Will you marry me or am I to go to Edward Craven? If I go, you must know what it means. In a week—perhaps less—your would-be son-in-law will be in prison!"

"Give me time to consider," she pleaded. "Heaven help me, but I hardly know what to do! Give me time, Roderick! Give me time! To save Judith and him I may at last bring myself to do this thing you wish."

"You shall have time then to think it over. I don't want to be cruel, Judith. If I seem so, it is only because I love you so much. Well, you shall have a week. This is Friday; on Friday next I will come back for your answer. If it is 'No' I shall go straight to Edward Craven. As God's my Judge I will."

Then he rose, went forth, and left the woman weeping.


CHAPTER XLVII.—A DECLARATION OF WAR.

For several days following that pointed meeting with Roderick Norbury, the master of Saxehurst showed himself but infrequently abroad. Now and again he paid flying visits to the village where his men were at work, remaining there, however, only a short time, when he would hasten back home and shut himself up in his study.

Ostensibly he was compiling a list of books, with which the village library, when completed, was to be stocked; and occasionally he did work fitfully at that task; but ever and anon his pen would be laid aside, a pipe or a cigar would be lighted, and lying back in his chair he would think! think! think!—of the new difficulty—danger even—which had arisen to threaten the dream of his life.

He knew that his princely bribe to Roderick Norbury had not rendered that cunning rascal harmless. At the best he had but closed his mouth for a time; when it suited the ex-digger's schemes he would either strike, as he had hinted, or demand blackmail anew; but time gained in which to mature his own plans was everything then to the master of Saxehurst; and day after day, night after night, he thought and dreamed of a way of escape from the quagmire on the edge of which he was floundering.

Again and again he had vowed that he would never turn back from the path he had mapped out for himself and yet no way of avoiding or conquering that imminent peril hanging ominously in the background showed itself. If only this saturnine Norbury had never come back to Saxilham—if only he would bury himself anew in some remote corner of the earth, never to return, all things might run smoothly.

So far our sorely-troubled friend had shrunk from facing the Traffords and telling them what had happened. His main consideration was to spare them all unnecessary anxiety, and day after day he had avoided meeting Judith and her mother, hoping that he would be able to go to them soon with the cheering news that all danger was past—all trouble swept away.

He was in this mood one morning when alarming intelligence was brought to him at Saxehurst. It came in the shape of an urgent note from his sweetheart. The messenger was the neat maid from Bank House. Miss Trafford's message was to the following effect:—


Bank House,
Friday, 9.30 a.m.

My Dear Laurence,—Will you kindly come across at once when you receive this? The most terrible and unexpected thing has happened to mother.

She has been greatly upset for a week and she has only told me the cause an hour ago. Do come. You may advise something. Norbury has been here. Need I say more? Where, oh, where have you been all these days! Come quickly.

Judith.


"Are you going back to Bank House, miss, at once?" he asked the maid, who stood by while he read the young mistress's note.

"Oh, no, Mr. Blackwood," she answered. "I am going marketing to Saxilford in my young mistress' stead. Mrs. Trafford has not been quite well for some few days, and Miss Judith is staying at home to look after her mother."

"Thanks, good morning. I will go to see them."

The servant returned his good morning with a smile, thanked him for the half-crown he had pressed into her hand, and then went away on her errand. Ten minutes later he was on his way to the villa on the farther side of the valley.

He found mother and daughter anxiously awaiting his appearance and in a few minutes he was made acquainted with the cause of the elder woman's tribulation. She told him of Roderick Norbury's visit the previous week; of all he had stated then; his offer of marriage; his threat to reveal all to Edward Craven in case she refused; and, finally, she mentioned that her importunate wooer was to come again that morning for his answer.

"You do not wish to marry Norbury?" he asked gravely, his strong handsome face grim and thoughtful.

"No! The thought of such a thing sickens me!" she cried. "But I have to think of you and Judith. For the sake of peace—for your sake and Judith's, I will do anything you advise me to do."

"But you shall never marry a man you loathe!" he said sternly. "You have suffered more than enough already, and to allow you to sacrifice yourself further would be infamous. No! you shall not do it. We will face the worst this man can do. I never trusted him, though I gave him that money. But we will find out a way to beat him and all he brings against me. There must be a way, and we must find it."

"Norbury will certainly carry out his revengeful purpose," she answered. "He swore he would if I didn't marry him, and I feel sure he will do it!"

"Let him do his worst. I will face him. Perhaps he will listen to reason. He hates Craven and can gain little by going to him with his tale. Beside, his bark may be worse than his bite. He is perhaps only playing a game of bluff and bluster. If he likes you both, he may hesitate to strike you through me."

"Make no mistake about Roderick Norbury," she replied. "I know him better than you, and he was always a reckless villain, bad, passionate, black-hearted enough for any evil work. No matter what he promises you must not trust him!"

"I never did that; I simply bought his silence for a time. But he is striking sooner than I expected. What time do you expect him here?"

"He may come at any moment. Hush! Why, he is there, knocking at the door now. Admit him, Judith; and you leave me to meet him first. When I have given him my answer I will leave him to you."

Judith and her lover withdrew; the younger woman went to the front door to find Norbury standing there, and a few minutes afterwards the burly, well-dressed miner was confronting the pale-faced, handsome woman he had loved so long and whom he had come to woo, for the last time. He seated himself; she nodded coldly, formal good mornings were exchanged, and then he plunged at once into the business which had brought him there.

"You have considered that matter, Judith, we were talking about last Friday?"

"Yes, I have considered it carefully, Roderick Norbury."

"And you agree to my wishes?"

"No! I do not agree!"

"Not agree!" he spluttered, in angry amaze. "Do you know what that means?"

"I know what it means, and we have all decided to face the worst you can do."

"Ha! So you have told this so-called Laurence Blackwood, have you?" he hissed, venomously.

"Yes; I have told him all."

"And what did he advise?" he sneered.

"That I was to refuse a man I hated and despised, no matter what the consequences might be."

"By——!" and he sprang to his feet savagely, "both you and the impostor shall rue this! I am not jesting, mind. As true as God's above us if I leave this house unsatisfied I go straight to Edward Craven. Now for the last time, will you marry me?"

"No! For ever, no!"

She rose too, and for a moment they faced each other. She was deathly pale, but quite cool now while he was boiling with pent-up passion. Then she turned swiftly, passed through the heavy hangings covering the doorway, and he would have followed her out had not a man's form suddenly barred the way.

"A minute, Roderick Norbury, I want to have a talk with you."

"What is it, Laurence Blackwood?" was the savage retort—the undisguised sneering query.

"I want you to listen to reason," was the quiet response. "What harm have I or those women ever done you? What good will it do you if you succeed in striking me a deadly blow and fill the hearts of mother and daughter with black trouble?"

"That's their look out—your look out—and not mine. It was you, wasn't it who advised Judith Trafford not to marry me?"

"Certainly!" was the frank answer. "And such advice was sound, I believe. What would it profit you to force an unwilling woman into marriage? Is the woman to blame if she cannot bring herself to love you? Do use your reason, man!"

"She has never tried to love me! She has refused my offer, and I will have revenge!" was the sullenly ireful rejoinder.

"Forget the woman, and think of what I have to offer you, Norbury. Keep your mouth closed for twelve months—six months only—and you shall have another five thousand pounds!"

"I will promise nothing—but this. When I leave this house it will be to come back no more. I have sworn in my soul that I will go to Edward Craven, and I'll go to him! He comes over to Saxilford every week-end; will be there to-morrow afternoon; and till then I wait. If Judith Trafford wishes to see me, she knows where to find me. Now I'm off."

"A moment. If you will go to Craven with your cowardly tale, then go! And when you tell him that you took my bribe and then betrayed my confidence, tell him this also. When the right time comes I am prepared to produce proof of my rightful claim to all I have and hold. Now, Judas, you can go!"

For a moment, Norbury stared at the young man with blazing eyes of hate. Even his hard, unscrupulous heart had been stung by the other's cold, bitter jibes. It seemed for an instant as if he would dash his brawny fist into the jiber's pale, impassive, handsome countenance. But he thought better of that and strode away, slamming the door behind him.


CHAPTER XLVIII.—RODERICK NORBURY AND EDWARD CRAVEN.

That unexpected meeting with the man whose bribe he had taken so readily, and whose embittered jibes had stabbed him so poignantly, could have but one effect on a man of Roderick Norbury's character. He left the villa, cursing both Judith Trafford and her unflinching adviser, wondering the while that any sane man should be fool enough to throw away a vast fortune in order to please a prospective mother-in-law.

Had Edward Craven been accessible at that moment, it is certain that the incensed man would have rushed to him with his momentous news; but from inquiries formerly made, Norbury had learned that Craven was away in Wales, and was not expected back at his lodgings till Saturday afternoon; and so, making a virtue of necessity, the rejected wooer had conceded Judith Trafford those twenty odd hours of grace.

That she would seek him to withdraw her refusal he did not for a moment think. Her second reception of him at Bank House had been quite different from what it was on the first occasion. Then she had been timid, fearful, and pleaded for time to weigh his offer and the consequences of refusing what he demanded; while, later, she had been cooler than himself, confident even, and her dismissal of him and his hopes for ever had been emphatic, decisive, unmistakable.

It was easy to trace Laurence Blackwood's hand in this complete change of front Judith the elder had presented to him. But for that young gentleman's interference, her fear, if not her love, would have induced her to become his wife, and then—then he cursed the pretender afresh at the thought of all the happiness he had missed.

Well, he would square his account with them both on the morrow. In case she came not to plead for pardon, he would go to Craven, sell him the secret, and those who had scorned him should feel the full force of his ireful yet justifiable vengeance.

The day passed, night fell, and Saturday sped onward to noonday, and still no word came from either the master of Saxehurst, or the fair mistress of Bank House. Then Norbury left the village and set forth for Saxilford; and shortly after two o'clock he was knocking at the door of the neat suburban villa where Edward Craven stayed when he was in town.

The man he sought was indoors; had just arrived from the district in which his small colliery was situated, and would see the gentleman at once if he would kindly step inside. Norbury entered and was shown into the little drawing-room where Edward Craven was sitting.

"Good afternoon, sir. Take a seat, please. You wish to see me, I understand?"

"I do. My name is Norbury—Roderick Norbury—and I come from Saxilham."

"Of course, you do!" and Craven held out his hand. "For the moment I had forgotten you; but I remember you quite well now. You were working at my uncle's mines when I first settled down at Saxehurst. But I understood that you were abroad in some of the colonies?"

"I came home from Australia less than a month ago. While out there I met your cousin Laurence Blackwood, and his chum, Hugh Chesters."

"At Blue Gum Creek, Mr. Norbury?"

"At Blue Gum Creek, sir. And since I got back to Saxilham I have made a great discovery, Edward Craven—a discovery which must mean a quarter of a million to you, if you are the man I take you to be, and not less than ten thousand pounds to myself."

"Whatever can you mean?" the sharp beady-eyed young man demanded. "You've not come here to play the fool, Norbury?"

"I've come here to tell you the gospel truth, sir!" the visitor cried, dropping his voice. "But are we quite safe, sir? Can we talk freely without being overheard?"

"Of course. There is no one in the house at present save Mrs. Braye and ourselves, and she's at the back of the house, in the kitchen. But what is it that demands so much secrecy?"

"Just what I tell you. A vast fortune for you and a snug one for me. But I am not going to enrich you for nothing—I am not going to give my great secret away and then let you leave me in the lurch. Before I leave here I must have your written word that you will pay me ten thousand pounds on the understanding that I supply you with such information and proof as will enable you to gain possession of an estate worth a quarter of a million. If you don't get it I shall want nothing. Is that fair?"

"Quite fair, Norbury!" Craven answered. "Of course, I agree to your proposal. If I get my quarter of a million, you shall have your ten thousand I swear. Now for your secret."

"Good. Now listen!" and the speaker's voice dropped to a tense whisper. "You know the man in possession at Saxehurst? Well, that man is not your cousin, Laurence Blackwood, at all; he is Hugh Wynne Chesters!"

"Good God!" and Craven sprang excitedly to his feet. "You understand what you are saying, Norbury? You are absolutely certain of this thing?"

"As certain as we are here, sir!" was the firm response. "It was Blackwood who died at Blue Gum Creek. You know how they resembled one another, barring one's being fair and the other dark, and all Chesters had to do to disguise himself was to dye his hair. Then he could humbug you all!"

"This is not mere guesswork, Norbury?"

"It's the gospel truth I swear! Haven't I told you that I have only been back from Queensland less than a month? I was at Blue Gum Creek a few days after the burial of one of the two chums and the coming away of the other one. Now the one who died had black hair, while the one who lived had fair hair. Both diggers and the doctors could tell me that. Now I leave you to form your own opinion as to who died at the Creek and who is at Saxehurst to-day."

"It seems certain, Norbury," Craven responded, his eager, crafty countenance wrinkled by concentrated thought. "But, after all, is it not possible you may have been misled?"

"It is not possible! I have settled all doubts forever! And all I have told you can be proved easily enough."

"There is one thing I can't understand, Norbury."

"What is that?"

"What made you come to me with this secret instead of going to the man at Saxehurst? I am comparatively poor, while he is rolling in riches. If this knowledge is worth ten thousand pounds to me how much was it worth to him to suppress it for ever? And he could have paid you at once."

"I have been to Hugh Chesters; I told him all, and more than I have told you yet, and he had to confess the truth, Mr. Edward Craven."

"He confessed he was not Laurence Blackwood, and yet you are here to sell your information?" he exclaimed incredulously.

"That's so. But thereby hangs a tale. And I didn't leave the Master of Saxehurst empty-handed neither. See here!" and a bundle of bank notes was drawn forth and thrown on the table. "There's five thousand pounds there, and every pound of it came out of the pocket of your so-called cousin. That money was given me as a bribe to shut my mouth for ever—was handed to me just a week last Thursday night—and now I am here bargaining with you for ten thousand more."

"Ha! I think I understand, Norbury!" and a hard, cynical smile showed on the young man's face. "Your patron refused to be bled any more, and so you brought your wares to a better market."

"It wasn't that, sir!" Norbury hissed lowly. "Man for man, I'd rather have the present master of Saxehurst than you. He's a better man in every way; but he played me a scurvy trick, and I'm going to have my revenge by rooting him out of home and fortune and sending him to penal servitude!"

"May I ask what has taken place?"

"I'd better tell you, and then you'll understand why I've come to you. He knows that I swore to come to you, and he offered me another five thousand to keep away. But I swore to his face that I would tell you all, and I'm keeping my word!"

"But what has really taken place?" Craven asked again.

"This. It was all over Judith of the Red Hand—the mother, I mean. I loved Judith Trafford before your uncle betrayed her; and I asked her to marry me a week yesterday. I'd asked the same thing many a time before that, and had always got the cold shoulder. But I went with something up my sleeve the last time. I told her what I have told you; showed her these bank notes; offered her every one if she would marry me, and swore to expose Chesters if she refused."

"And she refused?"

"She begged for a week to think it over; and in the meantime he stepped in to advise her and stiffen her faltering resolution. But for him Judith would have given way, I feel certain; and then, Mr. Craven, you would never have known the truth."

"Was Chesters there when she refused?"

"He was, curse him! He insulted me—goaded me—called me a Judas and I was near dashing my fist in his face."

"And you told him you were coming to me? How did he take that, Norbury?"

"He was cool outwardly, but I could read the fear in his soul. Hadn't he given me five thousand, and didn't he offer me another five? But he seemed to think more of the women than himself, the fool! He claims the estate because young Judith is Gabriel Blackwood's daughter, and because his dead chum egged him on to do it to keep you out of it. And he means to marry the young woman, too. He confessed as much to me, Craven."

"He does, eh?" was the snarling response. "We will see about that, my man. He shall have neither Gabriel Blackwood's daughter nor his estate—my estate now! I will hunt him out! Send him to penal servitude, if he does not resign possession at once and make public confession of his stupendous imposture. But we must go to work carefully, Norbury. We must collect all our proofs, and it will take a goodish while to bring witnesses and evidence from Australia."

"There is one thing—the most important thing of all—which I have not told you yet. When I tell you what it is you can prove in a day—an hour even—that this man is an impostor."

"What is that, Norbury?" Craven cried eagerly.

"When you have written out and signed that paper promising me the ten thousand I will tell you—not before," was the grim reply.

"You shall have it! Wait a minute, please."

Craven quickly obtained writing materials, drew his chair up to the table, and in a couple of minutes was penning the following document, which he read aloud—


Saxilford, July 18, 189—

This is to certify that I, Edward Craven, hereby solemnly pledge myself to pay to Roderick Norbury the sum of 10,000 (ten thousand pounds) provided that he supplies me with such information and proofs as will enable me to claim possession of the estate of my uncle, Gabriel Blackwood, lately deceased, and formerly mine-owner at Saxehurst, Saxilham.

(Signed) Edward Craven.


"Will that do, Norbury?"

"It will do. Give me the paper." And then the black-bearded man stowed notes and document into a bulky pocket-book which he placed carefully away.

"Now for this unquestionable proof of yours, Norbury."

"You shall have it in a few words. When your cousin Laurence was a youngster of eight or nine he met with an accident whilst playing; his foot—his left foot—was crushed, and he lost his little toe. The man who took it off was Dr. James Mason, of the town. Go to him and he'll prove what I say. Now you know what to do with the impostor at Saxehurst. I put that matter of the missing toe to Chesters, and it crumpled him up. It was then he told me the truth and made me a present of that five thousand."

"You are ready to swear to all this?"

"At any time and before any court or judge in the world!"

"Good. No, do not leave me yet. We will have a drink and smoke together before you go, and settle what steps I must take first of all. Like yourself, Roderick Norbury, I have a bit of a grudge to wipe out."


CHAPTER XLIX.—EDWARD CRAVEN'S TERMS.

A VAST, an unholy, a boundless joy was filling Edward Craven's breast, and thrilling him through and through, when at last he permitted the unscrupulous and avaricious betrayer of Hugh Chesters to depart. Without the expenditure of a single penny he had become possessed of a secret worth many a score of thousands of pounds, and even if he paid the informer that sum he had so solemnly promised, ten thousand would be scarcely missed out of the quarter of a million or so he was going to lay hands on.

For hours after the door closed on Norbury's great figure his confidant paced the room in deep thought. Many matters formerly obscure to Craven were now plain as daylight. At last he comprehended why Judith Trafford had ever looked coldly, and disdainfully upon his advances. All along she had been in love with this handsome companion of his dead cousin; for two or three years there had been a secret understanding between them, and he had never suspected or discovered the real truth till now.

Another thing also he understood. It had always puzzled him to find a satisfactory explanation to account for his supposed kinsman's generosity. But it was manifest to-day why that colliery in Wales had been handed over to him in such a magnanimous spirit. He had been in the way; his presence at Saxilham had interfered with the pretender's schemes; Chesters had been afraid that the watchful eyes of a vigilant relative might penetrate his disguise at any unguarded moment; and that gilded pill of a coal-mine had been tossed to him that he might clear out of the district altogether and leave the daring mountebank to pursue his love affairs, social fads, and other plans in peace and security.

He bit his lip in deep mortification when he thought of how Judith and her lover had fooled him. And Chesters had even gone the length of saying—speaking in the guise of the dead Laurence Blackwood—that he, Craven, might woo and win the fair girl if he could.

By Heaven! he would win Judith yet, and laugh also at his discomfited and disgraced rival's fine schemes. He had not to knuckle down to the painful and arduous task of acquiring a large fortune, as he had expected; here was one ready made, waiting for his hands to grasp—his own, too, according to all the laws in the land—and by seizing upon it, as he meant to do, not only would he bring young Judith Trafford to her knees, to sue to him for mercy, but he would also humiliate and crush the rascally adventurer who had dared to attempt to swindle him out of his legal birthright.

The whole of Saturday and Sunday Edward Craven spent in solitary communing with himself and the careful maturing of his plans. On the Monday he was still at Saxilford, but was astir and abroad. An hour before noon he was pacing through Saxilham village, and the sight of the small army of labourers at work, and the thought of the thousands of pounds Chesters was squandering on his fads—"My money! My money!" Craven exclaimed to himself in passing—filled his soul with a fine burst of righteous indignation.

But he went on, came in due course to Bank House, and when he knocked the door was opened by the mother of the woman he had come to see.

"Good morning, madam," he said gravely, raising his hat. He was the essence of politeness still, but his air was more assured and masterful now, she noticed, than when they last met. "I have called to see your daughter," he went on. "I trust Judith is quite well, and at home?"

"We were half-expecting you, sir," was the enigmatic response. "Yes, Judith is at home, and well, thank you. Come inside, please. You will find her in this room. Judith, Mr. Craven has come to see you. Now excuse me, sir."

He pushed aside the heavy hanging of tapestry and entered the apartment to find Judith sitting there. He noted that she was unwontedly pale, yet quite composed, and far more beautiful than ever he thought. That long season of ease and leisure had lent the girl additional charms of grace and softness; she was daintily garbed in a loose morning dress of some light-coloured material, her masses of bright-hued hair sat on her head like a crown of burnished metal, and her slender hands—white now as those of an idle lady, who had never known what hard work was—lay in her lap, and on one of her lissom fingers a jewelled circlet of gold sparkled.

She muttered a grave "Good morning, Mr. Craven," nodded to him ever so slightly, and motioned him into a chair, but did not rise or notice his half-extended hand. He seated himself and then began awkwardly enough.

"Business of a very important nature, Miss Trafford, is the excuse for my intrusion upon you this morning," he said. "When I tell you of the most extraordinary thing that has happened you will perhaps understand why I am here?"

"I do understand," was her cold comment. "You have seen Mr. Roderick Norbury; he has been to you and has told you all. Well, we expected no favours from him. He came here and was driven away unsatisfied, and then the cowardly blackmailer ran to you with his tale."

"Norbury came to me as you suggest, and he made me acquainted with all the facts and details of that daring, that remarkable, that unscrupulous imposture, which a friend of ours has been carrying on so long at Saxehurst and in the village. I allude, of course, to the man Hugh Chesters, who has been posing all these months in the stolen robes and personality of a dead man—my cousin, Laurence Blackwood!"

"Spare me the outpourings of your virtuous wrath, Mr. Craven," she remarked in gentle irony. "Tell me, please, why you have come here to me."

"To offer you terms. This Chesters is a friend of yours—a friend of your mother's. For your sake I do not desire to punish him unduly. On one condition I will spare him."

"And that condition, sir."

"You must marry me, and he must confess his crime."


CHAPTER L.—A TRUE WOMAN'S CHOICE.

"I MUST marry you, Mr. Craven, and Hugh Chesters must make confession of his crime?" she murmured slowly, quietly, looking him full in the eyes for a little space.

"Those are my terms," he said suavely; "and I may remark that the moderation of what I am asking is due entirely to the kindly feelings—nay, the more than kindly feelings—which I entertain, and have always entertained, for your mother and yourself. I think it is unnecessary to dwell at any great length on the harsh measures I might adopt now in case I were so minded. This thing that Hugh Chesters has been guilty of is a gross violation of the law, and might be visited with the severest, the most degrading and painful penalties. You, yourself, must see all that, my dear Miss Trafford."

"I know so little of the law, Mr. Craven," she answered simply, marking, as her mother had done, the new air of self-assurance he had thought proper to adopt. "I only know that the new master of Saxehurst has been very kind to me and mother; kinder, nobler, more humane, and generous to us than any being who ever set foot in Saxilham."

"I was not alluding to his dealings with you and your mother," he said loftily; "I was only thinking of those iniquities of his which have brought him within the pale of the law, and within measurable distance of penal pains and penalties."

"There may be two opinions on that, sir," she replied curtly.

"Surely Miss Trafford, you will not attempt to defend what this man has done!" he cried in righteous horror.

"Much that he has done and is doing," she answered, speaking warmly for the first time, "I honestly admire, and many others must admire also. Will the men and women, the lads and lasses, at the Saxilham collieries blame the master of Saxehurst because he has made their work more profitable to them all. Will the villagers do anything but thank and bless him for building them a club and library and a recreation ground, and thereby improving the conditions of their hard and dull lives? And even the injured and ailing poor folk of the district cannot help but think kindly of the man whose generous gift has added a new wing to the Infirmary at Saxilford."

"My dear Miss Trafford!" he protested. "What foolish, sentimental, and purely illogical notions you women do get hold of! Surely, a woman of your intelligence must see that in all this man has done so far he is deferring not of praise, but the severest form of condemnation. His works are not acts of generous charity, but gross examples of indiscriminate extravagance and plunder. What right had he to tender the miners a share of the profits produced by the mines in the village? By whose authority is he squandering those thousands down there in the valley? And even that gift to the Infirmary at Saxilford is an act of theft rather than a charitable donation."

"The recipients of his gifts will bless him all the same, sir," was her quiet retort.

"Bless when they ought to curse!" he cried, losing somewhat of his superior calmness and judicial air. "I can see, and you must see also, why he is doing all these mad things. He recognises the instability and danger of his mushroom grandeur; he is eager to curry favour with, and win popularity from the thoughtless and ignorant multitude. But what must the world think of him, and say of him, when the truth comes out—when I make it known that this mad socialist and sham philanthropist is squandering not his own money, but mine? I ask you that, Miss Judith Trafford."

"Your money, Mr. Edward Craven?" and the playful scorn in her words and look stung him to fury.

"Yes, my money!" he cried. "The death of my uncle, Gabriel Blackwood, and the decease of my cousin Laurence Blackwood, out in Australia, left me the sole legitimate heir. I repeat it—that every penny that Hugh Chesters has spent, since he fraudulently and criminally took possession of Saxehurst and the estate belonging thereto, was mine—not his. Even you, Miss Trafford, will not dispute that clear fact?"

"I dispute nothing, sir," he said, that ironical smile still on her sweet pale face. "I am only Gabriel Blackwood's daughter—Laurence Blackwood's sister; and so have no claim to speak. But this man you condemn may have something to say for himself and the claims by means of which he holds Saxehurst and the rest."

"Of your own unfortunate position I will say nothing, my dear Miss Trafford!" he answered, his voice softening to a compassionate tenderness. "You know that I always condoled with you and your mother on your hard lot, and I never attempted to condone or extenuate my poor dead uncle's sins. But at his death he did all he could to wipe that stain from his memory."

"Yet I am his daughter; you are merely his sister's son, and still you claim all!" she cried.

"That is the fault of the law, and not mine. But we will not talk of that. Let us speak rather of this man's claim. What right can Hugh Chesters have to the position he has arrogated to himself under the cloak of his resemblance to my cousin?"

"I cannot tell you that; he may. If you wish to know you will find him at Saxehurst."

"I came here first to avoid all unpleasantness—at least all such as may be rightly avoided. We are kinsfolk, and people of the same blood should not quarrel. But my indisputable rights must be proclaimed and protected. I have already suggested a way out of this difficulty. You know that I have loved you for years and that the one great desire of my life has been to make you my wife. I loved you when you were poor. I love you now when you are better off; and I offer you such a position as not one woman in a hundred thousand can hope to win."

"If I marry you Hugh Chesters is to be let off scot free?" she queried.

"Provided, of course, that he resigns possession of everything, and publicly confesses to the imposture of which he has been guilty!" was the emphatic response.

"And if I do not marry you, Mr. Craven?"

"It will be so much worse then for him. Chesters will be arrested, and be cast into gaol, will be arraigned and then the threefold charge of perjury, forgery, and conspiring to defraud, with the result that he will probably be committed to penal servitude for five or ten years. But you can save him from that by becoming my wife, Judith?"

"I shall never become your wife, sir!"

"You insist on forcing my hand then?" he demanded, his dark face hardening and glooming vindictively.

"I only insist on my right to refuse a man I neither love nor honour," she replied coldly.

"You will regret this, Judith, when it is too late," he cried, as he rose slowly from his chair. "Only think of what you are giving up—and for what? A man who, a few months hence, will be the scorn of all the countryside."

"I can only think of what I am escaping," she said calmly. "And scorned or honoured, Hugh Chesters will always be welcome here."

"You prefer a swindler, a thief, an impostor, a soon-to-be gaol-bird, to your own cousin, and the wealth and position I could give you?" he exclaimed, incredulously.

"I prefer the man I love to the one I despise."

"I cannot believe it, Judith! This is mere bravado. Even if you love this man you will not let him be ruined by going to prison, when you can save him. I will not take your answer now. You shall have time to consider all the consequences of your refusal. When you are calm you will see matters differently. I will come for your final answer in a few days!"

"You have had my final answer, sir. I want no time to think. I have thought it all out and decided. Do not come here again, please. And tell that poor knave, Roderick Norbury, that you fared no better at Bank House than he did. Mr. Edward Craven, I wish you good morning!"

He withdrew reluctantly, his turbid face reflecting the venomous ire in his soul; and he went back through the village, wondering as to how and when he should strike. When he did strike there would be no pity in his blow.


CHAPTER LI.—WITH THE GLOVES OFF.

SOME DAYS after Edward Craven's visit to Judith Trafford, the master of Saxehurst was sitting out on the lawn overlooking the green valley of the Saxe, smoking desultorily and thinking deeply. His cogitations were wrapped around himself and his dubious position; Edward Craven also, the two fair women on the farther slope of the wide vale, and that strange tangle of circumstances in which they were all enveloped.

How it would all end he could not see clearly. He knew that Craven had made an attempt to compromise matters somewhat by offering to marry Judith, and her emphatic and unqualified refusal of his proposal, a course he had dictated, had had the effect of forcing the unsuccessful wooer's hand. Only that morning a letter had come to Saxehurst from the dead mine-owner's nephew. It was in his pocket at that moment, and drawing it forth as he thought of it, he read it anew. Craven's letter read thus:—


Hawthorn Cottage, Moor Lane,
Saxilford, July 24th, 189—.

Dear Sir—I am writing to you in the hope that your common-sense will prevent you from forcing me to the last extremity of the law. You will see from the superscription I place on this letter that I still address you in the style and title you have assumed. I do that, not because I in any way condone or excuse your gross imposition, but solely because I desire to avoid all unnecessary scandal.

If you will undertake to give up possession within a week of Saxehurst, the collieries at Saxilham, all else and everything illegally claimed and held by you by means of false pretences, and will further promise to publish in the local newspapers a full and complete renunciation of your claim to be Laurence Blackwood, son of Gabriel Blackwood, deceased, I, on my part, will undertake that no criminal proceedings shall be instituted against you.

If you are well advised, you will avail yourself of the clemency I hold out to you. Absolute proof of your identity is in my possession. For the sake of old times I do not desire to see you condemned to imprisonment. But my own inalienable rights must be asserted and maintained. Let me urge you strongly as a friend to withdraw at once from the dangerous and wholly indefensible position in which you are now situated. A little wise discretion used at present may save you years of degradation and suffering.

In the hope of inducing you to take the course I suggest, I shall take the liberty of calling upon you at Saxehurst to-morrow afternoon about three o'clock. I beg leave to remain,

Yours obediently,

EDWARD CRAVEN.

To Hugh Wynne Chesters, Esq.,
alias Laurence Blackwood.


A grim smile irradiated the handsome face of the reader as he folded the epistle and thrust it back into his pocket. Then he glanced at his watch saw that the time was midway between the hours of two and three, and as he relit his pipe to puff away and meditate again, a neat maid came tripping to the low wide open casement near which he was sitting.

"Master!" she called quietly; "there is a gentleman who wishes to see you."

"So soon! so soon!" he muttered in an undertone. Then aloud he said, "Show the gentleman this way, Polly. And place some whisky and soda on the table near the window, please."

The servant hied away, while he sat there pulling at his pipe, his brows in concentrated thought, his fine face suddenly grown hard and resolute. He glanced over his shoulder when he heard muffled footfalls and a low cough, and then his countenance brightened at once, for the man he looked at was a stranger.

"Come this way, sir," he cried pleasantly. "Hand the gentleman a chair, Polly. And now, my dear sir," he added, as the visitor seated himself, "what is your business with me?"

"You are the master of Saxehurst, sir?"

"'That is so."

"Well, my name is John Henry Trent, sir; and I am a travelling photographer. My wagon and show are down in the village there, on that spare ground opposite where you are building, and I have come to ask you to rent the the land for a week or two. I made inquiries in the village, and they told me to see you, as you were the landowner."

"Quite right, Mr. Trent. Rather warm to-day, isn't it? Now as a modern knight of the road I suppose you are no teetotaller. If not, will you take a glass of whisky and soda with me?"

"Don't mind if I do, thank you, sir."

The master of Saxehurst filled two glasses with the potent liquor and the aerated water, and handed one to the man. Meanwhile he was regarding him closely. Somehow he had been favourably impressed by this wandering dealer in sun-pictures. Trent was a well-built man of fifty one or two; had a pointed brown beard, lightly streaked with grey; was decently dressed; his hat was big, soft, wide-brimmed, and of Yankee pattern, and a refreshing air of Bohemianism clung about him.

"If the place suits you, Mr. Trent, you can stay there as long as you like. And as to rent—well, if your pitch in Saxilham turns out successful you can put a few shillings in the alms-box you will find in the porch of the village church."

"Thank you, sir. When I go back I will drop half-a-crown in it just for luck. Your very good health, sir."

"Thank you. And how long have you been on the road as a travelling photographer? I daresay you like the life?"

"On and off about thirty years. Yes, I do like the life. I have travelled every main road, I think, in England Scotland and Wales. I usually winter in the towns, but in spring, summer and autumn I prefer the country. I should think I have a greater collection of all the famous places and beauty spots in the three countries I have named than any man living. Some day, when I have made a fortune, sir, and settled down, I shall collect all my finest photos and publish them in a book."

"Not a bad idea either, Mr. Trent."

"And that reminds me, sir, that I have another favour to ask of you. While I am here I should like to take a few photographs of your collieries and the pit-brow girls at work."

"Certainly; with pleasure. The girls themselves will only be too delighted. If these buildings were completed down in the village you should take them also. Now, you must excuse me, Mr. Trent, for I am expecting a visitor. Good afternoon. Go right across the lawn there and you'll see your way out. I will look you up some day."

The wandering artist took his departure, greatly pleased by the genial nature of his reception, and the other fell back to his pipe again. And ten minutes afterwards another visitor was announced. This time it was no stranger. It was Edward Craven who stepped through the low window on to the grass and seated himself in the chair the Bohemian photographer had so recently occupied.

The two men bowed gravely to one another, but neither spoke for several moments. The man in possession was puffing away, his face set and resolute, with a dangerous glitter in his averted face, while the one who meant to obtain possession was trying, without much success, to appear quite cool and entirely at his ease. Suddenly Craven took the plunge.

"You were expecting me," he said. "I trust, sir, that you received my letter?"

"I did. I have just been reading it again, for the third or fourth time, Mr. Craven," was the quiet reply.

"May I hope that what I suggest in it will not be without its influence upon you?"

"That is impossible! I shall not draw back from the course I have marked out for myself; and if you mean to fight me for the possession of all that I hold—and mean to keep if I can—well, I am ready, if not eager for the tussle."

"I do not doubt that; but if we fight the matter out in the law courts, to what end will it all be? If the scandal and excitement of all that can be avoided, why should you, knowingly, invite disaster? You no longer keep up the farce of being my cousin, I suppose? And, having resigned that position, your case is absolutely defenceless. You must see that, sir."

"I do not quite see it. Anyhow, I mean to fight this thing out to the bitter end. There are many good reasons, Mr. Craven, why I should refuse to allow you to step into the place of wealth and power a better man ought to have filled."

"Will you give me one valid reason?"

"You will have several. First of all, let me explain why I despise you so much. You remember that day when I asked you for information of Judith Trafford, and why the nickname of The Red Hand had been given to mother and daughter. Do you remember the gross, designing lie you told me then? I left you, believing that Judith loved you—was to marry you—and only an accident, months afterwards, revealed the truth."

"Oh that was nothing," Craven returned with an uneasy laugh. "All is fair in love and war, you know."

"It was a vulgar, deliberate lie, Craven; and gentlemen are supposed to hate liars. I did, and do! That was the beginning of my real aversion to you."

"But it was hardly sufficient to justify you in playing the deep game of criminal imposition you have played since my cousin's death," the other cried.

"No. But my assumption of my dead friend's name and rights was due not to myself at all. When he lay at death's door, Laurence Blackwood urged me, implored me, made me swear on my knees at his side that I would do it. He never loved you, Edward Craven, and he knew then that Judith Trafford was his sister, and that she was my promised wife. He wanted his father's daughter to inherit his father's fortune; and for my dying friend's sake, for the sake, of Judith—even for the sake of Gabriel Blackwood himself, I consented to Laurence's scheme and carried it out."

"To be bowled out by Roderick Norbury at last!" Craven rejoined triumphantly.

"To be annoyed not bowled out, sir—by two poor knaves, who, because the women they wanted to marry would not have them at any price, turned virtuous, and talked about having the law called in to help them to their revenge."

"No matter what the cause is the result will be the same!" the visitor exclaimed. "You, yourself, have practically admitted that you have no case. I need not tell you that, in the eyes of the law, Judith Trafford the younger is nullius filia—nobody's child. She has no more legal claim on my uncle's estate than has her mother; and the half-demented wish of my cousin, when he was lying in the delirium of death, has absolutely no value and is perfectly ineffective."

"Perhaps so; and I imagine that he was thinking more of his sister's moral claims than of her legal rights."

"How much are moral claims worth," was the sneering question, "in a court of law?"

"In a court of law they may be valueless, but in a court of justice they have a value indeed!" was the sharp retort.

"Well, I am prepared to consider all the moral claims of my cousin Judith," Craven cried in a burst of generosity. "Withdraw at once from the ground that is crumbling beneath your feet, acknowledge the deception you have practised, and I will pledge myself to present her with double the value of that pretty gift you gave me to exile me in Wales out of your way."

"Many thanks for your generous offer. But I am afraid, Mr. Craven, that there is not much more likelihood of Judith accepting your offer than there is of her ever publicly admitting that she is your cousin."

"You are obstinate—foolish—mad, sir. You mean to force me to extreme measures, then?"

"Such extreme measures as are open to you, Craven. But let me tell you something that even Norbury does not know. Before your cousin died he made a will, leaving everything he possessed to me. That will, my dear sir, properly drawn and witnessed, forms my locus standi. What have you to say to that?"

"A will made by Laurence! I never heard of it—I even doubt its existence. It has never been proved. Where is this document? Can I see it?"

"The will is in my lawyer's hands—Mr. Stanley Marshall, of Saxilford; and he has instructions to do all that is requisite in the matter. Probably he may allow either you or your solicitor to examine it. But I have had a copy of it made for your special behalf. See, it is here."

With a white face and hands that quivered, Craven seized the sheet of foolscap the other thrust out to him, and read it carefully, eagerly. It was brief, but clear. It ran as follows:—


Blue Gum Creek, Thomson River,
Queensland, January 20th, 189—.

THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF
LAURENCE HALIBURTON BLACKWOOD,
OTHERWISE "LANCE BLAIR."

I, the said Laurence Haliburton Blackwood, of Saxilham, England, being of sane mind, though at the point of death, do hereby will, devise, and bequeath all my money, goods, possessions, and all things heritable by me, here and elsewhere, to my dear friend and companion, Hugh Wynne Chesters, otherwise "Hubert Wynne," to have and to hold as his absolute property for ever.

Signed, Laurence Haliburton Blackwood.

Witnesses, Henry Rance, M.D.; Miles Lesford, S.R.P.


"I will keep this copy, if you please!" Craven muttered when his reading was finished. "But the original is not worth the paper it is written on. Of course, I shall dispute this outrageous will; a hundred reasons can be urged against its genuineness and validity. The testator was not in his right mind. I shall also allege undue influence on your part. Why, when the document was drawn, Laurence did not even know that his father was dead!"

"Gabriel Blackwood was dead, as you know, and as his father's heir and successor, my friend had the right to devise all that was then his in fact. But, of course, you will dispute the will. I quite expected that, and the lawyers will settle the rest. But you will see and appreciate one little matter clearly now. It is only a trifle, and yet it means so much to me—and Judith Trafford also."

"What is that," Craven snarled.

"Only this, my dear Craven. Your talk about taking criminal proceedings against me resolves itself into mere empty bluster now. When you do move it will have to be by means of a civil process. Who dare arrest me now? You and your lawyers, your magistrates, law officers and judges cannot touch me! It all becomes, you see, simply a matter of a disputed will. Now, will you have a drink? I am thirsty after all this talk."

The speaker jumped from his chair, and strode to the open window. He filled two glasses with whisky and soda, and raising one on high cried ere he drank,

"To the winner of the great will case——'Hugh Chesters versus Edward Craven.'" Then he laughed and quaffed the stimulating drink ere he turned again to the dark moroseful Craven. "Now, my dear fellow, I am prepared to offer you terms. I might as well give you ten thousand as let the lawyers swallow it."

"Curse you and your ten thousand!" Craven hissed malevolently, as he sprang to his feet. "I will have all—all—every penny, stick and stone, or I will have none!"

Then he sprang round and strode away across the lawn, with the other's taunting laughter in his ears.


CHAPTER LII.—SOME OLD PHOTOGRAPHS.

A FEW more days had slipped away, and during that period the master of Saxehurst had had no further communication from Edward Craven or any intelligence as to his doings. That the man who grudged him Judith's love, no less than he envied him the handling and ordering of Gabriel Blackwood's great fortune, was secretly at work, he felt certain. When the right moment came Craven would strike.

Meanwhile, he felt easier, even exultant, now that he knew the worst. The thought of making use of his dead chum's will had come to him at last with the force of an inspiration. At first he had deemed it of small importance; then its real significance had flashed upon him; he had played that new card for all it was worth, and so far with the best results. What the final outcome of this new move might be, it was impossible to foretell. But he was free, he had safeguarded himself against arrest, and the Traffords were happy in knowing that he had check-mated Craven so effectually.

One sunny afternoon, while strolling towards the village to see how the various undertakings were advancing there, our young and enthusiastic Social Reformer bethought him of that promise he had made respecting a visit to the wandering photographer's establishment. He would look up Mr. Trent now.

As he crossed the old stone bridge spanning the Saxe, he marked the long, strongly-built and brightly painted wagon, standing well back from the road on the vacant ground on the river's edge, and right opposite the spot where the walls of the village club and library were rearing themselves. Under the van lay a great, sullen-looking, brindled mastiff, and on one side of it was a white canvas tent wherein photographic work was done.

The wagon was both large and commodious; it contained the living, eating, and sleeping quarters of the Bohemian artist and his wife; and as our friend approached, he saw through the open door, just over the three or four wooden steps, Trent and his wife at dinner.

"Good afternoon, sir," the man called out pleasantly. "I will be with you in a few minutes."

In the meantime the master of Saxehurst turned to the glass cases, containing hundreds of photographic views and portraits, with which the whole front and sides of the van were covered. There were pictures of famous beauty spots in Great Britain, views of pretty old houses, rustic dwellings, modern mansions, and groups of people—lovers in couples, single individuals—good-looking, ill-looking, indifferent.

Suddenly one picture caught the onlooker's eye, and instantly riveted his interest. He bent eagerly to the lower corner of the case, regarding it fixedly, curiously, and then a low cry of wonder fell from his lips. And just at that moment the artist joined him.

"Are these photographs all yours, Trent?" the young man queried sharply.

"Every one, sir."

"Can you tell me who this man and woman are?" and that picture was pointed out which had occasioned the other's surprise.

"I can't tell you that, sir. All the photographs in this case are a good age—ten, fifteen, twenty-five years of age some of them; but I can tell you that all in this case were taken in Scotland. Why, that hotel in the background there is the Wallace Hotel at North Berwick, in Scotland, sir."

"North Berwick, Scotland!" the young man muttered. "How in the name of goodness did they get there together? And when?" Then in an altered voice he spoke to the man at his elbow. "Look here, Trent; I want that picture. I will give you a sovereign—anything you like for it."

"No, sir, you won't. You shall have it for nothing. Shall I take it out of the case for you?"

"Leave it alone yet. I will take it when I go. Now, excuse me a little while."

Striding across the highway our friend called to a village youth working about the new buildings.

"You know Bank House in Caversham-lane, my lad."

"I do, sir. The Traffords live there now, sir."

"Then hurry there at once, and tell Mrs. Trafford that she is to meet me here as soon as possible. Be off, Sam; tell no one where you are going, and I'll give you half-a-crown when you come back."

The youth sped on his errand, and his master turned alongside the river in deep, wondering speculation. The sight of that old photograph had filled his brain with a hundred curious thoughts. What could it mean? The woman he had sent for might be able to explain.

Reaching the old wooden bridge near the quarry, he turned and retraced his steps, and as he strode into the highroad he saw Judith and his messenger hurrying forward to meet him. Judith almost ran to him—eager, anxious, almost alarmed—and as he tossed young Sam the coin promised, she cried,

"What is it, sir? I was just coming out when the lad came."

"Come this way. There is a picture here I wish to show you. Here it is. Who are this man and woman, pray?"

"My God!" she cried, bending forward, "Gabriel Blackwood and myself! It was taken twenty-three years since in Scotland. How, in heaven's name, does it happen to be here?"


CHAPTER LIII.—THE STORY OF THE RED HAND.

"Yourself and Gabriel Blackwood!" the master of Saxehurst questioned eagerly, after the woman's surprised outburst. "You are quite certain of that, my dear madam?"

"Quite certain, sir. I cannot be mistaken! It is the truth of God I am telling you now! Do I not know! How can I ever forget it, when that likeness was the only one I ever had taken in all my life?"

"And it was taken at North Berwick in Scotland?"

"It was in the spring before Judith was born. But how do you happen to know where it was taken? And by what strange chance does it happen to be here?"

"This man will tell you," he answered, as he saw the photographer coming towards them. Then to the man he cried, "Trent, come here. Do you know this lady again?"

"I think not, sir," the man answered, doubtfully. "Yes I do!" he added more quickly. "She is the lady in that there frame. Yes! Yes! I can tell you now, madam. Don't you remember me taking you and your husband that sunny afternoon at the hotel? He was backward—but you persuaded him. You were on your honeymoon, I think. Yes, I remember you now. I see hundreds, thousands, of fresh faces in my wanderings, but I never forget a striking one like your own. Your husband is well, I hope, my good lady?"

The Bohemian artist babbled on good-naturedly, never dreaming of the thin and dangerous ice over which he was whirling. She was compelled to listen, pale, disturbed, anxious to be away, and she pulled at her friend's sleeve.

"Come away, sir! Come away. I will tell you all now, but not here. Let us go to Bank House, please, where we can talk in peace."

"No; Saxehurst is nearer, and we will go there," he whispered. "I have something to show you; and I must hear every word you have to say." Then to the man standing by he said aloud, "Take that photograph out of the case, Trent, and I will take it later. Now, madam," and he offered her his arm.

"It does not matter about that picture now," she murmured, in an undertone. "I have one like it at home—one that no soul has set eyes on for over twenty years save my daughter and myself."

They turned away, and crossing the bridge began to ascend the upland road towards Saxehurst. As they paced quickly along, the gravity of his countenance showed that he was plunged in thought. That random shot about the lovers being on their honeymoon, which Trent had made, had set the young man's brain at work. A dim, vague possibility was slowly shaping itself in his mind. Suddenly another outburst from his companion broke in on his reverie.

"My God!" she cried. "Did you hear that man talk of us being on our honeymoon? Does he know the truth? What brings him here. You have told him nothing?"

"Nothing. Trent knows nothing!" he hastened to assure her. "Chance drifted him here, I suppose. And I am glad he is here. Something may come of all this."

In a little while they had entered Saxehurst, and were sitting in one of the quiet rooms overlooking the valley of the Saxe. She was pale still, but quite composed, and he was eager to hear her story.

"Tell me now, please," he said, "how it came about that you and Gabriel Blackwood chanced to be in Scotland."

"I will tell you all," she began submissively—"at least so much of my poor, miserable story as you may not—cannot know. I was nearly seventeen and Gabriel Blackwood was one or two and twenty when we first fell in love and commenced keeping company with one another. I was a pit-brow girl then at the Hill End Mine, and he was fireman and afterwards underlooker there. At that time Gabriel's father was manager, and the place was owned by Silas Haliburton and his sister Nancy.

"Then there was an accident; the mine was flooded; the master and manager lost their lives; Gabriel Blackwood did something which saved the lives of many of the miners, and after that he got to be manager in his father's place. Nancy Haliburton owned the Hill End Mine then, and the woman, who was quiet and good-natured, but old enough to be Gabriel's mother, did all she could for him. It ended, as you may have been told, by Gabriel marrying her.

"But before he married her, he saw me, and told me what he was going to do. He loved me, I know; but he was ambitious and wanted to rise in the world. He begged of me to wait for him; I was nearly broken-hearted, but I did not promise, and he married Nancy Haliburton. Then Laurence Blackwood was born; not long after that she died, and after five or six months Gabriel Blackwood came courting me again.

"He was a rich man by then, and I should never have gone near him again had he not pressed me. He asked me to see him; I met him one night near the gated in the lane out there, and he begged me to go away with him for a holiday. It was springtime—Whitsuntide, I remember; and he forced money into my hand to buy new clothes and prepare for the journey, which was to be far away."

"And you went?" Chesters asked quietly, as she paused to moisten her dry lips with the wine he had poured out for her. "It was then that you and Gabriel Blackwood went to North Berwick, in Scotland, and stayed at the Wallace Hotel there?"

"It was," she replied; "and I loved him so that I would have followed him to the end of the world had he asked me. I see my folly now, but remember, that I was only a simple loving girl then. That was the beginning of all my trouble—the beginning of it all!"

"How long were you away from the village?" he asked tenderly, sympathetically, for she had fallen into moody silence, and her agitated face was hidden from him.

"Nearly a week," she murmured brokenly.

"And were you at the Wallace Hotel the whole time?"

"Yes!" and her sobs choked her utterance for a space.

"And then this wandering photographer, who is down in the village now, came that way, and you persuaded Gabriel to have your portraits taken?"

"It is true, sir. Gabriel did not seem to care about it, but I was eager, never having had my likeness taken, and he consented just to please me."

"Pardon me now, my dear madam," he said in a humbly apologetic way, "but I must ask one question. If it were not vital, absolutely necessary, I would not pain you. But we must have the truth now—for your own sake, and for that of the dear woman who is to be my wife! Now while at the hotel in North Berwick, did you and Gabriel Blackwood pass as man and wife? Believe me, your happiness, your daughter's good name, all the vast fortune I now have in my keeping may depend on your answer."

"We were supposed to be husband and wife!" she whispered, and he saw the hot blood of womanly shame rush over her white neck, pale cheek, and brow.

"That is good news!" he cried, speaking in so jubilant a voice that she raised a wet, surprised face to him. "And then you came back to Saxilham?"

"Yes, we left the hotel at North Berwick in a hurry at last. That was, I think, because Gabriel knew a gentleman and his wife who had turned up there unexpectedly. And I recollect that Gabriel had to introduce me to them as his wife. He was confused—ashamed; but they set it down to another reason."

"You will not remember their names, I suppose?" he asked earnestly.

"I remember them both," she cried. "How can I forget anything connected with that time? The lady and gentleman called themselves Mr. and Mrs. Wilfred Rathbone, and they came from somewhere near Liverpool."

"Good! 'Mr. and Mrs. Wilfred Rathbone, Liverpool,'" and he jotted names and place down on his shirt cuff. "This that you have told me," he went on, his look pleasant, his eyes sparkling, "may mean much, my dear lady! But exactly how much I dare not tell you at present. The remainder of your strange history I know. You had better go back home now, and tell dear Judith all that has passed between us to-day. And look up and treasure that photograph at home, of which you spoke. Trent will keep the other one for me. As for me, you may not see me for a day or two. I shall leave for Scotland to-night, as I have some business to attend to at once."

"Scotland?" she questioned, as she arose and held out her hand to him.

"Yes; Scotland. I have business to attend to there—business of the very highest importance, which affects you—Judith also, myself as well—even the very house under whose roof we at present stand."

"You are going to that place where Gabriel and I were?"

"I am going there, madam. Why, I will not say. But be of good heart, and hope for the best. Now, good afternoon."

"Good afternoon, and God bless you! Of all the men I have ever known, you have been the best, kindest, truest friend of them all."

They shook hands warmly, and she hurried away, dropping her veil as she went to hide the traces of her recent emotion. A minute afterwards Chesters was busily engaged in the writing of two letters to Edward Craven. One was addressed to that gentleman's residence at Saxilford, the second to his colliery in Wales; and each was a facsimile of the other. The letter was to the following effect:—


Saxehurst, Saxilham,
July 28, 189—.

My Dear Mr. Craven,—

No matter what steps you may have taken with regard to the action you threatened, or in case you have not taken any steps at all so far, do nothing further in any way until you hear from me again. The whole face of the case has been completely altered by unexpected developments of the most surprising nature. Full details shall be forwarded to you later. I ask you to hold your hand until you have seen me. If you are wise you will spare yourself and me all unnecessary expense.

I am yours faithfully.

LAURENCE BLACKWOOD.


Edward Craven, Esq.


Despatching a servant with the letters to the village, the writer thereof began making his preparations for his journey north. At midnight, when the northern mail drew out of Saxilford Station, the master of Saxehurst was snugly ensconced in one of the first-class compartments, smoking away composedly as if his mind was quite easy respecting the outcome of the errand on which he was setting forth.


CHAPTER LIV.—GATHERING OF THE PROOFS.

EARLY on the following morning, which had dawned bright and clear, the traveller found himself traversing the place where Gabriel Blackwood and Judith Trafford had spent their brief holiday some twenty-odd years before. North Berwick is a pleasant, breezy watering resort and bathing village on the east coast, and prides itself on being a Royal burgh and town.

It has several decent hotels, both public and private, the environs of the place are charming and dotted with a host of cosy little villa residences, it contains the ruins of a Cistercian nunnery celebrated in Sir Walter Scott's "Marmion," commands a wide sweep of the North Sea, the tottering walls and outwork of Tantallon Castle, while out at sea rises the gloomy pile of barren basalt, the "Bass Rock," where so many of the old Covenanters suffered imprisonment.

But our friend had not come there sightseeing. He had work before him, and he was in the humour for facing it at once. It was a matter of no difficulty to find the "Wallace Hotel," which seemed a quiet, respectable hostelry, whose front of stucco he recognised from the background of the cabinet-sized photograph at Saxilham.

Entering, he engaged a private room and ordered breakfast; then he washed and tidied himself up; later he enjoyed a substantial repast, and after that he asked for the bill and the landlord, or manager—if that gentleman was not engaged.

Five minutes later a stoutish man of forty-five, with mutton chop whiskers, came into the room. He had the air, the walk, the look, the dress even, of the man who had spent the better part of his life in "service."

"Good morning, Mr. Fenwick," the visitor began pleasantly. "If you are not very busy this morning, and I believe you are not, I shall be very pleased if you will have a drink, a smoke, and a chat with me."

"Don't mind if I do, sir," was the host's ready answer. "As you say, we're not very busy this morning, and I shall be pleased to oblige a gentleman in any way."

"Thank you. Well now, bring us, or order, a bottle of your finest champagne, a few of your choicest cigars also, and then I'll tell you what brings me here, Mr. Fenwick."

"Thanks, sir; I'll take your order myself."

The landlord made his exit, and returned shortly. The wine was broached, glasses filled, healths drunk, and then, when host and guest had got a couple of capital cigars going, the visitor began his questioning.

"You will excuse me, my dear sir, but you are not a Scotchman, I fancy?"

"I'm not, sir; I'm a Tynesider; but I've been here a matter of five years, come next November."

"Who was here before you, Mr. Fenwick?"

"An old North Berwick man, named Duncan Gillespie."

"Had he been tenant of this place long?"

"For a matter of over 20 years, he told me, sir."

"And is Duncan Gillespie alive still?"

"Certainly—at least, he was last May, for he was here then, and quite well and hearty."

"Do you know where he lives—where I could find him, Mr. Fenwick?"

"Certainly, sir; he's away up north, in his wife's native town of Inverness; but I forget his address, sir."

"Ah! I'm sorry to hear that," and the visitor's face fell, as he contemplated having to make that lengthy journey further northward. "The fact is, Mr. Fenwick," he added, "I'm seeking some important information, which, I fear, only this Duncan Gillespie can give me. To tell you the truth, sir, the matter is this. Just a month or two over three and twenty years ago two very dear friends of mine—a lady and a gentleman—came to stay at this hotel where we now sit and I am seeking proofs that they were here. A fortune—a great fortune, I may say, depends upon my being able to prove that my friends stayed here as man and wife."

"You are quite sure they were here, sir?"

"I am positive of that."

"How long, sir?"

"A week or so, I understand, Mr. Fenwick."

"Then, if your friends did stay here, I can soon tell you, sir," the landlord exclaimed.

"How? Do that, and I'll make it worth your while. But how can you tell whether my friends were here or not?"

"Quite easily, sir," was the other's smiling response. "Duncan Gillespie seems to have been always particular about knowing the names of all the people who slept under his roof, and all comers were invited to set down their names and addresses in the visitors' books, which he kept all the years he was proprietor of the Wallace Hotel."

"A splendid idea, too!" the young man murmured, with a brightening face. "And those visitors' books, my friend? Where are they now?"

"Packed away in one of the attics, sir."

"Can you lay your hands upon them readily?"

"Of course. Give me the date your friends stayed here, and I'll soon bring you the volume for that year."

"Do, and I'll give you five pounds—ten pounds for the book—if I find in it what I am seeking. Now, my friends were here during the Whitsuntide holidays in the year eighteen seventy-one; and if Duncan Gillespie kept a record of his guests, as you say he did, I shall find their names in the visitors' book for that year. And now, my dear sir, fetch the volume as quickly as possible. Whether I am successful or not, you shall be well paid for your trouble."

Without more ado mine host hurried on his errand, while the man he had left paced the room with high hopes that were feverish now. In ten minutes or so Fenwick returned, bearing a large volume bound in rusty brown leather, which he placed upon the table before his guest.

"This is the book, sir, for the year you named," he said.

"Thank you ever so much, Mr. Fenwick! You may leave me for a while now. When I have examined the volume I will ring for you."

"Thanks, and I hope you may find what you want, sir."

The moment the landlord withdrew and closed the door behind him, the other turned eagerly, almost excitedly, to the big, well-bound manuscript tome. Beginning at the very first page, which was headed in heavy copper-plate writing "The Wallace Hotel, North Berwick, Visitors' Book," he turned the thick blue leaves with deft fingers, ran rapidly through the weeks from New Year to May—Whitsuntide—and there at last came across that which he sought: "Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood, England."

There was nothing to indicate whence those two visitors had come save that one last word. But that was enough. In the ecstasy of his exultation the young man could have cried out for joy; instead he turned to the unfinished bottle of champagne, filled his glass anew with the sparkling wine, and then drank in silence, but with a full heart, to the health and happiness of the two women he had left at Saxilham. Next moment a new thought flashed upon him, and he turned again as eagerly as before to the open book.

A little searching of the serried file of entrances, set forth in writing, good, bad, and indifferent, and once more his quest was rewarded. There on the very next page were the two names he sought. And not alone the names, but their address, also. This is what he read: "Mr. and Mrs. Wilfred Rathbone, Aigburth Hall, Aigburth, near Liverpool."

Next moment he was ringing the bell, and it was the proprietor himself who answered the summons.

"My dear Mr. Fenwick," he cried. "I thank God and you that I have found what I wanted. This old book is of priceless value to me and two honest, noble, and deeply wronged ladies. I must take it with me. What am I in your debt? Name your own price, my man."

"It is worth nothing to me—take it for nothing sir."

"No! no! I don't repay great services with mere expressions of gratitude. Here, take this!" And he threw a ten pound Bank of England note on the table. "And now come and look at these names. Perhaps you may have to swear to the fact that you found me the book; and that you saw the names in it before it left your hands."

"I thank you very much, sir," Fenwick cried, as he pocketed the bank-note ere he walked to where his guest was standing. Then he bent over the open book and carefully scrutinised each of the entries the other indicated, remarking, "These seem all right, sir, and I am ready to take oath in any court of law that I found this book for you, that you found the names of these visitors here, and that the writing has not been tampered with in any manner."

"That is exactly what I desire of you, Mr. Fenwick, should it ever become necessary. Now, suppose you write your name on the margin of each entry, as a sort of safeguard against the book being tampered with after it leaves your hands?"

"Willingly, sir," and obtaining pen and ink the landlord wrote his name as directed.

That done the man from Saxilham made immediate preparations for quitting the hotel; and a quarter of an hour later he was entering the general post office in the town. There he wrote out and dispatched the following telegram to the women who were so anxiously awaiting in that far away village news of his doings:—


Bank House, Saxilham, near Saxilford, England. All well so far. Am leaving here for Liverpool at once. Will wire again later. Say nothing to anyone. Hope and be of good cheer.—Chesters.


The afternoon was well advanced when the writer of the above message was set down at Lime-street station, Liverpool. Proceeding to the hotel close by he refreshed his inner man with a substantial repast, and, his hunger appeased, he was again on the hunt for further information and proofs.

His attention was now directed to a close study of a directory for the city and district. He wanted to discover if the gentleman who had met Gabriel Blackwood and the lady who had passed for his wife at the Wallace Hotel, was still in the land of the living. After the lapse of over a score of years he hardly dared to hope so, and yet how his heart leapt and his eyes flashed when he came across a familiar name and address in that portion of the bulky volume devoted to the suburbs of the great seaport—"Rathbone, Wilfred, Aigburth Hall, Aigburth-road, Aigburth."

He stared at the entry as if he had come upon some unexpected treasure, and his next move was to note the date when the directory was issued. It was the latest chronicle of its kind for the neighbourhood—was scarcely more than a year old—and hastily quitting the hotel he went out to find a cabman.

In one of the side streets leading to the station he found the man he sought—a bronze-faced, eager-eyed wisp of a chap of forty, who had evidently spent more than half his life among horses and cabs.

"Hansom, sir?" the Jehu cried, scenting a good fare.

"Do you know Aigburth Hall, Aigburth-road, Aigburth, my man?"

"I do, sir, 'cause I once took Mr. Rathbone home, sir. He's one of the best known men in Liverpool, sir."

"What kind of a gentleman is this Mr. Rathbone you know?"

"Tallish, sir; white whiskers; an' 'bout fifty, sir."

"That is the gentleman, I believe. Well, take me to Aigburth Hall as quickly as you can, and I'll give you a sovereign."

"Right you are, sir; jump in."

It was about 5 o'clock when our friend found himself gliding along Aigburth-road. On either hand were low walls of red sandstone, and behind them were pleasant sweeps of rich sward, dotted with clumps of hoary, umbrageous trees, and here and there he caught glimpses of the fine mansions wherein many of Liverpool's great merchant princes resided. Presently the hansom swept through a wide-open gateway, set in the thick red walls, and when it pulled up and he alighted, Chesters found himself standing in front of a handsome old house embedded in ancient timber.

He mounted the broad steps, rang the bell, and when a trim maid appeared, he handed her his card on which he had scribbled a few words in the cab, adding that he desired to see her master at once if he was at home. A couple of minutes passed, then the maid reappeared; and a few minutes later he was shown into a pleasant room, where a tall gentleman with a white beard was awaiting him.

"You are Laurence Blackwood, of Saxehurst, son of my old friend, Gabriel Blackwood?" the gentleman began amiably, as he held out his hand.

"I am known as that young gentleman," the visitor said with a smile. "I trust, sir, that you will pardon the abrupt manner in which I have called upon you?"

"Don't mention it, my dear sir. I am glad to see you. Was awfully sorry when I heard of your father's sudden end, though we hadn't seen one another for many years. But what can I do for you, Mr. Blackwood? You say on your card that your business is most urgent."

"So it is, sir. But first of all let me say that I am not Gabriel Blackwood's son. All that, however, shall be fully explained later. For the present it will be enough to say that you, sir, can materially assist to clear the honour of two ladies and help to establish their rights. I speak now, Mr. Rathbone, of Gabriel Blackwood's daughter and that young lady's mother."

"I hardly follow you, sir."

"You will in a moment," was the answer. "Now may I ask if you remember a visit you paid to Scotland twenty-three years since last Whitsuntide? You and Mrs. Rathbone were staying at the Wallace Hotel, North Berwick, and while there you met Gabriel Blackwood. Do you remember that, sir?"

"Why, of course, I do!" was the emphatic response. "Blackwood, I recollect, introduced me to his wife—a most beautiful woman, but shy and chary of words. They were on their honeymoon, I always fancied. Yes! Yes! I remember all that, sir."

"Then perhaps you will know this again, Mr. Rathbone," and slipping the wrapping from the manuscript volume he had brought with him from the Scotch hotel, Chesters opened it at the page containing his companion's own name, and place his finger on the name, adding, "This is your writing, sir."

"That is my writing. What of it?"

"Nothing. I only wished to assure myself of the fact, and to have your assurance that Gabriel Blackwood did introduce you to a lady as his wife in May 1871."

"That is certain!" was the positive retort.

"Then, if you have an hour to spare, I will tell you the whole truth, Mr. Rathbone."

"I left a party of my friends abruptly, my dear sir, to give you five minutes," the elderly gentleman said, apologetically, "and I really cannot spare you an hour now. If some other time you care to——"

"My dear Mr. Rathbone," the visitor broke in, "I will keep you one moment longer. I am deeply grateful that you granted my request to see you, and pleased beyond words with the assurance you have given me. Now I will go; my cab is waiting; but at my earliest convenience I will send you an account of the whole case."

They shook hands heartily; Chesters hastened back to the hansom; and when he was back in Liverpool he sent another telegram to Saxilham, repeating his hopeful words, and intimating that they might expect to hear nothing further from him till he got back home. An hour or two later he was on his way to London, to carry out an idea he had been considering all that day.

Between the hours of ten and eleven, two mornings after that, our investigating friend was back once more in the old village he had learned to love so well. He was pacing along the lane with the bright eyes, the light heart, and the easy swing of a man who was at peace with himself and all things under heaven, when his glance fell on the figure of his arch enemy, Edward Craven, who had just come through the entrance to Saxehurst. In a little space the two men were abreast and scanning each other keenly.

"Good morning, sir," Craven began coldly. "Do you know that I have been hunting you in vain for a couple of days? What does that letter of yours mean?"

"It means an entire change of front, Mr. Craven."

"And what does that mean, sir?"

"Only this. After due consideration I have decided to resign all claim I ever had to Gabriel Blackwood's estate."


CHAPTER LV.—PLAYING THE TRUMP CARD.

"You mean that?" Craven cried, his face more than the tone of his voice denoting his amaze. "You tell me, Hugh Chesters, that you are prepared to resign all claim you have, or thought you had, on my late uncle's estate?"

"That is exactly what I do mean, Edward Craven!" was the cool reply.

"You are not jesting? This is not some new move on your part which you see fit to adopt in order to gain time and stay my hand in the meantime. Believe me, your statement is so unexpected that I am incredulous. I want to be positively certain."

"You may be, sir. I never was more serious in my life. I tell you now, once and for all, that I intend to press my claim no further, Edward Craven!"

"You pledge me your word to that effect?"

"I pledge you my word, sir!"

"And you will give up possession of Saxehurst, Chesters?"

"I will give up possession of Saxehurst, the collieries, everything I have held in Laurence Blackwood's name."

"There are conditions, of course?"

"Yes there are conditions. What they are you shall know presently, Mr. Craven."

"We cannot discuss them here. Had we not better go to the house? Frankly, I am honestly pleased that you have seen fit to look at this matter from the common-sense standpoint," Craven went on, as they turned round. "And you shall find, my dear sir, that I can be generous as well as just."

"Thank you so much. No, we will not return to Saxehurst for a few minutes. If you don't mind, there is something down there in the village I should like to show you first."

"Something connected with that well-meant, but really foolish scheme of yours, I suppose?" Craven murmured, and his hard face darkened momentarily as he thought of the thousands Chesters had so stupidly expended. "But we will not speak of that now," he added, brightening up again. "After all, I daresay something may be done with the business," and he began to wonder how the other's social fad might be turned to profit.

"It has nothing to do with my poor scheme, Mr. Craven," Chesters remarked quietly. "But, as you say, it will be as well not to talk of that at present. What I wish to point out is only a small matter, but it is curious, and I desire your opinion upon it."

So chatting, the two young men passed Saxehurst, just visible through the luxuriant foliage. Chesters drew out his cigar-case, selected a cigar and began smoking; then offered his companion a smoke, and Craven took it graciously, lit it also, and thus smoking they passed over the old bridge, when Hugh turned towards the photographer's wagon, where the morning sunshine was blazing on the brightly painted can and the portrait cases hung out.

"What now, Chesters?" Craven demanded, as they turned that way.

"Just an old photograph I wish you to see," was the unmoved answer; and, proceeding, a few more strides brought them opposite that ancient sample of the photographer's art which had so startled Hugh Chesters and the elder Judith Trafford a few days before. "This is the one, Mr. Craven. What do you make of it? Somehow, I fancied—but I will wait for your opinion."

Craven bent eagerly forward, and scanned the card over which his companion's finger had been laid, crying out in some amaze.

"Why, Chesters, these are early portraits of my uncle and Judith's mother! I am sure of that. Her likeness is still unmistakable; and he hadn't changed so much even at the time of his death. This photograph must have been taken over a score of years ago."

"I believe you are quite right, Mr. Craven," Chesters answered gravely, "but what makes you so certain?"

"Haven't I got eyes? Here my uncle looks just as he does in that photograph at Saxehurst which was taken when he married his second wife—Mrs. Warren Lathom. You must have seen it."

"Yes; that was why I identified the likeness at first."

"But how in the name of goodness does it chance to be among this collection?" Craven demanded.

"Here comes the owner of the show. Ask him and he will tell you. Good morning, Trent. My friend wants to ask you some questions. Now excuse me while I just run across the road to the workmen."

When he came back a few minutes later he found Edward awaiting him. Chesters intimated that he was ready to return to Saxehurst, and at once they retraced their steps that way.

"What did Trent say about the photograph, Craven?" Hugh queried in a casual tone, as they paced the upland road.

"He says that it was taken by him in Scotland at a place called North Berwick—when he was travelling that way one Whitsuntide, in the year eighteen seventy-one."

"And you believe him?"

"I am inclined to do so. That date would be shortly before my uncle married Mrs. Warren Lathom. Well, well, men will be men, you know, and some women—even the best and loveliest of them—are weak when they love not wisely but too well."

"You are right again, Mr. Craven; right both as to your statement of fact and the inference you draw from it. That Mr. Gabriel Blackwood and Judith Trafford spent that Whitsuntide in Scotland there is not the shadow of a doubt. I have proof here," and he tapped, almost lovingly, the slab of a parcel he had been carrying under his arm all the morning. "But we can speak of that later."

They paced on, topped the rise, passed through the Saxehurst entrance under the trees, and soon were closeted together in the house, with whisky and soda, and an abundance of decent cigars before them. They drank each other's health, lit fresh "weeds," and then Craven began in real earnest on the business before them.

"And now, my dear Chesters, suppose we get to work? You still agree to withdraw all or any claim or lien you once supposed you had on my dead relative's estates?"

"That is so, sir," was the firm reply.

"Then I would suggest that we go to my solicitor at Saxilford this afternoon and arrange everything there."

"I should prefer my own solicitor, Mr. Craven."

"Why? Oh, I had forgotten for the moment the conditions you alluded to. What are those conditions? Between ourselves, I suppose I may ask you frankly how much you want to clear out at once. Name your figure."

"I don't want a single penny, sir. I am prepared to clear out, sign any document to that effect at any time, when the Traffords, mother and daughter, are present."

"Nonsense, my dear Chesters," Craven cried irritably, "Why man, you must know that the presence of either of them is neither necessary nor desirable!"

"It is absolutely necessary, Craven, and most desirable—for when I resign all claim to this estate and all belonging to it, it will be to the ladies I have named."

Craven sprang suddenly erect as if stung. For a tense, silent moment the men stared at each other. It was war now, swords were out, and the men were confronting one another for the last grim tussle.

"I might have known that your offer was an empty scoff!" Craven hissed malevolently, as he bent across the table dividing him and Chesters. "Have you considered how little it will profit you to embitter me? And why try to bamboozle me with that rot about those women?"

"You are mistaken, Mr. Craven, I assure you," was the emphatic response. "I mean to rid myself of all the responsibilities I have borne during the past few months, and the persons to whom I shall resign all rights in the late Gabriel Blackwood's fortune, will be the two ladies legally entitled thereto."

"Legally entitled thereto!" and the sneer in Edward Craven's echoed phrase would have been deemed a stroke of genius if used on the stage. "What legal rights has the elder Judith Trafford to the estate. And are the claims of her daughter more valid? Need I waste my wind by saying that both of them are simply out of court in the matter? If that is all the cursed rot you have to put before me I will go!"

"Don't go. Sit down, I pray you, and listen. Once I was ready to think as you do; but my eyes have been opened of late. Take your seat, please; sample that whisky and soda, and keep your temper; and in half an hour I will undertake to prove to you that the woman known so long as Judith of the Red Hand was Gabriel Blackwood's wife, and therefore, now his widow, and that her daughter, the sweet lass I am going to marry some day soon, is the legitimate offspring of your uncle!"

The earnest, honest ring in the speaker's voice, the calm, clear conviction in his frank eyes, as well as the inflexible resolution written on his handsome face, swept the froth from Craven's passion, sent a cold thrill through him, and he fell back on his chair to seize and drain the cooling drink before him.

"Wife and legal offspring, are they?" he sneered. "If so, perhaps you will tell me why both of them have endured shame and privation so long? Fancy the wife and daughter of one worth a quarter of a million working and suffering as they have done!"

"They did not know the truth—never even suspected it!" Chesters made answer. "And I, like them, was ignorant until a few days ago. Then chance or the hand of God sent that wandering photographer to Saxilham to lead to the discovery of the blessed revelation!"

"I am waiting for the revelation," Craven jibed.

"You shall have it presently. The first link in the chain you have seen a few minutes since. When I saw that photograph I spoke to Trent, and he told me that he had taken it many years before in Scotland. Then I sent for Judith Trafford the elder, and she revealed the whole of the story she had kept hidden so long.

"The original of that picture you saw in the village, was taken while your uncle and the woman he loved were staying as man and wife at the Wallace Hotel, North Berwick, in Scotland. While there Gabriel Blackwood ran against an old acquaintance and his wife; and, shame, perhaps, compelled or induced your uncle introduce Judith Trafford to them as his wife.

"So much I managed to wring from the poor woman's lips. But that did not satisfy me. Next morning I was at the hotel in North Berwick, where your kinsman and Judith Trafford stayed for near a week, and there found evidence of their visit. That evidence I brought back with me. It is here for you to see. This entry is in your uncle's own hand. Will you read it, please?"

While speaking, Chesters had been untying the parcel containing the visitors' book from the Wallace Hotel and when he had finished he placed the open volume in front of Craven, with his index finger planted under that pregnant line:

"Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood, England," Craven read aloud, still in a sneering vein. "And really, my dear Mr. Hugh Wynne Chesters, is this your revelation?"

"Not all, yet perhaps enough if it stood alone. But I was still unsatisfied. I wanted to make sure of the gentleman who had recognised Gabriel Blackwood, and to whom Judith Trafford was introduced by your uncle as his wife. Well, I found him also. Here on the next page you will see his name." He turned the leaf and read, "Mr. and Mrs. Wilfred Rathbone, Aigburth Hall, Aigburth, near Liverpool."

Closing the book and carrying it with him Chesters went back to his chair. Then, after sipping his whisky and soda, he resumed his narration.

"From North Berwick I hurried to Aigburth Hall, and there I saw Mr. Rathbone. He satisfied me that he had met our friends at the Scotch hotel I have named, that he had been introduced to Gabriel Blackwood's wife, by Gabriel himself, and if necessary, will be ready, I think, to take oath to that effect. As a man of high commercial standing in Liverpool, and as a Justice of the Peace for that city, no doubt his evidence will be weighty should it be needed.

"The proofs were growing steadily you will observe; but, to make assurance doubly sure, I next paid a flying visit to London. There I sought counsel on the matter of one of the best known Legists in England, Mr. Braxton Kingsbury, Q.C. Here is that eminent gentleman's view of the business. Will you read it, or shall I? Well, listen."

Drawing a sheet of blue foolscap from his pocket-book, Chesters read aloud as follows:—


OPINION OF COUNSEL

The Blackwood and Trafford Scotch Marriage Case.

If the facts of this case are as submitted, viz., (a) that the said Gabriel Blackwood and Judith Trafford lived under one roof in Scotland and passed there as husband and wife; (b) that the said Gabriel Blackwood signed the visitors' book as stated; (c) that the said Gabriel Blackwood addressed as wife, in the presence of witness or witnesses the said Judith Trafford; (d) that their joint portraits were taken as set forth; then, in my opinion the said Gabriel Blackwood and Judith Trafford are husband and wife according to Scotch Law, and all issue of such union is legitimate.

BRAXTON KINGSBURY, Q.C.


Vivid and mute, Edward Craven sat bolt upright on his chair while the other read the above statement of legal opinion. Little by little the colour had died out in his face until it had become the hue of grey ashes, and over his pallor sat a look of sullen, envenomed hatred, impotent fury and despair. Even when Chesters had finished, the other had no word to voice his virulence.

"That is my revelation, Mr. Craven. What have you to utter against it? Here are all my facts, and you can take them to your lawyer to either verify or rebut. Now one last word before I say good morning. As a solatium—compensation for wounded feelings, I will offer you five thousand pounds if you undertake to let these women come into their own peacefully. I give you three days to consider the matter. If I do not hear from you before that time has expired you will get nothing. Now go!"

Craven by name and craven by nature, the defeated man slunk away. Half an hour afterwards a bright-eyed and happy-hearted lover and friend was clamouring for admission at Bank House. He had sent word of his coming, and both women rushed forward to greet him the moment he entered the room where they were sitting, gravely, anxiously, hungrily, awaiting his appearance.

"What news?" they cried in a breath.

"Good news! Glorious news! The best of all possible news God could send you, or I could bring!" he cried as he faced them, clear-eyed, jocund-voiced, handsome and inspiriting. "But not one word of my glad tidings shall you hear till I have kissed you both." First he turned to the elder woman and kissed her filially on the cheek; next he held out his arms to the younger Judith, and when she rushed to him he kissed her again and again on the ripe lips, as a woman loves to be kissed by her lover.

"Now I can unbosom my soul to you," he said later. "Let me address you, madam, first. Hitherto, I have always felt some awkwardness when addressing you. I could not use the vulgar parlance of the villagers and call you 'Judith of the Red Hand,' and to call you 'Miss Trafford' seemed a misuse of words when I remembered your charming daughter, and 'Mrs. Trafford' was equally out of place. Now, however, I am no longer puzzled. For the first time in my life let me use your right style and title. I greet you, madam, as Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood—wife of the late master of Saxehurst, and now his widow."

All this was spoken in a rush and in that light, easy, and yet earnest way Chesters could assume when the occasion demanded. Both women stared and listened in silence; at that last pregnant sentence of his they had flashed a swift meaning look upon each other. Then he turned swiftly with a smile and a bow to the younger woman.

"Miss Judith Trafford, for the last time I address you by that name. Henceforth I shall honour you with the name of Judith Trafford Blackwood, until such time as it may please you to be known as Mrs. Hugh Wynne Chesters. Do not speak! It is true, I swear! Now sit down, while I tell you the story, and thank God both you of you that the shadow has passed for ever from your lives."

The story he had to tell the reader knows.


CHAPTER LVI.—THE END OF THE PLAY.

September was nearing its end, autumn had set in, and the villagers of Saxilham were holding high festival. All the mines in the village were closed that day, and all the pit-men and their wives, each pit-brow lass and her sweetheart, youths, maidens, and younger folk of all ages, were strolling about the old place, clad in their best and brightest.

That morning there had been a grand wedding in the ancient church standing at the higher end of the village; the House of God had been crowded to excess by men and women who worked at the adjacent collieries and by scores of others to whom the bride and bridegroom were known; and when the solemn ceremony was ended, and the beautiful wife and handsome husband walked forth arm in arm, there issued from hundreds of rough throats, but honest hearts, fervent wishes that young Judith of the Red Hand and her good man, Hugh Chesters, might be happy all their days.

Just one week after the occurrence of the events recorded in the last chapter Mrs. Gabriel Blackwood and her daughter, Judith Trafford Blackwood, had entered into possession of Saxehurst and all appertaining thereto. Before then Mr. Edward Craven had formally resigned all idea of contesting their claims; he had accepted the five thousand pounds which his rival had offered him, and with him out of the way Chesters had insisted upon mother and daughter at once assuming their rightful position, while he had changed places with them and had gone to reside at Bank House.

And about the same time Mr. Roderick Norbury, having been informed how matters stood, had thought it wise to clear out of the place. There was not the least danger of that worthy being arrested and arraigned on a charge of levying blackmail, but the ex-miner feared the police, so he sought fresh fields and pastures new with his ill-won gains.

A few days after that event the gossips of the whole district had a startling piece of history to discuss and wonder over. They had to thank Hugh Chesters for it. He wrote out a careful statement of the whole case as it affected himself, the Traffords, Gabriel Blackwood, his son and nephew; and when that piece of sensational literature made its appearance in the Saxilford papers the reader can easily imagine the wave of excited gossip-mongering it gave rise to.

After that last stirring interview with Craven, Chesters had pushed on the completion of his village schemes more vigorously than ever. Fresh hands had been engaged, overtime had been worked, and on the day fixed for the wedding of himself and Judith, club and library, and all the recreation grounds adjoining were ready for throwing open. On that day also the employees at the collieries drew their first half-year's share of profits.

And so on all hands high spirits and good feeling prevailed, and when young Judith of the Red Hand performed the ceremony of declaring open the places her husband had created the climax of the day's great doings had arrived.

Hugh and Judith did not leave Saxilham for their honeymoon. Instead, they spent it among the humble folk they had learned to honour and respect.


THE END

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