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Title: The Golden Rose Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100041h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2011 Date most recently updated: April 2012 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. 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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|I - A Maker Of Flowers
II - The Footprints
III - Flowers Of Fate
IV - Jasper Payn
V - The Golden Rose
VI - Temptation
VII - The Finger Of Fate
VIII - On The Brink
IX - An Ordeal By Faith
X - A Scrap Of Silk
XI - A Clue In Calf
XII - A Literary Treasure
XIII - On The Track
XIV - The Same Man
XV - A Waiting Game
XVI - Ram Murshee
XVII - The Warning
XVIII - A Note Of Warning
XIX - The Unseen Hand
XX - The Mystery Deepens
XXI - The Post Of Danger
XXII - The Shades Of Night
XXIII - The Outline Of The Story
|XXIV - A Bid For Freedom
XXV - A World On Wheels
XXVI - A Broken Tyre
XXVII - "Vava"
XXVIII - A Broken Thread
XXIX - A Petal From The Rose
XXX - A Fresh Ally
XXXI - Follow My Leader
XXXII - Murshee Is Alarmed
XXXIII - Ward's Story
XXXIV - The Under-Study
XXXV - Personal Explanation
XXXVI - The Scene Of The Trouble
XXXVII - Out Of The World
XXXVIII - The Flight
XXXIX - In Pursuit
XL - The Best Of The Game
XLI - Friend Or Foe?
XLII - In Time
XLIII - The Last Grasp
XLIV - Beyond Pursuit
XLV - The Way It Was Done
The colours were dancing before John Lethbridge's eyes in dots and splashes. The place was so hot that beads of perspiration were standing out on his forehead, and his dark hair was wet and dank. He lifted his head from the tray in front of him and stretched himself wearily. This thing was a long time in doing, and patience was not one of his virtues. He glanced at the thermometer, which registered almost a hundred degrees. It was nearly as hot outside, for a thunderstorm was coming up from the south, and the night was dark and tepid.
Lethbridge lifted the lights of the little greenhouse higher, but he was conscious of no change in the temperature. Even the fresh mesh of muslin thrown over the ventilators seemed to keep out what air was there.
Flowers on every shelf, a perfect blaze of bloom, revelled and rejoiced in the hot, humid atmosphere, and flourished clean and vigorous as blossoms generally do under glass. It was not these which attracted Lethbridge's attention. His whole mind was concentrated upon the shallow seed tray beneath him. Just above this was an oblong funnel, behind which was great blaze of electric light so strong and powerful that it seemed to turn the shining emerald fronds to a purple black. The tray was divided into compartments with plants of various sizes, from the tiniest speck of a seedling to a mass of foliage nearly ready to burst into bloom. They all belonged to the Dianthus family, and some day would furnish a magnificent display of carnations. It was over one of the larger plants that Lethbridge bent now with almost fatherly care. He touched one of the swelling buds tenderly with a camel's-hair pencil.
"I wonder," he murmured, "how it will turn out. Fancy spending three of the best year's of one's life in a gamble like this! For it is a gamble, though one is speculating in flowers instead of horses and in blooms instead of stocks and shares. Have I failed again, or am I on the verge of producing a bloom worth thousands of pounds? Another week will tell. At any rate, I can't do more to-night. Ye gods! to think what hopes and fears, what joys and sorrows are awaiting the opening of that little flower!"
Lethbridge smiled cynically as he stood upright and put his hand mechanically in his pocket for his cigarette case. Then he smiled more bitterly as he thought of his resolution not to smoke again till the new Dianthus had shown the first sign of dawning glory. Not that there was any virtue in this resolution; it was simply necessity. For when a man has to keep himself and pay his rent and is in sight of his last five-pound note it behoves him to be careful.
That was exactly how John Lethbridge was situated. There had been a time during his University career when he had looked forward to the possession of a comfortable income and a lovely home of his own.
He was not indifferent to sport, or politics, or even love itself. He was merely a healthy specimen of the average Englishman, prepared to carry out the traditions of his race and live cleanly and happily. To a great extent he was an artist who lacked constructive abilities. Beauty in all forms was essential to him, and because he could see no other means of satisfying this longing, he had turned his attention to flowers. They touched and elevated him as nothing else could do. He found a kindred spirit in the only relative with whom he had lived and whose property he had expected to inherit in the ordinary course of things. Old Jasper Payn had been an enthusiast, too. He had taught Lethbridge the names and habits of his beloved flowers. From his earliest childhood, long before Lethbridge could read, he could lisp the botanical titles of all the blooms which are known to the expert gardener. In the long range of glass-houses at Beckingham Hall the young man and his teacher had spent many an hour together; more than one lovely hybrid had been stamped with the mark of Jasper Payn's genius. It was not for Lethbridge to know or even enquire in those day what Jasper Payn was doing with the fortune which would some day be his. It never occurred to him that the old man was a reckless gambler, that he was spending thousands of pounds on the wildest experiments, and that, when the catastrophe came, instead of being a rich man he would be on the verge of bankruptcy. He never realised for a moment that Jasper Payn depended upon the invention of a perfect novelty in flowers for his daily bread.
And the catastrophe had happened three years ago in a most unexpected and even startling manner. A tray of priceless seedlings had been stolen, and John Lethbridge had been accused of the theft. Appearances to a certain extent had been against him, but he had made no attempt to justify himself. He was too profoundly wounded and disgusted to do anything of the kind. Thus it came about that, at the age of twenty-five, he found himself alone in the world and practically without a livelihood. By nature proud and sensitive, he shrank from asking anybody's advice or assistance. He had the average education of the average Englishman of the well-to-do class. He had no specialised knowledge excepting his intimate acquaintance with flowers. There was nothing for it, therefore, but to take a situation with a leading firm of florists and seedsmen, in the hope that this might lead to a partnership and fortune.
But it was a faint hope, and destined to eventuate disappointment. Lethbridge's firm were commercial from first to last. They had their eye always on the main chance, and looked coldly upon his experiments, especially such as were likely to prove costly. At the close of two years Lethbridge found himself at a loose end again with only a few pounds between himself and starvation. He made up his mind to take a little place of his own, where it would be possible by his efforts to get a living, and where, at any rate, he could conduct his fascinating experiments on a small scale. It was about this time that luck favoured him. Amongst a parcel of orchids which he had purchased was an entirely new one, which Lethbridge subsequently sold for five hundred guineas.
Here was the opportunity for which he had been sighing. Reckless, as enthusiasts invariably are, he sank every penny of his money in expensive plant wherewith to carry on his hobby. He had read a great deal as to the wonders of floral propagation by means of electricity, and determined to give the experiment a proper trial. At the end of the second year he appeared to have advanced very little, and his capital was well-nigh exhausted. One or two small successes had come his way, not much in themselves, but just enough to justify the future. On the other hand, there had been heart-breaking failures; mainly, so Lethbridge imagined, due to the atmosphere of the place where his experiments had been conducted. He had now the boldness of despair. He had heard of Manchester as a likely spot, and a few week ago had moved to a small nursery there which he had contrived to take. It was an anxious time, but the precious seedlings were safely transferred, and Lethbridge's dream of a blue carnation began to assume concrete shape.
And now, lo and behold! the blooms ready to burst, and in a few days he should learn his fate. Another flower also was approaching maturity, but of this Lethbridge did not dare to think. He had resolved he would not look at this for another fortnight at least, not, at any rate, till one of the gorgeous blossoms was there to speak for itself. Hitherto the prize had evaded him, but it had formed a fascinating experiment for Jasper Payn himself. Well, the future would tell. Meanwhile, Lethbridge devoted his whole time to the carnations and hoped for the best.
It was growing so hot and close now, that Lethbridge could bear it no longer. He was uneasy in his mind, too, for during the past few days he could not rid himself of the idea that he was being spied upon. This was all the more inexplicable because he did not know a soul in the neighbourhood. Still, Manchester was a noted place for horticulturists and cultivators of the finer kinds of flowers, and perhaps his fame had preceded him. It had not occurred to him to take precautions to guard his secret until something had happened which gave him a rude awakening. Of course he knew that there was a distinct commercial side to his enterprise, and that the possession of anything novel in his line meant a considerable sum to the owner. It might have been a coincidence that a firm in America had simultaneously put upon the market a striped carnation which Lethbridge had discovered himself; on the other hand, it was possible that a seedling or too had been stolen, and that Lethbridge had been anticipated. For several evenings he had heard strange noises as if some one were prowling round his cottage. He had found footprints in the soil where no footprints should be. Strangely, enough, these marks had not been made by a man's tread. They were small and well-formed, and the heel marks were evidently those of a woman. Lethbridge was thinking about this now as he drew the hood over his electric light and carefully locked the greenhouse door behind him.
It was good to be in the open air again, though the night was close and stifling. It was pitch dark, too, with a low sky that seemed to be resting on the tops of the trees. Ever and again there came a growl of distant thunder, followed by the patter of great drops of rain. Lethbridge, as he stood there, fancied that he was not alone. He had the strange, uneasy sense that some one was close by him. He believed he could hear something fluttering in the clump of rhododendrons on the lawn. Was it because his nostrils were full of the scent of flowers, or did he really inhale the peculiarly subtle perfume that always envelops some women as with an invisible cloak? Who was it, he wondered, who was paying him the compliment of keeping in touch with him in this fashion? Whilst Lethbridge was asking this question the black curtain overhead was suddenly rent with a long, zigzag flash of purple and scarlet lightning, and for the fraction of a second the whole place blazed in the full light of day. Every twig and leaf of the rhododendron stood out hard and stiff, and Lethbridge could see something of a woman's skirt. The nebulous flame glinted on a pair of polished shoes. Then the thunder crashed deafeningly overhead, and the rain came down with a hiss and a roar as loud and terrifying as the advance of cavalry. A startled voice was upraised suddenly, and a moment later Lethbridge stood inside his cottage with a girl in white by his side.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" he demanded.
His voice was stern. The look on his face was forbidding. He was in no mood for politeness. The girl turned a piteous face towards him, and her big violet eyes filled with tears. She could have chosen no more serviceable weapon for disarming Lethbridge's anger. His heart smote him almost before the words were uttered. It was a beautiful face, too, so very like some of his favourite flowers. The features were rather small but exquisitely refined, and the colouring was subdued, something between old ivory and the faintest admixture of carmine. It was a good, trustworthy face, that did not at all suggest the clever and unscrupulous spy of fiction. The red lips were parted in pleading protest. The girl was young and slender, and her white dress seemed part and parcel of herself.
"I am very sorry," she stammered.
Lethbridge was muttering apologies himself by this time. He regretted he had been so precipitate. But, really, it was no night for a girl to be out alone and without any kind of protection from the weather.
"I don't know," the girl went on in the same appealing voice. "I came out because it was so hot. I was trying to make my way from the road into the fields, and I took the wrong direction. I was foolish not to tell you so at once, but when you opened the door so suddenly you startled me. But I will go now if you will tell me the way—"
"Impossible!" Lethbridge exclaimed. "Listen to the rain. I never heard such thunder. Have you far to go?"
"Oh dear, no," the girl replied. "Only to the foot of the hill. We live at the Chester Nurseries. I keep house for my uncle. At least, he is not my uncle really. I don't quite know what relationship there is between us. But he is getting old and feeble, and I look after him."
Lethbridge nodded moodily. His old suspicions were returning. He would have been more satisfied had this beautiful girl with the violet eyes and ivory and pink complexion had nothing to do with anybody interested in the propagation of flowers. Besides, her information fanned his fears. Was she deceiving him? He tried to get a glimpse of the high-heeled shoes, but the long white dress hid the view. The girl's intuition seemed to be quick, for her lips trembled and she glanced anxiously at Lethbridge.
"What have I said to offend you?" she asked.
"I don't know," Lethbridge laughed vexedly. "Perhaps I am unduly suspicious. I am new to this quarter, and I thought I should be safe here. I get my living, or rather I try to get my living, by raising new flowers. I was robbed once of a most valuable plant, and two years' work was lost. Since then, well, really, it is very awkward—"
But the girl was not heeding him. Lethbridge began to stammer and hesitate, for it was borne in upon him that he was accusing his pretty visitor of being a thief; hanging about the house with an eye upon this floral treasures. Fortunately, the girl did not seem to comprehend.
"That is very strange," she exclaimed. "My uncle does exactly the same thing. He spends all his time in his greenhouses. He lives in the hope of making a fortune by giving the world new flowers. He lives for nothing else, and has spent hundreds of pounds which he cannot afford on his hobby. This must be so, because when I first came to him we lived in a lovely house, and I had everything I could desire. Now my uncle is irritated if I ask him for a sovereign. I want him to take a partner, but he won't hear of it. Once he was robbed and his confidence abused by one in whom he trusted, since then he avoids man's society whenever he can."
"That is a curious coincidence," he murmured. "What is your uncle's name?"
"Jasper Payn; he used to live at a place called Beckenham Hall. My name is Mary Grover. As I said before, I call Mr. Payn my uncle, but he is only very distantly related to me."
Lethbridge nodded in an absentminded fashion. He was not half so surprised at this stupendous statement as he had expected. It was all part of the cruel fate that had been pursuing him for years. No doubt the girl had heard of him. No doubt Jasper Payn had told her the whole story. He began to remember that Payn had had some relations called Grover whom no one had ever seen. Possibly he had sent for this girl when John Lethbridge had left him. It was Lethbridge's duty at once to proclaim his kinmanship with Payn, but just at the moment he hesitated. The girl fascinated him, attracted him in some subtle manner, and, besides, Lethbridge had not passed an hour in woman's company for the last three years. He could not very well turn the girl out into the drenching, blinding storm. It would be embarrassing to her if he told her his name, and left her to draw her own conclusions. No doubt she had been taught to look upon him as an ungrateful thief. He pictured to himself the expression on her charming face if he told the truth. He temporised, as many a better man than he might have done in similar circumstances.
"There is an unfortunate parallel between your uncle and myself," he said. "We have both suffered at the hands of false friends. We are both engaged in the same unusual occupation. I suppose you are interested in the hybridisation of flowers?"
"I should love it," the girl exclaimed, "if I were allowed to. I am passionately fond of flowers, but know nothing of the mysteries behind them. My uncle does not think that a girl has brains enough to understand such things. All I know is that at certain times of the year no bee must be allowed in the greenhouses. I wonder why."
"That is easily explained," Lethbridge smiled. "Bees have their uses from our point of view, and by carrying the pollen from one flower to another have frequently been the means of producing fresh hybrids. But that is mere luck on the part of the nurseryman. You can imagine what damage a few bees would do if a greenhouse when one's novelties were coming into bloom. But I am talking rather over your head. I am afraid."
"Perhaps so," the girl said dubiously. "There are certain things I should like to know. I wonder if you would mind allowing me some of your flowers. I dare not look into our greenhouses unless I go in with my uncle."
Again Lethbridge paused. Again he was weighed down by haunting suspicion. The girl was beautiful to look upon. She seemed fair and innocent. But Lethbridge remembered that he had promised never to trust a human being again. He was, perhaps, weaker than he thought, for a moment later he was leading the way into the stifling heat of the greenhouse where the great white flare of the electric light was playing full upon the trays of seedlings.
"I never thought to show anybody these," he said. "I am trusting you, a stranger, with my most cherished secrets. Look at that carnation in the corner there, you can see that already two of the buds are shaping into bloom. When they come out in a few days I shall be bitterly disappointed if they are not a perfect blue. Just try to imagine a blue carnation. But you can't imagine the years of care and toil and hope deferred which have led up to the perfection of that little flower. Did you ever see a carnation with alternate yellow and crimson stripes?"
"We have some," the girl said. "I understood that only three people in the kingdom possessed them. Do you grow them?"
"I invented them," Lethbridge said curtly. "They were the first success which encouraged me. The idea came to me nearly four years ago, and it took me a year to bring it to a successful issue. At that time I knew a man who was more or less interested in my researches; indeed, he was going to finance me, only he changed his mind and went to America instead. I don't know whether he was a rascal or not because I can never prove it. But he got the best of me and managed to place the striped carnation on the American market. I think if you ask your uncle he will tell you that the seeds of his striped Dianthus came from the States."
"I believe that is so," Mary Grover replied.
"Ah, I am certain of it. Perhaps you would like to hear the story of the way in which the inventor of a new flower was deprived of the fruits of his industry. It won't take many minutes. I need not tell you what my feelings were when I found that no fewer than four of my carnations were new striped hybrids. You will recollect that they are marked all across in straight bands of colour like a coat of arms. When I showed those plants to my friend he was deeply interested. He told me, however, that the colours would be likely to fade and would have no permanent value. He knew what he was talking about, and I was profoundly impressed by what he said. I did not allow more than three blooms to each plant, for naturally I wanted their heads to be as fine as possible. You can imagine my dismay next morning when I found that the yellow bands had entirely disappeared, and that each bloom had become a washed-out crimson. My friend was in town, but when he came back I showed him what had happened. I told him I felt certain that in the course of time I could remove this extraordinary blemish, but he did not seem disposed to echo my enthusiasm. At any rate, he made some excuse for not giving me the money he had promised. I was so disgusted that I tore up my carnations and threw them on the rubbish heap. I turned my attention to something else, but you can imagine my surprise when, a few months later, the very flower I had invented was introduced into this country from America. Oh, don't ask me to explain how it came about. All I know is that I was deceived, and that my false friend was reaping the product of my brain. Since then I have never heard from him, but if we do meet—"
Lethbridge paused and drew a long breath. The girl's eyes were turned upon him sympathetically.
"Did your friend know you had thrown those plants away?" she asked. "Did he see you do it? I understand that carnations are hardy things and stand any amount of transplanting."
"My word! I never thought of that," Lethbridge exclaimed energetically. "And yet I have brooded over this mystery till the thing has haunted me. And you have solved it by a single question. But I am afraid that make my position little better than it was before."
"Isn't there another point of view which you have overlooked?" the girl asked. "Of course, it is possible your friend deceived you and made use of the plants you had thrown away, but that would not account for the blooms changing colour."
"I hadn't thought of that," Lethbridge replied. "What a strange thing it is I should be talking to you like this when an hour ago I was not aware of your existence!"
Mary Grover smiled brightly. She was frankly enjoying the conversation, the more because her life with Jasper Payn was dull and monotonous. It was the first time for years that she had had an opportunity of talking to a man of her own age and station, for Jasper Payn kept himself rigidly to himself; indeed, the only man who saw him at all was a local inspector of police, an enthusiastic amateur gardener, whose acquaintance Payn had cultivated more for his own protection than anything else, for the old man had never lost his haunting fears, and lived in constant dread of being robbed of his discoveries as he had been on the occasion which led to the quarrel between himself and John Lethbridge.
These things Mary chattered about idly enough. She saw that her companion was interested, and she grew vivacious. She could not know why Lethbridge was so eager to discover her life's history. He would tell her the truth presently, and then this little episode would be finished. But he would not tell her yet; he would get every possible enjoyment out of the interview first. It was so pleasant to stand chatting there, watching the play of expression upon that beautiful face, and observing how the shadows changed in her eyes. Then, with an effort, John Lethbridge braced himself to the inevitable. The rain had ceased to beat upon the roof of the greenhouse, and the wind had died away in the trees.
"I think it is fine now," Lethbridge suggested.
"Oh, is it?" the girl asked half-regretfully. "In that case I must he getting back home. My uncle will wonder what has become of me. But what have you here?"
She pointed to a small doorway at the end of the greenhouse which led into a compartment beyond, where another electric light was burning soft and subdued behind a pink shade. The girl laid her hand upon the door-knob when Lethbridge came to her side. His face had suddenly grown severe.
"Not there," he said shortly. "I have shown you a good deal, but there are certain things I cannot tell you. Some day, perhaps—. But I beg your pardon. I fear I have annoyed you."
Mary Grover's face flushed crimson and her lips trembled. Perhaps Lethbridge was not aware of the note of sternness which had crept into his voice.
"I don't want to be curious," the girl said coldly.
"Of course not," Lethbridge replied eagerly. "I quite understand. Still, there are certain matters which one cannot speak of."
A constraint seemed to fall upon them and Mary moved towards the door. The rain had ceased; a few heavy drops were dripping from the trees; the whole air was fragrant with the smell of fresh flowers. Mary hesitated for a moment, and then held out her hand timidly.
"You must let me come with you as far as your garden gate," Lethbridge replied. "I don't like the idea of your going alone. You mistook your way before, and you might do it again."
Lethbridge was not to be denied. He strode along by her side quieter and more subdued than he had been, for he had something on his mind. He would have to tell the girl who he was; he was too proud to make her acquaintance under false pretences. She would probably regard him from the same standpoint as his uncle had. She would look upon him as a man without honour or integrity. Possibly if they met again she would decline to speak to him. But this alternative had to be faced.
Still, there was no occasion to hurry it. The truth would keep to the last moment, and Mary Grover was chatting freely and easily. She had forgotten her curiosity and the incident of the green house. The garden gate of Jasper Payn's establishment was close at hand. The girl paused at length, and turned a bright face to her companion.
"Let me thank you once more," she said. "I should like to ask you to come in, but I'm afraid my uncle would not like it. He is so suspicious of strangers."
Here was Lethbridge's opening, and he took it lest his courage should fail him.
"Perhaps your uncle is right," he said, not without a touch of bitterness in his tone. "Probably he would be less than pleased to see me when he recognised—"
The speaker paused abruptly, for all of a sudden a loud outcry broke on the startled air. There was a noise of broken glass, followed by the rustle of some object in the bushes close by. What the object was Lethbridge could not make out, for it was very dark and the foliage was thick. Before Lethbridge could make up his mind what it was the outcry broke forth again.
"That is my uncle," Mary said in a startled voice. "I fear he has met with some accident, or worse. Won't you come with me, please? I dare not go alone."
For Lethbridge had hesitated. He had not had the slightest intention of meeting his eccentric relative again. He had merely made up his mind to tell the girl who he was and go his way, leaving her to decide whether or not she would continue the acquaintance. But now he had no alternative. It would have been cowardly to allow the girl to face the unseen danger alone, and whatever Lethbridge's faults lack of courage was not one of them.
"What is the matter?" the girl asked impatiently. "Why do you stand there when my poor uncle—"
"Say no more," Lethbridge replied. "You will know presently why I hesitated. Lead the way, please. Is not this the path that goes up to the house?"
Mary Grover flew along the narrow path closely followed by her companion. She came at length to the open door of the house: a cheap lamp burned on the table in the hall. Lethbridge had noticed that the place was meanly furnished, and showed every sign of poverty, though scrupulously neat and clean and profusely adorned with flowers. On the left-hand side of the doorway was the dining-room, and beyond it a range of greenhouses out of all proportion to the size of the cottage. Hence the noise had come, and here a man was standing in all attitude of rage and fear, his hands uplifted and his head nodding towards one side of the greenhouse, where two or three large panes of glass had been displaced. There were broken pots upon the floor, and a confusion of trampled flowers spoke eloquently of a struggle.
The man was tall and thin. He had a white hatchet face and a profusion of grey hair on his head and chin. He resembled some prophet of old with the spirit of invective strong upon him. He had ceased to call out, but his jaws were working as if he were scolding in an inaudible voice. He appeared to be unconscious that he was no longer alone, even after Mary Grover had addressed him two or three times.
"I tell you he went that way," the old man cried. "I don't know how the rascal got in, but when I turned round he was hiding beyond the flowers yonder."
"What sort of a man?" Mary asked soothingly.
"I don't know. I couldn't see his face. But I am sure it was the same, because of his boots. Little tiny feet he had, like a woman's, encased in patent leather shoes. I saw them as he broke the glass yonder and got away. It is the same man. I tell you I am sure it is the same man. And he comes here like a thief in the night to steal my secrets, to deprive me of all that I have left. Oh, the scoundrel, the scoundrel! To think that a poor old man like myself can't work in peace and comfort without being spied on and robbed in this fashion! But he shall be found, if I have all Scotland Yard here to help me. Go and fetch Wilkinson at once. He laughs at me and says it's all imagination, but it isn't true, Mary; it isn't true. There is a plot to rob me of my beautiful new flowers, as that rascally nephew of mine robbed me years ago."
Jasper Payn was speaking now with fixed look and glazed eyes. He was ignorant that his niece had a companion. The old man's mind was concentrated entirely upon the outrage. He was trembling from head to foot with helpless rage and indignation. Every hair of his long grey beard bristled. And despite the awkwardness of the situation, despite the trick that Fate had played upon him, John Lethbridge could not help being interested, for he, too, had evidently come under the observation of the clever thief who was down here with the intention of robbing Jasper Payn of the fruit of his genius. Surely there could not be two men trespassing and spying, both of whom possessed natty little feet and patent leather shoes. The same man must have spent the dark hours of the night prowling about Lethbridge's greenhouses.
"Who is Wilkinson?" he whispered to Mary.
"That is the local inspector of police I told you about," the girl murmured, "He is an enthusiastic gardener, and is only too pleased to come here whenever my uncle asks him. I think it was more a matter of policy than anything else that has led up to the acquaintanceship."
A word or two seemed to penetrate to the brain of Jasper Payn. He appeared to be conscious for the first time that a stranger was present. He turned his white suspicious face towards Lethbridge. Gradually his whole expression changed to one of mingled surprise and hatred and contempt.
"So you are here," he cried. "Strange that you should come at a time like this! How did that man get into the house, Mary?"
"He came with me," the girl stammered. "I was caught in a thunderstorm, and this gentleman was good enough to give me shelter. He was so kind as to walk home with me. We were just saying good-night when we heard you call out, and, of course—"
"Oh, of course," the old man sneered. "Do you want me to believe this? Do you think that I am so old and feeble that I have lost all control of my faculties? The whole thing was arranged. It is a vile conspiracy—"
"Stop," John Lethbridge cried. "Stop before you have said too much. You are at liberty to think what you please about me. You may call me a thief and swindler if you like; it would not be the first time. But this lady has nothing to do with it. When I came here a short time ago I had not the least idea that you had left Beckenham Hall. Like yourself, I came here because I was told that the climate would suit my experiments. Your niece has told no more than the truth. Do you suppose I would intrude upon your privacy if I had not imagined that something serious had happened?"
Jasper Payn made no reply. He was glancing at his young relative now with a sort of moody hatred from under the thick bush of his white eyebrows.
"I don't understand," Mary faltered. "It is plain that you two have met before. If you are—"
"Oh, I am," Lethbridge said bitterly. "I have the honour to be Mr. Jasper Payn's nephew. I am the John Lethbridge whom he turned out of his house without proof, under the impression that I had robbed him of one of his discoveries. I am the nephew whom he brought up to do nothing, and whom he sent into the world to get a living with no equipment except a knowledge of flowers. I did not tell you this before. Well, to be honest, I did not tell you for sentimental reasons. It was a treat to me to talk to a lady again. It was a great surprise, too, to find that in a way we were relations. But I hope you will believe that I did not mean to leave you in ignorance of my identity. I was just going to tell you when we heard the outcry, and I followed you here. But I fear that I am intruding. The best thing I can do is to go away and leave you to yourselves. But I want you, Miss Grover, to try to believe that my uncle is mistaken, and that I am not the contemptible thief that he takes me for."
The colour came and went in the girl's cheeks. She cast down her eyes in evident embarrassment. It was obvious that she was struggling with two sets of feelings. She had been accustomed at intervals during the whole time she had been with Jasper Payn to hear him denounce his nephew with bitter invective. She had come to believe from the bottom of her heart that Lethbridge was an ungrateful scoundrel, and owed to his uncle everything in life which was worth having. She had heard the story over and over again till the conviction was firmly rooted.
And yet this young man with the steadfast face and square jaw and resolute eyes did not look in the least like a thief. It began to be borne in upon Mary's mind that there was something wrong, but she was too confused to weigh the issue logically and clearly. The suggestion of a sad smile trembled on the corners of John Lethbridge's lips.
"It is not easy to remove fixed impressions," he said. "And after all, what does it matter? Good-night, Miss Grover, and try to think as well of me as you can."
The old man stepped forward unsteadily.
"Don't go yet," he whispered hoarsely. "I can't be left alone. That thief might come back. I am a very old man. Perhaps I have made a mistake."
In spite of himself Lethbridge hesitated. He cared little or nothing for his uncle's fears or effusions, but was anxious to rehabilitate himself in the girl's eyes. And, besides, it was his duty to do all he could to prevent a recurrence of the recent outrage.
"Is there anybody I can send for?" he asked. "Can I go for assistance? Miss Grover was speaking of Inspector Wilkinson, who is a friend of yours. Would you let me inform him what has taken place?"
"No, no," the old man said eagerly. "At any rate, not yet. Give me an opportunity to recover myself. A month ago it would not have mattered; a few weeks hence all the thieves in England may come here so far as I care, but not now, not now."
As Jasper Payne spoke he turned his head towards a corner of the greenhouse screened off from the rest by a thin canvas petition. He had something there which he desired to keep secret. Then he turned swiftly round towards his niece and bade her see after his supper.
"I did not expect this," he said after Mary had gone. "I hoped that I might never see you again."
"I assure you the feeling is mutual," Lethbridge said bitterly. "Had I thought it worth while I could have easily proved to you that I was no thief. But I was too proud for that; I was too proud to stay under your roof when you intimated to me that you were mistaken in my character. I can see now how cruelly you wronged me. You had no right to bring me up in expectation of a fortune. You had no right to turn me on the world almost as helpless as a child and with nothing but my good health behind me. And all the while there never had been any fortune. It was wrong of you to act like a rich man when you were nearly as poor as myself."
"Oh, I had money then," Jasper Payn said moodily. "I was rich enough when you left me, but it is all gone now, all gone. For years I have been pursuing a will o' the wisp and have frittered thousands away upon a shadow. But it is coming back to me in my old age. I shall be able to provide for my niece yet. I am foolish to tell you these things. I never meant to trust anybody."
"As you will," Lethbridge said coldly. "Please understand that this interview is none of my seeking. I must in time have found out that you were here, but I should never have come near the place. Still, Fate has been too strong for me, and I am here against my will. Let me go and fetch Wilkinson."
Jasper Payn held out a feeble restraining hand.
"Not yet," he said unsteadily, "not yet. Don't be so impulsive. Perhaps I was wrong to condemn you without a hearing. But all my life I have been surrounded with enemies. People have conspired to rob me. Why can't they leave me alone? I have no money to give them. And yet when I invent a new flower they cheat me of all the fruits of my labour. And they are so wicked and mischievous, too. Look there, do you see what that is? I killed four of them only yesterday. Yet they cannot get in here without human agency."
Lethbridge thought the old man had taken leave of his senses. Payn pointed with trembling hand to the whitewashed roof of the greenhouse, much as a man might do who is suffering all the horrible delusions of delirium tremens. But surely enough two or three dark specks were crawling on the frosted panes, and Lethbridge saw what they were.
"I'll kill them for you," he said soothingly. "You find the bees as great a nuisance as I do. A little time ago they spoilt a whole set of seedlings which were coming into bloom."
The intruding bees were killed and Jasper Payn grew easier in mind.
"They didn't come themselves," he muttered. "Some rascal brought them here. They are the plague of my life. If they once get behind that canvas screen the work of three years will be undone. Don't you want to know what it is?"
"No," Lethbridge said, "I don't. I am in no mood to share your confidences. It would be better if you kept your secrets to yourself."
The old man was not offended. He smiled and chuckled to himself. A shade of cunning crept into his eyes.
"Ah, that is because you don't know," he said in a croaking voice. "Have you forgotten the one matter we used always to talk about in the smoking-room late at night over our cigars? In the days of the astrologers, dreamers turned their thoughts to perpetual motion, or the Philosopher's Stone which was going to change everything into gold. Ay, and we had our Philosopher's Stone, too, though ours was going to come to a blaze of glory and startle the world by its beauty and fragrance. We were going to make a fortune out of that. Surely you have not forgotten our visions!"
"I remember," Lethbridge said indifferently. "The Golden Rose. It was the flower of the poets, the flower which the old travellers used to talk about who visited the Vale of Kashmir. The whole thing was a fairy tale, but it was none the less fascinating for that. The flower was to be a single rose of the colour of gold, with calyx and stamen of the darkest purple. There were bars of pink on the petals, and the whole was frilled with white and blue like some gorgeous butterfly. In addition, it was to be perfumed with such a scent as the world had never known before."
The old man's eyes were gleaming and his slender frame was shaking from head to foot. His whole gaze was concentrated upon the canvas screen in the corner. He broke out into quavering speech.
"Yes, yes," he cried. "You have put it very well indeed. And after you left me and I was alone, I dreamt and dreamt about that flower till I could think of nothing else. I read all those musty books again and again; I experimented day and night. I even went to the expense of importing new stocks from Persia and the Himalayan Hills. Heaven knows how much I spent upon it, but one day I found that my fortune was exhausted, and that my future depended upon the success of my efforts. You don't believe that the thing is impossible, do you?"
A peculiar smile trembled upon Lethbridge's lips.
"No, I don't," he replied. "Although I should have said so a year ago. But I beg your pardon. I am interrupting you."
"What was I saying?" the old man asked vaguely. "Oh, yes, I remember, I was telling you of my experiments with the Golden Rose. I owe something to my niece. She had come to keep house for me. She had come to put up with the whims and vagaries of an old man. For my sake she had made great sacrifices, and, knowing all the time that I could do nothing for her, I allowed her to come. She came into my house under false pretences. The matter was on my conscience. There was nothing for it, nothing I could do for her, unless I could discover the secret of the Golden Rose."
"The Philosopher's Stone," Lethbridge smiled.
"The Philosopher's Stone," the old man exclaimed, "and why not? Everything is possible to the man of science to-day. Most things are possible to the modern horticulturist. And then some months ago it came to me suddenly that I was on the wrong track altogether. It was a wrench, but I destroyed nearly all my precious plants and started afresh. John, can you guess what I have behind yonder screen? Can't you imagine why my enemies release their bees in here?"
John Lethbridge imagined that the speaker was dreaming dreams, that he was speaking out of the fullness of a diseased mind.
"You don't mean to say," he began, "that—"
"Yes, I do," Jasper Peyn replied. His voice rose to a screech. He shook and trembled. "I have found it. Behind that screen, in all its beauty and perfection, is the Golden Rose."
Lethbridge started to his feet and took a step or two forward. He was strangely moved, his excitement dictated by something more than mere enthusiasm at the knowledge of this startling discovery. In any case he would have been impressed and interested. He had not forgotten the many occasions on which he and his uncle had discussed the chances of reproducing the marvellous flower. But these had nothing but the pleasant speculations of two enthusiasts in the presence of a new and fascinating theory.
In all probability the rose had never existed. It had been merely a legend written about by ancient writers with more imagination than practical knowledge. In bygone days Jasper Payn had possessed a magnificent library of books relating to horticulture, and some of these volumes were rare indeed. Strangely enough, though most of them retold the story of the Golden Rose in various forms, attributing it to different sources, not one of these authorities differed materially as to the appearance of the flower. It was this fact alone that kept John Lethbridge from pooh-poohing the story altogether. More than once he had experimented on the chance of producing something like it. He knew perfectly well that, if the discovery could be effected, a vast fortune awaited the lucky man who should accomplish it, and many a day had he spent working upon the theory that the Golden Rose could be brought within the practical limits of the modern garden.
Perhaps Lethbridge had been carried farther by his enthusiasm than he knew. As regards flowers, he was like the poor creature who has become the victim of the drink habit. He pitied and despised his own weakness, a weakness which he was powerless to combat. He had gone on with his experiments, feeling sure that he was wasting his time, and spending money he could ill spare.
And yet what did it matter? It was good for man to have some sort of goal, and the Golden Rose had been his. And he was startled and perhaps jealous to find that Jasper Payn would reach the goal first. Even now he could hardly believe the evidence of his ears, and was inclined to put all this down to the vain boastings of an old man on the verge of his second childhood. He felt half-contemptuous at his own excitement. He resumed his seat and muttered something intended to be congratulatory.
"Won't you show it to me?" he asked.
"No, no," Jasper Payn cried, "not to anybody, not even to you! I don't know why I told you at all. Perhaps it was because of the recollection of the old days when we worked together and talked far into the night about the possibilities of this triumph. But I have got it, I tell you! It is yonder behind that screen."
"You are quite sure?" Lethbridge asked. "You have made no mistake?"
"Mistake! Why the tree is actually in bloom, three glorious blooms, too! The thing only came to me by accident. I should like to take all the credit to myself, but I can't quite do that." Jasper Payn was apparently speaking to himself. He seemed to have forgotten his companion. He walked slowly up and down the greenhouse muttering something which Lethbridge could not match, a kind of sombre triumph in his eyes.
"Then you won't let me see it?" Lethbridge asked.
Payn shook his head. The conviction was gradually being forced upon Lethbridge that the old man was not telling the truth. It was either this, or he was the victim of a delusion. Perhaps something of what was passing in Lethbridge's mind conveyed itself to Payn, for he stopped abruptly.
"You don't believe me?" he asked angrily.
"I have not said so," Lethbridge replied. "I do not wish to be discourteous, but when anybody discovers anything absolutely fresh and original people always doubt it until they can see for themselves. Suppose you rose in a meeting of scientific men and said that you had discovered perpetual motion, would you expect them to believe your statement until they had had an opportunity of deciding for themselves? I am not saying that you have not re-invented the Golden Rose, but I should not tell anybody else until I could speak from personal experience. And now the thing is perfect, what are you going to do with it?"
"Sell it, I suppose," Payn said reluctantly. "It is cruel to have to part with a treasure like that, but I shall have the consolation of knowing that I shall give pleasure to myriads. I shall go down to posterity as one of the greatest horticulturists that ever lived. And there is another thing—I shall provide for Mary's future. That has been on my mind for a long time. I feel that I owe the girl some reparation."
Lethbridge nodded his head approvingly, but put in his question with some hesitation.
"You have nothing else to leave her?" he asked.
"Nothing whatever. She came to me to be my friend and companion, to look after my house. She gave up her youth and friends and all her pleasures to be dependent upon the whims of an exacting old man. She took it for granted that I could give her all I had promised. And really I was little better than a pauper. But that is not the case now, John, not now. When the Rose comes into the hands of the public it will be worth twenty thousand pounds to me. I shall be able to charge just what I like for the plant. There will be no fear on the score that the public will refuse to buy. And every penny of that money shall be invested for Mary's benefit. I shall make no more experiments, I shall fritter away no more gold in pursuit of the impossible. Besides, I feel that my life's work is done. What more can there be for me to do?"
"Nothing," Lethbridge admitted. "I am glad for the girl's sake, and now, if you will excuse me, I think I had better go. There is nothing to gain by my staying here."
The old man held out a detaining hand.
"No, don't go yet," he whispered. "I am afraid to be left alone, lest that scoundrel should return and rob me of all the fruits of my labour. If he knows you are still here he will not make another attempt."
"But I can't stay much longer," Lethbridge protested. "Sooner or later I must go. If you will tell me where to find him I will call upon Inspector Wilkinson and ask him to come. No doubt when you tell him your story he will put a special constable on duty."
But this suggestion hardly seemed to satisfy the old man. He appeared to be casting about in his mind for some argument to detain Lethbridge. His manner suddenly changed and became friendly and confidential.
"You are annoyed with me?" he said in wheedling tones. "I see you are still smarting over the past. But perhaps I was wrong. John, indeed, I have already said so. Don't go away like this, don't let us part in bad blood again. Stay with me a little longer, if it is only half an hour. If you will stay I will show you the rose. I cannot say more than that."
There was something almost imploring in the old man's voice and Lethbridge softened. He murmured something that sounded like acquiescence, and then Payn crossed the greenhouse and disappeared behind the canvas screen. When he came back he was carrying in his arms with infinite tenderness a slender plant in a pot which he deposited upon a table. The plant was a rose with three long green trails, on each of which, half-way up, was a flower blazing in all its glory. Lethbridge drew a long, deep breath, as he came closer and examined the blooms. They were all fully open; the deep yellow cups gleamed like beaten gold in the ray of the lamps and the lace fringe on the edges was as dainty and delicate as the embroidery on the wing of a butterfly. There was no spot on any of the pure petals, the brilliant green foliage hung round the flowers lightly and caressingly. The whole place was filled with the fragrance at once exhilarating and intoxicating. Lethbridge had never smelt anything like it before. There was something in the perfume that uplifted him. Jasper Payn, with gleaming eyes, laid a hand gently on the foliage.
"There! What do you think of that?" he whispered hoarsely. "Did you ever see anything more perfect? There is no bloom like it in the whole world. It is hardy, too, it will climb and ramble about wherever it finds itself in congenial soil. Fancy a house covered with a mass of blooms like that! Can't you imagine every lover of flowers in the kingdom eager and ready to purchase a slip of the Golden Rose? Why, I could ask my own price for it."
"It is incomparable," Lethbridge murmured.
"Incomparable, yes, and all my own invention. Ah! you cannot imagine what this rose is to me. In a month's time there will be two or three hundred blooms on that plant; then I shall send it to one of the great shows and my fortune will be made. I shall command the respect of those who have hitherto laughed at me. People who pity me now will come here from envy."
Payn's excitement deepened as he spoke. He bent down and snapped off one of the glorious golden blossoms. He passed it over to Lethbridge, who put it in his coat. Almost before the latter could adjust it, the elder man snatched it from his hand and dropped it into the pipe of the furnace by which the green house was heated. The action was so unexpected that Lethbridge protested. He was wondering what it meant.
"Better not," Payn muttered. "You shall have a handful of blossoms later, but I don't want to put temptation in your way now. You might come back in the dead of the night and steal my treasure. You are a young man with ambitions, and nobody knows of my discovery except one."
"As you will," Lethbridge said coldly. "I am glad, at any rate, to think that you can trust somebody."
"I had to," the old man protested eagerly. "You see I couldn't get Wilkinson to believe that I was in any danger until I told him the truth. He thought I was mad. He thought I was full of delusions. But he has seen the plant. He recognises its value."
Lethbridge rose to his feet.
"In that case, I think I will go," he said. "You will recognise that it is not altogether pleasant for me to be here. I will call on your friend on my way home, and tell him that you are in need of his services. Is there anything else you would like me to do? For the sake of old times—"
"Oh, yes, yes," Payn said eagerly, "I know what you mean. But you will come and see me again, John, won't you? Come in the daylight. I always feel safe then."
A bitter smile crossed Lethbridge's face.
"Very well," he said. "I will look in when I have time. And now I will wish you good-night. Will you be good enough to say the same to Miss Grover for me?"
Jasper Payn was not listening. He raised his beloved rose- bush from the table and placed it behind the screen again. He had hardly hidden the treasure when the door of the greenhouse opened, and Mary Grover entered. Lethbridge half hesitated, and held out a somewhat reluctant hand.
"I am just going," he said. "Good-night."
The girl made no attempt to meet the outstretched fingers. Her face was grave and set. She seemed strangely troubled.
"Let me show you the way," she murmured. "I will walk with you as far as the gate."
Lethbridge stood aside while the girl preceded him. It was clear she had something to say. He stopped to take Jasper Payn's instructions as to where inspector Wilkinson was to be found, then walked down the garden path to the gate. He was waiting for the girl to speak; he had no intention of defending himself. Mary could think what she pleased.
"Have you nothing to tell me?" she asked.
"I don't think so," Lethbridge replied. "You know as much about me, perhaps more, than I know myself. There is one remark that I may be permitted to make. I was going to tell you exactly who I was when we heard your uncle calling for assistance. I couldn't very well tell you before. It was impossible you could leave my house during the storm. And you might have insisted upon doing that if you had discovered that I was John Lethbridge. It was a case for diplomacy."
"Perhaps so," the girl admitted. "At any rate, I have to thank you for your consideration. And now, may I be candid with you, Mr. Lethbridge."
"I shall be glad if you will," Lethbridge replied.
"Why do you lie down under this accusation? Why did you leave your uncle's house without defending yourself? Everybody believed you had treated him badly, and you have behaved as if you were the thief he always taught me to believe you were. Until to-night I regarded you as a monster of deceit and ingratitude. But now that I have seen you—well, I am doubtful. Is there no way of putting this matter right?"
"To what end?" Lethbridge said impatiently. "My life is more or less ruined. I can hope to look forward to no more than a modest living. And it is only my word against that of my uncle. Why should I tell you that I am not a thief? Why should I stoop so far as that?"
"Don't you want me to believe you innocent?" the girl asked.
"Do I?" Lethbridge replied. "Well, perhaps so. Frankly, I am particularly anxious that you should not believe anything to my discredit. An hour or so ago I did not care what people thought. And yet, since I have met you things are different. I have been so long alone and without friends that—. Pshaw, I am talking sentimental nonsense. What do you care? How should you care whether I—"
"Oh, but I do care very much indeed," the girl protested eagerly. "I feel that in a measure I have usurped your place, that some day I am going to enjoy what should belong to you. It may be that Jasper Payn is a poor man; or it may be that there is something in the mysterious hints which he has dropped lately, and that possibly he may die rich. If I had not met you I should have accepted that money without question. Now, somehow, I feel different. You don't look dishonest, Mr. Lethbridge; I feel absolutely sure that you are not. There is some mistake somewhere. Come and see our uncle again. Come and talk the matter over. Perhaps when you do so you may find a way of clearing your character. It is no business of mine to talk to you like this. You may think me impertinent and interfering—"
Lethbridge bent impulsively forward and took Mary Grover's hand in his. He raised it gently to his lips and kissed her fingers. The action was so spontaneous, so free from anything in the nature of boldness that Mary was touched. A warm flood of colour rose to her cheeks, her eyes grew dim.
"I am sure I beg your pardon," Lethbridge said humbly. "I ought not to have done that. But it is five years since anyone has spoken to me like this, and I find I am not so hardened and reckless as I thought. I will come and see my uncle again. I will try to convince him that he was wrong and I was right. I might have done so when we parted, but I was too proud. And now I must really say good-night."
The girl held out her hand impulsively, and Lethbridge took it in his own grasp for a moment or two. Then he turned away, feeling a happiness and lightness of heart which he had not known for years. And yet he had something to do, something to get rid of which had cost him many months of serious thought and toil. In a dreamy kind of way he walked along. He came at length to the inspector's cottage and delivered his message. Half an hour later he reached his own house, and when there he could not altogether recollect how he had got home. Had he walked all the way? Had he called and had a real conversation with Inspector Wilkinson, or had he stumbled along like a man in his sleep?
Well, at any rate, here he was with stern work before him. He made his way into the greenhouse and lighted the lamps. He walked into the corner where an hour or two before he had stood with Mary Grover, and she had listened to him with a frightened air and eyes full of displeasure. This was the corner which he had barred to her, and behind it was a slender plant with graceful green foliage, bearing here and there upon its stems deep yellow cups whose fringe was edged and embroidered exactly in the same stay as one of the blooms upon Jasper Payn's Golden Rose.
It was the same thing identically; but for a certain inequality in length there was nothing to choose between the two plants.
"Now here is a coincidence," Lethbridge murmured, not without is certain bitterness in his tones. "A few months ago I stumbled on the method of the resuscitation of the Golden Rose. True, I have been experimenting on and off for the past two years, but it was an accident which gave me the secret at length, and within a fortnight of the knowledge of this stupendous discovery I find out that the one man who has ruined my life has hit upon precisely the same idea. No doubt, but for him, I should never have heard of the Golden Rose, much less thought of it. But that does not alter facts. No doubt if he could see what I have here now, he would accuse me of stealing his knowledge. But he would have some difficulty in proving that. Why didn't I tell him to-night when he showed me his plant? Why didn't I let him know that his discovery and mine were identical? Just as if I didn't know. I didn't tell him because I am a sentimental fool blind to my own interests, a silly, impulsive boy who has fallen in love with a pretty face the first time he sees it. Why, for all I know to the contrary, Mary Grover may be vain and shallow and artificial as the veriest flirt who ever lived. She may be simpering and silly; she may have nothing to recommend her but her face. And yet here am I, hardly knowing where to turn for sixpence, deliberately making up my mind to destroy a fortune which is within my grasp, because a selfish old man is behaving badly to the woman who has given up all that life holds dear to make his declining years pleasant and comfortable. If I place my discovery on the market, I shall obtain more money than I want, I shall have fame and opportunity. I can forestall Jasper Payn, I can take all the credit and leave him nothing. And when he dies Mary Grover will have to turn out and get her own living, a thing which, I fancy, she would find it difficult to do.... But why do I hesitate? I know exactly what I am going to do. I am going to destroy the gifts the gods have given me, so that Mary Grover may be happy and comfortable, yet never know the sacrifice I am making for her. It is like a scene from a play, like some episode from one of those silly, sentimental novels that women gush over and that are sold by the thousand. Was there ever such an idiot of a hero before? Nevertheless, I meant to play the part, though the longer I hesitate the harder it will be."
Lethbridge uttered these thoughts aloud, without the least idea that he was talking to himself. And having made up his mind exactly what to do, he could jeer at himself and inflict as much torture as he pleased. But in his heart of hearts, he did not hesitate for a moment. Perhaps it was the life he had been leading that impelled him to this amazing sacrifice, perhaps it was the knowledge that he had found a friend in Mary Grover. And yet, when the time came to act, he was surprised to find that the sacrifice was not nearly so great as he had anticipated. He stood gazing at the brilliant blooms, but in reality he did not see them at all. They had changed in some magic way to the outline of Mary Grover's face, and in the deep yellow cups he saw the azure depths of her eyes.
He did not know how long he had been standing thus, nor did he heed the clock striking the hour of one. He came out of his reverie presently and bent over and broke one of the flowers from its stem. Then he placed the bloom in his buttonhole.
"I'll keep this," he told himself. "I'll dry it and press it, and some day, perhaps, she will know what I have done for her. It will be an evidence, at any rate, that the Golden Rose was as much mine as Jasper Payn's."
Lethbridge bent over the plant and wrenched it violently from its pot. He threw back the door of the stove and rammed the whole thing into the heart of the coke fire. For a time he stood watching until every leaf and twig was consumed, until the thing of a glorious bloom and beauty was no more than dust and ashes. He thought he could hear footsteps outside and the call of voices in the distance. Then there was a knocking and hammering on his door, and he knew there was something wrong.
He threw the door back and the form of a man began gradually to outline itself against the darkness. Then he saw the eager, clean-shaven face of Inspector Wilkinson. The policeman was merged in the man; his face was gleaming with horror; his eyes sparkled with excitement.
"What is the matter'" Lethbridge asked.
"Matter enough, sir," the inspector panted. "Somebody has been in Mr. Payn's place again; one of those thieves he was always talking about. I was on my way to see him when I heard a commotion. The old gentleman's isn't dead yet, but I expect he will be by the time I get back. I left one of my men in charge. Miss Grover implored me to come up and see you. But why—"
The inspector stopped abruptly. His eyes were fixed, round, full and intent on the yellow bloom in Lethbridge's coat.
"I should like to know, sir," he said tersely, "where you got that flower from, because—"
At first Lethbridge did not appear to grasp the question. He was too much upset by the inspector's message to think of anything else. He still cherished feelings of respect and affection for the old man who had treated him so badly. There came back to him now, as always at such times, recollection of the earlier days when Jasper Payn had been more than a father to him, and before he had come under the spell of the gambling spirit which had led to his downfall. For Jasper Payn's experiments had been gambling pure and simple. He had wasted his time and money in a series of hazardous adventures which had never promised to repay the care and attention laid out upon them.
And yet when everything looked at its worst, Fortune had chosen to throw to Jasper Payn the happiness for which he had striven so hard. The old man's early kindnesses and attentions came back to Lethbridge and flashed before his eyes one by one like so many streaks of lightning.
And then Lethbridge began to understand. His first impulse was to resent the apparent impertinence of the question, but that was before its full significance flashed upon him. It was all done in the twinkling of an eye, but the seriousness of it was by no means lost upon John Lethbridge.
"What do you mean?'" he stammered.
"I think my question is plain enough, sir," Wilkinson said civilly. '"I merely asked where you got that flower."
"I know you did. But, why?"
Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders. There was something in the gesture that irritated Wilkinson.
"It was my duty to ask it," Wilkinson began. "Here is Mr. Payn, possessed with the idea that some one is trying to rob him of a certain flower. Personally, I did not believe in it. I thought it was an old man's fancy. For, between ourselves, Mr. Payn has been very queer of late, and it has occurred to me more than once that his brain was going. He has just come to the time of life when people take up delusions of that kind. He is a nice old gentleman, and I have been very glad to do all I could to help him, for we are both lovers of flowers. I am an enthusiast in my way, but Mr. Payn has forgotten more about it than ever I shall know. I didn't take much heed of what he said when he asked me to put on a special constable in his neighbourhood, though I don't mind confessing that I promised to do so. Anyway I didn't. And when you came for me to-night, I didn't feel in the least disposed to go as far as Mr. Payn's house. I don't suppose I should have gone, only he has been hinting a great deal to me lately about a marvellous new bloom, and I thought perhaps I might get a sight of it."
"Did you?" Lethbridge asked eagerly.
Wilkinson pointedly evaded the question.
"We'll come to all that in due course, sir," he said. "I went over to the old gentleman's house, and he told me a long rigmarole about being attacked by some mysterious stranger earlier in the evening. I didn't believe a word of it, but I had to listen all the same."
"Oh, it's true enough," Lethbridge said eagerly. "You can take my word for that. It so happens that Miss Grover came in here to shelter from the storm, and I walked home with her afterwards. I was just saying good-night to her at Mr. Payn's gate when we heard his cries for assistance, and I hurried to the spot. Undoubtedly the ruffian has been there with an eye to plunder, and the consequences might have been serious but for any presence. The place bore every evidence of a struggle, but Mr. Payn did not seem to have the least idea what his assailant was like. He must have been a man of resource and courage, for on any approach he dashed clean through the side of the greenhouse and disappeared into the night. The fellow must have been cut about a good deal. I am telling you this because the facts may be useful to you later."
"I daresay," the inspector said drily. "Meanwhile, I shall be glad to know, sir, where you got that flower!"
But Lethbridge was only half listening. He was trying to recall the appearance of the greenhouse when he entered it and found signs of a struggle.
"It is my own," he answered vaguely. "I grew it myself. But I will tell you all about that presently."
Wilkinson's features grew suddenly hard and stern. It was obvious he did not believe a word that Lethbridge was saying.
"I don't want to be officious, sir," he said, "but you see I have my duty to consider. Something very like murder has been committed, and I should not be acting my part if I missed anything in the way of a clue. Are you quite sure, sir, that that yellow flower came out of your own greenhouse?"
"Why should I tell a lie about it?" Lethbridge asked coldly.
"Why indeed?" Wilkinson agreed. "That being so, you can easily produce the plant it came from."
Lethbridge was conscious of a queer sensation in the back of his throat. Wilkinson's every observation tended in one direction. Every glance of his shrewd grey eye was lit up with suspicion. And with the instinct of his tribe he had gone at once to the root of everything. He had asked for the one thing in proof of Lethbridge's statement which the latter could not produce. He realised now the extraordinary danger and delicacy of his position.
And yet how could he tell this man everything. How could he go through the whole history of his past merely to gratify the curiosity of a police officer! And, besides, the man would not believe him. No sane person in England would credit a narrative like that. It was impossible seriously to consider that two men living so close together could have propagated identically similar flowers at exactly the same moment. The truth that Lethbridge had destroyed his own Golden Rose was prosaic enough, but in the circumstances no one would have believed it. Everybody would jump to the conclusion that Lethbridge had stolen it from his uncle's in a moment of rage and jealousy, and that he had half murdered the old man to get possession of it. Afterwards, in a fit of cowardice or prudence he had destroyed the flower, leaving no trace of it behind. Lethbridge could see all this plainly. The history of his relationship to Jasper Payn would come out, the reason why they had quarrelled would be told, and, no doubt, plenty of witnesses would be forthcoming who would testify to the fact that he had been turned out of his uncle's house in disgrace. Old servants would be looked up who would be prepared to swear that Lethbridge had left the old home under a cloud and without making the slightest attempt to clear himself. It would be argued naturally enough that no innocent man could have taken a course like his. He had robbed his benefactor years ago, and now he had repeated the process in a worse fashion, adding the crime of murder to his other failures.
It was astonishing how vividly and clearly Lethbridge traced his conviction step by step. He could see that everything was against him; the mere fact that Jasper Payn had kept his great discovery to himself was one of the worst pieces of evidence in his disfavour. Already he was as good as condemned by a jury of his fellow-countrymen. And here was Wilkinson waiting for him to speak. "I can't produce the plant," he said, "because, unfortunately enough, I destroyed it a little time ago."
"Indeed, sir," Wilkinson said drily, "and why did you do that? I understand that you are a professional grower of flowers. They told me that you came to this neighbourhood to make certain experiments, because you thought that the climate was suitable to your purpose. If you actually discovered the Golden Rose, I should like to know why you destroyed it. Before long other people will be asking the same question."
"It would be mere affectation on my part to pretend not to understand you," Lethbridge replied, "but I assure you that I am telling nothing but the truth. I certainly did discover the Golden Rose, and I certainly did burn my plant. A few hours ago and I should have smiled at the mere suggestion of doing such a thing. If I told you why I did so you would not appreciate my reasons. But now let me ask you a question by way of a change. What do you know about the Golden Rose?'"
"Well, I might say nothing," Wilkinson responded modestly. "I never heard of such a thing till you called at my house tonight. I did not dream that such a flower existed until Mr. Payn showed it to me. He showed it to me, because he gathered from my manner that I regarded his story as a mere hallucination. To convince me that he had a treasure to guard he showed me the Golden Rose. I was deeply interested, and made a careful examination of the plant. A little time ago there were three blooms on it; one of them had been recently cut. It wasn't for me to ask what had become of this cut flower, but without offence, sir, I think I may claim to have a good idea where it is at present."
"You think this is it?" Lethbridge asked.
Wilkinson nodded. The time was past for mere politeness.
"I am afraid you hardly understand the situation," he said. "Try to put yourself in my place. What would you think if you were me? You were in Mr. Payn's house to-night. You probably saw his marvellous rose bush. As a fellow expert you would know its exact value. Besides, you had every reason to believe that Mr. Payn had kept his discovery entirely a secret. If anything happened to him you could walk off with this discovery and nobody would be any the wiser. I don't say you can't explain matters satisfactorily. I have been too long in the force to judge by appearances, black as they may be. It is possible we shall find that rascally neighbour of Mr. Payn's at the bottom of it yet."
Lethbridge started, and the colour came into his face.
"I can, perhaps, save you that trouble," Lethbridge said coolly. "Evidently you have heard the story from Mr. Payn's lips. I suppose it is natural to you to conclude that this unfortunate nephew might be connected with the outrage and the robbery."
"It wouldn't be the first time," Wilkinson muttered.
"Perhaps not. It wouldn't be the first time a man has been accused of a crime he never committed. But I am wasting your time and mine. As a matter of fact, I am John Lethbridge, and Mr. Jasper Payn is my uncle. In the days when he was rich and prosperous I lived in his house. It was always understood that some day or another I should inherit his money, but you see he had no money to leave; he had wasted it all upon idle experiments. When he accused me of robbing him of a certain valuable discovery I was too hurt and disgusted to defend myself. I left his house without a word, and from that day till to-night I have never seen him. I had not the remotest idea that he was living here, the whole thing is a strange coincidence. There is one thing I will ask you—to say nothing about my being connected with the Golden Rose. I don't want people to know that the discovery belonged to two of us."
Wilkinson smiled in a dubious sort of manner.
"I wouldn't worry about that, sir, if I were you," he said. "For one thing, you will find that no one will believe you. It is too much to ask anybody to credit a story like that. But all this is very irregular, and daresay I shall get myself into trouble for allowing you to say so much without warning you that whatever you say will be used in evidence against you. I ought to get back to Mr. Payn's house. I left the doctor there, so that I have done all I can. Perhaps you would like to come along."
"As your prisoner?" Lethbridge asked bitterly.
"Well, no, sir," Wilkinson replied, "not yet. I am sorry that I said as much. But I must confess that when I saw that flower in your buttonhole I lost my head for the moment. Do you really mean to tell me that two horticulturists could have invented a marvellous flower like that simultaneously?"
"I have told you so," Lethbridge said coldly. "After all, why not? The thing is within the bounds of possibility. Don't forget that I lived with my uncle until I grew up, that I was as passionately fond of flowers as he was, and that their growth and propagation was part of my education. In Mr. Payn's library was the finest collection of horticultural books in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that I knew most of those books by heart. Some of them were in black letter and written in the quaintest language. It is strange that in many of them, as old as the fifteenth century, the Golden Rose was mentioned. For over three hundred years the legend crops up in various works, and the fascination of it grew upon us till we spent most of our evenings in discussing the subject. I believe it was the pursuit of the Golden Rose that led my uncle to lose the bulk of his fortune. Long after we had parted he continued his experiments, spending large sums of money without making any headway. I was foolish enough to give much of my leisure to the same thing, but I can't take credit to myself, because my discovery was more or less the discovery of an accident. Fortune was coming to me at length, and I began to see my way to making a good deal of money. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered to-night that I was living close to my uncle, but that is nothing to the astonishment I felt when my uncle showed me his Golden Rose."
"Why should he do that?" Wilkinson asked.
"Ah, now you have asked me a question that I have no difficulty in answering. He showed it me for two reasons. First of all because he didn't want me to leave him, lest his assailant might return. Secondly he showed it me because we had discussed the possibilities of the discovery so many times together. And when I came away my fixed intention was to destroy my beloved plant. I don't suppose a case-hardened official like yourself would understand that I was moved entirely by sentiment. If I had told my uncle that I had made the same discovery as he had done I should only have been accused of robbing him again. He would have argued in some mysterious way that I had entered his greenhouse and taken a cutting of the plant. I had no desire to repeat the worry. And, besides, there is another reason which I shall not tell you, and which you would not understand or appreciate if I did. I regret my impulsive action now, because I see the serious position in which it has placed me. But if you had come here an hour ago I should have had no difficulty in producing my Golden Rose for your inspection. I give you my word as to this."
"That is possible," Wilkinson said drily. "The miscreant who attacked Mr. Payn so savagely did not have his trouble for nothing. I made a careful search of the greenhouse before I came away, and the Golden Rose is nowhere to be found."
"Then you think I had it?" Lethbridge demanded.
Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders. He was not going to commit himself to any words. But it was plain what was running through his mind. Lethbridge felt savage and vindictive. He would like to have laid hands upon the inspector and shaken him violently. But physical force was not to be thought of.
"I shall know what to say when the time comes," he murmured. "But tell me how all this came to light. Did you stay any time with my uncle? Did you get any alarms?"
"From Miss Grover, yes," Wilkinson explained. "I suppose I had been back home the best part of an hour when she came to my house in a great state of terror and alarm to tell me that her uncle was lying dead on the floor of his greenhouse, murdered by some unknown person. She was too terrified to be coherent, but from what I could gather she went up to bed just after midnight leaving her uncle alone in the greenhouse. She had been aroused from her sleep by the sound of a struggle followed by cries for assistance in her uncle's voice. When she got downstairs the ruffian had vanished, and the poor old gentleman was lying on the floor in a state of collapse. As I said just now, he was not quite dead when we got there, but I should think it impossible for him to live till morning. But perhaps you would like to come to Mr. Payn's house and see for yourself."
Lethbridge complied eagerly. It was the one thing he desired. Anything was better than sitting there brooding over the tragedy and trying to find some ray of light in the gloom that surrounded him. He walked along moodily by Wilkinson's side until they came to Jasper Payn's cottage.
There was nothing fresh to report. The injured man had been conveyed to his own room, where at that moment he was lying at the point of death. So far as Lethbridge could understand a nurse had been sent for, and she and Mary Grover were engaged in attending to the wounded man. The doctor came downstairs, and he was drawing on his gloves before going home. He shook his head gravely in reply to Lethbridge's question.
"A very bad case, sir," he said, "in fact, I never saw worse. If Mr. Payn had not a good constitution he would have been dead before now; indeed, it is only his extraordinary vitality which keeps him alive. The wound is a serious one."
"A wound from a knife?" Lethbridge asked.
"Oh, no. I should say it was inflicted with some heavy blunt instrument on the back of the head. What we have to fear is fracture of the skull, but as to that I can't be quite certain yet. Mr. Payn may linger till morning, he may even get better; but that chance is a million to one. I will call again before breakfast. There is nothing to be gained by staying now."
"He is unconscious, I suppose?" Lethbridge asked.
"Absolutely. I don't suppose he uttered a groan after he was felled. Since then he has been perfectly silent. It is a most mysterious affair. You would have thought that a poor old gentleman who had devoted all his life to the cultivation of flowers would not have a single enemy in the world. I suppose you haven't found out anything, inspector? I am afraid this case is rather more in your line than mine."
Wilkinson shook his head. The doctor drove off presently, and the inspector and the man whom he had come to regard as his prisoner were alone together. They were in the greenhouse still; the lamps were lighted; there was no sign of confusion or any suggestion of a struggle save for the broken glass by means of which the first assailant of the evening had escaped.
"Do you think it was the same man?" Lethbridge asked.
"Ah, that I couldn't say," Wilkinson replied. "And that, by the way, is a point in your favour. Undoubtedly, somebody came here with the intention of robbing Mr. Payn. He was here at the very moment when you say that you were standing at the gate talking to Miss Grover. In that case, you will have no difficulty in proving an alibi; at least, up to a certain extent you will be able to do so. That is not everything, you understand."
As Wilkinson spoke he pointed to the rose in Lethbridge's buttonhole. There was something terribly significant in the action. Before Lethbridge could reply, Wilkinson's attention had been diverted to something else. He crossed over to the place where the glass was broken, and carefully examined a small object upon the floor. Without any comment he placed the thing in his pocket, then strode out into the garden. He would not be gone more than a minute or two, he said. Left alone Lethbridge glanced round the place. He saw that the canvas screen had been torn down, and that the Golden Rose had vanished. He was still pondering the inexplicable problem when the door of the greenhouse leading to the cottage opened and Mary Grover came in. Her face was deadly pale. There were dark rings under her eyes, her lips twitched slightly. She started at the sign of Lethbridge, then a smile trembled on her face.
"I did not know you were here," she stammered, "though I sent for you. I could not think of anybody else, and you were so kind and sympathetic tonight. Besides, being a relative of ours, I thought you ought to know."
"It is a shocking affair," Lethbridge murmured. "Have you no idea how it happened?"
Mary Grover shook her head.
"Not in the least," she said. "I suppose Mr. Wilkinson has told you all that I had to say. It seems all the more dreadful because it happens at such a time as this. Do you know I have never known your uncle to be so kind and communicative as he was last night after you left. He told me all about his early life, he told me how you used to work together and speculate for hours and hours in the evening over the possibility of recovering the wonderful Golden Rose. And then I began to understand why the poor old man worked so many hours in secret, and why he was so strict as to my not being allowed in here. He was free enough as to the way in which he had wasted his fortune. He reproached himself because it looked as if at one time he would have nothing left for me after all he had promised. Just as if I should have minded that!"
"Of course you wouldn't," Lethbridge murmured.
"Oh, I told him as much. And then, when he had finished, he brought me in here and showed me the Golden Rose. I never saw him so pleased and delighted before, he told me that here was the fortune he had squandered, that in future everything would be for me. I wanted a flower, but he would not listen to the suggestion. It seems a terrible thing to think that perhaps at the very moment when my uncle was talking in this confidential manner the thief was listening to everything. The mere thought makes me shudder. For that was what the thief was after. He came for the Golden Rose, and was prepared to do anything to gain possession of it. No doubt he believes that no one knows the secret of that beautiful flower. And now it has vanished, leaving no trace behind. Now—"
The girl paused abruptly. The colour faded from her face. Her eyes were fixed intently on the rose in Lethbridge's coat.
John Lethbridge had forgotten the flower in his buttonhole. He looked at it as if it were some unaccountable object which he had never seen or heard of before. The glance seemed almost to paralyse him. To a casual observer guilt and confusion were written all over his face. Yet, when he came to think of it, Mary's surprise was natural enough. Only a little time before the Golden Rose had been disclosed to the girl's astonished eyes. She had been informed that this beautiful flower was to be the nucleus of her fortune when the time should come that Jasper Payn would want it no longer. She had been told that the blossom was unique, and that there was nothing like it in all the world. And here, casually and openly, Lethbridge was wearing one of the yellow blooms, as if it had been the kind of thing that one plucks by the wayside.
Still, the question uttered by her gaze would have to be answered. He would have to tell his story. But whether the girl would believe it or not was another matter. She might take the same view as Inspector Wilkinson. She might regard the romance as a tissue of lies from beginning to end.
"It is my own," he said lamely.
"I suppose it is," she murmured. "But where did you get it?"
Lethbridge was conscious of a certain irritation. It seemed to him that he had been cross-examined enough already. And now he would have to go through the whole weary process again. Still, there was no other way out of it, no possible means by which he could satisfy the girl and make his position clear.
"I did not get it anywhere; I grew it," he said.
The words were uttered beyond recall. As he spoke, Lethbridge could see the old suspicion creeping back into the girl's eyes. He saw that her face was getting cold and set. There was a long, eloquent pause before she spoke.
"I suppose you are joking," she said. "Do you think it is the time for that sort of thing? I suppose my uncle showed you the flower to-night and gave you the bloom you are wearing in your coat. I don't see how it could have come into your possession, unless, perhaps, you—"
The pause was significant.
"I see what you mean," Lethbridge said bitterly. "You might just as well finish your sentence. Unless I stole it, I suppose you mean to say. I should hardly be wearing it in my coat in this open manner in that case."
The girl held out her hand with an imploring gesture. There was a look of something akin to pain in her eyes.
"I hope you will forgive me," she murmured. "But I hardly know what to think. Seriously, Mr. Lethbridge, you don't want me to believe that you also possessed a plant of the Golden Rose?"
"That is exactly what I am trying to convey to you," Lethbridge replied. "You were under the impression, of course, that your uncle's plant is unique."
"Why, naturally, I am. Did he not tell me so himself? He explained to me the reason why I was not allowed to enter the greenhouse. He showed me the plant with its beautiful blossoms. He showed it to Wilkinson, too; at the time I saw it there were two blooms on the plant, and another blossom seemed to have been recently cut off. I am bound to believe that that other blossom is the one in your coat. Why you make a mystery of it I cannot understand. As to your being the owner of one of the plants—"
"You don't believe it?" Lethbridge asked bluntly.
"Oh, you fill me with pain," the girl cried. "Why do you force me to speak so plainly? How can I believe it? There is no other rose like that in the world. I know that you and my uncle discussed it over and over again. I know that the Golden Rose had become a perfect mania with the poor old man. But I could not credit the fact that both of you had hit upon the secret of that perfect blossom. It is stretching the arm of coincidence beyond all limits. I could believe that on a past occasion my uncle was mistaken in his estimate of your character, but to ask me to credit this. You see, my uncle's flower has vanished.... On your own confession you are a poor man.... I can understand what the temptation was, and I know that you are a passionate lover of flowers. Bring it back before it is too late. I will forgive and forget everything; I will try to remember that you have been sorely tried, and that, perhaps, my uncle did not behave to you as he should have done. I always endeavour to be tolerant towards other people's weaknesses, because I have so many of my own."
Mary's voice was soft, almost caressing. There was an appealing look in her beautiful eyes. In ordinary circumstances Lethbridge might have hesitated. Heaven only knows to what an extent he might have made a fool of himself! He knew that Jasper Payn's Golden Rose had been stolen by some miscreant, and had he not destroyed his own he would have been sorely tempted to produce it and lie under the odium ever more of being a cheat and a thief. It a strange way he was regretting the fact that he had destroyed his blooms. It would have been some consolation to him to restore the lost fortune to the house of Payn and suffer in silence from Mary's opinion of his conduct.
The thing was foolish and sentimental to the last degree. John Lethbridge had yet to find out how deeply he had fallen in love with this tall, pale girl with the marvellous eyes and pleading expression. But his plant had been destroyed, and there was no hope for him in that direction.
"You are very good," he murmured. "Even if I were the dishonourable scoundrel you take me to be, I must be grateful for the opportunity you have given me to retrieve my character. But, amazing as the coincidence is, it happens to be absolutely true. We both discovered the secret of the Golden Rose at the same time; we both kept the fact to ourselves. I could not dream what I was to learn when I came to my uncle's house this evening. My plan was to keep my Rose till I was in a position to put it on the market. I intended to make a fortune out of it. I could have made my discovery public long ago, only it would not have paid me to do it just then. And, in the meantime, I hardly knew which way to turn for money. I should have gone on in the comfortable belief that I had fame and fortune in the corner of my greenhouse, but for the fact that you came to my cottage to-night. It is a strange thing, too, that when I discovered you I took you for a thief. Someone has been hanging about my place for days. I had discovered their footprints in the garden. They were the impressions of a small foot, evidently in a thin shoe with high heels. When I found you it seemed to me that I had run my mysterious watcher to earth."
"It was not me," the girl cried.
"I know that. As soon as I saw your face I acquitted you. I judged you entirely upon your expression, and upon the innocent look in your eyes. Now does it occur to you that there is anything about me to suggest the thief?"
"Oh, no," Mary said, promptly. "I see what you mean. You shame me in spite of myself. And yet when I think of your story—your incredible story—I am forced in spite of my instincts—-"
"Oh, let me hear no more about woman's instincts," Lethbridge said, impatiently. "One meets them in every book one reads. But I must not lose my temper. I must try to be cool and logical, for I am in personal danger. You don't believe my story of the Golden Rose, neither does the inspector yonder. I don't see how a dispassionate outsider could. I know that in similar circumstances I, too, should have my doubts. And it would have been just the same thing if my uncle had not shown me his flower tonight. I should not have mentioned the Golden Rose, only you know all about it. My uncle produced it for my inspection, either acting on the spur of the moment, or because he was frightfully nervous, and wanted to keep me as near himself as possible. He broke off one of the blossoms and handed it to me to put in my coat. You can imagine my feelings. You can imagine my disgust and dismay at the knowledge that I had been forestalled, and that my fortune had vanished into thin air."
"But you told my uncle of your discovery," Mary exclaimed. "If he gets better he will be able to confirm that."
Lethbridge laughed in a dreary way.
"I have not even that hope to console me," he said. "I told my uncle nothing. I had to fight to get the mastery over myself. But when I had done that everything was plain. If I had told my uncle he would not have believed me."
"You could have produced your plant," Mary murmured.
"Of course, but how much better should I have been off then? You know the poor old man. You know, what an extraordinary fanatic he is. He would have said at once that in some mysterious kind of way I had robbed him again. He would have accused me of spying upon his movements. He would have charged me with taking a cutting of that plant. You know perfectly well he would have done so. You know how bitter he was against me. But as heaven is my witness, that was not my only reason for maintaining silence. At the loss of all my hopes and ambitions I meant to hold my tongue. I would not for one moment undergo the same odium again."
"But this is purely romantic," Mary protested.
"I know that quite well. But, then, romance is the salt of life. If I had maintained my position I should never have been asked here again. Before I saw you I should not have minded it in the least. But now that I do know you, things are different. I know that all this sounds bold and forward, but seeing your relationship to Jasper Payn—"
Lethbridge paused in the full tide of his eloquence. He had come very near to betraying himself. But he could not, he would not, tell this girl why he had destroyed the Golden Rose. That he had deliberately made the sacrifice for her sake must remain a secret. Perhaps some day she might know it, but not yet. Besides, she might doubt him if he told the whole truth. And his feelings were bitter enough in any case.
"Go on," Mary said, gently, "go on."
"There is no more to say," Lethbridge continued lamely. "I have said too much already. There was another reason why I destroyed the plant, but I think I have told you sufficient."
"For your own sake," said Mary, "I should like to hear everything."
There was something imploring in the suggestion, but Lethbridge resolutely turned a deaf ear to it. The interview was becoming painful. He cast about for some means to end it. It was at the same moment that Wilkinson came back into the greenhouse by means of the broken window. He carried a small object in his hand. He seemed to be fairly well pleased with himself. He would have spoken had he not caught sight of Mary.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I thought you were alone."
"I am just going," Mary Grover said in a cold, contained voice. "I have been discussing this mystery with Mr. Lethbridge. Of course, he has already told you that we are relatives, and that Mr. Payn is his uncle as well as mine. But perhaps I had better get back to the bedroom again. I wish you good-night."
The girl was about to extend her hand to Lethbridge, but changed her purpose, and walked quietly from the greenhouse. On the whole, Lethbridge was not sorry. It had been a trying interview. He was conscious that he had cut a sorry figure. He had a bitter feeling that the girl had not believed a word he had said. It was refreshing to turn to a man like Wilkinson.
"Have you found anything?" Lethbridge asked, more by way of saying something than anything else. "Any clue to the culprit?—provided, of course, that you are prepared to admit that the culprit might be anybody but myself."
Wilkinson smiled mysteriously.
"One never knows," he said. "In a profession like mine I have seen the most perfect theories upset by the simplest possible chain of circumstances. All we know for certain is that the thief nearly killed the old gentleman in getting away with his plunder. I am only too glad to recognise all the points in your favour. And one point, and a big one, too, is the indisputable fact that an attempt was made to rob the greenhouse before you appeared upon the scene at all. That hole yonder is the most powerful witness on your behalf."
"Really," Lethbridge said cynically. "But you could soon dispose of that, you know. You have only to assume that I have an accomplice, and my wonderful alibi falls to the ground. Besides, you have only my word for the fact that I hadn't the least idea that my uncle was living in the neighbourhood. For all you know, I might have been dogging his footsteps for months. But all this is beside the question. Have you discovered anything? I saw you when you went out pick up an article from the floor and put it in your pocket. And now you have something else in your hand. In fiction the cleverest detectives find clues in this way."
"Many a true word is spoken in jest," Wilkinson said imperturbably. "There is no reason why I should not tell you what I have found. Here is the first thing that I picked up on the floor of the greenhouse. It doesn't convey much, and it is not very formidable, but a tiny thing like that has led up to the detection of many a crime. Examine it for yourself, and see what you make of it. This is the thing that I found in the greenhouse."
Wilkinson took a small case from his pocket, and proceeded to extract therefrom a small, oblong piece of tissue paper of a faint yellow hue, and almost transparent. The paper was ribbed, too, in a peculiar way, and slightly uneven along one side, somewhat in the fashion of a bank note.
"It does not convey much to me," Lethbridge confessed after a close examination. "If I were asked to guess what it was, I should say it was a cigarette paper. It is not the kind generally used in this country, but I have seen papers of that type in Spain. But the Spaniards are experts in their art, and never wet the edges of their papers. Am I right?"
"First time," Wilkinson said crisply. "That is a cigarette-paper beyond doubt. It is manufactured from maize leaves, and only an experienced and expert cigarette-maker could use such paper without wasting the tobacco. I don't suppose there is a single man in England who uses this paper. I had a case in my hands a year or two ago which was a liberal education to me in some ways. I found that paper of this type is used, not only in Spain, but in the East as far as Persia and North India. Now; as you are aware, that would embrace the whole of the Vale of Kashmir, whence our most beautiful roses originally came. But, in the matter of roses, you know more than I do. Tell me, briefly, Mr. Lethbridge, what is the history of the Golden Rose? Was it at some time a sacred flower? Were people forbidden to export it? Would it have been considered a crime in those days to smuggle one out of the country?"
Lethbridge was growing interested, in spite of himself. He began to see that he was in contact with a man of original mind and original methods. Apart from its connection with flowers, the question was an interesting one.
"I congratulate you," Lethbridge said, "upon the possession of an imagination. You are quite right, too. In the old days the flower growers in the Vale of Kashmir were very jealous over their products. Tom Moore makes good use of this subject in his wonderful poem called 'Lalla Rookh.' I can lend you an interesting old book which will give you all the information you require. You will glean from it that the Golden Rose held a very high place in the affections of the Kashmir people. They would have stopped at nothing to prevent the loss even of a single bud. It is possible that in one or two gardens belonging to the Persian aristocracy the Rose still flourishes, but I can't be sure about that. It is possible, too, that the possession of a Golden Rose by an Englishman might lead to trouble. But that point for the present is outside the scope of your enquiries."
"I am not so sure about that," Wilkinson said with a chuckle. "At any rate, somebody has been here who is accustomed to use cigarette-papers of the Oriental type. Either the first or second intruder here to-night dropped that paper. Therefore, it is only fair to assume that some person born and bred in the East has been where he has no right to be, and I must enquire whether a foreigner has been in the neighbourhood lately. But this is not my sole discovery. Look at this. I found it hanging on to a bush in the garden. What do you think of it?"
Lethbridge took up the object which Wilkinson handed to him, and laid it on the palm of his hand. It was a torn piece of silk about 8in. square, and might either have come off a turban or been torn from a pocket handkerchief. The silk was wonderfully soft and lustrous, of a deep emerald green, with cunning little gold threads woven through it. There was no question about its richness and quality. It was a silk of texture rarely, if ever, seen in England.
"It is very attractive," Lethbridge murmured.
"Very," Wilkinson agreed. "And it appeals to the imagination in more ways than one. Now, I found that quite by accident hanging to a thornbush. It confirms my impression that some foreigner is at the bottom of this business. In the first place, I might have assumed that it was a sailor or some person of that class. But sailors are not in the habit of wearing ties or handkerchiefs of a quality like this. Only a rich man could sport textures so fine and so beautifully woven. It seems to me that the plot thickens, Mr. Lethbridge. The farther we go the more fascinating does the problem become."
"Is there anything else?" Lethbridge asked eagerly.
"No, that is as far as I have gone. And a very good night's work, too. If anything else turns up, I will let you know. It is getting late, and I don't propose to move any farther for the present. Isn't that 2 o'clock?"
Lethbridge realised to his astonishment that it was. There was nothing further to wait for, and despite the exciting events of the evening Lethbridge was tired. He walked slowly towards his cottage. The more he dwelt upon the mystery, the more puzzling and bewildering it grew. It was a close, hot night, so that he walked slowly. There was a faint tinge of dawn in the east as he reached his garden. He thought he saw something like the outline of a figure flitting across the lawn, but at first put it down to imagination. Then a dry twig broke with a snap like a pistol shot and Lethbridge knew he had not been mistaken. He dashed impulsively forwards, turning away to the right so to cut off the intruder, who would have to make his escape by means of a rustic archway covered with creepers. It was possible that here was the mysterious visitor with the small feet and patent leather shoes who had been hanging about the cottage for some time.
Lethbridge had barely time to reach the end of the alcove before the slim figure came bounding along. As Lethbridge stepped out to intercept him, a slender but sinuous hand shot out and caught Lethbridge under the throat with a jerk that threw him violently backwards. Before he could recover himself the intruder was half-way across the garden. It was not a long start, but apparently it was sufficient, for the man was out in the roadway eight or ten yards ahead. Then, to Lethbridge's surprise, he saw that the fugitive had bare feet, for as they rose and fell they twinkled, as it were, in the first faint flush of the rosy dawn.
Lethbridge set his teeth closely together and started in pursuit. As he turned a sharp corner he ran into the arms of a man who was strolling up the road. The impact was so violent and unexpected that Lethbridge instinctively threw out his arms to save himself from falling to the ground. Then he stammered a breathless apology to which the stranger listened with a sarcastic smile.
He was a rather tall, slim man, dressed in a perfectly fitting flannel suit; his linen was clean and immaculate; his tie a miracle of neatness. Lethbridge could see that his face was dark, his eyes wonderfully black and piercing. He had a small moustache waxed up at the ends in a dandified fashion.
"Not at all, my dear sir," the stranger said. "There is no occasion to apologise. I suppose you are in pursuit of the erratic individual I met just now who appears to be one of the apostles of the Simple Life. I judged that by the fact that he was wearing no shoes and stockings. You appear to have developed several new cranks since I was in England last."
The stranger spoke in perfect English, though there was just a suggestion of the foreigner in the way he rolled certain letters. He passed on as if nothing had happened, leaving Lethbridge feeling foolish in the extreme. It was some few moments before he could collect his scattered thoughts. He remained till the stranger had vanished, feeling at the same time that it was futile to follow the man with the bare feet any further. A small object lay at his feet, a little volume bound in calf, which evidently had fallen from the stranger's pocket in the collision. Lethbridge picked it up and read the title. In plain gold letters he saw the words, "Ye Arte of Ye Garden."
Lethbridge turned the book over in his hand. He had forgotten all about the fugitive, and the man with the dark eyes. It was just light enough for him to see the quaint black letter type in which the book was printed. The volume was not new to him, either, for a copy of it had held a prominent place in the library of Jasper Payn at Beckenham Hall. From the point of view of the collector, it was an exceedingly rare and valuable book, which might have fetched anything up to three hundred pounds. But it was not this particular point which was occupying John Lethbridge's attention. He was thinking what a strange thing it was that a volume bearing upon the culture of flowers should have been dropped by a perfect stranger so close to his own gate. He wondered whether this matter had some connection with the amazing outrage on Jasper Payn. But there had been so many coincidences of late that Lethbridge dismissed the idea as being almost outside the range of possibility.
He walked back slowly to the house. Though it was nearly broad daylight now, he was in no hurry to go to bed. He turned up his lamp and began to turn over the pages of the book.
As he idly handled the leaves, the whole association of the volume came back to him. He recollected the occasion on which his uncle had first introduced it to him. He remembered the various chapters and the particular flowers with which they dealt. It was curious to observe what a number of popular favourites of the day were also known in those bygone times. Lethbridge was becoming more and more interested as he proceeded. He had forgotten everything else in the fascination of the brown pages. Therefore, it came to him almost as a shock, when, at the end of the leather covered book he happened upon a long account of the history and legendary lore which had attached itself in those days to the Golden Rose.
Here was something which set him thinking with a vengeance. The incident was further accentuated by the discovery that certain passages in the chapter had been heavily underscored, and that notes in some foreign language had been made on the margin. Lethbridge was no linguist, so that he could not say what tongue those queer characters represented. So far as he was able to tell, they were either Arabic or Sanscrit.
At any rate, the chapter had been most carefully studied by some foreigner deeply interested in the story of the Golden Rose. If the rightful owner of the book had been a Persian, the characters on the margins would be accounted for. And if the Golden Rose were a Royal flower jealously guarded and shielded from European eyes, why, then it was possible that the writer of those characters might be some ambassador from the Vale of Kashmir who had made this long journey with the sole purpose of depriving Jasper Payn of his treasure. This startling suggestion might also account for the manner in which Lethbridge's house had been watched. The more he thought over the matter the more puzzled and bewildered he became.
It was hopeless to try to get to the bottom of this tangle. Another thing, too, occurred to Lethbridge. The foreigner evidently possessed a perfect knowledge of the English tongue, or he would not have been able to read the book at all. With a feeling of despair, Lethbridge was about to throw the volume on one side when a sudden thought struck him. He began to turn over the pages carefully backwards until he arrived at the frontispiece. The flyleaf was missing; it had been torn out by some previous owner and for an instant Lethbridge was baffled. Then more and more carefully he searched every page until he came at length to a brown stain which might have been produced by the upsetting of a glass of red wine. Lethbridge was on the right track now.
"This is the book beyond the shadow of a doubt," he muttered. "It is the very volume that my uncle lent me. How the recollection of it all comes back to me! Funny thing it never occurred to me before that any uncle might have had to sell his library. I wonder if he did sell it, or whether this book was stolen. I can easily find out by morning."
In spite of his anxieties and perplexities, Lethbridge slept fairly well. The day was advanced by the time he had finished breakfast, and it was nearly twelve o'clock before he found himself inside Jasper Payn's cottage once more. He was glad to see that the blinds were still up, evidence that the old man was still alive. He sent in a message to Mary Grover, who came down presently to him in the garden.
She was not so pale as she had been the previous evening though her eyes were tired and she had every appearance of not having slept. Her manner was cold and grave. She had not forgotten their last conversation.
"How is the patient?" Lethbridge asked.
"He is very ill indeed," the girl replied gravely; "in fact, he could not be worse. It is good of you to come."
"Not at all," Lethbridge said. "Strange though it may seem, I actually possess feelings. I suppose it is no use to ask if my uncle has regained consciousness. I should be something more than human if I did not feel anxious that he should be in a position to tell the story of his misfortune."
"I understand your point of view," Mary replied. "My uncle is not what one might call conscious, for he has rambled a good deal. We think he has been trying to tell what happened to him last night. But we can make little or nothing of it. There are allusions to some mysterious person which are very puzzling."
"I suppose amongst these allusions there was nothing connected with a foreigner, nothing to make you believe that my uncle was afraid of some Oriental person who was anxious to rob him of his discovery?"
Mary looked up with a startled expression.
"It is very strange," she exclaimed. "As a matter of fact; my uncle has used a surname or Christian name which had a decidedly Oriental sound. He seemed to be afraid of some one almost as if he had committed an action of which he was ashamed and was fearful of the consequences. We thought nothing of it at the time, but I happened to mention it to the doctor, and to my surprise he deemed the matter important. You see Dr. Farrant was surgeon on board an East going steamer for a time and he says that the name in question belongs to some Mahommedan, or, at any rate, to some native of the Far East. But how did you come to know this? Have you made some discovery?"
"Let me tell you what happened to me last night after I left here."
As he ended the recital he asked. "Now don't you think that an extraordinary story? It tends to confirm my impression that some unscrupulous foreigners have got on the track of my uncle's discovery and are here to deprive him of it, and are not too nice as to the means adopted. What you have told me confirms my opinion."
"It is very strange," Mary said. "But I am glad of this. I am more glad for your sake than I can tell. Have you the book with you?"
"I brought it on purpose to show you. I am sure that the volume comes out of my uncle's library. I remember turning to it one night after dinner when we were smoking and drinking our wine, and accidentally I upset a glass of claret on one of the pages. My uncle was furious at the time and the incident was vividly stamped upon my memory. It is possible, of course, that the man who dropped the book was in league with the man with the bare feet. Possibly, too, he was at the head of the gang. He was exceedingly well dressed, had excellent manners, and unquestionably the education of a gentleman. He had a prosperous air about him, which I did not fail to notice. Even then, though his English was good enough, I detected the suspicion of a foreign accent. If that man or some accomplice of his stole that book, then I have a difficult task before me. But if my uncle's library were sold, then the task is not so difficult."
"The library was disposed of," Mary explained. "It is three years ago, and I remember what a wrench it was. Still, everything came under the hammer, and I believe the library realised some thousands of pounds."
"Was it sold at the Hall?" Lethbridge asked.
"Oh, dear no, the collection was too valuable for that. Mr. Arnold, the family lawyer, arranged everything, and the sale took place in London. I daresay Mr. Arnold would tell you everything if you think it worth while to see him."
"Worth while?" Lethbridge echoed. "Worth while, with a charge like this hanging over me? Well, I should think so. I have very little money at my disposal, but I am going to spend some of it on a visit to London to-day."
Mary Grover nodded her head approvingly.
"I think you are wise," she said. "I wish that I could help you. In any case it is good to feel that things are looking so much brighter for you."
"I am pleased to hear you say so," Lethbridge replied gravely. "As a matter of fact, there are many things in my favour. You know that one of those miscreants made an attack upon your uncle at the very moment when I was seeing you home. I was almost in time to take him red-handed. He escaped literally by dashing through the side of the greenhouse. That is one point in my favour. But that is not the only thing. Perhaps I had better tell you of a discovery that Inspector Wilkinson made last night. It is all in my favour."
Lethbridge went on telling the story, and as he proceeded he was pleased to see the look of apathy fading from Mary Grover's face and a tinge of healthy colour rising to her cheeks.
"I cannot tell you how pleased I am to hear you say this," she murmured. "I have tried so hard to think the best. I have argued with my suspicions, but it has been a hard task. Oh, don't frown like that. What would you have thought if you had been in my place?"
"That might have made a difference," Lethbridge admitted. "But if you knew everything, I am sure you would think better of me. But unfortunately I can't tell you everything. I don't suppose you ever will know. A day or two ago I should not have cared; I should have treated the whole thing with indifference. A soured and disappointed man cares very little what people say about him. And why should I worry? I have no friends in the world. I have been ill-treated by fortune. I had to turn out and get my own living with a cloud hanging over me. If you had not been under my uncle's roof I would not have put out my hand to help. But, the accident of chance brought us together. Your kindness and sympathy touched me as I had not been touched for years. I lead a solitary life, and I was perhaps foolishly looking forward to making up my quarrel with my uncle and seeing a good deal more of you. Do you happen to believe in love at first sight?"
Mary Grover coloured. At the same time, she did not appear to resent the extraordinary question. It had escaped Lethbridge's lips almost before he knew what he was saying. He could have bitten his tongue out. But it was too late now.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I am afraid that I have gone too far. And yet, I have told you no more than the truth. The first moment that I saw you, my mind was full of doubt and suspicion. I mistrusted you, much as you mistrusted me. But when I came to study your face, when I saw the charm of your features and the womanliness in your eyes, a feeling of shame possessed me, and I reproached myself for my unworthy thoughts. It is years since anybody has been so kind and sympathetic to me, and there and then my heart went out to you, and I knew that there was no other woman in the world for me. Do you think I am mad to talk to you like this? Are you angry with my presumptuous folly? And yet, I don't know why you should be, for I am paying you the highest compliment in my power."
Mary was listening with downcast eyes. She knew that she ought to be displeased. She felt that she should check a liberty like this in the bud. But these were not her feelings. Right down in her inmost heart she was glad and proud and pleased. There was something in the sincerity and manliness of Lethbridge's voice that moved her to the depths. Surely no man who spoke like that could be guilty of a mean or dishonourable action. And, despite the fact that she had an asylum under her uncle's roof, she was as lonely in her way as Lethbridge himself. Like most girls, from time to time she had had her roseate dreams of the day when she would have a home of her own and the attention of a man who loved her. There was something very much akin between Lethbridge's position and her own. She looked up shyly.
"Do I appear angry?" she whispered.
"Well, you don't," said Lethbridge with the suspicion of a smile. "You encourage me to proceed."
"No, no," the girl cried. "You have gone far enough; you have gone much further than you should. Besides, this is out of place in the circumstances. Don't imagine that I fail to appreciate what you say. But, with this cloud of mystery and sorrow hanging over us, it is cruel and thoughtless on my part to let you go any farther. We both seem to come from unhappy families. My unfortunate sister—"
Mary broke off abruptly, and bit her lip. She had been on the verge of betraying some family secret, and Lethbridge divined what was passing through her mind. He hastily changed the current of the conversation, for which the girl was grateful.
"Let us confine ourselves, then, strictly to business," Lethbridge said. "Perhaps you can give me Mr. Arnold's address. I won't keep you any longer."
Mary flitted away, and returned presently with a card, which she placed in Lethbridge's hand. She could not stay a moment longer, she said. Her patient was very restless, and inclined to ramble, and the time had come for the nurse to be relieved. But Lethbridge was hardly listening. He was buoyed with hope. He could see the horizon brighten before his eyes. It mattered nothing that he was poor and struggling. It was of no consequence that he had destroyed the nucleus of a fortune, and was face to face with the old weary struggle again. For he had something to work and hope for now, a sweet and sympathetic companion who shared his pleasures and his troubles. That the outlook was anything but promising did not worry him in the least.
He had this in his mind all the way to London. It was still uppermost in his thoughts when he arrived at the depressing region of Lincoln's Inn, where the offices of Mr. Arnold, the family solicitor, were situated. The head of the firm would see Mr. Lethbridge, so a clerk informed John.
Mr. Arnold was a small, dapper little man, clean-shaven and immaculate, with that faint suggestion of pink in his checks which betrayed a liking for good company and good living. He raised his white eyebrows pointedly, and motioned Lethbridge to a chair. His manner was strictly non-committal.
"So you have turned up again," he said. "I thought you had left England long ago. If I had known you were here still, I should have looked you up and given you a bit of my mind."
"You were always generous in that respect," Lethbridge laughed. "What have I done on this particular occasion?"
"Done! What have you left undone?" the lawyer asked irascibly. "I have had some fools of clients in my time, but never a couple to compare with Jasper Payn and yourself. Why did you leave his house in that ridiculous fashion?"
"I could do nothing else," Lethbridge protested. "When the man you regard as your benefactor calls you a thief and invites you to leave his house without delay, you don't generally stay on and ask your friends to come down on a visit."
"Oh, that's all very well, but you know your uncle just as well as I do, and you could have explained the whole thing but for that stupid pride of yours. If you had come to me as you ought to have done, I could have settled the whole thing in ten minutes. And if you had kept to your post, between us we could have prevented Jasper Payn from frittering away the rest of his fortune looking for the Philosopher's Stone, or Perpetual Motion, or some nonsense of that kind. Oh, the Golden Rose was it? Well, really, it comes to exactly the same thing. I looked for you everywhere, but had no time to waste on quixotic young men who don't know on which side their bread is buttered. And a pretty nice mess Jasper Payn has made of his life."
"Oh, you have heard then?" Lethbridge asked.
"I have heard nothing fresh," Mr. Arnold snapped. "Is there anything new? Are you back with your uncle?"
Lethbridge proceeded to explain. The story of the tragedy was new to the lawyer. He listened with surprise and pain.
"I must look into this," he said. "Really, I never expected anything so shocking. And you acted very correctly, my boy, very correctly indeed. I should say you are on the right track. I was very angry with your uncle when he wanted to sell his library. But the wilful man would have his way, and I was powerless to prevent the sacrifice. If the books had been properly advertised they would have fetched twice the money they did."
"Oh, that is all very well," Lethbridge said impatiently, "but the books are gone now and there is an end of them. What we have to do now is to find the name of the man who purchased the particular volume which is lying on your desk in front of you. As you negotiated the whole business, perhaps you will give me an introduction to the auctioneer who sold the library."
Mr. Arnold reached out for his glossy hat.
"I'll do more than that," he exclaimed. "I'll go with you to the auctioneer's myself."
Ten minutes in a cab brought Arnold and Lethbridge to the offices of the famous firm who had disposed of the Payn Library. They were a dingy set of chambers, dirty and neglected, but there were scores of iron safes filled with treasures of all kinds, which from time to time were put up for auction and attracted bidders from three continents. It was some time before an elderly manager was able to produce the particular ledger relating to the Payn Library.
"I think this is the gentleman," the manager said. "Oh, yes. What book did you want me to trace?"
Lethbridge laid the copy of 'Ye Arte of Ye Garden' on the table and pointed to the title. The manager's eyes gleamed behind his spectacles, for like most of the employees in the famous establishment he was an expert and had a feeling almost of affection for such treasures as the little brown volume which he turned over so lovingly.
"I remember this book," he murmured. "I have been with the firm now for forty years, and we have only had two specimens in all that time. The first was bought years ago for a mere song and is now in a library in the North of England. This one I believe was inherited by Mr. Payn. It was published in Cheapside in the year 1590, and is a remarkable specimen of black letter printing. But you don't mean to say, gentlemen, that someone has torn out the flyleaf? Oh, that is bad, very bad indeed. It is incredible that anybody could be so criminally careless—"
"My dear Jenner," Arnold said irritably, "I didn't leave my clients to spend the rest of the day talking about books. Oblige me by looking at this matter from a business point of view. I want you to tell me who the purchaser of this volume was. Surely, you can do that."
The manager returned hastily to his ledger, and presently announced that the volume had been purchased for two hundred guineas by Sir George Grey, a collector of books, who, until recently, had resided in Yorkshire.
"I am afraid that doesn't help us much," Arnold said somewhat taken aback by this information. "I don't suppose the respectable baronet would be the sort of person—But our friend Jenner knows nothing at all about that."
"Oh, wait a bit, wait a bit," Jenner said. "I haven't finished. Sir George Grey died a month or two ago, and his collection was sold in Yorkshire, which to my mind was a great mistake. There are magazines for connoisseurs which publish sales and prices, and for business purposes we file these. If you will wait for half an hour I am sure I could trace the name of the purchaser at the disposal of the Grey Library."
There was nothing for it but patience, and a little later Jenner looked up triumphantly from a mass of papers.
"Here it is," he said. "Original copy of 'Ye Arte of Ye Garden,' sold on January 26 last for two hundred and ten guineas to Sir Montagu Goshe. I can't tell you who Sir Montagu Goshe is, except that he is a very rich man who made his money in India, and who got a knighthood a year or two ago for services in the East. For the rest, I believe he lives at Croydon, where he has a magnificent collection of flowers. I have only gleaned this information in a more or less casual manner, probably because Sir Montagu is always willing and eager to buy books in any way relating to horticulture or agriculture. I think he is partly an Englishman, at least his mother was English. I can't tell you any more than that."
"Have you ever seen him?" Lethbridge asked eagerly.
"No, I haven't. He has never been here. But you can have his address if you like. You don't mean to say that he sold you that book, Mr. Lethbridge?"
Lethbridge was about to tell the story of how the volume had found its way into his possession, when a glance from Arnold suggested caution.
"It is a curious story altogether," the lawyer said hurriedly. "We will tell it you another time, Jenner. Meanwhile, I shall be glad if you will keep this episode to yourself. Come along, Mr. Lethbridge, we must not detain Mr. Jenner any longer."
The lawyer hurried his companion into the street and dragged him to the nearest post office. He did not condescend to explain what he had in view until he turned, with an air of triumph, from a close scrutiny of the "Directory."
"I thought we should find him," he exclaimed. "There you are! Sir Montagu Goshe, with all sorts of letters after his name; address, Putley Court, South Croydon. Upon my word, Lethbridge, if your suspicions are correct, it is a great man you are going to tackle. When I come to think of it, the name is familiar to me. Goshe is a millionaire two or three times over, and is just becoming a power in society. You know the class of man I mean. One day everybody is ignorant of him, and the next day he seems to be top dog. So long as he has heaps of money and entertains well, society asks no questions. I know a dozen such men who are welcomed everywhere to-day whose antecedents would not bear ten minutes' investigation. And now, what is the next move?"
A tinge of colour crept into Lethbridge's face.
"I am going to Croydon this afternoon to investigate for myself," he said. "There is only one thing which stands in the way—I have no money. I never borrowed a penny from anybody in my life, but I am afraid that I shall have to begin now. This is a matter that affects my good name, and it is no time to consider one's dignity. If you would not mind advancing me ten pounds I should be obliged."
Arnold would do anything in that way which Lethbridge required, and so, with pockets comfortably filled, John started from Victoria later in the afternoon on his way to Croydon. It was something past 6 when he arrived there. He had no trouble in ascertaining where the residence of Sir Montagu Goshe was, and came at length to an imposing pair of lodge gates, where he paused to review the situation.
As yet he had hardly made up his mind how to act. It had seemed to him easy at first to call upon the great man and produce the copy of 'Ye Arte of Ye Garden' from his pocket and restore it to its proper owner. No doubt Sir Montagu would be able to explain how it had passed out of his possession. But, as Lethbridge stood outside the gates, he began to ask himself a few pertinent questions.
To begin with, who was this moneyed magnate of the East? No one seemed to know anything about him. He was reputed to have the wealth of the Indies behind him, and in these days, when men's fortunes are made by all sorts of means, the fact testified nothing as to his honour and integrity. He might be an adventurer. There had been successful scoundrels before now with whom the great ones of the earth had not hesitated to rub shoulders, and who afterwards had fallen below the level from which they had risen. There was something mysterious about this person, and it behoved Lethbridge to be careful. Again, it was indiscreet to take it for granted that the little brown volume had been stolen from his collection.
Still, these suspicions were not leading Lethbridge nearer to his goal. Impatient to make progress, he walked through the lodge gates and up the beautifully-kept drive to the house. He came upon an avenue of yews presently, trimmed and clipped until they formed a solid wall, with arches here and there, giving peeps of the most beautiful set of gardens that Lethbridge had ever seen. They were of all sorts, from the formal Italian type, the landscape variety, and so on to the most modern blend of flowers and grass and roses. There were scores of glass-houses, too, the doors of which for the most part were open, so that here and there Lethbridge caught a glimpse of dazzling blossoms.
The enthusiasm of his nature was aroused, and his own instincts were being appealed to. For the moment he forgot why he had come, and was oblivious of the book in his pocket. He was looking into a greenhouse filled with a magnificent array of flowering plants, the like of which he had never seen before. Whatever the failings of the owner of this beautiful estate, he was certainly a passionate lover of flowers, and consequently was taking a higher place in Lethbridge's estimation. The latter felt he could not proceed with his mission until he had ascertained the names of the majestic plants which were filling the greenhouse with their amazing blooms and marvellously delicate foliage. He saw two people behind this mess of greenery at the bottom of the house; gardeners at work, Lethbridge thought, as he walked boldly in. He was feeling on familiar ground. The gardeners would tell him all he wanted to know. He threaded his way between the plants, but came to a sudden halt as the voices of the two men rose clear and crisp to his ears.
One was a gardener, the other a man in authority, for he was well-dressed and smoking a cigarette, the flavour of which impregnated the damp atmosphere of the greenhouse.
Lethbridge paused and half-turned on his heel. He was anxious to get away without being seen. This was not difficult, for the foliage hid him from view, and as he made his way back to the open again he could hear the man with the cigarette plainly talking. When Lethbridge was safe, he hurried into the road and sat down on a stile to think the matter out. There was plenty of scope for reflection. For the man with the cigarette was the person whom he had seen the night before—the man who had dropped the copy of "Ye Arte of Ye Garden."
Unquestionably the situation called for prudence. It required little discrimination to see that there was danger here. Lethbridge had not, of course, any definite facts to go upon, but he had every reason to assume that the man in the greenhouse was no other than Sir Montagu Goshe himself. At any rate, it would be well to assume that such was the case.
At the same time it was also possible that Goshe might recognise Lethbridge as the man he had met two nights before.
At first Lethbridge did not know how to act. It would be easy to call at Putley Court and hand the book back to its rightful owner. But that might be exceedingly foolish, and in all probability lead to the very state of things that Lethbridge was most anxious to avoid.
He felt pretty certain, too, that this Goshe could disclose a great deal concerning the mysterious attack upon Mr. Jasper Payn. Everything pointed to that conclusion, and the more Lethbridge thought over the matter, the more puzzled he became. To act on the spur of the moment would be madness. It might neither be safe nor prudent to remain in the neighbourhood, but this Lethbridge decided to do. There was no hurry. He had plenty of money in his pocket, and if his presence at home were needed, he could easily send a telegram to Wilkinson to say where he was to be found. Perhaps the best thing to do was to stay where he was and sleep over the matter. During his cigar after dinner he might evolve some way out of the difficulty. There was a venturesome vein in Lethbridge's nature, and he did not regret the discovery he had recently made. He must, however, find some comfortable place where he could put up for the night, and after a little trouble he found an hotel to his liking. He purchased a few necessaries and a handbag to hold them, and later sat down to an excellent dinner. It would be no bad plan, he thought, to make enquiries as to what manner of a man Sir Montagu Goshe was, and what sort of a reputation he bore in the neighbourhood. By way of ascertaining these facts Lethbridge strolled into the billiard-room, where two men were playing and half-a-dozen more were looking on after the listless fashion of men who spend a good deal of leisure in such pleasures. It was easy to open a conversation with one of these, and to Lethbridge's satisfaction he found that his acquaintance had all the gossip of the district at the end of his tongue.
"Are you looking for a house here, sir?" the other man said.
It was an excellent lead, and Lethbridge followed it.
"I am not quite sure," he replied cautiously. "I can't make up my mind. I am fond of gardening, and want a small place with a certain amount of glass. I wonder if you could recommend any thing of that kind."
"Well, I ought to be able to," the other man laughed. "I happen to be a house agent. My name is Green—Richmond Green—and here is my card. If you like to come round to my office in the morning I flatter myself that I shall be able to accommodate you. I have lived here all my life, and seen this place develop into what it is. I remember when this site was nothing but green fields."
"There are some very fine places," Lethbridge observed. "Putley Court, for example. I was in the grounds just now; in fact, I entered them by mistake. I never saw a finer garden or a better lot of glass. Only a rich man could indulge in a hobby like that."
Mr. Green did not appear to be enthusiastic.
"Oh, Sir Montagu is rich enough, I suppose," he said. "He hasn't been here so very long. I may be a bit prejudiced, but I must confess I don't care to see so many of our fine houses occupied by foreigners. Now the man who had Putley Court before was quite a different sort."
"Sir Montagu is not popular?" Lethbridge suggested.
"Well, no, he isn't," Green replied. "There is something peculiar about him. Nobody knows how he made his money, and there are strange rumours afloat. A friend who comes here frequently knows a lot about Sir Montagu, but he won't say much. My pal was once a sailor-purser on board a steamer plying to the Persian Gulf. He has done himself very well, and can tell a queer story or two."
"About Sir Montagu?" Lethbridge asked innocently.
"Well, I fancy so. Pawson doesn't open his mouth wide, but if he hadn't a hold of Sir Montagu, I don't think Goshe would be so precious civil to him as he is. But Pawson is sure to be here presently, and you can sound him."
Lethbridge deemed it prudent to give the conversation a more desultory turn. He did not want to arouse the suspicion of the loquacious Mr. Green. And, besides, he was not doing so badly. Half an-hour later Pawson put in an appearance, and took a seat on the lounge by Green's side. A hint from the latter was sufficient.
"Do you know the man, sir?" he asked Lethbridge pointedly.
"He is a perfect stranger to me," Lethbridge said. "I am a stranger here, too, and my curiosity is idle. Of course, I have heard of your local millionaire, and being an horticulturist myself, am interested in his gardens. Do you suppose he would mind my going over them?"
Pawson shook his head cautiously. He was a short, thick-set man with a healthy brown face and breezy manner, which suggested one accustomed to the ways of the sea.
"Take my advice, sir, and leave the place alone," he said. "Between ourselves, this Sir Montagu Goshe, whom they make such a fuss about, is an infernal scoundrel. It is foolish to talk like this, may be, and I might get into trouble. But I know what I know. I didn't spend a dozen of the best years of my life in the Persian Gulf for nothing. In my day things went on there that the world was in ignorance of. I knew Goshe then, and there are others, too, who could make it precious hot for him if they liked. But now he is a big man and moves in the best society. And, besides, it is no business of mine. If Sir Montagu is the man he professes to be, he wouldn't have that fellow Ram Murshee hanging about him."
"And who is Mr. Murshee?" Lethbridge asked.
Pawson shrugged his shoulders.
"That isn't for me to say," he responded. "But I know Murshee, too. And that is why he is always so mighty courteous to me. He calls himself Sir Montagu Goshe's private secretary, but I happen to know the fellow can hardly write. He is paralysed in the left arm. An under-sized monkey of a man and full of original sin. He is clever in his way, and plays a fine game of billiards, though his left arm is useless. He can use a cue off the edge of the table better than most men can do with two hands. He'll be here to-night."
This was of the deepest interest to Lethbridge, though he was at some pains to appear rather indifferent. His worst suspicions were being confirmed. He began to recognise the magnitude of his task. The conversation gradually drifted away from Goshe and his doings. There were more people in the billiard room, and it was getting late. Lethbridge was beginning to think about bed, when a little man walked into the room and stood by the fire.
"That's Murshee," Pawson whispered. "Did you ever see such a conceited little beast? He always stands with his back to the fireplace like that, as if the whole place belonged to him. Whenever I see him in that attitude I always have a wild desire to go up to him and offer him a handful of nuts."
Lethbridge smiled at the suggestion, for, indeed, the man bore a strong resemblance to a monkey. His face was round, his nose short and blunt, he had a large mouth and long upper lip, and there was just the suspicion of a hump between his shoulders. As to the rest, his frame was broad and powerful, his left arm hung shrivelled by his side. But what most attracted Lethbridge's attention was the man's feet. They were wonderfully small and well-formed, and encased in the nattiest shoes of French make. For the rest, the man was perfectly dressed, and might have been turned out by a Bond-street tailor. The crease in his beautifully fitted trousers fell exactly over the centre of his shining shoes, and Lethbridge was astonished to notice, when the stranger put out his hand to reach a match off the high mantelpiece, that he was wearing no socks. He drew Pawson's attention to the fact.
"Ah, there is a reason for that," Pawson said mysteriously. "I don't suppose you will believe me if I tell you. In fact, I am not going to tell you, because I don't want to get myself into trouble. I have no wish to make an enemy of that little man. You don't know what a vindictive little beast he is—I do."
Much as if Murshee had divined that he was the subject of conversation, he looked across at the speaker and nodded insolently. Then he crossed the room and threw himself carelessly down on the lounge by Lethbridge's side.
"Well, my jolly sea dog," the little man said in a deep bass voice, "and how are you this evening? Nice sort of weather, isn't it? What were you saying about me just now? But I can guess. You were praising my intellect and beauty to this gentleman."
Pawson growled and looked uncomfortable. Lethbridge made a furtive study of the queer specimen of humanity by his side. He could see that there was something foreign, a certain Oriental air about the man, though his English was good and his manner insular. He had a vague impression that he had seen this creature before. Might not there be some connexion between Murshee and those small footprints which he had seen more than once in his own garden? Here was a man who was wearing dainty patent leather shoes on remarkably small feet. Here was a man who, for some reason or another, discarded socks as if he were accustomed in more unconventional moods to walk about with bare feet. Lethbridge knew that sailors who spend most of their time in tropical climates wear no footgear, and he had it on the authority of Pawson that Murshee had passed the best part of his life along with Sir Montagu Goshe in the Persian Gulf. Again, he did not fail to recall the fact that the man who had been hanging about his place wore no shoes or stockings. It was but natural to assume that this man and Murshee were one and the same person.
So far, the ground was getting clear. Sir Montagu Goshe and his familiar had come down to Manchester with the intention of robbing Jasper Payn of his Golden Rose. It was equally clear that in some marvellous way they had learned that Lethbridge's greenhouse contained a specimen of the treasured flower. Lethbridge felt that he had not wasted his time, but he did not in the least see how to act. And now there were two stumbling-blocks in the way. It was all very well for him to be able to identify Sir Montagu Goshe as the man who had dropped the copy of 'Ye Arte of Ye Garden' but on the other hand, Goshe would find it as easy to recognise him. And now, here was another difficulty. Had Murshee by any chance recognised him? If so, he was likely to have his trouble for his pains. And with two unscrupulous men like these he ran a serious risk of great personal danger. From what Pawson had told him, they would stick at nothing.
Still, he had to carry it off as if he were a stranger and as if he had come down with some vague idea of taking a house. All this passed swiftly through his mind before Pawson could make any reply to the jocular remarks of the little man by his side.
"We were talking about you in a way," Lethbridge said, "at least, we were talking about Sir Montagu Goshe. I was admiring the gardens as I passed this afternoon."
"Yes, wonderful, aren't they?" Murshee said carelessly. "Are you fond of that sort of thing?"
There appeared to be nothing behind the question, but Lethbridge hesitated before he replied.
"I occupy most of my time in gardening. I should much like to go over your place. No doubt I should pick up many fresh ideas."
The man grinned. There was more in his manner to cause Lethbridge uneasiness.
"That is easily managed," he said. "As a rule, Sir Montagu doesn't care about having strangers on the premises. But I can take anybody over I like. What do you say to coming to-morrow afternoon? Sir Montagu will be away then. But, stop, I forgot that I have an appointment to-morrow afternoon myself. What do you say to the evening? Come up after dinner and ask for me. I dare say Pawson has told my name."
Again Lethbridge hesitated. There was a chance that he was running into danger, and if so he would much prefer the afternoon to the evening. Still, he reflected that in the twentieth century there was not much chance of his being kidnapped or murdered or anything of that kind. Besides, he might never have such an opportunity again. There was another inducement, too, and that was the absence of Sir Montagu Goshe. He did not believe that Murshee could have recognised him in the encounter they had had in the early dawn. He had not made out in the slightest degree the figure or face of his antagonist, and presumably Murshee had been in too great a hurry to get away to identify Lethbridge.
"I am much obliged to you," he said. "I'll come up. What time would suit you best?"
"Say nine o'clock," Murshee said. "I shall have finished my work by then. I suppose it is the glass you want to see specially. As all the houses are lighted with electric light there will be no trouble to show you everything. And now, if you will excuse me, I'll have a game of billiards."
On the whole Lethbridge was not sorry to be rid of the cunning little man. During the progress of the game he studied Murshee carefully. He did not fail to notice how he appeared to walk round the table with more or less discomfort as if his natty shoes pinched him, or as if he were more accustomed to be without them altogether. When the game was over, Murshee nodded in his insolent manner to the company generally and swaggered from the room. He had barely time to leave the premises before Lethbridge followed. The wild idea had occurred to him on the spur of the moment that he might be able to pick up some information by dogging Murshee's footsteps at a distance.
It was not very difficult, for the night was not dark enough to prevent him from keeping Murshee in sight without betraying that he was being shadowed. Pursued and pursuer were beyond the lamplights by this time, and when the houses were passed Murshee stooped down and removed his shoes. Lethbridge could see that he carried these in his hand. He noticed that the little man's progress was much easier and more rapid. He turned at length into the lodge gates and Lethbridge followed without the slightest hesitation. He had the feeling upon him that he was on the verge of an adventure. It was easier to keep up the chase now, for the trees on either side of the drive afforded ample shelter, and a wonderfully kept grass border deadened the sound of Lethbridge's footsteps. The house came in sight presently, all in darkness save for a brilliant light in the hall and in three windows at one corner, which might be the billiard-room.
Murshee did not go to the door, but approached one of the illuminated windows and tapped on it gently. It was a French window opening on to the grounds, and it was immediately unfastened by a man in evening dress who first pulled up the blinds.
Lethbridge stood still under the friendly shelter of a graceful acacia. He could see into the room, a splendid apartment, magnificently furnished, and entirely lined with books. Even at that distance he could guess that the books were valuable and formed part of an almost priceless library. As to the rest, the place was furnished with a wonderful eye to luxury and comfort. Lethbridge could catch a glimpse of cool, feathery ferns and gleaming statuary, while here and there the subdued light fell upon the angle of a picture. He had time to take all this in, but there was something else which interested him far more. For the man who had pulled up the blind was no other than the man whom he had seen earlier in the day smoking a cigarette, and forgetting his caution, Lethbridge took a step or two forward.
He knew that his suspicions were confirmed, for this was the same cool, collected person into whose arms he had run two nights before outside his own cottage—the selfsame person who had dropped the copy of the rare work on gardening which Lethbridge had in his breast pocket at that very moment. He was glad to feel sure of his ground so far, glad to feel that he had done nothing rash or impulsive.
It was possible to hear the conversation of the two men. Lethbridge could see that Sir Montagu Goshe was eyeing his companion with no great favour.
"Where the devil have you been?" he asked.
"And what the devil is that to you?" the little man responded, with a scowl. "If you wanted me you knew where I was to be found. And don't speak to me like that again. I have had enough of it. It is all very well to play the game of the great Sir Montague Goshe and his humble private secretary when other people are here, but I won't stand it in private, and so I tell you."
"You promised to be back an hour ago," Goshe retorted.
"Well, I know I did and I changed my mind. What is the use of snarling when there is work to be done? I haven't been idle, I can promise you."
Lethbridge was interested, but to his disappointment the window was closed with a snap and the blind once more drawn on the inside.
Lethbridge returned to his hotel. He did not dare go farther, lest there might be watchers in the grounds. Moreover, a dog was prowling about in his immediate vicinity. On the whole, he had had an instructive and valuable evening, and had been far from wasting his time. It would be a thousand pities to spoil everything by haste. He had the rest of the evening to think matters over and settle what to do when he called upon Murshee.
It was beginning to grow dark when he set out upon his errand next evening. He came to the house at length, and asked for the little man by name. A footman escorted him along a passage which led to a suite of rooms evidently placed at Murshee's disposal. As Lethbridge entered the sitting-room the man was just slipping on his shoes. A revolver lay on a table close at hand, and Lethbridge wondered what it was there for. In his quick way Murshee interpreted the glance and picked up the weapon with his sound hand.
"There is nothing to be afraid of," he said in his deep bass voice. "We have a miniature rifle range in the grounds, and I amuse myself sometimes with revolver practice. I am left-handed, and since I lost the use of my arm I have been handicapped. I should say that I am probably the worst revolver shot in the world."
"Your accident is recent?" Lethbridge suggested.
A strange expression came over the man's face, and for the moment he looked positively murderous.
"Comparatively," he said. "As a matter of fact, it was not wholly an accident. I had the sinews of the left arm cut with a knife, and it is withered, as you see. But some day I shall get even with my friend. Perhaps I ought not to have told you so much. Strange things are happening every day, stranger than a quiet man like you, who have always stayed at home, can imagine. You have never been abroad, Mr.—? By the way, what is your name? You haven't told me yet."
The question took Lethbridge off his balance. It had never occurred to him that he might be asked his name, reasonable though the request was. Not that it much mattered. If this man knew who he was, then it would be foolish to call himself by another. And if he didn't know, then he would be none the wiser. Lethbridge gave his own name readily, watching out of the corner of his eye what effect it would have upon his companion. But Murshee moved no muscle. He took the announcement quite as a matter of course.
"Well, you know who I am," he said. "And now, I suppose, you wish to see the conservatories at once. Would you like anything to drink first? You can have anything you care to name. That is one advantage of being the servant of a millionaire."
"No, thank you," Lethbridge responded. "I am practically a teetotaller. A poor man is more or less obliged to be."
"But you smoke?" Murshee urged. "Will you have a cigar? These are some of the finest in the world in the cabinet yonder."
"Again I have to decline," Lethbridge said. "I don't care for cigars, and it is a pity to waste good ones on me."
"A cigarette, then, perhaps," Murshee suggested. "Our cigarettes are of the most irreproachable quality. Nothing but the best, my dear sir. Nothing but the best is our motto."
A sudden idea occurred to Lethbridge.
"Again I must appear to be discourteous," he said. "I suppose my tastes are not refined. I do smoke cigarettes, but I prefer those of my own making. If you have some tobacco and a cigarette paper or two I shall be happy."
The little man nodded cheerfully.
"Anything you care to ask for," he said. "You will find some wonderful Turkish tobacco in that jar, and there are cigarette-papers, on that silver case on the mantelpiece. But unless you are an expert cigarette-maker, I am afraid those papers will not be of much use to you. They are not gummed like the English brand, so that the cigarette wants carefully manipulating between the thumb and finger. It is only abroad that one learns that kind of thing properly."
"I daresay I shall manage," Lethbridge said, trying to keep the tone of eagerness out of his voice.
He took the tobacco jar down and opened the silver case in which the litter of cigarette-papers lay. He manipulated them fairly, but whether they smoked well or ill mattered little. Fortune was standing him in good stead, and he was making the discovery which he had anticipated.
The cigarette-papers were precisely of the same make and quality as the one which Wilkinson had found on the floor of the greenhouse after the murderous attack on Jasper Payn. A thrill of exultation passed through Lethbridge. He had to turn aside so that his companion should not see the expression on his face.
"These are excellent papers," he said. "I suppose they are not popular in England because the average man doesn't know how to use them. I should like to know where you get them. Can you buy them?"
"I don't think you can buy them in England," Murshee said. "They are specially made from maize leaves at a place near Singapore. I import them for my own use. I smoke cigars occasionally, but I prefer a cigarette."
As Murshee spoke, he took a pinch of tobacco and one of the papers and rolled a cigarette in his right hand alone with a swiftness and dexterity that aroused Lethbridge's admiration. He no longer retained the slightest doubt as to the connection between his companion and the man who had attacked Jasper Payn. If he could have got away at that moment on some decent excuse he would have done so, for there was really no reason for remaining longer. He had been wonderfully fortunate in his investigations, and now the time had come to place his discoveries in the abler hands of Inspector Wilkinson. Lethbridge had half a mind to invent some plausible excuse in the way of sudden indisposition. But that might tend to frighten Murshee, and, besides, having been so fortunate, perhaps Fate had another lucky stroke ready for him. He might even go so far as to discover the hiding-place of the Golden Rose. For that the floral treasure was hidden somewhere on the premises, he did not doubt for a moment. He could go round the conservatories now and leave without returning to the house.
"Now, if you were ready," he said, "we will look at the flowers. I am afraid I can't stay very long. I am expecting a telephone message from London."
"Very well," Murshee said cheerfully, "come along."
He led the way along the corridor of the great hall again. As he was opening the front door a footman came up and murmured something which Lethbridge could not catch. Murshee showed momentary signs of irritation; then his face cleared, and he walked after the footman with that painful limp which Lethbridge had noticed on the previous evening.
"Excuse me a moment," he said, "I shall not be long. There is always something or other one has to do in a house like this. You can look at the pictures."
The pictures were worth looking at, and Lethbridge passed the next quarter of an hour in examining them. He could see into one or two of the living rooms, for the doors were wide open. On this left hand was a magnificent apartment, half drawing-room and half lounge, with a noble conservatory leading out from the far end. The room was so large that Lethbridge had some difficulty in detecting voices. He could hear a man's harsh tones and a woman reply in a pleading voice that had a suggestion of tears in it. Where these people were and who they were it was impossible to judge. Lethbridge had no scruples in listening. He thought he was justified in picking up information anywhere. Then presently the woman's voice ceased. He could hear the rustle and swish of draperies, and finally, a woman crossed his line of vision at the sight of whom Lethbridge stood stock-still and rubbed his eyes with amazement.
Was he dreaming? For in carriage and look and gesture the woman bore every likeness to Mary Grover. But for the fact that she could not be under this roof, he would have thrown prudence to the winds and accosted her. Before he could make up his mind what to do or how to act the woman came towards the door and tossed a piece of paper into the hall at Lethbridge's feet. As he looked at her for one brief moment he began to doubt the evidence of his senses. Surely this richly-dressed woman must be Mary Grover. It was impossible she could be anybody else. Lethbridge stood with staring eyes till she vanished from his sight. Then he thought the paper lying at his feet might contain some message.
As he moved forwards, Murshee's heavy bass voice smote his ears. For a second he hesitated. Was it too late to pick up the paper or not?
Evidently Murshee had no suspicion of what was taking place, though he appeared to be put out about something. He laid his hand upon Lethbridge's arm as if he wished to get the latter out of the house before further interruption. There was no time for Lethbridge to decide. He had to make up his mind at once and act accordingly. If that scrap of paper contained any message for him it would never do to leave it there and thus involve in serious trouble the unknown woman who had gone out of her way to give him warning.
The whole thing was inexplicable and Lethbridge needed all his wits to grapple with the situation. He was still in a state of perplexity, especially as to the extraordinary resemblance between this mysterious lady and Mary Grover. All he could do was to stand with his foot on the piece of paper, pretending to be raptly engaged in a fine Gainsborough on the wall. Meanwhile, Murshee was fidgetting about impatiently.
"Come along," he said. "I thought you were in a hurry. Are you a judge of pictures as well as flowers?"
Lethbridge appeared not to heed the question. He was literally trembling with anxiety to find a way out of the difficulty when the trouble was solved for him. Somebody called quietly but none the less imperiously to Murshee, and with an expletive the latter turned aside. The voice seemed to come from the top of the stairs. Lethbridge thought it resembled the voice he had heard raised in tearful protest in the drawing-room.
"The deuce fly away with the woman," Murshee muttered angrily. "I will not get off the premises to-night. Is there nobody who can do anything in this place besides me?"
Lethbridge's curiosity overcame him for a moment.
"Who is the lady?" he asked.
"Oh, that is my mistress," Murshee said with a slight sneer. "That is Lady Goshe."
"I didn't know there was one," Lethbridge exclaimed.
"Oh, yes. For the past three years. Very few people know it, for it pleases Sir Montagu to pass as a bachelor. He is a society man, but most of his entertaining is done in town. Between ourselves, the whole thing was a mistake. But that is no business of ours. I won't be a moment."
Lethbridge blessed the interruption. Somebody had noticed his dilemma and was taking this step to get Murshee out of the way. No sooner was his back turned than Lethbridge grasped his opportunity. He stooped swiftly and raised the piece of paper from the floor and proceeded to unfold it. It was a square envelope with a few lines scribbled in pencil. In the brilliant light of the hall Lethbridge read as follows:—
"You are in danger here. Get out of the house as soon as possible. What ever you do, see that Murshee either walks by your side or keeps in front."
There was no more, no beginning, or ending, or superscription, and the last line was heavily underscored. With an instinct that he would have found it hard to explain, Lethbridge crossed the hall towards the front door which was standing open and walked out into the night. He had not the remotest idea what the warning meant, but felt it would be imprudent to ignore it. Standing outside under cover of the darkness he could see into the house. It would be easy to call out to Murshee directly the latter made his appearance.
A moment or two later Lethbridge had reason to congratulate himself upon his prudence. Something was coming along the gravelled drive, an object with two great flaming eyes in front, something that crept over the gravel with a subdued hum. As Lethbridge stood aside he saw it was a powerful motor. He stood back on the grass unseen. Presently someone came down the steps from the house with a fur coat on his arm. The newcomer was in evening dress, and as he came into the dazzling glare Lethbridge saw the man whom he had observed smoking a cigarette in the conservatory, the same person who had dropped the copy of "Ye Arte of Ye Garden." It needed nobody to tell him that this was Sir Montagu Goshe. He began to have a dim idea why his mysterious friend had been so anxious to get him off the premises. If the two had met all Lethbridge's plans would have collapsed. Had he been recognised by Sir Montagu he might as well have gone home and turned everything over to Wilkinson.
But another thing gave him cause for uneasiness. He would never have put his head inside Putley Court had not Murshee told him that his master was away from home. Why had Murshee invented that lie? Had his suspicions been aroused? Perhaps time would solve the problem, but Lethbridge was puzzled. Then, for the first time, he began to regret that he had come at all. He saw how much better it would have been if he had stayed at home, or if he had gone back to his hotel without delay, and written to Wilkinson, acquainting him with his extraordinary discoveries.
But it was too late to think of that now, and at any rate Lethbridge was clear of the house, whence he could, if need be, escape scot free by making some plausible excuse to Murshee. He might even walk straight through the gates without anybody being the wiser, but such a course might put Murshee on his guard, and, moreover, it might end in trouble for the unknown lady who had ventured to help a stranger.
As Lethbridge stood balancing the matter in his mind, Sir Montagu Goshe came to the bottom of the steps and proceeded to struggle into his overcoat. Lethbridge saw that the smile had gone from his face, and that he had lost the easy, jaunty manner which had impressed him during his first encounter. The knight's face was pale and anxious. There was a moody frown on his brows. As he climbed into the car the lady whom Lethbridge had seen in the drawing-room came forward and said something which the listener on the lawn could not catch.
"It is impossible," Sir Montagu said in a harsh tone. "I must go. And, moreover, you will have to do what I tell you. And none of your nonsense, my lady, none of your airs and graces, or it will be all the worse for you."
Sir Montagu accompanied this threat with a gesture of his hand that caused Lethbridge's blood to boil. The threat was uttered in the presence of the chauffeur as if Sir Montagu Goshe took no account of the presence of servants when his feelings became too much for him. Lethbridge was more and more struck by the amazing likeness which this woman bore to Mary Grover. She was taller than Mary, and had a look of resignation and sorrow, mingled with a suggestion of pride which Miss Grover lacked. But otherwise she might have passed for the latter anywhere.
Lethbridge could see how her face paled and then how the blood rushed into her cheeks. He saw her return to the hall as if the words had cruelly wounded her. Then the car began to move, the big lights vanished in the distance, and the darkness grew more intent for their absence. By-and-bye the tall, slender woman in evening dress came down the steps again. She raised her hand to her eyes, as if trying to make out something in the darkness beyond. Moved by an unaccountable impulse, Lethbridge advanced slightly. As he heard a sigh from the woman's lips, the anxious shadow on her face lifted slightly.
"You are there?" she whispered. "Come this way."
There was an imploring ring in the voice, commanding though it was. Lethbridge did not hesitate. He came to the foot of the steps and raised his hat.
"I am in an awkward position," he murmured. "I hardly know how to explain myself. Strictly speaking, I have no business here."
"None whatever," the woman said. "You ought never to have come, but I hope I have acted for the best. Perhaps it would be better if you went away at once, only it will never do to arouse the suspicions of that little monster. Go round to the side of the house. I can not explain to you now. It will be some time before Murshee can join you. I will see that he is informed that you are somewhere in the grounds. But don't remain where you are, and, above all, don't ask questions. If you only knew the risk I am taking."
Lethbridge waited no longer. He turned on his heel and walked into the darkness.
He was breathing more freely. He began to see that the acute danger was past. But who was this woman? And why did she take such a violent interest in him? What was the secret of her extraordinary resemblance to Mary Grover? And how could she have known that he was on the premises? These questions, with a score more, Lethbridge asked himself as he proceeded to the quarter indicated. He had a sort of feeling that the warning was not complete yet. He felt that Lady Goshe would have been more explicit had the opportunity presented itself. Perhaps she would have another chance before long.
The opening came more speedily than Lethbridge had expected. He found himself suddenly standing by the side of an open French window, which apparently led into the magnificent drawing-room where Lethbridge had seen Lady Goshe for the first time. She was standing in the window now, and the faint suggestion of a smile crossed her face as she saw Lethbridge.
"Stand there," she whispered. "Keep as far in the shadow as possible, and I will tell you something. If you hear Murshee coming, pretend to be admiring the carnations. There is light enough for you to see what a magnificent show we have. Perhaps you have noticed they run all along the border on this side of the house."
Lethbridge had noticed it, and murmured something to that effect. Carnations were a favourite flower of his. He hoped before long to startle the world with new varieties of the Dianthus family. Never before had he seen such glorious blooms as those that lay at his feet now. He could have passed an hour or two in an examination of that long flaming border alone. But he had more fascinating topics to think of. He was groping blindly towards the heart of a great mystery, and here, perhaps, was the one individual who could throw some light on the very spot where it was most needed.
"Would you mind telling me your name?" the lady murmured.
Lethbridge gave his name. He saw the lady smile, as if she had learnt something likely to encourage her.
"I felt pretty certain of it," she said. "I daresay you wonder how I know your name, seeing that so short a time ago you were a comparative stranger. I have heard of you, though you will wonder how."
"Indeed I do," Lethbridge responded. "And yet I have an idea of the manner in which you became interested in me. I have no wish to intrude upon your privacy or your secrets, but would you tell me if you are related to Mary Grover, the niece of Mr. Jasper Payn, who—"
"My sister," Lady Goshe replied. "I had no idea that you had met Mary. I thought that you and your uncle—"
"You know that much?" Lethbridge exclaimed.
"Oh, I am only drawing inferences. I have nothing but a slight knowledge and some instinct to guide me. I am the most unhappy woman in the world. I am tied to a man whom I hate and fear, but I have only myself to blame for that. I walked into the trap with my eyes open. I had more than one friendly warning. I daresay you wonder why I tell you, a perfect stranger, these things, and give you these details from my private life, and speak of the man to whom I am married as I have never spoken of him before. I only wish I had the time at my disposal to go into all the details. But I know certain things, because I overheard a conversation last night between Sir Montagu and that scoundrel Murshee. I know why they went down to Manchester, and what took place in connection with that poor old gentleman, Mr. Jasper Payn. Quite what these men were seeking after I cannot exactly say, but when I picked up the paper this morning and saw that an extraordinary fatality had happened to Mr. Payn, I was frightened for the first time. My nerve deserted me, although yesterday I should have laughed at the idea of being afraid of anything. I heard your name mentioned, but it conveyed nothing to me until I gathered that you were Mr. Payn's nephew. Then I recollected my sister's letters. We still correspond, though Mary has not the remotest idea where I am or what sort of life I am leading. You are Mr. Payn's nephew, and I believed you quarrelled with him over some discovery which he accused you of turning to your own interest."
Absorbed though he was in these disclosures, Lethbridge was getting impatient. Eager as he was for information, he feared the lady was somewhat discursive, and that Ram Murshee might put in an appearance at any moment. What Lethbridge wanted now were more facts to go on.
"You will excuse me," he said. "I am deeply sorry for you. I would be only too willing to be of assistance. You have taken great risks to-night for my safety, and I am grateful. But I am waiting for more light. Does Murshee know who I am? Does he know why I am here?"
"Oh, dear, yes," lady Goshe explained. "He knows everything. That is why you are in such terrible danger. I don't suppose you would have been allowed to come in this casual fashion if those men had had no reason for it. Nobody comes here without an invitation. I cannot tell you what is in the wind because I do not know. But I do know that you are the victim of a conspiracy. I do know that your life is in danger at this moment. You have no idea of the character of these two men. I tell you they would stop at nothing, neither of them. It is an awful confession for a wife to make about her husband, but I cannot help it. If only I had some true friend to fall back upon I should not be here now. But I am alone, friendless and helpless, and if ever fortune favour you I hope you will not forget what I have done to-night for the sake of a stranger. And whatever you do, don't forget my warning. Get off the premises as soon as possible. Go now and leave Murshee to draw his own conclusions."
"That is impossible," Lethbridge said between his teeth. "A great danger threatens me from that quarter of which you know nothing and I have not time to tell you now. But this much I may say. If my uncle dies, then there is every chance that I shall stand accused of his murder. It may seem inexplicable to you, but the story which the prosecution have concocted would convince the average person that I was the culprit. What appeared at one time to be my greatest blessing is now likely to prove my greatest curse. I cannot go away. I must stay and see this thing out. It would be fatal to turn my back upon an opportunity like this. But cannot I meet you anywhere? Could you not get away for an hour or so to-morrow and give me a chance for a proper explanation? You are not a prisoner, I suppose?"
Lady Goshe shook her head sadly.
"Indeed, I am," she whispered. "I could not move a yard without my movements being watched. These men mistrust me. I have learnt too much. I might try, but the attempt would only end in failure and disaster for both of us. And if you got away unscathed to-night, I should be glad if you would communicate with my sister for me. I gather from what you say that you know Mary. Only lately I presume."
"That's so," Lethbridge, murmured. "I think she is very friendly disposed towards me. If you will give me a message—"
"No, I think I will write. I'll write the letter now, and presently I may have all opportunity of slipping it into your hand. It is impossible for me to get a private letter out of the house. Even the few lines I write occasionally to my sister are always read by my husband, who posts them himself. You have no conception what kind of life is mine. You would hardly believe that, in this twentieth century, within a few miles of London, a woman should be virtually prisoner in her own house. I know the cage is well gilded; I know that it is large and beautifully furnished, but it is a prison all the same, and I have not the consolation of knowing that I have anyone to blame but myself. There is nobody else to blame. I was headstrong and foolish. I desired to have everything that life gives one. And yet, there is not a single person on the estate who is not far happier than myself. I dare say you think me foolish and sentimental, weak to talk in this fashion to a stranger, but it is hard to feel month after month that one's servants are one's gaolers. Ah, I think I hear Murshee walking down the hall. I must not stay longer. Whatever you do don't forget my warning. Whatever you do, keep that man in front of you, or by your side. Never let him get behind. And now I must go."
"One moment," Lethbridge said eagerly. "Can't you be more explicit? Can't you tell me definitely what danger I have to expect from Murshee?"
Lady Goshe put her hand to her head with a gesture of despair.
"I cannot," she said; "I do not know, but it has something to do with the fellow's feet. Now you must go. Murshee is outside. Be discreet and silent."
Lethbridge could ask no further questions, for Lady Goshe withdrew and let down the blind. At the same moment a step was heard on the gravel, and Murshee appeared muttering to himself. He called upon Lethbridge by name. There was something in his voice which hinted at suspicion as well as annoyance. Lethbridge made no reply at once. He appeared to be wrapped in close contemplation of a particularly beautiful specimen of Malmaison carnation. The start which he gave when Murshee touched him on the shoulder seemed quite natural.
"I beg pardon," he said. "Oh, it is you, Mr. Murshee. What a wonderful show of flowers you have! I must come here in daylight. Carnations are great favourites, but lovely as they are I claim to be able to improve them."
"I am not an enthusiast," Murshee muttered. "These things are no good unless money can be made out of them. But I thought you were in a hurry to leave. I didn't expect to find you, but one of the servants said you were here."
"I ought to have gone," Lethbridge replied. "But when I am amongst flowers I forget all about time. And, besides, I may not have another opportunity, so I think I'll run the risk of keeping my friend waiting and go through your glass-houses after all. Lead the way, please."
Once again Murshee shot a keen, suspicious glance at his companion. He appeared to be reassured, however, for he walked swiftly down the gravel path. His strange lameness seemed to have left him, though Lethbridge could not help noticing that he shuffled along like a man who is more or less lame. He took care to hang behind Murshee, but Lady Goshe's warning did not trouble him so much, for, late as it was, gardeners were still at work in most of the glass-houses. The electric lights overhead were burning brilliantly; most of them gleamed through a mass of flowers and foliage, so that the effect was more striking and more beautiful than it would have been in the daylight. Inside that veritable fairyland of blooms Lethbridge forgot his trouble and his errand altogether. He wanted nothing better than to wander about asking questions and studying things for himself. There were banks upon banks of flowers, rows upon rows of light feathery foliage; nothing was wanting to please the eye or charm the fancy. No colour was lacking, either, and no perfume. There were plants from all parts of the world, some of which Lethbridge knew, but the majority were novelties. For the first time in his life he was lamenting his ignorance of tropical flora. No longer was he cognisant of the man by his side. He had entered into another world, where everything was bright and beautiful, and there was no trouble at all.
An assistant gardener shambled forward. He was busy sponging the leaves of a tall, graceful plant close by. Murshee appeared to regard him with peculiar disfavour.
"Who are you?" he asked. "I have never seen you before. How long have you been here?"
The man touched his wet forehead respectfully.
"Name of Lampen, sir," he said. "I have come here for a week or two to take the place of one of the men who is ill. I came down from Kew, sir. I was on holiday, and thought I might just as well make a bit of money while I was about it."
"Spoken like a true gardener," Lethbridge laughed. "I dare say I should have done the same. Marvellous show of flowers, Lampen. You have nothing to beat it at Kew."
"Nothing to equal it, sir," Lampen replied.
The man returned to his work, in which he appeared to take the greatest interest. He was rather a short person with a mass of rusty hair and a fringe of straggling whiskers round his chin. His face was swollen on either side as if he were troubled by some disorder with his teeth. At a sign from Murshee, he moved farther up the greenhouse, so that the little man and Lethbridge were left alone. With an expression of pain on his face Murshee dropped into a seat and proceeded to remove his right boot. He sat there nursing his foot on his knee, muttering that the old pain was troubling him.
"I think I'll rest for a moment or two," he said. "I'll smoke a cigarette while you ramble round the house and see all that is worth seeing."
Lethbridge was willing. He had clean forgotten Lady Goshe's warning. And, besides, no harm could happen to him so long as Lampen was in the greenhouse. He saw that Murshee was sitting on his chair, his left hand behind his head, whilst with his right he was holding a cigarette to his lips. His body was partly hidden behind the luxuriant green foliage. There could be no danger here, and Lethbridge dismissed the idea of peril to himself.
He was facing Murshee, his mind concentrated upon a blue flower buried in a mass of pale green foliage of the lightest and most graceful kind. As he stood there, without the slightest warning, something struck him with the force of a crushing blow over the region of his heart, the pain paralysed him, every nerve and muscle in his body tingled with anguish, a shower of stars danced before his eyes, and he fell headlong forward upon the mass of blossoms and lay unconscious on the damp floor of the greenhouse. The crash of falling pots aroused Murshee from his seat. He looked along till his glance reached the scene of the catastrophe.
"What on earth is the matter?" he demanded. "Has the gentleman fainted, Lampen?"
The gardener stood scratching his head, his broad face a wonderful study of alarm and perplexity.
"Blowed if I know, sir," he said. "He seemed all right a minute ago, for he was chatting to me pleasantly, when suddenly he gives a kind of sigh and falls to the ground. I don't think he is dead."
"I hope not," Murshee exclaimed. "See if you can find someone to lend a hand. I'll stay here."
"Begging your pardon, sir," Lampen replied, "I think it will be better if you leave the gentleman to me. I am an old soldier, and I was through the hospitals in the South African war. I think I shall be of more use than you."
Murshee hesitated, then grudgingly went for assistance. He had hardly vanished behind the luxuriant foliage when Lampen's manner changed entirely, and a stern, hard expression came over his face as he bent to examine the prostrate man. Lethbridge lay with his coat open. He was wearing his watch-chain in the prevailing fashion high across his waist coat. Lampen dived his hand in the top left hand pocket and pulled out a stout silver watch. The glass was smashed into atoms, and the back dented and battered as if had received a sharp heavy blow with some pointed instrument. A small, round object lay on the floor, which Lampen hastened to conceal.
"The poisonous little ruffian," he muttered. "Who would think he would have dared to play a trick like that! But perhaps he imagined he was safe because I was here. I would be a strong witness in his favour. I should have been compelled to say that he was quietly smoking a cigarette with his hands behind his head at the very moment that the thing happened. And a lucky escape, too! Another half-inch to the right and my young friend here would be a dead man. I shall have to be more vigilant in future. Fortunately there isn't much harm done—he is badly stunned by that blow over the heart. This may turn out right after all. At any rate, we can get into the house."
A couple of assistant gardeners came running up at the same moment. They managed to carry Lethbridge up to they house. He was slowly struggling back to consciousness, but breathed heavily, and had but the vaguest idea of what was taking place around. He was like a man in a prize fight knocked out of time by the peculiar blow over the heart which so many pugilists strive to deal. When he opened his eyes again with regained consciousness he found himself lying on a bed in a luxuriously-furnished room with the gardeners looking on, and Murshee apparently anxious as to the best course to be adopted.
"I'll look after him, sir," Lampen suggested. "The best thing you can do is to telephone for a doctor and ask one of the servants to bring up some brandy."
Murshee nodded his head. Despite his coolness he seemed to be puzzled about something. Something had taken place which he did not understand.
"All right," he muttered. "I'll leave Mr. Lethbridge to you, and I'll see that you have some brandy. Meanwhile, I suppose these other men can go back to their work."
Lampen nodded. A moment or two later he and Lethbridge were alone. The latter stirred uneasily and turned a questioning glance at Lampen. The warning had come back to him. He half-struggled to rise to his feet. With a familiar sort of wink Lampen laid a hand upon his shoulder.
"You are all right," he whispered. "I'll see to that. You don't recognise me? I suppose these whiskers do it."
"Great Scott!" Lethbridge muttered, "why it is Wilkinson!"
Lethbridge lay with his eyes closed wondering what was going to happen next. He had not the remotest idea what had come to him. Vaguely he wondered why he was lying there. His head ached with a dull, throbbing pain, and he had difficulty in breathing. Apart from that, he was cognisant of nothing that suggested an accident, but all other emotions were swallowed up in surprise at Wilkinson's presence.
The inspector, after a cautious glance round the room, had removed the ragged fringe of beard from his chin and also something from his cheeks which had given his face the peculiar look of plumpness which in itself had afforded a perfect disguise.
"I thought you wouldn't know me until I assumed my natural voice," he said. "Rather a clever device, I flatter myself. I have used it effectually on more than one occasion. It not only entirely alters the expression of a man's face, but it gives the voice a different inflection altogether. Well, sir, I must congratulate you upon your courage in coming here. You seem to have thrust your head into the hornets' nest with a vengeance. I thought I should have been in time, but, as a matter of fact, I should have been altogether too late if it hadn't been for a fortunate accident."
"What accident?" Lethbridge asked languidly.
By way of reply Wilkinson searched amongst Lethbridge's clothing and produced the latter's watch. He pointed out the shattered condition of the glass and a peculiar dent in the back.
"What do you think of that?" he asked.
"My good Wilkinson, I don't know what to think," Lethbridge said impatiently. "I am at a loss to know what has happened. The last thing I remember was being in one of the greenhouses looking at some of the rare flowers when suddenly there came a violent pain over the region of my heart and I suppose I fainted. Nothing of the kind has ever happened to me before, and you must admit that it is rather alarming. I had no conception that there was anything the matter with my heart. I daresay I shall get used to the knowledge in time, but I feel miserably anxious and nervous."
"So you think your heart is affected?" Wilkinson asked.
"What other conclusion can I come to?"
"You are entirely wrong," Wilkinson said cheerfully. "Your organs are as sound as mine. Doesn't this broken watch convey something to you? My dear sir, you are dealing with two of the cleverest scoundrels on the face of the earth. It is not the slightest use to look for ordinary methods with them. But for one chance in a million you would have been a dead man at this moment, and you owe your life to the fact that you wear your watch in your upper vest pocket just over the region of the heart. That glass was smashed by a revolver bullet, and the dent on the back was made by the same missile."
Lethbridge sat up suddenly.
"You don't mean that," he exclaimed.
"Indeed, I do," Wilkinson went on, "and what is more, I am in a position to prove it. Besides, you can see for yourself. Here is the bullet which I picked up by your side. You see the point is flattened as if it had come in contact with some hard substance, the substance being the back of your watch. If you will look at your upper left-hand vest pocket you will see that a small hole has been made in the cloth. Of course, such a shot over the heart would naturally produce unconsciousness; a blow in that region has ended many a glove fight. You have been the victim of an extraordinary outrage, and by all accounts ought to be a dead man at this moment. I blame myself, as I might have prevented it. But I never thought these villains would be so daring. And I have been pretty close to you all the evening."
Wilkinson spoke with the air of a man who is sure of his ground and his facts. But even yet Lethbridge could not see how this thing had happened.
"It is impossible," he said. "In the first place, there was no report of firearms or I should have heard it. In the second place there were only three of us in the greenhouse, and nobody would have dared to fire at me so long as you had been present. Of course I know that Ram Murshee is a dangerous character, but—"
Lethbridge shrugged his shoulders by way of conclusion. Wilkinson stood with a smile on his face.
"Quite right, so far," he said. "There was no report. By using a certain kind of powder, it is possible to discharge a revolver without making the slightest noise."
"I am prepared to grant that," Lethbridge said. "But that leaves me as much in the dark as ever. Much as I mistrust and dislike Murshee, I am bound to be fair. I am prepared to swear that he sat back in his chair with his hand behind his head, and that he never raised a finger the whole time. It is impossible for a man to fire without the use of his hands."
"So it would seem," Wilkinson said drily. "Nevertheless, Murshee is the culprit, as you will discover before long. I can't say how the thing was done, but I have a shrewd idea, and I shall be able to tell you sooner or later. Unless I am mistaken, Mr. Ram Murshee is well known in another part of the world. It is necessary to look up his antecedents. Scotland Yard keeps a pretty accurate description of most cosmopolitan scoundrels, and I shall very soon find out about Mr. Murshee."
"But you have no connection with Scotland Yard," Lethbridge suggested. "You are a local man."
"Oh, yes, I have, sir," Wilkinson replied. "It is my misfortune rather than any fault to be stationed in the country. I had a much better position in the Metropolitan Force than I have now; indeed, I may say without egotism that some of the greatest criminal mysteries of the day have been entrusted to me. But my health gave way, and I was removed from London. It was rather a wrench at first, but I was always passionately fond of flowers and gardening, and so my disappointment has not been without its recompense. I am like the famous Mr. Bucket in that way. Now and again the authorities of Scotland Yard consult me, but on the whole I have a very easy time. I suppose I know almost as much about flowers as you do yourself. But I am wandering from the point. I wanted you to know why I have more power and latitude than the usual local inspector. I came up to town yesterday morning and told the people at Headquarters what I knew about the outrage on Mr. Payn. I wished to be put in charge of the case, and they were good enough to comply. They saw at once that I was the proper person for the job, and they were not far wrong. There is one thing I have discovered already—the attack upon Mr. Payn had nothing to do with you."
"Thank you very much," Lethbridge said drily. "I think I told you that at first. At any rate, I am glad this case has been placed in your hands, and I am sure that you will do your best with it. But my curiosity is not satisfied even yet. How did you manage to get here?"
"Oh, that is easily explained," Wilkinson replied. "I went to one of the head men at Kew and told him that I wanted to come here for a day or two in the capacity of assistant gardener. I assumed that most of the gardeners in a place like this would be recommended from Kew."
"But if there were no vacancy?" Lethbridge suggested.
"In that case, I had to create one," Wilkinson said coolly. "There was no vacancy, but it was easy to induce one of the subordinates here to sham illness for a few days for a consideration. I picked out my man all right, and the temptation was more than he could resist. Then I came along with my credentials from Kew, and the rest was easy. But I must confess that I was astonished to find you here."
"And I can return the compliment," Lethbridge smiled. "You haven't satisfied my curiosity yet. Your manner of obtaining employment was as ingenious as it was simple. But how did you hit upon the trail? How did you find out so soon that the solution of the mystery which surrounds the attack upon Payn was likely to be found here? I blundered upon the track by accident. But I was lucky enough to obtain some exclusive information."
"Well, so had I, for that matter," Wilkinson replied. "You seem to have forgotten the foreign cigarette paper and the torn scrap of silk. With important clues like these in my hands, it would be a pity if an old hand like myself didn't find out something before long. When I found this Sir Montagu Goshe was an enthusiastic grower of flowers I began to see my way more clearly. But I will tell you more presently. I must try to get the job of looking after you, because at this time of night it may be impossible to obtain a nurse. I wasn't boasting when I said that I had had experience of hospital work in the Boer War. In point of fact I was all through it."
"Detectives at the Front?" Lethbridge exclaimed.
"Why not? Detectives are wanted everywhere."
There was no time for further explanations, for footsteps were heard outside and a moment later Murshee appeared with a frightened-looking servant who carried a decanter of brandy on a tray. The little man looked cool and collected. There was a suggestion of sympathy on his face which Wilkinson did not fail to admire. The detective had dropped back again into the gardener. He stood awkwardly, as if he felt out of place and were over-awed by the magnificence of his surroundings. He felt, however, safe in his disguise. Nothing escaped his alert attention.
"Are you feeling better?" Murshee asked. "Most extraordinary affair. Have you ever had anything of the kind before?"
It was hard work for Lethbridge to speak naturally, but he managed it. To remain calm in the presence of the man who had deliberately attempted to take his life without showing signs of anger was difficult. But it behoved Lethbridge to be cautious, and his voice did not betray him.
"Never," he said. "Perhaps the heat of the greenhouse was too much for me. Probably it was only a violent attack of indigestion. I have heard of such cases."
"You have no pain?" Murshee asked.
Despite his coolness and callousness he could not repress a certain puzzled anxiety. The more light Lethbridge made his trouble the more bewildered he was. To Lethbridge's fears that he was giving a great deal of trouble and had better go away at once Murshee turned a deaf ear. Evidently he wanted to ascertain why his murderous plot had failed.
"I wouldn't do anything rash," he suggested. "Often the most physically robust have the weakest constitutions. I should blame myself very much indeed if you were allowed to go away without first seeing a doctor. I have telephoned for one, and he has promised to come round at once."
Lethbridge murmured his thanks as best he could. A few minutes later the doctor arrived, and after a careful examination of his patient professed to be as puzzled as Murshee had been. He could find not the slightest heart weakness. Every organ was sound and regular. Indigestion might be at the bottom of the mischief, but there was no cause for alarm, though, in the opinion of the medical man, it would be well if Lethbridge stayed where he was till morning.
"You will be all right here," he concluded. "Perhaps you would like to have someone to look after you. It is hardly a case for a nurse, but if anybody—"
The doctor looked about him and slightly shrugged his shoulders. Lethbridge caught a palpable wink from Wilkinson, and the hint conveyed by it was not lost upon him.
"Probably this man," said Lethbridge, as he indicated Lampen, "wouldn't mind sitting up all night with me if I made it worth his while. He has had some experience in hospital work. In fact, he went through the Boer war. I suppose Sir Montagu wouldn't mind? I am sorry to give all this trouble."
"Not at all," Murshee said promptly. "Lampen will stay, of course. If anything is wanted during the night, I will show him where my room is."
A few minutes later the doctor and Murshee departed, and Lethbridge and Wilkinson were left alone together. The latter's eyes gleamed with amusement and satisfaction.
"Now this is a piece of real good luck," he exclaimed. "But I don't mind confessing that if it were not for luck many of the greatest crimes of the last fifty years would never have been discovered. It won't be my fault if I don't learn a great deal more before morning. I have the run of the house now, and if anybody happen to catch me where I may have no right to be I shall easily be able to make excuses. Now, do you know anything about the plan of the house? Can you tell me how to get into the library without attracting attention? I want to know what those two scoundrels will have to say to one another when they come to discuss this matter presently."
"Do you mean Sir Montagu and his accomplice?" Lethbridge asked.
"Precisely. It would be a thousand pities to waste such a glorious opportunity as this."
"But Sir Montagu Goshe is not here," Lethbridge said. "He went off in a tearing hurry some time ago in a motor. He seemed to be very much upset, judging by the expression of his face. I stood on the lawn and watched him, but he couldn't see me. You may depend upon it, there is something in the wind of which we know nothing."
"Oh, indeed!" Wilkinson said. "But many things happen in an hour or two, especially with a man who owns an eighty horse-power car. Sir Montagu has returned, and I'd bet my bottom dollar those two fellows are now in the library. They were naturally concerned about the failure of their scheme."
"What scheme?" Lethbridge asked. "I don't understand why I should be the victim of a murderous attack."
"Ah, that is because you don't comprehend the class of men you are dealing with. These men are foreigners, utterly unscrupulous, and flatter themselves they have hit upon a plan which it is impossible for any ordinary intellect to unravel. I begin to feel that this Golden Rose affair is at the bottom of the whole thing. I am almost certain that the Rose is a sacred emblem, and that these men are trying to recover it much in the same way as those three Hindus in the 'Moonstone' planned for the recovery of the great diamond. However, we shall know presently. At any rate, I shall not sleep to-night until I learn more of what those fellows are driving at. Wait till the lights are out, and I shall start on my tour of inspection."
The next half hour or so passed in idle speculation. Then Wilkinson opened the door of the room and looked out into the corridor. Everybody appeared to have gone to bed, though there was one light still burning dimly in the hall. Wilkinson slipped along the corridor and walked boldly down the stairs. If he were discovered he could readily assign a reason for his presence. Though the house was perfectly quiet, a light gleamed here and there in the reception-rooms. A steady breeze drifted across the spacious hall as if some window were open. Wilkinson paused and tried to locate the quarter from which the draught was coming. It proceeded from the dining-room, which appeared to be empty. It did not matter whether Wilkinson was discovered there or not. He saw that the sideboard was littered with bottles or decanters, and he could plausibly assert that he had come for one of these. There was only one light burning in the dining-room, but a drawn blind swayed and fluttered in the breeze and indicated the open window. As be stood listening intently, he could hear the hum of voices in a room on the other side of the hall. Possibly this was the library, and here perhaps Sir Montagu and his accomplice were in consultation. The theory was rendered the more probable by the smell of tobacco which seemed to fill the place. Greatly daring, Wilkinson took a step or two towards the room door and bent his head to listen. But no more than a confused murmur of voices reached his ears. He could not make out in single word. But it was clear that two persons on the other side of the stout partition were discussing something in a low and cautious voice. Wilkinson was nonplussed. He did not wish to miss a precious opportunity which might not recur.
However, he was not at the end of his resources. If he could reach the outer air he might find the library window open. These people liked fresh air, or they would have seen that the dining-room window was fastened. Wilkinson made up his mind without delay. He walked across the dining-room and out on to the gravel path beyond. So far fortune favoured him.
He passed with noiseless step round the house until he came to the place where he judged the library windows to be. He had hardly hoped for such luck as this, but one of the windows was opened and the blind pulled up. He saw figures seated at either side of the table.
Wilkinson bent himself eagerly to listen.
It was to be a night of adventures and surprises, and Wilkinson drew himself upright and took a deep breath directly his eye fell upon the man whom he concluded to be Sir Montagu Goshe. He had not come with the expectation of meeting an old friend, but his eyes sparkled and his lips compressed grimly as he overhauled the man in evening dress. But he was here to listen. It might be possible to act later.
The two men were smoking moodily, and for a while there was a long pause. Murshee sat tilted back in an armchair, his legs crossed and his bare feet working as if they had been a pair of hands.
"You made a great mistake," he said at length. "You ought to have left the matter severely alone. What difference does it make to us! The old man is a fool as well as a knave. And surely you are rich enough without running all this danger for a paltry flower."
"It isn't a paltry flower," Sir Montagu responded angrily. "It is the blossom of the universe. There is nothing like it in Europe, nothing like it on this side of the Indian Ocean. Besides, it belonged to me; it was intended for me, and I was prepared to pay for it. That the old man stole it and pretended that he had grown the flower is a mere detail. Besides, it was the young man's own fault."
"I don't agree with you," Murshee replied. "He was only doing the best he could for himself, and that pious old fraud of an uncle of his. And don't forget that he actually found the Golden Rose. He didn't steal his. He invented it."
A sardonic smile crossed Goshe's face.
"And destroyed it afterwards like the sentimental fool he was," he remarked. "Strange what men will do when they happen to fall in love with a pretty, foolish face! Take my own case as an example in point. I thought I was proof against that kind of thing. And yet, knowing how dangerous it was, I must needs go and get married. I daresay if her ladyship had thrown herself at my head I should have laughed at her. But one is always disposed to make great sacrifices to obtain what one cannot get. But I am growing sentimental. I suppose all the worry I have gone through has affected my brain. What I want to know is how our scheme failed to-night."
Murshee shrugged his shoulders.
"For the life of me I can't tell you," he replied. "It is inexplicable. You know what my aim and eye are. You know that I have never made a mistake before. I didn't like this thing because there was no necessity for it, and I hate taking unnecessary risks."
"What risk?" Goshe sneered.
Once more Murshee shrugged his shoulders.
"There was no crime ever committed yet which is incapable of solution," he said. "You think I could commit a murder with a thousand people looking on without the slightest chance of detection. Well, I believe so, too. The thing has been done over and over again; the secret has been well preserved. But there always comes a time when one goes at step too far, and I have an uneasy feeling that we have overdone it. I felt that before I started. I felt that before I put my hand to it to-night."
"And you mean to back down?" Sir Montagu asked fiercely. "You will abandon the whole thing for a mere superstition? A nice confession for a man of your ability to make. Simple because you have failed once, you lack the nerve to try again. Well, it will be your loss, not mine. You would have had five thousand pounds if the job had been successfully accomplished. You could have returned to your own country to spend a life of luxury and ease ever afterwards. It is sickening to hear you talk like this."
Murshee wriggled uneasily in his chair. His face was hard and sullen, and the look he turned on his employer was the reverse of friendly.
"I don't like it," he said. "I know I shall fail. Something at the back of my mind tells me so. You may call me superstitious. Perhaps I am. But I have always been taught that a man is not a free agent in these matters, and I have seen it work out over and over again."
Sir Montagu laughed harshly.
"You had better go to bed and sleep on it," he said. "You will be yourself again in the morning. I take a different view of it altogether. No man is infallible. He is bound to miss the mark now and then."
"I have not done so for the last twenty years," Murshee growled. "Put me to the test and I will back myself for all I am worth. And you would have been alarmed had the same thing happened to you. I made no mistake. I was as cool and collected as I am now. I could almost swear that I saw the mark over his heart where the bullet struck. He threw up his head and fell forward without a sound. And no one guessed, not even the victim himself. Even the new gardener was as much in the dark as any of us."
The listener smiled grimly. He was getting on very well indeed. A few words more and he would glean everything he desired to know. Then to his disappointment Sir Montagu rose to his feet, and jerked the end of his cigarette savagely into the fireplace. He turned towards the door.
"Oh, you madden me," he cried. "I have no patience with such sentimental folly. I am going to bed. Perhaps you will be wiser in the morning. Good-night."
There was no time to be lost if Wilkinson were to regain the house without exciting suspicion as to his movements. But Murshee had been before him. The library lights were switched out, and so was the one in the hall. Wilkinson stood erect and rigid, holding his breath and waiting for the worst. It was possible Murshee might overlook the dining-room window. If not, he would have to remain outside till morning and trust to chance or one of the maids for admission. It was a mere toss up.
But Wilkinson's lucky star was in the ascendant, for Murshee did no more than flick out the one remaining light and make his way to bed. A moment later Wilkinson was inside standing in the velvety darkness, hesitating whether he should fasten the sash or not. Murshee had forgotten to do so. No doubt if he were asked afterwards he would aver that he had not left his task unfinished. In case of eventualities it would be as well that no one should know that the window had been left open, and Wilkinson decided to close it. The smallest sound seemed menacingly loud and clear. He had his hand on the latch which suddenly dropped with a click so sharp and startling that the detective jumped back.
He muttered an expletive at his own clumsiness. He was a trifle uneasy and nervous. Then he started again as he heard the sound of someone tapping on the window pane and a small anxious voice asking for admission.
What to do, or what to think, Wilkinson knew not for the moment. Should he admit this belated woman or not? If he refused, she might make enquiries which would lead to awkward disclosures. If, on the other hand, the window were opened he could say that he had come downstairs, to get something for his patient to drink, that he had found the window open, and had taken the liberty of fastening it.
This seemed the better plan. He opened the window and immediately a woman forced her way in. It was too dark to make out her features, though Wilkinson could just discern that she was in evening dress. He could hear the rustle of her draperies and catch the faint fragrance that seemed to surround her like an atmosphere. She had come far or was frightened, for the detective noticed her quick breathing, and imagined she had her hand at her side.
"Is that you, Watson?" she gasped.
"I am one of the gardeners, madam," Wilkinson said. "I am looking after Mr. Lethbridge, the gentleman who is ill. I found the window open and was fastening it when you knocked. If I can call anybody for you—"
"No, no," the lady panted. "I am Lady Goshe. I was out for a walk in the gardens and went farther than I intended. Had I been much later I should have had to go round to the front door and ring for admittance. I don't want you to say a word of this to anybody. If you will keep silence I will reward you liberally. You understand me?"
"Yes, my lady," Wilkinson replied. "But there is no need to speak about reward. I am a stranger. Besides, I am not given to talking. If I can do anything for you—"
"You can do nothing. Only tell me if your patient is better. Is he out of danger?.....Ah, I am glad of that. I have an evening paper. There is a paragraph on the fifth page which will interest Mr. Lethbridge. He will know what to look for."
Wilkinson came very near to allowing himself to be surprised. For business reasons he did not usually encourage that emotion, but this particular case bristled with all sorts of unexpected happenings and dramatic situations. He already knew—she had told him—that he was face to face with Lady Goshe, but why she was so interested in the patient, and why she should insist upon John Lethbridge seeing a copy of an evening paper, suggested fresh trains of thought.
Another thing, too, was not lost upon the detective. He would have been blind had he failed to see the remarkable likeness between the woman he was addressing and Mary Grover. In the course of his long and varied experience Wilkinson had come across many of such coincidences, but he could not recall a single professional incident which held and fascinated him as this one did.
There was something of the poet about Wilkinson. He had an imagination beyond his class, and was, as he admitted, an enthusiastic grower of flowers. He had in hand, curiously enough, a crime which was intimately connected with the rarest and most attractive bloom known to lovers of the garden. By itself, the investigation into the loss of the Golden Rose would have sufficed to whet Wilkinson's appetite, but when the fate of two beautiful women seemed to be bound up in the same mystery, an additional incentive to energy and success was supplied.
Beyond question, the lady he was speaking to was closely related to Mary Grover. No doubt, she was a sister. But what was she doing here? How did the sister of a simply-bred country girl like Mary Grover become the wife of such a polished cosmopolitan scoundrel as Sir Montagu Goshe? This was, perhaps, a small matter in itself, a mere offshoot of the greater mystery, but as an experienced hand at the game Wilkinson knew he would have to solve this knotty point with the rest. At any rate, he took it for granted that he was in the presence of Miss Grover's sister, and that probably this unhappy woman knew more about the Golden Rose and its attendant crimes than he did. She must have known who Lethbridge was, and what mad folly had brought him to Putley Court. Otherwise, why should she have been so anxious for him to see this copy of an evening paper. Why should she tremble at all, unless she were deeply interested?
It was no part of Wilkinson's present policy to let Lady Goshe infer that he knew anything. It was his proper course to keep up his character of gardener. Accordingly he looked stupidly at Lady Goshe. He was trying to appear as if he regarded such a request as natural.
"Of course," Wilkinson said respectfully. "Anything your ladyship liked to ask I should be pleased to do. And you can rely upon my saying nothing to anybody."
Lady Goshe did not appear to be listening. She had forgotten her anxiety and her fears. She stood pondering deeply some subject which occupied her mind to the exclusion of everything else. Wilkinson thus had an opportunity of studying her features. He was struck by the pensive beauty of her face, and more especially by its sadness. There was no suggestion of ill-temper or moodishness, nothing but the resignation of a noble woman who has known great sorrow and carries it with calmness and dignity.
Wilkinson laughed to scorn the notion that she could be a criminal. Lady Goshe had found out her mistake when it was too late. She had come to learn many dreadful things in connection with that mysterious household, and would speak when the time came if there was any need to do so. She turned to Wilkinson with a flash of resolution in her eyes.
"I wonder if you could help me?" she asked. "You don't live here, I believe, and I gather from your name that you are a Scotsman."
Wilkinson replied that such was the case.
"Ah, I thought so," Lady Goshe went on. "I daresay you come from some quiet part where one can live in seclusion without attracting much attention. Supposing I had a friend who had suffered a great deal and wished to go to a retired spot where she could grow a few flowers and have a complete rest, do you happen to know of such a retreat? It would be necessary, of course, to observe strict secrecy, for the lady I speak of does not want even her intimate friends to know where she is. But how absurd that I should be talking to you like this! Fancy one in my position discussing such questions with an assistant gardener in the dead of the night!"
There was a touch of scorn in the speaker's voice. She appeared to be soliloquising under her breath as if she had forgotten Wilkinson's very existence. And yet the quiet irony in her tones and the look of resigned melancholy on her face intensified her loneliness. For that she was talking about herself he did not doubt. He was about to say something guarded and discreet when Lady Goshe turned upon him almost angrily.
"Go back to your patient," she commanded imperiously, "and forget all you have heard. Don't think me ungrateful. I hope to show you later that such is not the case. If I want you I shall know where to look for you, and I know you will be silent as to what has happened this evening. I daresay you imagine—but what does it matter what you think? I wish you good-night."
Wilkinson knew that he was dismissed and returned to his patient's bedside without further delay. Lethbridge was awaiting his return. He was feeling practically himself again and not a bit the worse for his accident.
"Well?" he asked eagerly; "any luck?"
"I haven't been wasting my time," Wilkinson replied. "I managed to get out of the house by the dining-room window and along the terrace to the library where Sir Montagu Goshe and Murshee were in conference. It was easy to hear what was going on for the window was open and I managed to pick up a deal of useful information. In the first place, as I had expected, Murshee is something more than a servant in the house. He is an accomplice on almost equal terms with the master; indeed, from the way in which he spoke to Goshe, he might have been the leading spirit. I didn't learn all I wanted to: in fact, one rarely, if ever, does on such occasions. But I gleaned enough to go on with. Murder and nothing less than murder is in the air, though Sir Montagu Goshe lacks the courage to carry out the crimes which he plans. But Murshee is prepared to do anything for money. From what I could gather he is anxious to leave England, and if he brings off a certain coup he is to have five thousand pounds for his trouble."
"Something to do with me?" Lethbridge suggested.
"Very much so, indeed, sir. To put it plainly, you are to be removed. These fellows know all about you, and have more than a shrewd idea why you are here. But we may dismiss that for the present. They are not going to succeed, and I begin to see my way to clearing this thing up. My adventures, however, did not end there, for I have just had a long and confidential interview with Lady Goshe herself."
Lethbridge sat up interested and eager.
"Did you notice anything striking about her?" he asked.
"Certainly," Wilkinson replied. "To begin with, she is exceedingly beautiful. I should say she is a woman of the highest attributes, and I am ready to go bail that she holds her husband and all his ways in abhorrence. If she knows what is going on, she is assuredly not in sympathy with it. But I take it that this is not the meaning of your question. What you want to know is if I saw anything in the lady which reminds me of somebody else."
"That's it," Lethbridge said.
"Well, her ladyship is extremely like Miss Grover; in fact, the likeness is so striking that they must be sisters, I daresay the fact was not lost upon you. Really, this is the most fascinating case I ever came across. By means of that rare volume on gardening you find your way into this house, feeling that here lies the clue to the attack upon your uncle and the disappearance of that extraordinary flower of his. You are surprised to find that Miss Grover has a sister here who could tell us much about things if she were so disposed. You know something about Miss Grover?"
"Not so much as I should like," Lethbridge murmured.
"No, but still you know a great deal. By the accident of circumstance you have been thrown together with the young lady in a way which would tend to enlist her confidence. She never told you, I suppose, that Lady Goshe was her sister?"
"I never knew," Lethbridge replied, "that she had a sister. She didn't—but stop, now I come to recollect it, she did mention such a thing. In a way, our conversation was more or less confidential, not to say sentimental. And I recall the fact now that she was beginning to say something about 'my unfortunate sister' when she suddenly changed the conversation. Miss Grover must know that her sister is most unhappily circumstanced. But I don't believe she can know as much as we do. However, it will be easy to find out. We can't stand upon ceremony now. I suppose Lady Goshe did not allude to Miss Grover in any way? She didn't mention her relationship?"
"Oh, dear, no. She merely spoke as if she were very unhappy. She suggested to me, more or less indirectly, that her life was very miserable, and that the time was at hand when she would have to end it. I guess she will hide herself in some out of the way place where Goshe couldn't follow her. But I am wandering from the point. I am sure that Lady Goshe knows all about you, because she gave me this copy of the 'Evening Standard' with an intimation that you would find information of the deepest interest to you on page five. I suppose she meant that as a kind of warning, thinking, perhaps, that a humble gardener like myself would not know what she meant. But you had better take the paper and see."
Lethbridge grasped at the sheet and turned back to page five. A smothered groan broke from his lips.
"Nothing wrong, I hope?" Wilkinson asked anxiously.
"Oh, but it is dreadful," Lethbridge said. "Listen to this—but you had better read it—it won't take long."
Wilkinson held out his hand for the paper. On the top of the first column of page five was a paragraph with a heavy heading that caught his eye immediately—
"THE MANCHESTER OUTRAGE.
"DEATH OF THE VICTIM.
"Information has just come to hand that Mr. Jasper Payn, the eminent horticulturist of Manchester, died this afternoon from the effects of the wounds inflicted upon him during the recent outrage. Mr. Payn was much worse yesterday, and his doctor only held out the slightest hopes of his recovery. Towards afternoon a serious relapse followed, and the unfortunate gentleman died without regaining consciousness or saying a single word likely to lead to the arrest of the murderer. All sorts of rumours are afloat in the neighbourhood, but nothing definite or trustworthy had been ascertained up to the time of going to press. The affair is still wrapped in mystery, and so far as the police know there seems to be no motive for a crime which was as unnecessary as it was brutal. There were no valuables of any kind in the house and nothing is missing. Mr. Jasper Payn was a man entirely without enemies. He had very few acquaintances, and had devoted the best part of his life to the pursuit of the new and fantastic in the growth of flowers and plants. In fact, Mr. Jasper Payn has spent a large fortune on his hobby, and at one time lived on his own estate at Beckenham Hall. He possessed, perhaps, the finest library in England relating to matters horticultural. This library was disposed of some time ago, and most of the best books found their way into the hands of Sir Montagu Goshe, of Putley Court, the millionaire, whose boast it is that he possesses the most beautiful garden in the country. All these facts merely tend to make the affair more inexplicable than ever, and the police are frank in their statement that they have no clue to the miscreants. The inquest will take place to-morrow."
"A most unfortunate business," Wilkinson commented. "But you are in no way to blame, as I shall be able to prove when the time comes. Nobody but I know you are implicated in the business, so that you have nothing to fear."
Lethbridge was not quite so sure of that, though he kept his thoughts to himself. Mary Grover was aware of certain things. She had let him know more or less plainly that she did not altogether acquit him of connexion with the crime. It was the irony of fate that the person in the world in whose eyes Lethbridge wanted to justify himself was the very one who regarded him with deepest suspicion. Still, he had Wilkinson on his side. He was eager to get away at once and clear himself in Mary's eyes. He rose and began to dress himself.
"I cannot stay any longer," he exclaimed. "I must go back to Manchester. Besides, I am wasting time here and running not a little risk. But for a mere accident I should not be talking to you now. And my interests and the interests of justice are safe in your hands. Nobody has the least idea that the humble gardener, Lampen, and the famous detective, Inspector Wilkinson, are one and the same person. So far as I can see, you are secure."
"I am not certain of that," Wilkinson said. "Don't forget that I have two of the cleverest scoundrels in the world to deal with. I have taken the precaution to disguise myself; in fact, my disguise was so perfect that you didn't know me. But those two fellows had probably been hanging about Manchester for weeks. They must have known that poor Mr. Payn and myself were on good terms. It is possible they have penetrated my disguise. If they could get us both out of the way they would be safe. But this is not a matter to be settled in five minutes. Try to get a little sleep and leave me to think it over."
Lethbridge smiled bitterly at the suggestion.
"No more sleep for me till I have got to the bottom of this business," he said. "I feel as if I shall never want to close my eyes again. And don't forget that we have come very near to discovering the hiding place of the Golden Rose. I know that I was very close to it tonight; in fact, but for that pistol shot, there is little doubt that I should have discovered it. Sleep is out of the question."
By way of proving this, Lethbridge threw himself on the bed. In less than five minutes he was fast asleep, and Wilkinson was left alone to ponder the problem which held such a fascination for him. In spite of his professional training, he walked up and down the room for half an hour thinking out certain points that refused to be unravelled. The room was getting hot, and he opened the door and walked into the corridor.
It was deadly quiet with the intense silence which broods everything before dawn. Then Wilkinson, as he stood listening, thought he could hear the soft, subdued noise of a woman sobbing gently as if her grief were ebbing away, and she were trying to meet the inevitable. There was no mistaking the sound, and Wilkinson crept along the passage in order to locate it. Before he had taken many steps a door suddenly opened, and Murshee appeared carrying a candle in his hand. A bundle of wraps was slung over his shoulder, and he was attempting to balance a Gladstone bag on top. He looked grim and determined. There was an evil light in his eyes as he walked along noiselessly, for his feet were bare, as Wilkinson could see in the faint gleam of the candle. Murshee disappeared down the stairs, and eight or ten minutes later Wilkinson heard the hum of a motor as it came crunching over the gravel. Then Murshee whistled softly. A current of air showed the door was open, and almost immediately Sir Montagu Goshe was seen leading his wife by the arm. He had her in close grip, as if he were a policeman and she a prisoner in his custody. Lady Goshe was cloaked as for a journey, and as Sir Montagu carried a candle, Wilkinson saw the settled frown upon his forehead as he dragged his wife along. She paused at the head of the stairs in a kind of feeble protest.
"Again I ask you where we are going," she said. "I implore you to be candid with me."
"And again, I am not going to tell you," Sir Montagu said. "Why do you want to know? What does it matter where you are? You say you cannot rest here, and would be happier elsewhere. You are going elsewhere, my lady. Make up your mind to that. You know too much. Oh, yes, you know a good deal too much. And I don't trust you. What were you doing outside to-night? Come, that is a plain question."
Lady Goshe started. The indignant flush left her face; her features were white and her lips unsteady.
"What do you mean?" she faltered.
"You know perfectly well what I mean. Do you think you can fool me in this way? I know what is the matter with you—you have got too much conscience. You haven't got it under proper control. You promised to love honour and obey me at the altar. You seem to ignore that you are my wife. Good heavens! when I think what a fool you are, and what interests I have at stake, I could take you by the throat and crush the life out of you. I have been an idiot. I have been too easy and lenient. Every night I came back from the city I expected to find you had taken somebody into your confidence and that the police were after me. But I will have no more of that. I will put you in a place where you will be well looked after, but where you won't be allowed to open your mouth wide. If you do, it will be the worse for you. But why stand here arguing like this when everything is ready? The motor is waiting for us."
Lady Goshe looked despairingly around her. She was a prisoner in her own house. She was about to be led away to a fate which she hardly dared to contemplate. She broke from her husband's grasp and confronted him with a steady gaze.
"You are right," she said bitterly. "I am a fool, and a weak and cowardly one at that. I ought to have spoken before; I ought to have remembered that I had at duty far beyond anything that a woman owes her husband. I ought to have spoken the truth at any cost. But it is not too late."
"Isn't it?" Sir Montagu snarled. "I think you are wrong. But, come along, there is a limit to my patience. And you ought to know what I am capable of when I lose my temper. The car is waiting. Must I carry you?"
Lady Goshe walked slowly towards the top of the stairs. She realised that a protest was a sheer waste of time. She knew she was to be carried into captivity, and put up a quiet prayer for help in her peril. As she went down the stairs she did not dream that Wilkinson was behind her. The detective was not the man to allow a useful witness to be spirited away without an effort to prevent it. He was outside before Lady Goshe was stowed away in the car and sped swiftly down the drive towards the road. A score or more of plans rose in his mind, only to be discarded one after the other. He reached the road at length and sat down breathlessly to scheme out a solution of the difficulty in the course of the next five minutes. If he could stop the car or break it down, or injure it in some way, it might give him time to find out what was Lady Goshe's destination. Then he sprang to his feet and raced along the road for the best part of a mile on the off-chance of meeting a policeman to whom he might disclose his identity, and whose assistance he might command. But the road was deserted. The night was pitch dark, and the houses on either side of the way were few and far between. At this point he literally stumbled over some tools which had been carelessly left by workmen engaged in mending the road. There were one or two picks and shovels along with some fencing, a tangle of which lay in the hedge. It was barbed wire, as Wilkinson saw with a savage delight. He dragged it across the road and sat down to await events. From afar came the steady humming of the car, and Wilkinson set his teeth together grimly prepared for the event.
So far as Wilkinson could judge, no great danger was likely to arise from his experiment. If the worse came to the worst, it would only mean the entangling of the wire with the wheels of the machine, no more than a ruined tyre or two. But the detective was not so easy in his mind when it dawned upon him that the car was moving at a tremendous pace. He could see the lights a quarter of a mile away dancing over the road. They seemed to rise and fall as if leaping along, and Wilkinson cursed as he foresaw the possibility of catastrophe. What on earth were they moving at that pace for? What reason could there be for this breakneck hurry? They had started deliberately, and Wilkinson was quite at a loss to understand why they were running this terrible risk.
Ought he not to give the people in the car notice of their peril? He would have dragged the wire away at the hazard of the upsetting of his plans, but there was no time to do this unless he wanted to lose his own life into the bargain.
The car came with the steady roar of an express engine, the big acetylene lights in front oscillating violently. Wilkinson could only hope fervently that there would be no loss of life. Suddenly the front of the car rose with a violent leap; there was a tearing, grinding sound, and the great body came suddenly to a standstill, balanced on its side. As far as Wilkinson could tell in the darkness, the occupants were thrown violently into the hedge; there was a cry or two and a muttered oath, and then everything was still. Wilkinson, with all his coolness and courage, felt faint and sick for the moment. Two of the lamps were smashed and extinguished, but the tail light was burning. The detective wrenched it from its place and flashed the clear white rays over the scene of the disaster.
Murshee lay on his face without the slightest movement. Sir Montagu Goshe was sitting up with his two hands pressed to his head, as if he were trying to realise what had happened. At first Wilkinson could see nothing of Lady Goshe, but found her presently in a ditch as if she were asleep. There were no marks of violence, but a horrible fear filled his heart. He began to wonder if he were not actually guilty of murder.
As Wilkinson stood wondering how to obtain assistance, he thought he could hear the noise of hoofs coming along the road. The beat of horses' feet became more pronounced presently. Evidently there were a good many animals, possibly a string of market gardeners' carts on their way to London. A few seconds later and the first wagon hove in sight, with a light on either side of it. Wilkinson could see a huge yellow van behind the horses, then another, and another. He caught a hum of conversation, with a few snatches of song. Then there was a sort of snarling cry which could only have proceeded from the throat of a wolf. Wilkinson realised that he had happened upon a travelling circus. He stood with his arms upraised, and called out to the driver of the foremost van.
"Hallo, there!" he exclaimed. "There has been a nasty accident. A motor car has come to grief, and the people are badly injured."
The driver of the car responded with what sounded like a brutal oath, but he pulled up and jumped down from his perch on the shafts of the van. The whole cavalcade was blocked by this time, and a score or so of grimy hands came forward to see what was the matter. A babel of confusion arose at once. Everybody suggested a different course. Wilkinson raised the big lamp above his head and flashed it around the circle of swarthy faces.
"It is no use wasting time," he said impatiently. "I suppose you've got a living van or two here, haven't you? And the proprietor is with you?"
"I guess Barker is asleep," one of the helpers said. "We might get him to turn out for one of these gentlemen. But we are not going very much farther. There is a field close by where we pitch our tent to give two performances to-day."
"Go and wake up Mr. Barker," Wilkinson commanded. He had forgotten that he was an assistant gardener, and spoke in his crispest and most official manner. The circus followers hesitated. Then Wilkinson repeated his command, and two of the men moved off slowly down the line of resplendent yellow vans. A few minutes later a big man with an enormous waxed moustache, dressed in a suit of amazing checks, his many-coloured tie ornamented with a diamond pin, bustled pompously to the front, and demanded to know what was wrong. His manner was not engaging and his language far from choice. But he was generously disposed when he heard what had taken place.
"Poor chaps," he muttered. "I'll see what I can do, mister. Clear the road for a minute or two so that the vans can get into the field yonder, and I'll get my own car up here so you can put these gentlemen in without carrying them far. I know what it means to be jolted over a country road with a broken leg. We have plenty of accidents in our line, and most of us know what to do. You know the neighbourhood, and we don't. You cut off and find a doctor, and we'll help these poor people into the vans. There isn't much room, but we'll make them as comfortable as possible."
The suggestion was kindly, and Wilkinson was only too pleased to avail himself of it. He knew that the victims of his audacious scheme would be fairly well cared for, and it was essential to procure a doctor without further delay. It would be necessary to explain to the medical man how the accident had come about, and therefore the best plan was to go to the nearest police station and ask for the doctor attached to the force. He could tell them a thing or two without saying too much. It would be as well, too, to have the services of John Lethbridge. He turned on his heel and ran swiftly down the road towards Putley Court. Day was beginning to break rapidly. The east was turning from purple to violet, and a saffron light glowed along the horizon. The mansion stood still and silent in the pearly dawn, the big hall door wide open. Yet no sign of a servant was visible. But it was no time for caution, and Wilkinson went upstairs to Lethbridge's bedroom, and burst in, hot and breathless.
"What on earth has happened?' he demanded.
"It is all my fault," Wilkinson gasped, "I have been too clever. But perhaps I had better explain..." After he had told John briefly what had happened he added, "I had no notion they would travel at such a rate, for they didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to start. I had to take some risk. I couldn't afford to lose such an important witness as Lady Goshe, and for all I knew they might have been spiriting her out of the country."
"I don't think you need worry about that," Lethbridge said grimly. "You will have plenty of opportunity to lay your plans for the future. But what do you want me to do? What do you propose to do yourself?"
"I am going for the police doctor," Wilkinson explained. "I can make myself known, and the people here will give me every assistance. I can talk to the doctor as I couldn't talk to an ordinary practitioner. What I want you to do, if you feel up to it, is to go to the scene of the trouble and hang about and keep your eyes open. There is a chance that no real damage has been done. And if the car is able to travel, as it might be, these people might get away almost immediately. But don't worry about it unless you feel equal to the strain."
By way of reply, Lethbridge tumbled out of bed and began to dress at once. He declared that he had recovered from the effects of the trouble of the previous evening, and was only too anxious to be out and doing something once more. All he wanted to know was which way to go, and as to the rest, that could be left to himself.
"That's all right," Wilkinson said approvingly. "You are worth any money to me at the present moment. I couldn't confide in anybody else, and for obvious reasons I don't want to tell the police too much. You can't mistake the road. Turn to the right after you get through the lodge gates, and about a mile farther on you will see the field where the circus tent is probably pitched by this time. It is marvellous how quickly those fellows get up a tent. I won't be more than half an hour at the outside."
Lethbridge needed no second bidding. He strode along the road until he came to the field, which had already been transformed almost out of recognition. A large mushroom tent was in the course of erection, a score of men straining at the ropes and as many more driving in huge iron pins. They seemed to be squabbling and quarrelling amongst themselves. Their language was picturesque and lurid, but the work was advancing by leaps and bounds, and in an incredibly short space of time the vast white structure was gleaming in the faint light of the rising sun. At the back of the tent a string of yellow wagons was being formed into a kind of square and covered with canvas. Behind these were two or three caravans, two of which were decidedly superior to the rest. They were freshly painted and decorated, their colours being subdued, not to say artistic. The clean windows were draped with muslin blinds. On the steps of one stood a big man in a loud suit, and instinctively Lethbridge knew that he was face to face with Mr. Barker, the sole proprietor of the Imperial Japanese Circus, which, according to a great flaming advertisement overhead, had performed at various times in different capitals before the crowned heads of Europe. Mr. Barker eyed Lethbridge suspiciously, and curtly enquired his business.
"There has been a motor accident, I am told," Lethbridge said. "I am afraid these unfortunate people are friends of mine. I came at once to know how they were getting on. I suppose you can tell me. Does it happen to be a serious accident?"
Mr. Barker replied that he didn't know. He had, he said, plenty to occupy his attention besides worrying himself about a pack of strangers bent upon breaking their necks by careering about country roads in the dark at the speed of an express train. But despite the circus proprietor's truculent manner Lethbridge gathered that he had left undone nothing that would mitigate the sufferings of the occupants of the car.
"Two men were in one of the tents," Barker went on. "We've done the best we can for them. We have rigged up some beds. The lady is here. My missus is looking after her herself. No, I don't think she is very much hurt, at least, not so far as I can judge. But we shall know more about that when the doctor comes. I suppose you are a friend of the family."
"I know something of Sir Montagu Goshe," Lethbridge said cautiously. "It is very kind of you to take this trouble for strangers."
"Well, it is a trouble, and that's a fact," Barker said, as he lighted an atrociously strong cigar. "But we couldn't very well do less. I hope your friend won't be long hurrying up that doctor. You see I can't do anything till he has been here."
Lethbridge gave the desired assurance and stood hesitating what to do next. Whilst trying to think of some pretext for remaining where he was, the door of the adjoining caravan opened and a girl came out. She was young, extremely light and lissom. The exquisite symmetry of her figure and the vivacious beauty of her face instantly attracted Lethbridge's attention. Worried and harassed as he was, he would have been more or less than human if such a face had not appealed to him. But, with all its beauty, there was something almost boyish about the features of the girl who gazed at Lethbridge with a glance half shy half demure, and yet wholly audacious. She was exceedingly dark, with flashing eyes. Her features were straight as if cast in the most perfect Greek mould, the parted lips showing a set of perfect white teeth. She was dressed in a short tweed skirt and Norfolk jacket cut in severely masculine fashion, and a tweed cap was set jauntily on the back of her head. She looked all that was sweet and womanly, but nevertheless there was a strong suggestion of boyishness about her; indeed, she might easily have passed for a handsome, mischievious, English schoolboy of about sixteen ears of age. Still she did not lack the subtle femininity which goes with every woman, and Lethbridge found himself looking at her with a curiosity which was, perhaps, personal, not to say rude. The genial proprietor of the circus took his big cigar out of his mouth and waved his hand towards the dainty vision. He laid the other hand on the girl's shoulder.
"I haven't the pleasure of your name, mister," he said. "Oh, Lethbridge, is it? Well, Mr. Lethbridge, let me introduce you to Vava. Might have heard of her probably. No? Well, perhaps you have been brought up in the country. You must come and see her, my dear sir, you must really come and see her. Absolutely the very finest performance of its kind in the world. There is nothing like it in England, or on the Continent, or America. It requires to be seen to be believed. For further particulars see small bills."
Mr. Barker rattled on in this theatrical way, but the girl merely smiled as if she had heard all this kind of thing many times before. Probably her performance was nothing out of the common, but it was never the way of the proprietor of the traveling entertainment to cry stinking fish, and Mr. Barker was no exception to the rule. There was, however, something distinctly unusual about the girl's appearance and manner, and she was unlike any queen of the circus ring that Lethbridge had ever come in contact with. He had seen a good many circuses in his life. He had seen many a flaunting handsome princess of the sawdust and spangles, but, never one so dainty sweet as this this Vava, standing there with an engaging smile upon her lips. Lethbridge held out his hand.
"I am pleased to meet you," he said. "I am afraid that I am giving a great deal of trouble, but the people who were in the accident are friends of mine, and I came to see what was amiss."
The girl turned an enquiring face to Barker.
"I have not heard of this," she said in excellent English. "I was very tired after last night's performance, and went to my car rather early. The poor people—is there anything that I can do for them?"
"Oh, we've done all we can for the present," Barker said bluntly. "We are only waiting for the doctor. There isn't much the matter with the two men, and my missus, who is as good as half a dozen doctors, thinks the lady will be all right in a day or two. But they will have to be removed; we can't possibly have 'em here. Do they happen to have far to go, mister?"
"Well, no," Lethbridge explained. "They started from Putley Court close here early this morning, and had hardly got a mile before the accident happened. It was fortunate for Sir Montague Goshe—"
The pretty girl leant eagerly forward and something like an exclamation came from her lips.
"What name did you say?" she asked.
"Sir Montagu Goshe. You have heard of it? He is a very rich man, well known in society, and has a lovely place here. His wife was with him at the time of the accident; indeed, Lady Goshe is enjoying Mrs. Barker's hospitality at this moment."
"Let me see her," Vava exclaimed. "Pray take me to her at once. If she knew that I was here she would be terribly grieved—"
Lethbridge stared at the speaker in astonishment. It was impossible that this pretty travelling performer could be in any way connected with Lady Goshe. Perhaps the frank and open surprise in Lethbridge's eyes conveyed some sort of warning to Vava, for she stopped with almost a sullen look on her face and declined to say any more. She recovered herself sufficiently a moment or two later to enquire in a commonplace tone who the third victim of the accident was.
"The chauffeur, of course," she suggested with a smile. "Was he badly hurt?"
"There was no chauffeur," Lethbridge explained. "The third man was Sir Montagu's private secretary. He is a foreigner who has the extraordinary name of Murshee."
The girl framed the words with her lips, but no sound came from them. All her frank, boyish vivacity had vanished. She looked pale and disturbed and troubled.
"He must not see me," she whispered. "That man must not see me. I would give all I possess rather than that. Do you hear, Barker? You must get him out of the way.'"
"What ails the girl?" Barker growled good-naturedly. "She is always up to some blessed game or another. You take my advice, Mr. Lethbridge, and don't you ever put your money in the circus business. The men are all right, but as to these ladies, you never know where to have 'em. They're all moods and fads and fancies. I thought Vava was different from the rest of them. Bless your soul, my dear, you needn't worry. I don't know who Mr. Murshee is, and I don't care; but he ain't likely to trouble you for a day or two. He is just lying on his back in bed thinking of nothing; in fact, he has no brains to think with for the present."
Lethbridge turned away as if the subject were of no interest to him. He did not want Vava to see the bewildered astonishment which had crept into his face. He was wondering if he had hit upon another bypath in the amazing mystery of the Golden Rose. When he turned again Vava was smiling graciously once more and had lost all trace of her emotion. But she was exceedingly anxious to get inside Barker's caravan and see the injured woman. A comfortable-looking dame put her head out of the caravan door and called to Vava. As the girl disappeared, Mr. Barker threw the end of his cigar away and bluntly announced that he had business to do before breakfast, and that if Lethbridge wished to remain till the doctor came he would have to provide his own amusement.
It was two hours before Wilkinson put in an appearance, followed by a dapper little man whom the detective introduced to Lethbridge as the police doctor. The latter started on the round of his patients, leaving Wilkinson and Lethbridge outside while they waited. Vava came smilingly down the steps of her caravan and went across the field towards a spinney through which a stream of water ran. Lethbridge was surprised to see that she carried a revolver in her hand. She toyed with the weapon as if she were accustomed to its use. Wilkinson's eyes followed her with critical approval.
"That is a pretty girl," he said. "Quite outside the run of those you see in entertainments of this class. What is she? She smiled at you as if she had been an old acquaintance."
"I have had the honour of an introduction," Lethbridge smiled, "which reminds me that my time has not been wasted. That girl knows Lady Goshe and is also acquainted with our mysterious friend Murshee, and for some reason is terribly afraid of him. I had better tell you all about it. It is worth hearing."
Wilkinson listened attentively. The story made a profound impression upon him. He strolled off across the meadow presently, talking to Lethbridge as he went. They were on the edge of the spinney, and could see over the hedge into the thick wood beyond. Presently the silence was broken by the sound of a revolver shot, followed by others. It was somewhat startling, but Wilkinson did not seem to be so much moved as his companion was.
"I don't think there is anything wrong," he said. "The young lady is rehearsing her performance. Probably it has something to do with revolver shooting. I am curious to see what it is, but don't particularly want the girl to know that I am interested. Come along. We may get a peep at her."
Lethbridge hesitated. He did not like the idea. But it was no time to stand on ceremony. He followed Wilkinson through a gap in the hedge and looked down a green alley at the end of which Vava lay with her hands behind her back. The revolver practice was still going on, but at last the girl rose and put the weapon in her pocket. Wilkinson drew Lethbridge back so that she could pass without their being seen, and pointed silently to her feet.
She was wearing no shoes and stockings. She walked boldly over the grass as if this habit were usual.
Lethbridge glanced at his companion. He expected to see a look of surprise on the detective's face, and was not disappointed. Yet though Wilkinson was astonished he did not appear displeased. On the contrary, he smiled and laid his hand upon Lethbridge's shoulder as if to impose silence upon him.
Though it seemed desirable to observe caution, there was no appearance of secrecy about the girl as she emerged from the copse. She sat down presently at the foot of a tree and put on her shoes and stockings again as if she had been engaged in the most natural thing in the world. Then she went off gaily towards her caravan. Wilkinson lighted a cigarette, and turned to his friend.
"Well," he asked, "what do you make of it?"
"I don't make anything of it," Lethbridge said, candidly. "I am bewildered. The more I go into this thing the worse it becomes. But perhaps this is only a coincidence. There is no reason why the girl should not walk about without shoes and stockings if she chooses. That kind of thing was a craze last year. I forget what it is supposed to cure. But certain doctors recommended it, and at more than one hydro in the North people were seen walking about in this fashion all day long. I imagine that the morning dew was considered a specific for some form of disease—consumption, perhaps."
"Nuts and hot water and the rest of that rubbish," Wilkinson said contemptuously. "There is no end to the credulity of people who industriously try to find out some way of cheating the laws of Nature. Some of the fads of these cranks are incredible. I'm not inclined to believe that Vava is bitten with any craze of that sort. I am a bit of a physiognomist, and I should say that the girl was far too healthy minded for anything of the kind. But I don't mind admitting that I should have taken the barefoot business to be a fad if we hadn't come across our interesting friend Ram Murshee. I suppose you don't know what form Vava's entertainment takes?"
The question startled Lethbridge. He was surprised to find that Wilkinson's thoughts were running in the same groove as his own.
"I don't know," he said. "I hadn't the curiosity to enquire. But I see what you are driving at, and I don't forget that this girl knows Murshee. She knows Lady Goshe, too. She was distressed to find that Murshee was here—indeed she was more than distressed, she was actually afraid! I had forgotten the circumstance for the moment; I see now how important it is. We shall have to find out why she is afraid of Murshee, and how she comes to be interested in Lady Goshe. And knowing what we do, the fact that the girl is fond of walking about with bare feet assumes a new significance."
"Can't you see farther than that?" Wilkinson asked.
Lethbridge was fain to admit that he could not.
"Yet the point is of real importance," Wilkinson said. "There is much in common between this girl and Murshee. Both of them walk about bare-footed. The woman is afraid of the man, and desires to keep out of his way. But she is also very fond of a revolver, with which weapon she is an expert, and Murshee is an expert, too. I don't know what all this means, but I have my own idea. I shall not need to wait long before my theory is put to the test. I am anxious to learn what the girl's feats are."
"I haven't the remotest notion," Lethbridge said. "I dare say we shall find out from the bills."
Wilkinson thought not. He was under the impression that Vava would be advertised in artistic fashion. Her performance would be alluded to in mysterious language, so that the patrons of the circus would have a very small idea of what they were going to see until they had paid their money. A glance at the big flaming yellow and red bills at the entrance to the field confirmed the detective's shrewd deductions. Vava was regarded as the 'star' artist of the show, for her name appeared in big letters. But she was alluded to in the vaguest terms as a performer whose entertainment was mysterious and illusive to the last degree. Moreover, there was a flamboyant paragraph offering no less a sum than a thousand pounds to any patron of the circus who was clever enough to solve the manner in which Vava's daring act was done.
"What did I tell you?" Wilkinson asked with a smile. "I knew we should be confronted with something of this kind. The girl must be clever and her performance at big hit, or Barker would not make such a fuss of her and give her a caravan to herself. Still, if my theory is correct, I think Mr. Barker's thousand pounds are imperilled. But I won't give him any anxiety on that head for two reasons. First of all, it would be inexpedient to show my hand; and in the second place I don't believe our showman could pay the money if he lost. And now, if you don't mind, I'll get hack into the town. You had better stay here."
"What is the programme?" Lethbridge asked. "I see why it will be an advantage to me to remain, but why should you go back into the town?"
"Because the time has come when I can assume more or less my own identity," Wilkinson explained. "The assistant gardener will have to disappear. It will be easy to represent myself as an officer deputed to enquire into the cause of the accident. None of these people will recognise me when I have got rid of my disguise. Meanwhile you had better hang about the place, and keep up the role that you are a friend of the injured parties. As to myself, I will be back in time for the first performance at 3 o'clock."
Lethbridge was content to leave the matter in the detective's hands. For the next hour or two he wandered disconsolately round the tents without the least interference from anybody. It was understood that he was a friend of one of the injured people waiting till such time as his services may be needed. He was feeling ill at ease, but there was plenty to occupy his attention, and the time passed none too heavily. About 1 o'clock the door of Vava's caravan opened, and the girl came down the steps. She was dressed as before, and carried herself in her free and jaunty manner, but there was an anxious look in her eyes and a perplexed frown on her white forehead. She smiled at Lethbridge in the friendliest fashion. She hesitated timidly before him.
"Can I speak to you a moment?" she asked.
Lethbridge declared that he was entirely at her service.
"Can I do anything for you?" he asked. "You can command my services."
The girl cast a grateful glance at the speaker.
"I hardly know where to begin," she said in her pleasant English. "Are you a friend of Lady Goshe? I do not want to pry into your secrets. I would do anything for Lady Goshe, who helped me at a time when I had not a single friend in the world. And you look a good man."
"I hope so," Lethbridge smiled. "At any rate, I do my best to be an honest one. You place me in rather an awkward position, because your question needs a direct answer, and I don't know whether it would be policy on my part to tell you everything."
The girl's face clouded and something like tears came into her eyes. She laid her hand upon Lethbridge's arm earnestly, almost forcibly.
"I want to do the right thing, too," she whispered. "I wish to save that poor woman, and she has the most unscrupulous enemies where she has every right to expect loving care and protection. That man Murshee—"
"You know him well?" Lethbridge asked quickly.
"Only too well," the girl said. "I have met some scoundrels in my time, but never one so calculating, cold-blooded, and heartless as Ram Murshee. I can't tell you everything. I only wish I could. But I have seen Lady Goshe, and I have tried to ascertain what her trouble is. They would not let me stay with her many minutes, and so I had to guess a great deal. If you are the kind-hearted man I take you to be, you will help me now. As a friend of Lady Goshe yourself—"
"She is no friend of mine," Lethbridge said. "Please don't misunderstand me. When I say she is no friend of mine, I mean that I never saw her till last night. It was merely the accident of circumstance that brought us together. But I have learnt enough to know that she is in dire and bitter trouble, and I will do what I can to help her. I can not say more than that, can I?"
A pleased smile dashed over the girl's face.
"I knew you were kind and good," she said. "I knew that I would not have to appeal to you in vain. But please be candid with me. Is there not a special reason why you are interested in Lady Goshe? Is it not because you know someone closely connected with her?"
It was Lethbridge's turn to smile.
"You are too clever for me," he said. "You want to keep everything to yourself and expect me to be candid and open with you. Do you think that is altogether fair? You cannot expect me, a perfect stranger, to open my innermost heart to you when I don't even know who you are. You are a pretty girl, refined and educated. I might ask you what you are doing in a show like this amongst these illiterate people. I dare say they are good-natured in their own way, but I am certain they are not the sort of folk you have been accustomed to. Are they?"
The girl hesitated and coloured. She appeared to be debating in her mind whether or not she should take Lethbridge into her confidence. Then a sigh of something like regret rose to her lips. She turned a shy face to Lethbridge.
"I cannot tell," she whispered, "really, I cannot. I only wish I could. I might have been able to dispense with all these questions if Lady Goshe had not been so ill. She told me about half what I wanted to know and I had to make out the rest for myself. If I only knew who you are I should be easier in my mind. But let me be quite sure before we go any further. You are John Lethbridge, the nephew of Jasper Payn, who used to live at a place called Beckenham Hall? If you are not, then I have said too much. But even so, you are a gentleman and will respect my secret."
In spite of his perplexity, Lethbridge smiled at the subtlety of this argument; indeed, it was too subtle for him, and he began to wish that Wilkinson were back. He was conscious that the girl was using her beauty and intelligence to draw him on without giving him a single confidence in return. She looked sweet and sincere and innocent, but he had no guarantee that she was not in league with Sir Montagu Goshe and his satellite. The only argument against this supposition was the girl's behaviour when the names of the injured parties were mentioned. For the most part Lethbridge had led a solitary life, and knew little of the wiles of women, but he had seen and heard enough to know that they could be actresses of the most consummate type where their own interests were concerned.
And yet Lethbridge felt that he was going open-eyed to destruction. He was convinced that if he staved there five minutes longer he would tell this charming creature everything that he knew.
She seemed to divine what was passing through his mind, for the sad smile trembled on her lips and the tears welled to her eyes. Lethbridge could see them standing there like diamond drops on her purple lashes.
"I implore you to be candid with me," she whispered. "I beg of you to believe that I am acting for the best. Tell me, are you the gentleman that I take you to be?"
"Well, then, I am," Lethbridge said with grudging ill-humour. "That is my name, though I haven't the least notion where you got it."
"Oh, I got it from Lady Goshe," the girl said, smiling through her tears. "At least, the poor creature mentioned your name and I guessed the rest. John Lethbridge was staying at Putley Court and in some way was in great danger. That is what Lady Goshe told me, speaking like one who walks in her sleep. And this Mr. Lethbridge knows Lady Goshe's sister Mary Grover quite well. Is not that true? Are you not the gentleman Lady Goshe is alluding to?"
"I am not going to deny it," Lethbridge laughed in spite of himself. "As I said before, you are far too clever for a simple person like me. I am John Lethbridge, and I don't mind confessing to you that I stand in considerable danger at the present moment. Do you know what the danger consists of?"
"No, I don't," the girl admitted frankly. "I wish to heaven that I did. All I can guess is that you have incurred the enmity of Sir Montagu Goshe and his shadow, and that consequently you are in peril of your life. Ah, you don't know what those men are. It would not matter to them whether you stood in their way designedly or not. You might be innocent, or you might be a bitter and unscrupulous enemy of theirs who was trying to remove them altogether. They would not mind in the least. Their methods would be just the same. And, I understand, you are in their way now. Is not that so?"
Once more Lethbridge hesitated, but the thought he might easily be over-cautious, especially as the girl knew so much.
"I am afraid I am," he said, "though I assure you I am, as you put it, absolutely innocent. A friend of mine lost something, and what he lost fell into the hands of those two men. As a result of this loss suspicion fell upon me, and I had to clear myself. I should never have connected Sir Montagu Goshe with the mystery at all, only good or ill luck placed a clue in my way. In following it up I found myself under the same roof as Sir Montagu Goshe, and there I met with an accident—at least I suppose it was an accident."
Vava smiled bitterly.
"It was no accident," she said. "I didn't know that anything had happened to you till you told me this moment, but I am certain it was no accident. Don't you share my opinion? Are you not puzzled?"
"I am," Lethbridge confessed candidly. "Yet the thing was so cleverly done that I can blame nobody. I saw nothing and may say that I heard nothing—"
"And yet you are alive to tell the tale," the girl whispered. "Ah, that indeed was a miraculous escape! It is certain that Providence was watching over you. I cannot understand how you managed to evade that revolver bullet."
Lethbridge stared in astonishment at the speaker.
"How did you find that out?" he demanded. "How can you tell that the revolver had anything to do with it. I know that the thing was a secret between myself and Inspector—I mean a friend of mine. He wouldn't have mentioned it to a soul, and I am sure I haven't."
"Ah, but I know," the girl replied half sadly, half exultantly. "Nothing is concealed from me. But I cannot tell you more at present, for I dare not. You had a marvellous escape, and it will not be my fault if you incur a like danger again. But we are wasting time. They tell me that this Murshee is not very much injured, and that if he insists upon getting about again they will not trouble to stop him. Now, it is imperative that he should not stay here longer. If he is not removed I shall have to go myself. I don't want to do that at present—at least, not for the next twenty-four hours. I could not go through my performance if that man were near. If I suspected that he might turn up in the tent and witness the performance I should break down in the middle of it. Cannot you devise some means of getting him out of the way? I don't care what measures you adopt. You may use violence if you like. It is all the same to me. But he must be removed, you understand, removed at any cost."
The girl's voice dropped to a hissing, vehement whisper. She laid her slender fingers upon Lethbridge's arm and grasped his muscles with a force that surprised him. The girl was terribly in earnest; her lips were pressed together, and there was a sombre flash in her dark eyes.
"I will do what I can," Lethbridge said. "I am sure that my friend will help me, but I must tell him what you have told me. There is not much time to lose, but you can rely upon me."
Vava looked graciously at the speaker. She placed her hand in his, and he shook it heartily. Then she ran up the steps of her caravan, throwing the door wide open so that Lethbridge could see inside. He glanced with a feeling of idle curiosity into the neat exterior. He could see a pleasantly-furnished room, and noted the books on the shelf and the flowers on the table. These latter for the most part were ordinary English blossoms, cut flowers in vases, and in the centre a longer and more graceful plant hung from an ordinary earthenware pot. Trails from the plant fell over gracefully, and on this a mass of deep yellow bloom, the sight of which caused Lethbridge to stagger and rub his eyes in astonishment. He could not doubt the evidence of his senses. The light was clear and strong, and to an expert like himself identification was easy. There in all its glory was a perfect specimen of the Golden Rose! Lethbridge took a step forward and then hesitated, uncertain what to do.
Lethbridge's first impulse was to call to the girl and ask her where the flower came from and how it was in her possession. But his prudence had not entirely deserted him, and when he was removed from the glamour of those dark eyes his common sense began to assert itself again. The discovery was in the nature of a shock. It didn't take him long to agree that the girl must be innocent, or she would never have displayed the beautiful flower in so unconcerned a fashion. She made no secret of it, for she had opened the door sufficiently wide for Lethbridge or anyone else to see into the caravan, a thing she would never have done in suspicious circumstances. In all probability, scores of persons must be aware of the existence of that splendid blossom, which so far as Lethbridge knew to the contrary was the only specimen of the kind in Europe. It was possible, of course, that Jasper Payn's Rose still bloomed in some secluded corner, but it was not to be supposed that this was the same plant.
Nevertheless, Lethbridge had his doubts. He began to wonder why it was that Vava was so anxious to get Murshee out of the way. Was she too in the conspiracy to obtain the Golden Rose? Was she also one of the daring, expert thieves, prepared to take any risks to secure the precious object? On the face of it the facts were against her, but, on the other hand, she was making no effort to conceal the unique flower which had in the last few days cost a human life in the person of Jasper Payn.
At any rate, there the Golden Rose was, and there, so far as Lethbridge was concerned, it was likely to stay. He would take no further steps. He would do nothing till Wilkinson returned. It would be unwise to act until he had the detective's advice. There was nothing more to detain him. He was beginning to feel hungry and thirsty. The lunch hour was at hand, and the majority of the employees of the circus were partaking of their midday meal. Lethbridge wandered into the road and towards the town, arriving presently at a small comfortable-looking hotel where he could sit in the coffee-room and keep watch for Wilkinson at the same time. The inn was old-fashioned, with low roof and panelled walls, and in the dark corners one could only catch the outline of a few of the customers. Most of these rose presently, and Lethbridge was left alone with a man who sat busily engaged with his cold beef. He appeared to have travelled far, for a stray gleam of sunshine showed the dust upon his boots and trousers. His face was tanned to a deep mahogany hue, his hands were hard, and a suggestion of tar upon his nails led to the inference that he had something to do with the sea. His loose collar and big knotted tie confirmed this impression.
Lethbridge made some casual remark, which was received with a frown and a drunken response on the part of the stranger. As the man prepared to leave, Lethbridge caught full sight of his face, rose from his seat, and held out his hand.
"I think I know you," he said. "We haven't met for some time, but I recollect you perfectly well. Isn't your name Ward? Didn't you once live near Beckenham Hall?"
The stranger pulled up and eyed Lethbridge fixedly.
"Never mind what my name is," he said truculently. "If you like to call me Ward you can. But I am not bound to answer to it."
Lethbridge flushed with annoyance at his rudeness. He had half a mind to say no more. But he felt sure of his man, and was in no mood to be put off like this.
"All the same, I know I am right," he said. "I don't want to thrust myself upon you, but your father was a valued servant of my uncle, and you and I were friendly when we were boys. No one on the estate took a greater interest in the gardens than you did. There was no more promising gardener than you. I heard incidentally a few years ago that you had given it up and gone to sea. But it is all right, Ward: I don't want to speak to you unless you want to speak to me."
The stranger hesitated, and his features softened. It was an honest face, but hard and reckless, as if the man had suffered a good deal at the hands of others. Perhaps he would have said more had not Lethbridge turned away as if the conversation were finished.
"All right," he said. "You keep to yourself and I'll keep to myself. Perhaps that would be better. Not that I admit that my name is Ward or anything of the sort. It may please you to know that I have heard of Mr. Jasper Payn. It used to be said that he was mad, but a gentleman all the same though as strange as they make them. But I know better. It is easy for a man with money to be straightforward, seeing that he has no cause to be anything else. But most folk are alike when they want a thing and money can't buy it. I know Mr. Payn is your uncle, and I know he is a dishonest old scamp. You can put that in your pipe and smoke it."
The speaker turned away without another word and walked out of the room, and a moment later Lethbridge saw him plodding doggedly along the road. Ward's opinion had come as somewhat of a shock, because the man meant every word he said. Lethbridge remembered when he was a happy-go-lucky, easygoing young man with a pleasant word for everybody. Formerly he had been one of the most industrious gardeners on the estate; indeed, Jasper Payn had been wont to declare that Walter Ward knew as much about the propagation of flowers and their cultivation as himself. The young man was still at Beckenham Hall when Lethbridge had shaken the dust of the place from his feet. It looked as if his future were assured. Later Lethbridge had been surprised to learn that he had thrown up his berth and gone to sea, but the incident was nothing to him, and he thought no more of it. He wondered what had caused this change in the young man, and why he spoke in such a manner about his old master. But this could have nothing to do with the troubles which were worrying Lethbridge, and he forgot the matter when Wilkinson appeared a few minutes afterwards.
The inspector had cast off his disguise, having decided to leave his sudden disappearance to account for itself. He listened to what Lethbridge had to say with more or less interest, but his manner became alert when John told him of the discovery of another specimen of the Golden Rose.
"Are you sure of it?" he asked excitedly.
"You don't suppose that with my knowledge I could be deceived. I am certain I saw a specimen of the Golden Rose in the caravan. And the strange thing is that the girl made no attempt to disguise it. The plant stood on the table for all and sundry to see, and no doubt half the people in the circus knew about it. I have been wondering whether the possession of this plant accounts for Vava's anxiety to get Murshee out of the way. But you mustn't take anything for granted. I want you to see for yourself. No doubt you will have an opportunity."
"No doubt," Wilkinson said. "At present I am much more interested in the performance Vava intends to give us. I believe that it will give me the clue I am looking for."
"To the murder of my uncle?" Lethbridge asked.
"Oh, not quite that," Wilkinson replied. "But to the attempt upon yourself, which is more important. In fact the two things are part of the same programme, and when we unravel one we shall speedily get to the bottom of the other. Now come along. I want to secure a good seat, for the nearer we are to the performance the better. The place is sure to be crowded. There never was a circus, however bad, that failed to attract the people for ten miles round."
As Wilkinson had predicted the great circular tent was packed with people when they arrived. They were late, for Lethbridge had made a mistake in the time and one or two items on the programme had already been carried out. It was at this point that Mr. Barker came forward in his politest manner and announced that he had something to say which was likely to cause disappointment, which, however, in the circumstances, his patrons and friends would be hoped, kindly overlook. Vava had been seized with sudden indisposition, which would prevent her from appearing that afternoon.
A murmur of disappointment followed. Unmistakable hisses were heard, then a thick-set figure in blue serge arose in the middle of the audience and denounced the whole thing angrily as a swindle. His manner and language were so violent that Barker lost his temper, and an exciting scene followed.
"What does it mean?" Lethbridge whispered to Wilkinson. "Why is that man so bitter? He is the fellow I was telling you of—my uncle's gardener, Walter Ward."
Certain natures dominate others, and the protests of the sailor man were not without influence upon the rest of the audience. In the ordinary course or things the simple-minded people would have been satisfied to watch the venerable items that have characterised the circus from time immemorial. Nobody had particularly wanted to see Vava's mysterious act at all costs, but now it seemed as if every man and woman had come on purpose. The square, solid figure of Walter Ward stood like a rock above an angry sea. Then, suddenly, the rest of the folk discovered that they were to be deprived of full value for their money. A murmur ran round the packed tent. Some of the younger spirits began to jeer, and almost before he was aware of the fact, Mr. Barker was called upon to suppress something like a riot.
Lethbridge stood bewildered. It was incredible that so much could be made out of nothing in so short a space of time. But Wilkinson was accustomed to this sort of thing. He rose from his seat and proceeded towards the ring.
"Come along," he whispered, "there is going to be trouble."
"Impossible," Lethbridge replied.
He honestly thought it was impossible, for he was not used to these senseless displays of folly and passion, and almost before he could realise it he was a mere unit in the crowd which was rushing forwards, intent upon damage. It mattered little what the damage was, so long as somebody suffered. And the strange part of the affair was that as soon as the sailor perceived what his headstrong impetuosity had accomplished he was the person most anxious to repair the trouble. But it is one thing to raise headlong passions, and another thing to quell them.
By this time Ward was fighting shoulder to shoulder with those in the ring to prevent further mischief. His face was set and grim. But something like a thousand people were out of hand. They began to cut the ropes of the tent, and Wilkinson, with his wide experience of danger, turned pale as he understood what this meant.
"This must be stopped at all hazards," he said. He had fought his way to Barker's side by now. "Those fools haven't the least idea what they are doing. If this tent falls, scores of people will be suffocated. Have you any firearms about?"
Barker shook his head savagely. It was not the first time he had had trouble with his audience, but never anything so serious as this. He was anxious, naturally, to save his property.
"Unfortunately no," he said. "If we had gone a little farther in the performance I dare say we should have managed. How would it be to have the lion van in, and turn a couple of them loose?"
Wilkinson vetoed the suggestion at once. He was a police officer, he said, and could permit nothing of the kind. The trouble was bad enough as it was, but anything in the shape of a panic would make it a thousand times worse. Already the women and children were growing frantic. There were frightened screams here and there mingled with the sobbing of little ones. A score or more of the circus hands were steadily holding the people in check, and it seemed as if the trouble were under control. Then there came another swift rush, and the knot of supporters of law and order in the centre of the ring were being forced back. Everything now hung upon a hair. There was a momentary pause as if the ringleaders felt that they were going too far; then clear and loud above the sudden stillness came the sharp crack of a revolver shot. It was not much in itself, but it sufficed to calm the tempest.
Wilkinson groaned in spirit. He turned angrily upon Barker to know what employee had dared to do such a thing, but Barker spread out his hands hopelessly, as much as to say that the responsibility was not his, and that he wiped his hands of the whole business.
Lethbridge turned to see whence the shot came. In the opening tent leading to the performers' quarters he could see a solitary figure mounted upon a wagon. The man held a revolver threateningly in his hand. He appeared ready to fire again, even before he had ascertained whether or not the last shot had had its effect. Lethbridge was past all surprise, and therefore it did not astonish him to see that the offender was no other than Ram Murshee.
The little man stood cool and self-possessed. He was facing the mob of rioters with perfect equanimity. There was something in his grim face and resolute air which was not without its moral effect. He had his left arm pointed straight at the seething mass of humanity. There was no saying what might have happened had not one of the hands jumped on the wagon and pulled him down without ceremony. There was a brief struggle, then the revolver was thrown through an opening in the side of the tent, and the danger was averted.
No sooner was this dramatic incident over than the infuriated crowd surged on, intent upon inflicting punishment on the man who jeopardised their lives. They had forgotten their disappointment. It was no longer part of their programme to wreck the circus tent; what they wanted now was revenge upon Murshee. The little man struggled to his feet just in time to realise his danger, swearing and muttering to himself. He was courageous as long as he had a weapon in his hand, but his pluck seemed to have deserted him. He turned and limped across the field, followed by a score or two of men, who gained rapidly upon him at every stride. His life was in imminent danger, for if he fell into the hands of his pursuers they would probably tear him limb from limb. It was not a time to weigh subsequent punishment in the balance.
Murshee twisted and turned like a hare in and out of the tents, but not only were his pursuers gaining upon him, but others cut off his retreat, and in less time than it takes to tell he had a ring of enemies around him.
There was something of the hunted beast in his appearance as he dodged and wriggled. An ugly snarl curled his Lips, and a murderous gleam lit up his eyes. To a certain extent he had lost his nerve, but was not exactly frightened. If he had had a weapon in his hand at that moment he would have faced his foes and seen the thing through to the bitter end. As it was the circle was getting narrower and narrower, and despite his agility it was only a matter of seconds before he should fall into the hands of his hunters. At bay, and utterly at a loss to know what to do next, he darted up the steps of one of the caravans and opened the door. The caravan was empty, the door was closed and locked, and a second later Murshee was grinning defiance out of the window.
This afforded a brief, and, as it happened, long enough respite. Barker and his hands were outside. They had managed to arm themselves with levers and crowbars, and Barker himself had found a shot gun. There were lions and tigers and other wild beasts in the circus, and for the protection of those who handled them certain weapons were necessary. Two or three of the circus employees had procured these guns and pistols. They made a dash forward, and cleared the rioters off the steps of the caravan. Barker, nothing daunted, mounted the top of the steps and stood there with his small army around him.
"Don't come farther!" he yelled. "The first man who tries that game will get a charge of shot through him. I tell you these guns are loaded, and we won't hesitate to shoot. Get out, all of you!"
This short, sharp speech was not without its effect. The group of circus hands round the caravan looked grim and defiant.
"There is no harm done," Barker went on. "Nobody has been hurt. And if you people take my advice you'll clear out before the police come. I can get you all six months for this if I like. What do you mean by coming here trying to destroy my property? What do you mean by carrying on like this simply because one of my lady artistes wasn't well enough to appear to-day? Have you never heard of anybody being ill before? And you call yourselves Englishmen and lovers of fair play! I am ashamed of the whole lot of you, that I am! Now, clear out before there is trouble."
Barker had the upper hand now, and he knew it. He stood there, shouting in stentorian tones with his raucous, contemptuous voice. He saw the change that was coming over the demeanour of the mob. The hot blood was evaporating, and some of the ringleaders were beginning to realise that if they stayed they were likely to find themselves in trouble. Some of them had already prudently crossed over to the hotel and telephoned to the police. At the gate of the field a number of constables now appeared, and almost immediately a yell of "Police!" went up. This was sufficient to dissipate the last semblance of rioting, and the malcontents fled like sheep. The field was emptied as by magic, and Barker dropped his gun and wiped his heated face.
"That was touch and go," he said, addressing himself to Lethbridge and Wilkinson. "I have been in tight places in my time, but this was the tightest. What has become of that sailor man, I wonder? I should like to have a word or two with him."
Lethbridge looked at Wilkinson and shook his head.
Lethbridge was particularly anxious that no harm should happen to Walter Ward. His chief desire was to interview the sailor and ask what he meant by the insinuation that Jasper Payn had not acted as honestly as he might have done. After what had happened it would be easy to put pressure upon Ward, who no doubt would sing very small when he learned what his impetuous folly had brought about. It was hard for Wilkinson to see what Lethbridge was driving at, but he maintained a discreet silence till John chose to explain. Lethbridge went on rapidly:
"I don't think we ought to blame the fellow altogether," he said. "It was no fault of his that some of the audience behaved like savages."
"A bench of magistrates would think otherwise," Barker said drily.
"That is possible," Lethbridge responded. "But as soon as the man understood what he had done he worked like a nigger to undo the mischief. But what about your friend with the revolver? I mean the man inside the caravan. If there had been any loss of life he would be most responsible."
"I was taken by surprise," Barker growled. "When I saw him standing on the wagon with a revolver in his hand you could have knocked me down with a feather. I was so frightened that I hardly knew what to do. If one of my men had not pulled him down there would have been murder to a certainty. And all this comes from doing a kind action. I took in that chap and Sir Montagu Goshe after they had met with their motor accident and this is how he repays a good turn. I thought he wasn't well enough to be out."
Lethbridge hesitated. He noticed that Wilkinson was leaving the conversation to him, and he was anxious not to blunder. He had to decide quickly, too, fully cognisant that a false step might precipitate irretrievable disaster. Unless something unusual happened he would be face to face with Murshee in a few minutes, and almost certainly the little man would recognise him. Already Barker had made up his mind for him, for the circus proprietor was thumping on the door of the caravan demanding admittance.
The key was turned in the lock and Murshee's pale, anxious face peeped out. The man was not frightened in the ordinary sense. He must have known that his pursuers had vanished. But there was a curiously disturbed look in his eyes which Lethbridge could not account for. He did not see Lethbridge at all; in fact, he seemed to be looking into space in the weird, uncanny manner of a man suffering from mental delusion. He shook his head slowly, when Barker spoke to him, and walked back into the caravan and sat down. He propped his head upon his hands and gazed long and fixedly at the table in the centre of the van. Then it flashed upon Lethbridge what it was that filled Murshee with apprehension. For the caravan was the vehicle devoted to Vava's use, and on the table stood the Golden Rose in all its glorious beauty. With difficulty Lethbridge averted his eyes from the plant, though Murshee was a curiously interesting study.
"Are you hurt?" Barker asked.
No reply came from the little man. With his head still resting on his hands he gazed at the Golden Rose as if it were an accusing spirit, a skeleton of the feast visible only to himself. He was speaking, and Lethbridge caught some of the words.
"It is a delusion," he muttered; "nothing less than a delusion. I am going mad. That is the matter with me. Ram Murshee is losing his reason, else where did she get it? How did it come here? Only last night I saw it hidden away—"
Barker laid his hand angrily upon Murshee's shoulder and shook him violently.
"What ails the fool? Now, then, wake up. There's nothing to be frightened at."
The words aroused all Murshee's combative faculties. He turned upon Barker.
"Frightened!" he snarled. "Who's frightened. Use that word to me again and I'll flay you. Where did it come from?"
"Where did what come from?" Barker demanded. "You're dotty. You haven't got over your accident yet."
Murshee laughed unpleasantly. He was pulling himself together now. He began to see that his peculiar demeanour was exciting suspicion in the breasts of those about him.
"I am sorry," he muttered in a kind of apologetic way. "My head is a bit queer. I came outside to get a breath of air and I saw what was going on. If I had had my way I should have sent my revolver into the lot of them. Perhaps it is as well that one of your men interfered. What do you happen to be doing here, Mr. Lethbridge? I am glad to see that you are all right again."
"That is very kind of you," Lethbridge said drily. "I am well again, thank you. The gardener who was looking after me heard of your accident, and I came along to see if I could do anything. Take my advice and go and lie down again."
Murshee was about to make some retort, but suddenly changed his mind. He turned on his heel and walked slowly towards the tent that had been placed at the disposal of himself and Sir Montagu Goshe. At the same time somebody claimed Barker's attention, and Lethbridge and Wilkinson were left together.
"You did that very well," the detective said. "I see what you are driving at. I fancy you have lulled Murshee's suspicions to rest, but it won't be for long. What a queer tangle this is! And how astonished Murshee must have been when he bolted into the caravan and found the Golden Rose on the table! It seems to have been raining Golden Roses lately, unless this happens to be the one stolen from your uncle by Goshe and Murshee, which in turn was stolen from them by Vava the mysterious."
"I don't think so," Lethbridge said. "I think this is another specimen. You saw how utterly surprised Murshee was. You heard what he said. We know pretty well where my uncle's Golden Rose is to be found, and yet we are not a step nearer the solution of the mystery. I begin to think we never shall be."
Wilkinson nodded his head cheerfully.
"I don't take that view at all," he said. "Every step brings us nearer. I shall be able to say definitely one way or the other after I have seen Vava's performance this evening."
"But are you sure you will see Vava to-night? Are you certain she isn't keeping out of the way purposely? My belief is that illness isn't the reason at all. She is desperately afraid of Murshee. She dare not appear until he has gone, and that is why she failed to appear this afternoon. She asked me to try to get him out of the way. Don't you remember that I told you so? This is, to be sure, only my conjecture. What are you going to do?"
Wilkinson replied that the obvious course was to wait until the evening performance. They would be able to tell then in which direction the enquiry ought to proceed. But Lethbridge had another project in his mind which he hastened to disclose.
"I should like to find Ward," he said. "I am sure he can tell us something. He used to be a marvellously good gardener. He was a favourite servant of my uncle's, and now he tells me that my uncle was deceitful and dishonest. He spoke in the bitterest manner about the poor old gentleman, and I confess I should like to know what he meant. A man doesn't talk like that without some reason, and Ward would not have behaved as he did this afternoon unless he had some powerful reason for that, too. Why should he have been so disappointed because Vava did not perform? Depend upon it Ward was moved by some very strong feeling. I think he came a long distance solely to watch Vava. It would be a good thing to discover him. He can't be far off. He is too independent to run away after being the cause of all that mischief. Let us go across to the hotel and see if we can hear anything of him there."
Wilkinson was not averse from this suggestion. He had nothing to do for the rest of the day, and the time might just as well be passed in that manner as in any other. They walked to the hotel and entered the bar, which was empty, save for one man smoking in the corner. He was the very man, however, whom Lethbridge wanted most to see. He laid his pipe down and looked up defiantly.
"I want a talk with you," Lethbridge said.
"As you like," Ward growled. "I have no quarrel with you, Mr. John. You are welcome to say what you please. I didn't run away because I thought there would be trouble over yonder, and being the cause of the mischief I am willing to face my responsibility. I was a fool, that's what I was! A headstrong fool! But I had come many miles to see the performance, and I don't mind confessing I was bitterly disappointed. I lost my head and you know what the consequence was. I suppose I shall have to hang about for a week or two and very likely the end of it will be six months for my pains."
"I don't think so," Lethbridge said. "What my friend Inspector Wilkinson has to say will have considerable influence with Mr. Barker. I think we have convinced Barker that you could not have been actuated by a criminal motive, at any rate, he feels you did your best to make amends. Probably you won't hear any more about it."
Ward looked dubious, but seemed to be satisfied on the whole, though he did not relish the presence of a police officer.
"Why did you bring him?" he asked, pointing to Wilkinson. "We could have done without him."
"I had better explain," Lethbridge said. "Perhaps I had better begin at the beginning. You don't know that my uncle has been the victim of a tragedy."
Ward expressed astonishment. It was easy to see that this was the first he had heard of the trouble.
"I am sorry to hear that, sir," he said. "Your uncle behaved very badly to me, but I owe him no ill will. Did he meet with an accident?"
"He was murdered," Lethbridge said impressively. "He was murdered in the most extraordinary circumstances, and the crime was unaccountable because my uncle was without an enemy. You recollect Mr. Payn used to talk a great deal about a flower called the Golden Rose."
Ward nodded quickly. An unusual light of intelligence flashed from his eyes.
"I remember it as if it were only yesterday," he said. "Mr. Payn was crazed on the subject. He talked about it so much that I was bitten with the mania myself for a time. But I beg your pardon, I am interrupting you. I am interested and ready and willing to tell you all I know."
"Well, it was this way," Lethbridge resumed. "After I left my uncle in circumstances which you are aware of, I devoted myself to the cultivation of flowers. I was not fit for anything else. I had had no business training, and was often hard put to it to earn a living. After a while I took up the cult of the Golden Rose, and one day, soon after I had moved my quarters, I hit upon the flower purely by accident. About the same time I found, to my great surprise, that I was living close to my uncle. I had no idea that he had lost his money and had changed his residence. It was Fate that brought us together, and on the first night we met, my uncle showed me his Golden Rose. He declared, however, that certain persons were bent upon robbing him of his treasure. Indeed, he showed marks of violence in support of his theory. To make a long story short, I went home and destroyed my specimen of the Golden Rose. For one thing I did not want further trouble with my uncle, but the main reason why I burnt the flower is wholly private and personal, and I cannot discuss it with anyone. Early next morning my uncle was found at death's door in his greenhouse and the Golden Rose had disappeared. Luck helped my enquiries, and I was soon on the track of the thieves. Luck stood me in stead again to-day, when I saw the Golden Rose in full bloom in the caravan of Vava, whose non-appearance caused you such disappointment. Now, my dear Ward, I should be very stupid if I could not see some connection between this Golden Rose and your desire to watch Vava's performance. I think you know I am friendly towards you. I think you will be persuaded to act candidly in the matter. We don't wish any harm to the girl; in fact, I am sure she is as good as she is beautiful. But in some extraordinary way she is mixed up with this business, and I look to you to help us, I believe you can give us information which will assist in solving the mystery of my uncle's death!"
Ward was deeply impressed by what Lethbridge had said. He showed no sign of confusion, yet he did not seem to know how to proceed.
"I'll do what I can, sir," he said presently. "But as far as Vava is concerned, I decline to say anything. That is my business. But I'll tell you something you don't know, and that is that Jasper Payn did not speak the truth when he told you he had found out how to propagate the Golden Rose. He never discovered that at all; he was never near it. The rose he showed you belonged to me, and I brought it myself from the Vale of Kashmir. After I left your uncle I wandered all over the world, first in one ship and then in another, till finally I found myself in Persia laid up from the effects of an accident and unable to do anything for months. Having to find some occupation, however, I naturally turned to the thing I knew most about. There were flowers all round me, so that I had not far to go. I was very much interested in roses, and when the people got to trust me I learnt many secrets which horticulturists in this country would be only too glad to know. But that is beside the point. I learnt not only that the Golden Rose existed, but was lucky enough to get sight of a specimen, and then I heard that a man up country had several of them."
Ward paused for a moment.
"I don't mind telling you that I meant to have one of them. I saw that if I brought it to England there was a fortune for me. It doesn't matter how I obtained the rose, but I smuggled it successfully out of the country and arrived here. I went to my old employer, and committed the flower into his care. It wasn't blooming then, and he refused to believe that I had found the genuine treasure. I left it with him till it should bloom, and then went back to Persia with another project in my mind. Naturally I trusted my old master. I thought I could depend upon him and did not expect on my return to England that he would pretend the rose was dead. But he lied, and I was fool enough to believe him. Mr. Payn had me entirely at his mercy. He was the leading authority in the gardening world. No one would believe a word I said if I accused him of stealing my rose. I waited until I was able to prove my point, and in fact was on my way to call upon Mr. Payn when I met you here. For the present I cannot say any more. As to Vava, if she likes to speak she can; if she doesn't care to do so then I cannot help you."
Lethbridge looked significantly at Wilkinson, who smiled vaguely in reply.
"Very well," Lethbridge said. "I am obliged by your candour so far. But tell me if you have ever heard of Sir Montagu Goshe, a millionaire and a great person in society. He has a secretary named Ram Murshee. They are both interested in flowers, and are far from indifferent to the Golden Rose. Do you know anything about them?"
Ward's eyes flashed angrily.
"Do I not?" he muttered. "Just bring me face to face with them, that's all. So Montagu Goshe is a big bug in society? Well, that takes the cake. But I won't say more now. I have work to do before evening. I shall be back in time for Barker's show. After then I shall be at your service."
Wilkinson nodded to Lethbridge, and the latter said no more. Ward departed, leaving Lethbridge and his companion to kill time as best they could till evening. They crossed over to the circus before half-past 7, only to find Barker in a perturbed frame of mind and disposed to take the worst possible view of human nature generally.
"What is the matter?" Wilkinson asked.
"Oh, matter enough," Barker said with an oath. "The men are bad enough in my profession, but the women are devils. And the better the performer the worse the temper. But I never expected to see Vava behave in this fashion."
"What has happened to her?"
"Bolted! Vanished!" Barker said, crisply. "Left no trace behind. And Lady Goshe has vanished too!"
For a moment Wilkinson was taken aback. He had not expected such a development; but he was too old a hand at detection to show his feelings for long. It was a keen disappointment, however, and he thought he would have to do his work all over again.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"Quite sure!" Barker echoed. "Much too sure. Hang me if these women aren't enough to turn a man's hair grey. I have been at this game for the best part of thirty years, and never a week passes without trouble with one or other of them. Sometimes it's jealousy, sometimes temper. And if one excuse won't work, they soon find another. And the better and cleverer they are, the greater the trouble. I don't mind their getting on, bless you; I don't object to their leaving me to better themselves, because one always expects that. But I do kick against ingratitude. When that girl came to me she was nearly starving, and she professed to be so grateful. I actually began to believe in her. And now she walks off without by your leave and serves me a trick like this!"
Lethbridge was hardly listening to this tirade of the circus proprietor's. Anxious as he was to learn what had become of Vava, the disappearance of Lady Goshe was more disturbing. He wanted to know if the two of them had gone off together.
"How should I know?" Barker asked irritably. "I am bothered enough about Vava without worrying over Lady Goshe. She didn't come here as my guest. Of course, I did my best for her and her people, but they have been a confounded nuisance. Probably Lady Goshe has gone home. I had a message from my wife to say she was better this afternoon. Now I should like to know what I'm to do. I nearly had the show wrecked this morning on account of Vava, and what will happen to-night when I tell my patrons that she is gone, I'm blowed if I can tell."
"Don't worry about that," Wilkinson said soothingly. "The thing is not your fault and it need not cost you a single penny to have a sufficient police force at hand. By the way, what was Vava's performance?"
Barker's face lighted up with some thing like enthusiasm.
"It was one of the neatest things you ever saw," he said. "Not a bit like the show we advertise on the posters. Of course, you understand we have to make our pictures as sensational as possible. But there was nothing really blood-thirsty about Vava's bit of biz. It was more a mystery than anything else. We made a play of it. Supposing you wanted to remove a man and you didn't know how to do it. Suppose he was a real bad 'un, the sort of chap the audience always yells at when he comes on the stage. Well, he's in the way. The persecuted heroine has married somebody else, and the blackguard turns up to blackmail her. She must get rid of him for her happiness, but she does it in her own way. Her husband doesn't know she has been on the stage, because he is a little strict and she has not had the courage to tell him. She married him for a home, but has come to love him passionately—you know the sort of gush they give you across the river and in the music-hall sketches. Then the rascal chap came along and makes himself known as the girl is sitting amongst her friends at tea in her swagger conservatory. He hints at what he will do, but, of course, he talks over the heads of his audience, though the woman knows perfectly well what's he driving at."
"She talks back at the man and so lets the audience into the secret, whilst the woman's guests haven't the slightest idea what is going on. Then when the crisis arrives there comes the sound of a shot and the blackmailer falls dead at the woman's feet, at least, I don't mean literally at her feet, but only a few yards off. Nobody understands how he was shot, but the girl has to explain, and this she does by placing on a shelf three or four vases, which are mysteriously blown to pieces whilst the people are looking on. It is the heroine does all this, but the puzzle is to find out how she uses a revolver without anybody being able to see. She sits in a chair with her hands behind her back all the time, and keeps on talking as if nothing had happened. It's a deuced clever and mysterious line and goes down bang with my audience. It cost a lot of money to fit up the scene, but it has paid me well, and I don't grudge it."
Barker's hearers were more interested than he imagined.
Lethbridge listened breathlessly to the story, which thrilled him to the core, for Barker was describing, in blissful ignorance, the very way in which the attempt had been made on his own life.
When he escaped death he had been in a conservatory. The man who had tried to murder him had been sitting not far off casually smoking a cigarette and resting his head on his hands clasped behind his neck. The whole thing came back to Lethbridge vividly and he shuddered. Was he at last on the brink of an explanation?
"How is it done?" he asked eagerly.
Barker winked his left eye significantly.
"Now you are asking, sir," he said. "You can't expect me to give the show away like that, can you? Why we should have scores of people imitating it in a month and I should lose the best turn I ever offered to my patrons. But I don't want to put on any frills. I would not tell you if I could, and I could not if I would, for I haven't a notion. I am as much in the dark as you are. When Vava comes on the stage everybody is ready for her. She has only got to take a revolver and set the show going. It's genuine enough. Sitting half hidden by the foliage she lies back with her hands behind her head and breaks half a dozen bottles at 12 paces without turning a hair. I have often tried to get to the bottom of the thing, but have never succeeded."
"Then you really don't know," Lethbridge said regretfully.
"No more than the dead," Barker said. "You must excuse me, gentlemen, I am too busy to waste more time. I must try to fake up some substitute for Vava. Well, my girl, what do you want?"
A young woman approached the group, a bold-eyed girl, handsome enough in her way. She was flashly dressed, and wore a profusion of cheap jewellery, and any one could tell that she belonged to the lower walks of the musical-hall profession. She stood irresolute before she burst into speech.
"Is it true wot I hear?" she asked. "Has Vava bolted? Not that I'm sorry and I don't mind saying so. She was a deal too 'aughty and stand-off for me. Not but wot I tried to be friends. All the time she've been 'ere I've never once been inside her van. Mind, I don't grudge her a sleeping-place. I don't want to make a fuss—"
"Well, then don't make one," Barker said shortly. "What are you bothering me for?"
"I ast you a question, guv'nor," the girl said.
"You asked me if Vava had gone. Well, if it is any consolation to you, she has. And what is more, I don't think there is the slightest chance of her coming back. Now you can run away and console yourself with that."
But the woman stood her ground doggedly.
"Thought a lot of her show, didn't you?" she said, jeeringly.
"Thought more of it than all the rest of you put together," Barker said pointedly. "Thought so much of her that I had a mind to sell up the whole thing and take Vava round the country with nothing else. You can do something better? Of course you can, something to knock Vava's exhibition sky-high. You'll be about the twelfth that's come to me already with the same suggestion. But I don't want 'em, and what's more, the public don't want 'em, either. It's Vava I'm after and nothing else. If you can do her business I'll take you on at once and give you another ten pounds a week. But it's a safe offer."
The woman laughed curtly.
"Are you sure of that?" she said. "If you think there's no one in the show knows Vava's secret you're mistaken. I know what it was, guv'nor, and wot's more, I can do the business. I don't say I can do it as clean and neat, but I can manage it well enough to keep your audience quiet to-night."
"Where did you get it?" Barker asked eagerly.
"Well, that's no concern o' yours. I saw something a while ago that set me thinkin', and I've had my eyes open ever since. I've been practising and practising the last two months, and when I 'eard just now wot 'ad 'appened, thinks I my turn's come at last. I'll show you if you like; I can't say fairer not that; and if you are satisfied, then you've got to give me another ten quid a week."
"That's a bargain," Barker said emphatically. "I'll pay you that money and never grudge it for a moment, if you do what you say you can. You will excuse me, gentlemen. It would be foolish to miss a chance like this."
Barker hustled away without ceremony, leaving Lethbridge and his companions to make the most of what they had heard.
"You never know where you'll find a witness," Wilkinson said. "Fancy that woman being able to give me information which I would give one of my ears to possess. She never heard of the Golden Rose. The name of Jasper Payn will convey nothing to her. She is just a commonplace woman pursuing a commonplace occupation. And yet, with out knowing it, she holds the key of the mystery in her hands. Who says that my profession is without its romance?"
"I see what you mean," Lethbridge said, "but I don't quite know what you are going to do about it."
"Well, I shall pursue a policy of masterly inactivity. Goodness knows when we shall see Vava again. I have a shrewd idea where she has gone and why she has gone. One could follow her, but that would be a waste of time. When I come to cross examine her, as I shall have to do sooner or later, I want to be sure of my ground. I want to be able to tell her that I know how her performance is done and who taught her. I think we'll stay and see how this woman gets on in her new role."
"Don't you think she was merely boasting?" Lethbridge asked.
"No, I don't," Wilkinson replied. "I think she meant it. She is annoyed because Vava kept her at a distance and has been spying on her and seems to have picked up a pretty fair notion of how the thing was done. At any rate, I mean to see her performance, and afterwards I shall interview her and give her a hint as to who I am and what I am after. She'll tell me right enough how the thing is worked."
"And then?" Lethbridge asked, eagerly.
"Well, after that sir, we will follow up Lady Goshe and Vava who have gone off together. We know that Lady Goshe is only too anxious to leave her husband. We know, too, that Vava is terribly afraid of Ram Murshee. She would never have appeared had she known he was in the neighbourhood, and it is obvious that it was Murshee who taught her the use of a revolver in such a way that a score of people might be looking on and not one of them could tell who fired the fatal shot. This is precisely what happened in your own case. But for a miracle, you would have been a dead man at this moment, and Murshee would have had another crime on his conscience. There would have been an inquest, and all sorts of enquiries, but the truth would never have come out and Murshee would be the last man to be suspected. It is one thing to suspect and another to prove your words before a jury. I know Murshee tried to murder you, but if I had been called as a witness I should never have given even a hint of my views to the coroner's jury. I couldn't have proved a single word, and I should have alarmed my man into the bargain. But Vava can tell us all about it. She will be by far the most important witness, and if she didn't learn the trick from Murshee himself, then my deductions will be utterly wrong and I shall be a colossal failure."
Lethbridge nodded. So far the argument was ingenious, and he could see no flaw in it.
"I think you are right," he said. "At any rate, the thing is none the less fascinating that there is an element of danger in it. But do you really know where Lady Goshe is to be found."
"I fancy so," Wilkinson replied. "She is not clever, but Vava is, and you may depend upon it that she planned the escapade and chose the hiding-place. Now, supposing you wanted to hide yourself, what would you do? Would you lay your plans beforehand and pick out some lonely spot on one of the islands of the South Pacific, as they generally do in books? Would you do that?"
"I dare say I should," Lethbridge smiled. "Man is a very imitative animal."
"That is the very fact we rely on in our investigations," Wilkinson said, drily. "We can nearly always take it for granted that the fugitive from justice keeps to conventional lines. However clever a criminal may be, he is constantly at a disadvantage in trying to escape. The avenues are too few, and the arm of justice is too long. He seems to forget that our ramifications reach all over the world, and that the more out of the way the spot he chooses the more likely he is to attract attention. We telegraph the description of our man all over the globe, and it is a hundred to one he is generally picked up on some coasting steamer, or in some out-of-the-way port where he is the only stranger who can give no plausible account of himself."
"That seems reasonable,'" Lethbridge murmured.
"Of course it is. There is little subtlety in my argument, and it is natural a man should feel safe because he happens to be far from the scene of his crime. As a matter of fact, the criminal is much safer if he remains close to the scene of his misdemeanour. That is the very locality the police as a rule trouble least about. This is just the argument a smart girl like Vava will adopt. By and by Goshe will be hunting for his wife all over the Continent, never dreaming that she, so to speak, was within a stone's throw of him before he left England. So far the thing is clear, but Lady Goshe is in a nervous condition, and it is essential she should be with friends. She will be with friends. I wouldn't mind betting that by this time she is under the same roof as her sister. However, we shall see for ourselves tomorrow. We shall go to Manchester in the morning, because the next act of the drama will take place there."
"But why?" Lethbridge asked. "You would not betray the unfortunate lady's hiding-place to the people she is most anxious to avoid. You see what I mean."
"There is such a thing as being cruel to be kind," Wilkinson said. "The time will soon come when I must have Goshe and his accomplice close under my eye. It will be necessary to arrest them sooner or later. Besides, one or two points have to be cleared up, and these can be solved much better at Manchester than elsewhere. However, this is in the air at present. Now, what do you say to an early dinner so that we may be in time for a good seat at the performance? I am convinced we are pretty well finished here."
Lethbridge fell in with Wilkinson's suggestion. It was about half-past 7 when they returned to the circus and procured a couple of good seats. The story of the afternoon's dilemma appeared to have become public property, for the tent was packed to its utmost capacity long before the performance began. With casual curiosity Lethbridge glanced about him. A few seats away he noted the grim brown face and eager eyes of Walter Ward. He called Wilkinson's attention to the fact, and a shade of anxiety flitted over the detective's face.
"This won't do," the latter whispered. "We cannot risk another outbreak like that of this morning. We must arrange so that Ward can change seats with somebody. I feel anxious to have him under my own eye."
There was some grumbling on the part of the audience, but the exchange of seats was made, and a few moments later Ward was seated between Lethbridge and Wilkinson. He had some notion why he had been invited to change his place, for he smiled grimly and said nothing, his attention being fixed upon the arena, where the attendants were preparing for the forthcoming performance. The best part of an hour elapsed, and then Ward began to grow more impatient and more restless as Vava's turn drew near. The audience were a shade less excited. A murmur went up as Barker stepped into the ring and began a personal explanation. He had to crave the indulgence of his audience, he said. Vava was still indisposed, but rather than disappoint her audience she had imparted her secret to another member of the company, who proposed to go through the performance, which she would do in an equally satisfactory manner, so that from the spectators' point of view they would be getting full value for their money.
Something like applause greeted this statement. With the exception of Ward, everybody appeared to be more or less satisfied. But he started up from his seat, beside himself with anger and disappointment, and would probably have repeated his conduct of the afternoon had not Wilkinson pulled him down by force.
"You fool!" he hissed. "Do you want to get into trouble again? Do you suppose you are the only one who has a personal interest in this matter? Can't you understand that there is an urgent reason why Mr. Lethbridge and myself are here? Besides, your curiosity will be gratified before long."
Ward growled, but had himself in hand again, and there was no sign of further anger.
The performance proceeded from start to finish exactly as Barker had described. There was no hitch whatever, though it lacked a certain sparkle owing to the fact that the understudy was a trifle nervous. But the thing went successfully, and Barker mopped his face with a big silk handkerchief....he listened to the plaudits of the spectators. No sooner was the turn over than Ward rose to his feet and began to make his way outside. He was quickly followed by Lethbridge and Wilkinson. When in the open air Ward gave way to his feelings. It mattered little what he said or did now, and his companions waited till he was in the proper frame of mind to listen to their arguments.
"I don't know whether I told you that I am a police officer," Wilkinson said. "Oh, yes, Mr. Lethbridge told you. Now, the authorities have placed in my hands the investigation into the death of Jasper Payn. You are aware that Mr. Payn was killed by one or more scoundrels who were anxious to obtain possession of the Golden Rose which you claim as your property. We know almost to a certainty that the men who are at the bottom of this business are Sir Montagu Goshe and his accomplice, Ram Murshee. Mr. Lethbridge is with me in this business; he has urgent reasons of his own for bringing those ruffians to justice, mainly because he is under suspicion himself of having caused the death of Mr. Payn. Unfortunately for Mr. Lethbridge my two rascals concluded that he was on their track. They will stick at nothing. They laid a scheme to murder him, and all but succeeded. He escaped because he carried a turnip watch in his upper left vest pocket. The bullet struck this watch and saved Mr. Lethbridge's life. The bullet was fired in one of Sir Montagu Goshe's conservatories by a man who was leaning back in a chair with his hands behind his head. I should be insulting your intelligence, Mr. Ward, if I doubted that you knew the name of the man who fired the shot."
"Ram Murshee for a million. What a blackguard he is!"
"Precisely," Wilkinson said drily. "It did not take me long to find that out. Besides, I know something about the man and his methods. But one thing I don't know, though I have a hazy idea, is how the shot was fired. I am in hopes that you can tell me, Mr. Ward."
"That is just where I am done," Ward said frankly. "I can tell you a good deal about Goshe and Murshee, because I was in close contact with them for months while I was on the Persian Gulf. It was there also that I met—"
The speaker paused and bit his lip.
"I pray you not to be reticent with us," Wilkinson said politely. "You will find before we have finished that our interests are identical. You were going to say, I think, that it was on the Persian Gulf that you met the mysterious and fascinating lady who is known to the public as Vava. I don't wish to be too curious, but I hope that you will answer my question."
"You are too clever for me," Ward muttered. "You are quite right. I met Vava there, and Lady Goshe also. I fancy she was governess to an English family before Goshe married her. They were a queer lot altogether and I could tell you some strange tales. But they have nothing to do with the business in hand. I don't know how it was, but Murshee had an influence over Vava. I can't say whether she hated or feared him most. At any rate, I fell in love with the girl, and I know that she was fond of me. I should have married her if that scoundrel hadn't come my way; then suddenly the whole lot disappeared, and I have been hunting Vava high and low for a long time. She is a good girl. Whatever her associates may be, she is all right, Mr. Inspector. You may think otherwise, but you will find that you are wrong."
"I don't think otherwise," Wilkinson hastened to explain. "I am sure she is a good girl, but she is in a position to give us valuable information, and I don't feel disposed to lose an opportunity like this. I was partly in hopes you would be able to explain how this strange performance is accomplished, but you can't, and there is an end of the matter. Still, you can be of great assistance to us, and if you have nothing better to do I shall be glad—"
"I have nothing whatever to do," Ward said graciously. "I have done pretty well from a monetary point of view, and my one great object in life now is to seek out Vava and have an explanation from her. I have been following her up for days, and you can imagine my disappointment this morning when I found that she had slipped through my fingers. Still, it is all accounted for. By a bit of pure bad luck Murshee blundered upon the very spot where the girl was to be found, and she fled merely to avoid him. Possibly she might have remained had Lady Goshe not turned up also, but this after all is a mere supposition. I can't tell you how those revolver shots were fired, though, like Mr. Wilkinson, I have a pretty good idea. I have seen the thing actually done. But it can't be much of a secret now, or that impudent looking woman could not have gone through the performance to-night. Still, perhaps Vava showed her."
"I don't think so," Wilkinson hastened to explain. "There seems to be a certain amount of jealousy about the whole thing, and Vava must have been carefully watched by the woman who appeared as her understudy. In fact, it is this lady whom I am looking for now. I think it will frighten her. At any rate, I will try a bit of bluff. I believe she is coming out of the tent. Excuse me for a few minutes. Don't go away. I will be back as soon as possible, and when I return we shall want to stand still. There will be no occasion for that."
Wilkinson walked rapidly after the woman, and tapped her smartly on the shoulder. She turned hastily and faced him. His features were grim, his manner was sharp and stern, and he went directly to the point.
"What do you want?" the woman asked defiantly.
"I wouldn't adopt that tone if I were you," Wilkinson said curtly. "I have been watching your performance this evening. It is very clever and mysterious and novel. It is new to this country, at all events. But to a police officer who has travelled over the world there are fewer novelties. Possibly I omitted to mention that I was a police officer, did I?"
The woman's manner changed swiftly. She was anxious and uneasy.
"You didn't tell me so, sir," she said.
"Ah, permit me to introduce Inspector Wilkinson, of Scotland Yard. I don't wish to interfere with your livelihood, and that is why I am talking to you in this friendly way. It would be a misfortune if you had to give up your work and hang about a police court for a few weeks. To be frank, I am investigating a case of attempted murder in which a man was shot at exactly in the same way as I saw you break those bottles to-night. It was only by a miracle that the victim escaped. It may be only a coincidence, of course but you can see how awkward I could make it for you if I chose after watching your performance to-night. I don't want to do that if you will tell me how the thing is done."
The woman's manner changed once more. She was furtive, suspicious, and smiled derisively.
"That isn't good enough," she said. "How do I know you are not bluffing me? How do I know you don't want my secret to teach it to somebody else? I could tell you the whole thing in a few words, and the rest is merely practice."
This was no time to hesitate. Wilkinson took one of his cards from his pocket, and handed it to the woman. He turned quietly on his heel saying she would hear from Scotland Yard directly, and that she would have no one to thank but herself for any inconvenience. Without a second's delay the woman wheeled round and grabbed Wilkinson by the arm.
"All right," she said. "I see you are in earnest. I'll tell you, only you mustn't use the information for any other purpose. It wouldn't be fair."
Wilkinson said nothing. The woman leant over, whispered a few words in his ear, and then vanished rapidly into the darkness. The detective walked to the spot where his two friends were waiting for him.
"Good business," he said with pardonable pride in his voice. "Let us find a time-table. Perhaps we can reach Manchester to-night."
Events have been somewhat anticipated, however, and it yet remains to account for the disappointment of the proprietor of the circus.
Mr. Barker had been more annoyed at the defection of his favourite artist than he had cared to confess. Wherever he had been Vava's performance had been a great draw, and the astute circus proprietor knew perfectly well he was paying her much less than she deserved. There was no trouble with her, either, a fact which gave him unbounded satisfaction. Usually he had to put up with all kinds of difficulties from his performers, and more than once declared that they gave him more anxiety than the stars of grand opera. Still, Vava had never given him any anxiety before, and he had come to think that his precious pearl was likely to prove a permanency. Therefore when she walked into Barker's caravan and asked leave for the day the showman was taken aback.
"I can't do it," he said bluntly. "What will people say if I get up and announce that my most attractive number is no longer on the programme?"
But Vava was barely listening. Her mind was full of other things. Her sole anxiety was to leave without delay. She could not tell why. She knew that if she told Barker the truth he would laugh the thing to scorn. But the girl was reckless. She felt that it was impossible to remain in the same neighbourhood as Ram Murshee and breathe freely. The man exercised a terror over her. He was the only creature she dreaded. And she was afraid of him with a blind, unreasoning terror which she had never analysed. If she could get away for the day she might devise some means of ridding the locality of Murshee. That he had come to seek her out she did not believe. The fact that an accident had happened to Sir Montagu Goshe near the circus was a piece of pure ill luck, and Vava wanted time to think. She was loyal in her way, and had no desire to put Barker to inconvenience, but she refused to give her performance to-day if there was a chance of Murshee looking on.
"I don't want to worry you," she said. "But you must really let me off."
"But why?" Barker protested. "You have no friends in the neighborhood."
Vava's impulse was to lie. But she was not the girl to do so. Nor, for that matter, had she an ingenious fiction available.
"I can't tell you why I want the day off," she said. "That is my business. But I must have it, Mr. Barker, I must indeed. I promise to be back to-morrow."
Thereupon Barker lost his temper. He had never seen signs of caprice on the part of Vava before, so a bit of judicious bullying might pay better than anything else. He raved and stormed and threatened. The more loudly he spoke, the quieter and more self-possessed she became. She saw she would be compelled to take matters into her own hands, whatever the consequences might be, and moreover she was not short of money. She had spent little or nothing lately, and her savings were ready to hand. She would go away, and not return till Murshee had disappeared. She knew that Barker would be only too pleased to have her back.
Therefore, she walked away humbly from the presence of the great man, leaving him in a complacent frame of mind, feeling that for once in his life he had done the proper thing. There would be no more nonsense after this, he told himself. But though Vava left him gently and submissively her mind was firmly made up.
She crossed over from her own caravan to the one in which Lady Goshe lay. She walked to the bedside and murmured a few words to the stricken woman, who opened her eyes and looked languidly around. It was evident she did not understand much of what was going on, neither had she recognised the speaker.
"Don't worry her," Mrs. Barker said good-naturedly. "She is getting better, and will be sensible before long. I know what it is to be in accidents of this kind. Let her sleep and everything will be well. Anybody would think you knew her ladyship by the way you speak."
"So I do," Vava replied. "I knew her long before she was lady Goshe. I knew her before I came to England. I want you to do me a favour. Mrs. Barker I want you to let me know directly Lady Goshe is better, for I have something to say to her which she ought to know."
Mrs. Barker gave a promise, and Vava went away. It was past midday before she had a message from Mrs. Barker that Lady Goshe was sitting up and apparently much better. Mrs. Barker was busy in the canteen looking after the requirements of the staff when Vava arrived.
Lady Goshe was dressed, though still reclining on the bed. A red spot burnt on either cheek, and her eyes looked ominously bright. She held out her hands to Vava, and a cry of pleasure escaped her lips.
"I knew I was not dreaming," she murmured. "I felt certain you were near. Didn't you come and see me this morning?"
"You are right," Vava said.
"Yes, yes, I felt convinced of it. I saw your face, and, strangely enough, I couldn't recollect who you were. And to think that you of all persons in the world should be here just now! What are you doing? Did you find out that I was in danger, and follow me?"
Vava smiled and shook her head.
"Dear lady, it was the purest accident in the world," she said. "I suppose they have told you where you are."
"Oh, dear, yes. There was an accident to the motor-car, and they brought me in here. I understand this is a circus belonging to a man named Barker. I did not quite comprehend at the time, but it is all coming back to me. My husband wanted to take me away, and I was alarmed. You see, I had found out several things lately, and was foolish enough to let him know what I had discovered. He is a bad man, Vava."
"The worst man the world has ever seen," Vava said, coldly and dispassionately. "A wretch, a fiend in human form. And yet I doubt whether he is the match of his accomplice, Ram Murshee. But I am interrupting you, dear Lady. Please to go on."
"There is little to tell you," Lady Goshe resumed. "I was foolish, nay, terrified, because I knew that these two men were planning murder. And, singular to say, the man they had designs against happens to be a kind of relation of mine. Mr. Payn, the old gentleman with whom my sister lived, had a nephew called Lethbridge, and he was the object of the plot I am telling you about. I was so thoroughly upset that I said more than I intended. My husband came to me at dead of night and bade me prepare at once for a journey. He was mysterious and his manner very threatening. There was no time to rouse the servants; indeed, I don't think I should have had courage to call them up in any case. Then we started along with Murshee. We flew along the road as if the police were after us. Then came the accident, and I recollect no more till I woke here. But I am all right. There is nothing the matter beyond shock. And how are my husband and Murshee? Did they escape or were they injured?"
"Do people of that sort ever get hurt?" Vava asked contemptuously. "Are they ever killed and put comfortably out of the reach of honest people? Make your mind easy on that score. They were both knocked about a bit, but they are pretty well all right now. I have seen Murshee."
Lady Goshe glanced anxiously at the speaker.
"What did he say?" she whispered. "I know how afraid you used to be of that man. I know how he wrecked your life. Some day, perhaps, you will tell me how you managed to escape from him. What a dreadful time it used to be!"
Vava's face darkened.
"I don't like to think of it," she murmured. "Why should that man have come into my life and poisoned it as he did? It was no fault of mine that my father was a poor shiftless criminal—never able to say 'No' when 'No' would have saved him many a bother. I never harmed Murshee, yet he ill-treated me and persecuted me from the time I was a child. He came between me and the man I loved; he destroyed the one romance of my life. I will never care for any other man."
"And you have never seen Walter Ward again?"
"Never," Vava said, sadly. "I have given up all hopes of that. But I am wasting time. You want to escape, don't you? I dare not remain till Murshee has gone. I have a plan to save both yourself and me. Will you fall in with it, or are you afraid?"
"You have come to me like an angel sent from Heaven," whispered Lady Goshe. "Ever since I recovered consciousness I have been praying for a friend to help me. When I knew what had happened to the motor I thought that Providence had not deserted me. It looked as if the accident were designed to save me from a fate which I do not care to contemplate. I can only conjecture what my husband intended to do with me; probably he meant to shut me up in some asylum upon the plea that I was mad."
Vava smiled behind her hand.
"Surely that is impossible," she said. "They can't do those kind of things in England in the twentieth century. It was possible fifty years ago when there was no supervision over private asylums, but not to-day."
"And why not?" Lady Goshe asked. "You forget that my husband has the command of enormous sums of money. Such men can always secure the services of scoundrels ready to do anything for cash."
"And now?" Vava asked.
Lady Goshe spread out her hands despairingly.
"Now, who can tell? I am hopeless and friendless. I have never been allowed the use of money, and before I left had no opportunity of slipping any jewels into my pocket. But why do you ask that? Have you any plan?"
"That is why I came," Vava said eagerly. "I am not the one to forget past kindnesses. When my future looked very black, you held out a helping hand, at risk to yourself, and I will never forget it. I am as anxious to go away as you are. I cannot remain while Murshee is here. I will never come under his influence again. I have money and I have a scheme, too, and if you will come with me we will hide ourselves until it is safe to return. You once told me of your sister; how she kept house for an old gentleman who was a great gardener or something of the sort. Why not go to her? That would he the last place where your husband would dare to look for you, the last place where he would expect to find you. We need not stay in the house. We could find some quiet rooms close by where we should attract little or no attention. What do you say?"
"But it is impossible," Lady Goshe protested. "The poor old gentleman is dead. He must be buried by this time. He was the man against whom the plot was laid. He was the person who had the Golden Rose."
"The Golden Rose!" Vava exclaimed. "Why, you must be dreaming! There were only two of these, one of which was lost, and the other is in my van at the present moment. The last time I saw Walter Ward he gave it to me, making me promise not to say a word about it to a soul. When the plant come into my possession it was little more than a dried twig packed away in wet moss in a small specimen case. What became of the other one I do not know, because the trouble began about then, and I have never seen my lover since."
"But Mr. Payn had a specimen," Lady Goshe cried. "I know it. I once heard some conversation between my husband and Murshee. I heard things that made my blood run cold, but I was helpless, partly because I was frightened and partly because Sir Montagu was my husband. You cannot imagine what my life has been during the last few weeks. They schemed to take this Golden Rose from Mr. Payn, but then as I listened I did not know that they were on the verge of violence. Then I saw in a paper that Mr. Payn had been the victim of a gross outrage, and later I read that he was dead. I knew as well as if I had been told that my husband and Ram Murshee had murdered him, I know they have a specimen of the Golden Rose in one of the conservatories at home, and you can guess where it came from. I wish they had never heard of that flower. But regrets are vain. I am the sport of circumstances and must do what fate decides for me."
"I pray you not to talk like that," Vava said earnestly. "You are young and have many years of happiness before you. It isn't as if you cared for your husband; indeed, it is a mystery to me why you ever married him."
Lady Goshe looked helplessly at her companion.
"Why, indeed?" she said mournfully. "He fascinated me. It was like one of those hypnotic stories one reads of in the sensational newspapers. He never cared for me, either. Perhaps he was all the more anxious to marry me because I did not scant him. But the thing is done and I must make the best or worst of it. Trouble and disgrace are coming. But am not sorry. This crime is certain to be found out, clever as these men are, and they will both hang for it. In the meantime I am in your hands. We will go to my sister's if you like. She must be very lonely and will be glad to see me. I am ready any time you please. But how shall we get away? How can we manage it?"
Vava smiled resolutely.
"Oh, it is the easiest thing in the world," she said. "We are not so very far from Croydon and there we shall take the train. I have plenty of money, so that we shall be able to buy what necessaries we want, and long before night we shall be with your sister. Let us start now."
"Now!" Lady Goshe echoed. "Do you mean at once?"
"Why, of course I do," Vava said impatiently. "Come along. No one will notice us at dinner time."
Lady Goshe rose from her bed to find that she could walk better than she had expected, and a few minutes later they were making their way towards the town. They came at length to the station and had only a few minutes to wait for the train to Manchester. About four o'clock they came in sight of the cottage where the tragedy had taken place. Lady Goshe glanced apprehensively at the windows. She saw that the blinds were drawn. A slender figure in black stood in the doorway. A moment later Mary Grover was speeding down the path and listening to the incoherent story which her sister was pouring out.
"Come inside," she said, "come in and sit down. We shall be able to make one another out presently. You seem to know all about this dreadful tragedy. My poor uncle was buried this morning, and I am alone. I was going to telegraph to some friends asking if they could have me. But there is no necessity for that now. We both seem to have had a great deal of trouble; indeed, my head fairly swims when I think of it. But how did you come to know all about Mr. Lethbridge?"
"It is a long story," Lady Goshe replied, "and will keep till tea time. Then I will try to tell you everything. But first of all let me ease your mind in one respect. Do you know who killed your uncle?"
Mary Grover made no reply. She affected to be laying out the cups and saucers and setting the kettle on the fire. There was a tinge of colour on her cheeks, though her eyes were sad and heavy. Her voice was unsteady, too.
"I do not know what to think," she said. "Sometimes I suspect and sometimes I feel that I am utterly mistaken."
"Oh, you are," Lady Goshe cried. "You think that John Lethbridge had something to do with it, don't you? Perhaps you wonder how I know anything about Mr. Lethbridge. But don't forget that you wrote and told me a good deal about him after you came here to live with your uncle. Weren't you rather prejudiced against him on the whole?"
The colour on Mary's cheeks deepened.
"I am afraid I was," she admitted. "But I had only what my uncle said to go upon. I had never seen Mr. Lethbridge; in fact, I never saw him till the other day, when I came upon him by accident. He was in this very house on the night of the tragedy."
"And you think he had something to do with it?" Lady Goshe asked. "You think he came to rob his uncle of the Golden Rose and murdered him in the attempt?"
Mary placed her cup on the table and stared at her sister with mingled astonishment and apprehension.
"What do you mean?" she asked. "What can you know of these things? It is true there was a Golden Rose. It is true that the plant was missing afterwards, and that circumstances pointed to the guilt of John Lethbridge. But he seems so good and kind and thoughtful that I began to believe that he might be sinned against rather than sinning. But if you know anything to the contrary—"
"I know everything," Lady Goshe said sadly. "I know that John Lethbridge is as innocent as you are. One of the culprits is my own husband. It is a dreadful thing for a wife to say, but the truth must be told at all hazards. When the time comes to speak I will not hesitate. I could not let the innocent suffer to shield the guilty."
Murshee faced the mob of rioters coolly. He had been in too many tight places to know much about personal fear when armed. But Vava's caravan contained a surprise which appealed to his imagination and set him thinking. He had been guilty of crime, and but for the accident of circumstances the black list would have been increased with another. A lawless scamp might pursue criminal courses in a foreign country where the arm of the law is weak, but these things were infinitely hazardous in England, as none knew better than Murshee. He had counted the risk over and over again and callously reckoned what he was going to gain before he complied with Sir Montagu Goshe's wishes. He was satisfied that the secret of the Golden Rose was too closely kept to find its way into the hands of the police and give them any clue.
He was cunning enough to know that the first thing the police would look for in the death of Jasper Payn was a motive. But they would find no motive so far as he was concerned; they would know nothing of the cause of the trouble and would ascribe the crime to some wandering tramp detected in a clumsy burglary. Nobody knew of the existence of the Golden Rose except Jasper Payn himself. And that wonderful flower had been safely transferred to the seclusion of one of Sir Montagu Goshe's conservatories. Therefore, so far as Murshee could see, it was plain sailing, and after a little while the nursery murder would help to swell the list of undiscovered crimes.
Thus it was a shock to the little scoundrel to see a noble specimen of the Golden Rose blooming in a caravan attached to a travelling circus. It was characteristic of him that he asked no questions. It was his method to find out things for himself, and now that the riot was ended and Barker going about his ordinary business, Murshee began to make investigations. All he could gather was that the van belonged to a member of the circus troupe named Vava, but fortunately for the girl he did not trouble to ascertain the nature of her performance. Had he done so he would have had more food for reflection. He would have learned of a new danger which of course he was not taking into account at all. He was anxious to meet Vava and hear from her own lips how the flower had come into her possession. He knew that it could not be the same Golden Rose which was hidden at Putley Count. The whole thing was disturbing, and he saw clearly that he must get to the bottom of it before he proceeded farther. He could not see Vava, for the simple reason that she and Lady Goshe had already vanished. But when he made closer enquiries, especially as to the personal appearance of the mysterious Vava, he realised the extreme peril of his position. And the worst was that though he had a pretty shrewd idea who Vava was he could not conclusively prove that his surmise was correct. He went on uneasily towards the tent which had been allotted to Sir Montagu Goshe and himself. He found Goshe sitting up in bed partly dressed and cursing the accident and the disarrangement of his plans. He had suffered no great harm, and was fit to travel. He received Murshee somewhat angrily.
"Where on earth have you been all this time?" he asked. "Do you suppose I want to stay here altogether? The doctor says I can go away if I want to. You had better go to Croydon and hire a car and bring it back with you. I don't want a chauffeur. You will have no trouble in getting a car if you say it is for me. Give my love to Lady Goshe and tell her to be ready to resume her journey in half-an-hour. They tell me she is better."
"Yes, she is quite better," Murshee grinned; "in fact, she is so well that she has gone on without us."
An oath came from Goshe's lips.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"Precisely what I say," Murshee said with a smile. "To put it plainly, her ladyship has bolted. She went off half-an-hour ago with one of the circus performers named Vava. I made a few enquiries about this Vava, and I have a strong impression she is Nora Bligh, the daughter of Bligh who was in that little business with us in the Persian Gulf."
A volley of oaths poured from Goshe. He rose from the bed and began to hustle into his clothing.
"Of all the cursed luck," he muttered, "this is the very worst. Do you mean to say that Nora Bligh is with these people? Is she one of the performers? You must be mistaken. I can't believe it possible she should turn up here just at this moment."
"But she has," Murshee sneered. "I have made no error. I made too many enquiries for that. But I dare say you wonder how I managed to spot the girl. I don't take any credit to myself for what I have done, because I blundered on to a clue that fairly startled me. There was something like a riot at the morning show because Vava didn't perform. I was fool enough to take a hand in the fun. I fired a shot over the heads of the people, and some idiot jerked the revolver out of my hand. Then I had to run for it. Finally I bolted into the caravan which belonged to Vava. The riot was soon quelled, and I had plenty of time to look about me. And what do you think I saw? But you'll never guess if you try for a week. I saw a beautiful specimen of the Golden Rose in full bloom on the table. Oh, you may smile or sneer as you please, but if you come with me I will show it to you. I was struck all of a heap. I thought that secret belonged to us two and Jasper Payn. You know what is likely to happen if the police get wind of this. I was so upset that I didn't know what to do at first. Then I set my wits to work and began to see daylight. I could think of nobody but Nora Bligh that was likely to know anything about the Golden Rose, and when I enquired about her personal appearance I concluded that she and Vava were one and the same person. Even then I was not certain. But when I discovered that the girl and Lady Goshe had gone off together there was no longer any doubt in my mind. They know one another perfectly well, having been very friendly out yonder, and, besides, Lady Goshe is anxious to get away. That is the worst of you—you are too headstrong and impulsive. You allowed her ladyship to see too much of your game, and naturally she had given you the slip. If you had only kept your mouth shut she would have gone like a lamb to the slaughter. As things stand, it is imperative to find Lady Goshe without delay. She knows far too much, and a woman in her hysterical state will blurt out all sorts of things to the first person she meets. What had I better do?"
Sir Montagu Goshe had finished dressing, and turned a dark face and a moody eye upon his companion.
"Follow them," he said curtly. "You are right, Murshee. The combination of these two is dangerous, and Nora Bligh is no fool. Just imagine what she could tell if she fell into the hands of a detective. The mere thought of it makes me cold. We are wasting time here. Follow them up at once. They are pretty certain to have made for the station. I have no doubt you will be able to ferret out some information there. If you get on their track take the finest car you can procure and come back and pick me up. With any luck we shall be with them before midnight. Now buck up and play the man."
Murshee turned on him heel and left the tent. He had a fine instinct for this kind of thing, and his premonitions did not lead him far astray. Within an hour he left the station with a complacent smile upon his face and the conviction that he had not been wasting his time. He returned to the circus driving a car which he had been assured would cover the ground at the rate of sixty miles an hour. Sir Montagu was impatiently waiting for him. His sullen features lighted up as he saw the triumph on Murshee's face.
"It's all right," the latter said. "I traced them with the greatest ease. Where do you think they have gone to of all places in the world?"
"Give it up," Sir Montagu murmured sullenly.
"Why, to Manchester," Murshee grinned. "They have gone off to hide themselves with Lady Goshe's sister. That girl is clever, but she is not so clever as she thinks, or she would have taken more pains to hide her tracks. Still, it will suit us very well. It is a quiet neighbourhood, and they have no men to look after them. I calculate that with any luck we can be at Manchester by half-past nine, at which hour it will be pitch dark. Are you ready? This inaction is intolerable to me."
Sir Montagu Goshe stepped into the car which sped rapidly along the dusty road. Mile after mile was reeled off till the sun began to sink and the shades of night crept over the sky.
Vava discreetly vanished, leaving the sisters together on the plea that she was interested in flowers and wished to look over the greenhouses. This was delicacy on her part. She saw that Mary and her sister had a lot to confide, and without saying much the two girls were grateful. It was dusk, and the lamps were lighted. It was a peaceful summer evening, with no suggestion of strife or trouble. The windows were open to catch the breeze. Every now and then Mary could see Vava's graceful figure as she flitted about the garden.
There was silence for some time between the sisters. Lady Goshe lay back in her chair wondering whether the whole thing were not a pleasant dream and whether she would wake presently to find herself again in her gorgeous prison house.
"I can't grasp it a bit," she said presently. "It seems almost impossible that I am with you again. And now that I am here, I wonder that I didn't come before."
"And why not?" Mary smiled. "I am sure you would have been welcome. My uncle was peculiar, but had a kind heart. He would have made you welcome. Yet, strangely enough, he never encouraged me to talk about you. I suppose he thought you were well provided for; but I knew better."
"How?" Lady Goshe asked. "I never told you much."
"No, but I read between the lines of your letters. I could guess how very unhappy you were. And then I made a few enquiries. I always thought Sir Montagu Goshe was a bad man."
Lady Goshe shuddered slightly.
"One of the worst," she said. "I can never understand why he married me. Perhaps it was because I liked him and always tried to keep him at a distance. I dare say you wonder why I promised to be his wife. Really, Mary, I couldn't tell you. To begin with, I was left stranded in a foreign place. I had not even the money to pay my passage home. And Sir Montagu is the kind of man who always gets his own way... Oh, it was a dreadful time. From the very first I realised what a mistake I had made. And he was never a husband to me. He treated me either as a fool or a spy. For days at a time I never saw him. He was either absent on some mysterious errand, or planning mischief with that dreadful creature, Murshee. I don't know what I should have done in those dark days if it hadn't been for Vava."
"I am greatly interested in her," Mary said. "Who is she? And where does she come from?"
"I can hardly tell you. I only know that she is a good girl and has wonderful courage. I believe her father was an Englishman of good family, and I think her mother was a Circassian. Her father once occupied a good position in England. He had a brilliant career at the Bar, and was making a name for himself in Parliament; but he had his weak side and was given to drink. Anyway, there was a scandal, and he had to leave England. For years he was on friendly terms with Murshee, and at length when he died he left his daughter in that man's care. Murshee saw how clever she was, and as she grew older tried to use her as an accomplice. But she saw through him from the first. She declined to have anything to do with his schemes, and finally found a friend in Walter Ward, who at one time was in the employ of Mr. Payn. I don't understand the story, but Murshee managed to come between these two, and Vava found it out. She ran away to England, and shortly afterwards I followed. I made one or two attempts to trace her, but in vain. But Vava, whom I must call Nora Bligh now, will tell you everything herself. What I really want to learn is what you know of Mr. Lethbridge."
"Not very much," she explained. "John Lethbridge used to be my uncle's closest companion, and everybody regarded him as his heir. As a matter of fact, there were no family estates. They had been mortgaged to the hilt by your uncle, who squandered every penny he had in pursuit of the flower called the Golden Rose. I daresay you have heard of it. Your uncle probably told you."
Mary paused for a few moments.
"I knew of it," she resumed, "the night my uncle met with his trouble. From the bottom of my heart I wish he had never heard of that dreadful flower. It has been the source of all the misery; it was the mainspring of my uncle's poverty. To rediscover that lost flower he squandered all his wealth. He accused John Lethbridge of robbing him of certain secrets, and Mr. Lethbridge left the house, declaring he would never return till his uncle had begged his pardon. That is how I came to be asked to go and look after uncle's house. All this happened about the time you left to take up that engagement in Persia. Uncle was so bitter against John Lethbridge that unconsciously I was filled with a great prejudice against him. But later, after we came here and fate threw John Lethbridge and myself together, I began to change my mind. Mr. Lethbridge told me a good deal about the origin of the trouble. He convinced me without saying much that there had been a mistake somewhere. I haven't much knowledge of the world: I have met with very few men; but I could not believe a man like John Lethbridge capable of a disgraceful act. He looked so honourable and straightforward and manly and spoke so sincerely that I felt bound to believe what he said. And yet, in the light of what I know afterwards, I had my doubts. I did not know that my uncle had actually found the Golden Rose. There was a fortune in the flower, he thought, and that fortune was intended for me. Uncle felt that he had deceived me. He had induced me to give up everything to look after his household, and some day I was to be an heiress. In point of fact, Jasper Payn had nothing to leave. He wilfully deceived me, and I suppose his conscience pricked him. At any rate, the fortune of the Golden Rose was all for me. It is very odd that the same night that I met Mr. Lethbridge, circumstances brought him and his uncle together again. I know the poor old gentleman told John Lethbridge all about the Golden Rose only an hour or so before he was struck down by the blow which killed him. It was a great shock to me when I sent for Mr. Lethbridge to see a flower from the Golden Rose in his buttonhole. And my uncle's plant had disappeared. You can imagine what my feelings were."
"I think so," Lady Goshe said. "Your thought John Lethbridge had stolen the flower, that he was the author of the outrage on Jasper Payn."
"Oh, I did," Mary murmured. "What other conclusion could I come to? It was the unhappiest moment of my life. But when John Lethbridge looked me straight in the face, as he did, I felt that further investigation was necessary. I let him know what my feelings were. I couldn't help it. I could see how wounded he was, but he offered no explanation except that I was mistaken."
"And you were mistaken," Lady Goshe cried. "It never occurred to you that John Lethbridge also had a specimen of the Golden Rose."
Mary looked with widely-opened eyes at her sister.
"The thing is impossible," she cried.
"Impossible! Surely what one man could find another could find also. John Lethbridge knew all about the Golden Rose. He had lived for years with his uncle and was as deeply interested in horticultural matters. Incredible as it may seem, at the very moment that your uncle was telling Mr. Lethbridge about his marvellous discovery John had the Golden Rose in his possession. How do I know? I had heard my husband and Ram Murshee talking about it more than once. They had actually seen your uncle's specimen, and John Lethbridge's, too. I knew they meant to get hold of them if they could, but I did not know that they contemplated violence till I read of the outrage upon Jasper Payn in the paper. And when a stranger came to our house near Croydon I should have known at once that he was John Lethbridge even if I had not heard Sir Montagu and Murshee discussing it. But I will explain that presently. You can take it for granted that on the night of your uncle's attack Mr. Lethbridge had a specimen of the Golden Rose in his possession."
Mary Glover pondered the problem for some time. She recalled her interviews with John Lethbridge vividly, and was puzzled to know why he had not told her that he, too, had a claim upon the Golden Rose. Then, as a sudden idea flashed across her mind, she coloured to the roots of her hair, her lips trembled, and her eyes filled with tears.
"But why didn't he tell me?" she murmured. "What could he gain by keeping the knowledge from me? A word or two would have saved this terrible misunderstanding."
There was a peculiar smile upon Lady Goshe's face. She looked shrewdly at her sister.
"Are you sure you don't know?" she asked.
"I—I don't think so," Mary faltered.
"Then I will tell you. But I believe you know all the same. I saw Mr. Lethbridge and had some conversation with him. Your name was mentioned, and without any little bird telling me I knew that he cared for you, and that he had given you his heart. Don't ask me why I know or how I know, but I am certain of it. And I am glad we have had this talk, because it will be the means of confirming the good opinion you have formed of John Lethbridge. Despite appearances being against him, you don't believe that he is guilty. You can't deny that you have racked your brains to make excuses for him. I can see how you are blushing at this moment, and how softly your eyes are shining. I told you before that the authors of the outrage upon Jasper Payn were my husband and Ram Murshee. That is certain to be proved in time. But for the moment we will keep to John Lethbridge. Your uncle told him about the Golden Rose, and he was astonished to hear that two specimens of that rare flower were in existence. It was doubtless something of a shock to him to learn that the fortune within his grasp would have to be shared with another. Now I am as convinced as if I had been present at the interview that your uncle told John Lethbridge what he was going to do with the Golden Rose. He told him that the flower was to be your fortune, he told him how you had been deceived, and there and then John Lethbridge in his magnanimous way resolved that you should have your full reward. It was both generous and foolish, but he determined to say nothing of his own discovery. He went home and destroyed his Golden Rose, and naturally thought there was an end of possible rivalry. He was in love with you, and made that great sacrifice for your sake. I know he had a Golden Rose, because my husband and Murshee talked about it. I know he destroyed the flower, because one of them saw it done. Now you know how things stand, and I must say you are a very lucky girl. You are poor and John Lethbridge is poor, but you will both live to be prosperous."
Mary said nothing for a long time. She was turning the whole thing over in her mind, and the more she pondered it the more certain she was that her sister was right. In the light of these revelations many difficulties had been cleared up which hitherto had been dark mystery. The very points which she had made against Lethbridge were now so many evidences in his favour. Her face flushed and the tears rose once more to her eyes. She was full of a glad thankfulness to which she had long been a stranger.
"It must be as you say," she remarked at last. "Indeed, you have put it so clearly that I cannot doubt any longer. And I am glad you came. You cannot tell how happy you have made me. A few hours ago I thought I had not a single friend in the world. And now it seems as if everybody is on my side. But don't let me be selfish. Don't let me be thinking of nothing but my own affairs. I want to know what you are going to do. I suppose your husband will try to follow you. He won't let you slip out of his life like this since you know so much."
"That is what I am afraid of," Lady Goshe said. "I don't know what he was going to do with me, but I believe that he meant to keep me out of the way. But let me be happy and comfortable whilst I can. Let me remain with you for the present. It was a happy thought of Nora Bligh's to come here. She thought this was the last place in the world where my husband would look for me, and I believe she is right. Besides, John Lethbridge will be here before long; he will be my friend as well as yours, and will not see me dragged to a fate worse than death."
"I am sure he will not," Mary exclaimed. "Besides, I have another friend in Inspector Wilkinson."
Mary went on to explain who Wilkinson was and what a friend he had been to her uncle. They sat talking till darkness fell, and then Mary thought that Nora Bligh had been left to herself quite long enough. She went to the door of the cottage and called to the girl.
Nora replied that she was coming presently. She wanted five minutes more in the garden. With no suspicion that anything was wrong Mary closed the door and Vava walked down the path towards the gate. She stood listening intently, for she heard voices somewhere. All her faculties were on the alert. She scented danger in the air. She began to regret that she had not taken more pains to conceal her trail when she fled from Croydon with Lady Goshe. She had forgotten in the excitement of the moment that Sir Montagu and Murshee would be able to trace her at the station. And there would be no occasion to follow by train. Sir Montagu could readily procure a motor and cross the country far more expeditiously than even a special train could have done.
These thoughts had crowded upon the girl's brain when she thought she could hear the throb and hum of a motor in the distance. The car stopped as if it had been pulled up at the roadside, for so far as Vava could see there was no house in that quarter.
Then she detected the murmur of voices. She stood by the gate more or less hidden by the branches of an overhanging shrub and strained her ears to listen. She was certain now that enemies were at hand.
Meanwhile, Goshe and his accomplice had made their way steadily across country to Manchester. They had not many enquiries to make. They were on more or less familiar ground and it was nearly pitch dark when they struck the road which led past the nurseries where Jasper Payn had been murdered. They came by and by to a thick belt of firs where Murshee, who was driving, pulled up.
"Why are you stopping?" Sir Montagu demanded.
"You don't want to drive to the cottage, I suppose," Murshee said insolently. "Or perhaps you would like to arrive in state. Shall I go on in advance and ask they to get dinner ready for you? The best thing we can do is to run the car into these trees where no one will see it. It is long odds against anybody passing before daylight."
"That's right," Sir Montagu growled. "I haven't made up my mind how I shall act. We shall have trouble. There are three women, and they are certain to make a noise."
"Well, let 'em," Murshee said. "What does it matter? It's a lonely spot, and they can make as much noise as they choose without anybody being the wiser. We can lock two of them in a room or bind and gag them if it comes to that. Before anybody finds out what has happened we shall be a couple of hundred miles away. And if they want Lady Goshe they'll have to look for her."
Sir Montagu listened moodily to his companion.
"What is the good of it all?" he said. "We can close Lady Goshe's mouth, but we shall be no better off then. The game is up. We haven't the ghost of a chance unless we can close the mouth of that fellow Lethbridge. He knows too much. We shall not be safe until we put him out of the way."
Murshee grinned savagely.
"Suppose I don't know that," he asked. "It is only a matter of time. He is doing the whole thing off his own bat. Too clever to call in the police, I suppose. Only let us get her ladyship safely disposed of and it won't take long to account for Mr. John Lethbridge. I am not likely to fail a second time."
Goshe muttered something that sounded like acquiescence as he stepped out of the car and waited whilst Murshee backed it into a ditch. Then they went off down the road until they reached the gate which led into the garden of the nursery. They paused for a moment and Murshee waited for his companion to speak.
"Well," he said impatiently, "what will you do?"
"Walk straight into the house," Sir Montagu suggested. "I dare say we shall find them in the sitting-room chatting together and suspecting nothing. You have got a revolver in your pocket, haven't you?"
"Ever known me to travel without?" Murshee asked.
"You can produce the revolver, and the mere sight of it will reduce the women to dumb terror. I can look after my wife whilst you tie the others up. The thing is simplicity itself. Come along. What's that? Didn't I hear something fluttering in the bushes?"
Murshee growled out that it was merely the other's fancy. But it was no fancy, for Nora Bligh had left her hiding-place and was speeding towards the house. She burst into the sitting room.
"They are here," she said breathlessly. "Your husband and Murshee. They are coming up the path now!"
Lady Goshe rose to her feet and laid her hand upon her heart. She seemed to have a difficulty in breathing, and gave way to an abject terror which deprived her of words. Alarmed as she was Mary Grover was strongly moved by pity for her sister. Lady Goshe's pale face and dark eyes were eloquent of the treatment she had been subjected to in the past. But it was no time to dwell upon such points. The moment had come for action.
"You must rouse yourself," Nora went on. "If we delay it may be too late, and it will never do for all of us to be here. These men are desperate and won't be particular as to their methods. You must lock the door behind me and bar up the windows. Come, be quick!"
"Are you going outside?" Mary gasped.
"Of course I am," Nora said quietly. "I will meet these men and palaver with them, to give you time to make everything secure. Possibly some passer-by may give us help. Besides. I haven't anything to fear. For heaven's sake, do not hesitate."
Still, Mary stood irresolute. Nora Bligh passed into the garden again, calling to Mary to lock the door behind her. A little way down the path she came face to face with Goshe and his companion. Some light filtered through the sitting-room window, and the faces of the intruders could be seen. They had not expected so bold a step, for they pulled up and exchanged glances.
"What are you doing here?" Nora demanded. "What do you want, Sir Montagu? And you, too, Mr. Murshee? Is there anything I can do?"
"So it's you, is it?" Murshee said with a savage sneer. "How do you do, Vava? I know you and what you have been doing lately. I am glad we have met, because I wish to talk with you."
"Not now," Nora said. "There will be plenty of time for that when you stand in the dock charged with murder. The barrister who will represent you can ask as many questions as he likes. So you found out that I have been getting my living in a travelling circus. Did you discover what my performance was? Did they tell you at Barker's how I managed to mystify the people?"
Murshee looked uneasily at the speaker. He had a shrewd idea of the purport of her remarks. Moreover, he had not attempted to ascertain the nature of Vava's performance. Her cool irony obviously disturbed the wicked little scoundrel.
"What has that got to do with it?" he asked.
"Oh, I think it had a great deal to do with it. You are not the only one who has learnt how to commit murder in a roomful of people without the onlookers being any the wiser. I know that trick, Mr. Murshee, and I flatter myself I can do it as well as you can. I learnt it in Persia after that affair at Teheran. When I came to this country I began practising it, until I mastered the art. I have gained a living for months by that exhibition without making a single mistake. If I had been in the conservatory at Putley Court the other night in your place, and had fired at Mr. Lethbridge, he wouldn't be alive now to tell the tale. You may smile, but you won't feel so easy in your mind when I tell the story to a judge and jury. You know what I mean. Your face tells me that."
Murshee had no reply. His features turned into a ghastly green, and he slipped his sound arm into his pocket, but before he could withdraw it he found himself looking down the muzzle of a revolver which the girl held directly at his head.
"Let me see your hand again," she said. "Take it out of your pocket or I will shoot you where you stand. Sir Montagu Goshe will take a step or two back, so that I can command him as well as his companion."
Goshe muttered something under his breath, but hastened to fall in with the suggestion. He could tell by the girl's voice and attitude that she meant business. There was no sign of fear or hesitation in her face. He ground his teeth impotently, and a curse escaped his lips.
"That is better," Nora went on. "Will you be good enough to go into the cottage, where we can talk matters over? I had forgotten till I stepped out here that I had one of my revolvers in my pocket. I was wearing this dress this morning in the wood, close by the circus, and must have omitted to restore the weapon to its case. Now knock on the door, please. You can go in and discuss matters with Lady Goshe and her sister, whilst I go down the road and put a bullet or two in the tyres of your motor." This last intention, however, on second thoughts Nora did not carry out.
Humiliating and ridiculous as the situation was, there was no loophole of escape. With a crestfallen air the two men preceded the girl, and tapped at the door. A voice inside enquired what was wanted, and Nora Bligh gave the command to open. Lady Goshe shrieked with dismay, and her face turned deadly pale as she confronted her husband. But if she expected violence she was mistaken. He thrust her rudely to one side, and strode into the sitting-room, followed by Murshee. Nora Bligh waved them imperiously towards two chairs, on which they sat down sullenly.
"This is more comfortable and friendly," the girl said. She was careful to stand by the door, weapon in hand. Her dark eyes watched every movement of Murshee's, as a cat watches a mouse. "Now let us have a real good talk. Mr. Murshee, if you move your right hand towards your pocket again I will break your arm with a bullet as sure as I am a living woman. You deemed us defenceless, but I am able and willing to see fair play. Now, Sir Montagu, what do you want?"
Goshe writhed uneasily in his chair.
"You are not polite," the girl went on. "A guest does not behave so sulkily. But one must make allowances for you. I want to know what you are doing here. Did you travel by special motor at this untimely hour merely for the pleasure of your wife's company? Judging by her appearance she is not overjoyed to see you."
"I want my wife," Sir Montagu feebly said. "We came here civilly enough, and should have made no trouble if you had not behaved in this theatrical fashion."
"You want me to trust you," Nora Bligh laughed. "I would as soon trust a tiger with a lamb. You can't deceive me. You came here prepared for violence. You thought that you had only three poor gossiping women to deal with. I heard what you said when I stood by the gate. But argument is useless. It is hateful to act in this way in the presence of Lady Goshe, but I have no alternative. Miss Grover, will you be good enough to fetch the first policeman you meet?"
Murshee half rose to his feet, but the blue rim of the revolver waved threateningly in the air, and he collapsed.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"What do I mean? I mean to give you in custody for the death of Jasper Payn and for the theft of the flower called the Golden Rose. I charge you also with the attempted murder of John Lethbridge, and I will prove how the outrage was done. I told you I had learnt your secret. I told you I had learnt the knack of being a wonderful shot without using the hands. Do you follow me?"
An angry snarl broke from Murshee's lips, and he cursed volubly. In the chair opposite to him Sir Montagu Goshe sat motionless, save for a quivering of his lips and apparent difficulty in swallowing. A later moment there was a noise outside, a quick rush of footsteps, and a knocking on the door. Nora Blight bade the newcomers enter, and Lethbridge and Wilkinson rushed breathlessly into the room.
"Ah, I am glad we are not too late," Wilkinson exclaimed. "My dear young lady, pray put that revolver down. I know you are an expert in the use of it, but—"
"Not a bit of it," the girl laughed as she threw the revolver carelessly on the floor. "There isn't a single cartridge in it. To think that I should have completely cowed these two scoundrels with an empty pistol. But look at Murshee. Quick!"
The girl's voice rang out sharp and clear, for Murshee had jumped to his feel, like an angry ape. His right hand flashed to his pocket, but Lethbridge was too strong for him, and with a strong grip on his throat bore him to the ground. Before Goshe could move Wilkinson had snapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists, and he was powerless for further harm.
"Give me a pair, too," Lethbridge cried.
"Not for his hands, at any rate," Wilkinson said drily. "That is not where the trouble is to feared. What we have to do is to fasten the little devil's feet."
Almost before Wilkinson had ceased speaking, Murshee made an involuntary movement towards his coat pocket and twisted his foot round with amazing ease and dexterity. His resemblance to an angry ape was more marked than ever. Lethbridge could have sworn that he put his right foot in his trouser pocket. But it was only for a moment, and then the little man was grinning and snarling defiance again. There was a peculiar pallor upon Nora Bligh's face, and she breathed hard and unsteadily. Perhaps the strain of the last ten minutes was telling upon her.
Murshee's hands had been bound and he sat as if resigned to the inevitable. Both men were powerless for further mischief. Sir Montagu Goshe was the first to recover himself. He turned haughtily to Wilkinson and demanded to know what this treatment meant.
"I have already explained to you," Wilkinson said politely.
"You have explained nothing to me personally," Sir Montagu retorted. "My friend Murshee seems to have got into trouble, but that does not account for my being treated in such a fashion."
Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders.
"Do you really want to know?" he asked.
"I do. This is a gross violation of the liberty of the subject. I presume you know who I am."
Once more Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders.
"You are Sir Montagu Goshe, of Putley Court, a millionaire with a big reputation in the city. You are also a prominent figure in society. I ought not to talk to you like this, but I have a warrant for your apprehension, and am acting solely on my own responsibility. I will explain anything you like."
Goshe began to bluster and threaten.
"You shall pay for this," he raved. "You will find out what it is to treat a man of my position in this way. Perhaps you will tell me what I am charged with."
"Certainly," he said. "I shall be prepared to justify my action at the proper time and am ready to run the risk of losing my position in Scotland Yard if I have made a mistake. I arrest you on the charge of conspiring with Ram Murshee to obtain from Jasper Payn a plant called the Golden Rose, which is now in your conservatory at Putley Court. To simplify matters I may add that I have seen the Rose. I may tell you also that you have met me under another name. My appearance is changed somewhat. The last time I had the pleasure of talking to you I was disguised as a Scottish gardener who had taken the place of a man of yours who was ill."
A startled exclamation broke from Sir Montagu.
"Go on," he said hoarsely.
"I came to you with testimonials from Kew Gardens. I was not very long in your greenhouses before I discovered what I wanted. But I am afraid I am wandering from the point. You will be charged with stealing this flower from Mr. Payn's greenhouse, and Ram Murshee will be charged with causing the death of that gentleman. You will also stand in the dock as an accessory after the fact in the matter of Mr. Payn's murder. Need I say more?"
Goshe's bluster had left him. His hard, keen, clever face had grown very pale. There was a peculiar gleam in his eyes. But he made one more effort to carry the thing off with a light hand.
"And who will give evidence against me?" he asked.
"Lady Goshe for one," Wilkinson replied. "I am aware that a wife cannot give evidence against her husband on a criminal charge, but what she has told to a third party can be made use of. I am exceedingly sorry for Lady Goshe, and shall only be too happy to spare her as much as possible. Moreover, when the news of your arrest is made public plenty of evidence will be forthcoming from the other side of the Suez Canal."
Goshe cast a swift glance at his wife. She buried her face in her hands, and was crying quietly into her handkerchief. Now that the suspense was over and she had done what she deemed to be her duty, she was feeling a kind of remorse, a vague regret which every woman will understand, but which from a man's point of view was illogical and absurd. She had had nothing but harsh treatment and unkindness from this man's hands, but these she had forgotten for the moment. Goshe's saturnine features softened slightly.
"You are very clever," he protested, "and have got the best of me. But my wife need not give herself any anxiety. There will be no scandal or trouble so far as I am concerned, and her ladyship will not have to appear in the witness-box. I have treated her very badly, and do not blame her for what she has done. But one thing you may be certain of, Mr. Wilkinson—I will never stand in the dock."
There was a grim significance about the words that was not lost upon Wilkinson. He had dealt with high-class criminals of Goshe's type before, and knew that they are more desperate and more courageous than the majority of rogues. There is a type of scoundrel who coolly weighs up the risks, bids boldly for success, and determines to take his life if he fails. It needed but a casual glance at Montagu Goshe's face to see that he belonged to this type. He was telling Wilkinson as plainly as words could speak that he was prepared for this eventuality and had means of taking his own life when his hour had come.
Wilkinson made no fuss; he was too astute for that. Sir Montagu was handcuffed, and could not reach his pockets. But Wilkinson registered a vow that the prisoner should be searched when the police station was reached.
"We had better be moving," he said. "We are wasting time. It will take us the best part of an hour to walk into Manchester."
"Why walk?" Nora Bligh enquired. "There is no occasion for that. These people came in a motor car, which they left not far from the cottage gate. Why not take them in that? I dare say I can find it."
"But you won't leave us alone," Mary Grover exclaimed.
"Certainly not," Wilkinson said reassuringly. "There are three of us here. We left one of our party outside the gate in case of emergencies. He was to come up in a quarter of an hour if he heard nothing from us. Will you call Mr. Ward, Mr. Lethbridge?"
Nora Bligh started at the name, and an exclamation escaped her lips. The colour flamed all over her face as the door opened a moment later and Walter Ward entered. He looked at the girl lovingly, but said nothing. He was not in the least surprised to find her there.
"You had better stay here," Wilkinson said, "to look after these ladies till we come back. There is no reason to introduce you to Mr. Murshee or Sir Montagu Goshe. I understand you have all met before."
Ward nodded grimly. The faint ghost of a smile fluttered on Sir Montagu Goshe's lips. Murshee grinned in his most sinister and most savage fashion. At a sign from Wilkinson, Goshe and Murshee rose and proceeded to the door. Lady Goshe made a half-movement as her husband passed, but he shook his head.
"Better say nothing," he warned her. "I have been a bad husband to you, and the sooner I am out of the way the better. You will be glad of it afterwards. I daresay you often wondered why I married you. If you had asked me for the truth I should say it was because you always kept me at a distance, and because I fell in love with your pretty face and simple ways. It was a mistake from the beginning, and I am sorry for it. But you have one consolation. You will be amply provided for, and able to lead the life you prefer. That will do. I don't expect any expression of affection on your part, and in any case I shouldn't believe it. Now, Wilkinson, I am ready."
In silence the four walked down the garden path and into the road till they came to the wood where Murshee had hidden the motor. Wilkinson knew the road, had no occasion to ask questions, and in a short time they were speeding rapidly to Manchester. Wilkinson had placed Goshe by his side, and behind them sat John Lethbridge and Murshee. There was nothing to be afraid of, seeing that the prisoners were handcuffed, and had given up all idea of escape.
"Where are you taking us?" Goshe asked.
"We are going to Manchester," Wilkinson explained. "You will be formally charged in the morning before the local magistrate, and then probably detained in Manchester gaol for a week. After that, I can't say. Here, what are you doing?"
For Goshe had leant over and wrapped the chain of his handcuff round one of the spokes of the steering wheel. A second later the flying car deviated and crashed headlong into the hedge. Though the machine was righted immediately, Goshe had leapt out, and was running desperately down the road.
Wilkinson brought his jaws together with a click. He had expected nothing like this. The whole thing had happened in the twinkling of an eye. He glanced over his shoulder to see if his other prisoner was safe, but though Murshee's eyes were gleaming, and he was breathing hard, he was still seated in the car by John Lethbridge's side. Lethbridge had him by the shoulders.
"My man is all right," he said. "You need not be alarmed for him. Push ahead and you will overtake Goshe yet. He can't leave the road for the next half-mile. We are just outside Lord Eversfield's park. Goshe is as safe as if he were in a tunnel."
It was as Lethbridge had said. They had reached a straight piece of road bordered on both sides by a high stone wall, beyond which was a dense plantation of pine trees. Here was Lord Eversfield's deer park. The walls had been made high and stout to keep the herd from wandering. There was a faint suggestion of a moon, and in the distance like a fly on the road was Sir Montagu Goshe tearing along for life. It would have been difficult matter in any case to scale the wall, but with his hands manacled the feat was a physical impossibility. All he could hope for was to reach the high road and fling himself over a hedge, trusting to luck to escape in the darkness. Wilkinson gauged exactly what was passing through the fugitive's mind. He put pace on the car, and began to overhaul him at every yard.
It was a desperate race, and John Lethbridge watched it breathlessly. However, he kept a tight grasp upon the shoulder of his companion, though this was perfectly unnecessary, for Murshee was as interested as himself. He had forgotten his own peril in the excitement of the moment. It was going to be a near thing, for a hundred yards or more ahead the great wall ceased and the clumps of stately pines gave way to level meadows. Setting his teeth together, Wilkinson increased his speed. By this time he was only a dozen yards or so behind the fugitive.
"Stop," he yelled; "stop, or I'll run you down!"'
The words rang out, loud and clear in the stillness of the night, but Goshe ran on a few yards farther without heeding the challenge. Then he placed his hand to his heart as if the exertion had been too much for him. He wheeled suddenly round, and flung defiance at his pursuer. His face was white and ghastly, but set in a determined grin. His chance of escape was hopeless, he had shot his last bolt. For the fraction of a second he hesitated, however, then folded his arms across his face, and literally hurled himself in front of the rushing car. The thing was so spontaneous, so dramatically sudden, that Wilkinson made no attempt to pull up; indeed, no driver, however skilled, could have saved the situation. There was a sickening impact between flesh and metal, a jolting and horrible bumping, then when the car was pulled up a limp black bundle apparently devoid of life.
Wilkinson's face was ashy pale. His strong, white teeth were chattering.
"This is dreadful," he groaned. "I never expected anything so awful. But you will bear witness that it was no fault of mine. He deliberately threw himself under the car. A more determined attempt at suicide I never saw."
"That's true." Murshee said with a savage sneer. "I'll back you up, too, if you like. And it was so like him, so very like him. Do you suppose you are going to get the best of Montagu Goshe? Ah, the detective has not yet been born who could do that. And the pluck of the man! Just think of it!"
"Oh, stop it!" Wilkinson said, irritably. "We don't want anything from you. Look after this fellow while I go back. Slip one of his handcuffs and pass it through the handle of the door. We shall have him that way all right."
This was easy. It merely meant removing one of the cuffs and replacing it after slipping the chain through the handle of the door. Goshe lay motionless, though he was not dead. He opened his eyes and groaned as Wilkinson bent over him. A faint disdainful smile flickered on his lips.
"What did I tell you?" he gasped. "Didn't I say that I should never stand in the dock? There was a chance of my regaining my liberty, and I took it. And when I saw I had failed the way was clear before me."
The man's voice suddenly ceased, his chest heaved, his limbs relaxed, and he said no more. The end had come, as Wilkinson's trained eye saw immediately.
"He's dead," he announced. "Well, after all, perhaps it is for the best. I should say that it was a painless death, and Lady Goshe is well out of it. There will have to be an inquest, of course. There will he a good deal of scandal, too. But the poor lady will not require to give evidence, except to identify the body. We had better put the remains on the car and take them to the police station at Manchester."
They went their way in silence, and Lethbridge was thankful when the town was reached and they were rid of that dreadful silent burden, to say nothing of the responsibility of having Ram Murshee in their charge.
It was yet comparatively early when they had finished their task, and they decided to return at once to the nursery and acquaint the ladies with the dreadful issue.
Under the moonlight the garden lay bathed in its peaceful light. It did not in the least resemble a garden of death; there was nothing to associate so fair a spot with a grim tragedy having for its mainspring the worst of human passions. The fragrant flowers and their sweet environment suggested peace and happiness, and yet it had been a veritable garden of death. Here Jasper Payn had perished, and here, but for the intervention of Providence, John Lethbridge would have been a victim, too. And all for the sake of a pure and innocent flower. It seemed almost incredible. Even Lethbridge hoped it was a hideous nightmare.
The cottage door stood open, and the gleam of a lamp shone through the hall. Lady Goshe and her sister walked up and down the grass. Of Nora Bligh and Ward there was no trace.
"Who will break the news?" Wilkinson whispered. "I will if you like. Unfortunately, I am used to this kind of thing. But these ladies are relations of yours, and I thought, perhaps, you would prefer—"
"Quite right," Lethbridge replied. "It is very kind and thoughtful of you, Wilkinson, and I think it will come best from me. You will be here the first thing in the morning? I understood them to say that the inquest on Sir Montagu would be at ten o'clock, and that Lady Goshe would be expected. I think we shall want your assistance."
Wilkinson gave the desired assurance and went his way. He would come early in the morning, and do his best to make things as smooth as possible. He would see that Lady Goshe had no unnecessary questions to answer. Lethbridge stepped out into the moonlight, and Mary Grover fluttered towards him. She had had no opportunity of speaking to him.
Her face was a fine study of emotions as she stood before him. But one glance at John's features sufficed to make her forget her own feelings entirely.
"Something dreadful has happened," she whispered. "I know it from the expression of your face."
Lady Goshe heard the words, and she came forward. Instinctively she identified the trouble with herself.
"Pray tell me," she whispered; "I am strong enough to bear it. After all the torture of mind I have been through there is nothing which would cause me greater pain or humiliation than I have already suffered. I never loved my husband; I always feared and disliked him. But now I am haunted with thoughts that I have gone out of my way to do him harm. I know there will he a terrible scandal, and that that unhappy man will stand in the dock charged with murder. I should almost be relieved to hear that he had escaped, even by the means he hinted at to-night. You heard what he said. There was no misunderstanding him."
"I am afraid not," Lethbridge said quietly. "And he has kept his word.... It was all done so quickly that I have but the haziest recollection of it. He jumped out of the ear and started to run down the road between two high walls. Then, when he saw escape was impossible, he wheeled quickly round and threw himself under the car.... He lived long enough to say a few words that showed that the deed was designed and not an accident. He taunted Wilkinson with failure, and there was an end.... It was a painless death. You will have to give evidence as to identity, but will be spared all possible trouble. I am very sorry."
"Is there anything to be sorry for?" Lady Goshe asked. "Isn't this for the best? I am sure it is. Oh, don't worry about me. I shall be best alone."
Sir Montagu Goshe was dead and buried, and the papers had ceased to discuss his marvellous career. For three days his name was blazoned from one end of England to the other; then some fresh scandal cropped up and Sir Montagu was forgotten. Murshee had been remanded for a fortnight, and was lying in Manchester gaol.
In the nursery tranquility reigned and anxieties and cares had ceased. Already Mary Grover was beginning to consider what her plans for the future were likely to be. She had not yet talked over matters with John Lethbridge, but the crisis she knew was inevitable, and she was uncertain whether to look forward to it with joy or apprehension.
It was a beautiful summer morning, soft and still, with a cool breeze from the south, the sort of day when all nature rejoices, and the mere fact of living is in itself a pleasure. Lady Goshe was in the cottage writing letters, and Nora Bligh was supposed to be helping her. Walter Ward had not yet put in an appearance, but by and by Mary saw John Lethbridge in the road coming towards the cottage. His face was keen and eager, and as he held out his hand he seemed full of some information.
"I hope it is nothing bad," Mary said with a smile.
"Well, I am not sure," Lethbridge answered dubiously. "It all depends upon the way you look at it. I am not sorry. I have been to Putley Court with Inspector Wilkinson to regain possession of the Golden Rose, which has been the source of all our trouble. In the turmoil and bother everything has been neglected. The conservatory in which the flower was placed became over-heated, and not a plant has survived. The Golden Rose has been a curse, and yet I venture to hope a blessing."
"Well, did it not bring us together? But for that flower I should never have met you, and should never have returned to my uncle's house. You would never have known that I cared for you, and I should never have known that you came to believe in me in spite of appearances. For you did believe in me, Mary, even when your reason told you that I was little better than a criminal. It will always be a comfort to me to know that you took my word."
The colour mounted to the girl's cheeks.
"Oh, I did," she said gently. "And I tried to argue myself out of my belief. But I couldn't do it, not even in my darkest moments. But here is Inspector Wilkinson. I wonder what he wants."
"I think I can guess," Lethbridge said. "He has come to see Nora Bligh. She is likely to be the most important witness at the trial of Ram Murshee."
It was as Lethbridge had said. Wilkinson had come over on business. He wanted to see 'Vava' without delay. She came at once. One glance at Wilkinson's face was sufficient.
"Oh, I know what you have come for," she said. "You want to know how I did my performance. Well, I shall need to get my living that way again. But I fancy you know already. I fancy that you knew it from the first."
"To all practical purposes," Wilkinson said. "I heard something like it from Asia years ago, and I believe it was once an admired trick in the United States. But we shall have to satisfy the jury. You will have to explain how it was possible for Murshee when he was reclining in an easy chair with his hands behind his back, to fire at Mr. Lethbridge. The whole thing sounds impossible, but it is these impossible things which are the easiest when they come to be explained. And, besides, your secret is not quite so inviolate as you imagine. After you left Barker's circus one of the women volunteered to go through your performance, and did it very well. I saw it myself. I told her I was a police officer and forced the truth out of her."
"What is her name?" Nora Bligh demanded.
"I can't tell you. She was a bold looking woman with dark hair and eyes."
"Oh, I know her," Nora exclaimed. "I understand now why she was always hanging about my caravan. She was most anxious, too, to know why I was so fond of going about barefooted. Of course, I was bound to be barefooted a good part of the day because the success of my performance depended upon it. It was necessary to keep the muscles of my feet pliable, and you can't do that if you have your shoes on constantly. But I'll show you. I shall be married in a few days, and never wish to be inside a circus again. I will fetch my revolver and an armchair and show you how the thing is done. It looks very mysterious in public, and is a first-rate 'turn,' but is really horrible when used against human life. Yet it is extremely simple, and when everybody knows it no more scoundrels of the Murshee type will employ it for the destruction of their fellows."
Nora returned presently with a wicker armchair and a loaded revolver. She lay back with her hands behind her head, kicked off a dainty right shoe and exposed a small bare foot. With her toes she picked up the revolver as neatly and as if she were using her right hand. Then, indicating a particular pane of glass in one of the greenhouses, she raised her foot and fired the revolver, at the same time leaning back in the chair with her two hands behind her head. The bullet crashed straight through the centre of the pane. There was a tinkle of glass and silence and amazement on the part of the onlookers.
"There!" Nora said with a touch of triumph in her tones. "You see how ridiculously easy it is. Of course, it entails persistent practice, but anybody could do it in three months' time. Now if I were sitting amongst a lot of shrubs and flowers, and were murderously inclined, I could slay my victim and be the very last person suspected. There is the risk of being found with a revolver in your possession, but in the prevailing alarm and confusion that can easily be got rid of. It is very simple when explained, is it not?"
"Very," Wilkinson said drily. "Do I understand that you learnt this trick from Ram Murshee?"
Nora gave a shudder.
"Yes," she said. "I saw it done years ago. I don't want to go into the circumstances now because I shall have to tell it all at the trial. Let me be happy and comfortable while I can. I am looking forward to a long life of happiness with the man from whom Murshee separated me—the man who has come back to me in such an unexpected way. I am sure Mr. Lethbridge and Miss Grover have something to talk about beside this hideous tragedy."
Wilkinson took the hint. There were one or two other questions, he said, which he was bound to ask Miss Bligh, but the use would be for her private ear alone. Mary moved off towards the house, but Lethbridge stretched out a detaining hand. There was something in the garden he wanted to show her, something, about which he wanted her opinion.
The rosery was secluded and pleasant and it was in that direction they wandered. Lethbridge paused suddenly and placed his hands upon his companion's shoulder.
"There is no time like the present," he said pointedly.
"For what?" Mary whispered.
"Oh, surely you know. I don't think it needs any words of mine to tell you what is uppermost in my heart. I have always been a lonely man, and never dreamt of being anything else till you came into my life. Then I knew that I cared for you from the first, and was foolish enough to believe that you cared for me, too. When things looked blackest against me, you took my word against the world. I am a poor man, Mary, and have nothing to offer you, but I think there's a good time coming. Perhaps a little later—"
There was an eloquent pause, then the girl laughed lightly, her face flushed, and her eyes were wet with happy tears.
"Why later?" she asked demurely. "Just as if I care whether you are poor or not. You have your place and I have this, and between us it will be hard if we can't make a living. You must not think me bold or forward, but I was interested in you from the first. I had always done you an injustice, I had always believed you to be as our poor uncle described you. But then we had never met, when I saw you, John, I felt a cruel mistake had been made. And when I learnt how nobly you had acted for my sake, then my—"
"Who told you that?" John Lethbridge demanded.
"My sister guessed it. You destroyed the Golden Rose so that I should have the sole and exclusive benefit of my uncle's discovery. And to think that he should have stolen this from Walter Ward! But that is not the point. You made yourself a poor man so that I might be rich. How could any girl forget a thing like that! John, let us make this a garden of love and flowers; it need no longer be a garden of death."
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