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Title: In Queer Street Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800621h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2018 Most recent update: July 2018 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chapter 1. - The Boarding-House
Chapter 2. - Old School-Fellows
Chapter 3. - Man proposes
Chapter 4. - The Advertisement
Chapter 5. - The Next Step
Chapter 6. - Seeking Trouble
Chapter 7. - An Amazing Discovery
Chapter 8. - Family History
Chapter 9. - Gwen
Chapter 10. - Vane’s Aunt
Chapter 11. - Macbeth’s Banquet
Chapter 12. - Cupid’s Garden
Chapter 13. - Danger
Chapter 14. - At Bay
Chapter 15. - A Friend In Need
Chapter 16. - Explanations
Chapter 17. - Blackmail
Chapter 18. - Hench’s Diplomacy
Chapter 19. - A Denial
Chapter 20. - Reaping The Whirlwind
Chapter 21. - The Sunshine Of Life
“Here,” explained the landlady, “we are not wildly gay, as the serious aspect of life prevents our indulging in unrestrained mirth. Each one of us is devoted to an ideal, Mr. Spruce.”
“And what is the ideal, Mrs. Tesk?” asked the twinkling little man who was proposing himself as a boarder.
“The intention of gaining wealth in virtuous ways, by exercising the various talents with which we have been endowed by an All-seeing Providence.”
“If you eliminate the word ‘virtuous,’ most people have some such ideal,” was the dry reply of Mr. Spruce. “I want money myself, or I shouldn’t come to live here. A Bethnal Green lodging-house isn’t my idea of luxury.”
“Boarding-house, if you please,” said Mrs. Tesk, drawing up her thin figure. “I would point out that my establishment is most superior. Brought up in scholastic circles, I assisted my father and my husband for many years in teaching the young idea how to shoot, and—”
“In plain English, you kept a school.”
“Crudely put, it is as you say, Mr. Spruce,” assented the landlady; “but habit has accustomed me to express myself in a more elegant way. My husband and my father having been long numbered with the angelic host, I was unable to continue successfully as a teacher of youth. A learned friend suggested to me that an excellent income might be derived from a high-class boarding-house. Therefore I rented this mansion for the purpose of entertaining a select number of paying guests.”
“Paying guests! How admirably you express yourself, Mrs. Tesk.”
“It has always been my custom to do full justice to our beautiful language, Mr. Spruce. Even my establishment has a name redolent of classic times. It is called—and not unfittingly I think—The Home of the Muses.”
“So I observed in your advertisement. Why not call this place Parnassus? Then one word would serve for five.”
“The suggestion is not without merit,” said the former school-mistress. “I perceive, Mr. Spruce, that you have some knowledge of the classics.”
“I was educated at Winchester and Cambridge, Mrs. Tesk. The Home of the Muses—what a delightful name and how very appropriate.”
Poor Mrs. Tesk having no sense of humour, did not understand that this last remark was ironical, and smiled gravely in full approval. Spruce screwed in his eye-glass, and glanced with a shrug at his surroundings. These were scarcely calculated to satisfy a sybarite, being extremely ugly, inartistic, well-worn and dingy. The room, of no great size, was over-crowded with clumsy furniture made in the early years of the nineteenth century, when solidity was much more valued than beauty. What with six ordinary chairs, two armchairs, a horse-hair sofa to match, a sideboard, a bookcase, and a fender-stool all of mahogany, to say nothing of an Indian screen and a rosewood piano, there was scarcely room to move. And everywhere appeared patterns;—on the carpet, on the wall-paper, on the curtains and on the table-cloth: the eye ached to find some plain spot, which was not striped, or spotted, or scrolled, or dotted. The sole redeeming feature of the dreadful apartment was that many years and constant use had mellowed everything into a sober congruity, so that the whole looked comfortable and homely. As the Home of the Muses, it was an entire failure; as the sanctum of the sedate middle-aged woman in the worn black silk gown, it was quite successful. And as there were many out-of-date educational volumes in the bookcase, and as the walls were decorated with samplers, water-coloured drawings, geographical maps, and even with framed specimens of hand-writing, it could be easily guessed that the apartment belonged to a retired school-mistress. There was something quite pathetic in Mrs. Tesk’s flotsam and jetsam, which she had saved from the dire wreck of her superior fortunes.
And the landlady was as suited to the room as her visitor was unsuited, for there could not be a greater contrast than the two presented to one another. Mrs. Tesk belonged to a bygone age, while Spruce had to do with the very immediate present. In her shabby-genteel gown, which clothed a thin bony figure, and with a severe parchment-coloured face, the former teacher of the young looked very respectable indeed. Her mittens, her be-ribboned cap, her long gold chain, her large brooch containing locks of hair, and her cloth boots suggested the stories of Emma Jane Worboise and Mrs. Henry Wood. She was prim, pedantic and eminently genteel, the survival of an epoch when women wore full skirts and believed that their duty was to keep house, rather than to smash windows. Spruce stared at her through his eye-glass as he would have done at a prehistoric animal.
The would-be boarder was the last expression of man, as representing the lily of the fields which toils not. He resembled a cherub and was dressed like a Nut, that last variety of the masher, the swell, the dandy and the buck. With his clean-shaven pink and white face, his mild blue eyes, his smooth fair hair, little hands, little feet, and general well-groomed aspect, he looked like a good boy thoroughly acquainted with the Church Catechism. But his extravagant attire suggested Piccadilly, music-halls, the Park and afternoon teas. He wore a pale-green suit, the coat of which was made to show his waist, and turned-up trousers, which revealed purple socks and brogues of russia leather. His waistcoat was cut low, revealing a lavender-hued shirt and a purple scarf painted with a portrait of a famous dancer; and he held a green Trilby hat in his gloved hands, together with a gold-headed cane and an unlighted cigarette, which he did not dare to smoke in the severe presence of Mrs. Tesk. On the whole, Mr. Cuthbert Spruce was a thing of beauty, and wore as many colours as Joseph did when he put on his famous coat. He was the kind of male doll that virile men long to kick but dare not lest they should smash the thing.
When he had completed his survey of the room and of Mrs. Tesk, the Nut explained himself glibly. “I have come down here for a few months in order to study character for a book. Until I write that book I am rather hard up, so I should like to know if your terms are—”
“Twenty-five shillings a week,” interrupted Mrs. Tesk solemnly. “No one, not even the most captious, can call such terms expensive or prohibitive.”
“I certainly don’t. In fact you ask so little that I am not sure if you can make me comfortable at the price.”
“Good food, a good bed and genteel society, Mr. Spruce. What more does mortal man require, save a fire, which is not necessary, seeing that summer is with us in all its annual glory?”
“I don’t think much of its annual glory comes to Bethnal Green, Mrs. Tesk. However, your terms will suit me, and I’ll bring my boxes this afternoon. I can have a bath, I suppose?”
“Sixpence extra if cold and one shilling if warm.”
“A cold bath will suit me as it is summer. Have you a valet in the house?”
“No, Mr. Spruce. Such a menial is only to be found in the houses of the rich, as I understand from the perusal of novels read for recreation. Here you will find plain living and high thinking. My cook is an old servant, who is able to roast and boil healthy viands. Amelia, who is sixteen, attends to the house-work, and there is the boy, Simon Jedd—commonly called Bottles, which is a facetious appellation given to him by a paying guest inclined to merriment. Such is my staff.”
“And the paying guests?” asked Spruce, who began to think that five and twenty shillings was quite the top price to ask for such board and lodging.
Mrs. Tesk coughed. “Our circle is limited at present to a chosen few, as London is rather empty just now, on account of the summer season, which attracts people to the green woods and the sounding sea. There is Madame Alpenny, who is of Hungarian extraction, but who married an Englishman; together with her daughter, Zara, a dancer of repute at the Bijou Music-hall. I hesitated to accept the daughter as a paying guest,” added Mrs. Tesk loftily, “as my education scarcely permits me to approve of the profession of Terpsichore.”
“She was one of the Muses, you know,” Spruce reminded her; “and as this is the Home of those ladies—”
“Quite so,” interrupted Mrs. Tesk in her most stately fashion. “That fact may have biassed me in my permitting her to reside under my roof. Also, not having many paying guests at present, the money was a consideration, and humanity interdicted me from parting mother and child; although I am bound to say that Madame Alpenny refused to come if I did not take her daughter also. Finally I consented, and since seeing Zara dance I have not regretted my yielding. She exhibits the poetry of motion in a high degree and is quite respectable.”
“Any other paying guests?”
“Mr. Edward Bracken—ordinarily termed Ned,—who plays the violin in the Bijou orchestra with great delicacy, and Mr. Owain Hench, who is at present absent, and will not return for a week.”
Spruce rose and looked surprised. “Owain Hench. Will you spell his first name, Mrs. Tesk? I fancy I know him.”
Mrs. Tesk spelt the name slowly. “It is a Welsh title!” she said as if Hench was a member of the House of Lords, “and the spelling is peculiar. In history we are told of Owen Tudor, and Owen Glendower, who signed their Christian appellations somewhat differently.”
“It is the proper Welsh spelling,” said Spruce, smiling. “He must be the same fellow I used to know at Winchester. We used to rag him about the queer way in which he spelt his name. Fancy Hench in this galley”—and he looked disdainfully round the shabby room—“I thought he was rich.”
“I am not acquainted with the financial affairs of Mr. Hench,” said the landlady stiffly; “but I am quite certain that he is by no means endowed largely with specie. Nevertheless he is a kind-hearted and estimable young man, who will yet achieve fame and fortune, although in what particular direction it is at present hard to say. He has resided here for six months, so I can speak of his qualities with some knowledge.”
Spruce walked to the door. “I shall be glad to see Hench again,” he remarked lightly. “Well, Mrs. Tesk, you may expect me and my luggage by four o’clock.”
“I understand.” Mrs. Tesk folded her hands and bowed graciously. “You will be in time for afternoon tea, when I shall have the pleasure of introducing you to Madame Alpenny, Mademoiselle Zara, and to Mr. Edward Bracken. You will find us a happy family, Mr. Spruce, and I trust you will never regret coming to stay in The Home of the Muses.”
Spruce stifled a laugh and went out, lighting his cigarette and putting his hat on in the hall. He was immensely amused with the stately old-fashioned airs of the ex-school-mistress, and promised himself some fun in drawing her out. He did not anticipate a rosy time in the boarding-house, which was much too shabby and poor and sordid for one of his pleasure-loving nature; but he felt that the companionship of his old schoolfellow would enable him to pass the time fairly pleasantly. In his explanation to Mrs. Tesk as to his reason for coming to Bethnal Green, Mr. Spruce had not been entirely truthful, but the excuse of gathering material for a book would serve his purpose. The truth was that the Nut had been mixed up in a gambling affair with which cheating had been connected, so he had wisely determined to obliterate himself for a few months. Not being able to go abroad or into the country by reason of a lean purse, he had made up his mind to rusticate in Bethnal Green, and hoped that when the scandal was ended he could return to the West End. In the meantime, he was safe from observation, as no one would ever suspect that he was in London, so near and yet so far from civilization. He intended to give to Hench the same excuse as he had already given to Mrs. Tesk, and had no doubt but what it would be accepted. Hench, as he considered, was smart in many ways and the reverse in a few. While at Winchester he had been considered clever, but always over-confident that others were as honourable as himself, a belief which led to his being taken advantage of on many occasions. Spruce had never been intimate with Hench, as he belonged to a different set, but he was quite ready to be intimate with him now in such a dull locality as Bethnal Green. The cherubic little man by no means cared for the plain living and high thinking to which Mrs. Tesk had alluded, as he preferred high living and plain thinking, the latter having to do with thoughts of how to kill time by amusing himself. It was not likely that Hench would be of the same opinion, as from what Spruce remembered he had always been a solid sort of chap. Of course, it was eight years since the Nut had seen the young man, but if living in The Home of the Muses denoted his status, it was probable that he would be more solid than ever. And solid in the opinion of Mr. Spruce meant woeful dullness and pronounced common-sense. Therefore he scarcely anticipated that Hench would prove to be an ideal companion.
However, owing to the trouble in the West End, Spruce had to make the best of things, and duly arrived at the appointed time with his five boxes. People did not usually come to Mrs. Tesk’s establishment with so much luggage, but Spruce being a Nut, and eminently fashionable, required many clothes to set off his rather mean little person. Amelia, the maid-of-all-work, and Jedd, who was facetiously called “Bottles,” helped the cabman to carry up the many trunks to the new-comer’s bedroom, and looked upon him with awe as the owner of such costly paraphernalia. Mrs. Tesk was also pleased in her stately fashion, as the arrival of such a quantity of luggage imparted dignity in some mysterious way to her establishment. By four o’clock the new paying guest had taken possession of his new abode, and was on his way to the drawing-room to meet those already assembled under Mrs. Tesk’s hospitable roof. To do honour to the occasion, and to produce a good impression, Spruce had changed into a brand-new suit, and looked like Solomon-in-all-his-glory when he entered the stuffy apartment grandiloquently termed the drawing-room. It was tolerably large and less crowded with furniture than the sanctum of the landlady, but the windows being closed and the day being warm, Spruce gasped when he ventured in. It was like entering the coolest room of a Turkish bath.
“Allow me,” said Mrs. Tesk in her deepest and most genteel voice. “Mr. Spruce, permit me to introduce you to Madame Alpenny, to Mademoiselle Zara Alpenny and to Mr. Edward Bracken. Madame Alpenny, Mademoiselle Alpenny and Mr. Edward Bracken, permit me to introduce you to Mr. Spruce, our new companion.”
During the landlady’s long-winded introduction the Nut bowed to the several people mentioned and swiftly noted their outward looks. The Hungarian lady, who had married an Englishman, was a very stout woman, slightly taller than Spruce himself, which was not saying much, and the remains of former beauty were apparent in her face if not in her figure. It is true that her complexion was sallow and her hair an unpleasant red, but she had finely-cut features and splendid eyes, dark, eloquent and alluring. She wore a dark dress spotted with orange circles, a loose black velvet mantle trimmed with beads, and a large floppy picture-hat, together with many costly bracelets, rings, chains, brooches and lockets. Evidently she carried her fortune on her person for security, and looked like a walking jeweller’s shop. Spruce saw at a glance that she was a lady, although why she should wear such shabby clothes and live in such a shabby place when she possessed such valuable ornaments he could not say. Privately he decided that she looked interesting, and determined to find out all about her during his stay in the boarding-house.
“You will find us very quiet here,” observed Madame Alpenny in excellent English, and smiling with very white teeth at the new-comer’s resplendent appearance; “it will be dull in these parts for a young gentleman.”
“Oh, I can make myself at home anywhere, Madame,” replied Spruce, accepting a cup of very weak tea from Mrs. Tesk. “My visit here is only to collect material for a novel.”
“I read the stories of my countryman, Maurus Jokai,” said Madame with a nod. “You write like him. Is it not so?”
“By no means. I know nothing of Maurus Jokai.”
“Gaszynski! Morzycka! Zmorski! Mukulitch! Riedl! Vehse?” the foreign lady ran off these difficult names of Polish, Russian and Hungarian authors still smiling; “you know them. Eh? What?”
“Never heard of them Madame. They sound like names out of the Book of Numbers to me. I am a very ignorant person, as you will find.”
“Ah, say not so, Mr. Spruce. You like amusement perhaps. The dance, the cricket, the five o’clock tea? Tell me.”
“All those things are more in my line. I hear from Mrs. Tesk that your daughter dances?”
“Ah, yes. Zara?”
“I am at the Bijou Music-hall just now in a Fire-dance,” said the girl in an indifferent manner, for Spruce had not made the same impression on her as he had on her mother; “and Mr. Bracken here is in the orchestra.”
“Second-violin,” growled Bracken, who was paying great attention to the thin bread and butter. “Hard work and bad pay”—he stole a glance at the dancer—“but I have my compensations.”
The look was sufficient to make Spruce understand that the young man was in love with Zara, just as the frown of Madame Alpenny, who had intercepted the look, showed him the mother’s disapproval. The dancer was a tall and rather gaunt girl, handsome in a bold gipsy flamboyant way, with flashing dark eyes and a somewhat defiant manner, while the violinist was roughly good-looking, and seemed to pay very little attention to his dress. Evidently a romance was in progress here, and Spruce promised himself some amusement in watching the efforts—which he was sure were being made—of the mother to keep the lovers apart.
“You see,” said Mrs. Tesk complacently, “we have many talents assembled here, Mr. Spruce. Mademoiselle Zara indulges in the light fantastic toe; Mr. Bracken is devoted to the noble art of music, and Madame Alpenny is conversant with the literature of foreign nations, which is natural considering her nationality. In my own person, I represent the English element of letters, and if you enjoy heart to heart talks, I am prepared to discuss poetry with you from Dan Chaucer down to Robert Browning.”
“Thanks very much,” said the new guest hastily and scarcely relishing the prospect; “but my doctor won’t let me read much, as my health is not very good. But I daresay,” he added, glancing round at the queer set he found himself amongst, “we can get up a game of bridge occasionally.”
“Ah, but certainly,” cried Madame with vivacity and her splendid eyes flashed; “for my part I delight in cards!”
“My preference is for Patience,” said Mrs. Tesk solemnly. “I find it relieves the strain on my mind. So long as the stakes are not very high, Mr. Spruce, I shall be delighted to join you and Madame and Mademoiselle Zara in a friendly game. Oh, you will not find us dull, I think. And when Mr. Owain Hench returns he will be able to inform you about many parts of the world not usually accessible to the ordinary person.”
Spruce rather resented Mrs. Tesk calling him an ordinary person, as he considered that he was head and shoulders above the assembled company. However, he did not allow any sign of annoyance at her density to escape him, but uttered a little chuckling laugh of acquiescence. “I’ll be glad to see Hench again. He was always a good chap.”
“Ah!” Madame glanced at her defiant daughter and then at Spruce; “it appears, then, that you know Mr. Hench?”
“We were at school together.”
“So! He is a charming young man.”
Zara laughed meaningly. “With money mamma thinks that he would be still more charming,” she said significantly, and the sallow face of Madame grew red.
“It is true,” she admitted frankly. “When one has a daughter, one must be careful of charming young men who are not rich. What do you say, Mr. Spruce?”
“Well, I never had a daughter, so I can’t say anything,” replied the little man, who was rapidly understanding many things. “And your opinion, Mr. Bracken, if I may ask it?” He put the question advisedly, as the mention of Hench’s name had brought a scowl to the face of the violinist.
“Money isn’t everything,” growled Bracken, passing his hand through his rough hair, which he wore a trifle long, after the fashion of musicians. “Hench is a good fellow, and being clever will be rich some day.”
“Ah! no”—Madame Alpenny shook her head vehemently—“he is too—what you call—careless of money. He is idle; he is a mystery.”
Spruce opened his pale blue eyes at the last word, and put in his monocle to stare at the Hungarian lady. “There never was any mystery about Hench at school,” he observed rather puzzled. “He was always rather a commonplace sort of chap.”
“There is a mystery,” insisted Madame more vehemently than ever. “I have seen him before, but where—no, it is impossible to say.”
“You don’t mean to say that he is wanted by the police?” asked Bracken.
“Don’t speak like that!” cried Zara with a frown. “Mr. Hench is the most honourable man in the world. There is nothing mean about him.”
“He is all that is agreeable and polite,” said her mother gravely; “and but for one thing I have no fault to find with him. Still, I have seen him somewhere, that young gentleman; he has a history!”
“History! mystery! You jump to conclusions, mamma.”
“Zara, my father was a diplomatist, and I am observant.”
“Suspicious, I should say,” remarked Bracken under his breath.
But low as he spoke the woman heard him. “Of some people I am,” she said with a dark glance, which revealed that she was not so good-humoured as she looked.
Zara rose with a swing of her skirts and looked as graceful and as dangerous as a pantheress. “I am going to lie down,” she observed rather irrelevantly. “I always lie down, Mr. Spruce, so as to prepare for the fatigues of the night. If you ask Mr. Bracken he will take you to the smoking-room.”
“Oh, thanks,” gasped Spruce, who did not wish to remain in the company of the violinist, whom he privately termed a bounder; “but I am going to my room to write letters.”
“Fancy staying in to write letters on this beautiful day. Mr. Bracken will be wiser, I am sure, and take a walk.”
“You’ve hit it,” said Mr. Bracken, taking out a well-worn briar pipe. “I’m off for a breather.” And he escorted Zara out of the room without noticing Spruce, to whom he had taken a dislike.
Madame Alpenny half arose when she saw the two departing in company, but sat down again with a frown. In a few minutes she walked to the window and drew a sigh of relief on seeing Bracken standing on the pavement lighting his pipe. Spruce guessed by this by-play that she did not approve of the violinist being with her daughter, and became more certain than ever that the romance he had conjectured existed. Zara had got rid of Bracken, it was evident, so as not to leave him in the company of her mother. Hence her mention that the violinist would show Spruce the smoking-room, and her suggestion of a walk for Bracken when the new guest refused the offer of tobacco. However, Madame now seeing that the two were parted, returned to her seat satisfied, and resumed her talk about Mr. Hench.
“You must tell me of your old schoolfellow,” she said graciously; “he is a young man I greatly admire. I study his character.”
“An admirable character,” said Mrs. Tesk loftily.
“I cannot help you, Madame, as I haven’t seen Hench for years,” said Spruce.
“Ah indeed! You will find him very mysterious!” And she nodded significantly.
Mr. Spruce found The Home of the Muses less dull than he expected it to be, in spite of its ridiculous name. For six days he amused himself very tolerably in contemplating the novelty of his surroundings, and in getting what amusement he could out of the same. Desiring “something new,” after the fashion of the Athenians, he explored Bethnal Green more or less thoroughly, and learned that the seamy side of life here exhibited had attractions for a keen-witted observer, as he truly was. People in the West End were always on the look-out for money with which to indulge their fancies; people in this neighbourhood hunted likewise for the nimble shilling, but used it when obtained to keep a roof over their heads and bread in their mouths. But the excitement of the money-chase was always the same, and Spruce watched the same with great interest. In fact he took part in the hunt for dollars himself, as he also had to live in such comfort as his depleted purse could command.
That Destiny had not dealt lavishly with Spruce was due to his own crooked way of propitiating the whimsical goddess, since he disliked honest toil. On leaving college and entering the great world, he had enjoyed a fair fortune nursed for years by jealous guardians, which ought to have kept him in luxury for the whole of his useless life. But the Nut, thinking he possessed the purse of Fortunatus, dipped into it too freely, and like the earthen pot at once smashed when the brass pots dashed against him. He entered a fast set, fascinating and expensive, whose members gambled heavily, who flirted freely with free-lance ladies and who ran up bills on every occasion. A few years of this life reduced Spruce to living on his wits, and as these were sharp enough, he managed to scramble along somehow and keep his head above water.
But not making money fast enough honestly, he attempted to cheat at cards, and therefore was expelled from his profligate paradise. For this reason he had come to rusticate in Bethnal Green, and intended to return as soon as he could make sure of being tolerated in his former haunts and by his former associates. But as he had committed the one crime which society, however rapid, will never condone, the prospect of his being whitewashed was not very promising. However, the little man knew that money covers a multitude of sins, and would go far to excuse the particular sin of cheating, which had ruined him. He therefore looked here, there and everywhere during his retirement in the hope of making money, so that he could return with full pockets to the West End. But it must be admitted that Bethnal Green was not exactly Tom Tiddler’s ground, and little gold and silver did Spruce pick up.
The Nut certainly won a certain amount of money from Madame Alpenny, who was a born gambler, and staked her jewellery when coin was wanting. She was always hard up, as she frankly informed Spruce when she came to know him better, and had long since turned what money she possessed into the costly ornaments she wore. Zara earned enough to keep her mother and herself at the boarding-house, but otherwise spent her earnings on herself, knowing, as she did, that Madame Alpenny would only gamble away what was given her. Therefore the old woman sometimes had to sell a brooch or a bracelet in order to get funds for her gambling. She was clever at cards, but scarcely so clever, and it may be added unscrupulous, as Spruce, so by the end of the week her person was not quite so lavishly decorated with jewellery as it had been when the Nut first set eyes on her. But in spite of her bad luck, the Hungarian lady always behaved amiably towards Spruce, as she took him at his own valuation and believed him to be a rich young man indulging in the fantastic whim of living in Mrs. Tesk’s house. It did not take much time for the Nut to see that Madame Alpenny’s agreeable demeanour was due to the hope she entertained that he would make love to Zara, and perhaps become her son-in-law. Spruce had about as much idea of courting the dancer as of flying, but he allowed the lady to think that he admired her daughter so that she might continue to gamble. Being quite deceived as to his real status and his real intentions, she did; so Spruce found himself much better off in pocket by the end of the week, and about the time when Owain Hench was expected back.
The little man was waiting for Hench, as he greatly desired to see if any money could be made out of him. People who travelled about the world, as Hench apparently did, often found gold-mines, or knew of some hidden treasure, or had an idea of how to make money in large quantities. Spruce was very vague as to how he could exploit Hench to his own advantage, as he had not seen him for eight years and did not know his possibilities. However, he was assured that while residing under the same roof as Hench he would soon be able to learn if he was worth making a friend of, and so waited anxiously for the young man’s return. Meanwhile he gambled with Madame Alpenny; made himself agreeable to the ex-school-mistress, whom he found a frightful bore; and went several times to the Bijou Music-hall to see Mademoiselle Zara dance. To his surprise he found that she was really a very brilliant artist, who was entirely thrown away on a Bethnal Green audience, and asked himself quite seriously if it would not be worth while to marry her and secure for her an engagement at the West End. If she made a success there—as he was sure she would do—then she could support him in luxury and the old woman could be got rid of somehow. Oh, Spruce found many ideas in The Home of the Muses which might result in the gain of money, although he saw plainly that to bring the same to fruition time was necessary. At all events, he was making a living out of Madame Alpenny; foresaw possibilities in Zara’s dancing with the chance of profit to himself, and always kept in his scheming little mind that Hench might prove to be a valuable acquaintance. Therefore, the six days prior to the young man’s return proved to be amusing and profitable and promising. As Spruce had become an adventurer and a picker-up of unconsidered trifles, after the fashion of Autolycus, he was quite content with the progress he had made so far in his new camping-ground. For that it was, since Spruce had no idea of having a home, and disliked domesticity.
It was on Sunday afternoon that Hench returned. Madame Alpenny was lying down for a rest, as she always did on the seventh day; Zara had slipped out for a walk with Bracken; and Mrs. Tesk was laboriously reading a religious book, which she found extremely dull, but considered the correct thing to peruse on the Sabbath. Spruce being left very much to his own devices, had amused himself by sorting his wardrobe, and towards five o’clock was beginning to find time hang heavy on his hands. With a yawn he descended to the smoking-room to idle away an hour with a cigarette and the Sunday papers. In the bleak little apartment devoted to the goddess Nicotine—a goddess unknown to the Olympians, it may be remarked—he came suddenly upon a tall young man who was puffing his pipe and listlessly staring out of the window. Rather from intuition than from positive knowledge, the Nut guessed that this was the returned wanderer.
“Hullo, Hench, and how are you?” was his greeting, and he advanced with a gracious smile and an outstretched hand.
The young man rose slowly, looking very much astonished, but mechanically accepted the proferred grasp. Apparently he did not recognize that this resplendent being was his old schoolfellow, and hinted as much in a rough and ready fashion. “Who the deuce are you?” he demanded with a puzzled expression.
“Cuthbert Spruce!” replied the Nut, nettled as a vain man would be by the want of recognition.
“Cuthbert Spruce! Well?” Hench still appeared to be ignorant and waited for some light to be cast upon the subject of this hearty greeting.
“Oh, come now, you are an ass, Hench. Don’t you remember Winchester, and the day you picked me up when I got lost during the hare and hounds run?”
Hench stared at the pink and white cherubic face and a smile broke over his face, as he shook the little man’s hand heartily. “Of course. Little Spruce, isn’t it?”
“I have already said as much,” retorted the mortified Nut dryly.
“Well, I didn’t see much of you at Winchester, you know,” confessed the stalwart young man, sitting down for a chat; “you were in a different set, anyhow. And I don’t fancy I cared much for your set, such as it was. H’m!” Hench stared hard at the other and pulled hard at his pipe. “Yes. Little Spruce, of course, commonly called The Cherub. And by gad, Spruce, you’re a cherub still.”
“No one could call you so, Hench,” said Spruce affably, sitting down and producing a dainty cigarette-case; “you are more like Hercules, big and stolid and dull and honest.”
“What a mixture of depreciation and compliment,” said Hench coolly. “Well, I am glad to see you, in spite of your somewhat free speech. After all, one’s heart warms to a chap from the old school.”
“Rather!” agreed the Nut, whose heart never warmed towards any one or anything. “It’s queer meeting you here. Let’s have a look at you.”
Hench laughed and shifted his position, so that the light from the window fell full upon him. A woman would have thought, as women did think, that he was well worth looking at, since he was tall and stalwart, undeniably handsome and possessed of great strength. With his well-built figure and upright carriage he looked more like a soldier than anything else. His hair, closely cropped, was brown, as were his eyes, and he had a full spade-shaped beard which added to his virile looks. The two men formed a marked contrast, and the small, dainty, over-dressed Nut looked like a doll beside the big, handsome, carelessly attired man. And it was on this attire that Spruce’s eyes were fixed, as it hinted at many things. A well-worn blue-serge suit, a woollen shirt and mended brown boots did not suggest money, any more than the presence of Hench in this cheap boarding house intimated a good income. The Nut began to think that his dreams of making use of Hench were purely visionary. There was no wealth to be extracted from such an obvious pauper. Nevertheless, Spruce, who never threw away a chance, behaved very cordially and paid compliments.
“But for that beard you are just the same as you were at Winchester,” he remarked. “You were always big and heroic-looking. What are you doing here?”
“Marking time!” said Hench laconically.
“In the hopes of what?”
“Of making my fortune.”
“Hum!” Spruce looked dissatisfied, as he did not care about meeting old schoolfellows who required help; “you do look down on your luck.”
“Not more than usual. I always make sufficient to keep my head above water by writing articles and stories for cheap newspapers and journals. But that is a poor state of things for a man of twenty-five.”
“There isn’t much pie-crust about it, I admit, Hench. Why, I thought you were rich. I know at school the fellows always talked about your father being a Duke of sorts constantly on the move.”
“My father travelled a great deal on the Continent, certainly, and when I left school I joined him. But he died five or six years ago and left me with very little money. Since then I have been voyaging round the terrestrial globe to find money, and so far have not achieved success. But I say”—Hench broke off to re-fill his pipe—“why make me egotistical? My affairs don’t interest you.”
“Oh yes, they do,” Spruce protested, then baited his hook with a minnow to catch a possible whale. “And if you will allow me to be your banker—”
“No! No! It’s awfully good of you. But I have enough for my needs.”
“Well, when you haven’t, come to me. Old schoolfellows, you know, should help one another at a pinch.”
“You’re a good chap, Spruce,” said the big man, gratefully.
Spruce smiled graciously in response to the compliment, and privately considered that Hench was as trusting as he always had been, taking men at their own valuation, instead of putting a price on them himself. However, he had gained the good-will of the man by his delicate offer—which he by no means intended should be accepted—and therefore hoped, should Hench prove to be worth powder and shot, to benefit by his artful diplomacy. “Oh, that’s all right, old fellow,” he said airily and blowing rings of smoke; “since we’re in the same galley we may as well renew our old friendship.”
“Begin a friendship, you mean,” said Hench very directly. “We weren’t pals at school, so far as I can recollect.”
“No! that’s true enough. But you picked me up out of that ditch and played the part of a Good Samaritan, so I have reason to be friendly.”
“Thanks! I’m with you, Spruce. While we camp here I daresay we’ll see a lot of one another, and I shan’t forget your kind offer to help. I’m not quick to make friends, you know, as I find most people jolly well look after themselves to the exclusion of every one else.”
“I do, myself,” said the Nut coolly. “Don’t think that I go about playing the part of the Good Samaritan haphazard. But an old schoolfellow, you know—”
“Yes! I understand. There’s something in having been at the same desk, isn’t there. But I say, Spruce, what are you doing here? Now that I cast my memory back, you were supposed to be very well off.”
“Oh, I am still,” lied the Nut in a most brazen way; “that is I have enough money on which to live comfortably, although not a millionaire. But the fact is, I have literary ambitions, and wish to write a book. Some fellow said that Bethnal Green had never been written up since the time of the celebrated beggar, so I thought I’d come down and gather material. I spotted Mrs. Tesk’s advertisement in the papers and the name of the house attracted me.”
Hench laughed. “The Home of the Muses! It’s rather a queer title to give a house in this poverty-stricken neighbourhood; but then Mrs. Tesk, bless her, is queer herself. She’s a good sort though, all the same. Well, you’ve come to the right place to get material for a sort of Charles Dickens book. We all live in Queer Street here, Spruce.”
“Queer Street, which, like Bohemia, is nowhere and yet is everywhere, Hench.”
“You are epigrammatic. That won’t do for a book of the Dickens type.”
The Nut shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what sort of book I’ll write, and that’s a fact. In Queer Street, which I take it comprises the whole of Bethnal Green, there are many interesting people, for I have been walking about and have kept my eyes open. But those I find most interesting are under this roof.”
“Yes! She’s quite a character with her jewellery and her gambling. By the way, you won’t find her so decked out Hindoo fashion as hitherto. During the week of my stay here, I have won two bracelets, several rings and a pair of ear-rings.”
Hench looked displeased. “You shouldn’t encourage her love of gambling,” he said strongly. “I’m not a saint, but it doesn’t seem right for a well-to-do man such as you are to win Madame Alpenny’s jewellery.”
“Why not? She has the same chance of winning my money. We play quite fairly, you know, Hench, and one must pass the time somehow. But I quite understand why you don’t wish me to loot the lady.”
“Oh, do you.” Hench grew red and smoothed his beard. “Well?”
“I have listened and looked and questioned and considered while I have been here,” explained the Nut coolly, “and by doing so I have found out your romance.”
“My romance!”—the big man bit his nether lip and thought that it was like the cheek of this finicky little devil to meddle with what did not in any way concern him—“what the deuce are you talking about?”
“About your romance; about Bracken’s romance; and about Mademoiselle Zara, who is the subject of both romances.”
“You are talking through your hat, Spruce.”
“By no means. I can give you chapter and verse for my surmises. Zara Alpenny is a handsome gipsy, although to my fancy she is a trifle gaunt and fierce, as any one can see. Her mother being poor, intends that her daughter shall be the wife of a wealthy man. You have fallen in love with this divinity of the Bijou Music-hall, and so has that bounder of a violinist. Madame Alpenny, knowing your circumstances, will have nothing to do with either of you as sons-in-law, preferring yours truly.”
“You!” Hench sat up and stared indignantly at the smooth speaker. “Now what the dickens do you mean by that rubbish?”
“What I say. You understand King’s English, I take it. But you need have no fear so far as I am concerned. Mademoiselle Zara is not my sort, and I have no intention of forwarding Madame Alpenny’s matrimonial aims. But you—”
Hench rose, looking considerably irritated. “I wish you would mind your own business,” he said sharply. “You have found a mare’s nest.”
“Oh, well,” observed Spruce lazily, “if that is the case I may as well change my mind and become a suitor for Zara’s hand.”
“You shall do nothing of the sort.”
“Why not? You don’t love her, if I am to credit your mare’s nest parable.”
Hench found that the Nut was too sharp for him and sat down with a defeated air. “I admire the girl, rather than love her,” he admitted reluctantly. “She’s a good sort and would make a good wife—something of a comrade, you know.”
“I don’t think that fierce-eyed girl would care for a marriage of the comrade sort, Hench. She wants love of the most pronounced and romantic kind, and that kind she is getting from Bracken. He worships her, and will carry off the prize if all you can give is cautious admiration.”
“It’s none of your business, anyway,” fumed the big man.
“No. I admit that! But suppose I make it my business by asking Madame Alpenny for her daughter’s hand. She believes me to be rich and—”
“And you are not. Come, be honest.”
Spruce saw that he had overshot the mark and retreated dexterously. “I have already been honest, as I told you that I was not a millionaire but only well off. Anyhow, I am a better husband for Zara so far as money is concerned than you or that bounder.”
“But hang it, man, you can’t love her. You’ve only known her a week.”
“I never said that I did love her, or could possibly come to love her. Still, Zara is handsome and clever, so why shouldn’t I make her my comrade-wife, since you suggested the same kind of half-baked alliance with yourself.”
“Look here, Spruce,” stated the other very seriously, and irritated by the nimble wit of his schoolfellow, “you have proved yourself to be a decent sort by offering to help me. For that offer I thank you, and because of it I am willing that we should be friends. But if you make love to Zara we are sure to quarrel.”
“Aren’t you rather a dog-in-the-manger, Hench?”
“No. I admire the girl.”
“She wants love, which you evidently can’t give her,” retorted Spruce in an emphatic manner. “Now, if I can love her—”
“You said that she wasn’t your sort.”
“She isn’t. Still, she is handsome, and one might pick up a worse wife.”
“But not a worse mother-in-law. So far as I am concerned it doesn’t matter, as I have neither kith nor kin to my knowledge, and, moreover, I am a vagabond upon the face of the earth. But with your family connections and position and money, the marriage would not be a success, seeing that it entails your taking Madame Alpenny to the West End. There she would scarcely do you credit.”
Spruce rocked with laughter, and wondered what Hench would say if he knew the true position of affairs which had been so carefully withheld from him. “I give in, old fellow,” he said, wiping his eyes with a mauve silk handkerchief and wafting a perfume about the room. “I was only codding you. I don’t want to marry the girl. But Bracken does.”
“And so do I,” rejoined Hench tartly.
“H’m! I’m not so sure of that. Yours is a cold-blooded wooing. The girl asks you for the bread of love and you give her the stone of admiration.”
“She doesn’t ask me for love,” said the tall young man with a sigh. “I am not so blind but what I can see that she loves Bracken.”
“Then why don’t you sheer off?”
“I don’t like any man to get the better of me.”
“There speaks the buccaneer, the cave-man, the prehistoric grabber. Lord! what a weird state of things, and how simple you are, Hench, to place all your cards on the table. I can teach you a thing or two.”
“I am quite sure you can,” said Hench dryly, and disliking the wit of this effeminate little creature, which was so extremely keen; “but I go my own way, thank you, and dree my own weird. It is probable that I will ask Madame Alpenny if I can marry Zara, and if Zara is agreeable—”
“Which by your own showing she won’t be,” put in Spruce parenthetically.
“—I’ll marry her. If not, I’ll go away and let Bracken make her his wife.”
Spruce rose with a yawn. “I fancy Madame Alpenny will have a word or two to say to that, my dear fellow. Why don’t you skip now?”
“Because I admire Zara and mean to give her the chance of accepting or rejecting me,” said Hench doggedly. “Also, I can’t leave London for a few weeks, as I have to interview my father’s lawyers.”
“I can’t tell you. My father left certain papers with his lawyers which were to be given to me when I attained the age of twenty-five. My birthday arrives shortly, and then I’ll see what is to be done.”
“It sounds like a mystery,” yawned Spruce, apparently in a listless manner, but secretly all agog to learn what the lawyers of his friend knew; “Madame Alpenny says you are a mystery.”
“Me!” Hench laughed scornfully; “why, there’s nothing mysterious about me. As you said just now, I am a simple person who places all his cards on the table.”
“Yes”—Spruce nodded—“more fool you. Now, if you will only allow that old woman to think that there really is a mystery connected with you—and there seems to be so far as this legal interview is concerned—she may give you a chance of becoming her daughter’s husband.”
“Perhaps! But why does she think me a mystery?”
“I can’t tell you. She was very vague about the matter. She declares that she has seen you somewhere and that you have a history.”
“History be hanged. My father had sufficient money to travel about and put me to school at Winchester. When I left I joined him, and we went through Europe to this place and that until he died and was buried in Paris. What mystery is there about that?”
“None. But your family—?”
“I haven’t got any save my father, who is dead. And he told me very little about himself or his belongings. We are a Welsh family, I believe.”
“Hench isn’t a Welsh name.”
“Owain is, anyhow, and the spelling is old Welsh,” retorted the other.
“True. We used to rag you about the spelling at school. Well, with such a name as that, you might find out the truth about your family.”
“I’m not curious.”
“You should be then, as I would be if I were in your shoes. For all you know there may be a title and money waiting for you.”
“Oh, rubbish! Well, you can tell Madame Alpenny what I have told you. No. On second thoughts, I’ll tell her myself. She and her mystery, indeed!” and with a scornful nod Hench left the bleak smoking-room.
Spruce reflected that Hench was a simpleton to be so frank about his private affairs, and had not changed, so far as trusting people went, since his school-days. “Also there is a mystery,” he mused. “I’ll search it out.”
Everyone, without exception, was glad that Hench had returned, for he appeared to be a favourite with all. And not the least pleased to see him was the boy Simon Jedd, commonly called “Bottles.” He was a freckled, red-haired, laughing youngster of fifteen, with a wide mouth and a snub nose, not by any manner of means handsome, but genial and cheerful and extremely honest. He helped Amelia with the house-work, ran errands, waited at table, cleaned the boots of the paying guests, and earned his scanty wages by making himself uncommonly useful on all and every occasion. But being a restless youth, and much given at odd moments to reading books of highly-coloured adventure in the form of penny stories, he had a soul above his drudgery, and longed with all his heart to face dangers of the most pronounced kind. Such a lad was bound to have some sort of actual hero to worship and adore.
In Hench, Bottles saw exactly the pioneering type, which was his ideal of perfect manhood, and he looked upon the young man as the model of all the virtues which most appealed to him. This being the case, he never could do enough to prove his devotion. No bed was so well made as that of Hench; no room was kept so spotlessly clean, and no boots were so highly polished. Half amused and half touched by this genuine hero-worship, Hench lent the boy books of travel, told him about his adventures in far lands, gave him odd shillings to patronize the local picture palace and music-hall, and generally treated him in a way which made the heart of the boy swell with pride. It was no wonder that Bottles adored him and could never do enough for him.
On the morning after his return, Hench found his clothes well brushed, his bath ready, and a cup of tea at his elbow, while Bottles hovered round the room wondering what else he could do to show his rejoicing spirit. In his shabby patched clothes, and wearing an apron of green baize, Bottles grinned respectfully when Hench sat up in bed to drink his tea. He also supplied him with small-beer chronicles concerning events which had taken place in The Home of the Muses during his hero’s absence. Hench cared very little for such gossip, but allowed Bottles to prattle on because it pleased the lad. And certainly Master Jedd might have been a detective, so full and clever was his report. In the course of his narrative he arrived at Spruce. Then Hench really did listen, for, simple as he was, he began to wonder if the Nut had given his true reason for this visit to Bethnal Green.
“Such a swell as he is, ain’t he?” babbled Bottles, who was now slipping links and studs into Hench’s shirt. “I never did see a cove come with so many boxes, sir. Must be rich, I think, though he ain’t free with his money. Says he knew you at school, sir, he does. True, ain’t it?”
“Quite true, Bottles!” replied Hench, nodding. “I haven’t seen him for eight or more years.”
“And you don’t like him now you do see him, do you, sir?”
“Why should you say that?”
“Well, sir”—Bottles scratched his scarlet poll—“he don’t seem to me to be quite your style. There ain’t no Buffalo Bill, Pathfinder business about him. If you don’t mind my saying so, sir, I don’t think it’s cricket his winning all that foreign lady’s jewellery at cards, nohow.”
“That’s none of your business, Bottles.”
“Sorry, sir. But I can’t help seeing and thinking when I do see. And what’s a swell like him doing down here, I’d like to know?”
“You’d better ask him.”
“And get a clip on the ears for my pains, sir. Not me. Though I dessay he ain’t the cove to hit out.”
“Too kind-hearted?” asked Hench, amused.
“Well,” said Bottles slowly, “I shouldn’t use them words myself. Mr. Spruce is the kind of feller who’d trip you up when you wasn’t looking; but I don’t think he’d meet any one’s eye straight. Seems to me as he might have done a glide, if you take me, sir.”
“I don’t take you, Bottles?”
“Bolted, mizzled, cut away,” explained the boy earnestly. “Swells don’t come to this place for fun.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy. Mr. Spruce has only come here to gather material for a book he is writing.”
“Oh, he says that, do he, sir? Well, I don’t think! Ho! I’ll keep my eye on all the illustrated papers and see if his picture’s in ‘em.”
“Why should his picture be in them?”
Bottles shook his head mysteriously and skipped lightly towards the door. He saw that Hench did not approve of his groundless suspicions, so made up his mind to say no more. All the same, having got the idea that Spruce had “done something” into his head, which came from reading too many penny-dreadful romances, he made up his mind to watch the Nut. This he did not tell his hero lest he should be forbidden to “follow the trail,” as he put it. Therefore he held his tongue and removed himself swiftly.
While Hench took his bath and dressed slowly, he wondered if by chance the boy had hit the mark. It did appear to be strange that a well-to-do and fashionable young man should come and live amidst such sordid surroundings. Spruce’s story of gathering material for a novel was plausible enough, yet somehow it did not ring true. Hench, as the Nut thought with some degree of truth, was a very simple and unsuspicious person, but he was not quite such a fool as Mr. Spruce imagined him to be. Affable as the young man had been, and pleased as he was with his old schoolfellow’s offer of pecuniary aid, he could not bring himself to like the Cherub. His dandified dress, his mincing ways, his gorgeous array and use of perfume, irritated the rough-and-ready manhood of Hench. He sensed something poisonous about the little man, and resolved very rightly to be wary in his dealings with him. Moreover, Spruce was altogether too curious about matters which did not concern him, though why he should be so Hench was unable to say. The Nut had made himself acquainted with the affairs of every one in the house since his arrival, and knew much which could not possibly interest him. However, if he had come to Bethnal Green to plot and contrive, it would be a case of diamond cut diamond, for Hench guessed that Bottles would keep his eye on the little man’s doings. And the eye of Bottles was sharp, while the brain of Bottles was keen; so the schemes of Mr. Spruce would be baffled in the end, always presuming that he really had any.
“But it’s all bosh,” said Hench aloud to himself, as he made ready to go down to breakfast. “Spruce has come here to write a book, and it’s silly of me to make a mountain out of a molehill. I daresay he’ll grow tired of this dull life here and cut away back to the West End. Upon my word I shan’t be sorry when he goes. Strange that Bottles should dislike him so thoroughly. He’s a sharp lad, is Bottles, and doesn’t usually make mistakes.”
Having unloaded his mind in this soliloquy, Hench descended to breakfast and enjoyed that meal all alone, as he was late and every one was out. Spruce, indeed, was having breakfast in his room, and of this Hench was glad, as he always liked to read the newspaper while drinking his coffee. This would have been impossible had such a chattering magpie as the Nut been present. But he did not escape the attentions of his old schoolfellow entirely, for Spruce made his appearance just as he finished eating. The Nut wore a suit of cream-coloured serge with a black necktie, black boots, black gloves, and a black hat of soft felt. Hench stared.
“I say, you look like a negative,” he remonstrated. “Don’t go out in that get-up or you’ll be mobbed.”
“Oh, no,” said Spruce smoothly; “only pointed at. I’m accustomed to that, as I have put on a different suit every day since coming here. It must be a pleasure for these Bethnal Green rotters to see a well-dressed man.”
“I don’t mind a fellow being well dressed,” retorted Hench with emphasis, “but I do object to over-dressing.”
Spruce shrugged his shoulders. “You never did care to look decent.”
“I’m decent enough; confound your impudence!”
“What with that shaggy beard and shabby clothes, and—”
“There! There! Keep off the grass, Spruce. My clothes are well enough, although I do admit my beard is a trifle out of place. But when I returned from South America six months ago I never bothered to shave. Too much trouble.”
“Well, if I were a good-looking chap such as you are, I would pay more attention to my appearance. Coming out for a walk?”
“No. Not with you in that get-up!”
Spruce laughed. “Rum sort of chap you are to object to a fellow dressing decently. However, have it your own way. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
Hench nodded absently and filled his pipe, while Spruce departed to delight the jeering inhabitants of Bethnal Green. And they did jeer, in what Spruce considered their coarse, common, vulgar way, but did not manage to upset him in the least. He was much too conceited to think that he could possibly be wrong in his selection of clothes. And it must be confessed that, as the day was hot even for July, he looked wonderfully cool and comfortable in his white garb. The men jeered, but for the most part the women admired him, and so long as he gained admiration from the fair sex Spruce was wholly content. So he screwed in his eye-glass and strutted and smiled, and made a progress through the main streets of Bethnal Green with a heroism worthy of a better cause. And it was heroism in a way to venture amongst the great unwashed in such fantastic clothes, although in Spruce it took the form of absolute vanity, and a certainty that he was “a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.”
As the day was warm and sunny the Nut did not return to luncheon, but enjoyed that meal in a City restaurant. He did not risk travelling beyond Fleet Street, lest he should stumble against some former friend who certainly would not be amiably disposed. Like the Peri, Spruce stood at the Gates of Paradise, but did not dare to venture in, so after a long look up the Strand, which was closed to him, he returned gloomily to Bethnal Green. But by the time he reached The Home of the Muses, he felt much better, as his nature was too shallow for him to be impressed strongly by any emotion—sorrowful or joyful. It was late in the afternoon when he entered the dingy drawing-room, and here he found Hench and Madame Alpenny enjoying the regulation tea. Zara, it appeared, was lying down to refresh herself for the evening’s performance, and Bracken was attending a rehearsal. As for Mrs. Tesk, her mind was engaged with the approaching dinner, and she was consulting the cook in the kitchen.
As soon as Bottles, who was attending to the meal, saw Spruce stepping in he became at once upon the alert, and devoured him with his light blue eyes. Hench, noticing this espionage, sent the lad away to get fresh tea, as he did not approve of Bottles watching and listening to what did not concern him. Madame Alpenny smiled blandly when Spruce entered and complimented him on his cool looks. She was hot herself, and this was little to be wondered at, as she wore her constant black dress with the orange spots, her picture hat and her heavy bead mantle. The Nut wondered if she had any other clothes, as she never seemed to wear another garb.
“You are just in time, Mr. Spruce,” said Madame Alpenny in her lively way, and after she had paid her compliment. “Tell me what you know of Mr. Hench here.”
Spruce stared. “Why do you ask me that?”
“Indeed you may well ask,” said Hench with a frown, “as you cannot answer the question. But Madame here will not permit me to pay attention to Mademoiselle Zara until she knows more about me.”
“I am a good mother, you see, and must consider my daughter’s happiness,” was the reply of the Hungarian lady, as she took the freshly filled teapot from Bottles and sent him out of the room again.
“If that is the case,” said Spruce politely, “then you must allow her to become Mrs. Bracken.”
“Certainly I shall not. Ah, but you are smiling.”
“Indeed, I think your daughter will only be happy with Bracken,” insisted the Nut lightly. “He loves her, and I think that she loves him.”
“In that case,” commented Madame with a shrug and glancing at Hench, “there is no chance for you.”
“I admire Mademoiselle Zara and wish to make her my wife,” said Hench steadily. “I am young and strong, and will soon make a fortune.”
“So far you have been unsuccessful,” she replied dryly; “and for my daughter I prefer a ready-made fortune.” Her eyes rested on Spruce as she spoke. The little man did not take the hint, but chuckled softly in his hateful fashion, so she was obliged to go on. “Tell me, Mr. Spruce, what do you know of Mr. Hench?”
“Only that he is the best fellow in the world.”
Hench frowned. “I don’t see how you can swear to that, seeing we have not met for eight years.”
“Oh, you were always a good sort of chap,” said Spruce gaily. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you haven’t enough brains to be wicked. It takes a clever person to sin properly.”
“Ah, but you will amuse yourself with this talk,” broke in Madame, smiling. “I want a good man for my daughter.”
“Take Bracken, then. He’s a bit of a bounder, but decent enough.”
The old woman pursed up her lips and shook her head. After a few moments of reflection she spoke freely. “My daughter must marry money, and neither you, Mr. Hench, nor Mr. Bracken have any money. I will not allow you to pay your addresses to her. Nor will Zara receive them. She is a good girl and loves her old mother.”
“Well, Hench,” said Spruce, when this speech was ended, “now you know. Are you not heart-broken?”
“No!” retorted Hench sharply. “Nor am I defeated. Zara will decide.”
“She will decide what I order her to decide!” cried Madame Alpenny furiously. “And my daughter is not for you, Mr. Hench!”
“I should prefer to discuss that question privately,” said the young man in a stiff, haughty way; “there is no need for Mr. Spruce to be present.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” chimed in the Nut reproachfully; “I may be able to help you, old fellow. You don’t go the right way to work.”
“It’s my own way,” snapped Hench restlessly, and objecting to interference.
“Then it’s the wrong way,” snapped Spruce in his turn. “Remember that Madame Alpenny thinks you are a mystery. Use that to help you.”
“In what way?” Hench opened his brown eyes.
“Mysterious persons are always interesting, and if Madame here finds that you may turn out to be some one great, who knows but what she may change her mind?”
“Are you something great?” asked the lady, addressing Hench quickly.
“No. I am nobody, and will remain nobody. Why should you think that I am, what you call, a mystery?”
“It is hard to say,” she answered dreamily and staring hard at him. “I have seen eyes like yours somewhere. They are connected with a story—a kind of family mystery. But I can’t remember to whom those eyes belonged.”
“Perhaps you have met our friend here before,” suggested the Nut eagerly.
“No!” said Madame positively, and Hench also shook his head. “I met him here for the first time. The person who had eyes like him I met—or I fancy I met—some twenty years ago. But it is all vague and uncertain. Yet I feel that the story I allude to is here”—she touched her forehead—“a mere word will bring it back to my memory.”
“Then let us try and find the magic word,” cried the irrepressible Spruce. “I am desperately curious myself to fathom a mystery which the person concerned in it does not guess.”
“Meaning me,” said Hench tartly. “You are talking rubbish.”
“Sense, sense, common-sense. When the mystery is discovered you may be able to marry Mademoiselle Zara.”
“There is no mystery about me, I tell you.”
“Well, I am not so sure of that,” remarked the little man, in spite of his friend’s frown. “You don’t know anything about your family, as you admitted to me. Yet I dare swear that those papers you are to inspect at your lawyers’ in a few weeks, when you arrive at the age of twenty-five, may contain a history which will astonish you.”
“Papers at your lawyers’,” echoed Madame Alpenny, looking excited; “is that so?” Hench reluctantly admitted that such was the case. “But I don’t suppose that anything I don’t know will come to my knowledge.”
“Who knows,” observed the old lady thoughtfully. “Mr. Spruce is right. This hint of mystery interests me in you and makes me more ready to entertain your proposal to marry Zara. If you turned out to be wealthy—”
“I never will, I tell you,” insisted Hench crossly.
“Then why are these mysterious papers in existence? No! believe me, they have a story to tell. I am better disposed towards you because of those papers, as who knows to what they may lead. Mr. Spruce is right about a mystery interesting me, and I congratulate Mr. Spruce. He ought to be in the diplomatic service. His knowledge of human nature does him credit.”
Evidently both Madame and the Cherub were bent upon building a castle in the air, as Hench could not think that the papers in question were likely to make him a rich man. His father had never been rich, and knowing the sybaritism of his deceased parent, the young man was pretty certain that if there had been any money about, the elder Hench would have obtained it to waste. “You are both wrong,” he said gloomily. “There is not likely to be a fortune waiting for me when I read those papers. My name is a commonplace one, and I have every reason to believe that my family is commonplace also. My father never gave me any information about his parents. All I know is that his name was Owain Hench, as mine is, and that he once or twice remarked that his youth had been passed in some Welsh place, called Rhaiadr!”
The effect of this last word on Madame was astonishing. She turned quite pale with sudden emotion, her large dark eyes blazed into vivid life and she clapped her hands loudly. “Rhaiadr! Owain of Rhaiadr! The word means water tumbling over a rock—a waterfall. Ah, yes, and so they call a torrent in the barbarous country of Wales.”
Hench stared at her, not understanding this outburst, but Spruce, much more alive to what was meant, laughed and nodded. “We have hit upon the magic word, it seems,” he observed, all on the alert for knowledge. “Tell us who was the owner of the eyes which were like those of Hench’s, Madame?”
“Your father had such eyes,” said Madame, turning to the astonished man.
“My father!”—Hench started to his feet—“you have never met my father. Why, he died about five years ago.”
Madame nodded complacently and signed that he should seat himself again. “Ah, is that so? He is dead, then. Oh, but I did meet him, Mr. Hench. Some twenty years back—it was in Buda Pesth. I remember it all”—she pressed her jewelled fingers to her forehead—“it all comes back to me.”
“Tell us about it, then,” suggested Spruce eagerly.
“Bah!” said Hench rather rudely, “it’s all imagination.”
“Indeed it is not,” protested Madame, gesticulating. “If it were so, how would I know that Rhaiadr meant a waterfall and was in Wales, a country I know nothing about? Owain of Rhaiadr!—that is what your father called himself.”
“Owain is my Christian name, and was my father’s before me. But we don’t live in the Middle Ages, when a man was known by his first name being connected with a town, or village, or county, or country. Owain Hench of Rhaiadr, if you like, Madame.”
The woman shook her head and her eyes sparkled like diamonds. “Ah, but it is not so. Owain of Rhaiadr was what your father said. I remember we were sitting on the terrace of the hotel, and feeling ill, he sought my sympathy. Ah, my friend, and more than my sympathy. He wished to marry me.”
“Marry you!” Hench stared at the withered old woman in amazement.
“Why not? I was a handsome young widow in those days and had some money. Afterwards I lost it, being unlucky at cards.”
“Well, let us hope that to make up for your loss you were lucky in love,” said Spruce affably.
“No! I did not wish to marry again, as I was devoted to the memory of my English husband. But I liked your father, Mr. Hench, even though I refused to become his wife. He was not rich, you understand, so it was useless for me to marry a poor man. But I liked him because he was well-bred and sympathetic in many ways. How it all comes back to me. I told him of my daughter, who was with her nurse in the gardens below the terrace, and he informed me that he had a son of four or five, who was in England being looked after by strangers.”
“By strangers,” echoed Hench bitterly; “that is true. All my life I have had to do with strangers.”
“Ah, but, my friend, it was not the fault of your good father,” said Madame in a hurried tone. “His young wife—your mother—died early, and it was impossible for your father to travel about the Continent with a baby—as you were.”
“A baby of over four years old could have travelled well enough,” said Hench in a sombre tone; “but my father never cared about me over-much. He—” here the young man checked himself, as he did not wish to discuss his father in the presence of Spruce, although he might have done so with Madame Alpenny, since he desired to marry her daughter. After a pause he continued: “Well, did my father tell you his family history?”
It was quite one minute before the old lady answered this question. She reflected deeply, with her eyes searching his handsome face, then shook her head sadly. “No! We were not so confidential as that. We met several times again, but as I refused to marry him, your father went away to Paris. I never saw him again, but the memory of his eyes remained, and those same eyes you now use to look at me suggested my old romance.”
“They would not have done so but for the magic word Rhaiadr,” said Spruce in brisk tones. “Well, Hench, you see that there is a mystery.”
“There is not,” declared the young man sharply and much vexed. “Your mystery resolves itself into what Madame here calls her romance. My father asked her to marry him and she refused. Very wisely, I think,” he added, as if to himself—“she would never have been happy.”
Madame overheard him, shrugged her shoulders, and rose, looking more shapeless in figure and more untidy in dress than ever. “In any case, I have never been happy,” she said sadly, “so it does not matter. But I am now inclined to consider your proposal to pay attentions to Zara.”
“He is not yet rich, remember,” put in Spruce, grinning.
“Mind your own business,” said Hench vehemently.
“No”—Madame’s tone was peculiar—“and perhaps he never may be rich. But if Zara likes you, I am not sure but what I will not allow you to marry her. No, I have not yet quite made up my mind. Give me time to think”—she moved ponderously towards the door. “Owain of Rhaiadr! Ah, if you were only able to call yourself that. Well, who knows,” and with a mysterious nod she disappeared.
“Queer thing, coming across an old flame of your father’s in Queer Street,” said the Nut affably. “What do you think?”
“I think,” said Hench in anything but an amiable tone, “that you had better mind your own damned business.”
Spruce was by no means offended. “As you will, although you should be sensible enough to use my brains to help you with your family mystery.”
“There is no mystery. How often am I to repeat that?” And Hench walked away fuming with rage at the little man’s persistence.
Hench felt annoyed with himself for talking so freely about his private affairs in the presence of Spruce, yet he could not see how he could have done otherwise. Madame Alpenny, disregarding the obvious fact that his proposal for her daughter’s hand was not for public discussion, had appealed to the little man for information concerning the suitor, and in this way the Nut had been drawn into the conversation. If was not that Hench affected reticence, as he was a singularly frank man; or that there was anything to conceal in his past life, since that was free from punishable misdeeds. But it irritated him that Spruce should meddle, as the man appeared to have a finger in everybody’s pie, and Hench saw no reason why he should have anything to do with this particular pastry. For this reason he gave his old schoolfellow the cold shoulder.
Spruce objected to this, as it was his aim to ingratiate himself, with a view to possible happenings which would place him in possession of money. At the outset Hench’s friendship had not appeared to be worth cultivating, as he was poor, aggressively honest, and not at all a man to be exploited by the unscrupulous. But after Hench’s confidence regarding the papers at the lawyers’, Spruce scented a mystery which might be profitable. His suspicions, which at the outset were of the very faintest description, received colour and were rendered more substantial by the knowledge that Madame Alpenny had been acquainted with the young man’s father. Spruce had noted her hesitation in replying to the question concerning the telling of the family history, and was satisfied in his own mind that she knew more than she would admit. The fact that after the conversation in the drawing-room she was willing to consider the proposal of marriage to Zara, implied that there was something in the wind. Having regard to Madame Alpenny’s poverty and to her desire that Zara should marry a wealthy man, that something undoubtedly had to do with money. As yet Spruce was very vague about the whole matter, as his information was not accurate enough to enable him to act. But the key to the mystery, whatever it might be, was in the possession of Madame Alpenny, therefore the Nut watched her carefully. If she was agreeable that Zara should become the wife of Hench, there was certainly money to be gained by her as the result of the marriage; and if Hench was likely to possess riches, Spruce made up his mind to share in the same.
For this reason he ignored the young man’s bearish manner and scant civility, which otherwise he would not have tolerated. Spruce was amiability itself, and went out of his way to amuse the paying guests, so that Mrs. Tesk looked upon him as quite an acquisition. He played the piano, he sang songs, he performed conjuring tricks, and made himself generally agreeable. Also he escorted Zara to the Bijou Music-hall and there became acquainted with the management, with the stage hands, and with the hangers-on of the profession. In a week he was quite at home behind the scenes, and even became friendly with Mrs. Jedd, who was the mother of Bottles, and the wardrobe mistress. In fact, he ingratiated himself with every one and was highly popular; meantime watching Madame Alpenny with the ardour of a cat at a mouse-hole, and giving his best attentions to Hench. These were so coldly received that finally he remonstrated in a most plaintive manner.
“I don’t see why you should be so confoundedly disagreeable,” he said after seven days of hard work to be polite; “we are two gentlemen who are stranded here, and may as well chum up for the sake of company.”
“I don’t wish to chum up, as you call it, with any one,” retorted Hench coldly.
“Not with Zara?” Spruce could not help giving his friend the dig.
“That is my business.”
“I never suggested otherwise. But I would point out that Madame Alpenny’s resolve to consider your marriage proposition favourably is due to me. Had I not guided the conversation as I did, she would never have remembered her meeting with your father. It is the romance of that which has inclined her to permit your wooing.”
“Madame Alpenny would have remembered without your help.”
“I think not. You have been here along with her for six months and have had endless conversations. But until I made a third—”
“An inconvenient third.”
“Oh, as you will. But until I made a third, she did not recollect the adventure of her youth which has softened her towards you. This being the case, I don’t see why you should hold me at arm’s length.”
“I am not taking the trouble to consider you in any way,” said Hench in his most freezing manner. “We were never chums at school, and I see nothing in you to make me more friendly now. It is true that you offered to help me with money, but as I don’t require your help in that way, I lie under no obligation to you. Why the dickens can’t you go back to the West End?”
“I shall go back,” lied Spruce, “when I gather sufficient material for my proposed book. Meanwhile, my friend—”
“Meanwhile,” repeated Hench, cutting him short, “suppose you mind your own business and leave mine alone.”
“Had I left your business alone, Madame Alpenny would not now be so agreeable to you, old fellow,” said Spruce, persistently polite. “However, since you object, I shall meddle no more. All the same, if I can do you a good turn I am perfectly willing to do so.”
“Don’t be worthy and pose as a bed-rock Christian!”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” sighed the little man, who knew perfectly well what was implied; “but as you are bent upon making yourself disagreeable, you will be pleased to hear that I am returning to the West End to-morrow for a few days.”
“I hope you’ll stay there,” growled Hench wrathfully, and quite unable to get rid of this gadfly. “I prefer to be alone.”
“You will be more alone than you think,” retorted Spruce tartly. “Madame Alpenny is going away also for a few days. She told Mrs. Tesk, who told me.”
“Just like you, to go interfering with other people’s business, Spruce. Madame Alpenny can go away without the world coming to an end.” He paused, then asked a question which he immediately regretted having put. “Where’s she going?”
“Ah!” Spruce chuckled cynically, “you are curious in spite of your pretended dislike to meddle with what doesn’t concern you. Well, she is going to see if any West End manager will come to see Zara dancing at the Bijou Music-hall, with a view to getting her daughter a better engagement.”
“I hope she will succeed,” said Hench heartily. “Zara is a rare dancer and well deserves better luck.”
“If she goes, you will be parted.”
“Oh, hang your interference!” cried Hench, and walked out of the smoking-room.
“Better make hay while the sun shines,” Spruce called out after him, and, after his usual manner, chuckled when the door banged by way of reply.
There appeared to be a perfect exodus from The Home of the Muses, for Bracken also became conspicuous by his absence. He went to see his mother at Folkestone, who was a widow, as news came that her health was not what it might be. But the greatest surprise was when Bottles came to Hench on the morning of the exodus, dressed in his best clothes and smiling all over his freckled face. He was blushing also, which was a rare thing for the imp to do, and made a request which accounted for the same.
“Would you mind, sir—I mean, am I asking too much—that is, if you won’t think it sauce on my part,” he stumbled amongst his words and blushed deeper.
“Out with it, Bottles! What is it? Speak straight and to the point.”
Jedd did so and very bluntly. “I want you to lend me five shillings, sir. Oh, I’ll pay it back out of my wages at sixpence a week, see if I don’t”—the boy went through a pantomine—“that wet; that dry; cut my throat if I tell a lie.”
Hench, who had every reason to trust Bottles, and who considered him to be a lad with a future if clever wits went for anything, produced a couple of half-crowns from his slender resources. “There you are! You needn’t pay me back.”
“Oh, but I will, sir, thanking you all the same,” said Bottles, pocketing the cash. “Mother’s brought me up proper, she has, and always told me never to borrer. But I can’t help borrering this time; it’s business.”
“Private,” said the lad stiffly; “but the five bob shall be paid back, honest, Mr. Hench.”
“Well, Bottles, I admire your principles and will accept the sixpence a week repayment. But why are you so excited and why this splendour of dress?”
“I’m going down the country to see my brother, sir.”
“Your brother. I never knew you had a brother.”
“Oh, yes sir, please. We’re twins, we are, and I’m the elder by half an hour, as mother always says. Peter’s a page in a lady’s house in the country, and Mrs. Tesk allows me to go and see him sometimes. I asked her if I could go to-day, and she said that as Mr. Spruce and Mr. Bracken and Madame Alpenny were away for a few days, and there wouldn’t be much work, that she would let me go.”
“Well,” said Hench with a good-natured laugh, “I hope you’ll enjoy yourself, my lad. So you are Simon and your brother is Peter. Eh?”
“Yes, sir. Called after the Chief Apostle, sir. Mother reads her Bible even though she’s only looking after the clothes at the Bijour Music-hall. I’m going to stay away for two days, Mr. Hench, and p’raps three. But I won’t waste my time; oh no, not much, you bet, sir.”
“What do you mean?” asked his patron, considerably mystified.
“I’ll tell you some day, sir, as you’ve a right to know.”
“What I’ve got up my sleeve. It may be rot, and it may be something else. All I can tell you, sir, is, that when the time comes, you’ll know. S’elp me Bob, I’ll tell you everything,” and Bottles panted with excitement.
“Bottles, you’ve muddled your brain with your adventure and detective penny-dreadful yarns. Well, go on your Sexton Blake errand, and mind you have a good time. I shall miss your attentions, though,” ended Hench kindly.
“I hope you won’t miss ‘em very much, sir. I’ve told Amelia to see as you get everything you want. She’s only a gal, but she’ll do her best for my sake, sir,” ended Bottles grandly. “She and me’s going to marry when we’re rich.”
“Go away, you precocious imp, and don’t talk nonsense.”
“There’s many a true word spoke in nonsense, as mother says, sir. She’s great on proverbs, is mother!” and with this parting shot Bottles rapidly disappeared, grinning amiably and very much excited. Hench wondered at the boy’s mysterious hints and could not for the life of him see how they could have anything to do with his own affairs. However, thinking that Bottles was merely drawing on his imagination, he dismissed the matter from his mind.
And, indeed, for the next few days, and until the return of the absent, the young man found his hands full enough. Zara being alone, with neither her mother nor Bracken at her elbow, Hench thought that he might as well take advantage of the opportunity to carry on an uninterrupted wooing. He escorted Zara to the music-hall and escorted her home again. He took her sundry walks, gave her sundry meals in restaurants, and provided her with cheap amusements in the form of cinematograph entertainments. Zara, who really liked Hench, was very grateful for his attentions, but she resolutely refused to allow him to make love to her. With the dexterity of a woman she managed to keep him at arm’s length; but one evening while he conducted her to business the young man managed to get nearer to his divinity. Certainly the crowded streets, flaring with gas-lights, were unfit surroundings for love-making. But Hench had to carry on his romance as best he could, since Zara was so clever in throwing obstacles in his way. On this occasion, however, he broke through them.
“You are very cruel to me,” he remarked, after many minutes of desultory conversation, and seizing the opportunity when the pair turned down into a quiet side street, “very cruel indeed.”
The handsome girl was silent for a moment or so. “It’s no use my pretending to misunderstand you, Mr. Hench,” she said at length. “What’s the time?”
Rather surprised by the irrelevance of the question, Hench looked at his very cheap watch. “Eight o’clock.”
“Well, I’m not on until a quarter to nine, and although I do take a long time to dress, I can give you ten minutes.”
“Oh, thank you, Zara. You are—”
“Don’t make any mistake, Mr. Hench. I won’t have those ten minutes spent in love-making, which would bore me and waste your time.”
“No time spent upon you is wasted, Zara.”
“There you are wrong. It is time we had an explanation. So long as mother objected to you as she does to Ned—”
“I mean to Mr. Bracken,” said Zara, colouring and wincing. “Well then, so long as she was in that frame of mind, I let things slide. But now mother seems inclined to consider you as a possible son-in-law, and I must appeal to you.”
“Command me in any way.”
“Then don’t worry me with attentions. Oh, I don’t mind your behaving like a gentleman, as you have been doing, to pass the time while mother is away. I am very grateful to you for the amusement you have given me. But”—added the girl, leaning against the railings of a convenient dwelling-house—“I am not in love with you, no more than you are with me.”
“I do love you,” said Hench, frowning; “what’s the use of saying otherwise?”
“You don’t love me, I tell you,” insisted Zara petulantly. “Trust a woman to understand the exact state of a man’s heart. You like me, you admire me, you think me a good sort, but love”—she shook her head—“you don’t understand love as Ned—I mean, Mr. Bracken—does.”
“Oh, call him Ned by all means,” said Hench quietly. “I see you are friendly enough with him to do so.”
“I am engaged to him.”
“With your mother’s consent?”
“No. You know very well that mother wants me to marry a rich man, and Ned is poor, although he does hope to get a few hundred pounds now that his mother is dying. I love him and I intend somehow to marry him.”
“That is unpleasant hearing for me, Zara.”
“Indeed, it isn’t, Mr. Hench. I know quite well what has led you to propose marriage to me—”
“I never have proposed as yet,” interpolated Hench quickly.
“No. But you intended to. If I had not prevented you from going too far these last few days you would have proposed. Come now, isn’t that the truth?”
“Yes! And to make you understand me fully I ask you now to be my wife.”
“Then I refuse. I love Ned, and Ned only, even though he’s but a poor violinist in the orchestra and earns little money. He loves me also, and in a way which you cannot comprehend.”
“Because your heart has never been touched either by me or by any other woman. It’s no use your saying that it has been. I know you better than you do yourself, Mr. Hench.”
The young man felt slightly mortified. “You appear to have a bad opinion of me, Mademoiselle.”
“Indeed, I have a most excellent opinion of you. Make no mistake about that, Mr. Hench. You are an honourable gentleman; you are extremely kind-hearted and you will be an admirable husband—to the woman you love.”
“You are the woman, believe me!” cried Hench impetuously.
Zara shook her proud head, smiling, and looked less fierce than usual. “Oh, what children men are. They want a toy and cry when they don’t get it, yet break it when it is in their possession. I am the toy, Mr. Hench, and you are the child who wants it.”
“And if I got the toy I would break it. Eh?”
“Yes,” said the dancer frankly, and began to walk on slowly, as the ten minutes were nearly up, “and I’ll tell you why. You are a lonely man, who has no home, no relations, no centre in life, if I may put it so. Having an intensely domestic nature—that nature which makes an admirable husband, a devoted father, and which is domestic in its essence—you want a wife to create a centre round which you can revolve. I happen to be passably good-looking, to have some good qualities, and to be an agreeable companion. Therefore, liking me, you mistake that liking for love, and offer me a respectable but dull future. Any other woman, decently kind and presentable, would suit you just as well as I would, and with her you would believe yourself to be in love as you think you are with me. But a happy marriage is not built up upon such a foundation, Mr. Hench, believe me. A woman wants love, she wants a heart. You can give me neither.”
“And Mr. Bracken can?”
“Yes! Otherwise I wouldn’t marry him. If mother is successful and can get me a West End engagement, I daresay I’ll have plenty of men fluttering about me, and can pick and choose amongst lovers of higher rank and with more money than poor Ned has. But I won’t find one who loves me as he does.”
“I don’t quite understand the kind of love you mean,” murmured Hench, perplexed.
“Of course you don’t, for the very simple reason that you require an explanation. True love comes from within and not from without. When you really feel the passion you require no explanation. Come and tell me when you really fall in love, Mr. Hench, if I am not right.”
“Where did you learn how to talk in this way?” asked Hench, who was beginning to see that she was right.
“Experience has taught me, and experience is a great teacher. I am older than you think, Mr. Hench.”
“You are only three and twenty. Your mother told me so.”
“I am older in experience, for you know that a woman is always twice as old as a man in the ways of the world. However, here is the Bijou, and I must go in to get ready for my work. You understand what I mean, don’t you?”
“Yes. I daresay my love is of a very feeble quality.”
“Don’t be bitter and don’t pity yourself, Mr. Hench. Your liking for me is perfectly honourable, and I am sure you would make a kind husband. But love—you know nothing of love. I said that before, I fancy, and I say it again.” She offered her gloved hand. “Come! Let us be friends, nothing nearer, nothing dearer. Otherwise you will make me unhappy.”
Round the corner of the music-hall, where no one was about, Hench bent over Zara’s hand and kissed it. “Let it be as you say,” he said firmly; “all the same, I envy Bracken his future wife.”
“You will meet a woman who will suit you better than I will,” Zara assured him, and her great black eyes shone. “When you do, come and tell me how wholly correct I have been. And another thing, Mr. Hench, don’t let mother bully me about you.”
“There’s no chance. I am too poor to be your husband so far as Madame Alpenny is concerned, even though she likes me better than she did.”
Zara looked at him curiously. “Are you sure that you are poor?” she asked in an enigmatic tone, and then ran into the music-hall, through the dark stage door, before he could reply.
Hench strolled home leisurely, wondering what she meant by her last speech. Of course he was poor. She knew it; so did Madame Alpenny; so did every one in the boarding-house. Yet she implied a doubt. Resolving to ask for an explanation when occasion served, the young man dismissed this particular matter from his mind, and thought of his misfortune in losing Zara. He had always admired her, and now that she had spoken to him so eloquently he admired her more than ever. Hitherto more or less silent, she had never displayed the common-sense qualities of her mind before. Therefore Hench saw that she was not only a handsome woman and an accomplished girl, but had considerable mental powers. Otherwise she could scarcely have placed the truth so plainly before him as she had done. And with a sigh the pseudo-lover confessed that it was the truth. What he felt was not love, for, although he regretted his dismissal from the wooing of a noble woman, he by no means felt broken-hearted, as Bracken would have done. Hench recognized that his desire for Zara was only a strong wish for a home and a wife and a family, and—as she put it—for a centre round which his life could revolve. Having arrived at this conclusion he decided to leave the girl alone, and wait until fortune brought him to the feet of his true mate. “And I must have some sort of mate in the world, anyhow,” added Hench to himself, by way of comfort.
Henceforth the relations of the two were much more unembarrassed, for it was a brother and sister connection—frank and markedly comfortable. During the remainder of Madame Alpenny’s absence, Hench took Zara about as usual, and she confided in him her love for Bracken, her plans for the accomplishment of that love, and her many difficulties with her mother. Madame Alpenny, it seemed, was by no means an angel, as she possessed a furious temper, and wasted all her money in gambling. She was an ill woman to cross, since her nature was vindictive and eminently determined to have its own way. Zara gave Hench to understand that if she could marry Bracken and pension her mother she would be truly happy. At present she was very miserable, and only the hope of escaping from her mother’s clutches in the manner described enabled her to endure trouble. Hench, in his new character of her brother, consoled her, and promised to do what he could to forward her aims. But he did not see at the present moment how he could do anything.
Madame Alpenny returned on the third day, but the other absentees still remained away. The old woman looked very satisfied with herself, and hinted that she had done good business which would improve Zara’s position. She was markedly civil to Hench, and encouraged him greatly to pay attentions to her daughter. As the two now understood one another, to do this was easy—both for Hench to pay them and for Zara to receive them—but Madame Alpenny remained in the dark as to the true meaning of their comedy. Then, on the second day after her return, a surprising thing happened, with which she had to do. What it was Hench learned while sitting at a lonely breakfast. Madame Alpenny, who always took that meal in her own room, came down unexpectedly arrayed in a greasy dressing-gown and flourishing a newspaper in her hand. “Rhaiadr! Rhaiadr!” she called out excitedly. “What does it mean?” Hench looked at her in surprise. “Tumbling water, you told me,” he said, after an astonished pause. “Don’t you remember—?”
“No! No! I don’t mean that.” She clapped The Express on the table before him, and pointed with one chubby finger at an advertisement. “I mean, what do you make of that? Rhaiadr! No one can have anything to do with that word but your father—and you.”
Hench, more puzzled than ever by her excitement, read the advertisement upon which her finger rested. “If Rhaiadr,” he read aloud, “will come to the Gipsy Stile at Cookley, Essex, at eight o’clock on the 1st of July, he will hear of something greatly to his advantage.”
“There!” said Madame Alpenny triumphantly, and looking more shapeless than ever in her dressing-gown; “what do you think of that?”
“It has nothing to do with me,” said Hench, with a shrug.
“Nothing to do with you!” she screamed. “Why, the name Rhaiadr shows that it has everything to do with you. Go there and see what it means. Ah, I always said that you were a mystery; now I am sure of it.” And she rubbed her hands.
Hench could not help admitting that the mention of the peculiar Welsh word “Rhaiadr” in the newspaper had something to do with him. Undoubtedly he was the person whom the unknown advertiser wished to meet; but the whole matter was so strange and unexpected that he determined to think it over carefully before taking any steps. For this reason he said little to the excited Hungarian lady, who was rather annoyed by his reticence. But he did not take any notice of her hints, and retired as speedily as possible to his own room. There he lighted his pipe, sat by the window and read the advertisement twice and thrice again, after which he laid down the newspaper so that he might think more freely. And his thoughts had to do with his past life when travelling with his father.
The record of earlier days was bare enough, as Hench decided when he recalled the same. His father had paid strangers to look after him immediately after the death of Mrs. Hench, and when Owain was only five years of age. For years the lad saw very little of his parent, who was always moving from one place to another after the fashion of the Wandering Jew. Then came his education at a private school, and afterwards the wider training at Winchester. Later, Owain had expected to go to Oxford, but his father, finding the need of some one to lean upon in his old age, had summoned the boy to Berlin unexpectedly. Owain’s mysterious parent proved to be an aristocratic-looking gentleman, perfectly dressed, perfectly acquainted with the motley Continental world, and perfectly heartless. Hench senior frankly acknowledged that he cared for no one but himself, and turned his son into a kind of superior servant. The two travelled all over Europe in moderately good style, as Mr. Hench always seemed to have enough to keep him in comfort if not in luxury. But this last he also obtained by gambling, as he frequently won large sums of money, which were always squandered in extravagant whims and fancies. If Owain had not possessed a sterling thoughtful nature he would have been ruined by this hand-to-mouth existence, which was distinguished by continual ups and downs. But the young man had his own views of leading a decent life, and when unhampered by his spendthrift father determined to carry them out. The opportunity did not come to him until he was twenty years of age, when Mr. Hench died in Paris and was buried without parade in Pere La Chaise. Cold-hearted and selfish to the end, he passed away without suggesting how his son, to whom he had given no profession, was to exist. He simply told him to go to Gilberry & Gilberry, solicitors, of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, on his twenty-fifth birthday, when certain papers would be handed to him. Thus it can be seen that the young man had little reason to regret the demise of so egotistic a parent, who had been a curse rather than a blessing.
What the papers in charge of Gilberry & Gilberry might contain, Owain could not guess, nor had his dying father enlightened him, but he fancied that they might have something to do with proving the identity of the dead man. Owain had always suspected, from the strict silence preserved by his father about his past, that Hench was an assumed name, and hoped that the mysterious documents might afford some clue to the family history. The sole clue which the young man had to guide him to knowledge of any sort or description was the mention of his father of Rhaiadr as the place where he had passed his youthful days. Yet the word had proved to be of some value, for its mention had evoked a memory of Madame Alpenny’s early romance, although that story had proved to be more interesting than useful. Now it appeared that the talismanic word was being used to lure him to meet a stranger, who—as the advertisement put it—would tell him of something greatly to his advantage.
Owain, having reached this point of his meditations, rose to pace the room and consider the position. He was of two minds about answering the summons, since an open-air meeting seemed scarcely business-like or even reasonable. Also it was now the last week in June, and the appointment was arranged for the first day of July. But on the tenth day of that month came Owain’s birthday, when he would be placed in possession of the papers for which he had waited so long. The young man considered, prudently enough, that it would be just as well to curb his curiosity for nine days, as the documents might throw some light on the admittedly odd advertisement. If he obeyed the summons to the Gipsy Stile, Cookley, Essex, on the first of July, he would be at the disadvantage of being in the dark, since he would know nothing, while the person who met him would know much. The rough-and-tumble life which he had led since the death of his father inclined Owain to prudence, as he knew from dire experience what tricky people there were in the world. Therefore he determined to take no notice of the advertisement—at all events for the present, since he had a week to think over the matter—and calmly wait until he became possessed of the papers on his twenty-fifth birthday. Finally, he resolved to say nothing to Spruce, who, luckily, had not yet returned, and to ask Madame Alpenny to keep the Nut in ignorance of the advertisement. He certainly would have to be more or less frank with the Hungarian lady, since she had drawn his attention to the notice in The Express.
Madame Alpenny was full of curiosity when she met Hench at afternoon tea, and, as they had the room to themselves, she immediately proceeded to ask questions. Hench baffled her as well as he could, but found it difficult to do so. She appeared to be certain that he was more of a mystery than ever, and insisted upon scenting a fortune in the same. Naturally, as Zara’s mother, she was anxious to know if her belief was correct, as then Hench could make the girl his wife and supply a meritorious mother-in-law with ample funds. As usual, she wore her eternal orange-spotted dress, her shabby bead mantle and her flamboyant picture hat, looking quite a merry old blackguard of an adventuress. Hench had long since decided that she was such a one.
“Of course you’ll keep this appointment,” said Madame Alpenny eagerly, when she handed Hench his tea.
“I’m not sure. You see, I may not be the person wanted.”
“Pfui!” said the woman contemptuously, and her large, dark eyes sparkled. “Why, the word Rhaiadr proves conclusively that you are the person. It is strange, Mr. Hench,” she continued with great vivacity, “that I should have heard the word from you only a few days before this advertisement appeared.”
“It’s very strange,” assented the young man, with his eyes searching her face. “You know nothing about the advertisement, I suppose?”
“Eh, but why should I?” she asked in amazement. “Only by chance did I see the name Rhaiadr, and immediately brought the paper to you, remembering our conversation of some days back. I presume, sir,” she went on, with a shrug, “that you do not think I put in the advertisement?”
“Oh, no; by no means,” said Owain hastily; “but you might have mentioned the Welsh name to some one else.”
“No,” said Madame Alpenny decidedly. “That is, I mentioned it only to Zara, and she took little notice of what I mentioned. Of course, there was Mr. Spruce, who was in this room when we talked about my meeting with your father. But he is not likely to have asked you to meet him in Essex, when he can see you here any day; also he probably has not seen the advertisement.”
“Oh, I don’t suspect Spruce, Madame; and that reminds me, it will be as well to say nothing to Spruce about the matter.”
“Am I a chatter-box, or a fool?” asked Madame fiercely, and with a lowering look on her face. “Certainly I will say nothing to Mr. Spruce. But you must tell me all that takes place when you meet whosoever you are to meet.”
“I am going to meet no one,” retorted Hench resolutely; “there is no need for me to do so.”
“But, my friend, you will hear of something greatly to your advantage, as it said in the newspaper,” expostulated the woman, frowning.
“I mean to wait until I get the papers from my lawyers on the tenth of July, Madame. They may tell me of the something greatly to my advantage without my going on a wild-goose chase into Essex.”
“But I don’t understand your objection.”
“It is this. If I go now, I am quite in ignorance of my family history with which this appointment has to do, as I shrewdly suspect. If I go after the tenth of July I will be in a better position to deal with the matter, as I think the papers at my lawyers’ will tell me much about my father.”
Madame Alpenny nodded. “There is something in that. All the same, this advertisement concerns you and not your father, who is dead and buried.”
“It and the papers also concern my father’s past life, and therefore concern my present,” argued Hench seriously. “And I have waited so long for light to be thrown on the past that I can easily wait a few days longer.”
“You have made no attempt to get at the past up till now?”
“Oh, yes. After my father’s death I went to my lawyers”—Hench did not intend to tell Madame Alpenny the name of the firm—“and asked about the papers. They admitted that they had them, and promised to deliver them on my twenty-fifth birthday. Otherwise they would say nothing.”
“And you—what did you do?”
“What could I do save go away and do my best to keep myself alive for five years. I went as a sailor on a tramp vessel and met with many adventures. I found that I had a talent for writing, and in San Francisco I managed to get a short story of mine accepted, printed and paid for. Then I went to Peru, and afterwards to the South Seas, coming back to England through Australia, China, India and Persia. Rather a roundabout way of progression, I admit. But I was like a leaf blown by the winds of fortune—and bitter winds they were. In one way and another, chiefly by writing short adventure tales, I managed to keep myself afloat. This year I came here, six months ago, to wait for the tenth of July. Here I met you—”
“And Zara,” said Madame quickly.
Hench looked at her with a peculiar expression, and raked his brown beard with outspread fingers. It was on the tip of his tongue to relate how he had been refused by the girl, but on second thoughts he refrained. According to Zara her mother had a quick temper, and if all was told the girl might suffer from that temper. Also Madame Alpenny, being given a clue, might learn that Zara and Bracken were engaged, which knowledge would assuredly lead to trouble. On the whole, therefore, Hench decided to be silent, and replied evasively. “Ah, yes, I met your charming daughter, of course.”
“And admired her?” persisted Madame, not finding his speech sufficiently ardent in tone.
“And admired her to the extent of asking your permission to propose to her. But, of course, when you refused me that, because I am poor, I have changed my mind. As a gentleman I can do no less.”
“As a lover you can do much more,” retorted the old woman, with a look of annoyance. “And remember that I was favourable to your proposal when I learned that you were the son of the man who wished to marry me so long ago.”
“Yet I am still poor,” said Hench ironically.
“That has yet to be proved,” rejoined Madame bluntly. “Oh, don’t look so astonished, my friend. I am old and I am shrewd, and I have learned by experience that two and two make four. Those papers you mention, together with this advertisement which plainly refers to you, appear to me proof that you will inherit money.”
“I don’t see that, Madame, unless, of course, my father gave you some hint that there was money in the family.”
“Mr. Hench gave me no hint,” said the lady sharply and hastily. “He explained that he had a small income, and frequently won large sums at cards. On the whole, he gave me to understand that if I married him there would be no lack of money. But he never said a word about a fortune coming to him.”
“Then why should you think that a fortune is likely to come to me?” asked Hench very naturally.
“I have intuition, my friend, and intuition tells me that those papers and that advertisement mean money.” Madame Alpenny paused, and then continued after some thought: “You say that you had great difficulty in getting money after your father’s death?”
“That is so. I had to earn every penny.”
“Strange, when he had a sufficient income to keep him comfortable.”
“That was an annuity. He told me so shortly before he died.”
“And told you that the papers with your lawyers would place you in possession of money?”
“No.” Hench shook his head. “He never even hinted at such a thing.”
Madame Alpenny nursed her pointed chin and frowned at the carpet. “I am sure there is money,” she mused, loud enough for the young man to overhear. “Your father gave you no profession or trade with which to earn money, and it is not likely that he would have behaved so unless he knew that the future held a fortune in store for you.”
Hench’s lip curled. “I am sorry to destroy any illusion about my father,” he said with a shrug; “but I don’t think he cared two straws about my future.”
“Then why should he tell you about the papers?” asked Madame, as sharp as a needle. “Believe me, those papers refer to a fortune.”
“Well”—Hench rose and stretched himself—“I shall know all about that when I see the lawyers on the tenth of July.”
“Or when you meet this unknown person in Essex on the first of July.”
“I am not going to meet the person,” said Hench coldly; “and I have given my reasons for not meeting him.”
“Him!” Madame Alpenny laughed. “It may be a woman, for all you know.”
Hench wheeled round to face her searchingly. “Why do you think it is a woman?”
“Oh,” she answered smoothly, “I only surmise. I don’t say that the person is a woman, for I know no more about the matter than you do. All I do say is, that if you wish to marry my daughter you will have to learn about this fortune as quickly as possible. I hope that I have managed to get an engagement for Zara in the West End, and there she may meet with some one wealthy who will make her his wife.”
“You don’t appear to take Mademoiselle Zara’s feelings into consideration.”
“Feelings!” echoed Madame Alpenny vehemently. “What are feelings of any sort compared with poverty? I have little money myself, and what I have is all in these things.” She touched her rings, bracelets and brooches. “Zara does not earn what her talents demand. We want money, and the sole way in which we can get it is for her to marry money. Failing you there are others.”
“Quite so,” said Hench, thinking of Bracken, and smiling slightly. “But a man who has no wealth may wish to marry her.”
“Referring to yourself, I suppose,” said Madame Alpenny dryly, and quite mistaking his meaning. “Well, you won’t marry her unless you prove through those papers and that advertisement to be possessed of a fortune. Until then, I hope you will be circumspect with regard to Zara. Don’t be too attentive to her, and turn the poor child’s head.”
“There is no fear of my doing that,” said Hench equally dryly, “but to make things safe I propose to remove myself from temptation. To-morrow I shall leave this place.”
“For how long?”
“Oh,”—Madame Alpenny looked as black as thunder, as this proposal by no means suited her scheme of getting a rich son-in-law,—“don’t do that.”
“Why not? After all, there is nothing to keep me here.”
“But you will not let me pay attention to Zara with a view to matrimony.”
Madame Alpenny looked uneasy and puzzled. “You place me on the horns of a dilemma, Mr. Hench. I can’t let you become engaged to my daughter until I am sure you have money. But of course”—she brightened up—“if what I suspect is true, and money comes, you can return and marry her.”
This frank suggestion placed Hench on the horns of a dilemma, but he managed to evade binding himself in a most dexterous way. “If Mademoiselle Zara is really able to return my love, and thinks that she will be happy as my wife, I shall certainly return and renew my suit. But remember, Madame, she must become my wife of her own free will, and not because you insist.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said the old lady easily. “Zara is a good girl and will obey her mother to whom she owes so much.”
“That is the very thing I don’t wish her to do,” insisted Hench, sharply; “it is no question of filial obedience. If she accepts me of her own free will, and without coercion from you, I marry her; otherwise I will not.”
“I am not in the habit of coercing my daughter,” said Madame Alpenny loftily, and, as usual, evading the main point; “and I shall expect you to return with all information about your family. Then we can talk. I look upon you as a man of honour, Mr. Hench, so much so that I do not even ask you to give me any address. If you get money you will marry Zara.”
“And if I do not?”
Madame Alpenny shrugged her fat shoulders. “In that case she will marry another person who has money.”
“You are very business-like,” said Hench, highly disapproving of this mercantile way of looking at things.
“I always am,” she assured him coolly; “it saves trouble!”
Owain said no more at the moment, nor did he have any conversation on the subject again with the Hungarian lady prior to his departure. Madame Alpenny evidently had full confidence in his love for her daughter, and believed that Zara’s beauty would lure him back again with gold in his pockets. Had she had any idea of the interview between the two young people, and the new relationship of brother and sister which that interview had suggested, she might have been less easy in her scheming mind. But Hench held his tongue and so did Zara, therefore Madame Alpenny was kept in a kind of fool’s paradise. The young man reported the conversation hurriedly to the girl, and being clever, she knew exactly how to act so as to keep her mother in ignorance, until such time as she could declare her own mind and choose her own mate.
Meanwhile; Hench got to work expeditiously and packed his scanty luggage, after paying Mrs. Tesk what he owed her. The ex-school-mistress was very sorry to lose him, not only from a financial point of view but because she really had a regard for him. Still, as she intimated, they were both leaves floating on the river of life, and the currents of circumstances were parting them. She hoped that he would enjoy himself and prosper wherever he was going, but if Fortune proved unkind, he was to remember that a refined abode always waited for him as a haven in adversity. All this and much more said Mrs. Tesk, who had a warm heart and hospitable nature. Hench was quite sorry to leave her, as he liked the quaint old lady and her odd ways. And just when Owain finished his business in her sanctum he emerged to run against Spruce, who looked more like a fashion-plate and less like a man than ever.
“Just got back,” said the Nut airily; “had a topping time. Wish you had been with me, instead of wasting your sweetness on the desert air hereabouts.”
“I was not going to waste it any longer,” said Hench dryly. “I am leaving this house this afternoon.”
“Oh, I say,”—Spruce looked disappointed and uneasy,—“for how long?”
“For ever! There is nothing to keep me here that I know of, and as I told you long ago, I am more or less of a bird of passage.”
“What about Mademoiselle Zara?”
“Oh, that’s all right; and may I remind you it’s none of your business?”
“Well, don’t get in a wax,” protested Spruce amiably. “I never saw such a chap for jumping on a fellow.”
“If you think so, you must be glad that I am going away.”
“No, I’m not,” confessed the Nut frankly. “You’re a gentleman and so am I, and in this hole you’re the only chap I can chum up with.”
“We have not chummed up, as you put it,” said Hench frigidly.
“Well, that isn’t my fault. I am always willing to be friendly, and if you won’t be it’s your loss, not mine. Where are you going?”
“That, again, is my business. I may be going abroad, or I may stay in London, or I may be going to the moon.”
“You’re crazy enough for that last, anyhow, if lunatics live there as some one said,” fumed Spruce, who was growing angry. “And you’re silly to make an enemy of me, you know.”
“I don’t want you as a friend, and I don’t care if you are my enemy five times over,” said Hench very straightly. “What the deuce do you mean by that threat? What harm can you do me?”
“I never said that I could or would do you any harm,” protested Spruce, feeling uncomfortable; “but some day I may be able to do you a good turn.”
Hench looked at the spic and span little man, and felt rather sorry for him, as he seemed to mean well, in spite of his irritating curiosity. “Let us part friends,” he said, holding out his hand. “After all, you are an old schoolfellow and have got your good points. But oil and water don’t mix. See?”
Spruce gave the extended hand a feeble shake and dropped it. “I can’t help seeing, when you put things so straightly. It’s a difference of temperament, I suppose—you’re clay and I’m china. But I tell you what,” cried Spruce, with his pale blue eyes flashing maliciously, “you’ll be glad enough some day for me to come and help you!”
“I always make a point of seeking no one’s assistance,” said Hench coldly, and walked up to his room, wondering what Spruce meant, since there was a significance in his tone which intimated that he quite expected to meet his enemy again.
Spruce looked after the tall, straight form of the young man, and bit his nether lip with anything but an amiable look. He greatly regretted that Hench should go away thus suddenly, as the unexpected departure upset his plans for making money out of him. He still clung to the idea that the mysterious papers at the lawyers’ had something to do with a fortune, and determined not to lose sight of Hench, come what may. Therefore he also retired to his own room to plot and plan and devise schemes whereby he could entangle his prey in invisible nets. But this he could not do without the aid of Madame Alpenny, since she was the mother of Zara, whom Hench loved. So to Madame Alpenny the Nut went and had quite a long conversation with her, which conversation resulted in his quitting the house at the hour of Hench’s departure. Owain was relieved when the time came for him to go to find that Spruce was not at his elbow with his disagreeable civilities. He never could bring himself to like Spruce.
It was Bottles who helped the taxi-cab driver to carry down the trunk and portmanteau which formed his hero’s luggage. The boy had returned on the morning of the day when Hench departed and was desperately sorry to hear of the exit. Hench gave him a sovereign and comforted him with a promise that on some future occasion they would meet again. Then Bottles proffered a request that Hench would give him some address to write to, and strange to say, the young man supplied him with the information he asked for. He felt that he could wholly trust Bottles.
“But you won’t have anything to write to me about,” he said, when the written address was handed over.
Bottles looked up with a shrewd smile on his freckled face. “The mouse helped the lion, sir, as mother told me, and I may help you.”
“What do you mean by that? How can you help me?”
“Least said is soonest mended, as mother says,” retorted Bottles wisely. “And it ain’t for nothing as I’ve read detective stories. I won’t give any one the address, sir. I’m yours till death!” and he folded his arms with a noble air.
Hench drove away rather bewildered. “The boy is mad,” he said. But the boy was not.
It was for two reasons that Hench left The Home of the Muses and vanished—so far as the paying guests were concerned—into the unknown. In the first place, he wished to render Zara’s position more easy; in the second he desired to have nothing more to do with Madame Alpenny; and also there was a third and less important reason, which had to do with Cuthbert Spruce. While Owain drove westward in the taxi, he amused himself by surveying his position.
With regard to the girl, Hench was beginning to grasp the fact that he really did not love her, or he would have been more moved by her frank confession of love for Bracken. What she had said was quite true, as he now acknowledged. He admired her, and being lonely, wished for a companion, so as to make a centre in life round which he could revolve. It was an odd comparison but a very true one. Any other woman, handsome, kind-hearted and affectionate, would have done as well as Zara to bring about the desired end, and Owain confessed to himself that to propose such a business-like scheme to a girl was rather a cold-blooded way of looking at love. She was—he confessed this also—quite right to refuse him, and to accept the offer of a man who adored her. This being the case, Hench decided that it only remained for him to go away, since his presence would more or less embarrass her, in spite of the brother-and-sister compact. Finally, being very human, Owain felt that it was impossible to stay, and witnessing Bracken triumphing where he had failed. On the whole, therefore, he was well pleased to escape from Bethnal Green, and his feelings suffered very little from the exile.
The second reason, which had Madame Alpenny for its excuse, was also connected more or less indirectly with Zara’s refusal. Since the idea of money coming to him had occurred to the Hungarian lady, she had been more amiably disposed towards Hench with regard to his half-hearted wooing of her daughter. Yet, as she was still uncertain that Owain would be rich, she had not—according to the slang phrase—forced the pace. But if fancy became fact and the mysterious papers really did place him in possession of a fortune, Hench felt tolerably convinced that Madame Alpenny would worry him and worry Zara until she brought about the marriage. Under the circumstances this was not to be thought of, as apart from the fact of his readjusted relations with the girl, Madame Alpenny was by no means desirable as a mother-in-law. She was poor, inquisitive, scheming and decidedly dangerous; always on the alert to make what she could out of others, and—as Hench believed—unscrupulous in her methods of gaining what she desired. Already he had told her more about his private affairs than was altogether wise, more or less against his will, as it would seem, since she had wormed her way into his confidence with remarkable dexterity. It struck him forcibly that he was wise to avoid her by leaving the boarding-house, and he congratulated himself on his promptitude in dealing with the situation. And as he had done so judiciously, it was unlikely that Madame Alpenny would ever trouble him again.
It was when the taxi was sweeping down a quiet street near the British Museum that Owain came to the third and minor reason, which concerned Spruce. The Nut, also, was much too curious about affairs which had nothing to do with him in any way, and seemed to take a pleasure in meddling. He was just the kind of person to read other people’s letters, give unasked advice and take a thousand liberties out of pretended good-nature. All the same, Hench firmly believed that all this interference was intended, in the end, to benefit Spruce himself. But Owain could not see how his old school-friend could in any way make capital out of him. Nevertheless, instinct warned him to avoid the man as something dangerous. By leaving Mrs. Tesk’s establishment he had avoided him, and he was as unlikely to meet him again as he was to meet with Madame Alpenny. Taking everything into consideration, Hench alighted at his new abode with the conviction that he had escaped from some danger—he could not put a name to it—just in time.
Owing to some unexpected good fortune in connection with gold-mining shares, Hench possessed quite one hundred pounds, which was sufficient to keep him in comfort and even in luxury until he could call on Gilberry & Gilberry. That visit he expected would result in throwing light on his somewhat dark path, and perhaps would bring him wealth. Yet, being cautious, he husbanded his resources lest his expectations should be disappointed. Therefore the hotel he came to was a quiet and cheap hostel in Burney Street, Bloomsbury, chiefly patronized by country people. It was a much better class establishment than that of Mrs. Tesk, and Hench found it very comfortable. He had been there on a former occasion when in England, and found very little change. The manageress was the same, the staff had not been altered, and on the whole Owain felt that the place was more home-like than any he had been in. Also, having risen out of the submerged tenth, the young man brushed up his apparel, had his hair cut and his beard trimmed, and got out his scarcely-worn suit of dress clothes. For the next week he amused himself in a quiet way, generally sauntering in the Park, exploring the Museum, enjoying the theatres and music-halls, and taking what quiet inexpensive pleasures came in his way. All he wished to do was to pass the time pleasantly until his twenty-fifth birthday, when he intended to call on Gilberry & Gilberry. Then he would learn his fate, and his future career would be ordained by the contents of the papers.
But all the time Hench was haunted by an uneasy feeling regarding the advertisement brought to his notice by Madame Alpenny. Had he stayed at the boarding-house, he assuredly would not have obeyed the request for a meeting, as the woman would have become aware that he had done so. This he did not wish her to do, since he regarded her as dangerous, and did not know what the result of his errand to Cookley would be. But now that Madame Alpenny belonged to the past, Owain was inclined out of sheer curiosity to keep the appointment for the 1st of July, and learn why the word “Rhaiadr” had been used. Of course, as he had already recognized, the papers at Gilberry & Gilberry’s might place him in possession of details which would enable him to deal more openly with the person who wished to meet him at the Gipsy Stile. But it wanted ten days to his birthday, and by brooding over the advertisement Hench became so curious that he finally decided to take the journey into Essex. There was a spice of adventure about the matter, which appealed to his pioneering spirit, and, moreover, as he had nothing to do, he thought that he might as well employ his mind and time in satisfying his curiosity. According to Dr. Watts, “Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do,” and never was the line so exemplified as by Hench’s action. Although he did not know it, he was going out to seek trouble, when he left the hotel for Liverpool Street Station.
Besides being haunted by the advertisement, Hench during his week in Bloomsbury had been also haunted by a feeling that Madame Alpenny was somewhere in his vicinity. Twice or thrice he had fancied she was at his elbow, and had as many times made sure that he had caught a glimpse in the distance of her orange-spotted frock, her bead mantle and picture hat. As he walked to the railway station this feeling was insistently strong, and Hench found himself searching the crowds here, there and everywhere for the sinister face and red hair of the old woman. But he saw no one who resembled her, until he was descending the stairs after taking his ticket to Cookley. Then he was positive that in the throng moving below he recognized her shabby garb. Of course, he did not find her when he mingled with the mob, and laughed at the trick which his eyesight had played him. Why he should be so haunted by the woman—in his thoughts that is, as he did not believe that there was any ground for his suspicions—he could not say. But it was not until he was seated in a third-class smoking compartment that he shook off the feeling of her near presence. It was all a case of nerves, he assured himself, and by the time he was well on his journey he thoroughly convinced himself of this fact. At all events, as the train gradually left London behind, Owain quite got rid of his nightmare.
Cookley is slightly over thirty miles from the metropolis, so Hench, having left the latter at five o’clock, arrived at his destination somewhere about half-past six o’clock. The appointment at the Gipsy Stile was precisely at eight, So he had an hour and a half to wait. This time he employed in learning the whereabouts of the rendezvous, as he had not the least idea of the direction in which it lay. As there was no hurry, he took things easy and sauntered leisurely out of the local station and down the long road which led to the village. After a lengthy period spent in a smoky city, the pure air and rural sights of the country were exceedingly pleasant.
The village was not large, but decidedly picturesque, being one of those somnolent old-world hamlets beloved of artists and wondered at by tourists. Formerly no strangers came near it, but since the advent of the ubiquitous motor-car it had become quite a centre of interest. This was mainly owing to its squared-towered Norman church, a venerable and stately structure, which was much too large for so small a place. Also there was a Saxon cross on the village green and sundry Roman remains in an adjacent field. Archæologists and antiquarians, together with tourists, chiefly American, frequently came to inspect these objects of interest, and artists often took up their quarters in the Bull Inn to paint the church, the ancient cottages and the surrounding country. It was quite the nook which a student would have loved, but much too quiet for a restless young man such as Owain Hench assuredly was. The quicksilver in his veins never allowed him to remain long in one place, yet even he confessed to feeling the charm of Cookley.
No one took much notice of him, for which slight he was thankful. In his shabby suit of blue serge, his woollen shirt and ragged Panama hat, he looked like an ordinary tramp, and those gentry of the road were much too common in Cookley to be even glanced at. Also the night was closing in, and in the soft warm twilight the young man passed almost unheeded, a fact upon which he afterwards had reason to congratulate himself. After wandering through several crooked streets, he emerged into the gracious spaces of the village green and made for the Bull Inn—easily recognized by its gigantic sign—where he treated himself to a tankard of beer in the tap-room. Owain really did not require the drink, but ordered it so as to give some excuse for his questions. The ancients of the village were already gathered for their evening symposium, and the room was filled with the blue haze of tobacco-smoke. It was none too well lighted by a solitary oil lamp, and Hench sat down in a secluded corner to enjoy his briar and sip his ale. Also, when occasion served, he asked the buxom wench who attended to thirsty customers where the Gipsy Stile was to be found. She looked at him in surprise.
“Why, every one hereabouts knows where that be.”
“I am a stranger here.”
“One of them tramps, ain’t you?” said the girl, tossing her head. “Well, you can’t miss the Gipsy Stile. There’s a path leading out of the churchyard, across the meadows, and that takes you into the heart of the wood, where you’ll find it right in your way.”
“Oh, it’s in a wood, is it?” questioned Owain, secretly wondering again, as he had wondered before, why such a rendezvous had been chosen.
“Why, yes. Parley Wood, it is called, and lies long-side Squire Evans’ old house. There’s only a red brick wall divides the wood from the park.”
“Thank you,” said Hench politely, and attended to his beer and pipe, while the villagers talked politics and crops and local gossip, and he amused himself by listening to their crude views.
In the old days and before Cookley had been brought into near contact with the outer world, the stranger would have been more closely observed and the conversation would have been listened to. But so many tourists now came to the village that the inhabitants paid little attention to them. In his dark corner Owain sat for close upon an hour, wondering at the narrow limits of the Cookley intellect. Still, he was interested in the old-fashioned views of the labourers, and time passed quicker than he noticed. A glance at his watch showed him to his surprise that it was a few minutes to eight, so he rose hastily to seek his destination. As he had already paid for his beer, there was nothing to detain him, and he was speedily passing through the green on his way to the square tower of the church, which stood up blackly in the luminous twilight. So far as Owain could guess there was no danger of his losing his way.
A narrow lane, sloping slightly upward to the lychgate, conducted him to the churchyard, and he soon found himself surrounded by tombstones old and new, dotted irregularly amongst the long grass of the enclosure. Keeping to the gravelled path, he made a circuit of the vast church, and finally came to a stile set in the stone wall girdling the place. On climbing over this, he found his feet treading a well-defined path, which meandered across a wide meadow to enter into Parley Wood, which was visible some distance away. Owain, with the aid of a match, found that it was eight o’clock, and the chimes of the church again assured him of the fact. Fearing lest he should be late, he hurried quickly, and his long legs soon took him under the shade of ancient trees. Here it was somewhat dark, but Hench had eyes like a cat, and could very easily follow the path, which wound deviously through the woodland. Around him, in the fragrant dark, life was stirring, and he heard the piercing song of the nightingale, the occasional hoot of an owl, and became aware that sundry creatures were moving more or less noiselessly amongst the undergrowth. At times he moved across a dell where the light was stronger, and then again he would plunge into the gloom of the trees. The young man enjoyed the adventure apart from the reason which had led him to undertake it, as he had a great love of Nature, and enjoyed her beauty.
At length he emerged into a wide clearing across which ran a ragged fence of time-stained wood overgrown with woodbine and more or less buried in nettles, darnels, shrubs and young trees. In the centre of this there was an old-fashioned stile, which Owain took to be the place of meeting. Beyond the open ground stretched for some distance, and faintly in the warm twilight he could see a tall wall and beyond it the thick foliage of oaks, beeches and elms. This was undoubtedly the place, as he remembered how the girl at the Bull Inn had assured him that the wood lay long-side the park of the squire, and no great distance from a red brick wall. Therefore Owain walked briskly up to the stile, taking off his straw hat for the sake of coolness, and looked all round the place to see if the person who had advertised was waiting. He saw no one.
A glance at his watch after lighting a match showed him that he had been fifteen minutes walking from the church to the stile, so he wondered if the person had grown tired of waiting. But that was unlikely, since he was not so very much behind his time. The man—he presumed that it was a man—who had advertised would certainly wait longer when he had taken so much trouble to bring about the meeting. Hench therefore believed that something had detained the person in question, and sat down on the stile to wait. Already the moon was well up in the cloudless sky and her silver radiance flooded the whole solemn woodland. Owain admired the mingled beauty of light and shade, listened to the distant nightingale singing triumphantly, and stared every now and then round about to make sure that he would not miss his man, since he did not know from which quarter he would appear. Then came a surprise, and a highly unpleasant one.
In the course of his glancing here, there and everywhere, he became aware that in the long grass some distance beyond the stile, and some distance away from the meandering path, lay a dark object. At first Hench thought it was merely the trunk of a tree, but as the moonlight grew stronger and the outlines of the object more distinct, he began to believe that it was a man. Doubtless, as he concluded hastily, some tramp had thrown himself down to sleep in the safe cover of the wood, where no policeman would rouse him from his slumbers. But Hench knew that it was scarcely wise to sleep in the moonbeams, so clambered over the stile and walked towards the man with the intention of awakening him. Shortly he was bending over the presumably sleeping tramp, and then became aware with a shock of surprise that the man was clothed in evening-dress, over which a dark, loose cloak had been thrown. With a vivid feeling of fear Hench turned the man over—he was lying on his face—and started back with an ejaculation of horror. The stiff white shirt-front was red with blood, and in the man’s heart was buried a knife with a horn handle. Owain struck a match to assure himself of the truth, although the moonlight was so strong that he scarcely needed to take such trouble. But while he held the match with shaking hand over the dead face, its wavering light showed him very plainly that he was right. The man was dead—the man had been murdered—and there he lay mysteriously done to death in the heart of a lonely wood.
Of course, Hench’s first impulse, which was the impulse of an ordinary human being when brought face to face with crime, was to run back to Cookley village and give the alarm. But even as he turned to fly, he halted, struck with a sudden thought which made the blood freeze in his young veins. He had been lured to this place by means of the advertisement, and here he found the dead body of a man not long stabbed to the heart. Was it a trap? Had he been brought to this solitary spot to be entangled in a crime? It seemed very like it, and swiftly thinking over the matter, Hench did not see how he could exonerate himself should he give the alarm. With a feeling of absolute terror, he bent over the dead so as to make himself acquainted with the appearance of the poor creature. There was no doubt that the man was a gentleman, since he was in evening-dress and was wearing studs and sleeve-links of gold, together with a silk-lined overcoat, or rather cloak. His face was clean-shaven, with an aquiline nose and thin compressed lips, decidedly that of a handsome man. From his lined countenance and white hair, Owain took him to be about sixty years of age, although being dead there was an astonishing look of youth about him. Even as Hench stared, the lines on the old face seemed to fade away and leave it young and smooth. Yes, he was a gentleman, as was apparent from the well-bred, disdainful face. It did not need the evening-dress, the silk-lined cloak, the silk socks or the patent-leather shoes to show the man’s station in the world. Here, as it occurred to Owain, was a gentleman, who had strolled into the wood after dinner, there to meet with a terrible death at the hands of some unknown person.
Starting to his feet, the young man remembered how the girl at the inn had talked of Squire Evans’ estate lying long-side the wood and divided therefrom by a brick wall. Here was the wood, yonder the wall in question; so it came strongly into Hench’s mind that the dead man was Squire Evans. But who had killed him and why had he been killed? Hench looked round searchingly into the shadow of the trees, but could see no lurking form. Whosoever had struck the blow had done so shortly before Hench arrived, as the body was still warm and still supple. After all, the man was dead, sure enough, and it would be useless to run to the village for succour. In fact it would be dangerous, as Owain thought with fear knocking at his heart, for how could he prove his innocence of the crime. There was no motive for him to kill this unknown man, certainly; not even the motive of robbery, as the studs and sleeve-links had not been taken by the assassin. Hench wavered between a desire to consult his own safety by flight and a wish to rouse the village and hunt hot-footed for the murderer. For two long, long minutes he pondered over the horrible situation, then, without a backward glance, raced at top speed along the unknown path leading into the further recesses of the wood. And while he ran his heart beat tumultuously, the perspiration beaded his forehead, and his body shivered with cold, in spite of the warm night. Safety was what he made for, and he tore onward as if the officers of justice were already on his track. An innocent man—yes, he was an innocent man—yet the circumstantial evidence might hang him in spite of that same innocence.
Instinct led Hench to avoid returning to London by passing through the village and boarding the train at Cookley Station. Already—and he thought of the possibility with terror—his face and figure might be remembered by some keen-sighted yokel. There was the conversation with the girl in the tap-room. He had talked long enough with her to be remembered, even though the atmosphere, hazy with smoke, had only been illuminated by one dingy lamp. Then, again, he had spoken about the Gipsy Stile; he had asked where it was, and at the Gipsy Stile the murder had taken place. Then there was the advertisement; the police would be sure to find that out, and if there was any reward offered, Madame Alpenny might speak to the authorities about the same. Then he would be linked with the crime, and run the risk of arrest. When confronted with the girl at the inn, she would probably recognize him. Then what possible defence could he make to an accusation of murder?
These and many other thoughts buzzed like distracting bees through Owain’s brain as he fled from that awful place. All his idea was to get away, to reach some other railway station, to hide in London, and remain quiet until he saw what the police would do. But on the face of it, he would be safe nowhere; yet with the instinct of self-preservation he plunged onward through the wood in the hope of escape. Hench was a brave man, and had faced many dangers, but to be hanged for a crime which he had not committed, to be entangled in circumstances over which he had no control, made him choose the least of two evils. Once or twice he halted in his headlong flight wondering if it would not be best to return and give himself up to the village policeman, as, after all, he had no motive to kill the man and moreover could produce the advertisement. But the resolution was momentary. He simply could not face the trouble, even though he did his best to screw up his courage to the sticking point. Wiping his forehead, he drew a long breath and strode onward. It was too late now to think of returning, as the body might already have been found. All he could do was to walk on and on and on, in the hope of leaving terror behind.
After leaving the wood, Hench found himself traversing other meadows similar to that near Cookley church, These bordered a narrow lane, into which a stile afforded him access. From this lane he gained the high-road, and from a sign-post learned that it would conduct him to London. At first Owain intended to walk on until he arrived at the nearest railway station, for there was yet time to catch a late train to town. But on reflection he decided to use his legs, as there would be less danger in solitary pedestrianism than in venturing to ask for a ticket at a local station, where his appearance might be observed. Also the night was warm, the moon gave her full light, and the journey to London would be more pleasurable on foot than it would be were he cooped up in a train. Besides, he was much too agitated by what he had gone through to sit quiet under the gaze of fellow-travellers. Innocent though he was, conscience made a coward of him, and he knew that every careless eye cast upon him would make him wince. He was safer to walk, so walk he did.
Owain never forgot that thirty odd miles tramp through the lovely summer night, when—as the saying goes—he saw a bird in every bush. Certainly he was guiltless of any crime, yet fate had connected him with one, and he felt like Cain, so strong was the power of his imagination. Again and again he asked himself if it would not have been wiser to dare the worst, trusting in God’s justice and his own innocence. But again and again came the reply that innocent men have been hanged ere now on purely circumstantial evidence, and that he had done right to fly the danger of a judicial death. Hench cursed himself for not having waited until his twenty-fifth birthday. Had he taken no notice of the advertisement, as he originally intended to do, he would not now be in this plight. But it was too late to blame himself now. He had come to the rendezvous, he had found a dead body, he had fled like a true criminal from the spot, so it was no use crying over spilt milk. Whatever was in store for him he would have to face it. As he had sown, so would he have to reap.
Owain reached his hotel in the early hours of the morning, and finding no one about but the sleepy night-porter, who was just leaving, had no difficulty in getting to his bedroom almost unobserved. Once in that haven he drew a long breath of relief, and wearied by his long tramp, threw himself on his bed without undressing. Notwithstanding his anxiety, which had increased instead of lessening, he speedily fell fast asleep into a heavy dreamless slumber, which resembled lethargy rather than natural repose. It was high noon when he woke, feeling much refreshed and as hungry as the proverbial hunter. Considering the trouble in which he was involved, it was fortunate that travel had steadied his nerves to face the worst, if needs be. The result of his experience of danger led him to prepare for possibilities. He therefore took a cold bath to brace himself, dressed more carefully than usual with great deliberation, and went down to make an excellent breakfast. As yet the hue and cry was not out against him, so he had ample time to consider his position.
Over a pipe in the smoking-room, he glanced at several of the daily papers, but naturally found therein nothing about the murder in Parley Wood at Cookley. It was more than probable that the evening news would contain an account of the finding of the body, and—for all Hench knew—a description of himself as the criminal. Of this, however, he was uncertain, since he had not been noticed closely in the twilight, and his conversation with the girl of the Bull Inn had taken place in a darkish and smoky room, dimly lighted by a solitary lamp. Of course the girl would say that a man had asked her where the Gipsy Stile was to be found, and the person she had conversed with would be suspected. But the questioner assuredly could not be described, unless the serving-wench was sharper than Owain gave her credit for being. Only a very inquisitive and observant person would have examined him closely enough to give a fair word-picture of him to the authorities. And Owain’s experience led him to believe that few people ever did observe with much degree of accuracy. So far as the girl at the inn and the inhabitants of Cookley were concerned he felt tolerably safe. But there was another person to consider in connection with his adventure, and that was Madame Alpenny. The Hungarian lady certainly knew that he was the man required to meet the advertiser at Cookley, as the use of the word “Rhaiadr” had enlightened her on that point. Therefore it was probable that, when the details of the murder were made public, she would inform the police about the matter. But the woman did not know that he had kept the appointment, as he had given her to understand very plainly that he did not intend to do so. Assuredly the feeling that she was at his elbow had haunted him when he had set forth on his errand, and he had fancied that she had been lurking about Liverpool Street Station. But even then he had set down the faint belief to imagination, so there was no reason why he should conclude that she actually had been spying on him. In fact he did not see how she possibly could have done so, since he had not given her his address. Only Bottles knew that, and Bottles—as Hench felt sure—was to be thoroughly trusted.
So far the young man could see no cause for alarm, but an hour’s reflection made him resolve to make things doubly sure against discovery. Thanks to the twilight and the dimly-lighted tap-room, Hench made sure that any description given of his appearance would be more or less vague, and was not likely to be recognized by any one in the hotel when it appeared in the newspapers. Nevertheless, so as to place the matter beyond all doubt, he paid his bill, packed his luggage and took his departure late in the afternoon for Victoria Station. Here he left his box and portmanteau in the cloak-room, and went down to South Kensington in search of quiet lodgings. But before venturing to inquire for the same, Owain sought out a barber’s shop in Brampton Road and had his heavy brown beard removed. He would rather have shaved himself, so as to do away with the possibility of the barber noticing any description in the newspapers, even though the same was vague and inaccurate. But to do this was impossible. He could not change his appearance before leaving the Bloomsbury Hotel without exciting remark, and he did not wish to present himself at his new lodgings in any degree like his old self, as it was known to the paying guests of Mrs. Tesk’s establishment. Therefore he was obliged to risk a barber’s razor and a barber’s curiosity.
One thing was certain, that when he emerged from the shop, no one would have recognized him for the man who had entered. The removal of his beard altered him wonderfully, making him look years younger, and improving his good looks in a marked degree. Owain sat in the barber’s chair a bearded colonist of the type dear to penny fiction, he rose from it looking like the Hermes of the Vatican. Even the hairdresser exclaimed at the extraordinary transformation and complimented him on his improved appearance. Hench was rather annoyed that the man should take so much notice, and paying him hurriedly, departed as swiftly as he could without exciting suspicion. Then he walked down the Brompton Road and sought out a quiet side street in South Kensington, where he knew there were rooms to be let. The place was already known to him, during the last six months, as under the same roof lived an old school-friend, with whom Hench had kept up a correspondence. On returning to England he had looked up this friend, and they had renewed their acquaintanceship with uncommon fervour. Therefore Owain deemed it best to live near him, so that he might make use of him should any trouble ensue from his adventure. It may be remarked that the friend was a barrister, and as such—so Hench considered—would be able to attend to legal details if necessary.
The rooms in question were still to be had, as a voluble landlady assured Mr. Hench, so he engaged them for a month, paying the rent in advance. Then he left a message for his friend, and returned to get his luggage from the cloak-room in Victoria Station. By seven o’clock, Owain was installed in a tolerably comfortable bedroom and sitting-room, and was dawdling over a hurriedly provided meal. His friend, he was informed, was not expected back until nine o’clock, so Hench passed the time in reading the evening papers. These he had bought at the railway station when getting his luggage, and in two of them he found what he sought.
The account of the Parley Wood crime was necessarily meagre, as so short a time had elapsed since the discovery of the body that the police were not in possession of much information. It appeared, from the scanty details, that the dead man was—as Hench suspected—Squire Madoc Evans, the Lord of the Manor and the owner of Cookley Grange. He had gone for a stroll in the woods shortly after dinner, and not having returned, search had been made, with the result that the poor old gentleman was found stabbed to the heart near the Gipsy Stile. The weapon used to execute the murder was a common carving-knife with a horn handle, and the medical examination showed that Evans had met with his violent death about half-past seven. The account ended with the information that the police were making all inquiries in the hope of tracing the criminal, but as yet had been unsuccessful.
Owain breathed more freely, as there was no word of the girl at the Bull Inn or of her conversation with himself. Still, it was early days yet, and the young man felt very sure that shortly she would speak out. An account of the man who had inquired where the Gipsy Stile was to be found would assuredly appear in print; then it would depend entirely upon the memory and acuteness of the girl whether he would be traced. And, of course, if Madame Alpenny became suspicious—and Owain was positive that she would become so—her story to the police would certainly result in his arrest. Then, when confronted with the girl of the inn, there would be small chance of denying his identity with the tramp who had made those fatal inquiries. Hench felt extremely uncomfortable in spite of his innocence, and longed to have some one to whom he could talk freely. Later on in the evening, and while gloomily smoking in an armchair, the young man thought that he could trust his old school-friend. James Vane was quite a different man to Spruce, who also had been at the same school, and was as true as the Nut was false. After much reflection and some hesitation, Hench decided to unbosom himself to the barrister, since the dangers which environed him were so great that he could not deal with them unaided.
At nine o’clock precisely, a sharp knock came to the door of the sitting-room, and Hench sprang up to greet his visitor. Vane was a tall, slim man, with a lean, hatchet face, keen dark eyes, and thin dark hair, touched already with grey although he was only thirty years of age. He was perfectly dressed and perfectly well-groomed, quick in his movements and a trifle saturnine in his manner. Some people were rather afraid of him, as he was always cold and cautious. But Owain knew that this frigid exterior concealed a truly warm heart, and that—as the saying goes—Vane’s bark was worse than his bite. To his old school-chum he showed himself as he really was, and few would have recognized the chilly barrister in the smiling friend. It was as though ice had melted on a mountain-top to reveal a green sward.
“Well, I am glad to see you again, Owain,” said Vane, after shaking hands warmly; “it is quite six months since I set eyes on you. Where have you been all this time? What have you been doing with yourself? And where is that patriarchal beard which made you look like Abraham? H’m! You’re in love.”
Hench stared and made his friend comfortable in an armchair. “What on earth makes you say that?” he inquired with a puzzled look.
“No girl could possibly love a man with a beard which made him look one hundred and ten years old. You have met with a girl—with the girl—and are in love. Therefore have you shaved your chin, reduced your age, and made yourself look like a young Greek god.”
“I don’t feel like a Greek god, Jim,” said Hench, taking a seat and glancing round to see that windows and doors were closed. “I’m worried.”
“Poor old chap,” said Vane with quick sympathy; “rely on me to help. We always were pals at school, you know. Is it money?”
“No. I have enough to keep me going. By the way, your mention of our being pals at school reminds me that I met another chap who was with us at Winchester ages ago.”
“Don’t make us out to be as old as the hills, Owain. We’re young yet, and the wine of life still sparkles in the bowl. Who is this chap?”
“Spruce. He is—”
“Oh Lord!” Vane removed his cigarette from his thin lips with an air of disgust. “I know what he is; you needn’t tell me anything about him. You don’t mean to say that you look upon him as a pal?”
“No! He wanted me to but I couldn’t stomach him and his dandified airs. If you want my opinion of him,” continued Hench frankly, “he’s a sickening little beast, as arrogant as they make them.”
“He’s all that and more—one of the Gadarene swine. Where did you meet him?”
“At a boarding-house in Bethnal Green.”
“Oh! That’s the fox’s hole, is it. I thought he would go further afield.”
“Has he any reason to go afield at all?” asked Hench, staring.
“You bet he has, old fellow. Mr. Cuthbert Spruce has been a man on the market for quite a long time.”
“What is a man on the market?”
“A chap who gets his living by his wits,” explained the barrister leisurely, “and Spruce has been at that sort of game for ever so long. He started with a decent income but got rid of it at cards. Cards queered his pitch ultimately, as he was caught cheating and had to clear out. H’m! He’s ruralizing at Bethnal Green, is he? I expect he will stay there until his little bad wind blows away. Then he’ll try and return. But it’s all of no use, Owain, as no one will have the little beast at any price.”
“He told me quite a different story.”
“Oh, he would, naturally. Spruce is very good at telling stories. He ought to be a novelist by rights.”
“That’s exactly what he claims to be,” retorted Owain, opening his eyes widely. “He said that he had come to Bethnal Green to gather material for a yarn.”
“Pretty thin,” commented Vane, with a shrug, “considering he can’t write a single paragraph of King’s English without a dozen mistakes. I credited him with sufficient imagination to manufacture a better lie. However, it’s useless for us to waste time over Spruce and his shady doings. Cheating at cards has finished him, and now he’ll go under altogether. R.I.P. and be hanged to him. But what were you doing at Bethnal Green, old son?”
“I thought that a cheap boarding-house down there would suit my pocket.”
“H’m! You explained that much before, even though I offered to share my pennies with you.”
“Very good of you, Jim,” said Hench hastily and colouring, “but I don’t care about shoving my burden on to another man’s shoulders. However, a gold mine I had a few shares in turned up trumps, and I have a hundred pounds more or less at my back.”
“And for that reason you have come West?”
“Well, not exactly. If you don’t mind being bored with my—”
“Nothing you tell me will ever bore me, Owain,” interrupted Vane quickly. “It’s a girl, I swear. Come, be honest.”
“Well, there was a girl, but there isn’t now,” confessed Owain, and while Vane chuckled at his own perspicuity he related what had taken place at The Home of the Muses in connection with Zara, Bracken, Madame Alpenny and Spruce. Vane listened intently, and when Hench ended made his first remark in connection with the Nut, for whom he seemed to have no great love.
“The sordid little animal wished to make money out of you, Owain,” he said in his shrewd way, “and for that reason made up to you and kept his eye on you.”
“But he knew that I had no money,” protested Hench, puzzled.
“These papers at the lawyers’ may mean money,” retorted the barrister. “I am inclined to agree with that old lady you mention so far. Well, it’s only about nine days until your birthday, so you haven’t long to wait. And now that you’ve cut the place—very wisely, I think—Spruce won’t be able to line his pockets at your expense. As to the girl—you never did love her.”
“Well, perhaps you are right. But I admired her.”
“That’s nothing. I admire scores of girls, but that doesn’t mean matrimony, my son. You are at that age, Owain, when any woman could collar you. I’m glad that this Zara girl had enough sense to cotton to the other man. Madame Alpenny—”
Hench rose restlessly. “I’m afraid of her,” he interrupted bluntly.
“Pooh! Why should you be? She can’t force you to marry her daughter.”
“No.” Owain spoke slowly. “It’s not that. But the advertisement—”
“Well, it had to do with you, certainly, going by the mention of the place where your father passed his youth. But you told her that you did not intend to keep the appointment.”
“Yes. All the same, I did keep the appointment.”
“The deuce!” Vane looked surprised. “Well?”
“I’m coming to my trouble now,” said Hench, picking up one of the newspapers nervously; “read that paragraph.”
Vane looked at his friend in surprise, and then swiftly made himself acquainted with the information about the Parley Wood murder. He started when he first grasped what the paragraph was about, but afterwards read on slowly to the end. When he knew all about the matter he threw aside the newspaper and looked inquiringly at Hench. “Well?”
“Well,” repeated Owain, sitting down with his hands in his pockets, “can’t you see, Jim? I went to the Gipsy Stile and—”
“And murdered this man,” finished Vane derisively. “Do you expect me to believe that, you fool?”
“No. I’m not given to behaving in that way. But I kept the appointment and I found the corpse.”
“Oh, the devil!” Vane sat up.
“So I said at the time,” remarked Hench dryly.
“And when Madame Alpenny reads about the crime, she will put two and two together.”
“They won’t make four in her calculations,” said Vane swiftly. “After all, you are innocent. She can’t prove you to be guilty.”
“Well, I don’t know. The circumstantial evidence is rather strong.”
“The circumstantial evidence!” Vane stared and reflected. “You had a beard when I saw you last, now—”
“I shaved to-day, so that there might be no chance of my being discovered by any description that girl at the Bull Inn might give.”
“Girl at the Bull Inn? What do you mean?”
Hench lost no time but promptly gave a full account of his adventures from the time he left Liverpool Street Station to the moment that he sat down to dinner in the very room in which the two were speaking. Vane interrupted him frequently, and his face grew grave as he recognized that Hench was in a woeful plight. “Of course, I’ve acted like an ass,” confessed Owain in a rueful manner; “but how would you have acted, Jim?”
“Sitting in this chair and being wise after the event, I should have faced the thing out,” said Vane slowly. “But had I been in your shoes in that wood I should probably have run away as you did.” He paused, shook his head, stared at the carpet. “Damn!” he muttered emphatically.
“I thought it best to speak to you,” murmured Owain anxiously.
Vane nodded. “Quite right. What’s the use of a pal if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. After all, if Madame Alpenny does speak to the police she can’t prove you to be guilty. You had no motive to murder this Evans. He was quite a stranger to you.”
“Quite. All the same—”
“All the same, hold your confounded tongue!” insisted the barrister. “My advice to you is to sit tight and wait events.”
“Exactly. If she is the old adventuress you think she is, and which from your description she certainly appears to be, I don’t think you need have any fear for the moment.”
“Because she will wait until you are in possession of those papers on your twenty-fifth birthday. If they place you in possession of money she will be silent on condition that you marry her daughter.”
“I won’t. Nothing would induce me to marry a girl who loves another man.”
“Oh, I don’t say that you would marry her, but that Madame Alpenny would try and make you marry her. Until all hope fails in that direction she’ll say nothing about the advertisement. Of course, if there is no money the old hag will split, especially if there is a reward. As this Squire Evans seems to be a landowner and a rich man, I expect there will be a reward.”
“I see. Then the best thing for me to do is to wait.”
“Exactly. I’ll support you, and you can talk your heart out to me.”
“You’re a good fellow, Jim. Why, I half believed you would think me—”
“Don’t talk bosh!” Vane jumped up irritably. “Why, you’re the whitest man I know, and my old school-pal. I’d as soon believe myself guilty as you. Now I’m off to bed; go thou and do likewise and don’t worry.” After which speech he shook hands with Hench and the two parted for the night.
For the next nine days they had many such talks, and kept themselves well informed of the progress which the case was making so far as they could learn in print. Of course, the girl at the Bull Inn did tell the police about the interview in the tap-room, and of course great capital was made out of this. But as Owain had suspected, the girl being inobservant, and not having seen him very clearly in the smoky dimly-lighted atmosphere, gave a most incoherent account of his appearance. All she could say was that the questioner was a rough-looking tramp with a bushy black beard, who spoke civilly enough, but who was not a gentleman. Vane chuckled when he read this unflattering description, which was sufficiently wrong and vague to preserve Hench from suspicions. And, indeed, if the girl had been confronted with Hench she would never have recognized in this handsome clean-shaven young gentleman, fashionably dressed, the rough tramp who had drank his beer in the tap-room. It was Vane who made Owain dress fashionably, so as to make him look as unlike his old bearded self as possible. He took him to his tailor, to his haberdasher, to his bootmaker, and to various other tradesmen, with the result that Owain’s new wardrobe did full justice to his handsome looks. Hench, being of the pioneering legion, rather kicked against being thus civilized, but he recognized that Vane was right to insist upon the transformation.
Whatever Madame Alpenny might have thought she did not put her thoughts into action, for nothing appeared in the papers likely to show that Hench was suspected by the police. The inquest on Squire Madoc Evans’ body was duly held, and the verdict was brought in of “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown,” although every one was pretty certain that the shabby tramp who had inquired the way to the Gipsy Stile was the culprit. But he had vanished, and—thanks to Madame Alpenny’s silence—no word came to the police suggesting his identity with Owain Hench. The funeral took place in due time, and it gave Owain a thrill when he read that the body had been taken to Rhaiadr in Wales for burial. It was said that Evans came from that place, and that all his ancestors were buried there. Incidentally, it was mentioned that the dead man had left a daughter who inherited Cookley Grange, and by her father’s death became the Lady of the Manor.
“I think it’s all right now,” said Vane when matters reached this pitch. “After the nine days’ wonder the excitement will gradually die away. And, by Jupiter!” cried the barrister, “it is exactly nine days. Owain, old son, this is your birthday. Off with you and call on Gilberry & Gilberry.”
“Won’t you come also, Jim?”
“No, I won’t. You can’t get into trouble in a respectable legal office, and you are so changed that no one is likely to spot you as the man who is wanted for Squire Madoc Evans’ death.”
Owain was content to go alone, although he felt slightly nervous. His strongest card, should anything come out, was that he had not known Evans, and therefore had no reason to kill him. And by this time he was growing used to the situation, since Madame Alpenny was holding her tongue. Why she acted in this kind way he could not understand, but accepted the explanation provided by Vane. However, if he came into money she probably would find him out and move in the matter. Therefore it was with some reluctance that Hench went to Gilberry & Gilberry’s office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He wanted to let sleeping dogs lie, and was unwilling to become rich, as by doing so he would certainly bring Madame Alpenny down on his head. All the same, Hench felt very curious when he faced the white-headed old gentleman who was the head of the firm, and was rather astonished by the warmth of the greeting he received.
“I am glad to see you,” said Mr. Gilberry heartily. “You come in the nick of time, my dear young friend.”
“To do what, sir?”
“To inherit ten thousand a year.”
“What?” Owain became pale with amazement.
Gilberry chuckled. “Oh yes. It is as I say, Mr. Evans.”
“What?” cried Owain again, and this time louder, with a quavering voice.
“Of course; of course,” the old man chuckled once more. “You think that your name is Hench. Not so; not so. You are Owain Evans of Rhaiadr, the heir of Squire Madoc Evans, of Cookley Grange, in Essex.”
“And—and—what relation am I to—to—to—”
“Oh, yes. You don’t know. Why, my dear sir, Madoc Evans was your uncle.”
Owain gasped, and turned as white as the corpse he had seen in Parley Wood.
Like M. Jourdain in Moliere’s comedy, Vane was only surprised when he found virtue in unexpected places, but he certainly was astonished in another direction when Hench stumbled into his chambers white-faced, wild-eyed and trembling. The barrister hastily arose and supported his friend to a chair, and as hastily produced a glass of brandy to hold to his lips.
“Drink this, Owain,” he commanded, wondering what had happened to put his visitor in such a state. “Don’t say a word until you feel better.”
Hench drank the whole glassful of fiery liquor, and the colour began to return to his wan cheeks. He did not speak, as requested, but sat in the chair with a broken-down look, which startled Vane more than he showed. Looking anxiously at his friend he came to the sole conclusion he could come to, seeing what he knew in connection with Hench’s adventure. “Madame Alpenny has found you out?”
Hench shook his head. “It’s worse than that,” he muttered faintly.
“Then the worse it is the better you should brace yourself up to face it,” was Vane’s irritable retort. “Have another glass of brandy, although I don’t approve of Dutch courage myself.”
“No. No more brandy. Wait a bit. I’ll soon pull round.”
Vane nodded approvingly, and turned his back so as to give the man time to recover himself. He went to the window and looked at the busy traffic of Chancery Lane, in which thoroughfare his chambers were situated. The same were directly opposite that gateway which leads into Lincoln’s Inn Fields, through the highways and byeways of pleasant grounds sacred to the goddess Themis. Hench had evidently come straight in this way from the offices of Gilberry & Gilberry. Vane wondered how he had managed to arrive without attracting observation and being stopped, so wild had been his looks when he entered the chambers. The journey was very short, truly, but the appearance of the man was sufficient to warrant interference. Evidently the unexpected had happened to throw Hench into this abnormal state, and with a shrug of his shoulders Vane turned to see how he was getting on. Hench smiled faintly as he met the inquiring gaze of the barrister and wiped his forehead, which was wet with perspiration. Then he essayed to speak and apologize, succeeding after one or two desperate attempts.
“Sorry, Jim, but I couldn’t help myself.”
“Seems like it,” snapped Vane, trying to bully him into calmness. He had never before seen Hench so upset, as the man was usually very quiet and self-controlled. Something very bad must have happened to unnerve him in this way. “I should like to know what is the meaning of all this,” went on Vane crossly. “Upon my Sam, Owain, if I didn’t know you were a sober chap I should have believed that you were drunk when you came in. I wonder some policeman didn’t run you in between here and Lincoln’s Inn Fields.”
“I did see people staring at me,” replied Hench in a stronger voice, as the brandy had done its work and he was rapidly recovering his balance. “Perhaps if I had come by a longer way I might have got into trouble. But you see, Jim, the distance—”
“Yes! Yes!” Vane dropped into his own favourite chair. “I know all about that, old son. Come to the point. What’s up?”
“I’ve had a shock.”
“Oh Lord! as if the most stupid person—which I am not—couldn’t see as much. I can only conclude that Madame Alpenny has told the police and you are in danger of arrest. Yet you deny that such is the case.”
“I do. Madame Alpenny has nothing to do with this particular matter. Yes, I have had a shock, but I’m all right now.” Hench shook himself like a dog coming out of a pond and drew a long breath, then continued to talk calmly. His first remark was a question. “If I did get arrested, Jim, I suppose my best line of defence would be to say that, not knowing the dead man, I had no motive to kill him.”
“That is my opinion,” admitted the barrister. “Well?”
“Well, there is no chance of my taking up that line of defence.”
“Why not? You told me that you did not know Squire Evans.”
“I did. I don’t contradict my admission.”
“Then why can’t you defend yourself, if necessary, on that score?”
“I’ll answer that question by asking you another? Who am I?”
Vane stared and looked wholly bewildered. “Owain Hench!”
“So I thought. Now I learn from Gilberry & Gilberry that I am Owain Evans.”
“What?” Vane uttered the ejaculation in as astonished a tone as Hench had done in the solicitor’s office. “Are you a relative of the dead man?”
“Yes. I am his nephew.”
“Well, the unexpected is always happening,” commented Vane, after a pause of sheer surprise. “But even so, as you did not know your uncle and never met him, you can still say, if necessary, that you had no motive to murder him.”
“I can’t.” Owain rose and began to pace the room. “I can’t; and that’s the worst of it, Jim. As you say, I did not know him and I never met him, but evil tongues might give me the lie, seeing what I stood to gain.”
“What did you stand to gain?”
“Ten thousand a year.”
“Ten thousand a year!” Vane echoed the words with a gasp of astonishment. “I say, Owain, those mysterious papers left by your father did mean a fortune after all, as Madame Alpenny suspected?”
Hench nodded, and sat down again with a disconsolate air. “It is a dangerous position that I am in. Owain Evans of Rhaiadr with ten thousand a year, which comes to me now that Uncle Madoc is dead—that is who I am.”
“But you knew nothing about such an inheritance?”
“Who will believe that?” asked Owain derisively. “Already, as the tramp who asked the way to the Gipsy Stile, I am accused of the crime. Should the truth of my keeping that appointment become known, the motive of gaining ten thousand a year will be imputed to me as an excuse for committing the deed.”
“Don’t go too fast, Owain,” said Vane sharply; “remember only Gilberry & Gilberry had this information. They can prove that you knew nothing about the same on the first of July when the man was murdered.”
“True enough. All the same I kept the appointment,” persisted Hench stubbornly. “Who is to prove that I did not have a long interview with my uncle in Parley Wood; who is to declare that he did not admit I was his heir and that his death would place me in possession of so large an income? And, remember, Jim, that I am poor. A man would do much to gain ten thousand a year.”
“A man like you, Owain, would do nothing mean or dishonourable or cruel to gain double the sum,” said Vane sharply. “Don’t be a fool.”
“Am I a fool? You know me, Jim, but other people don’t. Supposing Madame Alpenny tells what she knows to the police and sets them on my track—”
“She doesn’t know your address. You told me so.”
“I told you truly. She doesn’t. But seeing that I have given my usual name both at the hotel I stayed at and to the landlady of my lodgings in South Kensington, there won’t be much difficulty in the police finding me. People will talk, you know. I have shaved off my beard too, and that might be quoted against me as a sign of my guilt.”
“It might,” assented Vane restlessly, for he recognized that the position was a dangerous one. “But it all depends upon Madame Alpenny. So far she has made no move, and now that you really are rich she will hold her tongue.”
“Provided I marry her daughter, I suppose?” inquired Owain dryly.
“Of course. The woman is an adventuress, as you say, and means to make money out of you. Marry her daughter and supply her with funds, and you will place yourself in the power of a possible blackmailer.”
Hench’s face became dour and obstinate in its looks. “Even if Madame Alpenny placed me in the dock at the New Bailey, I won’t marry Zara, or give the old woman a single penny.”
“I’m with you, old son.” Vane leaned forward and shook his friend’s hand. “You can depend upon me to do all I can to pull you through.”
“You’re a good sort, Jim, to stand by me,” said Hench, much moved.
“Pooh! Pooh! Pooh! I take a right view of friendship, that’s all,” said Vane cheerfully. “Come, old man, let us discuss the situation. We have ample time, as Madame Alpenny will hold her tongue until you openly refuse the demands she is sure to make. Who gains time, gains everything, and lots of things may happen before she can place your neck in a noose.”
“I am in a dangerous position.”
“You are. I don’t wish to minimize the risk, or undervalue Madame Alpenny as an enemy. But remember, Owain, that she is not your enemy until you give her cause to be so by declining to marry the girl and pension Madame. Thus the police will learn nothing for many a long day, and meantime we can act.”
“In what way?”
“Why, in trying to learn who really did murder your uncle.” Vane drew a long breath. “By Jupiter, old son, I don’t wonder you were knocked all of a heap by the information that you had a new relative and ten thousand a year.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that which upset me,” explained Hench with a shrug, “but the knowledge that my uncle was the dead man I found in Parley Wood.”
“Gilberry & Gilberry don’t know that, I suppose?”
“Of course not. I kept that information to myself. They didn’t even, so far as I could gather, know anything about the advertisement, or they would have spoken about it. I said nothing.”
“Very wise of you. I wonder,” mused the barrister, “why your uncle put in that advertisement?”
“To make you understand, Jim, it will be necessary to repeat my family history as Mr. Gilberry told it to me.”
“That is what I have been wishing you to do for the last fifteen minutes, old boy. Here, take a cigarette and make yourself comfortable. When I am in possession of facts I shall be in a better position to advise you.”
“I need advice,” sighed Hench, lighting up.
“Well, don’t shed tears over it, sonny. Fire away.”
Vane’s banter and anxious desire to cheer him up did Hench good, and he produced a large blue envelope out of his pocket which contained several papers. The young man glanced at these doubtfully, then laid them on the table. “You can examine them at your leisure,” he said, leaning back comfortably in his chair. “I’ll tell you the story instead of reading it.”
“That will be best,” assented Vane brightly. “Begin, Scheherazade.”
“My grandfather,” said Hench conversationally, “lived at Rhaiadr in South Wales, where his family had resided for centuries. They were minor princes, I believe, before the first Edward conquered the country, but dwindled in importance as the centuries went by. When the family estates came to my grandfather, all he had was considerable property in Rhaiadr and a tumbledown family seat. He was called Mynydd Evans—”
“Curious Christian name,” commented Vane, lighting a fresh cigarette.
“Yes! Gilberry, who seems to know something of the Welsh language, told me that it means ‘Great.’ So my grandfather was really Great Evans, so called because he was the chief person in Rhaiadr, and because he was a stout, bulky man, over six feet three in height. He was discontented with his lot, as he wanted money and power and position, and the deuce knows what.”
“Rather a grabber, Owain, considering that he was the Lord of Rhaiadr—and that’s another queer name.”
“It means water tumbling over a rock—a waterfall, in fact,” said Hench, with a nod. “My father mentioned the word to Madame Alpenny and gave her the translation. Well, to continue. Mynydd Evans collected what money he could and came to London. There he set up as a merchant, and being clever, in a wonderfully short space of time he made a large fortune.”
“He must have done so considering he could leave your uncle ten thousand a year,” said Vane emphatically. “But why didn’t he return to Rhaiadr?”
“Mr. Gilberry couldn’t explain that. I expect the old man found the Welsh parish of his ancestors too narrow for his ambition, and perhaps too far from London and his place of business. He bought the Lordship of the Manor of Cookley, in Essex, and took up his abode in the old Grange. There he died.”
“And your Uncle Madoc, as the eldest son, became the heir?”
“Now, that is exactly what did not happen. Mynydd Evans had two sons—my father, Owain, and Madoc—and my father was the elder of the two. He was”—Hench wriggled uneasily—“he was a rotter, and I’m breaking the fifth commandment in saying so, Jim.”
“Well,” said the barrister coolly, “from what you told me of your father when we met six months ago, I rather think he was a bad lot.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” said Hench hastily. “But he is dead, so let us say as little about him as possible. Anyhow, he contrived so mortally to offend my grandfather with his doings that he was cut out of the will.”
“What did he do particularly shady?”
“I can’t tell you,” said Hench, with a shrug. “From what Gilberry said I gathered that it wasn’t one shady deed, but the culmination of many that induced Mynydd Evans to give the estate to my Uncle Madoc. He was the good boy of the family, and Mynydd Evans knew that his hard-earned fortune would not be dissipated in his hands. My father was allowed five or six hundred a year, and told to keep away from England. He did so and afterwards married abroad—an English governess, my mother. She died in due time and I was sent to England to board with strangers. Then I went to a private school, afterwards to Winchester, where we met, Jim.”
“Yes, I know all that. Afterwards your father sent for you and ultimately died in Paris. You told me about your life since, when you came back six months ago. But why didn’t your father relate your family history to you? Why did he keep you in the dark?”
“Really, Jim, I can’t say, unless it was that he felt ashamed of his doings. He would have had to tell me that he was not straight, to account for his being cut out of the will, you know. Anyhow, he saw Gilberry & Gilberry and left with them those papers, which include my birth certificate and my baptismal one—things which are necessary to prove my identity, you know. Gilberry & Gilberry were my father’s lawyers and the lawyers of my uncle and grandfather. They saw that my school fees were paid and kept an eye on me while my father was in exile. So I had no difficulty in proving who I was. In fact old Gilberry knew me from my likeness to my father the moment I entered the office. It’s all right so far.”
“But if the money was left to your uncle, how do you inherit?”
“Well, it seems that Mynydd Evans always had some qualms about cutting off the direct line, and, I suppose, hoped that the third generation would be better than the second, as represented by my father. Anyhow, he made a will excluding my father, save for the five or six hundred a year allowance, and left the whole eleven thousand pounds per annum he was worth to Uncle Madoc.”
“You said it was ten thousand.”
“Yes. But of the extra thousand, five hundred went to my father during his life and the remaining five hundred—or it might be four with six to my father, as I’m not quite clear about the exact amounts—to Gwen Evans, my first cousin, Uncle Madoc’s daughter.”
“Oh! There’s a girl, then?”
“Yes, and if old Gilberry is to be believed, she is a very pretty girl. I understand that she is about twenty years of age. We can talk of her later, Jim. Anyhow, you must understand that Uncle Madoc only had the income and the Grange for life. Afterwards it was to go to the offspring of my father, who was the true heir. I am the sole offspring, so I inherit.”
“I see,” pondered Vane. “Well, all that seems clear and reasonable enough. Only I should like to know why your uncle didn’t find you out and treat you as his heir. He could have done so through Gilberry & Gilberry, who—as you say—kept their eye on you all the time.”
“According to Mr. Gilberry, my uncle hated my father fervently, and did not at all approve of Mynydd Evans’ will, which left the property to the son of the brother he detested. He made no inquiries, I understand, and was quite content to enjoy the property and let the deluge in the shape of myself come after him. Of course he would rather, as Mr. Gilberry said, have had Gwen get the property, but he could not, as the will of my grandfather was too clear.”
“Well, I can understand that the brothers did not love one another,” said Vane, after a pause; “family feuds are unfortunately too common. But what made the old man put in that advertisement?”
“As I didn’t mention the advertisement to Mr. Gilberry for obvious reasons, I could obtain no information on that point,” explained Owain, looking somewhat perplexed. “And why he sought me out in that peculiar way at the eleventh hour, I can’t say. He might as well have done the thing straight through the family lawyers. Anyhow, I suppose he thought that the mention of the name Rhaiadr would show me that I was wanted, although I can’t understand why he worded the advertisement so obscurely. But that my father mentioned the place of his family to me, I wouldn’t have bothered about the matter. Let alone the fact,” concluded Hench after a pause, “that I wouldn’t have seen the advertisement at all but for Madame Alpenny. It was queer, wasn’t it, Jim, that the advertisement should have appeared with the name Rhaiadr just after she remembered meeting my father over twenty years ago?”
“So queer,” said Vane dryly, “that I wonder if Madame Alpenny had anything to do with the insertion of the advertisement.”
“Oh, that’s rubbish, Jim. She never met my uncle, and couldn’t have put in the advertisement on her own, as she didn’t know the ropes. My uncle put it in sure enough, or he would not have been in the wood to meet me. But why the deuce he should choose out-of-doors as a meeting place instead of asking me into his own house, I can’t understand.”
“He was evidently an original,” said the barrister, with a shrug. “By the way, if you died, or if you had never been born, who would inherit the estate?”
“Gwen, my cousin, of course. The will left the property to the offspring of the eldest son, and failing such offspring, to the children of the second son. Why do you ask that, Jim?”
“Well, it occurs to me that the cautiously worded advertisement and the appointment of so lonely a place to meet in, suggests foul play on the part of your beloved uncle.”
“Foul play?” Hench stared. “What the deuce do you mean?”
“Madoc might have intended to murder you so that his daughter might inherit.”
“Not at all. We must look at all possibilities. Madoc hated your father and doubtless hated you also as the son of your father. If he could have done you out of the inheritance by murdering you, I don’t see why he should have held his hand.”
“But you don’t know the man’s character,” protested Hench. “He may have been a very harmless person.”
“A very cunning and plotting person, anyhow,” said Vane quickly. “Else, why the carefully worded advertisement and the strange place chosen for the meeting. No, Owain, my conjecture may be wild, but there is some truth in it, I am sure. Madoc intended to get rid of you, and your lucky stars led some one to get rid of him, before you appeared on the scene.”
“My lucky stars,” said Hench, rising. “How can you say that, when I am in danger of being arrested for his death?”
“There is no danger just now, until Madame Alpenny moves. And when she does move we may be able to counterplot her.”
“She will move as soon as I enter into my inheritance.”
“I know that. Therefore, if I were you, I should not take up my inheritance just yet.”
“How can I prevent that? Gilberry & Gilberry will take immediate steps to place me in possession, and the business is sure to get into the newspapers. Then Madame Alpenny will see that I am rich and come to bother me.”
“Of course. But you can tell Gilberry & Gilberry to hold over action until you learn who murdered your uncle. Once you find the true assassin you will be safe from the malice of Madame Alpenny and all other people.”
“Oh, there is no one can spot me but Madame Alpenny,” said Owain confidentially.
“Not even Spruce?” asked Vane significantly.
“Certainly not. He knows nothing about my affairs.”
“You told me that he knew about the papers you were to see on your twenty-fifth birthday?”
“Oh, yes. But those papers won’t connect me with Uncle Madoc’s death. Only the advertisement can do that, and I don’t suppose Spruce has set eyes on it.”
“Let us hope not,” said Vane uneasily. “But since he heard the name Rhaiadr when the meeting with your father was explained by Madame Alpenny, he certainly might put two and two together if he did see the advertisement. And if the old woman saw it, why shouldn’t Spruce see it?”
“My dear Jim, why manufacture trouble, when we have enough to deal with as things stand? If Spruce does get on the trail, I shall deal with him very promptly, I assure you. I’m not afraid of that little rat.”
“Rats can be dangerous, Owain, and Spruce is a meddlesome animal always on the make. You with your ten thousand a year would be a god-send to him. Now, if you will take my advice—”
“What is it?”
“This. Tell Gilberry & Gilberry to let things remain as they are, until you tell them to place you legally in possession of your property. They can look after the ten thousand odd pounds coming to you and allow your cousin the four or five hundred a year to which she is entitled. Then go down to Cookley as Owain Hench and look about for any possible person who might have knifed your uncle.”
“But Gilberry & Gilberry will think it queer.”
“What the devil does it matter what they think? So long as they get their fees all they have to do is to execute your orders. And if you like, you can make a romance out of the business and tell them that you are going down to Cookley to see your cousin under your false name, so as to find out what she is like. Of course, you can hint that you may fall in love—”
“Oh, rats!” interrupted Hench inelegantly. “I’m not likely to fall in love. I don’t believe that I understand what love is, seeing what a hash I made of my attentions to Zara.”
“You made a hash because you didn’t love her, old son. But you may fall in love with your cousin.”
“Don’t anticipate the worst,” said Owain dryly. “Anyhow, your advice is good, Jim. I shall tell Gilberry & Gilberry to hold over and will give them to understand that I wish to see the beautiful heiress I have dispossessed. As Hench, I shall go to Cookley and look round for the criminal. With my changed appearance I don’t suppose I’ll be spotted.”
“No, I think you are safe so far,” said Vane, looking at his friend in a critical manner, “but don’t risk seeing that girl at the Bull Inn. She may recognize your voice. And I’ll tell you what, Owain, I’ll give you an introduction to an old aunt of mine, Mrs. Perage, who is a great swell in those parts. Her respectability may help you to hold your own amongst the very suspicious, narrow-minded people one finds in the country.”
“Jim, you’re a brick.”
“Oh, fudge! I’ll loot you when you enter into your kingdom,” and Vane laughed uproariously at his small joke. “See if I don’t make you pay up!”
Naturally, Gilberry & Gilberry were extremely astonished when the heir to Cookley Grange refused to enter into his kingdom immediately. Such a wonderful reluctance to enjoy a large income and a splendid position had never before come under their notice. Fortunately, however, Mr. Samuel Gilberry, the senior partner, who attended particularly to the business of the estate, was of a romantic turn of mind, unusual in a lawyer, and Owain’s suggestion of acting the part of a disguised prince rather appealed to him. Adopting Vane’s suggestion, Hench—as he persisted in calling himself for the time being—artfully pointed out that it would be just as well to make the acquaintance of his cousin as a stranger before revealing himself. He did not wish her, as he put it, to be biassed by the fact that he was the son of his father. “For you see, sir,” he said to the old gentleman, who was a white-bearded benevolent person, somewhat like the traditional Father Christmas, “so far as I can gather from the papers which my father left behind him, these brothers, who are the parents of Gwen and myself, were not friends.”
“They hated one another fervently, if you don’t mind my saying so,” was the emphatic response of the old lawyer, as he took a pinch of snuff.
“I don’t mind your stating the truth, Mr. Gilberry, which is what I want to get at,” replied Hench readily. “Well then, admitting that the two hated one another, it is more than likely that Uncle Madoc had no great love for me.”
“He had not, my young friend. I pointed out to him frequently that as he had never set eyes on you, he could scarcely form any judgment, good, bad or indifferent. But he declared that you were the son of your father and that no good could come out of Nazareth.”
“Quite so. And doubtless he passed on his opinion to his daughter.”
“I think it is extremely likely, although I cannot speak positively, Mr. Owain,” said the solicitor. “By the way, I may as well call you by that name, since you refuse to take your proper appellation, and I don’t like to call you Mr. Hench.”
“I don’t mind what you call me,” Owain assured him, “so long as you don’t let the cat out of the bag. My cousin is sure to have a bad opinion of me, since her father was so bitter. This being the case, I shall have no chance of becoming friendly with her if I present myself as her cousin. I do not wish to carry on the feud, so it is necessary for me to gain Gwen’s good opinion. Therefore, under the name my father adopted, I shall make her acquaintance as a stranger, and win her friendship entirely on my own merits.”
“It is rather a fantastical way of acting, and is scarcely business-like,” was Gilberry’s reply. “All the same the idea is not without merit. I am quite ready to help you, and can do so, by saying that you are abroad.”
“I don’t think it is even necessary to say as much. Let Gwen know that I have communicated with you, and have decided to wait for a time before taking over the estate. She can put it down to eccentricity, or to my late father’s influence, if she likes. Anyhow, I don’t suppose she will trouble to search very deeply into the matter, and will probably be pleased that I don’t take possession of Cookley Grange immediately. She can continue to live there until I give her notice to quit.”
Gilberry laughed and shook his head. “Miss Evans is a very decided young lady, Mr. Owain,” he remarked in a judicial manner, “and having her own income of five hundred a year, she has already quitted the Grange.”
“Because she expected me to take possession?”
“There!” cried Hench triumphantly. “Didn’t I tell you that she was biassed by her father. Has she left Cookley?”
“No. She has gone to stay with a very charming old lady in the neighbourhood, called Mrs. Perage.”
“Better and better. That will enable me to make her acquaintance without unduly forcing myself upon her. My friend, Mr. Vane, who is a barrister—”
“Yes! Yes! I know the name. I have heard that he is clever. Well?”
“Well, he has given me a letter of introduction to Mrs. Perage, who is his aunt.”
Mr. Samuel Gilberry rubbed his hands and chuckled. “Very good—very good indeed, my young friend. It is quite a romance. Now, to carry the same to a proper conclusion, may I suggest that you should fall in love with Miss Evans?”
Hench shook his head doubtfully. “Private feelings can’t be ordered about like private soldiers,” he remarked dryly. “I am not the kind of man to fall in love, Mr. Gilberry.”
“Pooh! Pooh! A handsome young fellow like you is sure to experience the grand passion. And let me tell you that Miss Evans is a beautiful girl, both clever and sensible. If you could manage to marry her,” went on the lawyer coaxingly, “think how delightfully you would end the family feud. And after all, poor girl, it is rather hard for her to be reduced to five hundred a year after enjoying, through her father, ten thousand per annum.”
“Oh, as to that,” said Owain promptly, “you can allow her two or three thousand out of my income.”
“She wouldn’t take it, seeing that your consent is necessary.”
“Yet you talk about my marrying her,” was Hench’s retort. “I have about as much chance of doing that as the man in the moon. However, I shall make her acquaintance as Hench, and see what comes of it. By the way, doesn’t she know the name my father took in place of Evans?”
“No. Your late uncle never mentioned it. As Owain Hench you are quite safe in making her acquaintance. She will never think that you are her cousin, unless you let her see how you spell your Christian name. The Welsh spelling may give her a hint, and she is very sharp, remember.”
“If I have occasion to write it, I shall spell the name in the English way. I don’t suppose that will be necessary, anyhow. Well, that’s all right. Act as we have decided and I shall go down to Cookley to carry out my romance, as you call it, Mr. Gilberry. One question I should like to ask you, however, before leaving.”
“And that is, Mr. Owain—?”
“Who murdered my uncle?” Mr. Gilberry took a pinch of snuff and shook his venerable head. “Really, it is hard to say, unless it was that tramp who asked the way to the Gipsy Stile, Mr. Owain. I suppose you saw all about that in the papers?”
Hench winced, but recovered himself immediately. “Yes, I did, Mr. Gilberry. But what reason could that tramp have had to murder my uncle. Not robbery, if the report of the inquest is to be believed, for then it was said that neither the money, nor the watch, nor the jewellery had been taken.”
“Exactly. So far as I can see, there was no reason why this man should have murdered Mr. Evans.” Mr. Gilberry knitted his brows and looked perplexed. “Maybe it was revenge,” he concluded doubtfully.
“Revenge. Then my uncle had enemies?”
“Dozens, I should think,” said the lawyer coolly. “Mr. Madoc Evans was a very cantankerous person. I may say that much ill of the dead. He quarrelled with many people, and, moreover, was very severe on poaching both as a magistrate and as a landowner. This tramp, for all I know, may have been a poacher who had a grudge against him.”
“Do the police think so?”
“The police say nothing, because they have no evidence to go upon,” said the lawyer sharply. “The sole person they suspect is the tramp who came to the Bull Inn. But he has disappeared, and they can’t find him. However, in the village it is said that the tramp was a poacher, who murdered the Squire out of revenge. You can take or leave that opinion, as you like. The whole thing is a mystery to me, Mr. Owain.”
“And to me,” said Hench, in all good faith. “I shall never be satisfied until I learn who murdered my uncle.”
“That wish does you credit, Mr. Owain,” said Mr. Gilberry approvingly, and again the young man winced. “Considering how unfriendly the late Squire was towards your father.”
“Well, my father was just as unfriendly towards him,” returned Hench with a shrug. “And, as I say, I don’t wish to carry on the feud. Good-bye, Mr. Gilberry. When I am settled in Cookley I shall let you know my address and will write you if necessary. You are sure that no one knows my name of Hench as having anything to do with the family at the Grange?”
“I am quite sure, although I don’t call one solitary girl a family,” chuckled the old man, walking with his client towards the door. “Good-bye, good-bye. I hope—I sincerely hope—that the feud will be ended by your marriage to my late friend’s daughter.”
“You might as well expect water to run up hill,” retorted Hench sceptically, and went on his way, certain that he was not likely to lose his heart.
Consequent on the necessity of preserving the secret of his identity carefully, Hench requested Vane to introduce him by letter to Mrs. Perage as Mr. Hench, suppressing the Christian name, which might have given Gwen a clue, if only from the oddness of the spelling. Vane, on learning that the girl had gone to stay with his aunt, quite approved of this, and both in his letter of introduction and his private epistle to the old lady made all things safe. As Mr. Hench, the young man went down to Cookley, and if he was forced to state what his Christian name was, he resolved to spell it in the English way. That would provoke no remark from Gwen, as “Owen” was not a particularly unusual designation. All the same, Hench felt that he was treading on thin ice. He determined to stay at Cookley as short a time as possible, and to see no more of his cousin than he could help. After all he was going down not to meet her, as Mr. Gilberry believed, but to learn if possible who had murdered the unfortunate Squire.
While reading a newspaper entitled The Setting Sun in the train, Hench received a distinct shock, although by this time he was growing accustomed to being startled. Some amateur detective had written a letter to the editor of this halfpenny evening journal, drawing attention to the advertisement in The Express with reference to the meeting at the Gipsy Stile. Of the name “Rhaiadr” nothing was said, as such was Greek to the writer of the letter. But the fact that some one was invited to meet Squire Evans at the very place and on the very evening when he was murdered was largely commented upon. The very officious person who wrote suggested that the police should try and learn to whom the advertisement was addressed, “when without doubt”—the letter went on to say—“the assassin will be captured.”
Although it was rather like asking the authorities to look for a needle in a bottle of hay, seeing that there were eight million people in London to any one of whom the advertisement might have been addressed, Owain felt cold water running down his spine. Not on account of the Hungarian lady, because he agreed with Vane that she would not give information to the police until she learned if he was prepared to marry her daughter. It was Spruce he feared—the little rat who was meddlesome and secretive, and unscrupulous, and who could do much mischief once he got on the trail. From what Vane had said, it was plain that the Nut had rendered his position in the West End untenable owing to his cheating, and the sole chance he had of becoming even tolerable to his former associates—and perhaps not even then—was to return with his pockets full of money. Then, for the sake of winning the same, they might overlook his fault. Probably they would not, but Hench was quite sure that Spruce believed that money would do anything. Naturally, he would do much to get money, being anything but an honourable man as had been ample proved. In Bethnal Green there were few opportunities of making a fortune, and Spruce was not sufficiently clever to take advantage even of what chances there were. Consequently, he would be quite prepared—Hench was certain of this—to get what he could by blackmail. Already he believed that there was some mystery about Hench, and if he saw the advertisement, or the letter which had drawn attention to the same, he would be certain to get at the truth. Having been present at the conversation between Hench and Madame Alpenny when the woman’s meeting with his father—Hench’s father that is—had been discussed, the word “Rhaiadr” would certainly come again into his mind. Connecting the same with Hench, the young man was convinced that Spruce would venture to accuse him of keeping the appointment and murdering the advertiser. Then if it came out that the dead man was Hench’s uncle, so strong a motive was provided that arrest would certainly follow.
It was a very uncomfortable journey for Owain, and he alighted at Cookley Station with the firm idea that he was about to have a trying time. Madame Alpenny was dangerous and so was Spruce, as both wanted cash and both were wholly unscrupulous. However, if either went to the police they were not likely to get what they wanted, so Hench comforted himself with the idea that before taking any action they would find him out and offer to treat. On what he discovered at Cookley would depend his attitude, as if he could only get at the truth he could place the matter in the hands of the police without danger to himself. On the other hand, if he made no discovery likely to prove who was the assassin, it would be necessary to come to some arrangement or risk the consequence. And Hench could not disguise from himself that on the face of it his defence was weak, since the strongest point—that of being a stranger to the dead man—was removed. Certainly, as he had never met Squire Evans, the deceased was a stranger to him, but the fact that the dead man was his uncle, whose demise would give him ten thousand five hundred a year, assuredly provided a strong motive for the commission of the crime. It was all puzzling and difficult, and dangerous and highly unpleasant. All that Hench could do was to wait and see what Madame Alpenny, and possibly Spruce, would do. Any one who has experienced suspense will understand what agonies this unfortunate young man underwent. It required all his courage and all his nerve to endure the anxiety of the next few days. And to make matters worse, Vane was not at hand to relieve the tension by listening to Owain’s fears.
It was with an odd feeling, and not one of safety, that Hench again set foot in Cookley. As he walked down the crooked street he noted how many eyes of both men and women followed his movements, and for the moment believed that he was recognized. But that was impossible, considering the contrast between the rough-bearded tramp who had visited the Bull Inn and the smart, fashionable, clean-shaven young gentleman now strolling complacently through the little town. What the people looked at, especially the women, were his handsome face and distinguished appearance. From a muttered remark or so which his ear caught, Owain understood that they took him for a tourist, who had come to see the lions of the place. Therefore, in this character the young man asked one or two where he could find lodgings. Of course he was at once directed to the inn, but here, for obvious reasons, he did not wish to go. With the idea of finding quiet rooms he had left his portmanteau at the railway station, so as to seek the same unhampered by luggage. For some time he was unsuccessful in his search, until on the outskirts of the village and no great distance from the church he saw a notice in a cottage window of “Apartments to Let.” At once he knocked at the door, since the place seemed clean and quiet. A delicate, slender little woman answered his inquiries by stating that she was called Mrs. Bell and had rooms to let. An inspection of these satisfied the young man, although they were rather poorly furnished and decidedly small. At once he took them at the very moderate sum demanded, and Mrs. Bell at his request sent her nephew to the station to get her new lodger’s portmanteau. The little woman, who was meek and fragile, at once took a great interest in Hench, as he had kind eyes and a gentle manner. In a short time the two were good friends, and Mrs. Bell congratulated herself that for one month she had such a pleasant-spoken gentleman under her homely roof. She said as much to her big burly nephew when he returned with the portmanteau on his shoulder, and her nephew thoroughly agreed with her, which was natural, seeing that the new lodger had given him half a crown for his trouble. So Hench was made very comfortable by the two, who approved of him more and more every day. Mrs. Bell was a busy bee in the way of looking after household affairs, and Giles her nephew, who was a labourer, brushed Owain’s boots and clothes for him. Also—and this was a great point—Mrs. Bell was no gossip and kept very much to herself, so the neighbours heard little about Hench from her. On the whole, the young man decided that he was very well placed.
Hench did not present his letter of introduction to Mrs. Perage straight away, but busied himself in learning what he could of the geography of Cookley. He examined the church, explored the village,—never going into the Bull Inn, by the way,—and even ventured to look at the Gipsy Stile. It gave him a qualm when he found himself on the well-remembered spot, and saw beyond the old brick wall the picturesque Grange, which was now his property. Mrs. Bell, who knew everything about the place and talked freely enough when asked, although she was no scandal-monger, told him how Miss Evans had gone to stay with Mrs. Perage since the death of her father.
“And they do say,” said Mrs. Bell, who always prefaced her remarks with this phrase, “that she ain’t going to rest until she finds out who killed him.”
“Is there any clue?” asked Owain, keeping his face turned away.
“No, there ain’t, sir, unless you can call that tramp a clue. He did ask Betsy Jane at the Bull where the Gipsy Stile was, and the old Squire was found there some hours later as dead as mutton. But since then no one’s clapped eyes on him, and I don’t suppose, sir, as any one ever will.”
“Do you think the tramp murdered the Squire?”
“Lord, sir, how do I know!” cried Mrs. Bell in a panic. “I hev enough to do in the house without thinking of murders. But they do say as Squire Evans was a hard man on poachers, as Giles knows, he having got into trouble over a pheasant. It might be, sir, as that tramp was one of them poachers, and done for the Squire. Though to be sure,” added the woman, rubbing her nose in a perplexed way, “if he was a poacher hereabouts some one would hev knowed him, and he wouldn’t hev had to ask Betsy Jane of the Bull where the stile was. It’s my opinion, that for all Miss Gwen’s trying she’ll never find out who killed her father. And they do say as if the murderer ain’t found it won’t be any great grief to them as knowed old Mr. Evans.”
“What kind of a girl is Miss Evans?” asked Hench irrelevantly.
“Ah!” cried Mrs. Bell, nursing her hands under her apron. “Now they do say, sir, as I knows myself, as she’s as nice a young lady as you ever set eyes on. Lovely I call her, and small like me, though quite a lady, which I ain’t. She’s as loved as her father was hated, and they do say as that’s saying a great deal. I do assure you, sir, as we’d rather hev Miss Gwen for the head of the place than this new young Squire, as comes from no one knows where!”
Hench had many conversations about these matters with Mrs. Bell, and gradually came to know a great deal during the next few days. His uncle, it appeared, had been very unpopular, while Gwen was the reverse. Generally, it was quite believed amongst the ancients of the village that the Squire had been murdered by the unknown tramp, who was a poacher, and the verdict was that it served the dead man right, because he was always so hard on the poor. Owain was tolerably sure that the Cookley people would have been quite sorry had the presumed criminal been arrested. But as he was the person in question, he was glad that they had not been troubled to mourn in this way. All the same, in spite of all his questioning, he was unable to learn anything likely to show who had met Squire Evans in Parley Wood. So far his mission to Cookley had proved a complete failure.
Then Destiny intervened to conduct him a step further on the dark path, which was leading him he knew not where. Towards the end of the week, and when he was beginning to feel safer and more at home in the village, he had an adventure, the consequences of which were far-reaching. Owain had gone for a long walk into the surrounding country, and was returning leisurely under the many-coloured glories of the sunset. The weather was warm, the road was dusty, and he paused by a stile to remove his straw hat and allow the breeze to cool his heated brow. Before him was the church, round the square ivy-clothed tower of which the jackdaws were flying; to the right was the road, melting almost imperceptibly into the narrow village street, while to the left ran the same road curving abruptly round a corner into the agricultural lands. So dangerous was this bend in the highway that it was marked with one of those red triangles elevated on a post to warn motorists and cyclists not to move at too great a pace. The injunction was very much needed, and never more so than in the present instance.
Hench leaned idling against the stile enjoying the beauty of the evening and the picturesque character of the landscape. He could not see very far, as the place was muffled with hawthorn hedges and tall trees, but there was a quiet domestic loveliness about the prospect which soothed his tormented soul. Suddenly his eye was caught by a moving figure in the porch of the church, which was under the west window. It was that of a slender girl, not very tall, but singularly graceful. As she came down the path towards the lychgate, he saw that she had a beautiful face, aristocratic in its looks and rather pensive in its expression. Arrayed in white, and with a white sunshade, she stepped daintily through the gate and out on to the dusty road, turning her face towards the village, whither she was evidently going. But scarcely had she taken three steps when a motor-car, without warning, swept swiftly round the dangerous corner. The girl was directly in his path, and although Hench shouted at once, she did not step aside. In fact she seemed to be puzzled by his cry, until the noise of the approaching machine struck her ear. Then she wheeled suddenly and stood where she was, paralysed with fright. Hench saw that in a second she would be cut down and be crushed under those cruel wheels, so plunged suddenly forward and dashed across the roadway to thrust her out of the way. So impetuous was his onset that she was tumbled back into the hedge girdling the churchyard, and Hench himself fell sprawling in the dust. With a whirr, the motor passed and he felt a sharp pain in his ankle. The next moment the car was buzzing at top-speed through the village, its driver evidently afraid of prosecution for neglecting to sound his horn. Meanwhile the girl gathered herself up out of the hedge, and Owain lay still on the highway. The whole event lasted less than a minute—the girl being saved, the man being hurt in the twinkling of an eye. And in the same twinkling of an eye the car had vanished into the unknown.
“Oh!” The young lady hurried towards her preserver. “Are you hurt?”
“My ankle,” gasped Hench, sitting up with an effort; “it’s giving me a warm time—a wheel went over it, I think—probably it is broken!” and he winced with the pain.
“You have saved my life!”
“Oh, that’s all right,” replied the young man, speaking with difficulty, for the suffering was great. “You can repay me by helping me home, or by getting assistance. I can’t walk by myself.”
“Give me your hand,” said the girl quickly, quite cool and mistress of herself. “There! Can you get on to your feet?”
“On to one foot, anyhow,” gasped Hench, smiling to reassure her, and managed to stand upright. “But my ankle is not so very bad. I don’t think it is broken—only crushed.”
“That’s bad enough. Lean on me. Where do you live?”
“At Mrs. Bell’s.”
“That’s not far away. Come. What a hero you are to save me. My name is Evans.”
“Evans!” repeated Owain, and then knew that he had at last met his cousin.
“I should have been killed to a certainty but for the way in which he got me out of the way,” said Gwen to Mrs. Perage, when recounting her adventure, and speaking rather incoherently, for the same had shaken her nerves.
Mrs. Perage growled. She was a gaunt, dark-brewed old lady, with a formidable frown and a very determined character. “All’s well that ends well,” she said in a deep contralto voice, which suggested that of a man. “It might have been worse but for this hero of yours. Did you take the number of the car?”
“My goodness!” cried the girl pettishly. “How could I, when I was lying on my back in the ditch under the churchyard hedge? The car passed like a flash.”
“Daresay,” sniffed Mrs. Perage aggressively. “Having done wrong, the chauffeur got out of the way. We’ll make inquiries and prosecute. I’d hang every one of those road-hogs if I had my way.”
“Oh, I don’t think it is worth making a fuss about,” said Gwen quickly. “I am all right, and his ankle will soon be quite well. I fetched the doctor as soon as I got him to Mrs. Bell’s, and there are no bones broken. He will be out and about in a few days.”
“His—him—he,” said Mrs. Perage sharply. “How indefinite you are. What’s the name of your Achilles?”
“Hench. Mr. Hench. So Mrs. Bell told me, and he’s been with her for nearly a whole week.”
“Hench!” Mrs. Perage rubbed her beaky nose and reflected. “Why, that’s the name of Jim’s friend he wrote me about. There was a letter of introduction given. Hum! And he’s been a week in Cookley without calling. That doesn’t look as if he wished to make my acquaintance, Gwen.”
“Perhaps he’s down here on business,” suggested the girl, “and did not wish to call on any one until he was free.”
“Well, if he doesn’t call on me, I’ll call on him,” said the old dame grimly; “if only to thank him for saving your life. Hum! Quite romantic the way in which the man’s come into your little world, my dear. Quite romantic, I call it.” Then, being very much the woman, in spite of her masculine appearance, Mrs. Perage asked a leading question. “Good-looking?”
“Oh!” Gwen clasped her hands. “He’s a Greek god.”
“So was Vulcan. Anything like that heavenly blacksmith?”
“No. He’s tall and splendidly built, with brown hair and brown eyes; clean-shaven with clearly-cut features.”
“Hum!” Mrs. Perage brought out the ejaculation with a boom. “You examined him pretty closely, young lady.”
“Well, I had plenty of time to do so,” retorted Miss Evans pertly. “I helped him to hobble to Mrs. Bell’s house, and saw him again to thank him after the doctor had examined his poor ankle. I’m sure you will like him.”
“That has yet to be seen. I don’t like many people. However, Jim says that Mr. Hench is a thoroughly good fellow, and—”
“I’m sure he is. He saved my life.”
“Consequently you intend to tumble head over heels in love with him?”
Gwen grew red. “I certainly don’t. All the same he’s very nice, and I’m sorry he’s suffering pain.”
“Pity is akin to love,” quoted Mrs. Perage, apparently to the ceiling. The girl laughed and shook her head. “In spite of your matter-of-fact ways and the common-sense you pride yourself upon, you have an imaginative vein, Mrs. Perage. I am sure you see in this accident the beginning of a romance.”
“If the young man is handsome, as you say, and a good sort as Jim Vane says, why not?” asked the old lady, smiling. “Besides, I don’t believe in chance, as everything is ordained by Providence. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the long run, it was proved that Mr. Hench tumbled out of the clouds to be your husband. However, it’s early days yet to talk. Wait and see!”
As the result of long experience, dating from the time when she was a small child in short frocks, Gwen knew that it was useless to argue with Mrs. Perage, so she left the room and went upstairs to change her dress. And as a matter of fact, she had been extremely struck with Hench’s good looks, as a woman naturally would be. Also, he seemed to be excessively agreeable, and likewise she owed him her life, not forgetting that she was just at that age when girls begin to dream of marriage. Poor Gwen had not passed a very happy time with her cantankerous father, and was not averse to having a pleasant home and an aggressively devoted lover. So she looked at herself in the glass, pondering over Mrs. Perage’s remarks, and blushed crimson to find that Hench was taking up much more of her thoughts than she considered altogether proper. That it was a case of love at first sight she would not admit, but on the whole her feelings had a great deal to do with the oft-quoted proverb.
On his side, Owain had no doubts whatever on the subject, strange as it may seem, considering that hitherto he had never been in love. His cousin’s lovely face, her sympathetic kindness, together with the undeniable fact that he had saved her life, created in him a number of tumultuous feelings, which he spent the night in analysing. To be sure, he told himself that he did so because the pain of his ankle kept him wide awake, and because thoughts in this direction took his mind off his aching bones. But when the dawn came, he was tolerably certain that he was in love. The feeling he now experienced was wholly different to that with which he had regarded Zara. He had admired the dancer in a cool, reflective, judicious way, seeing that she had faults as well as virtues. But in Gwen he could see no faults, and never paused to consider that he could scarcely know her character from the little he had seen of her.
Sensible as Hench usually was, some power—he presumed it was the power of love—swept him off his feet, and he credited the girl with all the virtues of the angels, and with their beauty also. He was glad that he had saved her, as she would be grateful; he was glad that he had hurt himself, as she would pity him; and he was decidedly glad that he had concealed the relationship. Now, at least, there was every chance that he would be able to make a friend of her. Not that he wanted to halt at friendship. He was now firmly bent upon making her his wife, and thus would be able to fulfil Mr. Gilberry’s prophecy and end the family feud in quite an agreeable and romantic way. All the night Owain was building castles in the air, and when the dawn came they were still firm. Only on the arrival of the doctor to examine his ankle did the young man descend from these Olympian heights. Then, with a sudden and very natural reaction, he began to think that he had been too premature in his building.
The result of this was disastrous to Gwen. She called at mid-day to see how he was getting on, and he received her coldly, while lying on the slippery horse-hair sofa in Mrs. Bell’s tiny sitting-room. The girl, flushed with the romance of the whole adventure and struck anew with the splendid looks of her preserver, felt chilled by his calm politeness. The two talked in a more or less formal way and parted very soon. Gwen went back to tell Mrs. Perage that her hero was horrid, and her hero remained on his sofa trying to assure himself that he had rescued only an ordinary girl. But it was all of no use, for Nature would have her way. During the next few days the two met under the chaperonage of the widow Bell, and gradually became aware that the feelings they entertained towards one another were more than those of mere friendship. Of course this knowledge made them more stiff and formal than ever in their intercourse, as their conversation was confined to commonplace subjects, not likely to awaken emotion. Hench was anxious to ask his cousin about her father, but as she said nothing, he did not venture to broach the matter. Still, remembering that she had been clothed in white on the day of the accident, and seeing that her frocks since, beyond black ribbons, did not suggest mourning in any great degree, he came to the conclusion that she had not been particularly attached to her father, although he could not be quite sure. But all doubts on this question were set aside by Mrs. Perage, who placed matters very plainly before him, according to her somewhat grim custom.
The old lady did not call for a few days, although she sent creams and jellies, books and flowers, by the hands of Gwen. Owain was very grateful for these kind attentions, and asked Miss Evans to take back his letter of introduction, which she did. Etiquette thus having been complied with, one day, instead of the fairy vision of Gwen, the patient beheld a tall and lean old dame stalk into his room. By this time he was able to get about with a crutch, and rose to greet her, upon which she thrust him back into his armchair with a pair of very capable hands.
“Not so,” said Mrs. Perage, when he was again seated and taking a chair opposite, where she kilted her black stuff dress to show a pair of large boots. “Stay where you are, young man. Hum! You look better than I expected.”
“I’m quite well now, thank you, Mrs. Perage. And I must apologise for not having presented Jim’s letter before.”
“Jim sent another letter, and I know all about you,” said the old lady sharply.
“Oh, I don’t think you do,” said Hench, rather alarmed, as he feared that Vane might have been indiscreet.
“Why not?” Mrs. Perage bent her sharp old eyes on his perturbed face, the good looks of which she secretly approved of. “There’s nothing wrong about you, I hope and trust?”
“Not what you would call wrong,” said Hench evasively.
“Pooh, young man. How do you know anything about my standard of morality. I don’t suppose it’s what you’d call a high one,” added Mrs. Perage, rubbing her nose. “I always make allowance for fools, and most of those who dwell in this world, which is much too good for them, are fools.”
Hench laughed. He liked Mrs. Perage, who was quite a character. In her young days she had been a great beauty, although she was now old and weather-beaten, careless of her attire, and quite manly in her manner. Since the death of her husband, some thirty years ago, she had managed her estates herself, for being childless she had little else to do, and had long since outgrown the toys which amuse Society. For a woman she was uncommonly tall, and with her aquiline nose, her swart complexion and dark eyes, she resembled a gipsy. In spite of her coarse dress so carelessly worn, there was an air of good-breeding about her, and also a shrewd look on her fierce face. Owain stared hard at her Amazonian looks, considering that here was a woman who should have been the mother of heroes to gird armour on them and send them forth to the fray. She was quite out of place in a peaceful community.
“Well, young man,” said Mrs. Perage roughly, “you’ll know me again, I daresay, if staring goes for anything. What are your thoughts?”
Hench told them and suggested how unfit she was for a peaceful world where a policeman stands at every corner. “I can’t see you anywhere, Mrs. Perage, but in some Norse hall, worshipping Odin and urging men to battle.”
“Perhaps going to battle myself,” said the old dame grimly, yet very pleased with the strange compliment. “Hum! You are right, the world is tame now-a-day, and a long life has bored me with the petty concerns of baby folk. You seem to have ideas in your head, Master Owain.” Hench stared and fear clutched at his heart. If she knew this much, she might know more. “Who told you my Christian name?” he faltered.
“My own common sense, man alive! I have lived here all my life and knew your grandfather, Mynydd Evans, aye and your father, and Madoc also. Hench was the name Owain took when he was outlawed. See, my boy, how naturally I use the Norse word, after your suggestions of my being a modern Valkyrie.”
“Does my cousin know who I am?” asked the young man anxiously.
“No. I wanted to see you first before I told her.”
“Don’t tell her, Mrs. Perage.”
“Why not. Hum!”—her eyes were as piercing as spears—“there is some reason for you masquerading as Hench.”
“Hench was the name adopted by my father, and until a few days ago I quite believed that it was my true name. But certain papers which he left with our family lawyers explained matters.”
“Did they explain that you inherit Cookley Grange and ten thousand a year?”
“Hum!”—Mrs. Perage rubbed her nose again and looked puzzled. “Then, knowing that you were the heir, why did you not come and see your uncle after the death of your father? I know he died in Paris five years ago, as Madoc told me.”
“I did not know that I was the heir until my twenty-fifth birthday on the tenth day of this month. My father left instructions with Gilberry & Gilberry that they were not to give the papers to me until then. I have already told you, Mrs. Perage, that only lately did I learn my true name.”
The old dame nodded absently, thinking deeply for a few minutes. “I think your father was wise to keep you thus in ignorance until you were older and had some experience of the world. A man of twenty-five could have managed Madoc better than a boy of twenty. Yes, Owain was wise, knowing Madoc’s character.”
“The late Squire does not appear to have had a very good one,” remarked Hench dryly. “He was unpopular, I am told by Mrs. Bell.”
“He was a wicked, selfish, greedy, miserly old scoundrel,” retorted Mrs. Perage, aggressively blunt. “And if that’s speaking evil of the dead, I don’t care. I am quite sure that Madoc fed your grandfather’s anger when it was directed towards Owain, who, after all, was not so very evil, although selfish enough. Still, your father would never have been cut out of the will but for Madoc. And if Madoc had met you, young man, he would have tried to settle your hash in some way, you may be certain.”
“Oh!” Hench started, and was on the point of revealing the story of the advertisement and his adventure, when he checked himself prudently and made quite a different remark. “But if Uncle Madoc was such a rotter, why is Gwen such a nice girl, and I am sure a good girl?”
“She is all that,” endorsed Mrs. Perage heartily. “And if your father was such a selfish profligate—I don’t wish to hurt your filial feelings, but he was—why are you such a nice young man?”
Hench coloured at the compliment. “I may be a profligate also.”
“Pooh!” said Mrs. Perage with supreme contempt, “don’t you think that I am able to read faces? Yours is a good one and so is Gwen’s. The decency of you both comes in each case from the mother’s side, I expect, for both your fathers were—what they were. Children of Old Nick, I call them. You had a bad time with that father of yours, I’ll be bound?”
“Well”—Hench winced—“he was not a very amiable parent, I must admit, although I wouldn’t say that to any one save you.”
Mrs. Perage bent her keen old eyes on him, read between the lines, and laughed in a short rasping manner after the style of a fox barking. “Just as I thought, young man. Owain was a selfish, cruel animal, and so was Madoc. He gave you as bad a time as Madoc did Gwen.”
“I rather gathered from Gwen’s absence of mourning that she had no great love for her father,” remarked Hench musingly.
“Your powers of observation are great, Owain. Gwen and her father got on about as well together as a ferret and a rabbit; she being the last and he the first. But for me I don’t know what the poor girl would have done. She would have run away from home, I expect. However, she always came to me when her father was particularly trying, and now she has come to me altogether. With me she will stay, until you take her away.”
Hench raised himself on his elbow and blushed in a delightfully youthful manner. “What makes you say that?” he asked confusedly.
“Am I a fool?” queried Mrs. Perage grimly. “Doesn’t a cat love cream, and is not a young man likely to fall in love with one whose life he has saved, provided that one is charming and good. Go to, my boy.” She spoke quite in the style of her nephew Jim. “I can see through a brick wall, I suppose. But all this doesn’t explain why you are masquerading here under your father’s false name. Come now, tell me all about it.”
Hench did not do as she asked him, even though she was such a sensible old lady, for he thought that the time was not yet ripe for him to speak freely about his Gipsy Stile adventure. Therefore he told her the same story that he had told to Mr. Gilberry. “And you see I was right to meet my cousin under a feigned name,” he concluded, “for had I come as Owain Evans she would have been prejudiced against me.”
“Well, I don’t know.” Mrs. Perage again rubbed her nose thoughtfully. “As you may guess, Madoc always spoke ill of you, saying you were the true son of your wicked father, which was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I rather think. But, you see, Madoc hated the idea of your getting the property.”
“He wanted Gwen to get it?”
“Not a bit. So long as you didn’t succeed he would have been content to let an hospital have it. He cared nothing for his daughter, and being such a bad father she naturally disbelieved anything he said. Far from thinking you the rascal Madoc said you were, Gwen fancied that you were quite a nice agreeable young man, which you are. I think she would have welcomed Owain Evans just as kindly as she has welcomed Owain Hench. All the same, if you win her heart as a disguised prince the romance of it will appeal to her when she learns the delightful truth.”
Hench laughed, feeling greatly relieved. “Mrs. Perage, I don’t believe you are a Norse goddess. You are much too romantic.”
“Perhaps, young man. I am an old fool.”
“You are one of the most charming people I have ever met,” said Hench warmly.
“Pooh!” retorted Mrs. Perage, pleased with the compliment. “Don’t make love to me, or you’ll break Gwen’s heart.”
“Has she a heart to break—on my account, that is?”
“Young man,”—Mrs. Perage rose until her head nearly touched the low ceiling, and she assumed her grand manner,—“you don’t expect one woman to tell the secrets of another woman. All the same, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse. And you are blind, being in love.”
“Am I in love?”
“Something tells me that you are—and with Gwen. But if you are already engaged, or if there is any other girl in the question, I tell you, young man, that I won’t have it. Gwen is much too good a girl to be trifled with.”
“Oh, I assure you, I am not going to trifle with her.”
“Good. If you do, you’ll have me to reckon with,” said the old woman grimly. “I am quite Norse enough to twist your neck if you repeat in your own person the very objectionable character of your father. Tell me plump and plain, if you please: do you love Gwen?”
“I think so.”
“Think so! Then you don’t love her. No man worth a woman’s affection can be in doubt on that point.”
“Well, you see, I’m a bit of an ass as regards women,” confessed Hench, flustered by her imperious insistence. “I have never been in love before.”
“All the better!” cried Mrs. Perage sharply.
“But I thought I was.”
“Hum! Well, and why not; one must gain experience. How many times?”
“Once only. I admired this girl but she loved another man, so I went away.”
“Hum!” said Mrs. Perage once more. “Is your heart broken?”
“Oh Lord, no. I soon got over it.”
“Then you haven’t been in love. But with regard to Gwen”—Mrs. Perage suddenly sat down and laughed heartily—“aren’t we rather silly to talk in this way? We are only weaving ropes of sand, for I know nothing certain about the state of your affections or those of Gwen. I think I had better let you two manage things in your own way, and as Mother Nature—who has a large experience—dictates. All I say is, act honestly towards the girl, or you’ll have me to deal with. Understand?”
“I understand.” Hench laughed. “You can trust me.”
Mrs. Perage went away very well satisfied with the state of affairs. At heart she was romantic like every woman, and like every woman she was quite a matchmaker. There was no young man in Cookley worthy of Gwen, so far as she knew, and this swain—so her thoughts ran—had been brought by Providence in the nick of time to save the girl from being an old maid. She longed to speak as freely to Miss Evans as she had spoken to her cousin, but did not dare to do so, lest she should frighten her into banishing the dawning feeling of love. Mrs. Perage had seen much harm come from meddling, so decided to refrain from throwing the young people too violently at one another’s heads. But she certainly threw them gently, for when Hench was nearly all right a few days later, she sent him an invitation to dinner. This he accepted with great delight, and the more eagerly as Gwen had ceased her visits since he became convalescent. At the dinner he would have a chance of seeing her again, and perhaps an opportunity of hinting at his feelings. For by this time he had proved the truth of the saying that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and was very sure that he really and truly loved her with all the power that was in him. And this was the genuine passion of man for woman—not the counterfeit one which had led him to seek Zara Alpenny.
By this time, since the Hungarian lady was not making trouble, Hench began to think that she would leave him alone altogether. Surely, he thought, if she intended to scheme for her daughter’s marriage with him, she would have made some advance before now. Her silence lifted a weight off his mind, and he arrayed himself in purple and fine linen for the dinner, feeling that the sun of prosperity was beaming on him. He went to Mrs. Perage’s house, believing that the fine weather would continue, and quite forgot the adage about the treacherous calm before the storm. But when he got to the door, and the door was opened by a small smart page with a freckled face and red hair, he was reminded that it did not do to trust wholly to appearance. The sight of the boy gave him quite a shock, and an uncomfortable one, reminding him as he did of Bethnal Green.
“Bottles!” he said, stepping into the hall and staring at the lad.
“No, sir; no, Mr. Hench. I’m Peter!” grinned the boy, and began to help Hench off with his overcoat.
Then Owain remembered how Simon Jedd had told him he had a brother in service in the country—the same he had gone to see. But he never expected to find that brother in Cookley and in the service of Mrs. Perage. “You know my name?” he said hesitatingly, and wondering if the imp was to be trusted.
“Oh yes, sir. Simon has spoken heaps heaps of times to me about you, saying how kind you were to him. Knew your name, sir, the minute Miss Gwen said as you’d saved her life.”
“Simon came down to see you some weeks ago?”
“Yes, sir!” Peter spoke eagerly, and was evidently about to say much, when he suddenly shut his wide mouth and said no more than the two words.
Hench settled his coat and his tie, pondering over the situation. The sight of the boy, who was connected with Bottles, revived his anxiety, and he feared lest the lad should write to London and say where he was. In that case Madame Alpenny might find him out, and then there would be trouble. But then Simon, if he did write, would do so to his brother, and Bottles was entirely to be trusted. Still, Hench would have liked to give this page a hint, yet could not do so, as it would be undignified. Peter noted his lingering and hesitation.
“Simon wants to see you, sir. It’s all right.”
“What’s all right?” asked Hench sharply.
The page wriggled uneasily. “Simon will tell you, sir. I don’t know nothing, I don’t, Mr. Hench.”
Owain felt uneasy at the implied mystery, but judged it wise to affect careless confidence. “Simon can come and see me when he likes,” he said, and entered the drawing-room, considerably annoyed by the encounter.
The house of Mrs. Perage was quaint and old-fashioned, being so delightfully reminiscent of gracious antiquity that Hench was charmed with his surroundings. As a very modern young man, who had wandered largely in new lands where civilization was still raw, he was pleasantly impressed by the panelled room with the low ceiling. The furniture was Chippendale and Sheraton of the powder and puff epoch, while carpet and curtains were mellowed by age into restful colours, comfortable to the eye. An odour of dried rose leaves scented the air, mingling with the more living perfume of countless blossoms. Mrs. Perage had the happy taste to be extremely fond of flowers, it would seem, for the room was filled with colour and fragrance, even to the fireplace, which bloomed like a garden with white buds and green leaves. Even though the curtains were not yet drawn, and the luminous summer twilight stole in through the wide windows, the many lamps were lighted. And the radiance of these, diffused through rose-tinted shades, bathed the whole room in the delicate hues of dawn. This was a haven of rest, a bower of joy, a paradise of delight, and Hench drew a long breath of sheer pleasure on its threshold.
“What a charming room,” he said, advancing to greet his hostess. “Charming!”
“Blunderer!” retorted that lady in her contralto voice, which boomed like the buzz of a bee in a fox glove bell. “You should say, what charming ladies.”
“You would think me too bold if I put my thoughts into words.”
“Very cleverly turned, young man. But women never think men are too bold when they pay compliments.”
Hench laughed and smiled in a friendly way at Gwen, who was smiling in a friendly way at him. She looked wonderfully fresh, attractively delightful, as delicate as Titania and wholly as fascinating. Her dress of plain white silk adorned with black ribbons, hinting at mourning, became her well in its dainty simplicity, and Owain felt again that queer heart-throb which informed him very distinctly that this was the one girl in the world for him. No woman could be lovely unless she had golden hair and blue eyes and a complexion of cream and roses. He wondered how he ever could have admired Zara, who did not possess these necessary charms. But when he was attracted by the dancer he was a fool, now he intended to be a wise man and lay his heart at Gwen’s feet. Whether she would pick it up had yet to be seen, for she gave no intimation of her feelings.
“When you two finish grinning at one another like a couple of Chinese dolls, perhaps you will remember that I am present. Sit down, young man. Are you very hungry? I have a very good dinner for you.”
“Splendid! I’m not hungry, Mrs. Perage, but I am greedy.”
“Pooh! That joke is as old as the hills. Be more original.”
“That’s difficult. How can I be original, Miss Evans?” Hench asked the question with ceremonious courtesy, which made Mrs. Perage smile, knowing what she did know.
“I think you are original,” said Gwen brightly. “You saved my life!”
“Hum!” came the boom of Mrs. Perage, “and that’s originality, is it?”
“Well, I don’t make a practice of saving lives,” laughed Hench lightly. “And I don’t think I ever saved any one before. So I am original, you see.”
The old dame smiled grimly, as she relished the young man’s flippant conversation. “One grows so tired of common-sense,” she murmured, following her own thoughts.
“Why, you are always commending common-sense,” exclaimed Gwen, lifting her eyebrows and laughing.
“In its place, child, in its place. To-night you and Mr. Hench can talk nonsense, as it will make me feel young.”
“You are young, Mrs. Perage,” said Owain seriously. “Your heart is in its spring-time. You are one whom the gods love.”
“Ta! Ta! Ta! young Chesterfield. Don’t make me blush, as I have long since forgotten how to do so. You and your compliments, indeed! Not but what I wear tolerably well, although a trifle time-worn,” which final sentence showed that Mrs. Perage had her little vanities.
And she was right in having them, for having stepped out of her rough day-clothes into sumptuous evening dress, she looked wonderfully stately. Amber satin, black lace and diamonds, oddly enough, seemed as natural to her as the more or less masculine dress which she affected during her business hours. Mrs. Perage always called looking after her farms and attending to her accounts business, which it assuredly was, and business moreover which required a clear head. In the day-time she was like one of her labourers in appearance, and her clothes might have graced a scarecrow, but when evening came she always appeared as a fine lady. This change, which reminded Hench somewhat of Miss Hardcastle in Goldsmith’s comedy, amused the young man. He liked Mrs. Perage.
“I wrote and asked Jim Vane to come down to dinner,” went on Mrs. Perage, after a pause. “As I thought that I could amuse myself with his wit while you attended to Gwen here. But he wrote saying that he could not come, as he was exploring Bethnal Green.”
“Bethnal Green,” echoed Hench with a start. “What the deuce—I beg your pardon, Mrs. Perage—but what is Jim doing there?”
“He did not explain. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing!”
“What an irrelevant reply.”
“Well, I was only thinking that Jim usually prefers the West End to the quarters of the poor,” said Hench guardedly. He was not quite certain if he had mentioned his sojourn at Bethnal Green to Mrs. Perage, and resolved to do so now, as—so far as he was able—he wished to be quite straight and above-board with the keen old lady. “I stayed there for six months.”
“In Bethnal Green?” said Gwen, amazed. “And what were you doing in such a horrible place, Mr. Hench?”
“Well, as Jim would put it, I was doing a perish. I am a poor man, Miss Evans, and have lived for many years in Queer Street.”
“Queer Street?” Gwen looked puzzled.
“It is the name given to the locality where those unsuccessful people who are trying for what they can’t get live in penury.”
Gwen looked at Hench’s well-cut suit of evening clothes, at his well-bred face, and considered his general debonair appearance. “You don’t look poor.”
“There is poverty and poverty,” said Mrs. Perage gruffly. “Mr. Hench is not yet in the workhouse, Gwen. For my part I think ‘a perish,’ as you say Jim calls it, is not a bad thing for a young man. It gives him experience of life—”
“Of the seamy side of life, Mrs. Perage,” interpolated the young man.
“And what is more picturesque than that. Here we are all respectable and eminently dull. There’s the gong.” She rose with a well-managed sweep of her skirts. “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.”
“Or diet,” said Hench, holding the door open for the ladies.
“Pooh! nonsense!” said the Amazon vigorously. “Young men shouldn’t know the meaning of such a word. I’m sure I don’t. I have a strong digestion and a hard heart.”
“Not that last,” said Gwen quickly; “as I know.”
“What imagination you have, child,” retorted Mrs. Perage, and took her position at the head of a small table, while Gwen and Hench sat on either side. “And I hope you don’t mind our straggling into the dining-room in this free and easy way,” she added to the young man; “but I couldn’t take your arm as Gwen would have felt out of it, and I wasn’t going to let you give Gwen your arm lest you should lack reverence for my age.” And she laughed in her deep, hearty fashion, evidently desirous of making her guest feel quite at home.
The dining-room was a small apartment decorated and furnished in the Jacobean style. But Hench could not see much of it, as there were only candles in sconces here and there. The most powerful illumination was that thrown by a large lamp with a green shade, which hung low over the table. In its light the white napery, the old silver, the crystal glasses and the many flowers, looked peculiarly attractive. And the table not being over large, the three seated at it could converse with one another very much at their ease. A deft maid and Peter waited dexterously, and everything ran smoothly during the meal.
“This is my hour of relaxation,” explained Mrs. Perage briskly. “I am ominously fond of my creature comforts and this is my favourite soup.”
“Silly questioner. Doesn’t devotion to eating show that one is growing old?”
“Then I must have been born old,” said Hench gaily, “for I have always had a good appetite since I was a boy, and have always liked nice things.” His eyes rested, perhaps inadvertently, on Gwen as he spoke.
“Ah!” Mrs. Perage had noticed the look, and spoke significantly. “You are one of those lucky people who will always get the nice things.”
“I haven’t had much luck so far, Mrs. Perage.”
“Ungrateful! What do you call this?”
“Paradise!” said Hench briefly.
“With you as Adam, Gwen as Eve, and myself as the Serpent.”
“Aren’t you talking dreadful nonsense?” observed the girl seriously.
“Not at all,” retorted the old lady coolly. “It is common-sense to chatter amusingly. Enjoy yourself, child, and when trouble comes you will be able to remember at least one happy hour.”
“Trouble has come, and severe trouble, too,” replied Gwen softly, and with a gloomy air.
“Now, not another word!” Mrs. Perage spoke sharply. “We can talk of that afterwards in the drawing-room.”
“Talk of what?” asked Hench innocently, for he was surprised by Gwen’s gloom and Mrs. Perage’s sharpness.
The old dame rubbed her nose in a vexed way. “Gwen has something to ask you this evening,” she observed. “I think it is nonsense myself. No! I won’t tell you what it is just now, neither will Gwen. Let us enjoy our meal without the discussion of horrors.”
This was all very well, but how was Hench to enjoy his meal when Care stood like a waiter behind his chair? The presence of Peter reminded him of Bottles, and that memory brought to his recollection The Home of the Muses in Bethnal Green, where, for all he knew, Madame Alpenny might be plotting. Then he wondered what had taken Jim to the house, for there he must have gone, as it was unlikely he would journey to such a district for any other purpose. Perhaps the Hungarian lady was already weaving her nets to snare him—the thinker—either as a husband for Zara, or as a criminal. It was very uncomfortable thinking.
And being so alarmed, Hench did his best to talk brightly and amusingly. For the time being he was “fey,” as the Scotch say, and roused his cousin out of her gloom by his sallies. Mrs. Perage seconded him admirably, as she quite enjoyed a contest of wits, which was rare to come by in Cookley. The food was good, the wine was excellent, the company interesting. All the same Hench felt that this meal was like Macbeth’s banquet, and behind the revelry lurked the grim figure of Tragedy with her bowl and dagger. At any moment Banquo in the person of Madame Alpenny might appear. Of course such a supposition was nonsense, as the Hungarian lady did not know where he was. But the feeling became so real to Hench that he cast several uneasy looks behind his chair. Gwen noticed this and remarked on the same nervously.
“Why do you look over your shoulder?” she asked petulantly.
“For the Kill-joy,” said Hench in a blunt way. “You know, Miss Evans, man is never permitted to be entirely happy. There is always the Kill-joy.”
“Gwen will provide you with all the Kill-joy you are needing,” said Mrs. Perage significantly. “Wait until we go to the drawing-room. Meantime go on scintillating, young man. Talk your heart out.”
“To whom?” asked Hench audaciously.
“To me, sir. You can flirt with Gwen to-morrow; to-night old age must have its turn. Here are some very excellent cigarettes. Light up and talk.”
“You remind me of the lady who asked Sydney Smith when he was going to be funny,” said Hench dryly. “It is not easy to talk when so ordered. As to Miss Evans, she never flirts.”
“Ah, you don’t know my capabilities,” retorted Gwen, with a mischievous gleam in her blue eyes. “I have many sides to my character.”
“And all charming, I am sure,” answered the young man courteously.
And so the conversation went on, all frothy, all about nothings—mere spume and spindrift of the mind. And the lighter it became the more certain did Hench become sure that Banquo’s ghost was haunting the room. He felt quite relieved when Mrs. Perage conducted himself and Gwen into the drawing-room, for there the psychic atmosphere was less oppressive. The girl, however, appeared to feel it otherwise, for after playing on the piano for a few minutes she began to wander restlessly round the room. Mrs. Perage attempted to frown her into sitting down, but as this proved to be an impossible task she accepted the situation with grim resignation.
“You may as well enlist Mr. Hench as your champion, child. You will never be quiet until you do.”
“Enlist me as your champion!” echoed Hench, glancing at Gwen.
The girl grew flushed. “That is Mrs. Perage’s pretty way of putting things,” was her reply, as she sat down near the hostess. “But I do wish you to help me, Mr. Hench. I’m not quite sure if I am right in doing so, and perhaps you will think it is presumption on my part. But, somehow, your having saved my life has made you more than a friend.”
“More than a friend?”
“I mean”—Gwen became even more crimson than she already was, as she became aware that she had spoken more freely than was necessary—“more familiar than most of my friends.”
“Who are usually mere acquaintances,” observed Mrs. Perage quietly. “Why beat about the bush, Gwen? You know that Mr. Hench is clever and kind-hearted, and you are anxious that he should do you a favour. That is the situation.”
“Any favour I can do you, Miss Evans—” began the young man eagerly, when the girl stopped him.
“Don’t say another word until you know what the favour is,” she said in an abrupt manner; “to do what I want may be unpleasant. In a word I want you to try and find out who murdered my father.”
“That’s about a dozen words, more or less,” sighed Mrs. Perage, but Hench took no notice of her flippant remark. He was too much taken aback to do so, and remained silent.
Gwen misunderstood his silence, and looked mortified “You won’t help me?”
“I was thinking,” said the young man gravely. “Of course I have read all about the death of your father in the newspapers, Miss Evans, and I can quite understand your desire to avenge him. Anything I can do shall be done with the very greatest pleasure. How do matters stand?”
“As they stood after the inquest,” explained Gwen with a shrug. “The jury brought in an open verdict, but the general opinion is that my father was murdered by the man who spoke to the girl in the tap-room of the Bull Inn.” Hench winced. Every one appeared to be agreed that the tramp was the culprit, and he guessed that if discovered the tramp would have little chance of escaping a most uncomfortable trial. Even if he proved his innocence the experience would be unpleasant. Wondering what Mrs. Perage and the girl would say if he were to acknowledge that he was the man referred to, he began to ask questions in a grave voice.
“Do you think that this tramp is the guilty person?”
“It looks like it,” rejoined Gwen promptly. “The man asked the way to the Gipsy Stile and evidently went there. Afterwards my father was found dead near the stile.”
“Had this tramp any motive to murder your father?”
“How can I tell that?” said the girl irritably. “I am only taking what evidence suggests his guilt. Why should he come to Cookley and ask the way to the very place where my father was afterwards found dead?”
“But the fact that the man asked the way to the stile shows that he was a stranger in Cookley. Would a stranger come here to murder your father?”
“Hum!” said Mrs. Perage suddenly. “Madoc Evans had many enemies!”
“Can you name any of them?”
“Every one in the neighbourhood, I should say,” snapped the old lady cynically.
“Exactly. Every one in the neighbourhood. But this tramp was a stranger.”
“He might have been hired by some one to murder the Squire,” said Mrs. Perage vaguely.
“In that case the some one would have explained how this bravo was to get to the stile,” said Hench coolly. And then he wondered if Gwen knew anything about the advertisement. “Also,” he continued, “the some one must have known that Squire Evans would be at the stile at that particular time. Now, Miss Evans, can you tell me if your father made any appointment?”
Gwen shook her head. “I can’t say. My father did many things about which he told me nothing. Often in summer he walked out after dinner, as he did on the night he was murdered, but where he went I can’t say. We searched the park when we missed him, and afterwards the woods on chance.”
“Was your father agitated on that night?”
“He was agitated from the time the woman came to see him,” said Gwen quickly. Hench sat up, and a thrill passed through him.
“Yes! Some time in June a woman called one afternoon and had an interview with my father in the library. She was with him for two hours, and when she went away he was very much upset. I asked him who she was and why the visit annoyed him—as it plainly did.”
“And he told you to mind your own business, I’ll be bound,” said Mrs. Perage with a grim smile, for she knew Evans thoroughly.
“Yes, he did. But from the time this woman called my father was silent and morose and irritable. I hope you won’t think that I am undutiful, Mr. Hench, when I say that my father was not a pleasant-tempered man. But after the interview he became unbearable.”
“I never knew him when he was otherwise,” cried the old lady, determined that Hench should know everything. “Madoc Evans was without doubt the most disagreeable person I have ever met. A bear would have had a more amiable temper.”
“Well, my father is dead,” said Gwen coldly, “so it’s no use calling him names.”
“Oh, I’ll be a very tombstone for lying about the dead, if you like, my dear Gwen. But if Mr. Hench is to help he must know that your father was one of those uncomfortable men who never had a friend, and who never wanted one, so far as I know.”
“My father was eccentric,” said Gwen, her colour coming and going as she explained herself to the young man. “And certainly he did not get on well with people. He quarrelled with my grandfather and with his brother Owain.”
“And with every one else,” said Mrs. Perage. “After all Mynydd Evans would have done better to leave the money to Owain”—she stole a glance at Hench as she spoke. “He was a better man than Madoc.”
“Madoc was my father,” said Gwen impatiently, “so please say as little bad of him as possible. And, after all, the estate has gone to my cousin, Owain’s son, though I don’t know why he doesn’t come and take possession. What do you think is the reason, Mr. Hench?”
“How can I tell the reason?” asked Hench awkwardly, and aware that Mrs. Perage was looking at him significantly. “Let us leave that fact alone for the present and talk of this woman who evidently upset your father. Who was she, Miss Evans?”
“I have told you that my father refused to say.”
“Did you see her?”
“I caught a glimpse of her when she went away from the Grange, as I happened to be looking out of the drawing-room window.”
“What was she like to look at?”
“I didn’t see her face. Her back was turned towards me, as she was going down the avenue.”
“Oh,” said Hench disappointed, “that’s a pity.”
“But I remember how she was dressed.”
“That’s better. Well?”
“She looked an untidy old thing,” said Gwen, after a pause to recollect the appearance of this important stranger. “Very fat and unshapely. She wore a black dress spotted with orange dots, a black velvet mantle trimmed with jet beads, and a hat much too large for her, and—” She broke off. “What’s the matter, Mr. Hench?”
Owain’s sudden change of colour and sudden start at this vivid description of Madame Alpenny betrayed him immediately, and he looked confused, not very well knowing how to excuse himself. For obvious reasons he did not wish to admit that he recognized the costume described. Therefore he took refuge in a white lie, and told the first one that occurred to him. “An idea struck me, Miss Evans, that your father might have been murdered by gipsies.”
“Hum!” cried Mrs. Perage, quite taken in by this plausible untruth. “That isn’t at all unlikely. Madoc was hard on gipsies, especially when they poached.”
“But why do you suggest gipsies?” Gwen asked Owain, without attending to her hostess.
“Well,” he said, with an affected shrug, “that queer dress of the untidy old woman hints at a gipsy. Perhaps it’s only a fancy on my part.”
“It’s a very good fancy,” said Mrs. Perage emphatically. “If this tramp is innocent, which he may be for all I know, the gipsies may have something to do with the crime. Why, Gwen, don’t you remember how your father turned a whole gang of them off Parley Common a year ago because they were robbing the hen-roosts? And an orange spotted dress is just what a gipsy would wear.”
“But you don’t think, Mrs. Perage, that this woman murdered my father?”
“My dear, I don’t suggest anything because I don’t know anything. All I say is, that Mr. Hench’s chance shot may have hit the bull’s-eye.”
Gwen looked down thoughtfully at the carpet. “My father certainly was very much worried after his interview with this woman, and his worry lasted up to the time of his death. Gipsies—if this woman was a gipsy—might have something to do with the matter.”
“It’s only my idea, of course,” said Owain hastily, for he did not wish Madame Alpenny to be run to earth immediately. “Don’t let us jump to conclusions. We must think. I shall be here for a few weeks, and during that time, Miss Evans, I am wholly at your disposal.”
“You will help me to learn who murdered my father?”
“Yes. I’ll do my best to find out,” said Hench earnestly.
“Hum!” boomed Mrs. Perage. “Easier said than done. How do you intend to begin?”
“Well,” remarked Hench, after a pause. “I think it will be a good start if Miss Evans takes me over Cookley Grange and into Parley Wood where the corpse was found. Then we can talk over the matter.”
Gwen looked doubtful. “Do you think my cousin would mind if I went over the Grange and took Mr. Hench?” she asked her hostess.
Mrs. Perage stole a sly glance at Owain. “No, I don’t think he would. Why should he, if you come to that?”
“Well, his father and my father didn’t get on well together.”
“That is no reason why their son and daughter shouldn’t,” retorted Mrs. Perage. “You can take Mr. Hench to the Grange to-morrow at noon. Now, young man,”—she rose to the full height of her lofty stature,—“you can depart. I keep early hours here, as it is necessary that I should have my beauty sleep.”
“As if you needed it!” said Owain jestingly, and this agreeable visit ended as it had begun—with badinage and frivolity.
That night Hench awoke during the small hours of the morning with the conviction that he knew all about the mystery in which he was involved. He had fallen asleep much exercised in his mind so far as the visit of Madame Alpenny to Cookley Grange was concerned. He remembered that about the time mentioned by Gwen the Hungarian lady had gone away from Bethnal Green, presumably to procure an engagement for Zara in a West End music-hall. Certainly that might have been one very good reason why she had remained absent for a few days, but now it appeared that there was another, which had to do with Madoc Evans. When unconsciousness came Owain was still wrestling with the problem, and somehow it seemed that the same was solved during slumber. But with the working of his physical brain the scheme broke up, and he was only able to retain fragments. These he proceeded to piece together while staring at the ceiling through the faint twilight of the already dawning day. It was rather a difficult task to put two and two together.
The young man recollected that Madame Alpenny had denied all knowledge of the elder Hench’s family history, but recollected also that she had done so with a certain amount of hesitation. It now was borne in forcibly upon him that his father had told the woman much more about his past than she would admit. Probably he had informed her of the quarrel with the grandfather, and of his dislike for the brother, explaining also that Madoc enjoyed Cookley Grange and the large income for life. The word “Rhaiadr” had brought back the interview clearly to Madame Alpenny’s mind, and it was more than probable that she knew Owain would inherit the estate. For that reason she had been agreeable to his paying attentions to her daughter, and for that reason she had paid her visit to Cookley Grange. Hench now quite understood how she had come to see the advertisement and to draw his attention to it. Without the least hesitation he concluded that she had learned from his father where Cookley Grange was situated, and thither she had gone to tell Madoc of her meeting with his pauper nephew. Why his uncle should have put in the queer advertisement and have appointed so strange a meeting-place Owain could not conceive, but he was certain that Madoc had done so, and had used the very word to attract attention which had awakened the Hungarian lady’s memory of the twenty-year-old meeting. She was without doubt on the look-out for the advertisement, knowing in which paper it would appear. Thus she had easily been able to show it to him, and having—so to speak—assisted Madoc to lay the trap she had waited results.
Now what puzzled Hench was why Squire Evans should have acted in this very roundabout way to bring about a meeting. An honest man would have either ignored the son of the brother he hated or would have openly invited him as his heir to visit him. Instead of doing this Madoc had behaved mysteriously in making the appointment, and had chosen for the rendezvous a solitary place out-of-doors. It seemed tolerably clear to Owain that his uncle had intended to do him harm; perhaps his idea was to murder him so that he should not inherit. Squire Evans, if the hints of Gwen and the very plain speaking of Mrs. Perage were to be believed, was by no means honest, so it was just possible that he wanted to get his hated heir out of the way. Hench shrunk from this conclusion, but after much thought could come to no other. The unexpected murder of the Squire had prevented his own death taking place.
When the young man rose in the morning he turned the matter over in his mind, both while he was having his bath and while he was getting into his clothes. It then occurred to him that, as Madame Alpenny wished him to inherit so that he might marry Zara, the scheme of Evans would scarcely have suited her. She would have been no party to such a transaction, as such would have rendered void all her plans to get money through the marriage. But Madoc, being crafty, had probably not explained what he intended to do, and Madame Alpenny had returned to The Home of the Muses simply to bring about a meeting which would result in Owain entering into his kingdom on the death of his uncle. As things had turned out that death had taken place very unexpectedly, and Hench wondered if Madame Alpenny believed that he was the criminal. It seemed impossible that she should so believe, as in the first place she was ignorant that he had kept the appointment, and in the second if she was aware she would assuredly have moved in the matter before now. Owain could not understand her silence. The only reason he could conceive why she should remain in the background when things had come to such a pass was that her intention was to come forward when he took possession of the estate. Then—as he thought—she would appear at Cookley Grange with Zara, and if he refused to marry the girl would then accuse him of the murder.
And again Hench remembered how he had been haunted by the feeling of this scheming woman’s presence both at his hotel and when he started for Cookley. He had even believed that he had seen her amongst the crowd at Liverpool Street Station. Certainly the feeling was vague and he had been unable to prove that she was actually present on the platform. All the same he was now pretty certain that Madame Alpenny had been watching him, and that she knew he was staying at Cookley. When she thought it was time she would very likely appear to continue her plots. It was all very uncomfortable and unpleasant to a young man who was honest and straight in all his dealings. Against his will he was involved in these sordid schemes, and he did not see any way of extricating himself from their mire. All he could do was to wait until the Hungarian lady took action. Meanwhile he would do his best to try and learn who had actually murdered his uncle. It was for this reason he had so readily agreed to assist Gwen in her search.
The day was very hot, as there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was blazing like a great jewel in the softly-hued azure. Hench, scorning convention, assumed a tropical kit which he had brought from the warm lands of the equator. In a white linen suit, white shoes and a solar topee, he looked sufficiently noticeable as he made his way to Mrs. Perage’s house. The Cookley villagers, accustomed as they were to the eccentricities of tourists, were very much surprised to behold him clothed so strangely. Naturally, being excessively prejudiced, they did not consider the cool comfort of such a garb, and jeered at the young man’s common-sense while they sweated in their hot dark apparel. Matrons even came to the doors to remark audibly that his washing-bill must be something enormous. But Hench took no notice of the attention he attracted. He was even glad, as it proved conclusively to him that no one recognized in his spotless dress the rough tramp who was being hunted for far and wide.
At the gate of Mrs. Perage’s grounds he met Gwen, likewise clothed in fair white linen with a large straw hat girdled by artificial corn-flowers, as blue as her own eyes. She met Hench with a smile and he smiled also, for each of them considered that the other looked wonderfully handsome. Gwen even said as much with delightfully childish candour, blushing as she spoke.
“How nice you look, Mr. Hench, and what a sensible dress for a hot day.”
“I return the compliment,” said Owain, standing very straight and slim and saluting her in a strictly military fashion by way of a joke. “But people hereabouts have been making very rude remarks regarding my laundry-bill.”
“Of course they would. It is eccentric in England to be comfortable in white clothes. You wouldn’t dare to go to London in that suit.”
“Try me,” said Hench laughing. “I might do it out of dare-devilment, although I am not anxious to attract undue attention.”
“Why?” asked the girl, looking at him in what his guilty conscience told him was a searching way.
Conscious that he had said an awkward thing, which he had, having regard to his position, Owain strove to turn it off with a laugh. “I am not vain enough to wish for admiration. I leave that to the Nuts and the Nibs.”
“Horrid, conceited young men,” said Gwen, as she fell into step beside him. “I do detest that class of person.”
“Then I hope you don’t think that I belong to the class in question.”
“No. You’re a man!”
“A very faulty man.”
“I hope so. A perfect man would be horrid.”
“And a perfect woman?” asked Owain, peeping under her large hat.
“There isn’t such a thing.”
“There is,” he insisted. “I know one, at all events.”
“Mrs. Perage would be very flattered if she heard you say that,” said Gwen in a demure tone and smiling.
“I don’t mean Mrs. Perage, delightful as she is. I mean—”
“Now, don’t spoil things with explanations,” interrupted Miss Evans quickly.
“Are you to pay all the compliments?”
“I don’t pay compliments. I say that you are a man, because you saved my life and don’t talk about yourself as those horrid Nuts do. If you were like them I shouldn’t ask you to assist me.”
Owain nodded comprehendingly. “I hope we will be successful,” he said soberly, “but the task is a difficult one!”
“To me more than to you it is difficult,” said Gwen, colouring. “For to make you understand I have to say things about my father which I would rather leave unspoken.”
“Leave them unspoken,” advised Hench coolly. “I have learned quite enough from Mrs. Perage to know that your father was a man who made many enemies. One of them murdered him; which one we have to find out.”
“How are we to begin?”
“I hardly know. Perhaps Fate will begin for us,” said Hench. He was thinking of Madame Alpenny as Fate. His cousin said nothing more, as her mind was busy considering his remarks, so the two walked on very quietly along the dusty road until they came to the scene of the motor-car adventure. Gwen was about to recall Owain’s bravery, but checked herself, lest she should say too much, for her gratitude towards Hench was very strong. Also she saw that he was as attracted by her as she was by him, and thought if she spoke too ardently that he might say things which she did not wish to be said at the present moment. By this time the girl was tolerably certain that the young man loved her, and would probably propose if she gave him the least chance. As she knew little about his worldly position, she did not desire to move too swiftly in matters of love. Much as she loved him and admired him and was grateful to him, yet, like all women, even the most romantic, she had a vein of practical wisdom, which made her look before she leaped. Soon she would know more of Hench with regard to his income, his position, his habits and tastes. Then she would be able to say “Yes” or “No” in accordance with her feelings. They were strong just now, but she did not intend to let them run away with her.
Owain went with Gwen along the path leading out of the churchyard through emerald-hued meadows towards Parley Wood. It was the very same path which he had trodden on that eventful night, and he shivered slightly at the recollection. Fortunately Gwen was too much taken up with her own thoughts to notice this sign of discomfort, which was lucky, since it would have necessitated an untrue explanation. And after that one uncontrollable tremor, Hench braced himself to outward calmness, and trod with apparent carelessness the bye-way which had previously conducted him towards such dire trouble. He was quite glad when the girl branched off along another path skirting the wood. This took them round the corner of the trees and brought them into a narrow lane, where the trees met overhead to shut out the sky. The pair moved through a quiet green twilight with a tall hedge on one side and a mouldering red brick wall on the other.
“This runs round the park,” said Gwen, tapping the mellow bricks, “and by following it we come to the gates.”
“Is it a large park?” asked Hench, curious to ascertain the extent of his domain.
“Not very large, but very beautiful. So is the house.” Gwen heaved a sigh. “I was very, very sorry to leave the Grange, as you may guess.”
“Perhaps you will go back to it,” suggested Owain, feeling desperately anxious to then and there lay the same at her feet.
“No!” Gwen flushed angrily. “My cousin is sure to take possession soon, and then I can never visit my old home.”
“Why not?” Owain averted his face. “Your cousin may be a good sort of chap.”
“I don’t see how he can be with such a father as he had,” retorted Gwen tartly.
Hench was nettled, as he thought that this was unfair. “After all, your father was no angel,” he said, also tartly. “Yet look at—you.”
“If you are going to pay silly compliments, I shall go back,” said the girl sharply. “We are here on business, remember.”
“I didn’t pay a compliment—at any rate to your father.”
“My father was—my father, so there’s no use saying anything more. As to my cousin, I’ll never set eyes on him, so why talk about him.”
“If you stay with Mrs. Perage you are certain to see him.”
“I shan’t stay with Mrs. Perage. As soon as my cousin arrives I shall go to live in London and enjoy myself. I have five hundred a year of my own, so I can do as I like.”
“Why have you remained here so far?”
“Because I wish to learn who murdered my father.”
“But I thought you didn’t get on with your father?”
“That is no reason why I should allow the beast who murdered him to escape, Mr. Hench,” said Gwen quickly. “I wish you wouldn’t talk of—but there”—she walked on abruptly—“you don’t understand, and I cannot give you plain enough explanations to make you understand. There is our family history to be considered and it is not a pleasant one.”
Of course, Owain knew the family history just as thoroughly as the girl by his side, but for obvious reasons he could not tell her so. He could recall nothing in the same creditable to the late Squire, and it was impossible to guess why Gwen should so greatly desire to avenge his death. Even though the dead man was her father, he had proved a particularly unkind one, if Mrs. Perage was to be believed. But before they returned to the village, Gwen was compelled, against her will as it were, to tell him the true reason for the search. Then Owain was no longer astonished that she should prosecute the same, and ask for his assistance.
The two passed through ornate iron gates swung between two mighty pillars of stone, and walked leisurely up a long avenue, which swept round in a curve to lead into a vast open space girdled by the trees of the park. Here, the young man for the first time came face to face with the mansion he had inherited, and silently expressed his admiration. It was a rambling structure of mellow red brick, the patchwork of many generations, and comprising many styles of architecture. And the very incongruity of the same constituted its chief beauty, as the eye was always finding something new and unexpected. Two storeys in height, it possessed a lofty slanting roof of red tiles, weather-worn and picturesque, with many stacks of twisted chimneys and many mullion windows. The whole was draped in dark green ivy, and seemed to be so ancient that it only appeared to be held together by the same. Windows and door were closed, but Gwen informed her companion that Mrs. Capes, her father’s old housekeeper, was in charge. To summon her, she rang the bell as they stood in the porch.
“It’s a lovely place, isn’t it?” she said, watching Owain’s eyes roving round. “Very lovely,” he assented warmly. “We could be very happy here.”
“We!”—Gwen flushed hotly—“what do you mean?” Then it was Hench’s turn to flush. “I beg your pardon. I spoke without thinking, you see. What a lucky person your cousin is,” he ended artfully.
“I don’t envy him his luck,” she replied coldly, “and I’m sorry for the place, let alone the people. He is sure to be disagreeable.”
“But not knowing him, how can you judge?” protested Owain, much vexed at this persistent hostility.
“I knew my father and I heard all about my Uncle Owain. No good can come out of Nazareth, and no decent man from the Evans family.”
Hench inwardly groaned and considered that she would have small mercy on him when she came to realize that he was the wicked heir in question. Madoc Evans must indeed have been a cruel parent to prejudice her so greatly against the race whence she sprung. However, he had little time to consider this question, as the door opened and a stiff, stately old dame in a black silk dress and wearing a lace cap made her appearance. She was a comely woman in spite of her age, and smiled all over her wrinkled face when she beheld the girl.
“La, Miss, I am glad to see you. I thought you were never coming again.”
“I wish to show this gentleman the house and grounds,” said Gwen, stepping into a large hall, with busts of the Caesars on pedestals ranged on either side. “I suppose my cousin has not yet come?”
“No, Miss,” said Mrs. Capes respectfully, and looking at Owain in a puzzled way as though she recognized his face. “The lawyers wrote to tell me that he was coming some time before the end of the year, but they couldn’t be sure when.”
“Curious,” murmured Gwen to herself. “I wonder why he is so slow in coming?”
“Perhaps he thinks you are here and does not wish to turn you out,” said Hench, overhearing.
“Then I shall write to Mr. Gilberry and tell him that I have left. In fact, I think he knows, as Mrs. Perage said something about having written. Anyhow, I don’t want my cousin to show any consideration for me.”
“Oh, fie, Miss,” said Mrs. Capes reprovingly. “Mr. Evans may be a very nice gentleman, for all we know.”
“Ah,” said Gwen bitterly, “you worship the rising sun, I see.”
Mrs. Capes looked offended. “I worship no one, Miss, but if Mr. Evans turns out to be a nice gentleman, why shouldn’t I like him?” She stole a glance at Owain as she spoke, and again he saw something like recognition in her eyes.
Gwen shrugged her shoulders. “Wait here, Mr. Hench, and I shall return soon. I can show you over the house, and we will not need to trouble Mrs. Capes.”
She went away in a hurry, while Hench and the housekeeper remained in the hall looking at one another. By this time Owain felt rather uncomfortable, as it seemed that Mrs. Capes recognized him, and he wondered if she was about to denounce him as the much-wanted tramp. Of course the idea was ridiculous, as she had never seen him when he first came to Cookley to keep the appointment of the advertisement. Nevertheless, Hench felt uneasy and pointedly questioned the old woman, so as to set his own mind at rest. “Why do you look at me so intently, Mrs. Capes?” he asked quickly.
“I was thinking how greatly you resemble your father,” she answered.
Owain was taken aback. “My father!” he muttered nervously.
“My dear young gentleman, I have been with the family all my life, and knew Mr. Owain Evans as boy and man. I was certain that you were his son the moment I saw you. And when Miss Gwen called you ‘Mr. Hench,’ of course I was positive. That was the name Mr. Owain took when he went away from his father.”
“I am Owain Evans,” admitted the young man, seeing that he was discovered; “but I don’t wish my cousin to know. She seems to have a prejudice against me.”
Mrs. Capes nodded shrewdly. “Mr. Madoc was always speaking against you and your father, sir. No, I won’t say a word. Are you—?” She looked searchingly at him.
Hench guessed what she meant. “Yes, I am,” he admitted boldly, “very much in love, but if she learns who I am she won’t marry me.”
“The temper of the family is obstinate,” she sighed. “All the same, sir, as you are young and good-looking, I wouldn’t give up hope.”
“As that means giving up Gwen, you may be certain that I won’t. Hush, here she is, Mrs. Capes. Not a word.”
“You can trust me, sir,” replied the housekeeper, and looked quite pleased at being in the secret of the young Squire’s identity. “I’ll go now,” she added, raising her voice for the benefit of Gwen. “You know your way about, Miss.”
“Yes. Don’t let us trouble you,” replied Miss Evans more graciously, and then the two young people were left alone.
Gwen conducted Hench all over the vast house, showing him into one room after another filled with treasures. The place was very old and the rooms were spacious, while the furniture and the draperies and the carpets, the pictures, statues, carvings, and bric-a-brac were delightfully attractive. After wandering in raw lands, Owain deeply appreciated this real home, with which Destiny had provided him. He thought that if the goddess would only add to her gift by giving him Gwen for his wife, that he would have nothing else to wish for in the wide world. His appreciation and delighted observations pleased Gwen, although she sighed when they emerged again into the sunshine, intending to show him the garden.
“It’s horrid to leave it,” she said, casting a backward glance at the ancient house. “I envy my cousin.”
“I thought you didn’t,” remarked Owain calmly.
“After seeing my old home again, I do,” answered Gwen, passing quickly across the lawn. “Come down here and see the flowers.”
The gardens were a paradise of flowers and beautifully laid out. There were all kinds of nooks and arbours in odd corners, and many winding paths which led to pleasant glades. The trees were magnificent, and everywhere the place bloomed with blossoms. Hench was not quite sure if he did not like the gardens even better than the charming house. And what with the colour and scent of flowers, the heat of the day, the silence of the place, and the fact that he was walking long-side the girl he loved, the young man rather lost his head. In a rash moment he quoted Omar Khayyam’s verse relative to the wilderness, the wine-cup, the loaf of bread, and of course “Thou!” Gwen blushed and flushed, and threw up her hand to stop him. They were standing near a marble bench under an oak tree, and on this she sat down.
“I wish you would not speak to me like that,” she said in vexed tones.
“Why not, when I love you?”
“You can’t love in five minutes.”
“Romeo and Juliet did.”
“Ah, that is in a play. I am talking of real life. We have only known each other a very short time.”
“Undoubtedly. But then our introduction made for intimacy at once.”
“How unfair,” murmured Gwen, looking down. “You are taking advantage of the fact that you saved my life.”
“If that is any bar to my loving you, I wish I hadn’t.”
“Then you would have had no one to love,” retorted the girl, who could not help smiling at the speech. Hench saw that smile.
“Gwen, you don’t dislike me?” he asked entreatingly.
“No, I certainly do not. I like you, and so does Mrs. Perage.”
“Please leave Mrs. Perage out of the conversation. Does your saying that you like me mean that you love me?”
“Liking doesn’t mean love.”
“It’s a step in the right direction, anyhow,” said Hench cheerfully. “See here, Gwen, I have little to offer you, but with that little I give my heart. Now if—”
“Don’t say anything more just now,” interrupted the girl, much distressed. “I cannot answer you.”
“You can say yes, or no.”
“I don’t wish to say no.”
“Then that means yes!” cried Hench triumphantly, and his heart beat rapidly.
“No”—Gwen pulled away the hand he had taken—“there is something you must know about me. I did not intend to tell you, but since you have spoken, I must be frank.” She drew a long breath, while Owain fixed his brown eyes keenly on her disturbed face. “Have you heard anything against me in the village?”
“No, I have not. But then I don’t go into the village much, nor do I attend to gossip. All I know of you comes from Mrs. Bell, and she adores you.”
Gwen crossed her feet and folded her hands. “My father and I never got on well together,” she said rapidly and in a low voice, looking down as she spoke. “He treated me very harshly, and we very often quarrelled.”
“That was not your fault, I swear,” cried the lover impetuously.
“No. I can honestly say that it wasn’t. But every one knew that we did not get on well together, and when my father was murdered, some people said”—she drew another long breath—“that I—I—murdered him.”
She looked up with a frightened glance, as if she expected Hench to turn and fly after hearing such a confession. Instead of doing so, the young man laughed aloud and lifted her from the bench into his arms. “What a silly thing to say,” he murmured, pressing her to his breast.
“You—you—don’t—believe it?” gasped Gwen, making no attempt to get away.
“Darling, it is not worth my while to answer such a question. I love you and I have done so from the first moment I set eyes on you. Can I believe that the most perfect girl in the world is guilty of anything, much less of such a dreadful crime?”
“But people say—”
“I won’t hear another word. Thus I stop your mouth”—and before Gwen was aware, Owain had kissed her full on the lips.
“Oh,” she said, half frightened, half delighted, “how can you!” Then suddenly she slipped from his arms. “No! No! Only when you learn the truth about my father’s death and end this scandal, will I—will I—”
“Good!” said Owain, quite understanding. “I’ll find out the truth and then we will go hand in hand to the church.” And a final kiss sealed the compact.
Considering that he had gained his heart’s desire, Hench should have returned to his lodgings in the highest spirits. Instead of doing so, he arrived in a rather disturbed frame of mind. It seemed to him, after due reflection, that he was not treating Gwen straightforwardly, since as yet she was quite unaware of the relationship between them. Nevertheless, as he argued, he would never have been able to win her had she known at the outset that he was the heir to the estate and her cousin. So far he had acted honestly enough in masquerading as a disguised prince, but he should not have compelled her to acknowledge her love before making himself known. Aware of the truth, she could make her choice of marrying the man she loved, or of dismissing the cousin whom her father had taught her to detest. Hench felt decidedly uncomfortable.
This being the case, he was unable to stay in the poky little rooms, as he felt too restless to sit down, and too excited to read. His foot was now so much better that he could walk with considerable ease, although he had some sort of twinge every now and then. But it was certainly not well enough to permit his taking a long walk. Yet Owain, feeling hipped, did so, and strolled a long way into the country. The result was that he felt the old pain coming on again, and his ankle being yet somewhat weak, there was danger that he might twist it. Luckily, a carrier’s cart came along the road when he was some miles from Cookley, and the offer of a shilling procured Hench a drive back to the village. When he alighted at Mrs. Bell’s door he felt that his foot was again swollen and painful, and cursed his folly, as he hobbled into his sitting-room. He would have to rest that evening, as he fully recognized, and as the lover’s desire was to see Gwen, such enforced absence from her presence did not please him. With a groan he wondered how he would get through the dull hours until bed-time.
But Fate had already provided him with an interesting companion. While Hench sat down and removed his boots and stroked his ankle, a tall figure appeared at the door of the bedroom, which opened into the sitting-room. After an astonished pause, Hench fell back on the sofa and gasped.
“Jim!” he cried. “Who would have thought of seeing you here?”
“I thought I would surprise you,” said Vane complacently, and advancing into the parlour. “I arrived three hours ago and found that you had gone out for a walk. Therefore, I looked up my aunt, as I intend to put up with her for the night, and then came back to lie on your bed and pass the time in sleep until you turned up. Humph! You don’t look like a joyful lover.”
“What do you know about that?” asked Hench tartly. “Has Gwen—”
“No, she hasn’t,” interrupted Vane promptly. “But Aunt Emma hinted that she wished to bring about a marriage between you and your cousin, so that the family quarrels should end. From your words rather than your looks, it seems that you have settled the matter and accomplished Aunt Emma’s desire.”
Hench groaned. “We can talk of that later. Meantime, I apologize for lying on the sofa; but I foolishly went for a long walk and my ankle is aching again.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” replied the barrister, lighting a cigarette. “Aunt Emma told me of your rescuing Miss Evans and that your ankle was better. Why the deuce have you made it worse?”
“I couldn’t sit down here after meeting Gwen this morning, and went for a walk. This is the result,” and Hench pointed to his ankle. As he had removed his sock, Vane saw that it was much inflamed.
“Silly ass,” said Jim, fumbling near the fireplace for the bell-rope. “Better bathe it in cold water and lie up for the evening.”
“I intend to, and I daresay it will be all right in the morning. Mrs. Bell”—the delicate-looking landlady entered as he spoke her name—“just bring me a basin of cold water and my sponge.”
Mrs. Bell threw up her hands at the sight which met her eyes. “Won’t I send for the doctor, Mr. Hench?”
“No. Bathing will reduce the swelling and rest will put everything else right, Mrs. Bell. Don’t worry. Sorry I’m an invalid, Vane, and can’t entertain you.”
“Oh, I shan’t let you off inviting me to dinner, Owain,” said the barrister, as Mrs. Bell disappeared to fetch the basin of water. “I’ve come down to see you especially. Later I go on to sleep at my aunt’s place.”
“What do you wish to see me about?” asked Hench uneasily.
“That can wait until I have some food. Don’t be inhospitable.”
Owain laughed and began to bathe his ankle in the cold water which Mrs. Bell had just brought in. He thought that Vane’s news could not be anything very unpleasant since he so calmly postponed telling it. So the two men chatted on various frivolous subjects while the landlady laid the cloth and made the dinner ready. By the time Hench finished doctoring his foot and was feeling less pain, the meal was before them. Vane pushed the table near to the sofa so that Owain could eat without sitting in a chair. He partook of the viands in the dining attitude of an ancient Roman, leaning on one elbow, and being hungry, managed to make an excellent meal. Then Mrs. Bell brought in the coffee, and after clearing the table, left the two men to their own devices. Vane sat near the window smoking, while Owain remained comfortably on his sofa. The casement was open, and the scent of the homely cottage flowers came into the room, which was filled with the coming shadows of the night. Hench felt so tired that he did not begin the conversation, and would have much preferred slumber. But Vane gave him no chance. He began to chat immediately, and on a subject which was already worrying his friend considerably.
“So you are in love with your cousin and she with you,” he remarked, after a puff or two. “I am going by what Aunt Emma said, remember. It seems quick work to me—a kind of five minutes’ wooing.”
“Jim, I fell head over heels in love with Gwen the moment I saw her.”
“The deuce! Yet the last time we met, you told me that you didn’t know what love meant.”
“That was quite true. I didn’t. My liking for Zara Alpenny was one of simple admiration. But Gwen! Oh, Jim, you don’t know how I adore her.”
“I’ll take it for granted that you do,” said Vane dryly. “But I can’t say that your newly-born passion makes you very happy. You have groaned two or three or four times since you arrived.”
“It’s my ankle giving me pain.”
“Oh, shucks!” cried the barrister, after a purely American fashion, “it’s your heart, man. You aren’t the chap to yowl over a twisted sinew, as I know jolly well. Come along and unburden your mind to your father-confessor.”
“It will be a relief,” admitted Hench, with a fifth groan. “The fact is I am not quite sure if I have acted rightly in stealing a march on Gwen.”
“What do you mean by your stealing a march?”
“Well, you see she knows me as Hench, and hasn’t the least idea that I am her cousin who inherits the property.”
“What of that? You came here with the idea of masquerading.”
“So I did. But I didn’t intend to go too far.”
“And you have?”
“Yes!”—another groan. “We went to the Grange this morning, and when I found myself alone in the garden with her I proposed to her.”
“So she said to Aunt Emma.”
“But, Jim, you told me that she had said nothing?”
“I did. It was a fib, I admit. But I wanted to hear your version of the proposal, Owain,” said Vane shamelessly. “You didn’t intend to go too far, nor did your cousin. But as you were swept off your feet by passion, so was she, as she admitted to Aunt Emma, with tears. Miss Evans intended to keep you at arm’s length until she knew more about you. But this passion took you both off your feet, so there’s no doubt of its being genuine on both sides.”
“On my side, certainly. But on hers—?”
“The same. I hope you don’t mind Aunt Emma telling me of what took place; she has your interest very much at heart.”
“I am glad that Mrs. Perage broke the ice,” said Hench dolefully. “It makes it easier for me to talk. You see, Gwen loves me as a stranger—”
“Can a girl love a stranger?”
“I mean she thinks that I am only Owain Hench. When she learns that I am Owain Evans she will throw me over.”
“Why should she, seeing that she loves you?”
“Love may turn to hate, and her dislike for my father’s son has been carefully fostered by her father.”
“Well,” said Vane with an air of finality, “it seems to me that she should be jolly glad to get back her old home by marriage with a decent chap such as her cousin is.”
“She doesn’t believe that I am a decent chap,” cried Hench irritably.
“Then you must prove that you are by explaining matters,” insisted Jim coolly. “Bless you, Miss Evans will look upon your masquerading as a romance.”
“I’ve got my doubts about that. She may resent being deceived.”
Vane remained silent for a few moments and lighted a fresh cigarette. “As a bachelor I don’t pretend to understand women,” he said at length, “and it is just on the cards that she may cut up rough. Still, if she loves you really and truly, as Aunt Emma assured me she does, she will forgive your innocent deception. After all, by concealing the truth you only gave yourself a fair chance of being judged on your merits.”
Hench nodded wearily. “That of course was my idea of masquerading, and it was a right idea, seeing how strongly her father has prejudiced her against me. I am a kind of monster in her eyes in my capacity of heir”—Hench turned restlessly—“I must tell her, I suppose.”
“You must, and as soon as possible,” advised his mentor firmly. “If you don’t, the information may come from a less pleasant quarter.”
“Now, what do you mean by that?” asked Hench, startled.
“You don’t know her.”
“Oh yes, I do. I am not aware if Aunt Emma told you, but I went down to Bethnal Green for a day or so.”
“She told me last night, when I dined at her house. I was wondering why you went there?”
“Where are your wits?” asked Vane in a surprised tone. “Of course, I went in your interest to that boarding-house and stopped for a couple of nights.”
“In my interest?” Hench raised himself on his elbow and stared at Vane with an uneasy look in his eyes.
“Of course. You don’t suppose that any business of my own took me down there, do you? So far as regards this murder of your uncle, you are not out of the wood yet, so I wanted to learn what I could to help you.”
“You’re a real good fellow, Jim,” said Owain gratefully.
“Pfui! In the absence of briefs which don’t come my way, it gives me something to do. Besides, if there is a row over the business you can engage me as your counsel, and then I’ll make a big name straight away.”
“Oh, hang it”—Hench moved uneasily—“don’t speak of that even in jest.”
“I’m not in jest, but in dead earnest,” insisted Vane seriously. “I tell you Madame Alpenny is on the warpath.”
“There! there! Don’t get excited, you silly ass. Let me begin at the beginning and end at the end.” Vane blew a ring or so of smoke and went on talking. “I stayed at The Home of the Muses to see if Spruce knew anything about that advertisement, as I dreaded him rather than the old woman. Of course, he knew me as a pal of yours at the old school, and was very curious to know where you had got to.”
“You didn’t tell him, I hope?”
Vane shook his head. “Is thy servant an ass that he should do so? Of course I lay low like Brer Rabbit, and let Spruce babble on. He doesn’t know anything about your real name, or the advertisement, or your accession to fortune, or anything else. He’d have let the information slip had he known. So far as Spruce is concerned you can set your mind at rest. I’m glad such is the case, Owain, for he’s a dangerous monkey.”
“Humph!” said Hench meditatively. “If he is ignorant why does he wish to know where I am?”
“Because, having made London too hot for him over that card affair, with which I charged him, by the way, he wants to seek fresh fields and pastures new. He had an idea—I think you told him—that you were going away into the lands at the back-of-beyond, so thought he’d like to come with you.”
“I wouldn’t have him as a gift as a companion,” said Hench with disgust.
“So I told him, and he wasn’t exactly pleased. At all events, since I ostensibly didn’t know where you were he shut up, and gave me the cold shoulder on account of my nasty manner towards him with regard to the cheating. I do think,” finished Vane calmly, “that he’s the most abject Gadarene swine I have ever met.”
Owain drew a long breath of relief when Vane finished, for he also mistrusted the meddlesome little man. Had Spruce understood the situation it was very certain that he would have attempted to make an income out of the same by blackmail, particularly now that Hench had money in large quantities. But as he was quite ignorant of everything there was nothing to be feared. “Then it’s not from that quarter the information about my real name is to come to Gwen?”
“No! Set your mind at rest so far. Madame Alpenny is the lady likely to queer your pitch.”
“But she doesn’t know where I am.”
“Oh yes, she does. Mrs. Bell’s cottage in Cookley, Essex, was the address she gave me as one likely to find you.”
Hench swore under his breath. “How did she find out?”
“Hurry no man’s cattle, my son,” said Vane sagely. “You must be introduced to the subject gradually, so that you may admire my diplomatic skill. I came to Mrs. Tesk’s establishment to ask for you, as that—according to my story—was the address you gave me. Mrs. Tesk didn’t know where you had gone to, so I paid civil attentions to Madame Alpenny and confessed that I was your very good friend. Then she told me—when we became better acquainted, mind you—that you were her very good friend, and would shortly be her very good son-in-law.”
“Nothing of the sort,” cried Hench violently. “I proposed to Zara, and she refused me as she loves Bracken.”
“Zara said nothing about that proposal or her Bracken engagement to Madame Alpenny, as she’s a deuced sight too much afraid of the old hag. Madame Alpenny told me that she had given you permission to marry Zara whenever you got the cash. She mentioned that, as you were the nephew of Squire Evans who had been murdered, you were now rich.”
“How did she know that?” asked Hench, remembering the visit paid by the Hungarian lady to his deceased uncle.
“Oh, she told me that your father, some twenty years ago, wished to marry her, and gave a sketch of his family history.”
“I know. It was the word ‘Rhaiadr’ he mentioned which revived her recollection and led to the advertisement being inserted.”
“The deuce!” said Vane curiously. “She told me nothing of that.”
“No, she wouldn’t,” growled Hench impatiently. “Go on. I can speak later.”
“Well, then,” proceeded the barrister, “Madame Alpenny knew that you inherited the estate; also your real name and all the rest of it.”
“My father told her.”
“Exactly, and she frankly confessed that she had refused him because the estate was going to you and not to your father. She never bothered any more about the matter until she met you at The Home of the Muses. Then the name ‘Rhaiadr’ revived her memory, and she wished you to marry Zara when you became rich. After seeing the death of your uncle in the newspapers she was certain that you had entered into your kingdom, and is coming down to see if you will keep your promise and marry Zara.”
“Did she say that she could make it hot for me if I didn’t?”
“No. She’s a wary old bird. She was all smiles and amiability,” said Vane significantly. “There was no word of the murder or of the advertisement, or anything which led me to understand that she had a card up her sleeve. All she knows—according to her own showing—is that you are Squire Evans’ heir and are engaged to her daughter.”
“It’s a lie. I’m not. How did she learn where I was?”
“Oh, she confessed that as she had no reason—so she said—to conceal it. A page called Bottles told her.”
Hench slipped off the sofa and swore again. “I guessed as much. I saw Bottles’ brother, who is a page at your aunt’s. He recognized me, as his brother had written telling him all about me. I had half a mind to tell him to hold his tongue as to my whereabouts but didn’t like to.”
“It would have been too late,” said Vane quickly. “The page must have written whenever he heard your name as that of a gentleman staying in the village. At all events, Madame Alpenny knew all about you being here the day before yesterday. Peter—I know the brat at my aunt’s—wrote to Simon, surnamed Bottles, and Bottles gave you away to Madame Alpenny.”
“Hang him! I did think that I could trust Bottles.”
“You can’t trust any one in this wicked world,” commented the barrister philosophically. “Madame Alpenny knew that the boy was a hero-worshipper and adored you, so she made inquiries. I daresay a few shillings made him talk.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Hench doubtfully. “Peter hinted that everything was right, so I believe Bottles has some card up his sleeve which has to do with all this mystery.”
“But I don’t see—”
“No more do I,” said Hench, cutting Vane short. “We’re in the dark, and until some light is thrown on the subject we will remain in the dark. As to Madame Alpenny, she is at the bottom of the business, I am sure.” And then Owain went on to tell his friend about the visit paid by the woman to the Squire. “She has engineered the whole plot, I’m certain.”
“Queer,” admitted Vane, staring absently out into the shadowy garden. “Do you think she murdered the Squire?”
“How do I know. She might have done so in order to place me in possession of the money at once. There is certainly a motive. Perhaps,”—Hench’s face grew less gloomy,—“perhaps that is why she hasn’t moved in the matter so far.”
“How did you expect her to move?”
“Well, she must have guessed that I would keep the appointment, and when she saw that my uncle was murdered she naturally would accuse me. Instead of doing this she has held her tongue.”
“Only for a time, old son. Believe me, she may turn up here any day. Naturally she wouldn’t queer her pitch by telling the police of what she knows. My impression is that she will try and make you marry Zara by threatening to give you away unless you come up to the scratch.”
“I shan’t come up to the scratch, then,” muttered Hench sullenly.
“In that case Madame Alpenny will have the game in her own hands.”
“She won’t, Jim, if I can prove her guilty.”
“That won’t be an easy job,” said Vane doubtfully. “The woman is as cunning as a fox, and as dangerous as a tigress. Besides, we can’t be sure that she did get rid of your uncle. Anyhow,”—the barrister rose to stretch himself,—“I advise you to make friends with Mammon by telling Gwen who you are, and getting over the trouble before Madame Alpenny turns up to put her fingers in the pie. She intends to do that, you know.”
“She’ll burn her fingers, then.”
“I said a pie, not a fire,” retorted Jim dryly. “She intends to eat your pudding, not to burn herself.”
“Well, what is best to be done under the circumstances?” asked Hench crossly.
“Tell Gwen who you are, and explain how you saw the body of her father in Parley Wood,” rejoined the barrister promptly.
“No! No! No! She would believe me to be guilty. You know how the supposed tramp who went to the Bull Inn is suspected. If I confessed that I was the man—”
“I see, I see,” interrupted Vane, wrinkling his lean face. “It’s a bit difficult, isn’t it, old man? But if Miss Evans loves you she’ll never believe a word against you. That’s a woman all over.”
“I tell you she is prejudiced against her cousin Owain,” said Hench sullenly. “And when she learns that I am that cousin she will merge her love in hate.”
Vane shook his head. “I doubt it. But if she does by any ill chance, you have a friend in my aunt. She likes you no end, and will stand by you. As you may guess, she has a strong influence over Miss Evans.”
“Mrs. Perage is a very clever and sensible woman,” mused Owain thoughtfully. “And I really think it would be wise for me to tell her everything.”
“I agree!” cried Vane emphatically. “Bachelor as I am, I always believe in asking a woman’s advice. The sex has more intuition than ours has. Let her be the person to deal with Madame Alpenny—one woman against another. Then,” added the barrister cynically, “you’ll see the fur fly.”
“I won’t tax Mrs. Perage’s friendship so far, Jim. My ankle will be all right to-morrow, so if you will ask Gwen to meet me near the old Saxon Cross in the churchyard I can reveal who I am. When I settle matters with her I shall see Mrs. Perage and relate the whole story.”
“Relate it to Miss Evans also,” advised Vane strongly.
“No. I shall only tell her who I am, and give her time to get over that before I tell more. It’s dangerous to give her too big a dose at once. Also, when I tell your aunt about my adventure I wish to be guided by her advice. She may suggest my keeping the same a secret from Gwen until the truth becomes known.”
“Well, do as you think best, Owain. But how is the truth to become known?”
“I shall wait until I see Madame Alpenny before forming an opinion.”
Vane wheeled round. “Do you mean to accuse her of the murder?”
“Not unless she accuses me. It’s a case of pull devil, pull baker. Now you’d better out along to your aunt’s and make my excuses for not turning up. Meanwhile I shall think over things, and a pleasant night I shall have.”
“The way of the transgressor is hard,” laughed Vane cheerfully.
“Transgressor be hanged! I’m more sinned against than sinning.”
Vane laid a friendly hand on his friend’s shoulder. “All right, old man, don’t get your hair riz. I’ll tell Aunt Emma that your ankle kept you from paying your respects to her, and will request Miss Evans to meet you to-morrow near the Cross. At what time, by the way?”
“Three o’clock in the afternoon. And don’t come along in the morning, Jim. I wish to think out matters alone. I shall see you in the afternoon.”
Vane put on his hat and prepared a cigarette. “Don’t overdo it,” he advised at the door. “And remember that two heads are better than one.”
“Quite so. That is why I intend to see Gwen. All the same, I’m afraid.”
“Nonsense! Use that very eloquent tongue of yours and show her that the devil is not so black as he is painted. Miss Evans, being very much a woman, may cut up rough at the outset, but when—”
“When she knows that you are in danger of arrest she will stand by you through thick and thin.”
“I have my doubts,” said Hench dolefully.
“I haven’t. Women are contrary animals. As her prosperous cousin she may hate you. As an innocent man, in danger of being hanged, she will love you.”
“May you be a true prophet,” said Hench fervently, and Vane went away laughing.
Vane faithfully delivered both messages, and Gwen was as pleased with the churchyard appointment as Mrs. Perage was annoyed by Hench’s folly. That he should walk for miles on a weak ankle proved what a fool he was, and she said as much to her nephew next morning at breakfast.
“You men are all babies, Jim, silly, obstinate and weak.”
“Not me,” retorted the barrister. “I haven’t been fooling with my ankle.”
“You know quite well what I mean,” fumed Mrs. Perage, who was in her work-a-day attire, and who looked particularly fierce. “It’s not only his ankle, it’s his masquerading.” She rubbed her nose irritably. “I tell you there will be the deuce to pay. Gwen is Welsh.”
“Well, what does her nationality matter?”
“It matters everything. The Welsh are a particularly fiery nation, and have the pride of Old Nick. As a poor man Gwen loves her cousin—he is the fairy prince who has come into her life. But when she learns the truth—”
“She’ll forgive him if she loves him.”
Mrs. Perage shook her head and scowled. “You don’t know woman, Jim. Her very love may make her resent his not having treated her quite honestly.”
“Aren’t you taking the matter too seriously, Aunt Emma?” expostulated Vane with a shrug. “After all, Miss Evans must see that Owain could only give himself a fair chance by masquerading as he has done. If he had turned up in propria persona, she would have disliked him on the spot.”
“Hum!” boomed Mrs. Perage doubtfully. “Perhaps. But not if he had saved her life. That act would have excused everything had it been done as Owain Evans.”
“What do you mean by excusing everything?”
“I mean as regards the reputation of Owain Evans. Of course Madoc was always a liar, as I know, and Gwen didn’t get on over-well with him. As a deus ex machina, Gwen would have disbelieved her father’s stories of her cousin’s wickedness.”
“But the poor chap isn’t wicked at all. He’s the whitest man I know.”
“Madoc’s lies would have smirched the whiteness of an angel,” retorted the old lady sharply. “But Gwen would have either forgiven or would have disbelieved had Hench come as her cousin. As it is she may throw him over if he tells her who he really is.”
“Oh, he intends to tell her right enough, and this very day, somewhere about three o’clock,” said Vane coolly. “She may cut up rough for the minute, but when Owain gets into trouble she’ll find out that she loves him all right.”
“Trouble!” Mrs. Perage looked up suddenly. “What trouble?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, Aunt Emma. Owain intends to tell you himself. But there’s a big trouble coming along.”
“Hum! Can’t it be averted?”
“So far as I can see, it can’t.”
“Well, Jim,”—the old dame rose from the breakfast table and brushed the crumbs from her apron,—“I’ll wait to hear the young man’s explanation. But I am quite sure that he is honest and kind and a well-bred gentleman. Nothing will ever make me change my opinion of him.”
“Wait till you hear what the trouble is.”
“Do you know all about it?” demanded Mrs. Perage imperatively.
“Yes, I do.”
“And you still can call Hench your friend?”
“I can. He’s a rattling good chap.”
“Then why the dickens should I change my opinion when I learn the truth?” said Mrs. Perage vigorously. “It can’t be anything dishonourable or you would not champion Hench. Do you think you are talking to a fool, Jim Vane?”
“Oh Lord, Aunt Emma, don’t get on to me. My nerves are weak.”
“Your head is,” retorted Aunt Emma smartly. “I wish you hadn’t hinted at this trouble, Jim. I’m horribly inquisitive, and will be on tenterhooks until I know what it’s all about.”
“I don’t expect you’ll have to wait long,” said Vane gloomily. “There will be the devil to pay if—”
Mrs. Perage closed her ears and hurried to the door. “Not another word. You are only making me more and more curious. But I tell you what, Jim, I am going to stand Hench’s friend in any case.”
“You’re a brick, Aunt Emma.”
“I’m an old fool,” snapped Mrs. Perage, who was more upset by the implied mystery than she chose to admit. “My wisest plan would be to wash my hands of the whole business, known and unknown. But instead of doing so I am just going to strengthen Gwen’s love for Owain, so that it may not fail her when he makes his revelation.”
Mrs. Perage held to this determination, and twice or thrice during the morning she exchanged words with Miss Evans on the subject of Hench. The girl for the time being had lost sight of her mission of clearing her name by discovering the name of the assassin, and was wholly taken up with love dreams. She was passionately devoted to the young man, as his attitude tended to increase her belief in the nobility of his nature. He had saved her life as it was, and now, in the face of the rumours which credited her with the death of her father, he was willing to marry her. No man but the noblest who ever breathed would act in so gloriously honourable a fashion. She said this and much more to Mrs. Perage in the seclusion of her bedroom, when she was putting on her prettiest frock and hat to keep the appointment. And all the time Mrs. Perage was rubbing her beaky nose irritably.
“Don’t build the pedestal too high, Gwen,” she advised dryly. “Your idol may have feet of clay and come toppling over.”
“No,” said the girl firmly. “Nothing will ever make me believe that Mr. Hench is not the best of men. What is his Christian name, Mrs. Perage? It is strange that he did not tell me yesterday.”
Mrs. Perage was much too wary to give the name, lest it should lead to uncomfortable questions and forestall Owain’s explanations. “How the deuce should I know the man’s name?” she asked crossly and evasively. “I never met him until you introduced him to me as your hero.”
“And he is a hero, isn’t he?”
“Hum! I suppose so! The rescue was rather flamboyant—a kind of playing to the gallery.”
“How unjust,” cried Gwen, flaming up, which was exactly what Mrs. Perage wanted her to do. “As if he could help the way in which my rescue took place. I am quite sure that he is the most modest of men.”
“Pooh! No man is modest; they are all as conceited as pigs.”
“I never knew that pigs were considered vain, Mrs. Perage,” said Gwen coldly. “And I don’t see why you should compare Mr. Hench to one.”
“I spoke generally. Don’t be silly.”
“Ah, you call me silly because I’m in love.”
“Are you really and truly in love?” asked the old lady doubtfully. “Mind you, I don’t mean that easy romantic passion which seems everything and means nothing. But real love, true love, staunch love, the sort which will hold to its object in the face of all detraction.”
“I wouldn’t believe a word against Mr. Hench, if that is what you mean. But I don’t know why you should use the word detraction.”
“I don’t know myself,” said Mrs. Perage grimly. “Unless it is that I find most men are broken cisterns. There, there, child, go away and meet your Prince. I don’t wish to be your Jeremiah and prophesy woe.”
“I wouldn’t believe you if you did,” said the girl very decidedly. “All my woe was undergone with the death of my father and the loss of my old home. I am sure that there is nothing but sunshine ahead.”
Mrs. Perage sniffed and thought anxiously about Vane’s hints. But it was not her business to give chapter and verse for her forebodings. And, at all events, she had somewhat strengthened Gwen’s love for the young man by depreciating him in a hinting kind of way. When the girl, flushed with love, and looking as pretty as a picture, set forth to keep the appointment, Mrs. Perage stood at the window and breathed a prayer that all would be well. It was a bright warm day, but clouds were drifting across the sky. Even as the old dame prayed a cloud concealed the brightness of the sun and Mrs. Perage shuddered. It was an omen of ill, she thought; but when a few moments later the cloud passed and the glow of the sunshine reasserted itself, she cheered up. It seemed to her that trouble was coming, but would pass without being of any great duration. She fervently hoped so, and went about her daily business calling herself hard names for being so superstitious.
Meantime, Gwen, with a smiling face and a light heart, was walking swiftly towards the place of meeting. Every moment spent away from Hench, now that he had declared himself, seemed to be wasted, and she promised herself three or four golden hours with her lover. They would talk in the churchyard for a time, and then would take a long walk, in any direction, for whatever path they chose would lead to the Elysian Fields. Then he would tell her how much he loved her, and she would respond coyly to his caresses, until earth and sea and sky would be transfigured, and they would be blessed above all lovers who ever were or who ever would be. Afterwards would come marriage, and they would enter into the kingdom of heaven to remain there for ever and ever. Gwen rather blushed at the extravagance of her thoughts when she entered the churchyard, and blushed still more when she came suddenly upon the ancient Saxon Cross, against which the man of men was leaning. She thought for a single nervous moment that he looked rather pinched and worried, but had no cause to complain of the warmth of his greeting. Once she was in his arms with only the jackdaws for spectators, it seemed as though he would never let her go. All the poetry of Romeo and Juliet was in his embrace. And those lovers met in a vault at the last which was even more weird than meeting in a churchyard.
“Though I’m not sure if I like it,” murmured Gwen following the course of her thoughts, as they sat down on a flat tombstone.
“Like what?” inquired Hench fatuously; “me?”
“I wasn’t thinking of you at the moment.”
“Oh, Gwen!” This was breathed with an air of reproach.
“I deserve that, I deserve that,” she cried penitently. “But really I was thinking that a churchyard is rather a dismal place to meet in.”
“Any place is Paradise where you are,” Hench assured her. “But we can go away for a walk in a few minutes.”
“Into Parley Wood?”
Hench shivered. “No. I don’t like Parley Wood—on your account,” he added in a hasty manner. “For there—”
“Yes, I know.” Gwen stopped him and shivered also. “I didn’t think of what I was saying. But we can’t stay here amongst the tombs.”
“Why not? Have you any sad recollections about these tombs? Your father is not buried here, I know.”
“He is buried at Rhaiadr, in Wales, where his ancestors lie,” said the girl in an altered tone. “But I wish you would not speak of my father. He was so cruel to me that I wish to forget all about him for the time being. We will have to talk of him later, when it is necessary to learn who killed him. Meantime, let us have our golden hour. But no”—she made a gesture of despair—“we have lost that as it is.”
“Because you have called up the spectre of my father,” said Gwen sadly. “You have reminded me that I am looked at askance by the villagers.”
“Dear, you are quite wrong about that. Mrs. Bell speaks of you in the highest terms of respect. I think you are making a mistake.”
“No, I am not,” said Gwen decisively. “I don’t say that any one has openly declared that I have anything to do with the—the crime”—her breath came and went quickly—“but people look and people talk secretly.”
“What does it matter so long as they don’t talk openly?” said Hench, soothing her gently.
“I wish they would,” she cried vehemently. “For then I could meet the rumours better. As it is I am fighting in the dark—and all alone, too.”
“No! No!” Hench gathered her into his strong arms. “You have me to fight for you now. Be calm, dearest; everything will be put right now.”
“Eh, my faith, but that is most true,” said a voice immediately behind them, and the lovers jumped up in dismay to find that they were observed.
The speaker had suddenly emerged from behind a tall tombstone near at hand, and stood staring hard at them—a dumpy little woman with a swarthy face and big black eyes now filled with anger. It did not require the orange-spotted dress, the shabby bead-trimmed mantle and the picture hat to inform either of the young people who the spy was. Hench recognized Madame Alpenny at once, and Gwen beheld the unknown visitor who had called at the Grange. To a woman the dress was sufficient to fix the identity.
“You are the woman who came to see my father,” said Gwen, turning white, for the sight of this visitor revived her recollections of the painful days before Squire Evans was murdered.
“Yes, I am the woman. Very clever of you, Mademoiselle, to remember me.”
“I remember your dress. Who are you?”
Madame Alpenny nodded suavely towards the silent Hench. “Ask him.”
Gwen turned round and looked hard at her lover’s colourless face. “Who is this woman?” she asked almost inaudibly. “Do you know her?”
“None better,” snapped the Hungarian lady. “Come, Mr. Hench, say who I am, and then I shall tell Mademoiselle who you are.”
“Tell him who he is; tell me who he is,” stuttered Gwen incoherently. “What do you mean?”
“Ask him,” said Madame Alpenny once more. “Mr. Hench—”
“Ah”—the Hungarian lady broke into a hard laugh—“then he has not told you his Christian name.”
“I will tell her now,” said Hench, taking Gwen’s cold hand, and speaking with an effort. “This lady is Madame Alpenny, who lived in the same boarding-house as I did in Bethnal Green.”
“But what had she to do with my father, and what has she to do with you?”
“I think your Christian name will explain all in one word,” remarked Madame Alpenny, looking up at the blue sky.
“I intended to tell you myself, Gwen, this very morning,” cried Hench, striving to preserve his calmness, which was sorely shaken.
“Tell me what?” said Gwen, who was very white and unstrung.
“That my Christian name is—Owain.”
“Owain Evans,” said Madame Alpenny sharply. “Let there be an end to his deceit, Mademoiselle. He is your cousin, the same who has robbed you of your heritage, the same who has—”
“Hold your tongue!” interrupted Hench fiercely. “It is for Miss Evans to speak and not you.”
“Miss Evans,” sneered the woman, with sparkling eyes. “Why so, when you called her by her Christian name lately, as she can now call you by yours? Oh, it is very well, very well indeed, this bal masque of lies and wickedness.”
By this time, Gwen, who had been staring silently at Hench, spoke in a low tone, but in so absolutely unemotional a manner that he could not tell what her feelings were. “Are you really my cousin?”
“Yes! I knew that you were prejudiced against me owing to the false stories told to you by your father, therefore I wished to make your acquaintance under the name my father took when he was sent away from home. Until a few weeks ago I believed it was my true name. Don’t blame me over-much, Gwen,” he implored. “After all, I wouldn’t have had a fair chance had I come as your cousin.”
“Perhaps not,” she said softly, and a touch of colour came into her face. “And after all, you saved my life.”
“No! No! Let us put all obligation out of the question!” cried Hench resolutely. “I wish to be judged on my merits.”
“That will be difficult, seeing what a hero you are,” said Madame Alpenny in a hatefully smooth voice.
“Hold your tongue!” cried Gwen, turning on her just as Hench had done. “You came down here to make mischief this time, as you came before to make mischief. How you succeeded before you best know yourself, although I truly believe that your last visit had something to do with my father’s death.”
“It is a lie!” said Madame Alpenny fiercely, and stepped forward.
Gwen did the same, and the two were face to face, very close indeed to one another. “I believe that it is the truth. But of that we can talk later. As to making mischief this time, you shan’t succeed. I quite understand why my cousin wished to give himself a chance of being judged fairly. And, after all, he came under the name his father used for many years.”
“Oh, Gwen”—Hench caught her hand—“do you forgive me?”
“You silly fellow, there is nothing to forgive,” she replied gently. “You were right, as I was greatly prejudiced against you by my father. But now—”
“Now?” he asked, looking at her anxiously.
“I believe you to be honourable and honest, and—”
“Ah”—Madame Alpenny broke in with a snarl, since things were not going as she desired—“honourable, honest. Oh, it is very fine; most excellent, I call it. Do not be sure, Mademoiselle, that he is what you call him.”
“I am sure”—Gwen stamped—“and to prove the truth of my belief, I am ready to marry him, as my cousin, Owain Evans. There!”
“Oh, Gwen! Oh, Gwen!” said Hench, scarcely believing his ears.
“Ah, it is so,” taunted the marplot. “Do you marry him for the heritage you have lost by his coming?”
“I marry him because I love him, as he loves me,” said Gwen quietly, and placing her hand in that of her lover, she faced Madame Alpenny steadily.
“What a comparison”—the woman threw up her hands—“when he loves you not in the least little bit.”
“I love her with all my heart and soul!” cried the young man furiously.
“Ah, and so did you speak to my daughter, Zara.”
Gwen pulled her hand away from that of Owain, and looked from him to the scoffing woman. “My daughter, Zara,” she repeated. “And who is she?”
“Do I not speak English?” questioned Madame Alpenny mockingly. “Ah, then I do pray your forgiveness, as I am what you call—yes—an alien.”
“It is nonsense you are talking,” said Hench angrily. “Your daughter—”
Then she turned on him furiously, letting her temper flame out for the first time during the interview. “Yes, my daughter. You dare to stand there and declare that you do not love her. She is heart-broken, poor girl, because you have deserted her. I came here bearing a message, and when I visited where you are staying, your landlady told me you had gone to this place. I followed quietly and hid myself there”—she flung out an arm towards the tall tombstone—“to hear what?—you making love with another girl. But it shall not be so, I tell you. Zara, my daughter, you shall marry, and not this—this—”
“Stop!” cried Hench, finally managing to stay this torrent of words. “If you begin to call names you will be sorry for it. I do not love your daughter—I never loved your daughter. It is true that I admired her, but she told me how she desired to marry Bracken.”
“You false one!” raged Madame Alpenny. “Zara told me you did ask her hand in marriage.”
“That is true,” acknowledged Hench boldly. “But I—” he paused, for a low cry of pain broke on his ear. He turned impetuously to reassure Gwen of his devotion, only to see her gliding up the path towards the gate with surprising swiftness. Evidently his foolish admission had given her to understand that Madame Alpenny’s accusation was true, and without waiting to hear any explanation, she had slipped away in despair. “Gwen! Gwen!” cried the young man in hoarse tones, and hastening after the girl. “Wait; wait; it is not what you think, my dear; it is—” his voice broke, as Gwen, without turning her head, reached the gate and ran along the road.
“Ah, but no. You shall not go after,” hissed a bitter voice at his elbow, and Madame Alpenny grasped his arm firmly. “Here you stay to speak with me.”
“You old fiend!” cried Hench, turning on her furiously, for he saw that it was useless to follow Gwen and explain at the present moment.
“As you please,” retorted the Hungarian lady, releasing him. “Names do not do harm, my friend. I can afford to laugh, and I do.”
While she was laughing, Hench suddenly became quite cool. He saw that he was in both a dangerous and uncomfortable position, as the woman had chosen her time excellently to complicate matters. Gwen had pardoned his masquerade, but she was far too feminine, as he believed, to pardon his proposing to another woman. In a moment Hench determined to settle Madame Alpenny and then go at once to enlist Mrs. Perage on his side. “Well,” he said calmly to the marplot, “you have found me and you have done your worst. What now?”
“Don’t say that much, Monsieur,” said Madame Alpenny shrilly. “Done my worst, do you declare? Ah, but no. Not yet have I said what I came to say.”
“I know what you have come to say,” retorted Hench, taking the bull by the horns, which was the best thing to do. “You mean to accuse me of murdering my uncle.”
Madame Alpenny looked rather taken aback by this cool defiance, but accepted the situation with a vicious pluck. “And is it not so?”
“It isn’t worth my while to reply to so ridiculous a question,” said Hench, shrugging his square shoulders. “You accuse me. On what grounds, pray?”
“Plenty of grounds, Monsieur; plenty of grounds. You obeyed that advertisement and met your uncle to murder him and get the property.”
“When I didn’t know that he was my uncle, or that I would inherit any property in the event of his death?”
“You did know that he was your uncle,” said the woman furiously. “Those papers at your lawyers’—”
“I did not see them until nine days later,” interrupted the young man.
“You say so,” she sneered, “How can you prove that?”
“My lawyers can prove it.”
“Ah, what folly!” Madame Alpenny brushed away this defence with a gesture. “It was Mr. Evans who told you in that wood how he was your uncle—”
“He did not. I never met him while he was alive.”
“You say so—” began Madame, again, only to be cut short.
“Hold your tongue and listen,” said Hench in a peremptory tone. “You are very clever and cunning, Madame, and have trapped me by means of that advertisement in the hopes that you can force me to marry your daughter. I absolutely decline to do so.”
“Then I tell the policemen that you are a murderer,” she retorted quickly. Hench laughed. “Oh no, you won’t. You would have done that long ago, but that you wished to blackmail me. But I refuse to be blackmailed also. And you, Madame, will have to explain why you came down here to request my uncle to insert that advertisement, instead of writing to me openly. Stop”—Hench waved his hand, as she was about to speak—“I have no time to enter into details now. On another occasion we can speak.”
Madame Alpenny looked at him sullenly, as she was unprepared for this defiance and saw the need of gaining time. “I will wait for one week and then come to you again,” she said savagely. “But you marry Zara, or you hang!”
“I shall do neither,” said Hench calmly, and turned on his heel with contempt.
“One week,” called out the woman furiously; “in one week I come again!”
Now that the long-expected blow had fallen, Hench was surprised to find how lightly he had been struck. Madame Alpenny having come at an inopportune moment for him, had made mischief, and for the time being it looked as though she was triumphing. But Owain felt certain that she was afraid; he had seen fear in her eyes when he met her so defiantly. If she had been quite sure of her position, she would not have given him a week to consider matters. It was not difficult to understand why she had done so. For the murder of Evans the woman cared very little, save as a means to force the man she accused to do what she wanted. Her aim was to secure a wealthy son-in-law, and she could only do that by threatening to tell the police about his fatal visit to Cookley. But if he refused to do her bidding and she did tell the police, then, so far as she was concerned, everything was at an end. She would certainly get him into trouble, but she would not have him as her daughter’s husband, nor would she get any money. Unwilling to push things too far, Madame Alpenny had therefore compromised by giving Hench seven days of grace.
Of course, at the end of that time, the young man knew that his answer to her would be the same, and then she might revenge herself by acquainting the authorities with her plausible story. But it was questionable if she would do so even then, as the fear in her eyes hinted that she knew more about the crime than she dared to admit. If anything was made public, Hench had an idea that Madame Alpenny might be placed in the dock instead of himself. He could not be sure of this, as even though she had called on Evans to set the advertisement trap, there was nothing to show that she had come to Cookley on the evening of the murder. In that case it would be difficult for her to prove that he had really kept the appointment in Parley Wood. But, as Hench recognized, the fact of the advertisement being addressed to him, together with the undoubted fact that he benefited to the extent of ten thousand a year by the death of his uncle, would undoubtedly throw suspicion on him. The girl at the Bull Inn might remember his voice as that of the tramp; and then the fact of his shaving off his beard would suggest that he had some reason to escape the accusation. On the whole, it was tolerably certain that if Madame Alpenny did go to the police, there would be trouble out of which it would not be easy to emerge scathless. But, owing to his belief that Madame Alpenny knew more about the matter than she would admit, Hench felt sure she would not seek the assistance of the authorities. And in any case he was absolutely safe for one whole week. Much could be done in that time.
It was best, meanwhile, to explain things to Gwen, so that she might be sure of his love. When she learned exactly how he had come to propose to Zara, then she would understand that his desire to marry the dancer had only been the longing of a lonely man for home and companionship. With comprehension of this fact, as Hench devoutly hoped, the love of Gwen would return, and she would stand by him in the coming trouble. He needed all the friends he could gather round him to face things, and particularly felt that having his cousin to defend him would brace him up to defend himself. Without her love the young man felt that it would not be worth while to fight. Ten thousand a year and a clearance of his name from suspicion would not make up for the loss of the girl, who was now all in all to him. Therefore the first thing to do was to win back Gwen’s heart; after that the deluge could come, so far as Hench was concerned.
He returned to his lodgings, and glancing through the window, saw Madame Alpenny waddling along the street on her way to the station. She cast one vengeful look on the cottage of Mrs. Bell, but did not attempt to enter, which was another sign that she did not feel herself strong enough to go into details. And, as a matter of fact, such was the case. Madame Alpenny had hoped to dominate Hench immediately, and his defiance had taken her entirely by surprise. Therefore, she had wisely retreated in order to collect herself, and intended to descend on him at the end of seven days with overwhelming proofs of his guilty deed. Hench was relieved when he saw her pass by the cottage, as he did not wish her to enter and make trouble. Also he was relieved because he saw in her passing a confession of weakness. Therefore did he feel much more cheerful and hopeful than he had done for many a long day.
Mrs. Bell explained that a lady had called to see her lodger and that she had sent her on to the churchyard, whither Hench had intimated he was going. She hoped that she had not done wrong. Owain told her that the visitor had only come down to see him on business; that the business had been easily dispatched; that the lady had returned to London, and that Mrs. Bell had acted quite judiciously.
The little pale woman accepted the explanation in all good faith, and then went to open the door for the entrance of another lady. Hench, busy with his afternoon tea, was not surprised when Mrs. Perage entered, full of wrath. He had rather expected she would come, as it occurred to him that Gwen’s unexpected return from the churchyard would lead to questions and explanations. From the very first remark of Mrs. Perage, it was certain that she knew all about the matter.
“Well,” said the fierce old lady, who looked something like Meg Merrilees in her half-masculine, half-feminine garb, “this is a nice state of affairs, young man. Gwen goes to meet you with her heart full of love, and returns with that same heart broken into little pieces. Your work.”
“Sit down, Mrs. Perage, and let us talk quietly,” said Hench entreatingly.
“Talk quietly!” echoed Mrs. Perage, sitting down nevertheless. “Why, I’m seething with rage, and want to break things—you amongst them.”
“Then you doubt me?”
Mrs. Perage looked at him with a softer eye, and remembered how she had been prepared to stand by him whatever was said. She had declared as much to Jim Vane, and could do nothing else but fulfil her declaration. “Perhaps you have some excuse, young man?” she said truculently.
“I have no excuse, but I have an explanation,” said Hench dryly.
“Then you did propose to that other girl!” shrieked Mrs. Perage furiously.
“Yes. I told you that I—”
“You didn’t; you didn’t.” Mrs. Perage would not give him time to finish his remark. “You told me that you admired another girl, but that she loved some one else, so you went away. Pfui! Do you think that my memory has gone with age?”
“What you say is quite true—”
“That my memory has gone with age?” demanded the old lady acidly.
“No! No! No! But your recollection of what I said about my former—”
“Love-affairs!” interpolated Mrs. Perage, who declined to be suppressed.
“No! No! No!” cried Hench again and earnestly. “I never was in love until I met Gwen. I told you so. But I did say that I admired another girl.”
“You didn’t say that you had proposed to her,” said Mrs. Perage grimly.
“No, I didn’t, because—”
“Because you loved her.”
“I didn’t!” cried Owain, thoroughly exasperated by these constant interruptions. “As I have already stated, I didn’t know the meaning of the word love until I met with Gwen.”
“Then why did you propose to this Zara creature? One doesn’t propose unless love has something to do with the matter.”
“Has your experience of life only taught you that much, Mrs. Perage? A man proposes for the sake of money.”
“Was this Zara creature rich?”
“No. She was very poor.”
“Then you didn’t propose to her on that account. Come”—Mrs. Perage spoke in her roughest manner—“don’t waste my time. Why did you propose?”
“Because I was a lonely man and wanted a home and a comrade. I had been wandering all over the world by myself, and found life dismal in the extreme. I didn’t love Zara Alpenny one little bit. But I admired her as a thoroughly good woman—”
“Oh”—Mrs. Perage rubbed her nose—“she was a good woman, was she?”
“A thoroughly good woman,” repeated Hench, again emphasizing his remark. “And when I asked her to be my wife, she told me that I didn’t love her, but only wanted a home, adding that she loved some one else. I recognized the truth of her statement with regard to my own feelings, and therefore I went away from Bethnal Green. I still respect her, Mrs. Perage, and if I can forward her marriage with the man of her choice in any way, I will do so. After all, Madame Alpenny wants a rich son-in-law, and I am wealthy enough to smooth matters over in that way for Ned Bracken.”
“Who is he?”
“The man Zara loves. And that you may know the worst, let me tell you that she is a dancer at a Bethnal Green music-hall.”
“Hum!” said Mrs. Perage, smiling grimly. “And by mentioning her profession and position you think that I will have a bad opinion of her. Fudge! I have met with dancers much better as regards morals than many a woman received at Court. Don’t be a fool and think you are talking to an inexperienced girl.”
“Well, I did talk to an inexperienced girl,” said Hench rather bitterly, “and she has turned on me.”
“Why not? You gave her no explanation.”
“How could I, when she ran away while I was speaking? I couldn’t follow quickly enough, as my foot is yet weak.”
“Your ankle, you mean—be careful in your speech.” Mrs. Perage rubbed her nose again and her eyes grew calmer. “I’ll have a cup of tea if you will have the decency to give me one.”
Owain rang for a fresh cup and saucer. “I thought you wouldn’t condescend to eat and drink with a pariah.”
“Fudge!” said Mrs. Perage again, and very sharply. “Who said you were a pariah, you silly fellow? That’s merely hurt vanity on your part.”
“How can I help being hurt, when I am so misjudged?”
“Look here.” Mrs. Perage bent forward and shook his shoulder. “Are you a man or a twopenny-halfpenny school-girl?”
“I’m an ass,” confessed Owain, ashamed of his petty outbreak. “But I have an attack of nerves, I think, owing to my dreadful position.”
“Hum!” Mrs. Perage rubbed her nose, received a cup and saucer from Mrs. Bell, who had just entered the room, and sent that fragile person out again. “Jim hinted at trouble. It seems he was right.”
“Jim knows all about it.”
“Well, then, I don’t. Wait till I fill my cup and then you can tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Drat the man, you know. It’s more than this trouble with Gwen you have to tell me about.”
“I think that I had better tell you about the trouble with Gwen first.”
“What’s the use of beginning at the wrong end? Relate the story from start to finish and then I’ll understand more about this interview in the churchyard with this ridiculous old woman.”
“Hum! The name fits her. Go on.”
“I have already told you most of my life—”
“And have left out the most interesting part, apparently. See here, Hench, or rather, I should say, Owain.” Mrs. Perage drank some of her tea and continued slowly. “I am an old woman with a romantic heart. I love Gwen and I have taken a fancy to you. Both you and Gwen come of a bad stock, as old Mynydd Evans was a miser, Owain Evans was a profligate, and Madoc Evans was a scoundrel, fit for any deed of wickedness. You two children are the best of the bunch, and I expect get your decent morals from your mothers. I want to see you happy and married. Now, don’t disappoint me.”
“I certainly won’t, if Gwen won’t,” said Owain promptly.
“Hum! Gwen is a more difficult person to manage. However, if you leave it to me, I think in some way things will be put right.”
“Oh, I shall leave everything to you, with pleasure,” said Hench eagerly. “And I thank you for the trouble you are taking. Your advice—”
“Cannot be given further until I am in possession of facts,” interrupted Mrs. Perage, and finishing his sentence in a different way. “I know that you are Owain’s son and inherit the property. I know that you love Gwen, and that it is possible, in spite of existing circumstances, that you will marry her. Also I am aware that Madoc was murdered—by that tramp, I presume.”
“No!” said Hench sharply, and ready to make a clean breast. “I am the tramp.”
“Ha!” exclaimed the old lady in a tone of surprise. “You are the tramp? Well, I withdraw my accusation, as I am sure you are innocent enough. But what I was coming to when you interrupted me was that I wish to know more. Jim says you are in trouble.”
“In very great trouble. And if you will help me—”
“Bless the man, what I came here for was to help. But I can’t do that on half-confidences. You must speak plainly. Now, no more talk. Begin.” Hench did as he was ordered, and in a very short time Mrs. Perage was in possession of all facts connected with the advertisement; with the keeping of the appointment and the discovery of the body; and with the schemes of Madame Alpenny. Her strong old face did not betray much emotion, although she was inwardly astonished at the revelations, but she kept her eyes on Owain until he ceased speaking, and then rubbed her nose, as was her custom when perplexed or annoyed. As she made no remark, Hench did so. “What do you think?”
“Hum!” said Mrs. Perage, starting from the brown study in which she was involved. “You’ve brought your pigs to a pretty market, young man. Well, well, we must see what is best to be done.”
“You don’t believe me to be guilty?”
“Would I be still sitting here if I did? Don’t be a fool. Not that I blame the person who got Madoc out of the way very much. He was such a disagreeable person, that I often thought I’d be hanged for killing him myself.”
“It sounds dreadful, doesn’t it?” she said good-humouredly. “But then you see I am a dreadful person in the eyes of many milk-and-water people, because I have my own decided opinions and go my own way. I suppose it’s wrong to say a word against the dead, although I don’t see why we should talk of nothing but virtues they never possessed while alive. Well, let the man rest; he did a lot of harm when he was alive, and wherever he has gone to, he’s making mischief. You didn’t murder him, anyhow?”
“I certainly did not,” answered Hench, smiling. “But the question is, who did?”
“Ah”—Mrs. Perage kilted up her dress and folded her hands on her knees—“a very difficult question to answer. But Madame Alpenny didn’t, although you seem to have some idea that she is the guilty person.”
“She knew my uncle and all about the disposal of the property through the confidence made to her by my father twenty years ago.”
“That doesn’t prove that she murdered Madoc. She wanted you to marry her daughter undoubtedly after she laid hold of the clue which led her to learn that you were likely to inherit ten thousand a year. But why should she put her neck in a noose?”
“She might have wished me to get possession of the property at once, and have murdered my uncle in the hope that I would go to the spot and then run the risk of being arrested. I believe myself that it was all a plot to get me under her thumb. I did go to the rendezvous and I am implicated. Well?”
Mrs. Perage rubbed her nose again. “The devil’s in it for trouble,” she muttered. “Perhaps I am premature in assuming that this woman is innocent, but it seems incredible that she should run such a risk. I shall have to see her first before I make up my mind. She’s clever.”
“In a foxy sort of way.”
“Hum! The fox doesn’t do things on a big scale in the way of killing.”
Hench answered flippantly, as the conversation was getting on his nerves. “What about hen-roost massacres?”
Mrs. Perage rose, and was about to rebuke him when she saw, as Gwen had seen earlier, the white pinched look on his face. “You’re over-wrought, my friend. I want you to promise me two things.”
“Yes. What are they?” asked the young man wearily.
“In the first place do not make any move in these matters until I give you leave. I have a plan in my head.”
“What is it?”
“I shan’t tell it until it is carried out. In the second place do not come to my house until to-morrow afternoon.”
“But Gwen will believe more than ever that I am—”
“What she thinks you are in a moment of rage on her part,” finished Mrs. Perage. “That’s just it. If you see her now you will spoil all. Wait until I tell you that it is safe to come.”
“Very well. But I can’t let you take my burden on your shoulders and stay here doing nothing. It’s not cricket.”
“You’ll get all the cricket you require, I promise you,” said Mrs. Perage as she took her departure. “I don’t mind telling you,” she added, glancing back, “that it interests me to have something exciting of this sort to do. Life is rather dull hereabouts.”
“I only hope it will not prove too exciting.”
The old lady laughed and stepped briskly out of the cottage, while Owain remained where he was kicking against the pricks. He wished to see Gwen, but as he had promised to wait for instructions he could not do so. Like the lady who had just left, he found life in Cookley intolerably dull at the moment. But then, as Gwen was not beside him, he would have found it equally dull had he been alone in Paris or London. It was Gwen who made up his existence, and nothing else mattered particularly. To such lengths does the passion of love lead ordinarily sensible human beings.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Perage walked home briskly, turning over certain plans in her very capable mind. She did not seek out Gwen, who was weeping in the retirement of her bedroom, since all explanations at the present moment were futile. But Mrs. Perage decided that when the girl grew calmer a very positive explanation, which could not be mistaken, should be made to her by the right person. To bring about this necessary event she looked up her nephew, whom she found dawdling in the garden with a cigarette and a French novel. Vane lay on the grass under a shady tree clothed in white flannels, and looked rather alarmed when his aunt appeared. The day was hot, and Mrs. Perage was so uncommonly active that she was scarcely a desirable companion for a lazy man. His anxiety was therefore natural.
“Sit up and listen,” said Mrs. Perage, getting to work at once. “I’ve seen our young friend, and I now know as much as you do.”
Jim sat up cross-legged, resigned to the worst, and Mrs. Perage seated herself on the rustic bench under the tree with the air of a judge trying a particularly vicious criminal. “Need we discuss matters just now?” he asked in a bored tone. “I’m so comfortable. Peter is bringing me some tea, I have a book and a case of cigarettes, so on the whole—”
“Don’t be an ass, Jim. You can be busy enough if you like.”
“That’s just it, Aunt Emma,” remonstrated the barrister, clutching his ankles. “I don’t like. There’s nothing to be done at present. I’ll see Owain this evening and hear how he settled with that old woman.”
“He has settled nothing. But he managed to get her to leave him alone for seven days. In that time much can be done.”
“Very probably. I’m sure I wish to do all I can. And Gwen?”
“She’s crying in her bedroom. She will continue to cry until she is assured that Owain really loves her and not this other girl. You know what I mean?”
“Well, as you related what took place in the churchyard and as Gwen repeated the story to me, I must admit that I do know. I say, Aunt Emma, you don’t think Miss Evans minds me calling her Gwen, as I—”
“Oh, don’t talk rubbish,” interrupted Mrs. Perage quickly. “We have more important things to speak about. This evening you must go to town by the seven train,”—she glanced at her watch. “That will give you time to have dinner comfortably, as you needn’t dress.”
“But, I say,”—Vane looked rather disgusted,—“I don’t want to go to town.”
“You must,” said his aunt impressively. “Go to Bethnal Green, and bring down with you to-morrow Mademoiselle Zara.”
“Bless the man, can’t you understand? Only this Zara creature can set Gwen’s mind at rest. She can explain that Hench never really loved her and only offered himself to her to gain a home and a companion.”
“Can’t Owain tell Gwen that?”
“He might tell it to her fifty times and she would not believe him,” said Mrs. Perage shrewdly. “But when this girl speaks everything will be put right straight away. Then we can consider what is best to be done about the other and more serious business. But you must see, Jim, that it is first necessary to adjust matters between Gwen and Hench.”
“Well, Aunt Emma, you understand your own sex better than I do, so I suppose it is best for me to bring Zara Alpenny down.”
“I am quite positive it is.”
“Good! I’ll enjoy my dinner and then go to town by the train you mention. I can bring Mademoiselle Zara to your house about two o’clock to-morrow. Now that’s all right.” Vane yawned and rose. “Ah, here comes Peter with the tea.”
Mrs. Perage looked rather grimly on the freckled page who carried on a tray the beverage which Mr. Vane desired. Hench had told her how Madame Alpenny had learned his whereabouts through Simon, alias Bottles, and the same could have only acquired the knowledge through Peter.
“Here!” she said sharply. “Do you write to your brother in town and tell him all the gossip of the village?”
“Me, mum? No, mum,” said Peter, rather alarmed by her peremptory tone.
“Don’t tell lies, boy,” said his mistress sternly. “You told your brother that Mr. Hench was staying at Mrs. Bell’s cottage.”
“I know I did, mum.” Peter began to whimper. “But I hope I didn’t do no harm, mum. Simon, he thinks no end of Mr. Hench, so I thought as I’d tell him. But it’s all right, mum. Simon knows what he’s about.”
“What do you mean by that?” questioned Vane quickly, for the page spoke in a very significant tone. Peter shuffled and wriggled uncomfortably. “Simon will tell you, sir, when the time comes,” he replied evasively.
“What Simon knows, sir.”
“And what does Simon know?”
“I can’t tell you, sir. Simon’s clever. He knows a thing or two.”
“And so do I,” said Mrs. Perage sternly. “And one is that you are not to write gossiping letters from my house.”
“No, mum, I won’t!” And Peter went away as quickly as he could lest he should be questioned further. “Now what does that mean?” asked Mrs. Perage shrewdly. “Is this brat and his brother mixed up in this dangerous business?”
“It seems like it,” replied Jim, stirring his tea meditatively. “But Peter may have written in all innocence, knowing how Bottles adores Owain.”
“Bottles, as you call him, didn’t tell Madame Alpenny in all innocence,” she snapped.
“Hum!” said Vane, quite in his aunt’s style, “we’ll look into the matter.” And he did so on the morrow when he went to Bethnal Green.
Gwen was thoroughly miserable. On returning from the churchyard she had shut herself up in her bedroom, after a sobbing description to Mrs. Perage and Vane of what had taken place. In this seclusion she remained, speaking little, eating less, and only sleeping occasionally when exhausted Nature insisted upon having her own sensible way. The trouble Gwen was now undergoing seemed ever so much worse than that which she had already undergone. The death of her father had been dreadful, but he had been such a tyrant that—to speak plainly—his loss had not broken her heart. But now she felt certain that her heart was really and truly broken, as the idea of losing Owain was like a nightmare. The girl by this time fully recognized that she loved her cousin dearly, even though that love had grown as rapidly and unexpectedly as Jonah’s gourd. Perhaps, like the same, it would perish as quickly. Gwen attempted to assure herself of this, but could not self-hypnotise herself into such a belief. Her passion was too genuine, too strong, too overwhelming, to be got rid of so easily.
Yet—she asked herself this question frequently—how could she believe that Owain loved her, when she had heard from his own lips that he had proposed to another girl? Gwen considered that she had been very generous in forgiving his masquerading, although she admitted that under the circumstances the assumption of a false name had been pardonable. But that he should have loved some one else, and should have proposed to that some one, seemed to her to be monstrous. It was impossible for her to forget or forgive such a thing. She assured herself that self-respect demanded the adoption of this merciless attitude, but the cause of it—which she would not admit—was really jealousy. But whatever it was the feeling made her wretched, and for long hours the poor child tossed and turned and shivered and wept, as she wondered what her future was likely to be. She had youth, she had beauty, she had money, but all these desirable things were as dust and ashes, lacking the companionship of the man she loved. And as he had condemned himself out of his own month she could not see how the position of things was to be altered.
In her bluff way, Mrs. Perage was very sorry for the girl, as she saw how truly genuine was her suffering. The old lady strongly sympathized with that despairing feeling of youth which believes that the world has come to an end because things do not turn out as expected. Not that she believed Gwen’s world had ended, but understood easily enough how the girl thought so. To put matters right, Mrs. Perage set herself to work in the hope of proving that the sun was merely obscured for the moment. For a day and a night she left the sufferer alone, so that she might get over the first stage of misery and anger. Then the old dame entered the bedroom and proceeded to develop her scheme, which she hoped would put the crooked straight.
“Well, my dear,” she said in a brisk and heartless manner, as she seated herself on the bed, “have you overcome your fit of self-pity?”
“Oh, how unkind you are,” wailed Gwen, who did not expect such a speech. “My heart is broken.”
“No, my dear, your vanity is hurt.”
“Vanity? I have no vanity.”
“Well, well, we will call it pride, self-respect, dignity, or any other pretty name which appeals to you,” said Mrs. Perage complacently. “Anyhow, you can’t lie here amongst the ruins of your life. Have some breakfast and get up.”
“I can’t eat and I can’t drink. How can you expect me to?” cried Gwen, who was intensely exasperated by this matter-of-fact speech. “You will make me angry, Mrs. Perage.”
“I want to, since anger will make you see things in a more sensible light. You can’t live on air, you know, my dear, or on love either, especially as this last is nonexistent.”
The spirit of contradiction, begotten by anger, made the invalid resent this last remark. “Love isn’t nonexistent,” she declared crossly. “I love Owain still, although he doesn’t deserve my affection in the least. I call it a shame for him to come here and save my life and make me love him, when all the time he is engaged to another girl.”
“Who told you that he was?” inquired Mrs. Perage dryly, and very well satisfied with the result her conversation was producing.
“He told me so himself, and I told you how he was,” said Gwen incoherently. “He admitted that he had proposed to the nasty daughter of that horrid woman.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Perage coolly, “a young man must gain experience somehow.”
“Owain shan’t gain any at my expense,” retorted Gwen viciously. “After all, I don’t think that he is worth troubling about.”
“Of course he isn’t,” said Mrs. Perage, wishing to emphasize this opinion. “So lie down and go to sleep and forget all about him. You can’t eat, you know.”
“Yes, I can.” Gwen rose in the bed angrily. “I shall have my breakfast and get up and go about things just as if nothing had happened.”
Mrs. Perage shook her old head wisely. “You have not the strength.”
“I have—I have. Ring the bell and order some tea and toast.”
“Peter is bringing up some sort of a meal, my dear. Ah, there is his knock. I will take the tray,” and Mrs. Perage went to the door to do so, chuckling at the way in which she was dealing with the situation. “Give it to me, Peter; now you can go. By the way, Gwen, shall I send him for the doctor?”
“No. I’m quite well,” said the girl indignantly. So Peter was dismissed and the tray was placed on the bed. “Leave me to eat, Mrs. Perage, and you can come back after I have dressed.”
“Foolish! Foolish!” said the old dame, leaving the room. “You are attempting too much.” And she departed, still chuckling to think how easily this somewhat difficult young lady had fallen into the trap.
Gwen, quite ignorant that she was acting exactly as Mrs. Perage desired, sipped the tea and nibbled at the toast. Pride speedily came to her aid, and when the meal was finished she felt much better. Self-pity was now merged in a sense of anger that Owain had dared to treat her so shamefully, therefore she dressed herself in her prettiest frock with the intention of proving to him that she felt his treachery less than he might have expected. When she walked into the drawing-room, Mrs. Perage looked up to see a smartly dressed young lady with sparkling eyes and a fine colour, in place of the white-faced invalid she had left. So far the result of the experiment was distinctly good.
“And of course,” suggested the old lady artfully, “you have quite decided to throw Owain overboard.”
“What else would you have me do?” demanded Gwen revengefully.
“Hum!” said Mrs. Perage in a meditative manner. “I think I should ask for an explanation.”
“There can be no explanation likely to satisfy me.”
“That entirely depends upon my common-sense way of looking at things,” said Mrs. Perage dryly. “Or on your common-sense, if you come to that. By the way, that girl is coming down here this afternoon—she will arrive in an hour.”
“Hum!” Mrs. Perage skirted round the subject and did not give an entirely direct reply. “Your breakfast has been your luncheon, for it is now two o’clock, so such a queer exchange of meals must have upset you. Perhaps you had better not be present.”
“What girl are you talking about?” asked Gwen, her colour coming and going, although she knew perfectly well what was meant. “And I am in quite enough good health to see any girl. How dare she come here?”
“Ah!”—Mrs. Perage chuckled,—“you guess what I mean, I see. Well, my dear Jim was rather put out about your quarrel with Hench, so he suggested at my desire that it would be as well for him to go to town and bring Mademoiselle Zara with him down here to explain matters.”
“I don’t require any explanation,” said Gwen, holding her head very high.
“Bless the girl, did I say so? This Zara woman is coming to explain to me. I may as well be plain, Gwen. It was I who told Jim to go to town and fetch her, since it is necessary that I should learn what a rascal Hench is.”
“He’s not a rascal; I’m sure he’s not a rascal.” Gwen stamped her foot and grew very red.
“Oh yes, he is, my dear. To propose to one girl and to make love to another is not right. I must inquire into his character, you know, so as to see if he is a decent man to know. Now Mademoiselle Zara can tell us the truth. But I don’t want you to be present.”
“But I shall!” cried Miss Evans, with another stamp. “It is my right to be present. The explanation concerns me more than any one else.”
“Oh, well, if you insist upon being pleasant, I have no more to say.” Mrs. Perage shrugged her shoulders, and making a wilful mistake. “Did you say ‘present’ or ‘pleasant’?”
“Pleasant. You must be pleasant to Mademoiselle Zara, as, after all, you do not care anything for your cousin.”
“I do. All the same I am angry with him. I shall be present and be pleasant just as I please. And now I shall take a walk in the park so as to calm my nerves. I’m sure Owain has upset them enough.” And Gwen hastily departed, while Mrs. Perage chuckled more than ever.
“Fiery little Welsh temper she has,” murmured the old lady. “I don’t envy Hench when he makes her his wife. Hum! So that’s settled. Let us hope good will come of the interview.” She rubbed her nose. “Gwen’s a handful to manage, but by contradiction I fancy that I have secured my own way.”
Of course this was quite true, although Miss Evans, walking in the park, was perfectly sure that she was acting contrary to Mrs. Perage’s wishes. By this time the girl was in a fine temper, ready to quarrel with any one about anything. In fact she felt very much inclined to fight for what she considered were her rights, so far as concerned her cousin. In some queer way, Gwen arrived at the conclusion that by saving her life Hench had given her some sort of claim over him. Of course, she would never marry him; nothing would ever induce her to marry such a faithless person. But she intended to hint at her fantastic claim by ordering him to make Zara his wife. Then, on further reflection, she did not like him to marry the dancer, as she loved him herself. Still, as he was unworthy of her love, perhaps it would be as well to allow him to carry out his proposal to Madame Alpenny’s daughter. He would certainly be miserable, which would serve him right, as Zara was bound to be a minx and a cat and several other disagreeable things. In this incoherent way Miss Evans thought, while working off her anger as best she could by walking at top speed up one path and down another. She did not know whether to laugh or to cry, to rage or to fret; all she did know was that everything seemed to be wrong, and that the bottom had fallen out of creation.
When Gwen again ventured into the house, she found the drawing-room tenanted by Mrs. Perage, her nephew, and two visitors. One of these was a handsome, untidily dressed young fellow, who wore his hair rather long after the manner of musicians; the other was a tall girl, gaunt, striking-looking, with something of the gipsy in her appearance. She wore a red velvet hat and a long red velvet mantle, the violent hues of which harmonized well with her somewhat sallow complexion and bold dark eyes. When Gwen entered, this girl was laughing and showed a row of very white teeth, which added to her handsome looks.
“Mademoiselle Zara, this is Miss Evans,” said Mrs. Perage, rising to make a rapid introduction. “Gwen, this is Madame Alpenny’s daughter, and Mr. Bracken, to whom she is engaged.”
“Engaged?” Gwen started back and gasped. “But I don’t understand.”
“Mademoiselle Zara will explain,” said Mrs. Perage swiftly, and collecting the two men with her eyes. “Mr. Bracken, I must show you my garden, as I am sure you take an interest in flowers. Come with me. You also, Jim, as you must go to Mrs. Bell’s and bring Hench here.”
“I don’t wish to see him,” called out Gwen hurriedly, but Mrs. Perage took no notice of the speech, as she had already conducted the two men out of the room, leaving the two girls alone.
Gwen eyed Zara and Zara eyed Gwen with great curiosity, and used their intuitions with so much skill that in two minutes each girl knew all about the nature of the other girl. Miss Evans could not deny but what the dancer was handsome enough to attract any one, even the most fastidious, while Zara thought that Gwen was one of the most charming young ladies she had ever seen.
“I’m sure he will be very happy with you,” she said abruptly.
“Who?” asked Gwen, sitting down and getting ready to fence.
Zara laughed meaningly. “My dear, there is only one ‘he’ in the world for you.”
“So I thought, until I found him out,” retorted Miss Evans sharply.
“Oh, I understand all about your finding him out. Mr. Vane gave me a full description of my mother’s meddling. But if you had waited to hear what took place after your departure from the churchyard there would have been no need for me to come down.”
“I did not ask you to come down,” said Gwen pointedly.
“You did not. Mrs. Perage did, however, as she was anxious for your mistake to be corrected. I am anxious, also, else I would not have troubled to take this long journey.”
“Why did you undertake it, then?”
“Because I have the greatest respect for Mr. Hench.”
“The greatest love, you mean.”
“Indeed, I mean nothing of the sort,” said Zara candidly. “I have no more love for Mr. Hench than I have for that table. Didn’t you hear Mrs. Perage say that I was engaged to Mr. Bracken?”
“Yes! I suppose you are,” admitted Gwen reluctantly. “But there is always one who loves and one who is loved, you know.”
“Heine, the German poet, said that, Miss Evans. I congratulate you on the wide range of your reading. It shows that you are not narrow, and not being narrow, I trust that you will do Mr. Hench justice.”
“He proposed to you. I heard him say so myself.”
“My dear,” said the dancer, after the lenient fashion of an elder sister, “Mr. Hench at that time would have proposed to any woman of decent character and decent looks. Your Heine quotation implied that although I did not love him, he loved me. There you are entirely wrong. He admired me, certainly, but—”
“But he proposed to you,” interrupted Miss Evans doggedly.
Zara’s cheeks grew crimson and her voice became sharper. “We are two women talking together,” she said decisively. “Therefore, it is useless for us to skirt about the bush as we would do with men. Mr. Hench never loved me; he had no conception of love when he proposed, and I told him so. Can’t you understand how a lonely man must wish for a home and a comrade, so that he may have some centre in life? I used those very words to him. Mr. Bracken gives me that true love which is more than admiration, which was all Mr. Hench had to offer. He could not give me his heart because he did not know that he possessed one. Since coming here he has made the discovery that he has a heart and he has given it to you.”
“Have you seen him; did he tell you so?”
It took Zara a moment or so to quell her rising anger, and she felt inclined to shake this silly little girl who was not to be convinced by common-sense explanations. “I have not seen Mr. Hench, nor if you wish it will I see him.”
“Oh, it’s nothing to me,” said Gwen with an air of finality.
“Then it ought to be. Mr. Vane told me what Mr. Hench told him.”
“What is that?”
“You know quite well,” retorted Zara tartly. “It is that Mr. Hench loves you better than you deserve.”
“How can you tell what I deserve?”
“I am only going by what I see of you now,” said the dancer patiently. “You really love Mr. Hench, and you are fighting against your feelings, because you believe that he loves me, which is not the case. As you can see that I am speaking the truth, it is unworthy of you to speak as you do. Therefore, I say that Mr. Hench loves you better than you deserve. I don’t know,” cried Zara, becoming exasperated, “why you force me to make so unnecessary an explanation, as you are quite aware of what I mean.”
Gwen was so impressed by the dancer’s earnest speech that she became much more reasonable. “I am a pig, I know,” she murmured rather inelegantly. “But it isn’t pleasant to love a man and then to hear from his own lips that he proposed to another woman.”
“Pooh! You are making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Zara contemptuously. “If Mr. Hench had proposed to me after he met you, then there might be some sense in your attitude. But I tell you he did not know the meaning of love when he proposed to me, and would have proposed to any other woman just as readily. His first acquaintance with love was when he saved your life. He is heart and soul devoted to you. My dear”—Zara rose, and bending over Gwen, took her hand—“don’t be foolish and throw away a love which will make you the happiest woman in the world.”
“Can you swear that Owain loves me?” asked Gwen, more and more impressed.
“Personally, I cannot. But from what Mr. Vane has told me I certainly can declare that Mr. Hench adores you.”
“Yes.” Miss Evans stared hard at nothing. “I believe he does.”
“Then why are you making all this trouble?”
“You are a woman and ask me that?”
Zara laughed. “It is absurd, I know. But I am anxious to put things right. My mother made trouble and I came down to make peace. Don’t send me away with my errand unaccomplished.”
Gwen jumped up and kissed the dancer. “No, I won’t. I am quite satisfied with your explanation. I have been very silly and have made myself quite ill in worrying over things. And if Owain comes—”
“Owain is coming,” interrupted Zara quickly, as she glanced out of the open French window of the room. “Yonder he is with Mr. Vane, who was sent to bring him by Mrs. Perage. My dear”—she kissed Gwen’s cheek—“I will slip out to join Mrs. Perage and Ned in the garden. You stay here and make it up with Mr. Hench. No half-measures, mind. Be generous and loyal.” And with a smiling nod the dancer flitted through the window just as the footsteps of Owain were heard in the hall.
“Oh!” said Gwen, drawing a long breath, “how nearly I have lost him.”
Vane had sense enough not to enter along with his friend, as he thoroughly understood the saying about two being company and three none. In a most loyal fashion he obliterated himself, and Owain walked into the room by himself. The young man looked worn and ill, so that Gwen’s heart was touched, and she felt ashamed of her conduct, which was responsible for his wilted appearance. Almost without thought she flew into his arms.
“I’m a horrid creature,” she murmured. “Do forgive me and I’ll be good.”
“Oh!”—Owain’s pale face flushed suddenly and his brown eyes sparkled—“then you don’t believe—”
“I believe that you love me. Mademoiselle Zara has explained everything.”
“Thank God for that. Where is she?”
“Do you wish to see her?” asked Miss Evans jealously.
“Only to thank her. But that can come later. Meantime”—he bent and kissed her three or four times—“oh, Gwen, how could you think that I loved any one in the world but you—you—you?”
“I was silly and wicked and—and—”
“No! No! There was some cause for your anger, as Madame Alpenny told so skilful a lie. It wasn’t all a lie, of course, as I did propose to Zara.”
“I know you did, and I know why you did. But you will be much happier with me than with her,” said the girl naïvely.
“Than with any one, Gwen,” cried the young man fervently. “Oh, my dear, to think how nearly I have lost you.”
“I said that to myself about you, just before you entered,” whispered Gwen in a penitent tone. “Do forgive me.”
“On condition that you forgive me,” pleaded Owain fondly.
“Dear, there is nothing to forgive,” said the girl, abasing herself. “It is all my fault—all my fault. I’m a nasty little jealous animal.”
“Just the kind of animal I like.” Owain pressed her hard in his arms. “I’ll never, never let you go again, and now that we are together and you are on my side, I am prepared to face the worst.”
“Ah, I forgot; you don’t understand. I have a long explanation to give.” Hench paused and looked nervous, as he drew Gwen to a chair and sat down to take her on his knee. “You won’t hate me, or doubt me?”
“Never! Never!” Gwen positively. “I’ll never doubt you again. What is the matter?”
“Murder is the matter!”
“What?” She started back and stared at his perturbed face. “The murder of—”
“Yes! The murder of your father. You know that tramp you suspect?”
“The one who asked the way to the Gipsy Stile? Yes.”
“I am that tramp.”
“It is quite true. I have explained matters to Vane and to Mrs. Perage. Now I must explain them to you. Having admitted that I am the tramp you suspect—”
Gwen stopped him by laying her hand over his mouth. “I don’t suspect the tramp, now that you are he,” she said vehemently. “You are innocent, I am sure.”
“How can you be sure?” asked Hench sharply.
“Because you saved my life,” replied Gwen in a truly feminine fashion. “No one who saved a person’s life would commit a murder.”
“Well, I can scarcely admit the logic of that reasoning,” said Hench, unable to refrain from a smile, in spite of the desperate situation. “But I am glad that you so far trust me.”
“I trust you to the death.”
“Darling!”—he kissed her—“that gives me the courage to tell you all!” And he did tell her all then and there, from the time of the conversation with Madame Alpenny down to the moment when she accused him in the churchyard. “So you see, Gwen,” he concluded in a melancholy tone, “that although perfectly innocent, this woman has the power to have me arrested.”
“You shall not be arrested,” said Gwen, with sparkling eyes and red cheeks.
“Then you don’t believe me to be guilty?”
“What a silly question to ask.” This time it was Gwen who kissed. “Is it likely that I would still be sitting on your knee if I thought you killed my father? Of course, the whole thing is difficult and mysterious, but I am on your side, Owain, and we will fight it out together.”
“Yes! Yes!” Hench rose and swung her off her feet right into his arms. “I am not afraid now. Your love will give me strength to conquer my enemies. But it will be an ordeal for you.”
“An ordeal which will prove the depth of my love, dear. And I deserve such an ordeal. I doubted you once; but I’ll never, never, never, never doubt you again. Owain, darling, everything will come right. There is Mr. Vane and Mrs. Perage and myself and you. Against us is only that horrid old woman.”
“She holds a strong hand in the game, though,” murmured the young man doubtfully. “We hold a stronger. Right will always prevail against might.”
“Gwen! Gwen! You are a tower of strength. You put new life into me. Yes, we will fight; we will fight, fight to the end.”
“And win!” cried Gwen. “Oh, never doubt, Owain. We must win!”
After the reconciliation between the lovers nothing remained but to go into the garden and announce that Mademoiselle Zara’s errand had been wholly successful. Gwen was now quite amiably disposed towards her rival, and was indeed very thankful to her for the peacemaking explanation. Along with Hench she went into the hot sunshine, and as they walked across the lawns towards the glade where they were likely to find the others, Owain warned Gwen that Zara was wholly ignorant of her mother’s schemes. “Only you and I, Mrs. Perage and Jim Vane, know about her accusation,” said the young man seriously. “So don’t hint a word of the business to Zara.”
“Of course I won’t,” agreed Gwen readily. “But what steps are you going to take, Owain, in order to counterplot her?”
“Madame Alpenny? Well, I haven’t any idea in my head just now, and, at all events, she has given me a week to think over things. Let us leave matters as they are until to-morrow, and then we can call a council of war and see what is best to be done. There’s no doubt that Madame Alpenny has me in a tight place.”
“She has,” said Gwen cheerfully. “But we may be able to turn the tables on her.”
“In what way?”
“I don’t know,” mused the girl. “It seems to me that this woman knows more about the death of my father than she will admit. She may be guilty herself.”
Hench shook his head. “I have some such idea myself, and yet it seems impossible. What had she to gain?”
“A fortune through you,” said Gwen promptly. “By means of that advertisement which brought you to the Gipsy Stile, she implicated you in the murder, which she may have executed before you arrived. Once under her thumb, she hoped to compel you to marry Zara, and so would have gained control of the money.”
“I am not under her thumb yet,” said Hench grimly. “And what is more, I don’t intend to be, strong as is her position. Whether she is guilty or innocent I can’t say, as I am ignorant of her doings on the night of the first of July. But I should like to know, Gwen, why your father put that advertisement into the papers, and why he appointed the Gipsy Stile as the place of meeting?”
“I can’t explain,” she answered doubtfully. “My father never said a word to me about the advertisement, or, indeed, about Madame Alpenny’s visit. I asked him who she was and he told me to mind my own business.”
“Well, Madame Alpenny can explain, as I believe she suggested the advertisement dodge herself.” Owain reflected for a moment. “There’s something queer behind all this, Gwen, and when we learn what that something is, I daresay we will find out who murdered your father. And then—”
“Hush,” said Gwen suddenly, as they turned round the corner of a green alley which ran between high box hedges. “Here they are.”
As a matter of fact the lovers stumbled right into the centre of a group consisting of Mrs. Perage and her guests. They all appeared to be smiling, and the smiles grew very broad when the reconciled couple came towards them. Mrs. Perage caught Gwen by the shoulders and looked into her tell-tale blue eyes.
“Is it all right, you nuisance?” she demanded gruffly.
“All right!” assented Gwen, giving her a kiss. “Thanks to—”
“To me,” cried the dancer gaily. “I am the goddess of Peace.”
Hench took her hand and kissed it. “I can never thank you sufficiently.”
“I don’t require thanks, Mr. Hench. But did I not tell you that when you really fell in love you would understand how wholly different it was to your feeling for me?”
“You did, and I have learned the difference. Admiration is moonlight, and love is the most glowing of sunshine.”
“How poetical,” said Vane with a shrug.
“And how true. Jim, I have to thank you for bringing Mademoiselle Zara with the olive branch. Bless you, as a friend in need.”
“Bless Aunt Emma, rather, old son. She suggested the idea.”
“It seemed the only way of convincing a stupid man,” said Mrs. Perage lightly. “However, all’s well that ends well, so let us go in and have some tea. Our visitors have to leave in an hour.”
All this time Bracken, silent according to custom, was smiling amiably at the man he had at one time considered his rival. Now he advanced and shook him by the hand, much to the approval of Zara, for Bracken had given her considerable trouble over Hench’s attentions. Mrs. Perage, still holding on tightly to Gwen, was walking in front, together with Vane, so Owain had the pleasant task of escorting Zara and her lover to the house. He was glad of this, as he wished to say something and repay the dancer for her kindness.
“When are you two going to be married?” he asked abruptly.
Zara sighed. “I don’t know,” she confessed sadly. “Ned expected to get some money from his mother, but she died without leaving any. Neither I nor Ned make enough money to keep ourselves and my mother, so we can’t think of marrying for a long time.”
“Madame Alpenny seems to be the stumbling block,” mused Hench thoughtfully.
“She is,” declared Bracken in a gruff, rough way. “Zara and I could manage by ourselves on what we earn, if it wasn’t for that cattish old woman.”
“Ned! Ned! Don’t call names. After all, my mother is my mother.”
“She is very selfish, and makes you miserable to please herself,” said Bracken crossly. “I shall never make much money as I am not a genius as you are, Zara. If you could only get the engagement you deserve you would make sufficient to settle your mother, and then we could get married.”
“Allow me to see to that,” said Owain quickly. “See here, Bracken, and you, Zara, you may not know it but I am a rich man.”
“I am very glad,” said the dancer honestly. “You have made money, then?”
“I have inherited money—a large income. I owe you much, as but for you things would not have been squared.”
“It was the least I could do, Mr. Hench.”
“It was a very great deal to do, as the task was a delicate one. However, what I mean is this, that as you have been my friend you must allow me to be yours. Therefore”—Owain spoke slowly and deliberately—“I wish you, with Bracken’s approval, of course, to accept one thousand pounds.”
“Oh!” gasped Zara, flushing as red as her cloak. “I couldn’t think of it.”
“Nor can I,” said Bracken resentfully. “I can keep my own wife.”
“My dear people,”—Owain being between them took an arm of each,—“if you like you can pay me back on some future occasion. Zara, your mother will bother me to marry you until some barrier is raised which will prevent your being my possible wife. At present, as you have stated, you are not able to marry for want of money. Now if I give you this thousand pounds, which I can very easily spare, I want you to get married quietly. When your mother learns that you are Mrs. Bracken she will leave me alone. Then you can give her a sum of money to live on in the meantime and will be able to rest on your oars and look about for a better engagement. You see?”
“Yes,” said Zara gratefully. “I see, and I am very much obliged. If I can give my mother half the money she will go to her people in Buda Pesth and amuse herself with gambling. Then with five hundred pounds Ned and and I can manage to get to the West End. Money always brings money, and I am sure that I could get an engagement.”
“Didn’t your mother go in search of one for you?” asked Hench, nodding.
Zara’s lip curled and she looked more disdainful than ever. “My mother said that she went, but she never did.”
Hench started. “She was absent for a few days, I remember.”
“Yes. On business, she told me. But what her business was I never knew. It had nothing to do with an engagement, however, or I should have known.”
Of course Owain knew very well on what business Madame Alpenny had been engaged, but he was wise enough to make no remark. Also at the moment his attention was distracted by Bracken, who had been thinking in his heavy way.
“If you will allow Zara and me to pay you back the money with interest at five per cent,” he observed, reflectively, “we don’t mind—eh, Zara?”
“No,” she rejoined promptly. “I shall take the money with pleasure then, as it will certainly help us to get married in spite of my mother’s opposition. I am very grateful for your kind help, Mr. Hench.”
“I am only doing what I ought to do,” said Owain frankly. “You have done me a good turn, so it is only right that I should do you and Bracken one. I shall see my lawyers next week and arrange for the money to be paid to you by cheque, or in notes, or gold, whichever you prefer.”
“Say a cheque, Hench,” remarked Bracken, with a sigh of relief. “I have a banking account. It’s a very small one—still, it is a banking account.”
“Good. I will call at The Home of the Muses some day next week with the cheque, and meantime you can see about getting married.”
“Oh, Ned!” cried Zara.
“Oh, Zara!” cried Ned, and they embraced, even though they were in sight of the drawing-room windows.
“Well,” said Hench philosophically, “I have made two people happy, anyhow.”
“We will be happier if you are happy yourself, you generous man,” said Zara.
“Oh, that’s all right,” replied Hench hurriedly, for he did not wish to be thanked or praised. “Come and have some tea. We’ll keep this little arrangement to ourselves.”
The visitors were very pleased at the result of their visit, which they had been far from expecting, and the tea was unusually gay. Gwen could not show enough attention to Zara, and Mrs. Perage, who had taken a fancy to the honest dullness of Ned, looked after him in her brusque way. Owain and his beloved were silent from sheer happiness, in spite of the thunder-clouds which still obscured the sun, so it was left to Jim Vane to brighten the party with chatter and gaiety. He was entirely successful, and the visitors left with a sense of great enjoyment. Zara looked younger, less fatigued and unapproachable than usual, while Bracken’s stolid good-looking face was wreathed in smiles. And Hench saw them off at the station with a sense of thankfulness that he had been able to help them. He was so happy himself in having gained Gwen’s love that he wished every one else to be happy, and moreover was delighted that he had been able to repay Zara for her good work. He returned to his lodgings to dress, and then went to dine at Mrs. Perage’s hospitable board.
Gwen wished to hold the council of war after dinner, but Hench refused. He considered that the day had been quite sufficiently filled with events, and did not wish to start a discussion which was likely to be prolonged into the small hours. Gwen looked tired after all the excitement she had undergone, and Hench himself felt rather weary. The true fact was that a sense of anxiety lay beneath their surface gaiety, and they were feeling the suspense more than they thought. Mrs. Perage and her nephew were also rather silent; so in spite of the reconciliation of the lovers the evening was rather a failure. With her usual prompt way of dealing with things, Mrs. Perage sent Hench away at half-past nine o’clock.
“We are all worn out with bother,” she said briskly. “So it is best for all of us to have a good night’s rest and then we can deal with other and more serious matters to-morrow.”
“One serious matter has been put right, thanks to you,” said Hench, looking fondly at Gwen. “It was just as well to take the bull by the horns,” said Mrs. Perage candidly. “And I am glad that Zara proved to be so sensible a creature. And when you tell Gwen what—what—” she hesitated, not knowing if it was wise to speak.
“What peril I am in,” finished Hench. “Oh, I’ve done that this afternoon.”
“The deuce you have!” cried Vane, turning from his friend to Gwen. “And what do you think of the matter, Miss Evans?”
“I don’t know what to think,” said Gwen promptly. “Save that I believe Owain to be innocent, and I will stand by him to the end, whatever it may be.”
“Good. And the accusation of Madame—”
“Jim,” commanded his aunt sharply, “do hold your tongue. This is not the time to begin a discussion. To-morrow, when our wits are clearer, we can talk. Owain, go home to bed. Jim and I will turn our backs while you take leave of Gwen.”
This was not necessary, as Gwen accompanied her lover to the door and kisses were exchanged in the twilight of the summer night. But the two were so long in parting that Mrs. Perage had to come on the scene and fairly shut the door in the face of this lingering lover. Hench went away, feeling that the sun had vanished from the sky, which was exactly what the sun should do considering the time. He sauntered home leisurely, thinking of Gwen and picturing his future life with her. By the time he reached Mrs. Bell’s cottage it was striking ten from the church tower, and he entered the house yawning with the intention of going at once to bed. There he could dream of Gwen.
But Owain did not get to his repose so speedily as he expected, for he found a visitor sitting in his parlour—and not a visitor he was exactly pleased to see. From an armchair rose the smartly dressed figure of Mr. Cuthbert Spruce, who smiled amiably when he saw the astonished look on the face of his host. Hench frowned, very ill-pleased.
“What the deuce are you doing here, Spruce?” he demanded sharply.
“I have come to have a serious talk with you,” said the Nut coolly, and resumed his seat with the air of a man determined to stay where he was.
“Then you can clear out and come to-morrow, my friend. I am much too tired to talk just now.” Hench glanced at his watch. “There is a train at a quarter to eleven which you can catch.”
“I am not going back to town this evening, Hench.”
“Well, that’s your business, not mine. Anyhow, I want you to go now.”
“I am staying at the Bull Inn,” went on Spruce significantly. “It is necessary that we should speak now. Better be sensible, Hench, and listen.”
Owain looked at this meddlesome marplot searchingly. He was staying at the Bull Inn, and that was a place which Hench had carefully avoided lest he should come into contact with the girl who had seen him as a tramp. It occurred to him from the significance of Spruce’s tone that the Nut had been making inquiries, and had come to make himself unpleasant. However, Hench was not the man to be frightened into doing what he did not wish to do, and he threw off his coat and hat, still frowning.
“I don’t know why you have come here,” he said coldly, “or how you found out where I was living. But—”
“Madame Alpenny told me,” said Spruce quickly, and brought out a cigarette.
“Hang her impudence! Don’t smoke. I don’t want you to stay.”
“Very good.” The Nut rose and carefully lighted the little roll of tobacco. “As you please. But don’t say that I did not give you your chance.”
“What the devil do you mean?”
“If you send me away how can I explain?” asked Spruce, with a supercilious smile. “I have been waiting for quite an hour, and it was only after a great deal of persuasion that your landlady allowed me to enter. I believe”—added the Nut, stretching his arms and yawning— “that she is waiting up, so as to be sure that I have not come after the spoons.”
Hench looked at him hard, then abruptly left the room to assure Mrs. Bell that everything was all right. After he had sent her to bed, at rest in her mind about the stranger, he returned to the parlour and closed the door in an ostentatious manner.
“You are going to let me stay, then,” he remarked coolly and sitting down again.
Hench sat opposite to him with a resolute air. “You don’t leave this room until you fully explain what the devil you mean by dogging my footsteps in this way,” he said sternly.
“Dogged is a good word, or was it dogging? Both are good words. You will have to be dogged so far as your courage is concerned. And as to dogging, it is better that I should do that than the police.”
“Oh, hang your fantastical chatter!” snapped Hench with a lowering brow. “Come to the point.”
“Can’t you see my point now that I have mentioned the police?”
“No,” said Hench briefly and obstinately.
“Curious! You are not usually so dense.” Spruce puffed lightly at his cigarette and smiled blandly. “The fact is I am here on behalf of Madame Alpenny.”
“What has Madame Alpenny to do with me, may I ask?”
“Oh, you may ask, and I shall reply with great pleasure. Madame Alpenny has done me the honour to make me her confidential friend, and I am now in possession of all facts connected with your gaining of a large fortune. Most people would be glad to get so much money, but few people would be ready to gain it at so heavy a price.”
Hench winced inwardly but not outwardly, as he did not intend to show fear in the presence of this little reptile. He saw from the very audacity with which the Nut spoke that he knew all about the matter connected with the death of Madoc Evans, and knew also that the creature had come at this untimely hour to profit by his knowledge. “You speak in riddles,” he said coldly.
“Oh, I think you can guess them,” retorted the other man.
“Perhaps I can and perhaps I cannot. But as you hint at mysteries it is for you to explain them. Be as brief as you can. I can’t wait up all night listening to your twaddle.”
“Very bravely carried off, Hench,” taunted Spruce, his eyes looking angry. “But such bluff doesn’t deceive me. I know too much for you to pretend ignorance.”
“What you know I am waiting to learn,” said Hench, setting his teeth.
“Why give me the trouble to explain?”
“Stop your fencing and come to the point. You want money?”
“A great deal of money. The price of my story is costly.”
“Really!” said Hench sarcastically. “Well, you were writing a story at Bethnal Green. At least that was the lie you told me to account for your presence in the boarding-house.”
Spruce laughed, in no wise offended, as his moral perceptions were very much blunted. “I am writing a much better story than I anticipated. I told you that I came to Bethnal Green to find material. Well, I have found material of the best. I shall sell this story for a good price,” he concluded, looking meaningly at his listener.
“And the price?”
“Well, I think about two thousand a year.”
“Moderate,” said Owain shortly and not quailing.
“I think so myself, seeing that I shall have to pay Madame Alpenny at least two hundred a year out of it.”
“And keep one thousand eight hundred a year to yourself?”
“That is my intention,” rejoined the Nut coolly.
“Spruce, you are—what you are, as it is impossible to find a name low enough to suit you. And how am I to pay this two thousand a year?”
“Out of the ten thousand per annum your uncle left you.”
“Humph! You seem to be well informed.”
“Madame Alpenny informed me, so naturally I am in possession of many facts which you would prefer to keep secret. Come, Hench, it is no use our beating about the bush, as we understand one another, so—”
“Pardon me, we don’t understand one another. What am I to get for this two thousand a year blackmail?”
“Don’t use nasty words. It won’t help you to be nasty. I’m top-dog, Hench, so you had better give in.”
“Two words go to a bargain,” said Hench calmly. “What am I to gain in return for this two thousand a year?”
Spruce started up, looking peevishly angry. “Don’t try me too far, Hench. You know quite well what I mean. A word from me to the police and you will be arrested straight away for the murder of your uncle.”
“Oh, indeed. You seem to be very certain of my guilt.”
“Whether I am certain or not doesn’t matter,” retorted the other. “I hold you in the hollow of my hand.”
“Explain how you do that.”
“Oh, very well,” said Spruce, sitting down again. “If you will have chapter and verse I am willing to oblige you, although I think you are wasting my time.”
The Nut drew a long breath and then proceeded to inform his host of his discoveries. These had to do with the insertion of the advertisement, with the visit of Hench on the fatal night to Cookley, and with the inheritance which the untoward death of Madoc Evans had brought the young man. “So you see,” concluded the Nut, “that I have only to go to the police with this tale to ensure your arrest.”
“I quite admit that, Spruce. In fact, I admit the truth of all your story. I should like to know how you found out all about the business. You could scarcely go to Madame Alpenny and force it out of her without some previous knowledge.”
“Well, it was my clever brain that gave me the tip,” said Spruce coolly. “That conversation in which the word ‘Rhaiadr’ was used gave me the idea that the old woman knew something about you. I watched her and followed her when she went away. She came down here and saw Evans at the Grange. I waited until she got home later, and then told her that I had followed her. She was so alarmed lest you should know of the visit—as your doing so would have upset the apple-cart—that she told me about the advertisement. When it appeared I saw it and made sure that you would obey it. I followed you to that hotel near the British Museum, but you left there and I lost sight of you. Therefore I lay low until I got evidence of your visit to Cookley on the night of the first of July. I saw all about the murder in the newspapers and believed that you were guilty. But I was not sure until I went to-day to the Bull Inn and questioned that girl about the supposed tramp. From what she said, vague as her description was, I knew that you were the tramp in question, so came on here to let you know. I believe that you asked the way to the Gipsy Stile and went straight there to murder your uncle.”
“Oh!” said Owain, unmoved. “Am I the sort of person to murder an old man?”
“I don’t say that you killed him in cold blood,” replied Spruce hastily. “You doubtless had a quarrel and stabbed him before you knew what you were about.”
“One moment, Spruce. I am not in the habit of carrying about carving-knives to kill people. And I had no reason to kill my uncle, as at the time I did not know that he was any relation.”
“Oh, he told you that at the time you met him.”
“I never met him. I found him dead.”
Spruce started up in a fury and snatched at his hat. “What’s the use of your dodging in this way. I say that you murdered him, and if you don’t promise to pay me two thousand a year and secure the same to me by deed, I shall go to the police and procure your arrest. You know I can do it.”
“You can. I fully admit that just now you are top-dog,” said Hench in quite a bland way. “And you are willing to condone my felony for the money?”
“Yes! You can kill the whole population of Cookley for all I care.”
“Oh, I quite understand that. Well, to-night I shall say nothing. You must give me one week to consider matters.”
“I don’t mind,”—Spruce made for the door with a shrug,—“but don’t you try and bolt or I shall put the police on to you.”
“Naturally! You have made everything perfectly clear to me. Good-night.”
Spruce walked into the passage and opened the outside door. “Remember,” he said.
“Good-night,” repeated Hench, and shut the door in the face of the blackmailer.
Contrary to his expectations, Owain passed a very good night. By this time he was so accustomed to trouble that it did not seem sensible to worry over anything until he could meet the same fairly and squarely. Dangerous as Madame Alpenny and Spruce were, he had no reason to fear them for a week, since they gave him that period in which to assent to their terms. The woman wished him to marry her daughter; the man desired to obtain an income of two thousand a year, secured by deed; and if he satisfied both, they would hold their peace and trouble him no longer. But Hench by no means intended to purchase immunity at this price, as to do so would imply that he was guilty. As he was perfectly innocent such a course was not to be thought of, and it was necessary to think of some other means of settling the difficulty. And since Owain could not decide his course of action on the spur of the moment, he put the matter out of his head for the time being and retired to bed immediately. After a good night’s rest, he rose greatly refreshed, and sent Giles to bring Vane to breakfast.
Guessing from the unexpectedness of the invitation that something was in the wind, Vane speedily arrived, and was waiting in the little parlour when his friend made his appearance. Hench refused to give any information until the meal was ended, saying that to mix up business with pleasure was to spoil both, so the barrister had to possess his soul in patience until they were enjoying their morning smoke. Then, as Hench still held his peace, Vane asked him a down-right question with considerable impatience.
“Why did you ask me to come to breakfast, Owain?”
“To talk over a further complication of this trouble.”
“The murder of your uncle?”
“Yes! When I came here last night, Spruce was waiting for me.”
“Spruce!” echoed the other curiously. “That crawling little cheat. How did he find you out, Owain?”
“Madame Alpenny told him where I was, and Bottles told her, and Peter told his brother. That is how the screed runs.”
“Why the deuce couldn’t Peter keep his knowledge of your whereabouts to himself,” growled the barrister. “We don’t want Spruce here.”
“Oh, Peter didn’t think he was doing wrong in telling Bottles, as he knew how his brother was devoted to me. It is Bottles I blame in giving me away. I don’t think he is so devoted to me as I thought. And I certainly don’t want Spruce here, especially as he has come to blackmail me.”
“What’s that?” Vane sat up very straight.
“Listen!” and Hench related what had taken place in that very room on the previous night, so that the barrister was soon placed in possession of all facts connected with the accusation. Vane sat silent when his friend ended, digesting the uncomfortable knowledge.
“Little beast!” he said at length. “I knew that he was after no good in going to Bethnal Green.”
“Oh, that was mere chance, Jim. But his cleverness led him to suspect what Madame Alpenny knew, and he watched her day and night until he wormed her secret out of her. Well, you have heard; what is your advice?”
“I should give Spruce rope enough to hang himself,” said Vane quickly.
“In what way?”
“By promising him the money. If he accepts he will be condoning a felony and in that way will get himself into trouble.”
“I will get into trouble also.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” said Vane, looking out of the window in a musing manner. “Spruce says that you are guilty, to suit his own ends. But I should not be surprised if he knew the name of the true assassin.”
“I think so. No one but you and that woman knew of the appointment at the Gipsy Stile. You are innocent, so she must be guilty. And we have agreed that she had a strong motive to place you in possession of the property straight away. Yes, I truly think that she struck the blow, thus giving you the money at once and getting you under her thumb. She killed two birds with one stone.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” said Owain dryly. “The appointment was advertised in the newspaper shown to me by Madame Alpenny. Other people may have gone there on the chance of getting something.”
“Other people had nothing to gain by keeping the appointment, Owain, much less by murdering the old man. No. Some one who knew what his death meant to you is the assassin, and Madame Alpenny alone possessed that information.”
“True enough. Well, and what do you propose?”
“Send that man you sent to me for Spruce, and ask him to come here at once.”
“For what purpose?”
“We can make a bargain with him. Instead of giving him the money to hold his tongue, offer it to him on condition that he reveals the truth.”
“He won’t. He’s a born liar.”
“Oh yes, he will. The chance of getting two thousand a year will unlock his tongue. He’d sell Madame Alpenny or a dozen like her to line his own nest.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” said Owain, as he left the room to speak to Giles. While he was absent Vane began to think of Peter, the page, who was the brother of Simon, surnamed Bottles. It seemed to him that these two boys knew of something in connection with the matter, as they appeared to take a great interest in the doings of Hench. The barrister resolved to speak to Owain on his return, and did so immediately he came back with the information that Giles was now on his way to the Bull Inn. “You say that Bottles was devoted to you, Owain,” said Vane reflectively.
“I thought so, but since he has given me away to Madame Alpenny I have my doubts of his honesty.”
“Hm! I don’t know. A hero-worshipper doesn’t throw off his allegiance so lightly. Bottles promised to hold his tongue?”
“Yes! Really, though, Jim, there was nothing for him to tell.”
“Not when you left Bethnal Green, I admit. But there has been something to tell since, and he has told it, to wit your whereabouts, which you did not wish to be known to that old hag. Bottles must have some reason for acting as he has done. If I were you I would go up to town and see him.”
Hench nodded. “I intend to, and to see Madame Alpenny at the same time. Our conversation ended rather abruptly in the churchyard, and I want to make it quite clear to her that I suspect her of being the guilty person.”
“Quite so. And if we succeed in frightening or bribing that little animal Spruce, you will have more grounds to present to her as to the truth of your accusation. We’re travelling along a dark path, Owain, and the deuce knows what we will find at the end of it.”
“A gaol for Madame Alpenny and a church for me and Gwen to be married in, Jim,” said Hench promptly. “But it is a dark path as you say, and I have got on to it in the most unexpected manner. I wish I had called to see you before coming down here on that night. Had you been with me all this trouble would have been avoided.”
Vane quite agreed. “In dealing with people like Madame Alpenny and Spruce it is always best to have a witness. That is why I think that the wisdom of seeing Spruce in company is apparent. Hullo! here he is. Doesn’t he look like Solomon in all his glory, the slimy little reptile?”
It was indeed Spruce who had just clicked the gate and was sauntering up the short garden path. As the day was very warm, he was appropriately clothed in a suit of cream-coloured serge, with brown shoes and a straw hat. His whole appearance was spic and span, and he looked more like a cherub than ever with his pink and white face. No one would have thought that this innocent blue-eyed youth was such a despicable little scoundrel. His purple necktie, his purple scarf, his purple socks, and the purple band round his hat, were all in keeping with his quality of a Nut. He even wiped his heated face with a purple bordered pocket-handkerchief, and when he came into the room the same wafted a delicate perfume abroad which made Vane growl with disgust.
“What the dickens do you use scent for?” he asked irritably.
“Vane!” said the Nut, not very well pleased to come across one who knew all about his card-table delinquencies. “You here?”
“A pleasant surprise, isn’t it, Spruce?” sneered the barrister, who ardently desired to kick the creature into a dusty heap on the road.
“Oh, I don’t mind meeting old friends,” said Spruce, recovering his impudence.
“I’m not your friend, neither is Hench.”
“Well,”—Spruce shrugged his elegant shoulders, “let us say old schoolfellows.”
“You are a disgrace to Winchester!” raged Vane, scowling. “A cheat and a sneak, a liar and a thief. That’s what you are.”
“Thanks. Any more names?”
“I may as well add blackmailer,” observed Hench coldly.
“In that case I can call you a murderer, which is a worse name!” snarled the Nut, looking very ugly.
“I am not. You are lying as usual.”
“Don’t insult me too much, Hench. You seem to forget that I am top-dog.”
“So far you certainly are. Top-puppy, I should say. Sit down and let us get to business.”
Spruce still stood by the door in what he considered was a haughty attitude, and frowned impressively. “I don’t see what Vane has to do with any business between you and myself,” he said sharply.
“Vane is my friend, and I have asked him here to deal with the matter about which you spoke last night.”
“You seem ready to take the whole world into your confidence,” said Spruce insolently, dusting a chair with his handkerchief before taking a seat. “If you act in that way I can’t protect you.”
“Wait till you’re asked,” said Vane tartly. “Good Lord, the idea of your protecting any one; unless,” he added significantly, “it is Madame Alpenny.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked the Nut, visibly discomposed.
“Oh, I think you know quite well what I mean, Spruce. You accuse Hench here of murdering his uncle?”
“Yes, I do. And I’ll tell the police as much if he doesn’t pay my price. The police would give a good deal to find the tramp who asked the way to the Gipsy Stile on the night of the first of July.”
“How can you prove that Hench is the tramp?”
“By his own admission.”
“And if he does not make that admission in open court?”
“Then I’ll leave it to the barmaid at the Bull Inn. She cannot describe our friend’s appearance very well, as she is stupid and the tap-room was badly lighted when she saw him. But she declares that she would know his voice. Mr. Owain Hench would then have to prove what he was doing on the night in question, and I don’t think that would be easy.”
“It certainly would not be easy,” said Hench coolly. “I have admitted that you can make out a very good case for the prosecution. All the same you are perfectly aware that I am innocent.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Spruce quickly and—as Vane thought—in a somewhat anxious manner.
“Because I think you know who is the guilty person.”
“Do I? That remains to be seen.”
“Spruce,” said Vane in a menacing manner, “you are playing a very dangerous game, and let alone the fact that you are trying to blackmail Hench, you run the risk of condoning a felony.”
“Ah!” said the Nut quickly. “Then you suggest that our friend is guilty?”
“Nothing of the sort. I suggest that you pretend to believe him guilty to get this money. But you know perfectly well that he is not.”
“Do you mean to insinuate that I know who murdered the Squire?” asked Spruce, with a fine show of indignation.
“Certainly I do,” retorted Vane smartly. “Don’t put on frills. In my opinion Madame Alpenny, who knew all about the advertisement and the property, is the guilty person. But, as she isn’t worth powder and shot, you are trying to fasten the crime on to Hench’s shoulders.”
“And I can, Mr. James Vane, as you and he shall find.”
“Oh!” said Hench cynically. “And you really expect me to pay you two thousand a year to refrain from doing so? I won’t.”
“You won’t?” Spruce was plainly taken aback.
“No. Rather than do so I shall go to the police and tell my story. Better be in the hands of the authorities than in yours.”
“You won’t dare to do what you say.”
“Oh yes, I dare. My conscience is clear, so I am willing to stand the brunt.”
Spruce was plainly embarrassed by this defiance and did not very well know what to say or do. If Hench acted as he threatened to do, there would be no money for the Nut, and perhaps an action against him as a blackmailer. He was shrewd enough to see this, and therefore shuffled his cards so that he might not drive his proposed victim to extremities. “What do you wish me to do, then?” he asked sullenly.
Before Hench could reply Vane, who was looking out of the window, turned round sharply. “There is Peter,” he said, glancing at his friend. “What the deuce is he hanging round your cottage for?”
The answer came from an unexpected quarter. “Peter is waiting to see me,” said Spruce with dignity. “He was at the Bull Inn when your messenger came and I told him to wait until I returned. I expect he has followed me here and expects me to come out soon.”
“What are you seeing Peter about?” questioned Hench sharply.
“That is my business,” snapped the Nut sulkily.
“Mine also. Peter is the brother of Bottles, who is employed by Mrs. Tesk, and both the boys are meddling in matters which do not concern them. What does it all mean?”
“You had better ask the boy in and question him,” sneered Spruce coolly.
“I shall do so after we have dispatched this affair,” said Hench sharply. “You ask me what I wish you to do. I reply, clear my character.”
“How can I do that?”
“In a way best known to yourself. But you are well aware that Madame Alpenny is the guilty person.”
“I am not.”
“Don’t tell lies. It is better worth my while to pay you two thousand a year to prove her guilty and me innocent, than for me to give the income to you merely for the sake of your holding your tongue. That’s a thing you never did and never will do.”
Spruce considered. “If I prove Madame Alpenny to be guilty,” he said, with a greedy gleam in his eyes, “will you pay me the two thousand a year?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Then I do nothing. To be quite plain, I can clear your character in the way you say—”
“Ah, I knew you were lying.”
“—But I shan’t do so unless you agree, in the presence of Vane, to give me my price.”
“It is too large a price,” grumbled the barrister.
“Large or small, it is what I want.”
“I’ll give you one thousand a year if you—”
Hench looked at Vane and Vane at Hench, as both were uncertain how to act. A very difficult question had to be threshed out. Owain was unwilling to pay blackmail, yet if he did not there was bound to be trouble. If he did he was quite certain that Spruce could clear his character. For an honourable man the position was very trying, but there seemed to be only one way out of it.
“Very good,” said Hench with an effort. “You must have your price, Shylock, as my life and liberty are more to me than money, and there is no denying but what you have me in a cleft stick. I promise to give you two thousand a year if you remove all danger from me of being accused.”
“I can do that.”
“Then you know who murdered my uncle?”
“I do. Madame Alpenny is guilty, as you thought. But I alone can prove her guilt. I have your promise in Vane’s presence to give me the income?”
“Yes,” said Hench with another effort, for he hated giving way thus ignobly to this scoundrel. “You have my promise.”
“You hear, Vane? I shall call you as a witness in case of non-payment.”
“I hear,” said the barrister, smoking phlegmatically. “I am surety for Hench’s good faith. You shall be paid, you rat. Now prove to us that you can have the woman arrested.”
Spruce drew a long breath of relief, as things were now going exactly as he wished. Like the traitor he was, he gaily went to work and sold Madame Alpenny’s secret to gain the money. “She came down to see Evans after she knew that Hench was his nephew.”
“I know that,” said Owain quickly. “Tell us something new.”
“All in good time,” said Spruce smoothly. “I made her confess how she arranged with Evans about the advertisement and how to draw your attention to it.”
“Why was the appointment made in Parley Wood instead of in the house?” asked Vane, whom the problem had frequently perplexed.
“I can’t tell you. Madame Alpenny never explained that to me. All I know is that she laid the trap for Hench to fall into, and he did.”
“Only to find that my uncle was dead.”
“Of course,” said Spruce, turning towards Hench with raised eyebrows; “that was the trap. She intended to accuse you, and thus force you to marry Zara so that she could handle the money.”
“That I also know, and she did accuse me. Well?”
“Well, she came down here by the same train as you did, and while you were at the Bull Inn she went on to Parley Wood and murdered the Squire.”
“How can you prove that?”
“Very easily.” Spruce rose from his chair, and going to the window beckoned in the page. “Come here, I want you!” he cried.
Peter started and seemed very much inclined to run away. But after a pause he braced up his courage and entered the house. Shortly he was standing before the three men, twisting his cap and looking very nervous. His likeness to his town brother was more apparent than ever, and Hench winced to think how Bottles had betrayed him. He had always believed that he could trust the boy to the uttermost.
“Peter,” said Spruce, sitting down again and enjoying his position of dictator, “you must tell this gentleman what you told me.”
“If Simon wishes me to,” blurted out Peter.
“He does wish you. I brought you that letter from Simon telling you to do whatever I asked you. Isn’t that so?”
“Yes, sir.” Peter flushed and quivered, and wriggled in a most uneasy way. “Well, then, tell them what you told me about Madame Alpenny coming to Cookley on the night when Squire Evans was murdered.”
“Simon sent me a telegram telling me to watch for her,” said Peter, speaking to the three generally. “And as I knew how she was dressed I easily did so, even though she wore a veil.”
“How did you know her dress?” asked Hench sharply.
“Well, sir, when Simon came down here for his holiday he told me as he’d follered Madame Alpenny, who was up to some game. I met him then at the station, when he told me, and he follered her to the Grange. I follered him and hid in Parley Wood outside because Simon told me to. He watched at the gate. She saw the Squire and then came out, and after passing Simon she went into the wood follering the path to the Gipsy Stile.”
“What did she go there for?” questioned Vane.
“To see the Squire.”
“But she had seen him in the house.”
“So she had, but he came to her at the Gipsy Stile afterwards. Both Simon and I follered and hid to listen. The Squire said as he would put in an advertisement asking ‘Rhaiadr’ to meet him at the Gipsy Stile, and said as he brought her there to see the meeting-place. When Madame Alpenny examined it and the Squire showed her how to get to it from the church she went away, and the Squire he returned to his house. Simon and me saw Madame Alpenny go to the station and catch the train to town. That was all that happened at that time. So you see, sir, how I knew how she was dressed.”
“I understand, though it is difficult to know why your brother suspected her.”
“Oh, Simon is sharp, sir, and he saw she was up to some games. He’ll tell you all about it.”
“I’ll see to that,” said Hench grimly. “I’ll have on more of this underhanded work. Well, go on. What about the second occasion when you saw her?”
“Simon sent me a telegram saying as she was coming by a perticler train and to watch her at the station. I went there and saw her in the same dress, so I knew her in spite of the veil. Simon was there too, but he couldn’t wait to speak to me, but just follered her, waving me back. I follered them as far as the church and waited there. Madame Alpenny, with Simon after her, went into the wood, and after staying there for a long time she came out and ran for the station.”
“Was Simon following her then?” asked Vane, alertly.
“No, sir. He was still hiding in the wood, I think. I hid in the churchyard behind a tomb, and Madame she ran past me. I waited in the churchyard for Simon, and later I saw you, sir.”
“Me!” said Hench, starting up.
“Yes, sir. You went through the churchyard and along the path. When you got into the wood Simon came running out as white as death, and told me as Madame Alpenny had murdered the Squire. He made me swear to hold my tongue, lest I and him should get into trouble. Then he went off to catch the train to London and I went home.”
“Why didn’t you tell the police all this?” asked Hench, frowning.
“Oh, I couldn’t, sir,” replied Peter in a most ingenuous way. “Simon made me promise not to in case we’d both get into trouble. But as he wrote saying I could tell Mr. Spruce I have done so, and as Mr. Spruce says I can tell you I have—”
“There! There!” Spruce waved the boy into silence. “That is enough. You can go, and hold your tongue. Simon’s orders, remember. Well,”—he turned to the two men,—“do you see how I can prove your innocence and Madame Alpenny’s guilt?”
“Yes,” said Hench thoughtfully. “As Peter here saw me when I entered the wood, and Simon told him that the Squire was already dead, I see how my character can be cleared. Well, Spruce, I shall go to town and see the woman and the boy. When I settle with them I shall see you about your reward.”
“Don’t you try and sell me,” threatened Spruce, putting on his hat. “If you do it will be the worse for you.”
“Pah! Get out, you little swine,” said Vane contemptuously, and the Nut departed considerably pleased with himself in spite of the scornful epithet.
Peter lingered behind. “See Simon, sir. He’ll explain,” he said in a whisper.
“Oh, I’ll see him. But he’s a little Judas,” said Hench angrily.
“No, sir. He ain’t a Judas,” said Peter, speaking grandiloquently. “Simon’s as true to you as a needle is to the North Pole.” And then he ran away hastily, evidently afraid of being questioned further. Hench let him go.
On the day after the interview with Spruce it was necessary for Owain to travel to London for the purpose of having an interview with Madame Alpenny. Vane at first wished to go with him, but on second thoughts decided that it would be best for him to remain in Cookley and keep a close watch on the Nut. That traitor, having behaved treacherously, was as pleased with himself as if he had acted in a most honourable manner. He was now certain of an excellent income, and determined to go abroad for a year or so to enjoy himself until such time as his West End friends forgot his little mistake at cards. Meanwhile he remained at the Bull Inn waiting for the arrest of the Hungarian lady, when everything would be put ship-shape. Spruce was very pleased with every one and everything since matters had turned out so well. That they had turned out badly for Madame Alpenny did not worry him in the least. He was much too busy building castles in the air to trouble about her.
Owain had given Mrs. Perage and Gwen a full account of the discovery of the old woman’s guilt. They were naturally shocked, but scarcely surprised, as for a long time circumstances had tended to make them think that Madame Alpenny had murdered the Squire. At the same time Gwen pleaded with her lover to deal gently with the wretched creature as she was Zara’s mother, and they both owed a great deal to Zara. Hench admitted as much and promised to be as lenient as he could. Nevertheless, he pointed out that to save himself he would have to inform the police about the woman’s guilt. Unwilling as he was to act so drastically, there was no other course to be taken. All the way to London the young man argued out the matter in his own vexed mind, but was unable to see how he could shield Madame Alpenny. It was a pity that Zara, who was innocent, should suffer for the wickedness of her mother. All the same, it was impossible to spare her the shock. Owain hated the idea of saving himself at the expense of a woman, but in strict justice to himself, and considering that his liberty and life were at stake, he could not see what else he could do. When he was on his way to Bethnal Green he fully made up his mind to act as justice dictated.
The Home of the Muses was much in the same state as Hench had left it, although there were several new boarders. Mrs. Tesk received him joyfully, and conducted him to her sanctum saying that she wished for a private conversation with him. Madame Alpenny, it appeared, was in the drawing-room along with Bracken and Zara.
“For a surprising thing has occurred,” said Mrs. Tesk, who looked more like a retired school-mistress than ever. “They are now man and wife.”
“Oh!” Hench expected something of this sort, but was astonished to learn that the young couple had got married so promptly. “Man and wife, are they?”
“Yes! They have entered into the bonds of matrimony, and are now breaking the news to Madame Alpenny.”
“She won’t be pleased,” observed Hench, with a shrug. “Oh, I am sure she will be very annoyed indeed!” cried Mrs. Tesk, clasping her hands with a look of distress. “She intended you to be her son-in-law. She told me so several times.”
“Ah! There is such a thing as counting your chickens before they are hatched, Mrs. Tesk,” was the young man’s dry reply.
“But you loved Mademoiselle Zara—or rather I should now say Mrs. Bracken.”
“I admired her,” corrected Owain. “I never loved her. She quite understood my feeling. I wish her and Bracken all manner of luck.”
“So do I, Mr. Hench. After all, if two people are tenderly attached, why should they not wed?”
“Why, indeed? When were they married?”
“Yesterday, at a Registrar’s office. I scarcely look upon such a civil contract as a marriage myself, Mr. Hench, as such a ceremony should surely be sanctified by the blessing of the Church. But married they are according to the law of the land, and I expect they will leave me now.”
“Why should they?”
“Because Madame Alpenny will never allow them to live under the same roof as herself. She is a very determined woman, Mr. Hench. I shall be sorry to lose the company of the bridal pair,” said poor Mrs. Tesk, wiping away a tear, “as I highly approve of their young affection. It’s so romantic. Ah!” she rose suddenly and opened the door. “They have broken the news. Hark!”
Madame Alpenny certainly was not pleased. She stood at the head of the stairs anathematizing the bridal pair as they descended arm in arm. Zara was weeping and Bracken’s stolid face wore an angry expression. Moved to the depths of her being, Mrs. Tesk was about to rush out and console them when her skirts were plucked by Hench.
“Don’t say that I am here,” he whispered, and the landlady nodded comprehendingly as she disappeared.
While Mrs. Tesk was accompanying Bracken and his wife to the door Madame Alpenny still stood at the top of the stairs raging wildly. She was fat and homely in her appearance, and still wore her eternal orange-spotted dress, bead mantle and picture hat. But furious anger made her look quite picturesque as she poured out a torrent of words, shaking her fists and with flashing eyes. “Never come near me again, you miserable girl!” she shouted after her daughter. “Ah, but what a wicked child you are to throw yourself away on a fool. As to that man Hench, who has bribed you into deceiving me, he shall suffer for his evil doings. Take my curse with you, Zara, and may you—” Sheer wrath choked her further utterance, and perhaps the fact that the happy pair had stepped out of the front door. Even Atê cannot waste her fury on nothing, and Madame Alpenny looked very like Atê indeed.
Luckily the boarders were all away and the servants were downstairs, so there were no spectators of the scene but Hench and Mrs. Tesk. The landlady parted with Zara and Bracken quite tenderly, for their romance appealed to her ever-young heart. While she was dismissing them on the doorstep, with a blessing which she hoped would neutralize the maternal curse, Hench ran up the stairs and into the drawing-room as quickly as he could. Madame Alpenny had staggered into the same a few moments earlier, and was sobbing violently on the sofa when Owain entered and closed the door. At the sound of the closing she looked up, and her face became purple with rage when she saw who had disturbed her.
“You dare to come here, you—you—you?” she stormed, rising promptly and shaking her fist. “You who have ruined my hopes for Zara.”
“As those hopes were connected with a possible marriage between myself and your daughter,” said Owain suavely, “I told you long ago that they could never be realized.”
“You told me. What do I care what you told me?” Madame Alpenny was in such a rage that she could scarcely get the words out. “And you smile, do you? Ah, yes, you can smile at my shame.”
“Don’t be a fool,” said Hench brusquely. “Your daughter has married an honourable man, whom you ought to be proud of as your son-in-law.”
“But I wanted you,” sobbed Madame piteously, and suddenly passing from anger to pleading sorrow.
“I know, and I pointed out to you that the thing was not possible. Zara loves Bracken, and I have arranged for money to be given to them so that they can make a fresh start in life.”
“Money; my money,” moaned the old woman. “Your money! What do you mean by saying that?” Madame Alpenny dropped her handkerchief from her eyes and stood up with as great a dignity as her stout ungainly figure permitted. “Your money is mine, Monsieur. You owe it to me that you inherited the money.”
“Indeed!” Hench trapped her at once. “So you admit your guilt.”
“Yes. It was you who murdered my uncle.”
“I?” Madame Alpenny stood stock still and stared hard. “It is a lie.”
“It is the truth. You learned from my father how matters stood twenty years ago, and our conversation in this very room revived your memory when I mentioned the place where my father had passed his youth. You went down to see my Uncle Madoc and arranged with him that I should be brought to meet him in Parley Wood by means of that advertisement which you showed me. And—”
Madame Alpenny interrupted his flow of words by waving her fat hand for silence. “I admit all this, although I don’t know how you found it out.”
“Never mind how I found it out. You are guilty.”
“What? You tell me a long story of what I have done and which I admit to be true. But you have said nothing which can prove that I murdered the man.”
“I was coming to that when you interrupted me,” said Hench calmly. “You knew that I would go to the meeting, although I was then ignorant of my relationship to Squire Evans. Therefore you travelled down to Cookley on the first of July and—”
“I never did; I never did,” interrupted Madame Alpenny violently, but looking very anxious in spite of her denial.
“You did, and when you arrived at Cookley you went to the Gipsy Stile before I did to stab my uncle.”
“Oh!” Madame Alpenny waved her arms grotesquely. “La! la! la! la! I murdered him, did I? And why should I murder him?”
“So as to place me in possession of the money,” said Hench solemnly. “So as to implicate me in the death, as you knew that I would arrive to find the dead body of the man you had killed. In this way you hoped to force me to marry your daughter and handle my fortune.”
Madame Alpenny sat down with a cool ironical air. “A very clever tale indeed, Monsieur. And who can prove its truth?”
“Two people at least. You were followed when you first went to Cookley to join my uncle in laying the trap by means of the advertisement; you were followed on the occasion of your second visit, when you killed him.”
“Who followed me? Who saw me?”
“Simon Jedd, who is a page here, and his brother Peter, who is in the service of Mrs. Perage at Cookley.”
“And how much have you paid them to tell this lie?”
“I have paid them nothing. They are voluntary witnesses. Come, Madame, it is useless for you to deny the truth.”
“But I do deny it, see you!” she cried excitedly. “I deny it wholly and altogether. My first visit—ah, yes, I say that I did call on your uncle, and he did tell me about the advertisement, but—”
“Why did he put in that advertisement?” interrupted Owain sharply.
“He wished to see you before revealing himself as your uncle.”
“He could have appointed the meeting to take place in his house. Why was it arranged to come off in Parley Wood?”
“There,” said Madame Alpenny with candour, “I cannot help you. But that Monsieur Evans was strange—ah yes, he was dangerous. He told me that he would meet you at the Gipsy Stile, and took me there to show me the place. I went into the wood after I had left the big house.”
“I am aware of that,” said Hench, remembering what Peter had said. “Go on.”
“You seem to know much,” she sneered.
“Enough to get you arrested and tried, condemned and hanged,” said Hench in a significant tone. “Go on, I tell you.”
Madame Alpenny snarled, and her eyes glittered viciously. “Don’t try to ride the tall horse over me, beast that you are. I am not afraid; no, I am not at all afraid. I do not know why your uncle arranged the meeting for the wood. All I had to do was to draw your attention to the advertisement, which I did. He wrote it out and put it in the journal. For all I know,” went on the woman, more or less to herself, “this man wished to kill you, and chose a lonely place to do so.”
“Why should he wish to kill me?”
“Because he hated your father and he hated you, Monsieur. He did not wish you to get the money. I did, because then you could marry Zara and I would be rich for the rest of my life.”
“That means I would have been under your thumb.”
“Ah, but no. Why should you be under my thumb? It was gratitude I looked for because I knew what would give you a large fortune. Your uncle would have given you enough to live on—perhaps two thousand a year.”
“Why so, when he hated me?”
“Because I would have persuaded him. I told him about my daughter and how you loved her.”
“I did not,” said Hench quickly and with a frown.
“You did; you did. And Monsieur Evans, he said that if he found you a good young man and better than your wicked father, whom your uncle hated, that he would allow you a good income as his heir. For that reason did I agree to him putting in the advertisement and bringing you to meet him in that solitary spot. But it was in my mind to tell you all when I came back.”
“Why didn’t you? It would have saved much trouble.”
“Because if I had not consented your uncle would never have acknowledged you as his heir or allowed you anything. Then you could not have married Zara and have given me money as I desired. Monsieur Evans was a healthy man, and I saw he would live for many years.”
“Therefore to get the money into your clutches at once you killed him.”
“I did not. Who dares to say that I did?”
“Simon Jedd will dare for one, when I examine him, and Mr. Spruce has already accused you, for another.”
Madame Alpenny jumped up in a fury. “Mistare Spruce!” she shouted, with a violent gesture. “That wicked beast! That evil one! He accuse me?”
“Of murdering my uncle? Yes. It is due to his information that I am here, as he can help me to prove your guilt.”
“My guilt!” Madame Alpenny snapped her fingers, with a crimson face. “Oh, that for my guilt! I am innocent.”
“Naturally you say so. But can you prove your innocence?”
“I can.” She said this with so much assurance that Hench was staggered, and began to wonder if he had made a mistake. “See you, that Mistare Spruce make me confess to him and then betrays me to you. Beast!”
“You should not have trusted him,” said Owain coldly. “Any one can see that he is a bad lot. I wonder that a woman of your penetration, Madame, behaved in so rash a manner.”
“Rash! Ah, but I did not behave rash. He forced me to speak. He knew so much that I had to tell him all.”
“About the murder?”
“I am innocent of the murder,” cried the woman, throwing back her head in a fierce way. “Hear what I speak, and then you shall see. Mistare Spruce was in this room when I told how I met your father. Is it not so?”
“Yes,” agreed Hench. “He heard the whole conversation.”
“I said,” went on Madame Alpenny, “that there was a mystery about you, and now you know what the mystery was. Mistare Spruce, wanting to make money out of you and thinking that I knew something—which I did—watched me as a cat a mouse. I went to Cookley saying that I had to go away to find an engagement for my daughter. Is it not so?” she asked again.
“Yes. You were away for a few days and so was Spruce.”
“He followed me down to Cookley.”
“Are you sure?” asked Hench, wondering why the two sharp Jedd boys had not also seen the Nut.
“He confessed to me. He saw me enter the Grange; he saw me come out and go into the wood to meet Monsieur Evans at the Gipsy Stile. He stole after me and listened. You understand? He listened and learned about the property coming to you; about the advertisement; about my desire that you should marry my daughter Zara.”
“Well?” asked Owain, when she stopped for want of breath.
“Well,”—she made a dramatic gesture,—“and what follows. He said nothing, but he knew the paper in which the advertisement appeared—Monsieur Evans mentioned it at the stile—and learned about the meeting. He still said nothing, but after the tale of the murder appears in the paper he comes to me.”
“Yes? To accuse you; to blackmail you?”
“Ah, but no. He said nothing of me being guilty. He declared that you went down to Cookley to meet your uncle.”
“How did he know?”
“I cannot say. It was, perhaps, what you call a pot-shot. But he says you are the guilty person and that he will denounce you unless I confess all. I tell him all, as I did not wish you to be arrested, and Mistare Spruce said that he would wait until you married Zara before speaking. Then he expected me to get you to give him two thousand a year for ever.”
Hench nodded. “Quite so. That is the price he asked for betraying you. And why did he alter his arrangements?”
“He grew weary, and then that Bracken—the pig who stole my daughter—told him that he loved Zara and would marry her, as she loved him. And, mark you, Mistare Spruce still says nothing to me. Oh, no. He goes down to you and declares that I am guilty, as only in that way could he get the money. Do you think, Monsieur, that I am blind? Ah, but no. I see it all. You wish your name to be cleared, and you are helped by Mistare Spruce to accuse me. But it is a lie—a lie—a lie!” She rose to stamp furiously. “I am as innocent as you are guilty. You murdered Monsieur Evans to get the money.”
“Well,” said Hench, with a shrug, “it’s not much use my denying that I did, as you can only save yourself by believing that I struck the blow. You had a strong case against me,” ended Hench, with emphasis. “But now that Spruce has told his story, these Jedd boys who watched you on the night of the murder can prove you to be the assassin.”
“Ah,” sneered Madame Alpenny contemptuously, “it is that silly, insolent, ugly page who accuses me?”
“He has not done so yet, but he will when I see him, if what Spruce says is true; and true, Madame, I believe it to be.”
“Pfui!” She snapped her fingers again. “I did not go to Cookley on that night.”
“Can you prove that?”
Madame Alpenny looked somewhat disconcerted; then a thought seemed to strike her and she burst into a violent rage. “Ah, but you dare to ask me that when you arranged, to save yourself, that I should go to Hampstead on the night.”
“Go to Hampstead? What are you talking about?”
“Your wickedness!” vociferated the woman, beside herself with fury. “I received a letter on the morning of the first of July, asking me to meet the writer at the Ponds in Hampstead, as I would then be told how to get the money of your uncle at once. It was six o’clock I was to meet this person, and—”
“Who was the person?”
“There was no name signed to the letter, as you well know who wrote it,” cried Madame Alpenny indignantly. “And it said also that if the person who wrote was not there I was to wait if it was two or three hours. I go”—she spoke dramatically, in the present tense—“I find no one. I wait and wait and wait; hour and hour and hour I wait. After ten o’clock—yes, and nearer eleven, if I remember—I come back disappointed to this place. I hear no more of the letter or of the person. But you see that I am innocent. Could I be in two places at once, I ask you, Monsieur?”
“No. But have you any witness to prove that you were at Hampstead?”
“No,” said Madame Alpenny, in her turn, and disconcerted again as she was quite sharp enough to see the flaw in her story. “I cannot bring any one to prove I was at Hampstead. But I was—I was—I was.”
“Show me the letter.”
“I have not got it. I tore it up and so made a mistake.”
“You did,” said Hench coolly, and not believing a word of her tale. “All the worse for you, Madame. Well”—he rose and took up his hat—“it only remains for me to go to the police and tell them everything.”
If Hench thought that this statement would frighten the woman, he was never more mistaken in his life. She snapped her fingers right under his nose. “Go! Go! Go!” she cried. “You have robbed me of my daughter by giving money to that fool to marry her; now you would rob me of my liberty. I defy you. I care not for the police, nor for you, nor for anything.”
“Very good.” Hench walked towards the door. “If you had behaved in a different spirit I would have tried to arrange matters differently for your daughter’s sake. As it is you must take the consequence. To clear my own character, you can understand—”
“Oh, yes, I well understand, Monsieur. You murdered your uncle; you wrote that letter asking me to leave this house, so that I could be unable to explain where I was, and now you accuse me at the bidding of Mistare Spruce. I see it all, and I defy you; I spit upon you; I—” Here Hench, unable to stand any more of her savage anger, left the room, while she still raged.
The young man descended the stairs with the determination to go as soon as possible to the police-office and tell his tale. If he did not, the chances were that Madame Alpenny would run away, although he admitted to himself that her speech was not that of a frightened person. But when he reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Mrs. Tesk at the door of her sanctum, he remembered that Simon Jedd had still to be examined, and walked up to the landlady.
“Where is Bottles?” he asked abruptly.
“Dismissed from my employment!” was the unexpected reply.
“Dismissed! His brother, who is a page at Mrs. Perage’s, did not tell me so.”
“Simon did not wish his brother to know,” said Mrs. Tesk quietly, “as he was ashamed, very naturally.”
“Ashamed of what?”
“Of being dismissed for theft.”
“Come, come, Mrs. Tesk, I can’t believe that Bottles is a thief.”
“He is!” insisted the ex-school-mistress, colouring. “Sorry as I am to say so, Mr. Hench. Several small articles have been missing lately, and amongst them a valuable carving-knife with a horn handle, which I inherited from my grandmother. So you see—”
“A horn-handled carving-knife!” echoed Hench with a start, and remembered clearly that such a weapon had been used to stab Madoc Evans. “Can you swear that the boy took it?”
“I accused him of stealing the knife and several other small articles. He turned red, but he did not deny his guilt. Out of consideration for his hard-working mother, I did not prosecute him, but sent him away, lest he should contaminate Amelia and the other servants.”
“Where is he now?”
“Staying with Mrs. Jedd, his mother. As you know, she is the wardrobe mistress at the Bijou Music-hall.”
“Thank you. I’ll go and see Bottles. I can’t believe that such an honest lad is guilty.” And Hench turned on his heel.
“Wait, sir. You do not blame me?”
“Oh, no. If he did not deny your accusation, you acted rightly. But there must be some explanation of this. What it is I go to find out.”
Mrs. Tesk would have detained him to ask questions concerning Madame Alpenny’s frame of mind, but Hench refused to stay. He was now beginning to wonder if the Hungarian lady really was guilty. It seemed as if Bottles was the culprit, that is if he had really stolen the carving-knife. With such a weapon the crime had certainly been committed.
The weather was uncommonly hot. For weeks the sun had been blazing in a cloudless sky, as it did in the tropics, and the earth was parched for want of rain. Everywhere it was seamed and cracked; everywhere the grass was brown and the trees were wilted, while the air was like the thrice-heated breath of a furnace. Animals and human beings went languidly about their business and longed all day for the cool night hours. Not that it was particularly cool even when the twilight came, but it was something to escape the pitiless blue sky and the burning sun. And on this particular evening a hot wind rose with unexpected suddenness to make matters worse. It raised clouds of dust, it rattled the dry foliage in Parley Wood, and brought no sense of relief to the worn and weary. As people are never really prepared for an unusually hot season in England, the Cookley villagers found this equatorial summer excessively trying and disagreeable.
Spruce enjoyed the sultry weather personally, as he loved warmth with all the affection of a cat, and the worst heat never caused him any discomfort. After dining excellently at seven o’clock, he now sat by the open window of his sitting-room at the Bull Inn, enjoying a cup of fragrant coffee and as many cigarettes as he could get through. Of course, he was in accurate evening dress, as he always loved to be clothed appropriately according to the hour of the day. No one was more of a slave to social observances than the Nut, for he had the petty soul of a Beau Brummel. A small table stood before him, and he passed the time in trying new card-tricks, which might be useful some day, should he again become hard up. Not that Spruce always played false to make money, since he was a cheat by instinct. To get the better of any one by trickery was pleasant, as it involved danger, which was exciting, and gave him an agreeable feeling of superiority because of his wonderful dexterity. So he shuffled and cut and dealt; slipped cards up his sleeve and out again; diddled an imaginary opponent by sleight of hand, and in every way trained himself to cheating as though it were a fine art. Most card-lovers when alone play Patience. Spruce preferred to prepare himself for future campaigns.
Every now and then he cast a disdainful look round the shabby old room, which was by no means to his taste. Undoubtedly the apartment was ancient and time-worn, containing too much furniture, and giving little gratification to the eye. But Time had mellowed the whole into pleasing, sober colours, and less fastidious people would have been delighted with the reposeful look of things. The atmosphere was quite monastic. But Spruce admired spacious chambers filled with gilded furniture and blazing with lights. He had the tastes of Louis XIV., and Versailles was his idea of a dwelling house. When he was in possession of the two thousand a year, he intended to live in great luxury, but meanwhile contented himself with this dingy habitation. The window at which he was seated looked out on to a small garden surrounded by a low wall beyond which stretched fields right up to the grey churchyard. The sill of the window was so low that the Nut could easily have vaulted over it into the pleasant garden. But not having any love for Nature, he preferred to stay where he was playing cards, and dreaming of luxurious years, which were as he thought—truly coming to him.
While Spruce was thus occupied, the landlady of the inn knocked at the door to announce that Mr. Hench and Mr. Vane wished to see him. The Nut at once ordered them to be admitted, never doubting but what they were coming to conclude the matter of his blackmail. He rose to greet them pleasantly, as if he was the most honest person in the world, and when the door was closed signed that they should be seated. He resumed his post near the window, and in that way obtained a good view of their faces, while his own was in the shadow. As it was only half-past eight o’clock, the twilight was yet luminous enough to see very plainly, and although Spruce offered to ring for lights, Hench signified that it was not necessary. Then the host offered cigarettes and drinks, both of which were curtly refused.
“You are uncommonly rude,” said the Nut, much nettled. “When you look up a man you might be civil.”
“That depends very much on the man,” said Vane coolly. “Neither Hench nor myself were ever friends of yours, Spruce.”
“Oh, I don’t want your friendship. After all, you are a dull couple.”
“But honest,” said Hench with emphasis.
“Honesty implies dullness. It takes a clever man to sin.”
“What a brilliant person you must be, then.”
“That’s sarcastic, I suppose.” Spruce was not at all offended, but accepted the observation as a tribute to his powers. “But I don’t mind. On the whole, I am clever enough to get two thousand a year.”
“You haven’t earned it yet,” snapped Vane with a look of dislike.
Spruce started. “Ah, play fair, whatever you do,” he protested. “Hench promised me two thousand a year if I told him about that old woman. You heard him, Vane.”
“I heard Hench promise to give you that income if the crime was brought home to Madame Alpenny, and his character cleared,” said Vane dryly. “There is a difference between telling a thing and proving a thing.”
“I suppose that means Madame Alpenny denies her guilt?” said the Nut, turning to the other man. “It is useless for her to do so, as Simon can prove it.”
“Oh, I have seen Simon and have brought him down with me,” said Hench quietly. “In fact, he is waiting outside to come in when called.”
“Then call him at once,” said Spruce briskly. “I want to get this business completed and see the last of you. I hate bores.”
“Oh, you’ll see the last of us sooner than you expect,” said Vane grimly.
“Good! You will confer a favour on me when you do cut.” Spruce looked round again at Owain. “So you saw Madame Alpenny?”
“Yesterday, at The Home of the Muses. I went up to town especially to see her, as you know.”
“She denies that she was in Cookley on the night when my uncle was killed. I was given to understand by her that an anonymous letter summoned her to the Hampstead Ponds to meet some one.”
“For what purpose?”
“The letter said that the person who wrote it—there was no name, remember—declared that information would be given to enable her to get the money at once from my uncle.”
“My property, I presume, for which she was scheming.”
“Well, and did Madame Alpenny see this person?”
“No. She went to Hampstead about six and returned home after ten.”
“Quite time enough for her to travel to Cookley and back in order to commit the murder,” said Spruce coolly. “Did you see the letter?”
“No. She had torn it up.”
“Fudge!” cried the Nut inelegantly. “There never was such a letter. She invented that yarn so as to account for her presence elsewhere on the night of the crime. She did murder Squire Evans. You heard what Peter said?”
“Oh, yes. And I have heard what Simon said. I am bound to say,” said Hench with emphasis, “that his story is much the same.”
“Well then, with two witnesses, what more proof do you want of the woman’s guilt?” demanded Spruce indignantly. “I fancy I have earned my money. What do you say, Vane?”
“I say we had better have Simon in and hear his story,” retorted the barrister dryly. “It is just as well to get everything made quite plain.”
“So I think,” declared the Nut briskly. “Call him in, Hench.”
With great calmness the young man did so, not at all disturbed by the imperious tone in which the order was given. This was Spruce’s little hour of triumph, so both the visitors allowed him to control the situation while he was able. Bottles made his appearance quickly, and cap in hand stood before the closed door, waiting to be interrogated. With his freckled face and red hair he looked anything but prepossessing. At least he did not in the Nut’s eyes, who failed to observe the good-humoured expression and intelligent gaze of the lad, which were worth much more than mere animal comeliness.
Spruce, in the attitude of an examining judge, surveyed the boy superciliously and immediately began to question him. “You are to tell these gentlemen what you told me,” he commanded. “Now, on the first of July you followed Madame Alpenny to the Liverpool Street Station?”
“Yes, sir. She caught the five o’clock train to this place.”
“And you followed?”
“I did, sir. I wished to see what her game was.”
“One moment,” interpolated Hench at this remark. “I may mention that I also came to Cookley on that night by that train. I had an idea that Madame Alpenny was at my elbow. In fact, I fancied that I caught a glimpse of her in the crowd at Liverpool Street Station. But I thought that I was mistaken.”
“You wasn’t mistaken, sir,” said Bottles calmly.
“She was in the crowd, sure enough, and went down by that train. So did you, sir, for I saw you, and dodged.”
“Good!” said Spruce, rubbing his hands. “This unsolicited testimony of yours, Hench, emphasizes the fact of the woman’s guilt. Go on, Simon.”
“The train got here at half-past six. I had already sent a telegram to my brother saying that Madame was coming, and telling him to meet the train and watch. He was on the Cookley platform, sure enough, but I hadn’t any time to speak to him, having to keep my eye on Madame Alpenny. She didn’t go through the village street, but across the fields to the churchyard and then by the path to Parley Wood. I followed, hiding as often as I could.”
“She didn’t see you, then?” inquired Vane idly.
“No, sir. I was much too fly. Peter, he came also at a distance, and hid in the churchyard, while I follered Madame Alpenny into the wood. She made for the Gipsy Stile.”
“How did you know where that was?” inquired Hench.
“Why, sir,” said the boy, greatly surprised, “of course I was there before when she and the old cove talked together about the advertisement.”
“Yes! Yes! I understand.”
“And, of course,” said Spruce smoothly, “he was following Madame, who also knew the appointed meeting place. Well, Simon?”
“She didn’t stay at the stile, but hid in the wood. I hid near her and kept my eyes on her, as there was plenty of light.”
“Of course. It was not late and the Gipsy Stile is in a clearing,” explained the Nut, waving his hand. “Go on, boy.”
“After a long time—I couldn’t say how long, as I hadn’t a watch—the old cove came to the stile. Madame Alpenny came to meet him and talked to him for a time, and—”
“Did she raise her veil?” asked Hench quickly.
“No, sir. She spoke for a few minutes, and I could see as she’d something in her right hand. What it was I don’t know. Then she suddenly lifted her arm and stabbed the old gentleman, who fell without a cry. As soon as she made sure he was dead, she cut. My brother saw her go through the churchyard.”
Vane nodded. “On her way to the station. I remember. Then you came out of the wood, to meet your brother near the church, and made him swear not to say a single word.”
“What else could I do, sir?” protested Bottles, distressed. “I might have got into a row with the police. That is why I said nothing.”
“Very wise of you,” said Spruce approvingly, then turned to the others. “Well, gentlemen, I think the case is clear. Madame Alpenny murdered Squire Evans, and her guilt is proved by Simon here, who saw the crime committed, and by Peter, who saw her in the vicinity, even though she swears that she was at Hampstead. What more proof do you want?”
“None,” said Hench calmly. “Undoubtedly my uncle was murdered by—some one dressed as Madame Alpenny!”
Spruce gave a gasp and rose as if moved by springs.
“What do you mean by saying that, may I ask?” he demanded in a choked voice.
“I mean that you murdered Madoc Evans and that Bottles here can prove it.”
“A lie! A wicked, false lie!” gasped the Nut, who became deadly pale.
Vane chuckled; tense as the situation was, he chuckled. “You have been weaving a rope for your own neck all this time, Spruce,” he remarked grimly.
“Such an accusation is ridiculous!” said the other, with an attempt at dignity. “Is it likely that I would dress up as a woman to—”
“You were always good in amateur theatricals,” said Vane remorselessly. “And you would do anything to get the two thousand a year, which, by the way, you are not likely to enjoy.”
“My enemy speaks,” said Spruce dramatically. “It’s one thing to say a thing and another thing to prove a thing.”
“You are quite epigrammatic!” sneered the barrister.
“Hush, Jim, and let the boy speak. He can prove that Spruce is guilty.”
“I just can,” said Bottles promptly, and greatly enjoying his rôle of detective. “For I’ve watched you, Mr. Spruce, for ever so long. I watched Madame Alpenny first, thinking she meant harm to Mr. Hench.”
“Why should she have meant harm?” asked Vane quickly, for he was not so well acquainted with the story as his friend.
“Oh, she knew something about him, and said that he was a mystery. I heard her talking to Miss Zara, and then I heard something of the talk in the droringroom, when she said as she knowed Mr. Hench’s father. She asked me for an A.B.C., too, she did, and left it open on the table. I looked and saw on the page the timetable for Cookley. I didn’t know she was going there, as other time-tables were on the page, but I thought it was queer seeing Cookley, considering that my brother was down here with Mrs. Perage.”
“It’s all rubbish, of course,” said Spruce, with a kind of hysterical cackle. “But what did you do then?”
“I watched. When she went away I got my holiday and follered. She did go to Cookley, and so did you, Mr. Spruce.”
“It’s a lie, you imp. I didn’t!”
“You did!” insisted the lad. “And it was your follering Madame Alpenny as made me watch you. I knowed as you wasn’t up to any good. Me and Simon follered you both, and when Madame Alpenny went into the Grange you hung about in the midst of the trees waiting for her. Then you follered her when she went into the wood to see the old cove at that stile, and heard everything.”
“Admitting all this,” said Spruce, appealing to the two men, “how does it connect me with the murder and this masquerade, which is so ridiculous?”
“Oh, I’ll connect you, right enough,” said Bottles tartly. “Don’t you make any mistake, sir. I ain’t read detective stories for nothing. When you came back I watched you and I watched Madame. Then you made friends with the manager of the Bijou Music-hall,”
“I was friends with him long before!” declared Spruce angrily, and hoping against hope that the boy would fail to substantiate his accusation. “Ah, but you became better friends,” said Bottles persistently, “and got behind the scenes. Then you were agreeable to mother and asked to look over the theatrical properties. I didn’t know what you was after until mother said as you’d asked her for a red wig to play in some theatricals. Then I guessed as you wanted to imitate Madame, who has hair as red as mine. I was sure when you brought mother some orange-spotted black cloth to make a dress and borrowed a bead mantle and a flopping hat off her.”
“I did not. You are a brazen liar!”
“Liar yourself, sir! Mother can prove the truth of everything I say. You paid her well for the things, I don’t deny. But mother wouldn’t have taken a penny if she knowed what you was after. She never did know, as there was no mention of Madame Alpenny’s dress, or of Madame, in the papers reporting the murder. Only when Mr. Hench come yesterday did I take him to mother and tell her all. She was horrified, for mother is a good sort, and told him what I am telling you. I knowed it all before.”
“The woman is a liar, as the boy is,” said Spruce, licking his lips, which were very white and dry.
“Shut up, Bottles!” said Hench, as the boy was about to make an angry response. “Let me say the rest. Bottles watched you leave the house dressed as Madame Alpenny, Spruce—”
“It was Madame Alpenny!” insisted the Nut, fighting desperately.
“It wasn’t!” cried Simon, who could not be suppressed. “She’d gone to Hampstead later, after you went, and I let her out. No, I’m talking wrong. I saw her leave the house after four, and she said as she’d an appointment at Hampstead, and wouldn’t be back till late. She come back very late, and so did I, because I was follering you.”
“The boy equivocates, you see,” mumbled Spruce. “First one thing, then another.”
“I think his evidence is very clear, on the whole,” declared Vane calmly.
“So do I,” said Hench. “And after Madame Alpenny went, you came out, Spruce, dressed in the same way. Bottles, knowing how you got the clothes from his mother, the wardrobe mistress at the Bijou, and knowing that Madame Alpenny had already left the house, guessed it was you in disguise. He snatched up his cap and followed, catching the five o’clock train, as you did. The rest you know. You are the guilty man.”
“He is!” said Bottles with relish. “And he gave back the things to mother saying as the amateur theatricals had been quite a success.”
“As he hoped to make two thousand a year, I presume they were!” said Vane in a cruel voice. “Well, Spruce, what have you to say before being arrested?”
“Arrested!” Spruce gave a scream like a woman, and he dropped limply into his chair, white-faced and aghast. “What for?”
“For the murder of Squire Evans.”
“No! No!” He thrust out his hands as if warding off a blow. “I did not kill him. You cannot bring the crime home to me.”
“The evidence you have heard brings the crime home to you only too positively,” said Hench, with a certain pity in his voice, for the sudden collapse of the man was dreadful. “Peter can prove that you were mixed up in the matter, and Mrs. Jedd can prove that you borrowed the clothes, having the orange-spotted dress made after the style of that worn by Madame Alpenny. And Simon can prove the murder. He saw you kill the man.”
“No! No! No!”
“May I die if I didn’t!” swore Bottles, who was looking nervous, for the scene shook him considerably, since he was only a boy.
“It was a mean, sordid murder, committed for the sake of gain,” said Vane.
“Don’t kick the man when he is down, Jim,” said Hench, pityingly.
“Why not? He was insolent enough while he was up. And to kill an old man of whom he knew nothing! Owain, it was beastly. I hope I’m as decent a chap as any, but my gorge rises at the sight of this creature.”
What little pride remained in Spruce rose at these words. He sprang to his feet and shook his fist wildly in the air. “I shall get off!” he screamed. “I can prove my innocence!”
“Do so to the detective,” said Hench, wishing to end the scene.
“A detective! a detective!” Spruce clutched his throat as if to tear away the rope he was doomed to. “You won’t—you won’t—” His voice failed.
“I saw the authorities and procured a warrant before leaving London. Every moment I expect the detective in to execute it.”
“No! No! No!” Spruce flung himself on his knees. “Dear Hench, good Hench, you won’t allow me to be hanged? I don’t want the money; I’ll give it up. Let me get away; let me hide.”
“Did you murder my uncle?”
“Yes! Yes!” Spruce’s cheeks were streaming with tears and his teeth were chattering. “It’s all true. I acknowledge that I killed him to get the money. But I am sorry—really and truly I am sorry. Don’t give me up—don’t—”
“Get up,” cried Vane in disgust, “and take your gruel like a man.”
“Bottles, see if the policeman is there,” ordered Hench, and Bottles, glad to escape from the scene, fled willingly.
“No!” Spruce rose from grovelling on the ground, and from a tearful martyr was suddenly changed into a wild beast. His lips curled, showing his teeth. He drew back towards the window, and his eyes flashed fire. If he had had a weapon in his hand there is no doubt he would have killed both the men. “You shan’t catch me, hounds that you are. I shall escape; I shall—”
“Look out, Owain, he’s trying for the window!”
But Vane’s warning came too late. With a surprising spring, the miserable little creature flung himself through the window into the garden. Before the two men could recover from their surprise he was over the low garden wall and racing for the churchyard. Terror winged his feet, and he flew onward like an arrow from the bow. Hench leaped after him immediately, and followed close behind him, while Vane rushed out to see if the police had arrived with the warrant. Two men were there in plain clothes, with a village constable, and in a few hurried words the barrister related how the man wanted had escaped. With the rapidity of lightning the news spread, and in a wonderfully short space of time half the village, headed by the police, Vane and Bottles, were making for the churchyard. Far ahead they could see Hench running swiftly through the twilight, but of the fugitive they could see no trace.
It was no wonder that the pursuers could not gain a glimpse of their wretched quarry, for Spruce flew on with amazing speed. Behind him were the dogs of justice, and he knew that once they pulled him down all that remained for him to do was to face the death he had earned by his cowardly crime. But he was not a man, only a creeping crawling thing saturated with evil, a bird of prey, a snarling tiger—and he did not wish to receive the reward of his wickedness. Instinctively he made for the wood wherein his crime had been committed. Once in its dark recesses he hoped to remain hidden until he could escape over seas. Behind him he caught sight of Hench, and longed to have a knife or revolver to shoot or stab the man he hated. Gasping, and streaming with perspiration, he plunged into the wood, broke from the path which led to the Gipsy Stile, and struggled through the dry, rustling undergrowth. They would never catch him, he swore, and even as he did the miserable creature heard the beat of Owain’s feet in pursuit.
A thought struck him. The wood was dry, and would burn like tinder. Hench, being in the wood and unprepared, would be probably burnt to death. Without thinking of the danger to himself in his mad fury—only resolved to make an end to Owain and to place a blazing screen between himself and his pursuers—Spruce took out a silver box and struck a match. Then another, and another, until all round him, in the grass and the moss and the undergrowth, were stars of fire. The stars grew into blazing suns, as the flames caught the tall, dry trees and roared upward. With inconceivable rapidity the fire spread, and now it was time for Spruce to fly from the death he had created. As he plunged onward he came suddenly into the open, and fell, catching his foot in a fallen tree-trunk. He tried to rise and could not, as his ankle was twisted. So he lay shrieking on the verge of a fiery furnace, unable to move, and condemned by his own evil act to a far more terrible death than that which he would have suffered at the hands of the law. Shouting for help, and only anxious now to escape the immediate doom, Spruce heard the cries of the villagers, when they saw the tall columns of flame rising from the wood. Hench was lunging here and there amidst the undergrowth seeking for Spruce, and continued to do so until a barrier of flame cut him off from further search. Before that terrible heat he was forced to retreat, and made for the pathway so as to get back into the open. Vane’s voice, high, clamorous and clear, could be heard shouting for him, and in the roar of the flames Hench heard the shrieking of the wretched creature who had lighted the funeral pyre of himself. He made for the direction whence the cries came, as they appeared to be near at hand. Fighting the flames, he stumbled into the open space round the Gipsy Stile and saw Spruce writhing on the edge of the clearing under a canopy of fire. It blazed overhead; it ran along the moss and grass, licking up everything with greedy avidity; and all round the wood was like a seven-times heated furnace.
“Save me; save me!” yelled Spruce, seeing his enemy.
Wicked as the creature was, Owain did his best. He ran towards the spot where Spruce lay in agony, and tried to reach him. But the flames came out with a gust of the hot dry wind, which now was blowing furiously, and the young man fell back, shielding his face with his arms. When he removed them he heard a wild cry of agony, and saw a tall bulky tree falling slowly down. Spruce was beneath it, and saw its gradual descent. He cried to Hench for help; he cried to God for pardon; but the tree dropped inch by inch in the midst of that hell until it suddenly crashed down on the doomed man. Then there was silence, save for the roar of the flames rejoicing over their prey.
Hench turned and fled, skirting the flaming trees and getting round to where the police and villagers were by slipping along the park wall. Blackened and burnt, dizzy and faint, he staggered into the open space, where all watched the great bonfire. Vane rushed forward and caught him in his arms.
“Are you hurt—are you hurt?”
“No. I’m all right. But Spruce—!” He gasped at the memory of the horror.
“My man,” said the police officer. “What of him?”
“Dead!” breathed Hench faintly, and then fell unconscious to the ground, while Parley Wood, with a noise like the roaring of many waters, vanished for ever in flames and smoke.
The discovery that Spruce was the murderer of Squire Evans, the burning of Parley Wood, and the consequent death of the criminal, were wholly unexpected events. They descended on the Cookley villagers like so many bolts from the blue, and naturally caused a very great commotion. So far as the woodland was concerned, nothing remained but a vast area of grey ashes, wherein multitudinous smouldering stumps pricked up here and there. Luckily the trees of the Grange park were untouched, as the fire had not reached across the considerable space which, like a wide roadway, divided Hench’s property from the miniature forest. Also, the violent wind blowing from the south had swept the flames northward, long-side the brick wall girdling the demesne. But considerable damage had been wrought, as Parley Wood was dear to many artists, and they, as well as the villagers, lamented the blotting out of this beauty-spot. But, as some people said, perhaps it was just as well, since the murder of Madoc Evans had given the wood an evil reputation. These philosophical individuals, however, were in the minority.
Under the huge tree-trunk which had crushed him to death the body of Cuthbert Spruce was found, burnt and disfigured almost beyond recognition. But there was not the least difficulty in identifying the remains of the wretched man, and he was duly buried in Cookley churchyard. A large number of morbid sight-seers were attracted to the ceremony, and there was much talk about the extraordinary events which had led to his guilt being proved. Hench, naturally enough, was anxious that the whole miserable story should be kept from the public, but this was not possible. The Inspector who had been charged with the arrest of Spruce advised the young man—for the clearing of his own character—to allow all facts to become known. Therefore the newspapers were filled with true accounts of all that had happened in connection with the affair, from the time of his early conversation with Madame Alpenny down to the moment when he staggered out of Parley Wood to fall unconscious at Vane’s feet. Owain was considerably shaken by what he had undergone, both physically and mentally, so it was natural that he should take some days to recover. He was burnt and bruised; very much horrified by the appalling death of his old schoolfellow; and greatly disturbed by the enforced publicity of the whole dreadful business. It was fortunate that Mrs. Perage was at hand to look after him, as she proved to be a very dragon to guard the broken man from the curiosity of the public. Vane brought Hench to the old lady’s house, and there he remained in bed for quite a week to be nursed back to health and strength by Gwen. Save the Inspector, who advised him to make the facts of the case known to the world, he saw no one but the old lady and the young one. Not even Jim Vane was permitted to interview him.
The result of this judicious treatment on the part of Mrs. Perage was obvious, for while the excitement was going on Hench remained secluded in his sick-room, and was not worried with questions. By the time he was able to get up, healed of his hurts and much calmer in mind, the worst was over. Spruce lay in the churchyard, the newspapers had said all they could say about the matter, and the nine days’ wonder of the whole awful business had come to an end. It only remained for Owain to fulfil his promise to the Brackens; to reward the Jedd boys for the clever way in which they had saved him; to take formal possession of his property, and to marry his cousin. Then he could begin a new life, and all the old troubles would be forgotten. Of course it required decision and strength to deal with such matters, but, thanks to Gwen’s careful nursing, Owain was quite able to attend to the business. With his descent into the drawing-room, wholly cured at the end of nine days, the ‘nine days’ wonder came to a termination.
“Now we must sweep up the fragments,” said Hench, who was rapidly recovering his strength, although he still looked somewhat pale.
“Quite so,” agreed Mrs. Perage, who looked more grim and masculine than ever. “I have asked the fragments to come here to-day for the sweeping.”
“What do you mean?”
“My meaning is plain enough, young man!” she replied vigorously. “I want all this disagreeable business concluded, so that it will not be necessary to re-open it again. Then, as soon as possible, you must arrange about getting the property, marry Gwen, and go for a year’s tour in Europe, or in the States, if you like. I don’t care where you go, so long as you get away.”
“I don’t know if Owain is strong enough to travel yet,” said Gwen, who was sitting beside the sofa holding her lover’s hand.
“Fudge!” retorted Mrs. Perage, standing on the hearthrug in quite a manly attitude, with her hands behind her back. “Don’t make a mollycoddle of the fellow, you silly girl. While he remains here, everything will remind him of the horrors which have taken place. Let him travel to forget, and then he can return to take up his work as the Squire of Cookley. You must go with him, as he is sure to be miserable without you.”
“That is very certain!” said Hench, smiling.
“Well, then,” cried Mrs. Perage argumentatively, “so young a girl can’t go with you as a chaperon, can she? Marry her in a couple of weeks and then no one can say a word, even if you take her to the North Pole.”
“But my father has not been dead very long,” murmured Gwen nervously.
“My dear, don’t be a fool. God forbid that I should say a word against your father, who has paid for his foolishness. But you owe him nothing and you never got on with him. Then why sacrifice yourself to a feeling which does not exist? Pfui!” Mrs. Perage rubbed her nose. “Can’t you understand that I am anxious to see the backs of you two nuisances? I’ve had quite enough bother with you as it is.”
Hench laughed outright, knowing that Mrs. Perage looked upon himself and Gwen as her own children. “You wouldn’t be happy without us,” he said gaily. “You would have no one to scold.”
“Oh, there’s always Jim Vane, at a pinch,” said Mrs. Perage good-humouredly. “But I daresay I shall miss you two brats. Babies, that’s what you are. As to scolding, there will be plenty of that when you return. You are the Lord of the Manor, but I have much property in Cookley also, so there will be ample for us to fight about. I want my own way and so do you. Hum!” Mrs. Perage rubbed her hands. “There are lively times ahead.”
Both the young people looked at the tall, grim old Amazon with great affection, as they recognized how much they owed her. Gwen particularly loved her, as she had brought common-sense to bear on the estrangement after the fatal interview in the churchyard with Madame Alpenny. But that Mrs. Perage had acted so vigorously, Gwen saw plainly enough that she and Owain might never have entirely understood one another. Now they did, especially since the nine days’ nursing had drawn them together more rapidly. Never did a couple arrange to enter into the bonds of matrimony with such an excellent knowledge of each other’s character. Mrs. Perage guessed what was passing in the girl’s mind and nodded approvingly.
“Trouble brings people together very quickly,” she said briskly. “Time is nothing and opportunity is everything. Owain has saved your life; you have carefully nursed him back to health, so you comprehend one another a thousand times better than if you had dawdled through a ten years’ courtship. You are both decent, also, my dears; quite different to your fathers. It’s the mothers’ blood that tells, I expect. What do you say, Hench?”
“Oh, don’t call him Hench,” said Gwen, with a shudder. “Let us leave that false name behind with all the other trouble.”
“Very good. What do you say, Evans?”
“I agree with you, Mrs. Perage. Gwen and I will get on capitally.”
“You had better!” she threatened. “If I catch you beating her it’s me you’ll have to reckon with. Ha!” She glanced out of the window. “Here’s Jim, the first of the fragments come to be swept into the dustbin of oblivion.”
“I hope not,” said Owain, laughing. “I wish Jim to remain my very good friend and be my best man.”
“Of course he will be. And I will be the bridesmaid if Gwen is sensible enough to ask me.”
“You shall do whatever you like at the wedding,” said Gwen, also laughing, for she felt uncommonly happy.
“And afterwards also, my dear. I am fond of my own way; it’s a great fault of mine. Jim,”—Vane entered as she spoke,—“here you are at last. There! I’m not fond of kisses. Go and talk to Evans yonder, and ask him if you can kiss Gwen.”
“Oh!” said Gwen in alarm, whereat every one laughed.
“Don’t be frightened, Miss Evans,” said Vane, with a smile on his lean face. “I am quite sure that Owain yonder is now strong enough to punch my head if I take Aunt Emma’s advice. Well, old chap, how goes it? You look much better and are quite a different man.”
“I am, Jim. Hench has vanished for ever. Only Owain Evans remains.”
“Well, I hope he’ll be as good a chap as Hench was.”
“Much better!” said Gwen resentfully. “I’ve improved him. He is no longer to be a wanderer, but intends to settle down with me as the Squire of the parish.”
“After a year’s travelling!” said Mrs. Perage sharply, and detailed her scheme to her nephew, who quite approved.
“Better be off with the old life, Owain, before you take on with the new,” he said judicially. “Travel will heal all the old soreness, and will place a barrier between the disagreeable past and the pleasant future. Aunt Emma is a sensible woman.”
“I always am!” said Aunt Emma. “Now, Jim, say what you have to say about this trouble, and let us bury the same for ever.”
“There isn’t much to say,” said Vane carelessly. “The newspapers have dropped the matter, and everybody is forgetting the sensation. You won’t be bothered with reporters or photographers when you come abroad, Owain. All the same, it is just as well that you are going away.”
“What does the Inspector say about Bottles’ share in the business?”
“He wasn’t very pleased, and gave both Bottles and his brother a good talking to for having held their tongues for so long.”
“I wonder why they did,” murmured Mrs. Perage, rubbing her nose.
“My dear aunt, it was a game to both of them. Bottles having read detective tales was burning to be a Sexton Blake or a Sherlock Holmes. Only when he saw that miserable creature brought to book did the boy realize that his comedy had turned into real tragedy. I’ve brought him with me as you desired.” Vane went to the door and beckoned to the lad, who entered bashfully, to look with adoring eyes on his hero. Hench called to him to come forward and shook him heartily by the hand, thanking him for his great services.
“Oh, it ain’t nothing, sir,” said Bottles, with a glowing face as crimson as his hair. “I’d do anything for you, as you’ve always been kind to me. And it’s been a rattling good game, anyhow.”
“A sadly serious game, Bottles, I fear.”
“Yes, sir.” The lad turned pale, shivered, and swallowed something with an effort, as he recalled the scene at the Bull Inn. “I didn’t think it was so bad till I saw that little cove’s face. It wasn’t me who got him burnt, was it, sir?” he asked entreatingly.
“No! No! my boy. How he came to set the wood on fire, I don’t know. Perhaps he struck a match to see his way in the darkness. But we will never know exactly what happened. You are not in any way to blame. What made you suspect him?”
“I didn’t suspect him at first, sir. It was Madame I thought was the wrong ‘un, as I told you. But when I saw that little cove sneaking after her down to Cookley I watched him as well as her. Then I found out he was talking a lot to mother and learned about the dress and the wig. After that, it wasn’t hard to twig his game. But I never thought as he’d murder the old cove,” said Bottles, shivering. “I turned sick in the wood when I saw that knife go in.”
“Oh, by the way, Bottles, Mrs. Tesk told me that she dismissed you for stealing the knife.”
“Yes, she did, sir. She said as I’d taken other things. But it was Amelia, I was engaged to, as stole the things, and I couldn’t give her away. But I ain’t going to make her my wife, sir,” said Bottles seriously. “She ain’t what she should be in the way of honesty.”
“Did she steal the knife also?”
“No, I think Mr. Spruce stole that; took it off the table one day, and slipped it up his sleeve. He killed the old cove with it, as you know, and left it in the body. I knowed it was Mrs. Tesk’s carving-knife all along.”
“Does Mrs. Tesk know all this now?” asked Owain quickly.
“Yes, sir. Mother went and told her, though I didn’t wish to split on Amelia, who’s only a gel after all. Mrs. Tesk said as she was sorry and asked me to go back, which I have done, sir.”
“Well, then, Bottles, I am going to take you away from there and send you to school. Also I intend to settle a small income on your mother so that she need not work any more at the Bijou Music-hall. Finally, I will arrange with my lawyers to invest a sum of money for you so that you may be able to start life with something in hand. What do you wish to be?”
“I think if Bottles is wise he will be a detective,” suggested Vane.
Bottles turned a shining face towards the speaker. “That’s just what I want to be, sir. I can do it, I’m sure.”
“I think so also,” remarked Mrs. Perage gruffly. “But I hope Peter doesn’t want to be one also. I can’t have a juvenile Vidocq in my house.”
“Oh, Peter ain’t got no ambitions, mum,” said Bottles contemptuously. “He’s just as pleased as Punch to stay on with you and rise to be a butler and a footman.”
“I’ll look after Peter,” said Mrs. Perage, nodding briskly. “He has also had a share in this business which has cleared up the mystery, and he deserves to be rewarded. But see here,” she added sharply, “why didn’t you tell the police immediately about the murder?”
“Because I wanted to see what that little cove would do, mum. I guessed from his disguise that he intended to make out that Madame Alpenny had murdered the old cove. But I didn’t think he’d accuse Mr. Hench there.”
“Mr. Evans, Simon,” corrected Gwen quickly. “That is his real name.”
“I think I shall always be Hench to Bottles,” said Owain, laughing. “He can call me what he likes as he has done so much for me. But you would have saved a lot of trouble, Bottles, if you had told the police at once.”
“So the Inspector said, sir,” grinned the boy. “He gave me what-for, he did. But I wanted to see the game out, sir.”
Owain saw that Bottles would persist in regarding the whole dreadful business as a game, in spite of its terrible termination, so he left the subject alone. “But you might have guessed, my detective friend, that Spruce would accuse me, as he wanted to get my money. He committed the murder to trap me.”
“I thought he’d do that through Madame Alpenny when you married Miss Zara,” was the boy’s reply, promptly given. “As you’d never have liked your mother-in-law to be hanged. You didn’t mind my giving the address I got from Peter to Madame Alpenny and the little cove, did you, sir?”
“I did when I was in the dark. But now I see that you did so deliberately.”
“It was part of the game,” persisted Bottles coolly. “And as the little cove had gone so far, I knew he’d go further. If I hadn’t told him and Madame of your address they might have asked the police where you were.”
“That suggestion doesn’t do credit to your detective acumen, Bottles. Had either of the two brought the police into the matter, they would not have been able to get the expected money. Spruce was playing the blackmail game.”
“I see, sir.” Bottles rubbed his red head. “Well, I’ve got something to learn yet, I expect, as a ‘tec, and I ain’t above learning. But thank you for helping me, sir, and for helping mother. She’s a good one, is mother, and gave me such a talking for not having spoke out before.”
“Between the Inspector and your mother, I daresay you have had a bad time, Bottles,” said Vane idly.
“You bet I have, sir. But it don’t matter. I’ve enjoyed myself, I have, in pulling the strings.”
“It’s more than I have done,” said Owain languidly. “Good-bye, Bottles. Go home and tell your mother of my intentions. Next week I’ll fulfill my promise, as soon as I can see my solicitors and settle matters.”
“And, Simon,” said Mrs. Perage graciously, “you can go to the kitchen and have your dinner. Here’s a pound. Take Peter with you to town and to see your mother.”
“Thank you, mum; thank you, sir; thank everybody.” And Bottles disappeared with a happy grin, which made every one smile.
“Here comes Madame Alpenny and the Brackens,” announced Vane, who acted as a master of the ceremonies.
“I don’t like that old woman to come under my roof,” said Mrs. Perage, with a frown. “She’s a plotter and a schemer. But—”
“Oh, she’s only one of the fragments which have to be swept up,” said Gwen in a lively tone. “I don’t like her either; but I am so much obliged to Zara that I am quite willing Owain should help the old lady.”
“Old lady, indeed,” grumbled Mrs. Perage. “Old scamp, I call her. You can deal with her yourselves. I’m going.” And as the newcomers entered the room, she went out swiftly through the conservatory.
Zara looked pale, her husband confused, and both advanced with rather a shame-stricken air. Madame Alpenny, on the contrary, rushed forward and took Owain’s hand with effusion, beaming all over her harsh swart face. Considering how she had behaved when they last met, the young man was astonished by this friendly greeting. He scarcely knew what to say; but it appeared there was no need for him to say anything. Madame Alpenny did all the talking, so it was just as well that Mrs. Perage had left the room. Had that Amazonian dame remained, there assuredly would have been trouble.
“Ah, but I am delighted to see you looking so magnificent after your illness, dear Monsieur!” cried Madame, clasping Owain’s hand fondly within her own. “You terrified me greatly, as I thought you would perish. Ah, but it is good of the Heavens to preserve you to us.”
The young man withdrew his hand as soon as he recovered from his astonishment, and spoke very coldly. “You have changed your mind since our last meeting!”
Madame Alpenny threw up her fat hands. “Ah, but what would you, my dear sir? I was angered at losing so beautiful a son-in-law. I said much that I have wept for saying. And to you also, in the churchyard, Mademoiselle,” she added, turning to Gwen, who was frigid, “I spoke most wickedly. Ach! my dear young lady, you must forgive me for my open nature. We are all now friends here, I hope.”
She beamed all round the room, but there were no answering smiles. Zara laid her hand on her mother’s arm and drew her back. “I must ask your pardon, Mr. Hench, for all the trouble which has been brought to you,” she said seriously.
“It was not your fault, Mrs. Bracken, nor that of your husband,” said Owain very quickly. “I have nothing but friendship and admiration for you both, seeing the way in which you made the crooked straight between us,” and he glanced at Gwen fondly.
“Ah, what a good heart!” murmured the Hungarian lady, with her handkerchief to her eyes. “A heart of gold!”
“Shut up!” growled Bracken to his mother-in-law, and twitched the old head mantle which she still wore over the famous orange-spotted dress.
“I will not shut up, you rude man!” cried Madame Alpenny volubly. “Ah, to think of what I have suffered at the hands of Mistare Spruce, now happily deceased. He would have had me hanged!”
“Did he accuse you of committing the murder?” asked Vane sharply.
“But no. He was all sweetness and smiles. Yet, if Monsieur Hench had married Zara, then this Mistare Spruce would have accused me. He laid his plans to make me guilty. It was he, I find, who wrote the letter asking me to go to Hampstead. He wished me to be unable to prove where I was. If he had lived I should have put him in gaol,” ended Madame, with a frown.
“You nearly put Mr. Evans in gaol!” said Gwen icily.
“Mistare Evans. Ah, yes—the real name of Monsieur Hench. No, I would not have put him in gaol, Mademoiselle. My talk was what you call—eh, yes—bluff. I might have been his beloved mother had I accepted his father’s hand. Never would I have harmed him.”
“Oh, I think you would when you had me in your power, Madame,” said Owain dryly. “Remember what you talked about in the churchyard.”
“Bluff—all bluff, Monsieur.”
“It would have been better had you acted fairly with me and told the truth at our first conversation. Then I should have known that I was Madoc Evans’ heir and all this trouble would have been avoided. You also would have been the richer for such honesty, Madame.”
“Ah, but you will not turn from me now,” said Madame in a wheedling tone. “See, Monsieur Hench, it is through me you have money and marry this sweet angel. I am poor; I am deserving. So give me—”
“Mr. Hench will give you nothing, mother,” said Zara in a cold tone of displeasure. “I came down here to say good-bye to him and to take you out of his life. Mr. Hench,”—she faced round to Owain,—“my husband and I are going to America, where I have obtained a good engagement. My mother goes back to Hungary, and I will send her money to support her. Therefore it will not be necessary for you to give me that thousand pounds.”
“I wish to give it to you as a mark of my esteem,” insisted Hench, and Gwen endorsed this speech.
“I do not wish my wife to take it,” said Bracken, advancing to hold out his hand. “Good-bye, Mr. Evans, we have been here long enough. We shall always remember your kindness with gratitude.”
Owain shook the extended hand. “But I wish you would take the money, Bracken.”
“Ah, but do!” cried Madame Alpenny, feverishly greedy. “I can double it at cards. I am so lucky, I want to—”
“Come away, mother,” interrupted Zara, dragging her towards the door. “Mr. Hench will not give you a single penny!”
“Ingrate!” shouted Madame, turning at the door, out of which she was going, held firmly by Zara and Bracken. “After all I have done. Ach! the wickedness of the evil one. I gave him thousands, and he—he, the beast—the—” Here she was dragged into the hall by her scandalized daughter, and those in the drawing-room heard her voice loudly lamenting all the way down the avenue. In this manner was the Hungarian lady rewarded for her scheming. She did not benefit in the least.
“I’m glad she’s gone,” said Gwen, drawing a deep breath. “I don’t like her.”
“Nor do I,” said Owain, pulling the girl down beside him. “She nearly got me into the dock. But I am bound to say that she ran an equal risk from poor Spruce.”
“Poor Spruce, indeed!” cried Vane, turning from the window where he was watching the protesting Madame Alpenny being dragged down the avenue. “Why say good of a man who did nothing but evil?”
“Don’t be hard on him, Jim. After all, he has paid the penalty of his crime by suffering a terrible death.”
“You’re a good chap, Owain, so I won’t say another word. But never mention his name to me again if you can help.”
“We’ll never mention anything about the past if we can help,” said Gwen, as Owain slipped his arm round her. “Now all these people have gone let us try and forget them.”
“Oh, you’ll forget right enough,” said Vane, smiling. “When you marry Owain you will think of nothing but him.”
“He saved my life!” cried the future Mrs. Evans defiantly.
“In return you have saved mine,” murmured Owain. “Had you not nursed me back to life and love, where should I have been now? But the clouds have disappeared, my dear, and now the sunshine of life is ours. In three weeks we will get married quietly and go abroad for a year. Afterwards we can return to take up our position here.”
“And you will go back to your old home, Miss Evans,” said Vane, laughing. “Not much change about that.”
“A great deal of change!” cried Gwen hotly. “While I lived there with my poor father, the Grange was a house of hate; now it will be a mansion of love.”
“Quite so; you will be so happy that you won’t want to see any one.”
“Always you, Jim,” said Owain, holding out his hand, which the barrister took.
“And me also, I hope,” said Mrs. Perage, entering unexpectedly from the conservatory. “Hum! A touching tableau. The sweetheart, the angel of the sweetheart, and the true-hearted friend. Fudge!”
“You don’t mean that word!” cried Gwen.
“Perhaps I don’t.” Mrs. Perage rubbed her nose. “For to tell you the truth, I don’t know what the word means. I got it out of ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ and it seemed useful. I should like to have used it to that old woman who is screaming viciously all the way down the avenue. Really, young man, you have some very queer friends.”
“Well, I lived in Queer Street for a long time, you know!” said Owain, smiling.
“You’ll never live there again,” whispered Gwen.
“Lucky Owain!” mocked Vane. “No more hunger and thirst, hard beds and unpaid bills. You will henceforth lie in the lap of luxury.”
“Hum!” said Mrs. Perage gruffly. “There is a good luncheon: a much better one than you ever tasted in Queer Street, I’ll be bound. There’s the gong.”
Owain rose quickly and took Gwen’s arm. “And here begins the new life!” he said.
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