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Title: The Law of the Land Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000241h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2010 Date most recently updated: June 2010 This eBook was produced by: Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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Ralph Kingsmill drew a deep breath as he looked around. It seemed life had suddenly brought him all that man could desire. In his waking dreams he had pictured this, never hoping to see it realised. And now it had all come to him in most unexpected fashion. A week before and what had he been? A poor, struggling author, with one or two minor successes to his credit, burning with unsatisfied ambition, strong at one moment, lamentably weak the next; in short, a brilliantly clever man, cursed with the temperament that usually goes with the artistic faculty. He had had his debts and his dissolute companions, he had known a full pocket and a purse so lean that starvation had stared him in the face. The sordid side was the more painful, agonising, because Ralph had known the luxury of a refined home, and was an old public schoolboy.
More than once he had fallen very low indeed—in moments of despair nothing seemed to matter. But he could not quite crush self-respect and the feeling that he was born to better things. Nor had he ever crossed the borderland from which no traveller can return unscathed. He was wildly, even hysterically, glad of it when he had realised what the wand of fortune had done for him.
He stood up in the pride of his six feet of splendid manhood, his passionate brown eyes bedewed with moisture. The spirit of the athlete still burned within him. And here—almost incredible though it was—was the chance that he had dreamt of.
He might wake presently and find he had been dreaming. But the fine old house was real enough; so were the Elizabethan furniture, the pictures and the plate, the glorious gardens and the park with the historic oaks beyond. And all this was Ralph's, with a good eight thousand pounds a year to dress the part.
How had it all come about? Well, the thing was simple. Every day one hears stories of large fortunes left to comparative beggars, and Ralph's was a case in point. Abbey Close had belonged to a literary misanthrope, who knew nobody and boasted that he had not a single relation in the world. He sneered at everything sentimental, and yet his very loneliness was the outcome of an unrequited attachment years before. And one day there came in his way a short poem of Ralph's which touched a hidden chord. Ralph had written it from his heart after some mad dissipation. But the owner of Abbey Close did not know that, and thought he recognised a kindred spirit. It would be fine to leave all his money and property to the writer of that poem. The thing was done. Doubtless it would have been undone again in a fortnight, had not a sharp attack of pneumonia cut Mr. Ripley off, and Ralph, to his astonishment, found himself in possession of the Close. Strange things had happened before to-day.
So here it was all for Ralph to do as he liked with. At that particular moment no selfish thoughts were occupying his attention. He was thinking of Enid Charteris. It was a curious coincidence that Charteris Park, the seat of Sir Charles Charteris, Enid's father, should be situated not four miles from Abbey Close. And Ralph had adored her ever since the night when he had met the girl at a reception in Grosvenor-square. Pretty low as he had fallen, there were times when Ralph accepted the invitations of his father's old friends, and was tempted to "revisit the pale glimpses of the moon." How well he recalled the glorious July night now.
And Enid? Well, Ralph was handsome, and as to his brilliant intellect there could be no doubt. The young people had met many times, when Enid's lovely face would flush and mantle, and there was something in her blue eyes that told Ralph a tender story. But he had never spoken; he was too proud for that.
Now everything was changed. He had hoped to tell Enid of his good fortune, but others had been before him, and she had written him a little note of congratulation. Could she come and advise him as to the ordering of his new house? And so Enid was coming; coming alone, too, for one of her charms was her easy unconventionality. She would be here in a few moments, the sunshine of her presence would fill the rooms.
Oh! the setting was worthy of the jewel; the charming Tudor drawing-room, with its old furniture and display of flowers, was a picture in itself. A priceless set of old silverware stood on the tea-table. Ralph started as a shadow flitted across the room. His face lost its eager expression for a moment.
"I am disturbing you," the figure said, "and I know how you dislike to be interrupted during your hours of inspiration. However, I am not going to stay more than a moment, and then I will leave you to yourself for the rest of the day. Upon my word, the longer I stay here the more I envy you. After all, there is something in luck, though most men who have attained fortune seem to think otherwise."
Ralph smiled as he looked around him, his eye filled with beauty in whichever direction he glanced.
"I suppose I ought to consider myself very fortunate," he said, "and, indeed, as yet I can hardly believe that it is true. I was not seeking inspiration just now so much as dwelling—"
But the other man had vanished. Indeed, he had gone so softly that Ralph had not heard the sound of a footfall. That was a thing about his friend that he rather disliked. He had the gift of appearing and disappearing in this fashion, painfully suggestive of eavesdropping.
"Now, do I like that man or do I not?" Ralph mused to himself. "At any rate, he is a link with the past, which I must get rid of sooner or later. I should not care to have him about me very much. Later, when Enid—"
Ralph broke off abruptly and his face coloured slightly. He noted, with surprise, that the other man was in the room again, just as if he had the gift of making himself invisible at will. A feeling of irritation gripped Ralph.
"I thought you had gone, Barca," he said. "Have you forgotten something?"
The man addressed as Barca shook his head. He was a small, dark man, with a pleasant smile and brown eyes hidden behind gold rimmed glasses. Despite his name, Barca was English to his finger tips. Nobody quite knew who he was or where he came from; he was a doctor by profession, and his friends foretold a great future for him. Why he was staying a day or two at Abbey Close, Ralph would have been puzzled to say. But Barca had his own way of managing these things.
"It is nothing," he said, "I have found what I required. I am going as far as Stonehouse and shall not be back before dinner. A most interesting operation on an old follow student of mine. I had the telegram a little time ago. If I am late, do not wait for me."
Ralph looked relieved. Perhaps Barca noticed the expression, for he smiled slightly. Just for a moment his brown eyes flashed like electric points of flame. Ralph wondered why he had asked this keen-witted, hard little man of the world at the very time when he most desired to be alone.
"Very good," he said. "If you are late I will see that some dinner is kept for you."
Barca departed whistling, but when alone he laughed quietly, and his eyes flashed again. There was a snarl on his lips a greedy cautious look on his face. Once more he smiled as he saw the solitary figure of a horsewoman coming along the drive.
"A pretty romance," he said to himself. "A pity to spoil it! And yet here is the opportunity of my lifetime. That dreamer has everything, I nothing. Well, well. Richard Barca is not going to starve whilst Ralph Kingsmill is wallowing in plenty."
The rider came slowly up to the house; a groom appeared from somewhere and took her horse. She made her way into the old panelled hall; her blue eyes took in the old pictures, and the trophies, the piled up ferns and flowers. Enid was glad that Ralph loved flowers; it was another bond of sympathy between them. Ralph was standing at the drawing-room door now with a tender smile on his face; Enid flushed a delicate pink in response. For a long time Ralph held her hands in his.
"This is all I wanted to make my pleasure complete," he said tenderly. "I was half afraid lest something should detain you at the last moment—"
"You will not think me dreadfully unconventional," Enid said, with an unsteady laugh. "My father half promised to come, but business prevented him. Of course, I ought not to be here at all. How shocked some of our old friends would be! But curiosity was too strong for me, and—I came."
Ralph thrilled to his finger-tips. Tender words rose to his lips. He talked indifferently enough as Enid lay back in the depths of an old beehive chair and sipped her tea. She was so full of sweetness and easy sympathy, and listened to all that Ralph had to say with a flush of pleasure on her dainty face. She seemed to feel exactly as he did. Ralph came over to her side and took her empty cup away. He could see the gleam of her pearly teeth and catch the fragrance of her chestnut hair.
"What a wonderful gift of sympathy you have," he said at length. "It was the first thing I noticed in you the night we met in Grosvenor-square...Let me tell you a secret, Enid. I went there to get a meal. My fortunes were at their lowest ebb that night. I had less money in my pocket than the Junior footman. It was a case of Chatterton over again. And then I met you. As I walked home I seemed to have new hope and courage. We met again and again, till I was almost afraid to see you. I was afraid that I should tell you the truth. And I feel that in some way you divined my feelings, Enid."
The girl's golden head was bent for a moment; Ralph could see the rosy pink flushing to the roots of her hair. Then the delicate creamy face was lifted to his glance.
"I—I think so," Enid almost whispered. "I—I seemed to understand. And I admired you for your pride and reticence. Still, that is all over now."
"All over, thank God," Ralph said, with a deep thrill in his voice. "I don't know what I have done to deserve this good fortune, Enid. I meant to win it by my own unaided efforts, and lay it all at your feet. But fate decided for me otherwise. And I have not been all that I should; I have fallen pretty low at times. But that is past and gone. In the future my life is to be worthy. I am getting to love this place as one who possesses a soul in him to love the beautiful, but there is something lacking. My darling, will you come into my life and fill the void? I need not tell you that I love you—I am certain that you have known that for a long time."
"Why should I deny it?" Enid cried. "It seemed so hopeless at one time. I knew that so long as you were poor you would never speak. I will be more candid still, and own that I—I pictured something like this as I rode here to-day. You will not think that my confession—"
"No, no," Ralph exclaimed. "There is no need for more. Enid, say you love me and will be my wife."
Ralph's whole soul was shining in his eyes; he could see the love-light reflected on Enid's face, flushed and rosy with a new strange happiness. With a sudden impulse the girl rose and placed both her hands in his. Ralph drew her to him, and pressed his lips passionately to hers. There was a long, delicious silence. Outside the sun was shining gloriously, and a blackbird piped madly in the big cedar on the lawn. Then Enid drew herself gently away, and her clear blue eyes sought Ralph's brown ones.
"I love you, dearest," she said quietly. "Nothing can alter that fact. I am going to give myself to you as Ruth did, till the end comes. But there is nobody else, Ralph; tell me that there has never been anybody else? Do not think me unreasonably jealous, but you are the only man I ever cared for, and I should like to know that, that—"
"You are the only girl," Ralph laughed. "Passing fancies, perhaps, but no more. I swear to you, Enid, that all that is in me belongs to you. Will that suffice?"
Enid's smooth cheek lay close to that of her lover. She could not know that at that very moment he was thinking of another pair of blue eyes just as deep and tender. But that episode was closed; the page was turned down. And Enid would never know. Surely, he had never cared for any girl as he did for that one who lay nestled up to his heart now?
"I might ask you the same question," Ralph said playfully, after a long pause. "Are you quite sure, darling, that I am the only man?"
"Passing fancies," Enid said with a little laugh. "Of course, I have met men that I liked. At one time it was Stephen Holt. I fancy you met him at the Ronald-Claytons. He used to be at Eton with my brother. But I am talking nonsense, Ralph. Still, it is good for me to lie in your arms and tell you these things."
"I know the man," Ralph said. Try as he would, he could not keep a little hardness out of his voice. "I had forgotten that your brother and Holt were friends. We were all at Eton together, as a matter of fact. I have met Holt recently. Where is he now?"
There was anxiety in the question, but Enid did not seem to notice it.
"How small the world really is!" she exclaimed. "Mr. Holt is staying with a friend near us, and is dining with us to-night. He goes back to town by the last train. Can't I persuade you to come over to-night and meet him?"
But Ralph shook his head. He was far more disturbed and uneasy than he would have cared for Enid to know. He had hugged himself with the delusion that he had buried all the old ghosts, and yet here was one in his path, far away from the haunts that he had left for ever.
"I don't think so, dearest," he said. "My first visit to your place must be to pay a formal visit to your father and tell him what has happened. To-morrow afternoon. And if Sir Charles listens favourably to my suit I may be asked to dinner afterwards."
"As if dad ever refused me anything!" Enid laughed. There was a wonderfully tender happiness shining in her blue eyes. "If you like I will keep our beautiful romance a secret a little longer. And what a delightful thing it is! I feel as if I shall have to tell it to everybody as I go along. And I hope I shall never be jealous of you, Ralph. Where we Charteris women love we have no halfway house. You know something of our family history."
A slight shadow crossed Ralph's face. There was more than one dark story in the family archives, and jealousy had been at the bottom of them all. But there was no sign of that mad passion in the melting blue eyes that Ralph was looking down into; he shook off the sense of impending evil and kissed the smiling red lips again.
"And now I must go," Enid said. "Do you mean to say that it is half-past six. I shall barely have time to get home and dress for dinner. Ralph, I positively command you to ring the bell and order my horse round at once."
Enid was on her horse at last, and flung down the drive with Ralph gazing after her. It seemed as if something was going out of his life again. But it was not for long. He would go over to Charteris Park to-morrow and put the engagement on a proper footing. Yet there was a frown on Ralph's lace and a puckering of his brows as he stood on the terrace with a cigarette between his strong teeth. He was uneasy to find how near to him the dim past had come. He had almost forgotten that other pair of blue eyes. They were the same as Enid's, and yet how utterly different!
"Why do I dwell upon it?" he asked himself impatiently. "What have I to fear? I had quite forgotten that Holt was a friend of Dick Charteris. And so Holt was making love to Enid before I knew her! What an escape for her! What a lucky thing that she did not give her heart to that black-guard! And yet there was a time when I was very little better. And he knows all about Kate Lingen, too. So does Barca for that matter. It would have been better to have told Enid everything, to have made a clean breast of it. And yet to-day.....I couldn't. Still......"
Ralph threw his cigarette away and strode moodily into the house. Physically he was no coward; he was ready to face any danger, and had his nerves under perfect control.
And yet there were one or two things that he should have told Enid. Episodes of his past...... He should have trusted her love for him further than he had done.
The dark clouds had cleared away by dinner time, when Ralph sat alone. Barca came back before dark; he seemed on good terms with himself. He had had a perfectly successful operation, but was rather tired, and meant to go to bed early. He asked no questions about Miss Charteris, and Ralph was grateful. Like most Bohemians, he was the soul of hospitality; at the same time, he was anxious to know how much longer Barca was going to stay at Abbey Close. He desired to cut away the old life as speedily as possible. Barca's eyes flashed murderously for a moment, and he played with his dessert knife as if it been a lancet.
"You are anxious to get rid of me, my friend," he said. "Well, perhaps it is natural. I shall go and tell the others that Ralph Kingsmill has turned respectable; that he is going to divert his brilliant intellect in the direction of broadcloth and square-toed boots; that he is going to be married. And what will the fair Kate say?"
"What makes you think I am anxious to get rid of you?" Ralph asked uneasily. "I have never said a word to you which would convey that impression."
Barca smiled in his dark, inscrutable fashion. He took a peach from the dish before him and peeled it deliberately. He might have been dissecting a human heart. Ralph could imagine those cold, steady hands working calmly on some unhappy creature in the last stages of a fell disease.
"You have said absolutely nothing," Barca replied. "In that way you are the soul of discretion, but when a man has made up his mind to marry, it is no unusual thing for him to find it prudent to cut off the friends of his youth. I don't suppose Miss Charteris will have much sympathy with a casual like Richard Barca."
"I don't recollect mentioning Miss Charteris's name at all," Ralph said coldly, "beyond casually remarking that she had been here this afternoon. Apart from that—"
"Is there really any reason for more?" Barca laughed. "I can tell what has happened from the expression of your face and the dreamy look in your eyes. Since we sat down you have glanced several times at the clock, as if wondering how much longer it would be before I left you to pursue my evening experiments as usual. Still, a man can't altogether escape from the indiscretions of his youth, and, as I ventured to ask before, quite in the way of chaff, what will the fair Kate say? You must not forget that certain tender passages—"
Ralph writhed uneasily in his chair. It seemed to him that there was a distinct menace behind the bantering tones of his companion. Just for an instant he detected a steely flash in Barca's brown eyes. If there was, he ignored it.
"Mrs. Lingen is nothing to me," he said. "It is a year since we parted. I shall be glad if you will not refer to the subject again, Barca. It displeases me. And I had always suspected you of a tenderness in that quarter. If my opinion is worth anything."
Barca's eyes flashed with a consuming fire. The handle of his dessert knife was gripped so tightly that his knuckles showed clean white to the bones. The man was trembling from head to foot with passion. And yet his laugh was steady.
"I am not so favoured," he said. "And I have no time for the tender passions. I who have only myself to depend upon. What has the obscure doctor whose first recollection is the whitewashed wall of a foundling hospital to do with love? It is not as if I had come into a lovely place like this. Upon my word, I envy you. I have made a study of the house. There are art treasures, tapestries, and the like, in a great storeroom in the attics that would furnish the place twice over. And the grand old Persian carpets. Why, the one on the floor here is priceless."
Ralph agreed eagerly. He was grateful to Barca for changing the conversation. And in sooth, the dining-room carpet was a marvellous affair, cream and gold and pallid blue, unfaded and unchanged after the lapse of three centuries. Ralph stood contemplating it long after Barca had pleaded fatigue and gone to bed. It was getting late now, and all the servants had retired. The long window leading to the lawn was not closed; the silken curtains flitted to and fro in the breeze. Ralph had no inclination for bed; he preferred to sit where he was, in a glow of delight, contemplating his new great happiness.
The past lay behind him, forgotten for the moment. The curtains before the window shook ominously, but Ralph took no heed. He did not hear footsteps on the gravel, and looked up in mild surprise as the curtains parted and a man stepped into the room.
A puff of wind closed the door gently but firmly, and the shaded lamps smoked to the breeze.
"I am about the last visitor you expected," the intruder said harshly.
He advanced to the centre of the room, a tall, slim figure, with good-looking features marred by the traces of dissipation. The grey eyes were a little too close together, the lips under the fair moustache too sensual. But the eyes were blazing, and the man's whole frame quivered with impatient anger.
"Stephen Holt," Ralph said. "It is some time since we met. I should have thought after our last meeting that you would not have ventured to intrude upon me again. What do you mean by coming here in this fashion at this hour?"
The stranger laughed hoarsely. There was a studied insolence in his manner.
"One question at a time," he said. "It will be my turn presently. I left Charteris Park to go to town by the last train. I got as far as the Junction, and then left my carriage and came here by way of the fields. I should not have come at all had I not discovered something at dinner to-night. You are engaged to Enid Charteris?"
Ralph smiled at the impetuosity of the question. He had all the feeling of the man who has been successful, and could afford to deal leniently with his ousted rival. It seemed hard to believe, though, that the man who stood before him had once been on friendly, not to say affectionate, terms with Enid. But then Stephen Holt had been a different man in those days, before the poison had entered his blood, and he had drifted down hill towards the brink of social ruin.
"You have been drinking," Ralph said. "You must have been somewhere since you left Charters Park. Now, just think a moment before you take a step which you may have occasion bitterly to regret. Few men would stand here and argue the question out as I am doing now, for I tell you candidly my impulse is to give you a minute to leave the house or kick you out through the window. At any rate, I decline to enter into a vulgar row with you on the subject of Miss Charteris."
"Hear this beggar on horseback talk," Holt sneered. "Listen to the struggling poet, who only a few weeks ago hardly knew what it was to have a decent meal. Perhaps you will not ride so high a horse after I have seen my sister. Yes, I see I have touched you on a soft spot there. And now once more I ask you plainly, are you or are you not engaged to Enid Charteris?"
Ralph stepped forward, fierce rage gleaming in his eyes. It suddenly occurred to him, however, that this man was a guest of a sort in his house, and that violence was out of place. With an effort he controlled himself. Coolly shrugging his shoulders, he turned away with a smile.
"You have no right to ask the question, and I am certain that she did not tell you."
"That is true enough. But I have eyes to see. And to-night at dinner she was transformed, glorified! Even then I did not guess who it was till your name was mentioned. Then as I looked at her face again and learnt where she had passed the after-noon, I knew. And, but for you, that girl would have been mine, the only woman in the world that could have held me straight. You come in and steal her from me like this. You will give her up, Kingsmill."
"My good fellow," Ralph said warmly, "you have been drinking!"
"Well, what of that?" the other asked sullenly. "I had some time to wait at the station, and I was wild with disappointed love and jealousy. Who are you to step in between any man and the woman he cares for? There was Kate Lingen, for instance, and Barca. And you will not deny that at one time your passion for Kate Lingen—"
"You had better be careful," Ralph said between his teeth. "Fortunately for me, I found out what Mrs. Lingen was before it was too late. We parted friends—"
"Yes, but you did not get your letters back," Holt sneered. "Such letters! Written by a poet with the love frenzy upon him! And I can place my hand on those letters to-morrow. Recall some of the tender phrases. If you will be so good! And think of Enid Charteris's face as she reads those letters of yours. Now, what are you going to do?"
Ralph's first impulse was to take the miscreant by the throat and shake the life out of him. There was hot passionate blood in his veins, and Holt was pushing him far. He must be careful.
"Go on," he whispered; "go on. I can see that you have a proposal to make."
"Oh, I have. You are rich, and I am desperately in need of money. Give me L2000 and break off your engagement with Enid, and those letters are yours. Enid is my one hope of salvation: she alone can keep me from going headlong to the devil. Kate played you false when she said that she had destroyed those letters. And I know where to find them. Nobody need be any the wiser, nobody knows that I have been here. I am supposed to be half-way to London by this time. Give me your promise, and you shall never hear from me again."
Mechanically Ralph took up a long-bladed paper-cutter from the table. It was an Eastern toy, but capable of being a dangerous weapon in a strong man's hands.
"And if I refuse this preposterous offer?" he said in a deep whisper.
"Then I go to Enid and tell her everything. I give her those letters to read. I can't give her up; you do not know how I love her, Kingsmill. To me she is salvation itself. Once she sees those letters you are done for, and you know it."
Ralph rose to his feet. He was seeing red before his eyes now, lost in a tempest of whirling passions. The worm must be killed, this loathsome thing swept aside. Ralph seemed to feel that he had somebody by the coat collar, somebody who was crying out in alarm. Something flashed in the air and fell with a dull thud against white living flesh; then a red stream of spurting fluid lay like a swelling river on the carpet. ...
The deed was done, done beyond recall. It seemed to Ralph as if he had been the victim of some hypnotic force. Surely, with his own hand, he had never struck a fellow creature down like that! And there had been no provocation, no battling of one life against an other, no mere struggle for existence. It seemed impossible—but there it was.
And all in the twinkling of an eye. A red patch had blazed and burned before him. As to the rest, he could not speak definitely. He could feel the handle of the paper-knife in his grasp, a grasp so painful that the flesh of his palm was bruised. There was crimson on his right hand, dull glowing patches like carbuncles on the shining surface of the dining table. On the carpet, Stephen Holt lay stretched at length, face downwards, his hands flung over his head. A great band of crimson stained the delicate cream and gold and blue of the priceless Persian carpet; there were specks of horrid red on the great bowl of tea roses on the table. All those minute details Ralph noticed with an astounding grasp of little things. As a writer he had always had an eye for details, but never was that faculty more keenly developed than now. Ralph wondered at his own calmness. As he stood there he could feel his heart beating with normal regularity.
He bent over the dreadful thing lying on the floor, the dull husk of what had been a palpitating human being a few moments before. Stephen Holt was dead. There was not the faintest pulsation; the hands were already turning to a clammy blue. The murderer had no delusion on that score. Stephen Holt was dead.
And he, Ralph, a murderer. He started as the thought came home to him. A cold-blooded, wilful, and deliberate murderer. That is what the jury would say. And he would not have even one single plea in self-defence. He could not drag Enid's name into this horrible business; he could only say that Stephen Holt had come to blackmail him. There were no signs of a struggle, no suggestion of a quarrel and mutual violence. So far as Ralph could see, there was no incriminating evidence.
He would be taken to the place from whence he came and hanged by the neck till he was dead. Ralph had heard those dreaded words fall from the lips of a Judge once, and had never forgotten them nor their effect on a crowded court. And now he would stand in the dock and hear another judge say the same thing—to him! It sounded incredible.
A few minutes ago he had been one of the happiest men alive. It seemed deplorable that he should have everything and suffer like this for such a creature as Stephen Holt. He was better dead than alive; Ralph had done the State some service after all. And nobody knew that Holt had been there; he had crept into the house like a thief in the night. Nobody could know that he had come to Abbey Close; nobody had seen him leave the railway train at the Junction. If he were missed, it might be assumed that he had fallen out of the carriage. By this time his portmanteau had reached the London terminus. Ralph was listening to the honied voice of temptation now. Nobody had been near to see the tragedy. The whole house was perfectly still. And down at the foot of the garden was a deep lake that would for ever hold its ghastly secret. It was only necessary to drag the body there and fill the pockets of the dead man with stones. . . . . . .
Ralph bent over the prostrate figure. But he could not touch it. His impulse was to scream—the hysterical scream of a frightened woman. Besides there was the hideous crimson pool on the carpet, which would have to be accounted for. That priceless carpet could not be changed, or cleaned, or spirited away. There were the red spots on the tea roses, but they did not matter much.
No, that idea would have to be abandoned. Surely there was some other way? What was the use of being a creative novelist if he could not devise a way out of a situation like this? Thee great idea of sensational fiction was to find the way of safety for the hero, and Ralph had cultivated this line with distinct success. But somehow in fiction the thing seemed different—then facts could be fitted to the situation, here the situation was inviolate. A score of schemes rushed through Ralph's mind.
Finally it came to him, he would do nothing. He would go to bed and leave the window open. It would be an easy matter to fill the pockets of the dead man with little art treasures, and leave him there to be found by the servants in the morning. The inference might be that there were two burglars, and that they had quarrelled. A poor story, but in the circumstances the best that Ralph could invent.
Ralph was himself again by this time; he was even conscious of a certain indignation. He might have rung the bell and summoned the household to hear that he had killed a man in self-defence. But Ralph was as poor an actor as authors generally are, and shrank from the make-believe of it. He did not realise that his acting powers would be more severely taxed by his adopted scheme. But he made up his mind to go through with it now; nobody should know, and he would marry Enid and live happily ever afterwards. His mind was beginning to move more rapidly. To be quite safe he must go to bed. He extinguished the lights, purposely leaving open the window by which Holt had entered. He crept up the stairs and along the corridor. A silt of light from one of the doors attracted his attention. He could just see into Barca's room. The latter had removed his dress-coat and vest and had assumed a workmanlike apron. A prettily shaded lamp was on a side table, and under it Barca was doing something mysterious with liquids and a pair of test-tubes. He appeared to be engrossed in his labours.
A sudden thought came to Ralph. He slipped quietly along to his room and took off his clothes. Then he slipped into his pyjamas and rumpled his hair. After that he walked down the lobby till he came to Barca's room. Without hesitation he flung open the door, rubbed his eyes, and yawned.
"Not gone to bed!" he exclaimed. "Very busy?"
"I thought you had not come upstairs yet," Barca suggested.
"Been up a long time," Ralph replied. He was surprised to find how readily the lie came to his lips. "Fact is, I followed you up. I suppose I must have been asleep an hour when I thought I heard a voice downstairs. I came to investigate, and found your door open. Did you hear anything?"
Barca replied quite gravely that he had heard nothing. He had just broken a test tube, and perhaps that sound had disturbed Ralph. Barca appeared to be engrossed in his work, and did not once look at his companion. Ralph was grateful for that.
He had made up his mind what to do now, he could see it through to the end. He ought to have gone back to bed, but feared the silence of the night. It would be broad daylight at 4 o'clock, but it wanted three hours for that time. And to lie tossing in the darkness with that stark body lying below was more than Ralph could bear.
"How long are you going to be over that experiment?" he asked. Barca shrugged his shoulders, but did not look up.
"I can't say," he explained. "Perhaps an hour, perhaps all night. When once I get fascinated, I pay no heed to the flight of time. I have worked for 40 hours at a stretch without food or rest. You see that spot of liquid at the bottom of the tube? That is a new kind of acid. It is wonderful stuff; it will take stains, what are called indelible stains, out of anything, and never hurt the fabric a bit."
"Useful in case of crime," said Ralph with a shudder. He was thinking of the great purple patch on the Persian carpet. "I was speaking of forgery and the like. Could you remove the writing on a cheque without destroying the water-mark?"
"Quite easily," Barca said in the same level tone of voice. "The murderer need not fear the tell-tale stain of blood with this in his possession. And it permeates. A few spots sprinkled on a packet of letters, for instance, would in a short time leave all the sheets blank. Your letters to Kate Lingen, for instance."
The suggestion fairly startled Ralph. It so nearly touched the tragedy downstairs that he could feel the rapid beating of his heart. His guilty conscience asked him if Barca knew anything. But that was almost impossible; the remark was a mere coincidence. And Barca had not looked up; he was going on with his work with the same stolid, painstaking gravity.
"Those letters are destroyed," Ralph said coldly. "Kate told me so. And, in any case, she could gain nothing by keeping them."
"Except for purposes of revenge," said Barca, meaningly. "In case you get engaged—"
Again there was the subtle suggestion that Barca knew something.
There was a note of warning in his voice that Ralph could not wholly ignore. He would have liked to challenge the speaker, but Barca refused to look up. He gave Ralph the impression that he was merely talking for the sake of politeness.
"I am engaged," Ralph said, as if accepting the challenge. "I am going to marry Miss Enid Charteris, of Charteris Park. If you think that I have anything to fear—"
"My dear fellow, I did not say so. I merely suggested the possibility of it. 'Revenge is sweet, especially to woman,' as Byron says. Knowing something of your temperament, I should say that your letters were by no moans deficient of what another poet calls 'purple patches.' They might make a pretty wedding present for your bride. It would be by no moans the first instance of the kind."
"In that case I should have to procure some of your wonderful acid," Ralph laughed. The feeling that he could laugh startled, him. "If you could spare enough—"
Barca smiled in his peculiar way, though he did not look Ralph quickly and squarely in the face as he generally did. As a rule, Barca's eyes were notes of interrogation, and when he met a stranger he flashed his dark glance over him like the rays of a searchlight, and from that moment appeared to understand the other thoroughly. But now he was bending over his tubes as if he had no thought for anything else. It was some time before he spoke.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," he said in an absent kind of way. "Upon my word, I am so engrossed in what I am doing that I had forgotten your presence altogether. You were saying something to me about the acid, weren't you?"
"I was," Ralph replied. "I am interested in what you were saying, and I was wondering whether you could let me have a small quantity?"
"What do you want it for?" Barca asked.
"It occurred to me that I might make use of this stuff by bringing it into a story that I have had in my mind. You wouldn't understand—"
"I think I should," Barca responded, with his eyes still bent upon the tubes. "The story would have to be something sensational, I suppose? For instance, let us assume that there is a body in the story. It is necessary to get rid of the body and also the bloodstains left behind. Have I got any sort of grip on the plot of your new romance?"
"Something like that," Ralph said. He was fairly startled by Barca's words. "Can you let me have some of the stuff?"
"Not at present. That spot is all I have; enough to treat a square inch or two, perhaps. It will be weeks before I can manufacture it in bulk. In any case, you will have to submit to the tender mercies of Kate Lingen. She has the face and smile of an angel, the blue eyes of an innocent child, and the air of unsullied purity. And yet there is not a more cold-blooded, designing wretch on the face of the earth. There are men who would die for one of her smiles, or commit any crime for a touch of her lips. And yet she would, care nothing; in fact, nothing after—"
Barca paused and turned aside with a hard laugh. For the moment the pulsating intensity of his passion had startled Ralph. He had never seen the cold and self-centered man of science moved in this way before. He had never heard his voice throb with emotion.
"Do you hate her as much as that?" Ralph asked. Barca laughed again, this time more gently. His hands were steady once more.
"You are a clever man," he said. "Your boast is that you have a subtle interest where humanity and the moving strings of life are concerned. But you are as blind as the rest. And all this money comes to you who will use it to educate your children in the stereotyped way, and entertain your thick-headed neighbours to dinner! Whereas if it belonged to me—but go to bed. You are sadly interfering with the train of my thoughts. But there is no accounting for what a man in love will do. Ask me again in a week's time, and perhaps by then I shall be in a position to give you the thing that you require."
Ralph still lingered, although he could see plainly that Barca wanted to get rid of him, and all the time his mind was tortured by the feeling that Barca knew more than he cared to disclose. As his mind reviewed the lurid and tragic event of an hour ago, he began to see the surroundings more clearly. He recollected now that his quarrel with Holt had not been conducted in whispers. The house was very quiet, and it was possible that some of the sounds of strife had carried as far as Barca's room.
And yet nothing could be gathered from the scientist's sphinx-like face. He was going on with his experiments as if he had forgotten the presence of his companion.
"Still here," he said, by-and-by. "Are you working out another romance? Because, if you are, I can give you as much material as you want. Do you know that I could toll you no less than five different ways of poisoning a person without the slightest trace of foul play being discovered? What do you think of that for a power in the hands of a poor man like myself? But you are not listening to what I am saying, and you are taking up a great deal of my valuable time. It is not a nice thing to tell a man to go to bed in his own house, and I hope the hint will be sufficient."
Ralph laughed in a dreary kind of way. He slowly made his way towards the door. He had perhaps never disliked Barca quite so much as he did at that moment, but human companionship, however detestable, was bettor than solitude.
"Very good," he said. "I am really going now. Good-night."
Ralph dragged himself unwillingly away. He was a little disturbed by the tendency of Barca's suggestion. Why had the latter introduced the name of Kate Lingen at this particular moment? If it had not been for her and the thought of those letters, Ralph at that moment would have been sleeping the sleep of the just, perhaps dreaming of Enid.
He came at length to his own room, and closed the door. Every nerve in his body called out for a light, but he resolutely refused to listen. If he gave way to these nervous fears, where were they likely to end? He could not have a light; rather would he lie tossing and restless with that dreadful figure downstairs painted in the darkness like a vivid scene in vivid colours on a sheet of black velvet. Well, it would not be for very much longer now, the daylight was drawing near, and the crime would be discovered. But it was awful waiting all the same. Presently the saffron gleam of the dawn began to tint the sky, and one by one little objects in the room became visible.
Ralph could stand it no longer. He rose and went into the corridor. Perhaps Barca was still at work. But Barca's door was closed, and no light came from under it. The man of science was doubtless fast asleep. Ralph returned to his room, and once more flung himself on the bed. He would have liked to cry aloud; the dreadful torture of the mind was racking him incessantly. He would go mad if he did not have human companionship. He recollected there was a bell in his room that communicated with the bedroom of old Joicey, the butler. It had been put up by the late owner of Abbey Close in the latter years of his life. Ralph pulled the bell once or twice, and presently Joicey came. His manner was sympathetic and respectful. Could he do anything for his master—was the latter ill?
"Not exactly ill," Ralph explained confusedly. "More an attack of nerves than anything else. I—I came to bed too early, and I can't sleep, Joicey."
"I quite understand, sir," Joicey replied. "My poor old master was much the same. I'm told that it is a disease you writing gentlemen suffer from a great deal. What can I do for you, sir?"
Ralph hesitated just a moment. What he was suffering from now was the torture of suspense, the knowledge of what must happen before two hours had passed. And if he could be spared the agony of these one hundred and twenty damning minutes, so much the better. It lay in his hands to precipitate matters.
"I'm very sorry to give you all this trouble," he murmured, "but I should like something to drink. Will you go down into the dining-room and get me some soda from one of the syphons, and a little slice of lemon in it. Lemon frequently gives relief."
The thing was done now past recall. With an expression of deepest sympathy, Joicey took the candle that Ralph had lighted and picked his way down the stairs. Ralph could hear him as he opened the dining-room door, the blood was driving in his head as he sat up in bed waiting for the cry of fear and horror that must break from Joicey in a moment. He could hear the click of bottles and the fizz of the sodawater. But never a sound from Joicey's lips.
It seemed to Ralph as if his nerves could not stand the strain longer. His heart was thumping violently; the blood rushed through his brain like a mountain torrent after a storm. As he sat there he felt great beads of perspiration pouring down. One moment he was fiery hot, the next clammy and cold like death. He felt a desire to say something, as if it were useless or impossible to keep silent any longer.
"What is the matter, Joicey?" he called out. "Didn't I hear you shout? I hope nothing is wrong."
"Lor' bless you, no, sir," Joicey said cheerfully. "Only my eyesight is not quite so good as it used to be, and those maids they will put things away in all sorts of wrong places. But I won't be longer than I can help, sir."
The stumbling footsteps of the old man could be distinctly heard. He was actually humming a tune to himself as he went about his task. Surely he must have found the body by this time? Even a man of defective eyesight could not overlook anything so horrible and glaring. The impulse to rush downstairs and join the butler was almost more than Ralph could overcome, but he managed it.
It was growing lighter and lighter meanwhile, so that discovery must be at hand. Still, no sound came from the dining-room, except the air the old man was humming to himself, and Ralph wondered if the butler was ever coming upstairs again. He called once more, and Joicey replied that he was just putting everything on a tray.
A blind unreasoning rage set Ralph trembling in every limb. What was that old blockhead about? Was the man blind that he didn't see anything? The body lay by the side of the table. Ralph could see the dark head now as it lay pillowed on a patch of fantastic flowers in the warp of the carpet. If Joicey only turned his eyes away from the sideboard he must see it. And besides, one of the windows was open, and that would not fall to attract the old man's attention.
Joicey stumbled up against a chair, and the legs rattled on the border of polished oak round the carpet. Surely this was the supreme moment at last. . . .
Still not a sound of it, nothing but the footsteps of the butler as he made his way up the stairs. He came in, a little short of breath, but calm and collected and respectful as he always was.
"I've been a little time, sir," he said. "But the fact is I couldn't find a knife to cut the lemon. Going to be a most beautiful day, sir."
Ralph said nothing; he was too enraged to speak. But there was no pretence about the thirst that was parching him. His throat was hot and dry, and he seemed, to be swallowing nothing but hard fine dust. He made a clutch for the big glass in which the cool soda hissed and bubbled, and poured it down his throat.
"That's better," he said. "I was dying of thirst. Is it nearly light, Joicey?"
"Getting light very fast, sir," Joicey said. "And going to be a glorious day—sort of day that makes you glad to be alive."
Ralph could recall many such; would he ever know another? He would have to drag his burden on and on and on to the end. Perhaps time would dull the edge of his terror and remorse; perhaps he would go down to the grave full of years and respected of men. And perhaps he would talk it over in his sleep, and Enid would find him out. He had read a story like that some years before. No, there would never be any of the gladness of existence for him again. Thrice Joicey asked if he could do anything more before Ralph spoke.
"I don't think so, thank you," he said. "The nervous feeling is passing away. Are you thinking of going back to bed, Joicey?"
"Well, no, sir," Joicey replied. "It would be hardly worth while. Perhaps you would like me to pull up the blinds before I go. It's practically daylight now."
"Pull them up by all means," Ralph said, eagerly. "There is not the slightest chance of my going to sleep again. If you would not mind, perhaps, you will read a little of that book to me—the one in the green cover on the dressing-table."
All Ralph's nervous, petulant anger against Joicey had vanished. It was practically daylight now, but he had no wish to be alone—anything rather than that. At the same time his nerves could not stand the strain of conversation with Joicey. Still, the butler's stammering pronunciation and halting reading grated on the fastidious ears of the listener. And all the time the discovery of the tragedy was being delayed.
"That will do," Ralph said, presently. "You need not stay any longer, Joicey."
It was broad daylight, but the household would not be down for some time. Outside the birds were singing here, and there was the bleat of a lamb. The dread discovery must be hastened.
"One thing before you go," Ralph muttered. "There is another book you can get for me. It is on the couch in the dining-room between the windows. A little red book with gilt lettering on the back. Please to fetch me that, and I will not trouble you any more."
The business would be discovered this time, Ralph thought, for the dread thing lay just in front of the couch. There were only thin blinds to the dining-room windows, thin blinds with a lot of lace about them. If old Joicey had eyes at all he could not miss the discovery this time.
"Very good, sir," he said. "A little red book with gold. I saw it there just now when I was getting you the soda water, and—"
"You saw it then?" Ralph gasped. "When you were getting me the soda? And you mean to say you didn't notice at the same time........ My good Joicey, I feel the old sensation coming over me again. If you will wait here for me, I will get up, and we will go and find the body..... I mean that—what are you staring at me for?"
Joicey stammered out something. He was wondering, perhaps, whence came the ghastly expression on Ralph's wet face. And Ralph realised the need of caution.
"I wouldn't get up if I were you, sir," Joicey said. "What you want is a sleeping draught, if I know anything about it. Just stay where you are, sir, and I'll get the book."
Ralph murmured that perhaps the old man was right. Once more he passed through the old terrors and emotions. He could hear the old man in the dining-room. He could hear the sharp click of the springs as the blinds were pulled up.
And yet no cry from Joicey! Perhaps it was all a dream; perhaps there had been no murder. And when Joicey came again with the little red volume in his hand, he said never a word. Ralph had been torn to his soul for three hours now, and was getting played out and exhausted. The letters of the book danced before his eyes. He lay back with the lids closed, praying desperately for the sleep that he never expected to come to him again. And a moment later he was in a deep slumber.
He did not dream at all; no ugly visions disturbed his rest. It seemed as if existence itself had been blotted out so far as he was concerned. When he came to himself again the sun was shining high in the heavens and the world was full of noise and life and gaiety. He could hear a servant laughing in the corridor; down in the stables there was a clattering of hoofs; a groom whistled first one tune and then another with maddening persistency.
Surely, by this time the tragedy must have reached from one side of the country to the other, and yet, if it had, why this joyousness of life outside? Ralph rang his bell and Joicey came in. He hoped his master was better, he proceeded to pour out Ralph's bath water.
"Is—Is Dr. Barca down yet?" Ralph asked. "Not yet, sir. And it's past ten o'clock. Breakfast has been waiting for a long time. Shall I say that you will be down soon, sir?"
Ralph nodded, for he had no words to reply. The feeling that it was all a dream was very strong on him once more. And yet here by his bedside was the paper-cutter, the weapon with which he had committed the crime—the blood all red and sticky and set. And there was just one spot of red on the cuff of his evening shirt. No, it was no dream. And if it was no dream, then what diabolical thing had happened downstairs? Ralph hardly waited to finish his bath. He tumbled into clean linen and a flannel suit, and was breathlessly eager to be down in the dining-room and see for himself what had happened. He felt more than ever that he was the sport of Fate, the toy of Circumstance. . . . . .
He was down at last. Here was the dining-room—artistic, orderly, well-appointed, with the things on the table ready for breakfast. And there Stephen Holt had lain with his head in a pool of blood as large as the dining-table—thick life's blood that should have left an indelible stain on that priceless carpet.
Ralph rubbed his eyes with trembling fingers. The carpet was intact, there was not so much as a crumb on it. The beautiful cream and gold and blue smiled at him as they had smiled ever since they had left the loom. There was no evidence of the crime at all—only the red flocks on the heart of one of the tea roses on the table. Ralph had seen those flocks just as they had spurted from the throat of the dead man. They looked like insect marks now and did not suggest the tragedy of the night. . . .
"You have not breakfasted yet?" Barca said as he came in. "You are as late as I am. It is a good medicine that keeps me in bed. But you look as if you had found a ghost."
Ralph smiled unsteadily. With an effort he pulled himself together. He winced under the close scrutiny of those dark eyes.
"I have not found a ghost." he said. "On the contrary, I have lost one."
Barca appeared to take no heed. As to Ralph, he could only stand there looking at the carpet as if he expected to see those telltale stains break out once more and help make his crime known to all the world. He tried to think that it was all a dream, that he was the victim of some terrible hallucination. He had heard of such things before; they had happened to highly-strung individuals cursed with the artistic temperament. But the vision had been too real, for that.
Besides, there was the weapon upstairs in Ralph's room, the blade of which he had carefully cleaned before he came down to breakfast. He could see the very place where Holt stood when the blade entered his throat.
Had he been mistaken? Had the blow been merely a flesh wound? Had Holt come to himself and vanished, hoping for some more complete vengeance later? Perhaps he had crawled away to die somewhere in the grounds.
But that seemed equally impossible. In such case the injured man must have left a red track behind him. There were none of the damning spots loading to the window, not a sign on the flagged terrace outside, for Ralph crossed over to the window to see, nothing but the dread specks on the tea roses in the bowl on the table. On the whole, this engrossing mystery was a greater trial to Ralph's nerves than the knowledge of his crime. He wondered how long his nerves would stand the strain.
He wondered, too, what Barca must be thinking of him. He felt his face was pale and ghastly, he was conscious of twitching lips and haggard eyes. And usually Barca was a man of the keenest observation. But this morning Barca was hovering over the breakfast table with the air of a connoisseur.
"Nothing like hard work to give one an appetite," he said, cheerfully. "I could have done with another meal after midnight. What are you waiting for, Kingsmill?"
"I beg your pardon," Ralph stammered. "I was thinking of something else. Glad to hear that you feel so hungry. Let us sit down at once."
Barca chatted as he ate. No dish came amiss to him. Strange that he should not notice anything wrong, Ralph thought. As for himself, he toyed with his food, the mere idea of eating filling him with a sense of nausea. He made wild and spasmodic efforts to reply to Barca's flow of conversation. To sit there and hear the other chatter was almost insufferable. Ralph felt that he could have cried aloud. He must get away without delay and solve the mystery, He must know what had become of the body of Stephen Holt. Every time anybody came into the room he started guiltily. When were the police coming for him? Could Holt but know it, he was already reaping a terrible revenge.
There was only one thing to do—to see Enid and make a full confession. Far better to be in gaol than suffering the agonies of the damned like this. And everything might have been avoided if Ralph had opened his heart to Enid. In that case he could have defied Holt to do his worst. This reflection was not the least painful part of Ralph's punishment. If Enid really loved him, she would have forgiven the past. And now there would be no future to atone for what had gone by. . . .
But Barca was talking again in the most light-hearted fashion! Good heavens! had the man suddenly lost his eyesight? Could he not see that his host was suffering excruciating torture? And the man of science was so shrewd as a rule.
"I daresay it is," Ralph blurted out. "I don't care for that kind of thing much."
"What on earth are you talking about?" Barca asked. "I don't believe you are listening to a single word I have been saying. I thought that you were fond of flowers?"
"So—so I am. Did you say anything about flowers, Barca?"
"Of course I did. I was admiring that glorious mass of tea roses on the table. Pity that so many of them are spotted. Little specks like dried blood all over them."
"It is." Ralph said mechanically. "You see—what am I talking about? I mean those specks do look like blood stains. I expect they are blighted."
"I prefer to stick to the blood-stain theory," Barca laughed gaily. "If I had the time to write stories, I could make a good plot out of those flowers. The nearest witnesses of a great crime! Can't you see what I mean? A great crime in committed here in the dead of night. No trace is left behind but the specks on those delicate blooms. I should mix up the scent of the flowers in some way with the story. You ought to thank me for the hint, Kingsmill. It sounds like one of your own romances."
"Oh, it does," Ralph admitted hoarsely. Just for a moment it occurred to him that Barca knew everything, that the little man with the brown eyes was mocking him. Could Barca have overheard the quarrel and witnessed the fatal struggle? If so, why had he not spoken? Ralph's head was in too much of a whirl to follow out this reasoning. "But I am not going to write any more of that class of story. Something more pastoral in future."
"More Arcadian, in fact." Barca laughed as he took another egg. "My dear fellow, you are making a very poor show with your breakfast."
Ralph rose from the table muttering that he was not feeling quite himself. He was amazed that Barca had not noticed the same thing. And here was Barca going on cheerfully with his breakfast is if nothing whatever out of the common had happened. The latter finished presently, and lighted one of his choicest cigarettes.
"I think I'll go and finish my experiment," he said. "With any luck, I hope to be through by lunch time. And this evening I fear that I shall have to deprive myself of your company, for my presence is urgently needed in London."
Ralph drew a deep breath of relief. He could not help it. He durst not remain here any longer with the man who saw everything, whose perceptions were so wonderfully keen. He longed to be alone to try to work out the problem that was torturing him. He felt that his reason could not stand the strain much longer. He would hear presently that the body had been found, and then he would be easier in his mind. He would go out and look for the body of the murdered man himself.
He walked across the terrace in the direction of the shrubbery. A spaniel came from the stables, and fawned at Ralph's feet. It had belonged to the late owner of Abbey Close, and had taken a great fancy to Ralph. It looked up to him with its great amber eyes; there was trust and confidence in every look. Ralph fairly hugged the dog; here was something that loved him in spite of everything. The animal would have followed his master to the gallows.
"It's something," Ralph muttered. "Not much, but something. And Beltie will help me. Go and seek, good dog; hie in, fetch him out."
Beltie joined in the fun. He dashed into the undergrowth barking and frolicking. If there was anything loathsome lying there, the spaniel would find it. Beltie began to whine presently and cock his ears. Ralph wondered if he were on the verge of a discovery. But it was only a rabbit after all, there was no sign of the tragedy anywhere. Ralph looked in vain for bloodstains on the laurels; he could see nothing of the kind on the terrace. The mystery was getting more maddening than ever. Apparently Stephen Holt had vanished, leaving no trace behind. A fit of shivering took possession of Ralph and tears rose to his eyes. He felt utterly weak and helpless. He trembled for his brain.
Less things than this had driven men mad. And he was of the most highly-strung nervous temperament. How much longer could he stand this without telling somebody? And whom better could he have to confide in than Enid? When Enid knew everything she must forgive him. With the memory of her blue eyes before him, Ralph could not doubt it.
There was balm and consolation in the thought. Somebody should go to Charteris Park after breakfast and ask Enid to come over.
Ralph went back to the house feeling that he must do something. His impulse at the moment was to put all his feelings down on paper and write to Enid, telling her exactly what had happened. But, on the other hand, there was just the chance that the note might fall into another person's possession; it might even happen that Enid's father might open it. On the whole, when Ralph thought the matter over, he deemed it more prudent to do nothing of the kind. It would be much more sensible if he wrote to Dick Charteris a few lines in a commonplace way asking if he could spare half an hour to discuss an important matter of business.
Filled with this resolution, Ralph turned and retraced his footsteps to the house.
There was nobody in the library, so that Ralph was able to write his letters without interference on the part of Barca. He felt that Barca was the very last man in the world he wished to see at that moment. It was not easy to stand the scrutiny of anybody just now, but to endure the searching gleam of those dark brown eyes set Ralph trembling. Distracted and upset as he was, he did not fail to note that his handwriting was extremely shaky, and he made three copies of the letter before be was satisfied with it. Then, when it was written, he changed his mind and deemed that it would be better to ask Enid to come and see him. He smiled bitterly to himself as he marked his own indecision and fickleness of purpose. He did not know what to think or what to do. Finally, he decided to stick to his first resolution. It seemed all right now. Then, for no apparent reason whatever, he resolved to wait for an hour.
Dick Charteris was at home, and he could come along. He would be quite happy in the library as long as he had some logical problems to grapple with. He loved nothing better than the run of a library and an interesting volume.
Ralph, staggered back into the dining-room to find that Barca was scribbling a telegram there. The little man's face was flushed and angry; the brown eyes gleamed behind the spectacles. He tried to hide his chagrin with a smile as Ralph entered.
"I shall have to leave you sooner than I had intended," he explained. "I must get to London by the 2.5 train; it is imperative. And it is all the more annoying because I am in the midst of an experiment that bids fair to revolutionise the whole theory of germ diseases. Would you mind if I locked my bedroom and took the key with me? I may get back to-night and I could finish in the morning. To disturb this work of mine now would be to upset the labour of months."
Barca seemed to ask the question in a tone of genuine anxiety. Ralph had hoped to be rid of the man for good and all to-day. Yet his good-nature could not permit him to refuse. Who was he to stand in the way of a discovery that might be a lasting blessing to mankind?
"By all means," he said. "Take the key with you, and I will explain to the servants. If you would like some lunch before you go—"
Baron was understood to say that he had just time for that. All through the meal he was just as quiet and gloomy as his host. He rose at length with a sigh of relief. He declined the offer of a dogcart to the station; he wanted exercise and would walk; besides, he had plenty of time. Would Ralph excuse him while he went to pack? Ralph could have listened to no more welcome a proposal. He sat in a big chair moodily and fixed his eyes on the carpet. . . . There Holt had fallen; that was the spot where his life's blood had oozed out and stained the priceless fabric. And yet there was not a sign of it now on the dainty warp and woof of the alternate pattern. The pattern looked different, too, the same and yet not the same. Perhaps somebody had changed it, had procured another?
Ralph laughed aloud at the absurdity of his fancy. That carpet was unique; it had come from the palace of a Shah where it had reposed for three centuries; there was nothing like it outside of the greatest collections. It was true that no nails defiled the precious fabric, but still—then as Ralph looked a great round patch of dull red appeared before his eyes; he could see it glistening in the sun. Shuddering, he stooped to wipe it away with his handkerchief; his hands were messy with the horrid stuff. The whole room seemed to be filled with it. Ralph writhed frantically to get rid of it. And then the whole fantasy vanished; the white handkerchief was spotless as before.
"A delusion," Ralph muttered. "A poor delusion, a kind of delirium tremens. God help me, I am going mad over this business—another day like this and I shall lay violent hands on myself. If I am to save my reason I must tell somebody. I'll get Joicey to go as far as Charteris Park for me without delay. OK, Lord, there is that red stuff coming back again. Only, only yesterday.. . . ."
Ralph walked into the garden, his hands clenched behind his back so tenaciously that the nails of one hand cut into the palm of the other. He had worked himself up into such a condition now, that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Like Eugene Aram in the poem, he felt that he must take somebody into his confidence, even if it were only old Joicey. Here were the gardeners going about their work; the head man touched his cap to Ralph and asked him some question. He might have been talking to a person absolutely deaf for any practical effect of his words. Ralph passed on wrapped in his own terrible thoughts; indeed, it was doubtful if he knew that he had been spoken to at all. The head gardener winked solemnly at an assistant, and suggested that the new master had been doing himself rather too well.
"Looks as if he was ill," the subordinate said. "But ill or not, I'd like to change place with him."
As the last few words came to Ralph's ears he laughed none the less bitterly because his mirth was silent. The fresh air was doing him good, the blood ceased to ring and beat in his head, he was getting himself in hand again. He felt a little ashamed of himself, too; there was humiliation in the thought that those servants of his were pitying him. His step was firmer as he walked towards the house, once more full of the determination he had made earlier in the day. At any rate, it was good to know that Barca was not by to watch him.
"I must play the man," he murmured. "I must not give way now, and yet, the mere thought of it! . . ."
With a great effort Ralph collected himself. His shivering fit bad passed, but he had no need of anybody to tell him that he had suffered from a severe mental delusion. He went as far as the library and wrote his letter to Enid. It surprised him to see how firm and steady his handwriting was. He was by no means well, he explained, and could not come over to-day. Would Enid come to see him instead, and bring Dick along? As Ralph was sealing the letter, Barca came in. He carried no more than a handbag; he was taking nothing away with him.
"I hope to be back to-night," he said. "A few more hours and my experiment will be finished. Then I shall take myself off altogether and leave you to your teacups and your Phyllis, who, I understand, is in future to be your only joy. You are luckier than you deserve, Kingsmill. If I had half your money I would be famous before long. You are very, very fortunate."
Ralph laughed grimly. He wondered what Barca would have said had he known everything. The latter passed out of the house, striking into the park on his way to the station. His eyes gleamed and his smile was not quite pleasant to see. Barca slackened his pace; he seemed to be engrossed in some profound mental problem as he walked along. He came presently to a stile, leading to a stretch of woodland which formed a short cut to the station. A dainty white figure in a picture hat tripped towards him. The vision looked delightfully cool and refreshing for so hot a day, and Barca raised an admiring glance in her direction as she passed. Then a dazzling smile broke over the stranger's face.
"Good heavens!" Barca cried. "Well, I have had some surprises in my life, but never anything to equal this. Would you mind telling me what it all means and what you expect to gain by turning up in this Arcadian spot? I daresay I can give a pretty shrewd guess, but I would rather have it from your own lips."
The stranger gave a dazzling smile, though, at the same time, she looked very shrewdly into Barca's eyes. A close observer might have been justified in saying that she was weighing her chances, but if she was, she was gaining nothing from her scrutiny of Barca's puzzling face.
"You have heard the story of 'Mary and the little lamb,'" she said.
"Precisely," Barca said grimly. "But it is so long ago, in the tender days of my youth, that I have almost forgotten how the poem goes. But all this is beside the point. To begin with, even if I had more imagination than I possess, I could hardly picture you as the simple-hearted maiden who takes a passionate delight in lambs, unless it may be lamb daintily cooked and served up with mint sauce. I asked you just now what you were doing down here, and, as they say in the House of Commons, I pause for a reply. I should tell the truth if I were you, not necessarily because it is the proper thing to do, but because it will not pay you to try to deceive me. Once more, what are you doing here?"
The woman looked up into the man's face almost timidly, her smile was soft and tender as it she wished to beseech his favour. Her eyes grew misty and luminous.
"You did not expect to see me here?" she said. "You are surprised, Richard?"
Barca made no reply for a moment. A look of amazing tenderness came over his hard, shrewd face, and the deepest affection filled his eyes. And there was reason for his admiration, for the stranger was a seductive vision of blue and gold beauty. Her figure was slight but of exquisite proportions, her expression almost saint-like in its purity. Nobody could have looked into the tender depths of those blue eyes and remained unmoved by their charm and rare pathos. There was something very inviting about the childishness of the perfect face.
"I am glad to meet you anywhere," Barca said at length. "I am just as ready to commit a crime or cut a throat for you as over, Kate. Oh, you may smile, I know what a fool I am where you are concerned. To think that any woman should have so fair a face and cold a heart as you have! I don't think you have a heart at all. I wonder why God made you. And here am I with all the world at my feet wasting my time on you, loving you with a passion that you little dream of—but it is idle to talk like that. Kate, what are you doing here?"
Barca spoke with a passion that rendered his tones harsh and almost inaudible. The soft heavenly smile did not change on the pretty flower-like face; the sweet expression never altered.
"Surely you have no need to ask," the woman said. "I have been in Paris, as you know. Only yesterday I heard of Ralph Kingsmill's good fortune. I came down here to surprise him; I got sick of London streets and London conventions."
"And thought you would try the Arcadian role," Barca said with the suggestion of a sneer. "Upon my word, you look the part to perfection. Dressed as you are, you might pass for my Lady Bountiful. I can see the cottagers come to the doors for the sake of your smile, and bless you as they pass. It seems to you a good thing to be mistress of Abbey Close and play Virginia to Kingsmill's Paul. And how dreadfully tired of it you would be in a week!"
Kate Lingen laughed pleasantly. Nobody had ever seen her put out or disturbed, no line of anger had ever crossed that childlike face. The woman's utter want of heart kept her young beyond her years, which were surprisingly more than appeared on the pink and white surface.
"You give me credit for no feeling," she said. "Why are you so candid with me, Richard?"
"Because I know you so well," Barca said bluntly. "Oh, I know my weakness for you. I know that you fascinate me, that in your presence all my strength dissolves, and you know I would sacrifice the whole future for one kiss of your lips. It is a kind of madness, a mixture of the animal and sentimental that lies beneath the surface of the coldest man. At the same time, I know you have no heart and no feeling, that you are a pure and simple adventuress, that the very clothes you wear are not paid for, that some day you will step over the line and stand in the dock charged with the frauds that you have hidden so carefully. I am not blind to your failings, my dear. But you are going to do no good here. It was your fancy once to play at Platonics with Ralph Kingsmill, 'the pretty boy,' who wrote you those exquisite love letters. But the 'pretty boy' found you out, and he would have no more of you. In his romantic way he is the best of the lot of us. And so you have come down here to try to whistle the dog back again, eh?"
Kate Lingen laughed again; she was not in the least annoyed.
"You have guessed it," she said, with the most melting smile. It seemed strange that one so fair and innocent-looking could be so deep and full of guile. "Ralph was foolish. He did not understand the largeness of my sympathies for other men."
"To put it bluntly and plainly, he found you out, Kate."
"Well, you may express it in that coarse way, if you please. I always liked Ralph better than any of you. He chose to part, and I let him go. But I did not give him back his freedom, because if I ever do marry again, I should rather choose Ralph than anybody. And I keep those dear letters of his, not from any sordid reason, but because—"
"Oh, indeed! You kept the letters for their literary flavour and charm. Not to hurt your feelings unduly, I presume they would make the basis of a very pretty breach of promise case. The sort of letters that would be remembered with roars of laughter in court—the kind of comedy that would drive a sensitive man like Kingsmill almost to madness. And now he has a fine estate and L10,000 a year. He should be good for a round sum of money, eh, Kate? And one or two of your tradesmen have been worrying you lately. When you buy a diamond trinket on credit and pawn it the same day, you are putting that lovely neck of yours inside the noose of the law. Don't deny what I say, because I know what I am talking about. I have a much better plan than yours, but I see that you mean to go your own way in the matter. You will get a rather cold surprise presently, and then you will come to me for assistance. When the body of Ralph Kingsmill comes to be cut up you will not be the only bird of prey there, I promise you."
"What do you mean?" the woman asked, quickly. "There never was a man yet—"
"Whom you could not twist round your little finger—quite so. Why, you can do it with me. But we will not go into that at present. You are going to call on Ralph to-day?"
"Indeed, yes, I came down for that very purpose. I inquired my way, and walked over from the station. And such a lovely walk, Richard. Is that Ralph's house facing through the trees yonder? It has always been my dream to have a little paradise on the Thames up Cookham way, but I did not go so far as this. Let me get along without further parley. And when everything is settled, there will always be a welcome waiting for you at Abbey Close, Richard."
Barca laughed silently as if something amused him. His cynical bitterness was none the less because he realised to the full his weakness where this woman was concerned.
"That is very kind of you. Your success with men has blinded your reason, Kate. The only thing to your credit is that no breath of scandal has touched you. But there are other girls in the world beautiful as yourself, and far more worthy of an honest man's affection. Did it never strike you that, so to speak, there is another Richmond in the field, that Kingsmill might have given his heart elsewhere?"
"Is that really a fact?" Kate Lingen asked sweetly. "Ralph is engaged."
"He is. I take positively great satisfaction in telling you the fact. Kingsmill is going to marry Miss Enid Charteris, who lives close by. I had it from the lips of our young friend last night."
"This is very unkind," the girl said in the same sweet, level tones. "Very disturbing for the lady. I presume she cares for him very much; in fact, any girl must, seeing that Ralph is so handsome and makes love so charmingly. Still, she will get over it in time."
The speaker waved her hand and passed on, leaving Barca to pursue his way filled with a sense of defeat and grudging admiration. As if nothing had happened to disturb her, Kate Lingen tripped along the wooded path and then into the park that led to Abbey Close. Her red lips were parted in a smile, her blue eyes were filled with tender admiration. At that moment she was touched with something akin to womanly feeling. How lovely it all looked, how peaceful was the old house in the sunshine! As Kate approached the house a tall figure rose from a large seat under a cedar tree and came towards her. Ralph had been seeing visions all day. This lovely one did not surprise him in the least.
But all the same he was disturbed and uneasy. Joicey had come back with a reply to his note. Enid was very sorry to hear that her lover was not well; she would follow her letter and come over with Dick without delay. She might arrive at any time now. And here was the woman who had caused all the trouble, the person that Ralph had the most reason to dread in the whole world. Truly his sin was finding him out now. A bolt had fallen from the blue that threatened to crush all the sweetness and marrow out of life.
"Mrs. Lingen!" he gasped, as he hardly touched the eager outstretched hand, "this—this is quite an unexpected pleasure! But when we parted some year or so ago it was understood—"
"It was foolish of us," the woman said, with a soft sweep of her long lashes. "You were hasty, my dear boy, and perhaps I was careless. But I have never forgotten. Those dear letters of yours have proved to be one of the great consolations of my life."
"Oh, this is going too far," Ralph protested. "Our parting was complete and definite. And you gave me your promise to destroy those letters."
"I couldn't, dear," the woman pleaded. "I honestly tried to. But I had not the heart to do it. When I came back to London everything reminded me of you; it was too painful. And I could not stand it any longer; I wanted to be by your side, and ask your forgiveness. Oh, Ralph, if you had not loved me you would not have written to me as you did. And love like that does not come and go at a moment's notice. When I look into your face—"
The speaker paused, for they were no longer alone. A tall, slender figure in a wide straw hat stood under the cool shadow of the cedar; her blue eyes were looking anxiously into Ralph's pale, haggard face. But Kate Lingen was not in the least put out. She rose and regarded Enid Charteris in her sweetest manner, the childlike smile on her lips.
"Some visitors of yours, Ralph," she said. "Pray, introduce me."
Enid bowed a little coldly. She did not extend her hand. Ralph wondered miserably if she had overheard any of that impassioned speech of Kate's.
"I have heard your name before," Kate said. "Perhaps we shall know one another better when we are near neighbours. Has not Ralph told you, Miss Charteris? Naughty boy! He has not told you that for the last two years we have been engaged to be married. And such an ideal lover, too, so sweet and tender and poetic a letter-writer."
Enid's slender figure seemed to freeze, her lips turned pale as ashes. Then her eyes, like frosty fires, turned mutely to Ralph for an explanation.
Ralph appeared but dimly to apprehend what was taking place. After all, what did it matter, what did anything matter now? A quick, sharp question broke from Enid's lips, but Ralph did not hear it. The question was repeated before he replied.
"I do not know," he said. "This lady is mistaken. She is not engaged to me."
Probably Kate Lingen had expected some such reply. A little cry of pain escaped her; she laid her hand to her heart. The only one of the party who remained calm was Enid's brother, Richard. His rather grave face was rendered all the more solemn by reason of the glass screwed in his right eye. It always puzzled people at the first glance to say whether Dick Charteris was very clever or very stupid. It was impossible to guess from his face now. Just for an instant his clean-shaven lips seemed to flicker as he glanced from one to the other.
"You are teasing me," Kate Lingen said. Her childishness and innocence were very marked as she spoke. "But your jest is not in the best taste, Ralph, seeing that Miss Charteris is a stranger to me."
Enid's eyes flashed approval. She felt hurt and humiliated, yet she was sorry for the pretty childlike figure by her side. Kate Lingen's innocence had taken her in entirely. It was impossible to look at the sweet face and believe that any guile could lie behind it.
But Ralph knew. He had known for the past two years. He realised with shamed helplessness how utterly the woman had deceived him. He was perfectly aware that she had neither heart nor feeling. She looked on the admiration of men as a flower looks to the sunshine; it was her pastime to bring men to her feet and smile at their folly. She had caused other women to suffer in this way. It was two years since Ralph had found this out, two years since he had spoken his mind freely. Whether or not his bitter words had left a sting, he could not say. Kate Lingen had parted from him with an innocent smile; if she felt anything, she did not show it.
She was now playing the injured one perfectly. Her face was pensive and mournful; she almost compelled Ralph to believe that he was acting brutally towards her. And as to Enid, she had inclined to Kate's side from the first.
"I repeat what I say," Ralph said dully. "It is two years since I last saw Mrs. Lingen. We did not part on the best of terms."
"There was no quarrel on my side," the woman said with childish eagerness. "It was Ralph's pride that came between us. He was poor; he declined to hold me to my promise. But I refused to be released. And I felt that when prosperity came to him he would be too proud, too reticent to come to me. And I cried for joy when I heard of his good fortune I was reading your letters only last night."
"You gave me your solemn promise to destroy them," Ralph burst out. "Oh, this is maddening. You stand there with a smiling lie on your lips—"
"There is no occasion for any vulgar scene," Enid said coldly.
"I beg your pardon," Ralph replied. "So far as I am concerned, there is not the least disposition on my part to make any scene, vulgar or otherwise. You seem to forget that it is only one word against another, and loth as I am to contradict a lady, I am bound to protest that Mrs. Lingen is mistaken in her statement."
"Hardly that," Enid replied. "You seem to forget your admission just now that certain letters had passed between you, and surely you are not going to deny them."
"Letters are capable of more than one interpretation," Ralph responded. "From time to time, letters are published in the shape of books, they have even appeared in the form of a novel, and yet none of them could be held to have a compromising nature. Oh! I find it almost impossible to explain myself. I make every allowance for your feelings, Enid, but you are placing me in a most unpleasant position, and one which no one with a spark of manhood could endure for a moment."
"That is so like a man," Enid protested, "always thinking about himself and never about the woman he has injured. In this case, it appears to me that there are two women. I am listening to you with all the patience I can command in the very faint hope—"
"Give me time, do," Ralph cried. "Was ever man placed in so cruel a dilemma? Here am I utterly incapable of dealing with the question as I could if Mrs. Lingen were of my own sex. In the circumstances I can do nothing else but—"
Enid faced round hot and indignant. "It seems almost impossible to believe you," she said coolly. "Even a child could see that Mrs. Lingen is speaking the truth. No woman could lie with eyes like hers. After all, it is only another instance of changeable man, the man who slights the love of a woman and practises the arts that won her on another. And to deny it—"
"I do deny it." Ralph cried. He felt like a stag at bay. "Two years ago Mrs. Lingen and myself were more than friends. I did ask her to marry me; I did write her letters. It makes me feel hot when I think of those letters. But you must make allowance for one who is at heart a poet. And then I found the woman out. In my own defence, I am forced to speak plainly. I found her out. I am one of a score. Admiration is the very air that she breathes. She would pine and die without it. Oh! there is no passion or feeling there, nothing that scandal could feed upon. She is too self-calculating for that. For two years we have never met. Then this good fortune comes to me and the ridiculous claim is set up. Should I have ever heard of it had I not become master of Abbey Close? Never! You will see what your lily is capable of, Enid. This is a plot against my freedom. She will demand money for her lacerated feelings. I shall be dragged into a court of justice—"
"This interview is getting impossible," Enid interrupted in her cold voice. "It pains and doubly humiliates me, but perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. It is not too late to save my self-respect. And you wrong this lady here. She could never do that."
"Don't you think I may be allowed to make a suggestion?" Dick Charteris said. "Making due allowance for the heated feelings of you both, it is just possible that this misunderstanding might be cleared up without the assumption that Ralph is the sort of man who goes about making love to every woman he meets. Don't you know how often one reads in a law case the side for the prosecution, and how often one comes to the conclusion that the prisoner is utterly and hopelessly bad? You can't possibly see a way out of it, and yet when the other side of the story comes to be told, you wonder how you could be so stupid as not to have seen the whole thing from the first. Now if you two ladies will stay here whilst I go into the house and talk the matter over with Ralph—"
"All I want is truth and justice," Kate Lingen said, with her handkerchief to her eyes. "I never expected to go through such a scene as this, I always knew that Ralph was brilliantly clever, but hitherto I have found him the soul of honour and integrity. In fact, he has been rather too simple."
"There is no doubt about that," Ralph said bitterly. "Of my simplicity there is no question whatever."
"That seems rather a cowardly way out," Enid exclaimed. "And after all what Ralph said just now about Mrs. Lingen's mercenary views was a downright insult."
"It seems almost incredible," Mrs. Lingen sobbed.
"Indeed, it does," Enid protested warmly. "Much as I have learnt during the last half hour I could not look you in the face and deem you guilty of such unworthy motives. You will forgive me if I ever went so far as to doubt you at all."
Something like a chuckle broke from Dick Charteris, only to be instantly suppressed. He could see how Enid's implied trust in Kate Lingen had disconcerted the latter. She was literally forced to play up to Enid's high ideals.
"Of—of course not," she stammered. "I could not drag my feelings into the light of day. Oh. Ralph, Ralph, why do you do these cruel things? Your treatment and your duplicity have broken my heart. But I can see clearly what has happened. Miss Charteris is another victim. But, like me, she will get over it in time."
Kate Lingen spoke in tones of the deepest pity, her blue eyes full of tears. It was only Ralph who knew how keenly she was enjoying the situation, with what malignant pleasure she plunged the dagger into Enid's palpating heart. And he was powerless to prove it; he could see how Enid was drawn to her tormentor.
"I am helpless," he said. "I can do no more. How vile a thing can lie under a perfect exterior, how false and hollow—"
With a gesture of despair Ralph threw up his hands. Kate Lingen dropped into a seat and began to cry in a perfectly charming way.
"He is mad," she sobbed. "These clever people often are. He will come to his senses presently, and be sorry for all this. Meanwhile it is very painful for me, Miss Charteris. And I came all the way from London quite alone to—to—"
Enid laid a tender hand on the speaker's shoulder. Her own wound was smarting terribly, but she thanked God that she had not shown it.
"I am going home," she said. "The cart is here. Will you come along with me and have some tea? Afterwards I can drive you to the station."
"No," Dick said suddenly. "I am quite sure that Mrs. Lingen would not care to go as far as Charteris Park. If she goes by way of the fields, she will catch the 4.49 up train, and get tea in the station."
The speaker's voice was dry and hard. Mrs. Lingen's tear-streamed eyes were raised to his with a glance half-demure, half-defiant. Dick's eyeglass was glittering and strong. Then the blue eyes were dropped again and Mrs. Lingen shook her head with a sigh.
"You are very good, dear Miss Charteris," she murmured. "In the circumstances perhaps your brother is right. It would be truer delicacy to refrain from intruding on you."
"Very well," Enid replied. Perhaps she had been a little precipitate. "In that case I will drive you as far as the station. It is all on my way home. My brother will remain; I am sure that he has something to say to Mr. Kingsmill."
Dick nodded without committing himself to any reply. In a speculative way he watched his sister and her outraged companion as they crossed the fields. Then he took a cigarette from his case and lighted it with great deliberation.
"It is a very foolish thing, my dear Ralph," he drawled, "to conceal one's past from the woman one loves. Enid told me all about it last night, and I was glad, in fact, I was most devilish glad. And she boasted to me that you had never cared for a woman before. Needless to say, I did not allude to Kate Lingen. Now if you had told her all about the Lingen business, she would not only have forgiven you, but she would have regarded the matter as a high compliment to herself. If she had ever seen the fascinating Kate in the flesh, she would have been still more pleased at her own powers. Instead of which, you talk the usual gush about the only woman in the wide world for me and so on, with this result. Of course, this contretemps is very unfortunate; it is the unexpected and desirable that does happen sometimes. And Kate lost no time in looking you up as soon as she heard of your prosperity. She knows what a wonderful way she has with men, and she came down here post haste to turn you round her little finger. By jove, she is a clever little jade. How cunningly she played the pathetic business, and how she took Enid in. As a matter of fact, I can tell you just why she came down here."
"Why?" Ralph asked miserably. "Not that it matters in the least."
"Oh! but it does. There are four of us who know the history of Kate pretty well. I am one, you are another, and the other two are Stephen Holt and Richard Barca. Against his better judgment, Barca is over head and ears in love with the woman; there is no mad thing he would not do for her. But I am wandering from the point for a moment. As you know, Kate has been going it lately. She poses as a woman of means, her idea is to make a good second marriage. But she has got nearly to the end of her tether, and must have money soon. She would have liked to fly higher than you, my friend, but for the present you will do. If she would announce her engagement to you, she could borrow L3000, which she needs to keep her from a criminal prosecution."
"Who told you all this?" Ralph asked. "I got it from her brother Stephen Holt, a day or two ago. As you know, this kind of social problem fascinates me, I study them. A little later I shall enlighten Enid as to Kate Lingen, and open her eyes to her true nature. Don't you worry about that, Enid is not the girl to change; she has given her heart to you, and will not recall it. You are going to live to be happy yet."
Ralph shook his head mournfully. Happiness and himself would walk far apart in future. After all that had happened it did not much matter whether Enid forgave him or not.
"You leave it to me," Dick went on cheerfully. "I shall be able to settle Kate for you. But you were a fool to trust her over those letters; you might have known she would not destroy them. And as for her suffering in silence, that is all nonsense. She will try to get money out of you, and she will probably succeed. A sensitive chap like you would do anything rather than have those letters read in open court and printed in the papers. Still, I begin to see my way to settle the whole business. The next time I get hold of Stephen Holt I shall let him know that I—"
"You will never get hold of him," Ralph said. "You will never see him again. Oh, I must tell you. I must tell somebody or I shall go mad. Stephen Holt is dead, he died last night in this very house. He came to see me, he menaced me with those very letters, and threatened to come between Enid and myself. And I lost my temper and I killed him. I am the murderer of Stephen Holt!"
"Steady on," Charteris said, soberly. "Pull yourself together, old man. Your good fortune or something has turned your brain. You could not have killed Holt last night, for the simple reason that he wasn't here. He dined with us, and I drove him to the station and saw him get into the train. I also saw him send a telegram making as appointment in London for eleven o'clock last night."
"Quito so," Ralph replied. "He got out at the Junction, and came here. He had been drinking. I may as well make a clean breast of the whole thing while I am about it. The whole of the trouble arose over Enid. Holt discovered last night at dinner that there was something between Enid and myself. He had an idea in his head that if I had not come along Enid would have cared for him; in fact, he told me that she had been very near to caring for him at one time. We had rather a violent scene I was to stand out of the way of the man and Enid was to be his consolation. And when I refused, Holt spoke of those letters which I had believed to be destroyed. He said he could get the letters any time, and that he would show them to Enid. I can't tell you what happened after that, except that there was a lot of red mist before my eyes, and when the mist cleared away Holt was lying on the floor of the dining-room dead. I killed him with an Indian paper-cutter. I can see the body now as it lay before me."
Ralph covered his eyes and shuddered. It was some time before Dick spoke.
"This is amazing," he said. "But I confess that I don't understand as yet. You say the thing took place last night, but where is the body? Where are your witnesses? Who discovered the remains of the unfortunate man? What about the police?"
"Nobody knows anything as yet," Ralph proceeded to explain. "I am going to surprise you still more. I played the coward, Dick. I kept the truth to myself. Of course, I should have called the servants in at once and explained what had happened. But nobody guessed, not even Barca, who was working at some experiment in his bedroom. I pretended to Barca that I had gone to bed as soon as he did; I looked into his room in my pyjamas. I hoped that the body might pass unidentified. I even placed things in the pockets to make it look as if a burglary had taken place, as if two burglars had quarrelled, you understand. And when I could not stand it any longer I made an excuse to send old Joicey down into the dining-room. He came back as if nothing had happened. And when I got down to breakfast nothing had happened. I left Holt lying in a pool of blood, the very flowers on the table were splashed with it. You know that wonderful carpet. It would show stains plainly. And yet when I got down this morning to breakfast there was no sign of a stain. Nobody had seen any sign of a body. It was as if the whole thing had been a hideous dream."
"A hallucination, perhaps, Ralph. But your eyes do not suggest that. Are you quite sure that Holt is dead?"
"Oh! quite," Ralph said impatiently. "No question about it. But it is the mystery of the thing which is maddening me. What became of the body? Who took it away? Who took the trouble to make everything as usual? By what wonderful process was that carpet cleaned? Why did the person who removed the body keep the thing a secret? I tell you these things go whirling in my brain till my head feels like bursting. You are fond of intricate problems, Dick. Please solve this one for me."
"I'll try," Dick said cheerfully. "Let us go back into the dining-room. I should very much like to examine that priceless carpet of yours. Your predecessor was rather proud of it. So Barca was staying here last night?" Dick examined the carpet carefully, but he could see nothing to help him so far. Ralph pointed out the bloodstains in the tea roses.
For a long time Dick regarded the scene of the tragedy through his eyeglass. He smiled presently.
"I begin to have an idea," he said. "I am putting one or two things together. My dear Ralph, it is quite plain that at present you need have no fear of the police. Your enemy is a cunning and a powerful man, who will not show his hand unless we can force it. Now what would be the object of saving your face for you in this way? Certainly not friendship, for it was too risky a job. There are scores of such men, and to get money and the desire to obtain money is the mainspring of this puzzle. But I must not divulge my theory prematurely, for it may break down. And you, don't want to wait till your nerves are all shattered for your man to show his hand. We must force him to do so. Would you mind lending me the sum of L5000?"
"You may take every penny I have in the world if you will only set me out of this dreadful trouble," Ralph groaned. "But nobody could get me out of this mess. Mystery or no mystery, there is no getting away from the fact that I am a murderer, and that sooner or later I must pay the penalty of my crime. Holt's body will be discovered."
"I don't think so, for the simple reason—but I need not go into that. You have given me a very fine clue if you only knew it, Ralph, in the matter of those letters—I mean the letters that you wrote in your period of calf love to Kate Lingen. Those letters proved to be your undoing; they may ultimately prove to be your salvation. That is why I want you to lend me L5000. It may be necessary to use it; it may not be necessary to part with a penny. But I want to be armed. If you can put your hand on the money, I should like to have it without delay."
"No trouble about that," Ralph said. "There was plenty of cash in the bank when I came into the property, and I have hardly touched it. If you like I will give you a cheque now, so that you can take it away—"
"No, no. Post a cheque to-night for L5000 to the bank people at Stonehouse, and ask them to pass it into my account. Don't fall to do this, as I may need to draw a cheque against yours this very evening. I'm going to London by the afternoon train, by the very train that Kate Lingen goes by if I can catch it."
"All right," Ralph said moodily. "It is all the same to me. But nothing you can do will save me from the punishment that I deserve."
"Nonsense," Dick cried cheerfully. "I'm going to save you. I'm going to expose one of the vilest conspiracies that ever was played on an innocent man. Every moment the things grows clearer and clearer before my eyes. And you are not going to lose Enid simply because you told her the traditional lie that she was the first woman you ever loved. Now sit down and write that cheque and letter, so that I may post it at the station. You are not in a fit state to be trusted to remember a thing like this. I don't suppose I shall be back till the day after to-morrow. And in the meantime, as far as you are able, let me implore you to go on just as you are. And don't tell anybody else what you have told me, though your miserable face is eloquent enough of misery, suffering, and remorse. What did Barca say to you when you came down to breakfast to-day?"
"Oh, he did not seem to notice much. Said I looked as if I had found a ghost or something of that kind. Otherwise he was not suspicious."
Dick chuckled; he seemed to be pleased about something. He looked at his watch, and declared that he must be going if he hoped to catch his train.
"I'll wire to my people from the station," he explained. "Good-bye, old chap, and keep up your spirits. Everything is certain to come out right in the long run. Give me the letter with the cheque, please."
Dick was gone, and Ralph was left to his melancholy reflections. But he felt better and easier in his mind now that he had told the dread secret to someone. The terrible tension on his brain seemed to have relaxed wonderfully.
By dint of a little diplomacy, Dick managed to take his seat in the train without attracting the attention of Enid or her newly found friend. He smiled to himself as he saw Enid walking out of the station with her head in the air. Doubtless she was miserable enough, in spite of her proud defiant air, but Dick told himself that he was going to alter all that soon. Over half a dozen meditative cigarettes he matured his plan of action. An hour later and he was in the drawing-room of Mrs. Lingen's London house, closeted with that lady, who seemed surprised and a little uneasy at seeing him.
"I don't quite understand," she stammered. "You must have come up in the same train with me. Have—have you any message from Ralph?"
"Now, what makes you think I have a message from Ralph?" Dick asked sweetly. "My dear lady, we are very old friends, and though I might have appeared to have neglected you of late, I have never entirely forgotten you. Let us suggest for the moment that I am writing a play and I want a fascinating character study to give backbone to my comedy. If I could put you on the stage just as you are, it would make my fortune."
Mrs. Lingen laughed unrestrainedly. Most women of her class would have hated a man who talked to them like that, but then Kate Lingen knew Dick thoroughly, and, what was more to the point, he knew her almost better than she knew herself. From the first, he had never come under her sway, nor had he taken any pains to conceal his true opinion of her. She interested and amused him, and, sooth to say, she was more than a little afraid of Dick Charteris.
"Oh, you can drop that," she said. "I know perfectly well that you did not come here for the pleasure of my society; and as to writing a play, why you are far too lazy to do anything of the kind. Now tell me candidly why are you here to-night? I am so curious to know."
"Of course, you are," Dick laughed. "You would not be a woman if you were not. And I'll pay you the compliment of feeling that you have a pretty shrewd idea of my errand."
Mrs. Lingen laughed again; she showed her dazzling teeth in a fascinating smile.
"I suppose it is a question of price," she said. "You have come at Ralph's suggestion to make me an offer."
"Well, we won't put it quite in that way," Dick smiled. "I am more or less on my own. You acted superbly this afternoon; in fact, I have never seen you in such form. There need not be any delusions between us, Kate. I was one of the few men you never could fascinate, and I have a fair estimate of your character. How wonderfully you took my sister in, and how you must have enjoyed the situation! But, all the same, you are not coming between my sister and Kingsmill, and you are not going to bring that breach of promise action."
"What is to prevent me?" the woman asked.
"Well, in the first place, it will take too long. The case could not come on for hearing for at least six months. And in the meantime what are you going to do? Before the end of the week you must have L3000 or go to prison; even your fascinations would not have much effect on a judge and jury. You need not deny this, because I am sure of my facts. Ralph has made a fool of himself, and is prepared to pay for his folly. He ought to have seen that those letters were destroyed. But he didn't, hence these tears. Give me those letters back and I'll give you a cheque now for L3000."
"Make it another thousand," Mrs. Lingen cried, with a quick, business air. "I am not going to try to bully you, Dick; you know too much for that. Give me L4000, and the letters are yours to do as you like with."
"It is a bargain," Dick cried. "Only I'm not going to trust you. There are thirteen letters altogether, and I'm going to read them all before I part with a penny. Turn them out on the table and let us get to business at once. What are you staring at—do you suppose that I am going to try to force the letters out of you or anything dramatic like that? This is going to be a cold-blooded transaction on strictly conventional lines."
With a laugh Kate Lingen turned to a little Dutch bureau in the window. With the aid of a pocket key she opened the top of the desk and plunged her hands into a pigeonhole. Dick watched her keenly. Ho saw her face gradually grow white; he saw the veins in the ivory forehead change to hard, knitted cords.
"Robbed!" she gasped. "Robbed and tricked and cheated. Some thief has been here. Oh, If I—"
She stopped, breathless, quivering with fury.
"I wish," Dick drawled, "that my sister could see you now. It would be a liberal education."
Dick Charteris smiled as if something had pleased him. But he kept his feelings to himself. He had never seen Kate Lingen like this before; he was astonished at the transformation of her face. The soft smile had vanished, the innocent look in her eyes had given way to a snarling, selfish anger. Almost unconscious of the presence of her guest, Kate Lingen raged up and down the room like a lovely fury. Dick wished again that Enid could see her fellow-victim of man's perfidy now. The sight might have saved her a world of trouble.
Then the woman turned on him viciously. Even her voice had changed as she spoke. It had grown harsh and metallic.
"I believe you know something about it," she cried. "You are not in the least astonished. You knew that the letters you spoke of were stolen when you came here."
"Now be reasonable," Dick suggested. "You will gain nothing by this kind of thing. Would I come here and offer you L3000 for those letters if I know they had already been stolen? But I am not surprised, mind you. Ralph Kingsmill is worth blackmailing just now, and you have made no secret as to your possession of those precious documents. It is more than likely that Kingsmill would be disposed to pay handsomely for them, and this must be obvious to the thief. You will have to look amongst your own friends for the new owner of those letters."
"What do you mean by that?" Kate Lingen said.
"Well, my dear lady, I think it is pretty evident. As I said just now, you have made no secret of the fact that those precious letters of Ralph Kingsmill's have a commercial value, in which you are absolutely right. I can hear you boasting of them at little supper parties, and telling your friends how you were going to be rich before long. Of course, you have to be discreet in remarks of this kind, because it might come to Richard Barca's ears, and that would never do."
Kate Lingen smiled a little nervously. "Why shouldn't it come to his ears?" she said. "Do you suppose for a moment that I am afraid of him?"
"Why, of course, you are. You know what that man is capable of, and you know how desperately fond he is of you. Among all your many admirers you have never had one yet who loves you with the passionate devotion of Richard Barca. Why, for your sake, I believe he is even capable of forgetting his self-interest. For a man like that to care for a woman more than he cares for himself is little short of a miracle. But all this is beside the point. Surely, you can give a pretty good guess what use those letters are going to be put to. They are just as useful in the hands of your brother as they are in your own. As I said before, you will have to look nearer home for the person who was so lucky as to find himself the proud possessor of those interesting epistles. What you said to me just now is positively childish, and I wonder that, with all your acumen, you did not see it at once."
Kate Lingen composed herself a little. But the smile did not come back to her face, nor the innocent look to her eyes. She appeared strangely older, Dick thought, older and more haggard. Really, deprived of her expression and baby attractiveness, she was not in the least beautiful. Dick pictured to himself what she would be like in ten years. But he had not come to discuss problems of this kind. After what Ralph had told him as to Stephen Holt's threat about the letters, he had come here more or less expecting to find that Holt had robbed his sister of the documents. Dick was anxious to know if his suspicions were correct, for the knowledge would clear the ground wonderfully. And now he knew as well as if he had been told what had become of Ralph's passionate love letters. Beyond a doubt, Stephen Holt had stolen them. Things were going very well up to now.
But there was more to discover. Dick looked about him in search of inspiration. The room in which he was seated was exquisitely furnished by one of the first firms or decorators in London, by whom no expense had been spared. To the outward eye, Kate Lingen was emphatically to be envied. Most people look her to be a young and wealthy American widow who had married from the stage. The marriage was correct enough, and so was the stage connection, but as to the rest it was as false and hollow as the smile of the ostensible possessor of this all.
"Upon my word, you are very comfortable here," Dick said. "These are very different to the quarters occupied by your brother and yourself in the old days, when you and me and Kingsmill and your brother were all friends together. How is it done, Kate?"
Mrs. Lingen laughed gaily, she had quite recovered herself, and was disposed to make the best of the situation. She wandered from one part of the room to the other and proceeded to point out to Dick some of her most cherished artistic possessions. His face was grey and inscrutable, so much so, that his hostess laughed and exclaimed that there was no deceiving him.
"There are more honest ways of getting a living than one," she said. "Did you never read in those wonderful books which show the poor and deserving how to furnish a twelve-roomed house for ten pounds? I never tried it myself, but, of course, the book says it can be done, and there is an end of the matter. All you want is your ten pounds and a clever carpenter, aided by a few packing cases and some yards of chintz. If you add to these two fans and a bulrush, the whole mansion is ready for the occupation of its owners. That is the line I have gone upon, Dick, and you can see for yourself how successful it has been."
Dick nodded, with a twinkle in his eye. "Yes, that is all very well," he said. "I believe you can provide a seven-course dinner at an outlay of about a shilling by referring to a volume of the same sort on household matters. But it is no use telling me that the original ten pounds runs to Eastern carpets and Chippendale furniture."
"There is another way," Kate Lingen smiled.
"Of course, there is," Dick laughed. "What I am waiting for now is for you to tell me how it is done. Do tell me, as I may feel inclined to marry myself some day."
"It isn't done at all," the woman snapped. "It is no use trying to disguise anything from those keen eyes of yours. You always professed to read me thoroughly, and, to do you justice, you were not far wrong. It's all sham, Dick; not one single thing is paid for. Anybody can swindle a London tradesman if he only has audacity enough. My game was to play the fascinating widow, to get security, and make a real marriage. But I've gone too far, Dick. I don't mind confessing it. I overstepped the line with one of my creditors and he has found it out. If he does not get his money by Saturday, he will have me arrested. That is why I wanted to sell you those letters. Can't you see how real my necessity is? And now the letters have gone. Stolen! By whom?"
"I could give a pretty good guess," Dick said. "Your brother, Holt, is pretty hard up. He tried to borrow money from me last night when he was dining with us. He asked himself to dinner on purpose. Not to put too fine a point upon it, my dear Kate, your brother is a great scoundrel. I only found it out lately, and I let him know it last night. I discovered that he was staying at Stonehouse with one of the shadiest characters there. It was their intention to return to London together last night. But all this is by the way, you may say. Still, I've no doubt that Stephen took your letters. I happen to know as a fact that he has been threatening Ralph Kingsmill with them."
"Oh! indeed," Kate Lingen cried. "What a fool I was not to have foreseen this! But you must let me have that money, Dick, if only for the sake of old times. You do not realise how desperately I am situated. You came here prepared to part with a large sum for those letters. If you will give me that large sum I will do better for you even than that. I will write to your sister a full confession of the part I played to-day. I will tell her everything. She shall know what a shallow fraud and humbug I am. Let me have the money and you shall make the confession as humiliating as you like. I must have it—I must, I must."
The woman's voice vibrated with passion; she held out her hands to Dick in an attitude of pathetic appeal. She had summoned all the old tricks to her aid. Few men would have been able to regard her critically as Dick was doing.
"My dear child, you are talking nonsense," he said. "The money is not mine to give. As far as I am concerned I should read your approaching disappearance from society with a great deal of equanimity. Get those letters back again and I will give you the money for them."
"But I could not possibly manage it in the time."
"Well, that is no business of mine. And there is always Barca to full back on. Barca is one of the cleverest men in England. He is cool and calculating; he has no heart or conscience. The one weak spot is his blind affection for you. He knows you quite well; he is under no illusions as to your intrinsic value, and yet his love for you is the madness of his life. Ah! You can smile again now because I touch your vanity. Go to Barca and ask him to find you the money. Lay that pretty head of yours on his breast and cry in the charming manner in which you alone can cry. And Barca will find it."
Kate Lingen laughed quietly. Dick's speech was very soothing. She did not realise or guess at the guile which lay behind it. For Dick had his puppets in working order now; everything was going exactly as he desired.
"I'll help you it you wish it," he went on, "because I should really like to get those letters back. Now, who is Jacob Vandernort, and where does he live? Mind, I am not asking out of any idle curiosity. Just before your brother left our place last night he telegraphed to this Jacob Vandernort saying that he would be with him about eleven o'clock. Does he happen to be an American with an exceedingly plain daughter? I understand that Miss Vandernort is an heiress in her own right."
"Very plain," Mrs. Lingen laughed. "Those are the people. They are living at present in London Gardens, No. 14. I have not met them as yet, but Stephens says they are very rich. But this has nothing to do with my letters which—"
"Will have to keep for the present," Dick said. "Put your faith in Barca and he will pull you through. If he doesn't, I shall be greatly disappointed. I must be going now, though I shall probably call upon you again before the end of the week."
Dick Charteris went away feeling on excellent terms with himself. He had prepared his plan of action now and was engaged in a task entirely after his own heart. He would have made an excellent detective had fate been a little more kind to him. He despatched a small stock of telegrams, and then returned to his rooms in Orchard-street to wait for replies. They began to dribble in at length to Dick's utter satisfaction. Then he called a cab and was driven away in the direction of London Gardens.
Mr. Jacob Vandernort was at home and ready to see his visitor. He was the tall, typical American with a pronounced drawl, but just at that moment he seemed to be put out about something. At the same time he asked politely what he could do for Charteris.
"It is rather the other way about," Dick said with his most pleasant smile. "In the first place, I may presume that you are well acquainted with Mr. Stephen Holt, who is by way of being an acquaintance of mine seeing that we were at Eton together. Last night he dined with us at Charteris Park. He left for London in the evening, and before he went he despatched a telegram to you saying that he would be here about eleven o'clock."
"That's all right, sir," the American replied. "He was to call after we came from the theatre. We were rather late back the piece Mr. Beerbohm Tree was playing is a long one. I left a message to say that Mr. Holt had better wait."
"As a matter of fact, he did not come at all!" Dick suggested.
"He did not, sir," Vandernort said impressively, "but somebody who knew all about his movements did. It was some stranger who came, about half-past ten. He said he was expected, and my man, who is recently in my employ, showed him into the room. When we got back nobody was here. When I came to question my man, he had let somebody in who might or might not have been Mr. Holt. I thought it suspicious, but as nothing appeared to be missing I dismissed the incident from my thoughts. And now my daughter comes to me and says that all her jewels have vanished from her bedroom. I'm wailing for a private inquiry agent whom I've called up on the telephone."
Dick's eyes glistened. Really, things were going splendidly. He guessed exactly what had happened; indeed, he had anticipated the event. Holt's shady confederate from Stonehouse was to have gone to London with him. Ever a boaster and a vapourer, Holt had evidently been talking about the Vandernorts with foolish freedom. And Jim Clarkson, of Stonehouse, was a needy character whose disappearance from that town had become painfully urgent. He had gone up to town, taking Holt's bags with him, and had reached London without his companion, who had left the train at the Junction to visit Ralph Kingsmill. Here was a chance that a desperate scoundrel could not afford to neglect. He had only to call at London Gardens and ask for Mr. Vandernort. If that gentleman was at home, it would have been easy to leave some message. If he was out for the evening, then Clarkson had the run of the house. All this, in a measure, Dick confided to the deluded American.
"There is more than one crime here," Dick concluded. "To make things more complicated, Stephen Holt has disappeared, doubtless the victim of foul play. I should like your assistance in clearing the mystery up. The quickest way to do it is to set the law in motion. Let us assume that it was Mr. Holt who came here last night, that he was party to the fraud. I don't say he wasn't. I do say that sooner or later you would have been sorry that you made his acquaintance. What I want you to do now is to apply at once for a warrant for the arrest of Stephen Holt on a charge of stealing your daughter's jewels. Will you do this for me?"
Mr. Vandernort extended a hearty palm to Dick and shook his fingers eagerly.
"You bet," he cried. "There are not many flies on you, Mr. Charteris."
For a long time after Dick had gone, Kate Lingen lay back in the contemplation of her painful thoughts. She had not exaggerated the position of affairs when she declared that she was in dire need of a large sum of money during the next few days. Up to a certain point everything had gone well with her. A lucky trip to Monte Carlo had found the means for setting up the bijou establishment in Selwyn-street, though practically all the contents of the house had been obtained on the strength of a hired motor car, a pretty face, and an unscrupulous abuse of the truth.
Not that the fascinating adventuress had any fears on the score of the truth. She knew that she was lovely, she knew what her powers over men were. And she was undoubtedly a widow, which gave her all the freedom that she needed. She was confident that before long people would begin to talk of her; she calculated upon getting paragraphs in the papers; on more than one occasion she took part in charity theatricals. There was only one thing—could she wait long enough? There are limits even to the patience of London tradesmen. Given time, Kate had no doubt as to her ultimate triumph. Among the thousands of rich and foolish young men about town it would be easy to pick and choose.
Mrs. Lingen was not particular as to a title, what she wanted was an easy-going husband with plenty of money.
Then the trouble came from an unexpected quarter. One tradesman, sharper than the rest, had made certain discoveries. He stopped supplies and issued a writ for a large amount; he pressed this claim in the most relentless fashion. He was in a position at the end of a few days to put an execution into the pretty house in Selwyn-street. Such a catastrophe would bring down the whole fabric of cards in twenty-four hours. The man must be got rid of at any cost. There was nothing for it but a stroke of audacious diplomacy. Still living on her credit, Kate Lingen obtained possession of a large amount of jewellery, and pawned it the same day. Before night she was rid of her implacable creditor.
Perhaps the man had known the jeweller; perhaps they came up to London every day in the same train. Be that as it may, Kate was face to face now with a graver difficulty than the old one. A solicitor had visited her, a sleek and oily lawyer of the Hebrew type, who had talked mysteriously about compounding a felony and the like. Not a single word he said could have been taken hold of, and yet when, still polite and smiling, he left the house, Kate understood quite clearly that unless the whole amount was paid by the following Saturday she would find herself in the hands of the police without further notice. Worldly as the woman was, there were by-ways and secluded paths of which she knew nothing.
She knew perfectly well that the polite little lawyer was making no idle boast. She did not delude herself with the belief that this was a mere threat. Saturday would see her in a prison cell if she did not find the money. And here it had been snatched out of her grasp at the very moment when she had felt most secure.
"It's maddening," she told herself. "I could scream with sheer passion. Oh, if I could only got those letters back! If only Stephen were here! But he will not dare to show his face here after what has happened. And there is Richard Barca."
Already the seed that Dick Charteris had dropped in his cunning way was springing up and ready to bear fruit. Barca was clever and ingenious, he would surely find a way. And of all her admirers, none cared for her with the passionate fire that consumed Barca. He would not hesitate to rob his nearest relative, he would betray man or woman, if it suited his purpose to do so, and he saw thereby a means of advancing his ambition. The man did not possess the smallest shred of conscience.
But with all his heart and soul he loved Kate Lingen. Not that he had the slightest respect or admiration for her. But his passion for her was the passion of his life. The more she kept him at arm's length, the greater did that madness grow. There were times when Kate Lingen was almost afraid of Barca.
She would go to him now and tell him everything. She had been proud of her success in the way in which she had got her home together, and did not care to confess a failure. And Barca knew for what reason Kate had built her charming spider's web. Still, she knew that he could not refuse her assistance if it was in his power to do anything. She had noticed before now how he had literally trembled at a touch from her; she had seen the passion leap to his eyes at her smile.
Yes, she would go to him after dinner, when she was dressed. She chose her gown carefully, a black lace affair devoid of ornaments or flowers. The pearly whiteness of her flesh, the dazzling loveliness of her smile made up for all the rest. It was a radiant vision that stood in Richard Barca's little sitting-room an hour later. The full light of the electrics shone on Kate's face and figure, her smile was melting and tender. Barca looked up from a maze of figures and drew a deep, quick breath.
He had been sitting hard at work wrapped in some intricate problem, which was occupying his attention to the exclusion of everything else. Kate Lingen had been standing there for some little time before he became conscious of her presence. Then he rose to his feet, and brushed his hand across his eyes as if he were dazzled by the radiant vision before him.
"I had not expected this," he said. "Fancy your calling upon me at this hour. How did you manage to get in? I always tell my servants that in no circumstances am I to be interrupted when I am at work. I feel disposed to forgive them now that you are here, but all the same there is going to be trouble to-morrow."
Kate Lingen smiled again, the same slow, melting, alluring smile. She took one step nearer to Barca, and made a motion as if she were about to hold out her two bands to him. If he knew that she was acting he crushed the thought down sternly. It was not often that he indulged in the luxury of self-deception, but it was good to feel that this woman was here to-night out of nothing more than sheer friendship for himself.
"How did you got in?" he repeated.
"It was very simple," Kate laughed. "Like one of those conjuring tricks on the stage—the easiest thing in the world when you know how. I was rather afraid of a refusal, as I adopted the simple expedient of opening the door and coming straight upstairs. Now was not that a bold and heroic thing to do?"
The melting voice touched Barca, he could hardly trust himself to speak. Then he suppressed the wild feeling.
"I am honoured," he said. "It is many a long day since you came to see me like this, Kate. And how beautiful you are! The beauty of the devil. My darling!"
The last words came as if they were forced from Barca's lips. He had grown very pale now; a red light was gleaming in his dark eyes.
"I am glad you approve of me," Kate smiled. "You once told me that I looked best in black."
"So does any woman, if she only had the sense to know it," Barca replied. "Sit down, Kate. You are smiling and fascinating as usual, but there is a suspicion of trouble in your eyes. You have come to consult me about something. What is it?"
Kate Lingen dropped into a sofa and made way for Barca by her side. In a vague fashion she laid her hand upon his. She could feel his pulse leaping to the touch. If Dick Charteris could have looked in at that moment he would have been more than satisfied.
"I am in great trouble," Kate said. "The usual bother—money. I thought that I had it in my grasp a little time ago. I thought that Ralph Kingsmill—"
"Could be brought to reason, eh? Well, I told you yesterday that was impossible. He has set his heart on a worthier object, if you will pardon me for saying so. How did you get on?"
Mrs. Lingen's face beamed with smiles at the recollection. With a few graphic touches she explained the situation. It appealed to Barca's sardonic humour.
"What a situation for a comedy!" he exclaimed. "Still, you were disappointed. Has any effort been made to get those letters back from you?"
"Yes; as usual, you always bring me to the point. Dick Charteris came up to-day, and without any ceremony offered me L3000 for the letters. He was not very polite, and took no pains to hide his opinion of me, but I could have hugged him. Richard, that was the very sum of money I needed to keep me out of prison. If you only knew it, I am the most miserable woman in the world! If you refuse to help me I don't know what I shall do. Promise to help me, Richard, promise."
"You know that I am ready to do anything in the world for you," Barca said hoarsely. "But how can I help you if you do not explain everything to me?"
"I was coming to that," Kate said, with her eyes filled with tears. "I have committed a fraud. I bought some jewellery on the credit system and pawned it. And the jeweller found me out. He will not prosecute me if the L3000 is paid by Saturday. His lawyer told me so. But if it is not paid by Saturday, then I go to prison."
"I see," Barca said gloomily. "But why didn't you sell the letters?"
"Because they are gone. Stolen from my desk by my brother Stephen."
"Indeed. But are you in a position to say that Stephen stole the letters?"
"Of course I am. He has been holding them over the head of Ralph Kingsmill and trying to blackmail him on the strength of them. I feel as if I could kill him. It is a dreadful thing to have a brother who is a thief."
Barca allowed the outburst of righteous indignation to pass. There was no occasion for any further explanation, he could see the danger of his companion's position quite clearly. If he had followed the dictates of his own cold, cunning powers, he would have declined to have anything more to do with the matter. But Kate was sitting by his side, he could catch the subtle fragrance of her glorious hair, her beauty fired his blood. Never had she been so near to him as she was at this moment, never had the flower been closer to his grasp. There were other men who had felt the clinging touch of those white arms, other men who had been intoxicated by those red lips, but never Barca.
"What do you want me to do?" Barca asked. "In what way do you suggest that it is possible for me to help you? I have no money."
"I know it, but you have brains, which is sometimes better than money. You must find some way to help me. Richard, you must, you must. Think of me in the dock, think of me in a felon's cell. Oh, I should pine away and die of the shame of it, Richard."
The speaker turned her eyes full on her companion. Those blue eyes were full of entreaty, full of tender emotion. With a little cry. Barca reached out and caught the slender, palpitating figure to his heart. He covered the lips with loving kisses. As Kate lay in his arms, the pressure of her fingers was as passionate as Barca's own grip.
"I love you," he said hoarsely. "I love you with an intensity that you do not dream of. Kate, if I do this thing for you will you marry me?"
"Oh, you must not make conditions," the woman whispered. "It takes away all the romance. And I do know that you love me from the bottom of your heart, Richard. Promise me."
Abruptly Barca pushed the fair form from him, and began to pace up and down the room. He appeared to be deeply agitated, to be moved by some fear that Kate could not understand. His lips moved as he paced to and fro; there was a hard frown on his face. Then the woman rose and softly kissed him twice upon the lips.
"Don't be hard," she whispered. "Don't hesitate. I can see that you have found a way. And if that is so, why do you keep me in suspense, Richard, darling?"
The man stopped and looked the speaker hard in the eyes.
"I have found a way," he said presently. "It will mean the sacrifice of the great thing that fortune has placed in my reach. Everything comes to the man who knows how to wait, and I have waited till my time has come. If I held back till the fruit was ripe I would have had fame and fortune and everything that an ambitious man holds dear from it. And to save you I am to sacrifice nearly everything. Why should I do it, Kate?"
The woman did not speak. She stood before Barca with the tears in her eyes. Then her arms went about his neck, and she laid her wet cheek to his. Barca felt that all the world was slipping from his grasp.
"Don't do that," he said, in tones that vibrated with passion. "There is no need. I could not resist you, now nor ever, when you are in the need. For your sake, I am going to make the greatest sacrifice of my career. . . . Give me that Bradshaw. I must go to Stonehouse by the last train to-night. And if after that you play me false—"
On the whole, things were going quite as well with Charteris as he had expected. Already he had decided in his mind what had happened at Abbey Close, and what was likely to transpire in the future. If Ralph could have looked into his friend's mind now, he would have been startled to see what was there. Ralph had planned many ingenious situations in his life, but it is doubtful if any of them was as weird and ingenious as the idea which occupied Dick Charteris's practical brain at that moment. He smiled as he walked along.
So far everything had fallen out as he had anticipated. He had made up his mind that Stephen Holt had stolen his sister's letters before he went down to confront Ralph and try to force him to give up Enid. Holt would never have taken so strong a line as he had done if things had been otherwise. Upon this basis Dick had worked the whole of his scheme out. That was why he had asked Ralph to pay a cheque into his banking account against which he might draw, in case it would be necessary to purchase the letters from Mrs. Lingen. Not that Dick had calculated for one moment that it would be necessary to draw against the cheque or any part of it. At any rate, Ralph would have to part with no money at present. The letters had been stolen, and so far Dick had no occasion to go back upon his own theory. He knew what to do next, and proceeded to execute it without delay.
He came at length to Piccadilly and turned into one of the most famous shops in that famous thoroughfare. Everybody knows the establishment of Messrs. Jardine and Co., the great furnishers and decorators, where perhaps the largest stock of antiques in the world is to be found. Dick walked down between long rows of the most beautiful things he had ever seen, but his mind was not attracted by the artistic now. He wanted to see the head of the firm, and be had no difficulty in doing so. A youngish man, perfectly dressed and with perfect manners, came forward. Mr. Jardine was something more than an ordinary purveyor of goods: he was a great authority upon everything that appertained to furniture, and a fine judge of pictures into the bargain. Moreover, he had had the advantage of University and public school education, so that be greeted Dick with easy cordiality.
"It is getting rather late, I know," Dick said as he shook bands. "I won't detain you longer than I can help, but I want you to do me a little favour. My word, but this is like coming into a palace! I wonder you can find it in your heart to part with these things after you have got them. I know I shouldn't."
"Well it is rather trying," Jardine admitted. "Still, there are others in the firm to be considered beside myself; and, after all, one has to live. Is there anything in our line that I can show you?"
"On the contrary, it is something that I want to show you," Dick explained. "I suppose your business embraces all kinds of things, from wall decorations down to carpets. By the way, do you happen to know anything about carpets?"
"I might say that I know everything about them," Jardine said with a smile. "Of course, I don't mean modern things, because I am no more acquainted with them than you are. But old Indian and Persian carpets are a speciality of mine. I could tell you at a glance where one came from, where it was made, and almost the year of manufacture. That sounds like a boast, but it is a very easy matter to put the thing to the test. If you will come this way—"
"No, no," Dick cried, "I don't want to look at your stock. I have the article upon which I want your opinion in my pocket. Perhaps I had better show it you."
So saying, Dick produced a small square of some soft material and spread it out on the top of a magnificent Louis XV. table. It seemed almost incredible that so large a piece of material could have been folded so as to occupy so small a space. In all it was about 5ft square, and when shaken out it looked like a thickly woven carpet standing out from the table nearly an inch high.
"I am no judge of such things," Dick said. "But if that is not a rare and beautiful thing I am greatly mistaken."
"Quite right," Jardine responded. "That is old Persian, and dates back to the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was made in one of the factories of the Cashmir Valley by a man whose name I need not trouble about, but who employed as his designers an order of monks who professed a religion peculiarly their own. You will notice that the reds and blues are of a most amazing depth and purity. They never fade, and though I dare say that carpet has been down all these years, it is just as fresh as ever. But where did you get this from? It is a kind of extra piece."
"Ah, that explains what I didn't understand," Dick said. "The carpet itself is a very large one, absolutely intact and as fresh as on the day it was first woven. When I came to turn it over I found this piece fastened on the back. Why is that?"
"The reason is quite obvious," Jardine explained. "The carpet gets torn, a hole is burnt in it, or some other kind of accident happens; then, when you want to repair it, you take this extra piece and cut a strip off and some expert weaves it in. That seems pretty sensible, doesn't it?"
Dick admitted that this seemed very plausible. Something of the kind had occurred to him. At any rate, his path was clear now.
"So far so good," he said. "And now. If I am not unduly detaining you, we will get on with the business in hand. The piece of carpet which is on the table there came out of the house of a friend of mine. H thinks it is valuable—"
"He is perfectly correct," Jardine said gravely. "I suppose there are not more than six carpets like this to be found in the world to-day. Put up to auction, it might fetch anything up to L6000."
"Is that really a fact?" Dick said. "Well, I have every reason to believe that the carpet in question was purchased from your place, we will say, some twenty years ago. Now is it possible to trace the sale in your books? I am giving you a lot of trouble, I know, but there is a very pressing reason why this thing should be verified. If these carpets are of such amazing value, it would not be a very difficult matter to determine my point."
Mr. Jardine turned to a passing assistant and gave him a quick order. Presently a very old man came down the shop and stood awaiting his employer's wishes.
"Mr. Savage," the latter said, "I wish you would be so good as to look at this carpet, which is the extra piece taken from a large Persian square, which this gentleman says was sold by us some twenty years ago. I wonder if it would be taxing your memory too far to ask if you remember the transaction."
The old gentleman bent over the scrap of carpet and touched it lovingly with his fingers. Almost at once the gleam of recognition leapt to his eyes. He turned to Jardine eagerly.
"Three of them have come into our hands, sir, since I have been here," he said. "And I know exactly what became of them. One went to Headland Castle, and the other two were sold as a pair to a gentleman named Ripley who had a very large establishment near Stonehouse. I should be prepared to swear that in any court of justice in the land."
"What do you think of that for an effort of memory?" Jardine laughed. "That will do, Savage, thank you."
The old man went on his way, and Dick proceeded to fold up the strip of carpet thoughtfully. There was no jubilation on his face, but at the same time he was more than satisfied with the result of his visit to Jardine's establishment.
"I am infinitely obliged to you," he said. "You have done me a good turn, and helped to elucidate a mystery which has been puzzling me for some time. I won't detain you any longer, as it is getting so late. Good-night, and many thanks."
Dick went back to his rooms in Orchard-street, and discussed the matter over a solitary dinner. He began to see his way clearly now; he knew what had happened just as well as if he had been present and seen everything for himself. By bed-time he had the plan of campaign mapped out in his mind; though he knew how to act, he did not disguise from himself that there were many difficulties and dangers before him.
He came down to breakfast the following morning with his day neatly and symmetrically arranged. There was a pile of correspondence to go through first, and he had scarcely got through this when the door was opened and Enid came in.
"Now what is the matter?" Dick asked fretfully. "This comes of getting up late and having one's breakfast at 11 o'clock. Otherwise I should have been gone an hour ago, and you would have had your journey for your pains."
"Then I am glad you are late," Enid said. "Let me sit down and have a little breakfast with you, as I have had practically nothing this morning."
"Help yourself." Dick said hospitably. "I will ring the bell for another cup and saucer. And now, what do you mean by flying up here in this inconsequent way? Why are you looking so pale and worn out? Is there anything wrong at home?"
"Not as far as we are concerned," Enid said. "But I am dreadfully worried about Ralph."
Dick suppressed a chuckle. In the circumstances it would not be prudent to say too much, and his grave face was quite in sympathy with Enid's troubled features.
"I don't see why you want to trouble about him," he said. "Why worry when everything is at an end between you? You are parted from the man for ever, and you have announced your intention of never seeing him again. You say that he has treated you exceedingly badly, and after that, what more would you have?"
"He has treated me very badly," Enid said, with tears in her eyes. "But, my dear Dick, I am afraid I have not as much pride as I profess. I had quite made up my mind to put him out of my life and go on exactly as if nothing had happened, but I can't do it, Dick; and I am certain that Ralph is in some dreadful trouble. Even the servants notice it. Old Joicey came over last night to bring back a book belonging to me, and he was dreadfully upset. Do you think it is possible that Ralph is worrying about me?"
"I shouldn't be surprised," Dick said drily. "If you had not been of such a romantic, jealous disposition, a great part of your troubles would have been done away with altogether. After all it was merely a matter between Dick's word and the statement of a woman who is an utter stranger to you. One of them must have been telling lies, and you paid Ralph the compliment of letting him know that you regarded him as the liar in question."
"But he wrote those letters," Enid protested.
"Of course he did. As far as I gathered he made no attempt to deny it, and that pretty little actress, Kate Lingen, was bound to admit that she had seen practically nothing of Ralph for the last two years. Do you suppose for a moment that she would have looked up Ralph again it he had not come into a fortune, and Abbey Close? My dear child, speaking as a brother, it seems to me that you need a lesson which I believe you are about to get. I am not going to interfere unduly except to prophesy that before long all will come right between you and Ralph, and you will probably end in begging his pardon for your childish jealousy. And now, if you have quite finished your breakfast, tell me where you want to go and I will drive you there in my cab. I am much too busy this morning to sit down and listen to lovers' lamentations."
Enid dried her eyes, and said she would like to be left in Stratton-street, where she intended to pass the day with a relation. Dick's intimation that he preferred her room to her company was too plain to admit of any misunderstanding. A little while later, Dick was on his way to his club. He stayed there till after lunch, when he strolled off in the direction of Westminster Bridge, and found himself presently in the vestibule of the South-Eastern Theatre of Varieties. There he asked for one Talford, who presently appeared and greeted Dick with mock cordiality.
"How is the theatrical world going?" Dick asked. "Do you still manage to get a living here?"
Talford admitted that there were worse ways of achieving an income. Men drifted to strange positions, and Talford was a case in point. He had been at school with Dick, where he had acquired a mania for the stage, to the great indignation of his family, who, for the most part, were cast in Puritan moulds. The parting of the ways came at last when Talford had to choose between a profession and the stage, with the alternative if he embraced the latter of being cut adrift by his people.
With the impetuosity of youth he had taken to the boards, and at the end of two years found himself struggling from town to town, barely getting a living, and becoming more and more painfully aware that there was not in the British Isles a more incompetent actor than himself. It was too late to play the prodigal son now, and, in any case, his pride would have prevented that. Apart from his mania for the boards, Talford was shrewd enough, and after the glamour had worn off he had begun to cast about for a living. It occurred to him that it was better to employ than be employed. He managed to get hold of a minor hall and a nondescript musical comedy, which brought him in some hundreds of pounds. The man had a genius for knowing exactly what the public required, and he gave it them. In five years, Talford found himself absolute master of five of the finest variety theatres in the kingdom. He was well up the ladder of fortune now, though, from the bottom of his heart, he despised the whole thing, and was only awaiting a chance to get out and turn his back on the stage for ever. All this he told Dick as they sat in his comfortable office together. Dick smiled thoughtfully.
"We are never satisfied," he said. "But I didn't come here to talk about theatrical ventures. Do you remember, about four years ago, producing a pretty little piece called 'Comrades'? I believe it was rather over the heads of your audience. Now, what I want to know is if you can tell me where I can find the author?"
Talford shook his head doubtfully. "I am afraid not," he said. "I recollect the piece now. It was too clever for my patrons."
"It always strikes me as very sad," Dick said, "that the man who does really the best work for the stage or for the magazines so often gets the least fame and least money out of it. Now, as far as I am any judge, that little curtain-raiser was both natural and charming. A man who could write like that ought to be at the very top of his profession. I suppose the author never did anything for you again?"
"He tried," Talford said, with a shrug of his shoulders. "He honestly did his best to get down to the level of the people who come here, but I suppose the fellow was too much of an artist. He used to drink, too, and, to put it mildly, was only indifferently honest. Sometimes he appeared to be in funds, and other times he did not know where to turn for a shilling. To tell the plain truth, I was not sorry to see the last of him. Jim Clarkson was a bad lot, you may take my word for it."
"I happen to know that perfectly well," Dick said. "Clarkson was born at Stonehouse, near where I come from. His father was a lawyer there. He had not much practice or any particular position in the town, and his one great ambition was to make his son what he called a gentleman. The old man pinched himself to send the boy to a good school, and afterwards to Cambridge, where he ought to have done very well, for the chap has heaps of brains. As a matter of fact, he got into a fast, flashy set of vulgar young snobs who made him ashamed of his father. Finally, he came down from Cambridge without a degree and up to his eyes in debts and difficulties. After a time he vanished from Stonehouse, and the place knew him no more for years. Then he drifted back again, professing to be engaged in literary work, and, for the most part, haunting shady public houses and billiard-rooms. Once more he disappeared, and until last week I had not set eyes on him for some time. As a matter of fact, he has been mixed up in some way with a man named Stephen Holt, whom you may remember."
"I know," Talford said, "Kate Lingen's brother. But you don't mean to say that Holt is a friend of yours?"
"Well, perhaps I was foolish," Dick admitted. "To a certain extent I was sorry for the man, and really I did not know how low he had fallen till lately. To be candid, I had him down to stay with me. It was a mistake, and is not likely to occur again. But all this is by the way, and has little or nothing to do with my visit. What I want to know is, is there any way in which you can find out Clarkson's address for me? He is living somewhere in town, and I thought perhaps some of your staff could help me. A man of that sort who once begins to write for the Halls never turns his back upon them, and I have no doubt that he has been here more than once lately."
"I don't think so," Talford said. "However, I can ask if you wait a moment."
Talford came back presently, saying that his inquiries had been fruitless, and that he could hear nothing of Clarkson.
"If I were you," he said, "I would drop into one of the public bars about here. There are one or two houses almost entirely given over to the army of workmen who are employed in a place like this, and you might get a clue that way."
It was a congenial suggestion, for this amateur detective business was more or less of a passion with him, and, moreover, human nature is always a delightful study.
"I'll do it," he said. "Now, which is the best place to try first? I suppose I am not too well dressed for the part?"
"Not you, my dear fellow. You will find men hanging about those bars who are just as well educated as yourself, and, in their own opinion, rather better dressed. Let me tell you, it is not a very long step from a good West End engagement to an occasional turn at the Halls. I have had men willing to take anything they can get who have been making twenty pounds a week a month before. It is always 'light come light go' with the profession."
Dick departed on his errand, and soon found himself in a great glittering bar, well patronised by all sorts and conditions of men drinking and eating sandwiches. Here were down-at-heel supers, stage workmen in their corduroys, chorus girls laughing shrilly, and men of saturnine appearance, whose vocation could not be doubted for a moment. As Talford had said, a good many of them were quite as well dressed as Dick, though with a certain exaggeration which seems part and parcel of the stage.
For a long time Dick sat there pretending to drink a whisky and soda, the vile quality of which was beyond words. The scene interested and amused him; he listened to the various conversations which went on all around. Over the whole place and its habitues there was a settled air of melancholy, which in ordinary circumstances would have been depressing in the extreme. It would have been superfluous to tell Dick that he was surrounded by a crowd of pathetic failures, for his own common sense told him that. And yet there was no note of this in the talk; everybody spoke as if Fortune were waiting round the corner and he had only to put down his glass and take her by the hand. Next week everything would be all right. The tragedian, vainly endeavouring to procure credit for another 'go' of whisky, loudly declared that he was only waiting for a letter to give him a lead at a West End theatre. It was the same all round, down to the shabbiest of chorus girls on the premises. Then, above all the murmur, there came a name that riveted Dick's attention. Four men in the last stage of decay were seated near him discussing Fate and her ways. The eldest of the group pushed his glass away from him and smiled bitterly.
"There are some men," he said, "who never get a chance; there are others who get far too many. I never had my chance, or I should not be here now writing up old books for a local pantomime—but that isn't what I was going to say. Now just take Jim Clarkson, for instance. There is an example for you."
"Clever enough in his way," one of the others said critically. "But never could come down to the proper level."
"Owes me five shillings to this day," a third growled. "I didn't lend it to him either; he just took it when my back was turned."
"Now is your chance," the first man went on. "I saw him only last night. You might have struck me all of a heap. I met Jim Conway, who is playing lead at the Queen's Theatre, and for the sake of old times he asked me into the Carlton to have a drink. And who should come in all figged out up to the nines but Clarkson. He had got one or two people with him, and they had evidently come to dinner. He seemed to have heaps of money by the way he was scattering it about. Of course, he didn't look at me, probably wouldn't have spoken to me if he had. And yet only a month ago I know for a positive fact that he was across at Astley's sleeping in the property-room for a whole week because he hadn't got the money to pay for a bed. Now there's an instance of luck for you."
"You were a fool," one of the group growled. "Fancy wasting an opportunity like that. If I had been there I would have forced myself to Clarkson's notice and borrowed a tenner from him. He wouldn't have dared to refuse you just then; he would have parted with his money if only to get rid of me."
"Of course, you followed him?" another asked. The original speaker winked over his glass and nodded. Then a moody silence fell over the group as if they were brooding over Clarkson's change of fortune, and sadly blaming Fate for her want of discrimination in these matters. One by one they finished their glasses and lounged away. The man who had begun the conversation was crawling in the direction of the door, when Dick detained him. "Just one moment," he said. "I should like to have a word with you. I suppose you wouldn't mind another drink?"
The seedy man sat down promptly again, and called for a large brandy and soda. There was evidently no pride about him, though it was quite apparent to Dick that he had seen better days.
"Well," he said somewhat truculently, "what can I do for you? Perhaps you have heard my name. I am George Greggor, the librettist. If I had had anything like luck, I should have made a fortune out of musical comedy years ago. As it is, I am only too glad to take five guineas for as many sets of lyrics. For Heaven's sake, sir, if you can put a job in my way I pray you to do so. I daresay you have got a pretty poor opinion of a man who sits half the day soaking in a place like this, but it is better than the miserable room I have got, with nothing but a bed and a chair. Besides, this is my office in the way of speaking, and here I pick up my living. If anything is wanted in a hurry, managers know where to find me, and that is the way I pick up the paltry pound or two a week that keeps body and soul together. Many a song which has been sung all over England in pantomimes I have written at this very table."
"I am sorry I have got nothing I can put your way," Dick said. "All the same, I can show you how to make a five-pound note. I came here to-day to see if I could find a certain man whom I want to see particularly. By great good fortune I heard you speak of him just now. If you will give me the address of Mr. Jim Clarkson, I am prepared to give you a five-pound note at this present moment."
"The latter's face beamed. Dick could see how his hands were trembling. Then he seemed to draw back and hesitate.
"It is a lot of money," he said, "especially as I have earned absolutely nothing this week; but, tell me, you are not a detective or anything of that kind, are you?"
"You flatter me," Dick smiled. "I am not a detective. But why do you hesitate to accept my offer?"
"Well, I don't know," the other man said. "You see. I should not like to do anybody a bad turn. I don't deny that Clarkson is a queer lot, he is neither honest nor scrupulous, but he is fairly generous when he has money, and though I kept out or his way last night, I believe if I had gone up and spoken to him he would have helped me. That is why I don't want to got him into trouble."
"He is not likely to get into trouble as far as I am concerned," Dick said. "On the contrary, it is within my power to keep him out of it. Come now, are you going to take this money or not? It is foolish to hesitate."
"Oh, I know it," the other said in a fierce whisper. "Why should I draw back like this when I am literally starving? But I am going to take your word for it, because I am talking to a gentleman. I was one myself once, though you would hardly believe it to look at me now. My dear sir, it is all nonsense I am talking about the bad luck which has reduced me to my present position. I could put my hands upon a score or men here who have fallen the same way. Amongst this score are many who would have come to fame and fortune in more walks of life than one if they had only had the strength of mind to keep off the accursed drink. That is at the bottom of it all, and we all know it perfectly well, though it is a point of honour amongst us not to mention the thing. Look at me, a Cambridge graduate in honours, a barrister who swept the board of all the prizes in my year. Do you suppose I should have been here now but for the cursed poison that men put in their mouths to steal away their brains? But why do I bore you like this? I am what I am, and I shall never be different. I am going to accept your five-pound note, which I shall put in my pocket with a virtuous resolution to get myself a decent meal or two and redeem my wardrobe from the pawnbroker's. I shall swear to myself to do this, and I shall mean every word that I say. And yet, I know in my heart of hearts that I shall be brutally drunk long before night, and that I shall not be sober as long as there is a penny left. Here is the address."
The speaker took a shabby card from his pocket and wrote something on the back in pencil. It was a West End address, and Dick read it with some surprise. He would have liked to stay and talk a little more to his strange companion, but the latter took up the proferred money and with a curt nod vanished. Glad to get away from his sordid surroundings, Dick left the foetid atmosphere of the bar behind him and passed into the fresh air outside. A cab took him to the address which he had just obtained—a pile of handsome flats situated in one of the streets near Hyde Park.
The porter did not seem to know the name, but he confessed that one or two of the flats had recently been let furnished by their tenants, and that the occupants were strangers to him. Dick decided to take the matter into his own hands and run the risk. He rang the bell of one of the outer doors, and after a time he could hear footsteps inside. Then the door opened and an exceedingly pretty little child with long fair hair and innocent blue eyes gravely asked Dick what his business there was.
"All the servants are out," the child said. "They have left me alone; but who is it you are looking for?"
Dick explained that he was looking for one Clarkson by name, and the child positively beamed upon him.
"Won't you come inside and wait?" she asked. "He won't be very long. You see, he is my father."
Dick Charteris stood smiling at the child, trying to make up his mind what to say. The surprise was so complete that he could only look down at the little one with a feeling of helplessness, which was by no means a failing of his. It was almost incredible that a man like Clarkson should have a child like this. Clarkson had not seemed the kind of man to waste his time or his sympathy in domestic joys, but here was striking proof to the contrary, and, moreover, the little one spoke as if her father was someone to be proud of.
"Perhaps I had better speak to your mother," Dick said. "Will you go and tell her that Mr. Charteris is here?"
The child looked at Dick with her fearless blue eyes wide open. Evidently she had been used to much tenderness and kindness, and so far as Dick could see for himself the child stood in no awe of her father, or, indeed, of anybody else.
"I have no mother," she said. "Mother died when I was quite a little girl. That was a long time ago."
"I suppose it would be," Dick said gravely. "Who looks after you? Why have you been left here alone?"
"Well, you see, the servants wanted to go out, and I didn't mind, because I am accustomed to being alone. In fact, I prefer it, especially as I have plenty of toys."
"What does your father think about that?" Dick asked.
"Well, he is away rather a lot," the little one confessed. "You see, his work takes him away so much, and he really has to work very hard because I cost such a lot of money."
"I expect you are worth all the trouble," Dick laughed.
"Well, daddy says so, at any rate," the little one replied. "And I am sure we are getting on very nicely, because this house is so much better than anything we have had before. We only came a day or two ago, and I hope we shall settle down here. Won't you come inside and wait for daddy? He won't be very long, because he promised to take me out this afternoon, and he never breaks a promise. He is not that kind of man."
Dick hesitated. He was not disposed to have much mercy on Jim Clarkson, whom he was going to use for purposes of his own, but he felt some diffidence in thrusting himself into Clarkson's private life in this way. That the man possessed so many human attributes Dick had not realised. It was very like an intrusion, and not altogether in good taste, but there were others to think of, and so Dick followed the little girl along the hall to the drawing-room. He was exceedingly fond of children, and he found this one particularly attractive. She was not in the least precocious or forward, while at the same time she was absolutely self-possessed, as children often are who are left by themselves for long periods.
"This is very nice, don't you think?" the child said. "It is so pleasant to have a view like this. The last house we had was horrid. There was no servant, and only a cross old woman, who always seemed to be wanting money, which daddy hadn't got to give her. It was rather foolish, don't you think, to bother people for money when they haven't got any? That is what I always say to myself."
"Some people are illogical," Dick said gravely. "But, do you know, you haven't told me your name yet. What is it?"
"Nellie," the child said. "It is the same name as my mother's. I don't recollect much about her, except that she was very beautiful, and that she had a very sad face."
"You poor little thing," Dick muttered. He could quite understand any woman who shared Clarkson's lot being the possessor of a sad face. "And so your mother was pretty, was she?"
"I said beautiful," the child corrected. "And she had the most lovely dresses all over stars and spangles. I can see her now with a crown of diamonds on her head."
It seemed to Dick that he understood. Little Nellie's mother had undoubtedly been an actress, playing small parts, for the child's description suggested the chorus of a ballet.
"She died quite suddenly," the child went on. "And I remember how I cried at the time. And for days and day's afterwards daddy used to shut himself up in his room and refuse to see anybody, even me. It was a very terrible time."
"Refused to see you?" Dick asked. "And why?"
"I didn't know then, but I know now," the child said in her sober way. "It was because I was so like my mother. Daddy has told me so since; but he doesn't mind so much as he did, and I think my mother must have had most of the money, because after she died we were very poor and lived in horrible little places that made daddy quite ill. Sometimes when he came home he could hardly stand, and I couldn't make out what he said, but he doesn't do that now."
Dick nodded thoughtfully. The child was unfolding the picture to him in her simple, open way, and yet Dick could read the whole story as if it had been a printed page set out before him in the most legible of type. Jim Clarkson was a blackguard to his fingertips; of that there could be no doubt whatever. He was a man capable of betraying his best friend, of descending to any depths of meanness, a creature utterly and entirely unscrupulous.
And yet it seemed that he was not wholly bad—perhaps no man really is. Here was the one bright spot in his dark life that redeemed him from absolute worthlessness. Beyond question, he had been fond enough in his way of little Nellie's mother, and doubtless he had been genuinely grieved at her loss. On the whole perhaps the young wife had saved herself a life of misery by dying prematurely, though, at any rate, the child had not been disillusioned. Her father was quite the hero in her eyes, she had not been old enough to appreciate the sordid misery of cheap lodgings, she did not know the true inwardness of a staggering gait, and the speechlessness to which she had so innocently alluded.
"Really, I don't think I had better stay," Dick said. "I must try to find your father another time."
"You can't do that," the child cried gaily, "because here he is. Didn't you hear his key in the door?"
Before Dick could interfere the child had tripped lightly down the stairs, to come back a moment later seated on Clarkson's shoulder. He was absolutely transformed, the sullen look had gone from his face, the furtive glance was no longer in his eye. The man spoke gaily and cheerfully until he caught sight of Dick standing there: then his whole aspect changed. Very gently he placed the child on the floor and turned to his visitor. "I will deal with you in a moment, Mr. Charteris," he said. "And now, my child, I want you to go off to the playroom for a few moments whilst I talk to this gentleman. Afterwards we will go for a walk as far as Regent's Park and feed the ducks."
The child ran away, singing and dancing as she went. Clarkson turned a ferocious face to Dick. There was an ugly sneer on his lips.
"And now, Mr. Charteris," he said, "not to be unduly inquisitive, what the devil do you want here?"
"I suppose I owe you some sort of an apology," Dick said. "I did not mean to intrude upon your privacy in this way. In fact, that was more or less of an accident. I managed to obtain your address, and I called to see you on a little matter of business. The child came and answered the door to me, and she asked me to come in. I am exceedingly fond of children, and your little girl fascinated me. I really could not resist the temptation of accepting her invitation and having a little chat with her."
"The child fascinates everybody," Clarkson growled. "But that is altogether beside the point. I want to know why you came here and where you got my address?"
The speaker's manner was threatening and insolent enough, and Dick began to forget all about the more tender side of Clarkson's character. As he looked at the other, little Nellie's pretty face receded more and more into the backgrounds.
"I will come to that presently," he said. "Meanwhile, let me ask you a more or less pointed question. I understand that you have only been here a day or two, and that, for the time being, you have to a great extent cut yourself adrift from your late companions. Indeed, judging from your surroundings, you might be the incarnation of respectability. But does it not strike you that if I could ascertain your address with so little trouble, there are others who could do the same? That being so, awkward questions might be asked. I do not wish to put the thing in a more offensive way than is necessary, but I think that you know what I mean."
"You always were a clever one," Clarkson sneered. "I have got more intellect in my little finger than you have in the whole of your body. And yet I am bound to confess that in a battle of wits you are too many for me. Now tell me, without any beating about the bush, what it is that you really want?"
"Now you begin to talk," Dick responded. "A few nights ago you were in Stonehouse at your wits' end to know what to do for money. I know that, for Stonehouse is a small place, and people talk. Within a very short time I find you in a prosperous state, which causes me to ask myself a question. Do you follow me?"
"Perhaps you would like to know where I got everything!" Clarkson sneered. "You have only to ask, you know."
"My good man, I know perfectly well without asking. I am acquainted with the whole turn of affairs which has led up to your present prosperity. I have only to go as far as Scotland Yard and give the authorities there certain information—"
"Not so loud," Clarkson said, hoarsely. "Most people might think you were bluffing, but I know you too well for that. I'll help you if I can, only you must not be too hard upon me, for the sake of the child. When she is away from me I am capable of anything, but when she is close by, my heart seems to turn to water. I am the most veritable coward in existence. Mind you, I don't admit anything, and I don't say that I shall be a tool in your hands. In the first place, I should like to know what you want."
"Well, I want to know what has become of Stephen Holt."
"I can't tell you. I don't know anything about him. I haven't seen him since the last night I was in Stonehouse, and we came to London together. We parted when we got out of the train, and what has become of him since I haven't the least idea.
"That," Dick said calmly, "is a ridiculous and stupid lie. I know that Holt travelled with you as far as the Junction, when he got out, saying that he had an important telegram to despatch, and that he was coming along by a later train. He asked you to look after his belongings, which you promised to do; but he didn't come by a later train, as you are perfectly aware, seeing that you met the train yourself. Now, are you going to admit the correctness of my statement, or are you going to compel me to emphasise it in another way? I don't care which it is."
"You are too many for me," Clarkson muttered. "Anyway, that is the first trick to you. I suppose Holt missed the train. At any rate, he did not come by the later one, and when I tell you that I haven't seen him since I am speaking no more than the truth."
"That I quite believe," Dick said, "if only for the simple reason that no one has seen Holt since. He has absolutely disappeared. No one has made any inquiries about him, seeing that no one cares two straws whether he is alive or dead. For my part, I believe there has been foul play, but not the sort to do Holt any harm. If you will help me I will help you. I suppose you have not forgotten the time when you moved in some of the best literary circles? If you remember that time you will also recollect a doctor whose name was Richard Barca."
"No one who ever saw Barca would ever forget him," Clarkson said. "A dangerous man to cross."
"I know that perfectly well. But, all the same, it is in connection with Barca that I am here to-day. Now, I want you to think over what I have said, and realise the fact that I can be exceedingly nasty if I like. Here is my card, and I shall be glad if you will come down and see me to-night after dinner, and take your instructions. You had better come prepared for a journey, and if you want money to a limited extent you can draw upon me."
"You seem to take it all for granted," Clarkson sneered.
"Well, naturally," Dick said. "My plans have been thoughtfully worked out. And now, I will not detain you any longer."
Dick went away as if the whole thing were settled, and the rest of the afternoon was passed for the most part in cabs. Thoroughly tired out, he returned in time for dinner, which had hardly been cleared away before Clarkson put in an appearance. His manner was eager and a little nervous, though he did his best to appear at his case. Dick hospitably indicated the cigar box and the decanters on the sideboard. Clarkson shook his head.
"A cigar only," he said. "I don't feel inclined for anything else at present. If you will go straight to business and tell me what you want I shall be obliged."
"I don't mean to tell you anything directly," Dick said. "Your part is like that of the private soldier—you do exactly as you are told without question. I daresay you will think I am treating you in a very arbitrary fashion, but, you see, I have the whip hand of you, and don't you forget it."
"I don't believe you know anything at all about me, except generally speaking," Clarkson said. "As far as I am concerned, I decline to do anything—"
"Stop." Dick said sternly. "Now listen to me."
He rose from his chair and crossed to a little side table, from which he took up a visiting card. He handed this across to Clarkson, whose face changed colour as he read the name printed on the card. His eyes dropped before Dick's gaze.
"That is the name and address of my friend, Mr. Jacob Vandernort, whom you may have heard of. Now Mr. Vandernort, I imagine, would be exceedingly pleased to meet you. Shall I telephone to him and ask him to come round here, or are you satisfied—"
"Go on." Clarkson said hoarsely. "I am in your power."
"I thought I should persuade you to listen to reason," Dick said pleasantly. "I see that you are not particularly anxious to meet Mr. Vandernort, and, in the circumstances, I can quite understand your delicacy. Therefore, we will leave him out of the conversation altogether. It will be for you to say later whether my friend Vandernort is likely to cause you inconvenience, but that is by the way. I think I can show you a means whereby you can serve me and put money in your pocket at the same time. I want you to go down to Stonehouse to-night, which place you will reach comparatively early; and then go as far as Abbey Close and ask to see Richard Barca. It will be tolerably late by the time you get there, but that won't matter, because Barca never goes to bed till daylight. I wouldn't go into the house if I were you. I should simply send a message to the effect that someone wants to see the doctor on pressing business, then you can wait until he comes down."
"But why all this mystery?" Clarkson muttered. "I don't like to be used like a tool in this fashion. I might be no more than a mere child by the way you are ordering me about."
"Precisely, you are a mere child in this matter. As I told you just now, you are like a private soldier who has to obey without question. You are no more than a mere pawn in the game, and the sooner you realise it the better. But to go on with my instructions. You will see Barca, and you must do your best not to let Mr. Ralph Kingsmill know that you have been anywhere near the house. I want you to be vague and threatening. I want you to demand from Barca Stephan Holt's present whereabouts. He will deny that he knows anything about him, and you must let him see that you regard his statement as a clumsy lie. Insist upon having a direct answer, and imply that you know all that is going on, that if you don't get what you want you will make yourself unpleasant. Really, that is about all I want you to do, only when you come back to see me to-morrow, you must try to recollect not only everything that Barca said, but what he looked like when he was saying it. I don't think there is much trouble in that. If you want money—"
"I don't want any money at present," Clarkson said. "Still, I should like to know what I am going to get out of all this?"
"We will discuss that later. Be content at the present moment with the knowledge that you are a free man, and that, up to now, you have not been brought into contact with my friend, Mr. Vandernort. And now, let me look out your trains for you."
Half an hour later Clarkson was bowling along towards the station in a cab. His feelings were mixed; he did not know whether to congratulate himself upon a narrow escape or whether to blame himself for falling so obediently into line with Charteris's wishes. Yet there had been no help for it, seeing that Charteris knew so much. How he had found everything out in the time was a puzzle to Clarkson. Charteris seemed to know everything, even down to the minutest details. For the present, at any rate, it was the correct policy to lie low and carry out instructions. Clarkson had not seen Barca for some years, but he recollected the man perfectly well, and he was not looking forward with any pleasure to the forthcoming interview. He feared the little man with the dark eyes.
He arrived at Stonehouse Junction at length, and on inquiry ascertained that there was another train a couple of hours later by which he could reach Stonehouse at midnight. This would give him ample time to walk over to Abbey Close and transact the business which Charteris had mapped out for him. It was a very peaceful night, and, being just past 10 o'clock, most of the country folk had gone to bed. As far as Clarkson could judge, he had the whole world to himself, his feet made no noise as he walked along the springy turf of the drive leading up to the house. He paused just a moment to light a cigarette, and dropped his matchbox in the moss in so doing. For fully five minutes Clarkson was on his hands and knees searching there. Just as he had placed his hand at last on the missing box, two figures passed along a side path and emerged into the drive. A little startled by their sudden appearance, Clarkson crouched down and hid himself behind a clump of brambles. Burglars or poachers was the first thing that flashed into his mind, and he had no wish to be seen by gentry who might resent his appearance in a forcible manner.
"You fool," one of the men said. "What on earth possessed you to do this idiotic thing? After all the trouble I have taken, you do your best to ruin everything at the last moment—"
"Well, I had to go and get it," the other man said. He spoke in a low, hoarse voice as if speech were painful to him. All the same, there was something more or less familiar in his tones, but Clarkson dismissed the suggestion as an idle fancy.
"I could have got it for you," the first man said. "You had only to ask me, I can't understand how foolish some people are."
The listener thrilled as he recognised the clear cold tones of Richard Barca. The doctor went on to say more, but it was apparently not much to the point, for Clarkson, could not gather what he was alluding to. His companion laughed irritably.
"Oh, it is all very fine for you," he said. "You never make mistakes, of course. There is one thing I never could stand, and that is to be shut up in one place for long. Even the finest house in the world would be a prison to me after a day. And, besides, there is nobody about. The servants have gone to bed, and that moonstruck ass of a Kingsmill is shut up in the morning room writing some of his silly rot. My dear Richard, there is absolutely no danger whatever, as you know perfectly well."
"A willful man will have his way," Barca muttered. "But whatever you say or think, you are going back with me now, and I am not going to lose sight of you for the present. Here we are, with a large fortune in our grasp, and you are prepared to risk it all for the sake of a stroll. No, we are not going that way, you fool. We are going to keep to this sidepath and got into the back of the house."
The voices died away in the distance and Clarkson arose from his stooping position. Here was more rascality on Barca's part, though Clarkson did not in the least know what it all meant, and he wondered if it had anything to do with the scheme which Charters was trying to unravel. On the whole, Clarkson decided that it hadn't. All the same, he wondered who the other man was and why his voice sounded familiar. He would have liked to follow the pair, because knowledge of this kind is always useful, but then there was a certain element of danger in so doing, added to which it was not prudent to ignore instructions. Again, to a man unaccustomed to woodland paths there was risk in the operation. Even as the footsteps of Barca and his companion faded away, Clarkson could hear the rustle of last year's dead leaves and the snapping of dry twigs. If he attempted to follow those pitfalls were sure to betray him. On the whole, the avenue was safer.
It was some years since Clarkson was last in the park at Abbey Close, but he knew enough to be pretty sure that Barca and his mysterious companion would reach the house by means of the woodland path much quicker than he could. By the time he came to the front door the place was all in darkness, except for two lights in a room downstairs and one over the doorway. It was rather an awkward position, and it might be rendered still more awkward if all the servants had gone to bed, seeing that Kingsmill might take it into his head to open the door himself.
"I must risk it," Clarkson muttered. "I daresay if I pull my hat down and turn my collar up I shall pass in the dark; Kingsmill will think I am one of Barca's queer clients."
Clarkson rang the bell twice before anybody appeared, then at the third time of asking, to his great relief, the old butler came to the door. In answer to Clarkson's question, Joicey was understood to say that Dr. Barca was out somewhere, and that he might not return for some time.
Here was a disconcerting piece of information, and Clarkson bit his lip savagely. He had his own theory on the subject, knowing perfectly well that Barca had returned to the house, but he could not see for the moment how he was going to tell Joicey this without arousing the old man's suspicions.
"It is very awkward," he muttered. "Perhaps your master, Mr. Kingsmill, may be in a position—"
"My master has gone to bed," Joicey said. "Mr. Kingsmill has been far from well for a day or two, and he retired to-night almost as soon as he had finished his dinner."
Here was a bit of unexpected good news, and Clarkson took courage accordingly.
"I think I'll wait," he said. "No, I won't come into the house, because when the doctor comes back I shan't detain him more than a moment. All the same, I wish you would go and make quite sure that Dr. Barca is not on the promises."
The old butler vanished, and returned a few moments later with the information that Barca had returned and wanted to know what the stranger required. He was very busy, and could not be interrupted unless the business was pressing.
"Oh, my business is pressing enough," Clarkson said. "You need not trouble about the name, because it would not convey anything to do the doctor if he heard it. Now you go and take my message, and I'll remain here till you come back."
As Clarkson stood there waiting, his quick eyes took in the whole of the luxurious and artistic beauty of the hall. Despite the depths into which he had fallen, Clarkson was an artist to his finger tips, and admired and envied all that he saw. It seemed to him that Kingsmill was a man to be envied, the spoilt child of fortune, who had conspired to throw all her favours into the young man's lap. For a man to be a poet and a dreamer, surrounded by everything that makes life worth living, struck Clarkson as the height of human felicity. He did not know, how could he guess, that at that very moment Ralph would have changed places with him, needy adventurer as he was?
Clarkson's meditations were broken by the sound of voices, and presently Barca's lithe form was seen crossing the hall. He seemed to be angry and put out about something; he demanded Clarkson's business curtly. The latter pushed his hat back, and stepped into the circle of light so that Barca might look upon his face.
"You know me," he said. "There is no need for a formal introduction between us. I want to ask you a question."
"I know you perfectly well," Barca said, with the suspicion of a sneer in his voice. "I am flattered that you should have come all this way at this time of night merely to ask me a question, but don't you think that a letter or a postcard would have done quite as well? A visit is quite superfluous."
"So you think," Clarkson said meaningly. "A postcard is hardly the kind of way to ask the question that I want answered. As you suggest, I have come all this way on purpose to ask it. It isn't a long question, but it means a good deal to me and others besides. Not to make too long a business of it, where is Stephen Holt?"
Clarkson asked the question in a thrilling whisper, and with a look in his eyes that caused Barca to start slightly. He came a step forward, and touched Clarkson's shoulder.
"Go away," he said. "Go back where you came from, and think no more about it, for the present at any rate. Forget that you know anything, and a bit later perhaps—"
"Oh, that's all very well," Clarkson said roughly, "but it won't do for me. I am not a child, you know, and I haven't picked up my information second-hand. Come, let's have no more nonsense about it. What has become of Stephen Holt?"
Barca appeared to have some difficulty in his breathing, for he did not speak for some time. As he stood there, the old butler Joicey came out into the hall carrying a lighted candle in his hand. He paused just for a moment to ask Barca if the latter required anything more, and on receiving a curt shake of the head, asked the latter to put the lights out. Then Joicey disappeared up the stairs with the candle in his hand, and a moment later his bedroom door closed softly. There was a peculiar gleam in Barca's eyes as he turned to Clarkson again. He did not appear to care to look Clarkson in the face; he stood glancing over his shoulder. The latter jeeringly repeated his question.
"Won't you come inside?" Barca said hoarsely. "Come into the house, if it is only for a few moments."
Clarkson by no means liked the tone of Barca's voice, but if he had any sort of fear in his heart, nothing of the kind showed in his face. He stepped inside without the slightest hesitation, for his curiosity was piqued, and, besides, he wanted to see what manner of house it was that had so fortunately fallen into Ralph's possession. Barca led the way to the dining-room, and just for a moment Clarkson had no thought for anything else beyond the fine old furniture of the place. He murmured something of this to Barca as he sank into a comfortable chair and surveyed the fine prints upon the walls. Barca waited for his companion to speak.
"Really, what is the good of working for one's living when luck stands in a man's stead like this? I suppose you happen to know how it was that Kingsmill came into possession of this property."
Barca shrugged his shoulders impatiently. He had not expected Clarkson to take it quite so coolly as this; he did not give the man opposite credit for as much intelligence as he possessed. An uneasy feeling that he was being played with troubled the man of science. He turned pointedly to Clarkson.
"I know all about that," he said. "It is what the newspapers call a romance in real life. But don't you think you had better get on with your business? As far as I can gather, you did not come here to talk about Kingsmill, and now that he has grown respectable he might object to your presence here if he knew it."
"He is not in the least likely to know it," Clarkson said coolly, "for the simple reason that he has been in bed some little time. So you regard me as rather shady company for a house like this, do you? What about yourself?"
Barca's eyes gleamed just for a moment. The interview was not going as he could have wished.
"You are treading on dangerous ground," he said.
"Not at all, my dear fellow. Speaking from actual knowledge, I should say that if Kingsmill had to choose between us for a friend, he would find me in the long run less expensive and less dangerous than yourself. Do you suppose I don't know that you are after no good here? Oh, it is no use looking at me like that."
Barca controlled himself with a strong effort.
"If your purpose is to annoy me, you are not likely to succeed," he said. "You came down here to ask me certain questions, which I may or may not be prepared to answer. Be good enough to put the questions, so that I can get rid of you and go to bed."
"It all resolves itself into one thing," Clarkson replied. "I asked you just now what had become of Stephen Holt. The man was to have journeyed to London with me not so long ago, and, indeed, we did go as far as Stonehouse Junction together. Holt left the train to send off a telegram, and since then he has not been seen. Come, you don't mean to tell me you are not aware of this fact?"
The question was a pointed one, and for the life of him Barca did not see how to answer it. He was wondering how much this man knew, and whether his errand was a blackmailing one, or whether he was working on behalf of someone else.
"I don't quite know what you mean," Barca said.
"Oh! yes, you do. You know what I mean perfectly well. This man has vanished, leaving no trace behind him. As yet the matter has not been put into the hands of the police, for the simple reason that no one troubles about the fellow. But, mind you, the thing won't be allowed to drop like this. A man like Holt has plenty of difficulties, and not a few enemies. I have my own reasons for wishing to know what has become of him, and those reasons don't concern anybody but myself. Besides, if he knew it, he is in grave danger. Therefore I ask you, if you know where he is to be found, to tell me at once."
Barca hesitated. He was by no means getting the best of the encounter, and the knowledge irritated him. He was about to make some vague reply when from the room above there came a gentle whistle and Barca's name was uttered in a hushed voice. Only for a moment did his face betray signs of confusion.
"Don't let me detain you," Clarkson said politely. "Your friend upstairs wants something."
"Cigarettes," Barca muttered. "If you will excuse me for a moment I will go and see to his requirements."
Clarkson smiled in an irritating manner, but made no reply. Barca came back a few minutes later with a cigarette case in his hand. He had quite recovered himself, his face was smiling and almost pleasant to look upon.
"I have been thinking about what you said just now," he remarked. "Of course, it is no business of mine to know what you want Stephen Holt for, and I don't care. He is a sorry blackguard, and the less anybody has to do with him the better. So far as I am concerned, I have not the least idea where he is. Now, before you go, will you take something? Just give it a name."
All this time Barca was gazing intently into Clarkson's face as if trying to read the latter's inmost thoughts. But he was not to be drawn. He did not betray himself in the least. He pointed his finger in the direction of the whisky decanter and said that he would take a little of that with some soda-water.
"That's right," Barca said cheerfully. "I think I'll join you. You needn't trouble to get up. I'll do the mixing if you don't mind. Say when I have poured in enough."
Barca had his back half turned to Clarkson during the operation, and the intruder appeared to be looking the other way. Barca was ignorant of the fact that Clarkson was watching him in the mirror at the other side of the room. When the man of science turned round he had the two glasses in his hand, one of which he proffered to Clarkson. With a meaning smile Clarkson shook his head doubtfully.
"No, thanks," he said: "I'll take the other one. My head is not so strong as it used to be, and I prefer the smaller quantity."
"This one is rather the weaker of the two," Barca said.
"Never mind about that. I have made my choice."
As Clarkson spoke he shot his hand out quickly and took the glass from Barca's left hand. He bowed almost mockingly as he raised it to his lips, and drank down half the contents.
"Well, get on, my friend," he cried. "How slow you are! I want to see you finish your drink. Come, I'll give you a toast. Here's to scientific experiments in general, and Kate Lingen in particular. After that you cannot refuse."
A queer almost troubled smile flickered on Barca's lips. He appeared as if about to raise the glass to his mouth, then the tumbler slipped from his fingers and the contents were scattered all over the carpet. He muttered to himself for his clumsiness.
"My hand is not so steady as it used to be," he said.
"It would be a wonderful thing if it were," Clarkson said. "I suppose even a cool hand like yourself has some pangs of conscience. I am certain now that you can tell me more than I know about Stephen Holt. You know all about him."
"And what makes you so sure?" Barca said quietly. "My friend, you are treading on rather dangerous ground."
"I was," Clarkson said coolly, "but I have only got to be careful. You couldn't murder me here, because that would be far too dangerous; but you would like to do so, as I saw by the expression on your face just now. It never occurred to you that I could see all that was going on by watching your movements in the mirror opposite. What did you expect to gain by putting that powder in my glass?"
"You are dreaming," Barca said hoarsely. "I am prepared to swear that I put nothing whatever in your glass."
"That is a silly lie, and utterly unworthy of you," Clarkson responded. "I tell you I saw the whole thing, and your face was a perfect study when I insisted upon taking the drink that was not intended for me. Oh! you are a clever follow. Dr. Richard Barca, but you must not make the mistake of believing that the world does not contain people with as much brains as you have. I have learnt a great deal more than you imagine during the last few minutes, and lest worse befalls me, I think I'll wish you good-night. No, you need not trouble to come to the door."
Clarkson rose to his feet and walked off towards the hall. On the whole, he had no reason to feel dissatisfied with his night's work. He had carried out Charteris's instructions to the letter, and had ascertained that Barca could have said a great deal about Holt if he liked. Clarkson felt in a reckless mood now and ready for any adventure. He had a strong desire to know the identity of the man whom he had seen with Barca in the park. The man was in the house, as evidenced by the fact that he had asked for some cigarettes.
How to manage this Clarkson did not quite know. Then a wild idea seized him. He opened the front door and closed it again none too gently, but he did not close it on the outside. On the contrary, be slipped into an adjoining room, leaving Barca to suppose that he had quitted the premises. Clarkson was not long in doubt as to whether Barca took this view or not, for, a minute or two later, the latter came into the hall and proceeded to bolt and bar the front door.
Clarkson smiled to himself as he heard his late antagonist muttering. The doctor appeared to be put out about something, if his dark face and scowling brows afforded any indication. Clarkson instinctively knew that the lights were going out, and from his hiding place he heard Barca creeping up the stairs.
"I begin to wish I hadn't stayed," he told himself. "I daresay that rascal has got some scheme of his own on which does not concern me in the least. I might just as well have got away back to town and earned my money. Well, since I am here, I'll see the whole thing out to the finish. The first thing is to get upstairs without being heard or seen by my friend."
It was by no means an easy matter, but it was accomplished at length. Clarkson had to feel his way along in the darkness. More than once he stumbled against unseen objects, but, by great good fortune, he upset nothing, and presently his eyes became more accustomed to the gloom. He found himself now on a broad landing, with, as far as he could judge, bedroom doors giving upon it in all directions. Then he noticed a thin silt of light coming from under one of the doors, and this, as he rightly judged, was Barca's bedroom. The atmosphere was slightly tinged with the suggestion of cigarette smoke, by which Clarkson knew that Barca had not yet retired for the night.
He crept close to the door and laid his ear to the keyhole. It was just possible to catch the sound of voices and a few words here and there, though it was almost impossible to follow the conversation in its entirety. Clarkson managed to make out that Kate Lingen was the theme of comment, for her name was mentioned more than once. The other man's voice was so indistinct that there was nothing to be made of it at all. It was very like listening to a man holding a conversation over the telephone. Then, suddenly, Barca flamed out as if a remark of the other man had greatly angered him.
"You are a fool and more than a fool," he cried. "Do you suppose she is going to sit quietly down and put up with a trick like that? Those letters were worth any amount of money to her, and in your hands have proved absolutely worthless."
The other man said something which Clarkson could not follow, and then Barca went on again.
"Why, of course," he said, "anybody could see that, besides a besotted fool like you. And what would have happened if I had not been present to take advantage of the situation? You would either have prosecuted him, in which case he would have got off with a fine, or you have compromised the affair for money. And now, after all I have done, you want to spoil everything by your headstrong folly."
The second voice spoke again, but the only words that Clarkson could catch were 'tired' and 'to-morrow.' Barca appeared to be impatiently pacing up and down the room, for Clarkson could hear his quick footsteps, and noted how the voice rose and fell as Barca came near to or receded from the door.
"Perhaps by the end of the week," he said. "My good follow, you are as safe here as if you were on the Continent. You have the best of everything to eat and drink, and there is not a soul here who dreams that you are on the premises. Besides, you shall have your share of the process when the bloodletting process sets in. From first to last there is a matter of over two hundred thousand pounds in this. That is, of course, if you lie low and keep out of the way. I don't see why you should not be just as happy in Paris as you are in London. I know I should, because one doesn't really live in England. No place like Paris when you are in funds."
The other man apparently made some long reply, for Barca was silent for the best part of five minutes. Then he broke into a laugh as if something pleased him.
"The easiest thing in the world," he exclaimed. "I managed it in such a way that Kingsmill never suspected anything. . . . . Oh, yes, that was a comparatively trifling matter. . . Up in the attic.. . . . . I'll show it you if you like."
Clarkson started back from the door, feeling by instinct that Barca was coming out.
Just for the moment he did not know which way to turn, and therefore made a dart up a flight of steps in front of him. He stood there for some seconds while the door of Barca's room was flung open, and a stream, of light cut into the darkness of the corridor. Presently Barca's form appeared; he ran up the stairs in the direction of the attics with the air of a man who knows every inch of his ground, almost touching Clarkson as he passed. It was all over in a minute or two, and Barca was back in the bedroom again. Filled with a certain vague curiosity, Clarkson climbed to the top of the stairs and turned into the big attic.
The intruder had no time to look about him, he had hardly set foot on the solid oak floor before a figure loomed up before him, and a strong, sinewy hand gripped him by the throat. Utterly taken by surprise, Clarkson reeled back and fell heavily upon a pile of some sort carpet material with which the floor was more or less covered. He felt now as if he was fighting for his life; he struggled to get that tight grip from his throat. Already the blood was beginning to rush to his head, and his heart commenced to beat like a hammer. It was time for a desperate effort, and he made it. His knee came up suddenly, there was a grunt from his antagonist, and the iron grip relaxed. Clarkson rolled over and over till he came under a window, where the light of the moon streamed in. Then, as his antagonist followed him, he saw his face for the first time.
"For heaven's sake, don't throttle me, Mr. Charteris," he gasped. "You very nearly did for me that time."
"Why, it's Clarkson," Dick said. "I am sure, I beg your pardon. You see, I had forgotten all about you for the moment, and I took you for a burglar or one of those ruffians downstairs, who had unluckily detected my presence in the house. But what are you doing up here?"
"I am here more or less by accident," Clarkson explained. "The fact is, I was listening at Barca's door, and as he came out unexpectedly I had to bolt somewhere. You see, he does not know that I am in the house."
"That's rather clever of you," Dick said. "How did you work that? It is no easy matter to deceived Barca."
"Well, I deceived him easily enough. I pretended to go off in a huff and shut the front door behind me. As a matter of fact, I shut it on this side, and hid myself in one of the rooms till Barca had gone to bed. For some reason or another, he tried to drug me. When I saw what he was doing I refused to take the glass he had intended for me. Goodness only knows what he expected to gain by serving me in that way. But I daresay he had some cunning scheme in his mind. Perhaps he was under the impression that I know a great deal more than I do."
Dick chuckled to himself, as if pleased with what he was hearing.
"Have you made any discoveries?" he asked. "Now tell me exactly what has taken place between you. I daresay you wonder what I am doing down here, but there is something that I forgot, and it is imperative that I should see Kingsmill before morning. I want to know what you saw and did from the time that you reached here till this present moment. Don't omit any details."
Clarkson gave a concise and graphic account of the evening's adventures. Dick followed carefully, asking questions from time to time, until at length he appeared to be quite satisfied.
"You have done very well, indeed," he said. "And I have every reason to be pleased with you. There is one thing more that I should like to see done, though I am bound to admit there is an element of risk about it. I want you to leave the house at once and go round the terrace till you come under Barca's bedroom window. You can throw some gravel up there to attract his attention, and when he shoves his head out you can tell him that you are very sorry to trouble him again, but that you dropped a pocket-book on the hall floor. It doesn't matter what you drop, perhaps you haven't got a pocket-book? If so, I can lend you one."
"Oh, I have got a pocket-book right enough," Clarkson said. "But I don't quite see what yon are going to gain by this."
"It doesn't matter what you think so long as I am satisfied," Dick said "Drop the pocket-book on the hall floor and let yourself quietly out. I'll slip down a moment later and fasten the hall door, so that Barca will have no suspicion that anything is wrong."
"But how did you get in yourself?" Clarkson asked.
"Ah, that is a different matter." Dick replied. "That must remain a secret between the master of the house and myself. Now go and do exactly as I tell you. I am greatly pleased with what you have done to-night, and you shall not suffer any loss. I would like to give you a helping hand, even if it is only for the sake of that little girl of yours. My word, if I only had a child like that and I were leading your sort of life, I wouldn't dare to look her in the face."
"It is easy to talk," Clarkson said huskily. "Only give me a chance a bit later, and if I don't take it—but this is no place to talk sentiment. I'll go and do what you want if you will only tell me what is the next move after I have attracted Barca's attention. What shall I have to do next?"
"You will simply have to go straight to the station and take the midnight train back to town. After that you can return to your rooms and wait till I see you again, which will probably be some time to-morrow afternoon. I think that will do."
Clarkson slipped off obediently, and presently Dick heard the front door softly open. There was just a touch of air on his cheek, then the draught passed as the door closed again. A few minutes later bars and bolts were once more drawn, and then Dick crept up the stairs and waited patiently for the result of his experiment.
It was not difficult for Clarkson to find his way round to the terrace, and it was easy enough to pick out Barca's window as it was the only one in which a light was burning. Two or three handfuls of gravel tinkled on the glass before the blind was pulled up with a jerk, and Barca's dark head was thrust impatiently out.
"Who the deuce are you, and what do you want?" he demanded. "Don't you know that it is past eleven o'clock?"
"It's me," Clarkson said, in a humble voice. "I am sorry, doctor, but I have lost my pocket-book and all my money. I recollect now that I heard something drop as I left the house. I took the handkerchief out of my pocket and I suppose that the pocket-book came out with it. At any rate, I shall be greatly obliged if you will look whether it is lying in the hall. If you find the confounded thing, you can throw it, out of the window to me."
Barca promised with no particularly good grace, and Clarkson stood there awaiting the course of events. Suspicious as ever, Barca was half inclined to believe that some trick was being played upon him, but he complied with the request and came back to the window presently with the pocket-book in his hand. He tossed it contemptuously to Clarkson.
"There you are, you careless lout," he said. "And now go about your business and don't worry me any more. I warn you that if you come back again you can keep on throwing gravel at the window till all is blue, for I shan't pay the slightest attention."
Meanwhile, Dick had been waiting patiently on the stairs to see the result of his stratagem. Barca rushed impetuously out of his bedroom, leaving the door wide open. No sooner had he vanished down the stairs than Dick advanced rapidly in the direction of the light. His face was eager and questioning, and he had all the air of a man on the verge of a great discovery. Another moment, and he would have satisfied himself in one way or another when a totally unexpected figure appeared on the landing. It was Ralph Kingsmill, pale and distracted, and looking almost like a ghost in his white sleeping suit. He had no light in his hand, so that he could make out Dick clearly and distinctly against the band of flame that streamed from Barca's open door. A little cry escaped him.
"Dick!" he exclaimed, "what are you doing here?"
Charteris choked down something that sounded very like an oath. There was not a second to lose now, as Barca was already coming back up the stairs. Before Ralph could speak again, Dick jumped at him and clapped a hand over his mouth. Then he fairly ran Kingsmill into his bedroom and closed the door behind him. He had barely done so before he heard Barca's door close also.
"That was a close call," Dick said, as he sat panting on the bed. "I wouldn't have had that fellow see me now for ten thousand pounds. My dear Ralph, what evil fortune led you to come out on the landing just at that moment?"
Ralph passed his hand over his face wearily. He fumbled along the wall for the switch of light like a man who dreams. In the bright rays his face had a terribly tired look upon it as if he had not slept for days.
"I couldn't rest," he said. "I never can rest now. Since that horrible thing happened I have not had one single hour of honest sleep. But tell me, my dear Dick, what are you doing here at this time? And how did you get into the house?"
"It does not in the least matter how I got into the house." Dick said. "I am here, and there is an end of the matter. Now tell me, have you had anything unpleasant in the way of an interview, with Barca to-day? I know he came down on purpose, because, indirectly, I was the means of sending him back again. What I mean is, has the man shown his hand in any way?"
"I am afraid I don't follow you," Ralph said wearily. "There are so many strange and underhand things going on in this house now, that I am utterly puzzled and bewildered. As a matter of fact, I did not expect to see Barca here this evening. If you could only get rid of him for me altogether I should be under an obligation to you that I could never repay. He is a nightmare to me."
"Oh, you'll get rid of him sooner or later," Dick said cheerfully. "For the present, you will have to put up with him. As I said just now, I was the means of his coming back; in fact, I worked the whole thing to fit in with my plans, although, of course, Barca does not know it. You may not believe me, but everything is going splendidly, and before long I shall have a surprise for you beyond anything you ever dreamt of in the realms of romantic fiction. Not but what I am enjoying the thing thoroughly—it is good to be able to make puppets of such people as Kate Lingen and Richard Barca. And they are puppets, too. They have to dance exactly as I pull the string—but I fear that you will think me egotistical. You are quite sure that Barca said nothing to you to-night? He made no attempt to blackmail you, for instance? He did not try to get a lot of money out of you?"
"No," Ralph said. "I can't say that he did. I didn't like his manner when he got down here, and he more or less frightened me by certain vague hints. But of course I ignored all those. He certainly told me he wanted to have a little private chat with me after dinner, but I took very little notion of that. Indeed, I have never seen him quite so cheerful and frank as he was. He was quite entertaining."
"And did that last through dinner?" Dick asked.
"Well, no, it didn't. When he came downstairs again he seemed to be disturbed about something. He hardly ate any dinner, and the meal proceeded in moody silence. Not that I minded in the least, for I have little disposition to talk. As soon as we had finished, Barca said that he had to go out for an hour, and I told him I was going to bed early."
"Let me hazard a guess," Dick said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, our friend Barca was not at all displeased to hear you say that. Am I not right?"
"When I come to think of it, he was not," Ralph said. "It did not occur to me at the time, but now I recollect that he seemed relieved at my statement. More than that, he came into my room after I had gone to bed to see if there was anything that I wanted."
"Ah, and incidentally to make sure that you were really between the sheets. Ah, well, it is only a case of patience. I very nearly got to the bottom of it when you appeared on the landing. But I shall have to wait till I can know for certain who it is that Barca is hiding in the house."
"Hiding in the house?" Ralph cried. "Who is it?"
"Wait," Dick said mysteriously. "When he comes to speak, then all your troubles will be at an end."
Dick Charteris was seated at the breakfast table as if he had nothing in the world to occupy his attention beyond his amusements and his appetite. He did not look in the least like a man who is up to his neck in a dangerous intrigue, and upon whose shoulders the happiness of two people rested. He nodded brightly to Sir Charles as the latter came in.
"Where have you come from?" the head of the household asked. "And how long have you been here? You don't mean to say you have come down from town this morning."
"Not at all," Dick said "I came late last night. I got into the house by means of the leads over the billiard-room just as I used to do in the old days when there were poachers about and I didn't want you to know I was anxious to join the fun. As a matter of fact, I was at Abbey Close till after midnight."
A slight frown came over Sir Charles's genial face. He appeared to be anxious and uneasy. He turned to see that he and Dick were alone in the room.
"I am not a suspicious man," he said, "but I am sure there is something very wrong in that quarter. Ralph hardly ever comes here now. In fact, I haven't seen him for days. And there is Enid wandering about the house like a troubled spirit. She is a queer girl, and when anything is wrong with her it is not the slightest use asking what is the matter. Do you happen to know what the trouble is, Dick?"
"Well, I do, Sir," Dick admitted. "Though I can't say anything about it, because the secret is not mine. But this I can safely promise, that the whole matter will be cleared up in a day or two, and you won't have to complain about any more melancholy look's so far as Enid in concerned. She and Ralph have had a bit of a misunderstanding, and, to tell you the truth, there are faults on both sides. But don't worry about it."
Sir Charles proceeded with his breakfast, his brow once more clear and unruffled. Like the typical Englishman that he was, he hated fuss and bother of any kind, especially where the emotions were concerned. He had made up his mind that it was his duty to speak to Enid. He was glad to discover now that he was saved that unpleasant task. Nevertheless, his conscience smote him a little as Enid crept into the room. She was looking pale and distracted, deep rings were under her eyes, and her movements were listless. All the same, a little animation crept into her face when she saw Dick sitting there. He gave her a careless nod.
"I am glad you have come back," she said. "I hope you are going to stay a few days now you are here."
"Can't possibly manage it," Dick said with a businesslike air. "I must get back to town this afternoon."
The speaker strolled out presently on to the terrace, and Enid followed him. She seemed to have something on her mind.
"Well, what is it?" Dick asked. "You can speak quite freely to me, you know. Upon my word, my dear girl, you look like a ghost. Even the governor notices the change in your appearance, and is quite concerned about it. He was going to speak to you, but I persuaded him that there was no occasion to do anything of the kind, at which he was naturally relieved. What do you want to know?"
"I want to know how long this is going to last," Enid said passionately. "How much longer am I to be kept in this humiliating position? After that distressing interview the other day it was my plain duty to break off my engagement with Ralph Kingsmill and let the whole world know it. I could not marry him now after what has happened, as you must see for yourself."
"Oh, yes, you will," Dick said coolly. "My dear Enid, pray have a little more patience. You promised me you would take no steps one way or the other until I had had a proper opportunity of putting matters right. When I do put things right you will be glad of the chance of going to Ralph and begging his pardon. There is nothing the matter with the poor chap at all, and I am genuinely convinced of the fact that you are the only girl he ever really eared for. Can't you see that that affair with Kate Lingen was a mere boyish indiscretion, which Ralph deemed forgotten long ago? The poor fellow is the victim of one of the vilest conspiracies that ever came under my notice. If you knew everything you would be profoundly sorry for him."
"Then why can't I know everything?" Enid demanded. "Surely I have a right to. I am still engaged to Ralph, and therefore I ought to share his secrets."
"I can't tell you anything," Dick said. "Indeed, I wouldn't if I could. But this much I promise you—you shall hear the whole wicked business from the lips of Kate Lingen herself. You shall hear her confess how the whole thing was planned; you shall know beyond a doubt what a clever actress she is, and how delightfully she fooled you the other day. I am not going to say any more, except to tell you to keep your heart up and trust in me. Otherwise, you will be sorry for your want of faith as long as you live. Now walk with me as far as the station, and let us talk about more pleasant things."
It was useless, as Enid knew from past experience, to try to coerce Dick when he took a line like this. She could only possess her soul in patience and hope for the best. Dark as the prospect was, and dreary as the outlook seemed, it was impossible to glance at Dick's buoyant face and believe that he had not some ground for his sanguine hopes. He was so cheery and full of spirit that Enid caught the contagion. Indeed, by the time the station was reached, the girl was almost herself again. As they emerged from the woods into the high road, they came face to face with Ralph, who was sauntering along. He seemed distracted and gloomy, then his face flushed as Enid bowed coldly to him. So far as Dick was concerned, he appeared to ignore the fact that anything was wrong between the others. He shook Ralph's hand cheerfully.
"Hallo," he cried, "where have you been? And how is friend Barca this morning? You don't happen to have had a conversation with him, I suppose? You know what I mean."
"I had no chance," Ralph explained. "Barca went off to town by an early train this morning. In fact, he bustled off directly he had seen his letters. And between ourselves, my dear Dick, it you can find some way of preventing him from coming back I shall be exceedingly grateful. The man is getting on my nerves."
"But he will come back." Dick said significantly, "and probably this very night. Indeed, I shall be greatly disappointed if he doesn't. Something must have happened to upset his plans, but he will return as sure as you are standing there. But it will be for the last time, Ralph. After his next visit he will never set foot in Abbey Close again. Now don't forget what I told you. Whatever that man says or does, you are to follow without question."
"But why this mystery?" Enid asked. "Really, Dick, this mania of yours for cheap melodrama is becoming a vice."
"All right," Dick said, cheerfully. "Now I'll leave you two to your own devices, for I think I hear the bell at the station."
Dick spurted on ahead, leaving Ralph and Enid together. It was lonely and secluded, and no one was likely to interrupt them. Ralph was first to speak.
"Enid," he said, "have you nothing to say to me?"
"What should I have to say to you?" the girl responded in a voice that shook a little. "I am sorry you ever came here, sorry you ever crept into my life. I was happy before."
"Maybe you will be happy again," Ralph said. "I cannot believe it myself, though Dick is so sanguine. But we cannot go on like this."
"That is true," Enid said, with some scorn in her voice. "I ought to give you back your freedom. The world ought to know that everything is at an end between us. I would have written you to that effect to-day had not Dick turned up in his eccentric way. He has made me promise that I will do nothing for the next few days, and until then—"
"I may come and see you?" Ralph asked eagerly. "Let me come to the house as if nothing has happened. If you only knew what a life I am leading and how near I am to utter despair, I am sure you would—"
"No, no," Enid cried. "You have stretched my patience and forbearance as far as they will go. I could not have you at the house. Indeed, I forbid you to come. It may be that, sooner or later, things will become clear between us. It may be that I shall have to ask your pardon for the harsh way in which I have judged you, and I will do so gladly. I would do anything to relieve this intolerable strain and know that I have not been deceived."
"May I walk a little way with you?" Ralph asked humbly.
"No, not even that. I cannot. I dare not—oh, don't you see how I am suffering?"
Enid turned away, for her eyes had filled with unbidden tears, and she was anxious that Ralph should not see her agitation. But there was no occasion for her to say any more. He turned aside and walked down the road, leaving her to cross the fields alone. The day was bright and fair, but Enid could see nothing of it for the mist that dimmed her eyes.
Meanwhile, all unconscious of what he had left behind him. Dick went blithely back to town. Everything was working out to his expectations. Indeed, there was only one thing that puzzled him. He knew perfectly well that Barca had gone down to Abbey Close the day before to make certain proposals to Ralph Kingsmill. Dick was all the surer of it because he himself had forced matters forward, using Barca and Mrs. Lingen as pawns in the ingenious game he was playing. Why, then, had not Barca boldly tackled Ralph and started the scheme of blackmailing, which in the end was to deprive Ralph of his fortune? Why had he gone off to town again without showing his hand? So far as Dick could see, the mysterious stranger whom Barca had concealed in his bedroom was at the bottom of it. As Dick rode back to town, he thoughtfully turned over in his mind the story which he had heard from Clarkson's lips the night before. Once he arrived at his destination Dick went straight away to Clarkson's flat, and fortunately found the latter ate home. He was occupied in building a fort for little Nellie, which she was promptly demolishing with the aid of some toy cannons.
"I am glad to see you engaged like this," Dick said. "Indeed, I am glad that my adventures brought me here at all. I have been thinking a good deal about you this morning, and if you really want a chance I am disposed to help you. But, first of all, tell me what you have done with the jewels which you stole from the residence of Mr. Jacob Vandernort the other night."
"For Heaven's sake, don't talk like that before the child." Clarkson whispered. "She does not know—"
"I beg your pardon," Dick cried. "I had quite forgotten her for the moment. But it is entirely for her sake that I am going to give you a chance. Of course, I know how you impersonated Holt the other night, and what the result of your visit to the house in London Gardens was. If you have disposed of all that stuff—"
"Only one article I give you my word," Clarkson said. "And that was only a matter of about two hundred pounds. I wanted the ready money to pay three months' rent of this place, and get my wardrobe out of pawn. I yielded to a sudden temptation—the temptation to try to be respectable again. I thought that if I could manage it I might be able to do better in my profession. . . . But all this is by the way. Already I have returned the great bulk of those stones to Mr. Vandernort anonymously, with the exception of one article of jewellery which I have mislaid. Of course, I really haven't mislaid it, and I honestly mean to return it as soon as possible. The child has done all this for me. During the last few months, as she is getting older and more like her mother, my contempt for myself has deepened and deepened, until I resolved to try to get back into the world of honest men again. I daresay I should have fallen if I had not met you, but there is something about you that braces a man up to do better things. If you will help me, I promise you—"
"Don't promise anything," Dick said. "Perform instead. I'll find you the money to send that last article back to Mr. Vandernort, and I don't suppose you will hear any more about it. And now I shall be glad if we can come to business. There are several things to do yet, and the first thing is to find where Barca is. He came up from Abbey Close this morning hurriedly after receiving his letters. If you don't mind I'll stay here and entertain the child whilst you go out and ascertain where Barca is. I want to know whether or not he has seen Mrs. Lingen this morning. Come back and tell me that, and then I'll give you your immediate instructions."
Dick was engaged for a full hour or more in the destruction of the toy fort before Clarkson returned with the information that Barca was at his rooms, and declined to see anybody. Moreover, Kate Lingen had been there, too, and she had fared no better than anybody else.
"So he refused even to see her," Dick cried. "Oh, this is splendid. Everything is working beautifully for us now, but I had not anticipated anything quite so good as this. Now you stay where you are while I go round to my rooms and look at my letters. I will be back in about half an hour, and unless I am very greatly mistaken—but, of course, you don't know anything about that."
Dick rushed off to his own rooms, where he found a pile of correspondence awaiting him. He read two letters slowly and carefully: he sat down to think them over with the aid of a cigarette. He had barely finished before his man came in with a telegram. The message was short and to the point:—
"Can I see you this morning? Very important.—Kate."
With a smile of peculiar satisfaction, Dick read the message, then he changed into a frock coat and a top hat, and went gaily off to call upon the disconsolate Mrs. Lingen.
For some little time Dick sat in the cosy drawing-room waiting for his hostess. She arrived presently, looking exceedingly quiet and subdued, and not in the least like her usual self. So far as Dick could judge, she had been weeping real tears, a phenomenon which none of her friends had ever had the chance of seeing before. She placed her slim white hand into Dick's palm and a deep sigh escaped her. With an effort Dick preserved his gravity.
"Well, this is exceedingly good of you," he said, "and really I feel quite flattered. But, tell me, why did you pick me out to share your confidences?"
Kate Lingen laughed in spite of herself. It was useless to keep up any pretensions in the presence of Dick Charteris.
"Perhaps because you know me so well," she said. "Are you must give me this credit, Dick. Whatever my faults in your eyes may be, I never tried to humbug you."
"Oh, because it was useless," Dick laughed. "And you did try it on when we were first acquainted. In fact, you couldn't help it. You are bound to make love to every man who comes along. I verily believe you would try your hand on a saint."
"I should be glad of the chance," Kate Lingen laughed. "Wouldn't it be fun to see the poor, dear man gradually stepping down from his pedestal and becoming human? But, Dick, I must be serious. I have got myself into a frightful mess, and Richard Barca promised to get me out of it. He faithfully promised he would do so last night, and when I went round to his rooms to call upon him this morning he refused to see me. Now what do you think of a man who treats his promised wife in that fashion?"
A wild laugh rose to Dick's lips, but he suppressed it.
"So you are going to marry Richard Barca after all?" he asked. "You have given it careful consideration, and you have come to the conclusion that he is the one man for you. Now that your decision is arrived at, you feel quite certain that Barca has been the fortunate possessor of your heart from the first. That being so, you are naturally distressed to find yourself treated in this contemptuous fashion. Do you want me to go and see Barca for you?"
"I wish you would be serious," Mrs. Lingen said with a frown. "I don't know what I am going to do now, unless you can lend me the money which I require."
"My dear woman, I haven't got it. Don't you know that my father is only a landed proprietor? If he were one of the modern type of millionaires it would be a different matter. It is not the slightest use looking to me for assistance. And, indeed, you have only got yourself to blame for the position in which you find yourself to-day. But, tell me, how did Barca propose to help you?"
"He had a little scheme," Kate Lingen said eagerly. "He was quite sure that he could get a large sum of money from—"
The speaker paused and bit her lip, suddenly realising that she was on the verge of an indiscretion. She would have been startled had she known what was passing in Dick's mind at that moment.
"If Barca told you he would get it, you may depend upon it that he will do so. There is nothing of the vain-glorious braggart about Richard Barca. I suppose you have spoilt everything in the way you do ruin most things. Barca is an exceedingly jealous man, and I happen to know that he is passionately fond of you. He would do anything for you, even at the sacrifice of his life's ambitions. His love is the one touch of humanity in an otherwise cold, unfeeling nature. But the man is furiously jealous, all the more so because he does not trust you. Not to put too fine a point upon it, you are not to be trusted, if you don't mind my saying so."
"Oh, I know that," Kate Lingen said candidly.' "I can't help flirting, and that is why, Last night—"
The woman paused and bit her lip again, and Dick laughed outright. His amusement showed itself in his face.
"Go on," he said. "You need not be afraid to tell me. I knew that Arthur Mostyn was in town again, and that he had returned from the Cape better-looking and more fascinating than ever. Now there is a man you might have married and who might have kept you in order, only, unfortunately, he has no money, and so long as he is so reckless a gambler he is likely to remain hopelessly impecunious. You met him yesterday afternoon, and you had tea together. Then he took you to the theatre and came back here to supper. And now, knowing that Barca must be aware of all this, you wonder why he refused to see you this morning."
"But how can he know?" Mrs. Lingen asked.
"Oh, my dear child, what a question from a woman of the world. As I said before, Barca trusts nobody, not even yourself. Of course, he had you watched. Indeed, it is just the sort of thing that he would do. He was always jealous of Mostyn, like the rest of your admirers. And if you will persist in perpetrating those little indiscretions, you must take the consequences. If you want my advice, I should go round to see Barca again, and wait till he comes out. I have no doubt you will be able to manage him, and afterwards share the money which he is going to get from Mr.—I mean from the man whose name you so discreetly withheld just now."
Dick rose and took up his hat, as if the interview were at an end. Everything was going exactly as he could have wished. He was quite ready to let circumstances take care of themselves. He shook hands with his fair hostess and took his departure, leaving her to her own troubled thoughts. She rose from her chair presently and lighted a cigarette. The fascinating smile left her lips, she looked quite drawn and haggard now that she was alone.
"What a fool I am," she told herself. "How stupid of me not to have felt that Richard would have had a watch put on my movements. And it would have been easy to put Mostyn off. I had only to plead another engagement and promise to see him some day next week. But Dick's advice was quite correct. It would be foolish to give up the struggle like this, and I will make one more attempt to see Richard. I must dress myself carefully for the part—something dark and funereal-looking. I fancy."
Despite the gravity of the situation. Kate Lingen smiled to herself as she though of the coming comedy. Even her debts and difficulties were forgotten at the prospect of a little play after her own heart. She danced gaily up to her dressing-room, calling for her maid as she went. The little French woman came demurely into the room. There were few secrets that Kate had from her, and she appreciated the situation as soon as Mrs. Lingen broached it.
"So you see what a terrible mess I am in, Marie," she said. "I have estranged the love of the only man I ever cared for for a mere adventurer like Mostyn. Just think of it."
"Ah, fine man, Mr. Mostyn." Marie said. "If he were rich, it is a poor chance Mr. Barca would have. Now, let me see, madame, a black dress with a rather low blouse, also black and pearls round the neck. Then a large picture hat and a veil, with the complexion made nice and pallid, and marks which suggest tears under the eyes. As to the rest, madame can manage for herself, nobody better. I can see you with those eyes turned up imploringly."
Kate Lingen laughed heartily at the vision which Marie's lively imagination had conjured up.
"I declare you are a perfect genius," she said, "and I will put myself absolutely into your hands for you to dress me as you please. Only you must not go too far, Marie."
"Oh I will not go too far, madame. We are both of us nothing if not artistic. There shall be no exaggeration; no suggestion of the stage. We will convey the impression that though we have been wrong we have not lost our self-respect."
Kate Lingen looked with approbation at the slender figure reflected in the looking glass half an hour later. She was more than satisfied with her maid's handiwork.
"Absolutely perfect," she said. "I will give you L5 for this. At least, I would give you L5 if I had it. When the ship comes into port you shall not be forgotten. And now, will you be good enough to call me a cab? No, on second thoughts, I won't have a cab. I'll walk. It looks better, and strikes one as being far more in keeping with the character."
For some hour or more Kate Lingen walked up and down outside the house where Barca's rooms were situated. Then her patience was rewarded at length, for he came out and walked rapidly down the road. Almost timidly the woman accosted him. She looked absolutely downcast and disheartened, but behind her demure lips the laughter lay. Not even Barca had the slightest suspicion of how she was enjoying the situation. That she was going to be successful she did not for a moment doubt. Nevertheless, the thing was artistically done, as if the very thread of her existence depended upon its success, Barca could feel how the hand on his arm trembled.
"Well, what do you want?" he said harshly. "Did you not get my message just now?"
"Of course, I got your message but I waited, feeling sure that you would come out before long. And what have I done that you should treat me in this fashion?"
"Just as if you didn't know," Barca growled. "No sooner was my back turned than you begin at once—"
"Richard, you are positively jealous. Oh, I did not expect you would pay yourself so poor a compliment as this. You are thinking about Mostyn. He came to see me yesterday after his long absence, and he took me to the theatre. After that I could do no less than ask him to supper, and because I do this you treat me to this disgraceful fashion. It would have been far better if I had adhered to my resolution and refused to become your wife. I could never be happy with a man of your jealous disposition, and I came to tell you that this morning. You had promised to get me out of my difficulties, but now, of course, I cannot ask you to do that. My pride would prevent me. I daresay I shall manage to get through somehow or another, and probably in time I shall forget you. Of course, you will not try to see me again; it is far better that we should not meet any more. Not that I bear any malice, Richard, not but what I will be a friend to you in case you need one. Now let us shake hands and say good-bye."
Kate Lingen's words were low and thrilling, her voice trembled, and the real tears rose to her eyes. It was a consummate piece of acting, and the woman was perfectly well aware of it. Barca hesitated just a moment fighting against his own cool common-sense. Yet he was thrilled and swayed, and the passion that filled him rose and overflowed its banks. He held the slim, shaking hands in a grip that was forcible and painful.
"Come inside," he said hoarsely. "I cannot let you go like this. I am a fool, a double dyed fool for my pains, and I am making care for myself with my eyes wide open. I wish to heaven I had never seen you, that I had never come under your influence. But I can't get away from my destiny; it is futile to try."
Kate Lingen sighed gently. She had won her battle much more easily than she had anticipated, and it required all her art to keep the look of triumph from her face. A few moments later she was lying back in a comfortable armchair listening to what Barca had to say. He paced impatiently up and down the room, and seemed to be struggling to keep something to himself.
"We must go on as we are," he said. "In fact, we are bound to go on as we are. You shall have all the money you require; indeed, you would have had it before now but for the fact that I had a fool to deal with—a fool whose impatience and head-strong folly has nearly ruined everything. I should have struck the first blow last night, only the idiot in question rendered any definite action on my part dangerous. Perhaps to-night or to-morrow night I shall be able to move once more, but on that head I cannot speak definitely till this evening. I wonder if I dare trust you."
Kate Lingen's big eyes were turned up imploringly.
"Of course, you can trust me," she whispered. "You can trust me with anything. What is this great secret, and from whence do you expect to obtain the large sums of money that you were looking forward to? Tell me, I must know, Richard. I insist upon knowing."
Again Barca hesitated, then he strode across the room and caught the woman by the wrists in a grip that was painful. As he bent down his dark eyes gleamed forbiddingly.
"Very well," he said, "I am going to do a foolish thing, a thing that I cannot help when you look at me like that. And if you betray me, if you forget that there are limits to my patience—but that threat does not frighten you. Now listen."
Kate Lingen bent her head attentively to hear, but Barca appeared to have changed his mind again. The woman shrugged her shoulders in a petulant sort of way. She knew precisely the class of man she had to deal with. Then she waited for him to speak.
"I am the prince of fools," he said. "Do you know what I am in a position to do? For the last ten years I have been working night and day on one of the most stupendous discoveries ever made. I could revolutionise the whole theory of surgery. I should be a great man, people would point to me as I walk down the street, riches and honours would be showered upon me."
"How delightful!" Kate Lingen said. "Do you really mean to say you have attained all that? It would be very nice to be the wife of such a man. And if it is as you describe, there must be a great deal of money behind it."
"Oh, money, money," Barca said impatiently, "you are always thinking about money. Have you one idea about anything else?"
"There is nothing else," Kate observed. "It is everything. Without money life to me would lose all its charm."
"For money's own sake I care nothing," Barca replied. "I only need it so that I may sit down in peace and quietness and work out the problems I love so well. In any other country but England a man like myself could go to the Government and demand the means to live whilst the important experiments are going on. As it is, you may slave and starve working in the interests of humanity and only get pitied as a fool for your pains. Or, perhaps, some man, some thick headed dolt with a little money comes along and buys for a mere pittance the child of your brain. That is what I mean that is the sort of life I have been leading. I am not a coward as you know, I possess no nervous imagination, but there is always one dread before my mind. Suppose I had a long illness, or suppose I met with a bad accident? What would become of me? How should I manage to live till I was able to resume my work? Why, I should have to part with some of my secrets merely to keep body and soul together. And that is why I am not going to lose the opportunity which fortune has placed in my way. It would be folly to spare Ralph Kingsmill now that I am in a position to command his purse."
The woman looked up quickly. She did not feel in the least sorry for Ralph. She would have deprived him of the last penny without compunction. She was anxious to know where his power came in. For Barca spoke as if he had only to raise his hand and the whole of Ralph's money would fall at his feet.
"Do you really mean to say," the woman cried, "that you have got a hold upon him? Oh, this is a good joke. The immaculate and high-minded Ralph Kingsmill has actually committed a crime, has he? Well, I hope you will punish him even if only for his shabby treatment of me."
Barca appeared to be amused at something. It was not often that he smiled but his thoughts evidently pleased him now.
"I don't think I had better tell you," he said. "On mature consideration I will not tell you. You must rest content with sharing the plunder. For many years to come, Ralph Kingsmill is likely to prove our banker. And if once you know what my hold upon him is it would be a secret no longer. No, no, my dear Kate. I am fool enough to love you with a passion which is utterly beyond my control, but I don't trust you, as you are perfectly well aware. You are quite capable of throwing me over at the last moment, and working the market for yourself. So long as I can give you what you require there is no reason to worry about the rest."
A greedy look came into Kate Lingen's blue eyes; Expansive visions began to rise before her. "But is ti really true?" she asked. "Can you get from Ralph Kingsmill all the money you require?"
"Have I not said so already? And if you want any Proof of my statement—"
"Oh, yes. It is absolutely necessary. Have you not already promised me great things? You know what my requirements are and how soon they must be filled. But how am I to be certain that you are not exaggerating? Last night—"
"Last night was unfortunate." Barca said impatiently. "Circumstances were too strong for me, and I had to wait."
"Then why wait any longer? Come back to me with the money in your hand, and then I can believe you. Why not go down again this evening? My dear Richard, you do not seem to recognise how perilously near to the edge of the precipice I am. If you did, I am sure you would not keep me any longer in suspense."
"Very well." Barca said after a long pause. "I think I can manage it to-night. And, unless I am vastly mistaken, I shall call upon you to-morrow morning and literally fill your pockets with gold. What do you say to that?"
Kate Lingen's soft manner vanished; she jumped to her feet and fairly danced round the room.
"Splendid!" she cried. "Now you are talking. But you must bring me a lot of money, Richard—great piles of sovereigns and banknotes, so that I can fairly revel in the feeling that I am rich at last. Let me have ten thousand pounds. I have never seen such a heap. It has always been my ambition to have the spending of ten thousand pounds all at once. Now won't you promise me, Richard? I know you will."
The speaker ceased to dance about the room. She came up to Barca and placed her hands on his shoulders, and then she raised her face and kissed him. She could feel the man thrill under the caress and rejoiced in her power over him.
"When you treat me like that," he said hoarsely, "I will do anything you like. But let us have a little patience. We must not scare our bird, for Ralph Kingsmill is capable of desperate things if driven too far. You must put up with a smaller sum than that for the present, but I can safely promise that you shall have ten thousand pounds before long. With that be satisfied."
"You will go down to-night," Kate Lingen cried. "Promise me that you will go down to-night."
"Very well," Barca said. "I'll promise. And now you really must leave me because I have many things to do. And if you should dare to play me false after all this—"
Kate Lingen smiled reproachfully. She had the measure of the man by her side; she knew exactly how far to let him go and where to pull him in. Her thoughts were pleasing ones as she walked homewards a little later. Her troubles were at an end, and she need have no fear for the future. She danced up to her bedroom and flung the big hat and veil aside.
"Madame has been successful," the maid said. "Of course, you would be. Perhaps you would like me to change your dress for something that looks a little less sad?"
"By all means," Kate said gaily. "The poor thing has served its purpose and now we can lay it aside. But there is going to be no more frivolity in the future, Marie. Behold in me the affianced wife of a distinguished man of science, who is not the sort of man to stand any nonsense."
"Dr. Barca," Marie said, with the suspicion of a sneer. "Truly, Madame might have done better than that."
"Oh, dear, no, Marie. Let me tell you that Dr. Barca has come into a fortune. He has suddenly become very rich; he has made a discovery which will bring him in more money than one knows what to do with. So I have decided to be his wife. Of course, that need not interfere with my little amusements. This afternoon I will get you to take a note round to Mr. Mostyn asking him to dine here. We will have the best dinner that money can procure; we will try to forget the man of science for the moment. Then to-morrow, I will turn over a new leaf and live the most discreet way for the future."
"Never," Marie laughed. "It is not discretion that suits you, madame. Perhaps a deal of trouble will arise over this determination of yours, but then that only renders the situation piquant. And as to Mr. Mostyn, he is worth a score of your men of science. There is nothing like a man for you."
Kate Lingen dismissed the chattering maid at length and sat down to think the situation over. On the whole, she was not quite so pleased with herself as she might have been. She had managed to patch up her quarrel with Barca; she felt pretty sure now that she was going to get from him the money necessary to make her position secure. But, on the other hand, she had tied herself down with a promise which Barca was sure to enforce. He would never consent to a second loan until she was his wife. Kate Lingen was by no means a fool, and she knew perfectly well Shy Barca had refused the big loan she had suggested. He was going to let her have just enough to keep her out of trouble, but no more cash would be forthcoming until the wedding ceremony was an accomplished fact. Still, it was good to know that the danger was averted, and, as she sat smoking her cigarette, the buoyancy of her nature reasserted itself.
"I think it will be safe this time," she murmured. "Richard will be out of the way to-night, and I must see Mostyn, even if it is only for the last time."
Meanwhile, Barca was making his preparations for the coming campaign. He would go down to Abbey Close by the last train and have it out with Ralph Kingsmill. There was not going to be any of the ordinary blackmailing methods about his system; he had thought out a much more artistic scheme than that. He was still putting the finishing touches to it when a servant came up with the announcement that a gentleman named Clarkson desired to see Dr. Barca for a moment.
Barca's brows contracted and the look in his eyes was not good to see. He hesitated just a moment, then bade the servant bring the visitor upstairs. He turned away from the Bradshaw in from of him as Clarkson entered the room.
"Well," he demanded, "and what do you want? Why do you come here worrying me? Of you think to get anything out of me, you have come to the wrong man. I know you to be a broken-down journalist. It is no secret that you are prepared to do anything for money. You think you have got hold of something which is likely to be profitable to you, but let me tell you that you have made a great mistake. And now, if you don't clear out of my place, I'll take the law in my hands and kick you down the stairs."
Clarkson smiled at the vehemence of the speech. He was feeling on absolutely safe ground now; he knew of the power which he had behind him. There was no fear in his heart.
"Don't you think you are talking a little bit at random?" he said. "And as to my being a broken-down journalist, can you honestly say that I look like one?"
For the first time Barca paid his visitor the compliment of glancing in his direction. He was bound to confess that Clarkson was not in the least like the person with whom he had compared him. He looked smart and clean, his hair and moustache were trimmed, he wore a well-fitting frock-coat, and had every other appearance of prosperity. The furtive glance in his eyes had vanished, he held his head square and erect, and looked Barca in the face without flinching.
"Perhaps not," Barca admitted. "Evidently you have found somebody upon whose credulity—"
"Now don't go too far," Clarkson said in a cool, steady voice. "Don't go too far, or maybe I shall have to silence you in another fashion. As a matter of fact, I am imposing upon the credulity of nobody. I am what some people might call a brand from the burning. In other words, I have had the chance for which I have been looking so long and have become a respectable member of society again. I don't suppose that interests you in the slightest."
"It doesn't," Barca sneered. "Especially as the fit of respectability is only likely to be temporary."
"We shall see. Anyway, it is no business of yours. But before I quit my old life it is necessary that I shall rid myself of certain obligations, one of which concerns Stephen Holt. I must see him before long, and that is why I am here now. I want to know if you will tell me where I can find him."
"How the devil should I know?" Barca cried passionately. "Why do you come pestering me about that black-guard? He may be alive or he may be dead for all I know or care. And if you only came to me with the news that he had departed this life I should be delighted to hear it. I am certain that it would save me a great many loans in the future."
"You do not seem to have much opinion of your future brother-in-law," Clarkson said. "But all this is beside the question. I have asked you where I can find Stephen Holt, and you say you don't know. Is that your final answer?"
"Of course it is. What more can I say?"
"Well, then, I suppose I must apply to another quarter," Clarkson said mysteriously. "It is very unfortunate that you can't tell me this, because it is necessary that I should see Holt without delay. No doubt I shall be able to ascertain what I want to know by going down to Abbey Close to-night."
Barca started slightly. There was a hidden meaning under Clarkson's words, and he did not fail to detect it.
"Who is likely to enlighten you down there?" he asked.
"Oh, there are more persons than one," Clarkson responded. "For instance, there is the mysterious gentleman who smokes cigarettes and prefers to pass his time in the bedroom which Mr. Kingsmill allows you to occupy at Abbey Close. I have no doubt if I call on this person he will tell me all I want to know about Stephen Holt. I'll go down to-morrow and see."
Cool as he was, Barca writhed a little under Clarkson's steady gaze. He would have liked to ask a few more questions, but Clarkson had already turned to the door as if the interview were closed. And before Barca could make up his mind what to say next, his visitor had vanished.
"Now, what the dickens is the meaning of it all?" Barca muttered.
"Why does the chap come and bother me to know where Holt is? He must know something definite or his manner would not be so assured. And yet he says and does nothing which leads one to suppose that he is after the plunder. He must have somebody behind him, somebody who has paid his debts and redeemed his wardrobe, and, at any rate for the present, has made him a respectable member of society. I must make it my business to find out who is behind this fellow. But, first of all, I must go down to Abbey Close immediately. The source of the danger has been removed. After that, I shall be able to tackle Mr. Jim Clarkson and the mysterious figure behind him. Really, I ought to be much obliged to him for warning me. Still, he must keep for the present."
Meanwhile, Clarkson had gone on his way in the direction of Dick Charteris's rooms. He found the latter eagerly awaiting him and thirsting for details.
"Well," he asked, "how did it turn out?"
"It was exceedingly brief," Clarkson smiled. "Our friend Barca was in a very bad temper about something, and his words were more forcible than polite. Just as I had anticipated, he told me that he had heard nothing more about Holt, nor did he want to. When I insisted, he became more or less abusive. Then I said exactly what you told me to say—that it was my intention to go down to Abbey Close and see if I could not get the information required from a mysterious individual who was concealed in Dr. Barca's bedroom."
"And that fetched him, I expect?" Dick laughed.
"Oh, yes, that fetched him right enough. I had hit the right nail on the head, and he could not conceal his chagrin. Depend upon it, Dr. Barca will not lose the opportunity of going down to Abbey Close to-night."
"So I have calculated," Dick said. "I have more or less prepared the ground, and now I think I can run the risk of sending a telegram to Kingsmill, saying that he is pretty sure to see Barca before bedtime. You have done exceedingly well, and I am greatly obliged to you. I have got the telegram already written out, and perhaps you will be good enough to despatch it for me. Then you can come back in about an hour's time after I have seen Mr. Vandernort; in fact, it will be far better if you see that gentleman and explain your position to him. He is a typical hard-headed American business man, but at bottom he is by no means a bad sort, and you need not anticipate any trouble with him. After all, it is only playing the game properly for you to meet him face to face."
"Certainly I will do it," Clarkson said. "And I hope it will be the last humiliating experience I shall ever have."
The speaker departed with the telegram, and Dick sat down to await the coming of Mr. Vandernort. The American arrived presently alert and eager to hear what Dick had to say.
"I guess I got your letter," he said. "And now, Mr. Charteris, what is all this about? Somebody who calls himself Stephen Holt comes along and walks off with all my daughter's jewellery, and almost before we realise our loss, you turn up, a perfect stranger, and make yourself master of the situation. Seems to me that you would have done better on our side of the water than this. For you have a cool, level head of your own, and no mistake."
"That is very good of you," Dick laughed. "But, you see, I am rather fortunate in having all the cards in my hand. I was fortunate, also, in having to deal with a gentleman like yourself, who does not care to rush off to the police every time he has some little loss. By the way, you have had the whole of Miss Vandernort's jewels back, haven't you?"
"All but one item," Vandernort explained. "They came with an anonymous letter saying that the missing trinket would be returned as soon as possible. But say, Mr. Charteris, why did you want me yesterday morning to apply for a warrant for the arrest of Stephen Hold, when we know pretty well that he was not the thief at all?"
"We were not certain of that," Dick said demurely. "A man professing to be Mr. Holt called at your place and took the stuff, and you are perfectly justified in going to Scotland Yard and asking for that warrant. As a matter of fact, I may tell you between ourselves that the jewellery was stolen by a man named Clarkson, an acquaintance of Holt, who impersonated his friend for that occasion only. Now if you will have a little patience with me, I want to tell you a great deal about this Clarkson, because he has been more or less unfortunate all his life, and is now making a really sincere effort to obtain an honest living. I think that after you have heard his story, you will not be inclined to take any proceedings against him. Perhaps I had better get to the point."
"Fire away," Vandernort said cheerfully. "I suppose you won't mind if I smoke while you are talking?"
Dick plunged into his narrative at once, and long before he had finished the story of Clarkson and his child, he had the pleasure of seeing that he was making the right impression on his visitor. There were other matters that Dick had to introduce, and during the long narrative the listener's attention never flagged for a moment.
"Well, I should smile," Vandernort said when the story was finished. "I never heard a more extraordinary yarn than that, even in a Western newspaper. You have done pretty well, Mr. Charteris, and I wish you well through this business. I see now what a clever move it was of yours to get me to issue that warrant for Holt's arrent. It enables you to force the hand of this fellow Barca, and save your future brother-in-law at the same time. And you needn't worry about Clarkson, I am not going out of my way to stop him from getting an honest living. There is only one thing I regret, and that is that I can't come down with you and see the fun. I suppose, in the circumstances, that would hardly do?"
"Well, it is rather a family matter," Dick said. "But the very next time I am up in town I shall do myself the pleasure of calling upon you and telling you all about it. It seems to me that you have had a narrow escape as well as the rest of us."
The American's face grew hard just for a moment.
"I see what you are driving at," he said. "There is no getting away from the fact that Stephen Holt had been paying a lot of attention to my daughter, and I am quite sure that she was growing exceedingly fond of him. We might never had found out the man's true character if this Clarkson hadn't come along and walked off with the jewels. But for that, and your opportune appearance, I have not the slightest doubt that Holt would have married my girl sooner or later, much against my wishes as it might have been."
"But you would have prevented that," Dick said.
"Young man, there you display a lamentable ignorance of the typical American girl," Vandernort said solemnly. "We call ourselves a free and independent race, but the married men in America are nothing of the kind. Directly a man has a wife and family, especially if the family consists of daughters, it is his bounden duty to spend the rest of his life working like a galley slave so that they may enjoy themselves. It matters little how his health suffers, or how he needs a holiday, he has just got to go on till he drops in his tracks. He has no right to ask a single question, he has no right to expostulate on the score of extravagance, he hardly even has the right to live. And do you suppose that a self-respecting American girl will ask her father's consent to the marriage between herself and the man of her choice? No, sir. That father would consider himself lucky if he got off with a dowry which was less than half his fortune. If you had not come along and given the show away, my little girl would have married Holt, and I should have had to grin and bear it."
"You have my profound sympathy," Dick said gravely. "But here is Clarkson coming up the stairs."
Clarkson came into the room and hesitated as he saw the visitor standing there. Dick came forward and laid his hand on Clarkson's shoulder. Then he drew him forward.
"This is Mr. Vandernort," he said. "I have told him your story from start to finish without concealing anything, and without saying anything in your favour. I think you will not have anything to fear as far as Mr. Vandernort is concerned."
"I guess not," Vandernort said. "It seems to me that you are rather a young man to take it lying down as you have done."
"I am not going to take it lying down any more, sir," Clarkson responded. "I ought to apologise most humbly to you for my behaviour. I have to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness and clemency. But somehow the words do not come easy; they have a false and insincere ring."
"Clarkson is a bit of a stylist," Dick laughed. "Like all true literary men, he has a nice feeling for the proper meaning of words."
"Well, I guess it doesn't matter," Vandernort said. "You seem to have sent everything back to me without any prompting on the part of anybody. That is a point in your favour. We won't say anything about the missing trinket, for I have had more than the value of that out of this little entertainment. And now, Mr. Clarkson, if you should ever be tempted to cross the water, I daresay that I could find something for you—"
"That is very good and kind," Clarkson said quietly. "I know many men in my position who have tried their fortunes successfully in America, but that is not quite my idea. I intend to live everything down in the country where I was bred and born. I will not be content till I have recovered my lost self-respect and the respect of others. I want those people who have turned from me with proper contempt to come and shake hands with me and feel that I am on the same level with them again. It is a big task, but I am going to attempt it, and I feel certain that I shall succeed."
"That you will," Vandernort said heartily. "And let me be the first man to shake hands with you and let you feel that you are on his level once more. And now I must be going. These little amusements are all very well in their way, bit I must not forget that I am a working-man with a daughter behind me who keeps me up to the collar. Let me know how matters go, Mr. Charteris."
Dick promised that he would do so, and the American vanished as if he had not a moment to spare. Dick turned to Clarkson and laid a kindly hand on his shoulder.
"You are well out of that," he said. "And now we can forget all about it. Still, there is a good deal to be done, and not much time to spare. What you have to do now is to keep a close eye upon Barca and let me know as soon as he makes a move. I don't suppose he will do anything till very late to-night; still he may, and we can't be too careful. Keep a close eye on his lodgings, and as soon as anything definite transpires, go to the nearest telephone call office and ring me up here. There is nothing more for the present, so far as I can see."
Clarkson departed on his errand, and Dick set himself down with as much patience as he could command to wait for events. The afternoon dragged slowly on, and evening came at length without any sign from Clarkson. It was quite late before Dick dispatched a second telegram to Ralph. There was some little risk in doing so, but he wanted to make assurance doubly sure. The clock was close on the hour of ten before there came a sharp tingle of the telephone and Dick took down the receiver.
"Is that you?" came Clarkson's voice. "Barca has just sent for a cab. He is going down to Abbey Close by the last train. Is there any more that I can do for you to-night?"
Dick responded curtly that there was not. He would see Clarkson in the morning; then he proceeded to put a few things together, rang the bell, and his man answered the summons. His message was short and to the point.
"I am going down home," he said. "Will you go round to Shorter's and tell them to have the motor here in half an hour? I shall require no assistance. I am going to drive myself."
Ralph was left after the departure of Dick to his own troubled thoughts, and to his own devices. He was glad enough to see Barca's back in the morning, and sincerely hoped that he would never see the fellow again. Nevertheless, he did not forget Dick's prophecy that Barca would return once more and that he was probably to be looked for that evening. It was getting towards dinner time when a somewhat mysterious telegram arrived from Charteris warning him that Barca was returning a little later, and that he was to be met in any way that Dick desired. In other words, whatever proposition, however audacious, he made to Ralph, was to be acquiesced in without the slightest murmur.
There was only one thing for it, and that was to obey. If anybody could save him, Dick could. But it seemed a work of superfluous energy. What did anything matter so long as Ralph was estranged from Enid? She would never see him again, her trust in him was gone for ever. In that respect, Enid was a true Charteris, with all the strange fantastic jealousy of her race. Perhaps if Ralph had confessed to the Lingen episode in the beginning, all might have been well.
"And yet it is a proper ending," Ralph told himself as he sat over a solitary dinner. "To think that if I had told Enid there would have been no tragedy. Still, I have to thank God that I shall not have to explain my despair to Enid. The mere idea is terrible. Fancy her my wife! How could I have gone on day by day pretending to be happy with this awful cloud hanging over me? She would have found it out sooner or later, and then things would have been worse than ever."
Ralph was seated alone in the dining-room. He had made some pretence of eating dinner and had come to the wine and fruit stage. He could not eat the fruit without the sense of suffocation that more solid food gave him. Only two days before and he had joyously reveled in the artistic beauty of the old room. Everything there had been a pride and a glad delight to him. He had pictured it as perfect with the figure of Enid smiling at him from the other end of the table.
And now it was so much Dead Sea fruit. He pushed his plate away with a bitter sigh and reached for his cigarette case. Just for an instant he hesitated as to whether he should take a further glass of wins, but he averted his eyes from the decanter. A certain solace lay in that direction; it was possible to drown sorrow and remorse there, but Ralph resolved he would not play the coward's part as yet.
Sooner or later the crime would be discovered; at any moment old Joicey might enter with the news that the body of the murdered man had been found in the grounds. Then all the fuss and the bother and the ceaseless questions would begin. And Ralph would not be able to deny that the corpse was unknown to him; that would be too dangerous. If some enemy had planned the thing with a view to breaking down his reason, why the scheme gave every promise of ultimate success.
Ralph pitched his cigarette aside and wandered restlessly from one room to another. The house was singularly quiet; outside hardly a breath of wind disturbed the serenity of the perfect night. The servants had finished their day's work and were relaxing in their own quarters; Ralph had the house apparently to himself. He stood in the great hall undecided what next to do; the full light of the moon shone through the latticed windows. It looked very cool and restful and inviting outside.
To be out in the open air was better than this, Ralph decided. He looked for a cap, but none was to be seen in the hall. There was one in Ralph's dining-room. He passed up the stairs; the moon flooded the corridor with light. How wonderfully still and silent it was! And then the silence was broken by a long-drawn groan.
Ralph started, his heart beating violently. He could not credit the note of pain to his heated imagination. The groan came once more, followed by a kind of yawn, and then it stopped altogether, not to be heard again. Ralph wondered where the sound came from; it was so difficult to locate sound in the dark. Finally, he decided that it came from the attics at the top of the house.
On an old oak chest stood a pair of silver candlesticks. Ralph lighted one of them, and proceeded to investigate. Most of the attics were empty save the largest one, which seemed to be crammed with furniture. Barca had declared that there were enough treasures of sorts here to furnish the house over again, and he appeared not to have exaggerated. Scores of carpets lay neatly folded, even from the backs of them Ralph could guess at their value. He must thoroughly overhaul this when he had time. Meanwhile, it was quite certain that that strange moan of pain had not come from here.
Perhaps it had been imagination after all; perhaps Ralph's heated brain had magnified the belated bleat of a lamb outside into something eloquent of tragedy. With an impatient intolerance of his own fancy, he put down the candle and walked into the garden. It was still quite early, not much past nine, and he walked on and on until he came to the gate of Charteris Park. He wondered what Enid was doing now, what she was thinking of him. Did she care much, or had she already succeeded in putting him out of her mind? A desire to know possessed Ralph; he turned into the drive until he came to the house. Beyond the lawn he could see the line of shaded lamps in the drawing-room. Enid was playing some dreamy melody. He could just catch the flutter of her white dress as she sat at the piano. What a picture of refined domestic English life it was! How suggestive of happiness! Ralph was still debating over this point when a hand gripped his arm.
"What are you doing here?" a stern voice said. "This is not the first time that I—"
"I came out for a stroll, Sir Charles," Ralph said. "Did you take me for a poacher?"
"Why, bless me if it isn't Ralph Kingsmill," Sir Charles exclaimed. "I shall really have to take to my glasses in earnest. I've been shooting in glasses for two years now. And last night some confounded fellow was loafing about here and I thought that he had come back again. My dear fellow, pray come in."
It was all very pleasant and friendly, but Ralph hung back. This was the very last thing in the world that he desired. He had merely meant to linger for a moment or two, and the go home. He knew how generous and good-natured Sir Charles was.
"I ought not to come at this time of night," Ralph said. "I know what early people you are."
"And I know how late you are," Sir Charles laughed. "Upon my word, I don't know how you and Enid will get along when you are married. You like to go to bed at daybreak, which is precisely the hour at which she gets up. Really, although I am nothing of a literary man, it seems to me that here is a fine chance for making up one of those problem novels which are so fashionable nowadays. For my part, frankly, I detest them. Give me something more healthy, with a flavour of sport about it, say I. But, my dear fellow, you don't appear to be listening."
Ralph was hardly conscious of what his companion was saying. He wanted to accept Sir Charles's invitation; indeed, he was eager to do so. But, at the same time, some feeling held him back. He did not feel quite equal to facing Enid, and the solitude of the evening appealed to his peculiar mood.
"I beg your pardon," he stammered. "I don't quite know what is the matter with me to-night."
"Well, you ought to be happy enough," Sir Charles laughed. "You have everything a man needs to make life pleasant and enjoyable. I only wish I stood in your shoes."
For the life of him Ralph could not prevent the bitter laugh which rose to his lips. The idea of anybody wishing to change places with him was grotesque.
"Oh, come," Sir Charles protested. "I don't like this. Now let me persuade you just for a few minutes—"
"Not to-night," Ralph pleaded. "If you will be so good as to excuse me. I—I came out to cure a racking headache. And there are reasons why I should be back early."
"All the same, you are coming in for a few minutes," Sir Charles said in his determined way. "What is the matter with the fellow? You look pale and anxious; even that I can see in this light. And Enid is out of sorts, too. Can't make the girl out at all. Come along."
Ralph hesitated and was lost. Through the open drawing-room window his host dragged him, chatting pleasantly all the time. Enid looked up with a wan smile; then her slender fingers crashed on the keyboard in a harsh discord as she saw who her father's companion was. Her face was pale, her eyes hard, but they softened a little as she saw the aching misery on Ralph's features.
"Found him hanging about outside like a poacher," Sir Charles laughed. "Said he had a bad headache, or something of that kind, and refused to come in. But I wasn't going to stand any nonsense like that."
Sir Charles laughed again as if please with himself. He had no suspicion whatever that anything was wrong. Nothing ever troubled his imagination or his excellent digestion.
"You keep him here till I come back, Enid," he said. "Johnson is in the library. Something to do with one of the farm buildings. But I'll soon polish off Johnson."
Enid made a motion as if to detain her father. But she saw the hopelessness of it as she looked at his smiling merry face. He need never know of the troubles and sorrow. For a moment the two stood facing each other, neither caring to speak.
Enid moved slowly to the piano and back again. Perhaps she did not desire to speak, perhaps she found it almost impossible to do so. At any rate, it was some little time before she finally braced herself up to look Ralph in the face.
"Now is this kind?" she said. "Does it show anything like thought on your side? Just for this evening I was comparatively happy. I had striven to forget you, and it looked as if my efforts were going to be rewarded, and then you come along like this. Oh! Do not make me despise you altogether. At any rate, be upright and manly if you can. Besides, this is a rank abuse of hospitality. What would my father say if he knew?"
"You are doing me an injustice," Ralph said. "Do you suppose that I intended to come into the house? I walked as far as here because I could not stay away. I will not remain more than a few minutes. As soon as Sir Charles returns I'll go. You are very hard and cruel, and yet, if you knew everything, I am certain that you would feel for me from the bottom of your heart."
Enid had no reply for a moment; she was not quite so cold and collected as she had thought herself to be, and there was something in the ring of Ralph's voice which touched and softened her. At the same time, she had to play the woman, she had to remember what was due to her own self-respect. She was forced to turn away now so that Ralph could not see the tears that would rise to her eyes. It was only by a great effort that she managed to keep her voice under proper control.
"Why did you come?" was all she could say.
"I—I did not mean to come," Ralph stammered presently. "You know what Sir Charles is. Please go on with your playing as if I were not here."
"I couldn't," Enid said softly. "After all, perhaps it is better that you did come. There are some instances when Fate is too strong for us. And we shall have to meet again, we are near neighbours, and it would be better policy to remain as friends. At the same time, you will see that you owe me an explanation."
"There is nothing that I should like better," Ralph cried. "Miserable as I am, I feel that I should be happier for that. And God knows I have sorrow enough to carry."
The last few words broke from Ralph against his will. He had almost forgotten that he was no longer alone. Enid glanced at his pale, haggard face; the look of it thrilled her. If ever man was suffering the agony of a deep remorse it was Ralph. Despite her pride, Enid's woman's heart was touched. She came a step forward.
"I am glad you are sorry," she said. "Ralph, why did you deceive me?"
"I didn't," Ralph said helplessly. "I have not deceived you in the slightest. I told you that I loved you with my whole heart and soul, and I told you the truth."
"The truth? Yes, your voice rings true. But that other woman, the pretty innocent creature with the blue eyes. The eyes that could not lie!"
"It would seem so," Ralph went on. "If you only knew her as I do! If you could only partly guess what a consummate actress she is! But I will not ask you to take my word for it. Go to your brother; ask Dick. He knows Kate Lingen as well as I do, and better. He will tell you what sort of woman she is."
"But the letters," Enid faltered. "She said you had written—"
"So I did. It was the only true statement that she made from start to finish. They were written when I first began to feel the impulse to write upon me. I believed in her then; I believed that shallow soul to be my affinity. I wrote those letters because I had to write. Ah, if you could only understand the promptings of the artistic temperament! And at the time I believed every word that I said. I know now that I had erected a false Kate Lingen, a something higher and purer than any human being could be. And yet I did not love her; my passion was not the passion that I feel for you. Where my mistake lay was in not telling you everything. But I hesitated because I felt that you would not understand. But you are the only woman I have ever loved, Enid. The time came when I discovered what Kate Lingen really was, and we parted. We parted quite good friends, and for two years we have practically seen nothing of each other. It was only when Mrs. Lingen found that my position was so changed for the better that she set up that ridiculous claim. I never kissed her once all the time we were together; I never made love to her as you understand the word. But what does it all matter? Why do I tell you this when nothing can make any difference between us? Only I want you to believe that I am telling you the truth."
Ralph's passionate speech stopped; he raised his haggard eyes to Enid's face. A wave of pity for him came over her. Comforting words rose to her Ups. Then she could see the melting vision of Kate Lingen's loveliness, and her heart hardened again.
"I have suffered, too," she said. "It is all the harder because I have given you my affection, and you have killed all my respect for you."
"It is part of the heavy burden I have to bear," Ralph replied. "I should have told you that story. But I did not care to do so; in cold narration it would sound fantastic and absurd. And I repeat that I did not know the meaning of love till I saw you. I want you to believe that. Enid, always to feel that my heart has been yours, and yours only. You could be nothing to me now, not even if you forgave me freely. One crime leads to another, as I have found to my bitter cost. If you knew everything you would pity me."
There was no acting here, no hysterical playing up for sympathy. Ralph was suffering from some terrible trouble, and Enid's first thought was to comfort him. She had forgotten all about the tradition of her ancestors. And she loved this man—to the end she would love him, come what might. She crossed the room and laid her hand on his arm.
"Tell me, Ralph," she whispered. "I can't bear to see you suffer like this. Tell me."
"Spoken like a true woman," Ralph groaned. "I long to tell you, Enid. And yet the more I see the light of purity shining in those pure eyes of yours the more I shrink from the task. I—I could not do it. But Dick knows. And if Dick likes to tell you, he may. Tell him what I said, and ask him. But don't ask me. I must get back home again, I feel that I need rest—sleep which I have not had for two nights. Let me go I say—"
Almost roughly Ralph detached the slim figure from his arm. He was afraid to stay there any longer lest he might blurt out the whole truth. Dick would tell the story so much better than he could, would bring out all the points in his favour. He strolled quickly through the long French window and across the lawn. Almost before he had roused himself he was back at home again. All the servants had gone to bed now, for there was only a tiny spot of light in the hall and the drawing-room lamp. On the table lay a telegram on a salver. Evidently it had come over by special messenger from Stonehouse. Mechanically Ralph opened it.
"Barca will return to your house by last train to-night, as I forecasted. Play entirely into his hands. See you to-morrow,—Dick."
Clearly, to make assurance doubly sure, Dick had gone to the trouble of sending another message. It was not for Ralph to wonder what brought Barca back again; it was his business to do exactly what Dick told him without demur. Doubtless Barca was coming back by the last train. As Ralph looked at the old Empire clock over the fireplace, he saw that it only wanted a few minutes to eleven. In that case Barca might be here directly. Ralph tore up the telegram and put the fragments in the grate. Then he burnt the fragments with a match, so that nothing should be left to arouse Barca's suspicions. Well, Ralph would know all about it soon. He had only to possess his soul in patience for a little longer.
Barca came presently, knocking gently at the front door. He had walked over from the station, he explained. He carried a heavy bag in his hand. He hoped that nobody had interfered with his room; he was anxious to see how his experiment was proceeding.
"You took the key away with you," Ralph said coldly. "So far as I know your room has not been touched. Would you like anything before you go to bed?"
Barca explained that he had supped in town. He went on to say that he had not the least desire to retire as yet, once he had seen that everything was right in his room he would like to have a little conversation with Ralph over a cigar. There was a kind of menace underlying the request; there was a point and hardness about Barca's speech.
"As you will," Ralph said. "Like yourself, I am not looking forward to bedtime."
Barca came down presently. He had changed into a smoking-jacket, a big cigar-case was in his hand. He was pleased to see that his experiment had progressed automatically in his absence. Altogether he seemed to be on very good terms with himself. And yet he was restless; his eyes gleamed, his hands fidgeted, he moved from one chair to another, talking on indifferent topics and apparently not caring to lead up to the thing that was uppermost in his mind.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake sit down," Ralph cried irritably. "You get on my nerves. Nothing worries me more than to see a man moving from one chair to another like that. It reminds one of people on the stage. What have you to say?"
"My dear fellow, you yourself have introduced the subject," Barca said. He came to rest at length; he was quiet and still now. "I allude to the subject—nerves. It is a thing that most people discuss nowadays—like politics and the weather. Tell me, have you quite given up your dreams of becoming a great novelist?"
"Not at all." Ralph replied. "Only my change of position has pushed me off my balance for the time. And I have not yet got any good material for my story."
"Which brings me back to what I started from," Barca explained. "Why not make the basis of your story a study of nerves? I was thinking it all out as I came down in the train. I worked it all out for you. Shall I tell you the plot of the story I designed for you?"
Barca was speaking very quietly now. He sat perfectly still, with his cigar between his lips. There was something very suggestive and sinister about the man.
"Go on," Ralph said. "I am all attention. What you say is sure to be interesting."
"You flatter me. But I think that I shall hold your attention. So far as I know, the plot is entirely an original one. The hero of the story is all nerves and imagination, and that kind of thing. We will suppose the hero is a novelist like yourself, eh?"
"Quite so. You could not have picked out a subject more likely to suffer from the curse you allude to. I also am a man of the highest nervous temperament, Barca. But I interrupt you."
"Very well. Let me cast you for the part of hero to make the matter more plain. You have fought your way upwards until fame has come to you. With your last book fortune has trebled. If you are not altogether a rich man, you are in the way of becoming so. It is necessary at this point to introduce the lovely heroine. She is all your fancy paints her; she is young, innocent of the world, and well-bred. Of course, you have had rather a shady past, or your nerves would not be quite so sensitive as they are. And when you come to declare your passion for the lovely heroine, naturally you do not allude to the stormy past, over which you discreetly draw a veil. It is quite natural; most of us would do exactly the same thing in the circumstances."
"Up to the present everything is couleur de rose for the gentleman with the nervous temperament. Then at this point the adventuress comes on the scene. She comes to blackmail. She has in her possession certain letters—I regret that I could not see my way to anything more original in the way of breeding trouble, but I am only a mere amateur at the game. Those letters are going to be a source of trouble to the hero. But, as a matter of fact, the adventuress has a brother, who stole those letters, and he it is who presently comes to the hero to breed all the mischief. I hope you are listening carefully."
Ralph nodded. He was conscious of a curious tightening of the chest; he was thrilled and fascinated by the brilliancy of Barca's eyes.
"The brother comes and makes trouble. He threatens to blow the new paradise sky high with those confounded letters. He comes to the hero's house in the dead of the night, and there is trouble. The hero loses his lead altogether, and kills the villain. It is all done in a flash, and then the hero would give years of his life to recall the past few minutes. Then he pulls himself together, and begins to consider the situation. Finally, he decides not to raise any alarm, but go quietly to bed as if nothing had happened. When the body is found by the servants in the morning, it may be assumed that a burglary has taken place, that there were two burglars in the business, who quarrelled, with fatal results to one of them. Just what a novelist would invent in the circumstances."
Ralph nodded. He could not have spoken at the moment for a kingdom.
"Very good. I am pleased to be backed up by so excellent an authority. . . The hero goes to bed; he waits in the morning for the discovery. But the discovery does not come, nothing happens. When the hero comes down to breakfast there is no body, and no sign of a struggle. Everybody behaves just as if nothing had happened. Imagine the state of mind of the hero; he is nearly mad with perplexity and remorse. Perhaps he has not killed his man, perhaps the man has crawled away to die somewhere. Perhaps his body would be discovered later, and then the whole thing would come out. Now, don't you agree with me that he is a very fine background for a study of nerves? The thing is not complete—"
"Certainly it is very far from being complete," Ralph said. He was astonished at the strength and firmness of his own voice. "To bring this about there must be another ruffian who has stepped in with this diabolical scheme for depriving an unlucky mortal of his reason. No man could stand such a strain for long. To bring your parable up to date you will have to introduce this blackmailer to the audience. And here you see the clue of the plot breaking down altogether, Barca. If you drive your hero too far he might serve the blackmailer as he served the possessor of the letters."
Ralph spoke with a deeper intensity than he knew. He saw Barca rise and draw back. The man was frightened. And then Ralph roused himself. He had forgotten the telegram in the tense excitement of the moment. He changed his note, his head dropped, he looked at the ground in long and moody silence.
"You have thought of an alternate plan?" Barca asked.
"No," Ralph replied, quietly. "I am wrong and you are right. There is no alternate plan. By the way, I presume you are in need of money to carry out your scientific experiment?"
"I think I have told you that before," Barca said, drily. "Perhaps it would be just as well if the second villain in the story should be a scientific enthusiast like myself. It would bring the parable nearer home. And to make the parable more complete, I may as well admit that I am in pressing need of the money almost immediately. I was going to wait a little longer till my plans were more—"
"Quito so. More mature and more concrete. What do you want at present?"
Barca hesitated. He could see that Ralph's face was set, that his eyes had a red gleam in them. And he was sacrificing his own dearest ambition to please a woman whom he knew to be utterly worthless. For her he needed the sum of L3000. He had intended to ask for that amount, but why should he be so modest?
"Five thousand pounds will do," he said. "But there is no hurry. To-morrow—."
"To-morrow may never come—for one of us," Ralph said, hoarsely. "I'll go to the library and sign your cheque at once. Yours was a good story, Barca, but your prototype, to my thinking, was the cleverest scoundrel of the lot."
With this gibe on his lips, Ralph crossed the hall in the direction of the library. As he turned up the lamp, to his great surprise he saw that Dick Charteris was seated by the table. He would have cried out aloud, but Dick laid a hand on his lips.
"Excellent." he whispered. "Splendid! Now go back to the rat again as if nothing had happened."
Imperative as Dick's speech was, Ralph still hesitated. He was so dazed and confused that he did not know what to do, though the fact was not lost upon him that Charteris was literally boiling with impatience.
"Oh, why the dickens don't you do what I tell you?" he whispered. "There you are, rooted to the spot like a man who has entirely lost all command of himself, while the diamond minutes are slipping away—minutes which are as precious as drops of your heart's blood. Are you going, or do you want me to kick you along?"
"You might have a little patience with me," Ralph said. "Don't you see that I am more or less in the dark as to what is going on, and how easy it would be for me to betray myself—"
"A great deal easier to betray yourself if you knew everything," Dick said. "You are too transparent and guileless for this wicked world. Why do you fail to grasp the fact that it would be all the better for you to know nothing? You are a mere child in this business, and it is my brains that have developed it. Listen, can't you hear him moving now?"
There were certainly sounds of someone moving about outside the room, and even Ralph began to feel that his own indecision was seriously perilling the situation. He hoped that he was not too late, that he had not lingered too long.
He came back to his senses, and Dick fairly sprang up and caught him by the shoulders. A moment later and he found himself turned out of the library. He crossed the floor, and tried to compose himself and control his features.
"I will do all I can," he muttered. "Heaven grant that that rascal will guess nothing from my face."
Ralph came back much sooner than Charteris had expected. Barca had gone to his own room for a moment, so that it was necessary to wait. Ralph was not sorry, for there were several things he wanted to say to his friend. Charteris smiled impatiently.
"I shall be safe here for five minutes," Ralph said. "But you have not yet told me how you got here. I thought—"
"My dear chap, there is no reason for you to think at all just at present," Dick said, with some irritation. "That comes in my department. Everything is going perfectly well, and will continue to do so if you will only do as you are told. And if you must know how I got here, why, I came down in a borrowed motor."
"Which means that you have somebody to help you."
"Nothing of the kind. Driving a good car is not exactly a matter of genius. It is my cue to make certain people believe that I am still in London. Hence the car, which is at present hidden behind a laurel hedge, just at the top of the drive. Do you think you could manage to drive the car?"
Ralph replied that he thought he could if necessary. At one time the possession of a car had been one of his ambitions. Now that he was in a position to purchase one he was not so keen. He had gone so far as to try one, so that he was not altogether ignorant of its working.
"But what nonsense I am talking," he said. "Fancy me with all these horrors hanging over my head drivelling over the possession of a motor!"
Charteris shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Here you go again," he said. "And yet you pride yourself on the possession of an imagination! Couldn't you fancy some way out of the difficulty? If you were the hero of one of your own stories you could grasp the situation eagerly enough. You think that you stand in a position of terrible danger. I say that your position is nothing of the kind. In less than a week you will be holding up your head again and regarding yourself as one of the most fortunate men alive. Bad as things look—"
"You have said too much, or not enough. Dick," Ralph whispered hoarsely. "You are going to tell me exactly where I stand, and then—"
"I am going to tell you nothing," Dick said curtly. "My dear fellow, you are not to be trusted—your nerves are too stringy for that. If I told you all that I had found out your face would betray you to Barca instantly. And there is danger here—a real live danger. You don't realise what a desperate character Barca is. He possesses certain of Nature's secrets. That renders him a force to deal with. He would not hesitate to put me out of the way if he know everything, and do it in such a way that I should appear to have died a natural death. Fortunately the fellow has one weak spot in his armour the passionate love for a woman. On that weak spot I have concentrated all my force. And I am going to win, Ralph; make no mistake about that. At present I dare not tell you what I have discovered."
"Perhaps you are right," Ralph admitted. "What do you want me to do?"
"Draw your cheque, the cheque, you came for, and give it to Barca. I know a good deal that has been going on between you during the last hour, for I have been listening. I got in by means of the small window over the leads beyond the big corridor. And Barca has taken the very course that I thought he would take. If you only knew everything, he has let you off far more lightly than he meant to. By the pretty scheme in its entirety it is intended to bleed you of half your fortune, which, after all, would be nobody's fault but your own. To let you into a bit of a secret, the L5000 is not for Barca, but for Kate Lingen, who needs money terribly. For the present Barca has abandoned his own big enterprise to help Kate out of the hole. . . . But I am wasting time talking like this. There is a little thing that I am going to ask you to do presently. You are not to worry about me, for I shall be all right. What you have to do is to invent some excuse for getting Barca out of his bedroom. I don't mean that you are to try to get in to the room; that is the last thing I want you to do. Entice him into the corridor, or down here, anywhere you like, and detain him for ten minutes. I shall not be far off, and you will be perfectly safe in letting Barca go again at the end of the stipulated time."
"I daresay I can manage that," Ralph muttered.
"My dear fellow, you must manage it; the thing is essential. Now what accommodation have you placed at Barca's disposal upstairs?"
"He has a suite of rooms. There is a bed-room and sitting-room and a small bathroom. He particularly desired the bathroom, for he uses a lot of water in his experiments, and has to saturate some of his chemicals. Why do you ask?"
"Never mind that, I am not impelled by idle curiosity. The bathroom is at the back of the sitting-room, I suppose. Is there another way from the suite?"
"Of course there is. The bathroom opens on to the servants' staircase, so that the maids can get in and out without using the main corridor."
"Good!" Dick muttered. "Better than I expected. And now there is no need for me to detain you any longer. Go back to Barca, and behave as if nothing had happened. What an absent-minded fellow you are—you are actually going without the cheque."
Ralph sat down at the table, and scribbled off the cheque. He wondered if Barca would be uneasy at his long absence. As he looked at the clock he saw that he had been in the library only a few minutes. Barca lay back in an armchair smoking a cigar. He seemed to be on particularly good terms with himself; evidently nothing had aroused his suspicions. A murderous impulse to take the man by the throat and choke the life out of him possessed Ralph for the moment. He could feel the anger glowing in his face. It was just as well that he felt like this, for Barca was studying him curiously.
"There!" Ralph said. "There is your cheque. And now you will not deem me guilty of a breach of hospitality if I ask you to leave here in the morning. In the circumstances I should prefer your room to your company."
Barca laughed naturally. He did not seem in the least put out.
"My dear fellow, you are not quite playing the game," he said. "Anybody would think that I had been blackmailing you to hear you speak. And this is all the thanks I get for giving you the plot of a most interesting and original novel!"
"There is no question about the plot," Ralph said bitterly. "You may lay the flattering unction to your soul, if you like, that the plot is so interesting that I am going to begin the story without delay. Hence I am desirous of being alone in the house to do so."
"Very good. As a matter of fact I shall not trouble you after to-morrow, as I am going to Paris for some time. I only hope that the book may be a success, in which case you will not refuse me a share of the royalties."
There was no mistaking the moaning of the speech. Barca was telling Ralph as plainly as possible that the cheque was merely a payment on account. Barca had proved beyond doubt that he knew all about the attack on Holt and its sequel. He had almost told Ralph that it was he who had been instrumental in removing all traces of the crime. He shared the guilty secret, and had every intention of making money out of it. Ralph forgot Charteris for the moment; he forgot what golden promises the latter held out to him. He could only see now that he was in the hands of this scoundrel.
He would have to go on suffering like this for years; there was no help for it. Barca would be free to come and go as he liked; his demands would grow more extravagant with the progress of time. And he had put it all so cleverly that Ralph could not lay his hands upon one weak spot in the programme. He felt utterly helpless and cast down.
"I fancy I understand what you mean," he said. "We will discuss that at another time. And now as it is getting late, I think I will go to bed. I am not feeling very well."
"You don't look it," Barca said pointedly. "You will be all the better for a turn between the sheets. As for myself, I shall probably work all night. I have reached a very interesting stage in my experiments. Later I will show you what I have done."
The speaker tossed the end of his cigar into the grate and proceeded to light his candle. He must go to bed without another word. After a short interval, Ralph followed. He had for the moment almost forgotten the fact that Dick was in the house. The latter he found still seated in the big armchair in the library patiently waiting the trend of events. Ralph noticed that one of the windows leading to the garden was open.
"Did Barca suspect anything, do you think?" Charteris asked.
"I should say not," Ralph replied. "I forgot all about you directly I got back into the dining-room. To see the fellow smiling there, and to feel the way in which he was dragging hush money from me fairly maddened me. For two pins I could have taken him by that long, lean throat of his and strangled him. Perhaps he saw something in the expression of my face, for he smiled as if his thoughts pleased him. On the whole, he suspected nothing."
"I'm glad to hear that," Dick muttered in tones of relief. "Your face is so expressive that I was almost afraid to trust you. Now, there is one little thing I have to say to you. How are you going to got Barca out of the room?"
"I haven't thought of that as yet. There will be plenty of time after I go to bed. I shall treat that affair as I should a problem in one of my own stories. I think you may leave me to work that in a natural and artistic manner."
"Yes, I fancy you are to be trusted as far as that," Dick said presently. "The rat of the business you can leave entirely to me. And now I want to tell you where you can find the motor car that I borrowed especially for this occasion. It is at the top of the drive, behind that big clump of Portuguese laurels, where the rustic seat is. You know where I mean?"
"I know exactly where you mean. But what has the car got to do with it?"
"The car has a great deal to do with it, as you will see by-and-by. It is more than probable that you will have to undertake a journey in that car before morning. That is why I ask if you understand the management of the thing. But all that is in the air at present. Now you go to bed as if nothing had happened, and leave me here. Keep your eye on your watch, and do not put your little plan into action for an hour. I shall want that hour very badly; in that time many things are going to happen. On the whole, it would perhaps be the best thing if I gave you a signal. I'll come round under your window and throw up a handful of gravel when I am quite ready. Before this time tomorrow I can promise that you will take a very different view of life."
"I hope so," Ralph said wearily. "It is certainly not worth living at present. You are a very good fellow, Dick, and from the bottom of my heart I thank you. But I cannot see how you can save me from the misery and remorse that are part of my existence now."
"Nous verrons," Dick chuckled. "Now, you trot off to bed and keep your ears open for the signal. And now is there anything more that I can tell you? I think you ought to be quite satisfied with things as they are, for I am certain that there is not a single loophole for Barca to wriggle through."
Still Ralph hesitated. He did not wish to be disloyal to his friend; he did not wish to utter a single word in the way of criticism. But, at the same time, he felt that Dick might have been a little more communicative in the matter.
"I can only hope and pray that it will turn out exactly as you say," he said. "It is all very well for you to take this cheery view of the state of affairs, but try to put yourself in my place just for a moment. Rather than endure the state of suspense much longer, I would cheerfully go off to Stonehouse and make a clean breast of the whole thing, and leave myself to the tender mercy of the authorities there. I tell you it would be a positive relief to me to do that. If you are a man of strong imagination—"
"Well, so I am," Dick said. "I have imagined a great deal lately, fortunately for you, my dreams have come true. For instance, I have a vision that everything is going to put itself right in a day or two, and that when the mystery is explained you will wonder how it is that you did not see it before. Now, will you go off to bed, or do you mean to stand gaping there all the night? Besides, a certain amount of rest will do you good."
"Rest," Ralph said bitterly. "I have almost forgotten the meaning of the word. I dare not take to drugs to deaden my remorse, for madness lies that way. Still, perhaps if I were mad I should be happier than I am now. My frame of mind—"
"Hang your frame of mind," Dick exclaimed. "I don't want to seem unfeeling, but really you are getting on my nerves. Now, stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once."
For one hour by the clock Ralph sat in his bedroom deeply immersed in his own painful thoughts. Try as he would, it was impossible to extract much consolation from Dick's cryptic utterances. Stephen Holt was dead, and he had killed him. And Barca knew all about it. Barca had adapted the whole, scheme to his own advantage, as he always did. Perhaps that clever scoundrel had actually seen the crime committed.
But there was no one to speculate on that. Dick was trying to solve the painful problem, and Dick had to be backed up loyally. It was time to put dreary speculation on one side and think of action. How was Barca to be lured from his bedroom without attracting his suspicions? That was the one object that Ralph had to gain now.
He resolutely put everything else out of his mind. How was the thing to be done? How would he have managed it had both Dick and Barca simply been characters in fiction? The thing came to him almost as soon as he gave proper consideration to it. It would be so easy to pretend that burglars were in the house.
The signal came at length so unexpectedly that Ralph fairly jumped. He crossed over to the window and stood with his figure in the shadow of the blind. He waved his hands, and a little smothered exclamation came in reply. A moment later and Ralph was creeping along in the direction of Barca's room. He tapped gently on the panels, but no reply came, though Ralph could see a light shining under the edge of the door. It was just possible that Barca had gone to sleep and left his lamp burning. Again Ralph tapped, but no reply came. In the deadly silence of the place and the darkness of night the horror was all the more intensified. And yet it was imperative that Ralph should stay there without giving the least sign till the time came to act.
"I must try to forget all about it;" he murmured. "I must concentrate my mind on something else."
He began to think of Enid, of the happy days that were gone apparently beyond recall. He could see the girl's face now as he had noted it the last time they met. He wondered if she was really as sorry for him as she had appeared to be.
This was better, at any rate, than communing in the darkness with his own painful forebodings. The house was intensely silent, so quiet indeed that Ralph could hear a mouse behind the wainscot nibbling at a bit of biscuit. Outside from somewhere came the bleat of a lamb, and then two or three notes of the nightingale.
Ralph had heard the nightingale the first day he had ever passed at Abbey Close. He remembered vividly how he had sat at dinner with the windows open, dreaming of the happy future before him. But it was no time to think of that. He had to act now; he was in the corridor creeping along once more in the direction of Barca's room, and trying to summon the courage which was ebbing out through his finger-tips.
"I won't be frightened," Ralph said. "And yet what a pitiful coward I am. To think that when Dick is working so hard for me—"
He set his teeth together. Once more he tapped, at Barca's door. No response came, nothing but the scratching of the mouse behind the wainscot. Standing there under the velvety pall, the heavy weight of night, it seemed to Ralph's red hot imagination that he could hear the sound of voices. It actually sounded like a noise that came from within Barca's room. Then Ralph tapped again a little more loudly, and had his hand on the handle of the door. It was locked.
Surely he was not mistaken now; he was certain that he could hear the confused shuffle of feet on the other side of the locked door. He could hear, too, a muffled sound as if an inner door had been shut very gently. A moment later and Barca stood there, looking a little weary and dishevelled, Ralph thought. His face was paler than ever.
"What on earth do you want?" he asked with some show of irritability. This weakness was so unusual in Barca that Ralph became all the more suspicious. "As this is the last night I am likely to spend under your roof, you might as well leave me to conduct my experiment in peace. How long have you been here?"
There was suspicion, almost fear, in the question, as Ralph did not fail to notice. Obviously it was his policy to pacify Barca for the moment.
"I am very sorry," he said. "I have only just come. I could not sleep. I have been sitting in the darkness thinking over all sorts of things. And it seemed to me that there was somebody in the house. I heard a window open downstairs somewhere and footsteps. I want you to come with me and see what is wrong. I see you have taken your boots off. Come at once and make a close investigation of the premises."
Barca hesitated, but only for a moment. He had not the least suspicion that there was anything underlying the request that Ralph had made to him. And to refuse would savour of cowardice. Ralph repeated his request. It seemed to him that Barca was downright angry. Ralph sincerely hoped that the sudden display of passion on this man's part was not going to ruin their scheme.
"Did ever anybody see such a man?" Barca said. "This imagination of yours is all very well in its way, but if it is going to affect your nervous system in this fashion the sooner you take advice the better. Do you really believe there are burglars in the house, or are you suffering from hysteria like an overwrought woman? Go back to bed and forget all about it. To-morrow you can go and buy a couple of bloodhounds and engage a night-watchman. It is evident that you are not cut out to live in a country house."
"Then you are not coming?" Ralph asked feebly.
"Why should I come? I am as busy as I can be, and here you blunder in, upsetting the whole train of thought and leaving me to start my problem all over again. Go and look for the fellow yourself, and if you find him you can whistle. Then I can come down and see what is best to be done."
Ralph pulled himself together. He fully realised that the situation was getting desperate. By fair means or foul, it was necessary to get Barca to accompany him.
"All right," he said. "If you are afraid—" Barca came forward hotly, flushed with the accusation. His door was flung wide open, so that the interior was exposed to view. It was a thoughtless thing to do, but Barca was angry and annoyed.
Ralph looked in quickly. In that passing view he managed, to see that all the bottles and utensils were scattered all over the table; he had just a glimpse of the brilliantly lighted room. In one corner stood a pair of boots, and Ralph noticed how stained and muddy they were. They were too large for Barca, too. Ralph thought of the voices he had heard just now, and in some way connected them with the boots.
But he appeared to heed nothing. He caught Barca by the shoulder and tried to bring him along the corridor. The latter turned and look the key from the room door, and was proceeding to lock it from the outside. Ralph burst into an impatient exclamation. He had not expected an action like this. It came to him quite suddenly that the reason why Barca was to be lured out of his room was for the very purpose of Dick's getting inside.
"What on earth are you doing?" Ralph asked. "What are you afraid of? Do you suppose that our friend the burglar is going to hide under your bed for the purpose of murdering you? I did not regard you as a coward of that type, Barca."
Barca's brown, lean face flushed hotly. With a kind of laugh he passed down the corridor by Ralph's side, leaving the door of his room wide open. Almost immediately a figure came from behind a suit of armour and darted into the lighten bedroom. But neither Ralph nor Barca noticed this. They went on their way down the stairs until they came at length to the library. It was pitch dark, but they could hear the curtain over one of the windows flitting in the breeze.
"Exactly what I told you," Ralph whispered. "I was certain that I heard a window open. It is plain that the burglar got in this way. That being so, it is equally certain that he will leave by the same exit. All we have to do is to sit down here and wait patiently till he is ready to depart with his booty."
Ralph spoke quite calmly. He was not feeling the least trace of excitement now.
The longer he and Barca stayed there, the better it would be for Dick's investigation. For a long time they sat there in silence waiting to see what was going to happen. But finally it was from the outside of the house that the sign came. There was the crunch of footsteps on the gravel, and the knocking on the front door.
"Probably a policeman," Ralph suggested.
"He has seen something suspicious, and has come to give us warning of what has happened. If this is so we can change our plan of campaign, Barca; we can leave the policeman to guard the exit whilst we investigate the house systematically. I'll go and let the fellow in."
Very quietly Ralph opened the front door. Naturally, he had not the faintest expectation of seeing a policeman, taking into consideration the fact that the alleged burglar was no more than a figment of his own imagination. He did not know what to expect.
At any rate, he did not expect to see the figure of Dick Charteris covered from head to foot with dust and dirt, and with a gaping wound, from which the blood was flowing, on his forehead.
"Why, Dick?" Ralph cried. "What is the matter? Do you mean to say—"
Dick clapped his hand over Ralph's mouth. He held it thus for a moment. He looked sick and white and dizzy, but his eyes had lost none of their grim determination. He was evidently collecting his energies for some supreme effort. "Didn't expect to see me here at this hour of night?" he said loudly. "Fact is, I have had a bit of an accident with my motor car. I was coming down late from London alone, and I ran over something in the road—looked like a dead dog or something of that kind. Anyway I came to grief and the car on top of me. I left the car in the ditch and struggled to reach home. But I couldn't quite manage it, so I decided to come here and knock you up, old chap. Where is that scoundrel, Barca?"
The last words were uttered in a thrilling whisper. Dick had paused as if to get breath.
"In the library waiting with me to catch the burglar invented by myself with a view to getting our friend out of his room," Ralph whispered in reply. "But what—"
"A little accident," Dick's answering whisper came. "My plan very nearly went wrong, but it's all right now. That story of the burglar will save me. It's impossible for me to tell you at present what has happened. But Barca is a doctor and he will attend to me. I am going to make the best of my misfortunes. My dear fellow, I am rather more hurt than I had imagined. Go and ask Barca to come and see me. Go and fetch him out of his bedroom and say I am here. Never mind his experiments."
The latter part of the speech was loud and breathless. Ralph had no difficulty in recognising the fact that Dick meant Barca to hear. As a matter of fact, the man of science had heard and was already standing in the doorway.
"Is there anything that I can do for you?" he asked. "You seem to have had a nasty spill. But I don't suppose you are very much hurt or your voice would not be so strong. I should say that he has frightened the burglar away, Kingsmill."
"No doubt about that." Ralph laughed. "We were burglar-hunting when you came along, Dick. The fellow seems to have come in through the library window, for we found it open. But he must have got clear of the premises by this time. I'll go and light the lamps in the dining-room so that Barca can attend you."
There was no sham or pretence about Dick's injuries. His face was very pale, the blood from the cut forehead was trickling down his features. After warm water had been applied and brandy administered, Dick declared that he felt better.
"I've got some strapping and bandages in my room," Barca said. "I'll go and get them. There is nothing very much the matter. In a day or two you will be quite yourself again."
Barca came back presently with the bandages in his hand. He had been so quick that Dick had had no time to explain what had happened.
"Your burglar has gone," Barca explained. "He had been in my bedroom. I know that because the window is wide open and there are marks on the window ledge where he escaped by slipping down the ivy. At any rate, he has gone now."
Ralph was puzzled. There had been no burglar. And yet somebody had been in Barca's room and had made his escape with the friendly aid of the ivy. Ralph glanced across at Dick, who favoured him with a rapid and pregnant wink.
"Oh, hang your burglar." he exclaimed. "The fellow has gone, and there is an end of him. Incidentally he has done me a good turn, because if you had not been up I should probably have had some difficulty in making you fellows hear, and I was pretty well finished when I had that brandy. What I want you to do, Ralph, is to take a note as far as my place for me. It will be daylight before very long, and if anybody sees that motor they will probably go over to the Park and report that I am killed or something of that kind. Give me a sheet of paper and a pencil. That's all I want."
Barca demurred at the suggestion. But Dick insisted. Rather slowly and painfully he managed to pencil a few words on the paper and then fold it together.
In a hurried, scrambling kind of way, he thrust it into Ralph's palm. The squeeze of his fingers evidently meant something.
"Now you be off at once and leave me to the tender mercies of Barca," Dick said. "He will look after me till you come back. I don't think that I have any more to say. And do not alarm my people too much; break it gently."
Ralph passed out into the hall with the letter in his hand. As he glanced at it he saw to his surprise that it was addressed to him and that it bore the words, "Open it now." He opened out the sheet and read the contents of the pencil scrawl:
"No need to go near the Park. Take the motor and go to Stonehouse and call on the chief of police there. Tell him that I am at Abbey Close and that I expect him here as soon as possible. He is expecting a message like this."
It was maddening to be left in the dark like this. It seemed to Ralph that Dick Charteris might have taken him into his confidence. And yet, perhaps Dick had reason on his side, for Ralph's strong point did not lie in the concealment of his feelings. And behind it all was the new feeling of hope that had come to him.
Dick had promised great things; he had gone so far as to state that in a day or two everything would be as it had been before. And yet that seemed utterly illogical and impossible. It was impossible for instance to bring back the dead. And Stephen Holt was dead as Ralph knew to his bitter cost. Ralph could see the man as he lay there at his feet in the dining room at Abbey Close. And unless a miracle happened things could not be as before.
And yet, wild as it seemed a strange feeling of hope was rising in Ralph. He knew how strong and resolute Dick was, how clear his vision, how well balanced his mind. Nor was Dick Charteris in the habit of playing the mountebank; he had not embarked upon all these alarums and excursions for nothing.
Certainly it would be better to do as Dick had suggested and go to Stonehouse without delay.
The orders were curt and stringent enough, and there was the motor car behind the laurel hedge sufficiently far from the house not to be heard. With a little trouble Ralph got the thing in motion.
The lamps had not been extinguished, so there was no delay in lighting up. Without the fear of traps before his eyes, Ralph skimmed over the dark deserted ground until he came at length to the outskirts of the town. Here he slowed down for anything like trouble now might prove fatal to Charteris's delicately-laid schemes. Nevertheless Ralph was feeling sore that Dick should be using him in this fashion. It was as if he had been a child, untrustworthy and incapable of undertaking responsibility.
Still the thing could not be helped and having embarked upon his errand he resolved to see it out to the end.
"I must trust him," he told himself. "And yet in some matters Dick is as foolish as myself. It seems almost incredible that he can get me out of a mess like this. Why I could not invent a solution of this mystery in a work of fiction, even though I should have the advantage of being able to adapt my characters to suit the situation."
Ralph was quite correct there. For more than once lately he had conceived the wild idea of working the whole thing out in the shape of a novel, with himself for hero of the story. And yet, try as he would, he could not hit upon a satisfactory way of bringing the dead man back to life again, and therefore he had been forced to abandon the idea. He wondered now what Enid would say if she could see him, or if she knew anything of his errand.
He put all these visionary ideas out of his head, however, and began carefully to ponder over Dick's instructions. The lights of Stonehouse were approaching, and already he had passed one or two wayfarers coming from the town. It was some relief to him at length to feel that he was getting exceedingly near to his destination. The police station winked one solitary eye of light into the road, and Ralph was a little surprised to find more than one officer inside. The Chief Constable, Captain Ford, rose from a chair where he had been reading a paper, and nodded to Ralph. Evidently the latter had been expected.
"I am not in the least surprised to see you," he said. Ford was a younger son of one of the local county families, and as such was on intimate terms with most good people. It was not the first time that he and Ralph had met. "I had an express letter from Charteris a few hours ago from London. Have you seen him lately?"
"He is at my house," Ralph explained. "He came down very late in the car that I have outside at the present moment. Charteris's movements are full of mystery; he has not troubled to confide in me except to say that I was to come here and tell you that everything was ready. What does it all mean, Ford?"
"I am afraid I am not at liberty to say," Ford explained. "Charteris has his own way of doing things, he is a mystery in some respects. I had a warrant to-night for the arrest of a certain person and directly after it came a message from Charteris saying that he would let me know very soon where the individual in question was to be found. I can't even tell you why Charteris is interested in this arrest; all I know is that I was to stay here and wait till I heard from him."
"There is always a great deal of method in Charteris's madness," Ralph said. "Though a stranger might have deemed him a little queer lately. But we are wasting time. Perhaps you will tell me what is going to happen next?"
"That's comparatively easy," Ford laughed as he pitched the end of his cigarette into the fireplace and rose from his chair. "It is a very strange thing that you should come here without having the least idea what is going to take place before the night is over. You must know Charteris exceeding well to trust him as implicitly as you appear to have done."
Ralph flushed a little, for it seemed to him that Ford was adopting a somewhat jocular tone, quite out of keeping with the circumstances of the case. At the same time he made up his mind not to lose his temper, and his laugh was just as genial as that of Ford. He turned to the latter and laughed again.
"Charteris has a way with him," he said. "And when he has made up his mind to a thing it is very difficult to change him. I daresay you have found that. This is the first time I have ever been engaged with him in a bit of detective work, and I hope it will be the last, for between ourselves, this kind of thing is quite out of my line. But seriously, do you think that Charteris is capable of taking a thing like this into his hands and carrying it to a successful issue?"
"Indeed I do," Ford said earnestly. "I know that a prophet has no honour in his own country, and I daresay you look upon Charteris as more or less of a foolish enthusiast. In that you are wholly mistaken. For my part, I look upon him as an extremely brilliant fellow, and if I were in his place I should be filling a responsible post in Scotland Yard. That is my candid opinion of the man."
"Then I am on safe ground," Ralph smiled. "Indeed, you are, much as you may doubt it. Of course, it is not for me to say why Charteris is so anxious to effect the arrest of my prospective prisoner; but the fact remains. He has gone out of his way to help me, and I am infinitely obliged to him. So far as I can gather, the arrest is going to take place close to your home."
"Really?" Ralph cried. "Well, I am more in the dark than ever. What is the plan of campaign?"
"We are going as far as your place in the motor car; that is, you and me, and two of my picked men in case of accidents. I expected to see you in that very car for all those minute instructions are laid down in the express letter I told you about."
"But Dick is ill," Ralph protested. "He met with some kind of accident. When I left home he was being attended by a guest of mine, who very fortunately happens to be a doctor. He was pretty badly shaken."
Captain Ford shrugged his shoulders.
"Part of the comedy, perhaps," he suggested. "The fact is Charteris has a perfect passion for playing the amateur detective. I've got one or two men here who have served in the D division of the Metropolitan Police. Charteris spends a bit of leisure with them when they are off duty. He does not waste much time with me, as my experience has not been great. But Sergeant Curtis, who comes with me to-night, says that Charteris would have made a big reputation at the 'Yard.' I expect that 'accident' will prove to be part of the scheme."
It was possible, Ralph admitted, though the misfortune was very realistic. Still, Dick was nothing if not original in his way of doing things. A little lime later and the motor was on its way back to Abbey Close, with a couple of plain clothes men in the tonneau behind. Ralph pulled up at the spot where he had started. They waited for a little time to see what was going to happen. Then a form emerged from the bushes and Dick Charteris stood before them.
He looked very pale and shaky in the flare of the lamps; his bandaged head gave him a gruesome appearance, not belied by the glitter of his eyes.
"So far everything is going very well," he said. "Ford, I am glad to see you. I daresay you have been wondering why I interfered in the matter."
"Well, I was a little astonished," Ford admitted. "A special messenger came down from Scotland Yard with a warrant for the arrest of Mr.—"
"Say a certain person," Dick snapped out. "No need to mention names as yet. I don't want you to spoil my 'curtain.'"
"All right. I got that warrant. I am bound, to confess that the name on it surprised me. But I will not go into that. My first question naturally is: Why is the warrant brought to me? I am told it is because the person named was quite lately in this locality. I could not deny it, because I had met him close by. I immediately sent an officer over to his lodgings in Stonehouse, only to find that he had left altogether. As soon as I made that discovery, I got your express letter saying that you can help me to make the arrest, and that I am to hold myself at your disposal. But how the Dickens—"
"Stop a minute," Charteris interrupted. "To a certain extent I will explain. Later I will apologise for making a catspaw of you. I know all about that warrant, for the simple reason that I was the means of getting it issued. Everything will be explained in good time. Your man is close by, Ford, but there is something to be done first. Will you be so good as to stay here till I give the signal? The signal will come from the house and will be the pulling aside of the farthest blind in the dining-room. You can see the windows from here. When you get the sign walk into the house and announce your errand. It will not be in vain."
Ford shrugged his shoulders. Alter all, Charteris was by way of being a friend of his, and he knew his people at home. And he was going to effect his purpose. Added to this, the curiosity of the Chief of the Stonehouse police was now thoroughly aroused.
"Very well," he said with a good-natured laugh. "I'll do as you ask. It is a lovely night, and a cigarette or two under the trees will not come amiss. Only don't be longer than you can help, as I have to go to Castleford by an early train to-morrow."
"Not more than half an hour," Dick protested. "Come along, Ralph."
Ralph suffered himself to be led away like a child who is bewildered yet obedient. He would have liked to ask a number of questions, but Charteris did not give him the opportunity.
"Look here," he began. "I daresay you regard all this as a lot of fussy nonsense to make it look as if I were exceptionally clever. As a matter of fact it is nothing of the kind. I have worked out the whole puzzle very patiently and thoughtfully and every card in the game is played for your sake. I am going to save you, and save your happiness as well—I want to make that point quite clear. Fond as I am of this kind of thing, you must give me credit on this occasion for sinking all amour propre solely to benefit Enid and yourself, and save you from lifelong unhappiness. When you first explained your position to me, when you came and told me that you were the murderer of Stephen Holt—"
"I told you the truth," Ralph replied. "Good heavens! Do you suppose that I am so insane as to try to palm off a delusion like that upon you? Did I not see him lying there as I had struck him down with that paper-cutter? Did I not note that pool of blood upon the carpet? Why, there is not a single detail of that lurid scene but stands out in my mind is clear as if the full light of day still played upon it. I can see it now as vividly as a flash of lightning lightens up a dark place. I have not even forgotten the spots of blood on the flowers and in the centre of the table. And you told me even then that there was a way out of it, that my good name would be cleared so that I might hold up my head before honest men once more. And I didn't believe you Dick. Even now it seems asking too much of one's credulity. I regarded it merely is an attempt on a your part to soothe a man whom you believed to have suddenly become the victim of acute mania. Even as it is—"
"I swear to you I am not playing with your feelings. I have never done so from the first. Cannot you trust me? But, indeed, you must trust me whether you like it or not, seeing it is for such a little time longer. I'll tell you what I want to bring about, for half measures will not satisfy me. For your sake, to say nothing of Enid, this thing must be done. My ambition is to make the very people who are conspiring against you stand up and proclaim your innocence. I even want you to be cleared in Enid's eyes. It is a case of diamond cut diamond, and I flatter myself that I've got the master card. It is lucky that Ford should happen to be a friend of mine, as it simplifies matters. Still, I daresay we could have done without him. Now tell me—"
"No first tell me something," Ralph protested. "I take it that in some way you are plotting against Barca. At any rate, I can see that you are keeping him very much in the dark. In that case, knowing you to be an invalid, why did he permit you to walk here at this time of night?"
"My dear fellow, he doesn't know. He thinks I'm asleep in the dining-room, and that you will come in by and by and put me to bed. He has gone off to attend to what he calls his experiment. We'll see what that experiment is presently. You shall fetch him down, and the play will begin. But first a few questions."
"Fifty if you like," Ralph replied. "You have stretched my curiosity to breaking-point."
"Well, it will soon be gratified. I sent you a telegram just before I left London telling you that Barca was going to see you. I knew he would come, and he did. In that telegram I warned you to do anything that Barca asked you. I can't call spirits from the vasty deep, and all that kind of thing, but I can hazard a guess what Barca wanted. By means of a threat he managed to get L3000 out of you."
"Wrong," Ralph said grimly. "The amount of the cheque is L2000 more."
"Oh, well. That was because he needed a bit for himself. I will tell you presently what he needed the first-named sum for. As a matter of fact Barca got the money out of you by suggesting that he could say a great deal more if he liked as to the Stephen Holt business; only I suppose he put it in a clever way."
"He put it in a very clever way indeed," Ralph explained. "He put it in such a clever form that I could take hold of nothing, and yet we perfectly understood each other. Would you like to hear what happened?"
"My dear fellow, that is precisely what I am leading up to. I want you to tell me what took place between you whilst it is fresh in your memory. Only cut it short, for it will be daylight before long. On the whole, this is the most exciting twenty-four hours that I ever remember. But go ahead."
Ralph briefly recited Barca's ingenious plot for a story, and, as he spoke, Dick Charteris listened with a grin on his face, and now and then a chuckle of deep enjoyment.
The recital came to an end at length, and there was no more to say. With a queer look on his face, Dick strode off to the house. They reached the dining-room undiscovered, and here Charteris took his place on the couch again.
"Positively we are just about to begin," he said gaily. "Go upstairs and fetch that choice rascal down. Tell him that you found me asleep when you came in and don't know whether I am to be aroused or not. Then he will have to come down and give an opinion on my interesting case. Go along." A moment later and Ralph was knocking at Barca's door. He heard something like the sound of a scuffle within, then the door was unlocked and Barca looked out. He seemed to be irritated, for his manner was curt and forbidding. Ralph could see that he had not yet removed any of his clothing.
"I'm sorry to trouble you," he said; "but when I got back Charteris was asleep in the dining-room. Shall I wake him and put him to bed, or leave him where he is? I wish you would come down and look at him."
Barca muttered something about being continually disturbed in his experiments, but he followed Ralph into the dining-room, where Charteris was sitting up very wide-awake. Save for the gleam in his eyes, he showed no signs of excitement, he professed himself better, and hoped that Ralph had not unduly alarmed his people.
"Sit down a minute," he suggested. "I am going to get Kingsmill to put me to bed presently. Do you know, you fellows, I have had a most curious dream. Perhaps the knock on the head upset me, but really I had a most vivid dream. It was all about Stephen Holt."
Barca started slightly. There was a queer ring in Charteris's voice that riveted his attention. He glanced keenly at the speaker.
"Other people's dreams make uninteresting narratives as a rule," Barca remarked.
"But I assure you this one won't." Dick said in a lone of conviction. "Really, I won't keep you very long. . . I dreamt that I was asleep in the corner of the room, and that Holt came in. There was nobody else here besides Holt and Kingsmill, and they began to quarrel over some letters that seemed a source of annoyance to Kingsmill. Holt did not possess the letters, at least he hadn't them on his person, or so it seemed to me, but said he could lay his hands on them whenever he liked. And those letters had been written from time to time by our host here to Mrs. Lingen. In other words, to put it plainly, Stephen Holt was trying to blackmail Kingsmill on the strength of those letters. The end of the whole thing was a violent quarrel, and when I looked again Holt was dead at Kingsmill's feet with a nasty stab in his throat that streamed the floor with blood."
"I don't see any blood." Barca said, with a strange half laugh. "He would be a clever man who could get that stain out of the carpet."
"He would indeed," Dick agreed. "But it was all arranged in my dream. Naturally our friend here was aghast at what he had done, and stood considering his position. At last, it seemed to me that he had made up his mind what to do. Nobody had seen Holt come into the house; he had entered by an open window. Therefore his body should remain where it was, and be found by the servants in the morning. It was rather a silly thing for Kingsmill to decide upon, but so it was. In my dream I saw Kingsmill go to his room to pass the time till morning as best he could. In my dream I waited to see what was going to happen next. It was some little time before the drama proceeded. Then there looked into the room a face, an evil face, Barca, full of wickedness, cunning, and guile. The owner of the face crept over to the side of the body, slipped down, and felt the wounded man's pulse."
"You said a dead man just now," Barca exclaimed hoarsely.
"Did I? Well, there is no accounting for dreams. As a matter of fact, Holt was not dead. A strong cordial revived him. And all the time in my dream I could see into the back of the mind of the man with the evil face. Here was his scheme. He was going to spirit the body of Holt away and so prey on the mind of Kingsmill until the latter was almost mad with doubt and anxiety. Reduced to despair by remorse and the maddening mystery, he would have become as clay in the hands of the evil-faced man. I saw that mind stand out before me like a mirror. Then I saw the body vanish. But the dreadful tell-tale stain on the carpet. How was that to be got rid of? Well, the hardest part of it all was in reality the easiest. There were other carpets in the great attic very like this one; in fact, practically identical. I saw the carpet changed; it was not a great deal of bother, and—"
A sudden cry broke from Ralph. The flood of illumination alone blinded him. It was only for an instant, and then he was himself again. Barca did not seem to notice the outbreak—his eyes were fixed with vivid intentness on Charteris's face. The latter was telling his story with features that were almost expressionless.
"Now here is the part where the practical side of the dream comes in," Dick resumed. "You may say that it is only in fiction that one may juggle with priceless Persian carpets in this fashion. But here such a thing is possible. I have examined the attics, and they are filled with treasures of the same kind. You know the story of the epicure and his two turbots. Somebody had sent him a noble pair of the fish. He arranged to have them both cooked for his guests, and one of the waiters was to drop the dish. He did so, and the plate was ruined. In a lordly way he called for another dish, and this established his reputation for lavish hospitality for ever. It is the same with those carpets. Inconceivable as it may seem, there are others upstairs just like this. And the man with the evil face changed them. Now it is not a little odd that when I was looking over the attic yesterday I found a carpet neatly folded up and put under a huge carved bedstead. On one side of the carpet was a great red stain. Perhaps this is a curious coincidence; perhaps that red stain caused my dream; but there it is for you to decide."
"It does not seem to lead to much," Barca said.
"Perhaps not, but it might. My dream is not yet complete. It went farther than that. It went so far as the man with the evil face demanding L3000, no, L5000, from my friend Kingsmill, and getting it."
"Did you even hear that circumstance, too?" Barca sneered.
"Yes, I did. And I shall be glad if you will ask your questions in a less offensive manner. You may be out of sympathy with my dream, Mr. Barca, but at any rate you might pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I dreamt a great deal more than that, but you do not tempt me to proceed."
"I beg your pardon," Barca exclaimed. "I—I am just a little tired to-night. And if there is anything further in the matter that you may have to say to me, why—"
The speaker shrugged his shoulders. He appeared to treat the thing as a jest, but he could not disguise the restless anxiety of his eyes.
"It is getting very late, I admit," Charteris went on. "And perhaps I have stretched your patience a little too far. It must be nearly daylight. Will you look out of the window and see, Ralph? I fancied there was a gleam behind the blinds."
Dick gave Ralph a significant glance as he spoke. The latter realised that the time had come now to give Ford the signal. He was only too glad of an excuse to turn his own white, agitated face away. An idea had occurred to him, an idea so wild that he strove to put it out of his mind.
"It is getting light," he said in shaky tones. "Already the dawn is coming."
"And the blessed daylight," Dick said. "It is going to be a glorious day for some of us. But Mr. Barca wants to ask me a question."
"Just one," Barca laughed unsteadily. "We have heard all about the magic carpet, which suggests the 'Arabian Nights,' and all the occult wonders of the East, but there is something else. The practice of the man with the evil face was well done, and so was his ingenious scheme for breaking down the nerve of our host here and making him a mortal coward as regards money. But what about the body of the unfortunate Stephen Holt?"
There was something more than a query in the question, there was a direct challenge. Dick sat up on the couch and looked about him. Already he could hear the sound of footsteps crunching the gravel near the house. Ford was not far off. There was time to play with Barca for just a little longer.
"I do not pretend to recollect everything," he said. "You see it is impossible for even a dreamer to be in two places at once. What became of the body is a mystery. But I daresay if I placed my occult knowledge into the hands of the police it is just possible they might be able to follow up the clue and—"
Dick paused discreetly, for Ford stood in the doorway. He had his official manner on now, and apologised for his entry like this. "We found the door open," he said. "I am very sorry to trouble you, Mr. Kingsmill, but I have a warrant with me for the arrest of—"
"The climax to the story," Charteris cried. "A fitting end to the drama. Now, Barca, where are we going to look for the body?"
Barca rose to his feet and walked towards the door. His face was very white now; his easy manner had entirely vanished.
"I am quite unable to say," he muttered. "It seems to me that I am de trop here; this seems to be a private matter between Captain Ford and Kingsmill. It you will allow me, I will go to my room at once."
"You will pardon me," Ford said, "but this is a matter in which we are all interested. I may have a question or two to put to you, Dr. Barca. I hold a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Stephen Holt on a charge of robbery from the house of a gentleman called Vandernort, the warrant came into my hands a few hours ago. And I am told that Mr. Holt is to be found somewhere near here; in fact, in this house."
"That is impossible," Ralph cried. "Stephen Holt is not in a position to—"
"You are interrupting Captain Ford," Dick said curtly. "Let him finish."
"In this house," Ford proceeded. "I have reason to believe that my information is absolutely correct. I shall be glad if you will all stay here whilst I make a thorough search of the premises. It may take some time to find the particular room where Mr. Holt is hiding, but in case I do not—"
"It will take no time at all," said Dick, as he rose to his feet. "As a matter of fact, I can save you a great deal of trouble. I have already had the pleasure of a glance at the form of Mr. Stephen Holt this evening. You will find him at the present moment comfortably ensconced in Dr. Barca's bed-room!"
Ralph stood listening but utterly unable to speak and indeed hardly comprehending what was going on. During the past few hours he had vaguely expected something to turn up in his favour, but had not anticipated anything so startling and dramatic as this. He glanced hesitatingly at Charteris, who undoubtedly was master of the situation. A sudden change had come over Dick. He had lost all his listless manner; the affectation of simplicity had departed. His face was hard and set his eyes alert and gleaming.
Barca was the first to remember himself. He moved in the direction of the door and asked to be allowed to pass. The matter had nothing to do with him he said.
"I beg your pardon," Ford exclaimed. "It seems to me that it has a great deal to do with you. I have a warrant for the arrest of Stephen Holt on a charge of robbery from the house of Mr Vandernort and it is my duty to execute that warrant. Before I came here I had information that Holt was hiding in this house; indeed, Mr Charteris says so."
"The whole thing is a conspiracy," Barca cried. "Stephen Holt is no thief. He never took anything from the American's house. Let me pass."
"No," Ford said firmly. "I have my duty to do. I am going to search your bedroom to see if Mr Charteris is correct. You will be so good as not to interfere. You had better stay here till I come back."
Dick smiled to himself as he could well afford to do, seeing how, step by step, the various pieces of his plan were dovetailing together. As yet he had said nothing about the way in which he was going to work out his stratagem. To a certain extent Fate had played into his hand's, and he was not slow to make use of such weapons as his own good fortune had brought him. Clarkson had been used as a pawn in the game, though Dick with characteristic good nature, had taken steps to save him from the result of his folly. And though Clarkson was saved, this had not prevented Dick from persuading Vandernort that Stephen Holt was the thief of the jewels, and thus had caused the American to apply for a warrant for his arrest. The thing would have to be explained later, but up to the present it was one of the strongest cards Dick had in his hand. He looked at Barca and smiled. The latter for once in his life failed to grasp what was going on, though his fine instinct for danger told him that there was some hidden peril here. He could afford to meet the trouble in the open, but as it was he felt helplessly incompetent. There was only one thing for him to do, and that was to fall back on bluster.
"What on earth do yon mean?" he cried. "Why should you treat me in this way? Do you suppose that I have anything to do with Stephen Holt? He is no friend of mine."
"Nevertheless, you will do exactly as you are told," Ford said grimly. "If you are the innocent man you so indignantly protest yourself to be, your indignation is out of place."
"That is all very well," Barca sneered. "But, police or no police, I am not going to be treated in this fashion. You'll be telling me next that you have a warrant for my arrest also. Things have come to a pretty pass when a guest in a private house is ordered about by a stranger as if he were a dog. Now, I'll tell you what it is, my friend, and I ask you to pay careful attention to what I am saying. A vain man dressed in brief authority, such as you appear to be, is not capable—"
Barca stopped and coughed as if something had stuck in his throat. Dick regarded him with a quick suspicion which had flashed into his mind. Usually Barca was taciturn enough; probably no man of his acquaintance had heard him say so much in so short a space of time. Obviously the man was talking for the sake of talking with a view to causing a delay. What delay it was, and for what purpose, Dick neither know nor cared, for he was going to stop it, and stepped forward with this intention. Barca began to speak again but Dick cut him short without ceremony.
"I had no idea you were an orator," he said. "My dear Ford, I am quite sure there is something behind this. Instead of frittering away the precious moments in this fashion, I would suggest that we went immediately to work. I daresay if you wish Dr. Barca to remain here you will find some means of persuading him. It will be to his best interests to raise no objection."
To Ralph's surprise, Barca burst into a loud fit of laughter as soon as Ford had opened the door. It was so unlike Barca to behave in this fashion. Now his voice rang through the hall in scornful gibes. He seemed to be very sure of his ground.
"This is a farce," he yelled. "A pretty thing for the police to invade the house of a gentleman at this time in the morning. Surely, you could have waited till daylight. The police have come for a person who is hiding in my bedroom, eh? My friend Stephen Holt is to be arrested for robbery. Did anybody ever hear the like?"
At a signal from Charteris, Ford darted up the stairs. He called over the banisters to know what room it was. Barca saved Ralph the trouble of replying.
"Why ask?" he said. "You will see a light a little way down the corridor. That is my room, and so are the bedroom and bathroom beyond. Help yourself to what you like; do not go out of your way to consider me. Bring down the prisoner."
Ralph turned to Charteris for an explanation. But the latter had vanished. He had disappeared from the hall at the very instant that Barca had raised his voice. Ralph wondered why he had gone into the garden. He was to learn a little later. Meanwhile Barca had ceased to scoff and sneer; he was listening intently to what was taking place overhead. Ralph could see from the flicking of his nostrils that he was painfully moved.
Ford appeared to be a long time upstairs. Surely it need not take all this time to arrest a prisoner, Ralph thought. Charteris, who did not make mistakes as a rule, had plainly stated where Holt was. That being the case what was Ford bungling about? What if there had been some strange mistake? Indeed the more Ralph reflected the more certain he was. He had killed Holt; he could see the body lying at his feet now. Why had he allowed himself to be buoyed up with false hopes?
Of course they were false, the whole picture was false. Ralph had only to glance at the face of Ford as he emerged from the bedroom. He looked foolish and confused.
"There has been an error somewhere," he said, trying to speak lightly. "I appear to owe an apology to Dr. Barca, which I offer in all sincerity. Wherever Holt may be he is not in Dr. Barca's rooms."
"I could have told you that from the first," Barca muttered. Ralph could see that his face had grown steady again. "The mistake belongs to Charteris. Don't you think that you had better continue your search, Captain Ford?"
"No, I don't," Ford said curtly. "And I have my own idea as to what has happened. I should like to have a word or two with Charteris."
But Charteris had vanished. He had bolted through the front door and out into the night, a very foolish thing to do, considering his recent accident. Barca's voice sounded uneasy as he referred to this.
"Well, I am only wasting your time and mine," Ford said. "I shall take the liberty of borrowing Charteris's motor car. Tell him I will send it to the Park in the morning."
"The motor car is damaged," Barca put in quickly. "It was in the accident to the motor that Charteris was hurt."
Ford muttered something in reply. He had come very near to committing a grave indiscretion, nothing less than the betrayal of the fact that he was more or less acting as an accomplice of Charteris in the matter. And evidently something had gone wrong; the amateur detective's plans had miscarried. Ford hastened to get away before Barca could ask more compromising questions. The representative of the law disappeared, and Ralph and Barca were alone. There was an awkward pause.
"What are you going to do about this?" Barca asked at last.
"What could I do about it?" Ralph stammered. "It does not concern me. Stephen Holt appears to have done something wrong, and the police are here to arrest him. I did not give them the information."
"That is certainly true," Barca sneered. "It is hardly likely that you informed the police that Stephen was in this house alive, or dead for the matter of that. So far as you are concerned it is quite obvious."
Barca broke off suddenly for Charteris had come back. He did not appear to be in the least put out; on the contrary his face wore a smile. He took a cigarette from the table and lighted it with great zest and enjoyment.
"On the whole, a most delightful evening," he said. "Where is Ford? Gone away a little disappointed, perhaps, to find he had made a mistake. Also disposed to blame me. Well, I shall make amends for that later. I always keep my promises. By the way, Ralph, it is not a long drop from your first floor to the ground."
Barca started. He saw what was the drift of Charteris's remark. He wondered, too, what was the big key that Charteris was dangling in his hand.
"Anybody could leave the house that was in a hurry," Dick went on. "By-the-bye, what a capital strong room the place over the stables makes. Also a cell."
"What are you driving at?" Barca demanded.
"Perhaps I had better tell you," Charteris said with the utmost good-humour. "When I informed Ford that Holt was hiding in your bedroom I told him the truth. I saw him there. I got into the room when our host had lured you away from your chamber under the pretence that there were burglars in the house. And Holt nearly caught me, so nearly that I had only time to get out of the window. That is how I hurt myself, and the story of the motor was pure fiction. Oh, I told Ford the truth. And when you began to shout in the hall I felt sure you were giving Holt a warning. So I slipped out of the house just in time to see him land in the garden. I told him what Ford was after, and nearly frightened him to death. Stephen Holt's strong point is not physical courage. I told him I would hide him, and I did—in the loft over the stables. In a fit of absent-mindedness I locked him in and brought away the key. I fear he will find it impossible to get out."
Barca glanced furtively at Ralph, who was following Charteris's story with rapt attention.
"What are you going to do with him?" he asked gloomily.
"That will depend upon circumstances," Dick said. "If Holt likes to tell the truth, I can see a way of making things easy for him. I could get that warrant withdrawn, for instance, because I have a pretty good grip of the real facts of the case. I could have prevented the issue of the warrant altogether, but it did not suit me to do so. And if Stephen Holt once stands in the dock, it will be all over with him. There are more than a dozen shady transactions that could be proved against him, and once the ball was set rolling lots of people who now do not regard the game as worth the candle would come forward and prosecute him. But if Holt tells the truth he shall go scot free and I will arrange that Mr Vandernort will do nothing."
"The truth about what?" Barca asked impatiently.
"The mystery in the house," Charteris said slowly. "Why this show of innocence to me? Why did you hide Holt in your rooms if there was not a reason for it? You dirty rascal, I know the whole of your conspiracy from one end to the other. I know what happened the night before last."
Barca started but made no reply. Obviously he was waiting for Charteris to go on.
"Let me tell you what I know," Dick proceeded. "The night before last Holt came here to blackmail Ralph Kingsmill. He heard that our host was engaged to my sister, and this gave him his opportunity. He was jealous and revengeful; he could see his way to make money at the same time. He had stolen Ralph Kingsmill's letters to Kate Lingen, and then threatened to show them to my sister. There was a chance to make money. But the pretty scheme was spoilt by Kingsmill losing his temper and nearly killing the blackmailer. He thought that he had killed him. Then Kingsmill plays the coward, and a pretty price he looked like paying for it. He goes to bed and says nothing. When he comes down in the morning there is no sign of Holt, no sign of a struggle, no blood on the carpet. Why? Because you, Barca, have dragged the body to your room, and have found that Holt is suffering from nothing more than shock and loss of blood. Being an exceedingly clever doctor, you patch him up again. Then you cast around for a way in which you may profit by your action. You remove all trace of the fray. Your plan is to prey upon Kingsmill's nerves and imagination until you have him in your hands, body and soul, to bleed him as you please. And Holt is in the conspiracy. As long as he keeps out of the way, the programme can be played for all it is worth. It was a very pretty scheme, and I congratulate you upon the ingenuity of it. As for the rest, it can be told before a magistrate."
"You are very clever," Barca sneered. "But you have no proof of this."
"Indeed, I have. That is my proof. He will do and say anything to save his skin. You have a cheque for L5000 from Mr. Kingsmill in your pocket. You need not trouble to cash it, for payment will be stopped in the morning."
Dick had touched Barca at last. He had sacrificed a great many of his dearest ambitions to get this money, and to see it slipping from his grasp was maddening. He was about to burst out indignantly, but Charteris stopped him.
"One moment," he said. "There is one way of keeping the money which you have obtained. I do you the justice to remark, more for the sake of a woman than for your own. Our hands are not quite clean, so we shall be prepared to make terms when the time comes. You will permit me to despatch a telegram to-morrow in your name, to Mrs. Lingen asking her to come down here on urgent business as soon as possible. Never mind what for. It will pay her to come in the long run. And now will you please leave us? We have a great deal to do before daylight."
Barca went his way muttering. He had the good sense to see that he was beaten, and that Charteris saw the whole of the conspiracy quite clearly. It would be far better to make terms, Barca thought, especially if that act of grace meant the returning of the money that he had made so great a sacrifice to obtain. And Ralph's hands were by no means clean, as Charteris had admitted. There was always the option of charging Ralph with a murderous assault on Holt.
But Ralph was not thinking of that, at present. He could only gaze at his friend with glittering eyes. He drew a long, deep breath of relief and gratitude.
"I cannot understand it," he gasped. "My brain refuses to take in the details. You say that Stephen Holt is alive, that I did not kill him as I thought. Oh, God! Dick, if you only knew what this means to me. But tell me."
"Nothing," Dick said firmly. "To-morrow everything will be settled and put straight. Your face is white and ghastly, your eyes have a tinge of madness in them. Go to bed and sleep as long as you can; sleep with the mind of a man who is free from all his cares. I shall stay where I am till morning. Rest assured that your troubles are over. Go to bed, Ralph; you will not get another word out of me to-night."
"Go to bed," Ralph cried. "Why, my dear fellow, the mere suggestion is full of cruelty. Do you suppose for a single moment that I should have a wink of sleep after all that has happened to-night? No. If you are the friend I take you to be, you will remain with me till morning and discuss the matter again and again till there is not another word to be said. Let us open the windows and let in the fresh air. I want to go outside and waft till the sun rises so that I can stand out there in God's blessed sunshine and thank my Maker that I am a free man again. You thought I was mad when this black trouble fell upon me, but I tell you, my dear Dick, I was cool and sane then compared to what I am now. Feel how my pulse is beating. Put your hand on my heart and you will know how it throbs to suffocation."
Ralph's voice was high and strident; there was a peculiar vibrating ring in it that Dick did not like at all.
"This won't do at all," he muttered. "My dear fellow, you must sleep. You really must go to bed and get a night's rest. You say you have not enjoyed a blessing like that for such a considerable time. Unless you do what I tell you I shall have to send for the doctor to administer a sleeping draught. It that fails, I will run home and get some opium. To-morrow you will be as collected as myself. To-night you frighten me."
"I frighten myself," Ralph said. "I hope I am not talking what you might call absolute nonsense."
"You are," Dick said sternly. "I will not say another word. Now go to bed or I'll knock you down and drag you there."
There was a sharp, decisive ring in the speaker's tones, so that Ralph knew that it would be fruitless to ask further questions. Only a moment since it seems as if he would never need sleep again, as if his brain would reel until he dropped from very exhaustion. And now the desire for slumber had him in a close grip. He could not keep his eyelids open, he staggered up the stairs. Almost in a dream he divested himself of his clothing and fell on the bed. Then came the sleep that he so sorely needed, the sleep of utter weariness.
It was well into the morrow of the day before he woke again. He stretched himself with a glad sense of strength and the knowledge of joyful exertions. Joicey came in presently with the information that luncheon was ready. Ralph started in surprise. He had a keen desire for food. Down in the dining-room Dick was gravely eating a cutlet, and Stephen Holt sat on the other side of the table. He looked pale and drawn; there was a stiff linen bandage about his throat.
"Matters are progressing very well," Dick said. "By the combined aid of the telephone and the telegram I have worked wonders. Dr. Barca has had an early lunch and has gone to the station to meet Mrs. Lingen. I must admit, my dear Ralph, that all this is very irregular and unusual, but in the circumstances I could do nothing else. And If you think that you are under the necessity of offering Mr. Holt an apology—"
"It was my own fault," Holt said with some difficulty. "I played a bold game and I failed. I should have gone on playing the game with Barca's assistance had not Charteris here been too clever for us. Charteris will tell you how cunningly he used the fact that I was suspected of robbing my friend Vandernort. I had to come forward and defend my character; I dared not let it go to arrest."
"Vandernort understands by this time," Dick said. "It was a pure bit of luck that robbery, and I saw my way to turn it to advantage. But I will tell you all about that presently, Ralph. Meanwhile, I am expecting Mrs. Lingen every moment, and also my sister Enid."
"You want them to meet?" Ralph asked in some surprise.
"I am exceedingly anxious they should meet again," Dick smiled. "I should recommend Mr. Holt to take a turn in the garden till we need him. He appreciates that I am absolutely master of the situation."
Holt rose by-and-bye, and shuffled from the room. It was a little time later before Kate Lingen appeared, accompanied by Barca. She was looking fresh and charming as ever; she had the same expression of heavenly Innocence, her blue eyes were tender and pathetic. There was just a touch of colour on her checks that betrayed a certain inward agitation. She flitted up to Ralph and held out her hands as if they were the best of friends.
"I have been hearing strange things," she said; "all kinds of strange things. But you will forgive Richard Barca for what he has done—it was all for my sake. Believe me, I am more sinned against than sinning. You will believe that, Ralph."
Ralph muttered something. He was almost deceived in spite of all he knew. It seemed almost impossible to take the pretty butterfly in earnest. Dick looked on quietly through his eyeglass. He moved towards the door. Outside he could see the figure of Enid as she came across the lawn.
"I had better see Mrs. Lingen first," he said. "Perhaps she will come into the drawing-room in a minute or two. I shall be ready for her then."
Kate turned a dazzling smile in the direction of the speaker. She would have the pleasure of hearing what Mr. Charteris had to say. Dick hurried to meet Enid. He took her by the arm, and led her to the drawing-room.
She seemed pale and anxious.
"What is it?" she asked. "Dick, what is going on? And why did you not come home last night? And why is your head bandaged up?"
"Ask as many questions as you like presently," Dick replied. "Just now you are going to play the part of eavesdropper. It is not a very pleasant occupation, but I can think of no better way in the circumstances. Besides I do not want to see Kate Lingen making friends again with my sister. Get behind that screen."
"Dick! As if I could do anything so—so mean! What do you want me to hear?"
"My dear girl, I want you to hear the truth, the truth about that woman and Ralph. I want to make everything clear between you; I want you to have the word of the woman who has brought about all the mischief. She has come here on purpose. Now will you listen, or will you stand there till it is too late?"
Enid hesitated a moment with a face that burned with a shamed red, then she slipped behind the screen. She had seen scenes like this on the stage, but had never expected to find herself a leading actor in such a comedy. She caught her breath presently as she heard the gay tones of Kate Lingen.
"Oh, let us get to business," Dick said curtly. "I suppose Barca has told you everything that has happened here lately?"
"So shocking," Kate Lingen cried. "So very dreadful. And so terrible that Richard Barca should try to make money out of poor Ralph's hasty display of temper. Richard told me everything as we walked from the station. And you found it all out, you dreadfully clever creature! Like a scene from a play, was it not? And Ralph gave Richard L5000 on condition that he would not—"
"Not blackmail him any more," Dick said drily. "Now we are both people of the world, my dear Kate, and we know how that promise would have been kept. I see you are aware of everything—I need not gloss over any of the details. Barca meant to make a handsome thing out of Kingsmill. But you had need of money, and so he had to anticipate his scheme and force Kingsmill to let him have the L3000 necessary to keep you out of goal. But, unfortunately for you, I stepped in just in the nick of time and spoilt that little game. Barca has the cheque, but it will not be met when it is presented at the bank."
What were they talking about? Enid wondered. And why did Mrs. Lingen immediately cry out in a voice that spoke of both rage and fear!
"You mustn't do it. Dick," she said. "You will not be so cruel. Unless I have that money by Saturday I shall go to prison. Oh! how hard you are."
"I am not hard at all," Dick retorted. "Nothing like so hard and cruel as you are, for instance. Do you forget how keen and cruel you were the last time you were here? You pretended that you were engaged to Ralph Kingsmill; you took a foul delight in stabbing my sister to the heart all the time. I could have wrung that pretty neck of yours with pleasure. And all the time you knew that you were never engaged to Ralph, though he had written you those passionate letters. You never cared for him."
"Yes, I did, in my own way. But it is no use trying to humbug you, Dick. I enjoyed those letters of Ralph's; they were good fun after he had found me out."
"And you would not have come near him again but for his good fortune, eh?"
"Of course, not. You know that as well as I do. I was desperately in need of money, and Ralph was rich. What I ought to have done was to borrow a good sum from him. But I played a higher game than that, and failed. But I hated your sister at that moment! How I fooled her. And all the time Ralph was caring for her—his fancy for me was only the sham sentiment of a poet. But don't let him stop that cheque, Dick. Let me have that money, and I will make any kind of confession you like. You shall dictate the most abject apology to your sister; I will go as far as to tell the truth about myself if you like. Only don't be hard, Dick, don't send me to gaol. I may richly deserve to be punished—but?"
"Oh, drop that handkerchief trick," Dick cried. "I'm not going to send you to gaol. You shall have the money, and Barca may keep the balance. And you shall marry him, and both come to hate each other in six months. We owe your brother a little for our severe treatment of him, and he shall have enough to take him out of the country. And as to your confession, as you call it, why I daresay my sister will take my version of the affair. Now let us go back to the dining-room, and settle this business right away. To be quite candid, the sooner we see the last of you the better we shall be pleased."
In the dining-room Ralph was passing a bad half-hour with Barca and Holt. His face cleared as Dick and Kate Lingen entered.
"You leave the people to me," Dick said. "It is far better, and you don't know all the ins and outs of the case as I do. And you can ask me all the questions that you want to know when our visitors have departed. Besides, there is a lady in the drawing-room who wants to see you. It is a pity to keep her waiting."
It was on the tip of Ralph's tongue to declare that he was in no mood to see anybody just then. That the whole outlook so far as he was concerned had completely changed he knew perfectly well. But there was still much that mystified him. How had Charteris arrived at all these definite and extraordinary results. It was as if he had deliberately arranged his puppets for this denouement. Very little had been said during Charteris's absence; the situation was strained and uncomfortable. And Ralph was naturally anxious to know how everything had gone.
He stood there looking at Dick in some doubt. The latter shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of impatience.
"I think you had better go," he said. "The lady is anxious to see you."
A rippling smile played over the dainty features of Kate Lingen. She saw in a flash exactly what had happened. She was not in the least annoyed with Charteris; it was a bit of strategy after her own heart. Besides she was safe. She was in a position to defy that implacable creditor; there was no further risk of those dreadful criminal proceedings. And now she was free, she had made up her mind what to do. She would get away to Paris and try her luck there for a time. Kate Lingen was not the woman to worry because her plans had failed, which perhaps was the secret of her wonderful youth and bloom. Besides, she had not done so very badly after all. There was no malice in the way she smiled at Charteris.
"Oh, but you are clever," she said. "I wish I had known before how clever our dear Dick was. He might have been useful to me. And so this is the end of it all. Well, I suppose I ought to go down on my knees and ask your forgiveness. Upon my word, if I felt in the mood I could I make an exceedingly pretty scene out of this. Just think how well it would come out in a play, and how I could win the sympathies of my audience, despite the fact that my methods are not such as would commend themselves to respectable middle-class society. You will pardon me if I make light of this matter and regard it as a good joke."
"You can't regard it as a better joke than we do." Dick laughed. "My dear Ralph, it is no use frowning at me like that. It is quite impossible to take Mrs. Kate Lingen seriously, and for my part I don't propose to do anything of the kind. And besides you must recollect that she was no party whatever to the scurvy trick that her brother and Barca played upon you. I don't suppose she knew anything about it until the last few hours. At least I give her the benefit of the doubt."
"Spoken like a man and a brother," Kate Lingen cried. "I did not really know till quite recently, so that is not on my conscience at any rate. And if I don't bear malice against you, I do not see why you should be hard upon me. I know that I am not a good woman, but like a certain person who shall be nameless, I am not so black as I am painted."
"I don't think you are," Dick laughed. "And as we are meeting probably for the last time—"
"You are too clever for me," the woman said. "And our young friend Ralph is clever in a way, but it does not appeal to me. Positively he does not understand."
It was even as the woman had said. Ralph stood there not even dimly comprehending the good news that Dick was telling him. There was something so subtle here as to baffle his dreamy nature. With renewed impatience, Dick bundled his friend out of the room.
"I don't want you here," he said bluntly. "You are in the way. And the lady who is waiting for you in the drawing room is part of the problem. You must see her. Please go at once."
Ralph crossed the hall to the drawing room. Enid was still there standing by the window in an undecided kind of way. She was wondering if her presence was needed any further; she was rather hurt by the manner in which her brother had left her. It had been mean to hide behind that screen and listen; it was not the sort of thing that Enid was accustomed to. But she could see why Dick had hit upon that scheme. He was dealing with a woman utterly devoid of scruple, and it became necessary to meet her with her own weapons. The hot blood faded from Enid's face; the shamed feeling cooled away.
Something like a wave of indignation swept over her.
How utterly that woman had deceived her! How innocent and injured she had looked. When Enid came to think it over, she could not blame herself for taking the part of Kate Lingen against Ralph. The beautiful adventuress had acted superbly, she would have taken anybody in. It was wonderful how naturally she had called the tears to her aid. And Enid had had every reason to regard Ralph as a selfish monster who had deliberately played with the hearts of two poor innocent girls. The flush of indignation deepened on Enid's face. She recalled now all the cruel things she had said to Ralph. And how well he had borne them. He need not protest his honour now that Mrs Lingen had made so infamous a confession.
And she had been shameless and utterly heartless into the bargain; She had allowed Dick to speak to her in a way that no good woman would permit. She had laughed in reply and admitted everything. She was even pleased at the way in which she had played with the feelings of the listener behind the screen; she said that she had cared nothing for Ralph, but merely regarded him as a tool to get money out of. And she was not honest either; she had come within measurable distance of a prison.
And there were other things that puzzled Enid. There had been allusions to crime, to some tragedy in which Ralph was mixed up. Enid's curiosity began to burn and flame. And behind it all was the one desire to see Ralph and let him know how sorry she was. She stood there hoping he might come to her. Perhaps he would come when once the house was clear of that dreadful woman.
Then Enid turned to see Ralph by her ride. She gave a little cry; her hands fluttered out to him. But Ralph did not move for the moment. He was surprised to see Enid there, only beginning to comprehend what Dick had meant. He stood there so long that Enid began to understand his feelings. Her lips drooped, her eyes filled with tears.
"I—I did not expect to find you here," Ralph stammered. "Dick told me that a lady was in the drawing-room waiting to—to—but I never expected a surprise like this. Of course I had hoped before long to have an opportunity to right matters between us, and I was looking forward to the chance with mingled dread and joy. And surely, Enid, you would not have come here to-day unless you had been prepared to regard me—"
Something rose in Ralph's throat and choked further utterance. The exquisite pleasure of being in Enid's company again was almost too much for him. He felt all his manhood burning in his veins now, but at the same time he had over-rated his strength. He was still suffering from his troubles.
Yet it was good to see Enid standing there with a flush upon her face and all the cold proud scorn gone from her eyes. There was a tender little smile upon her lips, a sort of shrinking shyness that suited her well. She must have come with some good reason, with some idea of tying the silken threads up again, and resuming the old happy relations.
"You are looking dreadful," she murmured. "It seems almost impossible you could have changed like this in so short a time. And as for myself—"
"I want to hear you talk about yourself," Ralph said. "I want you to forget all about me. You are changed too—a change for the better. I am glad to see you standing there with something like a smile upon your face. It is a sign that perhaps in the course of time—but maybe I am presuming. I cannot altogether forget the words you said when we parted last. And at that time I did not think—"
"How should you Ralph? And you are angry with me. You do not like to say the words that are on the tip of your tongue. If you only knew—"
"Shall I ever know?" Ralph cried. "Shall I ever get to the bottom of the mystery? Enid, what did you come for? Did Dick tell you my secret?"
"Dick told me nothing, indeed, I have had no opportunity of speaking to him. He sent me an urgent message asking me to be here this afternoon. Then he made me hide behind the screen there like a character in a play. He made me listen to a conversation between Mrs. Lingen and himself. Oh, Ralph, if you only knew how ashamed I am of myself, how miserable I feel because I preferred that woman's story to yours, why—"
Enid paused; she was afraid to trust her voice further. Ralph could see the pitiable quiver on her lips, could read the pleading appeal in her blue eyes.
"There is no need," he said. "Appearances were against me. Upon my word, when I saw Kate Lingen in this very room with that piteous look on her face I felt myself to be one of the basest of men. Anybody would have believed her rather than me. And there was no getting away from the fact that I to a certain extent deceived you. But I told you the truth, Enid, when I said that I had never loved anybody before. Kate Lingen was an episode, if you ever saw those letters you would say they smelt too much of the egotist and the poet. Still, those letters existed, and I said nothing. If Mrs. Lingen would tell the truth—"
"My dear Ralph, she has," Enid cried. "Dick dragged it out of her in my hearing just now. You are not listening to what I am saying. She was brutally frank, almost vulgarly so. She came here to rob you if she could, she had need of a large sum of money to keep herself out of gaol. She was pleased to find that she had deceived me. It seemed almost impossible to believe that a woman could be so beautiful and yet so vile! Ralph, if you still have any of the old feeling left for me—"
"Feeling left?" Ralph said hoarsely. "As if my feelings could change. If you could forgive me—"
"But, dearest, there is nothing to forgive. I was that woman's victim, as were you also. And now I can see with eyes clearer than they have ever been before. I asked too much of you: my view of men had been too romantic. What did it matter about the past so long as you cared for me now and for the future! Oh, Ralph, can't you see that I am trying to—to—"
Ralph saw at last. He came a step forward, and Enid fluttered into his arms. There was no need for words on either side when heart was speaking to heart, and the mists were rolling away into the distance. For a long time they were content to stand there, Ralph wondering how it had all changed like this. The black night of his despair had vanished, the sun of happiness was shining as it had never shone before.
"You will not think that I have been very foolish," Enid whispered at length.
"You have not been foolish at all," Ralph said. "It is my folly that calls for the greater punishment. When I asked you to marry me, darling, I knew that you loved me. And if I had told you everything then I should have been forgiven. Oh, I know what you are going to say; you are going to remind me of your silly remark about the family jealousy. As if that would have made any difference. But I concealed part of the truth from you, and I have been punished for it. I had forgotten those letters for the moment. I had the promise of the one woman on earth for me; I was the happiest man alive. Then late that night Stephen Holt came to me. He had been dining at your house, he was on his way to London. He came to ask me to give you up; he said that you were the only one who could keep him in the straight path. He said that at one time—"
"Yes, yes," Enid whispered. She hid her face on Ralph's breast for a moment. "It is true. I did fancy that perhaps he and I—but that was before you came. Go on, Ralph."
"Naturally I refused to hear him. He had discovered everything from the expression of your face when my name was mentioned at the dinner table. He wanted me to give you up. And then he spoke of those accursed letters of mine to his sister. I gathered that he had stolen those letters; he swore that he would give them to you if I did not withdraw my suit, Enid. It seemed as it happiness was slipping away from my grasp. The man maddened me. I was not responsible for my actions. I took a knife from the table and I killed him."
"My dear Ralph! Stephen Holt is in your dining-room at the present moment."
"Enid, to all moral purposes I was that man's murderer. He lay as dead at my feet. I raised no alarm; I went to bed and left him there. Nobody knew that he had entered the house, nobody knew that he had come to see me. The thing should pass as a mystery or an accident. I will not dwell on my feelings. But when next day came Stephen Holt's body had vanished, and with it all trace of the crime. At first I did not understand, but when later Barca explained what had taken place in a kind of parable, I saw clearly what was before me. That man was going to blackmail me for the rest of my life. Enid, if you only knew the hell that has been raging in my mind for the last two days! But it is impossible to describe it. . . ."
"I told Dick. I told him on the very day that Mrs. Lingen came down here. That was before Barca let me know what had really happened. I had to tell somebody, or I should have gone mad. It was all like an evil dream to me, but from the very first Dick began to see his way to the solution of the mystery. He told me that everything would come right, but I could not believe him. And yet he was correct in every word. Don't ask me how the thing has been done, for I am as ignorant as you are. Dick shall explain after the people have gone. But I wanted to tell you the worst, Enid. And if, after my confession, you cannot see your way to go on with—"
Enid laid her fingers on Ralph's lips; then she rested her cheek against his.
"I could not let you go," she whispered. "I love you, Ralph. And I know now that it would be all the same if you were the vilest man on earth. And now you know."
"Spoken like a good and true woman," Ralph said, with a thrill in his voice. "I will do my best to make up for all in the future, dearest. What we should have done without that wonderful brother of yours, goodness only knows. Let us go out into the garden, Enid, and wander among the flowers till those people have gone. I never appreciated the beauty of God's blessed sunshine as I do to-day."
It was perhaps an hour later before the sound of wheels crunching on the gravel smote on the ears of the lovers. Between the trees they could see a landau driving away with three people seated inside. Two of them looked moody and downcast enough but the third was chatting and smiling gaily. The light, sweet laugh came floating on the wind.
"A wondrous woman," Ralph said. "Truly a marvellous creature. I should not be surprised if she married brilliantly yet and became a leader of society. But I'm glad they've gone, Enid. The place seems all the sweeter and purer for their departure."
Enid agreed mutely. The landau disappeared at length and the sun came from behind a little cloud, making the good old garden fresh and glorious. Presently Dick strolled on to the terrace. There was a cigarette between his teeth and he beamed through his eyeglass. He appeared to think that he had every right to be on good terms with himself.
"No need to ask how you are getting on," he said, as he dropped into the rustic seat by the side of the lovers. "You both look too foolishly happy for anything. But it has been a very near thing for the pair of you dear little innocents."
"I suppose it was," Enid laughed happily. "But all is well that ends well. Still, you might just as well tell us now that you have succeeded so cleverly how the whole thing was done. Ralph is equally anxious to hear all about the psychological side of the scheme, though, of course he has told me most of the plain facts. But, before you proceed to reel it off like another Gaboriau, I want to know something about Mr. Clarkson and that dear little girl of his. I understand that you have put the poor man right as far as Mr. Vandernort is concerned, and that you intend to give Mr. Clarkson a fresh start in life. Do you think he would mind if I asked the little girl to come down here—"
"Of course, he wouldn't," Dick said. "He would be exceedingly glad I have got him some good descriptive work to do in the North for a London paper, and if he succeeds, as I am certain he will, then he will get a staff appointment. I fancy Clarkson will go straight now for his own sake, to say nothing of the child. However, a little later, when he is beginning to get a proper grip of his self-respect, we will have him down here and you can judge for yourself."
"Dick has a very tender heart for a model detective," Enid laughed. "I shall have to respect him in future."
"You will when you have heard everything," Dick said modestly. "My word, but I have had a job over this business. You don't catch me trying to straighten out the affairs of a poet in future. But now I am going to blow my own trumpet a little. I suppose you really would like to hear the story in my own way."
"Tell is all about it," Enid asked eagerly. "Ralph is about as much in the dark as I am. He has told me all he knows, but he says you will complete the story."
"And not a bad story either," Dick said complacently. "I flatter myself that it was a very neat piece of work altogether. I have got rid of those people. We shall never see Stephen Holt again, and I have also obtained possession of certain letters—"
"Don't," Ralph pleaded. "Never allude to them again. When they are destroyed—"
"Which has already been done," Dick went on. "Mrs Lingen burnt them before my eyes, after I had verified every one of them. Well, when it came to the discussion of that cheque of yours, they pretty soon listened to reason. I stated my terms, which they could accept or reject as they pleased. If they were rejected, the payment of the cheque would be stopped by telegram. That settled it. Milady with the blue eyes got her L3000, and the balance of the cheque is divided between Barca and Holt. The latter is going abroad immediately. Only I promised that you would prove to the satisfaction of Ford that Holt was with you at the very time when Mr. Vandernort's house was robbed."
"I shall have no trouble in doing that," Ralph said. "Of course, the man who committed the robbery was Holt's shady acquaintance, Clarkson."
"Precisely. You can go and see Ford to-day, and convince him of his mistake. Only don't go into details any more than you can help. I don't want Ford to know how much use I had made of him. You will be able to show him that there is nothing to be gained by executing his warrant, and that is all that is needed. If Vandernort likes to go on against Clarkson, that's nothing to us."
"I'll go into Stonehouse after tea." Ralph said. "But you are not getting on with the story. Where did you get your first inspiration from?"
"Perhaps I had better begin at the beginning," Dick said, as he lighted a fresh cigarette. "You will recollect your confession to me. You were under the impression that you had killed Stephen Holt in a fit of sudden madness. This you had done to prevent Holt from using certain letters so as to cause a breach between Enid and yourself. You left the man for dead on the dining-room floor, and you then went to bed. Your idea was to make it look like an accident or suicide, or something of that kind. And when you came down next day there was no sign of the crime—nothing to indicate a tragedy. You showed me where the affray took place, you were particular as to the pool of blood on the floor."
"Please don't," Enid said with a shudder. "It's too terrible."
"My dear girl, it is very necessary to refer to the point," Dick resumed. "It was the very mystery that gave me my most important clue. The carpet was clean of all kinds of stains, though the flowers on the table were not. Now what clever person was it who had taken the trouble to save Ralph from unpleasantness, who had so contrived that the very carpet had no story to tell? And that carpet unique of its kind in England. And as soon as Ralph told me that Barca was staying in the house I began to see my way."
"Barca is poor, ambitious, and unscrupulous. Also he is infinitely clever. Ralph is more or less of a poet, a dreamer, and a man of vivid imagination. Here was Barca's chance. Barca watched the whole thing; he was looking on. That was my theory, and Barca a little time ago was so good as to confirm it. If Holt had been dead, Barca would have let Ralph know this, and the blackmail would have continued on another plane. But after Ralph had gone to bed, Barca discovered that Holt was very much alive. Therefore all his little schemes for getting money fell to the ground. But happy thought! Spirit Holt away and remove all trace of the crime. That was done with some difficulty. Ralph, don't you remember Barca telling you that he had explored the attics and found enough treasures there to furnish the house over again? Well he found a second dining-room carpet, a fellow to that in use. I know all about that carpet, because your predecessor told me the history of the pair and where the other one was stored away. And so what looked to Ralph as the most amazing part of the mystery was the clearest. Barca had spirited the body of Holt away, and changed that carpet. A Persian carpet not nailed to the floor, the task was easy. The stained carpet is in the attic now."
"Well, there I was with a fair amount of material to work on. I knew what Barca had done, I knew that he kept his room locked up, and I guessed that Holt was hidden there. The next thing to find out was whether or not Holt had those letters that Ralph in his silly days had written to Kate Lingen. To make sure of that fact I borrowed L5000 from Ralph and went to London to see the peerless Kate. I offered her a large sun of money for the letters and she agreed to my price. As I had quite expected, when she came to look for the letters they had vanished. I never saw Kate in a real rage before, but she was not a pretty sight, I can tell you. But I had established my point—those letters had been stolen by Stephen Holt."
"Now I knew that Kate wanted money badly. I advised her to try Barca, who loved the very ground she walked on and who was prepared to commit any crime for her. The woman rose to the suggestion at once and asked Barca to come and see her. Now you can give a pretty good guess what happened at that interview. Barca promised to procure the money and his idea was to get it from Ralph here. That is what I played up for. Barca came back and let Ralph know all, or nearly all, as to Stephen Holt, and on the strength of that he got L5000 from Ralph. So far everything had gone beautifully. I was now in a position to prove that Barca was at the bottom of the mystery."
"At the same time I had not forgotten the address of the man to whom Holt telegraphed the night he dined with us. I found out that man and saw him. To my great delight I discovered that he was under the impression that he had been robbed by Holt. Of course it was Holt's dissolute companion who was responsible for that fraud. He had preceded Holt, and made the most of his opportunity. But this give me what I wanted. I felt sure that Holt would leave the country as soon as he was able, and that from time to time Barca would supply him with part of the money bled from Ralph. But after I had persuaded the American gentleman to issue a warrant for Holt's arrest, I stood on velvet. To prove his innocence, Holt would have to come forward and declare himself. Of course, he could prove his alibi; but at the same time his conspiracy with Barca would be futile. The worst that could happen to Ralph then would be a prosecution for murderous assault. But there was another thing I found out. Holt did not want to be arrested. There were several charges hanging over him. All this I discovered recently. It was I who gave a hint as to where Holt was to be found, and, as Ralph knows, Captain Ford acted on that hint."
"But last night," Ralph interrupted. "How did you—"
"I am coming to that. You see, I knew where Holt was hiding. And when you pretended to Barca that there was a burglar in the house, I stole into his room. I saw Holt there, and he very nearly saw me. I didn't quite know how things were likely to go just for the moment, and I made a bolt by way of the window. Then it was that I fell and hurt myself. I had to show up sooner than I expected, so, on the spur of the moment I had to invent that story of the damaged motor car. It was a good thing that you told that fairy story about a burglar, because it fitted in so well with my yarn. And Barca actually persuaded himself that the burglar had made his exit by means of his own bedroom window. As soon as I knew that Barca had told you all he had done in a parable, I was certain of my ground."
"But Holt got away. As you will recollect. I went into the grounds immediately when Barca began to talk so loudly in the hall. Holt was pretty shaky and pretty dazed and quite ready to do what he was told when I gave him a hint as to why Ford was on the premises. It was my idea to hide him in the stable loft and lock him in. And there he stayed until I fetched him out when Mrs. Lingen came. When I laid all this before the precious pair, they had nothing to say, except that Kate Lingen complimented me on my cleverness. They were only too glad to accept my terms and be off, and I was only too glad to let them go. On the whole I have enjoyed the affair immensely. It is the prettiest case in which I ever took a hand."
"I hope it will be the last as far as I am concerned," Ralph said with a shudder. "I owe you a deep debt of gratitude that I can never repay, Dick. You have given me back my happiness, everything that life holds dear. But there is one thing that I will ask you to do, and that is never to refer to it again."
"I promise that," Dick said gravely. "I think, on second thoughts, that I had better go and give Ford an inkling of what has happened. I shall do it better than you, Ralph. And I daresay you have a deal to say to Enid."
Dick strolled away. Ralph looked into the happy face by his side.
"I don't think I have much to say," he murmured. "My heart is a little too full for words, Enid. I have been very, very fortunate to escape from the law of the land. The shadow was very heavy on me at one time."
With a sudden impulse Enid bent forward and kissed the speaker.
"Don't think of it," she whispered. "Oh, my dearest, our love will be all the better and higher for the trial, purer like the gold that is tried in the fire."
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