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Title: The Mystery of Fell Castle
Author: Arthur Gask
eBook No.: 2100011h.html
Date first posted: Jan 2021
Most recent update: May 2021
This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat
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There had been happenings in the pre-nuptial days of the beautiful young mistress of Fell Castle, so happily married to the heir of the Barony of Fell, which would bring a terrible disaster upon her if they were to become known. Suddenly she was faced with exposure by the man who had once betrayed her, but his lips were sealed by death, for he was murdered in the Castle grounds.
When Scotland Yard was called in, suspicion at once fell upon the young wife. Step by step, and with great resource, Gilbert Larose uncovers her past life, and what he found out and what happened afterwards form another thrilling chapter of the adventures of the great international detective.
UP to the very early years of this century, of all places in England, the little inland villages had been least affected by the noisy march of progress. Along the preceding hundred years the habits of their inhabitants had changed very slowly and their ways and customs crept on with leaden feet. The villagers took life easily and for the most part remained rooted to the places where they had been born.
They travelled little, and with most of them their horizon was bounded by the neighbouring market town. Strangely enough, whole districts in many parts of the straggling county of Essex, whose western borders creep up close to the smoke and grime of the great metropolis, were remaining more primitive than districts much farther away.
Even living as close as twenty and thirty miles of London as the crow fifes, in those days many old people could be found there who had never been up to the city, and many, many more of them who had never seen the sea. As for countries abroad and even nearby France, they thought of them only as places they had learnt about in their geography lesson at the village school, and as being almost as remote as if they had no real existence at all.
Except for the ponderous steam-roller, not many mechanically impelled contrivances were seen then upon any but the main roads, for the private motor-car was only just coming to be regarded as something more than a luxury of the wealthy classes, and pleasure travelling motorists avoided the by-roads because of their execrable quality and being either ankle deep in dust or mud, according to the season.
So private motor-cars were still a novelty in the outlying villages; public ones were as yet quite unknown, except for a few motor omnibuses, running only in big cities, where they were still an object of ridicule and derision because of their continual breaking down.
Picture palaces had not come into existence, and generally speaking there was not much inducement for the village folks to travel into towns. From one generation to another, therefore, their interests were centred all about where they lived.
Children were born in the same old cottages where their fathers and grandfathers had been born before them, and their little feet trod the same paths and narrow lanes as their forbears—whose dust now lay in the village churchyard—had done. Upon the same stiles where their parents had sat and courted, they sat and kissed, too, with their love-stories no doubt every bit as wonderful as any of those of their ancestors had been.
In the main, the dwellers in these little villages were quite contented with their lot for, if they earned little, their money yet went quite a long way. A two-pound loaf could be bought for tuppence-ha'penny, excellent tea was a shilling a pound, a pint of good strong ale cost tuppence, and tobacco was from threepence to fourpence an ounce.
The children, too, shared in the general cheapness of everything, and at the village little general shop, of such happy-smelling memory in after years, sweets could be bought by the farthing's worth, or two long, fat sugar-sticks or sixteen big, luscious-looking brandy balls obtained for a penny.
With these conditions prevailing, the labouring man upon eighteen or nineteen shillings a week could live quite comfortably. The rent of the cottage was probably only eighteen-pence a week and, with the produce of his little garden, plus a bit of poaching, he could bring up a family of ten or eleven children, sturdy, strong-looking boys and rosy-cheeked, plump, full-bosomed girls.
One such village as I am picturing, White Easter, lay in the Essex Rodings, in the heart of a district enclosed by the towns of Chipping Ongar, Great Dunmow and Chelmsford. It was seven miles from a railway station and contained only one good-sized house, the Vicarage. The church was nearly eight hundred years old and the living, as so often happens even in the smaller country villages, was a good one, being worth nearly £700 a year. The Vicar was an absent-minded old gentleman well over seventy. He had been an Oxford Don and the living had been presented to him as a reward for long services to his University.
White Easter had a population of about a hundred and sixty, with all the men being either hands on neighbouring farms or working on the roads. Living in such conditions, their outlook on things generally was necessarily a very constricted one. Everyone knew everyone else's business and the main topics of conversation were what their neighbours were doing, the price of pigs and cows, and the begetting of all forms of life. Insignificant little happenings interested them hugely.
For example, one Sunday the Vicar was very surprised at the large congregation at one of the services. It was only an ordinary service to be followed by a christening, but to his great gratification all the village appeared to be present. He referred to it that night at supper to his elderly and rather sour-looking maiden sister who kept house for him, remarking that he should certainly write to the Bishop and tell him it seemed a great revival in religion was coming.
"Don't you do anything so foolish," snapped his sister. "I'm sure one day you'll be making yourself ridiculous." Her eyes flashed. "I think all those people being there this afternoon was simply scandalous!"
"My dear, my dear," exclaimed the Vicar, most astonished at her outburst, "how can a good attendance at church be scandalous?"
"Well, it was this time," she went on acidly. "Don't you realise that they came only for the christening of that Tomkin woman's baby?" She spoke scathingly. "If you hadn't such a shocking memory, Augustine, you would have remembered you had only married the parents of the child a bare three months ago."
"So I did, so I did!" exclaimed the old Vicar, looking very crestfallen. "I had forgotten that."
"Yes," added his sister, "and you made things much worse by what you said to them. You held them up as an example for following the Scriptural injunction of being fruitful and multiplying." She nodded viciously. "I saw several people tittering and they won't get any coal, because of it, at Christmas."
With this lively interest in all the happenings of their little world, it can be readily understood what a thrill went through the village when it was found out that Ben Martin and his wife, Jane, had got a stranger, a young woman, staying with them on their farm and were, apparently, not wanting to tell anyone about her.
Ben's farm was quite a good-sized one for the district, comprising as it did, about a hundred and fifty acres, and it lay a mile and more distant from the village. He worked it ail himself and never employed any labour. A childless elderly couple, and of a decidedly superior class to the ordinary villagers, the Martins had come to White Easter some seven or eight years previously but, keeping themselves very much to themselves, very little was known of their histories or private affairs.
It was rumoured, however, though no one knew how the rumour had first arisen, that Mrs. Martin in her younger days had been in the service of some noble family and it was from a legacy which had been left her that her husband had been able to establish himself upon such a good farm.
The villagers were most annoyed they did not know when the stranger had arrived, and were certain she must have come secretly, because no one had noticed Martin's dog-cart, his only conveyance, passing down the village road. So she must have come either late at night, when everyone was in bed, or else have been brought by way of some of the by-roads, quite a couple of miles farther round from any of the railway stations.
It was the postwoman who caught sight of her first. She was delivering one of the rare letters the Martins received and, walking up the short path which led to the house, was surprised to catch sight of someone she did not know. It was quite a young woman she saw in the little garden by the side of the house. She called out "good morning," but the stranger took no notice of her greeting and disappeared quickly out of sight round the back of the house.
She did not get a good view of her face, but described her later in the village as being tall, elegant-looking and smartly dressed. Everyone wondered whom she could be, as the Martins, in all the years they had been there, had never been known to have a visitor before.
The next person to see her was Teddy Nicholls, a lout of a young fellow in the late teens, who had gone after a straying cow in one of the by-lanes. His description of her was that she looked "a toff." As with the postwoman, though he passed close by her and she returned his "good day," he did not see much of her face, because she was wearing a dark veil.
It was some days before Mrs. Martin came into the village, and then the woman who kept the little shop, knowing everyone would be expecting her to find out all she could, ventured to remark:
"So you've got a visitor staying with you, Mrs. Martin?"
Mrs. Martin nodded. "Yes, a niece of mine. She's just recovered from a bad illness and has come to me for perfect quiet and rest until she's quite strong again."
In the ensuing weeks several people caught sight of the stranger, but nearly always in the distance upon the fields of Martin's farm, as she never took her walks anywhere near the village. One day, however, Sarah Bates, whose husband worked on the roads, came face to face with her in a little lane by the Martins' farm. Sarah was thrilled, though the encounter in a way was a most unsatisfactory one. Again, hardly anything of the woman's face could be seen because of the veil, but she returned Sarah's "good afternoon" in what the latter said was a swell voice. She was reported as wearing a very pretty hat, a loose coat of good material and very expensive-looking tan shoes with high heels.
"She's no relation of Janet Martin," scoffed Sarah that night to her cronies. "She's a real lady, she is, and what she's doing up there I don't know. What she'd got on must have cost a pretty penny and though she spoke to me quite pleasant-like, you could tell she thought she was somebody."
So Mrs. Martin's visitor became known as the mysterious lady and any news about her was good gossip. Everyone was most disappointed she received no letters, as they had all been hoping to learn her name in that way.
The Vicar's sister heard about her through one of the maids and thought it her duty to call upon Mrs. Martin and see if she could be of any help. She came away, however, very disgusted, and most annoyed that Mrs. Martin was not one of those who received coal at Christmas so that it could be cut out.
She had not been allowed to meet the stranger and, more than that, had been told quite curtly that the latter would not be able to see her later on. By doctor's orders she was to have no visitors at all.
All this, by way of the Vicarage maids, went round the village and, as can be easily imagined, the interest in the Martins' guest lost nothing in consequence. That there was some mystery, everyone was certain.
So things went on for several months and then, suddenly, light came and the village was smacking its lips over one of the tastiest little bits of scandal that in all its history it had ever picked up.
The discovery came in this way.
One Sunday Tom Butters, a middle-aged farm-hand of decidedly bibulous propensities, when he was able to rattle a few coppers in his pocket in the little village inn, was engaged in his usual Sabbath morning occupation of trying to poach a nice fat rabbit. He was trespassing on the property of Squire Bannister of the adjoining Parish of Black Easter.
The squire's land ended in a small coppice of trees circling the top of a small disused lime quarry which was on Ben Martin's land. Tommy felt pretty safe he would not be caught, because the squire was a regular attendant at church and not likely to be anywhere about at that time of a Sunday morning.
For all that, however, he had brought one of his boys with him and posted him just outside the coppice to give notice of anyone's approach. Then, taking a vicious-looking ferret out of his pocket and three or four nets out of another, he proceeded to business. Almost at once he had good luck, for two nice rabbits came bolting into the nets.
They were all Tom wanted, for he could not stow away more than two upon his person and pass inspection if by any chance he met the village constable, when going home. So the ferret and nets were returned to their respective pockets and, with the rabbits buttoned up tightly under his jacket, he was all ready to get out of danger.
Walking, however, through the small trees to get back to his waiting son, he came quite close to the top of the quarry and, happening to look down over the side, to his great astonishment saw there was a strange woman there. She was evidently an artist, for she was standing before a small canvas resting upon an easel. She must, he thought, be painting a gnarled willow by the quarryside. She was tall and very good-looking, and, though not exactly a girl, was yet he reckoned well under thirty.
For a few moments he did not realise his good fortune, but then, with a gasp of astonishment, he flattened himself down so that he should not be seen.
He, Tom Butters, was having a close up view of the mysterious lady of Ben Martin's farm!
With his breath coming quickly, he watched her. Oh, what a story to tell his wife! What a feather in his cap it would be that he had seen her without her veil! Then suddenly he gave a low whistle and a broad grin spread over his face. He would have more to tell than that he had seen the stranger!
Returning to his cottage with all haste, after telling Maggy, his wife, what had happened, he whispered something more in her ear. It was not so much because certain of his nine children were of tender age and supposed to be ignorant of the great secret of life that he whispered, but just because he wanted to accentuate the importance of the information he was imparting.
He was not disappointed. His wife was thrilled. "My," she exclaimed delightedly, "and we none of us thought of that!"
"And so she's a Mrs," he nodded, "and not a Miss as we all imagined."
She looked at him scornfully. "But you be a great gaby, Tom," she said. "She be a Miss right enough, and that's what she came down here for, all on the quiet and so that no one should see her."
Within half an hour all the village had heard the news and Maggy Butters's little bit of front garden was thronged with visitors. Later, quite a number of middle-aged and elderly women took an unaccustomed Sunday afternoon's walk up and down the lanes in the vicinity of Ben Martin's farm. They met with no reward, however, and Tom's triumph continued to be an undiluted one. When the village inn opened that evening he was the hero of the hour until closing time, and over and over again was called upon to relate what he had seen. His wife, too, was entertaining in their little cottage until quite a late and unaccustomed hour.
Maggy Butters, in her way, was a shrewd woman and, tasting popularity for the first time, was not minded it should wane. So, telling herself that if the Martins' mysterious visitor had gone to paint in the quarry on that Sunday morning, then it was highly probable she would go there again, perhaps every day, so she hit upon a plan to keep the fires of excitement burning. She thought at once of a cousin in London, a boot repairer in Shoreditch who in his spare time took snapshots with his camera.
So the next day she wrote to him to come down on his bicycle early the following Sunday morning and bring the camera with him. She promised a couple of nice rabbits or perhaps even a plump partridge as his reward.
The cousin duly arrived, and being told he was to hide above the quarry and take a snap of the artist below, delightedly entered into the spirit of the adventure.
"I'll get half a dozen snaps," he grinned, "so that one of them at least will show us what we want."
To Tom's great sorrow, he was not able to go with him as he had ricked his ankle and was having to lay up for a day or two. His boy, however, would show the cousin where to go. The latter was thrilled that he would be trespassing upon some "rich toff's" land and boasted what a fierce fight he would put up if anyone, squire or no squire, tried to lay hands upon him.
He was not, however, interfered with and apparently his mission was quite successful. He saw the woman with her easel and got six good snaps.
"But I was lucky," he said upon his return to the cottage. "Another two minutes and I should have missed her, as she'd evidently just finished painting and come to take away her things, a big box, an easel and a deck-chair. They looked a good load, I can tell you."
"She's a fine-looking gal, ain't she?" grinned Tom.
"Not bad," replied the cousin, "but not as young or tasty as I thought from what you said she would be." He winked knowingly. "But things are as you thought they were. There's no doubt about that."
The coming of the snaps was awaited eagerly and when they arrived towards the end of the week Maggy Butters's hands trembled so violently that she could hardly open the envelope. Then, when she took out the snaps, she received a terrible shock, for instead of them being of some good-looking and aristocratic lady, they were those of Janet Martin! 'Plain Janet' Martin with her homely features and a form as flat as a washing board! Poor Maggy wept tears of vexation.
Time went on and the summer passed to its height, but all the villagers now saw of the Martins' visitor was a figure in the distance. Evidently, they thought, she knew she was attracting attention and so never took her walks in the lanes.
Then one day the village received a dreadful blow. Mrs. Martin was in the little village shop and the woman there enquired after the health of the visitor.
"Oh, my niece!" exclaimed Mrs. Martin. "Thank you, but she's quite well again now. She went home about three weeks ago," and the shopwoman was so bewildered and upset that she was sure afterwards she had charged her customer several pence less than she should have done.
FROM the very beginning Sister Norman's small private hospital was an undoubted success, and so it ought to have been, as the sister was most capable and up to date in her methods. She had been well trained and, in the middle thirties, was a woman of pleasant personality and full of energy.
All the local doctors liked her and sent her as many of their patients as they were able to. She specialised in maternity cases, and it was a poor week when the stork did not drop at least one baby at the hospital.
One morning a respectable and quietly-dressed woman came to interview Sister Norman. She stated she came from the country, from the village of White Easter in Essex, and wanted to put her niece under the sister's care to have her baby. She said the baby was not due for nearly a. month but her niece, being of a very nervous temperament, wanted to come up as soon as possible so that she could have perfect peace and quiet and not be bothered by the visits of her friends.
Sister Norman was quite agreeable but said the charge would be the usual five guineas a week. The woman said that would be quite all right, but asked to see the room her niece would have. The inspection being satisfactory, it was arranged the patient should come up in three days' time. The woman said her niece was a Mrs. Hunt, whose husband was a clerk employed by a big tea company and at present abroad. She asked Sister Norman to engage the best doctor, but did not enquire what his fee would be. She paid down in advance two weeks' hospital charges. The patient duly arrived and with two big trunks and, rather to the sisters surprise, was of a very different appearance to her aunt. She was refined and aristocratic and very good-looking. Of a reserved and distant manner, however, her face was sad and unsmiling. She was very well dressed and every article of clothing she took out of her trunk, which she always kept locked, was of the finest quality.
She gave no trouble and, because of the little attention she required, Sister Norman congratulated herself upon the acquisition of a very profitable patient. She engaged a Dr. Nelson to attend her and the doctor came to see her. He was a busy, bustling man, well on in middle age, reputed to be very good at his work but with little to say for himself. He advised the expectant mother not to make an invalid of herself, but to get plenty of sunshine and fresh air and take lots of walking exercise.
His patient, however, ignored his advice and never went out until dark had fallen, and then only for short walks and, apparently, to buy papers and expensive society magazines of which there were always a good quantity lying about her room.
The weeks passed quickly and then, upon one of his evening visits to the hospital, Dr. Nelson stopped to chat for a few minutes to Sister Norman in the latter's private room.
"Neither of those two patients will be long now," he remarked. "Both Mrs. Hunt and Mrs. Fontaine should be ready any day, almost any hour, now."
Sister Norman hooded her eyes significantly. "But what do you think of this Mrs. Hunt, Doctor?" she asked.
"She's perfectly healthy," he replied, "and everything should be quite normal. We should have no trouble there."
"Oh, I didn't mean that," said the sister quickly. "I meant what do you think of her as a woman?"
The doctor's face was almost expressionless. "She's of a better class than we usually get here," he said. "She's a gently nurtured woman."
"Of course she is," nodded the sister. "She's never done a day's work in her life from the look of her hands." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Do you know, Doctor, I think there's something very mysterious about her. She's been here a whole month now and never had a single visitor except that woman from the country who brought her here and calls herself her aunt. She's not had a letter, either, though she's always writing letters herself. She writes reams of them and on most expensive notepaper, too. Nurse Smith says the paper's got a monogram or something and an embossed address upon it, but she's never been close enough to see what they are."
The doctor's interest was stirred a little. "Who does she write to?" he asked.
The sister shook her head. "We don't know. We never see the letters. She posts them all herself when she goes out at night." She nodded vehemently. "And she gets plenty of letters, too, though they don't come addressed here. That aunt brings them to her. After she's been, and she comes at least twice a week, there's always a whole heap of ashes in the grate, all crumpled up so that no one can read anything."
Dr. Nelson smiled a grim smile. "A romance, you think?" he asked.
"I'm sure of it," replied the sister, "and, as you say, she comes of a very superior class." She spoke scornfully. "That aunt's no more her aunt than I am. Why, it's hard for the woman not to speak deferentially to her, and when she calls her Mary she always makes a sort of gulp at the name, as if she didn't like to use it. As for Mrs. Hunt's clothes, they're all of the most expensive quality,"—she sniffed—"with all the markings where they were bought cut out."
The doctor's smile broadened. "Well, at any rate she's a most polite woman to talk to."
"Oh, yes, she's all that," agreed Sister Norman instantly, "and she couldn't be nicer. She gives us no trouble at all—" she made a grimace—"very different to that Mrs. Fontaine, who's a nuisance all day and all night long. We shall be glad when her baby's come and she's gone."
"Ah, and that reminds me," said the doctor. "You've not let her have any alcohol, nothing at all?"
"Not a drop, Doctor, and she's been most unpleasant in consequence. She's a heavy drinker by habit, and what the baby'll be like I can't think with both parents like that."
"Very probably a beautiful child," laughed the doctor. "It often happens so." He frowned. "Has Monsieur Fontaine been here lately?"
"Yes, last night, well after midnight. He said he couldn't get away from the Opera before. He was half drunk, as usual, and brought his violin with him and wanted to play. Then he started abusing his wife and told us all, openly, that he didn't believe the child which was coming was his. We had quite a business in getting rid of him."
"I've heard him play," nodded the doctor, "and he's a real artist. If it weren't for the drink he'd be high up in his profession."
He seemed to remember something. "Ah, talking about drink—" he hesitated a few moments, "what about that Nurse Smith here? Does she drink? She seems quite funny to me to-night and smells strongly of cloves."
Sister Norman got very red. "She says she's had toothache, Doctor, and just rinsed out her mouth with a teaspoonful of brandy. That is all."
The doctor shook his head. "No, she's had much more than that. At any rate, you watch her."
Leaving the hospital, Dr. Nelson went straight to a nearby chemist. "Look here, Polson," he said sternly, "I'm going to speak straight to you. Have you been supplying Sister Norman with any cocaine lately?"
The chemist looked most uncomfortable. "Yes, Doctor," he replied with evident reluctance, "she had some from me last week."
"I thought so," nodded the doctor. "I've just come from her and her pupils are as big as saucers, but I've been suspecting her for some time now. And how long have you been giving it to her?"
The chemist considered. "About a year, Doctor. She said she wanted it for the hospital. She explained they used a lot there."
"And you believed her?" asked the doctor scornfully. "Then what amounts has she been having?"
"About a dram, say every fortnight or three weeks."
The doctor raised his hand warningly. "Then if you let her have any more you may be finding yourself the chief witness at an inquest any day. You understand? Don't give her another grain."
The chemist looked frightened. "All right, Doctor, I won't. I'll say an order's been made forbidding its sale except upon a doctor's prescription."
"And the order ought to have been made long ago," growled the doctor, "but we're only just realising what harm cocaine may do!" He nodded. "I'll speak to her, too, myself, the next time I see her. I'll have a quiet talk with her and tell her she'll have to be put away if she doesn't stop taking it."
It was not destined, however, that Dr. Nelson should have any time for a quiet talk with Sister Norman the next time he saw her, as just as he was getting into bed that night the telephone rang and her voice came over excitedly that he was wanted at once.
"For which patient?" he asked.
"Both," she replied. "I've kept from calling you as long as I could, but things are going to happen quickly now, and the matter is urgent."
So that night two babies were born in the hospital and their arrivals were so close together that Nurse Smith, in an adjoining room, had only just been given one baby to bathe and attend to when another was rushed in wrapped in its blanket. They were both girls.
The nurse was heavy and dull-witted, either from her supposed toothache or from the amount of the remedy she had taken to cure it, and she smelt more strongly than ever of cloves. Anyhow, she bathed the babies clumsily, bundled them anyhow into their respective clothes, and tucked them up into the respective cribs she was of opinion they were to occupy. Then she chewed vigorously upon a couple more cloves, devoutly hoping that the doctor would not be coming into the room.
So later, as Dr. Nelson had laughingly predicted, the drunken musician's wife was presented with a bonnie, vigorous baby, while poor Mrs. Hunt was told her little daughter had expired suddenly during the night.
A fortnight later both mothers had left the hospital.
Thus, upon what small things do great ones depend and how big a part does Chance so often play in all our lives! If Nurse Smith had not happened to take just a few sips too many of that brandy upon the night when those two babies were born she would not have placed them in the wrong cribs, much suffering would have been spared many innocent people and murder would not have lifted its ugly head. The results of her carelessness were to be far-reaching, and long after she herself had passed away were to reverberate thunderously down the years. Will it ever be given to us to learn why such things must be?
BY no stretch of imagination could it have been said that little Christine Fontaine had a happy childhood. She received little petting from her parents, her mother resenting she had arrived to spoil her figure and curtail her goings out for amusement, and her father was never quite convinced that she was really his child.
The two quarrelled incessantly and, often short of money, their bickerings were the more bitter on that account. Really, however, they should have been fairly well off, as Jules Fontaine was a fine musician and in receipt of a good salary as first violinist at the Opera House. Moreover, he had plenty of private pupils. Both he and his wife, however, drank heavily and, added to that, the latter spent every penny she could get hold of on clothes. Wherever they lived tradesmen were continually coming up to dun for money, and the frequent migrations of the Fontaines from one suburb to another were generally due to their wanting to escape from their creditors.
Maida Vale, St. John's Wood, Putney, West Kensington and Finsbury Park, had all had their disgruntled tradesmen, and it was a standing joke with his colleagues at the Opera House for them to tell Jules that someone was waiting outside for him.
"A nasty-looking fellow, Jules," they would grin, "and he's got a blue paper sticking out of his pocket."
Maimie Fontaine had been a singer on the Halls when Jules had married her, but, of third-rate ability, she had never made much headway, with her repertoire of highly suggestive songs being acceptable only at places of poor repute. At one time she had been attractive in her way, but with a coarse, florid kind of prettiness which had faded early.
She always had a lot of men friends and her husband, of a naturally jealous disposition, could never be certain how far she had gone with them. She had been twenty-seven when her baby had been born and always averred angrily that the coming of the child had added quite ten years to her appearance.
With such parents it can be understood Christine did not have a good time. Her mother took little notice of her except to give her plenty of slaps. Her father, however, was never unkind to her, though he was not at all interested in her. Occasionally, under the mellowing influences of plenty of whisky, he would toss her a sixpence or a shilling, but her birthdays were never an occasion of rejoicing and she never had the child-like thrills of looking forward to them.
She was not always well fed, she was badly dressed, and she was sent to the cheapest schools. The landladies of the houses in which her parents had their many apartments were, however, nearly always friendly with her, and it was by no means to be wondered at for, with all her sad upbringing, Christine was an attractive child.
With her good features, her auburn hair, her perfect complexion and beautiful violet eyes she had the promise of being far more than ordinarily good-looking when she grew up, and there was a quiet dignity about her, even as a little child, that warmed the hearts of strangers towards her.
"Never mind, dearie," said a stout, hard-breathing West Kensington landlady one day when Christine had been slapped well and truly by her mother, "Your time will come one day. You'll have plenty of sweethearts when you're a big girl, and they'll make it up to you for everything."
When Christine was ten the Fontaines had a great slice of luck, for an uncle of Jules dying, he came into a legacy of £1,000. It was untold wealth to the hard-up musician and his wife and they moved at once from Finsbury Park to Chelsea, renting a small house there, and engaging a maid.
It was a good move in many ways for Jules and for a time, at any rate, his altered circumstances restored the self-respect of which his drunken habits had robbed him. He found himself now among a more congenial class of people, musicians like himself, artists, writers and sculptors and, wearing a good suit of clothes and pulling himself resolutely together, he was received by them on most friendly terms as a brother in the fine arts. He and his wife were invited out quite a lot and, always willing to bring his violin and of a likeable personality, he became a general favourite with everyone.
To her credit it must be said Mrs. Fontaine tried to turn over a new leaf, too, but the effort was too much for her and after only a few months of boring respectability, she began lapsing into her old ways again.
She took to drinking heavily on the quiet, returned to her usual coarse and ribald style of conversation in public, and started making violent and unblushing advances to any members of the opposite sex who happened to take her fancy. Everyone was most amused but, broad-minded though they were in their moral code, felt very sorry for Jules and, if anything, were more kindly disposed towards him in consequence.
Then the best thing which could have happened did, for Maimie Fontaine died suddenly after only a few days illness, from an acute attack of bronchitis.
Christine was then twelve years of age, a long-legged weedy little thing, with skinny arms but beautiful hands and tapering fingers. In a way she regretted her mother's death, but was happy there would be no more of the dreadful quarrels when it happened both of them had had too much to drink.
In another way it was a good thing, too, Maimie Fontaine had died when she did, for Jules had come right to the end of his thousand pounds and the duns were beginning to gather again. His financial worries made him start drinking again and Christine was always terrified of what he was going to do when he came home after he had had too much.
Fortunately, the little home in Chelsea was now being run by a housekeeper and Christine had someone by her to keep her out of her father's way when he was in what they called "his moods." She now went to a better school, and was better clothed but, of set purpose, made no particular friends among the other girls there, because she knew she would be too ashamed ever to bring them to her poverty-stricken home. Sometimes money was so tight that not only were the housekeeper's wages months in arrears, but also it was difficult to buy the barest necessities of life.
Approaching sixteen Christine was becoming a very beautiful girl and Jules's artist friends began to take notice of her. One of them in particular, Arnold Ransome, a rather dissolute man of good family, in his late forties, became a great admirer of hers. He was well known to have a catholic taste for good looks where the other sex was concerned but, for all that, had no difficulty in obtaining Jules's consent for Christine to sit for him as a model. He paid her generously but, having a good idea how tight money was in the Fontaine household, made it a stipulation of his employing her that she should have the money for herself.
Christine was very grateful to him and soon came to regard him as quite the nicest of her father's friends. He always treated her with the greatest respect for, strangely enough, all inclinations of his baser nature had been swept away by her so apparent unawareness that he was a dangerous employer for her to have.
It was not that Christine was entirely innocent of the happenings of life. On the contrary, she had often heard of the misfortunes which came to young girls, but it never entered into her imagination that by any chance they could come to her. She was not of that kind, she told herself, and, serene in her modesty and self-respect, she had no fear of being alone with any man. She would have laughed if anyone had warned her against Ransome and have probably replied that he was nearly as old as her father, as if that were a perfect guarantee of his being quite respectable.
So her relations with the artist were most happy ones, with Ransome often wondering sadly how such a lovely flower had ever come to blossom in such dreadful surroundings as the Fontaine home.
Then one evening Jules was brought home unconscious, having been knocked down in the street in one of his drunken bouts. He died during the night and a subscription had to be raised among his friends to give him a decent burial. Christine found herself penniless. Not only that, but she was warned she could not sell a stick of the furniture as everything would have to go to the creditors.
With no relations she was at her wits' end to know what to do when Ransome came round to the house.
"You've no plans?" he asked brusquely. "Then what about coming to me as my housekeeper? I'll give you ten shillings a week and extra when I want you as a model."
Tears filled Christine's eyes as she assented gratefully.
"Then get your things together at once," he said—he smiled a grim smile—"before anyone tries to stop you. Go up and pack this instant. The creditors can't claim anything that belongs to you, and I'll be round here with a taxi in a quarter of an hour."
So Christine was installed forthwith in Ransome's flat, and even the lax and careless Bohemian world in which the latter moved was very shocked. Ransome was the last person to have charge of a young girl, and everyone was agreed something should be done to prevent it. Still, he was of a masterful and strong personality, and no one seemed particularly anxious to take the first step. However, a brother artist, bolder than the others, ventured to remonstrate with him and tell him it was not a fair thing for the girl.
"You know what you are, Arnold," he said bluntly, "and it will damn the poor child all her life having lived alone with you."
Ransome did not appear in the least offended, but for all that there was a steely glint in his eyes as he retorted with a grim smile:
"Don't you worry, my friend. The old rogue has turned gaoler for once and little Christine will come to no harm through me. I'm adopting her and have appointed myself her guardian."
The other shook his head.
"But you'll have trouble," he said ominously. "That girl's growing up devilishly good-looking and she'll soon be having all the men after her. You'll have to knock them away with a stick. She'll want a lot of protecting."
"Perhaps so," nodded Ransome coldly, "but I'll give it to her. I promise you she's going to be no light of love for any man. I'll teach her to place a proper value on herself."
His friend still appeared dubious. "But she may turn out to be the very spit of her mother, and remember what a lot of worry Maimie gave poor old Jules. If she'd lived much longer he'd have been bound to have divorced her."
"But Christine is not all her mother," snapped Ransome. "She's got a lot of her father in her and that will steady her, at any rate as far as running after the other sex is concerned."
The other laughed. "But all the same, old boy, she's not cut out for a nun, not with those lovely violet eyes and that mouth of hers."
"What's wrong with her mouth?" asked Ransome sharply. "Her lips are beautifully shaped."
"Of course they are," nodded his friend, "and as a portrait painter none should appreciate it better than I do, but they're sensuous, Ransome, they're passionate, and they'll want a lot of kissing to satisfy them."
"And they'll get it," said Ransome sharply, "but as long as I'm looking after her it'll come only from the right man—" he looked very grim, "one who means business as well as pleasure."
With Christine's coming, to everyone's amazement, a great change came over Ransome's way of life and, from being lax in his relations with the other sex, he became almost puritanical in his dealings with them. When models were sitting for him, Christine was always present, with the intention, so he made out, that the latter should learn the art of posing properly. It was noticed, too, that he picked models now from only among those who were reputed to be of good moral reputation.
Also, he was much more careful in his conversation and risque stories were no longer told in his studio. As he had stated he would do, he regarded Christine as if she were his own daughter and in the years which followed, until she had well passed her nineteenth birthday, he looked after her well. He often talked about having her trained in some special occupation, but it being his inveterate habit to put things off as much as possible, nothing eventuated.
Freed now from the unhappiness and worries of her old life, Christine had become animated and bright and, as Ransome often told her smilingly, she had come like a ray of sunshine into his declining years.
She called him uncle and appeared quite contented with her lot, cooking and mending for him and keeping the flat scrupulously clean and tidy. No housekeeper had managed so well before and the studio, in particular, looked very different from what it had been before she came. She painted a little, did a little fancy sewing and read a lot. She could both read and speak French as well as English.
Appreciating his kindness, she became very devoted to him, in time regarding him with far more affection than she had ever given to her father. They had long and intimate conversations together, Ransome talking freely of his experiences in life, always with the direct purpose, however, of pointing some moral to impress upon her in what ways she was to look after herself.
Ransome was not by any means well-to-do, all his income depending upon what his paintings fetched but, being quite a fair artist, he could generally manage to sell anything he had painted, among a small number of patrons he had. However, working as he did, only in fits and starts, he was often, comparatively speaking, hard up and then, with no outings or treats, things were rather monotonous for a girl of Christine's age.
Still, when a good cheque came in, her life brightened up considerably, as then Ransome took her out to restaurants, concerts, pictures and theatres, and gave merry little parties to fellow-artists and their friends, in the flat. He was very proud of her good looks.
All along, however, as far as possible, he was careful whom Christine got to know, keeping those he thought undesirable at a distance. Not that he was in any way prudish and made her deny herself to the admirers who appeared. On the contrary, he allowed her plenty of freedom with those he approved of, at the same time always giving her what he considered wise counsel. In particular he was always warning her against carrying on the slightest flirtation with any married man.
"Never set your feet on any path that's going to lead you nowhere," he said, "and so don't ever start being friendly with a man who's got a wife already. Married men are always the most dangerous to young girls because they know the weaknesses of every woman. They have no illusion that nature has made woman stronger than man to resist natural impulses and, besides, they are much bolder and quicker than the unmarried ones in their advances."
"Single men are sometimes quite bold enough," laughed Christine merrily. "They often want quite a lot of keeping in order."
Ransome seemed to remember something and frowned. "Oh, the other night at that Mendel party," he asked, "did young Harkness want to kiss you when he took you out into the garden?"
Christine looked demure and pretended to think. "Yes, I believe he did," she replied. Then, as there was always complete confidence between them, she went on smilingly, "Yes, of course, he did, and he kissed me once. But it was a very short kiss, Uncle dear, and I didn't kiss him back. I didn't allow myself any thrills."
"And don't you ever," said Ransome sternly, "until the man who really wants to marry you, and of whom I approve, comes along. It will be time enough then for you to start thrilling, as you call it, and running bad risks." He went on earnestly, "I'm always preaching to you that a good marriage is what you must aim for, and you mind your steps until you've made one. I've told you repeatedly what men are and remember—one slip, only one little slip, and you'll be lucky if you've not ruined all your chances for life."
"All right," laughed Christine. "I promise you I'll be very careful."
"All women intend to do that," he grunted, "but they're emotional creatures and once they start letting themselves go, they find they've not strength enough to draw back. I've seen that over and over again during all my life." He shook his head grimly. "It's very hard, my girl, for even the most prudent woman to deny anything to the man she's become fond of."
"Really, Uncle, you have a very bad opinion of us poor women, haven't you?" she suggested.
"Not at all," he replied warmly. "I have the highest opinion of the sex, for nearly all the happiness a man gets in life comes through some woman or other. First his mother, then his sweetheart or his wife and, finally, as often as not it is his daughter who looks after him to the end." He raised his hand warningly. "I'm only trying to impress upon you that all you women are weak."
"Then how can we help ourselves?" smiled Christine. "You mustn't blame us for it."
"I don't blame you," he retorted instantly. "I'm devilish sorry for you, and the only way you can save yourselves is to keep out of danger. That's it. Look ahead and never be alone with a man unless there are plenty of other people close by."
One evening when they had got back from a party at a friend's house he said frowningly, "Look here, Christine, you were talking much too much tonight with that Captain Blair. He's a fellow I don't like."
"But he's not married," exclaimed Christine, rather surprised.
"So he says," scoffed Ransome, "but who knows if it's the truth? He's just the type to be married and separated from his wife. He'd make a rotten husband and give anyone he lives with a bad time. If he's not married then he's certain to have mistresses all over the place."
"But I'd never be one of them," flashed Christine with some indignation, "so don't you worry there." She spoke warmly. "I think you're unjust, Uncle. Captain Blair seems a perfect gentleman to me, and he's most interesting to talk to. He's done exploring all over the world and written a book about it all."
"Everyone is aware of that," retorted Ransome, "but what his private life is, no one knows. I've been meeting him on and off for years and I've never heard him mention his private affairs. Where he gets his money from is a mystery, too."
"He seems to be well-off," remarked Christine. "He's got a Rolls-Royce car and a beautifully furnished flat in Dorchester Square."
"He told you that?" queried Ransome frowningly. "Trying to dazzle you, eh?"
Christine laughed merrily.
"No, he didn't tell me, but Mrs. Hall did. She thinks him a most eligible party for any girl to get hold of."
"Well, I don't," commented Ransome sharply. "As I say, he'd be no good to any woman whether she was married to him or not. He's a hard-bitten seasoned man of the world and as selfish and as heartless as they make them. So you keep out of his way and don't let him hypnotise you. You'll regret it if you do."
A few weeks after this conversation tragedy came again into Christine's life, for Ransome contracted pneumonia and was dead within the week. Christine knew that, with his usual habit of putting things off, he had not altered his will in her favour, which he had always said he was intending to do, so she was quite aware that what little effects there were would go to his only sister who all along had regarded her with hostility, strongly disapproving of her brother having taken her to live under his care.
As Christine had expected, this sister arrived with the least possible delay at the flat to take possession of everything and, a hard suspicious woman, she told her, with no beating about the bush, in what an unfavourable light she regarded her association with her dead brother. She added scornfully that that was the opinion held by everyone else, too, even by her brother's closest friends.
Christine went deathly white in her indignation, and protested her innocence furiously, but she was no match for the elder woman in invective and was soon reduced to tears.
"You're a liar," she panted, "and a vile bad woman, too. No one has ever thought that of me."
"Oh, haven't they?" scoffed the other. "Why, it's been the common talk ever since you've come here. There's not a person who didn't know it. They've pretended not to notice, but they all tumbled to what was going on." She nodded viciously. "You see you'll have plenty of offers from the men to take on housekeeping—" she stressed the word, "on the same terms."
In great misery and dreadful bitterness, Christine gathered her few belongings together and left the flat within half an hour. Fortunately she was not without money, as Ransome's death had occurred during one of his good periods and, only a few days before he had been taken ill, he had given her £20 to buy some new clothes.
Letting no one know where she had gone, because she was too ashamed to face them after what she had been told they thought about her, she took a room at a Girls' Hostel she had seen advertised in the papers, and that same afternoon started to look for some employment. Greatly to her astonishment, she obtained a situation at once.
At the first registry office she went to the woman who kept it was most sympathetic when she told her tale. She said she had come from Manchester where her father had just died and that she had no relations or friends and had to find something to do.
"But what sort of work would you like to take on?" asked the woman admiring the pretty face before her.
"I think I'd like to go into a shop," replied Christine.
"Can you sew?"
Christine nodded. "Yes, I think I'm pretty good at it, but I've only made very simple things."
The woman thought for a moment and then, asking her to wait, went into another room and put through a call on the 'phone.
"See here, George," she said when she had got through to the person she asked for, "I think I've got the very girl you want for the showroom. She's had no experience and says she's never been out to work before, but she's a peach of a girl to look at, with a beautiful little figure. She's quite a little lady and very refined. She says she's twenty-two, but I think she's younger than that. She can't give any references, but she looks quite all right to me. Very well, then I'll send her round to you at once. Oh, one thing, if you think she'll suit you, make that shopwalker of yours keep his hands off her. Understand?"
So Christine went into an unpretentious shop in Finsbury Pavement at thirty-five shillings a week, and was very well pleased with the salary, reckoning as she did that she could live comfortably at the hostel and yet have a few shillings of her money over every week.
Bright and intelligent as the woman at the registry office had thought she was, she soon picked up her duties in the showroom and was quite a success. Had she wished, she could very speedily have had her pick of the male employees at the shop, particularly the amorously-inclined shopwalker, but she kept them all at their distance and had nothing to do with them. She told herself she was sick of men. At the hostel, too, she kept herself very much to herself and purposely made no friends among the other girls there.
Interested in her work and artistic to her finger-tips, she quickly found she had quite a flair for dress-designing, and under her nimble fingers quite ordinary-looking coats and dresses took on a chic appearance. The proprietor of the shop, a shrewd man, realised he had got quite a find in her and before she had been with him three months, raised her weekly salary to fifty shillings.
When she had been working there for about six months, she saw an advertisement in one of the papers for a mannequin. The address given was a Regent Street one and she was very hopeful of success because the advertisement stated that a good knowledge of French was essential. Ever since her mother, who had been an Englishwoman, had died, her father had always insisted she should talk to him in French. He was a Parisian and very proud of his country.
She obtained the situation and, to her delight, during her working hours moved in a world of fashion among beautiful dresses and people who could afford to pay for them. She was quick in making suggestions and they were well received by her employers. Indeed, as had happened in her previous place, it was soon realised she was something out of the ordinary and her salary was accordingly raised to £5 a week. She told everyone she was twenty-three and, though it was often remarked she looked younger than that, the truth of her statement was not doubted. A supreme confidence in herself, which had come to her with success and the friendless and independent life she was still choosing to live, had perhaps made her appear older than she really was.
With the ample money she was now receiving she had taken two rooms in a street off Bloomsbury Square, where she was well looked after by the motherly woman who kept the house. She enjoyed her freedom and, strangely enough for a girl of her age and parentage, never hankered after the attentions of the other sex. She was as yet unawakened in her emotions and quite maiden in her thoughts. The slur which Ransome's sister had thrown upon her still rankled and it had hardened her nature not a little.
So things went on until she was within two months of twenty-one, and then one morning she came face to face with Captain Blair as she was coming out of the house where she lived. Although it was longer than two years since he had seen her and she had altered a lot, he recognised her instantly and she realised she had reddened furiously as he held out his hand.
"What, little Christine!" he exclaimed eagerly. "Why how you've grown and how nice you look! I've often wondered what had become of you and tried to find out where you had gone. What are you doing with yourself?"
Christine told him. She was half sorry to have met him and yet at the same time half pleased. He was so genuinely delighted to see her and he looked so distinguished and so brimming over with the happiness of life. He made her feel lonely all at once.
He insisted on walking with her to her place of business, chatting gaily all the while. He told her another book of his had been published and it was a great success; also that very shortly he was going exploring again, having been commissioned to lead an expedition into Tibet. Before parting, he had wrung from her a rather reluctant promise to come out to dinner with him at the Apollo that night. He wanted to call for her at her house, but she would not hear of it and, instead, arranged to meet in the foyer of the restaurant. Remembering Ransome's warnings, she was determined he would not set foot in her apartments under any pretext.
All day long she felt nervous, wondering if she were being foolhardy in meeting him and if it were "the first step" on the road to misfortune. She was a friendless, inexperienced, young girl and he, what Ransome had called, a hard-bitten seasoned man of the world. But no, she told herself, she was a woman now and quite able to protect herself. Then, as the thought ran through her, she seemed to hear the warning of the dead man, "All women think that."
From being just nervous, she became really worried and, eventually, it was a relief to her when the time came when she was actually to meet him, and she would be able to put things to the test. She would dine with him, have a pleasant evening, and then say good-bye, making no arrangement to meet him again.
When, however, he came up smilingly to her, so courtly and so respectful, she thought what a little fool she'd been. There was nothing harmful about him. He had found her living a lonely life, was sorry for her, and wanted to give her a little happiness. That was all.
She enjoyed the meal immensely. She knew she looked nice and could see that her cavalier approved of her. There was the beautifully lighted room, the gay and smiling company all around them, the bright music of the orchestra and the delicious things they had to eat. They had champagne to drink and she felt the unaccustomed wine going to her head. The Captain wanted her to have another glass, but she refused although he proffered it several times.
Dinner over, they left the restaurant and he remarked carelessly:
"Now I'll take you to see my curios. I have some most interesting ones at my flat," but she declined so resolutely that he did not press her. "Very well then," he said, "we'll go to the pictures."
Later, he took her home in a taxi and in the darkness he felt for her hand and retained it gently. A delicious thrill went through her, but she was relieved he did not attempt to kiss her. She knew she would not have been able to resist.
That night it was a long while before she could get off to sleep and she tossed and tossed, at one moment filled with the most happy thoughts and, the next, angry with herself that she should be letting such thoughts take possession of her. All in those few hours of that evening she had been awakened from her maiden indifference and she realised she was trembling upon the brink of a new world.
They met again two evenings later and then followed three weeks of the happiest time Christine had ever had. Blair took her out to dinner almost every other evening and to pictures and theatres. On the Sundays he drove her out in his car into the country, but always he behaved most correctly to her and never attempted any closer familiarity than to hold her hand when the opportunity occurred. Gradually, she lost all fear of him and realised she was hopelessly in love.
On the third Sunday he kissed her for the first time and for the moment it was as if Heaven had opened wide its gates for her. It was in Richmond Park when it occurred. They had alighted from the car and wandered off a little way among the high bracken and the trees. Suddenly, as if only then realising that they were alone, they looked at each other smilingly and instantly she was in his arms, with both of them kissing passionately.
It lasted barely a minute, for they heard voices and laughter and some children with adults came into view. They returned without speaking to the car and then, sitting there before driving away, Blair asked her to marry him.
"And we'll be married at once, darling," he said when she had whispered a trembling consent. "There is no need for us to wait. We'll have a most lovely honeymoon before I go to the East, and then I'll take you with me in about six weeks from now."
At the prospect of so much happiness she was too overcome to speak, and he went on quickly:
"Now you're not of age for a month and there'd be a lot of fuss and bother before we could be married here. So we'll fly over to Paris one morning and be married there the same afternoon. Now what about next week, say Thursday?"
She was swept off her feet by his masterful authority, and agreed to everything. Accordingly, the next day she left her situation, giving as her excuse that her mother was ill in the South of France and she must go to her at once.
As arranged, on the Thursday they flew to Paris, reaching their hotel just before lunch, and at his direction she registered her name under his as Christine Mary Blair.
"It will not be the exact truth for only a few hours, sweetheart," he laughed, "and, if I go out directly after we've lunched, I'll be back by three o'clock at latest with the licence."
Some last breath of precaution stirring in her, Christine did not follow the luggage up to the room. "No, dear," she said. "I'll wait here in the lounge until we go to the registry office."
She smiled. "I want to be a quite respectable young woman up to the last."
After lunch, however, when he had gone off to make all arrangements for the marriage, she thought she might as well go up to their room and unpack. He had said he would be gone quite an hour and so she knew she would have plenty of time.
The unpacking soon over, and, feeling tired and inclined to have a headache with the early rising and all the excitement of her first journey in an aeroplane, she lay down upon the bed, as she intended for a few minutes rest. She closed her eyes to shut out the light and the next thing she knew was her lover waking her up by kissing her gently on the lips. She started, blushed smilingly in her dismay and then, throwing her arms round his neck, returned his kiss with a long passionate one.
Their lips at length apart, still kneeling by the bed, he stroked her face fondly and said, "Look here, darling, there's a great disappointment for us both. I find we can't get married here in this wretched country without a fortnight's domicile. No, don't look so frightened, sweetheart. It'll be quite all right. We can go straight across to Switzerland where they tell me the law is not so strict. If you insist, although I'm very tired and we shall have to sit up all the way as I find all the sleeping-berths are booked, we'll go by this evening's express." He spoke haltingly. "Or, if you'd prefer it, we can occupy separate rooms to-night."
Although decidedly uneasy at the delay, of course she neither insisted nor took the preference he offered her. After all, it was only a matter of a few hours, she told herself, and she knew she could trust him. He was much too fond of her to stoop to any deceit. So, seeing he looked so genuinely distressed, she pulled down his face to hers to comfort him.
Thus passed from her Christine's maidenhood, with the passing blessed by no rite or ceremony of Mother Church or sanctioned by any enactment of the Law. A cynic might here remark that such happenings are ten thousand times more common than the world pretends to know.
They did not go to Switzerland the next day, or indeed, the day after that. Instead, they waited until the Sunday when Blair told her the trains were much less crowded.
Arriving at last in Geneva, another disappointment awaited them, for they learnt there that the Swiss laws were even more stringent than the French ones, four instead of two weeks' domicile being required before a marriage could take place.
"It's no good, darling," said Blair. "There's no help for it. We'll have to go back to Paris and get it fixed up there," but they did not return for two days and then only upon Christine's almost tearful insistence. Blair would have liked to stay longer in the Swiss capital and pursue his luck at the casino.
Back again in Paris they went together to the office to arrange for the marriage in the fortnight's time. Christine was now supremely happy and let herself go in all the joy of youth. Blair was a devoted lover, lavishing every kindness upon her, and she wondered how she could ever have had any doubt about him. She was sure the dead Ransome had been quite wrong in his estimation of her husband-to-be's character.
Two days before they were going to be married Blair said he had some most important business to transact which would occupy him all the afternoon until dinner-time. He said he hated leaving her alone, but insisted she should go out and enjoy herself. So he conducted her to a theatre for a matinée and made sure she had got a good seat before he left her.
Christine enjoyed the play immensely, but returning to the hotel about six o'clock was disappointed he was not in the lounge, waiting for her. She expected that he would be in the room changing for dinner. However, she did not see him there when she opened the door and then, suddenly, her eyes fell upon an envelope, placed prominently upon the dressing-table and addressed to her, in his hand-writing.
Very puzzled, she opened it quickly, and in two seconds the whole world was rocking round her and a burst like thunder breaking in her ears.
He had written to say that he was leaving her.
She read the first line and then looked round the room in horror. Yes, his suitcase had gone, his comb and brushes, his shoes and the big box of cigarettes from which he used to fill his case, his shaving set and his pyjamas! God, was it possible, or was it only a dreadful dream?
With widely dilated eyes she read down the letter. It was
"Sweetheart, I am leaving, you," it began.
"It is best for you, as I know I should make you a bad husband. For one thing I am much too fond of pretty faces. So, better a few fleeting days of regret and disappointment now than a whole life of unhappiness tied to me. I know you have some money with you, but I have paid the hotel bill up until tomorrow and enclose here £50 in English banknotes. I am off to South America next week, and it is no good you trying to follow me. Good-bye, little Christine. It was very sweet while it lasted, but all good things come to an end in time. The best of luck to you."
She was cold in horror and her brain would not function properly. She had to read the letter three times before she could take it in fully. Then for many minutes she sat staring into vacancy.
God, what a vile and heartless man he was! And she had loved him so! She pulled herself up quickly. No, she could not have loved him at all, for real love could not have passed so quickly into the hate and loathing she now felt! It was passion only which had been so bewildering her! She had never had a lover before and the physical novelty and attraction had been like some deep opiate dream.
She gritted her beautiful little teeth fiercely together. Well, she was done with him and she would not cry about it! She would not give way! She would face the consequences bravely!
Ah God! the consequences! She shivered in her terror. Why, she might even be going to have a child! She might be going to bear that brute a baby who would be his image and grow up vile and cruel as he was! All her life she might be burdened by the shame he had brought upon her!
She moistened her dry lips with her tongue and with a great effort pulled herself resolutely together. She must map out exactly what she was going to do and be prepared to face any troubles as they came. If she did find the worst was going to happen—and she would know it very soon—was there not a way of escape for a girl in such a position as hers? She was in a strange country where no one knew her! She had some money and surely money would buy anything?
Her eyes fell upon the banknotes Blair had enclosed in the letter and she sprang up in a fury to tear them into pieces. Suddenly, however, she stopped short and smiled a cold grim smile. "My wages!" she murmured with a catch in her breath. "Of course, my wages payment for services rendered!" Tears welled into her eyes again. "Oh, Uncle, Uncle, why didn't I take more notice of what you were always telling me? Really, I am on the way to becoming a bad woman, now!"
The next day she moved from the expensive hotel at which they had been staying and went to a much cheaper one, registering now in her maiden name. She had become firm in her resolve to remain in Paris until she knew for certain what might be going to happen to her and then, if she found she had to, go to a doctor without any delay.
She had meant to wait a week or two before consulting anyone, but the anxiety began to prey upon her nerves. Added to that, she had got a sore throat, and so she made up her mind to see a doctor at once. She was helped to this decision by chancing to notice a very kindly-looking old man, with white hair and carrying a professional bag, come out of a house with a doctor's nameplate upon the door in a street close near to the hotel. She guessed rightly he must be the doctor himself, Dr. Charles Antoine, whose name she saw on the plate.
So she went to see him that afternoon, giving her name as that of a married woman. She found him quite as kind and sympathetic as he had looked and she told him nervously the tale she had prepared all ready.
"It is not a bad throat you have, Madame," he said, "and a gargle and a tonic may soon put it right. It will not make any difference to you if you are as you suspect." He went on smilingly. "The world wants more little ones, and when yours comes—" he bowed gallantly, "I am sure it will be a very beautiful baby."
Christine felt on the verge of tears and her voice choked. "But you don't understand the position, Monsieur," she said, flushing painfully. "I'm not, as I made out, a married woman. I'm a single girl and in a most desperate position." Then, taking in anew the kindness she saw in his face, she burst out impulsively with the whole story.
He tut-tutted several times and was obviously most sorry for her. "And you've only been living with him for less than three weeks!" he exclaimed. "What a shameful man he must be!"
He spoke with the utmost kindness. "Now I'll give you the medicine and you go straight back to your hotel and put yourself to bed. I'll call in tomorrow and see how you are. No, no, don't meet your trouble before it comes. Just wait and see."
He came the next day and several succeeding days, until Christine was feeling quite well and at last completely relieved in her mind.
"You've been fortunate, Mademoiselle," he said in bidding her a final good-bye, "and let it be a lesson to you." He regarded her thoughtfully. "All my experience of life tells me you are a good girl. So, in future be very careful how you trust any man. Good-bye. I shall always be pleased to see you again if you are not feeling quite up to the mark. Don't hesitate to come to me."
Although Christine had resolved not to go back to London at all, but to remain in Paris and get work there, she decided to take a good holiday first to recover from the shock she had been through. Speaking the language as she did, almost like a native, and with the experience she had gained in her last place, she was confident someone would employ her. She would, however, aim high and not take on any employment, except under promising conditions. Thank goodness, with the money she had in hand, she could afford to take her time.
As for men, she was done with them for ever. She could see that, in this world, it was everyone for himself or herself, and in future she would act accordingly. She would be hard as nails in all her dealings with everyone.
ONE afternoon she was sitting on a seat in the Bois de Boulogne when two ladies came and seated themselves beside her. They were English and she was interested in their conversation.
Presently a pretty and beautifully-dressed little boy came passing by, followed at some distance by a nursemaid pushing a perambulator and engaged in animated conversation with a young man walking with her. The little boy stopped for a few seconds to smile at the ladies as he went by.
"That's Charlemagne Voisin's child," said one of them. "Of course you've heard of Voisin the great dress-designer of the Rue de la Paix? He dresses all the richest women in Europe and America. They say he sometimes gets fifty guineas for a costume."
"For all that," remarked the other grimly, "he doesn't look too well after his little son. I didn't know who he was, but I've often noticed him when I've come here and he ought to be wearing glasses. Didn't you see how he screwed up his eyes when he was looking at us just now?"
Her friend laughed. "That's the worst of being a medical woman, Emily. Even on a holiday you can't get away from your trade. No, I didn't notice it."
"Well, I did," went on the first woman, "and they ought to be seen to. Another thing, the child's got a very careless nurse. He nearly fell into the lake yesterday when the girl was too busy flirting with one of her beaux to be watching him. Fortunately, Mary and I were near and pulled him back just in time. As it was he muddied all his beautiful clothes. I spoke sharply to the maid about taking more care of him, and she was quite insolent. She's not a pleasant girl."
Later, going back to her hotel, Christine thought over what she had heard. Of course, she knew Charlemagne Voisin by repute; indeed, what mannequin did not? He was the foremost dress-designer in the world, and obtained fabulous prices for his creations.
With what she considered a brilliant idea formed in her mind, early the next morning she called at the Rue de la Paix and asked to see the great man. The beautifully gowned and coiffeured young woman to whom she made her request asked haughtily, "Have you an appointment? No, then you cannot see him. Monsieur never sees anyone without an appointment." She reached for a big massive book upon the desk. "What name? I'll give you an appointment for one day the week after next. Monsieur is fully engaged until then."
"But I want to see him at once," said Christine firmly and in no way abashed. "Am not a client and my business is private and important."
"But Monsieur is busy in the studio," said the girl, a little impressed, however, by Christine's bold manner, "and I cannot disturb him. He is engaged upon a most important work."
"Then I'll wait," said Christine calmly, and after a few moments of frowning hesitation, the attendant gave her an imposing-looking gilt-edged card upon which to write her name, and ushered her into a big salon to wait. With some apprehension Christine noted its costly appointments, the rich carpet into which the feet appeared to sink, the expensive-looking art tables and chairs, the rare quality of the big curtains, and the beautiful engravings on the walls. Everything spoke of an exquisite taste and of money most lavishly expended to gratify it. Surely, she told herself, it was an insolence that, at her age and with her slight experience, she should expect to become part of an establishment where, obviously, money flowed so freely.
She was kept waiting upwards of an hour, by which time a number of other women had been shown in. From their conversation with one another, they were all clients of le mâitre. They were all beautifully gowned and everything about them spoke of wealth and lives of pleasure and ease.
At last she was ushered into the studio and found herself in the presence of a small and almost frail-looking man with a high forehead, high ox-like eyes and big bushy brows. He was clean-shaven except for a moustache which was waxed to long spikey ends. She judged him to be about forty-five years of age. He bowed her with grave courtesy to a chair.
"Now what is this important private business, Mademoiselle?" he asked briskly. He spread out his hands and made a smiling grimace. "I need not implore you to be quick in telling me about it, for you can see I am a busy man. I have an evil day before me," and with a quick movement he seated himself before his desk and prepared to listen to what she had to say.
Christine choked back her nervousness and began boldly. "I was wondering, Monsieur," she said, "if you could give me some work. I am—"
He jumped like a jack-in-the-box from his chair. "What, you have come to ask me for work!" he exclaimed angrily. "You who have insisted upon seeing me on important business!"
"It is important to me, Monsieur," she replied without flinching. "I want—"
He spoke with reproving sarcasm. "But it is not my privilege, Mademoiselle, to have any interest in your affairs and what is important to you is not in the very slightest degree important to me." He glanced hurriedly down upon the card he was still holding in his hand. "Your name is French, but I perceive you are an Englishwoman." His voice rose in indignation. "England and her children are always le perfide Albion. You have found your way in here under false pretences and you will leave my presence at once."
He moved towards the door to open it and show her out.
Christine stood her ground and made no movement to follow him. "But I came here for another reason, too," she said sharply. "I wanted to tell you about your little boy, Louis."
With his hand actually upon the door-handle, Monsieur Voisin turned in a lightning movement and consternation was now upon his face.
"My little boy," he exclaimed with widely dilated eyes. "You have not come to tell me anything has happened to him?
"No, no," said Christine quickly, "but I thought you ought to know that his eyes need seeing to, badly. He strains them when he looks at anything closely. He puckers up his face then. He ought to be wearing glasses or his sight may become permanently injured."
Monsieur Voisin's look of suspense passed quickly to one of indignation again. "You do not know the child!" he said sharply. "Where have you seen him?"
"Oh, often in the Bois," fibbed Christine. "One could not help noticing him. He is such a splendid little fellow. Oh, and another thing. That nursemaid you have does not look after him properly. The day before yesterday he might easily have fallen into the lake there—" her nervousness led her to fib more deeply "—if another woman and I had not pulled him away just in time. As it was he spoilt his beautiful little clothes."
"But I was told—" frowned Monsieur Voisin, looking very puzzled, "I was told that that the mud on them came from his falling down in the road."
"It wasn't true," said Christine sharply. "He got it on the bank of the lake when the maid was not looking after him. She was too occupied, talking to a man with her on one of the seats."
For a few moments Monsieur Voisin frowned angrily. Then his face broke into a friendly smile.
"I am sure I am much obliged to you, Mademoiselle," he said. "That information was most important. I shall get another maid at once."
He returned to his chair by the desk and motioned to Christine to sit down again, too. Then, with a whimsical grimace he went on, "Now don't you think you have a too great assurance in coming to ask me for employment? I am one of the most particular men in my calling and never trust anything except to the most experienced hands. So what chance have you of satisfying me?"
Christine rose up to her feet.
"This costume I am now wearing I designed myself," she replied boldly. She pivoted herself round so that he could take it in at every angle. "And I made it myself, too."
"Ah, and I see you have been a mannequin!" he exclaimed as he proceeded to regard the costume critically. He shook his head disapprovingly. "But it would not pass Charlemagne Voisin. It has faults. It does not do justice to those beautiful shoulders you have and it does not show up as it should the perfect contour of the bust." He smiled. "Still it is not bad and I have certainly seen worse."
He asked her a lot of questions as to her experience, all the time regarding her most intensely. His anger having passed, he was taking in, admiringly, her rich auburn hair, her violet-coloured eyes with their long lashes, her faultless complexion and the fine and clear-cut lines of her profile.
"You certainly have beauty, Mademoiselle," he said at length, "and your face and hands are those of an artist. There is great talent in you if it were properly cultivated. Who are your parents?"
"I have no parents, Monsieur," replied Christine. "They are both dead and I am alone in the world. My father was a musician at Covent Garden, and my mother was on the stage."
Monsieur Voisin nodded.
"And it is from there the artist in you comes. Music and the drama, both other forms of the beauty I put in my gowns."
He was silent for a few moments and then, rising abruptly to his feet, strode over to a big wardrobe and took out a dress. Handling it quickly but with the greatest care, he draped it deftly over a model. He was at some pains to get it exactly as he liked but, satisfied at last, turned frowningly to Christine.
"What's wrong with it?" he asked curtly. "You tell me where the fault is. There is something lacking there."
Christine regarded it intently, walking round it several times. It was of a most beautiful material, black ring velvet and almost austere in its simplicity. It was quite a minute before she spoke.
"There is nothing wrong in it, Monsieur," she said gently, "it is the most lovely thing I have ever seen."
"You think so?" he asked carelessly.
She nodded. "Yes, Monsieur, it is fit for a queen!"
He let himself go.
"And it is a queen who will be wearing it," he exclaimed with great pride. "It will be seen on the steps of a throne. It is one of my greatest creations," he sighed heavily, "but it lacks a form beautiful enough to do it justice."
For a long minute he regarded it raptly and then, handling it as before with the utmost care, he replaced it in the wardrobe and turned back to Christine.
"Well, Mademoiselle," he said smilingly, "you have conquered. You have won over Papa Voisin and I will give you your chance in my workroom, though I do not deny it is your violet eyes which have, in part, influenced me." He raised his hand warningly. "But never you tell any of my assistants how you have deceived me. Keep your own counsel and let them think you have come to me with the very highest of recommendations. Come with me now and I will take you to my forewoman. What I will pay you will depend upon what you are worth." He shrugged his shoulders. "Money is nothing to me when I am well served."
So Christine obtained what many would have held impossible for a girl of her very moderate experience, a position in the establishment of the great Charlemagne Voisin, and in a few weeks was firm in the approval of her employer.
Then, in its way, commenced for her a very happy life. It never ceased to be a thrill to her to handle and work upon the lovely fabrics which had been drawn from so many parts of the world, and she had greater chances now of making use of her creative ability. Monsieur encouraged his employees to make suggestions and if he approved of them was never stinting with his praise. Christine had imagination and showed it in many ways. As time went on, Monsieur Voisin often called her into the studio to ask her opinion and, a great privilege, occasionally allowed her to be present when he was waiting upon his clients.
At first the other assistants were inclined to be jealous of her rapid rise into Monsieur's favour, but Christine, never showing any pride or exultation and always so good natured with everyone, their hostility soon died down, and they accepted her, as a matter of course, as Monsieur's special protégée.
She could have made great friends among the other assistants, had she wished to but, as before in London, kept herself very much to herself. Soon receiving a good salary, she was able to rent a small flat in a good locality and, inviting no one to visit her, what she did with herself out of working hours was a closed book to everyone.
With the other sex, had she wanted to, she could have had plenty of conquests, and they could not understand why she kept them so determinedly at a distance. Even upon their first meeting her, so many men sensed instinctively that her cold aloofness masked a warm and passionate nature and that there would be great joy and ecstasy for the one who eventually broke through her reserve.
The intentions of a number of them were quite honourable and Christine could have made more than one excellent marriage, before she had been a year in Paris. She told herself, however, that even if she fell madly in love again, she would never marry. She had been so badly deceived in Ronald Blair that she would never trust any man sufficiently again to marry him and place her whole future in his hands. A woman could never tell what a man was really like until she had actually lived with him.
Passing, however, as she was, through the most passionate years of a woman's life, and with the temperament, too, with which she had been endowed, Christine soon began to feel the positive need, both physically and mentally, for the affection of one of the opposite sex.
Certainly she was happy and comfortable in her work in the atelier of the great master, but that was not all. She wanted again the adventure of love. Still hating Ronald Blair as fiercely as she had ever done, she could not yet forget the joy and ecstasies she had enjoyed in his arms. Another thing, too, her association with him had not only opened to her a new world of delight but had also taught her that the unpleasant consequences of a so-called slip were not necessarily inevitable. She had escaped once and, therefore, surely, if need be, she could escape again.
She fought against the idea but it was constantly recurring to her and she found herself getting irritable and bad-tempered. Also, physically, she did not feel in such good health as she had been. She was losing her appetite and often suffered from headaches. Her work, too, was now more tiring to her.
Remembering the old doctor, Dr. Antoine, who had been so kind to her in her dreadful trouble, she had no hesitation in going to see him again. All she now needed, she thought, was a tonic.
The doctor seemed very pleased to see her and, trusting him implicitly, she told him where she was working and how well she had got on. He asked her a lot of questions about her health and examined her thoroughly. He could, however, find nothing wrong.
"You are a typical example, Mademoiselle," he said at length, "of a perfectly healthy young woman. Still," he leant back smilingly in his chair, "I am quite sure I know what is troubling you. Last time you came to me because of the result of too much affection. Now the trouble is you are not getting enough. That's the whole matter in a nutshell. You must find some nice man and marry him. You want companionship. Then you will be feeling quite all right again. I am confident that is all you need."
"But, Monsieur," stammered Christine, getting very red, "I will never marry. I could never trust any man again."
"Oh, that's foolish," laughed the doctor. "There are plenty of good men about and one sees plenty of happy marriages. You must realise, my dear young lady, that the good God made such women as you to attract men, and have children. If you don't marry you will never feel at your best. You will live a thwarted and despondent life."
Christine shook her head determinedly. "But I shall never marry," she said again. "I would never risk it."
"And that being so, I do not advise you to take a lover," smiled the doctor, "though that would be the next best thing." He nodded. "Of course, I say that simply as a medical man, but as a father with daughters of my own, I would never give such advice to any young woman, as the consequences might be deplorable." He raised his hand warningly. "Still if you do not marry, Mademoiselle, there are many pit-falls ahead of you, for old Mother Nature is relentless in her ways and it needs a much stronger character than most women possess to go on defying her. For sure, too, she will spite you in the end."
Christine thought a lot over what he had said and, though rebelling against her lonely, loveless life, yet determined she would never give way to any man again. Whatever happened, her life should be a celibate one. Still, she was greatly troubled. She realised she wanted love and companionship and without them knew she would be, as the old doctor had said, a thwarted woman.
As time went on she found the life she had chosen for herself the more and more hard. She often met men who were attracted by her when she also was interested in them. But she gave them no encouragement and refused to let them get beyond the acquaintanceship stage, being always mindful now of that first step her guardian had so strongly warned her against. Still, she was fretful and unsatisfied and her life, with all her success in her career, and seemed to be leading only to a dead end.
One night two women were discussing her at a concert to which she had come, as usual, by herself. "See that beautiful girl there," said one of them. "Well, she's Charlemagne Voisin's pet assistant. Isn't she lovely, though she's supposed to be a man-hater. You never see her about anywhere with an escort, unless it's Voisin and his wife. They say they are the only friends she allows herself."
Her companion took in Christine intently.
"Yes, she's lovely, right enough," she said, "and her dress is a credit to le maître." She laughed derisively. "But she's no man-hater, dear. Though she may be a girl of strong character, there's passion in every line of her face. Look how pleasure-loving her eyes and lips are. No, depend upon it, she's got a beau hidden away somewhere."
"Well, no one's ever seen or heard of the fortunate man," laughed back the other, "and he would be fortunate, whoever he was, with a mistress like her."
With the best intentions in the world, it was not, however, destined that Christine should hold out indefinitely, and when the end came it came suddenly and with such overwhelming strength that she made only a very half-hearted attempt at any resistance.
The man was a scion of the old French nobility, and a colonel in the French Foreign Legion. He was well over forty and home on six months' leave from Algiers. He was not exactly handsome, as his face was marred by a big scar on the forehead, but he was tall and distinguished looking. His expression was bold and self-reliant and he carried an air of authority and a suggestion of mastery over both men and women. She soon learnt there could be no question of marriage, as he was already a married man, separated from his wife.
She saw him first in Monsieur Voisin's salon, where he had come in attendance upon his sister, a haughty dame who had married an American of great wealth. Their eyes met and Nature flashed a message between them, old as the race is old. Christine turned her face away but, her sex hunger suddenly awakened again, her heart beat tremulously as she waited upon his sister.
Christine felt him watching her every moment and, when upon leaving with his sister, he gave her a smiling bow, an instinct told her she would soon be seeing him again.
She was quite right there, for that same evening, after coming out of Monsieur Voisin's, he overtook her as she was walking home. She knew he had been waiting to meet her, but he pretended to be most surprised at the encounter.
"Ah, it is you, is it, Mademoiselle!" he exclaimed with a dazzling smile. "Now this is very extraordinary, as it happens I was just thinking of you. I saw my sister was giving you a lot of trouble this morning and I felt very sorry for you."
"But there was no need, Monsieur," smiled back Christine, her heart thumping like a piston. "I thought Madame very charming."
"But she was exacting," he frowned. "She always is, and most difficult to please." He went on with great respect. "Now may I walk with you a little way? I am going in this direction."
Of course it ended with his going the whole way to her flat. They both walked slowly, and he told her a lot about himself and his life in Africa. Then, in parting, he asked if he could not see her again. "Your conversation is so delightful and I am very lonely," he said. "Will you come with me somewhere to dinner tonight?"
Christine shook her head smilingly. "No, Monsieur, I cannot do that." She cast down her eyes demurely. "I am a single girl and have my reputation to consider. Monsieur Voisin is most particular and I should be sure to be seen by some of our clients."
However, he pleaded so earnestly to be allowed to see her again that when Christine thought she had protested enough to establish her modesty, she raised her lovely violet eyes to his and said, as if with great reluctance:
"Well, Monsieur, if you really want to, you can meet me in the Bois the day after to-morrow. I always go there on Sundays and you will find me by the Round Pond sometime about eleven o'clock."
Of course, on the Sunday he was there, waiting, and later he took her to lunch at a small hotel in St. Cloud. In the afternoon they walked again in the Bois, she, however, taking good care to keep to the more frequented parts. She knew quite well that, ultimately, she would yield to him, indeed she deliberately intended to, but she would not yield straight away. She would not let him think she was going to be an easy conquest and, besides, the longer she put him off the more delightful and thrilling to both of them would be the final surrendering.
In the evening he drove her home to her flat and, having learnt from her that she was living alone, wanted to come in, as he said, for a few minutes. However, she refused him so firmly and determinedly that he judged it wisest not to press her too much. Then, having as she thought let him see she was no weakling, she appeared to relent a little and said sweetly, "Still, if you like to, Monsieur, you can come to tea with me on Wednesday at four o'clock."
He came. She had seen to it that the little maid she employed was out of the way, and answered his ring herself. The moment the door was closed to behind him—they fell into each other's arms. There was not even the pretence of any formal greeting.
In the ensuing week it seemed that they were recklessly in love, with both of them hating to be out of each other's sight and counting the very minutes until they would meet again. He came to her flat so often that Christine was hard put for excuses to get her maid out of the way.
But passion at such white heat could not be kept up for very long and, gradually, they both began to tire. Christine began, too, to perceive things in her lover that she did not like. For one thing he always smelt of wine and, for another, as time went on he seemed to receive her caresses as a matter of course and as if he were slightly bored.
She awoke with a start. She had had enough and was not going to let the romance die down into indifference or, perhaps, even positive dislike. So, as usual with her in these latter years, once she had formed any resolution she acted upon it at once.
"Leon," she said firmly, "this must end. You must not come here again. No, I mean it. I can't risk the scandal any more. My maid is getting suspicious at my sending her away so often and I won't have it. Besides, we are getting tired of each other."
"No, we are not," he scowled, most surprised at her words. "I'm just as fond of you as I ever was and think you just as beautiful."
"Another thing," went on Christine taking no notice of his denial, "our continuing to meet here can lead nowhere. You can't marry me and I would not have you if you could. You would not make a good husband. You are too selfish. No, we will part now while there are happy memories behind us."
Assuming more reluctance than he really felt, the gallant colonel took his dismissal in quite good part. Christine had guessed rightly, for not only had his ardour cooled quite a lot with possession and satiety, but, also, his ever fickle fancy had lighted upon another desirable conquest, this time a dancer in a cabaret.
So lover number two passed out of Christine's life, leaving her sick and weary of all men. She was not, however, in any way ashamed of her love-affair. On the contrary, she justified herself in her own eyes, considering that as long as she was a single woman and bound by no ties she was entitled to do what she liked with herself, provided she brought no harm to anyone. If she had been a man, she told herself, such lapses from the conventional moral code would have been thought nothing of, indeed they would have been held to be almost the inevitable thing and passed over with a smile. So why not in common justice the same thing with a woman? It was hypocritical not to recognise that a woman's craving for companionship could be just as strong as that of any of the other sex.
She argued, too, she had not been and would never be, in any sense promiscuous. She had been particular, and most fastidious that her choice had fallen upon the man whom she had considered to be a worthy one.
Still, she was sick of the whole business now and would not give way again until there could be a background behind everything. She had changed her mind, realising that it was children as much as a lover she wanted, and that there were, at any rate occasionally, really happy marriages.
She was helped to this awakening by her friendship with the Voisin family and seeing there a very happy home. She had become a frequent visitor to the house of le maître, and his children, he had three now, were a source of great delight to her. Above all she was very fond of little Louis, who had brought her all her good fortune. He was such a lovable little fellow and always made a great fuss of her whenever she arrived. The mother she liked, too. Madame Voisin was a quiet and gentle creature, undeniably pretty in an insipid sort of way, but with little individuality, and never much to say. However, she adored her husband, thinking there was no other man equal to him in all the world.
Monsieur Voisin was pleased that Christine never had, to his knowledge, any men friends, yet at the same time he shook his head rather sadly. "But you are denying some man a great happiness, Mademoiselle," he said once, "for you were made for love and little children." He threw out his hands despairingly. "Yet if you once married and had a little one, then good-bye to your dreaming over those lovely textures I search the world for. You would lose the life and soul you put in them. Never have I known a mother yet who had retained the inspiration of her maiden days. Good sempstress yes, yes! Patient and painstaking embroiderers who could follow the patterns I gave them but—the divine spark of new creation was no longer there. They could follow but they could not lead. Why, even when a girl has her lover it helps to smother the divine fire!"
Christine listened with becoming gravity and respect, but all the same was smiling to herself, as some of the best ideas Monsieur had adopted from her had come to her when she had been deep in her love-affair.
As the months passed, following upon her dismissal of her lover, the contentment he had brought her gradually died away and she found herself longing for more adventures of the same kind. No one who saw the calm and dignified assistant of le maître would have dreamed of the passions which were stirring in her. She had drunk deep of the wine of life and it was hard upon her not to be able to lift the cup to her lips again.
However, she stuck resolutely to her determination not to give way again. She would have children one day and they would come to her through a good marriage. She did not for one moment put out of her mind the risks of marrying a man who might turn out a disappointment to her, but she would choose very carefully and, above all, have nothing to do with what Ransome had called "a seasoned campaigner."
She could well afford to wait, for she was only twenty-four, and the best years of her life lay before her. Her chance would come if she were only patient enough!
And one day she was sure her chance had come, a chance opening up before her a vista of such wonderful possibilities that she could not credit her good fortune.
IT was in the Louvre when it all started. She had gone to the Galleries there, as she so often did, to feast upon the paintings of the great masters. She never tired of them and, in particular, the immortal Mona Lisa was a continual delight to her. She would stand motionless before it for minutes at a time, drinking in its marvellous technique and wondering, as all the world has wondered for four hundred and fifty years, what was the secret of that so haunting smile.
That afternoon as she approached the great masterpiece, a young fellow was standing before it close to the rail and, as she came up to pass behind him, he stepped back with a quick movement and implanted a heavy boot upon one of her dainty little shoes. It crushed her foot as if it were in a vice and for the moment the pain was excruciating. She felt sick and as if she were going to faint.
The young man crimsoned hotly and stammered in bad French his remorseful apologies. Then, taking in that she looked as if she were going to fall, with no ceremony he linked his arm in hers and supported her to a nearby seat.
He looked terribly upset and there was no mistaking his relief when in a minute or so Christine smiled and said she felt better. "I am English, the same as I expect you are," she added in a voice the young man thought was one of the sweetest he had ever heard. He started at once to apologise all over again and speaking now in his own language, was able to express his contrition more thoroughly.
Presently, when the colour had returned to Christine's face and she said she felt quite able to walk, nothing would satisfy him but to help her out of the building and escort her home in a taxi.
He was a pleasant, not too clever-looking young fellow, with a nice open face, and very boyish-looking. Christine judged him to be not much more than one-and-twenty. She began to be amused at the adventure, but, when upon arriving at the house where her flat was and seeing a twinge of pain upon her face as she stepped out of the taxi, the boy insisted upon carrying her up the one flight of stairs, she at once experienced a feeling deeper than of amusement.
A great thrill surged through her as she found herself in his arms. He was so strong and big and carried her so easily. He was flushed and smiling, too, and carried her so carefully and so slowly that she was hoping he was finding the business as agreeable and pleasant as she was.
Still, he was most respectful and, when he had put her down at the door she indicated, made no suggestion that he should help her further. Instead, renewing his expressions of regret and now looking rather embarrassed as he made them, he raised his hat and without even offering to shake hands, took his departure as if he were in a great hurry.
After he had gone, and indeed all that evening, Christine thought quite a lot about him and was very annoyed with herself that she had not asked him to come in. He was such a nice boy, with such charming manners. She sighed heavily that in some ways he was just the kind of man she would like for a husband, if only he had been a little bit older. There was nothing of the seasoned campaigner about him and everything in his demeanour had suggested that he knew very little about women.
The next morning being a Sunday, Christine got up rather late. She had had her bath and had just finished dressing but was still in her bedroom, when she heard her front-door bell ring and a few moments later the maid came in to say that a gentleman wanted to see her, and she had shown him into the little drawing-room. The girl also handed Christine a card and, very perplexed, the latter saw it was the Honourable Percy Heron who wanted to see her.
Her heart beat quickly.
"What's he like to look at, Marie?" she asked the maid.
"Oh, he's quite young, Mademoiselle," was the reply, "tall and with very fair hair," and Christine's heart beat the quicker as she realised he must be the young fellow of the previous day.
They were both blushing when they met and this time the boy offered his hand eagerly. "I just came to see how you were," he explained nervously. "I'm sure I've never felt so ashamed of myself before. I was a clumsy brute."
"No, no, it was partly my fault," smiled Christine. "I oughtn't to have been so close."
"But I'm delighted to see you up," he went on. "I was quite expecting to hear of an invalid in bed." He looked down admiringly at her pretty shoes. "Is the bruise a very bad one?"
"No, very small," replied Christine, "and my foot is only a little sore. But do please sit down. It's quite a treat to talk to somebody English. Certainly, I am half French myself, but my mother was English and until a little over three years ago I had spent all my life in London."
They talked animatedly, together and soon getting over his shyness, Percy told her a lot about himself in a boyish open way. She was surprised he was nearly a year older than she was. He had just been on a holiday tour with his uncle, his father's brother, General Heron, through Italy and Greece. Then, coming to Paris just over a week ago, his uncle had gone down with pneumonia and been taken to a hospital. His condition was pretty bad but the doctors thought he'd get over it, quite all right. However, at any rate it would be about a month before they would be able to get back to England.
"I can't leave him and go back home," he went on, "because of course one of the family ought to be somewhere near him, and my aunt can't come over because she's laid up with rheumatism."
Christine sympathised with him and then asked him if he'd enjoyed his tour.
"Oh, yes, it wasn't bad," he said, "but my uncle's sixty-nine and always wants to go to bed early and doesn't like me going about without him." He laughed. "They still want to treat me as a bit of a baby as if I couldn't take care of myself. Anyhow, I'm seeing a bit more life now, though I don't know a soul in Paris, and so things are rather dull."
"Are you the only son?" asked Christine.
He nodded. "Yes, but I've got three sisters. My dad's Lord Fell and when the dear old boy dies I shall come into the title—" he made a grimace "—and have to take my seat in the House of Lords." He made another grimace. "I hate the very thought of it."
Christine thrilled, and felt a great catch in her breath. Here was a boy whom an instinct told her might easily be made to fall in love with her, and one day he would become a Peer of the Realm! His wife would then be Lady Fell! She shivered and her knees shook under her.
But she was going to sail under no false colours. He should know the worst at once and so she proceeded to tell him about her own occupation. "I work in the Rue de la Paix," she said, "under a dress-designer, the greatest dress-designer in the world, Charlemagne Voisin. Have you ever heard of him?"
He shook his head. "No, I know nothing about women's dresses, except," and he took her in smilingly, "I can always tell when a girl's got a pretty one on. Yesterday I thought how well that blue dress you were wearing went with the colour of your eyes. I noticed it at once."
Christine blushed prettily and told him about herself, of her early life in London, of her coming to Paris and of her good fortune in getting with Monsieur Voisin and how she loved her work.
"That's right," he said heartily. "I think every girl, whoever she is, ought to take on some job. Two of my sisters are engaged, but the one who isn't is a nurse at a hospital in London. Most of my people didn't like it at first, but Dad was very pleased when she took it on." He spoke warmly. "My dad's a very fine old chap, though he doesn't get on with everyone, as his tongue's too sharp and he's much too outspoken sometimes. He's very hasty as well, and when his temper's roused he gets so fierce that he's called Tiger among his friends. Still, he and I are good pals, though I know he's very disappointed in me. He wanted a son who would have gone into politics, but I haven't brains enough for that." He laughed. "He thinks I'm a bit of a softy, too, because I've never been interested in girls. He says I've got no go in me, but he's wrong there for I'm sure I could be as determined as anybody if I'd set my mind on anything. One thing, I'm never really afraid of anybody," he got a little red, "except, of course, as I say, girls. I'm always shy with them."
Christine laughed merrily. "I don't believe it," she said. "At any rate you're not being shy with me now."
"No, I'm not," he agreed quickly, "but somehow I seem to have known you for years. You are quite different from any girl I've met before."
They chatted on animatedly and then, noting how the time was going, Christine took a bold step.
"Would you care to have lunch with me?" she asked. "I can't offer you much, but there'll be a cutlet and a nice omelette. I'm not at all a bad cook."
The boy was delighted and accepted at once. "By, Jove, that is sweet of you!" he exclaimed. "I'm sure it will be the very nicest meal I've ever had."
And certainly he did seem to enjoy it, though he told himself afterwards he really hadn't tasted anything he ate. He had been too occupied in looking at Christine's beautiful violet eyes and watching the delicious play of her lips as she talked. He thought her absolutely lovely.
After the meal, as some return, so he put it, he engaged a taxi and they went for a drive in the country, with the boy later parting from her with great regret at her door. They had arranged, however, to go out to dinner together the following evening.
Then followed a very exciting fortnight for Christine. He met her every day after work and took her somewhere for the evening.
One night they ran into Monsieur and Madame Voisin in the foyer of a picture theatre and the next morning le maître shook his finger warningly at her.
"So, so, little one," he frowned, "I see you are going the way of all flesh and blood and I grieve over it, fearing how it may end. Who was he, may I ask, that pleasant-looking boy with you?"
"His name's Percy Heron," smiled Christine, "and he's quite a nice young fellow. He's an Englishman."
"I could see that," nodded Monsieur, "but don't go too far, Mademoiselle. Keep all your affections for my beautiful fabrics and leave the men alone." He sighed heavily. "But I know it's no good my warning you. Youth will have its fling."
And certainly Christine and Percy were having what Monsieur called their fling. The boy had many days now been deep in the toils and Christine was getting genuinely fond of him. He was so open and so natural and so reverently respectful to her. Never once had he so far attempted the slightest undue familiarity and the nearest he had got was to give her the gentlest squeeze of the hand in parting.
One night, however, when he had known her a little longer than a fortnight, the climax came, and the floodgates were opened with a vengeance.
They had come back to the flat a little earlier than usual because the picture they had gone to had not proved very interesting and so they had left before it was over. They were sitting in her little drawing-room and then conversation had died down. He was looking at her, as indeed he always did, intently. Presently, he said very nervously, "Look here, Mademoiselle, do you think I might—" but he stopped speaking.
"Might what?" asked Christine, her heart beating a little quicker, for she sensed that it was something particular he had been intending to ask her.
"Oh, nothing," he replied rather weakly. "Only I was just thinking—" and he stopped again.
Christine knew her chance had come at last, if indeed she was ever intending to take it. She realised the strain he was under and knew she was under one, too. It was foolish going on like this. They were not just playing at being in love, but they were really in love and both of them knew it.
At that moment they were sitting on the settee together and, steadying herself with a great effort, she moved up close to him.
"What were you going to say?" she asked. She laid her hand upon his sleeve. "What is it you want?"
"You!" he exclaimed firmly. He had lost his nervousness now and his words came out with a rush. "I was going to ask you if I might kiss you."
She held her face provocatively up to his. "And why not, dear?" she whispered softly. "We've been patient long enough."
In an instant she was in his arms. He kissed her fiercely and devouringly, first upon her cheek, then on her eyes but, finding her mouth at last, his lips stayed there. It was only when they had to breathe that the kissing stopped, but even then it was only for a few moments.
It was nearly one o'clock in the morning when Percy finally left and Christine had promised to marry him. At first, he had been strong for marrying her at once, that same week, without telling anyone about it, and she had been greatly tempted to consent, but really fond of him now, she had set her face at once against it, firmly and determinedly.
"No, dear," she said, "I'm not going to come into your life bringing unhappiness to your family. You're the only son and so you're not going to upset your father by marrying without telling him. Besides, I want to come into your family in the ordinary way, and not let people ever be able to say afterwards that you were snatched up all in a minute by an adventuress. No, no, we won't do anything on the sly."
"You're right, darling," he said after a moment's thought. "We'll do things properly. I'll face the music and begin by telling Uncle to-morrow. He was well enough to go back to his hotel today and hopes to leave for home in about a week. We'll take you with us."
If she had let herself go Christine would have shivered in her fears. She was facing a mighty crisis and burning all her boats behind her. She was terribly afraid.
The next evening, however, when Percy arrived at the flat to escort her to see his uncle, all her confidence had returned. The spirit of great adventure was stirring in her and she knew she was looking her best. Certainly, she thought, no one could pick any holes in her appearance.
Percy was looking white and stern, and she was sure he had been having a bad time with his relative.
"What happened, dear?" she asked after they had kissed each other.
Percy smiled grimly, "Oh, of course, he cut up a bit rough at first, but I let him see I was determined, and in the end he quietened down quite a lot. We're to be there at eight o'clock." He took her in admiringly. "But, my word, when he sees you he'll crumple up at once."
It was a smiling and perfectly confident young woman who, a few minutes later, was ushered into the invalid's room at the big hotel. An uneasy pang stirred in the old General when his eyes fell upon her. Gad, here was someone who would not easily be shaken off! However, he was a tactful old gentleman and, dissembling his anger, shook hands with her quite pleasantly.
"And so you're the young lady," he smiled, "whom my nephew has decided to marry, all in such a hurry!" His face hardened a little. "Do you think you'll be able to make him a suitable wife?"
"I hope I shall," smiled back Christine. "At any rate I shall try to. I don't see any reason why I shouldn't."
"But do you think his relations will approve of you?" went on the General severely.
"Why shouldn't they?" she asked sweetly. "There's nothing very much wrong with my appearance, is there? Besides, it's Percy I'm going to marry, and not any of his relations, isn't it?"
He ignored her question and asked one himself. "You're a dressmaker, aren't you?"
She frowned prettily. "Well, I'm a little more important than that now. I never do any sewing. I help my employer to design the dresses and then judge how they suit each particular client afterwards."
He spoke incredulously. "And do you really believe," he asked, "that a girl who's been earning her living in a dress-shop is fit to marry into the English Peerage? Why, our ancestors go back for more than seven hundred years!"
"So do mine," commented Christine sweetly, "though I don't happen to know who they all were."
"But you come from quite a different class of people," he went on, "people no one knows anything about!"
"But people perhaps quite as nice as anybody's," fibbed Christine. "You don't notice anything common about me, do you?" She laughed merrily. "And, goodness gracious, if I, too, knew who my ancestors had been for seven hundred years, should I be in any way better because of it than I am now? Should I be healthier, or cleverer, or should I look nicer? How would it make me better fitted to become Percy's wife?"
"But you're a penniless girl," snapped the General. "You're—"
"I'm not," snapped Christine. "I'm anything but penniless. I earn more than twelve pounds a week and I've quite a nice sum of money saved."
The General went on another tack. "And I understand that for the last three years you've been knocking about Paris all by yourself." He rapped out his question sharply. "Then how many men," he hesitated for a moment and then went on grimly, "have been interested in you?"
Percy seemed on the point of interrupting angrily, when Christine stayed him with a quick gesture and answered the General meekly enough.
"Perhaps more than I know of," she smiled. She drew herself up proudly and flashed him a spirited look. "And I have remained as you see me now, Monsieur—as God made me."
The conversation was interrupted by a maid entering the room. "The doctor is here, mon Général," she said.
General Heron frowned. "Ah, yes, of course! He's earlier than I expected, but bring him in." He turned to his nephew and Christine. "Please go into the next room and wait a few minutes. It won't be for very long."
Before, however, they had time to leave the room the doctor appeared and, to Christine's amazement and consternation, she saw he was Dr. Antoine. He caught sight of her before either of the others, and his face brightened at once. "Ah, my little Mademoiselle Fontaine," he exclaimed, "and looking as charming as ever!"
He shook hands with her and then turned to Percy.
"And how are you, my boy?" he asked, speaking in excellent English. "Has it been very lonely for you, having to go about everywhere without your uncle?" He glanced slyly at Christine and added, "Perhaps not!"
Percy nodded towards Christine.
"My fiancée, Doctor," he said proudly, "the young lady I am going to marry very shortly." The doctor started and, for the moment, looked very grave, but he was quickly all smiles again and shook Percy warmly by the hand.
"I congratulate you, my boy," he said. He bowed gallantly. "It is not necessary for me to tell you, Mademoiselle is one of the prettiest girls in Paris."
The General choked back the amazement which had made him get as red as a turkey-cock.
"You know her, Antoine!" he exclaimed.
"Certainly!" smiled the doctor. "I first made her acquaintance—let me think—yes, it must be more than three years ago, when she had just come to Paris."
Percy led Christine from the room and, the moment the door was closed behind them, General Heron exclaimed angrily, "Did you ever hear of such nonsense, Antoine? This fool of a nephew of mine wants to marry the girl and he's as stubborn as a mule about it. What do you know about her?"
The doctor seemed surprised at the question. "Nothing to her discredit, Henry. She is a patient of mine and I've attended her for some trifling ailments. I gave her a tonic the other day." He went on, "I think she's a very nice girl and she's certainly a very pretty one."
"Yes, damn her looks!" scowled the other. "That's what's got hold of the boy. He's razed about her."
"And at his age wouldn't you have been, too?" laughed Dr. Antoine. "Why, she reminds me a lot of that little girl, Anna, you were so sweet on in Prague when we were young fellows together. Don't you remember how her husband nearly caught you and—"
"That'll do," broke in the General sharply. "You've got an unpleasant memory, Charles. Drop it. Everyone may make a fool of himself when he's young and that's what Percy's doing now."
"I don't think so," said the doctor. "The girl's not only very pretty, but she's perfectly healthy. I know that for certain. If Percy marries her she'll bring good, fresh blood into the family and they'll have lovely children."
"But a dressmaker, Antoine?" exclaimed the General.
"That's nothing! Why, there have been royal dressmakers and mannequins before now, when royalty's been hard up."
"But she's been living by herself for three years and, with her looks, don't you tell me she's not had lots of lovers."
The doctor shook his head. "I don't think so. When I've chaffed her about not getting married she's said she didn't like men." He looked amused. "Would you like me to talk to her about it again, or, perhaps, go into the matter—professionally?"
"Yes, I should," snapped the General. "A thorough examination I'm sure would open Percy's eyes a lot."
The doctor spoke sternly. "Don't you be foolish, Henry," he said, "and don't you hurt the girl's feelings. When I came in just now she looked as if she had not been having too good a time."
There was silence for a few minutes and then the General remarked uneasily:
"But there'll be the very devil to pay when Louisa and Tiger hear about it."
The other laughed. "Your wife certainly won't like it and will try to make things unpleasant, but when his lordship sees the girl I don't think he'll object. In fact old Tiger will think the boy's a very lucky fellow."
In the meantime, in the next room Percy was trying to make up to Christine for his uncle's harshness.
"He's not as bad as he seems, sweetheart," he said reassuringly, "and you'll soon get round him. But, I say, isn't it extraordinary that of all people you should be knowing our Doctor Antoine! He's been a great friend of our family for longer than forty years and, when he takes a holiday, he comes to stay with us. He, Dad and Uncle here were students together in Vienna when they were quite young men. There were two lives between Dad and the title then and he never dreamed he would come into it." He spoke enthusiastically. "The doctor's an awfully nice man, isn't he?"
Christine's heart was beating painfully and there was a sickening sensation at the pit of her stomach. For the moment when the doctor had come into the room it was as if a clap of thunder had burst in her ears, and she was terror-stricken that a dreadful explosion was impending. However, the very kindness of the doctor had in part reassured her, and she realised he would not say anything for, apart from his kindly nature, he would not give away a professional secret.
Now, however, when Percy was telling her what an old and great friend of the family the doctor was she felt her panic returning. Of course while Dr. Antoine might not tell what had actually happened, for all that, after he had got over his astonishment that Percy was wanting to marry her, he might feel bound by his friendship to drop some sort of hint to the General that his nephew ought to be very careful. Without bringing any definite accusation against a girl, a man could always nevertheless let another man know that he thought she might not be quite all she was making herself out to be.
And the doctor was having such an opportunity now for, of course, his patient would unburden himself of everything to him and try to enlist his sympathies against the marriage! The issue at stake, too, was so great that Dr. Antoine would have to take sides. He must be either for her or against her. She felt a cold shiver run down her spine.
A tense half-hour followed, a much longer time than General Heron had said he would be, and then they heard the doctor come out of the invalid's room. For a moment Christine expected the worst and that he was going away without saying good-bye to them, but the door opened quickly and, to her unbounded relief, she saw the doctor was smiling.
"Good-bye, my children," he exclaimed brightly, "and the best of good fortune to you." He shook hands warmly with both of them and added: "I may be seeing you both again soon in England when I go upon my holiday."
Christine had now difficulty, again, in restraining her tears.
They went back into the General's room and, although the old man's manner towards Christine was still antagonistic, yet at the same time he seemed a little more gracious. He even asked Christine to come and see him again.
In the ensuing few days, Christine was deeply moved by Percy's attitude towards her, for it came home to her so strongly that he was now taking on the role of protector as well as lover. He was quieter and it was evident he was realising his responsibility. There were lines, too, of determination about his face which had not shown themselves before. He seemed to be much less of a boy and more of a man.
Christine was touched, and her conscience began to stir uncomfortably. Could she make him a good enough wife or had her love-affairs soiled her? When a girl married, did her past as well as her future belong to her husband? Did one part of her life inevitably have its bearing on the other, or at any rate to the extent of damning her as long as she lived?
She pulled herself up sharply. No, there was nothing morally wrong about her and nothing to prevent her making a perfectly good wife. In its widest sense she felt herself to be a really good girl. She knew she was by nature kind and sympathetic and always ready to help anyone in any way she could, also, she was good-tempered and of a bright disposition.
In her love-affair she had done only what she considered a single girl was entitled to, and what she was sure millions of other girls had done, too. Again, if some girls had not given way as she had, at any rate they had nevertheless wanted to and it had been only lack of courage which had prevented them.
She sighed heavily. Was her reasoning all wrong and were her arguments nothing but excuses after all? Was she fit to marry the so-called good type of man she knew Percy was?
She was very worried for some days, but then made up her mind what to do. She would go to see Dr. Antoine and, one way or another, he would put her doubts at rest.
The doctor seemed very pleased when she went to him and more pleased still when she told him the reason for her coming.
"And that proves," he nodded approvingly, "not indeed that I needed the proof, that you're not the unfeeling adventuress which General Heron would have liked to make out. No, my dear, there is nothing to prevent your making an excellent wife for Percy. You'll bring a new strain into the Heron line—and it wanted it. There's been much too much cousin-marrying in the family."
"Then I can make Percy a perfectly good wife?" asked Christine in great relief. She smiled. "But what if I've been following the advice you gave me and have had several lovers?"
The doctor smiled back. "I don't think you have, but if it were so, considering that you are as I see you now, it would make no difference. Haven't you heard the old adage that a reformed rake makes the best husband? Well, that can be equally true of a woman."
Christine's conscience was not entirely at ease. "But, Monsieur," she asked, "knowing about what happened to me three years ago, and not being sure, too, that I have not had several lovers since, if you had a son whom you were very fond of, would you consent to his taking me for his wife?"
The doctor was emphatic. "Certainly, I would," he replied, "knowing your disposition and that you are a woman in perfect health I would not hesitate a moment."
"Then you would not suspect me of being a bad woman?" asked Christine.
"No, I would not," he smiled, "for, even if you offended against the moral code, you would still be kind and gentle, and loyal to those who trusted you. It's written on your face."
He went on. "You see, Mademoiselle, continence for single people of both sexes is a worthy ideal imposed upon us by custom and convention, but for all that it does not necessarily make us nice people to live with. Nature most certainly does not altogether approve of our moral code, for she often punishes those who conform to it with many disabilities, both mental and physical. So very often we find, too, that the most moral and correct in their relations with the other sex are most unpleasant people to have any dealings with. They can be cold, hard and cruel," he pursed up his lips, "oh, most horribly cruel in their treatment of those who, as they call it, have fallen. You see that every day."
"One other thing, Monsieur," said Christine, and she hesitated uncomfortably, "you don't think I ought to tell Percy everything?"
"No, I certainly don't," was the instant reply. "It would be most foolish if you did. It is your own secret, a secret of your single life, and you keep it." He patted her hand. "I am very interested in your little romance, Mademoiselle, and am sure it will end happily. About Percy's relations, you will find his father all right. Lord Fell is a cynical, bitter-tongued old gentleman, but at heart he is as good as gold. All his life he has had the reputation of being, what you English call, a bit of an old rip, and he has lived up to it. He is very outspoken and loves to shock people. The General's wife, who keeps house for him is, however, rather different. She is inclined to be one of those hard, cold women I was just talking about, very prudish and prim, the exact opposite of her brother. Still, you'll get on with her in time. Good-bye, I may be seeing you soon, for I think of taking a holiday and may spend a few days of it at Fell Castle. It's a glorious old place."
Christine left him, feeling so relieved in her mind that she felt almost as if she were treading on air; indeed the talk with the doctor had so buoyed her up and so restored her self-confidence that she resolved to go to the General's hotel to see him and enquire how he was.
She found him sitting in the rather crowded lounge and, at other times, his grim expression would have discouraged her, but she seated herself beside him and started to make herself agreeable. At first she had to carry on almost the whole conversation, as he answered her only in monosyllables, but he was not proof long against her nice appearance and charm of manner, and soon was talking quite pleasantly. The change, too, was perhaps not a little due to the interest he saw she was creating among the others then in the lounge, and he could not help himself feeling rather proud to be seen talking to such a pretty woman.
Presently he said with a grudging smile, "It is a pity you are not of our class, Miss Fontaine, for then people might say my nephew was fortunate in his choice." He shook his head. "As it is, if he persists in his determination to marry you he will meet a lot of opposition from the family."
"Of course, he'll persist," said Christine instantly. She laughed happily. "I shall have to keep him up to it, for I realise what a splendid marriage it will be for me. I'm sure very few girls get the opportunity I'm getting."
"You're frank, aren't you?" frowned the General, very astonished at her outspokenness.
"Oh, yes, whatever I am, I'm not a hypocrite," said Christine. Her eyes flashed. "But I'd never marry Percy if I weren't fond of him, not even if I were going to become a Princess. I'd never let myself in for an unhappy life even if it were going to be a gilded one." She spoke a little pleadingly. "You know, Monsieur, if you only would, you could put in a good word for us and make things so much easier for Percy when he gets home to his father."
A pang of uneasiness stirred in the General, for he had only that morning written a long letter to his wife, telling her everything and stressing the difficulty they would all have in inducing Percy to change his mind and give up Christine.
They parted on friendly terms, with the old man asking her to come and see him again. In the ensuing fortnight she went several times, twice with Percy, and they being his guests at dinner. Indeed, she so far wore down his opposition to her that in the end he decided to remain neutral and let things shape themselves without his interference. Eventually when they returned to London he arranged for her to stay with his married son while Percy went up to Fell Castle in Lincolnshire to prepare his father for her coming up—as she put it with a grimace—for inspection.
It was not a very auspicious moment for Percy when he arrived at Fell Castle; as it happened his father was suffering from one of his periodical attacks of gout, and in consequence, he was more irritable even than ordinarily.
"You've made a fool of yourself, Percy," he scowled; "you're no judge of women and ought never to have committed yourself to marrying the girl until I'd seen her. You seem to have forgotten the woman you marry will have to carry on our line. Now there may be no end of bother and scandal in shaking the girl off!"
"But I shan't shake her off, Dad," said Percy firmly, "and you won't want me to when you've seen her."
The General's wife was present at the interview, half tearful, and half furious with her nephew.
"But what an insult to us, Percy," she exclaimed, "to want to bring down here some unknown shop-girl as your intended wife! I tell you I'll have nothing to do with her if she does come. She'll have her meals by herself in the housekeeper's room."
Lord Fell turned on her with a snarl. He was glad to have someone other than his son to vent his anger upon.
"You hold your tongue, Louisa," he ordered peremptorily, "and you mind your own business. It's nothing to do with you. You always were a fool, as I'm always telling you." His eyes flashed. "If the girl comes up here, it'll be at my invitation and she'll be treated as any other of my guests. No, more than that," he glared spitefully at his sister-in-law, "as perhaps to become my son's wife, she'll have the best room in the Castle. Whatever happens, I'm going to have no slight put upon her."
"But the disgrace, Warwick," exclaimed Mrs. Heron tearfully. "Fancy his having picked up a shop-girl! I hate having anything to do with people in shops."
"You do, do you?" sneered his lordship. "Well, it's a pity your people haven't hated that, too. All my life I seem to have been paying off the bills your father and brother have run up at shops. Shopkeepers, poor devils, have been your family's best friends."
Mrs. Heron left the room at once, with her lips pursed up and her head high in the air. She knew better than to argue with her brother-in-law. He held the moneybags and was always letting her know it.
Alone with his son once more, Lord Fell spoke frowningly and with considerable irritation.
"But even if you have fallen in love with the girl, is it absolutely necessary you must marry her? As a man of the world, I've always found that—"
Percy had gone very white.
"If anyone but you had said that, Dad, I'd have knocked him down. Miss Fontaine is as good a girl as you'd ever meet, and you'll see that the moment you meet her."
"It mayn't be too good a girl that we want," snapped his father. "I've known what you call good girls who can bear only half imbecile children, and bad girls who made excellent wives and mothers. Of course, now things have gone so far, you'll have to bring the girl here on a visit, but whatever she is she'll not deceive me. I've known too many women in my life not to be able to read them like a book."
Lord Fell, now in his seventy-fifth year, notwithstanding his age and infirmities, was still a distinguished-looking man of commanding presence. In many ways, however, it could not be said truthfully that he had ever been one whom strict moralists would have held up as a shining example to the younger generation. Wherever he had gone he had been a stormy petrel, and scandal, though often with gross exaggerations, had run like a scarlet thread through the greater part of his life.
Losing his father when he was ten, he had been thoroughly spoilt by his mother, and allowed to do almost exactly what he liked. At twenty-one he had made a hasty and impetuous marriage with a girl of seventeen and regretted it within a month. His wife had been querulous and extremely bad-tempered, and for nearly five and twenty years they had quarrelled continually. His great grievance had been that she had borne him no children and, with a most unhappy home life, openly and not caring who knew about it, he had found consolation in many other quarters, earning an unenviable reputation with his infidelities.
When he was forty-six a happy release had come for both of them, his wife being killed in a motor accident. Six months later he had married again and this time, at any rate as far as disposition was concerned, he had made a better choice.
The second Lady Fell, not too gifted with intelligence, had been gentle and good-natured and, in a masterful and somewhat selfish way, he had been always kind to her, with scandal almost entirely dying down while she was alive. Certainly she had occasionally been suspicious about his absolute fidelity, and it was rumoured that towards the end of her life they had not been getting on quite so well together.
After bearing him three daughters and, at last, a son, she had died suddenly from heart failure, within a few months of the boy's birth. Then scandal once more had involved him in not a few supposed intrigues and, true or false, there had been plenty of tales about him until advancing age had put an end to his adventures.
Still, whatever may have been his moral lapses, he had never been without his many good points and a decided nobility of character. He prided himself, and rightly too, that he was always just, treating his dependants and tenants perfectly fairly. He never cheated and his word could always be relied upon. Anything but a hypocrite, he was absolutely fearless and scornful of public opinion, and to the few friends he had, he was always generous and loyal. His children held him in considerable awe and confided little in him, notwithstanding that at heart he was very fond of them, particularly his daughters, though his cynical and somewhat reserved nature forbade him showing it.
Such was the lord of Fell Castle, a lonely, cynical, and bitter-tongued old man to whom the decidedly nervous Christine was to make her bow, when three days later Percy met her at the railway station and drove her to his ancestral home.
"Now don't you be afraid, darling," he said reassuringly. "You'll soon win over Dad, and Aunt Louisa doesn't matter, Dad'll soon squash her. She's a good manageress for the Castle or she wouldn't be here, but she's always annoying Dad with her stuck-up ways."
Christine's immediate impression of Lord Fell was that of a very stern-looking old man, with big shrewd eyes which seemed to look her through and through. In a flash of intuition she told herself there would be no deceiving him with a pose of timid and shrinking innocence of the world. It would only make him her enemy at once. He would despise a coward, too, as much as he would hate a hypocrite.
So she took his offered hand with a brave little smile and just that amount of respect which was due to him, not only because of his title but also because of his being the father of Percy.
Lord Fell's grave face lightened and he returned her smile. She was certainly most presentable and she looked of a nice disposition, too!
"I hope you will enjoy your little stay here," he said most politely. "At any rate, it will be a great change for you."
"Yes, it was very nice of you," she replied, still smilingly, "as I was quite a stranger to you, to ask me to come here on a visit."
"But naturally," he said dryly, "I was curious to see the girl whom my son," he hesitated a few moments, "thinks he would like to take for his wife."
"Oh, I'm not too bad," laughed Christie. "At any rate I've got my good points."
His lordship nodded.
"So I see," he said. He regarded her most intently. "But come—where have I seen you before? I'm sure I've seen you somewhere."
Christine looked puzzled.
"Was it lately?" she asked. "Because if so it must have been in Paris. I've been living there for three years."
"No, it wasn't lately," replied his lordship thoughtfully, "but a little over three years ago when I was on the Continent, in fact the last time I went abroad. Then I was in France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. Have you been to any of those other countries?"
Christine felt most uneasy. Oh, God, if he had seen her in Geneva with Ronald Blair! It was no good her denying anything because she had already told Percy she had been to Switzerland. She steadied her voice with an effort. "Yes, I've been to Belgium and Switzerland," she replied. "I went there with my father, but I was quite young at the time."
Lord Fell shook his head.
"But you weren't quite young when I saw you. You looked much as you do now. It seems to me I remember you, particularly," he smiled, "because I've always taken notice of young ladies with auburn hair. It's my favourite colour." He nodded. "Never mind, it'll come to me later. I've a great memory for faces and when I was in the army used to pride myself that I knew almost all the men of my regiment by sight."
Christine was introduced to Mrs. Heron, who received her frigidly and did not offer to shake hands. She left the room immediately afterwards so as not to have to take part in any conversation.
It happened that the daughters were away, and so there were only the four of them at dinner that evening. Percy was very quiet and, with Mrs. Heron hardly saying a word, the conversation was carried on almost entirely by Christine and Lord Fell. The old man was friendly, and seemed quite pleased to have someone with whom he could talk about Art. He watched her narrowly, however, with a thoughtful frown upon his face. Christine was sure he was trying to remember where he had seen her before, but she had now in part got over her fright and was bright and animated.
She told him a lot about her early life with Arnold Ransome and explained to him something of the technique of painting and how painters mixed their colours. He was interested and asked her a lot of shrewd questions.
The following morning Percy was in the garage making some adjustments to his car when Lord Fell found Christine alone upon the terrace and, seating himself beside her, he opened what she quickly realised was going to be a very intimate conversation.
"You are much older in your ways than my son, aren't you?" he asked. "Well, when you were living by yourself for those three years in Paris, did you have many friends?"
"No, hardly any," replied Christine. "I'm not one who makes many friends. I kept myself very much to myself."
"But you've had some men friends, surely?" he smiled. "Come, you can't tell me a girl of your attractions has not had sweethearts?"
Christine had all along decided upon the role she was going to take and, without any embarrassment, answered at once.
"I am twenty-four, my lord," she smiled with a demure little inclination of her head, "and a girl doesn't go to that age without some experience. Yes, I've had what you might call sweethearts, but I've not been too keen on any of them. To be quite frank with you, I've kept men at a distance."
He looked sceptical. "And may I ask why?"
"Because once," she replied gravely, "I thought I had fallen in love with someone whom I found out to be a very bad man," she spoke bitterly, "a vile man."
"You didn't marry him?" asked Lord Fell sharply.
"Certainly not," was Christine's indignant answer. "I found him out in time." She shrugged her shoulders. "That put me off all men for a long time. I didn't trust them, in fact I often told myself I had finished with them for good and should die an old maid."
Lord Fell, whose opinion of women's truthfulness was never a high one, only in part believed her, and was sure if she had any secret to hide she would keep it from him. She might, too, be much deeper than he thought. He'd set a trap for her.
"But when you met my son," he asked smilingly, "you fell in love with him at once? It was love at first sight, eh?"
Christine laughed her musical silvery laugh.
"Indeed, it wasn't! He seemed to me to be just a boy and I was only amused. I had no idea of falling in love with him."
His lordship frowned.
"But you encouraged him to become friendly with you! You let him take you about with him!"
Christine shook her head.
"I didn't encourage him. Certainly, as you say, I let him take me out, for meeting him was a pleasant experience for me. He came from my own country and was such a nice, unspoilt boy. He was so different, too, from the men I was usually brought in contact with, and I knew he'd never pester me with attentions I didn't want."
"But you must have soon seen he was serious!" snapped Lord Fell.
"Of course I did," nodded Christine. "The stupidest woman can tell that about a man at once. Still, I was anything but serious, at first. I tell you, I was only amused."
"But, Miss Fontaine," commented his lordship grimly, "you can't make out that when you knew who he was and that he was heir to a title you were not at least a little bit dazzled that he was making a dead-set on you!"
"I wasn't a bit," said Christine firmly. She went on quickly, "You see, my lord, I'd come in contact with a lot of titled women in my work at Monsieur Voisin's and, with all their titles and money, they hadn't struck me as being particularly happy people. Most of them seemed bored and discontented and as if with all their money and going about everywhere, they didn't get much pleasure out of life. Whereas I was very happy and wanted for nothing. I enjoyed my work, I was earning more money than I could spend, and my prospects with my employer were very good. He often said, laughingly, that he would have to take me into partnership with him one day.
"But remember," frowned Lord Fell, "my son's courtship of you was a whirlwind one. I understand he asked you to marry him after only a fortnight. Then when did you realise your change of feeling?"
"I don't know. It came gradually. Percy seemed to grow from a boy to a man before my very eyes." She shrugged her shoulders. "Then one night he kissed me and—I knew what my feelings for him were. I realised I had become very fond of him."
"And I understand he wanted to marry you straight away," asked his lordship, "without telling any of us until it was all over?"
Christine showed her surprise.
"Oh, Percy told you that himself, did he? Well, I shouldn't have told you. Yes, he suggested we should be married at once, but I wouldn't agree, as I could see he knew very little about girls and I wasn't going to have it said afterwards that I had taken advantage of his inexperience and snatched him up before he'd made up his mind properly. I didn't want to come into his family with a lot of fuss and scandal."
Lord Fell nodded.
"Well, that's to your credit, anyhow. You acted with good feeling there."
"And I have good feelings," retorted Christine warmly. She smiled. "I've quite a good disposition. I'm good tempered and good-natured and I wouldn't bring unhappiness to Percy for anything."
"Then what if I tell him I don't want him to marry you?" asked Lord Fell sharply. "What do you intend to do then?"
Christine was quite unruffled. "I've made up my mind all about that. Percy and I will have to wait. We'll wait until either he's tired of me, or you come round." She looked amused. "But I'm sure you'll come round in time. It's a mother Percy wants as much as a wife, and you'll realise I can take care of him. I've seen a great deal more of life than he has.
"I'm sure of that," nodded Lord Fell with his grim smile. "Percy's a child compared with you." He regarded her intently.
"Now I won't ask you if you're still a—" But he stopped speaking, with his eyes, however, still fixed on hers.
She sensed what he was wanting to say and crimsoned furiously.
"I should think not, indeed," see retorted angrily, "not only because you're a gentleman but, also, because if I wasn't, you know perfectly well I shouldn't be likely to tell you."
"Well, Miss Fontaine, you're either a very truthful young woman or else a very clever one."
"And I hope I'm a little of both," laughed Christine, not at all sorry to see Percy coming up to them and to know that the cross-examination was over.
Christine was soon enjoying herself immensely. Everything about the Castle was so thrilling. It was steeped in the tradition of hundreds of years and she was never tired of wandering down its long passages and inspecting the beautiful appointments of its age-old rooms. It was delightful, too, to have so many servants waiting upon her and to have every comfort she could think of. She loved the stately ritual of the meals.
Percy showed her over the extensive domain which would one day be his, the fields, the woods, the moors and the glens, and many times she almost wanted to rub her eyes to see if it were not all some beautiful dream. Was it possible, she asked herself fearfully, that she might one day share all these possessions just because her face was shaped in such a way, her eyes were of such a colour and, generally, because Percy thought her so different from all other girls?
Two of Percy's sisters, the engaged ones, came home when she had been there three days. At first they were a little distant and inclined to stand off, but they were nice girls and gradually thawed. They could not help admiring Christine and her dresses were a revelation to them. They knew the great M. Charlemagne Voisin well by repute and were soon thrilled at being able to get the advice of one who had worked so closely with him; indeed, they wanted to occupy more of Christine's time than she could give them.
Only General Heron's wife continued to be hostile. She would have liked to make many sarcastic remarks to Christine, but was too much afraid of her brother-in-law to be openly rude. Christine's attitude towards her was studiously polite, but she made no great attempt to win her favour, having realised from the first that it would be quite hopeless.
In all her enjoyment of her surroundings, one thing, however, began to worry Christine not a little. Though Lord Fell always treated her with the greatest politeness, she realised she had not as yet completely won him over. Indeed, after a few days at the Castle, she was half-fearing she was losing ground with him and that in some subtle way he was not as pleased with her as he had been at first, for all of a sudden he had become much less talkative and much more reserved. Often, too, she knew he was looking frowningly at her when her own eyes were in a different direction. Another thing, occasionally when Percy was talking to her, she saw he was watching his son, almost as if for some reason he was sorry for him.
And all the time, too, no mention of the engagement was made by anyone. It was just ignored, as if it had not taken place and no one had noticed the beautiful engagement ring upon her finger.
She brought up the matter to Percy one day when they were out walking in the woods, but he only made light of her disappointment. "Don't you worry, darling," he said. "They're just waiting upon Dad. He's a great martinet and no one dares to cross him. He's coming round all right. I know him and one day he'll surprise us by asking when the wedding-day's going to be."
So things went on for a little longer than a week and then suddenly Dr. Antoine appeared most unexpectedly on a flying visit as he put it. He was going to a Medical Congress in Glasgow and could only stay two nights at the Castle.
He was as nice as ever to Christine, but she did not see much of him for he was with Lord Fell nearly all the time. When he said good-bye to them, he squeezed Christine's hand, and to her great happiness, whispered quickly, "It's going to be quite all right. You'll see, soon."
And very soon Christine did see it. Indeed at dinner that same night she thought Lord Fell seemed kinder and showed a more personal interest in her.
"I'm glad to see you don't smoke," he remarked. "My daughters could learn something from you there." He looked very amused. "No one can say I've been unduly strait-laced in my life, but I've never quite agreed with women smoking. Besides staining their fingers, I've noticed they're very untidy with their ashes. And wine, too! You never have any port and you don't seem to care much for champagne."
"Oh, I like nice things to drink," smiled Christine, "but I think of my complexion."
He nodded gravely.
"And it's something worth thinking of."
Later, Percy, his sisters and Christine were all in the drawing-room when Lord Fell made a most unexpected appearance.
"Ah, as usual talking about dresses, I suppose!" he exclaimed. "The eternal woman's theme! Well, it'll be nice for you girls to have Christine in the family," he lifted his hand warningly to Christine, "only don't you, my dear, let them presume too much on your good nature or they'll keep you so busy that you'll never have any time of your own."
Christine coloured hotly and her heart throbbed uncomfortably. With Lord Fell she had always been Miss Fontaine before, but now he was using her Christian name and speaking of her coming into the family! So he was approving of her and not opposing Percy marrying her! She was too overcome in her emotion to make any comment.
After a few casual remarks Lord Fell prepared to bid them good night. He kissed his two daughters and then with a twinkle in his eye came up to Christine and kissed her, too.
"Good night, Christine," he said, "and tomorrow you and Percy must decide when you are going to get married. I think the sooner the better." He turned to Percy and held out his hand. "Good night my boy, and I'm sure she'll make as good a wife as she'll make as beautiful a bride. You're a lucky fellow."
"Thank you, Dad," said Percy hoarsely. "I've always told Christine you were one of the best of men."
A month later Christine and Percy were married in the Castle chapel, where for seven hundred years the brides of the Lords of Fell and their heirs had been led to the altar, and if Christine were indeed a very lovely bride, she was also a very humble one as well. All her life long, she told herself, she would care for her husband and never should he have a moment's regret for the faith and trust he had placed in her. The past was dead and the future stretched bright and shining before her.
Later, when her husband took her to his arms, if she were not all he thought she was, he did not know it. Heaven had opened wide her portals for him and he was upon the supreme summit of his happiness.
CHRISTINE stepped gracefully into her position as the wife of the heir to Fell Castle, and was speedily, in every way, a social success. People admired her good looks and were won over by her charm of manner. There was no secret as to how she had earned her living before she was married, the General's wife saw to that, but everyone took her for what they saw she was and received her warmly into their circles.
A few months after she had been installed in the Castle her great opportunity came. Mrs. Heron was laid up with a bad attack of rheumatism and Christine took charge of everything. She managed so well that Lord Fell was delighted, and pensioned off his sister-in-law in a house of his about three miles away. He was glad to get rid of her, as she had always got upon his nerves.
Then followed five years of almost unallayed happiness for Christine. In quick succession she presented her husband with three children, a boy and two girls. She was a most devoted wife and mother and her husband continued to be as much in love with her as he had been when they were first married.
Lord Fell never had a moment's regret that he had not attempted to prevent the marriage. She looked after his comfort in every way and in time he came to depend upon her for almost everything. She mothered him exactly as she had vowed to herself she would mother her husband. The old man aged slowly, his main interests in life being his grandchildren and the two big Livonian wolf-hounds which were his inseparable companions when he walked about the Castle grounds.
Everyone remarked upon the good influence Christine was exerting over him. He was better tempered now, much kinder, and his bitter tongue no longer seemed to delight in giving offence. He was always amused at the way Christine managed his son.
"You may wear the trousers, my dear," he said to her one day, "but Percy doesn't know it and you're making quite a man of him. I know he would never have dared to make that speech at the Flower Show if it had not been for you and I'm sure, too, you made up every word of it."
Christine smiled happily but made no comment. She had learnt so well the value of silence and knew when to hold her tongue. She was quite aware she had inspired Percy with a lot of confidence in himself, chiefly, he often told her, because everyone saw he had got such a beautiful wife and such lovely children. Certainly, the children were very good-looking. The girls were like Christine, but the boy was the very image of his grandfather, a sturdy, rather frowning little fellow, as naughty as anyone could wish and afraid of no one. It pleased his grandfather not a little that, under restraint from anyone but his mother, the child was always a little rebel.
Christine's life was very full, for not only had she the cares of her family and the management of the Castle, but also she had been forced, not unwillingly, as the future Lady Fell, to take a part in public affairs. She opened bazaars and flower-shows, gave away the prizes at schools, and was on several public committees. She was no figure-head either and made her presence felt wherever she went. She was original, too, in her ideas.
Once Lord Fell had occasion to dismiss one of the under-footmen, for being thoroughly untrustworthy, and when he had gone, it was found he had got one of the maids into trouble. The general opinion was that the man should be followed up and made to marry the girl. Christine, however, would have none of it.
"Much better not marry him, Elsie," she said firmly. "You tell me you realise now that you don't really love him, and he is certainly not fond of you. Then marriage will only mean a very unhappy life. You'll be miserable, tied to a man like him, so have nothing more to do with him. You're a nice girl and I'm not going to have your life ruined because of one slip. I'll see you through your trouble and arrange for the child to be properly taken care of, afterwards. You shall come back here after the baby's born and make a new start."
"But the disgrace, my lady!" exclaimed the girl's mother tearfully. "What will people say?"
"Never mind what they say," retorted Christine scornfully. "Shell have to live that down. Anything is better than that your daughter should be tied to a man who's thoroughly bad, and as likely as not liable to cut her throat one day when he's in one of his evil tempers."
Lord Fell quite approved.
"You're a sensible woman, Christine," he said, "though you may have displeased a lot of the extra good people who've probably only been luckier than this girl, and not been found out. Later, I'll keep my eyes open for a sensible husband for Elsie. She's a good and pretty girl, and shouldn't go begging." He chuckled. "Also the man she marries will be quite certain she's able to give him a family. There'll be no doubt about that." He nodded. "Yes, when I've found the right man, I'll give him some encouragement to marry her."
Christine kissed her father-in-law affectionately.
"You're a dear old chap, Dad," she said, "and you've got a heart of gold."
"Not at all," he grunted. "I'm a tough and hard old man, but I try to be sensible, and I think, as I'm sure you do, that the so-called bad girls like Elsie are often the best natured and dispositioned."
Christine smiled back at him. Oh, if he only knew, she thought!
So things were with Christine up to just after the fifth anniversary of her wedding-day, when Lord Fell was giving a house-party for the shooting to be preceded by a dinner in the big banqueting hall of the Castle.
That morning when she had just got out of her bath, she took stock of herself in the long mirror to see if she could notice much alteration in her appearance since her marriage. To her satisfaction there seemed to be very little change as yet. Her colouring and complexion were just the same, her eyes were just as bright and clear, and there were no lines about her face. Her figure, too, was hardly any different, a little fuller and more matronly, of course, as became the mother of three children, but its curves were just as firm and well-defined. If anyone else, too, had been appraising her the verdict would have undoubtedly been that she was just as lovely as she had been on her wedding-day, but with an expression now of more pride and dignity, as indeed was only natural after five years as a member of the important Heron family.
Christine sighed happily. How fortunate she had been and how secure she could feel now! The secrets of her unmarried life were buried deep behind her and would never come to light!
Strangely enough she had never heard a word or read a line of Captain Blair since the moment he had deserted her. She could, however, understand that, as in Paris she had not been a great reader of the newspapers and since her marriage, too, and particularly with the coming of her babies, her life had been a very busy one, and she had not had time to go through them thoroughly. So no notice of him happening to have come under her eyes, she was hoping he had remained permanently abroad, or else, better still, was dead. Somehow, she felt quite confident he had never heard of her marriage. No, he had passed out of her life and they would never meet again! As far as she was concerned there was no cloud in all her sky!
Poor Christine! Had she only known it, there was a very big cloud and it was looming, dark and threatening, quickly towards her.
It was quite true Captain Blair had heard nothing of the great change which had come into her life, for he had been in the wilds of South America when she had been married, but some three months previously he had seen and recognised her in London.
He had caught sight of her one afternoon as she was being driven down Regent Street in the big Castle limousine, and his first thought had been what a lovely-looking woman she was. Then he had gasped in amazement as he had recognised her. It was Christine Fontaine, sure enough, and she had not aged a day since he had last seen her! She looked so pretty that his mouth watered at the memory of once having been her lover.
But, by Gad, what was she doing, driving in a swell Rolls-Royce car with a chauffeur in private livery in front of her? She must have had a slice of luck somehow, and he must be a rich man who was keeping her!
Ah, wait a moment! She didn't look like a woman anyone was keeping! She looked proud and very sure of herself, as if she were an important married woman!
But his conjectures were cut short for, the traffic clearing, the car was driven quickly away, leaving him cursing that he had not had the sense to take its number.
All that day his brain was in a turmoil. He must find out where she was living and, if she were married, who she was now. He kept telling himself how beautiful she had looked but, all apart from that, if she were moving among good-class well-to-do people, and it looked like it, then it would be a grand thing for him to get in touch with her again. Of late, things had not been going too well for him in a pecuniary sense, though so far he had managed to keep up appearances and still give his friends and acquaintances the impression that he had ample means.
In reality, however, he was now living on his former credit, both financially and socially. When, some ten years previously, returning as the leader of an interesting exploring expedition into the far corners of Tibet, for a few short weeks he had been something of a social lion, and he was doing his best now that people should recall it to mind. In the interval, for the best part of five years, he had been abroad again, this time in South America prospecting up the valley of the Amazon, but, returning home more than a year previously, his travels had not excited much interest and the book he had written about them, from a financial point of view, had been a complete failure. So, of late, to a great extent he had had to depend on his wits, on what he could make from cards and from early information which he occasionally received and paid for from certain hangers-on of various racing stables.
He still belonged to two good-class clubs and, an expert card-player, his memberships were by no means unprofitable ones. A hard drinker himself, with drink apparently never muddling him, he liked playing poker with those who drank heavily, too, but who were not at the same time as fortunate in the way liquor affected their judgments.
This then was the decidedly war-worn Captain Blair whose ill fortune for Christine it was that he had seen and recognised her. She was continually in his thoughts that night and, the next morning, remembering where she had been employed when working in London, he called there and, getting hold of the proprietor, enquired if he remembered one of their old employees, a Miss Fontaine, and if by any chance it happened he could tell him what had become of her. He explained that, returning to England after an absence of more than seven years, he now wanted to look her up.
The man beamed all over. Yes, he could tell him everything about her. She had made a splendid marriage and was now the wife of the Honourable Percy Heron, the only son of Lord Fell. The marriage had made quite a sensation in Society circles about five years previously. She had been a beautiful bride and now had three children. She lived at Fell Castle in Lincolnshire. They had a town house in Curzon Street, but it was not greatly used now because Lord Fell was getting old and a bit of an invalid. Oh, yes, they often saw the Honourable Mrs. Heron! She was a good customer of theirs and not a bit ashamed that she had worked with them once.
The Captain left Christine's old employer with an ugly idea forming in his mind. His character had degenerated a lot since those days when he had taken Christine abroad and dissipation had played havoc with the few scruples he may once have had. Though he would never have used the word, blackmail was now what he was thinking of. The hold he had over the Honourable Mrs. Percy Heron, he chuckled, as he mouthed over her name, was worth money and, accordingly, he need have no fear, he told himself, for the future. Lord Fell was known to be a wealthy man and, as the wife of his son and heir, Christine should be able to get her hands deep into the family purse.
The difficulty was how to approach her. He must not show his hand openly, or let her have any idea, at first, of his intentions. Above all things he must not frighten her, for then it was just possible she would break down altogether and confess everything to her husband. In that case he, Ronald Blair, would get nothing out of it.
Then he suddenly remembered that a cousin of Lord Fell was a member of one of his clubs. The man was an Andrew Sheldon, a stockbroker in the city, and he had played poker with him a few times. He had not cared for him over much, as the stockbroker was a shrewd player and very cautious. One thing, however, they both had in common. They were both enthusiastic about shooting.
So Blair started with no delay to play assiduous court to the stockbroker, in the hope that one day, through him, he would be introduced to the Heron family. He consulted him about some mining shares he said he thought of buying, he tried to include him always in any poker or bridge they were playing, he went with him to the meetings of the Gun Club and, perhaps best of all, was lucky enough to give him a twenty to one winner at Sandown Park. He had told him of this horse with bated breath and as a profound secret. He said the animal had been bottled up specially for this particular race.
Really, he knew little about the horse and had only ventured a couple of pounds on it himself, but he had heard from a racing tout who had got it from a stable boy that, though the animal had so far failed to win a single race, he was much better than the public knew. So, taking a great risk, the Captain had enlarged upon his knowledge and made out it was the greatest certainty he had ever known.
The stockbroker, greatly impressed by what Blair had told him, had thrown his usual caution to the winds and invested heavily. When he landed a very substantial packet he was most grateful and assured the Captain that, if the opportunity ever came, he would do his utmost to repay the kindness.
And the opportunity did come, sooner than either of them had expected.
Blair saw in a Society paper that Lord Fell was entertaining a house-party for the opening of the pheasant shooting and learning from the stockbroker that he was going to be among the guests, remarked wistfully how fortunate the latter was. It was many years, he added, since he had had a good crack at the long-tails. Whereupon, with the Sandown Park good win so fresh in his mind and most anxious to give his friend some return, the stockbroker rang up his cousin and asked if he could do with an extra gun.
"A rattling good shot, Tiger," he said "and he should help to make up a good bag for you."
Lord Fell was quite agreeable, and so it was arranged that the two should go down together on the Monday.
"Andrew's bringing down a friend," his lordship told Christine, "and he'll just fit in, in place of Colonel Bolding. From what his wife tells me I'm certain the Colonel won't be able to come. No, I didn't catch the friend's name. The 'phone wasn't too good."
When Captain Blair heard he had been invited he was delighted, but at the same time a little bit uneasy that Christine would of course have heard he was coming down.
"Was it Lord Fell himself who said I could come?" he asked his friend and, when the latter nodded, he added, "Did he know me by name?"
"I don't think he caught your name," replied the stockbroker. "There was a lot of buzzing on the 'phone and everything was very indistinct," and the Captain did not know whether to be relieved or not. On the one hand he did not want Christine to let anyone see her consternation when she met him without having had any preparation, and, on the other, he was glad no excuse was going to be made at the last moment to cancel the invitation. If Christine had known he was coming, she might have made up some story to her husband about having met him, the Captain, once and that he was not a nice person to know. He did not forget that Christine had been anything but a fool. She was a girl of spirit and quite capable of putting up a good fight.
It was rather late when the two arrived at the Castle and Christine was upstairs dressing for dinner. So she knew nothing of the bomb which was about to fall, and it was only by mere chance she had warning that the man who had so wronged her once was in the Castle.
She had come out of her room and was just upon the point of turning off the landing to go down the big staircase leading down into the lounge hall, when she stopped suddenly and stood stock-still to listen.'
She had heard a laugh coming up from below and it struck some strange chord of memory in her. She frowned. Where had she heard that laugh before? She heard it again, followed by a voice, and she caught her breath as if seized with a spasm in her throat. God! it was Ronald Blair's voice, and she darted forward to the edge of the staircase to peer round.
Yes, it was the man above all men whom she hated. He was talking to her husband and they were smiling together. Panic-stricken and with her heart beating furiously, she almost sank on to the floor but, pulling herself together with a great effort, she tottered back into her room and, throwing herself upon a sofa and covering her face with her hands, was about to break into a paroxysm of tears.
Then suddenly she remembered dinner would be served in a few minutes and if she gave vent to her emotions she would be the cynosure of all eyes at the table, with the trace of recent tears upon her face.
She would have to face things! She would have to meet him and she would need every atom of her strength to carry her through! She must not give way!
But what was going to happen? Did Blair know who she now was? Was he expecting to meet her or was it just by chance that he was crossing her path again? When he saw her, would he claim acquaintance with her or would he pretend they had never met before? Would he be just as astonished as she had been and would the embarrassment be all on his side? Had she not, in a way, the upper hand, as all the wrong-doing as far as their relations were concerned had been on his side?
She set her face in a mask of cold unconcern and, after one glance in the mirror to make sure her appearance was all right, left her room and went down into the hall.
For the moment it did not appear to any of those looking on that she had noticed Blair. She shook hands smilingly with Lord Fell's cousin. Then, as in a dream, she heard her enemy being introduced.
"Christine, this is my friend, Captain Blair," said the stockbroker, and Blair held out his hand. She took the hand lightly, she knew she dare not refuse, and gave him a conventional smile. Without speaking, Blair smiled in return, but she thought his smile was an amused one and an instinct told her he had not been unprepared for the meeting. Then she turned away and proceeded to greet her other guests.
She got through the dinner well and her spirits rose as the meal progressed. She comforted herself that things were not going to be as bad as she had feared. The Captain must have some of the instincts of a gentleman and, of course, he would not give her away. So, she would have as little as possible to do with him, and when they did happen to come in contact it would be as if they had no secret between them. They would neither of them refer to the past, and then, when the shooting was over in four days, he would go out of her life once more and she would take care he was never invited to the Castle again.
In the two days ensuing she was the perfect hostess. She neither ignored Blair nor was friendly with him, but she saw to it he got no opportunity to speak to her alone. Thank goodness the men were outdoors all day and she did not meet them until the evening. She wondered many times, however she could have been in love with Blair. He looked so old and coarse and dissipated now.
In the meanwhile the Captain was in a way to becoming furious. He had had only four days to come to an arrangement with Christine, and two of them had already nearly gone. He had had no chance of speaking to her. Several times when she had gone out of the different rooms, leaving everyone talking together, he had followed immediately, but she had been too quick for him and either he could not find her or else she was giving orders to some of the servants.
On the Wednesday evening, however, after dinner he did at last manage to catch her. They had all been sitting in the music-room and the butler had come in to tell her she was wanted on the 'phone. So he went out and waited for her, and a very white and stern Christine came face to face with him when she came out of the telephone cabinet.
"Look here," he said sharply, "you are deliberately avoiding me and I want to speak to you most particularly. Meet me in half an hour, that'll be ten o'clock, in that summer-house over the other side of the lawn. No, you must come and I'll stand no nonsense. No, don't be scared. I only want to speak to you. You can get away easily enough at ten, as you always go up into the nursery then to look at the children." He smiled. "You are quite a model wife and mother, aren't you?"
Christine did not speak. She was looking straight at him but there was no particular expression on her face. He went on persuasively:
"Now don't you be a fool. I don't mean you any harm. I'm always glad when I see an old friend," his smile was a mocking one now, "such a dear friend as you were once, getting on so well in the world. It's most gratifying." He nodded significantly. "But you do as I tell you and save trouble. It'll be the best thing for you."
Still Christine did not speak and, at that moment one of the maids coming by, she took advantage of the interruption and moved off quickly back to the music-room. Blair followed with a satisfied smile upon his face. He had had plenty of drink at dinner and more afterwards, and felt very sure of himself.
Just before ten he watched Christine go out of the room and a minute or two later he strolled out, too. He let himself out of one of the french windows in the dining-room and walked across the lawn to the summer-house about a hundred and fifty yards away. The night was clear and there was a faint moon showing.
He was quite confident Christine would come; there was too much at stake for her to dare to refuse. He was not going to threaten her. He was going to be quite nice and, perhaps, give her a kiss or two. He was not going to mention straight away any matter of a little monetary present, but was going to impress upon her that she must arrange for him to become a frequent visitor at the Castle. He saw she dominated her husband and was sure there would be no difficulty there. Then he would have opportunities of becoming more intimate with her and he smiled an unpleasant smile. A lot of things might happen.
Five minutes going by with no appearance of Christine, he frowned and, to calm his impatience, was about to take out a cigarette when suddenly he heard savage snarls behind him and, turning like lightning, saw two huge dogs charging up towards him. He recognised they were Lord Fell's wolfhounds.
He had just time to throw up his arm before the foremost of them sprang upon him. It missed getting any flesh hold but, catching the sleeve of his jacket, ripped it from elbow to wrist. He gave the animal a vicious kick which drove it off momentarily, and then, by great good fortune, happening to have been standing right by the summer-house, he managed to dart inside and slam to the door. The dogs, baying furiously, sprang against the door to force their way in.
The Captain was no coward, but he had no weapon, not even a stick, and to attempt to fight the two huge dogs with his bare hands he knew would be an act of madness. So he gave all his strength to keep them from pushing open the door which appeared to have no fastening. He knew help would come quickly because of the noise the dogs were making, but he cursed savagely at the humiliating position in which he would be found. As he had expected, help did come almost at once, and a party from the Castle, headed by Percy, were speedily upon the scene to find out how it happened the dogs were let loose and why they were barking so furiously.
"Don't any of you go near them," shouted Percy warningly. "They're always dangerous at night with anyone they don't know," and, grabbing the dogs by their collars, he called out, "Who's there in the summer-house?"
"It's I, Blair," came a savage voice. "I had to shut myself in. They flew at me."
"Well, you can come out now," called Percy. "I've got them and it's quite safe."
Looking very sheepish, the Captain appeared.
"I strolled out for a little breath of fresh air," he explained smilingly, trying to make it appear as if he thought the whole thing a good joke, "and these damned brutes suddenly sprang upon me. I was lucky to be standing just by the door and so managed to get inside."
"And, by Jove, you were lucky," exclaimed Percy. "These dogs'll pull down a man." He shook his head. "But I don't understand how they came to be here. They're always kept caged up and, even in the daytime, not allowed to be anywhere about unless someone they know is with them."
One of the rescue party, now seeing that the Captain was all right except for his torn sleeve, looked very amused and proceeded to flash his torch round and round inside the summer-house.
"I'm only looking to see if there's a lady there," he laughed. "I was thinking that perhaps you'd made an assignation with some pretty girl," and with the general merriment which followed Blair had hard work to suppress his rage.
Upon their return into the Castle, everyone congratulated Blair upon his narrow escape but, after darting one fierce malevolent glance at Christine, the Captain was all smiles and for making light of the whole matter. No, he wasn't hurt in the least and he wasn't a bit frightened! It had been quite a little adventure for him, carrying him back to his exploring days when he had often been attacked by wild animals! He certainly wouldn't lose one wink of sleep because of it, and by the time he got to bed everything would have passed out of his mind! He wouldn't be giving it another thought!
Christine, however, knew differently and could see he was boiling over with mortification and rage. Almost panic-stricken when he had ordered her so masterfully to meet him at the summerhouse and hardly giving a thought to what the consequences might be, it was she who had unloosed the dogs and she was sure he knew it. Now she realised she had only made matters worse, for he would be desperate to get his revenge upon her. Still, she felt no remorse at what she had done, for the wretch who had once betrayed her, and who would now bring ruin upon her if he could, was beyond all feelings of mercy or pity.
She was terrified, however, to think what would be his next step, though under all her tenor was the fierce determination not to give in to him in the slightest. She knew that with the least weakening of her resolve to defy him she would fall completely into his power.
Everyone, and particularly Lord Fell, was puzzled as to how the dogs could have got out. Lord Fell said he had himself paid a visit to the kennels only a few minutes before dinner and certainly had not noticed that the gate had not been properly shut then. He was very concerned about the whole matter as, apart from their savage attack upon the Captain, their getting out might have had other deplorable consequences, for he had given instructions to his head-gamekeeper to go among the trees that night and try to shoot a couple of owls who lately had been much too noisy for the peace of the Castle inmates. The birds had taken to screeching close to the walls.
The following day Christine and three other ladies among the guests, who were keen on shooting, accompanied the men to help make up a good bag of the pheasants. The whole time Blair was very much on the alert to get Christine alone. She, however, took good care that should not happen, and quite aware how intentionally she was baulking him, his anger against her rose, particularly so as she seemed so happy and to be enjoying herself as much as anyone there. She was a good shot and seldom missed her bird. He gritted his teeth together. She was going to be a much tougher proposition than he had expected, but for all that he was confident he would bring her to heel in the end. He would threaten her without pity now and let her see he would stop at nothing.
He was quite certain there was no mystery as to how it had come about he had been attacked by the dogs the previous night. Christine had let them out of their kennel, on purpose that they might attack him and perhaps tear him to pieces. Gad, what a cold-blooded little devil she was, but how he would make her smart for it now!
Again he was at his wits' end, however, to get the opportunity of telling her what his intentions were, when chance most unexpectedly favoured him. That evening, after they had all returned to the Castle, just before it was time to change for dinner, he caught sight of her from his bedroom window, going by herself to one of the long hot-houses, carrying a small basket. He guessed she was going to cut some bunches of grapes. So he ran quickly down and, letting himself into the hot-house, came upon her, as he had been hoping he would, alone.
But he knew he had only a few moments, as he saw one of the gardeners coming towards them from the other end of the hothouse, and he spoke quickly and fiercely.
"You be by that summer-house at the same time to-night," he ordered, "and if you don't come I'll say in front of them all that I've just remembered seeing you, one night about seven years ago, dancing in the Salle de Danse de Paris. Everyone knows that it's not too good a place and it'll make your booby husband start to think a lot. Then I'll follow it up with an anonymous letter when I get back to town, telling him to go and look up the register of the Hotel Regal for the first week in September—nineteen two eight. Then he'll see in your own handwriting, Christine Mary Blair. Ah, that makes you shiver, doesn't it? So you be at that summer-house to-night at ten o'clock and I'll tell you what I want. Understand it's your last chance and if you loose those damned dogs again I'll shoot them. I'll take my pistol with me."
He left her white and trembling.
That night at dinner she thought there could not be a more miserable woman in the whole world than she. All her future lay at the mercy of the smiling wretch who was sitting at the table only a few feet away, and she knew he would have no pity on her. How she wished he were dead, and if only an accident had happened to him when they had been out shooting only a few hours before. Once he had been well within close range of her gun and she admitted to herself frankly that the thought of shooting him had entered into her mind. She had had only to swerve her gun a foot round and she could have hit him easily. It would, of course, have been regarded as a dreadful accident and no one would have dreamed she had done it purposely. But she had been afraid, and turned herself away so that she should not give way to the temptation.
The dinner was a time of torture for her and seemed never-ending, but she played her part bravely and to everyone she was the dignified and smiling hostess whose only thought was to look after the comfort of her guests. At last, with a deep sigh of thankfulness, she welcomed the moment when the ladies got up from the table and left the room.
NOW the following morning, when the police were everywhere in the Castle, a most thorough and painstaking effort was made to find out exactly what everyone did that night after dinner until just before twelve when they all went up to their rooms. Leaving out the family and the servants there were twenty-six guests to be accounted for.
The men went into the card-room, two hands of bridge were started and the remaining seven played poker. Captain Blair was among the latter, but he did not play all the time, as quite early in the evening, it was remembered afterwards, he left the room, as he said, to go upstairs and get some of his own cigarettes. The others were rather surprised he did not return, but thought he must have joined the ladies. The ladies had not been all together the whole evening. Some had been in the music-room listening to the radio, and others had sat chatting round the fire in the big lounge hall. During the course of the evening they had moved about, too. Lord Fell had taken several of them up into the gallery to look at his paintings and afterwards, up on to the Castle walls to see what view of the surrounding country they could get by the light of the misty moon.
Quite a number, both among the guests and the servants, had heard a gun-shot, it was reckoned soon after ten, not far from the Castle, but they had taken no notice of it, it being known his lordship had ordered his head gamekeeper to try to shoot the pair of owls which had been making themselves so objectionable, with their screeching.
The ladies had all retired to their rooms by half-past eleven and by about midnight all the men had followed suit. The butler had switched off the lights in the card-room at ten minutes past twelve. That was all which could be ascertained had happened that night.
Then the next thing of importance had been the under-gardener bursting into the kitchen at half-past seven the next morning to announce to the horrified maids there that a dead body of a gentleman in evening dress was lying just in front of the summerhouse. It was quite stiff and covered in blood.
One of the maids had at once run up and told young Mr. Heron, who had put on his dressing-gown and raced off to the summerhouse. He had been shocked to see that the body was that of Captain Blair, and that he had received a gun-shot wound in the chest. Leaving the gardener to make sure the body was not disturbed, he ran back into the Castle and gave his father the dreadful news.
"Great God!" exclaimed Lord Fell. "What an awful thing! Could it have been Jevons who did it when he went after those owls?"
"But surely he'd have come and told us, Dad!" exclaimed Percy hoarsely. "Whoever shot him knew what he had done as, from the look of the dreadful hole in his chest, Blair must have been shot at almost point-blank range, from not more than three or four yards away."
"Well, ring up Jevons while I put on some clothes," snapped Lord Fell. "One moment, though. You say Blair was shot by the summer-house! Then what on earth was he doing there again?"
But Percy could offer no suggestion and ran out to ring up the gamekeeper. He was back again very quickly and met his father coming out of his room.
"Jevons vows he never fired his gun," he exclaimed. "He says that when he came out to go after those owls he saw it was so misty that he could not see ten yards in front of him. So he went back home at once. He says, too, that he didn't leave his cottage until nearly eleven and that his boy will be a witness that he's speaking the truth." He gave a startled exclamation. "Of course it was that shot we all heard when we were playing cards which killed Blair! You heard it, too, didn't you?"
"I'm not deaf," growled Lord Fell. "Everybody heard it. But come on quickly now, and then we'll have to ring up the police."
Lord Fell stood over the body.
>"What a ghastly wound!" he exclaimed, "but anyhow, he died instantaneously. He didn't suffer at all." He turned sharply to Percy. "Have you told Christine?"
"I've told no one but you," replied Percy.
"Well, tell her at once. She's got sense and she'll break it to the others. She's not to frighten them. She's to tell them it was an accident."
"But where shall we have the body taken?" asked Percy. "We can't leave it here."
"We've got to," said Lord Fell. "And keep everybody away. No one's to lay a hand on it. The police'll want to search everywhere." He nodded significantly. "If Jevons didn't shoot him, then they will probably want to make out it's a case of murder."
And the police were speedily of opinion that it was murder and as, according to the police surgeon, the death had occurred between ten and eleven the previous night, they realised the crime must have been committed before most of the inmates of the Castle would have gone off to bed.
So, everyone was interrogated and made to give an account of his or her movements, but no satisfaction was obtained by the questioning of either the Castle servants or the guests. Though it appeared most of them had had the opportunity, it could not definitely be proved that any one of them had been out in the Castle grounds between the hours mentioned.
Then the gamekeeper and his son, an intelligent boy of nearly fifteen, underwent a particularly sharp examination. They both, however, stuck resolutely to their stories which, if true, provided the gamekeeper with a perfect alibi. His statement was that they both had been sitting reading in the cottage kitchen until just before eleven when the boy had gone into his bedroom to put himself to bed. Then he, the gamekeeper, had picked up his gun and gone out according to his master's instructions, to look for the owls.
He had, however, found the mist so thick that before actually entering the Castle grounds he had given up all idea of getting the birds that night and so had returned without delay to his cottage and got straight into bed.
The detectives appeared very dubious as to whether or not he were telling them the truth and repeated their questions so many times that at last he got exasperated with them.
"I tell you," he snarled, "I never saw an owl, I never fired my gun and I never went within a quarter of a mile of the blooming summer-house. Also, I swear I didn't move from my cottage until the hands of the clock were nearly on eleven and, of course, it was that shot which everyone heard about ten which killed the gentleman."
"Then hearing that gun fired," said the detective who was questioning him, "why didn't you go out at once to find out whose it was?" He was sarcastic. "You're a gamekeeper, aren't you?"
"Well, I'm paid for being one," retorted the man rudely, "but I'm not gamekeeper to everyone. How could I tell where that one shot was fired? There's other gents' land not far from my cottage and that gun might have gone off anywhere. Besides, my master's not a fool and he wouldn't expect me to go nosing round on from five to six thousand acres on a foggy night just because a stray shot had been fired somewhere; it might have been a mile away from any land belonging to him." He grinned impudently. "No, thank you, Mr. Policeman, you've got to use brains in my work."
That night, after Superintendent Fraser of the Lincoln Police had made his report of the investigations of the day to the Chief Constable, he went on:
"So you see, sir, we can be quite sure it was a case of deliberate murder, with deceased being killed with a shot-gun fired not half a dozen paces away, and up to a certain point everything is quite clear. The Captain had obviously arranged to meet someone at the summer-house that night, exactly in the same way as he had gone to meet the party upon the previous night when he had been set upon by those two dogs. It had been no idle strolling out then, to get a breath of fresh air, as he had told those who came to rescue him from the animals, but a pre-arranged meeting, all cut and dried, and last night he must have stood waiting there for several minutes to meet the same party. We can tell that from a cigarette butt thrown away and a second cigarette, half consumed, lying just by the body. Then the party must have arrived and—"
"But why do you talk about a party?" interrupted the Chief Constable rather testily. "Why not say a woman, right out? It must have been a woman. A man doesn't sneak out in the dark to keep an appointment with another man."
"Ah," exclaimed the Superintendent, "the appointment may have been with a woman, right enough, but we can't be sure it was a woman who came with the gun. Certainly the Captain may have been expecting the woman, but what about a man coming in her stead, some aggrieved husband or lover who was intending to punish for some liberty which had been taken or some wrong that had been done?" He shrugged his shoulders. "If we could be certain it was a woman who had done the killing it would make things much easier by narrowing down the suspects to about half a dozen or so at most, for we are quite convinced the killer came from the Castle."
"And how do you know that?" snapped the Chief Constable.
"By the place chosen for the meeting, sir, right away from the entrance to the grounds. No one coming from outside the Castle grounds would have chosen the far side of the Castle for a place of rendezvous. If he was to come in through the lodge-gates and up the drive, there was another summer-house by the pond, much more convenient to reach, and where he would not have had to pass all the Castle windows to get there. No, I think sir there can be no doubt deceased was expecting someone to slip out for a few minutes, just as he was doing."
"And you can't pick up any line at all as to who it might have been?"
The Superintendent shook his head.
"No line whatever, sir." He spoke impressively. "And the mysterious thing is that up to last Monday evening, only three days ago, the Captain was not supposed to have had the slightest acquaintance with one single person in the Castle except the man who brought him down, a Mr. Andrew Sheldon, a London stockbroker and a cousin of Lord Fell's. He was a perfect stranger to everyone. They all say they had never set eyes on him before."
"Then he must have been a quick worker," remarked the Chief Constable sceptically, "to have made someone want to take his life after only three days! What about his having insulted one of the maids?"
The Superintendent smiled.
"Nothing doing there, sir. All the maids on his floor, the only ones he can possibly have been brought in contact with, happen to be quite elderly." His smile broadened. "But I must say, sir, there are some young and pretty ones among the others, as it was only likely there would be among eighteen girls."
"What sort of a man was this Captain Blair? Have you found out anything particular about his character, as it struck the others in the Castle?"
The Superintendent hesitated.
"The other visitors don't seem anxious to discuss him as he was a fellow-guest, and the butler, too, won't say a word. But one of the footmen, an intelligent young chap, told me the Captain drank pretty heavily, and also eyed the women a lot. He must, however, have been of a bold and enterprising character, as I understand he'd been exploring in some of the wildest and most lonely parts of the world."
"You didn't get hold of the gun that killed him," queried the Chief Constable.
"No, but I rather think I've seen it," replied the Superintendent, "among the other guns in the Castle gun-room. There are sixteen of them there, single- and double-barrelled, and any one of them may be the one which was used. Now if the party who did the killing had only taken one of the small rifles, of course, the experts would have told us from the examination of the bullet which one was used, but with a shot-gun there's no hope."
"But he must have taken a big risk firing a shot-gun so close to the Castle," frowned the Chief Constable. "Surely he would have thought someone would have come running out at once to see what it was?"
"On ordinary nights, yes sir, but as everyone knew, Lord Fell had given orders to the gamekeeper to go after those owls. He may have thought he was pretty safe. Nearly everyone heard the shot, but no one went out."
The Chief Constable considered.
"Well, if it was a woman who shot him, who are among the possibles in the Castle?" he asked.
"Six of the ladies, sir, the Honourable Mrs. Heron and five of her guests, and two among the women servants who admit knowing how to handle a gun."
"And you couldn't find the slightest suspicion about any one of them?"
"Not the slightest, sir. The Captain seemed fairly well-liked and when I questioned them they showed their horror of the whole business, but without any signs of fear for themselves."
"Did you find all the guns in the gun-room quite clean?"
"Yes, sir, quite clean and, according to Denton, the carpenter at the Castle whose duty it is to look after them, they were all exactly as he had left them only about a couple of hours previously."
"Is the gun-room kept locked?"
"No, sir, and anyone could have gone there without much chance of being noticed, as it is on the ground floor and stands away from any room which is being used at night. It's at the end of a long passage."
A short silence followed and the Chief Constable said thoughtfully:
"Then, as I take it, your reason for believing it to be a case of murder is that no person but the gamekeeper could have had any reason for being in the grounds with a gun last night, except with the deliberate purpose in his or her mind of killing the deceased, whom he or she had previous knowledge was going to be there."
"That's it, sir," nodded the Superintendent, "and they knew exactly at what place and at what time they would find him waiting for them."
"And their reason for killing him," went on the Chief Constable, "was for something he had either already done or for something he was threatening to do."
"That's it again, sir, and, from the fact that he had come alone and unarmed to the meeting-place, he had no thought he was in any danger, at any rate up to that moment, which suggests that as yet he knew he had not merited any such punishment."
"That suggests, also," nodded the Chief Constable, "that he was starting to put pressure on someone; in other words, that he was blackmailing."
"Yes, that must be so, sir," agreed the Superintendent, "which means we must go much further back than those three days he had spent at the Castle to get at the motive for the crime. That came into my mind pretty quickly and I've tried to find someone at the Castle who had known him before. But, as I've told you, sir, I'm up against a dead wall. Everyone denies any previous acquaintance with him. Anyhow, of course, we're going back to-morrow and shall question everyone again," he made a grimace, "forty-three of them, including family, guests and servants."
"But you must look pretty high up," frowned the Chief Constable, "for if the man was contemplating blackmail it must have been someone who was worth the blackmailing, no servant-girl or anyone like that. Far more likely one of his own class, and almost certainly to have been a woman. We must find out, too, all about the deceased's home life. That may give us a line somehow."
"But as far as I can make out, sir, his home life is pretty bare. He's a bachelor and has a small serviced flat in Earl's Court. I understand, too, that during the last ten years or so he's spent nearly all his time abroad, in China and the South Americas."
"Well, we must do the best we can," said the Chief Constable, "though all the time we may be upon a wild-goose chase." He shook his head. "With all the beautiful elaborate theory of blackmail we've been building up we may be quite wrong, with the solution to the puzzle quite simple and under our very noses. What if the gamekeeper is lying and he did fire that shot? After all, doesn't that seem to you the most likely thing to have happened?"
The Superintendent looked troubled.
"But the testimony of his boy, sir. We have questioned him over and over again, and he declares emphatically—"
"Is he a sharp and intelligent lad?" broke in the Chief Constable.
"Oh, yes, sir, most intelligent. He has just left school, where he passed all his examinations with credit. He's as sharp as a weasel and answered every question put to him without the slightest hesitation."
"Exactly! Then the very type to be capable of backing up his father in untruths. That gamekeeper may have come suddenly upon the Captain standing like a ghost by that summer-house and in a panic have let off his gun. The Castle is supposed to be haunted, and Lord Fell often chuckles that the fear of ghosts keeps inquisitive people away at night."
"Then I'll go at them again to-morrow," said the Superintendent angrily, "particularly the boy, and I'll shake the very life out of him," and he left the room feeling rather crestfallen. What if, with all the questioning the gamekeeper and his son had been put through, they had been lying?
They were dreadful days for Christine with the detectives buzzing like a swarm of bees in the Castle. She was relieved beyond expression that her persecutor could do her no more harm, but terrified that the police would somehow find out that she had known him in the old Chelsea days. She was, however, in part reassured that, when living with her guardian, she had only been seen to meet Blair at two parties, and so none of the other people she had known then would be likely to couple their names together. Then if the police did find out she had known him once, it would be easy for her to say she had no recollection of him after all those years.
The detectives had been most polite to her, and after she had told them she knew absolutely nothing about the Captain except that he had come down as a friend of Lord Fell's cousin, they never asked her another personal question. However, they relied upon her to give them as many details as possible about the other guests and the servants of the Castle, and expressed their gratitude for the help she was giving them. In return, she looked after their comfort and saw they were supplied with refreshment. They all thought her a charming woman.
Her father-in-law was very kind to her, even kinder she thought than he had ever been before and, when the newspaper men arrived in droves at the Castle, he would not let her have anything to do with them.
"You keep away from them altogether, my dear," he warned her, "and let Percy and me do all the interviewing. If you can help it, don't let them even catch sight of you, for a pretty woman always makes good copy and they'll write up in their rags about the beautiful young Mrs. Heron with her white face and troubled eyes. That's what the public would like."
"But why must you give them any interviews yourself, Dad?" asked Christine uneasily. "I know you hate the scandal and publicity as much as anybody, so why don't you send them away?"
"Not on your life!" smiled Lord Fell. "They came all this way for a story and they must get one somehow. If they don't get it from me they'll waylay the servants when they go out, or else go poking about among the tenants and the villagers. Then goodness only knows what extravagant lies and rumours they'll put in their papers. No, they get a good story from me, all they want, and I treat them like gentlemen, which most of them are. Then they go away happy and don't imagine things."
And certainly his lordship did treat the reporters well. He was most friendly, had refreshments brought into them, showed them over the Castle and grounds, and even gave some of them bunches of grapes to take away.
About the dreadful shooting of Captain Blair, he altogether pooh-poohed the idea that it was a case of murder. "A most unfortunate accident," he gave it as his opinion, "and the clumsy fellow who did it is afraid to come forward and confess. I feel sure he was someone off a farm or from one of the neighbouring villages going home with a gun after he'd done a bit of shooting, perhaps, on the marshes earlier in the day. He was attracted by the many windows he saw lighted up here and no doubt wandered in through the open gates to have a look round. Then the poor Captain gave him a fright, perhaps he bounced out at him in fun, and, not knowing what he did, the trespasser upped with his gun. Yes, I feel sure it was purely an accident! The Captain was a jovial, open-hearted man and probably hadn't an enemy in all the world."
The reporters were impressed and wrote up in their papers about the fine old nobleman who was facing the scandal to his house so bravely and whose breezy common-sense view as to how the tragedy had occurred seemed the most likely explanation of everything.
The detectives made no discoveries. However, they continued to bombard the unfortunate gamekeeper with persistent questioning, until in the end, spurred into exasperation, he became more defiant and truculent than ever.
"Well, take it that I did shoot him," he shouted. "Let it remain at that, and all you've got to do now is to prove it. That's your job and what you're paid for. So don't you come here bothering me any more, until you've got the warrant in your pocket. Anyhow, I'm not going to answer any more questions," and after that he stuck determinedly to his resolution.
After a week, much of the excitement seemed to have died down. The guests of the house-party were allowed to go home, the detectives stopped coming to the Castle and Christine drew a great sigh of relief that at any rate for the time being she was safe.
She never forgot, however, the one great danger which Blair had referred to, a danger which more or less she realised now would always be in the background of her mind during all her life, that writing of her name in the register of the Hotel Regal in Paris when she had been posing as Ronald Blair's wife. There it was to be found in her own handwriting, Christine Mary Blair, as large as life for anyone who looked to see.
Still, she asked herself over and over again, who would go looking up a hotel register of more than eight years ago? Still, again, they might. Ronald Blair, with his record of an explorer then quite fresh in people's minds, had been something of a public character, and someone attached to the hotel, now reading of his mysterious death, might remember he had stayed there with his wife and just out of curiosity turn back to the old register to find out the date. Then they would see his wife's name had been Christine, quite an uncommon name—and oh, if they saw in the newspapers that the Honourable Mrs. Percy Heron was called Christine, too, what would they think?
They might at once imagine some scandal somewhere, a divorce perhaps, and they might talk about it and God!—where might it not lead? Her heart beat painfully every time she thought about it. A chance remark, too, that the Chief Constable made added to her fears.
It happened that he was a personal friend of Lord Fell, and one afternoon paid his lordship what he called a friendly visit. "Though it is still my belief," he smiled, "that that precious gamekeeper of yours is the culprit, you must take it that every one who was in the Castle that night is still under an official cloud. On the quiet our men will be busy for a long time trying to ferret out all they can about you all, and if we only knew it," his smile broadened, "even your lordship's past life will be under review."
"They're welcome," smiled back Lord Fell, "and, no doubt, they'll find plenty there to entertain them. I admit I've not always been a plaster saint, but for all that I think I should draw the line at shooting one of my own guests." His old eyes twinkled. "It would be a sad breach of hospitality."
"By the by, that gamekeeper of yours is still remaining on here?" queried the Chief Constable. "He's not suggesting leaving you, by any chance?"
"Good gracious no!" exclaimed Lord Fell. "Why. should he think of leaving? I'm his master and believe him innocent, and that's the chief thing. As a matter of fact, I've raised his wages to make up for the annoyance your men have put him to. They worried the life out of him, but incidentally made him quite a celebrity. A lot of people admire him for, as they imagine, managing to keep his guilty secret so well. They think he's been a match for your star detectives."
When the Chief Constable had taken his leave, another visitor, and this time a most welcome one, arrived at the Castle. To Christine's great delight she saw Dr. Antoine drive up in a taxi. She was always pleased when he came, as she was proud that he could see she had justified his trust in her. He was always kind and fatherly, never referring to the great secret between them. He had paid many visits to the Castle since the wedding, but nearly always very short ones. This time, however, he said he had come for a week.
Then to everyone's great disappointment, for he was a general favourite all round, the very next day he announced he must go up to London upon some important business which had cropped up unexpectedly, and he was not certain if he would return. However, he was back again on the third day, so merry and bright that everyone joked it must have been some sweetheart he'd been to see.
He and Lord Fell were like boys together again, and it rather puzzled Christine they paid such particular attention to her. It almost might have been, she thought sadly, as if they knew she was unhappy and were trying to make up to her for it. Still, their kindness acted as a tonic and she pulled herself resolutely together, resolving that henceforth she would not face her troubles before they came.
SOME ten days later Chief Inspector Charles Stone was talking to his friend and brother-Chief Inspector, Gilbert Larose, in the former's room in Scotland Yard. Stone was a big, stout man in the middle forties, with a kind and fatherly face but very shrewd and searching eyes. Larose was much younger, not yet in his thirtieth year, and it was not long before he was to marry the wealthy widow of Sir Charles Ardane and retire from the service. Just then he was at the very height of his reputation and considered as, perhaps, the very best detective the Yard had ever known. He was a good-looking man of medium build and size, always bright and smiling and giving the impression that he had not a care in all the world.
"It's a sad thing," said Stone, thoughtfully regarding a sheaf of papers in his hand, "to what lengths spite will sometimes take us."
"Ho, ho, Charlie!" exclaimed Larose. "Then have you been doing the dirty on someone just because he gets a bigger screw than yours?"
Stone shook his head. "No, Gilbert, nothing like that. The few bob a week I get just keeps the bailiffs from my door, and I don't envy anyone. It's about that business at Fell Castle I was thinking. Of course, you've followed it in the newspapers and you saw a question was asked about it last week in Parliament?"
"Yes," nodded Larose, "it was suggested by the chap who questioned the Home Secretary that the police were not bothering too much about it for fear of bringing to light some scandal in high society circles. In other words, he made out they were supposed to be trying to hush everything up to oblige Lord Fell."
"Exactly," exclaimed Stone, "and the questioner pretended to believe that because Lord Fell is Lord Fell, murders can be committed on his property with impunity. Just a bit of spite to make things unpleasant for one of the upper classes." He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, it has been answered, anyhow, for the Chief has just told me the Yard is to give assistance to the Lincoln police. So you and I are to go up to Fell Castle tomorrow."
"Splendid, and couldn't be better!" smiled Larose, rubbing his hands together. "I've read every line which has appeared in the newspapers and been itching to get my hands on the murderer."
"Murderer!" exclaimed Stone, looking rather surprised, "I don't think there'll be any murderer to be found. My view is that it was an accident, with the odds heavily on the gamekeeper as having shot the man."
"No, no, Charlie," said Larose emphatically, "that gamekeeper had nothing to do with it and it was murder, right enough. Someone had cause to hate or fear that Captain Blair and so bumped him off. The view the newspapers are taking is all wrong.'
"And what are your reasons for thinking that?" frowned Stone. "They must be pretty subtle ones."
"Not at all, Charlie. They stick out before your very eyes the moment you link together those two visits the Captain paid to that summer-house. He went there on two consecutive nights, and the first one his enemy set those dogs on him and the second he shot him. I am quite convinced in my own mind that both acts were deliberate and done by the same party."
Stone considered for a few moments and then shook his head. "But the faulty reasoning there, my son, is that what happened the first night would have warned the man he was in some danger and so he would not certainly have exposed himself to more danger, by going to the same place again, the second night, unprepared and unarmed."
"But how do you know he did go there unarmed?" snapped Larose. "Mightn't he have had a pistol on him and the murderer have taken it away when he was shot. Or mightn't he have brought a heavy stick and the murderer have taken that away, afterwards?"
"But the very fact of his arranging for a second meeting at the same spot," said Stone, "with someone whom he knew had already tried to get him torn to pieces by those savage dogs, would have been a dangerous risk, and I don't think he would have taken it."
"But he did," retorted Larose, "and he must have thought he had got the upper hand in some way and that his enemy wouldn't dare to play any more tricks. At any rate he knew he had nothing more to fear from the dogs, as you saw in the newspapers that Lord Fell said he had had a padlock put on the kennel gate at once and only he and the kennel man had a key."
"Then if you're right," said Stone meditatively, "it will narrow down the enquiry a lot, for the only person who would have dared to let out those dogs was someone who was accustomed to handle them, someone in the Castle and not one of the twenty-six guests." His face broke into a broad smile. "Well, now I'll read you a letter which, by a strange coincidence, I got just after the Chief had told me we had to go up into Lincolnshire."
He took a letter off his desk. "This is it. Neatly typed, good class note-paper, gives no address and no signature, and is dated yesterday." He read:
To Chief Inspector Stone, Scotland Yard.
Sir, I take it to be in the public interest that I should furnish you with certain information regarding the late Captain Ronald Blair who met his death in the grounds of Fell Castle, under the circumstances reported in the Press. I have read that, except for his friend, Mr. Andrew Sheldon, who took him up to the shooting-party, he was completely unknown to everyone in the Castle, with all denying they had ever met him before. I believe that to be untrue for this reason. Shortly before he went up there, I heard him talking of his intended visit and he remarked that he would be meeting a lady to whom he referred laughingly as 'an old sweetheart.' From time to time I have been with Blair, ever since he was a boy—we were at the same school together—and from what I know of his character I should say he was speaking the truth. Perhaps this information may be of use to you in finding out who shot him. I do not believe it was an accident.
The reading of the letter finished, Stone looked up at his colleague.
"So you see, Gilbert," he said, "the writer takes your view of the matter, or pretends to take that view. I confess that I myself don't attach any importance to it. It may be only another attempt to spite Lord Fell and stir up more trouble. One thing that makes me think that, is because the writer has waited all this time before communicating with us. If he was concerned with what happened to his friend, why hasn't he written us before?"
"Perhaps that question in the House the other night stirred him up," suggested Larose. "He read the police weren't taking enough trouble." He nodded. "At any rate it gives us something to think about."
"Well, you go through these papers to-day," said Stone. "They're a full memorandum of all the notes the Lincoln police took and they seem pretty thorough to me. Then you be here to-morrow morning at seven and off we'll go. We'll call in at Lincoln, first, and have a chat with the Superintendent there. I'll 'phone him we're coming. His name's Fraser and I know him. He's a very decent chap and we must let him think we are sure he's handling the case quite well and that we're only sent up as a matter of form because of that heckling in Parliament."
The next day they had their talk with the Lincoln Superintendent and then Stone announced they would prefer to go up to the Castle alone, and introduce themselves. "With new comers," he added, "they may perhaps be inclined to talk more freely if they don't think they have to be remembering all the time—as they would be if you were present—exactly how they said things before."
"But what line are you going to take?" asked the rather annoyed Superintendent.
"Oh, just question them to try to make sure none of them knew the Captain before; for instance, that there is no servant in the Castle who was dismissed from some former situation for dishonest and disgraceful conduct, and the Captain knew it."
"Then I wish you luck," laughed the Superintendent. "We thought of that and couldn't get the slightest suspicion anywhere."
LORD FELL frowned thoughtfully when the butler brought in the cards of the two inspectors.
"Ask Mr. Percy," he ordered sharply, "to come to me," and when Percy appeared Lord Fell remarked, "More annoyance now. Two inspectors from Scotland Yard."
"And both pretty high up, too," nodded Percy when he had looked at the cards. "This Inspector Larose is supposed to be their top-notcher."
"I know that," scowled his father. "I've heard of them both. Now we don't want to give more worry to Christine. So you just keep her away from them. Where is she?"
"Out walking—I think she's gone into the village."
"All right, then! But you keep handy; they're sure to want to see you."
He received the two inspectors graciously, only seeming rather amused at their coming.
"And I suppose it's that question," he smiled, "which that fool Stanbury asked in the House the other night that has brought you here! He's a noted windbag and always wanting to get himself into the public eye. Well, how can I be of any help to you?"
"By just answering a few questions, my lord," smiled back Stone. He came straight to the point. "If Captain Blair's death were really a case of homicide, then we believe that the party who shot him was the same one who set the dogs on to him the previous night. So we want to know for whom, here in the Castle, it would be quite safe to handle those dogs, which we are given to understand are most savage at night. Who are they?"
"Practically only three persons," replied Lord Fell instantly. "My son, Mr. Heron, Denton our carpenter and general handyman who has charge of the kennels, and I, myself." He smiled wryly. "So, if the matter's as simple as that, you have the criminal right in your very hands."
"But it does look like it, my lord, doesn't it?" said Stone solemnly. "There we have two big animals well-known to be particularly savage with strangers in the dark, and would anyone they were not accustomed to dare to go near them after nightfall?"
"Then are you accusing me?" asked Lord Fell rather curtly. "Or my son, or my kennel-man of being a murderer?"
"Not at all, my lord, not at all," replied Stone quickly. "We only want you to realise it is not an impertinence on our part if, under the circumstances, we press you with personal questions and, when you have replied to them, take steps to verify if your answers are correct." He shrugged his shoulders. "It's all in our work, my lord, a matter of routine."
"Quite so," agreed Lord Fell readily. "But how you expect to prove any of us three had reason to wish Captain Blair harm I can't possibly see. We shall all tell you we had never met the man before he came up here as a guest for the shooting, and you won't be able to get behind those statements."
"We can only try, my lord," said Stone. "That's mainly what we've come up here for."
Lord Fell's grave face brightened and he eyed the two inspectors smilingly again.
"But hasn't it struck either of you gentlemen," he asked, "that you may be starting off right from the very beginning with something that is not a fact. You talk about someone handling, as you call it, my dogs at night, but how do you or anyone else, know the catch of that kennel-gate was not interfered with long before darkness had set in and when it would not have disturbed the animals for a stranger to go near them?" He elaborated his point. "It's quite a small catch and easy to lift, and someone may have meddled with it in the afternoon. Then the gate may, perhaps, not have lurched open until the wind blew it or one of the dogs knocked against it."
Stone shook his head. "But your kennel-man has told everyone he is sure he left the gate quite secure when he fed the animals that night."
"That late afternoon," corrected Lord Fell quickly. "It was not dark when he gave them their evening feed on that Wednesday. You will remember my guests were out shooting all day, and, when they came home, my kennel-man knew he would have fifteen or sixteen guns to clean before his evening meal. So the dogs were fed a couple of hours earlier, when it was broad daylight." His lordship looked very amused. "Now what do you say to that?"
Stone's face was a study and he looked so taken aback that, although Larose felt very discomfited, too, he would have liked to laugh.
Stone asked frowningly, "But who would have been likely to interfere with the gate, my lord?"
"That's what I want to know," replied Lord Fell instantly, "and what I've not been able to find out. I think it might have been one of my under-gardener's children. Four of them had been round to the kitchen that afternoon for any dainties that had been left over from our table. The cook is their aunt."
"But don't they deny having touched the gate?" asked Stone gruffly.
"Of course they do! But all four admit they had been to look at the dogs and, with their ages between five and eleven, how can you depend upon what they say?"
"We'd like to see the kennel," announced Stone frowningly, being of opinion that action would be the best way of covering his annoyance. Certainly he was annoyed, for his lordship's suggestion had thrown a bomb in the theory he and Larose had so confidently built up.
Lord Fell led the way into the grounds and at once he, in his turn, was annoyed, too. He had been so wanting to keep all worry away from Christine, and now here she was in full sight, coming up the drive and, worse still, with the two big dogs in close attendance upon her. She had been taking them with her on her walk.
He did not, however, let his annoyance be seen. "Ah, here are the dogs," he exclaimed brightly, "and that's Mrs. Heron, my daughter-in-law, with them. You'll be able to see how quiet and docile they are when anyone they know is with them."
"But you told us," said Stone sharply, "that only you three men could manage the dogs. You didn't add this young lady."
"No, I didn't think of her," smiled Lord Fell. "We were talking of possible murderers and I didn't give any woman a thought. They're pretty docile, too, with the cook who, although she's been told not to, is always throwing them scraps."
Christine had seen the two men with her father-in-law and had guessed instinctively that they would be more detectives. Indeed, she would have suspected any stranger coming to the Castle as being a detective. Her heart beat painfully and she would have liked to avoid them, but she knew she must not and so came straight on to where they were all standing. She steeled herself to appear quite ordinary, and took courage from the smiling face of Lord Fell.
"These are some more detective friends who've come to visit us," he called out jovially, "two gentlemen from Scotland Yard this time."
Christine forced her face into a smile and bowed. The two inspectors raised their hats and returned the smile.
"But what a good-looker!" thought Stone, and Larose felt a pang of regret at the suspicion which came instantly into his mind. Could it be she was the "old sweetheart" the dead man had told his friends about? She had a lovely face and it was a face of character, too. There was courage, in the setting of those beautiful eyes, and there was resolution in that shapely little chin! She would stand no nonsense from anyone? She would hate well, ay, but she would love well, too, for there was passion in those lips of hers. Gad, how, with all her loveliness, she looked all over a woman who would take the law into her own hands and punish anyone who was blackmailing her!
The inspectors looked over the kennel and agreed with his lordship that the catch of the gate could have been lifted easily before the padlock had been put on. They admired the dogs and, to Lord Fell's surprise, Larose showed no hesitation in stroking them and pulling their ears.
"But I shouldn't do that," he warned Larose sharply. "They are liable to snap at you at any moment."
"Oh, I don't think so," smiled Larose. "When I was in Australia. I trained a number of dogs for trailing criminals and found most dogs understand me."
"Then that's another weak link in your theory," commented Lord Fell dryly, "that a stranger could not have come near them at night. If a man like you had come near them he could obviously have handled them with impunity," and both Larose and Stone had to laugh at the shrewd thrust.
They returned into the Castle and at their request Percy was called in to be questioned, but they got nothing out of him and were soon satisfied. They judged very quickly that his temperament was not subtle enough to enable him to be the culprit they wanted.
Then Christine was sent for. She had been expecting it and was not feeling in any way frightened. She had liked the look of the inspectors and was sure they would treat her courteously. So she had only, she told herself, to deny firmly, exactly as she had done to the Lincoln detectives, that she had ever met Blair before he came to the Castle and there the matter would end. The questioning would only take a minute or two.
Everything commenced exactly as she had thought it would and she answered Stone's questions with no hesitation at all. Then, rather to Lord Fell's surprise, it was Larose who, upon a nod from his colleague, took over the questioning, and at once, for some reason which she could not understand, Christine began to feel uneasy.
"And where were you living before your marriage?" asked Larose. "Oh, in Paris! Had you been living there all your life? You're not a Frenchwoman, are you?"
"Only half," replied Christine. "My father was French, but my mother was English and I was born in London. I lived there until I was nearly twenty-one and only then went to Paris."
"In what part of London was it you lived?"
Christine felt herself getting hot. She had certainly not expected questions like that and her quick and lively intelligence told her what they meant. This inspector was not inclined to accept so readily, as the others had done, her denial of ever having met Captain Blair before. However, she answered him quickly.
"In several parts, as we had moved about a lot, from Maida Vale, Putney, St. John's Wood and West Kensington to Finsbury Park."
"You remember the addresses, of course? Then you might just give them to me as a matter of form. Also your father's Christian name."
With difficulty keeping her voice steady, she complied with his request as far as she appeared able. "But I don't know the address at Maida Vale," she said, "as I was too young then to remember. Still, I know I was born there because after my mother died I stayed with her unmarried sister, my aunt, who lived in Maida Vale, and she took me once to see the church there, St. James's, where I had been christened."
"And where did you live in Paris?" was Larose's next question.
"Number seven, Place des Étoiles. I had a small flat there."
"Were you studying in Paris," asked Larose, "or just living an independent social life?"
Christine laughed merrily and in great relief. She was on sure ground now and there was no danger of her being tripped.
"Good gracious, no," she replied. "I had to earn my living. I was a dress-designer and worked for Monsieur Voisin in the Rue de la Paix. I was the head assistant there." For the first time she spoke as if rather resentful of the close questioning and added, "I was with him for the whole of the three years, and he'll give me quite a good character."
"I'm sure of that," smiled Larose, "and I'm not for one moment suggesting anything to the contrary. As I told you, these questions are all mainly a matter of form for our report to headquarters. Now, did you go out much when in Paris? I mean did you have many friends?"
Christine shook her head.
"No, I had practically no friends at all except the family of my employer. They'll tell you that."
After a few more questions Larose thanked her and said he had finished, and she was allowed to leave the room.
"But why did you pester her with all those questions?" growled Lord Fell when she had gone. "There are particular reasons why we don't want her upset just now. She'll be having another baby in about six months and she's had a lot of worry these last weeks."
"I'm very sorry, my lord," said Larose, "but we couldn't come down all this way for nothing. What ground we cover we must do thoroughly."
They interviewed the man who had charge of the dogs, but with no particular result, and then announced they would like to go to see the gamekeeper who had been under such suspicion.
"Well, I'd better give you a note," said Lord Fell with a grim smile, "or directly he learns what you've come about he'll shut his mouth like a trap. He's naturally short-tempered and has had a bad enough time already with the Lincoln police. Still, he'll speak if I tell him to."
They arrived at the gamekeeper's cottage, which was about half a mile distant from the Castle grounds, just as he was assisting another man to uncart a big sow into a stye. He scowled angrily when the two inspectors came up, but looked more amiable at once when they told him Lord Fell had sent them and handed over the latter's note.
"All right," he said, "I'll talk to you in a few minutes, when I've got my lady nicely settled in her new home."
"Good animal that," remarked Stone admiringly, anxious to get on good terms with him. "I know something about pigs. I'm a farmer's son."
"Oh, you are, are you," commented the gamekeeper interestedly. "A good animal," he went on, "I should think she is. Her dad's The Marquis and her mum's Lady Betty." He spoke proudly. "She cost me twenty guineas and she's in pig to the Duke of Brent. A real aristocrat, and I ought to get all my purchase-money back and a bit over from her litter."
He took them into his cottage and turned on his wireless to let them hear the beautiful tone.
"Just got that, too," he announced. "I like a bit of music and would be lonely without it. I'm a widower and live with my one boy."
He answered all their questions about the night of the Captain's death quite freely, his annoyance because of having been suspected of firing the shot, now, apparently, having all died down.
"I'm only tarnation sorry for them up at the Castle," he said feelingly. "It's devilish hard for a proud old chap like his lordship to have all this scandal knocking about, and I can see how it's upsetting him. A lot of folks don't like him, but he's as straight as a die. I've been with him all my life and couldn't want for a better master. I'd do anything for the old boy." He nodded emphatically. "As for the young missis, everyone thinks the world of her. Bless her sweet face!"
Both the inspectors thought his tale rang true.
"Still, if he wasn't speaking the truth," remarked Stone as they were driving away, "we shouldn't know it. He's not a deep man, but he's a shrewdy, right enough, and if he made up any story he'd stick to it and I don't think anyone would be able to bowl him out."
A long silence followed as the car rolled Londonwards, and then Stone heaved a big sigh and asked his colleague:
"Well, Gilbert, what do you think of everything?"
"The same as you do, Charlie," replied Larose solemnly. "If we could put out of our minds that those dogs got out accidentally, we should both say that young woman was at the bottom of everything."
"That's it," nodded Stone with another sigh. "She wasn't a straightforward witness and was not at her ease a lot of the time. She didn't mind my questions so much, but very soon after you'd started on her I noticed she clenched one of her hands. And she kept it clenched, too, until you asked about her life in Paris, and then she straightened it and seemed much happier. She had got over a bad spot somewhere."
"A beautiful woman," nodded Larose, "and looks quite a good one, too. If she had anything against that Captain Blair, it's any odds the fault would be more on his side. From what we've learnt of him he must have been a hard man in his dealings with women, a real bad 'un."
"Yes," nodded Stone, "and those are the very ones to attract young girls. A girl may know for certain that a man has treated other girls badly, but she's quite sure he'll be all right with her. She thinks she'll manage him when the others haven't. I've noticed that all my life, Gilbert."
But Larose was not listening. He was thinking hard.
"What a lot one can imagine when one let's oneself go," he said presently. "Suppose that Christine Heron is the party we want. She may have married Blair and quarrelled with him and left him. Then, when he went on one of those long exploring trips abroad, she may have thought he would never come back that time. So when this boy Percy appeared, she was dazzled by the idea of such a wonderful marriage and chanced it." He nodded. "You know that's all quite possible."
"Certainly," agreed Stone grimly, "if we could only prove she had shot him." He spoke warningly. "And the first thing to do, my son, is to find out if she knew Blair at any of those places she mentioned."
"Or at another she didn't mention," said Larose instantly.
"Well, we must find out all we can," said Stone, "though I shall hate helping to put a noose round that beautiful neck of hers, but then the Law's the Law and we get our few quid a week for serving it." A thought struck him and he asked suddenly, "But I say, what do you think of his lordship?"
"A fine old fellow, but as deep as the bottomless pit," laughed Larose. "No one'll put one over him." He became serious. "I don't quite know what to think of him, Charlie. As well as the girl, he didn't strike me as being quite easy in his mind. He's very fond of her. Anyone can see that and, obviously, he didn't like me asking her those questions."
"And don't you forget," said Stone, "that he deliberately deceived us about who could handle those dogs safely and, though I must say he didn't show it, I'd bet anything he was taken aback when she came round the corner with them."
"Yes, he wanted badly to keep her out of everything," said Larose, "though it may have been for the reason he gave us—that she's expecting another baby. Still, he may have had an even stronger reason than that, for I'm quite certain even if he knew she'd shot the man, he'd do all he could to shield her, quite apart from dodging the scandal to the family. He's a real hard old soldier."
"But a nice old chap," said Stone. "I liked him very much."
"Oh, so did I. What I mean is that if he's deliberately working against us then he'll be another tough proposition to get over."
In the meantime Christine had quickly recovered from the fright Larose's questions had given her, feeling quite sure she had said nothing which could bring her any harm. No one, from what she had told Larose, would be able to link her up with Blair in the old Chelsea days. Thank goodness she had lived at all the other places she had mentioned, but if they went to them to enquire about her no one would be likely to know where she had been when her father died.
Unhappily, however, Christine knew little about the ways of detectives and, particularly, those of one like Larose, and the very next evening she would have been horror-stricken if she had been present to hear what he was telling Stone he had found out about her during the day. There was nothing exuberant about his attitude; on the contrary he was very grave.
"I'm very much afraid, Charlie," he said, "that that Heron girl is the party we are looking for. I'm almost certain she's been lying deliberately when she's been telling everyone she had never known Blair before. At any rate I've found out that thirteen years ago, when, as she says, her father died, they were living in Chelsea, a place she never mentioned to me, and, not only that, but I have found out also that about that time, or at any rate soon after, Blair was well known in the same neighbourhood."
"Tut, tut," exclaimed Stone with a frown. "I'm really very sorry." He made a grimace. "Still, you know, Gilbert, pretty girls can lie just as much as plain ones; in fact they probably tell more lies as, being pretty, they have more things to hide. Well, go on. Tell us everything.'
"I started looking up the old London Directories," said Larose, "for Jules Fontaine's name, and certainly did find it at some of the places she mentioned to us, but thirteen years ago, the last time it appeared, I found it at number six, Athol Crescent, Chelsea, and, as she'd never mentioned that place to us, I got suspicious at once and went there first. But the people in occupation now had only been there for three years and had never heard of the Fontaines, neither had some of the neighbours I called upon. Then I tried the nearest shops and at last found a grocer who had known Jules Fontaine quite well. He told me about his dying and the girl going away."
"She was sixteen then," commented Stone. "Did he know what happened to her?"
"No, but he said she hadn't gone far away, as he occasionally saw her in the King's Road, which is quite close to his shop. Then he told me Fontaine had got a lot of artist friends and he had heard one of them had painted the girl. So I got hold of some artists' names from a bookseller's shop and called round on them. I made out my father, in Australia, was an old friend of Fontaine and, now I had come over to England, had asked me to look him up. I drew blank twice, but from the third artist I called upon, a man called Henderson, got some good information.
"He had had a slight acquaintance with Fontaine, he said, and had heard him play the violin at several parties. He remembered Christine and said she was a very pretty girl. When her father died, leaving hardly a penny, so he said, Christine was adopted by an artist called Ransome, who constituted himself her guardian, but this Ransome died between three and four years afterwards, and then what happened to the girl he didn't know. He'd never heard of her since."
"That brings us towards Christine's twentieth birthday," commented Stone, "and she was living in Paris, so she says, from her twenty-first one. So there is one year to be accounted for."
"I know nothing about what happened to her then," said Larose, "but I do know she had chances of meeting Blair in those three years and longer before her guardian died, for this Henderson told me Blair used to visit friends in the neighbourhood about that time."
"Then you let him know you were trying to link up Mrs. Heron with Blair?" frowned Stone.
"No, I didn't, and from what he said I don't think he knows she is Mrs. Heron. I've just told you he said he had not heard of her since she left the neighbourhood after the death of the man who had adopted her. Also, I didn't mention Blair's name until I brought it up just as I was coming away. If Mrs. Heron had really known the man, I felt quite certain she had not mentioned Chelsea to us because she had met him there. So I asked this artist, quite casually, if he had known the Captain and, as I expected, he said he had! He added that a brother artist had designed the cover of his book for him, and Blair had come to several of their musical evenings."
"Did he say anything about his death?" asked Stone.
"Only that he thought it had been a dreadful accident and that it was a shame the man who had caused it had not had the courage to come forward and own up. Then I ventured to ask him if the Fontaines had been friends of Blair and he said he couldn't say. He laughed that the girl's guardian would certainly not have had Blair as a friend, for he kept men of Blair's type away from her. I gathered it was well known Blair had been a bit of a goer with the women. Now, have you found out anything to-day?"
Stone shook his head.
"Practically nothing. We have been able to verify, however, what the Lincoln police had already learnt, that Blair owed a lot of money to various tradesmen and was being pressed. He was behind with his rent at the flat, and the landlord was threatening to turn him out."
"Hard up, was he!" exclaimed Larose. "Then that's another pointer that he was on the blackmail. But one thing puzzles me a lot. How is it that if this Mrs. Heron had reason to fear Blair she let him come to the Castle? She's the hostess there and one would have thought he would never have had an invitation." He frowned. "Yes, we've a lot to find out yet, but we must try now to get in touch with the writer of that anonymous letter. If, as he says, he's known Blair since a boy, he ought to be able to tell us something Let's have a look at that letter again."
The following day Larose called on the stockbroker, Andrew Sheldon, at his office in the city, and directly the latter learnt he was a detective from Scotland Yard, the reception was a chilly one.
Sheldon was already most annoyed with the publicity which had come to him, particularly as it was common property now that Blair had been on the verge of bankruptcy. Added to that, there were rumours about that in more than one city on the Continent the dead man had been regarded as little less than a cardsharper. It was said that one night in Vienna he took more than the value of a thousand English pounds from a young Austrian nobleman who had at the time been so drunk that he could not hold his cards.
The member of the two London clubs to which Blair had belonged were furious at the reflection upon their reputations that he had been one of their number, and the stockbroker, with whom it was known he had been going about a lot lately, was coming in for some of the odium.
Another thing, too, which was most galling to Sheldon. It had somehow got out that at Blair's instigation he had had a big win at Sandown Park and the money won was now being magnified to many thousands. To make matters worse, the owner of this particular horse was now in trouble with the stewards for having, as they suspected, had the animal pulled upon a subsequent occasion, when it was a hot favourite. Those who had invested their money on it were so disgusted that there had been an uproar on the racecourse.
Altogether, the stockbroker was deploring the day when he had had anything to do with Blair and, above all, that he had taken him to Fell Castle.
He was curt and sharp with Larose.
"I know nothing about the man's private life," he fumed, "and he was practically only a club acquaintance. It was almost an accident that I came to take him up to my cousin for the shooting. He was a good shot and I thought he would be of use to make up a good bag. It was arranged all in a hurry, only two days before the shoot, on the Saturday afternoon."
"You 'phoned Lord Fell, of course?" asked Larose. "Then wasn't he interested to know whom you were bringing down, the well-known explorer?"
"Not a bit," snapped the stockbroker, wanting to get rid of Larose as quickly as possible. "He probably didn't even hear his name. The telephone was buzzing all the time."
Larose left him, quite pleased with what he had found out. One thing, as Blair had learnt only on the Saturday afternoon that he was going to Fell Castle, the remark about going to meet an old sweetheart there must have been made between then and the Monday when he set off for Fell Castle. Therefore, if he, Larose, could only find out in what company Blair had been on the Saturday and Sunday, he might be able to pick out the writer of the anonymous letter to the Yard. He might learn a lot about Blair's life from him.
The second thing: he understood now how it was, if Christine Heron had, really, to fear any disclosures Blair might make, she had not prevented him from coming to the Castle. She simply had not known he was the guest the stockbroker was bringing down.
Larose's next call was upon the janitor of the block of flats where Blair had lived and here, to his satisfaction, he met with a most cordial reception. The man was a natural gossip and delighted to chat with an inspector from Scotland Yard. With great gusto he related about the creditors who had so often come buzzing round and how he had been tipped by the Captain to keep anyone who looked like a tradesman or someone who had come after money, away.
But when Larose proceeded to ask about the Captain's friends, he was greatly disappointed that the man could not tell him anything. He said Blair very rarely entertained anyone at his flat, but lived a club and restaurant life.
"Then you don't know anyone," asked Larose, "whom he met that Saturday and Sunday before he went away?"
"No, sir," replied the man, "I can't tell you anything about that, for if any gentleman friend of his had called to see him here he would probably have known which flat he was in and gone straight up." His face brightened. "Ah, but I do remember now a gent coming to see him that Saturday evening. I particularly remember it because he had got an ugly-looking bulldog with him, on a chain. He didn't speak to me and I didn't know who it was he had come to see. He went straight by me and up the stairs."
"Then how do you know he was calling on the Captain?" asked Larose.
"Because some time after they came down together and I whistled up a taxi for them."
"You didn't happen to hear them say where they wanted to go when the taxi came?"
"No, sir, but I know they were going to play cards somewhere, because I heard the Cap say to the gent, But old Colonel Savage mayn't have such good cards to-night."
Larose pricked up his ears. "Are you sure that was the name?" he asked sharply.
"Quite sure, sir, for I told my missus that night what a good name it was for a fighting gent to have."
Larose went straight to the nearest public library and looked up an Army List. He saw that a Colonel Savage, D.S.O., lived in Belsize Park, and as quickly as a taxi could take him, he proceeded there. The Colonel was at home, but he was frowningly regarding Larose's card as the latter was taken in to see him. He looked in the middle fifties, and was tall and spare. He spoke up at once.
"Of course you've come about that Captain Blair!" he exclaimed testily. "Well, I don't want to be mixed up with it. I hardly knew the man. I have never been to his place and he's never been to mine. I've only played cards with him a few times."
"You shan't be mixed up with it, sir," said Larose emphatically, "and I shall pass on nothing you say. I have come to see you only because it happens you were among those playing cards with him on that Saturday night before the Monday when he went to Fell Castle."
"Well, what about it?" growled the Colonel. "That's nothing to do with his being shot."
"Of course not," agreed Larose instantly, "but we understand he made a remark that evening about someone he was going to meet at Lord Fell's and we want to find out who that someone was."
"I can't tell you," said the Colonel. "I didn't hear him mention Fell Castle and knew nothing about his going there."
"But at whose house were you that Saturday night," asked Larose, "if you don't mind telling me."
"I do mind," grunted the Colonel. "It was a small private party and has nothing to do with the police." Then he added reluctantly. "Still, if you must know, we were at a near neighbour's of mine, a Mr. Sydney Beaver, just down the road. But if you go to see him, don't mention I told you."
"I certainly won't," said Larose, "and I mayn't have to go to see him. Perhaps you can tell me who among Captain Blair's associates was a very old friend who had known him all his life. They were boys together."
The Colonel considered and then shook his head. "I don't know of anyone. I tell you he was a casual acquaintance and I didn't take to him too well. A couple of weeks or so back he was most annoyed, and showed it, too, when he doubled in a hand of bridge and I redoubled and ran out with a grand slam. The game cost him more than a ten-pound note and he took it badly. Ah, now that reminds me! There was a man present that night who called him Ron and whom he called Bob. Perhaps that's the old friend whom you want to talk to. I never knew anyone else use Blair's Christian name."
"Who was he?" asked Larose eagerly.
"A Mr. Alec Rowntree, and he lives somewhere in Fitzroy Square. He's retired now, but I think he used to be in the Indian Civil Service. Yes, he may be the very man you want, for he's about Blair's age. He's not of Blair's type, though, and I fancy they were not very thick together. He's a quiet, retiring sort of man."
Larose thanked him and at once made his way round to Fitzroy Square, hoping to find out at once where this Mr. Rowntree lived there. No one, however, seemed to have heard of him, and at house after house where he enquired, Larose could learn nothing. Then by good luck he came upon a postman delivering letters and the man pointed out the house near where they were standing. "He's got apartments there," he said, "and the landlady's name is Mrs. Spooner."
Larose had no intention of handing in his card. He wanted to take this Mr. Rowntree by surprise and so, when the front door was opened to his ring, he asked the woman who appeared if Mr. Rowntree was in. She nodded and at once asked. "You've come about the wireless?" and, when Larose nodded back, she added. "Well, I hope you'll find out what's really the matter this time. Mr. Rowntree is very annoyed."
Larose was ushered into the presence of an elderly, studious-looking man, whose expression was mild and gentle.
"I'm an inspector from Scotland Yard," said Larose with a pleasant smile, "and I've come about this letter you wrote us concerning the late Captain Blair," and he took the letter out of his pocket.
Mr. Rowntree looked the very picture of astonishment, and for one uneasy moment Larose thought he was going to say he didn't understand what he meant. But no, Mr. Rowntree's look of astonishment passed quickly to an annoyed frown and he asked testily, "How do you know it is I who have written you any letter?"
"Because," replied Larose in great relief, "you went to school with the Captain, the letter was typed on the notepaper you always use and the typing," he nodded towards a typewriter on the desk, "was done with a portable Underwood type-writer."
Mr. Rowntree shrugged his shoulders and spoke very quietly.
"Well, I'm not going to deny it," he said. "I thought it my duty to write, and I wanted to help you.
"And your help is much appreciated," said Larose warmly. "We are very much obliged to you, although--" he smiled, "you have put us to some little trouble in picking you out."
"Sit down," said Mr. Rowntree, "and tell me what it is you want."
"Have you any idea," asked Larose, "who the 'old sweetheart' your friend referred to, was?"
"Not the slightest," was the reply. Mr. Rowntree hesitated a moment and went on, "And, incidentally, he was not what you would call my friend, though, as I wrote you, I have known him since a boy, but I never liked him over-much and, in fact, in later years particularly, have avoided him as much as possible."
"And what made you do that, if I may ask?" asked Larose, looking very astonished "You called each other by your Christian names!"
Mr. Rowntree frowned. "That counts for nothing. It was just a habit right back from our school days. But I didn't like him because to my thinking he had not developed into an agreeable type of man. He was always drinking, his morals were loose, he was an inveterate gambler, and there were other things about him of which I didn't approve."
"For instance?" smiled Larose. "Come, sir, I promise I won't repeat anything you tell me."
"Well, he wasn't a man of honour. He's been running up accounts for many years now and avoiding paying them as much as he could. He's taken down no end of bookmakers and I wouldn't say he's not occasionally cheated at cards. Really, I've been much astonished at his getting into the clubs here in London that he has. In India—I learnt a lot about him when we were both there—he had a very poor reputation, and left owing money everywhere."
"But how did he come to tell you he was going to the shooting at Fell Castle?"
"I was dining at the Rialto on the Sunday night and happened to pass the table where he was sitting as I was going out. He had some men friends with him and hailed me, and I had to stop. He had obviously had plenty to drink, even for him and it had probably loosened his tongue a bit. He said grandly, 'I've got a nice week in front of me. To-morrow I'm going up to Fell Castle for the shoot,' and then he added what I wrote you about the old sweetheart. I didn't stop, and bade him good night. That's all I know."
"You say he was a man of loose morals?" commented Larose. "Was he married?"
"I couldn't say. Still, I rather think he had been, but whether they are separated or she's divorced him or she's dead I don't know. At any rate, I've never met any wife of his or heard him mention her."
"But what makes you think he had been married?" asked Larose.
"Because I saw 'Captain and Mrs. Blair' once in the visitors' book, at the register of a hotel in Switzerland. I learnt they had left the day before I arrived."
"When was that?" asked Larose, and his heart beat a little faster when the reply was, "About seven or eight years ago, I think. At any rate it was the year when the English mare, Good Queen Bess, won the Chantilly Cup. I spent a few days in Geneva and then went back to Paris to see the Cup run."
"Are you sure it was the Captain Blair you knew?"
"Certain! It was his hand-writing. I knew it quite well, a big sprawling hand."
"Was the woman's signature there, too?" asked Larose eagerly.
Mr. Rowntree shook his head. "No, the Swiss authorities are not so strict as the French ones are. In France both the husband and the wife have to sign separately. Oh, yes, of course it was Captain Ronald Blair. He was on the Continent then, as I caught sight of him a few days afterwards in the street, when I got to Paris. I was on a tram and he didn't see me."
"Then you don't know where he was staying?" asked Larose.
"No, but it was probably the Hôtel Regal close by the Louvre. I've heard him say he always went there."
Larose repressed his excitement. "Now, sir, will you very kindly think back and tell me the exact year and month when you saw him that time in Paris."
Mr. Rowntree considered. "It was in the first week of September—let me think—oh, in nineteen-twenty-eight. It was just over eight years ago."
Larose asked a few more questions and then left, delighted with what he had found out. However, he sighed rather deeply.
"Poor little woman," he murmured, "the net is drawing round her. She looks a good woman to me and the Law can be very cruel. She may have been actually married to Blair and left him later."
The next morning he flew to Paris. His knowledge of French was scrappy, but, if necessary, he knew several members of the French police who would help him out. He drove straight to the Hôtel Regal and had lunch there.
Then he started a conversation at the reception desk in bad French, and to his relief the clerk answered him smilingly in good English.
"Do you happen to know a friend of mine, a Captain Ronald Blair, who occasionally stays here?" he asked. "I want to find out when he last came."
The clerk considered for a moment or two and then shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't recall the name."
"How long have you been here?"
"About three years."
"Oh, I may want to go back much longer than that," said Larose. "perhaps six or seven years. I expect others in the hotel will remember him."
The clerk shook his head again. "I'm afraid not, sir. The hotel has changed hands several times in that time and all new staffs have been taken on. One company which ran it went into liquidation about five years ago and it was shut up for three months. It was a great pity, for up to a short time before then it had been doing well, with the same manager for more than twenty years."
Larose's heart sank into his boots. "But the old registers would tell me," he exclaimed. "Have they been destroyed?"
The clerk beamed all over. "Certainly not, sir. We've got them going back for more than twenty years." He pointed to a door at the far end of the lounge. "If you go into that little room there you'll find them all on the shelf. It's the Information Room where we keep all the guide books and the railway timetables for the information of our guests."
Larose went into the room he indicated with his heart beating fast. There were the big registers, right enough, and in a few seconds he had taken down the 1928 one and was quickly turning the pages to find the month of September.
He scanned eagerly over the names recorded there, beginning at the first day of the month, but there were no Ronald and Christine Blair among them and, it coming home to him with a dreadful pang that Blair might have been staying there under an assumed name, he was furious with himself that he had not come provided with a specimen of both Captain Blair's and Christine's handwritings.
But no, he told himself after a few moments' consideration, Mr. Rowntree had said the Hôtel Regal was the one where Blair always stayed and so, being well known to the staff, he would have had to stay under his proper name.
Then another dreadful thought struck him. Perhaps Blair had gone to a different hotel with the woman who was his wife or passing as his wife. With the Chantilly races on, Paris was sure to have been crowded with visitors and the Hôtel Regal might have been already full up when he arrived. Or again, he might purposely have gone to a different hotel if he was not married to the woman he had got with him, or, if married, for some reason he did not want it known.
Larose shook his head angrily. If Christine had been the woman with him, then almost certainly they had been properly married somewhere, for she did not look as if she had ever been the kind of girl to have illicit relations. He smiled sadly then, visualising the wise and experienced Charlie Stone shaking his head and saying, as he had often heard him say. "Ah, but you can never tell. When a woman is in love she may do anything."
Hoping against hope that his eyes had passed over the names he so much wanted to find, he turned to the register once more. He went through all September and even the adjoining months of August and October. Then he went back to September again. Suddenly his whole body stiffened and his eyes opened very wide. He had noted something and he bent low over the pages of the big book. He uttered a half-stifled cry, a cry of triumph and yet of angry disappointment.
Two of the pages of the register had been cut out, and they were those of the first week of the month.
WE must now go back to about a month before Captain Blair started upon his ill-fated journey to Fell Castle and be introduced to Mr. Luke Weederman, a successful art-dealer with premises in Hanover Street, Hanover Square and a beautifully appointed flat in Minerva Building in Mandeville Square, just off the embankment in Chelsea.
Approaching fifty years of age, Weederman was a well-known character in the art world. He was not only a dealer but an enthusiastic collector as well. Though he invariably made a good profit in all his transactions, and sometimes a very exorbitant one, often it was agony for him to part, in the way of business, with something he had acquired. He loved beautiful and useless things and their handling was a passion with him. To his thinking Art was everything and in comparison, the great happenings of the world left him cold and uninterested.
Dynasties might fall, kings and rulers might be assassinated, an earthquake might destroy fifty thousand people and render ten times that number homeless, but none of these events stirred his interest one-hundredth part as much as when a rare vase or a collection of silver ware came up for auction in one of the London sale-rooms. Then the excitement of the bidding would send his pulses racing up to fever rate and, if he himself were a would-be buyer, he would be drenched in a clammy perspiration when some rival dealer nodded a few guineas higher than he was prepared to pay.
Old silver, perhaps more than anything else, was his speciality, and the contours of a candlestick of the times of the French kings were more entrancing to him than those of the figure of a most beautiful woman. An old Georgian gold snuff-box, too, might be far more ravishing than a lovely face, and he would contemplate a battered Henry VIII silver spoon with far more reverence than he would accord to any crowned head or great spiritual leader.
Although none would drive a harder bargain than he, he posed before his wealthy patrons as a most straightforward dealer, and was generally accepted as such by them. Still, brother dealers were anything but of that opinion. They said he was cunning and would take down anyone he could, and was not above shady transactions if he was reasonably certain nothing would come to light. Weederman himself would have indignantly denied he had ever been a receiver of stolen goods, yet he knew quite well, when he thought everything would be quite safe, he had occasionally bought articles which, from the low price demanded, could only have been acquired in dishonest ways.
Once he had paid only a couple of pounds for a gloriously carved little onyx statuette of a dancing girl with a crown of sapphires on her head, and later had disposed of it in a roundabout way in the United States for three thousand dollars.
There might have been bad trouble there, for the man who had sold it to him had been caught subsequently when trying to rob a museum and, out of spite because of the small amount Weederman had paid him, had told the police about the statuette, part of the proceeds of a previous robbery.
Weederman had, however, emphatically denied all knowledge both of the man and the statuette, and no trace of the statuette being found either at his shop or his flat, no charge could be brought against him. Indeed, the police were inclined to believe him innocent, not crediting the man's story. They were of opinion the thief had hidden away the statuette and many other stolen things as well, with the intention, if he were caught, of disposing of them after he had served his sentence of imprisonment.
Not all Weederman's treasures were to be found at his shop.
With his passion for being surrounded by beautiful things, he kept many of them at his flat and would show them there to patrons whom he considered were likely purchasers.
He had a suite of four rooms on the third floor of Minerva Building and all the windows were fitted with burglar alarms which would ring in the apartment of the janitor of the Building down below. No one was ever allowed in his flat unless he himself was there and, by special arrangement, the cleaner, an elderly woman of unimpeachable character, arrived at six o'clock every morning and had finished her work before Weederman left for his place of business. Also, he felt the more secure that no one would ever rob him, because there was a police-station across the road, less than a hundred yards away. He always kept an automatic pistol, fully charged, by his bedside, though out of his business activities a mild-mannered man of a rather timid disposition, it is doubtful if he would have even dared to use it. Indeed, he knew so little about firearms that, much to the amusement of the man who had sold the pistol to him, he called in at the latter's shop one day to enquire if the cartridges would deteriorate through keeping.
A bachelor with no interest in the other sex, he had always lived by himself, and was regular to the point of eccentricity in his habits. So much so, that it was a standing joke with the other tenants, the janitor of the building and the man who came twice a week to clean the windows that there was no need for a clock when "old Weederman" was about.
At twenty minutes to nine every weekday, not a minute before or a minute later, he left his flat. At ten minutes to six he came home. By half-past six he had changed into evening clothes and was setting out to some restaurant for dinner. He dressed well and tastefully, considering a good appearance went a long way towards establishing confidence with his clients.
This, then, was his customary mode of life, and the regular routine was only varied when, as he occasionally did, he went to attend sales in the country. Then, if he were going away for the night, he made a point of calling in at the neighbouring police station to inform them there of his movements and request that a special watch should be kept on Minerva Buildings. He always gave a quite generous tip to the officer on duty.
One evening he came home feeling rather out of sorts and as if he had got a chill. He had no appetite and decided not to go out to dinner. So, after a frugal meal of toast and a cup of tea, he put himself to bed. For a long time he had no inclination even to close his eyes, but at length feeling himself getting drowsy, was almost on the point of dropping off to sleep, when he thought he heard the faint click as if his front door was being opened very quietly.
For quite a long minute he did not take it in, but then came the unmistakable sounds of someone moving about in the adjoining room, the one where he kept so many beautiful treasures. He sat up in bed sharply and consternation seized him. There was not the slightest doubt about it—someone had got into his flat. The intruder had dared, too, to switch on the light. He could see it under the bottom of the door.
His consternation changed into fury and he forgot all his fear at the thought that his beautiful treasures were in danger. The manhood, which the sight of a fellow human being in deadly peril would never have aroused in him, was stirred almost to frenzy because some bits of painted glass and some lumps of silver were in the way of being taken from him.
He kept all his wits about him and stepping swiftly out of bed, put on his dressing-gown and slippers. Then he picked up his pistol and, moving cat-like across the floor, after one brief moment of hesitation and much hard swallowing, flung open the bedroom door and burst into his study.
God, he was only just in time! A man, with his cap pulled low over his forehead, had taken down two priceless Louis Quatorze silver candlesticks from the mantelshelf and had placed them on the table. By their side were three valuable Georgian snuff-boxes. On the table, also, was a small hand-bag and from it the man was in the very act of taking out some newspapers in which to wrap up the stolen articles.
"Put your hands up," shouted Weederman, pointing his pistol at the man—he had quite forgotten to lift up the safety catch—"or in three seconds I'll shoot you in the stomach. One—two—"
The man threw up his hands in terror. His jaw had dropped, his eyes were staring and his face was ghastly white. Obviously he was no fighter, and his legs were shaking under him.
"Move away from the table," ordered Weederman sternly, his satisfaction rising at the terror he saw the man was in. "Knock that cap off your head so that I can have a look at you." He uttered a startled exclamation of surprise. "A-ah, it's you, Bob, is it, the window-cleaner here! And the tips I've given you! Oh, you ungrateful dog!"
He sprang over to him and, with one hand still pointing the pistol at his stomach, with the other smacked him soundly on the face. "You thought I was out, did you," he snarled, "and you came to rob me?" He slapped his face harder. "And I gave you those boots the other day."
The man began to whine about a sick wife and three children but Weederman cut him short with a sneer. "Only three!" he exclaimed derisively. "Why, I thought six was always the regulation number when scoundrels like you were caught red-handed!" A sudden thought came to him and he asked incredulously, "But how did you open my door?"
"I picked up the key you dropped, sir," quavered the man. "I saw you drop it some time ago."
Weederman's thought travelled back like lightning. In the August previously he had gone down to Cromer to attend a sale and, the day being very hot and, there being considerable time after the sale had finished before his train went, he had had a dip in the sea from a bathing-tent. Then, when dressing, the contents of one of his trouser pockets had tumbled out on to the sand. Later, he could not find his key which had been attached to a single ring and, so sure he must have lost it in the tent, he did not take the precaution of having the lock on his front door changed. Now he swore angrily at himself for his foolishness.
"And you saw my silver here when you were cleaning the windows," he scowled, "and made up your mind to rob me?"
The man nodded miserably. "I knew they were valuable, sir," he said. "these French king candlesticks and the King George snuff-boxes."
Weederman's eyes opened very wide. "How the hell do you know what they are; and that they're valuable?" he asked incredulously.
"In a situation where I was once, sir," replied the man, tearfully, "I used to have to clean things like them and I've heard his lordship tell visitors what they were."
"Which lordship?" snapped Weederman.
"Lord Fell, sir, of Fell Castle in Lincolnshire. I was a footman there for two years."
The dealer knew of Lord Fell and his art treasures. Indeed, he had had a most unpleasant encounter with him once when he had boldly called upon him to ask if he were inclined to dispose of anything. He considered Lord Fell had been most insolent to him, not only refusing with an oath to sell anything, but threatening that if he came again he would have him thrown out. The treatment he had received had rankled in his mind ever since, particularly so, because his lordship had called him a common pedlar. His anger recurred now as he thought of it.
"Then why didn't you go and steal his things instead of mine?" he asked testily.
The man shrugged his shoulders. "I could have done it easily if I had thought about it, sir. They are in a room on the ground floor with only one window to open and there are no burglar alarms or traps anywhere." He smiled a sickly smile. "Quite different to the precautions you take here."
"Doesn't he value what he's got?" asked Weederman.
"No, sir, not a bit. His father collected them and he's not interested. If it weren't for the young missis, Mrs. Heron, his son's wife, they'd never be polished from one year to another."
"Why did you leave him?" asked Weederman. "More thieving, I suppose."
The man looked uncomfortable. "Nothing much, sir. One day he caught me taking some cigars and a little drink of whisky. He's a bad-tempered man and he hit me and sent me away at once, though I'd been a good servant to him."
"I expect so!" sneered Weederman. "But what were you going to do with my things if you'd got off with them? There's no one who would have bought them from you." Then, receiving no reply, he went on fiercely: "Come on now. Tell me what you intended to do with them?"
"But I've heard of a gent in your line, sir, who takes things on the quiet," said the window-cleaner, hesitatingly. "I know a chap who sold him some silver entrée dishes, though he didn't get much for them. Another time he sold him some candlesticks with angels with wings on them. This chap said they were a lovely pair, but he only got five pounds for them."
"Cherubim and Seraphim candlesticks!" ejaculated Weederman. "Why, they're priceless! There are only three known pairs in existence!" He raised his voice. "Who was the man he sold them to? Tell me at once."
"I don't know his name, sir, but I could find out for you," the man's voice shook, "if you'll forgive me and don't give me up to the police. I do know he lives somewhere near the Haymarket."
"Near the Haymarket!" murmured Weederman. "Then it must be that old devil Aaronstein! Oh, if I could only catch him out!"
Lazarus Aaronstein and Weederman were deadly rivals and hated each other like poison. Time and again in the saleroom had the two bidded viciously against each other, and Weederman was rightly of opinion he was many hundreds of guineas out of pocket on account of the other running things up out of spite.
A silence fell over the room, with the window-cleaner shivering and shaking and Weederman thinking hard. The dealer certainly did not want to have anything to do with the police, for the ensuing publicity would draw attention to the valuables in his flat and half the art thieves in London might be coming after them. Another thing, through the trembling wretch before him he might find out for certain if it were really Aaronstein who had bought those angel candlesticks and then, on the quiet, he would inform the police. He would give a thousand pounds to get his rival lodged in jail. He made up his mind quickly.
"Look here," he said to the window-cleaner, "I'll let you off upon two conditions. The first, you're to sign a paper now, promising to lead an honest life, and the second, you're to give me the name and address of the party who sold those candlesticks and find out when and to whom he sold them."
The window-cleaner wept in his relief and agreed with no hesitation to the conditions Weederman imposed. Now quite smiling and pleasant, Weederman gave him a good drink of whisky before sending him out of the flat.
The art-dealer slept badly that night. He could not get out of his mind what the window-cleaner had told him about the careless way in which Lord Fell kept his treasures. A man like Lord Fell, who had no appreciation of beautiful things, had no right to possess any! It was placing pearls before swine and the fool deserved to lose them!
"And damn it all, too!" he swore viciously. "He called me a common pedlar! I'd like to make him smart for it."
All the next day and the day following, too, his thoughts kept recurring to Fell Castle, until at last he came to a resolution. If the old silver were to be got as easily as the window-cleaner had said, then somebody should go and get it, and he was sure he knew the party who would carry out the job.
He thought of a man from whom a few months previously he had bought, very cheaply, a beautiful chalice of iridescent glass, rimmed round with gold upon which was carved a lovely design of Arabesque character. He had hesitated quite a long time before buying it, not for a moment because of the price, as the man was asking only £10, but because feeling quite sure it had been stolen, its unique design would make it so easily identified. However, as a collector, he was quite unable to resist acquiring it, and in the end had got it.
He had not taken the man's name, knowing quite well that if he had asked he would not have been told the truth, but he had found it out in quite an unexpected way. A few days after the purchase of the chalice he had happened to be passing along Tottenham Court Road and, while his face was fresh in his memory, had caught sight of the man who had sold it to him The man was now dressed in working clothes and carrying a carpenter's bag over his shoulders. Weederman had guessed he was returning home after a day's work, and out of curiosity had followed him into a small side street and found out where he lived. Then, enquiring at a nearby tobacconist, he had learnt that he was known as Charlie Maddox and was a joiner by trade.
Accordingly, the evening of the day when an idea had come to him, he hung about near where the man lived and, as he had been expecting, saw him presently come down the street.
"Ah, good evening," he exclaimed, as if very surprised at the encounter. "You're the very person I've been wanting to see! Of course you remember me! I'm Mr. Weederman, the art-dealer."
The man looked uneasy and shook his head. "Never seen you before," he said stolidly. "Never heard of the name."
"Nonsense!" smiled Weederman. "You sold me that glass chalice a little while back, but I beat you down and gave you only five pounds for it." He nodded confidingly. "Really, it was worth more and I ought to have given you at least another fiver. I'm willing to do it now," his smile broadened. "That is, of course, if you're the right man."
The man lost his uneasy look and grinned. "Oh, if that's the way you're feeling, I'm the right chap. What is it you want?"
Weederman lowered his voice darkly. "To put you in the way of earning a nice little bit, perhaps a hundred pounds, perhaps more, that is if you're what I take you to be—a man of courage." He spoke quickly. "Now where can I have a little talk with you? Let's go and have a drink together at some public-house, but you'll have to take me to a place where you're not known."
The man grinned again.
"Then you'll have to walk quite a couple of miles. I'm a pretty good customer at the pubs round here." He evidently did not want Weederman to know where he lived and went on, "Look here, sir, give me a quarter of an hour and be waiting for me just round the corner, in Tottenham Court Road. I'll run home and change. I live a bit of a way from here."
Weederman turned round at once and walked away. A quarter of an hour later, almost to the second, the man appeared. Weederman hailed a taxi and in the corner of a bar in Oxford Street they talked earnestly together. To put it in plain words, Weederman induced the man to break into Fell Castle and get what silver he could carry away.
"Now you quite understand, Mr. Hunt," he said in parting, "what the bargain is. In addition to that twenty pounds I've just given you for expenses, you're to have one-third of the sale value of everything you bring me. I won't cheat you and you shall have the full amount." He raised his hand warningly. "But mind, if anything goes wrong and the police catch you, I know nothing whatever about the matter." He nodded. "Still, whatever happens it will pay you to keep your mouth shut, because I promise you that if you're unlucky and get put away, I'll send your family money on the quiet. Understand?"
Maddox—or William Hunt as he had told Weederman he was—quite understood, and after a call in at two more public-houses, on his own, went home in a very excellent frame of mind. At any rate he had wangled £25 out of the art-dealer and if, after getting into the confidence of Bob Fogg, the one-time footman of Fell Castle, which Weederman had told him would be an easy thing to do, he considered the venture to be too risky, well, he just wouldn't go any farther, but be content with what he'd got! He wasn't going to put his head in a noose for anyone.
Still, and he frowned here, the dealer had said the job might turn out to be worth hundreds of pounds, and a few hundred would be a nice thing to have! It wasn't to be turned down if there was any reasonable chance!
All unaware of the part he might be going to be called upon to play, the next evening the window-cleaner went home to his lodging in a house in Lissom Grove. He did not notice he had been followed all the way from Minerva Building. After his meal he strolled over to his usual public-house and, sitting down in a corner with his pot of beer, proceeded to con over a highly-coloured sporting paper.
Presently, an affable-looking stranger came and sat down beside him and, noting the paper he had got in his hand, proceeded to open a discussion about racing.
"Ah, I see you know something about it, mate," he remarked after a few minutes' conversation. "You're not one of those mugs who drop their dough on brutes wot haven't got any chance." He spoke deferentially "Now wot, may I ask, is your fancy for the big race at Kempton on Saturday?"
They talked animatedly together, with the stranger insisting upon paying for all subsequent refreshment. The next night they met again, and the following night, too. Then Maddox suggested they should go to the races together, fooling the window-cleaner so thoroughly with his pretended admiration for him that he had difficulty in repressing his amusement that the booby was such easy meat.
Fogg, however, had not much brain and, completely taken in, was soon of opinion he must be a most attractive fellow to have made a man like Maddox so anxious to make a friend of him. Obviously, the chap must have plenty of money, as he did not seem to mind how much he spent on drink and cigars. Maddox had told him his name was Joe Wilkins, that he was a plumber by trade and lived in a street he mentioned about a mile from where Fogg had his lodging. He never offered, however, to take him home. He said he had a missis and four kids.
From Fogg's point of view their going to the races was quite a success as they both won more than a couple of pounds.
"But two quids is kid's stakes," said Maddox grandly when back in town that evening they were refreshing themselves at another pub. There was no one near them in the bar but, lowering his voice, he added mysteriously, "Why, I made four fivers the week before last and all in five minutes."
"Cripes!" exclaimed Fogg with widely opened eyes. "How the blazes did you manage that?"
Maddox appeared to hesitate a few moments and then went on whisperingly. "Well, I don't mind telling you, Bob, for I can see you're a chap who keeps his trap shut and who one can trust."
"Oh, yes, you can trust me," said Fogg stoutly. "I'll never breathe a word."
"Well, it was like this," said Maddox. "I was doing a bit of plumbing in a toff's house and, keeping my eyes skinned, saw a lot of silver stuff in a little cupboard with a glass door. I just waited my chance and grabbed at two old mugs that was right at the back and stuck them in my bag. When I got home I had a good quiz at them on the quiet and saw they'd got 'Carolus Rex' and the date '1641' on them. So I guessed they was pretty old and valuable. I took them to a chap who knows about such things and he whistled when he saw them. He's a great pal of mine and he fixed everything up. He sold them to someone who goes in for things like that, and at any rate I got twenty pounds. 'Carolus Rex' means King Charles, and the hall-marks showed they were made in that king's reign."
Fogg's heart fluttered wildly at the tale. "But didn't the toff miss them?" he asked.
"Not he," laughed his friend. "He's a doddering old man and half blind. That's why I chanced it. He'll never notice what's gone from the back of that cupboard." He spoke indignantly. "You know I don't hold with rich people having everything. It ain't right, and if they don't take care of wot they've got, then I says they deserves to lose it."
"That's what I say, too," said Fogg emphatically. His tongue was loosened by the beer he had imbibed and he went on: "I know a chap who's got tons of silver stuff and he doesn't care a damn about them, but if they were sold, the money'd keep you and me in good wholesome beer for the rest of our lives and him be none the worse."
Maddox listened eagerly and quickly drew out from him the whole story of Lord Fell's possessions and how easy it would be for anyone to get them. The supposed plumber clicked his tongue many times, he swallowed hard as if his mouth watered and, finally, he said sharply and with no beating about the bush:
"And what about me and you going to get them, old pal?"
Fogg shook his head. "Oh no, I daren't break in anywhere. I shouldn't know how to do it."
"But you wouldn't have to," said Maddox smilingly. "You just lead me to where the stuff is and I'll do the rest. Your job'd be to just sit still and look handsome, wot you always does. Now you say there'd be only one window to get unbolted?"
"And perhaps not even that," nodded Fogg, "for the old lord's jolly careless and often toddles off to bed leaving the window wide open. It's the butler who goes round every night at eleven and sees to the locking up. At least that's how it was a couple of years back when I left. Still, I don't suppose anything's altered now. Those old chaps keep to the same old way until they're measured for their wooden overcoats."
"Any dogs?" asked Maddox.
"Yes, two damned great big ones, wolfhounds they are," replied Fogg. "but they wouldn't worry anyone. They're kept in a big kennel in a yard with a high wire fence all round, and never go out unless someone's with them." He nodded. "I'd like to pay the old lord out, but I'd never dare to risk it."
Maddox dropped the matter for the time being, but a few days later referred to it again. "It'd be as easy as pie for me, mate," he said, "and you'd get half. Think of that. It might be a couple of hundred pounds. I know a bloke who'd lend me his motor-bicycle and sidecar and we'd toddle up into Lincolnshire one morning and the same night return home rich men."
In the end Fogg was persuaded, and so one Wednesday, he and the enterprising Joe Wilkins set off upon their adventure. They took things easy and timed their arrival at Fell Castle for about half-past nine that night. Under Fogg's direction the motor-bicycle outfit was parked away in a small lane a quarter of a mile distant from the Castle grounds and they proceeded the rest of the way on foot.
"Whew," whistled Maddox as they crept stealthily up the drive, "all the damned windows are lit up! What does that mean, mate? Is it usual?"
"No, it isn't," grunted Fogg, whose legs were shaking. "It means the place is packed with visitors." He gave a startled exclamation. "Of course, of course, he's got a house party on for the opening of the pheasant shooting!"
"So much the better," commented Maddox hoarsely. "There may be more pickings from the things the visitors have got, necklaces and rings and money lying about. If I get half a chance I'll try and slip upstairs."
"But the dogs!" said Fogg, feeling very frightened. "We must go, first, and make sure they're locked up. You haven't brought a pistol, have you?"
"Not I!" exclaimed Maddox. "You can get twenty years if you're caught with firearms on you. Now where are those damned dogs?"
The night was mild and almost muggy. There was a half-moon showing, though every now and then it was hidden by clouds. They crept through the trees beyond the Castle lawn and Fogg was easier in his mind when he saw the gate of the kennel was closely shut.
"Back to among the trees near that summer-house," he whispered. "We can watch from there. That's the room where the silver is, that third window from the end."
"And there's no light in it," whispered back Maddox. "So we can slip over directly that cloud comes over the moon." He stared hard. "And by cripes, we're in luck! The window's open at the top." They crouched down in the bushes, about fifteen yards from the summerhouse.
Then to their consternation a man appeared on the terrace and, stepping down on to the lawn, started to walk straight in their direction. "Keep down," snarled Maddox. "Re can't have seen us, but if he comes near I'll crack him one before he has time to call out."
Captain Blair, for of course it was he, did not, however, come near them. Instead, he turned off for a dozen or so yards to the summer-house. There he stood leaning against the door and smoking a cigarette.
"What's he up to?" whispered Fogg. "He's one of the visitors. Look at his evening dress."
Two—three minutes went by and then Maddox breathed excitedly, "Look, look! Round there! I'm sure there's someone moving among the trees! Yes, yes, and they've got something moving in front of them! By hell, it's those big dogs!"
Almost paralysed in their terror, the two remained crouching where they were. The shadow faded, but the dogs, as if having now sighted their quarry, darted forward to the man by the summer-house, like arrows released from a bow.
At first with horror, and then with intense interest, the two men were spell-bound spectators of all that took place. They saw the dogs attacking the Captain, the latter's escape into the summerhouse and then the rescue party racing out from the Castle. It was all over in a few minutes and then Maddox, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a grimy sleeve, rose to his feet and started to curse vigorously.
"Damnation," he swore, "that's settled it for tonight. There's nothing doing for us now. Everyone will be upset and there's no knowing where they'll be. No, we'll go off at once, and we'll come back to-morrow."
"All that long journey again!" complained Fogg who felt he had been almost jolted to bits in the badly sprung side-car.
"No, by cripes, no," replied Maddox. "We'll trickle off to a little pub up Skegness way. I know the man who keeps it and there'll be a good supper of ham and eggs whatever time we get there. Come on, we'll get away quick."
The next night just about ten they were in the same place as before, with the summer-house close near. Visibility, however, was not good for, though the moon was out again, it was obscured by misty clouds nearly all the time.
Once again there was no light in Lord Fell's study and they were just about to cross over the intervening stretch of lawn when a slight cough warned them someone was approaching, and to their amazement they saw a man approaching the summerhouse from the direction of the Castle.
"Gosh," exclaimed Maddox in the lowest of whispers. "I'll swear it's the same chap again! What the hell—oh, of course he's got a date here with someone! Blast him, he'll crab everything for us once more! Still, we must wait and see what's going to happen."
Ten minutes later, however, with white and frightened faces they were rushing back to the motorcycle, with Maddox as scared now as his much more timid companion.
"By hell," he exclaimed hoarsely, "I'll not run any risk of being mixed up in a murder! As it is we'll be lucky if we get back without being held up. There's no knowing how quickly the damned police may not have been warned. The report of that gun must have been heard for miles."
They raced Londonwards as hard as they could go, but to their consternation got a puncture just outside Sleaford before they had even gone twenty miles. Then, to add to their fright, Maddox found there was no rubber solution in the tyre-repairing outfit. Cursing deeply, they had to push the motor-cycle for a good ten minutes, pulling up at last at the first garage they came to. The proprietor had gone to bed and they had to knock loudly to wake him up. He was not too pleased, either, to have to work at that tine of night, and when he had repaired the tyre demanded five shillings for the job.
Swearing angrily, Maddox declared it was nothing less than barefaced extortion, but realising he would have to pay, and having only three shillings in silver on him, handed over a ten-shilling note. Then the man, grinning covertly to himself, said he had no change and it ended in Maddox, cursing more angrily than ever, going off and leaving him with the note.
It was a nightmare journey to London, but they were not stopped and Maddox breathed a deep sigh of relief when, having got rid of his companion, he very quietly wheeled the motorcycle outfit into the shed of the man who had lent it to him.
It was a full week before he made contact with Fogg again, and then there was a lot of whispering between them.
"No," said Maddox finally, "I've not given up the idea. It's too easy a job to let slip. We'll give everything a bit of time to die down and then try our luck again. We can't miss three times."
In the meantime Weederman had been in a dreadful state of mind. With blanched face and shaking limbs he had read of the shooting of Captain Blair and was quite sure Maddox had done it. The very fact that the joiner had not come near him seemed certain evidence of guilt, and with each newspaper he picked up he expected to learn of his arrest. Then how it would affect him, Weederman; he did not dare to think. Charged with murder, the man might break down and make a clean breast of everything, making known who had suggested the burglary and financed its carrying out.
Then it would have to be a case of word against word. It might not, however, be safe for him, Weederman, to deny altogether that he knew Maddox, for one or other of the three assistants he kept at his shop might remember him coming there. So what he would have to say was that Maddox had once tried to sell him some silver-ware, but he had refused to buy the articles, believing them to have been stolen. Then he would add he had told Maddox so, straight out, and the latter had been furious in consequence. That would account for his spite in trying to implicate him in the burglary.
Then he took to wondering if the burglary had been successful and Maddox had obtained the silver. Then, if the man were not arrested and brought it to him to dispose of, he would have nothing to do with it. He would steer clear of any further association with Maddox.
Strangely enough, it happened he had met the murdered Captain Blair, having bought some curios from him when the latter had returned from Tibet, those eight or nine years previously. He remembered him quite well, for one reason, particularly. The Captain had tried to palm off some faked curios among the genuine ones, and had been very disgusted when they had been turned down.
As the days went by, with no news of the police having made any arrest, Weederman calmed down a lot. No, Maddox would not be caught now! He must have got clean away leaving no clues behind him! Another thing, too, comforted the dealer not a little. The window-cleaner was cleaning the windows of Minerva Building as usual and always gave him a most respectful touch of the cap whenever they chanced to meet. He looked very sheepish at the same time, but there was no sign about him of being a hunted man.
One morning he slipped a piece of paper into Weederman's hand, and the latter was not surprised to read that Aaronstein was the name of the dealer who had bought the silver angel candlesticks. The seller's name was supposed to be Thomas Jones, but Weederman told himself that, of course, it was a false one.
However, the information about Aaronstein was most opportune and he made use of it at once. There was a sale on the next day when some silver vases which he very much wanted to get hold of were coming up for auction. So he sent Aaronstein a typed anonymous letter, purporting to come from "A Friend," warning him not to show himself about too much for a week or two, as the police were looking out for a man to whom a person calling himself Thomas Jones had once sold some particular candlesticks. The letter went on to say that the police would be attending all sales.
Weederman thought the letter had been effective for, at any rate, there was no appearance of Aaronstein at the sale and he bought the vases quite cheaply. He chuckled gleefully at the way he had spited his fellow dealer.
More than a fortnight having passed, and the newspapers making no more references to the mysterious death of Captain Blair, Maddox thought it would be quite safe to go after Lord Fell's silver again.
After some little persuasion, Fogg agreed and so once more the side-car outfit was borrowed and they set off for Fell Castle. There was no interruption this time and their good fortune again being in, they found the window open as before. They got in with no difficulty, in a very few minutes all the silver they could lay hands upon was stuffed in a suitcase and they were hurrying back out of the grounds.
"And they're not likely to discover anything's been taken until to-morrow," said Fogg confidently. "So you needn't try to break both our necks going home." An idea struck him and he added excitedly. "I say, what about putting a stone through that garage man's window as we go by. It'd damned well pay him out for robbing us the other night."
"Don't be such a blasted fool," grunted Maddox. "We've got about three hundred pounds worth of stuff here and what does a lousy ten bob mean to us now? No, we'll bolt back as quickly as we can, and in a couple of days you'll have your pockets full of five-pound notes."
All the same he had made up his mind that Fogg was not going to have a penny. After he had got rid of him when they reached London that night, the window-cleaner would never set eyes on him, Maddox, again, and in future Lissom Grove would be given a very wide berth. After all, he told himself, he had been filling the booby up with expensive beer during all these weeks and that was as much as he deserved.
All went well upon their journey back to town until it was almost time for Fogg to be dropped. Coming to the Islington Road Maddox had slowed down a lot, when out of the tail of his eye he caught sight of a policeman standing on the pavement. When the outfit had just passed, the policeman saw that the tail-light of the side-car was out and shouted to them to stop. Maddox heard him quite plainly but, not knowing what the order meant, became panic-stricken and speeded up to his fastest pace. The policeman blew his whistle and that adding to Maddox's terror, he completely lost his nerve. A big lorry came rumbling out of a side street, and swerving wildly to avoid it, he crashed violently into an electric light standard.
Instantly the whole outfit somersaulted and both Fogg and Maddox were thrown out. They were unconscious when the policeman who had unwittingly been the cause of the catastrophe came running up. An ambulance was sent for and they were rushed to hospital.
Then a startling discovery was made. The heavy suitcase in the foot of the sidecar was found to be crammed with silver articles and there was not the slightest doubt about their being the proceeds of some robbery.
ALTHOUGH very disheartened at finding the pages of the register of the Hôtel Regal had been torn out, Larose's disappointment there by no means put an end to his enquiries in Paris about Christine.
He went immediately to the building in the Place des Étoiles where she had said she had had her flat, and in his halting French asked the caretaker if by any chance he could tell him where a Mademoiselle Fontaine, who had had a flat there a little longer than five years previously, had gone.
The man shook his head. He remembered the young lady quite well, as indeed—with a smile—what man would not, as she was very pretty. Then he added as an afterthought: "Ah, but I can put you on to someone who may be able to tell you—Marie, her little maid who was with her nearly all the time she was here. Marie is Madame Leroux now. She made a good marriage and her husband has a little tobacco shop in Rue Merlin behind the Place de l'Opéra."
Larose found the tobacco shop with no difficulty, and was soon in conversation with the young Madame Leroux. Madame was buxom and pretty, and very intelligent, too. She was voluble and full of animation.
Yes, Mademoiselle Fontaine was a lovely young lady and charming as a mistress. She was very kind and everyone liked her. No, she did not know where she had gone, except that it was back to her own country.
"But I believe," smiled Marie, "she went back to be married. She left quite suddenly, but a very chic young gentleman had been a lot with her during the last few weeks and all the world could see they were sweethearts."
"But being so pretty," smiled back Larose. "Mademoiselle must have had lots of admirers."
"She had," nodded Marie, "but she did not give them the great encouragement and was very reserved. Still, there was one fine gentleman," she sighed here, "he was fine then—who for a little time visited her quite a lot. He was an officer in the army."
Larose's heart beat quickly. "An officer!" he exclaimed. "Was he an Englishman?"
"Oh, no, Monsieur," replied Marie. "A Frenchman, a soldier on foreign service. I found out he was Colonel Laurier, but I heard Mademoiselle Fontaine once call him Léon." She smiled slyly. "Mademoiselle was of a nature very clever in arranging her affairs, and never thought I knew he came to the flat. But she took to sending me out so very often and giving me so many holidays that I wondered why and watched and saw this brave monsieur come."
"He was a young man?" asked Larose.
"No, no, not so young," replied Marie. "Years over forty, I should shy. With the big scar he had on his forehead he could not be handsome, but he was gallant-looking and with a grand air."
Then as if annoyed with herself for speaking so freely to a stranger about her old mistress's affairs, she went on quickly:
"But what was the harm, I ask you, Monsieur? It was romance, and mademoiselles with looks such as hers were made for romance. Is it not so?"
"Of course, it is," replied Larose stoutly. "It is the natural thing. It is sweeter, too, when you are young. Not nearly so sweet as you are growing old."
"Monsieur is of an experience," laughed the girl, "but he is far from old yet."
"Getting on," laughed back Larose. "I'm older than I was this time last year." He spoke solemnly. "But you said the brave soldier was a fine gentleman then. Is he not fine now?"
The girl looked troubled and shook her head. "No, Monsieur, he is all broken down and looks quite twenty years older now." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Sent out of the army, they say, for robbing the canteen funds. His family disowned him and now all he lives upon is a few francs a week some friends give him and what he can make by showing tourists round," she lowered her eyes modestly, "the wicked places in Paris." She threw out her hands. "But he is so shabby now, not many want to be seen with him, so he sits most of the afternoons and evenings at a table outside Mattin's Café in the Rue Danver, drinking absinthe if he's got a sou to buy it with."
"He must have come down very low," commented Larose.
"Yes, Monsieur, very low. They say he'd do anything now for a few francs to get that dreadful absinthe." She sighed heavily. "And to think that only six or seven years back he was, perhaps, kissing those beautiful lips of Mademoiselle Fontaine. It is a tragedy."
Larose thanked her and left.
"Whew," he whistled thoughtfully, "and if all this is true, no wonder it will be difficult to trip the pretty Christine. She's been through the mill and knows how to take care of herself." He nodded to himself. "Still, one can't help admiring her for the wonderful way she has made good. She looks and acts like the grand lady now."
Then he suddenly began to wonder if, through this broken soldier, he might be able to learn anything of Christine's association with Captain Blair. At any rate he thought it would be worth the trying. He would scrape up an acquaintance with this one-time officer and if the latter knew they had been lovers, then it would probably be easy to get all about it out of him by the handing over of a few francs. An absinthe drinker would go to any lengths to get his dose of poison.
Enquiring where the Rue Danver was, he soon came upon the Café Mattin. It was a shabby fourth-rate place of refreshment in a shabby quarter, and, from the general appearance of the customers he saw there when he seated himself at an outside table on the pavement, patronised by the lower classes.
Ordering a bock from the not over-clean waiter, he looked round for someone who would answer to the description Marie had given. He was sure at once that he had spotted him in a tall cadaverous man, prematurely aged, with hollow cheeks and a general unhealthy look, even under his well-bronzed skin. The big scar, too, on his forehead made everything certain. He was at a table by himself, only a few feet away, reading a newspaper, and the hand which held the paper was shaking. There was no tumbler on the table before him.
"Good," murmured Larose, "then I've come at an opportune time! He has no money to buy himself a drink."
The man seemed intent upon his paper, but, for all that, every time a fresh customer arrived, he looked up and for a few seconds scrutinised him intently.
"Looking for someone who'll stand treat," went on Larose. "Poor devil!" He made a grimace of disgust. "But fancy, as that girl said, him being a lover of the lovely Christine, once."
Presently the man put down the paper and let his gaze wander idly round. With all his dissolute appearance and soiled and shabby clothes, Larose perceived there was yet still something of the soldier about him. He was holding himself erect, his bloodshot eyes were fierce and fiery and the ends of his big moustache were spikily waxed.
Larose made the few steps over to his table and, pointing to the discarded newspaper, asked most politely in his stumbling French if he had done with it.
The man bowed and spoke in a slightly husky but nicely-toned voice. "It is yours, Monsieur. I have finished." He smiled as if in apology. "But it is not this evening's paper. It is yesterday's."
"No matter," said Larose, and remaining where he was, he proceeded to glance down the paper. "I only wanted to look to find out at what time the Louvre closes every day."
"But I can tell you, Monsieur," said the other with some animation. "It closes every day at dusk."
"Thank you," smiled Larose. "I am a stranger to Paris."
"You are English, too!" smiled the man. "Then let us talk in English," and his English was much better than Larose's French.
"But may I sit with you here," asked Larose, "that is, of course, if you are not waiting for a friend?"
"No, no, I am quite alone this evening," said the man. He bowed gravely as if conferring a great favour. "Certainly, you can sit with me. I am sure our conversation will be agreeable." He summoned the waiter with an imperious jerk of his hand. "Paul, bring this gentleman's glass here."
"But you're not having anything," said Larose, "and I don't like drinking alone."
"Then in that case," said the man, with a little bow, "I will break through my usual rule," he glanced up at the clock, "though it is a little early for my appetiser."
Without being told what to bring, the waiter at once placed a generous measure of absinthe before him, and with no delay Larose's new acquaintance lifted the glass to his lips and drained half of its contents.
"But we must introduce ourselves," he said, reluctantly putting the glass down, and he took a well-soiled piece of pasteboard from one of his vest pockets, upon which was written in rather shaky handwriting, 'Colonel Leon Laurier, Foreign Legion.' "But now retired," he went on. He shook his head gloomily. "Failing health and financial reverses. Couldn't keep up my position."
Another absinthe followed and they discussed things in general. The Colonel was an interesting raconteur and had travelled in many places. Presently Larose asked.
"Do you read much of what is happening in England?"
"Not a great deal," replied the Colonel. "My eyesight is not too good and I don't read much of anything. I don't wear glasses as I don't think they become a soldier."
"I was wondering," went on Larose, "if you had heard of the death of Captain Blair, the explorer? I believe six or seven years ago he was well known in Paris."
"Captain Ronald Blair!" exclaimed the Colonel, "I met him once when he was over here. No, I didn't know he was dead."
Larose suppressed his exultation. If this Colonel Laurier had known both Blair and Christine, then surely it was more than probable the two latter would have known each other.
Still, he realised he must not start questioning him too quickly. It would be a delicate matter to bring up Christine for, dirty and unkempt as the old soldier was now, to obtain the rank he had once held he must have been something of a gentleman once, and to bring up his love-affairs precipitately might mortally offend him. He must be handled tactfully.
Larose went on.
"Yes, he is dead, and he was shot in a wood at night, under peculiar circumstances. It is believed it was no accident, but intentional."
"Then I'm glad to hear it," remarked the Colonel callously. "I never liked the man. I lost a thousand francs to him at écarté once and am always certain he cheated." He nodded. "If someone shot him, then you can be sure he had deserved it. He was not a pleasant man."
For the time being Larose thought it best to change the subject.
"Oh, talking about cards," he said, "I love all sorts of gambles myself and I'd like to risk a few francs at roulette. Now do you happen to know a respectable house where it's played and where it's not too difficult to get in?"
"Certainly I do," nodded the Colonel, "and if I introduce you, you'll be accepted at once. If you like, you can try your luck this very evening." He looked up at the clock again. "But it doesn't start for some hours."
"Then what about a bit of dinner with me, first?" said Larose. "Can you recommend a good place?"
The Colonel nodded again.
"This place here is good enough and then," he made a gesture of disapproval at his soiled clothes, "I shan't have to go home and change. I have been gardening all the afternoon." He became all animation. "Let us go inside now. They put on a good meal if you get in early. We're just in right time."
Leading the way into the salle-à-manger, the Colonel selected a small table in a corner and with a wave of his hand invited Larose to sit down. Another rather dirty-looking waiter came up to take their order.
"The full dinner," ordered the Colonel sharply, "and take care the omelette isn't overdone."
"One-fifty, two francs, or two-fifty?" asked the waiter, rather amused, Larose thought, at the Colonel's manner.
"The best," frowned the Colonel, "and be quick about it. Oh, and we'll have a bottle of Chambertin, and bring the bottle here before you draw the cork." He nodded significantly to Larose when the waiter had gone. "I always insist on that. I don't believe in being put off with an inferior wine when you're paying for the best."
A hard-staring man in a green apron came up with the wine.
"The proprietor himself," whispered the Colonel. "He knows I'm always most particular about the way the wine is being served."
Larose smiled to himself, for from the hard, searching look Monsieur Mattin was now giving him he rather thought the man had brought the wine himself to make sure he was going to get paid for it. Evidently the Colonel's credit was not too good.
His scrutiny of Larose, however, seemed to reassure him and, holding up the burgundy pointedly to Larose, instead of to the Colonel, he was at once all smiles. "But seven francs the bottle, Monsieur," he explained apologetically. "I cannot charge less."
"Bah, that's nothing!" exclaimed the Colonel contemptuously. "My friend here is attached to the British Embassy and they drink nothing but vintage wines there."
Monsieur Mattin was impressed and, retiring into the kitchen regions among his employees, the news was soon spreading like a prairie fire through the café that old Laurier had picked up a rich English milord and in consequence would be in funds for months.
Larose was really quite astonished at the quality of the meal for the sum charged. It was beautifully cooked, with everything coming in piping hot. The Colonel ate ravenously, as if it were, which in truth it was, the first food he had had that day.
The bottle of burgundy finished, of which the Colonel had more than his full share, the old soldier called loudly for the best liqueur brandy, drinking petit verre after petit verre as if it were the mildest of milk. The meal coming to an end at last, he whispered to Larose to give the waiter only two francs for his tip.
"It'll spoil him if you make it any bigger," he added. "I never give him more, as a matter of principle."
So the delighted waiter received the two francs, the biggest tip he had received for many a day from any patron of the dingy little café. The Colonel walked out of the salle-à-manger, puffing nonchalantly at the best cigar the proprietor could produce, as if that were his usual smoke.
Altogether it was a most agreeable evening for Colonel Laurier and, introducing Larose to a small gambling den, he was most popular with everyone, except, perhaps, the proprietor, for Larose had a great run of luck at the roulette table, winning nearly two hundred francs. That was a large sum for anyone to win there, as the stakes were from one franc upwards with a maximum of five francs.
Larose, however, did not keep all his money, treating everyone present to cheap sweet champagne at four francs the bottle. Colonel Laurier introduced him to several young ladies, none of whom would have been averse to a closer acquaintance, but there was safety in numbers and Larose came away quite heart-whole.
In parting, the two friends arranged to meet at the café the next afternoon, and then the Colonel suddenly cleared his throat and said hesitantly, "By the by, it's a little bit too far to walk to my flat and I think I shall have to take a taxi. I finder, I find I have no small change upon me, so could you oblige by lending me say six or seven francs?"
"I won't lend you six or seven," laughed Larose, "but if I may, I'll give you twenty for the very pleasant and profitable evening you've given me. No, no, don't thank me. The obligation is on me. It's very friendly of you to take it."
The next afternoon they met again, and after dinner and another bottle of the famous burgundy, for a change, spent the evening in a disreputable cabaret. Here again, Larose somewhat disappointed his guide and mentor, as no commission was earned by the latter for an introduction to any fascinating and highly painted young lady. However, Larose made up for it quite a lot by his generous treatment in the way of drinks to all the Colonel's friends, and that night the one-time man of war seemed to have plenty. Then, again too, in parting, the Colonel acquired another twenty francs, this time because he had happened to mention that his monthly pension from the authorities was, for some unknown reason, unaccountably late in arriving.
So far Larose had not ventured to mention Christine Fontaine. He was more afraid than ever of springing the trap too soon, because every now and then it had seemed to him that the Colonel had been experiencing momentary pangs of shame at the greedy-grasping part he was playing. One instance, in particular, had struck Larose. The Colonel had been selecting a cigar from a box the attendant had brought up, and Larose had suggested he should take three or four for later consumption. The Colonel's eyes had sparkled and for the moment he had obviously been upon the point of accepting eagerly. Then, however, he had frowningly withdrawn his hand from the box and said curtly that one was quite enough.
"Patience, Gilbert, patience," Larose had murmured softly, "this old reprobate has evidently a little bit of conscience left, and it tries to make him ashamed of himself for his cadging. If you're hasty, Gilbert, he may shut up like an oyster and everything be spoilt."
The next afternoon, however, sitting outside the café at their accustomed table, he judged the time was about ripe. The Colonel was now wearing a much more respectable-looking overcoat, and had got a clean collar on. He had drunk two absinthes and the third was now before him. His mood was mellow and confidential and he had just finished relating one of his war-time adventures in Algiers.
"Oh, by the by," Larose said suddenly, "it came into my mind only last night when I was getting into bed that I had heard of you some time ago. A little friend of mine had told me about you. She was a Mademoiselle Fontaine and I am wondering now if she, too, had met that explorer, Captain Blair."
The Colonel started, and a look of amazement came into his face. He had been in the act of lifting the glass of absinthe to his lips, but now he put it down, untasted. It was many seconds before he spoke.
"Mademoiselle who?" he asked frowningly. "I didn't catch the name."
"Mademoiselle Fontaine," replied Larose. "Christine Fontaine. She had a little flat in the Place des Étoiles then and I understand you and she were great friends. She told me you used to visit her quite a lot, so you must remember her."
A long silence followed, with the Colonel regarding Larose intently and, seemingly, thinking very hard. The grim look upon his face made Larose a little bit uneasy. At last the old soldier shook his head and said very slowly. "But I don't remember her." He smiled a dry smile. "I have known many mademoiselles in my time and my memory is getting bad." Larose was quite sure he was lying. The man's expression was very stern and it was as if he had all at once become wary and suspicious.
"Well, think it over," smiled Larose, "and see if you can remember later on. I'd give quite a lot to know if they were friends once. I used to be interested in this Mademoiselle." He turned the conversation and began talking about the political situation in France, speculating how long the then Government would last.
The Colonel, however, was now an inattentive listener. He had lowered his eyes and was looking down very thoughtfully on to the table. Suddenly he began to shiver and rose abruptly to his feet.
"If Monsieur will excuse me, I think I will go home. I feel a bout of malaria is coming on and I must get to bed at once." He hesitated a moment and went on. "If Monsieur is here tomorrow, by then I may have remembered something about that young lady he was mentioning."
In a way Larose was glad to be rid of him for the evening, as he had been invited to dine with an officer of the Sûreté, he had chanced to meet, and he wanted to go.
He watched the Colonel walking slowly up the street. "He'll remember right enough," he told himself smilingly, "and tomorrow he'll tell me. He had a qualm of conscience just now, but when absinthe time comes round again he'll forget all his scruples. He can't have much of my money left with that better-looking overcoat he's wearing. He's either bought it second-hand or taken it out of pawn."
The following afternoon Larose found the Colonel smiling and chatty. If he had indeed had any qualms of conscience the previous day they had all been dissipated by now, for over the first absinthe he said smilingly, "Yes, my memory did come back and I do remember that mademoiselle very slightly."
"Ah, I hoped you would," smiled back Larose.
The Colonel shook his head.
"But I cannot tell you if she knew that explorer, though a friend of mine thinks she did. He knew her better and, meeting him this morning, I mentioned I might send you to have a little chat. I said to-night, about nine o'clock."
"I shall be very pleased," nodded Larose, thinking that, while from motives of delicacy the Colonel might not be willing to discuss an old flame, he would have no objection to someone else doing so.
"But he will expect you to give him a little present," said the Colonel, "for like me he has fallen on evil days." He pursed up his lips. "Speculations, gold mines, a bad drop in rubber prices and he lost everything."
"That'll be all right," said Larose. "What shall I give him?"
"Twenty or thirty francs. Oh, and another thing! You must not tell anyone you have seen him, for he is in bad favour with the police just now. Nothing much, but they suspect him of handling smuggled tobacco, and he is not popular. Now have you got a pencil and a piece of paper on you? I'll give you his name and address."
At his dictation, Larose wrote down: "Gaston Dornay, number fourteen Rue du Rang, off the Quai des Movettes."
"The door of the house is generally open," went on the Colonel. "Go straight in and walk up the passage. He rents the last two rooms."
The Colonel did not stay long at the café that afternoon, as he said he was still expecting an attack of malaria and must be home before dark. Accordingly, Larose dined at his own hôtel, and about half-past eight started out for the appointment in the Rue du Rang.
Just outside the hotel, quite accidentally, he met the officer from the Sûreté with whom he had spent the previous evening, and the latter asked him casually where he happened to be going.
Larose told him and the detective opened his eyes very wide.
"What on earth are you going down there for?" he asked. "It's about the lowest and worst quarter of Paris."
"Well, I'm to get some information from a man," laughed Larose, "whom I am told is not too popular with you gentlemen. I've never seen him, but am being sent by one of his friends."
"Can you trust this friend?" asked the detective bluntly.
"I don't quite know," replied Larose hesitatingly. He grinned. "But I can trust myself. I always carry a gun."
The detective shook his head. "But this won't do, my friend," he said emphatically. "There are men all round that street who'd cut your throat for ten francs and chuck your body in the river afterwards. Rue du Rang is on the very bank of the river and many a body has been thrown in from the backyards." He gripped Larose by the arm. "Here, brother, I'll come with you. I'm well known to most of the gentlemen who live in that delightful street, and they won't play any tricks if I am with you. We'll go in a taxi."
A little bit annoyed, but not wanting to offend his friend, Larose agreed, and some quarter of an hour later they were traversing what Larose considered one of the most wretched-looking streets he had ever seen. Small mean houses set all in one dismal row, narrow entrances, and many windows with pieces of board where the glass should have been. There was an air of squalor and neglect everywhere. A drizzling rain was falling and there were not many people to be seen about.
"Not a very sweet-looking place, is it," remarked Inspector François, the French detective, "and I think that's number fourteen. If I'm not mistaken, too, there's someone on the lookout for you. Ah, there—he's bobbed in! He was on the look-out, right enough."
Telling the taxi driver to wait for them, the two detectives got out. The door was ajar and they walked into the badly-lighted passage.
"I'll wait here for you," called out François, loud enough for anyone in the house to hear.
Proceeding up to the end of the passage, Larose saw a light under one of the last two doors and he rapped on the door with his knuckles.
"Come in," came a voice, and Larose entered the room. Two men were seated at a table, apparently in the middle of a game of cards. They regarded him as if very puzzled.
"Monsieur Dornay?" enquired Larose. "A Monsieur Dornay is expecting me. Which of you is he? I come from Colonel Laurier."
The two men had risen from their chairs. One, Larose thought, was not unlike a prize-fighter. He was of big frame with a round face and huge hands. The other was of much smaller build, but muscular and wiry and with little ferrety eyes set very close together. The appearance of neither of them was prepossessing and Larose felt glad the detective of the Sûreté was just outside.
Receiving no answer to his query as to which was the Monsieur Dornay he wanted, Larose repeated his question. Both men looked at him blankly and shook their heads. "You've come to the wrong house," said the big man gruffly. "No one called Dornay lives here."
"But this is number fourteen," said Larose. "I was told to come here."
"Fourteen's the number all right," nodded the man, "but—"
The door swung wide open again and the French detective literally bounded into the room.
"Ah—it's you, is it, Gronon?" he said viciously. "I thought I recognised that charming voice." He nodded unpleasantly to the smaller man. "And you here, too, Marinier! What I might have expected, both ready for business!" He turned to Larose. "A brace of the blackest birds in Paris! This hulking brute is a professional assassin and the other blackguard is a garrotter." He kicked open the door leading to an inner room and, flashing his torch round, asked furiously, "And who else have you got with you in this rat-hole?"
The two men looked cowed.
"There is no one else, Monsieur Inspector," replied the one he had addressed as Gronon, very meekly. "My friend and I were just having a little game of cards!"
"Liar!" snarled the Inspector. "Maronier was keeping watch at the front door. I saw him dart in when he caught sight of me."
"No, no, Monsieur," protested the smaller man earnestly. "I have never left my chair since I came in more than an hour ago."
The Inspector ignored him.
"What's your game?" he demanded peremptorily of Gronon. "What's that Laurier been putting you up to? Come on, now. Make a clean breast of it. We pretty well know everything."
"Laurier! Laurier!" exclaimed Gronon looking most puzzled. "I do not know anybody of that name, Inspector."
The Inspector was contemptuous. He indicated Larose.
"What were you going to do to this gentleman here?"
"Nothing, Monsieur," was the instant reply. "I do not know him, either. I have never seen him before."
The Inspector began searching the room. He banged open a cupboard door, but found nothing there, except some empty wine-bottles, some tumblers and unwashed plates and the remains of a knuckle of ham. He lifted up the lid of a filthy looking ottoman and brought to light a few articles of dirty clothing and some old sacks. With a grimace of disgust he began passing his hand under everything.
"But I have no gun, Monsieur Inspector," said Gronon quietly. "You will find nothing there."
The Inspector flashed his torch up the chimney and with an exclamation of triumph reached up and brought down about a three-foot length of stout rubber piping. He held it up to Larose.
"That was intended for my friend," he said grimly. "This brute here is not called 'The Basher' for nothing."
"But it is not mine, Monsieur," protested Gronon emphatically. "I did not know it was there. It must have been left by the last tenant. I have only been here a few days."
"Of course, of course," exclaimed the Inspector sarcastically, "and you are now earning your living as an instructor of religion in some young ladies' school." He made a gesture of spitting on the floor. "Bah! You must think we at the Sûreté are all fools!" He nodded viciously. "But I'll be introducing you both to Monsieur Guillotine before you're a year older. I promise you I'll have both your heads in the basket before then."
For a good half-hour he questioned and cross-questioned the men angrily, threatening them with the worst penalties if they did not confess. But it was no good. They stuck resolutely to their story and, in the end, he saw he was only wasting time.
"But you're both of you to report tomorrow at the Sûreté," he snarled in parting, "at nine o'clock sharp, and I'll have something more to say to you then. In the meantime you're neither of you to leave this house to-night."
"Ah, but you had a narrow escape, my friend," he said to Larose as they were driving away. "That rubber basher was going to be used on you, and only your chance meeting with me saved you. Now put me on to the other blackguard, Laurier, and I'll see what I can get out of him."
Larose, however, was not agreeable.
"No, I'll have another talk with him, first," he said. "It's just possible I took down the wrong number in the street."
"Not a bit of it!" scoffed the Inspector. "It was a deliberate trap. If you had come alone they were going to bash you on the head, pick your pockets of all you'd got and then throw you in a couple of those old sacks you saw, into the river at the end of their yard." He laid his hand, in a friendly way, upon Larose's arm. "You don't know our criminals, my friend. They are different from yours and, as I've told you, you can get a murder done here for a few francs."
"But in a way I may have rather asked for it," frowned Larose. "I was wanting this Laurier to give away a woman whose lover he'd been." He shook his head. "No, I'll see him again tomorrow and hear what he says."
The following afternoon Larose proceeded to the Café Mattin, half expecting not to see the Colonel there. But no, he was at his usual table with a nearly emptied glass of absinthe before him. Larose sat down opposite him.
"Good afternoon," he said cheerfully. "Nice day, isn't it?"
The first look of surprise upon the Colonel's face faded quickly and he regarded Larose with a scowl.
"How are you to-day?" asked Larose, ignoring the chilly reception he was receiving.
With a look of hate in his eyes, the Colonel spoke very slowly.
"I had hoped not to see you again," he said. "I thought you would be at the bottom of the Seine by now."
"Ah," nodded Larose with his eyes flashing angrily. "Then you arranged that for me?"
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.
"I didn't care what happened to you as long as you didn't come to annoy me any more. I just handed you over to those men for punishment."
"Punishment!" snapped Larose. "What for?"
"What for?" queried the other, his eyes now flashing as angrily as those of Larose had done. "You pretend not to know?" He almost hissed out his next words. "You dirty police spy! You marked me down and played me, fool that I was, like a fish on a hook! For what purpose I do not know, you wanted me to sell you the confidence of a woman friend." His voice rose in his fury. "You spy, you damned police spy, you are not fit for the company of a gentleman! Get out!"
Then before Larose could anticipate what he was going to do, he snatched up his glass and flung what remained in it straight into Larose's face.
Springing furiously to his feet, Larose dashed the smarting liquid from his eyes and drew back his clenched fist to strike at the other's sneering face. But the Colonel did not move, his eyes did not flinch and Larose's fury died. He could not strike a man who looked so old and frail.
He took out his handkerchief and mopped over his face, wiping the absinthe, too, as best he could, from his collar and tie.
"Good day to you, Monsieur," he said smilingly, as if nothing had happened. "I shall not be seeing you again," and, with the politest of bows, he turned and left the café and proceeded to walk up the street. At the corner he looked back and waved his hand. A moment later he had disappeared.
The following afternoon when Colonel Laurier arrived at the café to start upon his daily soddening with the vile drink, the waiter handed him a well-sealed envelope.
"From your friend," he said, "the English milord whom you quarrelled with yesterday." He grinned. "Perhaps he is sending you an apology."
Looking very puzzled, the Colonel opened the envelope and out fell a hundred-franc note. Upon the piece of paper which had been enclosed with it he read:
A little present for one who is still something of a gentleman, from another whose calling may sometimes make him feel something of a cad.
And underneath was added:
Keep off the absinthe, old boy, or it will finish you very soon.
The Colonel looked up frowningly at the waiter.
"Just paying me back a little money I lent him," he said grandly, and he crushed the envelope and letter and put them in his coat-pocket, but the note he transferred to some hidden receptacle in his unclean vest.
The well-intentioned gift was, however, destined to be a fatal one, for that night taking home with him a full bottle of absinthe, the next morning the man was found dead with the half-consumed bottle by his side.
So died Leon Laurier, at one time gallant soldier of the French Foreign Legion, and Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He had lived a full and vicious life, through which, however, had flickered to the very last some faint spark of that honour handed down to him by his noble ancestors.
IN the meantime, all unaware of the efforts Larose was making to close the net around her, Christine was in good heart and resolutely keeping to her resolve to face everything with courage as it came.
She was much encouraged then by some remarks Lord Fell had made one day when he had come in from his morning's walk. He was chuckling gleefully that the Lincoln detectives had been round to the gamekeeper's again and had been sent away, as he put it, with a flea in their ears.
"Those men are really so stupid," he said. "They seem to be so certain that, if they pester him long enough, he will at last give in and admit all they want him to. That may answer with some people, but it won't with Jevons. He has taken the right course in refusing to answer any more questions."
"But is he rude to them?" asked Christine.
"Not a bit! He just laughs at them. He knows perfectly well that if they really had any evidence against him they wouldn't need to come going over the old ground again and again. Instead, they'd be taking action at once. If he did shoot Captain Blair he knows they can't prove it, and if he sits tight he's as safe as a house."
"But you don't think he did it, Dad?" asked Christine rather anxiously.
Lord Fell shook his head.
"Not for a moment. Still, if he had done it, it would have been an accident and, once he had denied everything, it is best he should stick to his story. They're just trying to bounce him. That's all."
The next day it happened there was a meeting of the foxhounds about twenty miles away, and Lord Fell decided to make one of his rare excursions beyond the Castle grounds and be present. Christine went with him in the car with her little son, now just over four years of age.
Arriving at the meet, Lord Fell got out of the car and wandered round to exchange greetings with his friends. Presently, when passing a big limousine he noticed an elderly lady sitting inside all alone. She was of an aristocratic appearance, with a stately, rather haughty air. Subconsciously he thought she must have been very good-looking in her time and he wondered who she was. He was astounded to hear her suddenly call out, "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger Fell, you old reprobate, are you going to cut an old friend?"
He stopped instantly and, after a few moments of amazed surprise, strode quickly over to her and held out his hand. "Her Grace, the Duchess of Ravenscroft!" he exclaimed. "Well, I am so pleased to meet you."
"Her Grace!" mimicked the lady. "It used to be my sweet Elaine or my pet, once!" She pretended to look most annoyed. "Do you mean to tell me, Tiger, you didn't recognise me at once? Didn't your heart tell you I was near?"
"It does now," replied Lord Fell gallantly, "but remember, my dear Elaine, I haven't seen you," he hesitated a moment, "for nearly thirty years."
"Just over twenty-nine, to be exact," she nodded. She sighed deeply. "And I was a beautiful woman then. Now I'm fast becoming an old hag."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Lord Fell stoutly. "With those eyes and that profile you'll never look really old."
"And you used to say my eyes were like a dove's eyes once," she smiled. "Now they're like those of a hawk."
"Of an eagle," he corrected instantly, "and still full of spirit and fire."
She shook her finger at him. "Flatterer, flatterer, just the same as you ever were. I'm afraid, Tiger, you'll always be a bad, deceiving man."
"Not now," he said sadly. "I'm as harmless as a young clergyman these days, and devote all my energies to my family and good works."
"I don't believe it," she snapped. "The day Tiger Fell stops being a bad man will only be when his heart has stopped, too. I'm sure it's only his wickedness which keeps him alive. You're seventy-five now, aren't you, fifteen years older than I am?" She nodded grimly. "Well, it won't be long now before we both get our deserts."
"Then I hope we'll be together wherever we go," he smiled. "We'll live on the memory of those years ago, and never be lonely." He shook his head frowningly. "How jealous your husband was!"
"And hadn't he cause to be?" she retorted sharply. She spoke very solemnly. "Tiger, do you ever realise what my friendship with you cost me? Nearly twenty years banishment to India with a husband who, because of you, I had ceased to love. Twenty years of a life I hated, just because Ravenscroft was determined I should never see you again. Oh, when he came home he suspected something right enough, and the suspicion never died out of his mind!"
Lord Fell looked troubled. "But your life in India couldn't have been so bad, Elaine. You were the first lady in the land."
"What of that?" she exclaimed. "It gave me no pleasure being the Viceroy's wife. Then when Ravenscroft died I hadn't the heart to come home to a big empty house and so, for another ten years, I lived in hotels in the South of France, a lonely, childless old woman." She shrugged her shoulders. "I've only come home now because a Ravenscroft woman should lay her bones in the Ravenscroft vaults."
"But you'll live for many years yet," said Lord Fell confidently. "As I say, you look full of spirit."
"I'm not," she said emphatically. "I'm full of nothing but sad memories. I've nothing I want to live for."
Lord Fell changed the subject. "And how do you happen to be here this morning? With whom are you staying?"
"With the Rymans. I met them in Bombay, and they were one of the families I met which I liked. I have been staying with them a month now."
"A month," exclaimed Lord Fell frowningly, "and so close to Fell Castle you have never been near me!"
"It's not close, Tiger, it's more than forty miles away, and besides, I didn't like to come to you when you were in all that worry about that horrid Captain Blair."
"You knew him?" asked his lordship very surprised.
The duchess nodded. "Yes, when he was in India a long time ago. He tried to make trouble for Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft was being indiscreet with a little nautch-girl, who by bad luck had been Blair's mistress before. She told Blair and he actually had the audacity to write a blackmailing letter to Ravenscroft. But with all his faults Ravenscroft had plenty of common sense and he put the police on to him."
"What happened?" asked Lord Fell, most interestedly.
"They threatened to deport him as an undesirable, and made him leave India by the next boat. Fortunately, they already had something against him, as he had helped in the abduction of a white girl, a lady's maid in the service of a wife of a government official. They hadn't dared to prosecute Blair because the son of a big Rajah was mixed up in it, too, and if it had come out the scandal would have been terrible."
"A pretty beauty she must have been," nodded Lord Fell.
"Of course, I didn't know much about it at the time," said the duchess, "but when Ravenscroft died not very long after I found the correspondence among his papers. I believe I've got the papers now. They amused me." She smiled dryly. "They were such a revelation of the ways of you men.'
"Well," smiled Lord Fell after a few moments' silence. "I must get the Rymans to bring you to see me now. I've got a houseful of children and they'll liven you up a lot. I'll go an ask Mrs. Ryman, straight away, to bring you over to lunch to-morrow. My son's wife keeps house for me and I'm sure you'll like her. They've got three children already and there's another one on the way. My daughter-in-law's here now. I'll go and fetch her and introduce you."
He made to move off, but the duchess laid a restraining hand upon his arm. "One moment, Tiger," she said. "Tell me, do you know who that lovely girl over there is? I've been watching her ever since I arrived."
"Which lovely girl?" asked Lord Fell. His eyes twinkled. "Am still not too old to admire beauty whenever I come across it. Oh, that young woman over there!" he laughed happily. "Why, that's my son's wife whom I was just talking to you about! Yes, she is nice to look at, isn't she?" He sighed deeply. "You know, Elaine, she's often reminded me of you. She smiles exactly as you used to smile."
The duchess put her hand over her heart. "And when I caught sight of her, Tiger, she gave me a real shock. She's the very image of my poor sister when she was about the same age."
Christine was brought up and introduced, and the duchess did not seem to be able to take her eyes off her, indeed, much to Christine's disappointment, she took more interest in her than her little boy.
"And I'll see you to-morrow, my dear," she said in parting. "Are your little girls anything like you?"
"The image, particularly so the elder one," smiled Lord Fell, replying for Christine. "Just as plain and unpleasant-looking."
The duchess duly arrived at the Castle the next day, and, certainly, Christine had no reason to be disappointed in her interest in the little girls. The intent scrutiny she had given to their mother she now gave to them. She wanted to nurse one or the other all the afternoon and, when the car was at the door for her to leave, asked plaintively, "And when can I see you all again?"
"But why not come and stay with us, Elaine," said Lord Fell, "when you've finished up at the Rymans? I am sure we shall be delighted to have you."
Christine seconded the invitation warmly and, accordingly, a few days later the duchess arrived as a guest at the Castle. She seemed as excited and animated about her visit as a young girl going to her first party.
"Like old times, isn't it, Tiger dear?" she whispered to Lord Fell when they two happened to be alone together for a few minutes.
"Except for those long nine and twenty years which lie between," smiled his lordship sadly. "Do you remember that week in Vienna?"
"Hush, hush, you bad man," she said reprovingly. "Don't remind me of it." She frowned. "Do I forget it? Why, but for chance throwing us together then I should never have been banished to India. When he heard of it, I am sure it was that which made Ravenscroft so determined to go back." She shook her head. "Ah, Tiger, we were too careless and deserved to be parted as we were."
"You came into my life too late, Elaine," he sighed, "when we—"
"We're both old enough to have been more sensible," she snapped, "and ought to have known better. No, Tiger, don't ever speak of it again. I've been an unhappy woman ever since because of it, while you," she shrugged her shoulders, "manlike, probably never think about it."
"I do, very often," he protested instantly. "If only we both had been free then I might have been a different man from that time. I might—"
But Christine and her husband coming into the room, he did not finish what he had been intending to say.
The duchess enjoyed being at the Castle immensely, and her interest in Christine and the children never flagged. "Your son, Tiger, is a most lucky man. His children are lovely, and as for Christine, he couldn't have a more charming wife."
"I know that," nodded Lord Fell soberly, "and I'm very fond of them all. Christine's become far more to me than my own daughters. I felt drawn to her the first moment I saw her."
When the duchess had been at the Castle a few days, sitting with Christine in the music-room one afternoon, in the course of conversation she happened to ask her where she had been born.
"Somewhere in Maida Vale," replied Christine. "I don't know exactly where, for my parents changed homes several times, but I remember my aunt pointing out St. James's Church once and telling me I was christened there. I believe I was born at a private hospital somewhere close."
A startled look came into the duchess's face, her lips parted and she stared so intently at Christine that the latter became quite uncomfortable.
"And you're thirty next year," said the duchess hesitatingly after a moment. Her voice trembled. "Then what is the date of your birthday?"
"September the eighth," replied Christine, "and I shall be getting quite an old woman then."
The duchess rose up sharply from the sofa where she had been sitting and walked over to the window, so that the expression upon her face would not be seen.
"God," she was murmuring brokenly, "what does it mean? Of course, it seems impossible, but such a thing could happen! Oh, God, if that were my punishment."
She was very quiet that evening and the next day, too, so much so that Christine asked her if she were feeling quite well.
"Yes, thank you, my dear," she replied. "It's only that I'm a little pre-occupied about some legal business I ought to have attended to long ago. I really think I shall have to ask your kind husband to drive me into Lincoln early to-morrow, so that I can catch the London express."
Christine offered to accompany her, but she replied it would perhaps be better not, as her business might take longer than she thought and she might have to stay the night at some hotel.
The next morning directly she arrived in town, she took a taxi and drove to Maida Vale. Having dismissed the taxi, she seemed uncertain which way to go, walking round several streets until she found the one she wanted. Then she seemed very disappointed to see a big block of flats at the end.
"Can you kindly tell me where the Norman Private Hospital is?" she asked a postman. "It used to be at this corner."
The postman shook his head. "No, Mum, I'm sorry I can't. Those flats have been here longer than I can remember, at least from fifteen to twenty years."
The duchess sighed heavily and asked her next question anxiously, as if she were afraid of being disappointed for the second time.
"Is a Doctor Nelson practising about here now?" and to her great relief the postman nodded.
"Yes, Mum, two Doctor Nelsons are," he said, "father and son. They're in practice together in Montgomery Street, just round the corner."
In a couple of minutes or so, with a quickly beating heart, she was ringing the bell of a house with a big brass plate upon the door on which were inscribed the names of the two doctors.
"I want to see Doctor Nelson, please," she said to the girl in a nurse's uniform who opened the door, "the father, not the son."
"He's not in," replied the girl, "but he'll be back at two o'clock." She eyed the duchess intently and added: "But he doesn't take any more patients now. He only sees old ones."
"I am an old one," smiled the duchess, "and so I'll come back just before two. Then I should like to see him at once if I could, because I come from a long distance in the country. My name's Mrs. Hunt."
Exactly at two o'clock she was ushered into Dr. Nelson, senior's presence. He was a ruddy-faced, silver-haired old man, looking all his seventy-three years. He eyed his visitor curiously as he motioned her to a chair.
"I am Mrs. Hunt," she said, her voice trembling ever so slightly, "and a little over twenty-nine years ago you delivered me of a daughter at Sister Norman's Private Hospital."
The doctor raised his eyebrows.
"Ah, Sister Norman's!" he exclaimed. "I'm afraid I can't remember you after all those years." He smiled. "Still, it is gratifying to me that you are consulting me now. I must have pleased you."
"You did, Doctor," smiled back the duchess, "but it is not as a patient that I come to you now." Her voice shook badly. "It is a very strange thing I've come to you about." Tears welled into her eyes. "I believe they didn't give me the right baby."
The old doctor's eyes opened very wide.
"Not give you the right baby!" he exclaimed. "What makes you think that? No, no, my good lady, don't let yourself go. Don't cry. Pull yourself together a bit. I'm sure you've no cause for such distress. Such mistakes only happen in dreams and books. In real life they are quite impossible."
The duchess dashed away her tears with an exquisitely-scented lace handkerchief and spoke very sharply. "But you listen to me, Doctor," she said. "Hear my story, first, and then tell me, if you dare, that it's impossible." She steadied her voice and went on: "When I went into that hospital there were four other women awaiting their babies. Mine and another woman's were born the same night, September the eighth nineteen hundred and seven. There was only a few minutes difference in the time they came. One was brought to me when I was conscious and it died the next day. Then—"
"One moment," interrupted the doctor. "Do you know if both confinements were mine?"
"Yes," nodded the duchess. "I particularly remember that, because you talked jokingly about having killed two birds with one stone. Now listen carefully. I left the hospital a fortnight afterwards and until this week had no suspicion that anything had been wrong. Then, quite by chance, I met a young woman and, the moment I set eyes on her, her likeness—no, not to me, but to a dead younger sister of mine—was so striking that it gave me a shock. The next day I saw her two daughters and one of them is the living image of my sister that was. It seemed—"
"A type only, of course," said the doctor. "The appearance of all men and women fall in certain types and—"
"Will you kindly hear me out," broke in the duchess, and the doctor, a little annoyed at the imperious way in which he was being addressed, subsided into silence.
The duchess continued:
"Then, quite idly and with no thought for the bomb which was about to burst in my mind, I happened to ask this young woman where she had been born and she replied, 'In Maida Vale, in a private hospital.' Then it almost made me shudder to ask how old she was, and when she told me twenty-nine last September, the eighth, I could have swooned if I hadn't held myself in."
Tears welled into her eyes again as she fumbled at the catch of her bag. "Now for this last proof." She took out a folded piece of brown paper and carefully unfolded it. "Here are two photographs. One is of the girl, and I borrowed it this morning, unknown to her; the other is of my sister and I seldom look at it because it is so sad to me, as I was unwittingly the cause of her dreadful death. I gave her a horse on her birthday, and it threw her and she was killed the first time she rode it."
The doctor took the photographs from her and scrutinised them intently. They certainly seemed to him very similar, so much so, he had to acknowledge to himself, that they might indeed have been of the same person.
The duchess spoke very quietly.
"Now be sympathetic, Doctor. The evil is done and there are certain special reasons why this girl, whom I am quite sure is my daughter, should not learn anything of what has happened. She is happily married in a good position, with three lovely children and everything she can want. It is for my own peace of mind I have come to you. I want to be sure, and then I shall have something to live for. Otherwise I shall go on, a lonely old woman, caring for no one and wanting no one to care for me. I have had no other children and I am a widow with no near relatives." She spoke hoarsely. "Now is there any doubt in your mind that a mistake was made?"
It was a long minute before the doctor spoke and then he asked thoughtfully,
"And how long is it, do you say, since this idea has been in your mind?"
"Two days," replied the duchess, "and it is barely a week since I've come across this girl."
"And if it could be almost proved that the young woman was your daughter," asked the doctor, "what should you do?"
"Nothing. I've told you there are special reasons why she must never know. I should do nothing and say nothing. I should tell no one. The knowledge I want is only for myself."
The doctor considered again, at length rising up sharply from his chair.
"Wait a minute," he said. "I'll go and get my diary. Nineteen hundred and seven was the year, you say, and September the eighth the exact day."
He was back again in a minute carrying a large-sized book in his hand. He reseated himself and turned over the pages.
Stopping at one, he read for a few moments and then looked up sharply at his visitor. "What was the name of the other woman? Do you remember?"
"Fontaine," said the duchess. "I don't know her Christian name, but the girl's is Christine. She may have been called after her mother."
"That's it," nodded the doctor. He read on:
"Maimie Christine Fontaine, aged twenty-eight, husband Jules Fontaine, occupation a musician. Address, Twenty-five Harcourt Street, Maida Vale. Female. Weight seven pounds, twelve ounces. Everything normal."
"And I am there, too, Mary Hunt, am I not?" asked the duchess. "Then may I see?" and, without waiting for his permission, she stood up and looked down over his shoulder. She mumbled quickly over the first words:
"Mary Hunt, age thirty-one, husband John Hunt, occupation clerk; address 5 Punting Street, Bury St. Edmunds. Female. Weight seven pounds, thirteen ounces."
She spoke excitedly.
"There, there," she cried, "see they were almost the same weight and would have been exactly the same size! Look at the likelihood of a mistake."
Then, to the doctor's consternation and before he had noticed it himself, she read out what was added underneath:
"Probably a single woman."
She resumed her seat. "Thank you, Doctor Nelson," she said icily, "and may I ask what made you put that footnote?"
The doctor looked most embarrassed and almost stuttered his excuse. "Re-really, I can't understand it," he replied. "It must have been a mistake."
"Oh, no, it wasn't," said the duchess angrily. "You meant it when you wrote it."
The doctor bridled up. He was not accustomed to being spoken to so sharply and resented it.
"My good lady," he said, "how can I possibly remember your particular case after nine and twenty years? I remember nothing about you, and don't know you from Eve." He spoke sharply in his turn. "As for that footnote, possibly I did mean it and, indeed, might mean it now. You don't look like a Mary Hunt and the wife of any clerk to me. Apart from that, when you opened your bag just now to get at those photographs, I noticed a coronet engraved on your silver compact case. Also, clerk's wives don't have expensive lace handkerchiefs like that one you've just been using."
For a moment the duchess looked furious, but then her face broke into a reluctant smile.
"Well, we won't quarrel over that, Doctor Nelson," she said grimly, "though it happens you were quite wrong. I was a married woman, but I had my reason for wanting to have my baby with as little fuss as possible."
The doctor was mollified at once and returned her smile.
"Of course," he said judicially, "I may have been more than usually interested in you when you came to that little hospital to have your baby, perhaps, because you may have seemed to me to be of a better class than the patients we usually get there. Also, it may have been that Sister Norman had told me no one seemed much interested in you. I mean, perhaps, you had few visitors when at the hospital." His eyes twinkled. "You see, we medical men are trained to use our intelligence, and the more observant among us note a lot more things about our patients than they ever imagine we do." His face sobered down to a grave expression. "Now you want my honest opinion as to the possibility of there having been any change of babies? You want me to tell you exactly what I think?"
"I do," replied the duchess, and the anxious look returned to her face again.
"Well, in the light of what you have told me," he said slowly, "and of these photographs here," he spoke very solemnly, "I am inclined to think you are right. Casting my mind back, I recall they became very careless at that hospital, and it lasted only a couple of years or so," he tapped the big diary, "after the time you were there. Sister Kenneth Norman became a drug addict, and there was a case of gross negligence in the nursing of a patient, followed by an inquest, with the Coroner severely reprimanding her. I seem to remember, too, that the chief maternity nurse was once found intoxicated when on duty."
"Then you think," said the duchess tearfully, "that a change was made in the babies?"
"I do," he said emphatically. "Am afraid I do."
The duchess rose to her feet.
"Thank you, Doctor," she said. "I am very grateful to you for your patience with me." She put a guinea down on the desk. "There is the fee for taking up your time."
"No, no," he protested instantly. "I wouldn't think of taking it."
"Then give it to the next poor woman you attend," said the duchess, and she moved so quickly to the door that he had to bestir himself to get there before her to open it.
Enquiring of a passer-by where St. James's Church was, she found it was quite near. The door was wide open and it was dark and gloomy when she entered. A man in a cassock was polishing the big brass lectern. Rightly taking him to be the verger, she said she wanted to look up a christening somewhere about September nineteen hundred and seven.
"But the Rector's away to-day, Mum," said the man, "and he's got the keys." Then upon the duchess stating she had come up a long way from the country on purpose and, from her general appearance scenting a good tip, he said he would run over to the Rectory and see if the Rector's wife would let him have the keys.
Returning in a few minutes, the big safe in the vestry was unlocked and the record of the christening soon found. At her request, the verger made out a copy on the official form and duly received the good tip he had expected.
Leaving the vestry, she almost ran into a man who had just come up to the door. With an apology, he made room for her to pass and then went inside himself. A sudden impulse seizing her, she knelt down in one of the long dark pews and, covering her face with her hands, prayed for the forgiveness of a sinful woman who was in great trouble. Tears ran through her fingers as she prayed. She remained there quite ten minutes and then, upon leaving the church, did not notice she was being followed.
BACK again in Scotland Yard, Larose related the whole story of his Paris adventures to Inspector Stone, and the latter pursed up his lips and shook his head doubtfully. "That young woman may be going to be a tough proposition," he said, "but you have no proof it was she who tampered with that hotel register."
"That's true!" nodded Larose. "It may have been Blair himself. He may have married Christine those eight years back—somehow I don't think that in those days she'd have been the kind of girl to go openly about with him unless everything was proper and correct—and then, for some reason having separated from her, was intending to marry someone else. So he started covering his tracks." He shook his head. "Still, I don't really believe it was he who did it. The cut edges of those pages look fresh and clean as if the cutting had been done quite recently."
"But why two pages?" asked Stone. "Do you think their names were in the register twice?"
"They must have been. Yes, the honeymooners probably stopped there for one night on their way to Geneva where Blair's friend, who didn't want to call himself his friend, says he saw Blair's name in the book of the Hôtel du Lac. They stayed there only two or three days and then returned to register again at the Hôtel Regal. Each page of the register there takes thirty-six names, so that would account for theirs being on two consecutive pages."
"I, too, should be inclined to say she was a straight girl," remarked Stone meditatively, "before she met Blair."
"And she's straight now," added Larose instantly. "She's not a bad woman."
"Certainly not," agreed Stone. "The trouble is she's always been very attractive to men and it happens she's of a temperament to be attracted by them. If she's had sweethearts, I am really not going to sit in judgment on her, for that's for what Nature intended her." He went on: "But talking about bad women, I know a really bad one who often comes to our house."
"And does your wife encourage her?" frowned Larose.
"She does," nodded Stone solemnly. "To my disgust she's always inviting her to come." His eyes twinkled. "She's her sister."
"You old duffer!" grinned Larose. "Trying to be funny, eh?"
"But she's bad, Gilbert," said Stone, "really bad; bad-tempered, bad-natured and with bad thoughts. She's as scandalous a woman as you could ever meet. Yet, as far as the other sex is concerned, I'm sure she'd never let any man kiss her." He grinned in his turn. "Probably they've never wanted to."
"And that's the trouble," smiled Larose. "She's been baulked in life and that's made her sour." He became serious. "But about that Heron girl, has anything happened since I've been away?"
"A lot, my boy," nodded Stone, "and it may lead to light being thrown upon who killed that man. Now you listen carefully. Last Monday night, or rather just before three o'clock on Tuesday morning, there was a bad motorcycle and side-car smash on the Islington Road, with the two occupants of the outfit being badly injured. They had got a suitcase with them in the sidecar, crammed chock-full with silver articles which, it was found later, had been burgled, of all places, from Fell Castle. There was nothing on the men to say who they were, and we have not been able to find out anything about them. One of them died yesterday and the other, though he's recovered consciousness, is in a very serious condition."
"And hasn't he said who he is?" asked Larose.
Stone shook his head. "No, not a word. He's asked for no message to be sent to anyone, and no one's enquired about him. For the moment we are quite at a dead end there, as the hospital quacks won't allow us to question him." He went on: "Now comes the astounding sequel. Of course, the accident had been reported to the Press, with a description of the two injured men. Then, the day before yesterday, a man who keeps a small garage on the outskirts of Sleaford, a town about twenty miles from Fell Castle, got in touch with the Lincoln police and told them he was sure he had repaired a puncture for the same men, in a side-car outfit," he paused dramatically, "about half-past eleven on the night of Thursday, October the fifteenth, the very night when that Captain Blair was shot."
"But how does he come to remember the exact date after all this time?" asked Larose rather sceptically.
"Because that day he had had a tooth out in the afternoon and gone to bed early, as his jaw was still paining him. He says he didn't like being called up so late and, charging the driver of the outfit five shillings for the job, there was an argument which might easily have ended in a fight. He was quite certain they were the same two men."
"Has he been taken to identify them?"
"Yes, he came up yesterday and we can be absolutely positive he's right because a glove had been dropped that night, just in front of the garage, and the fellow to it was found on the hand of the chap who'd been the passenger in the side-car."
A short silence followed and then Larose said doubtfully:
"But Charlie, they wouldn't have shot Blair. Burglars don't go about with shot-guns."
"Who said they do?" retorted Stone testily. He frowned at Larose. "But you're missing the point, my boy. Certainly, they didn't shoot him, but we're pretty well certain they saw who did. They were intending to burgle the Castle that night and were put off it by seeing murder done near that summerhouse. Most probably they were waiting among those trees and, when they saw the man killed, bolted away like blazes so that they shouldn't be accused of having done it. This garage-man says they were in such a desperate hurry to get on with their journey that, when the puncture was mended, they wouldn't wait for him to wake up a neighbour to get change for the ten-shilling note they had handed him. They had no change and he had none either, and he says they went off cursing furiously and calling him the worst names they could think of. After they had gone, it struck him, too late, however, for him to take their number, that they were up to no good." He shrugged his shoulders. "Not, however, that it would have been of any use to us if he had taken their number, because it was a faked one. We couldn't have identified them by it."
"Very interesting," commented Larose, "but what a pity one of them is dead and you can't question the other!"
"Well, you toddle along to the hospital now," said Stone, "and see if you can find out anything we've missed. They are both of the so-called working class and the trade of the one who is still alive is undoubtedly that of a carpenter. What the other man did we can't tell for certain, except that it was not hard manual labour."
Arriving at the hospital, Larose was told the injured man was just holding his own. His condition was very serious, but for the moment not critical. He might get better and yet he might not, as so many of his ribs were broken. He was quite conscious and sensible, but very weak. The house surgeon would not let him be questioned, but Larose was allowed to walk by his bed and take good stock of him in passing.
Proceeding into the mortuary, Larose gave the dead man there, who was Fogg, the window-cleaner of Minerva Building, a good look over. "But the other man was the mastermind," he told himself. "This fellow looks as if he'd been rather simple and with not much intelligence."
Returning into the hospital, he asked if he could speak to the nurse who had had most to do with the dead man and, upon her being brought forward, started to try to find out if she had been able to make any sense of anything the dead man had said when he was in a state of semi-consciousness.
"Inspector Stone's been questioning us about that already," she smiled. "but we couldn't tell him anything, except that the poor fellow must have been nervous when in the sidecar, as he mumbled a lot of times about their going too fast. We also heard him say something about a candlestick with wings on it."
"And you can't tell me anything more?" asked Larose.
"No, nothing," said the sister. "Oh, after Inspector Stone had gone, one of the ward maids said she thought the patient must be a gardener, because once when she had been scrubbing the floor by his bed, he talked about weeds and a weed man. He said weeds several times."
"Did she think it was a name?" asked Larose.
"No, she thought he was talking about his work and that's what made her think he was a gardener."
Larose left the hospital, thinking hard. He was quite sure the dead man could not have had anything to do with gardening as his hands were not calloused in any way. Then what did it mean his talking about weeds?
Most thorough in all his investigations, he never neglected any chance, and now he turned into a public library and began poring over the pages of a London Directory for names of people called "Weed" or anything like it.
He found plenty of Wheatleys, several Weeders and one Weeder. Then he came upon the name, Weederman. There were three of them, and his eyes sparkled as he saw that one of them was an art dealer. "Great Scot," he exclaimed, "and they were art things they had gone on the burgle for! Why, I may be right on the target! This Luke Weederman was going to be the fence they were intending to take them to!"
He was the more confirmed in the correctness of this idea when, returning to Scotland Yard and making enquiries there as to whether anything was known of the art-dealer in Hanover Street, he learnt the man was not altogether a stranger to the police. Certainly they had nothing definite against him, but it was on the records they had once had occasion to go to question him about a stolen statuette which it was said he had bought. He had denied all knowledge of it and they had ultimately believed he was speaking the truth because his accuser was a convicted thief and they thought he had laid the charge only out of spite.
When about half an hour later Larose arrived at the shop in Hanover Street and presented his card to Weederman, the latter was by no means taken by surprise. Indeed, he had been half expecting a visit from the police, as he had read in the newspapers about the burglary at Fell Castle and the recovery of the silver after the accident to the two men in a side-car in Islington Road. Of course the injured men would be Maddox and Fogg, he told himself, and, although very frightened that his name would be brought in, had schooled himself resolutely to be all ready with what to say.
However, the accusation did not come in the way he was expecting; indeed, there was no accusation at all. Larose just asked him most politely if he could help them to establish the identity of a man who had died after a motor accident and whose body was now lying in the mortuary of the London Hospital. Larose explained that the man had mentioned his, Weederman's, name when in a state of unconsciousness just before his death.
Weederman was quite cool and collected. "But why me in particular?" he asked. "There are several Weederman in London."
"Yes, but he talked about silver candlesticks," smiled Larose, "silver candlesticks with wings, and as such things are in your line, I have come to you first. The man is of medium height, fair and with a rather round-shaped face. He wears his hair close and is clean shaven."
Weederman pretended to consider and then shook his head. "The description is not very full," he said, "and for the moment, at all events, I don't call him to mind. Did he look like a man who would be a customer of mine?"
For the moment it was on the tip of Larose's tongue to suggest that the dead man would probably have been a seller and not a buyer, but he was not minded to spring the trap too soon and so replied, "No, no, he's a labouring man, quite a common fellow. Anyhow, I'm afraid I must ask you to come with me and look at the body. It won't take you long. I've a car outside."
Weederman, after a grimace at having to see a dead body, expressed his willingness to come. From the description Larose had given, he realised it was Fogg who was dead and deplored the bad luck that it was not Maddox. During the drive to the hospital he decided what to do. Of course he would recognise the body at once! It would be madness not to, for with Fogg not turning up to clean the windows at Minerva Building, the janitor would certainly be sent to the man's place of abode to find out what had happened to him, and later the police would be informed that he was missing.
So, at the mortuary one look was quite sufficient for Weederman. "Oh, yes; I recognise him," he said with a well-simulated catch in his voice. "He is the window-cleaner at the building where I have my flat in Chelsea. Poor fellow, poor fellow, what a dreadful end! His name is Fogg."
"Are you sure?" asked Larose, not a little disappointed that the recognition was so naturally explained. "But did he also clean the windows of your shop?" he asked. "No? Then why did he associate silver candlesticks with you in his delirium?" Weederman pretended to look troubled. "Because, Inspector," he replied sadly, "he tried to steal mine, once," and then he related all that had happened that night when he had caught the window-cleaner in his rooms.
"And you didn't tell the proprietor of the building," snapped Larose, "he was employing a dishonest man? That wasn't a nice thing for the other tenants, was it?"
"But he promised me solemnly," protested Weederman quickly, "that he would never try to thieve again, and I made him sign a paper that he wouldn't. I've got it in my safe at the office and can show it to you." He tried to excuse himself. "Besides, Inspector, if I had prosecuted him it would have drawn attention to the curios I have in my flat and that was the last thing I wanted, because I have silver ware of considerable value there."
"A very selfish reason," said Larose. "You shouldn't have trusted to the word of a man like that."
Weederman sighed. "I see that now, Inspector, and know I ought to have realised it at the time, because I knew then he was a liar as well as a thief. He told me a mate of his had stolen two valuable Seraphim and Cherubim silver candlesticks and sold them on August the first last to Mr. Aaronstein, a dealer in the Haymarket, for five pounds. I knew that couldn't be true for Mr. Aaronstein is an honest man and a friend of mine."
Larose made him repeat about the candlesticks and the art dealer chuckled inwardly with great delight that the matter was sure to be passed over to other officers in Scotland Yard. It might make things most unpleasant for his rival.
A flash of thought came to Larose and he said frowningly, "You say you live in Chelsea. Then how long have you been living there?"
"Twenty odd years," replied Weederman, "though only about ten years in my present flat. I like the neighbourhood because many interested in Art live there. I often do good business among them both in buying and selling."
Larose eyed him intently. "Did you ever happen to know anyone there called Fontaine?" he asked.
"Fontaine, Fontaine!" exclaimed Weederman, as if trying to recall the name.
"A musician," prompted Larose.
Weederman's face lightened. "Oh, yes, I remember him, a drunken violinist who used to play as well when drunk as sober. I've heard him at several parties." He nodded. "But we didn't think that was his real name. He looked Jewish."
"Did you meet his wife and daughter?" asked Larose.
"I don't remember his daughter but I have seen the wife. She was a loud, coarse woman and used to make out she'd been an actress. Really, however, she'd only been a singer at third-rate music halls. She sang questionable songs until the censor made her cut them out. That cramped her style a lot and she didn't get many engagements after. She was known to be a woman of loose morals, too."
Larose felt horrified. The lovely Christine Heron with parents like that! The future Lady Fell of such degraded origin! It was an unpleasant thought!
He drove Weederman back to Hanover Street and after inspecting and taking charge of the paper Fogg had signed, left for the Yard, to report to Stone. The art dealer was very pleased with himself. He had got over an awkward stile, with credit, he told himself, and now he fervently hoped Maddox would die too. It caused him great amusement to think that Larose had told him nothing about Fogg being one of the burglars at Fell Castle, while he, Weederman, knew all about it. How amazed the crafty detective would have been if he had heard the tale which he, Weederman, could have told him! This Larose had the reputation of being a great detective but, after all, he had only the intelligence of an average ordinary policeman rigged up in private clothes.
The next morning Stone was rung up from the hospital and informed that Maddox had told them who he was and asked that a message be sent to his sister. "And you can come and talk to him for a little while," added the house physician, "though it won't be a dying statement as we think now he's going to get well. As is often in such cases, his mind is a complete blank about the accident, but he may remember quite clearly everything that happened before. You can talk to him for ten minutes."
Accordingly, both Larose and Stone were by his bedside within half an hour and it was the former who started to talk to him. He spoke smilingly. "Now, we don't want you to tell anything about the burglary," he said. "We know all about that, but we do want you to tell us what happened when you were in the Castle grounds that night when you saw the man shot, the night when you and Fogg had to stop, later, at that garage in Sleaford to have the puncture mended."
Maddox scowled. "He was a thief that man," he said slowly, "every bit as bad as we were. He made us pay ten shillings, the swine."
"Yes, yes," nodded Larose sympathetically, "it was an exorbitant charge. But about the shooting, you saw the man shot, didn't you?"
"Not really," replied Maddox weakly, "but we saw him come to that summerhouse and, afterwards, lying on the ground, all covered over in blood. You see the mist kept coming and going and blotting out everything. We heard the gun fired."
The detectives were greatly disappointed. "But you saw someone else among the trees besides this man, didn't you?" asked Larose.
"Yes, before he was a shot," nodded Maddox.
"Then who was it, a man or a woman?" asked Larose.
"Oh,I think it was a man," was the weak reply. "We didn't see him plainly because of the mist, but I thought then he was tall and had got thin legs."
"Was he carrying a gun?"
"He must have been, if he fired one. He was holding something in the crook of his arm, a thick stick or a gun."
"But who did you see first?" was Larose's next question.
"The gent who came to the summerhouse with his big white shirt. It was the same gent who had come there the night before."
Larose repressed the excitement that he felt. So the burglars had been in the grounds on the two nights! The affair of the dogs had frightened them and they had gone away and come again the next night!
"You saw those dogs attack him?" he asked.
"Yes, they would have killed him if he hadn't got in that summer-house. They were huge dogs."
"Was anyone with the dogs?" asked Larose. "I mean did anyone bring them there to set them on to him?"
Maddox seemed doubtful. "We thought we saw someone behind them before they started to run, but we couldn't be sure. It was so dark among the trees." He spoke very slowly. "If it was anyone, it might have been a boy with a big cap on his head."
"You say before they started to run," said Larose. "Then were they walking when you first caught sight of them?"
"Not exactly. They weren't walking and they weren't running. They seemed to be gliding along. We couldn't see well. There was a bit of a moon then, but they were in the shadow of the big trees."
"And that night when the poor fellow was shot," said Larose. "From which direction was this man with the thin legs coming?"
Maddox spoke very slowly now. "I said afterwards to Fogg that he was coming into the grounds from the gate, but Fogg thought he had come from the Castle. We couldn't agree. The mist kept playing such tricks with us."
"And how long did you wait after you had heard the shot fired?" asked Larose.
"Not longer than we had to. We couldn't move at first because of the mist. Then it cleared up for a moment and we cut and ran. We knew it was murder."
"Why did you think it was murder?"
Maddox thought for a long moment. "Because whoever had shot him had run away so quick."
"And now another question," began Larose, but the doctor in attendance shook his head. "No more to-day, Inspector. He's had enough. Another little talk to-morrow, if all goes well."
The two inspectors hardly said a word upon their journey back to the Yard, but once in Stone's room, the stout inspector asked briskly. "Well, Gilbert, what do you make of it?"
Larose's reply was prompt and given with a grim smile. "It was our little Christine who put the dogs on to him," he nodded, "and this sick man's description of them gliding along and not walking or running means she was holding them on a leash until they could see the Captain. Then the next night she had bribed the gamekeeper to kill him. Remember how warmly Jevons spoke of his little mistress and how he said he'd do anything for her. Well, he did what she asked him, for, of course, the thin legs of the figure Maddox saw in the mist meant someone with leggings on and probably the gamekeeper almost sleeps in his."
"And with the money she paid him," went on Stone impressively, "he bought that stud sow and the new wireless. It seems a sure thing." Another idea, however, came suddenly into the stout inspector's mind and he exclaimed frowningly. "Ah, but wait a minute, Gilbert! We're going too quick. There's a snag here." He spoke very slowly. "Now we know, from the cigarette-butts the Lincoln police picked up and from what this man has just told us, that the night he was killed Captain Blair was the first to arrive at the rendezvous by the summer-house, and do you think a man who was going to commit a murder would be behind the appointed time?" He thumped on his desk. "By James, no! He'd have been waiting a long time before, shivering and shaking at the thought of the job he'd got to do."
Larose frowned. "But the Captain may have been early, or the gamekeeper's clock slow. You mustn't rule him out, straight away, because he was a minute or two late."
"I don't Gilbert," protested Stone, "but the cocksure way in which we are prepared to settle everything has got several possible flaws in the reasoning, hasn't it? I agree with you it was the gamekeeper these burglars saw, but what about him being in the wood to get those owls and suddenly coming upon that little woman at the very moment she had just shot Blair? That would account for him being in funds, without him being the actual murderer. He was bribed not to give her away."
Larose shook his head. "Possible, but not probable, Charlie. It's one thing to set dogs on to a man and then, perhaps, run away before you've seen what happened, but quite a different thing to walk up close and shoot him deliberately at point-blank range. Surely, you don't think the girl has got a temperament callous enough for that? Besides, she couldn't have committed a murder without everyone noticing afterwards, when she returned into the Castle, that she was upset." He raised his hand warningly. "Whereas Jevons went all through the Great War as a most efficient sniper and I'm certain he would be quite capable of killing anyone and not turning a hair."
Stone did not look very convinced. "But even to have set those dogs on to him," he asked, "makes her look pretty tough, doesn't it?"
"Well, at any rate it gave him some sort of chance," said Larose. "She knew he'd got plenty of courage and might have thought he'd be able to fight them off. It may have been a sudden thought on her part and she, really, only intended to frighten him into leaving her alone."
"But, another thing," went on Stone, "what does it mean Maddox thinking the thin-legged man came from one direction and Fogg from the other? That suggests, doesn't it, that more than one person besides Blair may have been among the trees that night? While they were hiding there Fogg may have seen someone in one direction and Maddox in another. Then, knowing that murder had been done and terrified they might be accused of it, it is easy to understand their ideas of what actually happened became confused."
"Well, it's pretty certain," commented Larose, "that the gamekeeper and young Mrs. Heron were both mixed up in it. Of course that boy with the big cap was a woman with a shawl over her head, and after we've had another talk with this Maddox tomorrow, we may have learnt enough to nail them both down."
Stone was frowning hard.
"When we were questioning Christine," he said, "we ought to have got out of her where she was that year after the guardian died and before she went to Paris. That's when she got intimate with Blair and, as you say, perhaps married him."
"Ah, I've got an idea," exclaimed Larose suddenly. "She told us her mother's sister lived in Maida Vale, so if we got in touch with her we may find out a lot. She may have been going to live with her after that guardian died."
"But we don't know who she is. We don't know her name," said Stone.
"Oh, we'll easily find out that," nodded Larose. "Didn't Christine say she was an unmarried sister of her mother? Well, Christine's birth certificate will give her mother's maiden name, and that'll be the name of the aunt, too. We know Christine is twenty-nine and, remember, she told us she was christened at St. James's, Maida Vale. So I'll go and look up the church register of 1907, and then see if I can find the aunt's name in the Directory or on the list of voters."
"She may be dead," frowned Stone.
"Well, I'll have to chance that," said Larose. "At any rate it's worth trying."
So by one of those strange chances which so often happen in our lives, Larose arrived at the door of the vestry of St. James's Church at the very moment when the Duchess of Ravenscroft was coming out.
Making room for her to pass and, entering the vestry, where the verger was just preparing to place the church register back in the safe, he told him what he wanted. The verger's eyes opened wide in surprise. "Christine Fontaine, September the eighth, nineteen-hundred and seven, sir!" he exclaimed. "Is that the entry you want to see?"
It was Larose's turn to be most surprised.
"Christine Fontaine is the name," he frowned, "but I didn't know September the eighth was the date." He eyed the verger intently. "How do you come to know?"
The verger's face was one big smile. "Because that lady who has just gone out made me look up the same birth for her and—"
"Here, wait a moment," interrupted Larose, with his wits all about him. "I'll just go and speak to her," and he darted out of the vestry into the body of the church, with the intention of following the woman and trying to find out who she was.
But he quickly realised that there was no need for haste, as she was kneeling in one of the pews with her shoulders shaking and her hands over her face.
"Upset about something, eh?" he queried to himself. "Now what the dickens does that mean?" He seemed satisfied. "Well, at any rate she looks safe for a minute or two," and returning into the vestry he said to the verger. "Here, just let me have a look at the entry. That's all. I don't want any copy of the certificate."
Glancing quickly to where the verger's finger pointed, he read what he wanted. The mother's maiden name had been Hennifer and the address where the child had been born was Andover Street, Maida Vale. Giving the verger half a crown, he left the church where the duchess—for, of course, it was she—was still kneeling, and waited outside for her to come out.
In a few minutes she appeared and, at a little distance, he followed her up the street. Then to his disgust, a roving taxi came by and, hailing it, she got inside and was driven away. He could do nothing, as no other taxi was in sight.
"Now what on earth does that mean?" he asked himself.
"Why should somebody else be wanting to find out about Christine?" He gave it up, remarking, however, rather sadly. "Poor little Christine, I'm afraid there's a lot of trouble coming to her!"
A Public Library being close handy, he had recourse once again to the most useful London Directory, but could not light upon the unusual name of Hennifer anywhere. Running, too, down the lists of voters in the district, for as many years as they had been preserved, he could not find it there, either.
So he started at once for Andover Street which he found quickly, but to his great disappointment the numbers now ended at twenty-one, a big block of flats occupying the remainder of the street. Proceeding, however, to the local police station, an elderly sergeant there, after much searching of memory, gave him the information he wanted about number twenty-four. As far as he could recollect, the sergeant was of opinion it would have been Sister Norman's Private Hospital, but, he said, the house had been pulled down many years back and what had become of the sister he did not know.
Following upon the same line of enquiry which the duchess had done, Larose, however, soon got upon the track of the old Dr. Nelson and, while regarding it very much in the nature of a forlorn hope, proceeded at once to the doctor's house.
He was just in time to catch Dr. Nelson when the latter had got rid of his last patient and was getting ready to go out again. The doctor received him courteously until he started to say what he had come about, and then the old man's face hardened so instantaneously that Larose could see that he was in the way of being very annoyed.
"What name did you say?" he asked with a frown. "Fontaine!" He shook his head emphatically. "No, I remember no such patient as that," he shrugged his shoulders, "and you can't expect me to, after twenty-nine years."
"But have you no records," asked Larose, somewhat nettled by the doctor's brusque manner, "no diary or anything like that?"
"Not going all that time back," frowned the doctor. "I keep nothing after a few years. If I did, the house would be full of books and papers." He glared at Larose. "Why, do you know, sir, that before I took my son into partnership with me, in busy times I used to see from fifty to sixty patients a day, and just think for a moment how the records, if I had kept them, would have accumulated."
"But I should have thought, Doctor," said Larose, "that, with confinements being so important, you would have at least preserved your records of them."
"Well, I haven't," snapped the doctor. He glared at Larose again. "Why, man, in my younger days I had from two to three hundred midwifery cases a year and in thirty years that would mount up to from six to nine thousand!" He seemed suddenly to become curious. "But what do you want to know about this woman for?" he asked. "Is it anything to do with a will?"
"Yes," nodded Larose, thinking that the easiest explanation to give, and both men were at once of opinion that the other was a liar.
Leaving the house and passing the window of the consulting room which looked on to the street, Larose glanced up and caught sight of the doctor with his face pressed close to the window, taking a last good look at him. The doctor bobbed back quickly when he saw Larose's face turned his way.
"Yes, you may look, you old fox!" growled Larose to himself as he passed up the street. "You were much too ready to deny everything to have had nothing you could have told me." He snapped his fingers together. "There's some conspiracy on here, a conspiracy to shield Christine." He looked amused. "What an asset it is to a wrongdoing young woman to have a pretty face! Almost always everyone wants either to protect or marry her!"
"But he was antagonistic, Charlie," said Larose telling his colleague about it afterwards. "He didn't want to help me. He was downright hostile directly I told him who I was and mentioned the name Fontaine."
"But that mightn't necessarily have meant he knew anything about her," commented Stone judicially. "It might not, perhaps, have been the particular name he jibbed at, but simply that he didn't want to help any police officer without knowing something of the rights or wrongs of the case he had come enquiring about."
"Well, he was nasty," said Larose. "He put his back up at once."
"Quacks are always like that when we come nosing about their patients. They're sympathetic, too, with the underdog, unless the wrongdoing is of an unpleasant nature. I always say they're more human than men of any other calling and, unless it happens they've got some particular axe to grind, are most unorthodox to all the generally accepted views of life." He nodded. "The religion of kindness, my boy, with their own private ten commandments and moral code." He made a grimace. "So wicked as you and I have been, Gilbert, we'll stand some sort of chance if at the Day of Judgment we come before a jury of medical men. I am sure of it."
The following morning the two inspectors were greatly disappointed when a call came through from the hospital to say they could not have their talk with Maddox that morning. He was not too well, the questioning of the previous day evidently having been too much for him. So the Yard, they said, must wait until they rang up again. It might not be, they added, for perhaps two or three days.
In the meanwhile the duchess had returned to Fell Castle in a most profound state of dejection. She longed to disclose to her old lover that Christine was their daughter, but knew she could never do it, as with its disclosure would come the awful revelation that Christine had married her half brother. God! what a terrible thought it was, and it filled her more and more with anguish as she realised every moment when she saw Lord Fell with Christine and her children how devoted he was to all of them. What a pride, too, he took in his little grandson! The child was the great consolation of his slowly ebbing life, and there was nothing he could do that was too much for him. Grandson and grandfather were so alike, too, both in looks and manner that everyone remarked upon it. How could it be otherwise, groaned the duchess, when both husband and wife had had the same father?
The duchess's thoughts tormented her to such an extent that she was in the way of becoming downright ill. She had no appetite, she slept very badly and appeared at breakfast every morning looking so wan and haggard that both Lord Fell and Christine became very concerned.
"What's the matter with you, Elaine?" asked Lord Fell. "Are you worried about anything?" He smiled his grim, Tiger, smile. "With all your peccadilloes, the memories of them ought to have died down by now and left you more or less at peace."
"There's nothing the matter with me, Tiger," replied the duchess. "It's just that I'm getting old, that's all."
Early one morning, after nearly a week's waiting, a bomb burst in the minds of Larose and Inspector Stone. They would talk to Maddox no more, for the hospital had telephoned that he had collapsed suddenly and died within two minutes. Embolism, the blocking of a vital artery by a suddenly detached clot of blood, they said. There had been no warning and no opportunity to take a dying deposition.
The death had occurred the previous night, when it happened both the inspectors had been off duty and not within telephone call at the time, so there was considerable delay before they got the news.
Lord Fell, however, heard it much earlier from the Chief Constable of Lincolnshire. The latter rang up and, in confidence, told his lordship the whole story, hitherto kept a closely-guarded secret, of the information the Sleaford garage owner had given to the police and the subsequent talk the two inspectors had had with Maddox at the hospital and what they had got out of him.
He finished up by saying that though what Maddox had told them would have been most helpful and important if he had lived, now he was dead it might not prove to be of much value. The most regrettable part was that, thinking he was going to get better, no shorthand report had been made of exactly what he had said. The London men were most chagrined and disappointed.
Asking what sort of men the burglars had been, Lord Fell was told and their names were mentioned. Whereupon he exclaimed in great surprise, "Fogg, you say one of them was called Fogg! Then, of course, he was the footman of that name whom I had to discharge for dishonesty some time ago! No wonder they knew where to find my silver things! It was Fogg's duty to keep them clean when he was with me."
His lordship left the telephone cabinet with a grim smile upon his face and at once proceeded to acquaint the family with what had happened.
"And now, I suppose," he commented, "they'll come buzzing round here to worry poor Jevons, but with no more evidence against him than they have against anybody else." He shook his head. "Still, the Scotland Yard men can't drop the case too suddenly, or there'd be another squeal from the public that they weren't trying, because the tragedy happened here." He seemed amused. "But, by Jove, those inspectors must be furious!"
And certainly Larose was furious.
"What it amounts to now," he growled, "is that though we've got suspicions which almost amount to certainty in our minds, we've no absolute evidence anywhere. At any rate I'll have another shot at that Jevons before it leaks out that both men are dead. It's not likely that Sleaford garage man will keep his trap shut for ever. Also I'll have another talk with the pretty Heron woman."
"But what line are you going to take with Jevons?" frowned Stone. "As I've said all along he's not the sort of man you can bounce into any admission he doesn't intend to make."
"I'm not so sure of that," retorted Larose. "Remember we've got much stronger cards now than when we went to him last time. When he learns about Fogg and Maddox having been waiting among the trees that night he may cave in. He'll be sure Fogg will have recognised him and he won't know the man's dead."
The gamekeeper was out when Larose called at his cottage and he could get no answer to his knocking, but a boy, happening to pass by, told him he would probably find him in a coppice about half a mile away, setting his traps.
He came upon him in the place he had been directed to. Jevons was skinning a stoat. "And this is what comes from falling into a trap," he remarked smilingly when he had recognised Larose and returned his good afternoon. He held up the little body. "If this poor little fool had had the sense not to keep always to the same run he wouldn't have got his head in my noose and would be alive now. As it is I'll be nailing up his skin as a warning to all his relations and friends."
"Look here," said Larose sternly, and ignoring the dead stoat, "I've come here to talk to you for your own good, in quite a friendly way."
"No doubt!" grinned the gamekeeper. "You were friendly last time, weren't you? You admired my new sow!"
There was silence for a few moments with both of them eyeing each other intently. Then Larose rapped out, "The game's up, my friend, and you'll have to admit everything. Fogg, the foot-man who was once at the Castle, and another man were hiding among the trees by the summerhouse that night and saw you come up with your gun. They were the burglars who had come after his lordship's silver which they got later. You shooting that poor man frightened them away then." He spoke persuasively.
"Come on now, let's have the true story. It may have been a pure accident, but we want the truth."
To Larose's intense annoyance the gamekeeper smiled.
"So you got witnesses, have you?" he asked, and when Larose gave a reluctant nod, he went on as if very puzzled, "But I've heard they're both dead. They say Fogg died more than a week ago and the other chap last night!"
"Where did you hear that?" snapped Larose, furious that all his thunder had been stolen.
Jevons shrugged his shoulders.
"Every boy and girl in the village knows it," he went on full of talk. "It's all over the place, all about that garage bloke charging them ten bob to mend a puncture and Fogg popping off without having said a word, and the other chap being so hazy that he thought he'd recognise a man by his thin legs. Why, they're full of it!" He shook his head. "Not that anyone would have ever believed a word Fogg said. He was a rotter and what the girls saw in him I don't know." He nodded confidingly. "You know he left a lot of broken hearts behind him when he got the sack," he lowered his voice darkly, "and something more than that, because there's a little Fogg in the village now, with his dad's fat, silly face."
"Are you going to tell me the truth?" asked. Larose, trying hard to put a savage note into his tones. Really, however, he wanted to laugh. He had a great sense of humour and it was so funny to think he'd come down with, as he thought, a fistful of the best cards, and here was his opponent trumping every one he put down.
Jevons had resumed the skinning of his stoat. "You've had the truth, Mister," he replied, without looking up. "I'm not like this stinking animal here putting my head in a noose for anyone." He laughed. "You chaps are champion bluffers, but I'll tell you you're not going to bluff me."
Larose waited until he had finished the skinning and was looking up again. Then he asked quietly, "Where did you get all that money from, Jevons, the money to buy that thirty-guinea sow and the wireless set?"
For just one fleeting moment it seemed that his question had gone home, for the gamekeeper looked uneasy and his jaw dropped. However, he recovered himself quickly, and asked with a frown. "What did you say? I didn't quite catch it?"
"Oh, yes you did," snapped Larose. "I asked where did you get all that money from to buy the sow and the new wireless."
"Where did you get your money to buy things from?" countered the gamekeeper boldly. "You'd earned it, hadn't you? Well, I had earned mine, too." He scowled. "What are you suggesting now? Do you think I go thieving and burgling like Fogg? No, I'd saved it."
"Where do you keep your savings?" asked Larose, and Jevons opened his jacket and pulled up his shirt, exposing a greasy-looking money belt which had evidently done long service. "That's my bank, Mister, and I'm a saving man," he said. He nodded. "I am able to save, too. I get two ten a week from his lordship, and pay nothing for my cottage. Besides, I get good tips from gents who come shooting and at times," his eyes twinkled, "a few bob from other gents who take up my time asking a lot of silly questions."
Larose, however, did not take the hint and, after a few more attempts at questioning which the gamekeeper parried adroitly and with good humour, realised nothing was to be gained and that he was only wasting his time. So he bade Jevons a curt good afternoon.
"And good hunting to you, Mister," the gamekeeper called out after him, "and next time may you have better luck!" He watched him drive off in his car and then winked prodigiously to himself, his dog and the surrounding countryside. He was evidently most amused about something.
"Now how the devil," Larose asked himself as he sped along, "did this chap get to know all about Fogg and Maddox so quickly?" He answered his own question. "But there, of course, Lord Fell is well in with the Lincoln police and no doubt they spilled the beans. Probably the Chief Constable rang him up last night and told him everything. That's the bad part of making a military man the nominal head of the police. Chief Constables are generally a nuisance."
He nodded grimly. "So this gamekeeper thinks we are champion bluffers, does he? Then, perhaps, the pretty Christine has that belief, too? Well, I'll show her we're not all duds and that, at least, we do find out something. I'll go and have a talk with her before Jevons has time to spread it about that I'm up here."
To his great satisfaction he met Christine alone and just coming out of the Castle. She had been starting to walk down to the village and it was obvious she was not too pleased to see him. He asked smilingly if she could spare him a few minutes and she replied with a frown that she supposed she'd have to. She led him into a small room just off the big hall and motioning him to a chair, seated herself in another one, with her back to the window.
"Now, Inspector," she asked sharply, "what now do you want of me? I should have thought that last time you asked me all the questions you could think of."
Larose felt intensely sorry for her. She looked all over a girl born for the happiness of life and not one to be saddened by its misfortunes! She was so attractive, too, that it should surely have been the mission of every man who saw her to protect and shield her! And yet—here was he now, just because he was paid a few pounds a week to do so, intending to exert his utmost to take all her happiness from her and bring shame and misery in its stead. Honestly, he half hoped he would not be able to force any guilty admission from her.
He looked at her very sternly. "If, Mrs. Heron—" he asked—"if you had never known Captain Blair in your past life, why did you cut those pages out of the hotel register so that no one should be able to bring them up in evidence against you?"
For a few seconds she went pale as death and then, as the colour surged back into her face, it seemed to him to be accompanied by an expression of unutterable relief.
"What pages, what register?" she gasped.
"You know," he said, and his eyes continued to hold hers, "the pages of the Hôtel Regal in Paris for those two days in the first week of September, eight years ago." He did not spare her. "We have reason to believe you were staying there with Captain Blair—as his wife."
Reason to believe! The words rioted through Christine's brain. Only reason to believe! Then they were not sure! They were not in possession of the only evidence which would prove the extent of her association with the wretch who had so betrayed her!
She fought for time to get her emotions well in hand, and stared at him so blankly that he did not like her silence. Then she was not breaking down! He had not given her a knockout blow!
He went on sharply. "If you didn't cut them out, you set someone else to do so."
Mere suspicion and yet no proof flashed its guiding signal into Christine's mind and she found her voice at last. Forcing her face into a sarcastic smile, she asked very quietly, "My husband, for instance?"
Larose frowned and now, in his turn, was not ready to reply on the instant, but she gave him no time to consider and rapped out angrily: "You puzzle me. I don't know what you mean. I have never stayed in any hotel with a strange man."
"I didn't say you had," retorted Larose sharply. "My opinion is that he wasn't strange to you, no more strange than was the Captain Blair who came up here as a guest to the Castle." He glared at her. "You persist in denying it, do you?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "It is too preposterous to trouble to deny. It's a thing that could not have happened."
Larose went on a different tack.
"Then I'll ask you another question, and this time there will be no need to think about your reply, as the question's quite a straightforward one." He spoke slowly and accusingly. "I've just come from talking to Jevons and I want to know what you gave him all that money for? Why did you give it to him?"
Again Larose saw the blow had not gone home, as her face now showed nothing but surprise. "Give him money!" she exclaimed. "I've never given him a penny!"
"Then if he's said so, he's lying?" asked Larose sternly. Christine nodded. "But he didn't say so." She went on warmly. "You're not playing fair, to-day, Mr. Larose. You keep on stating things as if you knew positively they were true, whereas you don't know whether they are true or not, and are only fishing to find out." Her eyes flashed. "But I'm not quite so silly as to fall into the trap. Still, as I say, it isn't an honourable thing for you to do."
Larose felt uncomfortable and hastened to justify himself. "But you must understand, Mrs. Heron," he said sternly, "that we have good reason to be doubtful of everything you say. In your answers to us the other day you didn't give the exact truth."
She looked scornful. "You say so?"
"Yes. For instance, when you were telling us the places where you and your parents had lived, why didn't you mention Chelsea, where you spent the greater and most important part of your girlhood's life?"
Christine got very red, and looked frightened and as if she would like to cry. She did not answer.
"I suggest," went on Larose accusingly, "it was because you had met and become friends with Captain Blair there—" he spoke sarcastically, "the man you told us you had never seen, before he came here to the Castle as a guest."
Christine recovered herself and stung to anger by his sarcasm burst out scathingly: "Then, as you have been so interesting yourself in my past life and spying so thoroughly into my affairs, does not any other reason suggest itself to you?" And when Larose shook his head she went on instantly, "Then, did you not hear of my father that he was a drunkard, and of my mother that it was said she was often leaving him for the companionship of other men? Now did you or did you not hear of those things?"
It seemed that the handle of the shut door moved ever so slightly, but they were both too intent on each other to notice it.
"Something," replied Larose reluctantly, hating himself that he was bringing such obvious humiliation upon the proud woman before him.
"Then don't you realise," she went on fiercely, "that in the surroundings I am now in, it is only natural I should want to keep that part of my life hidden?" She choked back her tears. "I have married into a proud family whose ancestry is known for hundreds and hundreds of years, I am an honourable wife and mother and it will be my son who will carry on the line. So don't you understand the simple and innocent reason why I didn't tell you anything about Chelsea?" She calmed down and spoke very scornfully. "As for that Captain Blair, if I had met him there, which, however, I don't admit, would I like to acknowledge any acquaintanceship with a dissolute scoundrel whose friendship with any girl would damn her in all decent people's eyes?"
The door-handle moved again.
Larose was silent. He was just enough to see the force of her argument and yet—murder was murder and the Law must have its pound of flesh. After a few moments he spoke again. "Were you ever married to Captain Blair?" he asked very quietly.
She clenched her hands together tightly and laughed a low mocking laugh. "Married to him, you fool! No!" Her anger flamed up again. "Look here, Inspector Larose, I'm sick of all this. Just put your cards down and tell me frankly, the worst you suspect of me. Do you think it was I who shot Captain Blair?"
The door opened and Lord Fell stepped into the room. His face was pale, but he looked, as he always did, the commanding, aristocratic old man. He was smiling and at once spoke up as if he were rather amused.
"That's it, Inspector!" he said briskly. "Let's have all the cards down and we shall see what hand you've got." He approached Christine and tucked his arm affectionately in hers. "You were not very polite to the Inspector, my dear, and spoke a little bit too loudly, too. I reached the door just in time to hear the word marriage mentioned and you call him a fool. I surmise he'd just asked you if Captain Blair had been your husband."
Christine felt on the verge of collapse and could not have uttered a word if her very life had depended upon it. However, there was no necessity, as Larose spoke up at once.
"Yes, my lord," he said apologetically and there was no doubt he was feeling most uncomfortable, "I had to ask Mrs. Heron that. It was my duty."
"And no one will blame you for doing your duty," smiled Lord Fell pleasantly. "No doubt it is often distasteful to you, but one realises you have to carry on." He went on easily: "Now the other day when you were questioning this young lady here I couldn't quite follow the drift of what you meant." He nodded. "Now, however, I understand. You think Captain Blair knew some secret of my daughter-in-law's life and, that to keep him from disclosing it, she shot him. That's everything in a nutshell, isn't it?"
"Yes, my lord," replied Larose quietly, "and it's kinder to ask her in private now than to put her to the ordeal of being questioned in public at the adjourned inquest."
"Much kinder," agreed Lord Fell, "better for her and," his face hardened grimly, "better for you, too." He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, I know perfectly well you would not dare to have her asked at the inquest what you have just asked her now, unless you were prepared to follow it up immediately with evidence that the marriage was a fact. If not it would be pure mud-slinging, nothing more and nothing less, and the public wouldn't stand for it." He shook his head emphatically. "You would get no Counsel to put the question, for he would realise that the very asking of it would blast Mrs. Heron's reputation. The very question itself would be an accusation."
"I know that, my lord," said Larose quickly, "and we have no intention of putting the question in public unless we have sufficient evidence to justify us in doing so."
"Sufficient evidence!" exclaimed Lord Fell, stressing upon the first word. "You must have absolute proof! Then have you got it?"
Larose was quite candid. "No, my lord," he replied. He smiled. "It eludes us every time." He became grave again. "But we have learnt certain things which make us wonder if it be true."
"Well, let us hear them," said Lord Fell promptly, "and Mrs. Heron may be able to clear them up. Come, come Inspector, it can't do your case any harm, for if you continue suspecting my daughter-in-law everything'll have to come out sooner or later." He looked very puzzled. "But how did you come to turn your attention to her in the first instance? Can you tell me that?"
Larose considered for a few moments. "I don't see why I should not," he replied. "It's quite simple. A friend of Captain Blair came forward and told us that on the Sunday evening, the day before he was to come up here, the Captain talked about the intended visit and remarked he would be meeting an old sweetheart of his here. Now, it was only on the Saturday afternoon he had learnt he was being invited, so it is most improbable he would have known who the other guests were going to be. So we came to the conclusion the old sweetheart referred to could not be among the guests but must be someone whom he knew resided permanently at the Castle. We came down here to investigate and several small things made us suspect Mrs. Heron; one, for instance, she could have unloosed those dogs on him, and another, from her manner she seemed unusually reluctant to tell us everything about her life before she was married. We wondered—"
"One moment, please," interrupted Christine sharply, and then to Larose's astonishment, she burst out laughing. "About his not being able to know who the other guests here were going to be." She went on merrily, "Oh, what mistakes you great detectives from Scotland Yard have made from the very beginning!" Her eyes sparkled. "Why, the full list of them was in Tittle-Tattle the week before the shooting party took place! Every name was set out there!"
Larose looked as surprised as he felt, indeed, too surprised to make any comment. It was exactly as if he had received a most unexpected slap in the face. His jaw dropped.
It was Lord Fell who spoke next and he looked most amused as he exclaimed. "Ah, so it was! So it was! I remember every name appearing in that little rag and it was a great annoyance to me."
"Yes, and I've still got the paper," said Christine. "I'll go and get it," and she tripped briskly from the room.
"You see, Inspector," remarked his lordship, "we folks who're supposed to be Society people are good copy for some newspapers and perhaps you know that weekly disreputable one, Tittle-Tattle. Well, as I say, it's a great annoyance to us sometimes, for it gets hold of information in underground ways. We've never been able to find out exactly how."
"Probably the servants supply it," suggested Larose smilingly, feeling very crestfallen at Christine's disclosure and not wanting to show it.
"Yes, that's what we feel sure," nodded Lord Fell, "either the servants or their relatives or friends. It's so humiliating to us because the information is generally so accurate that people must think we've supplied it ourselves to get into the limelight. For example, when I had an attack of gout the other day, they got hold of it, somehow, and even the name of the specialist who came down. We were all furious."
Christine came back triumphantly with the newspaper, and handed it to Larose.
"See, the whole list, complete," she said, "even mentioning that one of them mightn't be able to come, as he was ill."
"Eleven ladies," nodded Lord Fell. "Ah! and their maids as well! We mustn't forget them for the Captain was undoubtedly a gentleman who would have gone hunting in all sorts of places. How many maids, Christine? Ah, nine! Then there are nine more suspects for you, Inspector Larose."
Larose ran down the names in the paper and then held it out again to Christine. "No, you can keep it," she said. She smiled maliciously. "It may interest Inspector Stone, too."
"Now, Inspector," said Lord Fell a little sharply. "Doesn't that knock the bottom out of your whole case? Admit honestly that if you had seen this rag before you came down here you would never have given Mrs. Heron a thought?"
"That is so," admitted Larose, slowly and as if with some reluctance. He smiled. "And it shows also I did right in coming here to question this young lady again."
"Now have you any other questions to ask me?" asked Christine.
Larose thought for a moment and then said, thoughtfully. "Well, tell me when you were last in Paris."
"Wait a moment," exclaimed Christine. "I hear my husband. That's his voice. You shall ask him." She laughed. "They say you can always tell when a man's telling a lie, much better than a woman." She opened the door and called to Percy to come in. He entered and, seeing Larose, shook hands with him.
"The Inspector wants to ask you a question," said Christine. "When was I last in Paris?"
Percy looked puzzled. "When we left there together," he replied, "when I brought you home to introduce you to Dad, five years ago, last September, before we were married."
"And we've not been parted since?" went on Christine. "I've had no chance to run over there by myself?"
Percy shook his head and smiled at Larose.
"I've wanted to take her back several times," he said, "but she never will go." His smile became a grin now. "I always say she's got some old sweetheart there and doesn't want me to run up against him," and he wondered at the sudden quietness which came over the others in the room.
Shortly afterwards Larose bade Christine and Percy good-bye, but Lord Fell came with him to the Castle door.
"Oh, by the by," asked his lordship just as they were parting, "have you had another go at old Jevons? Ah, I thought you would have!" He nodded. "A man of exceptionally strong character, Jevons! For twenty odd years he'd been a bit too strong on the beer, but six months ago he gave it all up to save, and buy himself a sow." He laughed merrily. "Have you ever heard of a sow making a teetotaler of a man before?"
"No, I certainly haven't!" exclaimed Larose, and he scowled in disgust to himself that so simple an explanation of the gamekeeper's wealth sent another of their elaborately built up theories crashing to the ground.
"It's no good, Charlie," he told Stone the next morning. "We must cross that Heron girl off the list. We're up against another dead end there," and he proceeded to relate all that had taken place the previous day.
Stone frowned heavily when he saw the copy of Tittle-Tattle Larose handed over to him.
"And that must teach us, Gilbert, to take devilish good care when next time we make the first step. Tut, tut, what a lot of trouble one mistake has given us." He nodded. "Yes, she's out of it in spite of our natural suspicion about her having let loose those dogs."
"And what about the gamekeeper?" asked Larose hesitantly.
Stone sighed and considered for a few moments. "Damn him!" he exclaimed, "I think he is out, too, or at any rate its clear we shall never be able to get him in the net." He struck upon the desk with his fist. "But teetotaler or no teetotaler, I'd stake my life he's laughing at us now."
FOLLOWING upon the departure of Larose from the Castle, Christine experienced a feeling of intense relief. Naturally of a buoyant and hopeful disposition, she was quite certain she would be left alone now and be no longer under suspicion.
In some mysterious way the only tangible evidence against her, her signature in the register of the hotel, had been spirited away and, accordingly, she felt she was safe. She could not for one moment understand how it had come about that the book had been tampered with, but thought that by some strange coincidence someone besides herself had had reason for not wanting that those particular pages should be seen and so had destroyed them. Anyhow, they were gone.
Another thing, too, made her feel much happier, for an instinct told her Larose was no longer unfriendly towards her. Anyone could see he was by nature a kind-hearted man and she was sure he had appreciated her reasons for not having told them she had lived in Chelsea. Who, with the parents she had had, would have liked them being brought into the limelight?
To put the crown upon her good spirits, the kindness of her father-in-law touched her. She knew he would believe nothing wrong about her, and the masterful way in which he had taken up her defence against Larose filled her with the deepest gratitude.
After Larose had left and when she and her father-in-law were alone together, with some reluctance she started to say how absurd it was to associate her in any way with the tragedy of the Captain's death. Lord Fell, however, at once pulled her up short and would not let her go on.
"It is absurd, my child," he said, "and I'm astounded at a clever man like Inspector Larose ever falling for it." He smiled in great amusement. "But wasn't it delightful the way he was bowled out by that paper you brought in and forced to admit he had started off in the very beginning with a huge blunder." He patted her arm affectionately. "But there—don't let's talk about it any more. Let's forget all about it. We can be certain that, at any rate as far as you are concerned, the whole matter will be dropped."
In his own mind, however, his lordship was much less confident than he was making out to Christine. That they had succeeded in convincing Larose was quite possible, but he was wondering if the others in Scotland Yard would regard things in quite the same light. Their reputations were at stake and it would take a lot to make them give up the chase. So they might come bothering Christine again and he was worried, not only because he was very fond of her, but also because he was fearful of what effect the protracted anxiety might have upon her and her coming child.
That night when Christine and Percy had gone off to bed, he and the duchess were together in the library on either side of a good log fire. They were both supposed to be reading, but neither of them seemed particularly interested in their books and from time to time glanced round and regarded each other furtively.
The duchess knew her host was not in a very good humour and accounted for it by his brother's, the General's, wife having been among the party at dinner that night. His sister-in-law had said several tactless things in the course of the evening, principally directed against Christine, and she had seen how they had annoyed him. Still, she told herself, that would hardly account for his worried look now.
Presently, she put down her book and asked gently, "Are you worried about anything, Tiger? You look unhappy."
"Worried?" he exclaimed rather testily, "No, I'm not worried, but Louisa upset me. She always does. She's so horribly jealous of Christine that I could shake her for it. You heard her say tonight that when her children, were little she saw to it they never got colds, and then her remark that the saddle of mutton should have been hung longer was intended for Christine." He made a gesture of disgust. "Bah, I've always disliked her and it was only for poor old Henry's sake that I put up with her being so long here." He nodded. "I'm annoyed, not worried, Elaine and, if I were, I hope I'm hardened enough not to show it."
She shook her head. "But you're not as hardened as you think, Tiger, and you never were. Under that bored cynicism of yours, you've always had a much kinder disposition than you wanted to make out." She asked suddenly, "Would you say you'd had a happy life?"
"Moderately happy," he replied, "ups and downs." He looked gloomy. "But I've always been restless," he corrected himself, "until lately, for I think these last few years have been the most peaceful ones of my whole life."
The duchess looked into the fire.
"I've always wondered," she said slowly, "if you were happy with your second wife."
"What on earth makes you ask me that to-night?" he asked as if very surprised. "What made you think of it?"
She shook her head. "I don't really know." She thought for a moment. "I think it was because you had photographs of Christine and the children on the mantelpiece and not one of Margaret."
"Margaret never made a good photograph," he frowned, "and, if you must know, we didn't get on well towards the end. We were both disappointed with each other."
"But she'd given you three children," said the duchess, "so you ought to have been fond of her."
"So I was," he nodded, "until she gave me cause not to be."
He looked sharply at her. "Did it ever reach you over in India that she'd left me once and gone abroad?"
The duchess's surprise was genuine. "Do you mean to say she ran away with someone else?"
"Not exactly!" he replied. "She went away alone, but later," his lips curved scornfully, "the someone else appeared upon the scene to offer the usual consolation."
"Oh, you poor man!" exclaimed the duchess sympathetically. "I never knew you had had that trouble."
"I hoped you wouldn't have heard of it," he said. "It was hushed up pretty well. It was when our youngest little girl was three years old she went, and she made up her mind to go without giving me the slightest warning. However, I told everyone she was at Wiesbaden for the baths. I didn't set eyes on her again for nearly six months."
The duchess hesitated. "Who—who was the—" she began.
"The consoler?" he asked grimly. He spoke bitterly. "He was Sir Ansell James, the eighth baronet of his line and, if I could have got hold of him, I'd have shot him like a dog. But he was sent to India with his regiment—I expect you met him—and, fortunately for himself, he died there."
"Yes, I met him," nodded the duchess, "a handsome man and very distinguished looking. He got cholera when he'd been in India only a few months and died within the week."
"And serve him right!" scowled Lord Fell. He went on angrily. "Oh, yes, he was handsome in his way and, of course, the women fell for him. Margaret always admired him and," he shrugged his shoulders, "heaven knows, I of all men ought not to have blamed him for what he did. He found her lonely and alone. He got his opportunity and he took it." He half smiled. "Sore people may say that under similar circumstances I would have done the same thing."
"Of course you would have," commented the duchess instantly. She sighed heavily. "Both you and I know of one case where you did, don't we Tiger?"
"But naturally I hated him for it," said Lord Fell ignoring her question, "and, naturally, again, would have killed him for it if I could."
"But why did she leave you?" asked the duchess. "I suppose the usual thing!"
He turned on her fiercely. "You're quite wrong. I was faithful to her until she was unfaithful to me. Then I didn't care what happened."
"But hadn't she proof, Tiger, that you'd been what you should not have been?"
"No, she hadn't," he snapped. "She had suspicions that weren't justified," his face puckered angrily, "but it was that damned Louisa who made her think they were, my own brother's wife. Unfortunately, I didn't find out until too late that she'd been the mischief-maker with her lying tales. Still," he smiled a bitter smile, "the dear Louisa got her punishment right enough, though it's the greatest sorrow of my life she'll never know what it's been. She'd die of mortification if she knew."
"But you became reconciled to Margaret, didn't you, Tiger," asked the duchess, "and she gave you what you wanted, a son?"
Lord Fell did not reply, and after a few moments the duchess went on reminiscently.
"Yes, I remember now, Sir Ansell showing me the notice of Percy's birth in The Times. He was most interested, and he thought I should be, too. So I was." She hesitated. "Let me think. Yes, it was not long before he died. I remember he was dining with us on the Christmas Day."
Lord Fell exploded.
"Interested!" he exclaimed fiercely. "Curse him! Of course he was! Percy's his son not mine! All these years I've—"
But he checked himself abruptly with a gesture of exasperation and stopped speaking.
A dreadful silence filled the room. Lord Fell was pacing restlessly up and down. His face was drawn and white and he was breathing heavily. The duchess was leaning back in her chair, still as a graven image, with hard staring eyes, and ashen lips. It seemed she hardly breathed.
Lord Fell quietened down suddenly and, resuming his chair, turned with a sad smile to the duchess, and spoke very gently.
"But why did you bring up Margaret, my dear?" he asked reproachfully. "I trust you, of course, for there has been too much between us for us not to trust each other implicitly, but you have wrung from me a secret which I always meant no one should ever know." He shook his head. "Yes, Elaine, you've done very wrong."
The duchess spoke hoarsely.
"I'm sorry, Tiger, but, of course, I'll never tell." She could hardly get her breath. "But mayn't you be mistaken?"
He shook his head.
"Not a chance. It's quite impossible. Margaret gave birth to a fine full-time child, just six months after I went back to her, and previous to that I had not seen her for another six." He sighed heavily. "But you may as well hear the whole story."
He spoke very slowly and sadly.
"Yes, it was when Elizabeth was three, Margaret went away. She made out she was going to some friends of ours in Brussels for a few weeks, but some ten days after she had left I got a letter from her, from Wiesbaden, saying she was not coming back to me and was thinking of suing for a divorce. She accused me of being the lover of Mrs—but never mind the name. It wasn't true. I was so furious that foolishly, very foolishly and I've always regretted it, for I had been very fond of her, I didn't go after her at once and clear up everything on the spot. Instead, I just sent her a curt letter denying everything and ordering her to come back for the sake of the two little girls. I was sure she would alter her mind very quickly, and return."
He sighed heavily.
"But she didn't alter her mind and she didn't return. She didn't even write to me again for nearly six months. To save scandal and prevent people talking, I went away from here several times, giving out I'd been over to Wiesbaden to see her."
The duchess made no comment. Her eyes were fixed intently upon him and there was a strange expression upon her face.
He went on.
"Then six months all but a few days passed, and at last I got a letter. She wrote she wanted me to come to her at once, as the matter was very urgent. I went, I saw her, and imagine my horror when she told me she would be having a child in six months and that I must divorce her so that she could marry its father. She refused at first to tell me who he was, but she did after some persuasion and I learnt, too, the whole story of how she had come to be so sure I had been unfaithful to her." He swore savagely. "As I say, it was that damned Louisa. She had poisoned her mind against me."
He got up from his chair and for a long minute resumed his pacing up and down. Then he stopped before the duchess and, looking down at her, his face broke into a whimsical smile.
"And you will wonder," he asked grimly, "why I forgave her! No, it wasn't in pity and because I knew how weak even the best of women can be. And it wasn't for the sake of the children," he nodded, "though I made out it was." His face hardened. "It was just for spite, to punish Louisa. I knew if I got rid of Margaret I should not put my head in the matrimonial noose again and, with no male heir, of course, the baronetcy would go to my brother Henry, and, after him, to Louisa's eldest boy." He nodded fiercely. "That was what was in Louisa's mind when she had been urging Margaret not to divorce me but to get only a legal separation, which she schemed would prevent my marrying again and having a son."
"Then she didn't know what Margaret herself had been doing?" asked the duchess, her varied emotions making her voice sound weak and shaky.
"No, Louisa didn't know then, and she has never learnt it since," he replied. "When Percy was born and she knew I'd at last got a son, I heard she was furious and wept for days in her disappointment. But to return to Margaret. As you would expect, she was most amazed when I told her I was willing to take her back and acknowledge the child she was going to have as mine, but I said I only did it to save our daughters, when they grew up, from the shame of knowing they had had a mother who had been divorced."
"Wasn't Margaret glad?" asked the duchess softly.
"Very glad," he nodded, "for she was very fond of her daughters and had been hankering after them the whole time she had been away." He sighed heavily again. "Poor soul, I was very sorry for her! She was weak and gentle by nature and never fitted to face any storms." He spoke briskly. "Well, we didn't come back to the Castle for more than a year. We travelled on the Continent and Percy was born in a little town in Hungary, but of course his birth wasn't announced until sufficient time had elapsed to make out he was my son. Then poor Margaret died of heart failure before she'd been back three months."
"It's a sad story," quavered the duchess weakly, "but I've something to tell you now," she hesitated, "which will give it a very happy ending."
Lord Fell was not listening. He was looking into the fire. She tried to speak again but the words would not come. Presently he said musingly:
"Yes, that's been my punishment. There will be no Heron blood in the carrying on of my line, and my supposed grandchildren, though I love them and their mother dearly, are as unrelated to me as any strangers I may pass in the street."
"They're not, Tiger," burst out the duchess fiercely. "They're as close to you as—" She sprang to her feet. "But wait a minute, I'll go and get something to show you," and she hurried from the room.
Within two minutes, she was back again and now carrying a little hand-bag in her hand. She pulled her chair up close to that of Lord Fell and commenced breathlessly. "Now, Tiger, I'm going to tell you something and it will be the most wonderful thing in your whole life. But, first, if Percy is not your son, how is it his little boy is so exactly like you? How is it he is your living image in looks, manners and all his little ways? How is it he frowns like you, he scowls like you and is a rebel like you've always been?"
She paused for an answer and Lord Fell shook his head slowly.
"I don't know, Elaine," he said. "It has always puzzled me." He shook his head again. "He is no relation of mine and never can be."
The duchess took a photograph out of her handbag and held it out to him.
"Do you know who that is?" she asked.
He frowned. "It's not Christine, but it's very like her."
The duchess nodded.
"Yes, and if Christine did her hair in that way and was wearing the same kind of dress, they'd pass for twins." Her voice began trembling again. "Well, that was my sister Ethel—I know you never met her—the year before she died, when she was the age Christine is now."
Lord Fell looked up sharply. "And didn't I tell you the first day you met Christine," he asked, "that she was like you?"
"And she should be," burst out the duchess fiercely, "for she's my daughter, your daughter and mine, Tiger, the child who was supposed to have died." She went on quickly. "Christine's birthday is on September the eighth and she was born in nineteen hundred and seven." Her voice was steady as a rock now. "And our child was born on the same day in the same year at the same house in Maida Vale." She gripped his arm tightly. "Don't you see, Tiger, the babies were changed. I was given the other mother's child and she was given mine."
Lord Fell's face was ghastly pale. "It is impossible," he said hoarsely. "For one thing how are you so sure your child, our child, was born on that September the eighth." He in his turn now could hardly get out his words. "You may be wrong in the exact date after all these years?"
"But I'm not," she cried. "I remember so well she was born on the day of the Feast of the Nativity, which is always on September the eighth, because one of the nurses who attended me at the hospital was very High Church and said that of course the baby must be called Mary." Tears rolled down her cheeks. "I found out only last week the terrible mistake which had been made and I daren't tell you because I thought Christine had married her own father's son. The idea was horrible!" Her voice broke. "Oh, Tiger, don't you realise what it means—Christine's children are of your own flesh and blood and you can understand now why the boy is so like you." She clasped her hands together. "What a miracle of mercy it was you came to tell me Percy was not your son! Isn't it, as I said, a happy ending?"
Lord Fell looked very troubled and shook his head frowningly.
"But I can't believe it, Elaine," he said. "The coincidence is too impossible, the coincidence that, of all women in the world, Percy has picked upon the very one who, if your tale be true, is the one woman of all others I would have wanted him to take."
"But is it a more wonderful coincidence," she retorted sharply, "than that our baby and Christine should have been born in the same house and within a few minutes of each other?" and she proceeded to relate all she had found out, how she had been to see the doctor, how he had looked up the births in his diary and, how ultimately, he had come to the conclusion the babies had been changed.
Lord Fell wanted a lot of convincing, but he was convinced at last. "God, what a miracle!" he exclaimed. "And I learnt only this afternoon how much poor Christine has been worrying that one day we might get to know her parents had not been nice people." He looked uncomfortably at the duchess. "You'll have to tell her, Elaine."
"Oh, but I couldn't," cried the duchess. "I couldn't let her know her mother had been so foolish."
"That's nothing!" exclaimed Lord Fell. "She's a sensible girl and won't think any the worse of you for that. Of course," he added with a grim smile, "it won't do to bring in my part, because of Percy."
"But do you think," asked the duchess anxiously, "that she would keep it from him? Would she be able to keep a secret like that?"
Lord Fell laughed.
"Good gracious, yes," he exclaimed. "I'd trust that young lady to keep any secret, her own or anyone else's. Not that she'd have any bad ones of her own to keep," he went on quickly. "My first impression of her was that she was a thoroughly nice girl and the more I've seen of her the more convinced I've been that I was right."
"But need I tell her I'm her mother?" asked the duchess faintly. "I could make out she's the daughter of a very dear friend of mine."
"Yes, that's it," nodded Lord Fell. "Say it was your sister. It won't matter now the poor soul has been dead all these years."
The duchess was comforted and, after a very short hesitation, agreed.
"But what a lot of difference this is going to make to all our lives," she exclaimed. "We shall be so happy all together, and now I shall have such a good excuse for often coming to stay here."
"With Christine, perhaps!" he nodded. He smiled. "But what about with other people, Elaine? What'll they think? The public won't quite understand it."
He looked at her so intently that she blushed. Suddenly he moved over to her and, taking her hand, lifted it to his lips.
"Here, I say," he laughed happily, "we'd better round off the whole thing properly. So what about your becoming Lady Fell?"
Her blush deepened.
"Oh, Tiger, do you think we could? Won't people laugh?"
His face was all smiles.
"Of course they will! But we'll have the bigger laugh because we know what they don't. Yes, dear, we'll be married straight away. You will have your own suite of rooms here, and it will be a happy ending to both our lives to know we have our own daughter and her children to take care of us."
They talked on, and it was long after midnight before they went to their rooms. They neither of them slept much, but their wakefulness did not trouble them as their thoughts were such happy ones.
The next morning at breakfast they were so bright and animated that both Christine and Percy remarked upon it.
"What's happened to you, Dad?" asked the latter smilingly of Lord Fell. "You look quite boyish today. What happened to you?"
"Oh, a small thing, my boy," smiled back his lordship. "It's just that I've engaged a nurse for myself and another housekeeper to help Christine." He took a sip of coffee and then, inclining his head towards the duchess, went on casually as if it were quite an unimportant matter, "To explain in detail, I have asked this young lady to marry me."
A stunned and startled silence came over the room with Christine and Percy staring open-mouthed. Christine recovered first, and, rising quickly to her feet, moved over to the duchess and kissed her affectionately on the cheek.
"I'm so glad!" she exclaimed. "And now I shall be able to call you Mother."
"I'm devilish glad, too," laughed Percy. "Since Christine's been here, she's half tamed the Tiger and now," he bowed to the duchess, your Grace'll complete the taming and make him a mild and harmless old gentleman." He shook hands warmly with Lord Fell. "Dad, I congratulate you."
It was hard for the duchess to have to speak to Christine, and it was not until that afternoon that she was able to summon up sufficient courage. They were alone in the duchess's room and she began very nervously.
"I have something to tell you, dear," she said, "and it will be a great surprise to you. You remember how upset you thought I was when you told me a few days ago you had been born in a private hospital in Maida Vale?"
"Yes," nodded Christine, "you went white as a ghost. You did look upset."
"And I was upset, dear," said the duchess, "because someone very dear to me—" she hesitated a few moments, "in fact, my much loved younger sister who died many years ago, had a baby in a private hospital in Maida Vale at the same time."
"How extraordinary!" exclaimed Christine. "I wonder if it was the same hospital my mother went to."
"It was," nodded the duchess solemnly. "I found out that when I went up to town two days after you had told me about your own birth. The coincidence was so extraordinary that I went up purposely to investigate it."
"But how did you know what hospital it was?" asked Christine wonderingly. "I didn't tell you. I didn't know."
"But you told me which church you had been christened in, St. James's," said the duchess, "and I found out from the register there where the hospital had been. I couldn't find the hospital because it had been pulled down, but I found the doctor who had brought you into the world, and he looked up everything in his books. He had brought my sister's baby into the world, as well as you, and we saw that both you and her baby had been born on the same night of the same day, within a few minutes of each other."
Christine's heart stood still. She couldn't guess what was coming, but for some reason she felt frightened, very frightened.
The duchess's voice choked and for a few moments she stopped speaking. Then she burst out: "Oh, my dear, we know now the babies were changed. The woman who kept the hospital took drugs and one of the nurses was a drunkard, and between them both they made a terrible mistake and, when the two mothers became conscious, they gave them the wrong babies." She snatched the photograph she had shown Lord Fell the previous night out of her handbag and gave it to Christine.
"Look, isn't that like you? That was my sister in those days when she was as old as you are now. No, Christine, there can be no doubt about it. You belong to me!" She stammered and turned away her eyes. "I—I mean you are my sister's daughter."
Christine felt stunned. She was white to the very lips. However, in a few moments she found her speech and spoke very quietly. "Then who is my father?" she asked. "Is he alive? He died many years ago, you say? Who was he?"
The duchess looked most embarrassed and hesitated for a long moment.
"I—I'd rather not tell you." She went on quickly, "You see, dear, it's a very sad story. I—I—my sister, I mean, had been very foolish. She had been on the point of being married when the man she was going to marry was killed in an accident, and so," she shrugged her shoulders, "there was no father for you when you were born."
"And do you mean to tell me I am a relation of yours?" asked Christine incredulously.
"Yes, dear, a very close relation. As I tell you, you are my sister's daughter. I am your aunt."
"But can you be sure?" almost wailed Christine.
"Quite sure! There's the evidence before you in that photograph, and the doctor told me the nurses at the hospital had become so careless that that is what must have happened. They gave my sister the other woman's baby, and it died the next morning. Don't you believe me, dear?"
"I almost do," faltered Christine. Her voice strengthened. "Yes, I think I do. Why, when you and Dad had gone out of the room this morning after you had told me you were going to be my new mother, Percy said laughingly that you looked like my old mother as well! He said he had always noticed how you smiled just as I did and, that when you laughed, if he had only been listening and not looking as well, he'd have been sure it was me. Our laughs sound just the same."
"Well, aren't you pleased?" asked the duchess wistfully.
"Thrilled!" exclaimed Christine delightedly. "But it's so wonderful that I can't take it in all at once." A thought came to her and she asked quickly, "Have you told Dad?"
The duchess nodded.
"Yes, dear, I told him last night," she smiled happily, "and I think that's what made him ask me to marry him." She raised her hand warningly. "But I don't want you to tell Percy. I don't want him to know my sister's sad story. Now promise me you won't tell him. You promise, don't you?"
"Yes, I promise," said Christine solemnly. She laughed happily. "Percy doesn't mind who my parents were and nothing could make him fonder of me than he is now. He's such a trusting disposition and relies upon me for everything." A thought struck her. "But how old was my mother when I was born?"
"Thirty-one, dear. Her birthday had been only a few weeks before."
"Thirty-one!" repeated Christine. She went on thoughtfully, "and I'm twenty-nine. Then, if she had lived, she would have been just over sixty now, fifteen years younger than Dad." She looked strangely at the duchess. "Why, that's your age!"
The duchess shivered in consternation! Too late she realised she had given herself away! Her knees shook under her and she stood before her daughter for all the world like a little child who had done something wrong and was expecting punishment.
For a few moments the two women faced each other with wondering eyes. Then a great light seemed to break over Christine's face.
"Oh, it is you who are my mother!" She threw her arms delightedly round the other's neck. "Oh, dearest, I'm so glad!"
For a few convulsive minutes their tears mingled together and then Christine, after a fond embrace, began dutifully to wipe her mother's eyes.
"Now no more tears, dearest," she said gaily. "We're going to be the happiest mother and daughter in all the world."
She dried her own tears and, smoothing her hair before the glass, turned to her mother once again.
"One more question," she said, "and then I'll never bring up the matter again. You say my father is dead! Was he, was he—?" She hesitated.
The duchess averted her eyes, but to her surprise she was able to speak steadily.
"No, darling, he wasn't my husband, if that's what you were going to ask," she replied. "My husband was away in India. He was away for a whole year and you were born a little while before he came back. I had been very foolish, but I was able to keep it from him and he never learnt what had—"
But Christine put her hand on her mother's lips.
"I don't want to know any more," she said smilingly, "and you're not to say anything about it to me again. I know we women are always liable to do foolish things when we are lonely, though so very often it's not all our fault." She kissed her mother affectionately. "I always try to take a sensible view of things like that, and Dad is often saying that the very best of women can make such mistakes and yet still remain the very best of women afterwards."
The following week Lord Fell and the duchess were married by special licence in the Castle Chapel and surely no happier woman could have been found anywhere. "And now you're more than ever my daughter," said the old lord to Christine, "and I thank Heaven for your coming into all our lives."
The Chief Constable of Lincoln came to the wedding and told Lord Fell smilingly that, while Scotland Yard had given up all active investigation into the death of Captain Blair, they were still confident they knew who the criminal was.
"They know it's that gamekeeper of yours," he added, "though they admit they have no hope of bringing it home to him. They believe it to have been an accident and are very wild at all the trouble he has given them."
Lord Fell smiled a grim smile but made no comment.
Shortly after the bridal couple had returned from a very brief honeymoon spent in London, Lady Fell was taken ill with a bad attack of influenza, upon which the Castle doctor was fearing pneumonia was going to supervene. Happily, however, though for a few days very ill, she made a speedy recovery, all due, she said she was sure, to the attention Christine had given her.
Christine had been with her, night and day, having had a bed put up in her room, so that she would always be within call if the invalid needed anything.
One day when Lady Fell was convalescent, Lord Fell was sitting with her. Christine had gone for a walk to get some fresh air. Suddenly Lady Fell said sharply:
"Tell me, Tiger, is it because they found out Christine had set those dogs on to Captain Blair that night that the detectives made such a dead set at her and asked her so many questions?"
If anyone was ever astonished it was Lord Fell then. "What do you mean?" he asked, so dumbfounded that he could hardly get out the words. "Did she tell you she set them on to him?"
"Not exactly," replied his wife, "but one of those nights when she was sleeping here with me she talked in her sleep and I heard her say distinctly, twice, 'And I hope they tear him to pieces. No punishment can be too bad for him!' Come, Tiger, don't keep any secrets from me. Had she known the man before he came up here?"
For a long moment Lord Fell regarded her intently, without speaking. Then he nodded and said with a deep sigh:
"Yes, she had." His face darkened angrily. "The brute had betrayed her. No, not in the ordinary way, for I am sure she would have had too much strength of character to give in to him, but she had become engaged to him and they flew over to Paris to get married, as he had told her, by special licence. Then, when they put up at a hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Blair, Blair pretended to find out there must be three weeks domicile in France before they could be married." He nodded. "So, she was caught."
"But were they married after the three weeks?" gasped the duchess. She looked very frightened. "Then if she was, the marriage to Percy wasn't legal."
"No, the scoundrel left her two days before the three weeks was up and she never set eyes on him again until he came up here with that fool cousin of mine. Unhappily, none of us knew whom Andrew was bringing up and, when I saw it was Blair, for the moment it was in my mind to turn the wretch out neck and crop, but then I thought it wisest not to make a fuss. However, you can be certain I kept a good eye on him to see how he behaved with Christine. Poor child, it must have been a dreadful shock to her!"
"But did she tell you all this," quavered the duchess, "all about her having known him?"
"No, and she doesn't know I know anything about it. She must never know either. Doctor Antoine told me the whole story when he happened to come here on a visit only three days after Percy had brought her up to introduce her to us. It appears that when Blair left her she went to Antoine in great distress because she was afraid she might be going to have a baby. But she wasn't."
"What a dreadful story," exclaimed the duchess. "And how Christine must have suffered!"
"God, I expect she did!" nodded Lord Fell. He went on: "Then when Blair came up here for the shooting he was all ready to start on the blackmail. I didn't know it at the time, but I learnt afterwards he ordered her to meet him at the summerhouse that first night when he was attacked by the dogs." He chuckled. "But she wasn't of the breed to be frightened, Elaine, and I understand it, now that I know she is of your blood and mine. So instead of going herself, she unloosed the dogs and led them to him."
"Did he know she'd done it?" asked the duchess.
"Yes, and the next evening, by pure chance, I overheard him abusing and threatening her. I was in the furnace room of the hot-house and they didn't know I was there. He caught her alone and, I expect thinking he'd got her completely cowed by then, ordered her to be at the summerhouse at ten o'clock that same night."
"Oh, Tiger," almost wailed the duchess, "and she went and shot him!"
Lord Fell shook his head. "No, I shot him!"
"You!" she choked in mingled astonishment and relief. "It was you who shot him!"
"Yes, I!" He paused a few moments and went on quickly: "Didn't I do right? Wasn't it the only thing to do? Wouldn't he, as long as he was living, have been a menace to Christine? Wouldn't he have shadowed all her life and rendered it miserable for her?"
"Yes, yes," she cried, "you did quite right!"
He went on solemnly.
"I shot him deliberately and with intent. I shot, too, to kill, and have never regretted it. I would do it over again, if necessary, for a blackmailer is not a human being. He is a wild beast." He shrugged his shoulders. "But I think I almost went mad that night. I was demented in fury and didn't care what happened as long as Christine was saved. Why, at dinner I had to pull myself in not to strike at Blair's leering face with a decanter, in front of everybody!"
"Did you tell him what you were shooting him for, when you came to the summer-house?" she asked weakly.
"No, I didn't speak. But he did. When he first caught sight of me coming out of the mist, he thought it was Christine for a moment, and called out softly, 'Ah, I thought you'd come, my charmer!' Then he just had time to gasp in consternation before I fired."
"Oh, Tiger, Tiger," his wife wailed. "What if you had been caught?"
"But I was. Jevons came up at the very moment when I was standing over Blair's body with my still smoking gun. Of course he thought it was an accident and I let him think so, as I ought to have done with everybody else." He looked troubled. "But I lost my head, Elaine, for the first time in my life. I was frightened at what I had done. I told Jevons to go home quickly and swear he'd never left his cottage. He said that would be all right and he had a perfect alibi, as earlier in the evening he had put their clock on an hour to get his boy—he lives alone with him—to go early to bed. So he said the boy would swear, truthfully, as he thought, that his father had not left the cottage, at any rate before half-past ten, half an hour after the shot had been heard."
Lord Fell rubbed his hands together.
"Then, I managed everything beautifully until that chap Larose came up and he suspected Christine at once, for one thing because Blair had said he was going to meet an old sweetheart here—you know all about that—and for another, Christine was the only woman here who would have dared to unloose those dogs at night."
"But she denied it!" exclaimed Lady Fell.
"Yes, yes, and she was superb in the way she answered his questions, particularly as she knew she would be in great danger if they came to find out she had stayed in that hotel in Paris with Blair. They had only to look in the register and see there the name 'Christine Blair.' I had heard that devil Blair remind her of that and threaten to write an anonymous letter to Percy to tell him to go and look."
"But could they find it out even now? asked his wife anxiously.
"No, that they could not," laughed Lord Fell, "for when I saw Larose was getting hot on the scent, the good Doctor Antoine came into the picture again and saved the whole situation. I got him to fly over to Paris and cut the pages out. They were burnt in the grate of my study here."
"What a mercy, what a mercy," exclaimed Lady Fell, "and what a friend the doctor has been!"
"He has," nodded Lord Fell. "Neither I nor Christine could have had a better friend." He spoke musingly. "You know it's a very strange story, Elaine, and really quite wonderful how poor little Christine, while imagining she was fighting her battles all alone, yet was being helped every time in ways she knew nothing of."
His wife put her hand over his. "I know you'd have always helped her, Tiger, and I thank Heaven whenever I think of it, that you let Percy marry her."
Lord Fell looked troubled. "But it was a near thing, Elaine, a very near thing. To go back to the beginning, when we first heard Percy had got engaged to some unknown girl in Paris. Naturally, I didn't like it at all, for though Percy isn't my real son I didn't want the line to be carried on by any kind of wife."
"But Christine wasn't going to be any kind," broke in Lady Fell. "You could have seen that at once."
"I did," he said, "and was immediately impressed in her favour," he smiled, "particularly so as the dear Louisa wanted to be so rude to her. I cross-examined her about her life and, though I knew she wouldn't tell me anything she didn't want to, her answers pleased me. She was no hypocrite and was full of common sense. From the first moment, however, I was certain I had seen her somewhere before. I was sure of it. She is of a type I always admire, with big blue eyes and auburn hair." He nodded. "Yes, I couldn't get out of my mind that I had seen her somewhere."
He went on. "Then, suddenly, when she had been here three days, it all came back to me in a terrible shock, for I remembered I had seen her some three years previously in Geneva, going about with Ronald Blair, the explorer, as his wife. You see, Blair was a bit of a celebrity then and well known enough for English people abroad to point him out to one another. I was almost certain it was she, and when I asked he if she had ever been to Switzerland, and she replied she had—with her father, stressing quite unnecessarily that it was with him she had been there, I knew I was right."
"What a predicament it must have been for you!" exclaimed his wife. "How dreadful it was!"
"Yes, it was dreadful, for of course it made me wonder if she had been actually married to him, and, as I knew he was still alive, it might involve us in a terrible scandal. Mind you, I didn't want to prevent her marrying Percy, as she seemed just the wife for him, most capable, of good appearance, and a nice modest girl."
"She is modest," said his wife. "There is nothing coarse or bad about her."
"Well, just when I was making up my mind to ask her point-blank about Blair, who should turn up here but dear old Antoine. I took him into my confidence at once, and lo and behold, he knew all about it, and told me how she had been wronged. He was all for the marriage and so—"
But they heard voices in the corridor and he stopped speaking. Christine and Percy came in looking very bright and happy.
"We've been to see that litter of little pigs Jevons's prize sow has just had," said Christine. "They're lovely little creatures and he's as proud of them as if they were his own children."
"Yes, and he's given them all names," added Percy. "There's one that hasn't got a proper tail and he calls him Gilbert Larose. He thinks it a huge joke."
"Ha, ha," laughed Lord Fell and he thought it a good joke, too.
ONE morning the following summer, Larose had just returned from a fortnight's motor-bicycling holiday and he was talking to Inspector Stone.
"Do you know, Charlie," he said solemnly, "I think I've made two discoveries in connexion with that affair at Fell Castle last autumn?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Stone with some eagerness, "then can we open the case again? It always narks me we were beaten there."
"And me, too," nodded Larose, "though I'm always glad we couldn't bring that girl into it." He shook his head. "No, Charlie, we can't open the case again, for one discovery has no connexion with the actual killing of that man, and the other--" he shrugged his shoulders, "is only guess-work."
Stone looked very disappointed. "Bah, anyone can make guesses and I've made a lot! For instance, I've several times thought the old lord had a big finger in the pie."
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Larose, looking most surprised. "Why, that's my idea, too! What makes you think it?"
"Because, looking back, he seemed too darned cheerful about us not being able to find out the murderer of a man who'd been a guest in his house. All along he made it plain he didn't want to help us and I'm sure now that he was hand in glove with that gamekeeper man. You might have caught Jevons out that second time you went down if the beggar hadn't been told so quickly that both the witnesses to the shooting were dead. I'm sure it was the old lord who had put him on his guard."
"I'm sure of that, too," nodded Larose.
"And another thing," went on Stone. "When Lord Fell was showing you out of the Castle after you had had it out with Christine, his casual mentioning to you that the blooming gamekeeper was a man of such fine character that he had given up his beer to buy that pig was all a fake, too. There was nothing casual about it. It was intentional, because Jevons must have rung him up when you were talking to the girl, and told him of your suspicions about his having so much money to spend on that prize sow."
"And I don't believe he's ever been teetotal," supplemented Larose. "Both times I've talked to the chap I remembered later that he smelt like a chronic beer." He laughed. "Yes, Charlie, that lot up at the Castle were too clever for us."
"But what makes you say that now?" asked Stone. "You think the lord might be the man we wanted?"
"Yes, and this is why. Last week I stopped two days in Lincoln to see the sights, and on one of the evenings went out to a political meeting for a bit of fun, as I'd seen on some posters that old Fell was going to be in the chair." He spoke impressively. "Now, Charlie, the meeting was a hostile one, and with most chairmen there'd have been a hell of a row. But Fell was magnificent. He handled a most unfriendly crowd tactfully and firmly, and all the time let them see he was their master. He just wouldn't allow a row and held them in as if they were a lot of children. He'd got the courage of a lion."
"Ay, he's got that right enough!" agreed Stone. "Did you know he was given the Victoria Cross when a young lieutenant in the Ashanti War?"
"No, I didn't," said Larose, "but I can quite understand it. Well, it struck me suddenly, Charlie—I don't know exactly why—that just as he was then out-manoeuvring the malcontents in that Hall then, so he had out-manoeuvred us up at the Castle. We were sure there was something to be hidden up there, and I'm sure now his was the master-mind which prevented us finding it."
"Yes," sighed Stone, "and we took a bad beating there, but we'll never be able to do anything now." He frowned. "But about that other discovery you think you've made?"
"Oh, I went to a Flower Show in Lincoln the next day," laughed Larose, "and saw Christine and another woman with her. Cripes, my heart almost jumped into my mouth, as I recognised this other woman as the one I had seen having a weep in that church in Maida Vale, after she had been inspecting the birth register." He lowered his voice mysteriously. "I followed them about without their seeing me."
"Well, what about it?" asked Stone very puzzled.
Larose was most emphatic. "Why, Charlie, they walked, and held themselves, and smiled, as alike as two peas! Sideways, too, their profiles were exactly the same." He nodded solemnly. "I was certain I was looking at mother and daughter!"
"But I thought the girl's mother was dead!" frowned Stone. "She told us so."
"She told us a lot of things, didn't she," smiled Larose, "and they mayn't all have been true." He went on: "Then when they stopped to talk to their friends, all the time when Christine was speaking to anyone the other woman never took her eyes off her, as if she was so proud of her looks. Yes, I'm as sure of it as I've ever been sure of anything, that there was mother-love in the elder woman's eyes."
"Who was the woman? Did you find out?"
"Yes!" and Larose's eyes opened very wide. "She's Lady Fell now, but she was the Duchess of Ravenscroft before she became Lord Fell's wife just before Christmas."
Stone whistled. "What do you think, Gilbert? What's the meaning of it?"
Larose spoke confidently. "Why, Christine wasn't old Fontaine's daughter at all! She had no drunken father, or a common, coarse woman for her mother! She was born in the purple! She's a love-child of course, and the duchess put her out to nurse with the Fontaines. That's all I can make out of it."
Stone looked most amused and his big solid face crinkled up all over into a prodigious wink.
"Which proves, if you're right, Gilbert, that those swell nobs, those tip-top people, who have tons of money, when it comes to love and all that are no better than us poor humble blokes, who earn our few bob a week catching murderers and thieves."
"You mean we're all the same?" smiled Larose.
"Yes, that's it," nodded Stone, "when it comes down to rock-bottom, we all want a darned good white-washing with the same brush. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
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