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Title:  The Lonely Church
Author: Fergus Hume
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Language: English
Date first posted:  May 2018
Most recent update: May 2018

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The Lonely Church

by
Fergus Hume

CONTENTS

Chapter 1. — The Unexpected
Chapter 2. — Eavesdropping
Chapter 3. — The Choir-Master
Chapter 4. — Gossip
Chapter 5. — Eric’s History
Chapter 6. — The Garden-Party
Chapter 7. — “The Harding Cove”
Chapter 8. — Eric’s Rival
Chapter 9. — Honour Versus Love
Chapter 10. — The White Pigeon
Chapter 11. — A Strange Message
Chapter 12. — An Adventure
Chapter 13. — An Adventure (continued)
Chapter 14. — A Bold Offer
Chapter 15. — Wilfred Blundel
Chapter 16. — A Recognition
Chapter 17. — Another Mystery
Chapter 18. — Eric as a Detective
Chapter 19. — An Ungrateful Child
Chapter 20. — The World Well Lost
Chapter 21. — The Worm Turns
Chapter 22. — The Other Uncle
Chapter 23. — “Mother Mandarin”
Chapter 24. — Eric’s Last Chance
Chapter 25. — The Conspiracy
Chapter 26. — The Biters Bit
Chapter 27. — Eric’s Birthright
Chapter 28. — A Mystery Solved
Chapter 29. — A Final Surprise
Chapter 30. — The End

Chapter 1
The Unexpected

There are few sadder spectacles than a deserted house. Not in the sense of having lost one tenant, and waiting for another, but roofless, windowless, with a cold hearthstone, and a grass-grown threshold. And if instead of one house there are many, the sight is sufficiently pathetic to chill the warmest heart. Eric Baker had chanced upon such ruinous habitations. These were collected round a tumble-down church, and the whole was not far removed from the waters of a sluggish river. Seen in the red light of the sunset, the deserted hamlet looked dreary, even sinister.

During the earlier part of the day, Eric had tramped through a comfortable country. Passing over admirable roads, between flowering hedges, along the foot-paths of cultivated fields, which surrounded trim farm-houses, he had later come to a desolate moor, where Nature resumed her unchecked sway. And on the fringe of this dreary expanse he found a marshy fenland, flat, reedy, damp and dismal, through which flowed a broad sullen river. Beside its muddy banks stood the ruined church with its cluster of deserted cottages. His road led directly through this uninhabited village, and he paused by the ancient stone cross which marked its centre, to survey its desolation. The sight, the hour, and perhaps the fatigue of a long walk, made him reflective, melancholy, even poetical.

Yet the young man was matter-of-fact, and little given to day-dreaming. His profession of civil engineer did not encourage the cultivation of the spiritual faculties. But there was something about that roofless shrine which inspired him with sad thoughts. He sucked melancholy therefrom as Jacques did out of a song. How many generations had knelt at that desecrated altar, how many simple souls had sought God within those ivy-covered walls. Now, the sound of psalm and hymn, the voice of holy exhortation were silent: the wind moaned through the chancel, bramble-bushes barred the doors, owl and bat nested in the belfry. And the headstones of the forgotten dead were almost buried amongst a luxuriant herbage. Darnels, docks, thistles, nettles, hemlock and briar: these flourished like a jungle in the graveyard. The desolation was complete.

Not less mournful was the village green. The well was choked with rubbish; one arm of the Saxon cross was broken; between the cobble-stones grew rank grass, and the whole space was a waste wilderness. The cottages around were absolute ruins. Some were roofless, others had no doors, many exhibited broken windows, and the chimneys of a few had fallen into the roadway. Eric could not hear a human voice; not even the bark of a dog broke the stillness. Only the wind moaned through the arches of the lonely church, the ruddy sunlight tinted the ruined houses, and over all brooded the nun-like quiet of the evening. He might have been standing in one of those accursed cities of Arabian tale, so absolutely removed was the place from all feelings of humanity.

But the sun was sinking, the shadows were falling, and if Eric desired to reach his destination before the darkness closed down, it behoved him to put his best foot foremost. The quiet melancholy of the place detained him for a few moments longer, and then he resumed his way. At the end of ten miles, his best friend awaited him, also an excellent dinner, and as the traveller was hungry both for food and friendship, and inspiriting conversation, he walked on briskly. And behind him the shadows of night fell darkling on the lonely church.

But the spot was fitted for an adventure, and he was not to leave without one. Hardly had he reached the crooked street which led out of the village green, when he came face to face with a strange old woman. She might have been one of the weird sisters, so unexpectedly did she appear, so uncanny were her looks. Here was a witch indeed, a mediaeval bond-slave of Satan on her way to some ghastly Sabbath in the desecrated church. She had a nut-cracker face, seamed with many wrinkles, snow-white hair, hanging loosely over her bent shoulders, and hobbled towards him with the aid of a quaintly carved stick, upon which she doubtless took her midnight rides. Over her torn gown, which was of no colour whatsoever; she wore an ample scarlet cloak faded by exposure to sun and rain. With a small basket on her arm, she moved slowly along muttering to herself, and looked up, only when she heard the brisk footsteps of the young man. Then she revealed a pair of fiery black eyes undimmed by age, and with a distinctly malignant expression in their glittering depths. She was like a crone in a fairy tale.

Her looks and her sudden appearance in that dismal spot shook Eric’s nerves for the moment. He started back with an ejaculation. Being a Romanist, he hastily made the sign of the cross. The hag heard his exclamation, saw the protecting sign, and guessed the meaning of both. Stopping short she laughed long and shrilly. Her unpleasant merriment sounded eerie, but somehow matched the lamentable surroundings. Baker felt the horrors of nightmare.

“You’re afraid of an old woman, are you?” said the beldame in a wonderfully refined voice, and as softly as she might have spoken in any drawing-room.

“Afraid!” echoed the young man recovering from his panic. “No! why should I be afraid? I own that your sudden appearance startled me.”

“And my strange appearance,” she sneered, brushing aside her loose locks to see him the more clearly. “Did you take me for one of Macbeth’s witches?”

“I tell you what I don’t take you for,” replied Eric rather nettled, “and that is a native of these parts.”

“Why not? I am old and ugly enough.”

“You speak with a cultivated accent; you quote Shakespeare; you—”

The old creature interrupted him with an imperious tapping of her staff.

“There! there, that’s enough. I am what I am. Call me Mother Mandarin if you like. I am known by that name hereabouts.”

“And by what name were you known in London?” asked Eric shrewdly.

Mother Mandarin’s face flushed a deep red, and her eyes glittered ominously.

“The past is past and the dead are dead,” she said enigmatically; “never talk of London to me.”

Baker surveyed her with interest. She replied evasively. Yet he was certain that she was a woman well-born and well-bred. In her time she had glittered in society. There was an air of refinement about her, which showed she had occupied a certain position. Also by her speech and her reference to Shakespeare, he judged that she was educated. But her looks were wild, her garb was ragged, and she seemed a fit dweller in this howling wilderness. Eric thought of the demoniac who dwelt amongst tombs, and wondered if this woman—but she saw his thought in his eyes, and answered it directly.

“I am not mad, Mr. Eric Baker,” she snapped out, and looked at him with a malicious smile. The young man started back, genuinely astonished.

“You know my name!” he said, lost in wonderment. “Who are you?”

“I am a woman who has fled from the corruption of the world into the desert like the hermits of the Thebaid,” said she fixing her eyes on him steadily. “In one of those cottages I live, and I earn my bread by gathering herbs which I sell to the chemists of Moncaster. When not otherwise employed I weave baskets, and when religiously inclined I worship with the owls in yonder church. Is there anything else you wish to know, Mr. Baker?”

“My name. How do you come to be acquainted with it? I never saw you before, I am a stranger in these parts. Are you a witch?”

“And are you a matter-of-fact engineer to ask so silly a question.”

Eric was more and more amazed. “My profession also!”

“Ah!” said Mother Mandarin, smacking her withered lips; “more people know Tom Fool, than Tom Fool knows. Good evening.”

“No.” He sprang forward and caught her by the arm. “You shall not go until you tell me how you came to know my name and profession.”

Her face became quite expressionless. She stood as still as any stone and closed her lips firmly. Eric asked her the question again and again. In his eagerness and anger at her silence, he even shook her. But Mother Mandarin kept to her dour attitude, without a word, without a look, without a movement. His will against hers was like a wave beating against a granite rock. In sheer despair he released his hold, and fell back a pace to survey this mule of a woman. Immediately Mother Mandarin resumed speech and motion, and seized his hand. In the vivid red light she peered at the lines thereon, and, too astonished to speak or move, the young man let her have her way.

“A long life,” croaked the old woman intent on his palm, “and a happy one after a year’s troubles. Here are death and doom, and marriage-rings. But aid no woman: heed her not when she cries. With the crying will come love, and with the love sorrow, till all be accomplished. Go from here at once, for the way is open, but wait no longer, else the way will close up.”

“What do you mean by this jargon?” cried Eric, snatching his hand from her claws. “Do you think I’m a fool to—”

“You are not a fool now, but you will be—you will be. Remember, when a woman cries for aid, make no speed to save her.”

For a moment she looked at him maliciously, then took her leave in quite a graceful lady-like way. “Au revoir sans adieu, Mr. Baker,” said Mother Mandarin, and disappeared round the corner before Eric could detain her. Bewilderment deprived him of motion for a few seconds, then he sprang after her. The lane up which he looked was bare. Apparently she had vanished into one of the ruined cottages, and as there were some twenty or thirty of these it was useless to seek her therein with any hope of success. However he remembered her last speech, and rested satisfied that he would meet her again. Then he hoped to learn who she was, what she meant, and how she came to know his name and profession. It was the strangest of adventures, and Baker did not profess to explain its meaning or its reason.

“Is this the twentieth century?” Eric asked himself, as he shifted his knapsack. “Am I a sensible man or a dreaming idiot?” He paused—pondered, and then burst out into a boyish laugh. It was echoed with sinister merriment from a near cottage.

Doubtless the strange woman was close at hand, but Eric, much as he wished to see her, decided not to give chase. The night was coming on and he had far to go. Once more he turned his face towards Moncaster, where his friend waited for him, and, if Eric knew anything of Hal Ferris, waited with great impatience. But his adventures were not yet ended. That connected with the old beldame was apparently concluded, but a new one connected with her reading of his hand had yet to take place. The cry for help against which he had been warned struck his ear just as he started on his way.

It was a woman’s voice that called for aid, but not the voice cracked and shrill of the old hag. Besides, it came from the direction of the river. With the memory of that warning Baker stood still for a moment, debating whether it was worth his while to respond, and risk the promised love and sorrow. Then his common sense came to his aid, and with a laugh of scorn at his folly, he dashed down the lane which led to the river. If all the devils which the hag held in control barred his way, Baker felt that he must rescue the woman who cried for help.

The river flowed red as blood under the angry sunset, and its low muddy banks gleamed in the light. The lane led directly on to a kind of rude wharf, and beside this lay a squat heavy-looking barge.

On the deck a man and woman were struggling, and their figures bulked sharp and black against the clear sky. The man held the woman by the hair, and was beating her with his fist. She shrieked for aid, and the scared birds swept across the brilliant sky.

Eric Baker was young, chivalrous and active. Enraged by the sight he raced down the lane like a blood horse nearing the goal, and leaped on board the barge. The next moment one well-directed blow stretched the man on the deck, and he held the sobbing woman in his arms.

The situation seemed to demand a few oaths, and Eric delivered them with a vigour worthy of a Texan mule-driver.

“You—” shouted Eric with well-chosen adjectives. “How dare you strike a woman.”

“If I ain’t to whop my own daughter who am I to hammer,” growled the man gathering himself up. “And who are you—you—” his vocabulary exceeded Baker’s in richness if not in volubility. And still condemning the young man to the infernal pit, the bargee came on.

But he was no scientific boxer, and Eric was. The bargee relied on his brute strength, and had he got in a blow, Eric might have been knocked senseless. But Baker had dealt with recalcitrant navvies before now in the great waste lands, and knew how to drop his man. Bargee hurled himself forward with his huge arms working like flails. Eric planted one under his jaw, another smashing blow in his eye, and the Hercules reeled back against the gunwale of the craft. It was low, and the bargee was tall. He hit against it, toppled and fell splash into the river. It was a very pretty exhibition of Nemesis.

“We’ll have no more trouble with him,” said Eric, as he saw the man floundering about in the muddy waters like a gigantic frog, “a cold bath will cool his blood.”

“Oh, he’ll drown—he’ll drown,” cried the girl, for she was little more than nineteen years of age. “Father! father!”

“It’s the best thing he could do,” said Baker, rather disgusted at beauty proving thus ungrateful; “but if you think his life’s worth saving, see here—” and Eric threw a rope to the floundering man.

With a gasp and an oath, he seized it, and Eric, aided by the girl, drew him on board. Covered with mud, dripping with water, the man sat down on the deck and swore freely, spitting weeds out of his jaws. After a glance at him, to see that he meant no mischief, Eric turned his attention to the girl.

She was a remarkably handsome brunette, slender and tall, with a gipsy cast of countenance. Her garb was as tattered and picturesque as that of Mother Mandarin’s, and as she busied herself in coiling up a tress of jetty black hair which had fallen during the struggle, Eric thought she was as pretty and wicked-looking a piece of flesh as he had ever set eyes on. The old woman’s warning recurred to him, and he inwardly laughed it to scorn. There was no danger of his falling in love with this gipsy Cleopatra, and without love—according to the prophecy—sorrow could not come.

By this time the girl was perfectly composed, and looked at her knight with a roguish eye. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “But there was no need for you to interfere, I can manage father myself.”

Eric thought this speech both ungrateful and untrue. “Father seemed to be managing you when I came,” he said dryly.

The man who had been swearing in undertones, now spoke freely. But there is no need to reproduce his jewels of wit. “I’ve been hit in the eye,” said the man huskily, “and on my own barge. I’ve been chucked from my own barge too, and I’ve drunk more water than I’ve swallered since I was a bloomin’ kid, and that’s fifty years agone.”

“You look as though whiskey was more in your line,” said Eric carelessly.

“Oh, poor father,” said the girl going to him, and looking something like Titinia caressing Bottom the Weaver, “does your eye hurt you?”

“My fist hurts me,” said Baker looking at his swollen knuckles, for the bargee’s head was not soft, “but no one seems to care.”

“You’d better go,” said the girl tossing her head.

“Thanks. And if ever I save you from a beating again—”

“She deserved it. Didn’t you, Pansey?” said the man.

Here Pansey showed another side of her character. “No I didn’t, and you’re a brute; you always were. I did deliver the letter.”

“Then why ain’t he here?”

“You’d better ask him when he comes.”

This mysterious conversation did not interest Eric, and he turned to go. But just to punish the girl, and to show her that he did not care for her rank ingratitude, he took half-a-crown from his pocket and bestowed it on his late antagonist. “There you are my man,” he said cheerily, “beat her again when she wants it.”

“Oh,” cried Pansey, “and you call yourself a gentleman.”

“No I don’t, my dear. I call myself a fool. If you thank everyone who helps you as you have thanked—”

“I did thank you,” said Pansey sullenly.

“Not with a kiss as I should have liked.”

She reddened, and retreated as though she thought Baker would really take what he claimed. The young man laughed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said, “you can keep it for the next fool.”

Meanwhile the bargee was biting the silver, and finding it good currency rose to express his thanks. “You’re a gentleman,” he declared, “and I’m an honest cove I am. Luke’s my name. Luke Tyler, and if you want anything down in the sly way—”

“Hold your tongue, father,” broke in Pansey anxiously.

“Shut up,” roared her father again doubling his mighty fist, but with a side glance at Eric, “you’ve lost me money. He ain’t here?”

“He’ll come to the church I tell you.”

“He,” snorted Luke, “who’s the fool now. Giving away the show.”

Eric laughed. “I’m quite in the dark,” said he lightly, “keep your sly secrets, I go.” Here he leaped on to the shore. “By the way who is Mother Mandarin?”

The effect of his words astonished him. Pansey shrieked and dived below. Her father produced a revolver. “Hands up,” he cried. Then with an oath, “Bail up, Cornstalk!”

Chapter 2
Eavesdropping

It was not the first time Baker had looked down the muzzle of a pistol, as in the great waste lands, men are quick-tempered and handy with what they playfully call their “persuaders.” Such a training instructs a man in the reading of faces, since sudden death may result from the momentary mood of his opponent. A glance assured Eric that Luke Tyler, as he called himself, was a bully, which by interpretation means a coward. Having failed to master Eric with his hands, Tyler now attempted intimidation. But why he should behave thus on the mere mention of a woman’s name, Baker could not understand.

However Eric was quick to see that his only safety lay in coolness. Tyler was too great a coward to fire, and his production of the revolver was in the bombastic vein. Still the weapon was pointed at Eric’s head, and in a moment of passion, even against the true desire of the man who held it, a catastrophe might take place. With a laugh Baker stood his ground, and looked Mr. Tyler steadily in the eye. Thus holding him he spoke.

“That cock won’t fight,” said Baker with a metaphor adapted to the comprehension of his enemy; “what’s your game?”

“I’m going to stretch you a corpse,” snarled Tyler.

“Oh, no you aren’t, unless you want to be hanged.”

Luke lowered the pistol, for he grew weary of pointing it at a man who showed no signs of the white feather.

“I wouldn’t be hanged for a killing of you, mister,” he said insolently, “who’d know if I bored a hole in you, and chucked you into the river with a bloomin’ stone round that—adjective, adjective—neck of yours.”

“Mother Mandarin would.”

Mr. Tyler thrust the revolver into his pocket.

“Not ’cause I ain’t agin’ to, for I might yet,” he explained; “but I don’t know Mother what’s-her-name, I don’t.”

“Mandarin,” said Eric, carefully repeating the name. “She lives in the village, and you’re devilish afraid of her, my man.”

“I ain’t,” growled Luke, and confirmed his denial with an oath.

“Ah, then, you do know her?”

“I know an old rat as hunts these banks,” snarled Tyler; “but whether her name’s Mandarin or Chiner oranges ain’t nothin’ to do with me.”

“If you shot me, it would have lots to do with you, Mr. Tyler. Mother Mandarin knows that I am here. If she heard the shot, and my friends could not find me, it’s as like as not that she would tell the police and then you’d be in a fine hole, Captain Starlight.”

Tyler started. “Why do you call me by that bloomin’ name?” he asked.

“Why do you use colonial terms?” bantered Eric. “Did you find Australia too hot for you?”

“I was never in Australy.”

“Oh, yes, you were—perhaps you belonged to the Kelly gang.” Eric took out his pipe and loaded it carefully. “Tell me all about it.”

“I tell you I don’t know what you’re jolly well talking of, mister—whatever your beastly name is. I was never out of England.”

“Like the man in Robert Browning’s poem,” laughed Baker. “Got a light, Captain Starlight?”

Luke began to grin, and handed a box of matches. “Well you are a plucked un,” he said approvingly.

“And you’re a silly ass who plays to the gallery.”

“What’s that?” asked Tyler looking puzzled.

“Humph. You’re not a dweller in the cities,” said Eric, “else you would know the saying. Passed your life in the bush probably.”

“I’ve been here man and boy for fifty years,” explained the man in a most unnecessary manner, and looking uneasily at Eric.

“Oh no, you haven’t. You went to Australia to be educated. There you learned to say ‘Bail up!’ though I didn’t know there were bush-rangers now-a-days. And I’m not a native of Melbourne, Captain Starlight, so you can’t call me a cornstalk.”

“This,” said Tyler addressing the sky, “is bloomin’ loonatice.”

Eric laughed and glanced at the box of matches before handing it back. “So you were in Moncaster to-day?” he said.

Bad language from Tyler. “How did you know that?” he roared.

“Box of matches quite full. Name of Moncaster tobacconist on the box,” he tossed it lightly across the water to Luke. “It’s as easy as falling off a log when you explain. Well I must be going. I don’t know what you mean by your fear of Mother Mandarin, or by beating Pansey because she did not deliver the letter—”

“That’s none of your business,” growled Luke, growing savage.

“Nor,” continued Baker imperturbably, “nor do I know who you expect to meet in the church.”

“No one. I tell you, no one.”

“Oh, yes you do. The person to whom the letter was addressed. Pansey delivered it, didn’t you, Pansey?” He added this for the benefit of a pretty pair of ears that showed themselves to be listening at a window in the side of the barge.

“I tell you what,” said Tyler solemnly, “I believe you’re the devil.”

“You know him better than I apparently,” said Eric shifting his knapsack. “I’m sorry you trace a likeness, though we have the authority of Shakespeare that the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. I suppose you have seen him in Mother Mandarin’s company when His Majesty keeps his festivals in yonder church.”

“Oh cuss you, go home,” grumbled Luke, who seemed particularly annoyed by these constant references to the church.

“I’m going—to Moncaster.”

“To Moncaster,” repeated Tyler, scratching his bullet head, “and you know the way no doubt?”

“No. I’m a stranger in these parts. But I daresay I’ll find the road. What’s this place called?”

“Old Dexleigh. New Dexleigh’s three miles further on, and Moncaster’s ten or thereabouts.”

“And why is Old Dexleigh deserted?”

“I dunno. It was deserted when I come here.”

“Oh, I thought you lived here these fifty years man and boy,” mimicked Eric enjoying the growing exasperation of the big man.

“See here,” shouted Luke, “you’re a born devil, you are. Git out or I’ll brain you.”

“Will you use your pistol or your fist?” asked Eric cheerfully.

Luke growled again like an unfed bear, “I could lay you out with one hand, cuss you.”

“Why didn’t you. Am I to admire your magnanimity.”

“Don’t cuss at me you bloomin’ dandy,” said Luke rubbing his great hands, and viciously added, “I’d like to smash you.”

“Come along then. If you talk so much about smashing me, I shall begin to disbelieve you.”

Tyler looked at the trim slim figure of the young man, and declined the invitation. Eric’s bright eye, and Eric’s dexterous fists, and Eric’s calm insolence embarrassed the bully. He changed his tone. “You’re a funny gent you are,” he said with an attempt at jocularity, “but you don’t know everything.”

“No. Not even why you fear Mother Mandarin.”

“I don’t fear the bloomin’ old pig,” snapped Tyler, then seeing he had betrayed his acquaintance with the woman, he added quickly, “What I mean is, that you don’t know the way to Moncaster. Night’s coming on and you may go astray.”

“I may,” said Baker, wondering at this sudden solicitude.

“Then I tell you what, sir. Pansey shall guide you to the cross-roads, two mile from here. You can’t go wrong then.”

“That’s very good of Pansey. I shall be delighted, and Pansey will be the richer by half a sovereign.”

“Lord, and you only guv me half a crown.”

“Never mind, I’ve no doubt you’ll steal the gold from your daughter when she comes back.”

“That he won’t,” said Pansey suddenly appearing with an alacrity which showed she had been listening. “I want a new dress, and new boots. Look at me in these rags. A handsome girl like me.”

“You could have got the lot out of that Merston cove,” said her respectable papa, and the girl flushed angrily.

“Don’t mention names,” she said, her eyes blazing. “Come Mr.—”

“Mr. Nobody,” said Eric serenely.

“Here’s mysteries,” grumbled the bargee.

“You have yours. Why should I not have mine. Good-bye Mr. Tyler, I hope we’ll meet again. I should love to give you another black eye.”

“You ain’t guv me but a scratch,” roared the exasperated brute.

“Ah that’s your pride,” flung back Eric already half way down the lane. “Wait till you see your eye tomorrow. It will be as black as your soul, my good man. What are you laughing at, Pansey?”

The girl who was tripping lightly by his side looked at him with an arch face. “Father was never spoken to like that before.”

“Of course not. That’s why father is such a bully. Do you mind my smoking, Pansey?”

“I don’t mind anything you do,” admitted Miss Tyler sharply.

“Quite right. Live and let live, my purple Pansey, freaked with jet hair,” replied Baker serenely.

“Don’t call names,” she flashed out in a rage.

“Milton never called anyone names,” said her companion, “and I but misquoted him.

Pansey looked curiously at him. “You ain’t mad,” she said half to herself, “for you’re too sharp. And you ain’t a fool, for you’re too handy with your fists. But you’re a queer gentleman.”

“I am a man, take me for all in all, which is another misquotation, my modest flower,” said Eric as they trudged along. “How far are the cross roads?”

“Two miles. You follow this path, and it leads you to them. Take the left hand one, and you fetch Moncaster.”

“In that case I need not take you further.”

They were just clear of the village when Eric made this remark. He really did not want to give the girl the trouble of walking back in the darkness, and had no other motive in saying what he did. But she seemed to attach a double meaning to his speech, and looked suspiciously at him. “I shan’t leave you till you are at the roads.”

This speech made Eric suspicious on his side. Why did she and Luke wish to get rid of him? Why did they deny knowing Mother Mandarin whom they apparently did know, and of whom they were obviously afraid? Eric was of a curious turn of mind, and fond of adventures. He at once made up his mind to learn what was at the bottom of these mysteries. As a preliminary, he began to pump Pansey. But he could get no more out of her than he had got from Mother Mandarin. She talked generally, but gave no information. Yet when they came to the cross-roads, and he placed the half sovereign in her hand, she seemed moved.

“You’re a good sort,” she said in a much more civil tone than she had hitherto adopted. “And I should be sorry to see you get into a row, that I should.”

“There’s no danger of my getting into a row I hope.”

“Not if you keep away from old Dexleigh.”

“And from that ruined church?” he asked half jestingly.

The girl’s face altered. He could see the change in the fast falling twilight. “Father’s a dangerous man,” she said with a note of alarm in her voice. “Don’t cross his path again,” and with a nod she fled swiftly into the gathering shadows, leaving Eric under the sign-post, much astonished.

Of course the warning made him only the more eager to learn the truth whatever it might be. Sitting down on a heap of stones, he thought out the situation. “In spite of their lies,” soliloquised Baker, “they know Mother Mandarin, and Mother Mandarin knows my name. Someone is to meet Luke Tyler at the ruined church, and I am warned by his very pretty daughter not to cross her father’s path. It would seem therefore that father is up to mischief, and that he is afraid lest I should find him out. That civility of sending Pansey as my guide was not without an ulterior motive.” He sprang to his feet. “On the whole I think I’ll go back. But I haven’t got my Derringer with me,” he thought regretfully, “and that Tyler is a rough customer.”

Eric was on a walking tour, intending to reach Moncaster on his legs instead of going by rail. But in sober England he had never expected to meet with any adventures. Therefore his revolver was snugly lying in his trunk. He thought his fists and his knowledge of how to use them were quite enough protection on the road. But Mr. Tyler evidently was—as Pansey stated—a dangerous man, and having been in the colonies, used his weapon oftener than was advisable. In Baker’s place many a man would have been daunted. To go unarmed on a darkish night, into a place he knew nothing whatsoever about, and into the company of a man, of whom he knew sufficient to be aware that he would not stick at murder if necessary to further his ends whatever they might be, was enough to make the stoutest heart beat quicker. But Eric was one of those men whose spirits rose at the approach of danger. As a rule, during his rare visits to the old country, he found things sufficiently dull. Therefore he hailed this unusual experience with joy, and without a thought of the hidden danger he was incurring, he turned on his tracks.

The man was accustomed to find his way in unknown countries, and had a mechanical habit of noting landmarks. Even in the waning light, and while engaged in conversing with Pansey, he had kept his eyes on the neighbourhood he was traversing. Thus, he knew how to get back to the village; and avoiding the path in case the too suspicious Pansey might be watching, he struck across the wilderness of ling and heather, guided by a low hill behind which he knew lay Old Dexleigh. The sun was gone, but the moon was up and bright—too bright, as Eric thought. With the unerring instinct of an explorer, he made a bee line for the place whence he had started. At the oddity of the situation, and the thought of danger, his spirits rose. From this circumstance it may be guessed that Mr. Baker was a bachelor, as a married man would have thought of his wife before risking his life as Eric assuredly was doing. He might have thought of his friend Ferris impatiently waiting his coming. But the adventure was too tempting to be given up, and in spite of friendship and hunger, Eric was determined to see it through.

By going in a direct line, and by making unusual speed, he soon reached the ruined village. The moon cast strange shadows amidst the ruined houses, and the place was as still as the graveyard. The way being grass-grown, Baker’s boots made little or no noise as he stole forward to the church. It was in the church he intended to hide, as there this mysterious meeting was to take place. Probably what he overheard would not interest him much. On the other hand, if Luke Tyler was plotting rascality, he might be able to thwart his very shady plans.

Across the village green Eric passed, keeping in the shadows as much as possible. He saw a faint light in one of the cottages, and guessed that therein Mother Mandarin had her den. He was minded to see what she was doing, but fearing lest he should be espied before getting under cover, he hastened to enter the church. He crushed through the weedy jungle which was around the building and came to the principal door. It was choked with brambles, and apparently there was no admittance. But this obstacle was nothing to Baker. He climbed in at a broken window, and found himself in almost complete darkness. However, the moonlight flooded certain portions of aisles and chancel, so Baker had small difficulty in finding his way. He walked to the ruined altar, and found that a portion of this wall had fallen away on one side. Here was a convenient nook into which he could squeeze himself, and Eric with the skill of an old campaigner was soon comfortably bestowed.

“Now,” thought the adventurer. “I’m ready to overhear, and to interfere should I see cause,” and he fell to regretting his revolver. The interior of the church looked weird, bestreaked as it was with white moonlight and the blackest of shadows. A plantation of weeds and small bushes flourished within the walls, and the wind rushing through these made a rustling sound. A portion of the roof had fallen in, and through the gap, Eric could see the starry sky, and the far-reaching radiance of the hidden moon. Occasionally an owl would hoot, and constantly the bats flitted amongst the arches. At the foot of the chancel-steps, where the rood-screen had formerly stood, the pavement was intact, and made a small clearing in the wilderness of weeds. Through the broken tracery of the great west window Eric saw the waving branches of elm-trees, and a glimpse of distant hills. Although the night was somewhat chilly, as was natural in early spring, Eric sheltered from the cutting wind found himself sufficiently warm. Moreover, the prospect of adventure heated his blood, and made him careless of the cold.

But tough as he was, the long tramp, and the cosy nook were too much for his desire to keep awake. He closed his eyes for a moment, and sleep took immediate possession of him. Thus it was that he lost the major part of a conversation that took place between two persons who stood on the clear space of the pavement, not a stone throw away. The murmur of their voices blended with Baker’s dreams, but when one man becoming excited raised his voice, and clinched his assertions with strange oaths, Eric woke with a start. Accustomed to these sudden rousings, his brain was at once on the alert to receive and retain impressions. He leaned cautiously forward to see who were speaking.

In the faint moonlight, for the sky was now cloudy and the brightness of the moon was softened, he saw a tall and a short man standing close together. From his bulk and height and voice and oaths, Eric guessed that one man was his respectable friend Luke Tyler. The other was apparently stout and not very tall. He wore a loose cloak, and a cap with flaps was pulled over his face. Baker could not see his expression, but he was struck by the noble quality of his voice. It was rich, voluminous, deep and resonant, and he spoke in a refined and educated manner. What the two were talking about he could not comprehend, having lost the beginning of the conversation, but he gradually came to understand a trifle.

“You are sure it will be safe?” asked the man in the cloak.

“Safe as the bank,” replied Tyler, although he used a more emphatic comparison, “you bring him here and he won’t trouble you again.”

“No murder mind,” said the other hastily. “I only wish him to be kept out of my sight for a year. After that he can come to life again for all I care.”

“Oh I ain’t so fond of putting my neck in a noose if it comes to that,” growled Tyler. “He’ll be all right. But what’s to be my share for adoin’ of this to the Harding cove.”

“We have discussed that. I’ll give you what I said, but only after six months. I won’t have the money till then.”

“And if the Harding cove’s friends make trouble?”

“That’s where you earn your money. My name must not appear.”

Tyler nodded. “It won’t, if you pays up regular. I’ll draw the Harding cove here, and drop him into the vault. There he’ll stay for a year and then be let out.”

“Where is the vault?” asked the other.

“No you don’t. My business is my business, and I ain’t going to give the show away. All you’ve got to think of is that the Harding cove is safe and sound. He’s in Moncaster now?”

“Yes. How will you lure him here?”

“Oh I know what I’m going to do, so don’t you make mistakes. The plan’s in my head as clear as clear. The Harding cove’s safe, if the tin is likewise.”

“You shall be paid.”

“Ah! I always said you was a gent, Mr—”

“No names,” said the man in the cloak hastily.

“Oh we’re safe here.”

“That old woman—”

“I’ll cut her throat if she interferes,” said Tyler savagely, “but there ain’t no call for that. She’ll never find the vault. And no one else ever comes to this place.”

“Did you tell your daughter anything?”

“No. She’s—well it ain’t your business. But all she knows is that she had to give the letter asking you to come here, and she don’t know a bloomin’ thing else. Now that’s all square you’d best get back to Moncaster. In a week?”

“In a week!” said the other man moving away.

“It’s as good as done. In a week the Harding cove—” Tyler laughed.

They left the church, going down the ruined aisle and out by a side door. Eric pondered as to what could be the meaning of this conversation which hinted at danger to a person whom Tyler termed “the Harding cove.” At last he decided what the rascality was.

“Kidnapping,” said Eric. “H’m! I’ll take a hand in this game.”

Chapter 3
The Choir-Master

If Rip Van Winkle had lain him down in Moncaster, he would have found little change when he awakened from his famous nap. It was a delightfully sleepy old cathedral town, inhabited by dignitaries of the church, by retired Anglo-Indians, civilian and military, and by many elderly sluggards who loved ease, retirement and simple provincial pleasures. Most of those who dwelt in this little Goshen were moderately endowed with money and over blessed with children. Their incomes were small, but their families were large. As a rule the sons entered the army and navy, or crammed for the I.C.S. So it came about that letters arrived from all parts of the world signed Tom, Dick or Harry. The daughters were usually pretty and well-connected, so that rich relations often disposed of them in the annual Belgravian matrimonial mart. In these ways were the youth of Moncaster settled in life, but those who had begotten and reared them, clung to the ancient nest, pleased that Minnie was a countess and Johnny a colonel. And the quaint city was sufficiently gay at times. The rising generation indulged in golf, in tennis, in cricket and in rowing on the placid river which flowed under the city walls. There were frequent dances; occasionally an excellent theatrical company at the tiny theatre in Nun Street, and once a year the famous Hunt Ball, where many hearts were captured, and many proposals were made. The elderly folk who were—so to speak—on the shelf, had their whist parties, and clubs, and tea-meetings, and the pleasure of the daily service in the gray cathedral, raised by the bishop Edwin in the twelfth century. And the service was a pleasure. The noble Anglican liturgy was read and sung to perfection in St Wulf’s Minster, and the sermons were the best of their kind, less theological than practical. Those who preached were staunch to the Thirty-nine Articles, and instead of splitting straws on arguable points, contented themselves in pointing out how sincere, cheerful, practical, Christian life could be designed and carried out on the admonitions of the New Testament.

It was Mr. Halbert Ferris who had brought the choir to its present point of musical perfection. He was a delicate, slim, good-looking man, with a cheerful face, and an unfailing fund of good spirits. At one time he had studied for grand opera, having a pleasing tenor. But his voice, sweet as it was, proved unequal to the demands of Wagnerian music-drama, and Ferris had taken to the concert platform. Also he had supplemented his income by giving lessons in voice-production. The daughter of the Bishop of Moncaster, who was one of his pupils, offered him, through the influence of her father, the mastership of the choir, and Ferris preferring a settled income to a precarious substance in Town, accepted the post with avidity. Thus it came about that he was ensconced in a snug little house in the right-hand corner of the Close, and lived here in great contentment with his old housekeeper, and Polly her niece. Ferris was something of an epicure, and Mrs. Bedwin, the housekeeper aforesaid, gave him the dishes he loved, so he was very happy.

In addition to his duties in the Cathedral, Ferris taught singing to the musical youth of Moncaster, and made a good income, which he carefully saved. He was always haunted by the thought of poverty, for the little man had passed through many hard years in his time and did not wish to repeat the experience. He wished to have a secure income, not dependent on his voice or work, and wished also to marry.

As yet he was single, as he had seen no one likely to render him happy and comfortable. But report said that he cast favourable eyes on Miss Matty Dame, the daughter of a minor canon. She was a comely, merry girl without great pretensions to good looks, and without money. Hal Ferris—as he was usually called, certainly admired her, and Matty was not averse to becoming his wife, but Hal did not propose, whereat she wondered.

It was astrology which prevented his making Matty happy. Hal was a firm believer in the influence of the stars, and corresponded with a certain sage in London who sent him monthly reports as to what was to befall. That these predictions were extremely general, and that many of them were not fulfilled, did not shake Hal’s faith in the least. He believed the good prophecies, and trembled at the bad, and regularly sent to know about his future. For the last year the stars had prophesied trouble through a woman, so Hal did not marry lest Matty should be the woman in question. In spite of his good spirits and thankful disposition Ferris was discomposed at times by these ominous predictions, and his superstition gave him many a bad half hour. Every fortune-teller, and crystal-gazer, and card-reader who came to Moncaster always reaped a rich harvest from Ferris.

At the present moment he was disquieted about Eric. The young man had not arrived, and, as Hal knew he was walking to the old cathedral city, he immediately conjured up visions of Baker lying dead on some lonely moor. Eric should have been at dinner on the previous night, but at nine o’clock, Hal had given up hope, and after an unsatisfactory meal, had retired, expecting to hear of his friend’s death the next morning. But his gloomy prognostications were not destined to be realized on this occasion, for while Ferris was at breakfast, the expected guest walked in cheerful and hungry.

“My dear Eric,” cried the little man springing to his feet, and grasping both hands of his visitor, “I thought you were dead.”

“That’s like you,” rejoined Eric with a hearty laugh, “which of your witches of Endor told you that?”

“There was a woman here last month,” said Ferris mysteriously, “she saw a man lying bound in a church. I thought it might be you.”

“In a church, and bound,” muttered Eric recalling his late experience. “Hump! that’s queer.”

“What’s queer?” asked Ferris eagerly, and scenting a confirmation of the prediction.

“Nothing particular. Give me some breakfast, I’m horribly hungry.”

“Ah,” said Hal placing a chair for his guest. “I had such a dinner for you last night. Why did you not come?”

“I was indulging in adventures,” replied Baker casting a critical eye over the well-furnished table. “Kidneys, eggs and bacon. Pâté de foi gras—a sybarite as usual. Is your coffee as good as it used to be, Hal? Give me a cup.”

“I always make it myself,” said Ferris solemnly. “But this adventure?”

“It will keep. I’m too hungry to talk. Gad, these kidneys are good.”

Ferris had a great opinion of Eric, and well he might have, as that gentleman had played the part of a good Samaritan to him many years before. It was months before Ferris obtained any position, and having been turned out of his one poor room by a virago of a landlady, he had tramped about on a bitter winter’s night until he dropped from sheer exhaustion. Eric found the poor creature lying on the doorstep of his rooms in Bloomsbury, and had taken him within. He gave Ferris a meal and a bed, assisted him with money, and with such influence as he could command; and in every way had behaved as a man should to his less fortunate brother. From that time dated the prosperity of Ferris, and from that date he had looked upon Eric as the noblest of created beings. It is not too much to say that Hal would have laid down his life for Baker, although the little man was terribly afraid of death. Ferris did not talk much of gratitude as Eric hated such demonstrations, but in his heart of hearts, he keenly felt the kindness of his friend. And Eric reciprocated the friendship. He knew that Ferris was a true man and could be trusted, and never came to England on one of his periodical visits without passing a week with him. Hal was a self-indulgent, superstitious little man, but he was staunch and true, and every fibre of his slender body was penetrated with gratitude towards his benefactor.

“This is the first time you have been here!” said Ferris, when his friend had finished, and was smoking with a contented look.

“Yes. I have been eighteen months away this trip. You were in London lodgings when last I saw you. How do you like this?”

“Immensely! My health is better and my money is sure.”

“You’ll be getting married soon,” said Baker, drawing his chair to the fire, for the morning was chilly.

Ferris laughed and fingered a cigarette. “I suppose so, in fact,” he added coyly, “there is a lady—”

“Oh ho. Have you proposed?”

“No. But I think she’ll have me. But I don’t want to marry yet. I wished to have a settled income independent of my profession, before I give hostages to fortune, and I am saving my money.”

“Sensible man. Who is the lady?”

“Miss Matty Dame. She is a daughter of a Minor Canon.”

“Quite a domesticated girl. And I want a domestic wife.”

“Oh I know you are fond of your creature comforts. Have you Mrs. Benwin with you, Hal?”

“Yes. She came with Polly.”

“Quite the London ménage. Well,” Eric looked round the comfortable room, “you have not done badly. What a lucky man you are to have such a nest. Not like me, a homeless wanderer.”

“All that I have is yours,” said Ferris emphatically.

Baker looked at him kindly. “I know it old boy. But I fear there is too much of the Prodigal Son about me to settle in this dull Eden. I must be off to the wilds again in three months.”

“How many of them will you give me, Eric?”

“One. You’ll have had enough of me in four weeks!”

“You know better than that, Eric.”

“Perhaps I do. But you are so confoundedly grateful for the little I did for you that I must suppress your demonstrations.”

“Little,” repeated Ferris, recalling that bitter winter night, and the kind hand that fed him, “you know what I feel!”

Baker patted the little man’s shoulder. “I know! I know, and I appreciate your feelings. Let us talk of something else.”

“Of yourself?”

“Not interesting enough. What a jolly room. As old as the hills and as respectable I should think.”

It was indeed a beautiful old room, panelled in brown oak, and with a painted ceiling. Ferris had collected many quaint things to match the antiquity of his abode, and, as he had an eye for colour and arranging, the effect of the whole was charming. Everything was subdued and mellow by time, from the Sherriton furniture to the faded hues of the Persian praying mats. But what took Baker’s fancy especially was a delightful window seat cushioned in old brocade, and set round the quaintest of windows, through which could be seen the noble cathedral, with its twin towers soaring into the blue. The Close was empty, and white pigeons pecked on the lawn, while rooks and jackdaws fluttered round the walls. To right and left were the gray old cloisters, in front of which stood noble elms, already budding with the delicate green of spring. An air of Sunday peace pervaded the place, and Eric, accustomed to the bustle and excitement of life in wild lands, felt the sobering influence of this haunt of peace.”

“A man could be very happy here,” he said with a half sigh.

“And a man is this man,” said Ferris, who was standing by his friend and had his arm school-boy fashion flung over the other’s shoulder. “You should marry and settle here, Eric.”

“I am afraid no one will accept my small income and roving habits.”

“There are fifty girls hereabouts would accept your good looks.”

Baker laughed. “If my face is my fortune, it will be a mighty small income I’ll get from it,” said he pulling at his meerschaum.

Yet if any man had a right to be conceited about his looks, Eric was that man, although he was too sensible to indulge in so nauseous a form of vanity. He had a well-knit figure as erect as that of a guardsman, and was almost as tall. With his fair hair, his merry blue eyes, and well-cut features, he was a most presentable man. His moustache showed almost white against the deep tan of his face, and a firm chin indicated his decision of character. Plainly dressed in tweeds with a Norfolk jacket and brown leather leggings, Baker looked smart and business-like, ready to make love to a lady or to lead a forlorn hope. Added to his undeniable good looks he had a personality, and that was his greatest charm. Ferris wondered how it was, so attractive a man had not been captured.

“Have you never been engaged?” he asked wonderingly.

Eric turned from the window with a gay smile. “No,” he said sauntering to the fireplace. “I have made no proposals likely to turn a woman into a grass-widow.”

“What do you mean by that, Baker?”

“Can’t you see. I am a bird of passage—always on the wing. I have only three hundred a year independent of my profession, and two cannot live comfortably on that without practising an economy which is not inviting. Therefore to earn money I must follow my trade,—follow it into the land at the back of beyond. Could I take a wife into such wild parts, or would she be happy if I could take her? No, Hal. When I am rich—when I find a gold mine, or build a railway which will bring me in a competency, then perhaps—” he sighed.

“You have seen someone?” said Ferris quickly.

“How do you know?”

“The expression in your eyes. You have fallen in love.”

“Can one fall in love with a face without knowing the disposition of its owner.”

“Romeo did,” said Hal stoutly.

“You can’t give that as an example. If Mr. and Mrs. Montague had lived, their love might have worn threadbare. But they died in the early days of their romance, before the glamour had worn off. I do not model myself on that love affair, and yet—” Here Eric laughed. “I admit that in one way I have followed Romeo. There was a girl that I saw in the Park—”

“Was she pretty?” asked Hal.

“An angel for beauty, but she looked as though she had a temper.”

“Dark or fair?”

“Dark—naturally since I am fair. Don’t you know people always love the opposite to themselves. But this girl looked masterful. I am masterful, and if I had followed up the affair, and had married her, our wills would have clashed. She passed like a dream. All the same—” Eric looked smilingly at his friend as though about to say something, but on second thoughts held his tongue.

“You mean that she didn’t pass like a dream,” said Hal shrewdly.

“My friend, her face haunted me. Luckily I knew a man who was with me, and who told me something about her.”

“Her name?”

“No. His knowledge did not extend that far. But he knew that she came from Moncaster. He met her at a garden party, and his hostess told him so much. I think she said the name also, but my friend had forgotten it—which was just like a friend.”

“Does she live here then?”

Eric shrugged his shoulders, and relighted his pipe which had gone out while he talked. “Who knows, I think so. At all events when I heard that you were in Moncaster, it seemed as though the finger of God pointed her out as my wife.”

“Was it this year you saw her?”

“Two years ago. You were then in London, and I had never heard of this place. When I received your invitation I remembered that my unknown divinity came from Moncaster. It was the chance of seeing her as much as the pleasure of your company that brought me here.”

Ferris looked thoughtful. “I wonder who she can be. Tall and dark?”

Eric nodded. “What you would call a Junoesque woman. Who are the folk hereabouts?”

“Their name is legion. There’s Lady Dame, who is Matty’s mother, and a funny old creature. Miss Carr, the Bishop’s daughter, who got me my place as choirmaster, and Mrs. Bellona.”

“An Italian. It sounds like an Italian name.”

“No. She is an English woman. Her husband was of foreign birth, I believe, but not entirely. He is dead, and she lives here with her daughter, Judith.”

“That is a queenly name. Judith Bellona—the kind of name Minerva might have assumed to masquerade amongst mortals. What sort of person is your Mrs. Bellona?”

“Tall and dark and—by the way,” broke off Hal quickly, “it is not improbable that your beauty may be Judith. I know she has friends in London and often goes up there. She is exactly what you describe your unknown to be—a Junoesque goddess.”

Eric’s face lighted up. “The deuce she is,” he said eagerly. “What luck if it is so. I never expected to come across her again, and I fancied I was coming here, only on a wild goose chase. I wonder if you are right.”

Hal jumped up and crossed the room to a small table on which were many photographs in silver frames. One of these he brought to Eric. “Miss Bellona gave me this a month ago,” he explained, “she learns singing from me, and we are great friends.”

“Yes,” said Eric vivaciously, “it’s the lady in question—the one I saw in the Park—to whom I lost my heart—whom I have never been able to forget even when working hard in South America this trip. I came back to England, and down here to find her. She is a beauty.”

“And as good as she is beautiful. But she is not for you.”

Eric’s face fell. “Do you mean to say she is engaged?” he asked.

“Yes. She has been engaged six months to Julian Harding.”

“What do you say?—Harding?”

“Yes. Do you know him, Eric. Why do you look so surprised?”

Baker did not answer for the moment. He was thinking of his adventure and the rough remarks of Tyler relative to the “Harding cove” rang in his ears. Harding was the man Tyler and the unknown proposed to kidnap, and Harding was the man who was engaged to Judith Bellona.

“Have you heard the name?” asked Ferris restoring the photograph to the table.

“I have heard the name,” said Eric slowly.

“Where?”

“That’s a long story. I had an adventure last night.”

“Was that why you didn’t turn up?” asked Hal.

“It was. I passed the night in a church.”

“In a church.” Ferris stared.

“To be precise, in Old Dexleigh Church.”

“What the dickens were you doing there?”

“Ah,” said Eric meditatively, “that’s the story. Tell me, Hal, has this Mr. Harding any enemies?”

“No. He’s a most popular man.”

“And what kind of man. A fool,—overmuch popularity sounds like a fool. Tell me about him.”

“He’s not what you’d call clever,” replied Ferris, “and rather wild, but he is not a fool.”

“Has he money?”

“Enough to live on, but is not overburdened with cash. He does nothing but generally loafs round with a fellow called Merston.”

Eric started again. Merston was the name mentioned by Tyler on the barge. It was all rather mysterious. Pansey knew Merston. Luke proposed to kidnap Harding, and Harding was engaged to Miss Bellona. Here were the elements of a romance. “My adventure’s not finished yet,” said Eric half to himself.

Chapter 4
Gossip

Eric’s blue eyes gleamed like sapphires when he turned them on his friend. “My adventure is not yet at an end,” said he, “and by Jove she is mixed up in it. Miss Bellona?”

“Yes. Now if I were a knave,” cried Baker, pacing the room, “I would let the whole plot succeed and make love to the lady on my own account.”

Hal Ferris looked blankly at the excited face of the man. “What are you talking of?” he asked.

But Eric’s brain was working out what he knew, kneading it into shape, as it were. “That old hag mentioned my name too,” he soliloquised, “and Tyler is afraid of her.”

“Tyler. Luke Tyler?” cried Ferris.

“Yes. I punched his head yesterday. Do you know him?”

“I have heard of him.”

Eric jumped to a conclusion. “From Merston, I suppose,” he said. “The man who is in love with his daughter Pansey.”

Hal gasped, and rose from his seat. His face wore an expression of the most profound astonishment.

“Now how the deuce did you know that, Eric?” he asked. “I thought no one but myself knew.”

“Oh. So you’re a friend of Merston’s?

“No. He’s a supercilious beast, and looks down on a poor music master. I wish you would explain. I’m quite in the dark.”

“I’ll explain later. Do you know a short man who wears a large cloak, and has a fine voice, resonant as a cathedral organ?”

“No. Who is he?”

“That’s what I wish to find out,” said Eric, rubbing his hands. “By George, I shall enjoy myself here. There’s some rascality going on that I can’t fathom.”

“It’s sure to be rascality if that Tyler is connected with it.”

“Humph. He bears a bad name, then?”

“The very worst. But if you will explain—”

“Gently! Gently. All in good time. By the way, who is Mother Mandarin?”

Hal became quite excited. “What, have you met her? Did she tell your fortune? Did she—”

“Has she told yours?” asked Eric, a sudden suspicion shooting into his mind.

“Yes. She said that I was going to get into trouble, and would be saved by a fair man, whom I said was you.”

“Ah! now I see. You told her my name.”

“Yes. In the course of our fortune-telling. Why?”

“You described my appearance, told her my profession, and said that I was walking from Greatix to Moncaster.”

“I told her all that, as I wished to know if you would arrive safe.”

Eric thought. “I was bound to come through Old Dexleigh if I came from Greatix. No wonder Mother Mandarin knew me. And I took her for a Witch of Endor.”

“And she is,” insisted Hal. “She tells the most wonderful things.”

“There is nothing more wonderful than herself. She is a well-bred woman. How does she come to live in that deserted village?”

“I can’t tell you that, but Mrs. Bellona may know.”

“Oh, ho! Is she a friend of Mrs. Bellona?”

“Yes. She was hired to tell fortunes at the bazaar last month. But I won’t tell you another thing unless you let me know what you are driving at. You slept in Dexleigh church last night?”

“Yes. I went there to hear a conversation!”

Hal looked shocked. “Oh, Baker. A man of honour…”

“Pooh. This is a case of no honour amongst thieves. I had no compunction in listening, I assure you. I may be able to prevent a crime, or something very nearly approaching one. Listen.”

Fearful lest Baker should change his mind and tell him nothing, Ferris simply nodded. Eric drew hard at his pipe, and after a puff or two to compose his nerves, he related his adventures in Old Dexleigh, commencing with his meeting Mother Mandarin, and ending with the departure of Luke and the stranger from the lonely church. “I didn’t follow them,” said Eric, “as I didn’t want to be dropped by Luke. The man would have shot me without the least hesitation had he known I had heard of his rascality. I bluffed him earlier in the day, but I didn’t hope to bluff him in the darkness. I simply stopped where I was and slept like a top, though I don’t mind telling you, old boy, that I was devilish hungry. I woke at dawn, and thinking it just as well to get out of the neighbourhood before my presence was suspected, I scrambled through the village unbeknown to anyone—I mean to my three friends—and soon fetched the crossroads. At a cottage I got some bread and milk, and tramped on here, to do justice to your very excellent breakfast.”

“What a mad creature you are, Eric.”

“I assure you I enjoyed myself no end. What do you think?”

Hal shook his head.

“I think you have been dreaming. Tyler is in too bad odour with the police to risk kidnapping Harding. Besides, I don’t see why he wants to do so.”

“I am very sure that the short stranger in the cloak knows,” said Eric, dryly, “and I mean to find out the reason. Also I intend to warn Harding. You must introduce me to him, and to Miss Bellona.”

“Why to her?”

“Because I am in love, and Harding or no Harding, I intend, if she is as nice as she looks, to marry her.”

“You won’t succeed. Her mother is ambitious.”

“A woman with such a name should be—the goddess of war. I dare say she’ll fight me. Well, I like fighting. The most important question is, whether my dark beauty loves Harding.”

“No, she loves no one.”

“Ah. Her heart had not been stirred. Well, we’ll see. I want to know Mrs. Bellona also, as it is important I should learn all that there is to be learned about Mother Mandarin.”

“Because she knew your name?”

“No. She came by that from your gabble. You have as long a tongue as ever, Hal. You must do penance by introducing me to these people.”

“That’s easily done. Mrs. Bellona gives a garden party in two days.”

“That will do. Introduce me as an interesting stranger. But a garden party in chilly May—ugh!” Eric, his blood thinned by tropic heats, shivered. “Mrs. Bellona must take her weather from the poets.”

“If you wish to see Miss Bellona sooner…?” began Ferris.

“Of course. I wish to feast my eyes on her rich eastern beauty as soon as I can.”

“Then she will probably be in the cathedral at eleven. I must go to service. Of course you are a Romanist—”

“And if I am, where could I more fitly worship than in yon noble pile, which you Protestants stole from us. We built all your churches.”

Ferris would have argued this point, for he was a most enthusiastic member of the Church of England. But Eric gave him no time. “If you argue theology at this hour,” he said impatiently, “I shall brain you on your own hearthrug. Take me to my room. I want a bath and a change of clothes.”

“Ah yes,” said Ferris leading the way. “Your boxes arrived yesterday by train.”

“Of course, I sent them on. You didn’t expect I would lug a box while on a walking tour. Let me put on my best kit so that Miss Bellona may fall in love with me.”

“She loves no one,” said Ferris again, as he opened the door of the room allotted to the traveller.

“Not even Julian Harding to whom she is engaged? Well in that case, I really think I am justified in letting him be kidnapped.”

“Oh that’s all bosh,” said Ferris laughing.

“We’ll see. Mind you hold that long tongue of yours, Hal.”

“I’ll not say a word,” replied Ferris earnestly. “I don’t want you to be taken for a lunatic.”

“A very dirty lunatic,” retorted Eric who by this time was rapidly peeling. “Get out, I’m going to tub. The bath-room’s at the end of the passage! All right.”

“Where’s my dressing-gown, and sponges, and flesh-gloves, and—Oh,” here Eric broke off, singing, “She’s the beauty of the world, and I love her so dearly—”

“You’re quite mad,” said Ferris banging the bed-room door.

“Mad with the joy of life,” shouted Baker through the door.

Hal trotted back to his sitting-room much cheered by the society of his friend. He usually was cheerful, but Eric’s spirits always raised his own to fever-heat. All the years he had known Baker, the man was always thus, gay, high-spirited, filled with health, and what he himself called the joy of life. “And such a determined chap he is,” said little Ferris sitting down at his desk. “I believe he’ll marry Judith after all. He’ll have a good try for it at all events. But that kidnapping business is rubbish.”

All the same he knew Eric was not given to waste his time in talking rubbish. But the idea was so wild that Hal could not help thinking Baker must have dreamed it. That a well-known man should be kidnapped in an English city savoured too much of melodrama. In spite of his belief in Eric, the little music master could not credit that such a plot was in existence. Dismissing the subject he wrote a note to Mrs. Bellona asking if he could bring his friend Mr. Baker to her unseasonable garden party, only he suppressed the uncomplimentary word.

Meantime Eric was plunging in cold water, and singing at the top of his voice as he rolled and scrubbed and towelled himself. He had a fine baritone, and trolled out a Carolean love ditty with great gusto. As a rule his visits to the old country bored him, so the prospect of an adventure, and one in which the woman he loved was concerned made him quite joyous. But when he was dressing he asked himself seriously, if he really did love Judith Bellona. He had seen her only once, and their eyes had met, but the look she gave him, and the proud beauty of her face had remained in his memory ever since. If this were not love would he retain such a vivid recollection of her face. He had seen plenty of women before and since, but this was the sole woman he had thus remembered. Eric was something of a fatalist, and he could not help thinking that he had been brought into the life of Judith for some special purpose.

“If I had not been taken with thy face so long ago, I should not have troubled to have come to Moncaster in spite of Hal’s invitation. And if I had not come, I would not have been involved in that adventure at Old Dexleigh. The man Tyler proposes to kidnap is engaged to the woman whose face has dwelt in my memory all these years. I met that old Mother Mandarin of whom Judith’s mother knows something. It’s all of a piece, and the Fates are working out a scheme which brings me into active participation in moulding her life. Well, so much the better. She’s the beauty of the world,” and he began singing again, till he broke off to utter aloud a determination. “By George, I’ll get Hal to place that portrait in my bed-room, and if he won’t I’ll steal it.”

Being now washed and clothed, and as much in his right mind as love would permit him to be—if the strong fancy he clung to really was love—Eric walked briskly into the sitting-room. He looked bright-eyed, clean, fresh, and a darling of Nature as regards looks and good spirits. To relieve these he used Hal as a dumbell and swung him up in the air, until he begged to be set down.

“What would the Bishop say if he saw his choirmaster thus,” said the dignified Ferris.

“That depends upon what sort of bishop he is.”

“A very jolly sort, but his daughter is stiff.”

“And kind-hearted. Did she not get my Hal his post? Come along to your duty.”

“Do behave yourself in church,” pleaded Ferris putting on his hat.

“I won’t answer for myself if I see the beauty of the world smiling on my unworthy self,” said the gay young man. “Oh I tread on air, and she is fair, and it becomes a lover to be débonnaire.”

“You’re not her lover yet,” warned Hal, as they left the house. “You may never be.”

“Success favours the brave,” said the undaunted Eric, and taking Hal’s arm they left the house.

The bells were calling to the service, and the Close was filling with people, mostly of the gentle sex. Ferris seemed to be well-known and liked, for his hat was constantly in his hand, and he received many smiles and bows. Some curious glances were cast on his tall companion, and Eric heard one damsel whisper to another, that he must be “an officer boy,” whereat he laughed outright.

“I must look younger than my thirty years, Hal,” said he.

At the door, Ferris parted from his companion, to attend to his duties. Eric walked up the aisle and chose a seat where he could obtain an excellent view of the congregation. Meantime pending the sight of any particularly pretty face, he amused himself with looking round the immense building.

St. Wulf is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in England. It has three naves, in which Cromwell’s troopers stabled their horses during the Great Civil Wars. These same troopers smashed all or most of the windows, but the stained glass has been replaced. The West and East windows are ancient, but the others distinctly modern, being put up to various sons of Moncaster who have earned such honour. Also there were many brass plates to the memory of heroes, and here and there a tomb of ancient date with half obliterated inscriptions. Round the building still clung the faint scent of incense, for the last bishop had been high-church. The present one was moderate, and the service offended nobody.

Through the painted windows streamed the thin spring sunlight, and in the semi-gloom of the sacred building, Eric could see the congregation streaming in by twos and threes. The worshippers were mostly women, for the masculine population of Moncaster thought that to attend service on Sunday was sufficient for their soul’s salvation. They did not want to have too much of a good thing.

But before Eric could further examine his surroundings the organ rolled out its stately music, and the choir in snowy robes streamed up the aisle followed by a minor canon, and a meek curate. The service was a short one, and was distinguished chiefly by the exquisite music. The clear high voices of the boys, and the deeper tones of the men blended fervently in the rendering of the psalms. “Oh Lord our Governour, how excellent is thy Name in all the world.” The sublime words borne on wings of sound soared aloft to the carved roof, and rolled in musical thunder through the many arches. Such magnificent harmonies induced a religious sober frame of mind, and Eric listened attentively to the reading of the lessons. He was not a particularly pious young man although he attended the services of his own church whenever he had a chance. Perhaps owing to this carelessness, he was unfettered by sectarian prejudices, for he profoundly admired the beauty of the Anglican liturgy. He followed the service pretty well, although he twice forgot that he was in a heretic shrine and crossed himself with fervour. Those damsels who watched him, thought he was high-church.

While the canon was delivering a short discourse in prosy tones, Eric grew weary and glanced around. He now saw many pretty faces, and amongst them a dark eastern countenance which he recognised at once. Without doubt this lady who seemed so attentive to her devotions was Judith Bellona. She was dressed in black, and wore, in odd contrast, a scarlet hat. The effect was striking, and the brilliant colour suited her clear-cut pensive face. She was undeniably lovely, but appeared somewhat sad. For a time she did not notice Eric, then she began to move uneasily, and did not pay so much attention as formerly to the prosy canon. Without doubt she felt the influence of his steady gaze, and Eric tried by concentrating his thoughts to force her to look round. Finally she did so, and their eyes met. It seemed that she recognised him for a faint blush crept over her dark cheek, and she hastily turned away her head. For the rest of the service Eric saw only her smooth coils of dark hair, and the pink shell of her right ear.

When the service was ended, he quite forgot that he was in a Protestant cathedral, and hastened to the door in the hope that he might be allowed to offer her the holy water. Waiting in the porch he met her face to face, but by this time he remembered that there was no chance of beginning an acquaintance by means of holy water. However he stood still hat in hand, looking gallant and débonnaire and stared boldly at her. She was alone, and in her gloved hands crossed before her she held a small prayer-book. He thought he had never seen so beautiful a woman. She resembled an Andalusian beauty, and there was something of the East in her rich colouring and pensive looks. When she saw him, to his surprise she hesitated as though afraid to pass. Baker could not understand this, as they had met only once, and then had exchanged but a single glance. But there was recognition in her eyes, and he felt, he knew not why, that she knew him better than he knew her. The situation and the feeling puzzled him not a little.

At last Miss Bellona made up her mind to come out. With a slow step she came past, but stopped suddenly with a flush on her face, and an anxious look in her eyes. To Eric’s astonishment she spoke.

“Leave Moncaster at once, Mr. Baker,” she said. “At once.”

Chapter 5
Eric’s History

Eric said nothing to Hal about the strange speech which Miss Bellona had made him in the porch: but he thought a great deal about it. Why had she warned him? How did she come to know his name. The recognition of Mother Mandarin had been explained, but how to account for Miss Bellona’s knowledge? He questioned Ferris.

“Have you a photograph of mine?” he asked.

“No. You never would give me one,” replied Ferris in an injured tone. “I do call it a—”

“Did you tell Miss Bellona that I was coming to Moncaster?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“Did you describe my looks to her?”

“I did not. She knows nothing about you or that I have such a friend as yourself. Of course she will know by this time, as I wrote asking Mrs. Bellona if I could bring you to the party.”

“Could she have seen the letter before we went to the service?”

“No, I didn’t post it till I came out.”

“H’m!” said Baker reflectively. “I wonder how she knew. No, don’t bother, Hal, there’s a good chap I’ve nothing to tell you,” he hesitated then continued. “But I’m anxious to meet your beauty.”

“Yours you mean—your Juliet,” said Ferris, and the conversation ended for the time being.

Eric was extremely puzzled, to account for Miss Bellona’s knowledge of his appearance, and still more perplexed that she should make so strange a speech to him. He had never been in Moncaster before, and saw no reason why he should leave it. Was he in danger? and if so from what quarter would it come? He determined to ask Miss Bellona when he met her at the party. In any case he was resolved to stand his ground. Baker was not the man to be daunted by shadows, or by any real danger for the matter of that.

Hal Ferris proved to be an excellent host. He gave Eric good dinners, and made him comfortable in every way. Also he took him to the Club, where Baker was introduced to several old fogies, who asked him if he was in the army and took no further interest in him when they found he wasn’t. Also there were casual meetings on the street, and it was on one of these occasions that Hal presented his friend to a gigantic fresh-coloured lady, who could have made two of the delicate little man. This was Miss Matty Dame, the beloved of the little musician. She was a jolly, bouncing, hail-fellow sort of girl, with a hearty voice, and a free manner. When they left her, Eric could not help expressing his surprise at Hal’s choice.

“You don’t mean to say you’ll marry her,” he said.

“Why not. She is a lady, and likes me.”

“But she is so big and you—”

Hal stood on his tip-toes. “I’m not so very small,” he expostulated.

“Too small for her,” retorted Eric, with a shrug. “But I suppose it’s Nature, that little men should marry big women. She’ll be master.”

“Oh dear me no. She has a most gentle nature.”

“What! with those grenadier looks, and that stentorian voice?”

“Eric! She is the sweetest flower that blows.”

“Of the peony species I grant you,” bantered Baker. Then seeing that Ferris, who was a touchy little man, seemed offended, he apologised, “I beg pardon, old man, but the long and the short of it—eh?”

“We can’t all be Miss Bellona’s,” snapped Ferris.

“No, by Jove. She’s the beauty of the world.”

“Eric if you sing in the street—I’ll be taken for one of your pupils. Never mind my pocket, Don Juan, you shall marry your Boadicea, and I’ll be best man.”

Hal looked apprehensively at his handsome friend. “Don’t cut me out,” he said plaintively.

“I might,” said Eric wickedly, “I like peonies.”

But Ferris really seemed wounded by this aimless chatter, so Baker held his peace. He was fond of the little Dresden-china man, and knew how sensitive was his nature. He therefore told Hal that his heart was wrapped up in Miss Bellona, that he didn’t care for the full-blown tulip, and that he would praise Ferris to his inamorata so that she might be disposed to accept his hand. “Not that she needs much pressing,” said Eric smiling.

At this moment they were walking along the embankment, which was the fashionable promenade of Moncaster. Here the river ran between stone walls, and was increased in volume thereby. A three-arched bridge was thrown across to the other side, whereon was built the more modern portion of the city. The embankment was extremely handsome, and along it ran three lines of lime and sycamore trees, under the boughs of which Moncaster lovers whispered soft nothings. At present the trees were almost leafless, but the thin line of green running along the branches hinted at spring. Few people were on the promenade as the day was chilly; but suddenly Ferris uttered an exclamation. “There’s Merston,” he said.

“Where?” asked Eric, curious to see the man whom Pansey loved. At least, from the hint given by Tyler, he presumed that she loved him or he loved her.

“The chap getting out of the boat.”

“Oh!” said Baker, craning over the wall, “can you get to Old Dexleigh by the river?”

“I suppose you can, as it flows past the ruined village.”

Ferris nodded.

“It’s only seven miles by river,” he explained.

“And ten by road,” mused Eric, storing this fact in his memory, for he did not know but what it might prove useful.

“People are fond of picnicing at Old Dexleigh in summer,” went on Hal. “The church makes a jolly place to eat one’s luncheon in. Here comes Merston. Hullo, old chap!

The approaching man was not very tall, but strongly and broadly built. His face was clean shaven, and his hair red. He had a lowering expression, and looked a truculent bull-dog of the true British breed. Eric could fancy that such a scowling brute—as he looked—could well hold his own against Mr. Tyler. All the same he rather pitied Pansey for having such a lover. The man was too close a copy of her respectable father. But perhaps she liked being beaten.

“Day, Ferris,” jerked out Merston, who was sparing of words and courtesy, “goin’ on th’ river?”

“No. Have you been to Old Dexleigh?”

Merston scowled. “What the deuce has that to do with you?” he asked, then seeing from the astonished expression on Hal’s face that he had made the remark in all innocence, he apologised. “Beg pardon! but I’ve got a beastly headache from rowing too long. I was at Hornby Mill, eight miles up,” and he stared at Baker.

“My friend, Mr. Baker,” said Ferris, “Mr. Merston!”

“Glad to meet you,” growled the red-headed man. “Stayin’ here?”

“For a time. It’s a pretty place.”

“Dull hole. The country round about’s beastly.”

“I can’t agree with you,” said Eric dryly. “I walked here, and thought the scenery charming.”

“Walked here!” echoed Mr. Merston, and then a delighted expression overspread his vacuous features.

“Gad, sir,” said he, “you’re the man who punched Tyler.”

“I had that honour. How’s his eye?”

Merston roared, and looked admiringly at Eric’s inches. “By Jove,” he said with genuine pleasure, “I should have liked to see you pitch into the brute. He can fight too.”

“Got no science, Mr. Merston.”

“And you have, I should say from the way you pasted him.”

Baker laughed. “I’m used to dealing with that sort of animal,” he replied lightly. “You see I’m an engineer, and in South America and other parts, one requires to use one’s fists at times. Besides my interference was really justifiable. Tyler was beating his daughter.”

Merston scowled again, and clenched a large fist. “I’d hammer him myself if I saw that,” he said between his teeth, “but he’d better take care. She’s got gipsy blood in her, and is just the sort of girl to stick a knife into him.”

“Someone told me you were engaged to marry her,” said Hal suddenly.

The man turned on him savagely. “It’s a lie. Men of my position don’t marry gipsy wenches.”

“Well, if you don’t marry her, your rival will.”

“My rival!” The blood rushed to Merston’s face, and he seemed to swell with fury, “Who the” adjective, “is my rival?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Ferris smoothly; “only I did hear another chap was hanging round after Pansey.”

Merston was about to burst forth with a volley of words unpublishable, but with a mighty effort he restrained himself, and turning abruptly on his heel, walked away. Ferris laughed.

“I gave him his gruel that time,” said Hal maliciously.

“But I say,” said Eric, as they resumed their walk, “is there really another chap after the girl?”

“Yes. I heard that Julian Harding—?”

“What, the man who is engaged to that angel?”

“The identical person.” Ferris paused while Eric expressed his wrath at Mr. Harding’s taste. “You see he doesn’t love her overmuch, nor does she care much for him.”

“Then why are they engaged?”

“It’s a family arrangement between old Harding and Mrs. Bellona. I think Julian’s a scamp myself. He’s hand and glove with Merston, who is no great shakes.”

“Then Merston must know that Harding is his rival.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Harding is as clever as Merston is stupid. If he likes Pansey, he can keep it dark—so can she. It’s my opinion that she cares for neither of them, but she gets all she can out of them. She’s a straight girl too.”

“That conduct doesn’t sound very straight.”

“Oh, she’s clever enough to make hay while the sun shines. I heard that she’s really sweet on a gipsy chap, her cousin on the mother’s side. A fellow called Jerry Lovel—”

“That’s a gipsy name sure enough.”

“I believe the late Mrs. Tyler was a Romany. However Jerry and Pansey are as thick as thieves—”

“And perhaps are thieves.”

“If occasion serves. However, I said before and I say again, the girl is quite straight and only plays Harding off against Merston, but it’s Jerry she cottons to all the time.”

“How the deuce do you know all this gossip?” asked Baker amused.

“Mother Mandarin told me most of it,” said Ferris with a side-look at his friend.

“That mysterious old woman. Humph! Seems to me, Hal, that she’s trying to make bad blood with her cackle.” Eric shook his head. “I do not understand what it’s all about. There’s some mystery connected with these matters, and I’m mixed up in it.”

“In what way?”

“I can’t say, but—” Eric shook his head again. “I’ll give you my opinion after Mrs. Bellona’s garden party.”

No more was said at the moment as Ferris was now engaged in the serious occupation of pricing a fish. But after dinner on that same night the conversation was resumed. The curtains were drawn, the fire was burning briskly, and the two men had drawn in their chairs. On a small table between them was coffee and a box of cigarettes. These were for Ferris, as Eric preferred his beloved pipe. The room looked cosy and comfortable, and as the lamp was shaded with a pink silk shade a red glow was spread throughout the apartment. Eric would have been happy and comfortable had he not been so perplexed. But these continual mysteries of which he had no knowledge worried him not a little. He felt like a man who walks in the dark without being able to guard against unknown dangers. Yet Baker was by no means a nervous or apprehensive man.

“You’re not yourself to-night,” said Ferris observing his friend to be unusually silent.

Eric explained so much of his fears as he thought fit, but these did not include the mysterious warning of Miss Bellona. “And I don’t know what to make of it all,” he finished, staring at the fire.

“Is there nothing in your life?” began Ferris meditatively.

“Nothing,” interrupted Eric with a shrug. “I’m not what you call a good young man, but I have never done anything shady. The life pages of my thirty years can be shown to anyone, not too prudish.”

“What about your parents?” asked Hal still pursuing his shadow.

“I know very little about them, and what I do know was told to me by my uncle Wilfred.”

“I didn’t know you had an uncle.”

“It was not necessary to tell you. I talk a lot but I can keep my own council when necessary. Besides my uncle and I have very little in common. He is a port wine gentleman, more like a debauched rake of the Regency than a man of to-day. He brought me up, when my parents died, but I never had much respect for him.”

“Did your parents die young,—I mean when you were young?”

Eric stared hard at the fire and pulled at his pipe. “So far as I am concerned they could not have died much younger. I was a posthumous child. My father died six months before I was born.”

“And your mother?”

“She died in giving birth to me!”

“Then you know nothing about them.”

“Only what my uncle Wilfred told me. He was my mother’s brother.

“Wilfred what?”

“Blundel.—Wilfred Blundel, a small squire of Blundel Hall in Essex.”

“Is he married?”

“No—the old rip. He prefers his bottle to his wife. Finishes a couple every night, and goes to bed sober.”

Hal shivered, being addicted himself to temperance drinks. “What a head he must have.”

“He’s got no brains if that’s what you mean. If it wasn’t for his confessor, Father Prue, he’d have drunk himself into the family vault long ago.”

“Are you his heir?”

“No, he has left what he has—and that’s precious little—to the church. Father Prue saw to that. When he dies there’s an end to the Blundels of Wargrove, and not much loss either. My mother was the best of them, rest her soul.”

“Well,” said Ferris reflectively, “there’s not much mystery about this. Your uncle brought you up?”

“He permitted me to stop at the Hall, if you call that being brought up. My earliest recollection is of a walled garden with peach and nectarine trees, and a fat woman who was my nurse. She was replaced by a thin-lipped shrew whom I hated. I believe she was of French extraction, and I dreaded her shrill voice. How that Hortense did tyrannize over me, poor little devil. I had a miserable childhood.”

“Then you went to school?”

Eric nodded. “To Rugby. I liked that, and got on very well, especially in mathematics and athletics. I spent my holidays with various chums, and rarely went back to the hall. When I did, old Blundel was always the same frowning, purple-faced brute. He was desperately afraid of Father Prue though,” finished Eric with a grin.”

“And when you left school?”

“You are determined to have my whole history, Hal,” said the young man good-naturedly. “Well I studied for my profession, and was sent out to a fever swamp in Africa with a survey party. I believe my uncle got me that billet. I came back alive, however, and then he sent me to South America, into the wilds where I was nearly killed. After that I concluded that his choice of localities was too dangerous, so I went on my own. I’ve been all over the world as you know, and on the whole I have done pretty well. I hope to retire at the age of forty and marry.”

“Judith?”

“If she’ll have me, and Harding doesn’t carry off the prize.”

Ferris was silent for a few moments.

“I say, Eric,” he asked after some reflection, “was your uncle glad to see you back?”

“I don’t think he was ever glad to see me in his life. But Father Prue certainly was not. Why do you ask?”

“It strikes me,” said Ferris slowly, “that you were sent to those places to be got rid of.”

Baker stared. “To be got rid of,” he repeated, “why do you say that?”

“Well, both the places you were sent to were dangerous, and it seems that neither the priest nor your uncle were pleased to see you back.”

“They had small love for me,” said Eric shrugging. “But why should they wish me harm? I inherited three hundred a year from my father so that was not enough to tempt either into a crime. Besides Father Prue’s a good sort although he’s got a hard nature. No, Hal, I don’t think your surmise is a good one.”

“Well,” said Ferris with a yawn, “it’s only a fancy. What was your father?”

“Oh, a wanderer without a profession. He was always travelling in South America, which seemed to be his favourite locality from what my uncle told me. I inherit his gipsy blood.”

“Is that all you know of your parents?”

“Everything! A very dull history isn’t it.”

“You are a Romanist, ain’t you?

“Yes! Why do you ask?”

“Well, Mrs. Bellona is a Romanist also!”

“There’s nothing extraordinary about that.”

“No, I don’t say that there is. But I was thinking that since you love Miss Bellona, it’s a pity she doesn’t follow the religion of her mother. She belongs to the Anglican communion.”

“I thought so when I saw her in the cathedral. It’s a pity, but I daresay religion will be no obstacle. Lots of Romanists marry Protestants. But of course all this is moonshine. I may not really be in love, as I fancy myself, and on the face of this, my expressing myself about a woman I know so little of in this love-lorn way is bosh. Besides, as she is engaged to Harding, there will be no chance for me.”

“Unless Harding marries that gipsy girl.”

“Merston will stop that. He is desperately in love with Pansey. I can see that. But I expect she’ll keep to her own set, and become the wife of Jerry Lovel.”

“Well,” said Ferris, “from all you have told me there doesn’t seem to be anything in your life likely to mix you up in any mystery.”

“I am beginning to be of that opinion myself,” said Eric. “After all, I know how Mother Mandarin came to speak my name. You told her about me and she recognised me. But Miss Bellona—” he shook his head.

“Ah, you think there’s a mystery about her,” said Hal. “Well, I have kept back a piece of news to the last. Have you seen your uncle?”

“No. He doesn’t want me.”

“Have you heard from him?”

“Not a line. Why do you ask?”

“Well,” said Hal, slowly, “Mrs. Bellona is a Romanist.”

“You said that before.”

“Quite so, but what I did not say is that her confessor is Father Prue, the priest you talk about.”

Chapter 6
The Garden-Party

Mrs. Bellona expressed herself only too pleased to see any friend of Mr. Ferris at her party; so to The Nun’s House went Eric, and his Fidus Achates. This mansion was built on a lawn which sloped down to the river, and according to the Moncaster Guide-book, was all that remained of a convent, famous in pre-Reformation times. The church attached to it, the refectory, and the ancient cloisters where the holy sisters had formerly walked, were in ruins, but the habitable portion of the mansion was in excellent repair. In fact, much of it had been patched up with stones from the chapel. The church was as ruinous as that of Old Dexleigh, and overgrown with ivy. What with the velvety lawns, the picturesque ruins, and the aged oaks, elms, sycamores and beeches, Nun’s House was an ideal place for a garden-party. The day also was warm and sunny, so Mrs. Bellona had every reason to be satisfied.

Hal was daintily dressed, in the smartest of frockcoats, the most shiny of tall hats, and wore a flower in his button-hole. He should have been put under a glass shade as something too precious for ordinary use. So Miss Mattie told him, and gazed at her musician while paying him the compliment with adoring eyes. She took possession of the little man immediately he had presented Eric to his hostess, and swept him off to a gay coterie of ladies who made much of him. Undoubtedly Hal Ferris was extremely popular in Moncaster.

Mrs. Bellona was tall and dark, stately and cold, and resembled her daughter in appearance. Her black hair, however, was threaded with silver, and she had an anxious expression on her face which was wanting on the more placid countenance of Judith. Richly dressed in black silk, with a sable cloak, and armed with a lorgnette, she received Eric politely, and apparently without much interest. But Mr. Baker was observant, and he noted that her colour rose, and her fingers involuntarily clenched themselves on the tortoise-shell holder of the lorgnette when he was presented. It struck him that Mrs. Bellona knew something about him. This thought taken in conjunction with the extraordinary speech of Judith in the porch, led him to believe that his hostess did not altogether approve of him. However, she was extremely civil, and after exhibiting that one sign of emotion at the outset, she relapsed into her own cold, self-contained manner, which chilled the gayest person.

“You are stopping with Mr. Ferris, I hear,” said Mrs. Bellona, sweeping the lawn with her lorgnette, and averting her eyes from the face of her guest, purposely, as he thought.

“I have come down to pay him a visit.”

“Do you stay here long?”

It might have been Baker’s fancy, but he thought, there was a shade of anxiety in her manner. Keeping his eyes steadily on her averted face, Eric nodded. Surprised at not hearing his reply, and not seeing the sign of affirmation, Mrs. Bellona was forced to look round, which was just what Eric intended she should do. “I beg your pardon,” he said blandly, having achieved his object, “I stay for three or four weeks, as the fancy takes me.”

“And afterwards?”

Eric shrugged his shoulders good-humouredly, and wondered why she was so inquisitive.

“I go to South America.”

“To South America!” echoed Mrs. Bellona, with another access of colour. “To—to—” she hesitated, then spoke with a rush, “to Lima?”

Eric laughed, but wondered why she had mentioned that particular city.

“No such luck, Mrs. Bellona. I have to camp out on the pampas.

“You are an engineer?” she asked calmly.

“I am. The Government of Tarapaca has engaged me to build a railway from the capital to an inland country. To carry grain, I believe. I understand that Tarapaca is to be the granary of the Old World.”

“Is it a dangerous country?”

“Well, no, not if a man keeps his eyes open, and is a clean shot. I have been in more dangerous places in my time.”

“How dull this life must be for you here. I wonder you don’t get back to the wilds as quickly as possible.”

“Oh, there’s nothing like change,” replied Eric easily. “The delight of life lies in contrast. Besides, everything amuses me.”

Mrs. Bellona looked at his trim figure, at his keen blue eyes, and general air of alertness, with interest.

“You look as though you enjoyed life,” she said, with a half sigh.

“I do,” assented Eric, heartily. “A man who is prepared for anything, both for good and bad fortune, and is prepared to take either in a philosophic manner, usually does enjoy life.”

“Do you think it likely you will meet with bad fortune?”

Eric shrugged.

“One never knows. Adventure and danger are to be met with in the most unlikely places.”

“Such as—?” inquired Mrs. Bellona, smiling with her lips, but anxious as regarded the expression in her eyes.

Baker bowed, with a compliment, and declined to give her the information he saw she wanted.

“Such as here, Mrs. Bellona. I shall lose my heart in Moncaster. The girls are so pretty.”

“Ah! you are young—young,” rejoined the lady, indulgently. “Well, Mr. Baker, I hope I shall see something of you while you are here.”

“Delighted,” answered the young man, and was forthwith introduced to a faded lady who had been a belle in her day, and who still had sufficient confidence in her attractions to make agreeable love to Eric. He replied politely to her sallies, but his thoughts were with his stately hostess, now attending to other guests.

It seemed to Eric that Mrs. Bellona wanted him to leave Moncaster, and her enquiry as to the danger of the places he had been in would almost indicate that she would be pleased to see him in difficulties. Yet he had never seen Mrs. Bellona before, and he saw no reason why she should wish him ill. Suddenly he espied a tall thin man in a priest’s gown, and he recognised him at once. Hal’s remark about the disappointment of his uncle and of Father Prue when he returned from his earlier expeditions occurred to his mind, and he wondered if there was anything in it. The fact that Father Prue was here, and that Mrs. Bellona wished him away, and that Judith had warned him to leave the city, seemed all of a piece. Eric was quite mystified. He knew that his hostess would not speak, and his acquaintance with Father Prue assured him that there was nothing to be learned in that quarter, but Judith—he looked round for Judith.

“I don’t see Miss Bellona here?” he remarked to his giddy companion.

Mrs. Arthur giggled as she usually did when about to say something foolish. “Ah, Mr. Harding is here, you see. I forgot you don’t know Mr. Harding. He is engaged to marry Miss Bellona, and naturally—” Mrs. Arthur sighed and shot a glance at Eric, “you understand, Mr. Baker.”

“And you also,” he replied, unable to resist a dig at her vanity. “We have been young ourselves, Mrs. Arthur.”

The lady drew herself up haughtily. She was about to make a snappish answer, for the subject of her age was a delicate one. But on glancing at Baker’s handsome face, and remembering that he had coupled himself with her in the remark, she softened. “Quite a hundred years ago, Mr. Baker. Heigh-ho! As a woman I find the thirties trying.”

“You mean the twenties,” said Eric, forced by her eager manner to pay the compliment, although Mrs. Arthur would never see forty again.

She was quite delighted, and swallowed the flattery with a sweet smile. “How you men find us out,” said Mrs. Arthur, tapping him with a useless fan, which she carried because it looked Spanish. “Oh, here is that horrid priest. What a sly face—don’t you think so. I do believe he’s a Jesuit like the Wandering Jew—you know Eugene Sue, Mr. Baker.”

“I never met him,” replied Eric gravely.

“Oh, you know what I mean quite well—the book. But how Mrs. Bellona can have such a man as her confessor—fancy having a confessor. It does sound like the Tower of London, and all that sort of thing.”

“Has Father Prue been here long?”

“Oh, you know his name. Really how odd. No, he hasn’t been here more than two months. He came with a stout man with a red face, and such a dislike for us—I mean for our sex,” Mrs. Arthur giggled.

“Was he a Mr. Blundel?” asked Eric wondering why his uncle had visited Moncaster.

Mrs. Arthur nodded with a trill of rather shrill laughter. “The very monster in question. Do you know him—really?” Then, without waiting for a reply: “If you do just tell him I think he’s a horrid crocodile.”

“I hope I am not a horrid crocodile, Mrs. Arthur.”

“Ah, now you’re fishing,” said the lady playfully. “Why, here’s Freddy. How do, Freddy. How glum you look.”

Freddy was a tall officer just over twenty—the kind of ass who would love a woman twice his age. Evidently he had a fancy for Mrs. Arthur’s mutton-dressed-as-lamb. He scowled on Eric, who looked at him with the calmest of blue eyes, and willingly surrendered his fair companion, whom he found a great bore. “Oh, you horrid Freddy,” he heard her say, as she fluttered away on the idiot’s arm, “how can you be so stupid. I really can’t help if the men will—etc., etc.”

“Lord,” thought Eric cynically, “what fools there are in this world. Wonder where the padre is. H’m! I’d like to find out how he and the uncle came to know Mrs. Bellona. She was an unknown quantity when I saw them last.”

A quick survey showed him that Father Prue was standing alone by the river looking at the placid tide. With his sombre dress, and grave manner, and pronounced isolation he looked singularly out of place in that gay assemblage. The lawn was like a tulip-garden with the bright dresses of the ladies, for in spite of the early spring, all who attended had put on new costumes. Luckily the clerk of the weather was kind, and the day was warm, else their gauze and ribbons, and thin shoes would have looked out of place, and severe chills would have caused many to remember Mrs. Bellona’s function.

“Good-day, father,” said Eric, approaching the solemn man. “I did not expect to find you here.”

“Nor I you,” rejoined the priest shaking hands coldly. “What brings you to Moncaster, Eric?”

“I came to enjoy the society of a friend. And my uncle?”

“He is as well as can be expected considering his habits,” said Father Prue, with a keen glance. “Why did you not call at the Hall?”

“Well, sir, to tell you the truth, I don’t think my uncle would make me welcome,” replied Eric calmly.

“That is untrue,” rejoined the priest, “your uncle was always kind to you. He is not a demonstrative man.”

“He was not actively unkind, but he took absolutely no notice of me—no more than he would have taken of a dog.”

“He has his faults, Eric. But you might have come to see me.”

“Would you have been pleased to see me?” asked Eric bluntly.

Father Prue thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said looking at the tall self-possessed young man. “Our natures clash, but I think I should have been pleased to see you. I am pleased now.” Then to obviate the danger of an answer, he added. “You are looking well.”

“I can’t say the same of you, Father,” answered Baker, with a critical look, “you seem older.”

“It is two years since we met. Naturally I seem older.”

The priest’s face was deeply pitted with small-pox: he wore a pair of blue glasses for his weak eyes, and he was almost bald. Yet about him lingered the remains of good looks. With his oval face, his thin high-arched nose and noble forehead, Eric could imagine that at one time he had been a presentable man. His manner was cold and calm with an authoritative air, which came from long domination of Wilfred Blundel. He habitually kept his eyes downcast, and spoke in so low a voice that it was hardly audible. What passed in his mind it was impossible to say as his face was absolutely expressionless. Yet as he looked at Eric a faint colour flushed his cheeks, and he drew a quick breath pressing his hand to his side as though he felt there a cruel pain.

“What is the matter?” asked Baker quickly.

“Nothing; a stitch in the side; I’ll see you later. “I am glad to see that you are looking so well,” and Father Prue, resuming his usual icy demeanour, walked away with his hands behind his back. Wherever he went he seemed to chill those he approached. Laughter ceased and voices dropped, and faces lost their smiles when he came on the scene.”

Eric found it difficult to analyse his sensations regarding Father Prue. The man had always behaved coldly to him, yet at times had shown him kindness only to be succeeded by the most distant demeanour. Also at times he would look at the young man with almost an expression of pain, and when observed would frown as though the sight of him was distasteful. Baker could not say whether Father Prue liked or disliked him, and on his part he could not make up his own mind. One time he was drawn to the man by the glimpse of a kindly nature, at another he was repelled by the scarcely concealed repulsion with which the priest appeared to regard him. To Eric the man was a problem.

“I wish I had asked him how he came to know Mrs. Bellona,” mused the young man staring at the glittering waters of the river. “I expect my uncle made her acquaintance while I was away this trip. Yet it is not like Uncle Wilfred to go into society, much less lend his confessor to a lady. He is such a woman hater.”

Thus musing he turned towards the lawn, thinking his isolation would look rude. As he stepped round the bole of an ancient beech he came face to face with Miss Bellona. She was alone, and looked particularly handsome in a dress of primrose with hat and gloves to match. The faint colour suited her dark beauty, and as the costume was made perfectly plain, the majesty of her gait was enhanced. Eric—a rare thing for him—flushed at the sight of her lovely face, and took off his tall hat with a profound bow.

“I must introduce myself,” he said, smiling, “if there is any need of an introduction.”

Judith Bellona was perfectly composed, and surveyed him calmly. “I do not think there is,” she answered. “Father Prue, to whom I saw you talking has often spoken of you.”

“Kindly, I trust, Miss Bellona.”

“Very kindly,” she answered emphatically, then seeing his look of surprise. “Did you expect him to abuse you?”

“Not quite, but I never thought he liked me.”

Miss Bellona shrugged her shapely shoulders. “He likes no one, he admires no one,” she said, “I think he is a piece of ice, a cold man without a human feeling. He is charitable, kindly in some ways, and is truly good, but as for getting him to express any human feeling—” she shrugged again, “that is impossible.”

“You met my uncle I believe.”

This time Judith smiled. “He did me the honour to say that he hated women,” she said, “and I replied that women returned the compliment.” She paused, then looked up frankly. “I don’t like your uncle, Mr. Baker. He is—well—perhaps I should not say.”

“An old rip,” suggested Eric. “Don’t be afraid of hurting my feelings. We are the worst of friends. What was he doing here?”

“He came to The Wells,” mentioning a place fifteen miles away, “for his gout: My mother met him there, and asked him over.”

“Did she know him?”

“I think not. But she knew Father Prue. She is of the religion.”

Eric nodded. “So my friend Ferris told me.”

“Then you must have been surprised at seeing me in the cathedral,” said Judith with a laugh. “I am of my father’s faith. But my mother is a staunch Romanist. Father Prue was attached to the church she visited in London. I think indeed she confessed to him. When she met him at The Wells, she was pleased, and asked him over along with Mr. Blundel. Your uncle went away last week, but Father Prue finding this place is good for his health intends to remain for a month.”

“It’s very good of you to tell me all this,” said Baker, wondering why she was so friendly.

“Does that mean that I am a chatterbox,” she answered smiling. “I am not as a rule. But you see I have heard a great deal about you.”

“From my well-wisher the good Father.”

“Ah, do not sneer, Mr. Baker,” she said earnestly, “I assure you he praises you very much. He has told me of your exploits in America, and of the many brave deeds you have done.”

The colour deepened in Eric’s sunburnt cheek. “It is good of him to praise the absent who are generally wrong,” he said. “But you must not believe all those idle tales. They were told by a fellow, for whom I did some slight service.”

“Do you call saving life a slight service. I heard how you rescued the man—I forget his name but Father Prue told me—from the river. And then there is Mr. Ferris.”

“What about him?”

“You were a good Samaritan to Mr. Ferris.

Eric was half annoyed, half amused. “Confound him,” he said. “I beg your pardon, Miss Bellona, but he told me he had said nothing.”

“He’s afraid of you,” she rejoined laughing, “and swore me to secrecy also, when he told me. But I said I would speak to you whenever I saw you. Don’t let your light be hid under a bushel, Mr. Baker.”

“You will make me vain, Miss Bellona.” Eric paused, then looked at her inquiringly. “Do you know, we have met before.”

“You can hardly call it meeting, Mr. Baker. We exchanged one glance in the Park two years ago.”

Baker was delighted. “You remember?”

“Yes. The fact is you looked so unlike the men around, so sunburnt and so—what shall I say to spare your blushes—so bold, that I asked my companion who you were. He did not know, but he asked a friend who did. Then I heard it was Mr. Eric Baker of whose ascent of Chimborazo everyone was talking. You published a book.”

“More fool I,” said Eric, good-temperedly. “I assure you, Miss Bellona, that I only did so to make money.”

“And they made you a lion.”

“A penny lion with a squeak. I soon left off roaring in my London jungle, and scampered back to South America. But I am glad that you remember me.”

“Ah, I don’t say that I entirely remember you.”

“But you said—”

“I know. I have changed my mind. It is our privilege you know. I recalled your face when your uncle and Father Prue talked about you. Then Miss Dame found an old illustrated paper with your portrait. It is very like you.”

“Was that why you were able to recognise me the other day?”

“Yes. You don’t think I remembered you these two years from a single glance. I am not so clever as that. Your fame, your portrait—”

“And your warning,” finished Eric meaningly, “what did it mean?”

“Hush,” she answered, and at that moment a gentleman came to her side. Judith turned to him. “Mr. Baker, Mr. Harding,” she introduced.

Eric beheld almost the double of himself.

Chapter 7
“The Harding Cove”

The two men looked at one another in astonishment. Harding evidently recognised the resemblance also, and certainly it was very striking. Both were tall, fair, blue-eyed and soldierly in bearing. But the expression of their faces was different. That of Baker’s was opened and gay, while Harding’s wore rather a furtive look. His eyes dropped first, and he bowed, with some words of pleasure muttered under his breath. But he did not remark on the likeness between them. That was left to Judith.

“You might be twins,” she said looking from one to the other.

“I am flattered,” replied Eric with a bow to Harding.

The other laughed uneasily. He did not appear to be over pleased at seeing Judith and Eric on good terms. Considering the gossip about Pansey, if such gossip was to be believed, Baker wondered that the man should show jealousy, as he assuredly did. His double seemed inclined to take Miss Bellona away at once from so dangerous a neighbourhood, but not being able to do so immediately, he forced himself to speak. “There is a general resemblance between us,” he observed.

“More than a resemblance,” said Judith decidedly. “I thought Mr. Baker was like you, Julian, but now that you are together it is really extraordinary. And several people have noticed it also.”

“I wish they would mind their own business, muttered Julian ill-pleased, “a general resemblance that’s all. We are not related in any way are we, Mr. Baker?”

“Not to my knowledge. I have no relatives so far as I know, save an uncle, Mr. Blundel of Essex.”

“He remarked on the resemblance also,” said Miss Bellona rapidly. “When he first met Julian he made some observation about it.”

Harding did not seem pleased with this conversation.

“We’re not so like as all that,” he declared sharply, then looked Eric up and down with an approving eye, “Not that I don’t feel flattered also at being compared to Mr. Baker. Judith, your mother wants you.”

She placed her hand on his arm in a cold way. Although engaged to the young man, she apparently did not love him. But he appeared to be in love with her, and threw a jealous glance on Eric. Before the couple could move away, Baker spoke to Harding.

“I am stopping with my friend, Mr. Ferris,” he said, “will you come and see me?”

Both Judith and Harding looked astonished, and the latter began to excuse himself.

“I have so much to do,” he explained.

“Mr. Harding is always shooting, golfing, motoring, bicycling, and rowing,” said Judith with a cold little laugh, “he has no time to pay visits.”

“This is a matter of business,” said Eric. “Of business,” Harding started, and pulled his moustache nervously.

“Yes. I have a message for you.”

“From whom?” asked Harding anxiously, and appeared uneasy. Judith who knew that the two had just met for the first time looked surprised at this sudden intimacy on Baker’s part. She had thought him a more reserved man.”

“I will explain when you call,” said Eric, who did not wish to mention the name of Tyler before Judith. He did not know what gossip she might have heard, and feared to make mischief. Harding was his rival, but Baker desired to win Judith honourably, and not by telling her of the man’s delinquencies. Besides he began to think from Harding’s undeniable love for Judith, that the gossip might be unfounded.

“I’ll call this evening after dinner,” said Harding, “I really do not know what you have to say. I don’t suppose we have any mutual friends.”

“On the contrary,” said Baker remembering Pansey, “we have.”

“I believe you are twins after all,” cried Judith jestingly, “and have really known of each other for years.”

“It is the first time I have seen Mr. Harding,” said Baker.

“Or heard of me I suppose,” said Julian with a nervous laugh.

“No. I have heard your name mentioned. But we can talk of that after dinner to-night. Remember, I am with Mr. Ferris who lives in the Bishop’s Close. Miss Bellona we shall meet again.”

“I hope so,” she said brightly, “meantime—” She laughed, nodded and moved away on the arm of her lover. Eric had thus lost his chance of learning the meaning of her warning: but he was resolved to do so on a later occasion.

By this time he was certain that he loved her. The look in her eyes, the tones of her voice, her whole personality exercised a fascination over him, such as no woman had ever held before. And Eric had made love to many a pretty girl in his time. But these had been light-o’loves, easily woo’d and won: mere fancies that had passed away in a day or a week, none of them enduring more than a month. But this was the real thing, and Baker felt that he also was jealous, as he saw his divinity departing on the arm of Harding. He saw that Harding was not worthy of her, but this might have been mere unreasoning dislike. Certainly the man had a disagreeable manner, but as they had never met before, Baker could see no reason for this attitude. It was the instinct of a lover for a rival, that made Harding so disagreeable. “Hang him he shan’t have her,” growled Eric.

At this moment as though she knew he was thinking of her, Judith threw a glance over her shoulder, a glance and a smile. Eric felt his heart bound as he smiled in return. The next minute she had disappeared in the gay throng and Baker felt that the sunshine had gone out of the sky. It was his first experience of love, and he was amazed at the rapidity of the disease. He began to believe that Romeo was a true lover after all, and probably had really existed. Hitherto he had looked on the Veronese as a figment of Shakespeare’s brain, and impossible in real life. “But I’m quite as ardent and as hasty in my love as was Mr. Montague,” thought Eric.

“Day,” said a rough voice behind him. “Beastly crowd, eh?”

It was Merston who spoke, and he looked as truculent as ever. Arrayed in a civilised garb which became him less than his boating flannels, he appeared more like a prize-fighter than a gentleman. He was thoroughly out of his element, and gloomed about the place in a bored manner till he chanced on Baker. He was glad to meet Eric again. If there was one thing Merston adored, it was physical strength, and since Eric had “dropped” Tyler, Merston had been his sworn admirer. He spoke in quite a friendly tone for one of his roughness.

“It’s a very amusing crowd,” replied Baker, giving his hand, “how are you, Mr. Merston?”

“I’m a fish in a meadow here. Hate parties. But my mother made me show up. Can’t get m’ pipe between m’ teeth here. I say,” he examined Eric’s hand, “you’ve cut your knuckles.”

“Against Mr. Tyler’s head,” replied Eric laughing. “How is he?”

“Don’t know, and don’t care.”

“Oh! I thought you were at Old Dexleigh the other day when Ferris and I met you near the river.”

“Hornly Mills,” said Merston doggedly, then took out a well-worn briar-root. “Wish I could smoke,” he muttered longingly.

“I say,” he replaced the pipe in his pocket, “come round to my place and have a spar with the gloves, won’t y’?”

“Delighted,” replied Eric, who thought it just as well to keep the truculent young bruiser under his eye. “Where do you swing?”

“Swing?” asked Merston. “Swing on m’own hook, you mean? Caesar, that’s a boss word, first time I’ve heard it. Swing—har! har!” and he bellowed, for his merriment can hardly be described as laughing. “I swing in number 50 Abbot Street. Come round any time after dinner—to-night.”

“I’m engaged to-night. Mr. Harding is coming to see me.”

“Julian.” Merston’s face lit up with suspicion. “Saw you talking t’ him. Nice chap—engaged t’ Miss Bellona y’ know.

“So I believe,” replied Baker, wondering at the anxious way in which Merston insisted on this point. “I see how he loves her.” He said this purposely to note what Merston would say in reply.

“I say,” cried the bear eagerly, his dull face lighting up, “d’y’ really think he’s a goner there?”

“I’m quite sure he loves Miss Bellona,” said Eric coldly. He was annoyed at himself for saying even this much, but it was necessary that he should learn on what terms Harding and Merston stood. “Why do you ask?”

“I say,” said Merston paying no attention to the question, “y’ saw Tyler’s daughter the other day.”

“Yes. He was beating her. But she can look after herself, and if she doesn’t Jerry Lovel will look after her. Steady, Merston,” for the man was swearing under his breath.

“Jerry Lovel had better look out, or I’ll twist his beastly neck. I’ll twist Harding’s too if he comes after Pansey.”

“What do you mean?” demanded Eric, delighted that Merston was losing his temper, since he was likely to speak more plainly.

“I mean this,” said the other who had lost all caution, and whose face was red with fury. “I love Pansey Tyler, and I’ll jolly well marry her if I choose, mother or no mother. And if Jerry Lovel or Harding don’t leave her alone I’ll—” Mr. Merston raised a heavy fist and his face took an ugly expression.

“Steady,” said Baker soothingly, “don’t forget where you are. What you say about Mr. Harding must be wrong. He is engaged—”

“Oh we know all about that. But he’s always larking round Dexleigh after Pansey. He gave her a brooch and—no, I’ll keep my temper,” he added wiping his face. “Damn it, I wish I could have a smoke. I say, y’ needn’t split on what I’ve jawed about.”

“I won’t say a word. Are you afraid lest it should come to Harding’s ears, Mr. Merston?”

The man scowled, and clenched his fist again.

“I don’t care a red cent for Harding. Let him stick to his fine lady and leave my bit alone. Ho!” he blew a sigh, “she’s a daisy.”

“And her father. What’s he?”

“An escaped convict for all I know. He appeared here three years ago with that barge of his, and has been hanging round ever since.”

“He comes from Australia.”

“Yes, I got that much out of Pansey. He’s a bad lot, but she’s mine, and I’ll marry her, mother or no mother,” added Merston nodding his bull head in an obstinate manner. “I’ll smash Harding. ’Day, I’m off for a drink and a smoke.”

In this abrupt manner did Merston depart, leaving Baker somewhat enlightened, but not so much as he should have liked. It was plain that Julian, in spite of his engagement to Judith, was hanging round after the gipsy girl. He would not do that, or make her presents unless he was in love with her. And yet he had displayed jealousy when he saw Miss Bellona in Eric’s company. Certainly it might be a dog-in-the-manger resentment, and he might really care more for Pansey than for Judith. But the subject was so large, and Baker’s knowledge at present so small, that he gave up trying to think it out. He intended to remain in Moncaster for three weeks, and during that time he hoped to learn the truth of all these matters. In the meantime what he had to do, was to warn Harding of Tyler’s plot to kidnap him.

Shortly he was joined by Mrs. Bellona, who introduced him to a little old woman richly dressed, but without any display of taste. She had the mild face of a sheep and the bleat of a new-born lamb, and Eric learned that she had expressly asked to meet him on account of the admiration felt for him by “my son Sammy.” A few minutes’ conversation revealed that “Sammy” was the truculent Merston.

“You didn’t catch my name, dear me,” bleated the little woman. “So like the slovenly way people do things, don’t they? I have a card, Mr. Baker. Lady Merston, that is the name, and my son Sammy—”

“I have had the pleasure of seeing him here,” said Eric, wondering how this sheep ever produced such a ruffianly lamb.

“He admires you greatly, Mr. Baker. You will excuse my mentioning it, but Sammy did say you were a oner with your fists. I don’t know what it means, but Sammy is so clever.”

“I am pleased to have Mr. Merston’s good opinion.”

“Sammy adores brute strength you see, Mr. Baker, not that you are a brute, far from it, being very nice I’m sure. And oh dear me, where is my dear Sammy.”

“He went to have a smoke.”

Lady Merston’s mild face lighted up. “Now isn’t that just like my dear Sammy,” she observed, “he is so independent. I assure you, Mr. Baker, that it was with the utmost difficulty that I got him to come here. He is my only son, and the apple of my eye. You should see him at the punching ball, you should indeed, Mr. Baker.”

Thus the old lady prattled on much to Eric’s amusement. Many people would have found this chatter rather wearisome, but Baker was touched by the pride Lady Merston displayed in the young brute she called son. He sighed to think that if his mother had been alive she might have spoken thus of him, and began to feel rather lonely. He took Lady Merston to have a cup of soup, which she explained Sammy recommended for her pipes.

“My tubes in the throat,” explained Lady Merston fumbling in her black silk reticule. “So clever of Sammy to call them pipes. Oh here is my card; you will come round and see me now, won’t you? Sammy does want to give you one in the eye. He does indeed.”

“Perhaps I may give Mr. Merston one in the eye on my own account,” laughed Eric, who thought he was quite equal to managing the apple of Lady Merston’s eye. “I’ll come some evening. Indeed Mr. Merston asked me.”

“Dear Sammy,” bleated the gratified mother, “he is so hospitable isn’t he, Mr. Baker? What good soup this is, isn’t it? Do take some for your pipes, now do. How sweet Miss Bellona looks, Sammy does so admire her, but she’s engaged to Mr. Harding not at all a nice man.”

“He seems popular,” said Eric not sorry to hear some gossip.

“Then he isn’t,” snapped the sheep, her suavity disappearing. “Sammy is popular if you like. But Mr. Harding he is a sly man, now isn’t he really, isn’t he?”

“I can hardly say, Lady Merston. I know very little of him.”

“Then don’t know any more. You won’t like him,” said the old lady with energy, “he lives with his uncle.”

“Oh he has an uncle too,” said Eric.

“Yes. A nice man is old Mr. Harding, and he’s set his heart on this match. You see Miss Bellona is beautiful, now isn’t she?”

“Very,” assented Eric heartily, “as beautiful as an angel.”

“But not so good. At least Sammy doesn’t think so, and you know Sammy is so clever.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t know much about women, Lady Merston,” said Baker angry at her son’s impudence in daring to criticise perfection.

“No indeed. Sammy is wrapped up in his boxing gloves.”

“H’m,” thought Eric, “the artful Sammy has said nothing about his Pansey flower. I can understand now why he fears mother knowing.”

“But as I was saying, dear Mr. Baker, Mr. Harding is coming in for money—eh quite a lot—they say a million. He was to come in for it when he reached the age of thirty, and he is thirty this year: in June I believe. Do you think he looks thirty?”

“My birthday is in June,” said Eric puzzled, “and I shall be thirty then,” he recalled the resemblance between himself and Harding, and wondered more than ever. “Who leaves him the money?”

“Oh some one in South America. I know I read about the place at School. Lime something.”

“Lima, in Peru.”

“Oh how clever you are. Just like Sammy. Yes, Lima in Peru. Some relative left the money tied up till Mr. Harding reached the age of thirty. I am sure he looks that and more. Ah,” bleated Lady Merston sadly, “my Sammy is more worthy of Judith, even though he hasn’t a million. For my part,” she rose and shook out her skirts, “I shall believe the money exists when I see it.”

“Is Mrs. Bellona Spanish?” asked Eric suddenly. He was thinking of how that lady had referred to Lima, and also recalled that her looks were Iberian.

“I’m sure I don’t know. She has been here for twenty years and more, oh quite. Plenty of money I believe. I had thoughts of Sammy and Judith, but he’s so fond of boxing gloves: never looks at anyone. Oh here is Sammy—my dearest son.”

Merston came up glooming, and took his foolish old mother away in a hurry, as she always made him ridiculous in public. Eric had enough to think of, and paid very little attention to their departure. He was becoming interested in Harding. The man closely resembled him: his birthday was in June, as Baker’s was; and he was of the same age. Baker began to wonder if Harding could possibly be a relative of his, and determined to pay a visit to Blundel Hall. His uncle might be persuaded to give him some information about his father and mother. Eric regretted that he was so ignorant of the family history.

Then again, the mention of Lima by Mrs. Bellona puzzled him, seeing that Julian’s million was supposed—according to Lady Merston—to come from that place. Certainly there was no reason why Mrs. Bellona should not mention Lima—still—Eric gave up thinking. The pieces of the puzzle were in his hand, but he could not put them together. But that night he hoped to obtain a clue from Harding which might lead to an unravelling of these mysteries.

“If I save him from being kidnapped he must tell me what it all means,” thought Eric. “Hang it, I believe Mother Mandarin’s prophecy will come true.”

Chapter 8
Eric’s Rival

When Baker was at dinner, he told Ferris that he expected a visit from Mr. Harding. “I hope you don’t mind my making free with your room, old man,” he said apologetically.

“What’s mine is yours,” answered the little host. “I suppose you mean to warn Harding.”

“I think it is my duty to do so.”

“He’ll only laugh at you.”

“That’s his business. If he chooses to take my warning, and save his skin so much the better for him. If not I have done my duty, and—”

“And you will be able to court Miss Bellona without a tormenting conscience.”

“No,” replied Baker seriously. “I shall say nothing. Harding is engaged to her. It would not be fair.”

“Do you really love her?”

“I really do. My short conversation with her to-day has only confirmed me in my opinion of her. She’s an angel.”

“And the beauty of the world,” finished Ferris, pushing back his chair to fetch the cigarettes. “You are very scrupulous.”

“One should be, when dealing with rogues.”

“Do you call Harding a rogue.”

“I don’t know sufficient of him to say,” responded Eric dryly, “and I never give an opinion in a hurry. But he has a shifty eye, and a furtive manner. I own that I am not prepossessed in his favour.”

“That’s because you love—”

“By no means,” interrupted Baker quickly. “I am not such a mean man as all that. But I really mistrust the man. His looks are against him, though in saying so I rather condemn myself.”

Ferris stared. “What do you mean?”

“That you are blind, my dear Hal. Have you not noticed how like I and Harding are to one another?”

“You are both fair and blue-eyed. I can’t say that I see any other resemblance.”

“Ah, you’re not observant. Why the man is the image of me, only I sincerely hope that I have not that hang-dog look he possesses. Why Miss Bellona noticed the resemblance, and so did my uncle.”

“Your uncle. When did he see Harding?”

“I forgot, you don’t know about my uncle. He was here a short time ago and brought Father Prue with him.”

Hal looked into the fire. “I wonder I didn’t mention that the other night when you told me your uncle’s name. Yes. There was a Mr. Blundel stopping at ‘The White Hart,’ and he was as thick as thieves with Mrs. Bellona and her daughter.”

“Not with the daughter. He told her he disliked women.”

“H’m!” said Ferris, “bad way to get into her good graces. What makes your respected uncle such a woman-hater?”

“An early disappointment in love I suppose. But really I don’t know. His history is a sealed book to me, and he is not a man given to opening his mind. I am going up to see him next week.”

“I thought you did not like him.”

“No more I do,” replied Baker frankly. “Nor do I think he has any love for me. But the fact is I want to know more about my parents.”

“For what reason?”

“I can hardly tell you,” replied the young man in troubled tones, and passing his hand across his brow. “Perhaps it was your observation the other night that set me thinking. But I have an idea that there is some history attached to my parents, which may account for these mysteries with which I seemed to be environed.”

“I don’t quite understand.”

Eric informed Hal of his conversation with Mrs. Bellona. “She mentioned Lima, and seemed anxious to know if I had been there. Now my father—who, as I said, was a great traveller in South America, loved Lima. It was his favourite city. Mrs. Bellona is very Spanish looking, and I should not be surprised to learn that she came from Peru. If so, she may have met my father in Lima, and there may be something about him which she does not wish me to learn.”

“Bah! you are too suspicious.”

“Perhaps I am. The events of the last few days have made me see a bird in every bush. But if Mrs. Bellona did not connect me or my father with Lima in any way, why did she make such a remark?”

“It was natural enough, since you said you were engineering in South America. One thing suggested the other.”

“It might be so, but I have my doubts. Mrs. Bellona appears to be a woman little given to wasting words. Then again, I cannot get over the facts that Harding resembles me, and that his birth-month and age are the same as mine.”

Hal laughed. “Do you think he may be a relative?”

“I shouldn’t be surprised. However I’ll see what my uncle has to say. Also if I meet old Harding I may learn something from him.”

Ferris shook his smooth head. “I don’t think you will. I happened to mention your name to him before you came down, and he displayed no recognition of it. Were you a relative he would have known it.”

“It seems to me, Hal, that you have mentioned my name to a number of people here,” said Eric rather dryly. “To Miss Bellona for instance. And you told me—”

“I know,” interposed the other colouring, “I am a moral coward. She was talking about your book, and mentioned that she had seen you in the Park. I said that I knew you, and related how kind you had been to me. I denied saying anything the other night because I know how you hate me to show up your good deeds.”

“Oh, that was your motive. Well, I forgive you this time. But please don’t trumpet my praises. You are not justified.”

“Indeed I am,” said Ferris sturdily. “I would put the whole story in the ‘Moncaster Gazette’ had I my way.”

“Save me from such popularity,” laughed Eric. “I had quite enough of publicity when I wrote that confounded book. The only good it did me, was to keep my name and face in the memory of Miss Bellona.”

It was at this point that the door opened, and Mrs. Bedwin panting from her ascent of the stairs, showed in Harding. He had taken off his coat in the hall, and looked more amiable than he had done at the garden party. As both he and Baker were in evening dress, the resemblance between them was even more striking than before. Hal noticed the likeness, but said nothing. He welcomed Harding to his rooms.

“Baker told me you were coming,” he said shaking his visitor by the hand. “Where will you sit? Have a glass of port—here’s a cigarette. Beastly cold night. Eh?”

Harding accepted the chair, the port, and the tobacco. In a short time he was seated on one side of the fireplace looking absurdly like Eric who sat on the other side. Hal placed himself between, and a general conversation ensued, during which Harding displayed impatience. Ferris saw that he wished—as the saying is—to get to the yolk of the egg, and made an excuse to leave the room. This had been pre-arranged by Baker, who thought Harding would talk more freely when there was no third person. The visitor noted the weak excuse of Hal—he stated that he had to write letters—and laughed in an unpleasant manner, when the door closed on him.

“Can’t you say what you have to say before him, Mr. Baker?”

“Certainly,” replied Eric serenely, and laying his hand on the bell, “if you like I’ll call him back.”

Harding stretched out his hand. “No, no! I prefer to hear what you have to say without Ferris. He’s a good little chap, but he talks too much. I don’t want my private business to be all over Moncaster. It’s the most gossiping place I know.”

“How do you know I’m going to talk private business?” asked Baker.

“You asked me to call for that purpose!”

“I asked you to see me about business. I said nothing about its being private. It may be all over England in a week.”

Harding dropped his cigarette, and turned slightly pale. “That’s a strange speech, Mr. Baker. Does it contain a threat?”

This time it was Eric’s turn to look surprised. “No. Why in heaven’s name should it?” he asked with a stare. “I only asked you here, to put you on your guard against a conspiracy.”

“A conspiracy,” echoed Harding gnawing his under lip, and keeping his eyes—for a wonder—on the face of the speaker.

“It amounts to that. I say, Mr. Harding, do you know a short man who has a particularly fine speaking voice?”

“No. Can’t you describe him more fully?”

“I fear it’s impossible. I didn’t see his face.”

“You are mysterious, Mr. Baker.”

“The whole thing is mysterious,” retorted Eric, “however, not to keep you on tenter hooks any longer, I must relate my adventure at Old Dexleigh church.”

All the time Eric was speaking, Harding held tightly to the arms of his chair. Accustomed to notice trifles, Baker saw that at certain parts of the narrative the knuckles grew white, which showed that Harding suffered from a certain emotion. But whether this was caused by fear or surprise, Baker was unable to say. He related all that he had heard in a concise manner, and without making any comment. When finished, he lighted his pipe again, and waited for his visitor to speak. After some reflection Harding opened his mouth. Eric noticed that his voice was hoarse, and that drops of perspiration bedewed his forehead. But such emotion was natural under the circumstances. No one likes to hear that he is in danger of being kidnapped. The hint of danger would have shaken the nerves of a stronger and more healthy man than Harding appeared to be.

“Are you sure this is true, Mr. Baker?” asked Harding wiping his face.

“It happened exactly as I told you.”

“And Luke Tyler is in it,” murmured Harding again gnawing his lip.

“Luke Tyler has the whole business in hand. You know him?”

“I have met him casually,” replied Harding becoming more composed.

“Have you met his daughter casually also?” asked Eric pointedly.

The other man flushed. “What do you mean by that?” he asked sharply.

“I mean scandal. There’s a chap here called Merston—”

Harding interrupted him with a short laugh. “I know—an athletic idiot, who is mad after that Tyler girl. He has an idea that I am after her also, because I gave the girl a brooch.”

Eric smiled dryly. “Well that would look suspicious to a man like Merston who is in love with the girl.”

“Bah,” Harding lighted another cigarette. “I only gave it to the girl, because she brought back a pigeon.”

“A pigeon?”

Harding nodded.

“I have a friend,” he explained, “a lame boy of sixteen. He is desperately fond of pigeons, and to please him I gave him a lot. One pigeon—a homing bird, called Mimie,—he was very fond of. It went away and did not return.”

“But if a homing pigeon, it should have done.”

“Well, the fact is the poor bird was wounded—a hawk or something I think. Pansey Tyler found it fluttering on that barge of her father’s with a bleeding breast. She knew it belonged to Lame Dickey, and so brought it back to him. As many a gipsy wench would have wrung the bird’s neck for supper, I thought she deserved a reward. That is the history of the brooch, Mr. Baker, so you see Merston has no ground for his suspicions, let alone the fact that I am engaged to Miss Bellona. That in itself,” aid Harding haughtily, “should show you how false such a report is.”

“Of course. But what about this kidnapping?”

“I don’t understand it. I don’t know a man such as you describe, and have passed only half a dozen words to Tyler. Why the two should conspire against me, I don’t know. I am a very harmless person.”

Eric emptied his pipe. “There’s the million you know.”

“What do you know about that?” asked Harding sitting up alertly.

“Only what Lady Merston told me.”

“Dear Sammy’s mother,” sneered Harding. “A babbling old fool like my uncle. I expect he told her about my expectations, and she has told everyone in Moncaster. Why don’t people hold their tongues?”

“They never do in country places,” said Eric cynically. “When you wish to hear news, leave London. But what I mean to say, Mr. Harding, is this—the million—”

“You think it may be the reason for this conspiracy?”

“It seems likely. People will do anything for such a sum.”

Harding looked musingly at the fire. “I can’t think of anyone who it would benefit. This money was left to me by a Spaniard.”

“Did he live in Lima?”

“Yes. How do you know?”

Eric laughed. “Lady Merston!”

“She seems to know everything,” said the other pettishly. “And since the whole thing is likely to become public property, and is now, for aught I know, I may as well tell you all. I owe you something for your warning, Mr. Baker.”

“Then you really think there is something in it?”

“No I don’t,” replied Harding obstinately. “People are kidnapped only on the stage, not in real life. Should I disappear there would be a hue and cry everywhere. All Moncaster knows me.”

“Does all Moncaster know the vault in Old Dexleigh Church?”

“I expect whatever vault exists is known. Archaeologists have explored it thoroughly—the church I mean. It’s all moonshine. Tyler knows better than to try such a dangerous game. Besides I should fight. I would not permit myself to be caught like a rat in a trap. All the same I thank you.”

“And about this money?”

“Oh. It’s rather queer. This relative of mine—a cousin, called Harding also, did some service to an old Spanish Don in Lima. The man was grateful in a queer sort of way. He invested a large sum of money, and directed that it should accumulate for a certain number of years. I forget how many. Then at the end of the time, the capital was to be paid to my cousin Walter Harding, or if he was dead to his next of kin. Harding died many years ago, and I am the next in succession, so I claim the money. The time is up in June this year.”

“When you are thirty.”

“Lady Merston again,” said Harding with an acrid laugh. “I don’t think my age matters. I happen to be thirty when the time for the accumulation of the money ends. It now amounts to a million sterling.”

“A queer way of paying a debt,” said Eric. “The man who did the service—what did you say his name was, Walter Harding—never benefited in the least.”

“Because he refused to take any money. The old Don, Tejada was his name, determined that if his benefactor would not be repaid that the relatives of his benefactor should. Though to be sure had he been alive now he could have claimed the money.”

“I think this Don Tejada must have been mad.”

“A very nice kind of madness for me,” with a shrug. “I come in for this money in June, and will marry Miss Bellona.”

“If you are not kidnapped in the meantime.”

“Bah there’s no danger of that. You say it is to take place next week. Well, on Thursday I go up to town for a few days, so the dangerous time will pass over.”

“You might be kidnapped before.”

“I’ll look after myself, although mind you I don’t think there is the slightest need. I’ll report myself day by day, if you like.”

“Oh, that’s as you please,” answered Baker politely. “Though I must say I shall be curious to see if you are still at large when the week is ended. But if Tyler fails this time, he will make another attempt.”

“I can’t see how it will benefit anyone,” insisted Harding crossly. “From what you say I am to be detained a year, and then I could easily come back and get the money.”

“Unless the next in succession to you claimed it in the meantime.”

“Even then the person would have to surrender the cash when I appeared on the scene. There is no time stated within which the money is to be claimed. Of course if I was to be murdered I could understand, as that would do away with any possibility of my turning up to get the money. But to be simply detained for a year—no, Mr. Baker, I don’t see it.”

“Well,” replied Eric, “I can’t say I see the sense of it myself. It’s confoundedly silly on the face of it. Who gets the money supposing you don’t turn up?”

“I don’t know. I never asked.”

“I should ask were I you. That man in the cloak with the big voice may be the one. That would account for—”

“I don’t know anyone answering to that description,” said Harding rising impatiently, to take his departure. “If I did, I might think there was something in this kidnapping business. As it is I am sure it’s all bosh.”

“We’ll see in a week.”

“Bah! On Thursday I’m off to town. That gives four days for Tyler to try his game. I’ll report every day. By the way I don’t think I should say anything about this.”

“Well, Ferris knows, but I’ll see that he holds his tongue. And you can depend upon my silence.”

“Thank you, Baker. You’re a good chap.” Harding looked rather flustered as though about to say something more, but he changed his mind and left the room abruptly. Eric wondered at his odd manner.

Chapter 9
Honour Versus Love

After Harding’s visit and explanation no more surprises came to Eric. His was not the nature to brood over the unexplainable, and he surrendered himself cheerfully to the pleasant easy life of Moncaster. For many months he had been working hard in the great waste lands, and considered himself entitled to a holiday. Baker never did anything by halves; he played as thoroughly as he worked, and took advantage of every amusement the town afforded. Ferris introduced him at the club, and Eric received plenty of invitations to golf, and ride, and row, and play tennis. One day with Merston, he rowed up to Old Dexleigh. Tyler’s barge had disappeared.

“They’ve taken the craft up to Moncaster,” explained Merston, who seemed to know all Tyler’s movements. “It’s lying off shore a quarter of a mile below the Minster Bridge.”

“A more cheerful locality than this is, Merston,” said Eric who by this time was very friendly with the truculent young man. “I suppose you have paid Tyler a visit?”

“I went to see Pansey, and found that beast Jerry Lovel hanging about,” growled Merston resting on his oars, “he seemed to be in love with her. I’ll punch his head, I will.”

“Well if she loves him—”

“She doesn’t—she loves me.”

“But you can’t marry a girl in that position,” argued Eric, to whom Lady Merston had confided certain matrmonial plans she entertained for Sammy, “what would your mother say?”

“I don’t care two cents what she says,” replied the candid youth. “I have the right to choose m’ own wife I ’spose.”

“Within limits,” Eric pointed out.

“Without any limits. If I choose to make Pansey Mrs. Merston, who’s to bother. My father was only a knight, so there ain’t no title for me, and I haven’t got either money or position to speak of.”

Baker bent to his oars again. It was worse than useless to argue with this pig-headed person. Sammy had the obstinacy of a mule, and having made up his mind, would carry though his plans without heeding his mother or anyone else. But Eric privately thought that Pansey, when the point came, would refuse to marry Merston, being obviously in love with her gipsy cousin. Meantime she kept him at her heels as a useful dog to fetch and carry, and also by this time had adopted her parent’s advice, and accepted presents from him. “We won’t go ashore, Merston,” said Eric when they were abreast of Old Dexleigh, “that place gives me the horrors, and I don’t want to meet Mother Mandarin.”

“Old witch,” grumbled Sammy as the boat swung round, “I’d tar-barrel her if I had the chance.”

“I quite believe it,” replied Eric, who saw in Merston a survival of that brutal baron type, possessed of great muscle and small brain. In the middle ages Sammy would have been a great lord. Restrained by present day civilisation, he was simply an ill-bred ruffian. As the boat dropped down stream, Merston spoke again. “I didn’t know you were chummy with Harding,” he growled.

“Oh we’re great friends. I see him nearly every day.”

“Then just you tell him he’s not to knock round after my piece.”

“Pooh! He doesn’t care two straws about the girl.”

“Yes he does,” here Sammy used flaming adjectives, “he gave her a brooch—hang him.”

“That has no significance, Merston,” and Eric related the episode of the wounded pigeon. But Sammy was only half satisfied.

“It’s a blind, and he’s a liar,” said this polite person. “I tell you Harding’s hanging round after my bit. He was down at the barge the other day jawing to her. I’ll knock his head off I will.”

“Well why don’t you, and have done with the matter,” retorted Baker rather weary of Merston’s barbarous confidences. “There’s evidently three of you, so you can fight it out amongst yourselves, and let the best man carry off Pansey.”

“Best or worst, I’m going to have her,” said Merston shutting his hard mouth, and looking more like a bulldog than ever.

Eric had many such conversations with the young man. In response to Lady Merston’s invitation, he had visited Sammy, and had put on gloves with him. In several bouts Sammy was thoroughly beaten, whereupon not only did he not bear malice but adored Eric more than ever. Indeed Baker was rather weary of the constant attentions he received from Merston, and of the outspoken admiration which the heavy-jawed youth manifested on every occasion. But that he thought it best to keep Merston under his eye, for reasons connected with Tyler and his daughter, he would have told Sammy plainly what a bore he was. But Eric diplomatically held his peace, and Sammy worried him daily. Never a day passed but what Merston did not turn up with a heavy-handed slap on Eric’s back, and a long account repeated ad nauseam of his love for Pansey, and his detestation of Harding.

That young man also came to see Eric during the four days which elapsed before his departure for town, and frequently jeered at him.

“You see I’m all right, Baker,” he would say every morning.

“The Ides of March are not yet gone,” warned Eric in the soothsaying vein.

“There’s only another twenty-four hours of ’em,” retorted Harding. “I go to London to-morrow night by the nine train. I’ll drop in at seven and see you before I go. And I say here’s my London address. If anything queer happens just let me know.”

Eric slipped the card into his pocket. “Nothing queer can happen once you are out of the way,” he said; then added with a laugh. “Unless Tyler mistakes me for you.”

To his surprise Harding took this seriously. “Even that might happen,” he said, “there’s no denying, you’re devilish like me, old chap.”

“‘And in the darkness; all cats are gray,’” quoted Eric with a shrug. “Well, if Tyler tries his game on me he’ll have a bad time.”

“Oh, I know you can use your fists,” said Harding laughing. “Sammy told me how you knocked him into kingdom come.”

“I can use more than my fists,” replied Eric coolly. “The idea that I might be taken for you struck me some time ago, and I now carry my Derringer with me on all occasions.”

“But I say this isn’t South America,” said Harding staring.

“Any place is a jungle to my mind while there are wild beasts knocking about,” said Eric quietly, “and Tyler is a beast of the worst. I won’t hesitate to use my revolver should I see need.”

“Would you kill the man, Baker?”

“No. But I’d wing him. I’m a clean shot, Harding.”

Harding looked admiringly at Eric’s determined face. “You’re a man, Baker, and a devilish tough customer,” and with this compliment he took his leave.

Harding’s behaviour to Eric was something like that of Father Prue. At one time he seemed drawn to the young man, at another appeared to dislike him. His feelings were evidently mixed. Eric put this unsatisfactory attitude down to jealousy, for Harding still looked askance when Judith Bellona spoke to the handsome young stranger. As yet Eric had not been to call at the Nun’s House, in spite of Mrs. Bellona’s invitation, and the continued presence of Father Prue. He purposely avoided doing so, as he felt that he was rapidly falling fathoms deep in love with his goddess. They met sometimes on the street, in the cathedral, and occasionally at other people’s houses. Few words were exchanged between them, even when the jealous Harding was not present, and it seemed as though Judith was as anxious to avoid Eric as he was to remain away from her. It could not be dislike on her part, Eric thought, as she always coloured when she saw him. But in his company she appeared silent and uneasy, and on his side owing to his awakening passion, and to the knowledge that she was engaged to Harding, Eric felt no less uncomfortable.

The fact is that Judith being as much in love with Baker as he was with her, was equally anxious to conceal her passion. She certainly managed to hide it from its object, for Eric never suspected the heavenly truth: but Judith was not so successful with her female acquaintances. Thus it was that Matty Dame learned the truth, or a portion of the truth, and to inflame the heart of Hal with a like passion for herself she told him what she had noticed. Forthwith Hal imparted his knowledge to Eric.

“Miss Bellona’s in love with you,” said Hal abruptly one day.

Eric coloured like a girl, and his heart trebled its beat. “Bosh,” he said crossly, “she’s engaged to Harding.”

“Yes, but she don’t love Harding as I told you before. It’s a family arrangement. Matty Dame told me that—”

“I don’t want to hear, you gossiping ass,” cried Baker wrathfully, “I wish Miss Dame would hold her tongue and you also.

“Matty is very discreet,” said Ferris rather offended.

“Her communication sounds like it. She might make no end of mischief between me and Harding.”

“Well, Eric, you don’t care for Harding.”

Baker turned angrily on the little man. His nerves were raw, and he was not so sweet-tempered as usual.

“Is that any reason I should play him a dirty trick?” he cried, “Harding is engaged to Miss Bellona, and I stand out, as a man should. Besides,” added Eric, who was too sorely tried by his suppressed passion to be careful, “it is quite impossible that Miss Bellona should love a man she has met so seldom.”

“You love her.”

“Yes I do. But a man’s love is always stronger than a woman’s, and springs more speedily into being. But Miss Bellona—”

“Her case is the same as yours,” interrupted Ferris. “Look here, Eric, you needn’t get that haughty back of yours up. I know you love Judith Bellona, and from what Matty says I am sure she loves you. I don’t see why you shouldn’t chuck Harding and—”

“And play a dishonourable part,” said Eric in a dry voice.

“It wouldn’t be dishonourable to rescue her from a marriage into which she is being forced, for the sake of money.

“We can’t be certain of that,” Eric paused; then anxious to learn if Judith really thought of him, he lowered himself so far as to ask a question. “Miss Bellona knows nothing about me?”

“She has known everything about you ever since she saw you in the Park,” said Ferris, “she asked who you were, and when she heard of your book, she read it. Then she met some of your friends—amongst them a chap who was with you in Tarapaca—”

“I know. Johnny Gordon—a silly ass who exaggerated some slight service I did him.”

“As I exaggerate,” said Hal quietly, “you will hide your good deeds under a bushel, Eric. Well, Gordon told—”

“Of course he did, and you told, and the whole lot of my friends have been thrusting greatness on me unawares, In Miss Bellona’s mind I may occupy a position to which I have no right.”

“You have every right to the highest position. But Miss Bellona has always thought of you, and has learned all she could about you. And she has your portrait—”

“Cut out of an illustrated paper,” groaned Eric with an attempt at jocularity. “If she loves that misrepresentation of my features she is a bold woman. Oh hang it,” Eric clapped on his hat, “I’m going out. I love the woman, and if you tell that Matty girl of yours that I do I’ll—I’ll—never speak to you again.”

“I shan’t say a word,” protested Ferris earnestly, “but I want to see you happy.”

“Then mind your own business,” said Baker opening the door, “I wish to win Judith by fair means if I can, but I won’t by foul, and until her engagement with Harding is terminated, I’ll keep out of her sweet presence.”

“Ah, you can’t trust yourself.”

“Who can when he’s in love,” groaned Eric, “I never did believe in that saying of all being fair in love and war. Honour! honour! It’s worth the world.”

“Worth Judith,” said the tempter.

“Yes,” cried Baker bravely, “if I married her dishonourably, by taking her away from the man she is engaged to, what sort of a figure would I cut in my own eyes, or in hers for the matter of that. I wish, I wish—oh hang you,” cried Baker furiously, “leave things alone,” and he dashed out of the house, his brain on fire, and his heart aching.

But the Fates were not going to let him escape so easily. At the first turning he met Miss Bellona looking rather pale, but as sweet and fresh as a dewy rose. Her face flushed when they met, and she would have passed him if she could have done so without showing a too pointed avoidance. But the pavement was narrow, the crowd was great, so they had to speak. Their eyes met, their eyes dropped at the same time, and the same thought—as each knew—was in their hearts. It was quite a Romeo and Juliet episode, but they did not dare to be so outspoken as the lovers of Verona. Yet although the “mask of night” was not on Judith’s face she was the first to recover her self-possession.

“How are you, Mr. Baker?” she said, and their hands touched, “I am going round to see a protége of mine. Come with me if you are fond of pigeons.”

“In a pie,” replied Eric, trying to be light-hearted, “with their innocent red legs sticking through the crust. You are going to see Lame Dickey.”

Judith looked surprised. “How do you know his name?”

“Your—I mean Harding told me.”

“Julian.” Eric winced as she spoke the name. “Julian told me he had been seeing much of you of late. You are good friends.”

“Excellent friends,” said Eric, endeavouring to infuse a heartiness into his tones, “your friends are mine.”

“Not invariably,” replied Judith, so dryly that he glanced at her in surprise. Then he remembered her warning, which hitherto he had never been able to discuss with her. He determined to do so now, although the place was most inappropriate, with people jostling him at every turn.

“Do you refer to what you said when we first met?”

Judith looked straight before her, and made quite an irrelevant observation, “Let us walk on,” she said coldly, “we are stopping the way. Are you coming to see the pigeons?”

Had Eric had the courage of his opinions he would have fled, but in spite of the demands of honour, he could not tear himself from this too sweet—this intoxicating society. “Yes, I’ll come,” he said with almost a groan, and they moved on.

Judith heard the groan, saw his averted face, and the way in which the man was holding himself in. She sighed also, but was quite smiling when he turned at the sound of that indrawn breath. “We can talk of our first meeting on another occasion,” she said calmly.

“But I should like to know—”

“I am sure you would, Mr. Baker. But as you did not do what I asked you”—she shrugged—“there is no more to be said.”

“But I couldn’t leave this place without knowing the reason.”

“It is better you should not know.”

“Then there is a reason.”

Judith flew a red flag of distress. “Would I have so far forgotten the modesty of a woman as to speak without an introduction had I not had a very strong reason.”

“It was very womanly of you to speak,” said Eric warmly, “and I thank you for your kindness.”

“Which you refuse to accept,” she added sharply, but more to cover her confusion, than because she was angry. “Don’t let us talk of it at present. Perhaps there is no reason—and perhaps I am afraid of shadows.”

“For my sake,” ventured Eric rashly.

Immediately the woman in her rose in arms. “I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Baker,” said she coldly, and with a rising colour. “The explanation is very simple, but this is neither the time nor the place to make it. If you were wise—”

Eric put all his eggs into one basket. “I would leave Moncaster, on your hint. But you see I am not wise, but I am extremely obstinate, Miss Bellona. Also I am a man.”

“There would be no disgrace in your leaving.”

“I think I am the best judge of that,” said Eric quietly.

Had they been more private Judith would have flamed out. She had a high temper, and was not accustomed to be spoken to so imperiously. But the magnetism of the man, his masterful disposition, and his calm air of strength dominated even her. She recovered her temper which she had so nearly lost, and bowed. Then she changed the subject.

“Lame Dickey’s pigeon yard is down this lane,” she explained as they passed into a byeway on the fringe of the town, and under fast-budding elm trees. “He lives with his mother, and they make money out of the pigeons. It was Julian’s idea to assist the boy in this way, and I am helping also.”

“I should not have thought Mr. Harding was so philanthropic.”

Judith appeared annoyed. “He is a better man than you think,” she said quietly, “but I suppose—” She was about to say something cutting. A look at Eric’s face prevented her, for she saw that he looked haggard and worn. “Let us talk pigeons,” she said gaily, “here is Dickey.”

Chapter 10
The White Pigeon

The pigeon-ranch—as Eric termed it in his own mind—was located in what had once been an orchard. Some of the fruit-trees still remained, and a few, notably a pear-tree, were white with blossom. Away at the back was a small thatched cottage of the kind one reads of in fairy tales, with several beech-trees spreading their branches over it. Beyond stretched a common golden with gorze, and divided from the orchard by a smart fence of white-painted palings. The greater space of the enclosed land was occupied with wire netting separating it into small yards, with queer abodes for young birds like the roofs of houses set on the ground, and with here and there a smart little dove-cot poised on the top of a pole. To right and left grew the rank lush grass amidst which the tree-trunks were almost buried, but the immediate space in the centre was of hard beaten ground. Tin basins filled with water, red earthenware saucers, bags of corn and barley, brooms, mops and buckets of white-wash were scattered untidily around.

Everywhere fluttered, and sat, and hopped, and circled, and flew, and strutted, and nestled, innumerable pigeons, of all sizes, and colours, and plumage, and shapes. In the brilliantly blue sky whirled a pair of white tumbler birds; the straw roof of the cottage was milky with a cooing flock; pouters with bulging breasts paraded about with ineffable pride; blue-rooks chased one another amidst the grass, and a row of demure birds with ruffles like fashionable ladies, perched in a row on some deal hutches near at hand. What with the cooing, and darting, and fluttering, and constant movement, the sight was rather bewildering. It occurred to Eric that there were more pigeons in the world than he had dreamed of. The place was like the island of birds he had read of in Tennyson’s poem.

At the door of the cottage stood a rosy-faced old dame with a mob cap and a large check apron. She curtseyed continually, as soon as Judith and her companion entered the gate, but did not advance to greet them. They were welcomed by a slim, shy lad, who dragged himself up along on a crutch. Dickey was undersized for his age, and his thin white face looked worn with pain. In his large brilliant eyes there lurked the pathetic expression of a chidden dog. He was roughly dressed in blue serge, but wore no cap, only the mop of his black uncut hair that shadowed his sharp face. With one pigeon on his wrist, and a couple on his shoulders, to say nothing of many that hopped before him and fluttered round him, he came forward. Judith planted her cane on the ground, and leaning on it with both hands, looked at him kindly. Eric interested in the sight peered over her shoulders with an amused smile.

“How are you, Dickey. I have brought a gentleman to see your wonderful flock of birds.”

“I am very glad,” replied Dickey in a queer whistling kind of voice, “won’t you sit down, miss. Mother will bring you some tea.”

Miss Bellona accepted a seat on a deal box, but declined the tea.

“I have come only for a few minutes to see how you are getting along, Dickey,” she said. “I may be going away for a time.”

Eric started. This was the first time he had heard of her departure, and the idea made him feel rather unhappy. But Judith did not turn her eyes towards him, although she must have guessed that he was annoyed by the sudden announcement. She went on talking to Dickey and to Mrs. Peggs, who just then joined her son.

“Yes’m,” said Mrs Peggs dropping a curtsey, at the end of every sentence with clockwork regularity. “Dickey he do look better that he do poor soul. And the birds they do look lovely, bless their hearts’m, and you was sayin’ as you’d have a couple’m. Which you shall have’m this very evening’m.”

“We’ve done very well this year,” explained Dickey smoothing the bird he carried on his wrist. “There’s quite a lot of money in the bank, thanks to you and Mr. Harding, miss.”

“It was Mr. Harding who helped you first, Dickey,” said Judith with a side-glance at Eric. “He gave you the first flock.”

“Mr. Harding’s a kind gentleman’m,” put in Mrs. Peggs with a curtsey. “And I trust you’ll be happy’m, though marriage is a lottery, dear, me’m, as they do say as has tried it’m.”

“You can speak from experience, Mrs. Peggs,” said Eric trying to prevent his cheek flushing at her speech.

“Ah you may well say that’m,” sighed Mrs. Peggs addressing Judith, to the exclusion of Baker. “I’ve had my trials’m. But I’ve been helped through wonderful’m, and bless the Lord oh my soul’m.”

Judith nodded, and then proceeded to question Dicky about the breeding of the birds. The lad answered intelligently, and spoke with an eagerness that showed how fond he was of his work. Eric, leaning against a tree that shook its white blossoms over him, smoked a cigarette lazily, and kept his eyes fixed on the side-face of Judith. She looked a goddess with the pigeons fluttering round her feet. So might Aphrodite have dallied with her doves.

“That’s a pretty pigeon you have on your wrist,” said Eric when Miss Bellona looked round to see why he was so silent.

Dickey nodded.

“It’s Mimie, sir. She’s that fond of me, as beats mother.”

“Ah me,” sighed Mrs. Peggs, dabbing her eyes with a corner of her apron. “To hear him say that’m when I reared him from a sickly babe’m.”

“Oh, Dickey doesn’t mean it,” said Judith good-naturedly, “or rather he can’t think of any better comparison for Mimie’s love.”

“Is that the bird that was wounded?” asked Eric.

“Yes, sir, she’s a homing pigeon, and I sent her away with a friend to St. Guthlacs to be let off. She must have chanced on a hawk, for she fell on Tyler’s barge at Old Dexleigh, and Pansey found her bleeding at the breast.”

“How do you know the bird, Mr. Baker?”

“Harding told me about the affair,” explained Eric discreetly, but he said nothing about the brooch. Apparently Judith had no suspicions, as her face did not change at the mention of Pansey’s name, and she continued talking as brightly as ever. Dickey placed Mimie gently on her lap, and the bird bridled, and cooed and pouted, and pecked at the gloved hand. It was a pretty sight to see the confidence of the pigeon, and the fondling of Judith. Eric rather envied Mimie.

“I don’t know how I’ll part with her,” said Dickey.

“Yes’m,” said Mrs. Peggs in answer to Judith’s enquiring gaze, “that Pansey Tyler, and a bad girl she is, I’ll be bound’m, is that in love with the bird’m as she has been plaguing my Dickey to give it to her’m. And my Dickey’s that tender like his mother’m, as he’s agoin’ to do what he’s ask’m,” and Mrs. Peggs ended with three rapid curtseys, executed with skill and dispatch.

“Oh, Dickey, don’t give Mimie away,” said Judith.

“Well, Pansey was so kind, miss, and she has taken such a fancy to the dear thing, I haven’t the heart to refuse her. She’s coming here in a few minutes—on two o’clock as you might say.”

Eric drew out his watch. “It is half-past now.”

“She’ll be here soon’m,” said Mrs. Peggs again addressing Judith with a curtsey, “and that vagabond with her.”

“Jerry,” said Eric with a sudden interest. He was anxious to see Jerry.

“Yes’m, a ne’er-do-weel and quite fitted for her to marry’m.”

Before Miss Bellona could make an observation,—she was about to ask Eric how he came to know of Jerry,—the four heard the snatch of a song floating over the common. The singer had a high sweet voice, like that of a lark, and the words ran thus:—   

“Blue is the blue of the sky, my dear,
But not so blue as your eyes;
Sad is the sad-voiced wind, my dear,
But not so sad as your sighs.
Heart of my heart in wind and sky,
I see you glance, I hear you cry.”

“There she is’m,” said Mrs. Peggs viciously, “singing them unholy songs as gipsy’s randies sing’m.”

Eric held up a warning finger for the singer had started again. And the unseen voice was so sweet, that he listened with pleasure:—             

“When to confess with heavy heart I went,
Harsh penace for my guilty soul was set;
But you, my priest, more dire your punishment.”

“That’s from the Spanish,” murmured Eric. “A Romany song.”

“And so improper’m!” said Mrs. Peggs bridling.

Pansey made her appearance round the corner of the cottage, followed by a tall, lean, black-eyed gipsy. Jerry was a picturesque rascal, and as impudent as a magpie, which he also resembled in his thievish qualities. He lounged lazily after Pansey, smoking, but took off his red cap when he saw Judith. Pansey looked as pretty as ever, and showed her white teeth when she espied Eric.

“Here’s my lord,” she said, a flash of humour crossing her sunburnt face. Then she turned to Jerry and said something rapidly in the black language. He laughed, and nodded.

“You’ll find the Gorgio is quite equal to you both,” cried Baker, who understood what she said. Pansey looked startled.

“Duvel. You know the calo jib.”

Eric nodded. “Don’t talk secrets before me and my sister,” he said in Romany.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Baker, and in what language?” asked Judith.

“It’s the gipsy lingo,” replied Eric, looking critically at the sinewy figure of Jerry who was now scowling.

“I didn’t mean anything,” said Pansey to Eric, apologetically.

“I am aware of that,” he answered dryly, “you come for the pigeon.”

“What business is that of yours?” asked Lovel insolently.

“There’s a lady present, my man,” was Eric’s reply.

“I beg the lady’s pardon, but not yours, my Romany Rye.”

“We’ll settle that later,” remarked Eric in Spanish, whereat Jerry started, and looked at him sharply.

“How do you know I patter that lingo, Rye?”

“Pansey sang a verse of a Spanish Romany ditty just now. Come,” Eric reverted to English, for Judith was looking at him with astonishment, “here’s the pigeon.”

“Far too good for the likes of you,” said Mrs. Peggs, tossing her head.

“But you will give it to me, Dickey won’t you?” asked Pansey eagerly.

Dickey nodded, and taking Mimie from Judith gave her into the outstretched hands of Pansey. “You must keep her in a cage,” he said, “else she’ll fly back at once. She’s a homer you know.”

“A carrier pigeon,” put in Judith.

“No, miss. A carrier’s a different sort. The birds as carry messages are what we call homing pigeons.”

“See there, Mr. Baker. Live and learn. I thought that a carrier and homing pigeon were one and the same. I’m sure I can’t distinguish Mimie from the rest.”

“Oh but you can, miss, by the ring. See the mark on her feathers round her neck. And she knows her name. Mimie! Mimie!” he cooed.

The bird strutted and bridled, and dipped its small head, turning a bright eye on its new owner. Pansey took a basket from Jerry and popped Mimie in. “We’ll go home now,” she said with a glance at Eric. For some reason she appeared anxious to get out of his company.

“Don’t eat the bird, Pansey,” said Judith rising.

“Oh no, miss, I’ll keep it for a pet,” said the gipsy. “Come Jerry, we must be getting. Thank you, Dickey. I’ll remember your kindness that I will.”

“How’s your father’s eye?

“Much better than father’s temper,” said Pansey turning sharply on Eric who had addressed her, “don’t cross his path again.”

“Or mine,” muttered Jerry with a scowl.

Eric bowed. “So pleased and obliged for the warning,” said he, “convey my regards to your papa. When next we meet,” he stopped, for the two gipsies looked intelligently at one another. “H’m,” said Eric, his face becoming expressionless at once, for he scented danger. “We must be going also, Miss Bellona.”

“And you two tramps get out,” said Mrs. Peggs sharply.

Pansey sauntered up the path followed by Jerry, evidently intending to make her exit across the common. As she reached the cottage she flung a bright glance at Baker, and burst into defiant song:        

“Once, twice and thrice did he ask me to meet him,
Once, and again did we meet and depart:
But the third, was the meeting of steel and of heart.”

“Mischief,” murmured Eric as he sauntered to the gate with Judith.

When they were clear of the pigeon-ranch, Miss Bellona turned an anxious eye on her companion. “Those gipsy creatures do not seem to like you,” she said, and there was a note of alarm in her voice.

“No,” replied Baker nonchalantly, “do you know what that girl said in Romany when I chipped in?”

“Something dangerous.”

“You might call it so. She said to Jerry, ‘This is the Gorgio. Can you manage him?’ That was why I replied that they would find the Gorgio equal to them both.”

Judith looked uneasy. “I wish you would leave Moncaster, Mr. Baker.”

Eric raised his eye-brows. “Because a couple of tramps threaten me? No, Miss Bellona, I can manage them,” he hesitated, then looked very straightly at her. “Has your warning anything to do with them?”

Judith paused for a moment before replying. “No,” she replied, with some doubt, “and yet I don’t know. Are you acquainted with Mother Mandarin—an old woman who—”

“Yes, I met her in Old Dexleigh when I was on my way here. To my astonishment she addressed me by my name, but that she learned, as I afterwards discovered, from my long-tongued friend, Hal Ferris.”

He purposely did not ask her a question, and left it to herself to reply or not as she chose. If she explained herself, he would know if she really had his safety at heart, if not, he could then see that she had no true love for him, and Matty Dame’s gossip was false. Judith did not speak immediately. They were passing along a quiet street when she turned her eyes on him. “This Mother Mandarin,” she said rapidly, “seems to know a great deal about the gipsies. She sometimes comes to see my mother—as a kind of pensioner you understand.”

“But who is she?”

“I can’t tell you. She lives in Old Dexleigh, and has been there for many years. Ever since I was a little girl. She usually comes once a week to receive doles of food and money. I asked my mother about her, but could learn nothing.”

“She appears to be a lady?”

Judith assented emphatically. “She is a lady and a very well educated woman. She can speak French and German, and—”

“And can quote Shakespeare,” finished Eric, “she did quote him to me when we met. I wonder what makes so refined a woman bury herself in such a hole as Old Dexleigh.”

“I should like to know myself. But Mother Mandarin has always been a mystery to me, and to others.”

“Have the police nothing to say to her?”

“No. She is not a vagrant, so they can’t take her up. My mother allows her ten shillings a week, and she earns a little money by gathering herbs and weaving baskets. The police did make some enquiries when she first came, so I was told, but evidently they found nothing wrong about her, and so have let her alone.”

“But Old Dexleigh is such a dismal place.”

“She seems to like living there, and I suppose she has a right to live where she pleases.”

“Why is Old Dexleigh deserted?”

“I believe the water flooded the whole village every year, owing to the low lying land. The villagers stood it as long as they could, but so much suffering and fever and rheumatism were entailed by the yearly flood that they all moved fifty and more years ago to New Dexleigh. Since then the place has been the ruin you see. I believe gipsies camp there at times, and Mother Mandarin knows them well.”

“So do I,” said Eric grimly. “I know more about the Romany than the two we met to-day think. But what has Mother Mandarin to do with your warning?”

“This. She learned from Mr. Ferris that you were coming to Moncaster, and—” here Edith looked down and blushed, “well, that portrait of yours, Mr. Baker.”

“Cut out of the illustrated paper. Yes?”

“She saw it in my sitting-room. She asked me who it was. I mentioned your name, and she remarked that Ferris—I beg his pardon—Mr. Ferris—had said you were coming here. Then she laid her hand on my arm and said that I was to tell you to leave Moncaster at once.”

“Very good of her. What reason did she give?”

“None. She refused to speak further. All she said was that you were to leave Moncaster at once, as you might meet danger.”

“H’m!” said Eric, nursing his chin. “She hinted at something of the sort when she read my hand. Was this why you warned me.”

Judith nodded. Her cheek was as red as any rose.

“You see I thought that the gipsies might mean to harm you.”

“I have never harmed them. Why should they hurt me?”

“I can’t say. You know all I know. And I warned you as I was afraid—afraid lest—” she suddenly glanced at him, then dropped her eyes. “I must go now, Mr. Baker,” she said hurriedly, “but do leave Moncaster.”

“I will if you think I should.”

Judith looked at him again, and a thrill shot through his heart. She made no reply, but abruptly and without farewell, departed. Eric remained where he was, filled with joy, and made no attempt to follow. He knew now that she loved him, and the birds of spring sang in his heart.

Chapter 11
A Strange Message

On Thursday evening after dinner, Eric and his host were seated before the fire, smoking, with a round table between them, upon which stood the coffee. Eric felt in a particularly happy state of mind. The idea that Judith loved him—and he was convinced that she did—brought back the Golden Age to his heart. Certainly she was engaged to Harding, and in honour, Eric could do nothing to prevent the affair being carried out to a matrimonial end: but he had a conviction that Judith herself would terminate it. She was not the sort of woman to give her hand where her heart could never be, and in one way or another, things would shape themselves as he desired. He would yet hold Miss Bellona in his arms, he would yet call her wife, and Harding would have to be content with his million.

Baker did not tell anything of his newly found happiness to Hal. The little man had too long a tongue, and much as he liked Eric, would probably be unable to keep the secret. If Matty Dame, who appeared to be a famous gossip, learned the truth, she would inevitably make mischief, and then both Judith and her official lover would be angry. And after all, it was more from Judith’s manner than from anything she had said which led him to hope for the best. On such slight encouragement he could say nothing positive, and it was an undefinable feeling of absolute faith which kept him convinced that Judith would yet be his. But Hal noticed his unusual spirits.

“You are as gay as a lark to-night, Eric,” said Ferris contentedly.

“And you think it is your society? Well, perhaps it is. I feel happy—very happy!”

“You are as placid as a mill-pond as a rule,” assented Hal, putting his smooth head on one side like a bright-eyed robin, “but on this night, you appear to be bubbling over with the joy of life. There is something exaggerated in the beatified expression of your face.”

“Good health, a clean conscience, Hal, and—”

“And something worth the two. Has Miss Bellona—?”

“Certainly not. I told you of my determination the other day. Since Harding is engaged to her, I can do nothing.”

“Yet I am certain she loves you.”

“You are not,” contradicted Eric positively. “Don’t give ear to all the gossip you hear. If she loves me she has not said so.”

“Has she given any sign?” asked Ferris shrewdly.

Eric coloured. “You are too clever, my friend,” he said evasively.

“Ah!” said Hal, in a satisfied tone.

“If you say a word to Miss Dame, Hal—”

“I won’t—upon my honour I won’t. But has she—?”

“No, she has not. I think she looks kindly on me, but kindness is far removed from love.”

“And pity is akin to it. The other day Miss Bellona, in speaking to Matty, commiserated your position.”

“In what way? It appears to me to be a very good position.”

“Oh, she said that you had no home, and no ties, and that you were a wanderer.”

“How good of her. But she’s an angel, and the beauty of the world.”

“Belonging to Harding,” put in Hal.

“Quite so, therefore I mustn’t touch her. The fates may bring about a different state of things, but at present—” Eric stopped and smoothed his crisp hair. “Let us talk of other things, Hal. I am expecting Harding to-night.”

“You seem to be always in his company, Eric.”

Baker laughed and nodded. He had not reported his conversation with Harding to Ferris. As things were, he preferred to keep all details to himself. However Ferris knew that Eric had warned the man of the plot to kidnap him.

“Harding wishes to prove that my fears are groundless,” explained Baker, “therefore he has reported himself to me daily. To-night he goes up town and remains away for some time.”

“So you think that if he is not kidnapped this week, he will not be stolen away at all?” asked Hal.

“I can’t say. All I know is, that if he leaves for town to-night, my mind will be more at rest. He’ll be here soon.”

Ferris rose, and crossed to the piano where he busied himself in collecting music. “I hope you won’t mind seeing him alone,” he said; “and in doing the honours for me. I have to pay a visit.”

“To Matty Dame—so you told me.”

“To her mother,” corrected Hal in a dignified tone. “Lady Dame is anxious to hear me sing.”

“As though that were any novelty to her,” laughed Eric, “you are going to court the fair peony, so don’t blush. Well, good luck to you; shall I throw this after you,” and Eric kicked off one of his slippers with alacrity.

Ferris stood on tip-toe, his usual habit when indignant, and after explicitly informing Eric what manner of idiot he was, departed with his music under his arm. Eric returned to his seat, and throwing back his head on the cushions of the chair gave himself up to the sweetest of thoughts. Needless to say they concerned Judith. So delightful indeed were they that they did not need the usual pipe to assist their birth.

In a quarter of an hour, Harding arrived, with his usual ironical smile. As the night was chilly he wore a sable-lined coat, and was arrayed in tweeds for the journey. He entered the room with his cigar still alight, and explained that his cab was waiting at the door, with portmanteau and bag. “I’ve just looked in on my way to the station to report myself,” he glanced at his watch. “I can stop half-an-hour.”

“Then why keep your cab waiting all that time,” said Eric drawing a chair to the fire, “send it away and have a glass of wine.”

“I may as well,” replied Harding after some hesitation. “I have something particular to say to you!”

He left the room with a rather disagreeable look directed at Eric which made the young man think that Harding had come to make himself unpleasant. However Baker was quite ready for any fray, as his temper was not improved by the hopeless love he cherished, and he found it difficult to forgive Harding—rather unjustly—for being the lawful proprietor of Judith.

When the other man returned, he threw off his coat, and sat down heavily. “I’ve sent the cab away,” he said, then after a pause he asked abruptly, “Did you ever meet Judith—I mean Miss Bellona before you came to Moncaster?”

“No,” replied Eric, his nerves quite under control. “I saw her once in London but I did not speak to her.”

Harding frowned. “She seems to know a good deal about you?”

“Such knowledge as one can gather from the daily papers,” replied Eric with a shrug. “I wrote a book, she read it, and approving of its contents, did me the honour to learn something of my personality.”

“Is that all?” demanded Harding with a piercing look.

“What do you mean, sir?” asked Eric haughtily.

“You know well enough what I mean,” cried the other his wrath breaking out, “you were at Lame Dicky’s place. You—”

“Who told you that?”

“Never you mind. I know. You were there with Miss Bellona.”

“Of course I was. Is there any harm in that?”

Harding began to look foolish. “You have no right to be with her.”

“See here, Harding, had we not better leave names out of the question, and come to plain speaking. What do you mean?”

“You know. She—”

Eric jumped up and slapped his hand on the table. “Hold your tongue, sir,” he said in a firm voice. “Miss Bellona knows me as an acquaintance, as nothing more. I am aware that she is engaged to you, and I have kept that fact in mind.”

“Oh, there was need to keep it in mind,” sneered Harding with a ugly look, “see here, I am going to town to-night, and Miss Bellona goes up to-morrow. When we return in a week let us find you gone.”

This demand was so supremely ridiculous, that Eric sat down, and in the calmest manner began to fill his pipe. It was foolish to grow angry with so jealous and obstinate a man.

“My good Harding, you will miss your train,” said Eric quietly.

Harding snatched up his coat. “Remember I mean what I say.”

“Most people do. And what did you say particularly?”

“That if I returned and found you here—”

“No, you didn’t quite say that. This is interesting. Out with it.”

“Well there will be trouble.”

“That’s very probable, but I may come out of the trouble best. My dear Harding, you may as well understand that this tone is useless.”

“You intend to stay?” cried the other furiously.

“So long as it suits me!”

Harding lunged forward with an ejaculation, as though he would have struck the young man who lay quietly back in his chair. Eric did not move, he did not even take his pipe out of his mouth, but stared up calmly. For a moment Harding held his intimidating attitude. Then the pose grew ridiculous, and dropping his hand with a muttered apology, he fell back, and took up his hat. Eric jumped up briskly.

“Now, sir, it’s my turn,” he said in a cutting voice. “By what right do you come here, insult a lady?”

“I did not insult Judith—”

“No names if you please. We’ll leave the lady out of the question as I said before, but you insulted me.”

“I beg your pardon,” growled Harding sullenly, “but a man can’t always keep his temper.”

“A man can, but a fool can’t,” retorted Eric.

“Do you call me a fool?”

Eric held up his hand in protest. “Oh, my good sir, have done with this woman’s war. You insulted me, so I call you a fool, and because I consider you one, I shall take no more notice of your silly conduct. Now go, Mr. Harding, your train is waiting.”

The other man looked extremely foolish by this time, and was obviously cowed by the firmness of his opponent. He opened the door, intending to cover his retreat with a swaggering speech, but someone was ascending the stairs with a heavy foot, so Harding held his peace. More than that he attempted an apology.

“You mustn’t mind me, Baker,” he said in a soft voice, “the fact is I have been dining rather too well.”

“Oh that’s all right, say no more,” said Eric in a friendly tone. He did not believe Harding for one moment, but wished to end the scene. In the meantime the heavy footsteps came nearer.

“And by the way, I have a message for you,” replied Harding.

“From whom?”

“A lady of your acquaintance,” replied Harding with heavy jocularity, “Mother Mandarin.”

Eric started and looked puzzled. “What has she to say?”

“That I don’t know, but I met her accidently in—that is on—I mean—well I met her.” Harding looked sideways at Eric to see if his hesitation was observed. “She asked if you would come to Old Dexleigh tomorrow night—that’s Friday, at nine o’clock. She will meet you on the wharf.”

“Where the barge was?”

“Yes, only it isn’t there now. It’s lying just below the Minster Bridge I believe.”

“A quarter of a mile down,” said Eric remembering what Merston had said.

“No, just below the bridge on this side of the river,” insisted Harding. “They’ve moved it up to-day.”

“Yes,” roared a gruff voice. “And you’ve been hanging round.”

Needless to say it was Merston who made this polite remark. His were the footsteps Harding had heard ascending the stairs, but he did not expect the door to be twitched out of his hand so savagely as it was. Sammy stormed into the room like a tornado, and faced his rival in the affections of Pansey with clenched fists, and the face of Nero gone frantic. Harding, who to do him justice was no coward stood his ground without flinching, and Eric gripping Mr. Merston by his brawny shoulders, twisted him round in the most dexterous and unexpected manner, and sent him sprawling full length on the sofa. Sammy was so astonished at the clever way in which this was done, that he remained motionless, his slow brain trying to discover the trick.

“Now then,” said Baker putting his hands into his pockets and looking at the fallen giant. “What do you mean by making an ass of yourself?”

“I’ll make mince-meat of him,” grumbled Merston rising. “He’s been on the barge making love to my Pansey.”

“Pshaw!” cried Harding with a sneer. “Sleep it off, Sammy.”

“Don’t you Sammy me,” roared Merston so loudly that Eric feared a policeman would come up. “You jolly well know you’ve been sneaking after my bit. Why can’t you stick to your own—”

“Merston,” interposed Eric sharply, and his influence over Sammy was so great the bull-dog actually ceased to growl.

“Well Pansey is mine,” he went on complainingly. “I was on the barge to-day, and saw him making love to her.”

“I didn’t,” contradicted Harding with ineffable disgust. “I have already explained to Baker how I came to meet the girl. The pigeon—”

“Oh blow your pigeons,” said Sammy with an oath.

“My dear Merston, you must really try and behave like a gentleman.”

“If you’re one, I don’t want to.”

Here Eric who was finding all this extremely trying and unnecessary chimed in sharply: “Here you two get out,” he said. “Harding you will miss your train. Sammy go home and wrap a wet towel round that reeling head of yours.”

“I’m as sober as a judge, Baker. Why was Harding on the barge?”

Harding explained. “I must defend myself,” he said, “else you will be saying untrue things about me, and I don’t want them to get to a certain lady’s ears. Lame Dickey gave a pigeon to Pansey—”

“Yesterday,” said Eric with a nod. “I was present.”

“And I went to get it back. The pigeon is mine, and is a particular pet. I gave it to Dickey to keep, and he had no right to part with it. I saw Pansey, and she refused to surrender it. That was all that passed. Then I came ashore, I shan’t see the girl again.”

“Oh yes you will,” said Sammy sullenly, “through that old devil Mother Mandarin. I saw you talking to her.”

“Ah!” said Eric who espied symptoms of vexation in Harding’s face at this revelation. “So Mother Mandarin gave you the message on board of the barge.”

“She did, but she refused to explain what she wanted to see you about—but I’ve missed my train I see,” he glanced at the clock. “I’ll have to wait till the ten o’clock, all your fault, Merston.”

“You shouldn’t be loafing round after Pansey,” said Merston, who appeared to have a monomania on the subject, “and I shan’t be happy till I see you off at the station. When you’re gone to town you can’t come after her.”

“Oh well, if there’s no other way of doing away with your suspicions, my good fellow, come to the station with me. But we have a long time to wait. I shall look in at the club.”

“I’ll come also,” said Sammy smoothing his ruffled hair, and becoming more civilized.

“What about you, Baker?”

Eric laughed. “I’ll remain here, and try to recover my senses after the row you two have been making.”

“All right,” said Harding in a most friendly tone, and holding out his hand, “mind you look me up in London if you are about. You have my address, and I’ll be there for seven days.”

“Good-bye, Baker,” said Merston in his turn, “don’t think me a double ass, that’s a good sort; but,”—he squeezed his cap between his large hands, and groaned. “I do so love her,” then with a sigh like a fog-horn, Sammy went dejectedly out of the room in the wake of his rival. Evidently he determined to watch Harding until he left Moncaster for London.

Eric returned to his chair, and to a quiet pipe. “What a confoundedly noisy couple,” he said with a gasp of relief, “thank heaven they are gone. Harding wanted to quarrel about Judith. I wonder if she has said anything to him—no,” he broke off. “I won’t think of it, or of her. I must be honourable. Harding will go to London to-night by the ten train, so no harm can happen to him now. Sammy will be at his heels until he goes, and Sammy won’t let any one hurt him. I’m afraid Mr. Tyler will be sold when he finds the game is up. H’m, he may try again certainly.”

Eric mused for a few minutes over this, and wondered why the attempt had not been made before. No one could have suspected that the conversation had been overheard or that Harding had been placed on his guard. Yet he had gone about the city without being molested in the least. “And it’s too late now,” said Eric.

Turning his attention from this point which was practically settled, Baker thought of Mother Mandarin’s message. He wondered what she could have to say to him; and in the face of the fact that she evidently knew of some danger to him, since she had warned Judith, he determined to keep the appointment, on the morrow. “And I shan’t tell Hal where I’m off to,” he thought. This was a mistake, although he deemed it wisdom at the time.

Chapter 12
An Adventure

It was without doubt Pansey Tyler who had told Harding of the presence of Eric and Judith at Lame Dickey’s place. He had been on board the barge, before it was moved back to Dexleigh, and in talking to her would probably learn the fact. And Eric was sufficiently a reader of character to discern that Pansey’s malicious disposition would make the most of the episode. But why she should irritate Harding against him, Baker could not guess.

From the remark she made in the Romany tongue to Jerry, it appeared as though there was some plot being hatched by the two personally against him. Else why should Pansey indicate Eric as “the man,” and ask the gipsy if he could manage him. But Eric, think as he might, could see no reason for the existence of such a plot. He was a stranger in Moncaster, he was poor, he had—so far as he knew—no enemies: so it was impossible that there could be any motive for the gipsies to cause trouble. Nevertheless Baker respected them, and it was to learn what Mother Mandarin knew about them that he made up his mind to see the old woman. Also, he was curious to hear what message she had for him.

The next morning he strolled down to the Minster Bridge, and looked out for the barge. He fancied that a talk to Pansey might reveal something useful, and put him on his guard during what he considered was a dangerous visit. Ensnared in the darkness and ruins of Old Dexleigh, Eric was sure that Jerry, if he had any ill intention, would manage to hurt him in some way. Pansey might reveal unconsciously some probable danger, and as Eric was a keen reader of faces, and Pansey a simple child of nature who could not keep her temper, it was not impossible but what she might—to speak vulgarly—“give the show away.” Eric therefore looked for the barge, but saw no sign of it. Then he remembered what he might have thought of before, that Harding had said those on board were moving it upstream on the previous night.

But there was one person who was not on board, and who evidently was surprised at not seeing his home. This was Mr. Luke Tyler, who stood swearing on the embankment, with a bad headache and a general look of having passed a wild night. Eric touched him on the shoulder, and Tyler jumped round with a scared face. His conscience apparently was not at ease.

“What the — do you mean by that?” demanded Luke trying to steady his nerves.

“I want to speak with you,” said Eric, glancing round to see that no people were within ear-shot.

“Then I don’t want to speak to you, mister,” said Tyler ill-naturedly, “you guy me a black eye, you did, but I’ll be jolly well even with you for that, my dandy Gorgio, bloomin’ turn-up-nose sauce-box.”

“What’s the meaning of that threat, Mr. Tyler?”

“Never you mind. I’ve got my orders, and I jolly well knows how to carry ’em out you—”

“There! There,” interrupted Baker imperiously, “hold your foul tongue, or I’ll chuck you into the water. You’d be the better of a wash of some sort.”

“Chuck me into the—” Tyler gasped, and spitting on his fists invited Eric to come on. Baker glanced round at a policeman.

“Do you want to pass the day in a cell?” he asked.

Apparently Luke did not, for his fists unclenched themselves, and he looked uneasy. “You ain’t a gent,” he grumbled, “talkin’ of cells to a pore cove as has—”

“Done his time before now. Well, Tyler, now that you are more sensible tell me where your barge is?”

“I dunno,” said Tyler staring at the glittering water. “She was here larst night, but I’m blest if she ain’t gone. I ’spects that bloomin’ gal of mine’s yanked her up stream. I’ll bloomin’ well larrup her afore I’ve done with her.”

“I think Jerry will have something to say to that.”

Luke spat. “I could settle him with one hand,” he growled.

“Where were you last night, Tyler?”

“What’s that to do with you?” demanded the man. “If you wants to know, I was boozin’ in the ‘Three Bishops,’ and jolly bad liquor they keeps there. My ’ead this mornin’—oh my ’ead!” and he groaned.

“If you want to know where the barge is,” said Baker taking no notice of Luke’s woes, “she is up at Old Dexleigh.”

“How do you know that?” asked Tyler staring.

“That doesn’t matter to you. By the way, Tyler, I might pay you a visit.”

To Eric’s surprise, the man took off his cap, and not ironically either, as he made a respectful bow. “I’ll be glad to see you, sir, and give you my rough cheer. The best I have. Come, name a day, or,” added Mr. Tyler with a leer, “say a night now—put a name to it.”

Baker at once was suspicious. Why should this truculent brute be so suddenly polite, and press him to pay the visit. Also the word “night,” struck unpleasantly on Baker’s ear. Was Tyler in league with his daughter and the gipsy, and if so what were they in league for? And why against him? These ideas flashed through the young man’s brain, but no trace of his thoughts appeared on his face. With a calm smile he accepted the invitation. “I’ll come and see you next Wednesday,” he said. “I’ll row up—it’s only seven miles I believe.”

“Just that,” said Luke with another leer, “and pleasant in the evening—say at sundown. I’ve seen pretty sights at sundown, mister—I don’t rightly know what your name might be, mister?”

“Baker,” said Eric, his eyes on the coarse face. “Eric Baker.”

“It’s a name,” said Tyler, gravely, but when Eric looked aside for a moment, he put his tongue in his cheek. Eric saw this and for that reason had pretended to glance aside. He wanted to catch Luke off his guard. He had caught him, and the man revealed a derisive face at the mention of the name which was common-place enough.

“Well, Tyler,” assented Eric carelessly. “I’ll see you next Wednesday—say at sundown. Give my love to Pansey,” and with a nod he strolled away, leaving Tyler staring after him with a scarcely concealed look of delight on his face.

By this time Eric had made up his mind. “It’s a trap of some sort,” he thought as he sauntered back to Hal’s rooms, “and Tyler thinks I’m fool enough to be caught in it. I wonder if he really has any scheme against me, and why. Pansey, her respectable papa, and her ruffianly lover—H’m! There’s trouble brewing, and I’m in it. But why? why? why?”

It was impossible to come to any conclusion. Eric could see absolutely no reason why he should be entraped. Knowing his name, Mr. Tyler could not possibly mistake him for Harding. And why did he smile when the name was mentioned? “It’s beyond me,” said Baker.

Many a man would have shirked the adventure after these two hints of danger. But Eric was absolutely fearless, and moreover on the present occasion he was devoured by curiosity as to what harm was intended, and why. He had concluded that there was a chance of his being mistaken for Harding but the conversation with Tyler, who was the prime agent in the business, showed that the idea was worthless. Again Eric could not connect himself in any way with the conversation in the ruined church, as it was not he who possessed the million. The only person likely to throw light on the mystery was Mother Mandarin, and since she wished to see him, Eric determined to go. Yet for all he knew, he might be walking blindfold into a trap. All the same he did not flinch. “I’ve got to see this thing through,” he said to himself.

Hal naturally wished to know where Eric was going when that enterprising young man changed his evening clothes, for a suit of rough homespun. Baker said he had some business to do, and might not be back till early in the morning. He advised Ferris to go to bed, and not bother about him. But Ferris was rather alarmed, more particularly when he saw Eric stow his Derringer away in his hip pocket. “It’s dangerous,” gasped the little man.

“It might be,” said Baker cheerily, “but what of that. Danger is the breath of my nostrils.”

“Don’t go, Eric,” pleaded Ferris.

“Oh yes I will. Wouldn’t miss the fun for the world. Besides it’s on business connected with Miss Bellona.”

“You mean that kidnapping business,” said Ferris sharply.

“H’m! H’m! I can’t say. Good bye, Hal. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Ferris followed him to the door. “Eric,” he said solemnly, “if you ain’t back for breakfast I’ll tell the police.”

“Right oh,” sang out Baker who was half way down the stairs, “tell ’em to look me up.”

“Where? Where?” shrieked Hal craning his head over the banisters.

But Eric was already out of hearing, and Hal lamenting the rash disposition of his friend, returned to the sitting-room. All the same he was not much afraid, as he knew that Baker could look thoroughly well after his own skin.

Meanwhile Eric was walking smartly down to the river whistling cheerily. The night was rainy and windy, and between the flaws the moon shone out with a sickly radiance. Eric’s homespun was warm, and for the sake of freedom he had brought no overcoat. Should there be a row, he wished to have his arms and legs quite free. As he came on the river bank, he felt if his revolver was safe. Then he stepped into a small boat which he had hired during the day, and which swung at moorings by the steps. There was no one about, and he pushed out into the central current under a deluge of rain.

Baker was a first-class oar, and bending strenuously to his work sent the craft spinning upstream. He soon returned to the inshore water as the current flowed too strongly in the centre. Having been up with Merston in the daytime, he knew the course of the river and how to guide his boat. The fitful light of the moon showed him his whereabouts at times, and for the rest he drove blindly on. So long as he did not capsize, he cared very little and even if he had upset was quite confident that his swimming powers would bring him ashore. Still the rowing against the stream was weary work, and Eric regretted he had not brought his faithful Sammy with him to lend a hand. It was just the kind of rough and tumble adventure which Merston would have enjoyed.

The rain spat and hissed and spluttered on the water, as Eric sent along the tiny boat with all his strength. Several times he was nearly over but managed to right himself in time. When nearing Old Dexleigh the moon shone out brightly which rather annoyed him. He knew that the Tyler barge lay off the ruined village, and did not wish its owner to espy him. To set Luke’s suspicions at rest had been Eric’s object in making the Wednesday appointment, and he was convinced that the man would not expect him to venture up stream on such a rainy and windy night. However, Eric, when abreast of the village, which he saw plainly bulking black and ragged in the moonlight, crept close to the off-shore and amongst the reeds.

The barge lay beside the wharf, but there was no light aboard. It was on the wharf that Mother Mandarin had appointed the meeting, and Baker was puzzled to know how he could drop across her without awakening the suspicions of Luke. But since lights were out, it was probable that Mr. Tyler lay innocently sleeping off his latest mug of beer, and would not be easily roused. Nevertheless, Eric, to make sure dropped down stream again, and taking advantage of a rainy gloomy moment, crossed over on to the Old Dexleigh bank. Here he drove the boat well up amongst the reeds, and tied the painter to an old trunk sticking out of the water. This done, he made sure that the boat was well moored, since in her lay his one chance of flight, he stepped overboard, and waded knee-deep to the shelving bank. The next moment he was up amongst the rough grass, and fully committed to the adventure. According to custom his spirits rose, and he would have sung his usual song about “the beauty of the world” but that he was afraid of awaking Luke, and perhaps the malicious Pansey. It was a quarter past nine when he set his face towards the wharf.

He approached the rendezvous by a different way to that which he had taken when rescuing Pansey. He dreaded to chance on the gipsy if he walked directly on to the jetty, so he crept along the bank, and under the friendly darkness of the ruined houses, which here almost overhung the turbid water. Every now and then he paused to listen and to finger his revolver, for he never knew when he might need it. But there was no sound save the moan of the wind, the murmur of the sluggish river, and occasionally the hoot of a distant owl. At last he found himself at the last house, verging on the lane, and almost within a good leap of the pier. For a time he waited.

He could see nothing, for the darkness was dense, he could hear nothing for the wind rose suddenly, and gusts of rain swept across the stream. But as by magic the clouds were brushed from the face of the moon, and for a moment she blazed out in silvery splendour. The wharf was visible in the cold light, but empty, and desolate. He could not see Mother Mandarin, or indeed any one. And at the foot of the rude erection lay the squat sullen looking barge, on board of which he doubted not slept his enemies.

Eric was disappointed. He began to think that Mother Mandarin had grown weary, but, as he was only twenty minutes or thereabouts after his time, she could scarcely have given him up so soon. However before the darkness shut down again he assured himself that she was not on the wharf, and made up his mind to seek her cottage. She certainly would not have retired so early, and perhaps the cold, rainy, gusty night had prevented her from venturing her old bones out so late. Baker therefore left his vantage place, and walked cautiously up the lane, gripping his Derringer and peering into the wet gloom. He reached the top of the lane without mishap, and soon found himself on the village green. Remembering the direction of the cottage wherein he had seen the light on the occasion of his last visit, he went directly to the place which was near the church. Luck favoured him, and he saw that the window was illuminated. At first he was inclined to tap on the glass, but on second thoughts he determined to knock at the door. To his surprise he found this ajar. Without a moment’s hesitation Eric seized the chance, and entered softly to see if Mother Mandarin was alone. For all he knew she might be in the company of the gipsies. In the dark narrow passage, he held his breath and listened. From the right came a low moaning sound, which he made out to be Mother Mandarin singing. Then there was a pause, and her cracked old voice rose in a brilliant aria of the old Italian opera. Eric was not sufficiently a musician to know the composer of the aria: but it was wonderful to hear that quavering old voice execute trill and shake with great precision and finish. Apparently the old hag was alone, as she would scarcely have given this performance in the presence of others. Eric pushed open the door quietly, and stood on the threshold. He saw before him a bare room, without carpet or curtains. A deal table, and two rush-bottomed chairs formed its sole furniture, and in a cupboard, which had no door, he beheld a few plates, and some provisions. In the wide open fireplace burned a small fire of sticks, and Mother Mandarin with her hands spread out over the blaze crouched on the hearthstone. On the table stood a single candle stuck in a black bottle. Its feeble light showed Eric the old woman’s expression as she turned at the sound of his footstep. At first it was indifferent, then a wild terror came into her uncanny black eyes, and she rose with a screech.

“Richard! Richard!” she cried beating the air, “keep off! keep off!”

Chapter 13
An Adventure (continued)

Eric was surprised by this address. Evidently the old woman was recalling a portion of her past—whatever that might be—and mistook him for someone she had known. After the first cry, and the impotent beating of the air with her skinny hands, she stood motionless but still looked at him with terror. He strove to soothe her.

“It is I, Mother Mandarin,” he said gently, and advanced further into the room. “Eric Baker whom you met a week ago. Don’t you remember—in the village street?”

Mother Mandarin gave a sob, and clutched at her stringy throat. “Oh Richard! Julian! Wilfred!” she wailed, and sobbed again.

Baker started. The name of Richard he did not know. But Harding was called Julian, and his uncle was Wilfred Blundel. He wondered if the old beldame knew the Essex squire, and why she uttered his name in so terror-struck a tone. Also it was remarkable that she should mention Julian at the moment.

“Who is Wilfred?” he asked, trying to startle her into plain speaking.

Mother Mandarin stared at him in a wild manner. Then the light died out of her eyes, and she arranged the red cloak skilfully round her shoulder, “Mr. Baker,” she said in a more natural voice, and not making any reply to his question, “what are you doing here?”

“I came in answer to your message.”

“I sent none,” retorted Mother Mandarin. “And I don’t want you here. Go away. I’m a poor old woman. Nobody cares for me.”

“You gave a message to Julian Harding on board Tyler’s barge, at Moncaster, saying that you wished to see me to-night at nine.”

“I was at Moncaster yesterday. I was on board the barge, but this message—who spoke to you about it?”

“Harding himself. He said you wished to see me.”

Mother Mandarin sat down. “He’s a liar,” she muttered. “I never asked to see you, nor do I wish to see you. Go away.”

In reply Eric took a chair near the table. “So it’s a trap,” he said.

“Trap! Trap!” cried the woman. “What do I know of traps?”

“There’s the vault in the church you know.”

She brushed aside the loose hair hanging over her face, and stared at him steadily. “Most churches have vaults,” she said indifferently.

“Probably,” answered Eric. “But most vaults are not likely to be applied to such a purpose as Mr. Tyler proposes to put this one to.”

“I know nothing of Tyler, or of vaults, or of purposes,” croaked Mother Mandarin. “But now that you are here, Mr. Baker, make yourself useful. Have you a cigarette? I’m dying for a smoke.”

“You learned the habit in London, no doubt,” said Eric handing her his case. “Or,” he fixed his eyes on her, “in Wargrove.”

Mother Mandarin dropped the case, and gasped.

“What do you know of Wargrove?” she demanded with a snarl.

“I was brought up there, at Blundel Hall, by my uncle whom you know.”

“How should I know your uncle?”

“You mentioned his name—Wilfred.”

“But I did not mention Blundel, therefore I was referring to a—to a—a person with whom you have no concern.”

Eric shrugged his shoulders, and lighted a cigarette in his turn. “I know nothing of your past,” he said calmly, “but I am convinced that you know something about mine.”

Mother Mandarin puffed at her cigarette, and laughed contemptuously. “If you come to ask questions you come on a fool’s errand,” she said derisively, and stared silently into the fire.

“Do you hate me?” asked Baker suddenly.

“Why should I? You are a stranger to me.”

“Am I? I have my doubts of that Mother Mandarin. You warned Miss Bellona that I ought to leave Moncaster. Since then I have made certain discoveries which seem to indicate that there is a conspiracy against me.”

“Why should there be a conspiracy against you?”

“That is what I wish to find out,” said Baker. “So far as I can see there is no reason. But since you warned Miss Bellona who warned me, it is likely you know. Also, as Harding evidently told a lie about your wishing to see me, I begin to think I have walked into a trap. But I’m not going to be caught in it.”

“You’re afraid,” taunted Mother Mandarin.

“Very much afraid lest I should be tempted to use my revolver. Has the plot to kidnap Harding anything to do with me?”

Mother Mandarin threw down the stump of her cigarette, and rose with a furious look. “I tell you what Mr. Eric Baker, or whatever your name is—”

“Ah,” Eric rose also, “have you reason to think it is not my name?”

Mother Mandarin saw that she had betrayed herself, and strove to recover her lost ground. “I know nothing about you,” she said quietly and with wonderful self-control. “But if you are a wise man you will leave Dexleigh at once, and Moncaster to-morrow.”

“For what reason?”

“I shan’t tell you,” snapped Mother Mandarin, resuming her seat. “If you want to know more than it is wise you should know, why don’t you ask Wilfred Blundel.”

“My uncle. Then you do know him.”

“I know him as a liar and a thief, and a scoundrel,” cried the old woman losing her temper, and consequently her caution. “Go and ask him. He’ll tell you lies—nothing but lies.”

“In that case it is hardly worth my while asking him anything,” said Eric, composedly. “What question am I to put to him?”

“Since you are so clever, you can find out. He’s the man!”

“Who did what?” asked Baker sharply.

Mother Mandarin chuckled, “Ask him!”

“Would it not be better to ask Father Prue.”

“I don’t know him,” said the hag indifferently. “I never did like priests. But Blundel’s a Romanist. The Hardings were Protestants.”

“I don’t care two straws about Mr. Harding’s religion. But I tell you one thing, Mother Mandarin, he shall never marry Judith Bellona.”

“Already,” said Mother Mandarin scornfully. “You did not know her when you went to Moncaster a week ago. Now—you love her.”

“With all my heart and soul. And I intend to marry her.”

“Really, Mr. Baker,” said Mother Mandarin, in such a refined way that he nearly jumped. “You must remember that her mother has to be consulted. And Mrs. Bellona is not easy to deal with.”

“I know nothing about Mrs. Bellona. Save that she does not like me.”

“What’s that to me,” snarled the woman. “I am her pensioner. She allows me ten shillings a week.” This last piece of information with a bitter laugh.

“That’s very good of her. Does she come from Lima?”

Mother Mandarin rose again. “Get out,” she cried, pointing to the door. “I refuse to answer your questions. I’m not going to lose my ten shillings a week for you.”

“Ah, then you’re paid to—”

Eric got no further. The woman pushed past him with an angry look and flung out into the darkness before he could stop her. At once he followed, but with her usual dexterity Mother Mandarin had already involved herself in the labyrinth of ruined cottages. The darkness favoured her escape also, and Eric stood helplessly in the open, with the rain beating down on him, wondering what was best to be done. He could not give chase, as he knew not where to go. He could not remain where he was, as now that Mother Mandarin had denied sending the message, he felt that the dangers he suspected were closing round him. And he saw no way of avoiding them.

Suddenly he espied a light moving in the jungle round the lonely church. Thinking Mother Mandarin might have taken refuge there, he dashed forward without considering the danger. His rashness brought its own punishment. As he crushed through the long grass, and tore his way through the broken fence, the light was extinguished. He fancied he heard voices, but in the roaring of the wind, could not be certain. In the thick grasses a sudden gleam of moonlight showed him figures moving, but he could not distinguish the number. Another ray of cold light revealed him standing against the elm-tree near the fence surrounding the church. A man dashed forward with a cry, and at his heels appeared others. A shot whizzed past Baker’s ears, and the foremost man flung himself forward. Eric leaped back, revolver in hand, and fired as he best could in the confusion and gloom and glimmering light. There was a cry of mingled rage and pain. His assailant flung up his hands and dropped. But the other still came on. Eric sprang over the fence, and raced for his life. Through the village green he went, making blindly for the river. If he could once get to his boat he would be safe, since, so far as he knew, there was no other craft on the stream.

The moon was blotted out by a sudden squall. A gust of wind howled shrilly, and Eric went helter-skelter down the lane. In silence his pursuers came after, but he did not know how many they were. Another shot rang out, but the bullet missed him. He recognised the whip-like crack of a Winchester. If he wished to save his life, there was no time to be lost. With a bound he was on the pier, and, almost without thinking, plunged into the stream. He kept under water and drifted down for a time, finally coming to the surface for breath and observation. But it was still dark and squally, and the face of the stream was dimpling with rain. As his enemies, whomsoever they might be, were on the Old Dexleigh bank, Eric did not think it wise to venture shore. He made for the opposite side, and found it hard work. But by making the most strenuous exertions he managed to swim clear of the strong central current, and reached land a long distance from the wharf. And all this time none of his assailants had made any sound. The killing—if killing was to be done—had to be executed in absolute silence.

So here Eric found himself at ten o’clock at night, seven or eight miles from his temporary home, drenched with water, shivering with cold, and in a country he knew very little about. However, he dare not trust himself again within reach of those who had sought his life. The trap had been well laid, but he had escaped, if indeed it was a trap, and not an accident owing to his own rash act in following the beldame. She certainly might have told those who were concealed in the lonely church that he was coming out of her house, and so they might have met him. But he could not be sure, and was so weary and cold that he was not able to think out the matter. So far, he had escaped, but it was not impossible that he might be followed. To remain where he was appeared risky, so Eric followed the towing-path which led to Moncaster. It was by chance that he struck on this, but having found it, he was satisfied that he would soon arrive home. The seven miles were soon covered, for to warm himself, Baker ran a greater part of the way. It was midnight when he reached the close, and he let himself in with the latch-key which Hal had given him. Ferris had already retired, being an early bird. Eric followed his example, and so fatigued was he, that he fell asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.

It was late when he awoke, and then only when Hal entered the room to see if he had yet returned.

“You’re all right, I hope, Eric?”

“All right. Don’t you worry, old boy. I got back shortly after midnight.”

“And your adventure?”

“Oh, it was nothing to speak of. I went to see some one about that kidnapping, but could learn very little. Clear out, Hal, I’ll be in to breakfast soon.”

Having satisfied himself with his own eyes that Eric was safe and sound, Hal departed. Baker lay in bed a few minutes longer, pondering over the events of the previous night. Although he had not seen his assailants he was certain that they were Jerry, Tyler, and probably some of Pansey’s gipsy friends. The presence of the barge proved that Tyler had returned to Old Dexleigh. But what struck Eric as strange was that Harding should have prepared the trap into which he had so nearly fallen. Harding had been on board the barge when near the Minster bridge, and must have seen Tyler. From Tyler’s behaviour, it was plain that he wished to trap Eric, and from the remarks of Pansey and Jerry at Lame Dickey’s, it would seem that they also were concerned in the conspiracy. Harding’s message had been a mere lure to bring Baker to Old Dexleigh and place him at the mercy of his foes. Whether Mother Mandarin also had a hand in the matter it was difficult to say. Certainly, it would seem that she had, as Eric had not been attacked till he followed her whither he supposed she had gone. Then again, he thought that he might be wrong in ascribing the attack to her.

But, however this might be, Harding undoubtedly was playing the part of a traitor. Seeing that Eric had saved him from being kidnapped it was ungrateful to say the least of it. And then he could not understand why Harding should wish him ill, unless it was out of sheer jealousy. The man was jealous, desperately jealous; his manner before leaving for London proved that. It was not impossible that on the chance Eric might be mistaken for himself in the gloom, he had sent him to the ruined village.

“That’s it,” cried Eric leaping from his bed. “Harding was to be kidnapped. He told Tyler or Pansey that he would come that night to see Mother Mandarin, and then sent me in the hope I would be the scapegoat. But again that does not explain why Luke wanted to get hold of me.”

The thing bothered him all the time he was dressing, and even a cold plunge could not clear his brain. The deeper he went into the matter the more perplexed he became, for every solution he hit upon seemed to have some flaw which rendered it useless. Eric’s brain was becoming stale with this constant dwelling on the same subject, and he half resolved to go up to town. Also since Mother Mandarin pointed to Blundel as likely to explain matters, Eric thought it would be as well to go down to Essex. Now that Father Prue was out of the way, his uncle might be more inclined to confess—if indeed there was anything to confess. But this half decision still more confused his tired brain. He therefore determined to think no more until he was refreshed by a good breakfast.

Ferris was waiting for him, and they sat down to an excellent meal. Eric told Hal something of his adventure, but did not enlighten him much. Ferris saw this and looked reproachful. “You might trust me, Eric,” he said in an offended tone.

“I do, my dear chap,” replied Baker, eating heartily, “but I do not wish to explain until I have all the threads in my hand.”

“The threads of what?”

“Ah, that’s the question. Never mind here’s the post. We can talk of the matter later, and as soon as I can get it shipshape I will tell you what I can.”

Ferris shrugged his shoulders. “You are mysterious.”

“Everything connected with me is mysterious,” retorted Eric, taking up a letter which had just been brought in by Polly. “Hullo—a woman’s writing—London postmark,” he tore it open, “by Jove!”

“Miss Bellona’s hand,” said Hal, taking up the envelope. “She went to town yesterday morning so she must have posted it as soon as she arrived. What the deuce is she writing about.”

Eric thrust the letter into the pocket next his heart. “She wants me to come up and see her—on business,” he said trying to suppress his joy. “I can’t think what she means.”

“Will you go?”

“Go?” cried Eric rising with a glowing face. “I would go to the end of the world for Judith. As it is I go to London by the twelve train.”

Chapter 14
A Bold Offer

Mrs. Cadowan of Ulster Square, in the purlieus of Mayfair, was a very fashionable lady. Her husband was dead, she had no children, and her income was large. Having a taste for social pleasures, she collected round her a number of amusing, and titled, and clever people, who made her house gay and her entertainments brilliant. The latest literary lion, the most prominent actor, the most celebrated statesman and bishop and explorer and diplomatist, were always to be found in Mrs. Cadowan’s saloons. She was a straight-backed graceful old lady with white hair and a sharp tongue: rather cynical, and extremely kind-hearted.

Being a relative of Judith, she frequently asked the girl to stay with her, and took great pride in her good looks, and universal popularity. The late Mr. Bellona, who had come from Lima in Peru, and was half an Englishman on the mother’s side, had been Mrs. Cadowan’s brother. He made money, and came over to England with a wife whom he had married at Cuzco. His sister accompanied him; and soon married Cadowan, who was an old antiquarian—very rich, and, as people agreed, very disagreeable. However he fell in love with Miss Inez Bellona and married her. In three years he died, leaving her all his money and a handsome house in Ulster Square. Mrs. Cadowan had never married again, as she was quite happy as a rich widow. It was then that she began to figure in the fashionable world; and for many years had been, and still was, a well-known personage. Mrs. Cadowan went to court; she was present at all the best dances of the season; she patronised the first nights of plays, and in the autumn went a round of visits to country-houses, where she was as welcome as the famous Mrs. Million in Disraeli’s amusing novel. At the present time she chose to remain in town, as she was interested in a young dramatist whose first piece was shortly to be produced through her influence. Feeling lonely, as all her friends were absent, she had asked Judith to come up for a fortnight. Hence it was that Miss Bellona found herself in Ulster Square.

On Sunday afternoon she was in the drawing-room with her aunt, thinking of Eric and wondering if he would come. She had posted the letter immediately she arrived at Victoria Station, and now was doubtful if she had done the right thing. What she had to say to him was so bold, and yet so important, that she was torn between the necessity of making an explanation, and the difficulty of putting her meaning into plain words. In spite of her haughty looks and frank speech, Judith was a shy woman, and was so deeply in love with Eric that her shyness became still more pronounced. At one time she hoped he would come, at another trusted he would stay away. But she knew in her heart that he would certainly present himself. As the hour of five o’clock approached, she became nervous.

Mrs. Cadowan was seated in her favourite chair knitting a silk tie for one of her favourite young men. She liked young people, particularly of the masculine sex, and generally had a train of boys at her heels. All these truly respected her, for Mrs. Cadowan never allowed any liberties, and frequently rebuked youths when she thought it was for their good. Many a man owed his success in life to the kind old lady’s good advice and timely aid. At the present moment she was waiting for the arrival of the dramatist who had promised to read the last act of his comedy to her that afternoon.

“And when does that Mr. Baker arrive, dear?” asked Mrs. Cadowan, as to the needles flashed in her pretty white hands.

“I asked him to come at five,” replied Judith looking at the clock.

“My dear,” said Mrs. Cadowan following her gaze, “don’t go by that thing. It’s a French clock and very incorrect, like French morals.”

Judith laughed, and came to the fire. Resting one slender foot on the polished fender, she looked down from her tall height on her aunt, who was still handsome, and as stately. “What things you say, aunt.”

“My dear, to grow old doesn’t mean that one should grow stupid. Besides London does sharpen one’s wits. I wish you stayed here instead of that dull Moncaster. I met the Bishop once. He was as stiff as a poker, and low church at that.”

“I like Moncaster, aunty. And I expect I shall stay there all my life. Julian is so fond of it, and you know—” she sighed.

“I know,” the old lady’s needles clicked sharply, “and I don’t approve. That Mr. Harding is a nasty man—look at his eye—a shifty eye—and his temper—of the worst, my dear.”

“Mother wishes me to marry him.”

“Because of that wretched million,” sniffed Mrs. Cadowan, “as if, in this world there were not more important things than money. I suppose he is certain to get the money, Judith. It would be an awful thing if you married him for his million and then found out he was a pauper.”

“I don’t marry him for his money, but because my mother wishes it.”

Mrs. Cadowan looked up quickly. “You are not usually so obedient.”

Judith reddened and looked down. “Mother has a strong will.”

“So have you; and, as you are young and she is old, your will should prevail. Don’t tell me. It’s for the money.”

“No,” denied Judith sympathetically, “its because—” she paused nervously.

“Ah. Then there is a reason. I always thought so,” cried the aunt triumphantly. “Why you should marry that bad tempered man, who has only money to recommend him, and is not very sure of that, I—”

“The money is sure enough,” said Miss Bellona in a low voice, “you know how it was left.”

Mrs. Cadowan nodded. “Don Manuel Tejada was a friend of my father’s, my dear. A nice old man, but queer in the head. Why he should have tied up all that money to accumulate for Walter Harding I don’t understand. It would have been much better to have given him a sum down.”

“Walter Harding would not take money for the service he did.”

“Then I don’t see why his relatives should benefit. To be sure if Walter Harding hadn’t been an idiot, he could have had the interest of the money. But he wouldn’t touch it, and it has gone on accumulating till it’s now a million. And all for Julian Harding who has done nothing to deserve it. I wish Richard had got it.”

“You liked Richard Harding, aunt.”

“My dear, he was the best-looking man you ever saw, and the most charming—very like Julian.”

“Well, aunt, Julian is his son.”

“And a nice son he was. Not that Richard was a good man; an awful flirt, my dear. Walter Harding’s wife was in love with him, and Walter was dreadfully jealous. He had cause to be,” added the old lady in a significant manner.

“Richard was Walter Harding’s cousin?”

Mrs. Cadowan nodded. “Yes! And he made Walter miserable. But poor Walter died most unhappily.”

“How do you mean unhappily?”

“Let us change the subject,” said Mrs. Cadowan in her most stately manner, “it’s an unpleasant story. I don’t like washing family linen even in private. About this Mr. Baker? He’s an engineer I understand?”

“Yes, and a nephew of Wilfred Blundel of Essex.”

“A drunken fool. Mrs. Walter Harding was his sister. Another sister married a banker called Baker, so I suppose this is the child.”

Judith hesitated. “I suppose so. His uncle said as much.”

“Mother and father both dead and the boy an engineer?”

“That’s his history,” assented Judith colouring.

“And you’re in love with him.”

Judith would have denied this imputation, but Mrs. Cadowan was too sharp. “Don’t tell stories, my dear, I see the truth in your face written in red letters,” she chuckled, “and in spite of loving this man, you marry Harding.”

“I may not,” cried Miss Bellona suddenly.

“Ah!” Mrs. Cadowan nodded. “I hope you will have the pluck. If you do decide to throw Harding over, my dear, come and stop with me. Your mother will turn you out.”

“She threatened to do so, if I did not obey her.”

“She always was a nasty woman,” said Mrs. Cadowan reflectively, “a high-spirited tyrannical scold. I married my husband to escape from the miserable life she led me. We have never been friends, never.”

“Well, aunt, after all she is my mother, let us say no more about her.”

Mrs. Cadowan nodded. “Very well,” she assented placidly, “though if you are not to say bad of bad people, I don’t know what’s the use of being good. Your mother in Cuzco was notorious for her temper.”

Judith looked uncomfortable. She knew her mother’s failings well enough, but did not want to discuss them with sharp-tongued Mrs. Cadowan.

Luckily at this moment the door opened, and the footman announced “Mr. Baker!” Eric entered the room, accurately dressed in his Bond Street kit, and looked handsomer that ever. Judith’s heart bounded as she noted the delighted expression of his blue eyes.

“How are you, Mr. Baker,” she said giving her hand with a calmness she was far from feeling. “My aunt, Mr. Baker. Aunty this is—”

But she got no further. Mrs. Cadowan had risen to her feet, and was staring at Eric with an agitated face. “His very image,” she said half to herself, “are you like your father, Mr. Baker?”

“I can’t say,” replied Eric smiling; “he died six months before I was born, Mrs. Cadowan.”

The old lady uttered an exclamation of surprise. “Who told you that, Mr. Baker?” she asked, looking at him sharply.

“An old nurse of mine—a French nurse, Hortense.”

“I remember—a bad-tempered cat. Well, I knew your— I knew Mr. Baker, the banker, and he was not at all like you.”

“My father had no profession,” explained Eric, “he was independent.”

Mrs. Cadowan sat down, and looked puzzled. She glanced at Judith, but that young lady’s face was turned away. “H’m,” said Mrs. Cadowan in a voice full of meaning. “I suppose you ought to know your own family history, Mr. Baker.”

“I don’t know that I do,” replied Eric candidly. He was puzzled himself by the agitated manner of Mrs. Cadowan, and did not know what to make of it, “All I know is from my uncle, and my French nurse, and Father Prue.”

Mrs. Cadowan rubbed her nose, which she always did when vexed. “The priest,” she muttered, “I don’t know the priest. Well, Mr. Baker, I am glad to see you. Come again. You are such a nice young man, and as Judith can tell you I am fond of nice men. I am about to see one now. He writes plays, Mr. Baker, and I look upon him as the coming Shakespeare.”

“I envy him,” said Eric with a bow.

“That’s a very nice way of putting it. Ah, how you remind me of— it doesn’t matter. We grow foolish when we grow old.”

“You said the reverse a short time ago, aunt,” said Judith laughing.

“My love, I am privileged at my age to change what is left of my mind. But I shall leave you two to talk secrets.”

“We haven’t any, alas,” said Eric, and glanced at Judith.

“Oh, yes, you have. All young people have secrets. They appear later on, in the first column of the Times. But I must go. In an hour I shall come back to give you tea. I suppose an hour is long enough to hear an act read.”

“I have no experience, Mrs. Cadowan.”

“I must improve your mind.” She sailed towards the door which Eric held open. There she halted and looked steadily at him. “His very eyes,” she murmured, as she went out.

Eric returned to Judith somewhat puzzled. “I evidently remind your aunt of some one?” he said taking a seat.

“She is old and her memory is failing,” said Miss Bellona.

“On the contrary she seems to be a very clever old lady. And it so happens, that I am doubtful about my family history myself. I intend to go to Essex and ask my uncle to enlighten me.”

Judith made no reply, but her face changed. Eric did not know if her high colour was due to the heat of the fire or to some emotion which she would not put into words. She appeared nervous, and kept silent for some minutes. Eric held his peace also. He found quite enough enjoyment looking on her lovely face. She glanced at him to see why he did not speak, and saw the ardour in his eyes. Her cheeks became of a rosy hue which was not due to the fire, and she looked down with an embarrassed laugh. “A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Baker?”

“I would not sell them for untold gold,” answered Eric with a fervour there was no mistaking.

But Judith woman-like wilfully refused to see his meaning, and attempted to change the conversation. “Have you seen Mr. Harding since you came to town?” she asked.

“No. I arrived only yesterday. He gave me his address and asked me to call, but I am delaying my visit.”

“For what reason?” asked Judith innocently.

“It is hard to explain,” replied Baker slowly, and the colour in his bronzed cheeks deepened, “but I wish to know if you think it is right that I should see him, and pretend for him a friendship I do not feel.”

“That is a matter for your own consideration, Mr. Baker.”

“I fear not, since it concerns you.”

Judith twisted her hands together in sheer nervous embarrassment. She did not dare to ask him how it concerned her, as she guessed plainly what he meant. And she was not displeased. Eric, watching her anxiously, saw her scarcely concealed agitation, and thought that her silence was favourable to his love. He cast aside all feeling for Harding. Since the man had betrayed him, Eric did not see that he should be considered. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

“Shakespeare says—”

“Ah. Everyone uses Romeo and Juliet as an illustration. But a sudden passion may spring up in real life as well as in plays.”

“Considering that plays are supposed to embody real life that is quite comprehensible,” said Judith purposely speaking at length to steady her nerves, “do you know of any instance?”

“I speak from experience. Two years ago I saw a lovely lady in the Park, and then and there I fell in love with her.”

“That is ridiculous, Mr. Baker.”

“Every lover is supposed to be a fool, Miss Bellona; and being one I must necessarily be ridiculous. But I saw this lady again later, I heard her speak, I was in her company, and I found that the smouldering fire of love burst into a bright flame. Honour sealed my lips as she was engaged to another man. But the other man,” added Baker slowly, “played me a cowardly trick, so I consider myself absolved from all consideration for him.”

“Mr. Harding played you a trick,” said Judith startled out of her womanly caution.

“Yes. It’s a long story, but I will tell it to you later when I know—” Eric paused, then went on vehemently, “You don’t love him.”

“No,” answered Judith candidly. “I don’t.”

“Then why are you engaged to him?”

“That is a long story likewise.” She paused in her turn, and continued. “Do you know why I asked you to come up, Mr. Baker?”

“No. But any service I can do—”

“Will be done. I knew you would not fail me. I wish for your help.”

“Willingly! Willingly!” Eric bent forward in his eagerness. Then he laughed, “Mother Mandarin’s prophecy,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Why, when I met Mother Mandarin as I passed through Old Dexleigh she read my hand. I remember what she said to the letter.”

“What did she say?” asked Miss Bellona eagerly.

Eric repeated the old beldame’s saying. “A long life, and a happy one after a year’s troubles. Here are death and doom and marriage rings. But aid no woman: heed her not when she cries. With the cry will come love, and with the love sorrow.”

“How strange,” muttered Judith to herself. “I ask you to aid me.”

“And with the crying for aid will love come?” asked Eric quickly.

“Mr. Baker, I— don’t ask me!” she hid her face in her hands.

“Judith,” he was on his knees by this time. “I am sure you love me.”

“No. No!” she said in a muffled voice, “how can I love you in a week? The time is so short, and—”

“I have loved you these two years although I never knew it. And I know you love me. Deny it if you can. You asked who I was, and—”

“Yes,” cried Judith dropping her hands and looked at him with a new bold light in her eyes. “Why should I assume a false shame, when my whole life’s happiness is at stake. I do love you. I have loved you these two years.”

“My darling!” and she was in his arms.

There she lay, her face hidden in his breast. “I read your book,” she went on in a low, quick voice. “I met your friends and they told me of your noble deeds. Everyone spoke well of you, and before we met in Moncaster Cathedral, I knew what manner of man you were. You were always my hero, and my love grew silently all through these years. It was only a girl’s worship of the unattainable, as I never expected to meet you. But when we did meet—” she stopped, then looking up with an irrepressible burst of love, she placed her arms round him. “I love you—I love you.”

“And I you,” said Eric kissing her fondly. “How strange that we should both have been drawn to one another in this way. But Harding?”

“I will not marry him. I hate him. It was my mother who made me consent to be his wife. Had you been in Moncaster then, I should not have consented. But I never hoped to meet you, and she wearied me with her insistence. I agreed for the sake of peace, and because—”

“Because what?” asked Eric seeing she paused.

“Don’t ask me that—yet,” replied Judith. “My mother—no, don’t ask me any more, Eric.”

He kissed her again when she spoke his name. Never did he think it sounded so sweet, so pleasant as from her lips. “Only this do I ask. You know of some danger to me?”

“Yes!”

“It is connected with Tyler and those gipsies?”

“Yes!”

“And with the kidnapping of Harding?”

“Yes. Don’t ask me more until—” she hesitated.

“Until we are married. Oh, my love, when will that be, seeing you are bound to this man.”

“I consider myself to be free from him.” Judith brushed the hair from his forehead. “Listen, Eric, I have thought over the matter day and night. I wish to save you, and I wish to save someone else. I can do that only by marriage.”

“With me?” cried Eric, his heart beating rapidly.

“With you. This is the reason I asked you to come here. If you love me—if you—”

“Judith, I love you with my whole heart and soul.”

“Then let us be married at a registrar’s. And promise me that you will keep our marriage secret until I give you permission to speak.”

“I agree! I agree!” cried Baker clasping her in his arms. “To-morrow you will be my darling wife,” and he kissed her again.

Then the gates of Paradise closed, but the lovers were within.

Chapter 15
Wilfred Blundel

The Hall was of the type delineated in Christmas Annuals, a quaint Elizabethan mansion, covered with ivy, and, queerly enough, considering the date of its erection, surrounded by a moat. This received the waters of the encircling meadow-land, for the house was built in a depression, and girdled by funereal pines which shut out the view. Green slime floated on the stagnant surface of the moat, lichens grew on the gray walls, and there was a general air of dampness suggestive of rheumatism. Even the lawns were spongy in winter, and mists gather round the place in the rainy season. Dismal Swamp was the local name for the place.

It was no wonder that Wilfred Blundel took to hard drinking in such a cheerless locality. The most fanatic temperance orator would have sought comfort in the bottle. Besides the squire patronised that aristocratic liquor, old port, and from constant suction, had become so habituated to the juice of the grape, that he never became intoxicated. He was a stout man with watery blue eyes, gray hair, sparse and untidy. His mouth was slack, his complexion was as purple as the wine he loved, and he wore his clothes in a slip-slop fashion, which showed his unmethodical, careless mind. From year to year he lived in that dreary house, and finished his two bottles every night in the vain endeavour to keep up his spirits. Being a Romanist he did not patronise the parish church, and being a misanthrope, his neighbours, especially the womankind, gave him a wide berth.

When Eric alighted at the door, he thought the place was very little altered from the days of his childhood. He recalled that melancholy period with a shudder, and wondered how he had ever managed in that unhealthy spot to attain manhood. An ordinary child would have died, but Eric was always hardy. Even his spirits had recovered from the ghostly surroundings of that weird house.

“It’s like the house of Usher,” thought Baker as he dismissed the trap, and rang the bell. “I shouldn’t wonder if it came to the same end,” and he recalled the strange tale of Poe.

The servant who admitted him was old and bent, and as dismal as the hall into which he introduced the visitor. Eric remembered Old Jarvey, and greeted him kindly, but his hearty speech made no impression on the man. The gloom of the place had soaked into Jarvey, and he led the way to his master’s library with the air of a sexton leading a stranger into a mausoleum. And the solemn tone of the clock in the hall striking five, sounded like the knell of the dead.

“How are you, Eric?” said Blundel, heaving himself out of a deep chair, when the young man entered. “I received your letter and am glad to see you. Will you have some wine?”

“No, thank you, tea for me,” said Baker taking a seat and glancing at his uncle. He thought that the man looked older and even more bloated than usual. The wonder was that he had reached his present age, which was fifty, without having succumbed to the horrors of drink and of the melancholy mansion.

The library was a large apartment, panelled in black oak, and surrounded by bookcases with wire fronts. Behind these, the volumes which might have lightened the general gloom, were secluded like odalisques, and as Blundel rarely opened one of them, they were gradually being destroyed by damp and the busy worm. The carpet and hangings were of a deep red, faded with age; and the furniture, like the walls, was also of black oak. Even the great fire of logs that burned between brass dogs in the tiled fireplace did not render the room home-like, but Eric stared at the flaming wood, as the most cheerful sight upon which he could rest his eyes. He idly noted queer Dutch tiles with their scriptural pictures, which had alternately amused and scared him in childhood. His spirits were excellent, more particularly after his understanding with Judith, but he felt the depression of the house creeping over him. With an effort he roused himself, and addressed his uncle cheerfully. The old man, after the first greetings were exchanged, relapsed into silence, and was gloomily staring at a week-old newspaper, which, previous to his nephew’s arrival, he had been trying to read.

“Did the waters do you good, uncle?” asked Eric, who did not wish to come to the object of his visit till after dinner, and so struck out a general line of conversation.

Blundel shook his head sadly. “Nothing will do me good save the grave,” he replied in such a moaning voice that Eric wondered if his brain was affected.

“Come now, you are not so bad as all that?”

“Yes, I am worse than you think. I have had a hard cruel life, and everyone has been unkind to me. You never came near me, although you are almost my sole relative.”

“I thought you did not want to see me, uncle.”

“I am delighted,” replied the squire with a groan; then spoilt the compliment by adding that he was glad enough to see anyone, as no person ever came near the place. “And I belong to one of the first families in Essex,” complained he.

“Perhaps you don’t keep the house cheerful enough, uncle.”

“How can I be cheerful when I am nearing my end. And Father Prue is as dismal as the owl that lives in the stable clock-tower. You have come down to see me die. Don’t deny it. I see it in your eyes. But you were always a disagreeable child.”

“I’m sorry,” answered Baker trying to keep his countenance, “but I really hope you exaggerate your condition. You won’t die.”

“Ah and you’re sorry,” said Blundel casting a spiteful lack-lustre look on the young man, “but you needn’t trouble. You won’t get a penny. All my money has been left to Mother Church, and this house will be turned into a monastery when I am gone.”

“I don’t envy the monks,” said Eric with a shudder, “but I expect they will be sent here, by way of penance.”

“Ah!” groaned the squire again, and was about to make some cheerful remark. But the entrance of the tottering Jarvey with the tea, made him change his mind. “Here is your refreshment, Eric.”

“Thanks!” said Eric, and partook of the tea, although he felt as though he were devouring funeral baked meats.

After dinner, Blundel, under the influence of his second bottle, was more cheerful. The dining-room being panelled in light oak, and brightened by the white tablecloth on which stood crystal and rare old silver, was a more cheerful apartment. Blundel usually stopped here for quite an hour after dinner drinking his wine, and Eric was not sorry. The library gave him the horrors. Blundel with his usual disregard for appearances had not changed his dress for dinner, but Eric was unimpeachably attired, and looked singularly gay and handsome. When the ancient Jarvey departed, and the two gentlemen had settled to their wine, Blundel cast an envious look at his cheerful nephew.

“You look as though you had not a care in the world,” he said in a most reproachful tone.

Eric who was cracking walnuts, looked up with a gay smile. “I have my own troubles, as every one else has,” he said; “but I keep them to myself.”

“Ah youth, youth,” said the pessimist, shaking his head, “you do not know what trouble is.”

“Have you had much worry in your life, Uncle Wilfred?”

The squire groaned, and took his second glass of the second bottle.

“Trouble. I have had enough to kill an ordinary man. I don’t know why things have been made so hard for me,” he went on querulously. “I’m sure I never did any one any harm.”

“Did you ever do anyone good?” said Eric shrewdly.

“Yes, when it came my way.”

“Ah, then your life has been a purely negative one. I don’t think much of a man who never puts himself out to please or help people. Many a fellow thinks he is good because he gives those who are hungry the crumbs from his table. But I believe in the man who asks the starving guest to his banquet.”

Blundel stared and tried to get this reasoning into his muzzy brain.

“If one helped all, where would oneself be?” he asked rubbing his knees and staring at the cloth.

“On the road to Heaven,” replied Eric dryly.

“Where did you get these nonsensical ideas? Not from your confessor.”

“No. Certainly not from my confessor. I have picked them up from observing people. There is such a lot of negative goodness in this world. I think there are a few people who are actively wicked.”

“I never was,” complained Blundel, who, like the egotist he was, took this personally, “I was blamed, but I never deserved blame.”

“Who blamed you?” asked Eric sipping his wine.

“Your father,” maundered Blundel. “He was always hard on me. I’m sure he wasn’t so good himself, wandering all over the world, and making love to every woman he met.”

Eric recalled the remark of Mrs. Cadowan. “How could he travel so much when he was a banker?” he asked softly so as not to disturb the train of thought which was in his uncle’s mind.

“He wasn’t a banker,” went on the Squire dreamily. “Baker was the banker. He and his wife—my sister Nelly—went to the West coast of Africa to take charge of a bank. The fever carried them off in a few months. Ugh! Death!” he shuddered and drank his wine.

Eric was excited by this speech as it gave him the clue for which he had long been seeking. However he suppressed himself, and continued as though Blundel’s remark had been quite in keeping with what he had been told of his parents. “They left me behind then?”

“Left who behind?” cried Blundel waking up. “You,—yes—of course they did. And I brought you up, but you were always a nasty little worm. I never cared much for you.”

“Thanks,” replied Baker tranquilly.

The squire hastily apologised. “You mustn’t mind me, Eric,” he said stuttering. “I sometimes forget what I am saying. I really like you, although I can’t leave you my property. Father Prue,” he cast a sly glance at the young man, “he saw to that. Mother Church. Eh!” Baker joined in the laugh, with which Blundel tried to cover his confusion, and avoided the dangerous subject, until he could see a better chance of getting his uncle to talk freely. “Father Prue is at Moncaster,” he said idly.

Blundel flamed out in a sudden fury. “I wish he was in—no,” he broke off. “I don’t mean that. He was there, and he came back,” and the man gloomed over his glass with quivering lips. Evidently Father Prue was no favourite with the Squire.

Eric resolved to take no notice, although he was curious to learn the meaning of his uncle’s dislike for the priest. “He is staying with Mrs Bellona,” said Baker quietly.

“She’s a handsome she-devil,” said Blundel with a snarl.

“You don’t like her?”

“I never did. Thirty years ago, she was as bad as she is now.”

“Did you know her thirty years ago, uncle?”

Blundel nodded gloomily. “I was in love with her,” he said, “and she treated me like a dog, and why,” he burst out striking the table, “because she loved your father.”

Eric would have liked to ask a direct question, but Blundel needed delicate handling. The least suspicion that he was being—as the saying goes—pumped—would have made him hold his tongue. Eric therefore pursued his policy of getting at the truth by side issues. “I understood that Mrs. Bellona was a married woman?” he said calmly.

“Of course she was. Bellona, who was half an Englishman, brought her from Lima. I believe she was born in Cuzco, if you know where that is. The Incas you know.”

“Yes. But I have never been to Cuzco.”

“Your father was there,” continued the Squire gloomily eyeing his glass. “It was there he met Mrs. Bellona—Caterina Tejada she was then.”

Baker almost leaped from his chair. Tejada was the man who had tied up the money for the benefit of Walter Harding and his heirs. And Mrs. Bellona was a relative. With the greatest difficulty he controlled himself. “His daughter I presume, uncle.”

“His disinherited daughter,” explained Blundel. “When Caterina ran away with Bellona, who was a scamp and an adventurer, Tejada never forgave her. After his death the pair came to England with Bellona’s sister. She married a man called Cadowan.”

“I thought Mrs. Bellona was rich?”

“No. Bellona had very little money. He was always trying to get the cash that had been invested for Walter Harding’s benefit, but could not manage to obtain it. I believe it was on that account that Mrs. Bellona wished to marry Walter.”

“Did she? But what about her husband?”

“He died suddenly. I would have married her, for I loved her dearly. But she treated me like a dog—a dog,” cried Blundel rising with sudden fury to pace the room.

“Well,” said Eric, delicately piling the walnut shells in a heap and pushing away his plate, “you have the consolation of knowing that she did not marry Walter. He would not have her, I suppose.”

“He couldn’t,” cried the old man with gloomy triumph, “he was married already. Then he died suddenly.”

“Six months before his wife,” murmured Eric hardly daring to look up. The remark at once aroused Blundel’s suspicions. “How do you know that?” he asked.

“Ah!” Eric rose with a determined look in his eyes, “it is true.”

“Yes, no—that is— What do you mean, sir, by asking these questions?” By this time Eric had made up his mind to throw off the mask. “Because I came down to learn all I could about my parents,” he said. “We have never spoken of them—”

“And there is no need to speak of them now.”

“I think there is. I have been to Moncaster, and from one thing and another, I have reason to believe that there is a conspiracy against me. A chance remark of my friend Ferris put me in the way of examining into the matter, uncle.” Eric stood before the old man with an upraised finger. “Why did you send me, when I first began my profession, to those unhealthy places? Why were you sorry to see me return safe and sound?”

Blundel sank into a chair, all the nerves of him jangling like slack bell-wires. “I never sent—I was not—”

“Don’t tell me,” interrupted Eric imperiously, and exercised all the force of his strong will on the weak creature. “You did send me—or Mrs. Bellona did.”

“Yes she—no, she didn’t—no, she didn’t,” cried the wretched man.

“You need not deny the truth. I can guess it from your manner. You never liked me, uncle, because you hated my father.”

“I never hated Baker,” snarled the other. “He was a fool.”

“And you?” said Eric contemptuously, glancing at the bottle. It was cruel, but he wanted to browbeat Blundel into confessing the truth. This was the golden moment, now that Father Prue was out of the way. “As to Mrs. Bellona, she wished me out of the way because she wanted to get Tejada’s million. She commanded you to send me to those unhealthy spots thinking I might die. But I came back, and since I have not troubled her, being in ignorance of my parentage, she has let me live. But now, I have crossed her path again, and she is doing her best to get me out of the way.”

“You are raving,” said Blundel, with an assumption of dignity. “What have you to do with the money?”

“This much. It is mine. I have the right to claim it.”

“No! no!” stammered the old man shrinking in his chair, and holding out a pair of imploring hands. “You are Baker’s son.”

“I am not Baker’s son. Hortense, my French nurse, told me that my mother died when giving birth to me, that my father died six months previously—that my father was a great traveller. You have re-stated the facts. Baker who married your other sister may have died on the West Coast of Africa for all I know. But I was not sent home as you say. I am not Baker’s son. Walter Harding is my father.”

“It’s a lie,” quavered Blundel in despair.

“It’s the truth. My name is Harding. I overheard a conspiracy to kidnap Harding. I thought it meant Julian my cousin, who is Richard Harding’s son. But it was I whom Tyler meant. Oh, I understand now the hints of Tyler, of Pansey and of Jerry. I know now why my cousin Julian tried to trap me. It’s all clear,” he turned on the old man fiercely. “What share have you taken in this conspiracy?”

But Blundel only moaned and hid his face. “She will kill me—she will kill me,” he cried, and the tears trickled between his fingers. “I swore never to tell, and I never intended to tell. You have tricked me into saying what I promised to keep silent.”

“Yes I tricked you,” said Eric with disdain, “and I am ashamed that I descended to make use of such means. Bah!” he wiped his hands with disgust on his napkin. “It degrades my manhood. But I know the truth now even at such a cost. And Judith was to marry Julian that her mother might handle the million.”

“Judith knows nothing,” muttered Blundel.

“I know that,” retorted Eric sharply. “She has been made use of. But I shall baffle you all and I will.”

The squire again concealed his shameful face. “She will kill me,” he moaned rocking, “she will kill me as she killed poor Walter.”

Eric started back. How had his father died?

Chapter 16
A Recognition

When Eric retired to his room that night, he did not go to bed immediately. For three hours he sat before the dying fire, thinking over the disjointed speeches of his uncle. But, that he had so skilfully managed to lure Blundel into stray scraps of confession, he would not have arrived at the truth. Nevertheless Baker—as he may still continue to be called—felt rather ashamed of himself. His uncle was so weak in will and brain, he was so obviously the tool of Mrs. Bellona, that it seemed cruel to take advantage of his maunderings. To betray the ravings of a delirious man, is a traitorous thing to do, and Eric felt that here was a parallel case.

Yet he could not let matters rest as they were. He had learned too much, and he was resolved to baffle this conspiracy which had been undertaken for the sake of the Tejada million. It was natural that the disinherited daughter should try to regain her father’s money, but the means she took were so underhand that Eric could not calmly acquiesce in their triumph. Yet as Mrs. Bellona was the head and front of the conspiracy, and Judith’s mother, it behoved him to move cautiously.

He was not yet married to Judith as they had arranged, but it had been decided that when he returned the next day to town that the secret marriage should take place. Eric was thankful that the ceremony at the registrar’s had been delayed, as he could now marry Judith under his right name of Harding. He was not sure if he had been baptised Eric, but felt that so long as his surname was correct the marriage would be legal. As Baker, he could not have legally made Judith his wife. At least Eric thought this in his ignorance of the law.

To overturn the conspiracy, Eric determined to prove his birth, and to take his birth-right. Search would have to be made for Hortense Durand, who had been his second nurse, and for the woman who had been dismissed when Hortense came. Why she—the first nurse—had been dismissed, Eric could not conjecture, but he fancied that Mrs. Bellona had something to do with the matter. Then again, Mrs. Cadowan might give valuable evidence. Her surprise when Eric talked of his parents showed that, in spite of her early acceptance of his name, she knew that the banker was not his father. Or perhaps she had been betrayed in a moment of emotion into revealing her doubts. But however this might be, and however unwilling Mrs. Cadowan might be to wash the family linen in public, Eric was certain that he could depend upon her aid. She loved Judith, she disliked Mrs. Bellona, and her influence would undoubtedly be given to the attacking party.

This was all very well, but there remained a graver question. Blundel had hinted that Mrs. Bellona had killed Eric’s father, and if this was the case, there was no chance of the marriage with Judith taking place. Love her, desire her; Eric did so with all his heart and soul, but if the mother was a murdress, the union of the two was impossible. The shade of his dead father stood between them. Eric groaned as he thought of this possibility. He would rather have known nothing of his real name and of his claim to the million, than be forced to give up Judith.

But, after all, there might be no truth in the wild statement of the old man. He hated Mrs. Bellona who had treated him badly and had turned him into a misanthrope, so it was not improbable that he might accuse her of a crime of which she was guiltless. Eric had asked Blundel many questions about the matter, but the man, now thoroughly terrified at having revealed so much, refused to open his mouth further. Mrs. Bellona’s influence seemed to dominate him even when she was absent. He went so far as to deny that Walter Harding had met with a violent death, much less admit a second time that Mrs. Bellona had killed him. After an hour’s weary examination, in which he entreated, cajoled, threatened, and insisted, Eric had been forced to give up the point. Blundel would not admit that what he had said in a moment of emotion was true. But what he had said left a doubt in Eric’s mind. He thought that Blundel might have merely accused Mrs. Bellona out of jealousy and hate. All the same he had made the damaging statement. The only thing to be done, was to learn if his father had really met with a violent death. Once that was established, the truth (Eric shuddered as he thought of the possible truth) might come to light. But until his mind was set at rest on this vital point, Baker could not bring himself to marry Judith. He wondered what excuse he should make.

However, after long and weary thought, his brain refused to act further, and he went to bed. A sound sleep refreshed him, and he woke at dawn, for a cold plunge and thirty minutes’ exercise with a pair of dumb-bells he had used many years before when a lad. As Eric occupied his old room, and his belongings had not been touched, he found plenty to occupy and amuse his mind. It was ten o’clock when he heard the gong, and, much more his old self, he descended the gloomy staircase to breakfast.

The squire did not usually eat in the breakfast-room. His meal was sent upstairs and he descended later. But on this morning he came down, and was seated at the table when his nephew entered. A few open letters lay beside him. When Eric appeared Blundel glanced at him with the timid air of a beaten dog.

“Good-morning, uncle,” said Eric in a cheery tone, and offering his hand, “how are you? Slept well I hope?”

Blundel groaned. “I never sleep well,” he said looking at the fresh morning face of his nephew.

“I don’t wonder, in this damp hole.”

“Eric, my ancestors and yours lived here for years,” said Blundel in a solemn tone.

“For years did they?” said Eric drawing in his chair and helping himself to eggs and bacon. “Then they must have had strong constitutions, that’s all I can say. By the way is my name really Eric?”

The squire looked up with the irritability of a man who had drunk heartily over night. “I wish you would not start on that subject again,” he snapped, and collected his letters with a trembling hand.

“Answer my question, please, and then we’ll drop it.”

Blundel nodded grudgingly. “You were christened Eric,” he said. “The priest was in the house at the time, and he carried the Host to your dying mother immediately he christened you. Eric Walter Harding is your name. Since you know so much and are too strong for me,” he looked spitefully at the young man. “I may as well admit that.”

“Have you my certificate of birth?” asked Eric.

“No,” retorted Blundel; then complainingly. “You promised to ask only one question.”

“Well just another, uncle Wilfred. Did Mrs. Bellona take charge of the certificate?”

“No. The priest has it, and then there was the Government registration you know.”

“In this district. I was born here. H’m! I daresay I’ll be able to find out all I wish to know.”

“If you are wise, you will let well alone.”

“Ah. Does that refer to—”

“Stop!” cried the old man in an agitated manner. “I won’t say another word on that subject. I told you so last night.”

Eric poured himself out a cup of coffee. “Very well,” he said, “I do not wish to press you too hard. But I warn you, uncle Wilfred, that I intend to learn the whole truth.”

“And make it public?” demanded Blundel, his face turning grey.

“Not if I can possibly help it,” replied Eric thinking of Judith.

The squire fingered his papers, and appeared restless. “Leave it alone, Eric,” he said in a low, hurried voice, “you may learn too much.”

Baker winced. “I daresay, but I am not to be daunted in that way,” he looked at the bowed head of the old man, and felt sorry that gray hairs should be brought to such disgrace. “Uncle Wilfred,” he said, “one thing I promise; that your name will be kept out of the matter as much as possible.”

“You won’t tell Mrs. Bellona?” asked Blundel with a gasp.

“No. I promise you that.”

Blundel wiped his face, and nodded a silent thanks. “If I am questioned,” he said, “will it not be better for me to deny everything?”

“If you like. I shall say nothing on my part.”

“Then I will deny having said a word,” cried the weak man.

“Who will question you?” asked Baker. “Mrs. Bellona doesn’t know that I have been here. She never will know, and Father Prue—”

“I’m not thinking of either of those two,” interrupted Blundel pettishly, “but—” he gasped and looked askance at Eric, “my solicitor?”

“What has he got to do with this family matter?”

“Nothing! nothing! But he is a friend of Mrs. Bellona, and if he thought that you knew anything, he might tell her. Can’t you show by your manner that you are ignorant?”

“Oh certainly,” assented Eric, wondering at these precautions which appeared somewhat unnecessary, “but I am not likely to meet the gentleman. I know nothing about him.”

“He is coming here this morning,” said Blundel, touching a letter.

“Indeed,” Eric looked up with sudden suspicion, “did you send for him?”

“I,” cried Blundel, with an outburst of weak rage. “I’d see him far enough before I sent for him. I hate the man.”

“Why don’t you change him then. He’s only a lawyer.”

“Mrs. Bellona won’t let me.”

“H’m!” said Eric pushing back his chair, “he knows too much.”

“He knows nothing,” said Blundel sharply. “Mrs. Bellona has kept him in ignorance. All he knows is, that Julian Harding comes in for the Tejada million in June. The business is done through him.”

“Why is he coming to see you then?”

“About some lease he says,” said the Squire gloomily turning over his letters, “but I am almost sure that Mrs. Bellona has got wind of your coming, and has sent him to spy. Oh, Eric,” cried the old man, with a burst of terror, “don’t let him know that I said a word.”

“No! No,” replied Baker soothingly and patting his uncle on the shoulder, “that’s all right. I’ll go before he comes if you like.”

But Blundel caught him by the shoulder. “Don’t go. I want you to be with me—to give me courage. After the first meeting you can go. He will be here at twelve. You can leave at three.”

“Alright. I’ll stop.” Eric took out his pipe. “But you say he does not know anything?”

“Not of what you call the conspiracy,” said Blundel nervously, “but he is well acquainted with the family history.”

Eric made no reply, but lighted his pipe and strolled into the damp garden. It was just as well that he should wait, as he might learn from the solicitor how his father came by his death. As the lawyer knew nothing, it would not be difficult to speak openly to him, seeing that he no doubt thought him—Eric—to be the son of the banker.

It was a bright spring day, and the sun was warm. The heat drew steam from the ground, and the lawns smoked like a sacked town. What with the heavy boughs of the pines, and the muggy warm atmosphere, Eric felt as though he was back again in a certain Tarapaca forest where the orchids grew. But in this gloomy domain there were few flowers. Everything was green and succulent, and damp, and unwholesome. Baker wondered what could have induced the original Blundel to build his mansion in so unhealthy a spot.

Not very desirous of the cheerful society of his uncle, Eric mooned about pipe in mouth, and revisited all the spots he had haunted as a child. There were few houses near at hand, and Wargrove, the nearest postal town, where the railway tapped the district, was two miles away. When rain fell the roads turned into swamps of red mud, for some kind of volcanic stuff had been brought to patch up the highway leading from Blundel Hall to Wargrove. It was nasty, sticky, clinging mud, and Eric remembered how he had been bespattered when he arrived on the previous night. As rain had fallen in the evening he knew the road would be worse than ever, and therefore changed his mind about walking over to catch the train. He would have to ask his uncle for a trap.

It was curious that Eric, when thinking this, should come upon a pair of high boots, red with the Wargrove mud. These were at the kitchen door, and had been set out to dry in the sun. Remembering the unexpected coming of the solicitor, and how Blundel said that probably Mrs. Bellona had sent him, Eric thought there might be a spy in the house. He stepped into the kitchen. Jarvey, with the cook, the housemaid, and the lad who formed the Blundel household were at table, and looked up when he came in. “Whose boots are these?” said Eric holding them up.

“Mine, sir,” said the youth rising to pull his forelock.

“Were you over at Wargrove last night?”

The boy hesitated and glanced at Jarvey who made an imperceptible sign. “No, sir,” said the lad boldly, “I was only walking over the fields to see my sweetheart.” Baker would have known this was a lie, even had he not seen the quick sign made by the old butler. The red mud could have only got on the boots of a person walking to Wargrove. However he assumed to believe the lad, and with a nod to the domestic walked out. But he felt convinced in his own mind that Jarvey was a spy of Mrs. Bellona, that he had sent a wire to her on the previous night advising her of Eric’s arrival, and that she in turn had instructed the lawyer to come down. “I believe the solicitor does know something,” thought Eric, “and he has come down so that my uncle may not tell me too much. A foolish move, Mrs. Bellona It implicates you still deeper in this conspiracy. Besides it’s too late my good lady.”

He remembered his talk with Mrs. Bellona at the garden party, and how nervous she had been. Evidently she was afraid lest he should learn the truth, and was doing all she could to counterplot him. But that she was Judith’s mother, Eric would have made trouble. As it was he felt compelled to move cautiously for the daughter’s sake. And as a matter of fact for his own also. Mrs. Bellona was no mean antagonist, and in the game Eric thought it wise to keep his cards concealed. Shortly after twelve o’clock Eric returned to the house. Entering the house by the great front door which stood ajar to let in the sunshine, he went to the library. At the door he paused. Within, a man was speaking loudly to Blundel, paying him compliments on his looks and superlative good health. But it was not the lie that transfixed Eric with astonishment, but the deepness, and rich tones of the voice. It was in that lonely church that he had heard that voice last. He could not mistake the noble quality of it.

“H’m!” thought Baker as he laid his hand on the handle, “so this is the man who knows nothing. He’s Mrs. Bellona’s accomplice. Well, as Baker I am supposed to be ignorant, and my respected uncle will hold his tongue for his own sake. I’ll see what I can learn from this schemer under the guise of a fool.”

When he entered the room, Blundel was in his usual chair, looking worn and nervous. On the hearth-rug stood a short and rather stout man with a fine head, and an open countenance. To a casual spectator that face suggested a guileless nature, but Eric went by the shifty eyes. These never looked him straight in the face, even when the lawyer advanced with his hand outstretched, and a fine affectation of geniality. Eric suppressed a shudder as he took the hand of the Judas. Had he obeyed his instinct, he would have kicked him out of doors. It was painful to see how the real master of the mansion cringed to this pompous liar.

“This is Mr. Michael Rayner,” said the squire, “my nephew, Mr. Eric Baker,” and then he eyed the two eagerly.

“I’m delighted to meet Mr. Baker,” said Rayner in his deep, rolling voice, which was like the swell of an organ, “but this is not the first time we have been in the same room, Mr. Baker.”

Eric suppressed a chuckle. Mr. Rayner little knew where they had met before and how familiar his voice and squat figure were to the young man. “I don’t remember meeting you here,” he said bluntly.

“Yet I was here when you were a boy,” explained Rayner, who was quite at his ease and evidently suspected nothing, “and a very nice lad you were,” he added. “By the way, I was complimenting your uncle on his looks. He is in excellent health.”

“Very,” responded Eric ironically.

“A tendency to apoplexy perhaps,” went on Rayner taking up his position on the rug. “But it runs in the family. Do you remember Harding’s sad death, Mr. Blundel?”

“Harding was not a member of my family,” said Blundel gruffly, and with a stealthy glance at the expectant Eric. “He was only my brother-in-law, and we never got on well.”

“Yet you were kind to him—dear me how very kind you were. You were present when he died. Ah very sad—very sad.”

“Walter Harding was my uncle, I believe,” said Eric innocently.

“By marriage only, Mr. Baker. Your mother’s sister married Harding.”

“And a sad day that was for her,” put in Blundel with a snarl.

“No! no!” said Rayner unctiously, “we must not speak evil of the dead must we, Mr. Baker. And poor Harding died of apoplexy. That was why I recalled his name.”

“A disagreeable death,” said Eric, looking at the lawyer.

“Oh, dear me no. I was in the house at the time. In fact,” said Rayner, “it was at a dinner party. He was seized with the fit at the table, and never spoke again—very sad—very sad.”

Eric thought it sad also and said so, as he could not remain silent. But his mind was now at rest. His father had died a natural death. Blundel’s accusations were moonshine, and he could marry Judith.

Chapter 17
Another Mystery

Three days later, Eric stepped on to the Moncaster railway platform. He had wired the hour of his arrival to Ferris, and the little man was at the station to meet him. He came forward eagerly when he saw Eric’s tall figure, and shook both his hands heartily.

“I’m so glad to see you again,” he said rapidly. “I’m dying to have a talk with you.”

“What is it?” asked Eric good-humoredly. “Has Miss Dame accepted your heart and hand and the house in the Close?”

“No such luck, and to tell you the truth, I have not asked. How well you are looking.”

“I feel very well and very happy.”

“Ah. You did see Miss Bellona then?”

“I did. I saw her several times.” Eric’s blue eyes twinkled as he thought how he could startle Hal and all Moncaster by telling the truth, but he held his peace according to the promise he had made to Judith. And even had he been bound by no promise, Eric was not the man to discourse largely of his private affairs. “Let us walk,” he said when his luggage was safely bestowed on a cab. “I want to stretch my legs and breathe the fresh air.” He sniffed luxuriously. “What a treat after the malodorous atmosphere of London.”

“Did you see Harding in town?” asked Hal as they walked along.

“No. I intended to call as he gave me his address, but I was—I was—” Eric hesitated. “I was otherwise engaged.”

“And more pleasantly, since you never liked Harding.”

“And more pleasantly, though I don’t care two straws for Harding either one way or the other,” assented Baker.

“Didn’t you meet him when he was with Miss Bellona?”

“No. The fact is, he never called to see her.”

“That is strange,” said Ferris coming to a stop and looking up at his tall friend with a troubled face. Eric did not take in the full significance of the expression. “It is strange considering the man declares he loves her. But he never came. Yet he must be all right. Tyler could scarcely kidnap him in London. When does Miss Bellona come back?”

Eric shrugged his shoulders with a fine affectation of indifference. “How should I know,” he replied. “Some time this week.”

“I wonder if Harding will come with her,” said Ferris thoughtfully.

“He might, and he might not. I don’t know. Here we are,” added Baker as they turned into the Close. “Oh, how glad I shall be of a cup of tea—tea—tea. Here’s the peony,” he added in a lower tone.

It was indeed the huge Miss Dame. She came sailing along like a ship flying before a gale with all canvas set, and hurled herself forward as it were, to reach Ferris. Her face was a bright red, and her eyes sparkled. Apparently she had some news to communicate, and was not going to lose the chance of making an effect. As soon as the gentlemen removed their hats, and almost before they replaced them, she was out with her budget.

“Oh, isn’t it dreadful, Mr. Baker. To think that he should run away with that gipsy girl. But I always said he was such a low man in his tastes.”

“What is the matter, Miss Dame. Of whom are you talking?”

“Haven’t you told him?” asked the fair Matty turning astonished eyes on Ferris. She could not conceive the possibility of anyone not repeating any scandal, for she never lost the chance herself.

“No,” replied Ferris who looked uneasy. “I was waiting till we got to my rooms.”

“But he ought to know at once. Poor Mr. Merston admired you so, Mr. Baker; though to be sure, I don’t know why I should call him poor. He has behaved very badly, and his mother’s heart is broken. She sits all day weeping with one of his boxing gloves on her lap.”

“What has Merston done?” asked Eric impatiently.

“Eloped with Pansey Tyler,” said Miss Dame with vivacity. “Where have you been that you did not know, Mr. Baker? It’s all over the town. There has not been such an affair since the archdeacon married his cook, though to be sure she made him a very good wife.”

“Merston and Pansey,” repeated Eric. “I didn’t think the girl cared enough for him to do that.”

“No.” Miss Dame tossed her head. “We all thought Mr. Harding was the favoured one—yes, even though he was engaged. I wonder what he will say when he returns. And Judith Bellona too, how delighted she will be to think that the girl is removed from her path. I never did like that Pansey creature; a sly girl and not at all pretty, not at all—so small and insignificant,” said Matty bridling and glancing down at her own massive proportions. “But I really must be going. Good-day, Mr. Baker. Mr. Ferris, don’t forget to come round and see ma. She does so want to hear the new song. She has a new ear trumpet and wishes to test it. You sing so beautifully low, that it is the best test she can have. Good-bye; now don’t forget,” and Matty, clapping on all sail, surged ahead towards a meek curate who was trying to escape her by racing for the cathedral.

“If you marry that woman,” said Eric in disgust, “you will be tied to a phonograph. She simply repeats babble.”

“You have not met her in her intellectual moments,” said Ferris in a dignified tone of rebuke.

“Has she any, and does she repeat encyclopaedias when she has? She is just the sort of woman to know all that comes under the head of A. B. and C. and then drop the subject. But what’s this about our dear friend Sammy?”

“He has cleared out with Pansey,” said Hal, as the two friends ascended the stairs.

“Where have the young couple gone?”

“No one knows. Merston went out on Friday night at eight o’clock, and has not returned. Tyler and Jerry have been parading the town making a row about his having taken the girl away from the barge.”

“H’m!” said Eric throwing his hat on the sofa. “Give us some tea straight along, there’s a good chap. I can’t wait.”

Ferris rang the bell and gave the order, which was promptly executed by Mrs. Bedwin, with whom Baker was a great favourite. Eric began to eat one of the housekeeper’s famous cakes, and warmed his feet as he ate. Ferris sat in his usual chair, with a cup of tea in his hand, and related all he knew.

“I met Merston on the Friday,” said Hal, “and he was delighted because Harding had cleared out.”

“Ah! Then he escorted Harding to the station after all.”

Ferris nodded. “To catch the ten train.”

“And Harding did go by that train?” asked Eric quickly.

“Of course. Merston said he and Harding left here to go to the station. Sammy saw him off, and then went home. Next day he met Pansey—Miss Dame saw them talking by the river—and evidently made an appointment with her to elope.”

“Did Miss Dame hear the conversation?”

“No. But since the couple have eloped, they cannot have been talking of anything else.”

“That’s logical,” said Eric dryly, “go on.”

“Well, Sammy went out at eight, or a little before eight; I am not quite sure of the time.”

“I think you had better be sure, Ferris. I want to know.”

Hal stared, not knowing why his friend said this. “Well we’ll say it was between seven and eight,” he explained. “He changed into a rough suit of clothes, and went down to the river—”

“I went down about the same time,” interposed Eric. “Strange I did not meet Merston. I rowed up to Dexleigh on that night.”

“Oh. Was it Dexleigh you went to?”

“Yes. To see Mother Mandarin. Go on, Hal.”

“Did you go by river?” asked Ferris.

“Didn’t I say I rowed up. I suppose Merston—”

“He rode by the towing path on his bicycle. It’s a smooth path, and shorter than going by road.”

“How was it known that he went by the towing path?”

“A policeman saw him, and passed the time of night with him. I do not know the exact hour—”

“Never mind. We can learn that from the policeman. Well?”

“Well?” echoed Ferris spreading out his hand, “there’s nothing more to tell. Merston hasn’t returned. Tyler says that his daughter left the barge on that night. It is supposed that she met Merston on the opposite bank, and that they went off to St. Guthlac’s together. But Lady Merston sent to St. Guthlac’s and no traces can be found of them. On that very night they fled, or early next morning, Tyler took his barge down to St. Guthlac’s also, to look for them. He left it there as he could not find them, and came to see Lady Merston. That was the first she heard of Sammy, as he had not come back. Now Tyler has the barge again at Old Dexleigh, and is living on it with Jerry.”

“H’m!” said Eric musingly, “it’s a queer story. Strange that Mother Mandarin said nothing about Merston being in Old Dexleigh on that night. Yet he was there at the same time as I was—he must have been,” and Eric wondered whether Merston had been concerned in the attack on him. But he thought it wiser to say nothing of this to his friend. He did not want all the gossips of the city to be chattering of his adventure.

“I think I’ll go round and see Lady Merston,” he said rousing himself. “She may be able to tell me something.”

“She is waiting to see you,” explained Hal as Eric put on his hat. “As Sammy’s friend she has the fullest faith in you.”

“Does she want me to go after the run-away couple?” laughed Baker, “I am no squire-o’-dames.”

As Matty Dame had stated, Eric found Lady Merston in a state of tears. She almost fell on his neck. “Oh my dear, dear Mr. Baker, where is Sammy? Isn’t it too dreadful—that he should have married without my consent.”

“How do you know he is married?” asked Eric seating himself.

Lady Merston dropped into a chair and sobbed. “Oh he was mad after that girl, and I’m sure she will make him marry her, and how very dreadful that would be. Besides the gipsy Jerry says he’ll kill Sammy when he finds him.”

“Your son is not the kind of man to be easily killed,” said Baker soothingly. “Jerry would find him an ugly customer to tackle.”

“Oh, do you think so?” replied poor Lady Merston drying her eyes. “Of course Sammy is so clever with his fists. But this marriage,” she exclaimed with a fresh burst of tears. “I shall never get over the marriage. A low gipsy girl.”

“One moment, Lady Merston. We don’t know that Sammy has married her as yet. We don’t even know if he has gone with her.”

Lady Merston stared. That Sammy might have met with another fate had never struck her before. “But why doesn’t he come home then?”

“Ah that I can’t say. Of course he might have gone off with Pansey Tyler. I’ll see her father. Have you spoken to the police.”

The old lady screamed. “Oh, Mr. Baker, surely you don’t think my poor Sammy has been murdered.”

The ominous word struck a chill into Eric’s heart. “No! No! I don’t mean that for one moment. But even if Merston has run away, the best thing to do would be to communicate with the police.”

“I thought of putting an advertisement in the London newspapers,” said Lady Merston. “Something about Sammy coming back and all being forgiven and forgotten. But he may have gone abroad.”

“Abroad. Well, then, he can be traced.”

“It will be so difficult. All Pansey—ugh the horrid girl—all my Sammy had to do was to get to St. Guthlac’s, and there they could easily find a vessel to take them to France. But I have enquired at St. Guthlac’s. There’s not a sign,” and she sobbed again.

“Well I’ll see what I can do. Keep up your heart, Lady Merston. I’ll bring back your son safe and sound if I can.”

“Oh do—do Mr. Baker,” cried Lady Merston nearly embracing him again. “If you only knew how Sammy admired you. He did indeed. Goodbye and thank you so much for coming.” Eric said a few more words of consolation, and left the house. The first thing he did was to send a wire to Harding’s London address asking if he would come down. It struck him that Merston might have said something to Harding on the previous night, which might lead to the discovery of a clue. He then went to the station, and learned from an accommodating porter that Mr. Harding had left on the Thursday night by the ten train. “And young Mr. Merston saw him off, sir,” said the porter touching his hat on receiving a tip.

“You are sure Mr. Harding did go?”

“Oh yes, sir. And then Mr. Merston left the station in such good spirits that he nearly knocked me down. Gave me a shove friendly-like and a shilling for doing it.”

Eric laughed. He quite recognised Sammy in that action. In the exuberance of his joy at getting rid of Harding, Merston was just the kind of man to indulge in horse-play. He left the station more at ease in his mind. It had occurred to him that the two men being bitter enemies might have quarrelled on the way to the station, and that Sammy might have got the worst of it. Since Harding had so coolly set a trap for him, Eric believed he was just the sort of man to commit a crime if it suited his purpose. But Harding had really departed by the train, and Sammy had left the station safe and sound. It remained to search Old Dexleigh.

“I wonder if Merston was kidnapped instead of me,” thought Eric as he returned to the Close. “In the darkness he might have been mistaken for me, and so made away with. If that is so, he is now in the vault Rayner spoke of. I wonder where it is. Mother Mandarin might know, but she won’t speak out. She also is under Mrs. Bellona’s thumb. I know that by the ten shillings-a-week racket.”

By this time Eric was fully convinced that Mother Mandarin was in some way connected with the plot. She had evidently on the night in question mistaken him for his deceased uncle Richard Harding. As Julian was like him, Eric fancied that he himself must bear a striking resemblance to Richard, hence Mother Mandarin’s terror. But why should she have been afraid? And who was she? Until he learned the last he could never hope to discover the first. The only person so far as he knew who could reveal the past of the old woman, was Mrs. Bellona and for obvious reasons Mrs. Bellona would hold her tongue. Besides now that he knew she was dangerous Eric wished to be on his guard. He was more careful of his life now than he had been. He had Judith to consider as well as himself.

On returning to the Close, Eric received another surprise. A telegram was waiting. It proved to be from the landlady of Harding’s rooms, and she stated that, as Mr. Harding had not arrived, she had opened the wire so as to communicate with his friends. “Luggage not arrived either,” ran the wire. Eric handed it to Hal. “What do you think of that?” he asked.

Ferris read it. “What’s become of him?” he gasped.

“What I feared,” replied Baker quietly, “he has been kidnapped.”

“By Luke Tyler?”

“I can’t say. Tyler said he was drinking on Thursday night in a pub called ‘The Three Bishops,’ but that might be a blind. I’ll see.”

“Why didn’t the landlady wire before?” asked Hal.

“I suppose she expected Harding every day. If his luggage had arrived she would have telegraphed. I daresay she wants to let the rooms again and so opened my wire. H’m! I wonder if Harding ever reached London. He certainly left by the ten train.”

Puzzled by this news, Eric walked to the ‘Three Bishops.’ He learned from the landlord, a purple faced old bruiser, that Luke’s tale was true. He not only had been drinking in the public house, but he had slept there all night.

“I couldn’t turn him out, sir,” said the landlord, “as he was like a log with drink.”

“Could you swear that he was here all night?”

“Swear, sir—in a court, sir. Yes, I could, and so could my missus. But I hope this ain’t nothin’ to do with courts,” said the landlord, who looked uneasy and had his reasons for feeling so.

“No! no,” replied Eric, who did not want to raise suspicion until he was more clear in his mind how to act. “I am only curious, that’s all!” and he walked away.

It would seem, therefore, that Tyler had nothing to do with the disappearance of Harding, and indeed, now that Eric knew that his own self was the person to be trapped, he was not astonished. What he wondered was how Tyler came to speak of him as “the Harding cove,” instead of by his name of Baker. Certainly Rayner might have told Tyler, but Eric thought the solicitor more cunning. The more he went into the matter the more perplexed he was. What had become of Harding? He sent a wire to Victoria Station asking if a portmanteau and a bag were in the luggage room marked J. H. For if Harding had not gone to London and his luggage had, it would certainly be taken charge of by the station authorities.

When Eric was at dinner the answer came, and Eric jumped.

“The luggage arrived,” he said to Ferris, “but as no one was in charge of it, the porters took it to the office. It lies there now.”

“What does that mean?” asked Ferris, wondering.

“It means,” said Eric, gravely, “that Harding never arrived in London.”

Chapter 18
Eric as a Detective

Ferris suggested communicating with the police, but Baker was averse to doing this. He thought that in the course of their researches the police might learn that he had been in Old Dexleigh, on the night of Merston’s disappearance, and that he might be questioned too closely to be pleasant. Eric wished to keep the whole facts of the conspiracy quiet for Judith’s sake. If anything came out, one question might lead to another until Mrs. Bellona’s connection with the matter might come to light. And for the sake of her daughter, Eric did not wish to see her disgraced. He therefore insisted that Hal should hold his tongue, and arranged to prosecute the search himself. Hal did as he was told, and being impressed by his friend to observe all caution, he did not even hint at the matter to Matty Dame.

Next morning Eric walked to the station. It was his idea to take the first train to London, and to stop at every wayside station on the line. At each he would ask if Harding had alighted; and trusted to identify him by his resemblance to himself. When he learned if Harding had really alighted, he would then be able to follow up the clue from the station in question. At one time Baker fancied that the man might have been murdered and thrown out on the line, but since no body had been discovered he abandoned this theory. It was on the way to the station that he met Father Prue. The priest was walking with his eyes on the ground. Hearing Eric’s brisk step, he raised his scarred face, and greeted the young man with a kindly smile. However, when they spoke, his manner became at once cold and distant. It was these contradictions in the man’s character that puzzled Eric. He could not conceive why the priest should blow hot and cold.

“You have returned, Eric,” said the father coldly.

“Yes. I went to London and afterwards to see my uncle.”

“I hope you found him well. Now that I am not with him, I fancy he may be taking more than is good for him.”

“He was comparatively well,” answered Baker, with a shrug, “but he drank his two bottles when I was there.”

“So long as he does not exceed that I do not care. I return in a week, and then my mind will be at rest.”

“It can be at rest now,” said Eric, looking steadily at the priest. “His solicitor is with him.”

“Rayner!” Father Prue looked anxious. “I’m sorry for that,” said he, after a pause. “I don’t like Rayner.”

“Oh, he seems to be a kindly man. And what a beautiful voice he has. Did he come to Moncaster while you were here, Father?”

“Not to my knowledge,” replied Prue, with a cold look. “I take no interest in Mr. Rayner’s movements. Did he know you?”

“He said he remembered me when a boy, and paid me a compliment. He also talked of the death of my father.”

“Ah!” said the priest, in an even tone, but looking at the ground. “I believe the late Mr. Baker died in Africa.”

“Did he, indeed, sir?” said Eric in an ironical tone, so much so that Prue looked at him at once, and his face coloured. But Eric did not think it wise to tell him what he knew. For he could not be sure of the priest. He fancied he also might be in league with Mrs. Bellona. If not, why was he stopping with her? Eric’s face therefore became expressionless, and Prue dropped his eyes again.  “I must go on,” he said in his passionless tones. “I am glad to see you are looking so well. You have not yet decided to leave Moncaster?”

“Not yet. I stay for another three weeks.”

“Take my advice,” said Father Prue, emphatically, “and go at once.”

Before Eric could recover from his surprise the priest had taken his departure. Evidently he knew also of the conspiracy, and by his warning Eric, was not in favour of it. Mother Mandarin had also warned him through Judith, so two at least of Mrs. Bellona’s friends were on his side. All the same, in spite of the double warning, Eric determined to remain—or at all events he wished to wait until Judith returned, and to ask her advice. It was for her to decide the matter. Brave as he was himself, Eric feared on her account. She loved him so dearly that his death would have brought about her own, or at least Baker found it pleasant to think so. Not that he wished her to die, but he fancied that such a fate would show the love she bore him. Meantime he had to prosecute his search for the man to whom she had been engaged. If he found Harding there would have to be an explanation, but Eric felt that he was quite capable of making it. And he did not regret in the least having snatched the girl from Harding’s grasp.

At the station Eric procured a time-table, and looked up the various stations at which the ten o’clock night train stopped at. The first station was Marby, six miles away, and it was here that he determined to make his first attempt to find the whereabouts of the missing man. The train was slow, but notwithstanding this the six miles soon came to an end, and Eric found himself on the Marby platform, while the train steamed off round the curve.

The station was a small wooden place, very ugly and very lonely. On it he saw only a melancholy porter, a fat station-master, and a black-eyed imp of a boy, who buzzed about like a mosquito, smoking a rank cigarette. To the somnolent station-master Eric addressed himself, not because he thought him intelligent, but because he was the person in authority.

“Do you remember how many passengers alighted here on Thursday?” He named the date.

The station master slowly opened his eyes. “My business,” he said in a fat voice like Mr. Bumble, “does not allow me to watch.”

“Then you’re no good,” said Baker cheerfully, whereat the station-master turned purple with wrath, and walking to his office shut himself therein with a bang.

“Do you take the tickets of passengers at the door,” Eric asked the boy, who looked sharp and likely to answer.

“Go on, sir,” said the lad with a cunning look, “why you know, sir, I took yours.”

Eric was delighted. The boy evidently recognised him from his likeness to Harding and mistook him for the missing man. “Oh, I was here on Thursday night was I,” he said genially.

“Yes, sir. You came by the ten train, but you wore a fur coat.”

“How do you remember my face?”

The boy answered truthfully. “You gave me a shilling. I never forget gents that do that. They might—” he glanced at Eric’s pocket. Baker took the hint, and offered the bribe. “Why did I give you a shilling?” he asked.

The boy’s eyes opened wide. He thought the gentleman was mad or drunk to ask such a question. “Why don’t you remember, sir. You asked me the way to Watercross, and I told you.”

“Ah, now I remember,” answered Baker cheerily. “It’s straight along the road, isn’t it?”

“You turn to the left a mile along, sir. But why didn’t you come back that night, sir. You said you would. I thought you’d arranged for the last train up.”

“So I did,” said Eric mendaciously, “the twelve train.”

“A quarter to twelve.”

Eric laughed and nodded. “You’re a sharp lad,” he said as he left the station. “Don’t smoke too many cigarettes, and you will do something yet.”

Leaving the boy to digest this piece of advice Baker walked briskly along the road. The morning was fine and sunny. There was a feeling of spring in the air, and Eric felt unusually gay—what the Scotch call “fey.” He even sang his little song about “The Beauty of the World,” since no one was in sight, and sang it for the delectation of a sheep with a wise face that looked through a hedge. Eric nodded to the sheep, and thought of Judith as he carolled. But graver thoughts soon claimed his attention. The exhilaration of the morning passed, and he took to considering his luck in thus stumbling upon traces of Harding at the first station. Also he wondered how it was that Harding had missed the train.

“And why did he alight and let his luggage go on,” mused Eric, as he walked along; “evidently he had arranged to meet someone at this place Watercross, and intended to return so as to catch the midnight train. He did not return, so some accident must have befallen him.”

But it was useless to theorise. The only thing to be done was to question every one about Harding, and to use his own resemblance as an illustration. Eric arrived at a mile-stone, and found that when he turned to the left as directed, that he was following a footpath which led him through a small wood into a clean village of red-roofed houses grouped round a pretty square-towered church. Eric made enquiries at the inn, a quaint hostel, little changed from the time of the stagecoach. A rosy-faced old dame answered his questions, but could tell him nothing. She never saw any gentleman, she declared; gentlemen did not come her way often. But there was John the ostler, he might know. He generally knew all that was going on, and was quite the newspaper of the place.

So John was called, and came to the rustic porch, cap in hand, a queer crooked little man with twinkling black eyes. He pulled his forelock and grinned. He hadn’t seen no gentleman, but the bicycle was gone from the yard.

“What bicycle?” asked Eric quickly.

John didn’t rightly know what it was, but it was gone missing on a Thursday night, he couldn’t recollect which, being bad at dates. It was at this point that the rosy landlady interposed. “Oh, la!” she said half addressing John and half Eric, “there was a gentleman a few weeks back, as came here on his, bicycle. He left it in the coach-house, or in the yard leastways, and said as he would call for it.”

“And he gave me ten shillings to look after it,” chimed in the ostler, “and he says to me as I needn’t lock it up, but just put it in the shed, there being no thieves about. For he says, I might come unexpected, and take it, so if it’s gone don’t you worry. And when I come on Friday morning, I didn’t worry, but it was gone.”

“H’m,” Said Eric. “Could anyone else have taken it?”

John shook his head. “No one but the gentleman in question knew its whereabouts, sir. I hid the bicycle behind some wood, and it lay there quite snug-like. All the gent had to do was to walk in at the gate of the yard and take it, which was what he did I make no doubt.”

“Are the gates closed at night?”

“Just on the jar as you might say,” said the landlady, “but we don’t lock them, as we have no thieves hereabouts, bless you, sir.”

“What a moral village,” laughed Eric. “Was the gentleman like me?”

“Well now I come to look he was fair and blue-eyed like you, sir.”

“And tall too,” said John. “Might he be your brother, sir?”

“My cousin,” explained Eric.

“Ah then that is why you might be twins,” said John wisely.

Eric was now quite sure that for the purpose of seeing someone secretly, Harding had purposely left the bicycle in the yard. On the night in question he had no doubt found it, and had ridden off. The question was where did he go. It could not have been very far away as he had to get back and catch the quarter to twelve train. Judging by the time the train arrived at Marby and the midnight express departed, it would give him a little over an hour to do his business.

“Where does that road lead to?” asked Eric pointing with his stick.

“Ah,” said the landlady, “to a bad place. Old Dexleigh, sir.”

This reply was not unexpected, and Eric nodded well-satisfied. “Is it far to that place?”

“It might be two mile and a bit,” said John drawing the back of his hand across his mouth to indicate he was thirsty.

Eric took the hint, and gave the man a shilling. He then took his departure with a nod to the friendly landlady. It was plain that Harding had gone to Dexleigh, either to see the gipsies, or Mother Mandarin. Perhaps it was to tell Tyler that Eric would be there the next night at nine o’clock. But then Eric remembered that Luke on that night had been lying drunk at “The Three Bishops.” Therefore Harding must have gone to see Pansey and Jerry. They had taken the barge up to Old Dexleigh on that night, and both of them were concerned in the conspiracy. Harding’s errand was to advise them of the arrival of their victim, hence the assault in the church-yard. But why had not Harding returned as he purposed. Even if he had missed the train, he could easily have gone on to town the next day without anyone being the wiser. Eric walked quickly up the road pondering these questions, and trying to find an answer to them.

The distance to Old Dexleigh proved to be nearly four miles, which could be easily covered in a short time by a strong man on a bicycle. And as Eric knew, Harding was something of an athlete.

“I wonder if he had anything to do with the disappearance of Merston?” Baker asked himself as he entered the ruined village. “It is conceivable that he might have waited till the next night to strike at me, and have mistaken Merston for the man he was after. Or it might be that Luke may have locked him up in the vault. But no, I am the man—the Harding Cove—I’m sure of that, and Rayner would be careful to impress my identity on him. To be sure, when the meeting in the church took place, Luke had already met me, but he certainly did not mention that to Rayner. Can I be mistaken after all,” and Eric tried to recollect as much of the conversation as he was able. But he soon gave up thinking as Mother Mandarin appeared.

She was walking along with the aid of her quaint stick and looked more like a witch than ever. Her eyes were fastened on the ground, doubtless searching for herbs. It was near the lonely church that Baker met her, and she looked up sharply when she saw him. “I thought you were dead, Mr. Baker,” was her greeting.

“I am sure you did. But you see I escaped the trap of your accomplices.”

Mother Mandarin struck her stick on the ground. “I had nothing to do with it,” she declared angrily. “I left my house on account of your impertinent behaviour, and sought refuge in a near cottage.”

“Why did you think I was dead then?”

“Because I heard a shot—two shots,” said Mother Mandarin, “and I thought you might have met them.”

“Met who?”

“The gipsies that sometimes camp in the church. They are a bad lot, and that Jerry Lovel is the worst.”

“Are you not afraid of them?”

“They’re afraid of me,” said the old woman savagely, “and I’m glad of it. I hate everyone. As for that Tyler, I promised to put a spell on him, and he’s in terror of my eye.”

“Pansey also seems afraid of you.”

“Because I know too much about her.”

“Do you know if she eloped with Mr. Merston?”

“No. Her father came howling to me about it, but I know nothing. He went with the barge to St. Guthlac’s on a wild goose chase.”

“Is the barge back again?”

“Yes, and so is Tyler. Why do you ask?”

“I want to see him about my cousin Julian.”

“Your cousin,” repeated Mother Mandarin turning white, “how do you know he is your cousin?”

“How do you know my name is Eric Walter Harding?” asked the other.

Mother Mandarin uttered an exclamation of surprise, but said nothing. Indeed, she seemed incapable of speech, and stood staring at Eric in a terror-struck way. He continued. “I know now why you took me for my uncle Richard. I am like him.”

“Yes,” said Mother Mandarin, “you are so like him—so like that your own father—she checked herself and asked abruptly, “who told you all this rubbish, Mr. Baker?”

“Harding, my good lady. I intend to assume my right name.”

“You’ll find that a difficult task,” snapped Mother Mandarin.

“Not with your assistance.”

“You shan’t have that.”

“Why not? When I get that million, I will be much better able to pay you than Mrs. Bellona will.”

“Again I ask, who told you all this?” she demanded.

“I refuse to answer this, but if you will come on my side and reveal all about this conspiracy and the whereabouts of the vault, I shall pay you well.”

“I want no money,” said Mother Mandarin gloomily. “I only wish to be allowed to die in peace. You have been rash talking to me like this. If I told those whom you fear—”

“I fear no one,” interrupted Eric, “but they shall have cause to fear me, and you can tell them if you like.”

“I shan’t, then. You are a brave young man, Mr. Baker, and for your father’s sake—” she stopped and her lip quivered.

“You knew my father?”

“Yes,” she turned away her face, “I knew him. I refuse to talk any more,” cried the old woman savagely and turned to go.

“Well I can do without you if you will answer two questions.”

“What are they?”

“What has become of Julian Harding?”

“I do not know. I never saw him. I swear I don’t know,” and she looked so truthful and earnest that Eric believed her.

“And the other question is, how did my father, Walter, die?”

Mother Mandarin dropped her stick, and after one terrified glance, ran away as quickly as she could. Eric followed and laid his hand on her arm. She gave an appalling cry and fell to the ground in a fit.

Chapter 19
An Ungrateful Child

Judith returned to Moncaster towards the end of the week. She looked very happy, and the brightness of her face only expressed the pleasure of her mind. For years the girl had starved for want of love. Mrs. BelIona, though a good mother in many ways, was not of an affectionate nature, and always treated her daughter in a somewhat distant manner. Indeed, in her own heart, Mrs. Bellona was jealous of the girl’s beauty. She was still handsome herself, but Judith possessed that fresh beauty of youth which she had lost. At times, seeing how the young men crowded round Judith, the mother almost hated the girl as a rival. Mrs. Bellona was fond of young men herself, and grudged giving up their society and compliments to any other woman, even when the woman in question happened to be her own daughter. An unworthy feeling, but the lady from Cuzco was not an admirable character. No one could have been more human, which is to say more imperfect.

Therefore, Judith received little of that affection for which she longed, and for years had schooled herself into suppressing her feelings. The engagement with Julian had been brought about by the sheer persistence of Mrs. Bellona, who saw in her daughter merely a pawn in the game she was playing for the Tejada million. Judith had never cared much for Julian, and he proved to be so exacting and jealous a lover, that the engagement sickened her of his faulty character. However as she never thought to meet Eric, she yielded, thinking any life better than that which she led with her mother. Simple wretchedness made Judith yield, and if she was—as she fancied—jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, she preferred the fire. Patient Griselda herself could not have lived with so passionate, uncontrolled, and unreasonable a woman as Mrs. Bellona.

But Eric for two years had been the hero of Judith’s girlish dreams. She had admired his manly bearing and good looks when she saw him in the Park, and it was purely curiosity that made her ask who he was. The like curiosity led her to read his book of adventure amongst the South American mountains. But she rose from the perusal with a profound admiration for the man, who had dared such perils, and who had overcome such difficulties. From that moment she began to cherish Eric as an ideal hero, and to compare him to the disadvantage of the young men who sought her when at Mrs. Cadowan’s. This was hardly fair on the majority of the young men, as placed in similar positions, they might have achieved as much as Eric had done. But Judith exalted Baker to the rank of a god, and found great pleasure in worshipping this innocent ideal of a young girl’s dreams.

Later she met with a man who had explored Tarapaca with her hero. The report of this friend raised Eric still higher in the estimation of Judith. His courage, his kindly heart, his chivalry, his unfailing good humour, appeared to her enthusiastic heart to form an ideal character. When Ferris told her that Eric was coming to stay with him in Moncaster, and when he likewise detailed his experience of the perfect man—as Judith regarded Eric—the girl’s heart leaped with joy. Then came the meeting in the porch of the cathedral, and her feelings urged her to address him, and warn him. Never would her hero run into danger if she could help him. The sight of him, the sound of his voice increased her love. But she strove to crush down the passion, as she saw no way of escaping from Harding. But something her mother let slip made her resolve on the bold step of having an explanation with Baker. In her heart she guessed that it would lead to a declaration on his side, for long since had his manner and looks betrayed his love. Then came the meeting, the proposal, and finally the unexpected. Unlike many women, Judith had obtained what she had always longed for—the hero of her dreams.

So elevated was she by her newly found happiness that she did not even dread the meeting with her mother. Judith did not know that Harding was missing, although she wondered why he had not called on her in Ulster Square. She quite expected that he would reappear in Moncaster more exacting and tyrannical than ever. An explanation would have to take place sooner or later, for she felt that it was impossible for her to remain in the false position in which she had deliberately placed herself. But Harding could wait. It was her mother whom she had first to face; and to execute this unpleasant task she returned to Moncaster before the termination of her visit to Mrs. Cadowan. That old lady had been told the truth and was delighted with Judith’s pluck, and with her defiance of Mrs. Bellona, for whom the other woman cherished a deep hatred, and promised the girl an asylum should her mother desert her. And that Mrs. Bellona should do so, now that her plans were thwarted, was by no means an improbable contingency.

Mrs. Bellona welcomed Judith in her usual cold manner, simply giving her a kiss, and remarking that she looked well. “But why did you not remain with your aunt?” asked Mrs. Bellona. “She got tired of you I suppose.”

“Aunt Inez never grows tired of me,” said Judith quietly.

“Oh we know she is perfection,” retorted Mrs. Bellona savagely, “your father was always talking about her. I was more than glad when she married Cadowan. An ugly old wretch he was, but rich. She married him for his money.”

“If she did mother, she has made good use of the money,” replied the girl spiritedly. She saw that Mrs. Bellona was in one of her brow-beating humours, and was not so weak as to yield.

Her mother looked gloomily out of the window. It was a beautiful day, and the lawns sloping down to the river with their girdle of ancient trees, were attractive to the weary eye. Mrs. Bellona loved beautiful things, and was particularly attached to the Nun’s House where she lived so long. If her scheme did not come to fruition soon, she would not be able to keep up so expensive an establishment, and she dreaded to think of a small London house, with few servants, and a constant struggle for existence. It was this which lined her fine face, and threaded her hair with silver. For years she had been plotting and planning and scheming for the million, of which, as she always declared, she had been wrongfully disinherited. In June the money would be claimed by Harding and Mrs. Bellona would get her share, if Judith became his wife. This was why she tolerated her daughter. Otherwise she would have parted with her long since. As the girl sat facing her in all the glory of budding womanhood, Mrs. Bellona stared out of the window in preference to looking on a face whose loveliness surpassed her own.

“You are not looking well, mother,” said Judith gently.

“I am worried to death about money!” replied Mrs. Bellona with a weary air. “Bills, bills, bills. There’s no stopping them.”

Judith knew very little of her mother’s business affairs, as Mrs. Bellona was always jealous of interference. She thought that they lived on an income bequeathed by her father and said so. “It is too small to keep up this establishment,” she said; “if that is the case had we not better leave?”

“And go into hired lodgings,” cried Mrs. Bellona savagely, “you talk like a fool.”

“Pardon me, what I say is common sense. I always understood that my father left you enough to live on.”

Mrs. Bellona shook her head. “Your father was a spendthrift and a gambler,” she declared bitterly. “He left me a few hundreds a year—at least they came from the remnants of the money my father gave me when I eloped with Bellona. Oh what a fool I was,” cried the woman rising to pace the room like a caged tigress. “My father was rich and he loved me. When I eloped with your father; snared,” she added with a snarl—“snared I say by his good looks and glib tongue my father cut me off with a few thousands. Had I not seen that these were invested in my name in a way sufficient to bring me a small income, I should have starved. Bellona leave me money?” she said with a scoffing laugh. “He left me his debts to pay.”

“And you did, mother?”

“No. I refused to pay one. Why should I pay for the presents he wasted on worthless women, and—”

“Mother,” cried Judith the blood rushing to her face, “please!”

“Oh you may as well know the worst,” said her mother coarsely, “your father was a scamp and a worthless blackguard. In the pride of my youth and beauty, and with a rich father, I married him. Two hundred a year have I out of my father’s wealth—I Caterina Tejada, the belle of Cuzco—and that man Walter Harding got the million.”

“I understood that Walter Harding did not touch it.”

“No. He had some quixotic idea that it was wrong to take payment for what he did.”

“What did he do?” asked Judith curiously. She had never heard this portion of the family history.

“He saved my father’s life in a mountain pass from some Indians. I wish he had let the old man die. Then some Indians. I should have had the money.”

“But you were disinherited,” protested Judith, shocked by this speech.

“I was,” said Mrs. Bellona, gloomily, and came to the table, where she leaned her chin on her hands and stared at the tea-cups. “But had there been no will, I could have managed to secure my rights. As it was, your grandfather was saved by that fool Walter, and out of gratitude made him his heir. Walter was man enough to refuse to consent to this robbery. But my father was not to be done out of what he called his gratitude—the old fool—he tied up the money for the benefit of Walter Harding and his heirs. Walter could have touched the money at any time, but he did not.”

“If he was such a noble man,” asked Judith, “why did he not make over the money to you?”

“He couldn’t. My father expressly said in the will that I was to have none of the money. Should Walter not take the benefit of the money, it was to remain tied up till June in the present year.”

“And then?” asked Judith. She had heard most of this before, but for Eric’s sake wished to hear it again.

“Then if Walter had lived he could have claimed it or not as he chose. But he could always have claimed it,” and Mrs. Bellona rose again in a paroxysm of fury. “My money—mine! mine! mine! Failing him his heirs were to share it.”

“Julian is not his heir,” said Judith, significantly.

“Yes, he is. I have constituted him the heir. Why do you talk rubbish—you know all this. I need not tell it to you again.”

“I should not have known it, had I not heard by chance the conversation you had with Michael Rayner. “Oh,” cried Judith, “will I ever forget the shame I felt—”

“At listening,” sneered her mother. “You had every right to feel ashamed meddling with things which did not concern you.”

“I only heard a few words,” protested the girl, flushing, “but enough to make me ask you more.”

“Well, I told you.”

“Yes. Because you wished me to marry Julian.”

“Quite so. That is my scheme to recover the money that is mine. When you are Julian’s wife, he will claim the money in June, and give me half. Then there will be no more bills, no more poverty.” Mrs. Bellona threw out her hands with exultation. “I shall be rich and free to lead my own life.”

“Because I’ll be out of it,” said Judith, her cheek burning with a shame. “I am to be sold to Julian, to give you money.”

“That’s not to be talked about,” said Mrs. Bellona, imperiously. “We have discussed the matter threadbare. You agreed.”

“Yes. Because I was sorry that you should not have the money of my grandfather, and because I was weary living with you.”

“Judith!” cried Mrs. Bellona, a red spot flaming in her cheeks.

“Oh, I am weary of the whole sordid business,” cried the girl, throwing aside all caution, and starting to her feet. “Have you ever treated me like a daughter? Have you not always looked upon me as a pawn in this scandalous game you are playing?”

“It is not scandalous,” said Mrs. Bellona doggedly.

“It is. You know it is. Have you no shame?”

The elder woman drew a deep breath. “I won’t be spoken to like this by my own child,” she said furiously.

“You will be spoken to as I choose. How can I respect my mother?”

Mrs. Bellona seized Judith by the wrist. “You have every reason to respect me,” she said in a laboured voice. “I have schemed and toiled and planned and plotted for your advantage. Do you know how I have kept up this establishment all these years? On money borrowed from Rayner.”

“From the lawyer?”

“Yes,” sneered Mrs. Bellona, fixing her fierce dark eyes on her daughter’s face, “from the lawyer. He agreed to keep me in funds till the money should come into my hands. It comes through Julian in June, and then I’ll be quits with Rayner. Now do you see?” and she flung away the girl’s hands with savage energy.

“What about Eric Baker?” asked the girl quietly.

Mrs. Bellona, who was again tearing up and down the room, stopped as though she had been shot. “What do you know of him?”

“That he is the son of Walter Harding, and the true heir.”

Mrs. Bellona dashed forward and raised her hand. “You dare to say that you—you—” She would have struck the girl, but that Judith caught her wrist.

“If you go on like this, mother, I’ll go out and tell all.”

“All what?” panted Mrs. Bellona with clenched fists, but somewhat cowed by her daughter’s firmness.

“All about this conspiracy,” cried Judith with energy. “Do you think I rested contented with the little you told me? Did you think I was going to be married blindfolded to a man I detested? No. To save myself I lowered myself to your level. I listened—I asked all manner of questions. Mother Mandarin told me—”

“She’s a liar—she always was.”

“I don’t know what she was. I only know what she is—your tool and instrument.”

“Take care, Judith,” panted Mrs. Bellona.

“Oh, you think I have no spirit,” cried the girl. “You think to intimidate me and break my heart as you have always done. I am covered with shame to think that I should have to speak so to my mother. But you leave me no alternative.”

“What did Mother Mandarin tell you?” asked Mrs. Bellona, passing over this last speech as sentimental.

“I am not going to give you the details, mother. But from one thing and another I gathered that Eric Baker was the heir—that his true name was Harding and that he rightfully owned the money.”

“He shall never get it,” said Mrs. Bellona between her teeth. “I hate the man. I hated his mother. She’s dead now and a good thing. Oh, how I hated her,” cried the woman striking her fist on the table. “Walter Harding—but that is neither here nor there. Go on.”

“I told you, or Mr. Ferris told you, that Mr. Baker was coming to Moncaster. You determined to get rid of him in some way. I do not know how. But Mother Mandarin warned me that he was in danger, and I warned him to leave the city.”

“You told Mr. Baker that?” cried her mother.

“Yes. I did not know your plot. I do not know it now, save that it has something to do with Pansey Tyler and Jerry. I heard what she said to Eric at Lame Dickey’s, or rather Eric reported what she said to me. She spoke in Romany.”

“You call him Eric?”

“I have every right to.”

“You have every right to?” Mrs. Bellona sat down with a white face, “you are on his side are you—you go against the mother who bore you? Oh, my God,” she flung up her hands.

Judith sighed in a weary manner. She knew that in her heart Mrs. Bellona only assumed this tragic pose for effect. But she had begun the explanation, and was bent on going through with it. “Listen, mother,” she said, “I do not know your plot, and for all I know you may try to murder Eric.”

“I would not permit such a thing.”

“God knows what you would not do to gain this—this wretched money,” was Judith’s sad reply, “and to save you from committing a crime—”

Mrs. Bellona started to her feet. “I should have committed no crime. I would not have allowed the man to be killed.”

“You would have got him out of the way somehow. And to save you from a possible crime, I took the law into my own hands.”

“What do you mean?”

“I married Eric Harding last week.”

“You married him.” The words fell slowly from Mrs. Bellona’s lips, and she stood as though turned to stone, “and as Harding. Then he knows.”

“Yes. He learned the truth from his uncle—”

“Wilfred,” Mrs. Bellona threw up her hands again. “I knew—I knew. Oh how Wilfred shall pay for this.”

“No one shall pay,” cried Judith, “I have married Eric, and he will claim the million. We shall pay you when—”

“Leave my house,” cried Mrs. Bellona savagely, leave it at once.”

Judith looked at her, turned, and without a word left the room.

Chapter 20
The World Well Lost

Lady Dame and her ponderous daughter were in Hal’s rooms at afternoon tea. Matty’s mother, a withered old woman, almost as small as Ferris, and with a face like an apple, was installed in the best chair. Here she sat munching Mrs. Bedwin’s cakes, and conversing with Eric by means of the new ear-trumpet, to which Matty had alluded. It was rather trying for Baker to shout into this as though he were filling the record of a phonograph, but he endured it for friendship’s sake. It was necessary to leave Matty and Hal to themselves, for they were engaged, and in the seventh heaven of sanctioned love. How Ferris, who was nervous, had been brought to propose to so formidable a lady, Eric could not understand, no more than he could think why Matty had accepted a poor music master. But he had known it was Lady Dame who had brought about the match, to which Matty was not averse. For years she had been trying to float Matty into the matrimonial dock, but every attempt proved unsuccessful. As the girl—Lady Dame always called Matty the girl—grew older, she became trying to her parents who were desirous of a quiet life. Sir David, the baronet, who had succeeded through the unexpected death of his brother, was a tall and pompous man, extremely selfish. He liked a good meal and peace, and his withered little wife agreed with him. But Matty in her girlish exuberance loved to fill the house with young people; and to the mild old couple, was something like a bull in a china shop. They knew they would have no peace till she was married, and Lady Dame made a final attempt.

To be sure the fish she had landed was of the smallest. Still Ferris was making a good income, and had by this time attained to an established position. He was a gentleman, and good-looking, and highly popular, so Matty, as Lady Dame observed, might do worse. And moreover, as Matty herself remarked, when she became Mrs. Ferris, she would be able to get her husband pupils, and to push his business through her father’s position as minor canon, and her own as the chief gossip in Moncaster. Therefore the mother and daughter decided that Hal was to be brought to make a formal offer of his heart and hand, and Sir David willingly agreed to the suggestion. In the wonderful way in which women do manage these things, Hal paid a friendly visit to experiment with Lady Dame’s new ear-trumpet, and came away vowed to support Matty’s twelve stone for the rest of his life. At first he was rather bewildered, but really being in love with this bouncing lady, he soon worked himself up into the necessary ardour of a lover. And this is how Eric came to be seated by Lady Dame, and Hal by her daughter.

“As I always say,” piped Lady Dame, who had a voice like a high wind, “marry young. Why are you a bachelor, Mr. Baker?”

“No one will have me,” shouted the mendacious Eric.

“Ah well I think I could find you a wife. Think of how happy you would be with a sweet wife.”

Eric did think, being already possessed of the sweetest wife in the world. But he was not so foolish as to tell Lady Dame that.

“I think the rooms are just sweet,” said Matty to her fond lover who was hanging over her, “and is all this furniture your very own.”

“My own and yours,” said Hal, whereat Matty blushed, and mentally arranged in the new cottage they would take to put the Sherreton sideboard here and the Louis Treize mirror there, and the Empire consol table somewhere else. She remarked to Hal that she had seen a delightful little cottage at thirty pounds a year.”

“It’s near Lame Dickey’s place,” said Mattie gushingly, “quite a nest for me and you, all overgrown with roses—oh, charming.”

“As you are,” said Ferris. “We’ll look at the cottage together,” and he whispered soft nothings into Matty’s ear until she felt that life indeed was worth living.

“Mr. Harding?” said Lady Dame in answer to a question of Eric’s. “Oh you mean Julian’s uncle. I thought you meant Julian, who is engaged to Miss Bellona.”

“I mean Mr. Harding the uncle,” said Eric. He did not say “my” uncle, though by this time he knew that the man was his avuncular relative.

“A very nice man but dull,” piped the old lady, “he has not the manners of his brothers Richard and Walter.

“Do you know them?” asked Eric in a shouting whisper.

“Of course I did. In my first season in London, and two years before I married Sir David, I met them all three in society. They were all handsome men—you are not unlike them, Mr. Baker.”

“They say I am rather like Julian,” said Eric, “but please tell me what you know of the Hardings.”

“Well, James Harding is the one that is still alive, and who lives here. Richard is dead, and Walter also. Both of them were married. I believe Walter married a sister of a man called Blundel. She died in giving birth to a son, I believe, poor soul. And Walter died six months before she did. It was just as well that he did not live to hear of the birth of a son. He would never have acknowledged the boy.”

“Why not?”

Lady Dame glanced at Matty, and beckoned Eric to come near. He bent his head, and heard her whisper. “We musn’t speak loud before the girl. But Walter was jealous of Richard, whom he fancied was in love with his wife. You see he would have thought that the boy belonged to Richard.”

“And is Julian, Richard’s son?” asked Eric.

“Yes. He is the image of his father, but you are still more like Richard. It’s most extraordinary.”

“Only a chance likeness,” said Eric. He began to wonder if there could have been any grounds for his father’s suspicion. It certainly was strange that he should so closely resemble his uncle. However he had no time to think, as he wished to learn all he knew. There was no need to pump Lady Dame. By this time she was in the full tide of congenial gossip.

“I believe it was Mrs. Bellona who put the suspicion into Walter’s mind. She hated his wife you see, and I think she loved him herself. She was always in Walter’s company, and I think the wife grew jealous so took up with Richard. Mind you, I don’t say that this is true. I believe the child died, which was a good thing for everyone.”

“And Walter died six months before.”

“Yes. At a dinner I believe, at some house down in Essex. He took a fit, and was carried out senseless. His poor wife never recovered from the shock, and died with her baby.”

“Was Mrs. Bellona sorry?”

Lady Dame nodded, and went on shrilling like a cricket singing. “I think she really loved the man. Oh, I could tell you a lot about her, but I never like to make mischief. She and her friend Mrs. Spain. You know,” Lady Dame spoke as though Eric were of her own age, “the woman who used to sing so well. A handsome woman. She was a singer at one time I believe, and left the stage for society. She married a rich man who treated her badly. He died, and did not leave her a penny. They say there was something queer about his death, but one never knows, and gossip is so wrong.”

“And Mrs. Bellona was great friends with this woman?”

“Oh, they were like sisters; never apart. Mrs. Spain was the elder of the two, a bright, jolly woman. She did sing beautifully, though they did say that her husband beat her. I think she admired Walter Harding also, but if she did Mrs. Bellona would not allow her to see much of him. And then Mrs. Bellona’s husband died. He was a scamp.”

“What became of Mrs. Spain?”

“No one ever knew. She went abroad I believe, and died in a garret in Paris. She always squandered money, and her husband left her without a penny. For that reason I don’t believe the scandal about his having been poisoned by Eleanora Spain. She wouldn’t have put him out of the way unless she had been sure of the money. Now would she, Mr. Baker, I appeal to you?”

“Certainly not,” replied Eric mechanically. His brain could scarcely contain all this information. He wished to be alone to think it out, as he found that much of it was useful. He was quite relieved when Matty rose to go, and swooped on her mother.

“We must depart,” she said. “See ma, what lovely flowers Hal has given me. He is coming with us. And Mr. Baker?”

Eric bowed. “If you will excuse me. I have some work to do.”

“Never mind, Matty child,” said the old lady. “I’ll walk on ahead. As I am deaf, you and Mr. Ferris can say what you like to one another. Ah young love—young love,” sighed she, “children, children.”

When the children departed under her wing, Eric threw himself into the arm chair to think over what Lady Dame had told him. He guessed that Mrs. BelIona, who seemed to be a truly bad woman, had put the suspicions of his legitimacy into the mind of Walter, so that there would be no chance of Walter’s heir claiming the money. But Walter had died before his son was born, therefore Mrs. Bellona finding that plan fail, had managed through Blundel to palm off the child, as the son of the Bakers, who had died in Africa. Probably Richard Harding had never known that he—Eric—was the son of Walter, and it was not likely that Mrs. Bellona would tell James, who lived in Moncaster. But for the  the sake of her scheme, she had been forced to tell Julian and it was for this reason that Julian had wished to rid himself of a possible claimant for the million. What with Blundel’s confession and Lady Dame’s babble, Eric was beginning to see light. He wondered that he had acquiesced so long in remaining in ignorance of his family history. But to be sure, until the chance remark of Ferris had instilled a suspicion into his mind that all was not right, he had no reason to delve into the family records.

While he was thus thinking there came a timid knock at the door. In answer to Eric’s invitation to enter Judith appeared. She looked pale and agitated, and walking up to him, threw herself into his arms. “Eric, I am in trouble. Help me,” was all she said, then she began to weep, utterly worn out.

“My darling,” said Baker much distressed, and placed her gently in a chair, “what is the matter?”

“My mother—” Judith could say no more.

“She has told you to go,” said Eric divining her news in a flash.

Judith nodded with a fresh burst of tears. She was not a woman given to displaying emotion, but the conversation with her mother, and the cruel way in which she had been treated, proved too much for her nerves. Eric was distressed to see her in this state, and hastily procured a glass of port wine which he made her drink. Then seeing that no one was outside, he closed the door and came back to kneel at her feet. Ferris was safe enough for an hour in the arms of his loving Matty, and it was unlikely that Mrs. Bedwin or Polly would come up. The two lovers had a talk, and Judith told her tale.

“So I have no place to lay my head to-night here,” she said. “I must go back to town at once, to my aunt. Come with me to the station, Eric, and I can go by the seven train.”

“Have you money?”

“Yes, two pounds. That will be enough, I will be all right when I am again under my aunt’s roof.”

Eric glanced at his watch. “It is just after six,” he said, “we have time for a chat.”

“I nearly fell into the arms of Matty Dame when I came up,” said Judith nervously. “But I don’t think she saw me. I hope not. It would be all over the place, that I had called on you, and then Julian would be—”

“Not Julian,” interrupted Eric, shaking his head, “he has disappeared.”

“How do you mean disappeared?” asked Judith, staring.

Baker hesitated. He did not know exactly how to explain without inculpating Mrs. Bellona. Judith saw his hesitation, and put it down to the right cause.

“Has it anything to do with my mother?”

“I think so,” said Eric, “Dear, your mother—” he hesitated again.

“Don’t be afraid to speak out, Eric. I know now that my mother is not a good woman. Tell me all.”

“It will be painful.”

“Nothing can be more painful than what I have endured this afternoon,” said Judith with a burst of emotion. “To be turned out of my mother’s house in that way. I never argued, Eric. I saw she was determined, and to avoid an unseemly quarrel I went. She will never speak to me again—never.”

“I don’t know so much about that, Judith,” said Eric dryly. “Remember you are my wife, and that I intend to claim the million. I think those two facts will bring your mother to reason.”

“She is furious now.”

“Her fury will expend itself. People can’t go on being furious for ever. But I wish to tell you all I have discovered. I told you little in town as I did not wish to prejudice you against your mother. But now that you know she—she—”

“That she is a selfish woman. Go on. We’ll say as little bad of her as we can. When all is said and done she is my mother.”

“I’ll leave out her name as much as possible,” said Eric, and without further preamble he related his discoveries. Judith listened with the closest attention, and turned pale when he mentioned the kidnapping.

“I am glad no murder was intended,” she said when he finished his recital. “Oh what a terrible woman my mother is. I feared something of this sort, and worse, and that was why I determined to marry you, Eric. I thought that when my mother knew that I was your wife she would stop her scheming.”

“Not while the million remains unclaimed. When it is in my possession she will come to terms, dear,” he took her in his arms. “I thank you from my heart that you were so willing to sacrifice yourself for me.”

“It was no sacrifice, Eric, I love you. I have always loved you. But what about Julian?”

“Well I can’t find him. When Mother Mandarin fell as I told you I carried her to her cottage. She revived but preserved a sullen silence, so I left her. Thinking that having been captured in mistake for me, Julian might be in the vault, I looked for it. I examined every inch of the church, but I could find no vault. Yet there is one, for I heard Tyler mention it to Rayner.”

“The lawyer, he is in the plot against you also,” said Judith with a shudder. “He has been financing my mother.”

“They all wish to share in the plunder,” said Eric. “But the money will all come to me. I have none of my father’s scruples. But much remains to be done, before I can prove my claim.”

“Julian must be found.”

“And Merston. I don’t believe he ran away with Pansey. There is something queer about the whole of this business. I must inform the police, or at all events I must go and see my uncle, James Harding. But he may know that Julian is lost by this time.”

“Will you tell him who you are?”

“I shall remain as Eric Baker at present. There is no need to tell him that he is my paternal uncle, or to assume my real name until I hunt out my nurse Hortense, and the other one. I have to prove that I am the child of Mrs. Walter Harding. I trust that uncle Wilfred will help. But he is so weak, and so completely under your mother’s thumb that I am afraid. However, I intend to make a fight for it.”

Judith looked uneasy as she rose to go to the station. “I do wish you would come to town, Eric,” she said piteously. “I don’t like to leave you here amidst these perils.”

“My dear wife,” said Eric taking her in his arms, “we must both trust in God. He knows best, and he will direct my movements and preserve my life. Now let us go to the station. You had better take this,” he added, placing a five pound note into her hand.

“Oh, Eric,” she said blushing, “how can I take money from you.”

“My dear, from whom should you take money if not from your husband.”

Judith blushed and laughed. “I quite forgot that I am Mrs. Baker, I am so new to the rôle.”

“Mrs. Harding darling—the rich Mrs. Harding. But that, the world will know in time. Meanwhile, we must go to the station as Miss Bellona and Mr. Baker, merely acquaintances.”

“You might say friends, Eric,” she remarked as they descended the stairs.

“I shall say husband and wife shortly,” he replied laughing.

All the way to the station they chatted on general subjects, as Eric wished to ween his wife’s mind from dwelling too much on the treatment she had received from her mother. Reaching the station in good time, Eric was able to select an empty carriage for Judith, and to get her some newspapers and magazines to read on the way up. Also he tipped the guard so that Judith might have the compartment to herself. “I wish I could come with you, dear,” he said; “but it is absolutely necessary that I should remain.”

How necessary it was he did not know until the train steamed out of the station. Another train from London had just arrived at the opposite platform. But Eric was so much taken up in watching Judith who was looking back at him from out the window, that he took no notice of the arrival. Suddenly a touch on the shoulder made him turn round. He beheld to his astonishment, his uncle Wilfred.

Chapter 21
The Worm Turns

“Uncle Wilfred!” said Eric in astonishment, “what are you doing down here?”

“Hush,” said Mr. Blundel in an excited whisper, “don’t mention my name, Eric. She might hear—that dreadful woman you know. If she gets hold of me—oh Lord,” and he gripped his nephew’s arm.

The man was in a painful state of terror, and his usually dull purple face was white and haggard with anguish and fear. Seeing that he might break down, and not wishing for a scene, Eric took charge of him, and marched him out of the station. In three minutes they were in a cab, driving to the Close.

“Where is your luggage, uncle?” asked Wilfred. In the hurry of their departure from the station, he had quite forgotten a possible portmanteau or bag.

“I didn’t bring any with me,” said Blundel in a faint tone, “it was as much as I could do to get away from Rayner. Oh, he’s an awful man. He thought that I might have told you, and he has been talking—oh gracious, you don’t know how he has been talking. I ran away.”

“From your own house. Uncle Wilfred why don’t you be a man?”

Blundel gave a dreary laugh. “I am not a man, she has knocked all the manhood out of me. I’m a worm—that’s what I am—an abject worm. I ought to be kicked—but they’ve never got that far.”

“And if they had, you would have submitted.”

“I fear so—I fear so. Hold up the whip and the slave cringes.”

“But, my dear uncle, you are independent. You can defy them.”

Blundel shook his head and wiped his forehead upon which the drops of perspiration stood thickly. “You don’t know her,” he said moistening his lips, “she’s an awful woman. Her eye—oh that eye!” he shuddered, and again gripped Eric’s hand. “I’m on your side now,” said he in a hoarse whisper. “I can’t stand it any longer, it’s killing me. If I stopped in that house, Father Prue would come back.”

“But Father Prue is not unkind,” said Eric pitying the man.

“No! no!” said Blundel timidly, “he is really good. He never scolds me—he speaks kindly. If I could tell you—but I dare not—I dare not. The price is too large.”

“Uncle Wilfred,” said Eric suddenly, “have you committed a crime which has placed you in the power of Mrs. Bellona?”

“No,” said the man surprised. “I have never been particularly pious but my hands are clean—oh yes, quite clean.”

“Then why do you submit to all this?”

Blundel groaned. “She’s such an awful woman,” he said piteously.

By this time the cab was at the door of Hal’s rooms, and having paid the man, Eric assisted his relative to alight. Mr. Blundel gave one terrified glance around as though he expected Mrs. Bellona to appear on the scene, and then dived into the open doorway like a rabbit into a burrow. He did not stop in the entry but ran up the stairs with an agility, surprising in a man of his years. Only when he was in the sitting-room, and the door was closed, did he recover himself. “She’s such an awful woman,” said he apologetically.

Eric found a note from Ferris saying he was dining with his beloved and her mother. Baker was glad of this, as he did not wish even his closest friend to see what a craven he had for an uncle. Dinner was laid, and Mrs. Bedwin intimated that it would be served as soon as Mr. Baker desired. Eric ordered it up at once. He also sent out for a bottle of port, thinking that food and wine might sustain the sinking courage of Blundel.

“We will dine first,” said Eric, when these orders had been given, “and then we will see about getting you a bed at some hotel.”

“No,” cried the elder man almost with a shriek. “I shan’t leave you, Eric. You must help me. If I go to an hotel, she will be after me. I won’t leave this room without you. Stick by me, Eric. I’ll tell you all, indeed I will. And if I can get that money back from the Church you shall have it.”

“There is no need for that,” replied Baker soothing him. “Be at rest, uncle Wilfred. Mrs. Bellona shan’t touch you. I will see to that. You are safe with me.”

“I know that—I know that,” said Blundel holding on tightly to Eric as they sat on the sofa. “You are so strong, and determined; you will be able to face her.”

Eric laughed. “I should think so. I would face a regiment of women of that class. Mrs. Bellona doesn’t frighten me with her stage thunder. I’ll soon settle her.”

Blundel looked at him with timid admiration. “What a man you are,” he said groaning. “I was a man once, but now—oh the years and years I have had of misery. I didn’t like you at one time, Eric—but she put me against you. She thought if I liked you I might tell. But you won’t remember that against me?”

“Certainly not. You disliked me under compulsion.”

“Yes. Compulsion—that’s it—a fine word compulsion. Oh I’m so glad to be with you, Eric,” he never let go his nephew’s arm all the time he babbled. “When I saw how strong and calm you were, I thought that it would be best to come to you. Rayner would have locked me up in my room had he known I was coming to you. But I pretended I didn’t like you,” added Blundel cunningly; “and then I ran away this morning and caught the train. And now,” he chuckled, “I am all right, Eric. But you won’t send me to an hotel. Let me stop here.”

“There’s no bed for you, uncle, and this place belongs to my friend Ferris.”

“Oh, but you can manage him,” pleaded the squire. “I’ll sleep anywhere,—on the hearthrug if you like.”

“I’ll speak to Ferris when he returns,” promised Baker, “and if he agrees, you shall have my room. I can sleep here on the sofa. I have slept in worse places in my life.”

“Then that’s right—that’s right. Oh how good you are,” and Blundel almost crowed with delight.

Eric found his joy rather painful. It seemed incredible that any man could be reduced to such a state of terror. Eric knew that his uncle was given to taking too much port, and that originally he had never been of a strong character, but even these things did not explain his nervous, timid, frightened manner, which was like that of a trapped hare. Baker was indignant that a human being should be reduced to such a condition, and thought more than ever what a really bad woman Mrs. Bellona was. “She’s made a cur of the poor devil,” thought Eric looking at the pale face and nervous starts of Blundel.

A good meal made the squire feel better. The port was fairly good, although not of the superfine quality to which he had been accustomed, and Mrs Bedwin’s dishes were hot and tasty. After dinner Blundel sipped his wine, and accepted a cigar from his nephew, and began to feel that here indeed was a haven of refuge.

“I wish you would come and live with me, Eric,” he said in quite a bold manner. “The Hall is so gloomy. And if you lived with me, you could do what you liked.”

“I tell you the first thing I should do,” said Eric sipping his coffee. “I should kick out Jarvey.”

Blundel looked astonished. “But he’s devoted to me. He has been with me for years as a confidential servant.”

“As a spy rather,” said Eric in disgust. “He wired to Mrs. Bellona that I was with you the other day, and that was why Rayner came.”

Blundel’s jaw fell. “Jarvey too,” he whimpered piteously. “And I did trust him so. Oh what a volcano I have been dancing on.”

Eric agreed about the volcano but he could not conceive his uncle dancing on its crust. Blundel had sat down meekly on the top and for years had wept his heart out. But now the wine was making him pot-valiant, and he began to defy Mrs. Bellona. “You and I will be too much for her,” he said in quite a boastful vein. “She will try her hardest to get me back. But I won’t go. I’ll fling this bottle at her first—that I will.”

“There is no need for that,” replied Baker blowing a cloud of smoke. “All you have to do is to exercise self-control, sit tight, and wait for me. I’ll do all that is needful. I’m the only relative you have I suppose.”

“Yes! yes! Your mother was my sister—she married Walter Harding.”

Eric nodded well satisfied. “I just wanted to know so that I might be able to look after you,” he said. “Have the legal right you know. I don’t want anyone else interfering, and perhaps trying to shove you into an asylum.”

The cigar dropped from Blundel’s nerveless fingers. “Oh, Eric, will it come to that? I know I’m not very clever, but I am quite sane.”

“Of course you are,” replied Baker soothingly, “but if Mrs Bellona can, that is the dodge she will try.”

“Save me, Eric. Oh, good Lord, will she?”

“Not if I can help it. As your nearest relative I have the best right to look after you. With me you are safe. And now, uncle,” added Baker when Mr. Blundel was more calm, “tell me all.”

But the squire’s fears came upon him again. “I daren’t tell you all as yet,” he said in a terrified whisper and with a glance round, “but I’ll tell you something.”

“Well, tell me just what you like,” said Eric who did not wish to press the man too hardly. Blundel was in a more or less hysterical state, and it was necessary to keep him quiet.

“And you won’t leave me when I tell?”

“Certainly not. Whatever you have done I’ll look after you.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” whimpered the poor man again seeking strength in his glass, “but she’s an awful woman. I loved her at one time, and she treated me so badly that I would not see her again. Then when you were born she came to see me, and got round me. As soon as she got the upper hand, she led me such a life.”

“Was it Mrs. Bellona who induced you to state that I was the son of Baker and his wife?”

“Yes, yes. You see, as Walter’s heir you would have got the money and she wanted it. Rayner was Walter’s solicitor, and acted for the executors of Manuel Tejada also. He and Mrs. Bellona went into partnership to oust you.”

“But where was the need?” asked Eric puzzled. “Couldn’t Mrs. Bellona have taken charge of me, and have married me to her daughter when I came of age? It would have been more sensible, as she might have handled the money through me just the same, and it would have been safer in the long run.”

“She hated your mother—my sister,” said Blundel laying his hand on Eric’s knees. “You see, Mrs. Bellona loved your father. He was in Cuzco, and she fell in love with him—he was so good-looking you know. She was already married to Bellona then, and her father had cut her off with a few shillings, or at least,” added Blundel correcting himself, “with a few thousands—enough to live on. When Walter had the money left to him and the old man died, Mrs. Bellona followed him to England, to see if she could get the better of him. I believe she would have poisoned her husband, and have married him if she could have done so.”

“And why didn’t she? A woman like that would stick at nothing?”

“Well, Walter was already married to my sister, and he was a man of strong character just as you are. He laughed at Mrs. Bellona, and even when her husband died and she wished to run away with him he laughed. But she hated your mother for standing between her and the money and the man she loved—for she did love Walter.”

“Rather as a tigress loves prey,” said Eric. “Well, and because she hated my mother, she put doubts into my father’s head about my probable legitimacy.”

Blundel stared. “How did you learn that?” he asked.

“From a certain Lady Dame, who lives here. She knew the three Harding brothers. My father, Richard, and James.”

“James is alive,” said Blundel looking into the fire; “he is the one I liked least.” He shook his head. “Such a selfish man. Yes. Mrs. Bellona was always hinting that my sister was too fond of Richard.”

“I am like Richard,” said Eric remembering the exclamation of Mother Mandarin, and his extraordinary resemblance to Julian.

“What of that. Walter resembled his brother—even James was not unlike the other two. They were all handsome men—very much like you. Don’t you hint that there’s anything wrong about your birth. I always told your father he was a fool not to see that you resembled him—as you do in every way.”

Eric looked up in surprise. “But my father died before I was born I understand. How then could he—”

“No! no of course not.” Blundel coloured. “A slip of the tongue. I mean that when your father hinted that his wife—my sister—loved Richard I told him he was a fool. But Mrs. Bellona had put the idea into his head and it became fixed. He used to scowl when he saw his wife with Richard. It was absurd, as Richard had been married for some time.”

“Was Richard attentive to my mother?”

“Yes. He was sorry for her, as Mrs. Bellona took entire possession of your father. She came down to Blundel Hall, and there she kept Walter by her side. She put the idea into his head so that he should disinherit you, and prevent you getting the million. She was determined that no child borne by my sister should get the money.”

“I guessed as much,” said Eric his eyes on the fire. “Well?”

“Well, when you were born, she came to me and—”

“Wait a bit,” said Eric, “tell everything in due course. My father died. You hinted that—”

The squire looked round and shuddered. Then he nodded. “I believe she did,” he said. “Yes. There was a woman called Mrs. Spain, with whom Mrs. Bellona was very friendly. I believe she had some hold over Mrs. Spain. It was said that Mr. Spain died of apoplexy.” Blundel paused, and added in low tones, “your father died of apoplexy.”

Eric jumped up, and paced the room restlessly. “I see what you mean,” he said in an agitated tone. “You think that Mrs. Bellona obtained the poison from Mrs. Spain?”

“Yes I do. Walter was quite well all day. Mrs. Bellona sat next to him at dinner; Mrs. Spain was on the other side. I believe one or the other put the poison in his glass. He fell off the chair and never spoke again. We buried him in Wargrove Church—in the vault you know. Harding was a Protestant,” added Blundel.

Eric did not pursue his enquiries in this direction. A strange suspicion had entered his head. But he could not stop to verify it, as he wanted to get the plain tale from Blundel while he was in this babbling mood. “And when I was born?” he asked.

“Mrs. Bellona was in the house. Your mother died almost immediately after you were christened, and that took place within an hour of your birth as the priest was in the house. Mrs. Bellona got me in the library and made me promise to say that the child borne by my sister was still-born, and that you were the child of my other sister and Baker, who had just gone to Africa. I agreed.”

“How could you do such a blackguardly thing, uncle?”

“Don’t be angry with me, Eric. I loved her then and I would have done anything for her sake. I agreed, and brought you up as the son of Baker. Both he and my sister died unexpectedly in Africa, so everything was safe. Then you see as Walter left no heir, and Richard also died, Julian became the only person who could claim the million.”

“But my uncle James could have claimed it.”

“Not before Julian, who was the son of the second brother Richard.”

“I see. So Julian was brought up in the belief that he was the undoubted heir. Did he not know that I was alive?”

“No.” Blundel shook his head. “Mrs. Bellona kept that secret.”

“Nevertheless he knew,” muttered Eric to himself, “else he would not have tried to get me out of the way or have joined in the conspiracy. Well, uncle,” he added aloud, “I am much obliged to you for telling me this. You must help me to prove my birth. What of the priest?”

“He is at Rouen in France. I have his address.”

“And Hortense Durard?”

“Father Dormer who baptized you will know. He was her confessor.”

“H’m,” said Eric, “perhaps she is in Rouen also. I hope she is still alive. Did she know anything?”

“She found out something from listening. In a fit of rage with Mrs. Bellona, she told you that your father had died six months before you were born, and your mother when she gave birth to you.”

“Yes. That was what I believed. The Baker tragedy came to my knowledge later. But Mrs. Bellona sent my first nurse away?”

Blundel nodded. “She didn’t like Mrs. Bellona, and knew too much. So long as she was paid well she held her tongue, but she asked for too much money, so Mrs. Bellona sent her away with a pension.”

“Where is she. She can prove my birth?”

“Certainly. She was present when you were born. Mrs. Bellona knows her address. I don’t. But we must find out. I’ll help you all I can, Eric—if you won’t desert me.”

Baker shook his uncle warmly by the hand. “You are quite safe under my wing, uncle Wilfred,” he declared. “Sleep to-night in peace.”

“The first peace I shall have known for years and years,” said Blundel with a sob.

Chapter 22
The Other Uncle

Ferris was quite pleased that Blundel should remain at his rooms. Accordingly the squire slept in his nephew’s bed, and Eric camped on the sofa, which, thanks to Hal’s luxurious habits, was particularly soft and comfortable. The squire liked Ferris and his genial ways, and got on with him excellently. He quite brisked up under the influence of congenial company, and lamented that he had wasted so much time in his Essex hermitage.

“But I’ll change all that,” he said; “I’ll open the Hall, and invite you all down to see me. It will be quite gay.”

Eric privately thought that nothing less than a miracle could render that dreary mansion gay, but he was too pleased to see his uncle recover his long-suppressed spirits to damp his ardour by this remark. So Blundel retired to bed feeling happier than he had done for years, and the young men sat conversing over their pipes. Hal had something important to communicate to his friend, and waited till the visitor was out of the room before unfolding his tale.

“Mr. Harding was at Lady Dame’s to-night,” said Ferris, “Julian’s uncle you know. He has found out that Julian did not arrive in town, and he is in a great state of alarm at his disappearance.”

“Did he state this before Miss Dame and her mother?” asked Eric.

“Yes. He would talk of nothing else, and wondered what had become of Julian. He said he never knew him to disappear before.”

“Naturally. People are not in the habit of disappearing. But the news will be all over the town now. Miss Dame is sure to talk about it, and no offence to you.”

“Oh, I know Matty is always taking other people’s burdens on her shoulders and is trying to do good,” said Ferris complacently.

Eric stared. He had never heard gossip excused thus before. But Hal was in love, so every allowance was to be made for his warped judgment. “What does Mr. Harding think has become of his nephew?”

“I told you. He does not know what to think. But Matty was so clever,” went on Ferris complacently, “she suggested that as Merston had disappeared also, the one thing may be connected with the other.”

“I think the same,” said Eric thoughtfully. “What did the old man say?”

“He took to the idea at once. Knowing that Merston and Julian were enemies, he has jumped to the conclusion that his nephew had been killed by Merston, for the sake of Pansey.”

“Or Merston has been killed by Julian for some other reason—such as a mistake made in the dark.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There is no need you should. When the time comes, Hal, I’ll tell you all I have discovered.”

“I am quite willing to wait,” said Ferris, but added in a somewhat wounded tone. “Still I wish you would trust me now.”

“Children should not see the cloth till it is off the loom,” said Eric rising and shaking the ashes from his pipe. “Believe me I do not undervalue your friendship in the least. But there are reasons why it is best for me to hold my tongue. What is Harding going to do?”

“Give notice to the police.”

“H’m! Do you know his address?”

Ferris gave it, and Eric wrote it down. Then he turned Hal out of the room, and retired to bed on the sofa. He had much to think about in turning over in his own mind what his uncle and Judith had told him the whole plot of Mrs. Bellona to recover the money of which she had been disinherited was now made plain; and it was hatred of Mrs. Walter Harding that had made her substitute Julian as the heir.

What Eric found difficult to understand was, why Mrs. Bellona had taken all this trouble and had involved herself with rascals like Luke and Jerry for the purpose of getting him out of the way. So far as she knew, he believed himself to be the son of Baker, and not only had he believed this when he came to Moncaster, but at that time he knew nothing of the existence of the million. All was safe then for his enemy, since she must have presumed this ignorance. Yet from the moment he arrived in the city, and even before his arrival, Mrs. Bellona had lent herself to this kidnapping scheme. Why she had done so, he could not hope to learn save from her own lips, and such a strong woman was not likely to incriminate herself.

Touching the disappearance of Merston and Julian, the young man was also puzzled. The first had disappeared on Friday night, and the second on the previous evening. Even though the theory of the elopement was taken into consideration, it seemed strange that Merston had not communicated his marriage to his mother. With regard to Julian, that was a deeper, and as Eric suspected, a darker mystery. His own idea was that Julian had been mistaken in the darkness for himself, and had been killed. Were he still alive the kidnappers would have recognised their error and have released him. Truly Julian might be in the vault, but dead. But this mystery was impossible of solution at the moment.

The next morning, Eric spoke seriously to his uncle. “It is necessary that I should have all proofs of my birth,” he said. “You are a witness; the priest who baptised me is another, and Hortense can say much likely to prove that I am Walter Harding’s son. There remains my first nurse. What was her name?”

“Jane Tresham,” said Wilfred, wondering what was coming.

“And Mrs. Bellona knows where she is?”

“Yes. I believe she pays her an annuity to hold her tongue. It is paid through Rayner.”

“Then, uncle, you must see either Rayner or Mrs. Bellona, and learn where she is to be found.”

Blundel turned pale. “I dare not see Mrs. Bellona,” he said; “she would—she would—oh, I don’t know what she would do.”

“Then return to the Hall, and tell Rayner that you merely went up to London on a visit. Pretend you have not seen me, that you are still my enemy, and learn the whereabouts of Jane Tresham.”

“Rayner is sure to find out that I have been with you.”

“In that case tell him that you came to offer me a sum of money to leave the country, lest your share in this conspiracy should become known. That will lull his suspicions.”

“It will waken them rather,” pleaded Blundel. “He will know that I would never have the pluck to do such a thing.”

“Uncle Wilfred,” said Eric firmly and trying to put some manly feeling into the poor creature; “you must assist me in this. Prove to these people that you are not the fool they think you to be. It is your only chance of releasing yourself from their clutches.”

“Must I do that?” asked the squire wavering.

“You must. I cannot help you if you do not.”

For a long time Blundel wavered and pleaded, plucked up heart and lost it again. But in the end, owing to his nephew’s firm attitude, he accepted the inevitable, and agreed to return to the Hall. Eric saw him off at the station, and Blundel departed with the firm determination to act the part of a man. But Eric was rather doubtful.

This business dispatched, Baker went to see his paternal uncle. By this time he had made up his mind to confess his identity, and reveal the existence of the conspiracy. He was unaware if James Harding knew of the plot, and was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Mrs. Bellona, so far as Eric could see, had no use for the man, and was not likely to enlist an unnecessary recruit. The fewer the conspirators concerned in the business the greater would be the spoil. In risking her liberty, Mrs. Bellona was not actuated by any philanthropic motives.

James Harding proved to be an elderly copy of Julian. He was by no means so handsome, but he also was tall and fair, and had the same blue eyes as distinguished Eric. Age had deprived the man of his good looks, but he still carried himself well, and received Baker in a most polite manner. He knew that Baker was connected with the Hardings by marriage, and said as much.

“Your uncle, Wilfred Blundel told me,” said Mr. Harding in a stately manner, “you are Baker’s son. I knew your father. A most agreeable man, Mr. Baker. Or rather since you are Julian’s cousin, though no relative of mine, perhaps I should call you Eric.”

“You have every right to call me so,” said Baker. “I’ll tell you the reason later,” he added, seeing Harding’s upraised eyebrows. “In the meantime, I came to see you about Julian’s disappearance.”

“It is most extraordinary,” said the other with a frown. “Julian is the most methodical of men, and writes to me regularly when he is absent. Not receiving a letter, I wrote several times. As no reply arrived, I became convinced that something was wrong, and I went up to town. I learned from the landlady that he had not arrived. I went to Victoria station to inquire, and found that Julian’s luggage had been deposited in the cloak-room as unclaimed. Last night at Lady Dame’s I told them this. Miss Dame suggested that Julian might have met with some injury at the hands of Mr. Merston.”

“I know they were not friends,” said Eric; “but I do not think Merston is concerned in the matter in any way.”

“He has disappeared also, and the rumour goes that he eloped with a gipsy girl. But I have called on Lady Merston and she has not heard from her son of any marriage. It strikes me, Eric—if I may call you so—that Merston may really have killed Julian and—”

“No! no! I tell you that is impossible,” interrupted Eric. “Your nephew—my cousin—left my rooms on that night he went to town with Merston. He departed by the ten train, and Merston saw him off. The porter,” Eric mentioned the name of the man, “saw them part: and Merston, as his mother will assure you, was in bed on Thursday night. It was not till the next night that he disappeared. Now Julian vanished on the previous evening.”

Harding frowned. “Then I can’t account for it,” he said. “I think it is best to inform the police.”

“Well,” said Eric with some hesitation, “before doing that it is necessary that you should hear what I have to say. Do you know of the Tejada million, Mr. Harding?”

“Yes, Julian becomes possessed of it in June.”

“I don’t think he will,” responded Eric dryly; “however that can stand. But do you know who I am?”

“Certainly,” said Harding looking bewildered, “you are Arthur Baker’s son. He and his wife—Blundel’s sister—died in Africa, and you were sent home to be brought up by your uncle. He told me so, and Julian and I had a talk over the matter. I should have called to see you before, Eric,” continued the old gentleman in a stately manner, “but Julian thought it best for me to wait till he brought you here.”

“I don’t think he ever would have brought me, Mr. Harding. Julian tried to trap me, and tried also to endanger my life.”

“Mr. Baker—Eric. I don’t understand what you mean. My nephew, Julian, your cousin, is the most honourable of men.”

“I know otherwise. Well, Mr. Harding, it is no use keeping you on tenter-hooks. I am Eric Walter Harding, the son of—”

“Of Walter,” cried Harding agitated. “No, it’s impossible. His wife and son both died. I was at the funeral of both. The still-born child was—”

“The child did not die,” interrupted Eric imperiously. “Mrs. Bellona made out that such was the case.”

“Mrs. Bellona. What has she to do with it?”

“This much. She is the daughter of Manuel Tejada and was disinherited by her father for eloping with Bellona. To recover the money she—she—” Eric hesitated. He did not wish to say that the woman had poisoned his father, as he could not be sure if this was the case. “She contrived a conspiracy to kidnap me, and to let Julian get the money.”

“Impossible! Impossible! Julian could not have known of your existence.”

“I assure you he did. I am certain he and Mrs. Bellona and Rayner, and a man called Tyler are in league to get me out of the way. Listen, and I’ll tell you all I have discovered.”

Harding sat down with a disbelieving air. But as Eric related his story, he gradually became agitated, and his emotion showed that he considered the recital a true one. Yet he fought against it with all the power of an honourable nature that is loath to believe evil. But he did not interrupt, and when Eric finished, he shook his head pityingly.

“It’s all nonsense,” he said, “such things do not occur in real life. I assure you there is some mistake.”

“It’s easy to prove if one exists,” retorted Eric, nettled at doubt being cast on his veracity. “Let us discover your nephew—”

“Ah, the question is, how to discover him?”

“I have a clue. Julian alighted at Marby station, and went to Old Dexleigh on the night he disappeared. I can prove it,” and Baker detailed his experiences.

“Then you think Julian has been kidnapped in mistake and is in the vault?”

“I think so—I am almost sure.”

“But if what you say is true, this man Tyler would have discovered his mistake by this time and would have amended it.”

Eric nodded. “That is why I dread the worst. In the scuffle, if one took place, he might have been shot.”

“Tyler does not carry firearms.”

“Indeed he does,” and Eric told of his first meeting with the man. He also supplemented it with an account of his adventure in Old Dexleigh when he was fired at twice. By this time Harding was convinced that there was truth in what Eric said and almost lost his head. “What’s to be done?” he said. “I dare not tell the police. If all this came out, our name would be disgraced.”

“I fear so, and so far as I can manage, it shall not come to light, Mr. Harding,” said Eric heartily. “I do not wish the disgrace to our name any more than you do.”

“You really are Walter’s son?” said the elder man doubtfully.

“Yes. And I shall not only prove it, but I shall claim the money to which I am entitled.”

“What about Julian?”

“We must search for him. I shall undertake that task. For certain reasons,” Eric was thinking of his marriage, “I don’t fancy Mrs. Bellona will try and have me kidnapped now. But I think it wise that you, Uncle James,” he boldly claimed the relationship, “should see that lady and tell her she had better be careful.”

“I shall see her to-day,” said Mr. Harding rising. “You don’t think it is wise to tell the police?”

“If anything has happened to Merston or to Julian, it will be time enough then. Meantime I shall go to Old Dexleigh and learn all I can. If Mother Mandarin would only speak.”

“Who is she?”

“An old woman who lives in the ruined village. She is another tool of Mrs. Bellona’s. Uncle James,” added Eric fixing his eyes on the agitated face of his relative, “did you ever know a Mrs. Spain?”

“Yes. Very well. She was a friend of Mrs. Bellona’s and—”

“And is so still,” said Eric. “I have reason to believe that she is Mother Mandarin.”

“Oh, but that’s impossible. Mrs. Spain died in Paris.”

“I don’t believe it. She is under Mrs. Bellona’s thumb, and for reasons which I have yet to discover, Mrs. Bellona has made her live that miserable life in Old Dexleigh.”

“You make Mrs. Bellona out to be a very bad woman, Eric.”

“Because I believe her to be one.”

“Do you think her daughter—”

“No,” almost shouted Eric starting from his seat. “Miss Bellona is an angel. She knows nothing of all this chicanery and trickery. Mrs. Bellona is the culprit and none other.”

“Yet she is devout. She has a priest with her. Blundel’s confessor.”

“Father Prue. Yes. Have you met him?”

“No. He was after my time. I have long since ceased to hold communication with Blundel. To be sure I met him here and we exchanged a few words about you. I never met the priest. But, Eric, how is it Blundel told me you were Baker’s son?”

“He was intimidated into doing so by Mrs. Bellona.”

“Ah, he was always a weak fool,” said Harding scornfully. “Mrs. Bellona was too wise to tell me of her scheme. I should have stopped it at once, if only for Julian’s sake. I hope nothing has happened to him. He is like a son to me—the only child of my dead brother Richard.”

“Mr. Harding, have you any reason to believe that Mrs. Bellona cast doubts on my legitimacy?”

“No. Your father and mother were both dead, why should she?”

“I understand from Lady Dame, that Mrs. Bellona hinted Richard was fond of my mother,” said Eric reluctantly.

“It’s a foul lie,” cried Harding furiously. “Richard was the most honourable of men, and Amelia Harding the purest of women. If Mrs. Bellona dares to say that—” he opened and shut his fist conclusively. “But I’ll see her—I’ll see her. And you?”

“I will go to Old Dexleigh this afternoon, so as to keep things quiet, uncle. You need not let anyone know where I have gone.”

“I shall hold my tongue,” nodded the old gentleman.

Chapter 23
“Mother Mandarin”

There was no need for Eric to make any excuse to Hal. That young gentleman was wholly taken up with courting the robust Matty. He was constantly in the house, and Matty exhibited him to envious girl friends who congratulated her acidly. Baker, therefore, in this time of pairing, was left pretty much to his own devices. He was pleased that this should be so, as he found the questions of Ferris rather trying and could not possibly trust his loose tongue.

Therefore Eric, after a good luncheon, started to walk to Old Dexleigh along the towing-path. As it was the hour when most of the people he knew were indoors eating he met none of his acquaintances. This was a relief, as he would certainly have been questioned as to whither he was walking, and have been recommended to walk in another direction where he would obtain “a prettier view.” The Moncaster people were much given to thrusting in their fingers into other people’s pies, and the whole place was a hot-bed of gossip. But thanks to the dinner hour, Eric escaped this prying curiosity and soon found himself on the outskirts of the town, well on the way to Old Dexleigh. It was delightful weather, and the blue sky, the bright sunshine, and the softly blowing wind, all combined to raise his spirits, which with Eric were never very low.

Two miles away he crossed in the ferry-boat to the Dexleigh side and exchanged a few words with the gruff old man who acted as Charon. Also he gave him some tobacco, which Charon appreciated. That was Eric all over. He was always doing little acts of kindness without hoping for any return. But the return came in the good wishes which everyone showered upon him. With the exception of the conspirators, Eric had no enemies. And save Mrs. Bellona, these had no personal feeling against him. But she detested him vicariously on account of the jealousy she had borne towards his mother.

It was after three when Eric entered the ruined village. In the bright sunshine he thought it looked more dismal than ever. He glanced down the lane leading to the wharf and saw that Tyler’s barge was still at anchor. But there was no sign of life on board, so Eric presumed that Tyler and Jerry were out on some of their nefarious errands. As it was broad daylight and Baker had already tested his fists on Luke’s ugly face, he had not thought it necessary to carry a revolver. Had he paid this visit in the night, he would not have gone unarmed. As it was, instead of his weapon, he had brought with him a bottle of port wine, which Blundel had left unconsumed. This was for Mother Mandarin’s use, and it was to her cottage that Eric took his way.

When he stopped at the door, he thought he heard voices within, and listened. Eric did not like being an eavesdropper, but all through this matter he had been forced into such a position. He had listened to the conversation between the plotters in the lonely church, and now he strove to hear what Mother Mandarin was saying. He could hear her high-pitched querulous voice, and then in answer the softer tones of a younger woman. But it was impossible to distinguish the words, and thinking that Mrs. Bellona had come to pay her accomplice a visit, Eric walked boldly in. It was just as well to face the two women and to get the truth out of them regarding the death of his father, if they were capable of speaking what was true.

But on the threshold of the room Baker stood amazed, Mother Mandarin lay on a mattress in the corner, covered with blankets beneath which she shivered, as with the ague. Beside her stood Pansey with a cup of water. This she was offering to the old woman, but as soon as Mother Mandarin stretched out her hand, the gipsy withdrew the cup with a laugh. At the sound of the door opening, Pansey turned from her cruel sport to see who entered. When she beheld Eric she dropped the cup, and dashed past him out of the door. He made a grasp at her, but she slipped away like an eel. But Eric was fleet, and ran after her. Seeing that he would soon overtake her in the open, Pansey plunged into one of the cottages. Eric gave up the chase at once, as he knew it would be impossible to trace her. Panting a little, for the chase had been a sharp one, he returned to Mother Mandarin.

“How long has that she-devil been teasing you?” he asked, filling another cup with water and passing it to the woman.

Mother Mandarin drank greedily before replying. “For half an hour about,” she said faintly. “Mrs. Bellona told her to look after me, and is paying her to do so. But she has worried me constantly. I feel very ill,” sighed the wretched creature wearily.

Eric drew the cork of the port with a screw he had with him, and gave her a full cup. When her lips touched it, she gave a gurgle of delight, and drank it at once. Handing back the cup, she nodded her thanks. “Caterina has never done so much for me,” she said in a stronger voice.

“You are talking of Mrs. Bellona,” said Eric, who remembered Mrs. Cadowan using the name.

“Yes. My dear friend—my best friend. And she leaves me here to die in this hole.”

“Why did she send you here?”

“She didn’t. I came to this place of my own accord years and years ago. I have been a great sinner, and I thought that a life of renunciation might gain me mercy from heaven.”

“If you give up sinning,” said Eric significantly.

“I have done that,—at least I have tried to,” said Mother Mandarin wishfully, “but Caterina will not let me do what I want.”

“Has she so much power over you?”

“That’s my business,” cried the sick woman fiercely, “what do you mean Mr. Baker—”

“Harding!”

“I don’t acknowledge that,” said Mother Mandarin doggedly.

“You are afraid to.”

“Perhaps I am. But I’ll soon be dead, and then Caterina’s power will be at an end.”

“Don’t you think if I brought you a priest—”

“I am a Protestant. But I don’t want any parson. They talk and talk, it’s all words—all words.”

“Still you should make amends for your wrong-doing by confessing the sin you have committed.”

“I shan’t then. I want to die in peace.”

“That’s impossible till you confess and repent.”

“I have repented. Look at this miserable room, look at me. I was once a handsome woman. I was once rich and famous and courted. Ah, you may look, but at one time all London was at my feet.”

“I know that Mrs. Spain.”

Mother Mandarin reared herself on her elbow, and stared wildly on him. “How do you know my name. No one has said that name for years and years. Not even Caterina.

“I suppose she calls you Eleanora?”

“You know that also. Who told you?”

“I learned it in various ways. I have learned a great deal since I saw you last. The net is being drawn round Mrs. Bellona. Had you not better tell me the truth lest you should be caught in it.”

“I won’t! I won’t!” shrilled the woman in a paroxysm of fear.

“You must and you shall,” said Eric firmly. “I want to know how and why you poisoned my father Walter.”

This speech had the same effect on Mother Mandarin as it had when Eric spoke before. She fell back on her pillow, and closed her eyes. Eric placed a cup of wine to her lips, and strove to revive her. He was certain that here lay the murdress of his father, but there was no need on that account to behave cruelly to her. He therefore acted the part of a good Samaritan.

While thus acting, his back was to the door. Intent upon his kindly job, he did not hear the sound of stealthy footsteps, nor see the door slowly open. But his ears were quick, and on the first step of the new-comers into the room, he sprang up to face them. But it was too late. “At him, Jerry,” shouted Luke and dashed forward.

Baker made a gallant struggle, and nearly overcame the two who strove to bind him with the rope they carried. But Pansey joined in—she had been watching at the door—and threw her shawl over his head. Blinded and suffocated, Eric could do nothing, and the men bound him tightly.

“Givin’ us all this trouble, you bloomin’ pig,” grumbled Tyler between his teeth, “I’ve got you this time, and I’ll make it up to you.”

Eric tried to answer, and then to shout for aid. But Jerry and Luke took him up in their arms, and carried him out of the house. Baker immediately became quiet. He knew that it was useless to struggle in the grasp of two such hulking brutes, and that if he called no one was likely to hear him. Moreover he did not wish to be maltreated as he needed all his strength, and an unwounded frame to manage his escape. Finally like the wise young man he was, he kept his wits about him, and tried under the shawl to conjecture where the men were taking him. “It’s to the vault,” he thought, as he felt them brushing through the jungle round the church.

All the time Luke was swearing at the weight of the helpless man, but Jerry only chuckled sardonically every now and then. Luke addressed a few remarks to Eric, saying what he would do with him, and how he proposed to punish him for having dared to hit him in the eye.

“I can’t kill you,” he grunted, as they apparently descended steps, “but I’ll spile your beauty. Ho! ho! one eye and a broken nose. I guess the gals won’t run after you then,” and Jerry joined in the laughter of Mr. Tyler.

Eric said no word. He resolved if Tyler tried any of these tricks, to be even with him in the matter. He had a knife in his pocket without which he never travelled, and hoped to cut his bonds when they placed him in the vault. That they were going there he was now certain, by the earthy smell and the sharp descent. Shortly they arrived on level ground, and shouted to Pansey to show a light. A match was struck, and judging from the smell of warm tallow, a lantern was lighted. Then began a somewhat long journey, of which Eric took no account. So many were the windings, and risings and fallings of the ground, that he lost count of the number of turns. But the passage was extremely long, and he knew that the vault could not possibly be under the church itself. Probably he was being carried along a disused passage leading to some other building, which had been used in monkish days, and probably for no good purpose. Eric had heard legends of Old Dexleigh Church which were not pleasant.

At last the journey came to an end. He was pitched into a hollow and fell on a damp pavement. Then a door was shut and locked with a final volley of oaths from Tyler. Eric found himself in an unknown place, bound, and with his head tangled in a shawl. And there was no hope of rescue, for only Harding knew whither he had gone, and he would not think of searching for a vault. Nor indeed, even if he gave notice to the police and examined the church, did Eric think anyone would chance on this skilfully hidden place. They would look for the vault in the church, and the vault was apparently a great distance away. And the passage to it could be of course stopped with earth like a fox’s hole, so as to baffle those who searched.

However Eric was in a plight, and had to get out of it as best he could. He became aware of a most unpleasant smell in the vault, and felt that the pavement was damp and unwholesome. And about him he could feel the clinging velvet darkness, chill and with an oily taint as he imagined. For a time he lay quiet. Then his active brain began to work, and he set himself the task of getting the shawl off his head.

It had been loosely thrown over, and in the struggle, had been twitched on one side. Eric took the portion over his mouth between his teeth, and by shaking his head managed to disarrange it still further. Then he pulled it with his teeth inch by inch to one side, and shook his head gently. It was tedious work, and only after twenty minutes was he free. But by patience and dexterity, he managed to throw it off, and looked around. The success of his attempt gave him courage.

He was in complete darkness, and could not see an inch before him. The next thing to be done was to get his knife out of his pocket. Eric had a special pocket made for this knife which was long and sharp and opened with a spring. A man, who in South America had been in a like situation to himself, had shown him the trick. The pocket was made in the waistcoat long and narrow. It was split down the middle and lightly sewn together with a strong thread, a loop of which was left at the top. Luckily Eric’s coat had been torn open in the struggle, so he found he could easily reach the loop with his teeth. Gradually he drew out the thread, taking very great care that it should not break. The pocket opened, and the knife fell with a sharp sound on to the pavement. Eric flung himself face downward and felt about for it with his mouth. The position was not a pleasant one, as the floor was foul and damp and dirty. However he could not afford to be particular. Once free from his bonds and with the knife, he could defy the malice of Luke who proposed to mutilate his face. Even in his anxiety Eric laughed to think how he could circumvent the brute.

Shortly his face came sharply against the handle of the knife. Eric felt for the spring on the side—placed there so that the blade could open without hindrance—and pressed it with his teeth. There was a click and the steel flew free. He then rolled on his back and grasped the knife in his hand. Fortunately in their hurry the men had not tied him skilfully. His wrists were crossed and there was a space between. Eric managed to rub the edge of the rope against the blade of the knife which he left again on the floor. In doing this he cut his hand, but was more than repaid when a few minutes of gentle chafing cut the strands. In another moment he had his hands free, and soon managed to take off the rope. Then he rubbed the numbness out of them, and jumped up and down to take the stiffness out of his legs. All this was done in the dense gloom.

Travel in wild countries had instilled into Baker the caution necessary to exercise in a place where there were none of the appurtenances of civilization. The suit he wore had all kinds of pockets filled with all manner of necessary things. When walking to Moncaster he had donned this especial suit; and on the two occasions he had come to the ruined village he had been careful to wear it. Eric never allowed himself to be taken by surprise, and although he had not expected this assault and capture, he congratulated himself that even in civilized England he had not attempted the adventure without wearing the clothes of the wild waste lands. He now regretted that he had not brought his Derringer, and blamed himself for having been so injudicious. But the knife was sharp and long, and Eric had a pretty trick of fence that could render it a very dangerous weapon. Also, if all else failed, he knew how to throw it from the palm of his hand after the manner of Spanish desperadoes. He was not therefore afraid of his life, and he knew that his captors could not keep him for ever in the vault. Even if the police did not succeed in finding it, Luke would certainly be questioned, and Judith would see that he was made responsible for the disappearance of her husband. Moreover, unless he were set free, Judith would no doubt threaten to denounce her mother, and failing Judith, Mr. Harding, who knew the whole story, would browbeat her into telling the truth. Mrs. Bellona was very clever, but she was not so clever as all the world.

His hands free and the circulation restored, Eric lighted his pipe as the smell in the vault was most disagreeable. In one of his useful pockets he had a morsel of candle, and lighted this to examine his surroundings.

The vault was really a crypt, as to right and left, Eric saw arches which supported a ponderous stone roof. A flight of rude steps much worn led up to a heavy wooded door, which was fast bolted on the outside. Eric shook it, but it held firm. He therefore descended the steps again, and walked round the place. It was of great extent, and the pavement was very uneven. In the walls were niches for coffins, so there was no doubt in his mind that at one time the crypt had been used as a burial place. Finally he came to the end where a damp wall stopped his further progress. It was overgrown with fungus, and all manner of unhealthy growths. Eric listened intently and thought he could hear the lapping of water. It struck him that the crypt was near the river, and this made him shudder. For all he knew there might be some means of letting in the water, and all his skill would not avail against the chance of being drowned like a rat in a hole. And then if his body was found floating down towards Moncaster, who could accuse Luke. There would be no mark of violence, and it might be said he had slipped in. But Eric took comfort in the thought that Luke had expressly regretted not having been permitted to kill him.

At the end of the vault he found a rude crucifix of wood bound to the wall. Under this was a kind of stone slab which might have been used as an altar. On it lay a dead man and Eric started back with a cry of disgust when he saw the uncovered face. It was somewhat marred, but approaching the light nearer, he recognised it at once.

The body was that of Sammy Merston.

Chapter 24
Eric’s Last Chance

Eric retreated to the outer part of the crypt as far away from the body as he could. The sight filled him with loathing; the knowledge that Merston was dead, caused him to pity both the man and the poor mother he left behind. How had Merston come by his death?

This was the question Eric asked himself as he sat in the darkness with his head in his hands. Julian could not have killed him, as he himself had disappeared; and moreover, enemies as the two men were, Julian was too careful of his neck to risk being hanged. It was probable that Merston coming to see Pansey had been mistaken in the darkness for himself, and that either Tyler or Jerry had fired that fatal shot. Here Eric started to his feet. He did not know how the man had come by his death. He might have been stabbed. At once, and in spite of the unpleasantness of the errand he returned to the desecrated altar. That was a characteristic action. Baker always forced himself to do the things he liked least, and thus had trained himself into a strong-willed, clear-headed man.

A careful examination by the feeble light of the taper showed him that Merston had been shot in the face. There was a small hole under the left eye which showed where the bullet had entered. It had penetrated the brain and death must have been instantaneous. As soon as he had satisfied himself on this point, Eric retired, for the odour overpowered him. He began to think again, but could only arrive at the conclusion that Tyler had shot Merston, either by accident or on purpose, and then had invented the tale of the elopement with Pansey, to account for the man’s disappearance. But even this theory did not explain the absence of Julian.

Eric sitting there in the dense and fetid crypt grew weary trying to fit together the pieces of the puzzle. He determined to sleep, knowing that his life was safe. Being an old campaigner, he made the best of the uncomfortable position in which he found himself. Many men knowing they were in the hands of relentless foes, and in a secret place not likely to be discovered would have given way to despair. But Eric was of sterner stuff. Not for nothing had he explored the fringes of the Empire and had depended upon his clever wits to get him out of innumerable difficulties. His life-long training stood him in good stead now, and he was perfectly confident that he would find some way out of the difficulty. Baker was a religious man with a strong feeling of the near presence of God—a feeling he always strove to retain by living as clean a life as he could—and he was sure that God would not permit him to perish in this manner. He knelt down and offered up a short prayer. Then, much comforted, he made a pillow of his coat and curled up in the driest part of the crypt he could find.

How long he slept he knew not. But he awoke to find a yellow light shining in his eyes. At once, from custom, his brain was on the alert and he jumped up to greet Pansey who was holding a lantern in one hand and had a basket on her arm. She was gazing at him with a certain amount of admiration.

“Ain’t you afraid,” she said suddenly, and setting down the basket.

“Afraid. No, why should I be. Does sleep show fear?”

“That’s just it. I thought you’d be so terrified lest father should do what he says to your eye and nose, that you’d not risk sleep.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” replied Eric in an indifferent tone. “I have not been born to be made a pretty picture of by your papa, my dear.”

“And you’ve got out of the ropes.”

“That was the first thing I set about doing, my fair Pansey blossom.”

The girl stared at him again. “I do say now; you’re the pluckiest cove I ever met.”

“What!” said Eric in a bantering tone, “pluckier than Jerry?”

“Oh, Jerry ain’t in it with you,” admitted Pansey frankly. “I don’t believe you know what fear is.”

“Oh yes I do. I often have deadly fears. The man who denies that he is ever afraid is a liar or a knave, perhaps both. What’s in the basket? Food I hope. I’m dreadfully hungry.”

“You can eat?”

“And drink too. I hope you have brought some water.”

“There’s some wine,” said Pansey bringing out a bottle; “the stuff you left with Mother Mandarin.”

“And bread and cheese,” said Baker who was examining the basket, “why Pansey your father is treating me like a prince. Or perhaps I owe this food to your care?”

Pansey nodded, her face working with emotion. Then she set down the lantern and dropped on the floor herself to weep. “It’s a shame—a shame,” she said passionately, “if you weren’t such a plucked one I shouldn’t care. But as you are—oh, it’s a shame.”

“What is—this capture? Oh that’s all in the day’s work. Am I to be kept here, Pansey?”

“No,” she admitted reluctantly drying her eyes. “You’re to be taken away to St. Guthlac’s and shipped to foreign parts.”

“Oh! and does Mrs. Bellona think I’ll submit to being bandied about like a ping-pong ball.”

“Mrs. Bellona has nothing to do with it,” snapped Pansey.

“My sister,” said Eric in the Romany tongue, “don’t lie.”

Pansey winced. “And you’re a Romany Rye,” said she, “that makes it worse. I wish I could get you out of this.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I daren’t,” she replied shivering, “father is such a dreadful man, and then there’s Jerry to be reckoned with. But I say,” she went on admiringly, “you do fight fair. Here am I with the key and you’ve only got to knock me on the head to cut.”

“I’ve thought of that,” said Eric eating, “but you see I don’t know my way out, and your respected papa might be in some dark corner to give me a knock on the head.”

“He is—he is,” cried Pansey clapping her hands, “how ’cute you are.”

“Only sensible. So papa thinks to lure me out in that way, does he? He doesn’t fight fair.”

“Father’s a brute,” said Pansey with conviction.

“And a murderer. What about poor Merston?”

“Ah, you’ve found him,” said Pansey starting back. “Well, how do you feel over having shot him?”

Eric paused with a piece of bread on the way to his mouth. “Shot him,” he repeated. “My good girl, you are raving.”

“Oh no, I ain’t,” said Pansey decisively. “You shot him that night you came up to see Mother Mandarin.”

Eric felt troubled. “I might have done so,” said he half to himself, “for I certainly did fire. Who fired the first shot?” he asked.

“Why, Sammy Merston,” said Pansey calmly. “You see, thinking Mr. Harding was away, he came up to see me. He wanted to marry me, but he is such a fool—”

“Was such a fool, poor devil,” said Eric with regret.

“Well, I couldn’t bring myself to be his rani. We were in the church, and I was teasing him about Harding—Julian, you know.”

“Was he in love with you?”

“No, he wasn’t. All our business was about this—this—”

“Kidnapping of me. I understand. Go on.”

“Well, you are a cove,” said Pansey admiringly. “One of the right sort, you are. Well, Sammy thought Julian admired me, especially as he gave me a brooch for bringing that pigeon back. I teased Sammy, and when we came out of the church he saw someone coming. It was you, I suppose, though I didn’t know it at the time. Sammy thought you were Harding, and was in such a rage that he fired. You fired back and killed him. Then I ran to tell father, and to avoid a row we put the body here and said as he’d run away with me. That’s why I cut when I saw you in Mother Mandarin’s,” explained Pansey.

“And you went to bring your father and Jerry on to me?”

“I did. I thought it was a good chance of getting you. And we have got you. It’s all up with you, Mr. Baker.”

“Mr. Harding, child. And it’s not all up with me by any means.”

“Oh, yes it is. You see we’ll keep you, and if you get away, you’ll be charged with killing Merston.”

“That’s very clever,” admitted Eric beginning to eat again, “but I have dropped my man out West before now. It was a fair shot, and I feel no compunction. I’m sorry as I rather liked the man, but the matter was beyond my control. I was attacked and I defended myself—the death was an accident.”

“Well,” said Pansey again and with delight, “I never met such a cove as you in my life. You’ll face it out.”

“Like a man. I find the best thing in life is to face everything out. It prevents future trouble. But about Julian? He came here on the night before Merston was killed.”

“How do you know that?” asked Pansey staring.

“Because I do. How I traced him doesn’t matter. Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” then seeing disbelief in Eric’s face, she added emphatically, “I tell you I don’t know.”

“Well I must believe you,” said Eric rubbing his eyes. He was growing unaccountably drowsy, “but he’s disappeared and there will be trouble. You and—and you and your father,” the words trailed off into a dreamy whisper, and Pansey looked at him steadily. A thought flashed across Eric’s brain. “You’ve—drugged the wine,” he said sleepily.

“I told you we’d manage you,” said Pansey triumphantly. “You’ll not be able to move hand and foot for the next twenty-four hours. Ah, Mother Mandarin’s drugs work well.”

Eric made a desperate effort to clear his brain. Thoughts of being mutilated while he was unconscious entered his mind. He almost gave a cry of despair, but he was too plucky to do so. “Pansey,” he said thickly, “don’t—the eye—nose.”

“No,” cried Pansey in a firm voice, “I won’t let father hurt you in that way. You’re too good a sort for that.” Eric’s head drooped back and he leaned against the wall. “I say, Mr. Baker cove,” she shouted bringing her mouth close to his ear, “I won’t let father cut you up. I swear I won’t.”

“Thanks,” said Eric sleepily, “you—you,” the words died away. With closed eyes and heavy breathing he lay back, to all intents and purposes a dead man. Pansey looked at him and smoothed his hair.

“Poor chap. It’s a shame,” she said in tones of regret, “but if father tries to spoil you, I’ll knife him—that I will,” and Pansey looked fully capable of carrying out her threat.

Eric slept heavily for centuries. A thick darkness descended on his brain, and his soul fled to the spiritual plane. What it saw there, what it did there, Eric never remembered. But in time dreams came to him—strange dreams of tropical forests wherein he wandered with his wife. And in one place, gorgeous with flowers, they were passing under a tree when a glittering serpent encircled her neck. Eric in his dream strove to wrench the coils away, but without success. Suddenly a man appeared—a man who looked like himself. In some queer way, Eric knew that this was his father. It was his father who detached the coils of the snake and saved Judith. Then he took each by the hand, and led them to a bower where they lived happily for ever and ever. At least so it seemed to Eric in his dream.

Then came the darkness again. But light broke in on it. He became conscious of a crimson beam smiting him across the eyes, of the cooing of doves, and woke with a sleepy yawn. He found himself in what he took, in his half unconscious state, to be the cabin of a ship, and wondered why there was no tossing and pitching. Through the port-hole came the crimson light of the setting sun which had roused him. On a nail hung a wicker cage, and in it a pigeon. It was Mimie as he soon saw, and he called her name in a sleepy tone. The bird cocked her head to one side, looked at him with her bright eye, and cooed in answer to the name. Eric closed his eyes again, and must have fallen asleep. He was finally awakened by something being held to his nose, and sneezed thrice. “God bless you! God bless you! God bless you!” said the voice of Pansey.

Eric sat up and looked around. He knew his whereabouts now. He was on board the barge, and Pansey was holding a smelling-bottle to his nostrils. They looked at one another, and Eric yawned again.

“I’m glad you’ve come to,” said Pansey in a satisfied voice. “See!” she held a hand mirror to his face, “it’s all right. I wouldn’t let father touch you.”

“Thank God,” said Eric, his full sense of what he had escaped coming back to him with a rush. “How did I leave the vault?”

“We carried you here,” said Pansey, arranging a tray of food, “Jerry and father. You’re on board the barge. This is my room. I’ve given it to you. Isn’t it pretty? Eat now, and you’ll feel all right.”

“How long have I slept?” asked Eric, who felt hungry, and fell on the food with avidity.

“Round the clock. Last night at seven you went to sleep in the vault, and now it’s nearly seven again.”

“Your father intends to take me to St. Guthlac’s?”

Pansey nodded. “To be shipped to foreign parts,” she said. “The barge starts at twelve to-morrow.”

“Ah! is that safe? A search will be made for me.”

“Bless you they’ll never think you’re on board the barge “ said Pansey. “They’ll look for you in the church. And to let the barge go to St. Guthlac’s in the day, shows there ain’t anything wrong.”

“That’s very clever,” said Eric drinking. “I say, is this wine drugged?”

“No, it ain’t. There’ll be no more drugging.”

“Until I get to St. Guthlac’s and have to be transhipped to some boat for France.”

“That’s just it,” said Pansey. “You’re a sharp one. But it ain’t to France. Father has some friends in Bilbao, and you’ll go there; afterwards to the mountains.”

“Ah, to be held captive by the gipsies,” said Eric with a shrug. “I congratulate your father and Mrs. Bellona on their cleverness. But I may manage to escape before I leave England.”

“Don’t you try,” said Pansey impressively; “father’s a desperate man and will stick at nothing.”

“Neither will I. I’m not going to give in without a fight for it.”

“You’ll be sorry if you try any larks,” said Pansey sorrowfully. “I like you, ’cause you’re a plucked ’un. But you can’t fight us.”

“Ah, that remains to be proved. Where’s my pipe?” and he fished it out of his pocket. When it was alight, he glanced at the door where Pansey still stood.

“Father’s there with a pistol,” she said guessing his meaning, “and Jerry’s got another; you needn’t try. I say, do you want anything else?” she said in friendly tones. “I have to go to Moncaster, and won’t see you again to-night.”

“You might tell Mr. Ferris where I am,” said Eric calmly, “there’s nothing more I think.”

“If I ever married,” cried Pansey with a burst of admiration, “I’m blest if I wouldn’t like a cove like you.”

“I hope you’ll get a better man. What about Jerry?”

Pansey said something about Jerry which didn’t exactly sound like a blessing, and went out locking the door after her. Eric was left alone. The prison was not so bad as the vault. Still, it was a prison and Eric made up his mind to escape. He had no intention of being handed over to Mr. Tyler’s gipsy friends, and being carried into the recesses of the Biscayan mountains. There, he knew it would be next to impossible to escape. But while he was in England there was some chance. He looked about for it.

The port-hole was too narrow for him to squeeze through, the door was too strong for him to break down. Moreover if he got through either, he would have to reckon with two determined men. Eric was not easily beaten, but he really feared that at the present moment escape was impossible. If Mr. Harding, having missed him, had only had the sense to inform the police where he had gone, Old Dexleigh might be raided. But then, as Pansey truly said, they might not examine the barge. It would never enter the cleverest head that Luke Tyler would dare to play such a bold stroke. And Luke Tyler certainly would not have thought of it. In this clever scheme, Eric recognised the invention of Mrs. Bellona.

A coo recalled his attention to Mimie, and she put her head towards him to be scratched. “I wish I had your wings, Mimie,” said Baker with a sigh, and then he thought suddenly, “Why shouldn’t I make use of them? She’s a homing pigeon; she will fly back to Lame Dickey’s and then—the very thing.” He almost laughed as he tore an old letter in two, and took out his pencil. “I’ll baffle you yet, my friends,” he said nodding towards the door.

The letter, addressed to Mr. Harding, was soon written. It detailed that he was held captive in the cabin of Tyler’s barge; that Luke purposed taking him to St. Guthlac’s next day at twelve; and that later he would be removed to Bilbao en route for the Biscayan mountains. Eric told Harding to send the police at once, as many as possible, and wrote various other things as strongly as he was able. On the exterior of the note he directed Lame Dickey to take it at once to Mr. Harding—giving the address—as it was a message of life and death. “Now,” said Eric fastening this paper firmly and conspicuously to the bird’s leg, “Dickey’s sure to see Mimie, when she comes back. It’s my only chance and I’ll take it.”

He opened the port-hole. The sky was darkening, and he thought there was every chance of the bird getting away unseen. Still he did not like to risk the matter. God had placed this chance of rescue in his way, and he must exercise every care to take advantage of it. It was probable that Dickey would recognise Mimie at once when she returned—perhaps next morning; for Dickey, as Eric knew, was an early riser. He would see the letter and take the message. At least so Eric hoped. He could hope for nothing else.

Outside, he heard Luke and Jerry conversing and quarrelling, but they did not come near him. Baker waited until the cabin grew quite dark. Then he gently stroked the bird, and slipped it through the port-hole. With a whirr of wings Mimie flew away. Eric following her flight, saw her tower into the darkness. Then he lost sight of her. But he felt that his message would come to those for whom it was intended.

“And now,” said Eric after putting up a short prayer, “we’ll see if God is not stronger than Mrs. Bellona.”

Chapter 25
The Conspiracy

At nine o’clock Jerry brought in a smoky paraffin lamp, and set it on the table in a sulky manner. Eric noticed that he was not using his left arm, and asked in kindly tones what was the matter. Jerry repaid this interest with a vindictive scowl.

“You hurt m’ arm a few days ago,” he growled, “and it broke out agin tussling with you. I’ll pay you out for doin’ of it.”

“For hurting your arm or for the tussle?” asked Eric lightly, and wondering why the man was so savage.

“For both, and for makin’ up to my Pansey. Do you think I wants to hear her hollerin’ and shouting your praises.”

“As to Pansey you can set your mind at rest,” said Eric, stifling a laugh. “I’m not Merston.”

“I wish you were. He’s a deader.”

“And you made him so.”

“It’s a lie. You killed him yourself when you fired on that night.”

“Oh no, I didn’t. That’s your arrangement to put the blame on me. I hurt your arm; it must have been when I used my revolver then, since on no other occasion save yesterday, have I fought with you.”

“You never hurt my arm,” insisted Jerry, looking uneasy.

“Ah! you are the liar now. But you don’t get the better of me. I dropped you, not Merston, and I believe you shot the man.”

“I’ll punch you, if you—” Jerry raised his right fist.

Eric looked calmly at him. “I don’t like licking a man who can’t use both fists,” said he, “but if you don’t get out I’ll kick you out.”

“If you were a man you’d get out yourself,” taunted Jerry.

“To be shot by Tyler. Not much.”

Jerry changed his tactics. “Do you want food?” he asked politely.

“Yes. Bring me in some bread and cheese, also beer, and see that it isn’t doctored.”

“Oh, you needn’t be afeared of that. We want you awake. Some  one’s coming to see you.”

“Ah!” said Baker, divining the name at once. “So Pansey went to Moncaster to fetch Mrs. Bellona.”

“I never said so,” grumbled Jerry, who thought Eric was a deal too sharp, and much too calm considering his position.

“Oh, I often understand people without their speaking. Words are a nuisance sometimes.”

Jerry looked rather cowed; for Eric’s manner impressed him in spite of his swagger, and the hatred he bore him. With a sullen nod he went out. Baker whistled, and stared out into the night through the porthole, which he kept open for the sake of air. He was certain that his bullet had merely grazed Jerry’s arm near the shoulder, and that the sudden sting of pain has caused the man to fall. Inadvertently Jerry had let out the truth, and Baker saw the dexterous use which would be made of the episode. Merston was dead, and the three—for Eric did not even except Pansey—would certainly accuse him of the murder. But they would have to explain why they placed the body in the vault, and neglected to inform the police. Their actions did not look like innocence. “H’m! we’ll see what Mrs. Bellona has to say.” Jerry supplied him with bread and cheese and beer, and when the man left, Eric ate a good meal. He wished to keep up his strength, especially as he was about to see Mrs. Bellona. She was a most difficult and unscrupulous woman to deal with, and he needed all his wits to beat her at the game she was playing.

He had just finished his supper when Mrs. Bellona entered. Plainly dressed in black, and wearing a heavy veil, she looked a sombre figure. Nor was her face less tragic when she revealed it. Closing the door after her, she took a seat near the table and looked steadily at Eric, who stood up the moment she appeared. Evidently Mrs. Bellona intended that he should open the conversation, but Baker’s motto was “Gentlemen of the Guards, fire first!” He could hold his tongue and stare quite as persistently as Mrs. Bellona, and after a silent contest of wills, she was the first to give in.

“Well, Mr. Baker,” she said quietly, “when meeting you at my garden party, I little thought we should come together here.”

“Perhaps not, Mrs. Bellona. You expected we should meet in the vault.”

“Not at all, Mr. Baker. Had you been secured earlier, I should not have appeared in the matter.”

“I can quite understand that,” said Baker sitting down; “you did not wish me to know what part you took in this rascally piece of business.”

Mrs. Bellona shrugged her shoulders in a foreign way. “As to that, it matters little,” she replied with quiet insolence. “Had I carried out my scheme, and married Judith to Julian, you would never have known the truth.”

“Why not?”

“Judith for the sake of her husband, would not have told you.”

“I see. So it was because you expected she would tell, that you made preparation to have me kidnapped?”

“Yes. Judith saw you in the Park two years ago, and took an absurd fancy to you and your book. In some way or another, she learned too much, and threatened to tell you when you came to Moncaster. Of course you would then claim the money, so it was necessary to keep you out of the way until Judith was married, and it was to her own interest to hold her peace.”

“Well,” said Eric, after digesting this information, “Judith did warn me to leave Moncaster, but I did not know what she meant. I first became suspicious from a chance observation made by Ferris, and it was what my uncle told me, that revealed the truth.”

“I know—I know—” Mrs. Bellona clenched her fist and flushed. “I knew that fool would say too much some day. I would rather deal with a knave than a fool.”

“It seems to me that you dealt with both,” rejoined Baker coolly, “but about this conspiracy. May I ask why you contrived it?”

“I wanted my rightful heritage,” said Mrs. Bellona doggedly.

“In that case, why did you not trust to my generosity.”

She started to her feet. “Because I hated your mother,” she declared venomously. “Walter—your father—”

“Oh! you admit he is my father,” said Eric shrewdly.

Mrs. Bellona looked round the narrow space with a disdainful smile. “I can admit anything here,” she said. “You may as well know the truth, as you will never trouble me again.”

“Don’t be too sure of that,” said Eric, thinking of Mimie and her message.

“Oh, I am perfectly sure. To-morrow you will be taken on this barge to St. Guthlac’s, and thence transferred to Spain. Once in the Biscayan mountains, Mr. Baker, and it will tax even your ingenuity to escape.”

“I may escape beforehand.”

“Oh no,” she replied coolly, “no one knows that you are here.”

“Not on the barge I admit, but in Old Dexleigh—”

“You are thinking of James Harding,” she interrupted; “that hope is but a faint one. He called to see me, and told me of his conversation with you. I tricked him.”

“You tricked him?”

Mrs. Bellona nodded triumphantly. “I told him you had been to see me in the meantime, and that I had arranged the matter with you amicably. He thinks you have changed your mind about coming here, and are at present in town. Before he can learn the truth—and that he shall never learn—you will be well on the way to Spain.”

“You are playing a dangerous game, Mrs. Bellona.”

“But a successful one. Man,” she cried striking the table, “do you think that after all my scheming, I am ready to give in so easily? I have no money. I have been living on Rayner for years. I love rich things and good living, and I claim the inheritance that is rightfully mine.”

“Then again I say, why did you not acknowledge my birth, and bring me up as you did Julian, to marry Judith?”

“And again I reply that I hated your mother, Mr. Baker. I loved your father—I loved him as no woman ever loved a man. We met in Cuzco, but I was already married and disinherited. He saved my father’s life and secured the money!”

“Which he never touched.”

“I admit it. He behaved well as he always did. But I met him, I loved him, I wished to marry him—not for the money—no—though that would have come with his love. But he left Peru and returned to England. As soon as my father died and I learned the items of the will, I induced Bellona to come to England with his sister. She married a man called Cadowan, so she was out of my life, and I was glad of it. I always hated her.”

“You seemed to have hated a good many people, Mrs. Bellona.”

“Your mother I hated the most. However, when I came to England, Walter was married. He was in love with that silly Amelia Blundel. In vain did I try to make him love me—he laughed at me—he laughed at me,” she repeated the words fiercely, overcome with emotion.

“You could hardly expect him to leave my mother.”

“Why not? He was a man, and she was a silly simpering fool. I asked Walter to give me the money. He could not. Then my husband died and I was free—free and poor. I wanted the money. I wanted him, more than ever. But it was impossible. Amelia had him safely in her toils.”

“Legal toils remember,” said Eric nettled at this prodigious egotism.

“Bah! What matter what they were. But I went down to Blundel Hall and I made her jealous by keeping Walter at my side. Richard Harding was sorry for your mother—he paid her attention, and then—”

“Then you hinted that Richard was her lover,” said Eric in disgust.

Mrs. Bellona tossed her head defiantly. “Yes I did. I was determined that no child born of Amelia, who had robbed me of Walter’s love, should ever claim my inheritance. Walter believed my story—he watched the couple jealously—he quarrelled with your mother—”

Eric rose in disgust. “Oh stop—stop,” he said vehemently, “I don’t want to hear all your trickery. Tell your story as briefly as possible and go. Though why you want to tell it at all I don’t know.”

“Because I have a proposition to make to you.”

“Indeed. What is it?” asked Eric suspiciously.

“You’ll hear that later,” retorted Mrs. Bellona, “meantime you may as well listen to the rest of my story.”

“I don’t want to. You are Judith’s mother, and I wish to think as well of you as I can.”

“It is impossible that you can think well of me. I hate you too much; and hatred brings hatred.”

“Not always,” said Eric quietly.

“Ah! That’s the Christian twaddle, and—”

“Don’t you think you had better proceed with your story since you are determined to tell it?” said Baker, who thought it best to stop this new line of conversation which could hardly prove to be a pleasant one on Mrs. Bellona’s lips.

She took his assent as a triumph. “I thought I would make you hear reason,” she cried triumphantly, “where was I—oh I remember. Your father and mother quarrelled over Richard, and the two brothers had words also. Finally Richard left Blundel Hall where we were all stopping.”

“Uncle Wilfred said he did not meet you again till the death of my mother.”

“He’s a fool and a liar. I came and went as I would. But when I was in the Hall, your father died.”

“Seated between you and your friend Mrs Spain.”

Mrs. Bellona nodded calmly, “I don’t know who told you that, but it is true. He had a fit of apoplexy.”

“So-called!”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I think you know. Go on.”

Eric expected that she would fly out, but strange to say after a hard look at him, Mrs. Bellona continued the conversation. Eric learned the reason of this acquiescence later. “Your father died and was buried in the vault at Wargrove Church. Six months later you were born, and your mother was laid in the vault also.”

“I know all this,” said Eric, weary of the repetition.

“You must hear it again. You must know all from my lips so that there may be no mistake as to why I am dealing with you as I am.”

Eric shrugged his shoulders. “Go on then,” said he resignedly, “there is no stopping a woman’s tongue.”

“Nor a woman either,” retorted Mrs. Bellona sneeringly, “particularly a woman like myself who has years of wrong to avenge.”

“Well I know what you are about to say. You persuaded Uncle Wilfred to state that my mother had given birth to a still-born child and that I was the son of the Baker’s—”

“Who died shortly afterwards in Africa,” said Mrs. Bellona triumphantly, “which made assurance doubly sure. The Lord was on my side.”

“I shouldn’t call on the Lord in that way were I you. Go on.”

“Bah! Your religion again. What a milksop you are. But it was as you say. You were brought up as Baker’s son. But your nurse, Jane Tresham, knew too much. She learned about the million which you might claim, and threatened me. I sent her away, and for years I have kept her quiet by an annuity. I engaged Hortense. She also learned something about your birth—”

“She told me of my real father and mother’s death.”

“I know. She became aware, through that beast, Jarvey, I believe, that you were the son of Amelia and Walter. She threatened me also. But I bribed her into silence. I have had to pay her an annuity for years and years.” Mrs Bellona clenched her fist again, “But it will soon be all over. When you are safe in Spain, not one penny more will those women get.”

“Ah! They are alive then.”

Mrs. Bellona saw that she had over-stepped the mark. “That has nothing to do with you,” she said.

“Pardon me—it has a great deal to do with me. I shall need them to prove my identity.”

“You talk like a fool.” She looked at him steadily. “You will never be free to prove who you are unless—unless you assent to my terms.”

“What are they?”

“All in good time. You grew up,” she continued, “as Baker’s son. Blundel sent you to several places thinking you might die.”

“Oh,” said Eric quietly. “I rather think it was you who sent me, and it was you who wished me to die.”

“I did,” said Mrs. Bellona savagely. “I thought when you were out of the way all would be well. I always lived in hourly dread lest you should learn the truth.”

“As I have learned it.”

“Much good may it do you,” she retorted disdainfully. “But when Ferris said that you were coming to Moncaster I was more afraid than ever. Judith had to be reckoned with. I arranged to have you kidnapped for six or twelve months, so that in the meantime she might marry Julian, and he should get the money in June.”

“And you told Julian this?”

“Yes. Julian tried to defy me about the share I claimed of the money. I told him that if he pushed me too far that I could produce you, and then he would get nothing. He consented to the kidnapping.”

“Not only that,” said Eric. “But he tried to inveigle me here. Evidently Nemesis has overtaken him. Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Bellona biting her lip. “I wish I did. He is necessary to my plans, and if he does not turn up—”

“You will have to use me. I see now, what your terms are.”

“Oh no, you don’t. I have two sets of terms. You can chose which you will. Unless Julian is irrevocably lost, you will not be set free.”

“You think Julian is dead then?” asked Eric with a sharp glance.

Mrs. Bellona became positively agitated. “No, why do you think that, Mr. Baker?” she asked anxiously.

“I cannot see what other reason he has for remaining away.”

“Nor can I,” she said; “it’s a mystery. “But you know now why I had you kidnapped!”

“Because of the million?”

“Yes, and because of your marriage to Judith. The girl thought to save you from me by the marriage.”

“Oh, dear no,” rejoined Eric smoothly, “she married me to save you from committing a crime—which you have done, by the way.”

“Was there no love in the matter?” asked Mrs. Bellona tauntingly.

“There was, and is, the deepest love and affection,” said Eric seriously.

“Well the marriage, whatever love there may be in it, must be dissolved,” cried the woman imperiously.

Eric laughed. “I fear that is beyond even your power,” he said.

“Not at all. You must dissolve your marriage on some plea—I don’t care what it is. I will let you go free if you do.”

“Then I shall remain in captivity.”

Mrs. Bellona shook her fist at him. “Take care,” she said with superb insolence. “You don’t know what you are doing. I am Judith’s mother, and I, Judith’s mother—poisoned your father Walter.”

Chapter 26
The Biters Bit

When Mrs. Bellona thus accused herself of a terrible crime, she stepped back with an air of triumphant wickedness. It was quite her idea, that Eric would grow pale, that he would be overwhelmed with horror, and that he would hasten to agree to a dissolution of the marriage. But Eric did nothing of the sort. He did not even change colour, but simply sat where he was, and raised his eye-brows, in what Mrs. Bellona regarded as a particularly aggravating manner. She hammered on the table to emphasise her words.

“Don’t you hear what I say,” she declared. “I poisoned your father. What do you say to that?”

“Simply this my dear lady—that I don’t believe it.”

“But I did,” she persisted exasperated by his disbelief.

“Oh no. If you really were guilty you would not accuse yourself.”

“It matters little if I accuse myself or not—to you.”

“That’s quite right,” said Eric nodding. “Even if you were guilty, I should not denounce you, being Judith’s husband.”

“You can’t remain Judith’s husband when I—”

Eric laughed. “Don’t show your cards too plainly Mrs. Bellona,” he said in a bantering tone. “I assure you I can quite see the game you are playing.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“No,” said Eric curtly. “I don’t!”

Mrs. Bellona sat down and began to laugh also. “It is really a pleasure trying to outwit you, Mr. Baker,” she said, “you are so sharp.”

“Thanks for the compliment. But had we not better return to business.”

The woman glanced at her watch. “It is getting so late, that I think we had just as well make the best use of our time. But one question,—if I did not murder your father who did?”

“That is difficult for me to say, seeing that the death took place thirty and more years ago. But might I suggest Mother Mandarin.”

“What, that old peasant woman. What has she to do with it?”

“Not a peasant woman,” corrected Eric. “I saw what she was when I first set eyes on her. Mrs. Spain, my dear lady—Eleanora Spain—formerly an opera singer, and your dear friend—now your tool.”

“Rubbish. She is not—” Mrs. Bellona hesitated, and apparently thought it was useless to waste time in contradicting plain facts. “Well then she is Eleanora Spain. Some fancy of repentance sent her to the desert—the ruined village you know.”

“H’m,” mused Eric. “I remember her remark about the monks of the Thebaid when we first met. And have you allowed her to repent?”

Mrs. Bellona shrugged her shoulders. “I should have put her into a lunatic asylum had I had my way. But she remained here so harmlessly that I thought it best to pay her ten shillings a week, and let her live her own strange life.”

“But you made use of her to get drugs.”

“What use have I for drugs?”

“I hardly know, except that it was a herbal medicine supplied by Mother Mandarin—as we may still call her—that was used to put me into a sleep.”

“That’s true enough. But the herb only sent you to sleep. It did not kill you, I didn’t want you killed.”

“Oh, I knew that no murder was intended from the time I overheard the conversation between Rayner and Tyler in the church.”

Mrs. Bellona rose in astonishment. “You overheard that?”

“Yes. And I thought that Julian was the man intended to be kidnapped. I did not know then that I was Harding. By the way, why did Tyler call me Baker. Did he know?”

“He found out,” admitted Mrs. Bellona reluctantly; “we could not do without him, and we had to tell. Besides, he had some inkling of the truth before, as Mother Mandarin said something.”

“Oh, I understand now. Well, fancying Julian was intended, I put him on his guard. He repaid me by luring me here, with a false message from Mother Mandarin.”

“The fool,” said Mrs. Bellona gloomily. “I never countenanced such a thing. However, all this is beside the mark. You don’t believe that I killed your father?”

“No, I said so before. I think Mrs. Spain is the culprit.”

“No! no! no!” persisted Mrs. Bellona three times. “I am guilty. And as Judith’s husband—”

Eric rose, and spoke out, being weary of all this fencing. “My good lady,” he said, “I am Judith’s husband, and I intend to remain so whether you murdered my father or not. I am not going to visit the crimes of the mother on the daughter. And I shall assume my real name as soon as I can prove my birthright, which will not be so difficult as you think.”

“Oh, indeed,” sneered Mrs. Bellona, “you are very confident. And pray what sum will you allow me?”

“A thousand a year,” replied her son-in-law promptly. “You don’t deserve one penny, but I am willing to help you so far.”

“I must have half. If you give me half, and will agree to hush up this kidnapping, I will allow you to go free.”

“No,” said Eric promptly. “A thousand a year, no more.”

“You fool,” she rose and cast a terrible look on him. “I shall have all the money.”

“You will have to find Julian first. Do you think I don’t know your fear lest he should be dead? You would not have come and offered me terms else. Failing Julian, I alone can get the money.”

“Oh, dear me, no,” said Mrs. Bellona wrapping her cloak round her. “Your uncle James can claim, failing Julian, and then I shall marry him. He has asked me to.”

“He won’t ask you again now that he knows what you are.”

“That’s a rude and brutal speech,” said Mrs. Bellona calmly, “I shall leave you.” But at the door her feelings became too much for her, and she turned. “Even if you escape, which you won’t, Mr. Eric Baker—”

“Harding, Harding.”

“Baker, Baker,” she mocked; “even if you escape from Tyler, you will have to face the dock.”

“Ah! as having shot Merston.”

“Yes. You did shoot him.”

“Not at all. I shot Jerry and grazed his shoulder. Jerry in a bad temper gave the show away. I don’t know who shot Merston—perhaps Jerry himself.”

“You shot him, and you shall hang for it,” said Mrs. Bellona doggedly. “Either you go quietly to Spain, and make no attempt to escape, and give up Judith, and the million, or—”

“Or you will have me arrested.”

“Yes I will,” said the woman pale but firm.

Eric laughed in an exasperating manner. “You must indeed be in straights when you are pushed to such extremities,” he said. “I am safer than I thought.”

“You will not escape.”

“While there’s life there’s hope,” bantered Eric.

Mrs. Bellona did not know what to make of this calm manner. She had been so accustomed to see everyone cringe to her tongue and imperious manner, that the defiance of this man infuriated her. Had she lived in the Middle Ages, she would have had him stabbed. But in spite of her accusation of herself—which she knew, when making it, would never go farther—she had a wholesome love for her neck. However she made one last attempt.

“You refuse my terms—my easy terms?” she asked.

“I don’t call your asking me to give up Judith, easy terms.”

“Then keep Judith and give me the million.”

“She’s worth all that but I’ll have both.”

“Never! never! you will be carried to Spain. You will be kept in the mountains, and perhaps—”

“I may die. Oh, dear me, no. I’m not the man to die so easily,” Eric caught her by the wrist. “Listen to me,” he said somewhat losing his temper. “I know that by dashing out of that door I could escape you, but I know also that I should probably be shot by your ruffianly accomplices. I shall remain here, till God in his own good time sees fit to release me. And when I am released I shall deal with you. You are a truly bad woman, but wickedness never thrives. Now go, Mrs. Bellona, and spare me any further revelations of your character.”

Mrs. Bellona grew pale at this direct attack, and chafed her bruised wrist. Eric thought she would burst out with a volley of insults. But she merely looked at him in a pale venomous way, and without a word walked out. Eric felt relieved when he saw the last of her handsome, wicked face. He had met a great many trying women in his time, but Mrs. Bellona was the worst he had yet encountered.

Pansey entered shortly afterwards and asked him if he required more food. Eric politely refused, and stood with his back to the empty cage, fearful lest she should see that the pigeon had disappeared, and should guess the use he had made of it. But Pansey who was tearful and depressed, did not come further than the door. She nodded when Eric declined further food, and departed. He felt quite sorry for her, although she was one of his enemies.

“Poor girl,” said Eric. “I suspect she has a hard time of it with a brute for a father and another for a lover.  It would have been much better if she had married Merston,” and then he began to think how the truth about Sammy’s death would come to light. Eric in his own mind was convinced that the jealous gipsy had shot the poor fellow. Mrs. Bellona’s accusation was not worth considering.

Lighting his pipe, Eric stared out of the port-hole at the water moving and undulating in the moonlight. The opposite shore was a vast marsh whither few people came. And even if he had espied anyone he would have been doubtful whether to call for help. Luke, as Pansey said, was a desperate man, and as he would no doubt be paid largely for the kidnapping, he would not let his prey go without a struggle. Eric privately believed that he would not stop short of murder, provided he could kill expeditiously and without danger to his precious neck.

Looking out thus, Eric thought of Judith, and of his chances of escape. It was more than probable that Lame Dickey would see Mimie as soon as he examined the pigeon-houses in the morning. And probably Mimie would come to him becking and bowing and cooing and bridling after her usual fashion. The paper tied to her leg would at once attract the boy’s attention, and after that all would be well. Lame Dickey was sharp in his own way, and would see to the matter at once. All Eric hoped was, that Mr. Harding would lose no time in sending on the police. Then he would be saved and his kidnappers would be arrested. Eric was loath that this last event should take place, as he thought that the appearance of the two in court might lead to awkward questions. But there was nothing else to be done. Unless the police came in force, Luke and his accomplice had too much at stake to yield.

After a time Eric grew tired, and lay down on the bed dressed as he was. He kept his knife beside him, lest Mr. Tyler should take a fancy to carve his face. Outside he could hear the brute growling, as he settled near the door to guard it for the night. Baker laughed, and soon fell asleep. He did not dream on this occasion for the strain on him was so great that he slept—as the saying goes—like  a top.

The dawn was red when he awoke, and through the port-hole, Eric saw the glories of the rising sun. The air blew chill and nippy, and he could hear the carols of innumerable larks. What he should have liked would be to plunge into the cold, smoothly flowing waters of the river. He felt dull and depressed for want of exercise, and cramped as he was in the narrow cabin, longed for some wide common on which to stretch his legs. The morning was very beautiful, and, as the sun rose, promised to be hot. On board the barge all was quiet. Not a sound could he hear. Of some food left over night Eric made a meal, and then lighted his pipe. He sat possessed, his soul in silence, until such time as rescue should come to him. That it would come Eric never doubted.

Shortly after nine o’clock Pansey brought him a cup of coffee and a rasher of bacon. She still looked tearful, and when he thanked her, stood staring at him.

“What is it, Pansey?” asked Eric kindly.

She laid her finger on her lips, and glanced towards the door. “Don’t speak too loud. They’ll hear,” she said. “I say, I wish I could let you go. It is a shame that such a plucked one as you should be taken to the mountains. They’ll kill you there.”

“Oh no, they won’t,” replied Eric calmly, “I shall win the affection of a tribe and become a real Romany Rye.”

“If I were queen you certainly would. I wish I could help you.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“I daren’t,” she said crying. “Jerry’s that jealous of you he’d knife me, if I did. And they’re outside with the pistols.”

“Tell me, Pansey, do you like Jerry?”

“No, I hate him. I’m feared of him.”

“Then why marry him?”

“Father makes me,” she said dolefully; “he’s such a terrible man; ah, you don’t know how terrible. He was in Australia.”

“Ah,” said Eric remembering when he had accused Mr. Tyler of this, “I don’t forget how he called me cornstalk. Melbourne side?”

Pansey nodded. “I was only a child. Father was what you call a cockatoo—a small farmer. Then he nearly killed a man and the police were after him. He took to the bush.”

“And used these magic words: ‘Bail up!’”

Pansey nodded again. “I never knew,” she said, “but I believe he did do a bit of bushranging, and that Mrs. Bellona found it out in some way. That’s why she made him do this job. She promised him money as well, but she bullied him into it.”

“I should think he was only too willing to be bullied,” said Eric dryly; “your papa is a born buccaneer. However he’s playing a risky game this time. So you can’t help me.”

“I daren’t,” said Pansey shaking her head. Then she went to take down the pigeon cage. “Oh,” she uttered a cry, “it’s gone!”

“What’s that, Pansey?” cried Luke gruffly outside the door.

Eric and the girl looked at one another. He laid his finger on his lips, and pointing to the cage shook his head. Pansey took the hint and replied in her usual saucy way. “Nothin’ to do with you, father, I hit my finger that’s all.”

“Thought the cove was kissin’ you,” growled the voice without. “If he does, Jerry ’ull punch his head. And don’t let me set eyes on him that’s all.”

“Where is Mimie?” whispered Pansey quickly.

“I let her go.”

“Then she must have flown back to Lame Dickey’s. They’ll know that something is wrong. Mimie is the kind of bird that carries—oh!”

“Don’t betray me, Pansey,” said Eric seeing that she guessed all.

“No I shan’t. And you a plucked one. I don’t care if father and Jerry’s both tooked. I’ve had more than enough of them. You keep quiet, I shan’t split. Will the—”

“Pansey you cat, don’t stand jawing there—!”

“I must go,” said the girl and flitted away. Eric breathed more freely now that he knew she would not betray him. Not that it mattered much, as the police were bound to arrive. But he thought that if Luke learned the trick he might use his pistol in a fit of rage at being disappointed.

But his trouble was not yet over. When ten o’clock came, the two men entered the cabin.

Jerry carried a jug of beer, and Luke flourished his revolver. Eric, who had his knife in his pocket, slipped down his hand and kept his finger on the spring. “What’s up now?”

“We are,” shouted Tyler with rough jocularity. “We’ve brought you a can of the right stuff, and want you to drink.”

“Drink our healths,” said Jerry foaming a cup.

“Not if I know it,” said Eric imperturbably.

“Why not?” cried Luke threateningly. “Too fine, eh?”

“I don’t intend to touch that beer. It’s drugged.”

“Well then, it is,” cried Luke. “We’ve got to keep you quiet on the way to St. Guthlac’s, and we start in an hour. Drink you—adjective.”

“No,” shouted Eric, “keep off!” Luke recoiled before the gleaming knife for Eric touched the spring and whipped out the weapon the moment the man made the jump.

“Here, Jerry, collar him,” yelled Tyler mad with rage.

Eric gave a cry. His quick ears had caught the dip of oars. “You’d better look out yourselves,” he said, “here are the police.”

“It’s a lie,” cried Luke, but all the same he bolted for the door, followed by Jerry who likewise had heard the sound. Eric sauntered after them in a leisurely manner with his hands in his pockets. He jumped on deck, and beheld two boats approaching filled with police. In one was Mr. Harding, and by this time Luke and Jerry were tearing up the lane, no doubt no their way to hide in the vault till the danger was over.

But the police were too clever for the rogues. A second body of men advanced at the double through the village green, and in a trice the scamps were seized. Eric, hat in hand, welcomed Mr. Harding. “Just in time, Uncle James,” said he.

Chapter 27
Eric’s Birthright

There was no longer any chance of keeping matters quiet. By noon all Moncaster knew that Eric Baker had been kidnapped, and held in durance by the gipsies. On the way back Eric talked over the matter with Harding, to see if it could not be treated as lightly as possible. Both were anxious to suppress any revelation of Mrs. Bellona’s wrong-doing, for the sake of Julian and Judith.

“Can’t you proceed against them, for common assault?” said Harding.

“I don’t see why I should not. But we must have a friend in court.”

Harding nodded. “The chief Inspector here is a friend of mine. I’ll talk to him.”

“Then there’s Merston’s death to be considered.”

“Merston dead?” Harding stared. “You don’t mean to say he did not elope with that girl?”

“Yes I do. Pansey has been keeping out of the way to lend colour to the report, which I believe is of papa’s invention. Merston was in love with the girl, as you know, and went to seek her on that night. Jerry I presume grew jealous, and shot him, or else,” added Eric in a doubtful tone, “he was shot in mistake for me.”

“Were you at Old Dexleigh on that night?”

“Yes. I went to see Mother Mandarin.”

“Ah! By the way that old woman wants you. She has something to reveal.”

“As she is now dying—or very nearly so—I expect she will tell the truth. Well, as soon as I get these things somewhat settled, I’ll go and take Father Prue with me.”

“Is she a Romanist?” asked Uncle James.

“No. But he is the family confessor, and I would rather she confessed to him and to me, than to a strange clergyman. And he can give her peace, if only in an unofficial way.”

“She should have a proper clergyman,” said Harding, who was devoted to the Anglican form of worship.

“Well,” Eric shrugged his shoulders, “we all worship the same God. I don’t think it matters either one way or the other. However I’ll see what can be done. But this death of Merston may complicate matters.

“I can see that, Eric. We must be cautious.”

Harding looked much older than when Eric had seen him last, and had a haggard expression. The discovery of Julian’s wickedness, and of Mrs. Bellona’s evil ways, had aged him. Moreover, in spite of Julian having behaved so badly, Harding was fond of the boy he had brought up. But Julian was missing, and it was impossible to say where he was. Harding questioned Eric.

“Do those men know?”

“They deny knowing his whereabouts,” said Eric after a pause, “but I shrewdly suspect that they do know. My only fear is lest Julian should have met with Merston’s fate. As he was Tyler’s employer, if merely a mistake in capture had been made, it would have been rectified by this time.”

Harding said nothing but drooped his head. He almost wished that Julian was dead, as should he be alive, there was every chance that his shady transactions might come to light, and then the family name would be disgraced. Looking at Eric’s bright handsome face, Uncle James sighed to think that Julian was not so upright and honourable. His father Richard had been just such a one as this splendid young man.

In due course Eric notified his adventures to the Inspector. For the sake of the family credit he was obliged to put things delicately. It was not exactly lying, but a slight evasion of the truth. Eric was an upright young man and hated deviating from the straight path, but in this case he could hardly help himself. Many a man would have justified his action by quoting the Jesuit motto, but Baker could not bring himself to do that.

“I shall only charge these men with common assault,” he explained to Mr. Cairns, the Inspector. “I went to see an old woman two days ago—”

“Mother Mandarin. Do you know anything about her?” demanded the Inspector in his abrupt military manner.

“I know a little, but what I do know does not bring her within scope of the law, Mr. Inspector. You don’t want to arrest her I hope?”

“I should have arrested her long ago as a vagrant,” retorted the officer, “and I tried to do so. But she showed conclusively that she was a pensioner of Mrs. Bellona’s to the extent of ten shillings a week, so I could do nothing as she had means of support. Also, Mrs. Bellona spoke to me on her behalf, so I let the matter drop.”

“Well then,” continued Eric rather relieved. “I went to take her some wine as the poor creature was ill. These men seized me, and concealed me in a vault. Afterwards they transferred me to their barge. I think it was simply done for the sake of gain.”

“A kind of blackmail?”

“Something of that sort. For the sake of Pansey, who is a good girl, I don’t want to be too hard on the men. One is her father the other her lover.”

The Inspector thought for a few minutes. “It’s all more or less in your own hands, Mr. Baker,” he said at length. “I daresay if you do not press the charge the magistrates will deal lightly with these two rascals. But they deserve to be richly punished.”

“I quite agree with you,” assented Eric, “and I think they will be.

“By their own consciences,” said Cairns with a grim smile.

“No, by you and by the law. Do you remember a rumour that Mr. Merston had eloped with the girl Pansey.”

“Yes. His mother came to see me about it.”

“I have now to tell you,” said Baker, “that he did not elope. In the vault where I was confined I found the man’s body.”

Cairns startled out of his official phlegm, rose. “Do you mean to say that Mr. Merston has been murdered?” he asked.

“I say nothing,” replied Eric quietly. “All I do say, is that his body is lying in that vault.”

“And where is the vault?” said Cairns rubbing his hands, for he foresaw a stirring case and wished to advance his professional status. Baker shook his head. “I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I was carried there blindfold, and when taken out they drugged me. But I am sure of one thing, that the vault is not under the church.”

“Yet vaults usually are.”

“Not this one. I believe Old Dexleigh had some religious community residing within its precincts in the Middle Aces. Where they hid me was a crypt near the river. I could hear the lapping of the water. I daresay it was made by some monkish rascals in the bad old days.”

“Well,” said Cairns with a twinkle, “we’ll have a look at their work. Tyler and Jerry will have to reveal the secret of the vault. But bad old monks, Mr. Baker? I thought you were a Romanist.”

“Quite so. But I am not narrow-minded. When do you think these men will be brought to trial?”

“Not to trial, Mr. Baker. Before the magistrates. Oh, to-morrow, most probably. But the first thing we have to do, is to give notice to Lady Merston and search for the vault. That must be put right first. The charge you bring against them will be dismissed lightly enough, Mr. Baker, but this graver chance will create a wider sensation.”

Eric thought so too, and very uncomfortable he felt over the matter. However, now that he had told, there was nothing to be done. Lady Merston was informed, and naturally could not keep the matter to herself. All the gossips of the city swarmed around her, and great was the sympathy and comforting she received. By next morning, everyone was talking of the murder—as it now came to be called—and Matty Dame, flew from house to house, scattering news, and creating fresh panic. Cairns took the two men, and with a squad of police went to search for the vault. Luke and Jerry preserved a sullen silence. As to Pansey, after the capture of her father and lover, she had disappeared. This was about the wisest thing she could do.

At first Luke refused to reveal the whereabouts of the vault, and denied that there was any body therein. But Cairns who had his own methods of making silent men speak, managed to get the truth out of him in Old Dexleigh churchyard. Luke confessed that there was a vault, that Merston’s corpse lay therein, but also professed that he did not know who killed the man, “Jerry and me found him in the churchyard,” he said sullenly, “and afraid lest we should get into bloomin’ rows, hid it. You perlice are always too glad to hook a cove. But he was as dead as dead when we found him.”

“We’ll see about that. You carry a pistol my man, and Mr. Merston, as Mr. Baker says, was shot.”

“Not by me. What should I shoot him for?”

“Here,” said Cairns peremptorily, “hold your tongue. You’ll have quite enough to do to defend yourself in the dock.”

“I ain’t goin’ to be put in no dock.”

“Yes you are. And what you say now will be used in evidence against you, so be advised and be silent. Show us the entrance to this vault.”

Tyler seeing there was no hope for it, had to do what he was told, and did so with language that made everyone shudder. Eric did not hear this pretty exhibition of wits. He had not accompanied the party to Old Dexleigh. With Mr. Harding, in the house of the latter, he was conversing with Uncle Wilfred; and in the presence of the three gentlemen was seated a hard-faced woman who gave her name as Jane Tresham. This was the first nurse of Eric, upon whose evidence depended a great deal. Uncle Wilfred had found her, and related his cleverness to Eric with great pride. He was now almost a man, and for the first time in his weak life, had stood up like one.

“I went back to Rayner,” he explained, when he and Eric came together for the first time this visit, “and I found him in a great state. I said, that I had just gone to London on business. I don’t believe he thought I was speaking the truth, and as good as told me I was a liar. But I would say nothing, and he had to leave me alone. Then when we were talking over the port, I said how I hated you, and that I knew you wished to prove your birthright. Rayner said that as long as Jane Tresham kept quiet you could never do that and she was well paid. Then he said she was dangerous.”

“How dangerous, if she was well-paid?” asked Eric.

“Ah,” said Blundel, cunningly, “she did not think she was paid enough. She had been writing threatening letters to Mrs. Bellona saying that she knew you were in England, and would split if she was not paid an extortionate sum.”

“Ah!” said Eric to himself, “I now see why Mrs. Bellona wanted me kidnapped. She was afraid that Jane would tell me the truth, but choose to put the blame on Judith. What a thoroughly bad woman she is.”

“Well, Eric,” said Blundel wondering what his nephew was muttering about, “I asked where Jane was. Rayner never thought for a moment that I was on your side. He told me, and suggested that I should see her, and make her my housekeeper, so as to make her hold her peace. I jumped at the chance, saying it was better that such a woman should be under my own eye.” Eric could not suppress a smile at this, and Blundel looked nettled. “Oh you may laugh, Eric, but I assure you, Rayner thought I was quite capable of looking after the woman. And I was—I am now.”

“I beg your pardon, uncle. Go on.”

“Well then I went to see Jane, with the permission of Rayner.”

“Didn’t he come with you?”

“No, I said I would go myself, and he saw I was determined,” added the squire with a gleam in his watery eye, “so I went. I told her that you knew, and that it only remained for her to make the best market she could. She haggled for a time, but ultimately she came with me, and I brought her down at once, so that the matter should come into your hands. I have done my best,” added Blundel pathetically, “but I know I’m not capable of managing everything.”

“You have done excellently, uncle, and deserve the greatest credit for the way in which you have managed Rayner. Your effort to play the man is most successful.”

Blundel was pleased with Eric’s praise. “Oh, I did more than that, my dear Eric,” said he, “on the way through town before I went down to see Rayner, I called on Mrs. Cadowan, and had a talk. When I passed through again with Jane, I called once more. Judith was there and she told me that she was your wife.”

“It is true,” replied Eric, “we were married after I left your place, for the purpose of stopping the pranks of Mrs. Bellona.”

“I am glad too of it. You have a charming wife,” said Blundel shaking Eric by the hand, “and by Jove, sir, I’m going to alter my will, and leave you and Judith the Hall.”

Eric thanked his uncle for this good intention, although he thought that no persuasion would induce him and Judith to live in that extremely damp locality. “What did you say to Judith?” he asked.

“I told her everything, and how I had Jane with me. She then said that she would get Father Dormer and Hortense. I knew they lived in Rouen, as I got the address from Rayner. She and Mrs. Cadowan crossed the Channel this morning. They will return with the two, then everything will be right.”

“Why, uncle, this is splendid,” said Eric wringing his hand, “you have indeed been a good friend. And how good of Judith and her aunt. I have a strong force to back me up.”

“We’ll see you right,” said Blundel valiantly, “never fear. It is only right that you should take your proper place as my nephew. We have been in Essex for centuries.”

Decidedly Blundel was becoming stronger when he could talk in this way. But he had not yet got over his fear of Mrs. Bellona, whom he dreaded the most. He clung to Eric like a leech, and when the two escorted Jane to Harding’s house, Blundel was not at peace until he entered the doors. At the corner of every street he expected to drop across the woman who had taken all the manhood out of him. Eric privately thought that the poor soul would never be the man he wished to be. However, there was no doubt that what he had done was truly wonderful for one of his weak brain and will.

Thus it came about, that Jane Tresham found herself facing a council of three. Her hard face was absolutely stolid. Not even when she saw the baby she had nursed, now grown into a fine young man, did she display any emotion. Jane looked upon Eric as something to make money out of, and was prepared to extract the last penny. Harding, as the master of the house, constituted himself spokesman.

“Well, Miss Tresham,” said he, “what have you to confess about this scandalous business?”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” replied Jane, in a voice as hard as her mouth; “my name is Mrs. Tresham, I married a cousin. And if you please, Mr. Harding, I don’t like the word confession. I have done nothing wrong.”

The three gentlemen stared at one another. This assurance was almost too much for them. “I don’t know what moral standard you set up in your mind,” said Harding sharply, “but by the rules of society, you have acted shamefully.”

Jane stood up, and her obstinate mouth became firm. “In that case I had better go. I did not come here to be insulted. I am a Christian woman and I know my Bible and—”

“See here, Mrs. Tresham,” cut in Eric, “we are not here to talk of your religious beliefs, but to hear your story.”

Mrs. Tresham cast a pitying glance at the young man. “A Romanist I believe,” she said, shaking her head. “You are in bondage to the Scarlet Woman.” Then she changed her tone quite suddenly, and became quite business-like. “What am I to have for this?”

Harding was about to say “Nothing!” but Eric stopped him. He saw the dour temper of the woman he had to deal with, and thought it was not wise to put her into a corner. Mrs. Tresham was quite obstinate enough to hold her tongue if she received no recompense. “You shall have three hundred pounds,” said Eric.

“Not enough,” snapped Mrs. Tresham.

“Well, if you don’t choose to accept that, which is more than you deserve, you will be indicted for conspiracy.”

“You can’t hurt me in any way. I am a chapel member and a consistent member of our communion.”

“I fear the law will not take account of that,” said Harding. “Were I my nephew, I would give you nothing. As it is, and for the sake of keeping this scandalous matter out of the courts, I agree to the three hundred pounds being wasted on you.”

“I want more,” said Mrs. Tresham doggedly.

“You shan’t have more,” said Eric. “If you don’t state the whole of the facts you know, which my uncle will take down, and which you will sign, I shall have you arrested as soon as you step into the street. I have only to call a policeman.”

“I will have an action against you for false imprisonment then.”

“I’ll take the risk of that. Sit down, woman, and speak out.”

Mrs. Tresham’s hands moved uneasily under her shawl. She was a respected member of the community she belonged to, and were she arrested she would be disgraced. Sister This and Brother That would not speak to her, and prayers would be offered up for her backsliding. On the whole, much as Mrs. Tresham grudged parting with her knowledge at so low a figure, she deemed discretion the better part of valour and resumed her seat with a bang. “It well becomes you three gentlemen to worry a defenceless woman,” she said viperishly.

“I think I’ll take down her words, Uncle James,” said Eric, arranging a sheet of paper, “you can question her.”

“Quite like a police court,” sneered Mrs. Tresham, quivering with indignation.

“Where you ought to be,” cried Blundel angrily.

“Oh,” said the woman insolently, “we all know about you. ‘Softy’ we called you at the Hall.”

Harding stopped Blundel from entering into an unseemly argument, and tapped on the table. “Now, Mrs. Tresham, you were nurse to the late Mrs. Walter Harding.”

“Thirty years ago, sir,” said the woman suddenly becoming polite.

“You were present when her child was born.”

“I was. It was a boy. She died soon afterwards. I was with her when she died, and so was Mrs. Spain.”

“Was Mrs. Bellona?”

“No. Mrs. Bellona entered the room, but her presence so agitated Mrs. Harding, that the priest who was then administering the rites of the Scarlet Woman,” Mrs. Tresham shook her head venomously, “Father Dormer that was, turned her out of the room. I took the child away with me, and left Mrs. Harding to die in such peace as she could.”

“Don’t you talk about my mother like that, you shameless creature,” cried Eric. “It will be the worse for you, if you do. Does not your religion teach you to have mercy—to speak no ill of the dead?”

“My religion,” said Mrs. Tresham, primly folding her hands on her lap, “teaches me to have no communication with heathens and publicans.”

“The child was well and healthy?” continued Harding hastily.

“Yes. Mrs. Bellona was sorry, as she wanted the child to die. She came to me immediately after the death, and told me that she wanted some one else to inherit the money of Mr. Harding—I did not know how much at the time—and asked me to say that the child was still-born. Father Dormer had gone away after seeing to Mrs. Harding, and was not aware of anything. He shortly went to France, where Mrs. Bellona sent him I believe. But I don’t think he knows of our transaction.”

“What was the transaction?”

“Why, Mrs. Bellona asked me to take the child away, and to bring it back as Mr. Baker’s. He had married the other sister, and had gone to Africa. When I had arranged my terms, I took the child away. It was given out that Mrs. Harding’s baby was still-born, and was buried in the same coffin as the mother.”

“What did the doctor say to all this?”

“Oh, he was a drunken fool, under the thumb of Mrs. Bellona—like other people,” said Mrs. Tresham, with a scornful glance at Blundel.

“Is he alive?”

“No. He died of drink before the year was out. I don’t think he said anything to anyone, as he was too much afraid of Mrs. Bellona.”

“And he gave a certificate of death?”

“Yes. I went away, and came back in six months with the child. It was said to be the child of Mr. and Mrs. Baker, and by that time they had both died. The news of their death, and the coming of you,” she pointed at Eric, “into the house as their child, happened in the same month.”

“And you can swear that Eric Baker is really Eric Harding?”

“Yes, I can. I’ll swear in any court of law.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Mrs. Bellona dismissed her,” said Blundel.

“She never did,” cried Mrs. Tresham, with a furious glance. “Clever as she was I was clever also. I wished to marry my cousin. She paid me an annuity of fifty pounds a year. I have lived on that ever since, and I am the most respected member of my community.”

“Ah, they don’t know you as you are,” said Harding scathingly. “Why did you threaten Mrs. Bellona lately?”

“I wanted more money,” said Mrs. Tresham sullenly. “My second daughter was about to be married, and I desired her marriage portion. Mrs. Bellona refused, and I said I would tell this young man.”

“How did you know where I was?”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Tresham coolly, “I have kept my eye on you ever since you passed from my charge into that of the French hussy. One does not let the goose with the golden eggs fly away.”

“You’ve had the last egg the goose has laid,” said Eric blotting the paper. “Here, sign this.”

“Not till I get my cheque.”

“I’ll give it to her,” said Harding, knowing Eric as yet was not rich. “You can repay me when you get the money.”

Mrs. Tresham groaned as she signed, feeling that she had indeed killed the golden goose. However she made no further objections as soon as the cheque was safely bestowed in her purse and stood up to go. The document had been duly signed and witnessed, so there remained nothing to be done. Eric’s identity with the child of Walter Harding and his wife was fully established.

“I go now, gentlemen,” said Mrs. Tresham looking very grim and dry. “I hope the young gentleman will make good use of this money. Remember the poor heathen,” she said shaking her head; and backing her opinion by a text or two, Mrs. Tresham departed leaving two tracts behind her. One of these was for Blundel, and bore the alluring title, “Sin in the bottle.”

Chapter 28
A Mystery Solved

Pending the arrival of Judith and Mrs. Cadowan with the further proofs of his birth, Eric found plenty to do in attending to the matter of the arrest. As soon as she heard the news, Mrs. Bellona had gone to town on the excuse that she wanted to see her daughter. But Eric shrewdly suspected that she was afraid as to what the men might say in court when questioned, especially about the death of Merston. Had it only been the kidnapping, Mrs. Bellona might have stood her ground and have traded on Eric’s generosity and connection with Judith. But the matter of the murder was serious, and all the money in the world would not keep Luke or Jerry silent when their necks were in danger.

But Mrs. Bellona left her sting behind her. Whether she had said it, or whether the rumour had arisen in one of those strange ways in which rumours do rise, no one knew, but it was suddenly repeated from mouth to mouth that Eric had shot Merston. No motive was given, and it was the absence of any assigned motive that made Eric suspect the tongue of Mrs. Bellona. At first he paid no attention to the rumour, but he soon begun to find it highly unpleasant to be looked at askance, and to be pointed at as a probable criminal. He was glad that Judith was away from Moncaster, as she would have felt the position keenly.

Taking the bull by the horns as he always did, Eric went to the Inspector, and detailed the whole of the family history. He also narrated how he had traced Julian to Old Dexleigh, and what he suspected had occurred between him and the jealous Jerry. Cairns heard the strange recital quietly, and did not interrupt. When Eric finished he shook his head.

“You have done very wrong to keep all this concealed, Mr. Baker,” he said in a most official voice. “You should have told the police of your suspicions.”

“They would not have done any good,” said Eric quietly. “You could have done no more than I did. And let me remind you, sir, that both my uncle and myself are anxious to prevent this painful family history from coming into court.”

“It is unpleasant,” said Cairns, “but I don’t see how you are to keep it out. The murder must be gone into.”

“I don’t think the murder has anything to do with our family matters. Merston went up to see Pansey, and Jerry killed him out of jealousy. Can’t you make it a love quarrel?”

“That depends upon what Jerry says. He may set up some defence. I wish we could find the girl.”

Eric hesitated, and looked down. “There is one chance that she may turn up,” he said with a flush. “She took rather a fancy to me, and said that she desired to help me. Now if she hears this rumour of my being accused of the crime, it is just possible that she may come to put matters right.”

“And accuse her lover. That’s doubtful.”

“She doesn’t like Jerry. However, that’s the only thing I can see.”

Cairns pulled his moustache. “I tell you what, Mr. Baker, or should I say Harding?”

“Call me Baker at present,” said Eric impatiently. “I shall take my true name when I claim the money.”

“Well then, Mr. Baker, I’ll do my best to keep this matter out of the papers. I can see that it is painful, especially to your wife. I had no idea that Mrs. Bellona was a woman of this sort.”

“I think her mind has become warped by hungering for this money,” said Eric.

“And I, on the contrary,” said Cairns dryly, “believe she was a really bad woman from the first. What about Mother Mandarin?”

“Mrs. Spain? Oh, let her alone. She has done nothing.”

“But she may be able to tell a lot,” said Cairns. “However we’ll go on with what we have. Will you be in court to-day?”

“Certainly. I want to see my character cleared.”

“I hope you won’t have a bad time,” said Cairns shaking his head again. “People are prejudiced.”

“People are a lot of idiots,” retorted Eric with heat. “I have faced a mob in Tarapaca, and I don’t care two cents for the crowd here.”

The Inspector nodded, and after hearing the hour when Tyler and his accomplice would be brought before the magistrates, Eric strolled out. Ferris was waiting for him, and beckoned to him the moment he appeared. “Come at once to my rooms,” he said quickly. “Some one is waiting to see you.”

“Judith?” asked Eric, then without waiting for a reply he walked on so quickly as to outdistance the little man. He was hungry to see the sweet face of his wife again, and to receive solace from her dear lips. He ran up the stairs three at a time, and burst into the sitting-room like a tornado. Pansey rose to receive him.

“Oh, it’s you,” said Eric halting, and looking visibly disappointed.

“Yes,” said Pansey in a low voice. “Things have come to a nice pass ain’t they, sir. Here’s father and Jerry in trouble. You won’t press your charge will you, Mr. Baker?”

“No. They’ll get off lightly on that score. It will only be a case of common assault. But the murder—”

“Ah!” said Pansey eagerly, “that’s what’s brought me out. I was hid up in Lame Dickey’s pigeon-loft, I was. When the peelers got father, I tumbled off sharp. Only the talk of you killing Julian would have brought me here.”

“And you came to see me on the matter?” asked Eric, drawing out a chair for her.

Pansey nodded. “You’re such a good cove,” she said with bright eyes. “I couldn’t let you swing for such as him.”

“There isn’t the least chance of my swinging, my dear girl. So you have changed your mind about my having shot Merston?”

“Yes. I was told to say that.”

“By Mrs. Bellona?”

“Yes. She got to know that Sammy was dead. I think father told her. When she found that you were about on the night he was killed, she said it would be a good thing to accuse you. You see, Rye,” said Pansey with simplicity, “we didn’t know if we’d be able to nab you, as you were that sharp.”

“It was owing to you that I was nabbed, Pansey.”

“Yes. And jolly sorry I am that I did so. But I’ve come to make it up, and tell the truth. When’s father and Jerry up before the beak? This morning ain’t it?”

“Yes. In about half-an-hour.”

“Well then I’ll be there. If they say you killed Sammy I’ll let out the truth. There’s my hand on it,” said Pansey frankly extending an arm.

Eric shook her hand. “Thank you, Pansey, you’re a good sort,” he said in her own vernacular, “I thought so from the time we parted at the cross-roads long ago.”

“And it is long ago,” said Pansey with a sigh, “tho’ it ain’t nothing so far as time goes. I’ll cut to the court,” she said springing to her feet in the most abrupt manner.

“Wait, Pansey. You have not told me who killed Merston?”

“No,” she plumped down again, “I forgot; why it was Julian.”

“Julian,” repeated Eric rising with some agitation, “are you sure?”

“As sure as I am that he bolted to avoid trouble,” said Pansey.

“But I thought Jerry—”

“No, it wasn’t Jerry. Your shot skinned Jerry’s arm, and he dropped howling. I never saw such a fool. Not like you, Rye,” and Pansey looked at her hero with shining eyes, “you’re a dimber-cove.”

Eric nodded absently. He was wondering how Julian came to be about the church on the Friday night when he had arrived in Old Dexleigh on the previous evening. It occurred to him that to shield her lover, Pansey was telling a lie. He half hinted this. The girl started up indignantly.

“I ain’t telling whoppers,” she cried. “Julian did kill the cove. Sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Can you prove this?” asked Eric sitting.

“In his own hand-writing,” said Pansey, and took a letter from her pocket which she shook in Eric’s face.

“Whose letter is that?” he asked stretching out his hand.

But Pansey put it behind her back. “No you don’t, Rye,” she said with a cunning look. “Julian wrote this when he cleared out for me to give to the old man that he might have money to cut.”

“Do you mean his uncle, James Harding?”

“Yes! That’s the cove. But I didn’t deliver it, as I thought the old joker might ask questions.”

“Where is Julian now?”

“I dunno, and I don’t much care. But I’m going to give this letter to the old cove in court—”

“To Harding?” asked Eric quickly.

“No. To the beak. It ’ull show as you weren’t on the job and that Jerry nor father didn’t have nothing to do with it. They can hang up Julian if they like.”

“No.” Eric started to his feet with a cry, “don’t talk like that.”

“Well, I ain’t going to let you, or Jerry, or father swing for what he did. He killed Sammy right enough.”

“Was it deliberate murder?”

“No, Sammy brought it on himself by rushing like a bull at the gate.”

Eric breathed again. This was not so bad as he expected.

“Sit down again, Pansey, and tell me how you expected Julian to be there on Friday night. He must have had some reason to stop so long.”

Pansey grinned, “You spot that do you?” she said. “My eye, you are a fly cove, you are. It was this way,” she continued with her elbows on her knees, and leaning forward confidentially. “Father intended to collar you and take all the cash. He swore—and you know how father can swear—he swore that he wouldn’t give Jerry nor me one tizzy. Me and Jerry cut up rough, as we wanted to get married.”

“But I thought you hated Jerry,” said Eric suspiciously.

“So I do,” said the girl petulantly, “he’s a brute. But if I go and be anyone else’s rani, he’d cut my throat as soon as look at me. I have to marry him, worse luck, so I thought I might as well get some money to sweeten things a bit.”

“And you proposed to get it out of Julian.”

Pansey nodded. “But, Lord bless you, he wouldn’t part. He gave me a brooch and nothing else. I asked him to give me and Jerry a heap that we might go to Spain.”

“What do you call a heap?”

“Well,” drawled Pansey putting a lock of loose hair into her mouth and staring at the carpet, “a thousand quid.”

“And Julian refused this modest demand.”

“Yes he did—the miser. Never saw such a miser-cove. I was always after him for the cash, and that made Sammy jealous.”

“Poor Sammy,” said Eric, you treated him badly.

“It was his own fault,” said Pansey sulkily, “he shouldn’t have come after me. I never asked him to. But as I say, the miser-cove wouldn’t part, and me and Jerry grew mad.”

“I suppose you threatened to split.”

“Oh no we didn’t, that was the first notion. But Jerry got a better sort o’ one. You see, Julian was paying father, and was to get the money when you were put away. Well then as Julian was goin’ to collar you, we thought as we’d collar him.”

“I see. A case of the biter bit. You wished to hold him to ransom.”

Pansey rose and began to dance about the room. “That was the idea—and a sweet one it was. I, say, Rye, what a soft carpet—soft as Sammy’s head was.”

“Don’t play the fool,” said Eric jarred by this reference to the dead, “sit down and go on with the story.”

“Oh you can see how it came round. Julian gave you the message—”

Eric corrected her. “The lying message from Mother Mandarin.”

Pansey grinned and nodded. “It was a whopper, wasn’t it,” she said calmly; “you were to come up the next night and father was to nab you. Julian went up to London-town, and got out at Marby to come along and see father and tell.”

“But father was lying drunk in the ‘Three Bishops’ that night.”

“Julian didn’t know as he was,” retorted Pansey, “he thought father had gone up stream with Jerry and me. But he hadn’t. Jerry and me were alone when Julian biked from Water-cross.”

Eric thought for a moment or two, and took a turn up and down the room. The girl was telling her story plainly enough, and he saw no reason to doubt her. “Was Julian in the habit of using the road through Water-cross?”

“Twice he used it, and came on a bike,” said Pansey, admiring her looks in a near mirror, “you see if there was a row, he didn’t want any cove to know as he was in with us low lot. He kept the bike in—”

“Yes! yes!” Eric recalled his exploration. “I know all that!”

“Strikes me, mister, there ain’t nothing you don’t know. Well Julian came that night and swore awful when he found father wasn’t up to dick. Then Jerry and me asked him to have a drink, and—” Pansey grinned and nodded significantly.

“I see,” said Eric understanding the pantomime. “It was doctored as my wine was drugged.”

“You can lay hold of that,” said Pansey impudently, and began to whistle, until Eric pulled her up short and she condescended to go on with her tale. “We put him in the vault, and then told him when he came round the next day—”

“Wait. Did he not revive before that?”

“No. The drink, whatever it is, and Mother Mandarin knows how to make it prime, keeps any cove asleep for twenty-four hours. Just as you did, Julian slept round the clock. He dropped off on Thursday and woke up on Friday. Then me and Jerry and him had a talk. He agreed to our terms, and we took him up into the church.”

“You let him go free. How did you know he’d not have you up?”

Pansey made a face. “We knew too much for him. No. He agreed to give us money as well as father, rather than stop in the vault, so we got a paper from him, he signed it, and we took him out. Jerry stopped behind to stow the paper away in a hole we keep for such things, for we dursn’t trust it on the barge with father poking an’ prying about. Me and Julian came through the church-yard. Sammy was loafing round, and saw me with someone—”

“Did he know it was Julian?” asked Eric sharply.

“Yes. The moon was out, and it was as clear as day.”

“What time was this?”

“Oh early; before you arrived. I forget the time. But you couldn’t have been there at the time, or you’d have heard Julian shooting.”

“Why in heaven’s name did he shoot Sammy?”

Pansey chewed her tress reflectively. “Well it was all a mistake. Jerry had given me a revolver so that I might frighten Julian in case he tried to bolt. Jerry was below and I kept my eye on Julian. Sammy saw us in the moonlight. Whether Julian knew him I don’t know; he says he didn’t but he’s such a liar. Sammy rushed at Julian calling out something about me, and Julian snatches the revolver out of my hand and lets fly. I don’t think he took any aim. But he hit Sammy under the eye. When we picked him up he was a deader,” and Pansey after informing the horrified Eric of this fact began to hum a tune.

“Don’t, girl,” cried Baker irritably for her callous behaviour was getting on his nerves, although he had none to speak of. “I can see how Sammy was killed, but why did Julian shoot him?”

“It was sheer fright,” said Pansey frankly; “you see we’d frightened him badly in that vault, and he was all shaking when he came into the moonlight. Seeing Sammy rushing like a bull on him, and not knowing it was Sammy—as he says—he thought he was goin’ to be killed and so gets in the first shot.”

“Was Merston armed?”

“No! only had those big fists of his. When Julian found out as he’d killed Sammy he drops down and begins to weep. Jerry and me made the most of it,” said Pansey with a grin.

“You’re a couple of devils,” growled Eric, “what do you mean?”

“Well we saw the chance of getting hold for life of Julian. We told him we’d have to give notice to the police, and he went on his knees to beg we wouldn’t.”

Eric jumped up in a rage. “I don’t like the man,” he said vehemently, “but such treatment. Pansey I should like to kick Jerry and shake you. You’re a bad girl.”

“I’m a fool tellin’ you all this to get you out of trouble and havin’ you round on me,” said she sulkily, “but as you know so much you may as well know all. We said that if Julian cleared, and would send us money we would put the body in the vault, and say nothing. He agreed, he’d have agreed to anything then. We hid the body and were coming up after a long time. Then your row occurred.”

“Who fired on me?”

“Jerry. He guessed it was you, and wanted to wound you so that he could shove you into the vault along with Sammy. You fired back, and then Julian lost his head and ran forward. You scooted down the lane, Julian after you, Jerry after Julian, and me after Jerry. Then you dipped into the river, and we were left.”

“What happened next?”

“We took Julian down to St. Guthlac’s and hid him, and he wrote this letter telling the whole yarn to his uncle. He wants money, and asks the old cove to send it.”

“But by accusing Julian of the murder, you spoilt your own game.”

“He did kill Sammy,” said Pansey, “we didn’t accuse him. But we thought if he went away for a time, and then came back to claim the million when you were out of the way, we’d have him in the hop finely.”

“I see,” said Eric dryly, “you hoped to blackmail the man all his life. What a nice girl you are Pansey. Marry Jerry by all means; you and he are admirably suited to one another. Do you know where Julian is now?”

“He’s cleared out of St. Guthlac’s. I don’t know where he went.”

“Probably abroad.”

“It’s easy enough getting across from St. Guthlac’s to France. He might be there. But his hiding den might be in this letter. I’m off to give it to the beak,” and Pansey ran out of the room. Eric followed at top speed. He wished to stop her from giving it to anyone but Harding. Unluckily in his hurry he tripped on the mat and fell. For a moment or two he was shaken and then rose. But his foot was twisted, and he found that far from going after Pansey to the court he could not get out of the chair into which he had fallen. When Hal returned an hour later, he found Eric’s foot swollen to the size of a football. Eric explained, and his sweet temper quite gone, feverishly demanded if Hal had been in the court.

“I was that,” said Ferris, “and a nice row there was. As you didn’t turn up, the two men were accused of the murder. They denied knowing anything about the body, and Cairns had no witness to call. All at once that gipsy girl came into the court waving a letter. She gave it up to the magistrate. He glanced at the address and said it was for your uncle James Harding. When the letter was handed down, your uncle read it, changing all the colours of the rainbow. Then he cried out ‘Julian! Julian!’ and fell down in a fit. When he was being removed Cairns took up the letter and read it.”

“He had no business to do that,” said Eric angrily, for what, with the pain of the sprain and the anxiety about the position of things, he was pretty well as exasperated as ever he had been in his life.

“Oh Cairns had no sooner read the first word than he read the whole. The magistrate said something about not reading private correspondence, but Pansey came forward and said Julian Harding had given her the letter for his uncle, and it admitted that he—Julian mind you, Eric—killed Sammy.”

“I know—I know—” groaned Baker nursing his foot. “Pansey told me all to-day—in this very room. I was chasing her to prevent her giving that letter when I came a cropper. Well what happened?”

“Oh Pansey’s evidence, and the letter of Julian, and Jerry’s story and Tyler’s talk, cleared the two of the charge. They have been set free on the charge of murder, and have been admitted to bail for the assault on you. Cairns is coming round.”

Even as Ferris spoke the Inspector entered. He heard the reason of Eric’s non-appearance, and sat down to console him. “Thank you, Mr. Ferris, I will take a glass of wine,” said Cairns. “Yes, Mr. Baker, I understand from what was said in the letter and from what the girl said, that Mr. Harding, junior, fired the pistol when mad with fear. He had better come back and stand his trial. We’re sending to St. Guthlac’s for him.”

“Will he be hanged if he is found guilty?”

“No! no! And I expect he’ll plead guilty. It will be manslaughter at the most.”

Chapter 29
A Final Surprise

But Julian Harding never returned to stand his trial. When the police arrived at St. Guthlac’s, they traced him on board a small boat which crossed on occasions to France—a boat that was more than suspected of being concerned in smuggling. The captain admitted frankly that the gentleman—he described Julian exactly—was anxious to get away from England. “And it wasn’t any of my business what he’d done,” said the artful captain with a wink. “He paid well out of a diamond breast pin, as he pawned in the town up there. We set him ashore, Dunkirk way, and he set out into the nowhere with my blessing,” and that was all the captain knew. That Inspector Cairns reprimanded him did not matter in the least to the hardened old sinner. He was accustomed to that sort of thing in his shady dealings with fugitives from justice.

It was discovered that Julian had pawned the diamond scarf-pin as the captain had said. With the proceeds he had gone out into the wide world—had set out for nowhere, as the captain put it picturesquely—and henceforth vanished from the ken of his friends in Moncaster. Julian was not much regretted, as he had never been a popular favourite. People pitied poor Miss Bellona, but when it was discovered that she was the wife of Eric, and that Eric was really the true owner of the million, those who pitied Judith began to change their tune. The whole of the scandal had not come out, and the gossips of Moncaster were yet in doubt as to the real facts.

The assault of Tyler and his friend on Eric was dealt with as soon as Baker was able to come into the court. His foot was still sore, but the swelling had gone down, and Eric wishing to get the matter over as soon as possible, appeared in court before he should have left his chair. The men were let off with a slight fine, and repaid Eric when they left the dock by scowling at him. Only Pansey rushed forward and seized him by the hand.

“You’re a good sort,” she said vehemently, “and I don’t care what father or Jerry say. We’re off to Spain, and I’ll never forget you.”

“Nor I you, Pansey. Good luck to you in your married life.”

Pansey shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, as to that, it’s one and the same to me. Good-bye,” and to the wrath of the court she burst into song. A scandalized policeman turned her promptly out of doors. Eric thought he had seen the last of her, but when he hobbled out on the arm of Ferris, he found her standing on the pavement. She came up at once with a confidential air.”

“I say, Rye,” she whispered, “there’s good news for you. She’s come back. The pretty lady with black hair.”

“Mrs. Bellona?” asked Eric sharply.

“Her image—the daughter.”

“What? My wife?”

“Yes! yes! She came to the station this morning after you left your place. She is waiting there for you.”

“Here,” cried Eric all on fire, “Ferris—Hal get me a cab. Hurry up, Judith is waiting for me—my wife—my wife.”

“Just a moment,” said Pansey, tugging at Eric’s sleeve as he was about to step into the cab. “Mother Mandarin!”

“What of her?”

“She’s dying. She wants to see you—to give you something.”

Eric looked sharply at the girl. “This isn’t another trap is it?”

“No!” said Pansey earnestly, “s’elp me dick it’s as true as true. I like the old woman—she’s been kind to me in her own way. She’s weary to see you. Come, sir,—a cup of cold water to all poor thirsty souls. You won’t deny her that.”

“I’ll come,” said Eric after a moment’s thought, and Pansey with a gratified nod departed, saying he knew he was a plucked ’un.

In a wonderfully short space of time, Eric found himself in Hal’s rooms, and being greeted by Judith. Mrs. Cadowan was also present, and looked with satisfaction on the greeting of husband and wife.

“Oh, Eric, how ill you look,” said Judith struck by the change in him. “You have been having such a bad time, poor darling.”

“It’s all right now that you are here,” he said affectionately, and they sat on the sofa side by side. Mrs. Cadowan chatted to Hal in the meanwhile.

“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Ferris, oh very pleased. Eric—my nephew by marriage you know—has told me how clever you are. Now I adore clever young men. You must show me your music—really. I may be able to help you in London.”

“I stop here, Mrs. Cadowan,” said Hal rejecting the alluring offer.

“Ah! I understand. You are about to follow the example of those two,” and Mrs. Cadowan indicated the sofa with her lorgnette.

“Her name is Miss Matty Dame,” explained Hal with great simplicity, “she is the daughter of a minor canon—Sir David Dame. We are to be married at the end of the year.”

“Well, then, ask me to dance at the wedding,” said Mrs. Cadowan, “my dear Mr. Ferris you are so Arcadian as to be positively refreshing. Now tell me all about the lady.”

While Hal, nothing loath, was proceeding to do this, Judith was listening to the account of Eric. She sat pale and still as he detailed his interview with her mother, and a tear fell on his hand. “Oh, how terrible to have such a mother,” she sobbed. “My dearest would I had been there to share your sorrow.”

“Hush, Judith. All’s well that ends well. But your mother—”

“She will never trouble you again,” said Judith quickly. “When I returned to Ulster Square I found a letter from her. I shall not show it to you, Eric—it is too terrible. But she stated after a great many reproaches, that she was going back to Peru.”

“Ah! she has thought it best to leave the country. Did she say anything about coming back?”

Judith shook her head. “No. She wrote that she had gone for ever and left me her—her—curse,” said Mrs. Harding, with a burst of tears.

Eric caressed her head. “My dear, there is no need to trouble. You have been a good daughter. Her curses will come home to her. God forbid that I should be hard on her. When I get this money I shall allow her an income, and she can live amongst her own people at Cuzco.

“Yes,” assented Judith, drying her eyes; for really Mrs. Bellona was not worth weeping over; “that will be best. And now, Eric, let me tell you all that Aunt Inez and I have done in Rouen. We found the priest, Father Dormer, and also Hortense Durand. They told us all, and have written and signed what they related. Neither one of them knew about the conspiracy. Certainly Father Dormer did not.”

“But I think Hortense did, Judith. Mrs. Bellona allowed her something of a pension.”

“Well, Eric, she has signed a paper saying that she succeeded Jane Tresham as your nurse. Father Dormer gave a copy of your certificate of birth, and then you can get the Government certificate also.”

Eric nodded. “Oh there will not be any difficulty in proving my identity,” he said quietly. “Jane’s confession is enough. I shall see Rayner and put the proofs before him—that is, if he hasn’t run away also. He was in the conspiracy too, you know.”

Before Eric could proceed to speak further, there came a knock at the door, and to the surprise of all, Father Prue entered. He bowed to Mrs. Cadowan and Judith and walked up to Eric. “My son,” he said, “you must come with me to see the woman you know as Mother Mandarin.”

“Have you been to see her, Father Prue?

“Yes. That gipsy girl told me how ill the poor creature was, and I thought it best to see her at once. I went to-day, and she is longing for you. Why have you not been?”

“I hurt my foot, Father Prue,” said Eric, looking at his bandaged limb, “but I will come now.”

“Are you fit to go?” said Judith, hastily.

“He must go,” said Father Prue, who was somewhat moved out of his usual self. “Mrs. Spain (you know she is Mrs. Spain) has a paper to give into your hands. She refused to part with it to me, so I came to bring you to her bedside. The doctor has seen her. He says she will not live out the day. I have a carriage waiting below.”

Eric rose. “Help me down, Judith,” he said, “I’ll go at once. Hal give me my overcoat—my hat. Judith, you will come also.”

“No,” interposed Father Prue, motioning her back, “only Mr. Baker must come. Mrs. Spain wants to see him alone.”

“But I say,” said Ferris, “Eric got into trouble there before, and now that he is rather helpless—”

The priest turned imperiously on the little man. “Do you think I am setting a trap for him?” he said sternly. “Eric trust me and come, or say you doubt me and remain.”

“I will come with you alone,” said Eric promptly. “Why should I not trust you, father? You have always been kind to me.”

“Not always,” murmured the priest, and passed down the stairs.

By this time Judith knew her husband sufficiently well to be certain that when he had once made up his mind to a certain course that nothing would cause him to deviate therefrom. She therefore helped him on silently with his hat and coat, and gave him his cane. Mrs. Cadowan promised to look after her, and Ferris aided Eric to go down the stairs. At the door Eric looked back.

“Mind you are not to worry, Judith,” he said in a commanding tone. “I shall return in three or four hours.”

“I will be as brave as—you are,” said Judith, smiling. I am never fearful for you, Eric. Heroes don’t get into trouble.”

“So far as I have been informed,” said Mrs. Cadowan, looking out of the window, “heroes are always in trouble. It is their duty to be in trouble. Dear me, who is that Father Prue? I have seen someone very like him.”

“He is Mr. Blundel’s confessor, and has been stopping with my mother.”

“Do you like him, Judith?”

“I can hardly say. He is a strange, silent man. My mother and he got on well. Oh, aunt, I do hope Eric won’t get into trouble.”

“Of course he won’t. My dear, be a heroine, since you are married to a hero. See, the carriage has driven away. Eric is waving his hat.”

Judith waved her hand and smiled down at her husband’s upturned face. Shortly Hal returned, and proceeded to do the honours of his bachelor establishment. The time passed very pleasantly, and Judith worried very little. After all, Mrs. Bellona had done her worst and was out of the country. There was nothing more to fear on Eric’s account. He was more than capable of looking after himself. A man who had climbed Chimborazo was not likely to come to grief in a petty English village.

Meantime Eric and Father Prue were bowling along the road at a swift pace. The priest was very silent, and after asking him a few questions relative to the illness of Mother Mandarin, Baker became silent also. It was a beautiful and warm evening, and the rays of the setting sun rested with a golden hue on the landscape. Eric rather fancifully compared this brilliant sunset with the lurid sky which had arched over him when he first came to the ruined village. As that one had been an omen of trouble, so did this peaceful setting appear to be the prognostication of a happy future. He recalled Mother Mandarin’s prophecy, and wondered how truly for the most part it had been fulfilled. He had responded to the cry of a woman for aid, as Judith had called to him. From the crying had come love, and from the love the sorrow of the troubles he had been mixed up with in connection with Mrs. Bellona. And there was a marriage ring, and now the promise of a happy future. Eric did not put all this fulfilment down to Mrs. Spain’s psychic powers. He was aware that she had known of what was going on behind the scenes, and in reality had warned him from what she knew. Seeing that she had been under the thumb of Mrs. Bellona, it was the only way in which she could warn him. He thought that after all, Mother Mandarin had not been unkindly disposed towards him.

When they reached the village, Father Prue stopped the carriage on the very spot where Eric had talked with Mother Mandarin, and proceeded at a slow pace towards the cottage. He did not offer Eric his arm, which was rather an oversight, as the young man could as yet only hobble along painfully on his stick. But the priest kept his eyes on the ground, and without addressing a word to Eric, passed before him to the cottages. His demeanour puzzled Eric more than ever. Never had he seen the man so agitated, and wondered what could have occurred to move him so deeply. He was destined to learn this from the lips of the dying woman.

And she was dying. Eric found her stretched on the wretched bed in the miserable room. She was painfully thin. The doctor sat beside her, and there was a good fire in the room; also food and medicines. Apparently Father Prue had done all he could to render her comfortable.

“Ah, you are here at last,” said Mother Mandarin feverishly. “I have waited for you so long. I could not die until I gave you the dying message of your mother.”

“Did you delay it all these years?” asked Eric rather sternly.

“Yes. I was forced to. Mrs. Bellona—Caterina—” her voice died away, but gathered fresh strength as she requested the doctor to leave the room. He obeyed and with an intimation that she was not to exhaust herself by too much talking, departed. Father Prue sat by the window, and Eric took a seat on a stool by this miserable bed. The three were alone, and door and window were closed. Mrs. Spain saw to that before she spoke.

“Eric,” she said in a weak voice which grew stronger as she continued. “I have asked you here to make a confession to you. Already you know much about me.”

“I know that you are Eleanora Spain, the friend of Mrs. Bellona.”

“Her tool rather,” said the dying woman bitterly. “She got me into her power, and has made merciless use of what she knew.”

“What did she know?” asked Eric thinking the knowledge must be very terrible to have kept Mrs. Spain a slave—as she practically had been—all these years.

Mother Mandarin waited for a moment then began to speak. “I was brought up in the country of Devonshire,” she said, “my parents were poor labourers. My mother was what is known as a wise woman. She gathered herbs and brewed drinks, and was famous for miles round. I learned many things of this kind from her, and had great skill in preparing various drinks. There is more virtue in herbs, Eric, than doctors will acknowledge. I should have succeeded my mother in her connection, which was a large one, but I had a voice like that of a lark—so they said. A London gentleman heard me singing in the village choir. He spoke to my parents, and with their consent he took me to see his wife. She was a kind lady, and had my voice trained. I became famous as a singer, and did well. I made much money. But I think,” said the woman with a sigh, “that it would have been better had I remained in that little Devonshire village doctoring the sick people. The life was at all events more harmless and useful than the one I chose.”

“Surely not,” said Eric consolingly; “your voice gave pleasure to thousands.”

“It gave pleasure—too much pleasure to one,” said Mother Mandarin quickly, “a man called Spain. He was a fine, handsome, rich man. He fell in love with me, and I with him. For his sake I gave up my profession. He married me, but he was always ashamed of me. He had no reason to be. I was beautiful. I was well educated, and I was a good and devoted wife. But he took me down to Essex and kept me hidden. Afterwards he beat me. It was then that I became acquainted with Caterina—Mrs. Bellona. She was stopping at Blundel Hall and was—as she confessed—in love with Walter Harding. We became great and dear friends. She did not show the cloven hoof for a long time.”

“When did she first show it?” asked Baker softly.

Mother Mandarin reared herself on her elbow, and looked at him. “You asked what my sin was some time ago,” she said. “I would not answer you. I answer now. I poisoned my husband. Ah!” she said as Eric started, “you are shocked. But it is true. He beat me. He made my life a burden. I used my knowledge of herbs to some purpose, and I poisoned the man who insulted me. He left me no money; all his wealth went to a distant relative. But I did not care. I had my revenge. I was not the woman to be beaten like a dog.”

“But you repent now,” said Eric shocked.

“Yes! yes! I am sorry. I might have behaved better. It was Caterina that made me avenge myself. Then when she knew, she threatened to tell the authorities unless I did her bidding. My husband was buried—there was no suspicion, but Mrs. Bellona knew, and she used the knowledge to make me drug your father.”

“You poisoned my father,” cried Eric starting back from her.

“I said that I drugged your father. Listen. Caterina loved him. He would have nothing to do with her. She poisoned his mind against the wife, and hinted that Richard Harding loved Amelia.”

“But it was not true,” said Eric panting, while the priest by the window sat as quiet as any stone.

“No. It was not true. She did it for her own ends. But even when she made Walter suspect his wife, she could not gain him to herself. Her husband Bellona was dead—she had very little money. She thought that if she could train up Richard’s child she could get the money—the million through the child.”

“But how could that be—if Julian and I were of the same age and my father died six months before—”

“This was a girl. It died later. However it was through the girl Caterina hoped to get the money. She intended to get Richard to give her the child and to mould her at her will. But to make things certain she wanted Walter out of the way. She commanded me to poison him, I refused. She threatened me with the police. I then yielded.”

“And you poisoned my father at that dinner?”

“No I did not poison him. I put a drug into his glass, when no one was looking—a drug something similar to that which you took in the vault. It was a strong dose I gave Walter, and induced an appearance of apoplexy. He was carried out insensible. I kept him under the influence of the drug in a way I need not tell you. It would take too long. Walter was buried in the vault.”

“In the vault of Wargrove church?” said Eric who thrilled with horror at this strange and weird recital.

“Yes. I went there at night. I revived him, and told him the truth. He would not come to life again, because he thought that his wife loved his brother—that the coming child would not be his. I did not discourage the idea as I wanted Walter to remain hidden so that Mrs. Bellona might think I had fulfilled her orders. She did think he was dead.”

“And what became of my father? Is he alive? Oh tell me.”

“Wait! wait!” the dying woman made a motion with her hand. “I have so much to say, and such a short time to say it in. Your mother nearly died of sorrow when Walter passed away. She knew what he had thought—she knew the cruel tales of Mrs. Bellona, and to show her child hereafter should it live that she was innocent she wrote out a declaration stating most solemnly that she had been a true and good wife, and that her child was the legitimate heir of Walter Harding. When she was dying—when you were born—she gave this paper to me for you.”

“Why did you not give it to me?”

“Because I was afraid. I ought to have sent it to your father, but I was afraid. Caterina never knew of the existence of the paper. It is here, and I will give it to you,” she fished under her pillow, and drew out a morsel of paper which she held tightly in her hand. Eric would have taken it, but she stopped him. “I have something to tell you yet,” she said faintly. “I came here to repent of my sins, I found this ruined village and I liked the lonely life. A woman such as I was, could not live amongst decent people. So here I lived, and Caterina allowed me ten shillings a week. But she made use of me. I gave the drug to render you insensible. When you came here I knew what was intended against you. Mr. Ferris had told Judith of your coming and she told Mrs. Bellona. Jane Tresham was threatening, and Mrs. Bellona determined to get you out of the way. I tried to warn you.”

“By reading my hand?”

“Yes, I dare not warn you openly. But now you know all. You despised my warning—you stayed. But it was all for the best—you faced your difficulties bravely and they vanished. Now I know that you are married to Judith. She is a good girl, and knows little of her mother’s wickedness. Make her a good husband. Caterina has gone to her own land. Now say before I surrender this paper written by the hand of the mother you never knew, that in her name you will forgive me!”

“I do! I do,” said Eric earnestly as he took the paper. “I am truly sorry for you, and I hope that Christ will forgive your sins. He assuredly will if you repent truly.”

“I repent—oh yes I truly repent,” said the dying woman weakly. “The sins have been great but the repentance has been long.”

“But my father—tell me about my father,” said Eric quickly.

As he spoke the paper he held was twitched out of his hand. In astonishment and with some indignation Eric turned to see that the priest was reading it by the fading light which yet remained. Eric advanced towards him. “What do you—”

“It is true—it is true,” cried the priest crushing the paper in his hand, and his face becoming aglow with joy. “Oh, why did you not give me this before? What years of pain—what years of—”

“Walter! Walter,” cried the woman, “forgive me—forgive me!” she stretched out her arms.

“I do forgive you. Have you not restored to me my son,” and Father Prue caught Eric in his arms.

“You—you—you my—my father?”

“Yes. Now you know why I changed towards you in every way. Why I was at once cold and warm, loving and cruel, my son. I doubted if you were my son. In sorrow at the supposed loss of your mother’s love, I left the Wargrove vault and became a priest. An attack of smallpox disguised me. I returned to Wilfred, and—but you are my son—my son—the son of my dearest wife.”

“Walter,” cried the dying woman, “you forgive.”

Father Prue dropped on his knees beside the bed. “I truly forgive,” he said softly. “Go in peace weary and sorrowful soul. May God forgive me as I you,” and then the soul of the sinner passed away.

“Christ have mercy on her,” said Eric sadly.

Chapter 30
The End

Six months later, Eric and his wife were stopping at Blundel Hall. It was wonderful summer weather, and the lawns were marvellously dry. Blundel had taken such a fancy to Judith and his nephew that he insisted on their stopping with him until they got a place of their own. Mr. and Mrs. Harding were quite agreeable, and as the summer was dry and the house less gloomy they enjoyed their visit very much.

On the previous day Eric had been to London on business connected with his claim for the million. Now he was telling his uncle and Judith all about it. At the hour of five the three sat on the terrace round a small tea-table. The setting sun gilded the place with light, and Blundel looked as cheerful as Judith looked beautiful and happy. As to Eric he was as handsome and gay and manly as ever.

“So you saw Rayner,” said Blundel sipping his tea. He had taken to tea lately, and looked much the better for less port wine.

“Yes. He showed fight at first. But I reminded him of the interview we had some months back, when I came from Moncaster. I had all my papers in order and the advice of my lawyer, so I had not the slightest difficulty in substantiating my claim. The million is now mine, and next week everything in connection with it will be transferred to my name. Judith you have a wealthy husband.”

“I have a good husband,” said Mrs. Harding affectionately, for her love for Eric deepened every month.

“After all,” said Eric thoughtfully, “as the granddaughter of Manuel Tejada you have a better right to this money than I have.”

“What’s mine is yours,” said Judith quickly.

“And what’s mine is yours also,” said Blundel looking at them both. When I die this Hall will go to you both. What will you do with it Eric?”

Eric laughed, and looked over the too-green meadows. “The first thing I shall do uncle, Wilfred,” he said, “is to become an engineer again and drain all these meadows.”

“I wish you would do that now,” said Blundel. “I have plenty of money, and I give you carte blanche to do what you will.”

“It is a splendid idea,” said Judith looking at her husband. “You see, Eric, that looking after the workmen will give uncle Wilfred something to do.”

Eric rose and walked up and down the terrace, his hands in his pockets. “Very well,” he said, “I believe this place can be made very habitable. We will make it as dry as a bone, and then Uncle Will can marry.”

“No, no,” said Blundel laughing. “I am still a woman-hater.”

“You don’t hate me, uncle.”

“My dear, you are not a woman but an angel,” said Blundel quite seriously.

“Hear! Hear!” cried Eric, and kissed the angel.

“When I think of the good you two have done in my life,” said the old man with a tremor in his voice, “I cannot thank you enough. The new staff of servants is much better than Jarvey and his gang, that threatened and bullied and cheated me. And Rayner has been brought to his knees.”

Eric laughed grimly. “He just has,” said he. “Would you believe it, Judith, he threatened to reveal all about your mother if I did not pay up what was owing to you.”

“And did you?” asked Blundel, wincing at the name of the woman he feared. Even though she was on the other side of the globe he still feared her, and felt her influence.

“Well,” said Eric after a pause, “the rascal did not deserve it, but as quite enough scandal was caused in Moncaster by what became public there, I thought it best to nip any further trouble in the bud. I paid his demands although I cut down what he asked. However, my lawyer is dealing with the matter, and the scrip and stock and all the rest of the bonds will be out of Rayner’s hands next week. He will retire I suppose, on his ill-gotten gains, as a gentleman.”

“He will always be a rogue,” cried Blundel vehemently. “Oh, how that man bullied me. Eric—Judith—”

“Hush, uncle Will,” said Judith, laying her cool hand on the old man’s brow, “that is all done with. You are never to think of the past. You promised me you would not.”

“Yes, my dear,” said Blundel submissively, “but I have had a most uncomfortable feeling the last few days. I forgot all about things for a long time, but the old dread is coming back. No, Judith dear, I won’t seek refuge in port-wine, I promise you. My allowance I will take and no more. I’ll go in for half-an-hour, dears,” he said, addressing both. “You can wait my return here.”

“I think you had better lie down, Uncle Wilfred,” said Eric, “the memory of these things has been too much for you.”

“No, no! I am strong, I am well, I am a man. In half-an-hour,” and with a gay wave of his hand the squire vanished into the renovated and brightened house.

“What is the matter, Eric?” asked Judith, seeing a cloud on his brow.

“Nothing, my dear. I am a little weary, that is all.”

“Eric, don’t tell stories. You are never weary.”

“Not of your sweet company,” he said, kissing her. “Come, let us walk down the avenue, and chat. Luckily the season is dry, or we would never be able to go. It is generally a quagmire. But I’ll soon alter all that. Everything will be drained, and the squire will superintend the work.”

“That is what he needs, Eric. It keeps him from brooding.”

“I think you do that to him, my dear. You have a wonderful influence for good over him. By the way, don’t forget that next week we go to Hal’s wedding.”

Judith laughed, and pressed her face down on her husband’s shoulder. “I wonder how Matty will look as a bride. She was always stout, and when last I saw her has grown stouter than ever. Oh, Eric, I forgot to tell you. I received a letter to-day from poor Lady Merston. She is recovering from the shock of Sammy’s death, and is leaving Moncaster to live with a married daughter.”

“I am glad of that. While she lives in Moncaster she will always be recalling her son. Poor Merston, he wasn’t a bad fellow. Any more news, dear?”

“Yes, Old Dexleigh village has been burnt down.”

“That’s a good thing. Since Mrs. Spain died, I have never been able to think kindly of the place.”

“It is supposed some gipsies set it alight. They were holding a wedding. And who do you think were married?”

“Pansey and Jerry, with papa to give them away.”

“Eric, you’re too clever. Yes! They have been to Spain, and came back to be married in Old Dexleigh village. The place was set on fire, and now very little of it remains. The church is still standing, but all the herbage has been stripped from it, and it stands naked and bare.”

“What a picturesque description. Who writes it?”

“I told you—Lady Merston.”

“She must have copied it out of a guide-book,” said Eric with a smile. “However, the village is gone is it?”

“H’m! how well I remember the look of it under that red sunset, with Mother Mandarin nodding and prophecying. Poor soul. She’s dead and buried now.”

“But she died in peace, Eric. Your father forgave her.”

“Yes,” assented Eric, “and so did I.” After a pause he added: “By the way, I heard from my father to-day.”

“Where is he now?”

“In South America. How strange that he should return as a priest to the place he had adventures in. I wish he had taken the money.”

Judith shook her head. “No, Eric, I think your father acted very wisely. He had given up the world, and he was right not to return to it. He is much more at peace in the life he now leads. Poor man, what a sorrow was his.”

“Yes. We had a long talk about the matter. He told me how often he yearned to salute me as his son. But there was always the doubt. But the handwriting of my mother dispelled the doubt, and he now really and truly believes that I am his son.”

By this time the two had reached the end of the avenue. The road ran from the gates straightly up the green hill, and disappeared over the brow. They stared at the view, between the great gilded gates, and then sat down on a stone seat where the sun fell strongest. The lodge-keeper was away for a holiday and the place was solitary. Eric placed his arm round the waist of his wife, and she leaned her head on his shoulder. It was Adam and Eve in the garden, and they were quite as happy. Never did man or woman love one another as these two loved.

“Tell me, Eric,” said Judith, after a pause, “did Uncle Will know your father when he came?”

“Yes. He recognised him one evening when my father was less cautious. But my father made him promise to say nothing. Also your mother recognised him at Moncaster. He stopped with her in the vain attempt to make her give up her insane scheme to recover the money.”

“But he could have ended it at once, Eric, by declaring himself.”

“Ah, my dear, there came in his doubts of me as his son. Only when he knew that I was really and truly his son, did he consent that I should have the money. Your mother worked on that weakness. But I think that had the worst come, my father would have saved me in spite of his doubts. He would never have allowed your mother to keep me in Spain.”

“It’s all very strange,” sighed Judith. “Thank God it is all over. Let us talk of lighter things, Eric. You know that Mr. Ferris is getting on splendidly as a teacher.”

“Yes. Thanks to Matty’s bell-clapper of a tongue. The cottage is furnished. Mrs. Bedwin and Polly have removed there, and after the wedding next week Mr. and Mrs. Ferris take up their abode in that home of bliss. I shall be amused to see Matty as a bride.” Judith laughed and became silent. “Eric,” she said at last, “how very strange it was that nothing was ever heard of Julian.”

“Yes. I think Uncle James felt the blow, although he said nothing much about the matter. But I believe that Julian went to the New World.”

“What makes you think that?” asked his wife.

“I met a man with whom I worked in Tarapaca. He said that he had seen my twin brother in Lima. Then I knew it must be Julian, but I made no remark. Ha!” Eric started to his feet.

“What is it?”

Her husband did not reply. He was staring at a fly—a dirty ramshackle fly, that was crawling over the hill. “It is,” he said under his breath, and his face grew dark. Then he turned to Judith who was staring at him in amazement. “My dear, I did not intend to tell you, but your mother—”

“Ah. I knew there was something wrong. I told it by your face. What of my mother?”

“She is in that trap. I am sure of it. When I saw Rayner and had settled with him, he gave me the piece of information, that your mother had come to England to see about the division of the money. I made sure she would come down here. That is why I wanted my uncle to lie down. The effect on him—”

“She must not stop here,” said Judith looking at the gradually approaching vehicle with a startled face, “she has behaved too wickedly. Oh, God, forgive me for thinking and talking of my own mother in this way. But Eric you know.”

“I know and I quite approve. Your mother is a wicked woman, and I wish she was safely bestowed in Peru. But as she has come back to see after the money, the sooner we get rid of her the better. I hope Uncle Will won’t come down. Run up and—”

“No,” said Judith determinedly. “My mother is dangerous. She is quite capable of killing you.”

Eric laughed and shook his head. “No. Mrs. Bellona isn’t the person to commit a useless crime. Could she get the million by ridding herself of me she would do so at all risks. We have already seen those she was prepared to run. Now—no my dear. She comes here for money. I will give her what I said—a thousand a year. With that she can live comfortably in Cuzco.”

“Will you let her stay here to-night?”

“Certainly not. She shall not enter these grounds—or at all events, since we must detain the cabman, and cannot talk in his presence, she shan’t go up to the house. Uncle Will must never know that she has been. I don’t want him to go off his head.”

By this time the fly had stopped at the gate. There was a box on top, and a pale handsome face looked out of the window. Shortly Mrs. Bellona, very little altered, stepped out in her old imperious manner, and advanced to the gate. She was smiling.

“Well, Judith, here I am,” she said graciously. “Eric, my dear, how are you?” she shook the gates. “Let me in and send some one for my box. Only a small box. I can’t spare you more than a night.”

“Stop,” cried Eric as the cabman began to take the box down, “the lady is going back. Wait down the road for half-an-hour.”

Mrs. Bellona’s face became deadly white at the insult. “Oh,” she cried with a cruel smile, “so this is the way I am received by paupers who have been enriched by my money. Am I to be kept standing at the gates of my daughter like a beggar?”

“This is not my house,” said Judith, undoing the gates. “You can come in to have a talk. But neither Eric nor myself have any authority to invite you to spend the night.”

“Indeed,” said Mrs. Bellona entering gracefully like a snake into Eden, “then it would seem that Wilfred has some authority in his own house at last.”

“He is absolute master,” said Eric bowing; “won’t you sit down, Mrs. Bellona? The seat is very comfortable. See, your cabman has driven down the road for some distance. After we have had our talk you can go back again. I think,” added Eric looking at his watch, “you will be able to catch the half-past seven train.”

“Judith,” cried her mother fiercely, “will you see me insulted in this way.”

“Eric has no idea of insulting you, mother,” said Judith clasping her husband’s arms, “but you must know that your presence is not agreeable to us.”

“My own child—my own child,” said Mrs. Bellona in her most tragic manner. She knew well enough that it was useless to behave in this way before Eric, but did so from habit. She deceived herself into thinking she had really been a most wonderful and affectionate mother. “After the way I toiled to get that money for you.”

“How gratifying it must be,” said Eric calmly, “to know that your child has the money after all, and that without further trouble on your part. Come, Mrs. Bellona, we have not much time to spare. At our last interview you were more business-like.”

Mrs. Bellona smiled grimly as she recalled the narrow cabin of the barge. “I wish I had killed you then,” she said spitefully. “Dear me Judith, how you have aged.”

“I am sorry,” said her daughter, with an icy smile which made even cold Mrs. Bellona wince. “But so long as I am handsome in Eric’s eyes, I care for nothing else.”

“Quite idyllic upon my soul,” drawled Mrs. Bellona elevating her lorgnette, “the man was a man once. You have made him a fool.”

“We know all about that, Mrs. Bellona—”

“But there is one thing you do not know,” she struck in crisply; “my name is not Bellona any longer. It is Harding. Mrs. Julian Harding.”

“What?” cried the pair in a breath. The announcement quite overcame them, and Mrs. Bellona was delighted to see the sensation she had caused.

“Yes. When I returned to Peru, I met Julian in Lima. It seems he crossed to France and then came on to Mexico; thence he came to Lima. When I told him he would probably be tried only for manslaughter, he wished to return. But I persuaded him to come on to Cuzco and got him employment there. He was always an admirer of mine,” said Mrs. Bellona looking to see if Judith winced, “so the old admiration revived. We are married, and I have come here to see what income you intend to allow me. I wish my husband to enter the service of his adopted country.”

Eric and Judith looked at one another in astonishment. This was the last thing they expected to hear. “Did Julian really kill poor Merston?” asked Eric.

“Poor idiot,” retorted Mrs. Bellona; “the man came rushing at Julian like a bull, and filled with nervous alarm—I don’t wonder at it—my husband shot him. The shooting was not intentional.”

“Did you know of this when you spoke to me on the barge?” asked Eric.

“Yes and no. I knew that Julian had shot the man, and I intended to accuse you of the murder. But I did not know whether Julian would come back. That is why I temporised. Had I been certain of Julian’s return, I should have had you accused.”

“Why did you not remain and accuse me then?”

“Because those men had been taken. The risk was too great. I had to give up the whole of the prize for which I struggled so long. I was not afraid of you, Eric, or of you, Judith, but I did fancy Luke might give me away.”

“Oh that was all arranged. Very little came out, mother.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Bellona rising in her old insolent way, “I care very little if much or nothing at all came out. I am back in my own country which I wish I had never left.”

“I am sure my father wished it also.”

“What do you know of your father?” asked Mrs. Bellona nervously.

“Everything. Mrs. Spain on her deathbed gave me a message from my mother. My father—whom you knew as the priest—is now convinced that I am his son. So your life-long lie, Mrs. Bellona, falls to the ground.”

The woman looked at the grass for a few minutes, and was moved with an emotion which she was too proud to show. Perhaps she was thinking of the man she had treated so cruelly—of the young wife she had driven to her death—of the miserable woman who had died in the ruined village. But whatever her thoughts were, she kept them to herself. The emotion passed, and when she looked up again, the woman was her old proud self.

“There is no need to talk of these things,” she said quietly, “you are right. It is impossible for me to remain here. Tell me how much you will allow me out of my father’s money, and how it is to be paid. Then I shall go, and return no more.”

“I shall give you two thousand a year,” said Eric, “and that because you have married Julian. He treated me badly and so did you. But I am willing to do that much.”

“It is very little,” said Mrs. Bellona with a shrug, moving towards the gate, “but I must make it do.”

Judith was afraid of her mother; she doubted her, she had little affection for one who had treated her so cruelly. Yet when she saw the tall woman walking out of the gates, she stretched out her arms with a cry. “Mother. It may be for the last time,” she said.

Mrs. Bellona turned. She did not look up, but thought for a moment. Then she moved towards her daughter and allowed her to press a kiss on her cold cheek. She did not return the kiss, but silently went out. At the gate she stopped and looked at Eric. The words seemed to be wrung out of her against her will, but she said them nevertheless.

“Eric,” she said, “I declared that two thousand was too little. I spoke falsely. You have behaved very well, and it is good of you to allow me this income. I am sorry I did not know you sooner. You are like your father, noble and—” she turned away and pulled down her veil. “But Walter never loved me never—never.”

Shortly the fly was moving swiftly up the hill again. No head appeared at the window this time. Mrs. Bellona had vanished as completely as though the earth had swallowed her up. Eric took his wife in his arms. On them rested the sunshine, but the vehicle was advancing towards the approaching night.

“There,” said Eric, pointing to the retreating Mrs. Bellona, “there goes the last shadow on our lives.”

Judith kissed him, and drew his arm within her own. “You and I are all in all to one another,” she said. “Come dear, let us go in.”      


THE END

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